Posts Tagged ‘UC Santa Cruz’

Mutant Ideologies

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

something greather we could be tw

Something Greater We Could Be painting by Nolan Winkler

“Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself.” Alexander McCall Smith

In 1968, when I was nineteen, I read The Population Bomb by Paul and Ann Ehrlich. That book and several others I read over the next few years, along with a life-changing journey through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist, turned me into a zealous proponent of zero population growth, mass transit, organic gardening, and material minimalism.

That was fifty years ago. Since 1968, the world’s human population has more than doubled to over seven billion, the world’s automobile population (non-electric) has more than doubled to 1.2 billion, and organically grown food accounts for less than five per cent of the food grown in America. The earth’s fisheries are depleted, carbon emissions are increasing rather than decreasing, and we have an American government dedicated to undoing what little good our government did for the environment over the last forty years.

When I find myself in conversation with people who are just now becoming alarmed about climate change and the unfolding economic and environmental disasters engulfing us, I am reminded of the anger and disinterest and disingenuous lip service that greeted me for most of the last fifty years whenever I wrote about or discussed these issues and suggested ways to avoid much of what has now befallen the world. And though I am sad and disheartened about the unfolding disasters decimating human societies and life on our precious planet, I am not surprised by these disasters or the lack of substantive response to them.

My more cynical friends explain the collapse of our environment as a result of human nature. But even a cursory study of the myriad indigenous societies that existed prior to their annihilation by the forces of capitalism and overpopulation, reveals that human nature created thousands of societal systems that depended on sustaining the optimal health of the environment. And at the heart of those sustainable practices were minimal population growth and zero net pollution of the environment.

Thus I would argue that human nature is not the cause of the various crises threatening us today. I would suggest that the great threat to the continuation of life on earth was caused by mutant ideologies—capitalism and patriarchal monotheism—that destroyed those thousands of indigenous societies forming the fabric of humanity for tens of thousands of years—societies that evolved to harmonize with nature, not in opposition to it.

One of the books I’m currently reading is the beautifully written Wisdom from a Rainforest by Stuart Schlegel, a recollection of his two years of living among the Teduray of Mindanao in the 1960s.

“They had lived for untold generations in the forest—since ‘the beginning of time’ they believed—without its becoming destroyed and replaced by grassland. They carefully protected certain forest trees, which they valued for fruit or other potential gifts. They avoided overcutting bamboo stands that they considered particularly useful. Hunting, fishing, gathering were all carried out with care not to overexploit the natural resources on which human life depended. Their lives were simple, but not poor, and life was a journey, not a battle.”

Yes, Schlegel is describing a pre-industrial society, a system of living that evolved without money or cars or telephones or machines of any kind. And it is possible, I suppose, that money and machines and the changes they bring to society inevitably elicit a self-destructive response from our human natures. Maybe my cynical friends are correct, and human nature, when exposed to all the modern inconveniences, becomes a globally destructive force impossible to curtail.

I met Stuart Schlegel when I was nineteen, the same year I read The Population Bomb. He was my Anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and I took two courses from him. When I was trying to decide whether to stay in college or drop out, I went to him for advice, and he was the only adult of those I consulted who suggested that a break from academia might be just the thing for me.

Reading Schlegel’s bittersweet memoir, I now understand why he gave me such counsel. He clearly felt that Western Civilization was a plague upon the earth, and he saw American academia as an extension of that same male-dominated hierarchal system that is the antithesis (and ultimately the killer) of the Teduray manifestation of human nature—egalitarian, non-competitive, regenerative, and highly cooperative.

As Schlegel writes in Wisdom from a Rainforest, “Teduray children were taught from an early age to scan their social world for what they could do to encourage and assist all other people, and they were taught most certainly never to inflict physical or spiritual injury on anyone. This commitment to mutual aid, support, and respect gave these people a quality that is almost impossible to describe, a sort of peace combined with a palpable graciousness.”

Home Court

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Home court

Old Ball photo by Todd

“There are only two reasons why people fail. One is irresponsibility. The second is fear.” Wally Amos

I have been enjoying the occasional stint in the Mendocino High School gym assisting coach Jim Young with training his most promising basketball players. The ambience of the indoor court takes me back to my two years as a gym rat at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s when that university was only a few years old. I was not much interested in academia, and when I wasn’t writing my fledgling fiction or throwing a Frisbee or hunting for pianos to play, I could be found in the field house playing basketball.

A towering five-foot-ten, I was a good shooter, a better passer, a reluctant rebounder, and a fair defender when the spirit moved me. My freshman year, in those days when basketball was still largely a non-contact sport, I was perhaps the thirtieth best player on a campus with a few thousand students, not many of them basketball players. Having honed my shooting skills on a bumpy sloping driveway with an out-of-round hoop, playing in a gym with a springy wood floor and glass backboards and perfectly round hoops was profoundly pleasurable for me.

A month or so into my second year of college, my game took a quantum leap and I began to dominate players who had previously dominated me. Faculty members who frequented the gym began to address me by my first name, and older guys who had previously ignored me, now wanted me on their teams.

One afternoon I was playing one-on-one with Alex, a fellow gym rat a few inches shorter than I, having a silly good time, when into our gym strolled two young men we had never seen before. One was a muscular six-foot-five, the other a rangy six-foot-two. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

To my ears, the tone of their challenge was condescending, and to my eyes they swaggered arrogantly as they came onto the court; and the game was no longer a game for me, but a battle, a defense of the one place in the world where I felt strong and competent and respected.

These two young giants—Clark and Zack—warmed up a bit before we played, while Alex and I rebounded and fed them the ball to expedite their warming up. This courtesy seemed to puzzle them, for they came from much less polite basketball traditions than those established in our gym. Clark and Zack were not only taller and stronger than we were, they were both excellent shooters and good ball handlers, and I could tell by the sag of Alex’s shoulders that he had already conceded defeat.

But I was determined to give these supercilious invaders a better game than they expected, and we did just that. I caught fire, we rebounded with uncharacteristic ferocity, Alex made shots I had never seen him make before, and we won handily. Clark, the taller of our two opponents, was enraged in defeat, Zack disgusted, and they demanded a rematch. We agreed, and we beat them again, though it would be truer to say they beat themselves in their furious haste to atone for their first loss.

Following their second loss to us, Clark raged around the gym, his hysterical cursing punctuated by terrible threats, while Zack sneeringly referred to us as “lucky little wimps.” When we wouldn’t grant them a third game, they vociferously suggested our testicles were either very small or non-existent. And so, wishing to avoid physical harm, we bid the sore losers adieu.

The next day, I arrived at the gym to find both ends of the court clogged with games underway. I set about assembling a team to play the winners of the game at the end of the court where the better players usually played, and espying Clark, I invited him to join my team.

“I already have a team,” he said, looking down at me. “And I got winners.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “I will continue my hunt for teammates.”

“Hey,” he said, snarling at me. “You know you just got lucky yesterday. Pure luck.”

“You think so?” I said, enjoying my recollections of our glorious victory. “I think it was more home court advantage. We know the terrain.”

“Bullshit,” he said, still seething in defeat. “I’ll kick your ass next time.”

And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Clark’s team get trounced by a team led by an Economics professor who had played on the Duke team that won the national championship a few years before. I always guarded that professor when we were on opposing teams, and I always set screens for him when we were on the same team because he never missed from anywhere unless someone was draped all over him.

Time passed and Clark eventually calmed down and became a fellow gym rat known for being a good guy prone to temper tantrums when his team lost, which was not often. Turns out he had been a high school superstar, set state scoring records, and had garnered a basketball scholarship to Stanford where his anger issues got him booted off the team midway through his freshman year. When Clark was at his best, he was stupendous, but like many great athletes, his impatience and lack of self-discipline were his greatest obstacles to success.

One day Clark and I were playing one-on-one, having a silly good time, when into the gym strolled two young men we had never seen in our gym before. One of them was six-seven, the other six-foot-three. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

They were good. Really good. But we beat them. Twice.

Afterwards, Clark said, “They had no idea who they were up against.”

“Home court advantage,” I added. “We know the terrain.”

Fin Again—Wake!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

todd at Crater lake

Todd At Crater Lake photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“…that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes…” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

We just returned, Marcia and I, from a nine-day journey to Oregon, our motive operandi a visit to my brother and his wife in their new digs in Portland, they among the wave of humanity crashing onto Portland, which is now the fastest growing urban area in these United States. We stayed in Gold Beach and Yachats on the Oregon coast on the way up, two nights in the Portland manse with mein brudder und his wife, a night in Eugene with friends on the banks of the Willamette, two nights at the lodge at Crater Lake, a night with friends in Arcata and…

This morning I woke in our familiar king-sized bed here in the kingdom of Mendocino, and before clarity conquered the last wisps of dream imagery, I wondered: did I dream the entire journey? And then I remembered Norman O. Brown from whom I took a course at UC Santa Cruz in 1969, Myth and History, and saw him standing perfectly still on the stage of the lecture hall, this the umpteenth pregnant pause of his lecture. He was about to speak the last words of the day’s thought ramble, and he liked to give plenty of air to his final pronouncements.

“Fin. Again,” he said softly. And then louder, with an urgency bordering on ecstasy, “Wake!” Then soft again, almost under his breath, “Finnegan’s Wake.” And once more, “Fin. Again. Wake!”

“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

I have not traveled away from Mendocino in seven years, save for the occasional visit to Santa Rosa to visit Marcia’s mom and a few trips to San Mateo for Thanksgiving with the brother now in Portland. Thus for a stay-at-home, this Oregon jaunt was what my long-ago friend Leo used to call a Large Pattern Change.

I met Leo when I lived in a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972. My room was on the second floor of the big house I shared with eight other people, a long narrow room with a view of Monterey Bay. Leo would come to visit me twice a week and sprawl on my bed while I sat at my desk. He would speak of his difficulties with his mother, with his depression, and with women. As he spoke, I would jot down things he said that seemed pertinent or interesting to me.

How did I meet Leo? I was having coffee with a friend at the Catalyst—I am speaking of the original Catalyst housed on the ground floor of the St. Charles Hotel destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Leo approached our table to speak to our mutual friend, joined us, and asked me politely if I would buy him a cup of coffee and baklava.

Having barely enough money to pay for my own coffee, and not knowing Leo from Adam, I hesitated and Leo said, “You, too, currently short of funds? Then a small coffee and I’ll get yours next time.”

When I think of Leo, I think of Winnie-the-Pooh. I cannot imagine Leo running, only trudging. He was large, overweight, and had a beautifully sad old man’s face, though he was only in his late twenties when I knew him. He had long light brown hair and wore a beaten brown derby, a long scarf, and enormous shoes with holes in the toes. He was unemployed, lived in a boarding house, survived on a stipend from his mother, thought he might like to write something, but couldn’t get down to business.

I was little enamored of Leo after our initial meeting, so when he showed up at my house one afternoon a few days later, I hesitated to invite him in, but he seemed not to notice my hesitation. Shortly thereafter, he was sprawled on my bed recounting his latest disaster with a woman who waited tables at the Catalyst, “She obviously liked me until that Fulcrum Moment when we sat down in the Acapulco and I explained I only had sufficient funds for guacamole and one beer we could share, and it was Leo Becomes A Demon Time. Now when I come into the Catalyst she won’t even look at me and I want to shout, ‘What does money have to do with love?’ And now she asks He Of the Large Mustache to wait on me. I’ve seen her asking him and nodding furtively in my direction without looking at me.”

Thus I became Leo’s psychotherapist, and that was the extent of our relationship. He visited me twice weekly, unburdened himself for an hour or so, and then wandered away. He was fond of saying things like, “I’m on yet another plateau without a view,” and “My mother has entered another Stretch of Minimal Funding,” and “Yes, I lack purpose, but not for lack of desire.”

Leo believed all his troubles would be over if he could only convince one of the many beautiful young women he was madly in love with to become his lover. “I suffer from a lack of Reciprocal Passion. When I’m with Carla (the woman Leo spent most of his money on paying for sex) she won’t even open her eyes when…you know.”

 “The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity.” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

Today Mendocino is sunny and cool. Marcia is about to give a cello lesson and I am girding my loins to move two cords of summer-seasoned firewood into the woodshed in anticipation of what we hope will be a very wet winter—my batteries recharged by the splendors of our Oregon odyssey.

Hey Nineteen

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

young todd with beard jpeg

Todd 1969 photo by Richard Mead

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

Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin

She don’t remember Queen of Soul

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Digging around for photos of my grandmother, I came across a black and white picture of me taken in 1969, a still shot from a student film made during my second and final year of college at UC Santa Cruz—when tuition was next to nothing. My decision to quit college was made easier than it would be today because housing in 1969 was cheap, work was easy to come by, and the economic obstacles to experimenting with being an artist were minimal, certainly compared to the economic realities of 2015.

In the photograph, my thick brown hair is going every which way, my kinky beard full and black, my black-framed glasses the same ugly frames millions of myopic young American men wore at that time. I am wearing a black suit and tie because in the film I play the part of a violin teacher, my student such a terrible player that his squawking music drives me first insane and then causes me to have a heart attack and fall to the sand.

For reasons never made clear to me, the violin lesson is taking place on a beach, the blond violinist short and fat and wearing only enormous white diapers. After I fall dead, the grinning violinist walks into the ocean and disappears under the onrushing waves. I saw the three-minute film several times in one night in the filmmaker’s dormitory room, a couple dozen young men and women gathered to eat chips and salsa and drink cheap wine and watch the opus.

The consensus, heavily influenced by the ingestion of illegal substances, was that the movie was a work of surpassing genius and the filmmaker destined for international acclaim. I have no idea where that filmmaker is today, but on that night, he was hailed as a god.

My roommate played the part of the diapered violinist in the film, and was in reality a tone-deaf violinist. When he practiced in our room during the day, everyone in the dormitory would flee to the library or forest or cafeteria. And on those few occasions when he dared played at night, angry people would pound on our door and threaten to kill him if he didn’t stop.

One of those angry people was a pre-med student living alone in the room directly below us. A clean-cut fellow with black-framed glasses, he always wore pressed beige slacks, a white dress shirt, a striped tie, and a beige sweater. He rose at dawn every day, showered, shaved, dressed, and then rushed to the cafeteria to wait for door to open so he could eat breakfast at seven, after which he would race to his Organic Chemistry lecture and lab.

I was often playing Frisbee in front of the dorm when this hardworking fellow returned from a long day of pre-med travails, and he would sometimes stop to watch us flinging the disc and say, “Don’t you guys ever study?”

One night at a dorm party, he got very drunk and grabbed a young woman who screamed bloody murder as she fought him off, and it took four of us to pull him away from her and subdue him. The next morning, he rose early, donned his uniform, and was first in line at the cafeteria.

Some months later, this dedicated pre-med student did not emerge from his room for breakfast or to attend classes. Nor did he emerge the next day. His door was locked and he did not respond to entreaties to come out. The campus police were alerted and they opened his door with a master key. The poor guy was sitting at his desk, unmoving, his Organic Chemistry textbook open in front of him. He was not dead. He was simply sitting there, his mind on hiatus.

The police took him to the campus medical clinic and from there he was taken to a hospital. Two days later, his mother and father arrived to get his things. His mother reminded me of the mother in the television show Leave It To Beaver—perfectly coiffed and with every stitch in place. His father looked just like him, only thirty years older, and wore the same pants and shirt and tie and glasses. Some of the guys helped them load his things into their car while a buddy and I played Frisbee.

The next day, two new guys moved into his room. One of them was a fanatical chess player, the other a jazz buff. They were both Sociology majors, rarely went to class, and thereafter John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock became staples of the quad.

It’s hard times befallen Soul Survivors

She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

I was under the spell of Nikos Kazantzakis for my two years in college. I read all his novels, and Zorba the Greek three times. To culminate my absorption of Kazantzakis, I was slowly working my way through his epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a massive work divided into twenty-four rhapsodies and consisting of 33,333 seventeen-syllable verses.

The messages I kept getting from Kazantzakis were: Get faraway from academia, follow the dictates of your heart and intuition, beware the overly-analytical, strive, sweat, make love, make music, write, travel, gather stories, and become a master of at least one thing, two or three if possible.

I finished reading that gigantic poem a month before I was to return for my third year of college, and I wept as I read the last few pages. Odysseus, the Odysseus Kazantzakis imagined, had been my constant companion for two years, and now he was dead. The book had been a bridge for me between childhood and adulthood, as had those two years of college. Now it was time to hit the road and, as Kazantzakis suggested, see what kind of trouble I could get into.

Satire

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

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Homage to Kokopelli photograph by David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

Satire has to be done en clair. You can’t blunt the edge of wit or the point of satire with obscurity. Try to imagine a famous witty saying that is not immediately clear.” James Thurber

Reading about the murder of twelve people and the wounding of eight others at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the continuing violence as the murderers have taken hostages in two locations in Paris, I recall Satan in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger saying, “No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is.”

“Satire works best when it hews close to the line between the outlandish and the possible—and as that line continues to grow thinner, the satirist’s task becomes even more difficult.” Graydon Carter

When I was in the Eighth Grade, I was momentarily seized with the satirical urge to claim I was God. You may remember how it was before the onset of high school. Having finally gotten the hang of childhood, and for a few glorious months before being knocked senseless by puberty and being placed at the bottom of the teenage heap, we experienced a brief epoch of self-confidence, which for me took the form of satirizing everything and everyone.

“Yes,” I proclaimed to one of my fellow junior high satirists, “I’ve used the name Todd up to now, rather than God, so the world wouldn’t know who I really was until the time was right to reveal the truth. Now that time has come. Let us sally forth and spread the good news. Want to be my first disciple?”

Yes, I was conflating God and Jesus, but so have lots of people.

In any case, after making a silly show of publicly blessing a dozen or so giddy disciples, I tired of claiming to be God and resumed my obsessions with baseball and girls. But satire once loosed upon the world is not so easily withdrawn. One day after school, I was cornered by three large boys intent on punishing me for daring to claim I was God and/or Jesus.

“Think you’re God, huh?” said the largest of the three, punching my shoulder. “Hurt, didn’t it? If you were God, wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

“I’m not God,” I said, gladdened to see a posse of disciples coming to my rescue. “I was joking.”

“Not funny,” said another of the boys, taking a swing at me.

I ducked, his fist hit the cinder block wall, and off I ran.

For the first two years of high school, several of my chums persisted in calling me God. Among these chums was a delicious young woman who greeted me every day with, “Hey, God. What’s going on?” in a sleepy sexy voice that always made me glad I’d been a satirist in junior high. On the other hand, I continued to be confronted by outraged Christians who felt I should be punished for mocking their beliefs. To defuse their righteous indignation, I would sincerely apologize for having been an idiot in my long ago youth, beg their forgiveness, and exit before I started to giggle.

“Satire is focused bitterness.” Leo Rosten

Speaking of bitterness, I recently read most of the stories in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, a thick collection of bitingly satirical short stories, and found I most appreciated his few stories in which satire played a part but was not the point. No matter how brilliant the writing, and Waugh was a brilliant writer, when every person in a story is a caricature and every plot twist the result of cruelty or stupidity, I could care less.

“Music is my religion.” Jimi Hendrix

When I got to college in 1967—UC Santa Cruz in its infancy—I made the erroneous assumption that my college comrades and I would be free to say whatever we thought and felt without fear of reprisal. We would, I imagined, delve deep into myriad questions and mysteries arising from our studies and shared experiences, and as the result of such delving our wisdom would grow by leaps and bounds.

A few weeks into my college life, I attended a dance in the Stevenson College dining hall and found myself boogying with a gang of exuberant gals and guys from Los Angeles. We had a wonderful hilarious time, and after the dance retired to the groovacious dorm room of one of the gals, the décor a triumph of paisley, a grandiloquent lava lamp center stage, and heaps of glistening bud to be smoked.

Someone took the Beatles (Rubber Soul) off the turntable just as the boys were getting warmed up, and put on a record by a discordant Los Angeles band I’d never heard of, the drummer rhythm deaf, the guitarists out of synch, the bass player hopeless, the singing god awful. After the first cut, I commented that they sounded like The Grateful Dead meets Sonny & Cher in a dark alley on a bad night. I might as well have declared to a sect of violent Christian fundamentalists that Jesus was a homosexual snake oil salesman.

The knowledge I gained from the anguish and vitriol my insensitive remark aroused has served me well, for I never again made the mistake of saying anything critical of the music beloved by those playing or listening to that music. I learned then, and have confirmed a thousand times since, that a person’s favorite music is sacred to them. To defame the sacred is dangerous, especially nowadays when so many people are willing to use violence in the service of whatever they deem sacred and therefore inviolable.

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

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

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”

What Really Happened?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

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

“There are three things I always forget. Names, faces and—the third I can’t remember.” Italo Svevo

The very first course that Norman O. Brown taught when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 was Myth & History and I was among the lucky people to hear him deliver that series of lectures. I was also privileged to meet with Norman in his office on two occasions to talk about various things, notably the fifty-page manuscript I composed in response to his lectures. I wish I still had a copy of that youthful creation—poems, dialogues, story fragments, essays, questions—with the notes Norman made throughout and his flattering words at the bottom of the final page, but I was only nineteen and saved nothing I wrote until I was in my twenties.

I have many vivid memories of Norman O. Brown, some of which I shared in an article I published two years ago. After that essay ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and was reprinted on the CounterPunch web site, I received a few emails and letters from people who thanked me for writing about Norman and wanted to share memories of him with me. I also received several angry missives from people telling me that my memories of Norman could not possibly be true, that Norman was nothing like the person I described, and how dare I misrepresent the great man. What I loved about these responses was that they absolutely confirmed the central thesis of Norman’s Myth & History lectures, which was that history is entirely subjective and over the course of time becomes indistinguishable from myth.

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I was reminded of the subjective nature of history during a recent visit from my sister Kathy with whom I had not communed in many years. As we shared memories of our shared past, we discovered that our recollections of people and events were sometimes identical, sometimes entirely different, and sometimes partly identical and partly entirely different. Of the greatest interest to me were those events involving Kathy that I remembered vividly and she had no memory of whatsoever.

Our parents—and this Kathy and I agreed on—regularly carried out long and painful interrogations of their four children—my two older sisters, my young brother, and I. They interrogated us one at a time, the child on a low stool looking up at the imperious father sitting on his throne-like chair, the angry mother pacing back and forth behind the scowling father. These interrogations took place in the living room in the evenings or on Sunday afternoons, our mother the arresting officer, so to speak, our father the prosecutor and judge.

The interrogations were ostensibly held in lieu of spanking us for our little crimes, but I think the real purpose of these trials was to fulfill our father’s desire to abuse us verbally, and my mother’s need to involve our father in her attempts to control us—our mother who was frequently overwhelmed by single-handedly trying to control four bright, independent, rambunctious children. She was perpetually angry with our father for not giving her more help with us, and these interrogations provided a way for her to involve him in our upbringing as well as allowing her to vent her fury about her situation in his presence.

We underwent these interrogations from early childhood until we were in our teens—the grueling sessions lengthy, abusive and emotionally damaging. I find it hard to believe that our intelligent, highly educated parents—my mother an attorney, my father a child psychiatrist—were unaware of the harm they were inflicting, and I assume they felt justified in carrying out what my three siblings and I remember as their relentless efforts to break our wills and verbally pound us into submission, first by forcing us to admit our crimes (real or not), then forcing us to beg them repeatedly for their forgiveness, then making us promise to never again do whatever they said we had done, and finally, sickeningly, to help them devise appropriate punishments for whatever they had forced us to admit to.

Kathy said several things about these interrogations that greatly surprised me. She said that at the outset of every interrogation, she would frantically try to shift the blame from her to another of the children, and she assumed we all did that. But I, as the younger brother of two powerful older sisters, never did that because I feared my bigger stronger sisters would take revenge on me if I dared to even try to divert my parents’ wrath onto them.

Kathy also said that during every interrogation, after our parents had verbally battered her into a state of desperate despair, she always wanted to shout at them, “Just hit me and get it over with!” but never had the courage to do so.

What made this revelation so surprising to me was that one of my most vivid childhood memories was of a time when I was eleven and Kathy was twelve, and my parents were viciously torturing Kathy and she was sobbing so convulsively I feared she might die. And my fear of my sister dying was so great, that despite the probability of being physically assaulted by my father for daring to defy him, I went to intervene on Kathy’s behalf. And just as I entered the living room to demand they leave her alone, Kathy shrieked, “Just hit me! Just hit me and get it over with!” Then she jumped up, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her room.

“I have no memory of doing that,” Kathy told me these many decades later, “though I always wanted to, so I’m glad to know I actually did it one time.”

When I imagine telling Norman O. Brown such a tale, I see him gazing off into space as he visualizes the drama, and then I hear him suggesting that regardless of what actually happened, the most interesting thing about my memory is that I wanted to rescue my sister—to be a hero—though I failed to act quickly enough for that to happen. And though I, too, find my desire to rescue her quite telling, what I find most interesting is that Kathy has no memory of ever acting out her wish, while I remember her defiance of my parents as an act of incredible bravery and self-preservation that empowered me to defy my parents, too.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

We now officially congressionally know that in 1964 the North Vietnamese did not attack a gigantic heavily armed United States of America battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin with a little motorboat and a pea shooter, and that the alleged attack was entirely fabricated by our government so they could begin the horrific saturation bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the ground war in Vietnam that went on for many years and killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, those of us who protested from the outset that the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud can no longer be called conspiracy kooks, at least regarding that particular event.

Norman O. Brown frequently spoke of Gulf of Tonkin-like mytho-historic events that compose much of Greek and Roman history, and how there is really no way to distinguish ancient historical events, as writ by the victors, from myths, which is why the Norman O. Brown I remember was far more interested in archetypes and poetry and art and legends and philosophy arising from particular cultures and cultural milieus than he was in the historical records of who, what, when and why.

“The field of philosophy may be reduced to the following questions: 1. What can I know?  2. What ought I do?  3. What may I hope for?  4. What is man?” Immanuel Kant

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the trial and death of Socrates that probably (maybe) happened in Athens some 2400 years ago, assuming Plato and others who left behind accounts of the event may be trusted not to have fabricated the whole thing. Why do we trust Plato? I dunno. In any case, the trial and death of the famous Socrates, who left behind nary a scrap of his own writing, took place four hundred years before the birth, if there really was such a birth, of Jesus of Nazareth, who also did not leave behind a scrap of his own writing. Come to think of it, Gautama Buddha didn’t leave behind a scrap of writing either. Indeed, we only have the highly subjective words of others that these super famous people even existed.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Socrates, the clearer it becomes that he was either a great champion of democracy or he thought democracy was a terrible way to run a city-state; that he drank hemlock rather than flee because he wanted to honor the laws of Athens or because he was old and ill and preferred a quick death to lingering in misery; and the method of philosophical inquiry known as the Socratic Method either sprang from the brilliance of Socrates or from his inability to come to a conclusion about anything.

Speaking of conclusions, in honor of my wholly subjective memories of Norman O. Brown’s wide-ranging lectures in which he might read a poem by Robert Duncan, follow Duncan’s poem with a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, follow that with a salient and beautifully pronounced line or two of Latin, and finish that particular train of inquiry with a pronouncement such as “in psychoanalysis only exaggerations are important,” I will end this ramble with a quote from Jacques Cousteau.

“From the data, covering over a hundred shark encounters with many varieties, I can offer two conclusions: the better acquainted we become with sharks, the less we know them, and one can never tell what a shark is going to do.”

Goff & Krishnamurti

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

 

Mr. Magician, mixed media, by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012, and was inspired by a remembrance of Krishnamurti written by William Edelen and recently posted on Dave Smith’s stellar community forum Ukiah Blog Live.)

“Conventional education makes independent thinking almost impossible. Conformity leads to mediocrity. Conventional education puts an end to spontaneity and breeds fear.” Krishnamurti

I spent my two of years in college at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 1967 to 1969 when the school was considered an experimental college because professors were supposed to write evaluations of students rather than give grades, and students were invited to invent their own programs of independent study.

One guy in my dorm did an independent study entitled Surfing Poems. He went surfing for ten weeks and wrote poems about his experience. Another fellow (he loved to play his guitar in our resonant dorm bathroom) did an independent study entitled Songs From My Life for which he wrote three songs melodically indistinguishable from Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. And a young woman in the dorm across from ours did an independent study called Pill Parables resulting in a twenty-five-page monologue about birth control pills and their impact on her sex life.

I proposed several independent study projects, but could never convince any professors to endorse and oversee my endeavors. My proposal to read the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis and then write a dissertation was turned down by five different professors, all of whom said Kazantzakis was of no literary importance, though I suspect the real reason they turned me down was that none of them were familiar with Kazantzakis’s writing. My proposal to write and produce an existentialist play entitled Food Fight, based on the several food fights that erupted in response to the execrable food served in the Stevenson College cafeteria, was rejected by two English professors, a professor of Drama, and my Anthropology advisor. And my proposal to take a daily photograph of the same naked person standing in front of the same redwood tree at the same time of day for ten weeks was turned down by no less than three professors in the Art department.

Thus, unquestionably, the four best things about my university experience were playing basketball, playing Frisbee, courting beautiful young women, and seeing, admission free and in the most intimate of venues, the likes of Segovia, Bola Sete, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, The Sons of Champlin, and Krishnamurti.

I would not have gone to see Krishnamurti (since I didn’t know who or what he was) had not my Philosophy professor Robert Goff urged his students to go; and Goff would not have been my Philosophy professor had I been accepted into a Creative Writing seminar. But my prose and poetry submissions failed to win the favor of the Creative Writing professors, and their last-minute rejection of me necessitated my quickly finding a class that was still accepting students, such classes being rare in those days of sudden and severe budget constraints (thank you, Ronald Reagan.)

I remember hurrying up the hill to the lecture hall on a chilly Tuesday morning in October and finding the place packed with a hundred and fifty other undergrads, most as desperate as I to get into one more class to complete their course loads. Goff’s introductory Philosophy course was one of the few classes still accepting students, perhaps because it was widely rumored that Goff actually required his students to do some work.

Promptly at nine, Goff entered the hall and walked sedately to the podium—a handsome man with black hair and a subtle goatee, his brown suit impeccably tailored. “I will require at least one essay a week from each of you,” he intoned forebodingly, “and you will be expected to read all the books and articles on the syllabus in order to be prepared for the rigorous final exam.”

Then he bowed his head and waited patiently as the vast majority of the assembled host fled the hall.

“Good,” said Goff, gazing at those of us who remained. “I look forward to seeing how many of you return on Thursday.”

Eighteen returned; and though I enjoyed Goff’s lectures and the challenge of writing essays in response to Descartes and Kant and Hume, the only thing I clearly remember about the course was Goff recounting his wonderful experience with Krishnamurti. However, before I tell you Goff’s Krishnamurti story, I will tell you mine.

So…every evening for a week in November of that year, Krishnamurti sat in a throne-like chair on the stage of the Cowell College dining hall, speaking about spiritual matters and answering questions from the audience. He wore an elegant suit and tie and a white turban that seemed too large for his slender face—small potted palm trees to his right and left. I attended two of his lectures and had an impossible time understanding anything he said. That is, I knew the meanings of the individual words he spoke, but I couldn’t make them add up to anything that made any sense to my nineteen-year-old brain. Yet I enjoyed him immensely and got great mileage out of doing shamefully misleading imitations of him for my friends, speaking in a high sing song voice with a stereotypical Indian accent.

And there was one thing Krishnamurti said that I understood perfectly well—his words the answer to a question I asked myself every day: should I drop out of college or stay in? I cannot remember his exact words, but I vividly remember the gist of his advice, which was that you must be your own teacher or you might as well be a parrot.

“All authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive and evil thing. Leaders destroy the followers. You have to be your own teacher and own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable and necessary.” Krishnamurti

On the Tuesday morning following the week of Krishnamurti’s visit, as Goff stood before the dozen of us gathered for his lecture, someone called out, “Nice tie, Mr. Goff.”

“Oh, this,” he said, looking down at his colorful silk tie. “Funny story about this. As you know, I spent quite a bit of time with Krishnamurti while he was here, and during lunch on his last day I complimented him on his beautiful tie, and the next day a package arrived in the mail. He’d sent me his tie, and here it is.” Goff paused momentously. “I wish I’d known he was in the habit of doing things like that because he drives a fabulous Jaguar XKE and I would have showered him with compliments about his gorgeous car.”

“Intelligent revolt comes through self knowledge, through the awareness of one’s own thought and feeling…this highly awakened intelligence is intuition, the only true guide in life.” Krishnamurti

Fast-forward thirty years to a dinner party in Berkeley at which I recounted the story of Goff’s tie and Krishnamurti’s XKE, to which a bearded fellow with a twinkle in his eye responded, “I doubt very much that Krishnamurti owned the XKE. It was probably a loaner from one of his wealthy admirers. He didn’t actually own much of anything.”

“How do you know?” I asked, ever curious about how people know things about famous people.

“I lived in Ojai for five years,” the bearded fellow replied. “I moved there to attend Krishnamurti’s talks. I had been severely depressed for several years when I heard a recording of Krishnamurti and his voice and words obliterated my depression. I was half-dead and he brought me back to life. So I moved to Ojai to sit at his feet. Literally.”

“What was that like?” someone asked.

“Wonderful,” said the bearded fellow, warming to his tale. “After I’d been to several of his talks, he began to acknowledge me as a regular and would often whisper to me, ‘You again? When will you ever learn?’ and pretend to be dismayed that I kept coming back, until one evening, after years of this little routine, I replied, ‘No, it’s not me again. I only seem to be the same person. I’m actually always someone else.’ And he laughed and smiled one of his lightning smiles and I’ve been happy ever since.”

“What made you so happy?” I asked, imagining I would be happy, too, if Krishnamurti appreciated something I said.

“I felt anointed,” said the bearded fellow, his smiling eyes brimming with tears. “Equal.”

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.

Myth & History

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

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

“As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.” Book of Proverbs 25:3

“Have you seen The King’s Speech?” asked a friend.

“Marcia has and loved it,” I replied. “I’m waiting for it to come out on Netflix.”

My wife Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan, and we often don’t find the time to watch even that many.

“Of course,” continued my friend, “they’ve taken great liberties with the historical facts. I read one article that said the movie isn’t even close to the truth and another that said it has some truth in it, but not much.”

“The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly.” Henry David Thoreau

Historical facts. Hmm. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960’s (and I really did do that) Norman O. Brown came to teach at our newborn college. His course Myth & History was open to undergrads, so I signed up to hear what the famous man had to say. Who was Norman O. Brown? Having taken his Myth & History class, and having spent a few hours blabbing with Norman about this and that, I think he would have been amused by the question. Why amused? Because the central theme of his course was that myth and history are inextricably entwined; history being mythologized the moment that highly subjective reporter known as a human being attempts to put into words what he or she thinks may have happened.

Before I tell you a little more about Norman O. Brown, I would like to recount a scene from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel, not the movie. The Norman I remember (which is probably a very different Norman than the Norman other people remember) would have appreciated this digression because his lectures were composed entirely of digressions that would then double back on themselves and culminate in conclusions that, depending on each listener’s perspective, made some sort of larger sense. Or not.

“Great things happen when God mixes with man.” Nikos Kazantzakis

So…in The Last Temptation of Christ there is a memorable scene in which Jesus and his disciples are sitting around a campfire after a long day of spreading their gospel, when Matthew, a recent addition to the crew, is suddenly impelled by angels (or so he claims) to write the biography of Jesus. So he gets out quill and papyrus and sets to work transcribing the angelic dictation; and Jesus, curious to see what’s gotten into his latest convert, takes a peek over Matthew’s shoulder and reads the opening lines of what will one day be a very famous gospel.

Jesus is outraged. “None of this is true,” he cries, or words to that effect. And then Judas (I’m pretty sure it was Judas and not Andrew) calms Jesus down with a Norman O. Brown-like bit of wisdom, something along the lines of: “You know, Jesus, in the long run it really doesn’t matter if he writes the truth or not. You’re a myth now, so you’d better get used to everybody and his aunt coming up with his or her version of who you are.”

Kazantzakis, trust me, wrote the scene much more poetically and marvelously than the way I just recounted it, but…

“All good books have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

Back to Norman O. Brown. In the late 1960’s, Norman was among the most famous pop academic writers in the world. Not only had he written Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, which made him famous, he had just published (in 1966) Love’s Body, a mainstream and academic bestseller exploring the impact of erotic love on human history; or was it the struggle between eroticism and civilization? In any case, here is one of my favorite blurbs from the hundreds of reviews that made Love’s Body so famous in its time. I will digress again (thank you, Norman) by saying if any book I ever publish gets a blurb even remotely as stupendous as the following, and said blurb appears in, say, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, drinks are on me.

“Norman O. Brown is variously considered the architect of a new view of man, a modern-day shaman, and a Pied Piper leading the youth of America astray. His more ardent admirers, of whom I am one, judge him one of the seminal thinkers who profoundly challenge the dominant assumptions of the age. Although he is a classicist by training who came late to the study of Freud and later to mysticism, he has already created a revolution in psychological theory.” — Sam Keen, Psychology Today

The myth and history web site known as Wikipedia says that Norman was a much-loved professor at UC Santa Cruz where he taught and lived to the end of his days (he died in 2002, or so they say). Wikipedia also reports that Norman had the nickname Nobby, which I would like to say I gave him, but I did not. At least I don’t think I gave it to him. On the other hand, I might have given it to him because that was not his nickname when I knew him, so it must have been affixed after I knew him. Thus we might say, “After I got through with him, he was known as Nobby.” That does sort of sound like I’m responsible for his nickname. You decide.

“Personality is the original personal property.” Norman O. Brown

Here are a few true stories about Norman that might as well be myths.

Norman loved to fool around with the order of letters in words and the order of syllables in words and the order of words in phrases. For instance, he began one lecture by…

But first of all, here’s a snapshot of Norman in 1968: a portly white man of medium height with curly brown hair. I wouldn’t say his hair was unruly, but it was certainly not ruly. Is ruly a word? If not, then from whence came unruly? These were the kinds of questions Norman would ask of us, his audience, and not answer. On second thought, his hair was unruly. In either case, he would cast his questions upon his waters, he the fly fisherman, we the trout finning below the surface of his stream of consciousness, and he would allow the flies (the questions) to drift along above us for a time to see if we might rise to the bait. If no trout rose, he cast again.

Norman had voluptuous lips and frequently wept in front of us, moved by something he felt, or moved by inner demons we could only guess at, or moved by God knows what (if you subscribe to the myth of God.) I knew several people (mostly guys) who were so freaked out by how fragile and vulnerable and weird Norman seemed to them that they dropped the class after the first couple lectures.

“Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.” Norman O. Brown

One day (getting back to Norman’s playing with the order of letters in a word) he stood (wearing a brilliant white Mexican wedding shirt tucked into fine purple corduroy trousers, his feet shod in black sandals, his toenails painted red) with his back to the audience for the first five minutes of his presentation. People began to squirm; a few walked out; and several more were about to walk out when Norman turned to face us. He ran his fingers through his unruly hair three or possibly four times, took three (I’m absolutely sure it was three) tentative steps forward, touched the tips of the fingers of his left hand to the tips of the fingers of his right hand, and gazed at this collision of digits as a lover might gaze at her beloved, or as an autistic person might stare at her fingers, and then he pursed his voluptuous lips, raised his eyes to the audience, and said so quietly we had to strain to hear, “Roma.”

Then he swallowed, licked his lips, touched his fingertips together again as described above, licked his lips once more, and repeated, “Roma.”

I looked down at my notebook and saw that I had written Roma twice. And between the first and second Roma I had unwittingly drawn a heart.

Then I looked at Norman (I usually sat in the seventeenth row, having a particular fondness for that number) and he said, “Roma spelled backwards is…”

He waited a moment for us to begin to figure it out for ourselves, and then concluded, “Amor.”

“‘Tis as human a little story as paper could well carry” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

Norman began another of his lectures mid-thought and mid-sentence referencing James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. I could not, for the life of me, discern when Norman’s sentences ended or began or even if he was speaking in sentences. People ran for the exits as if a fire alarm had sounded. Soon there were only a few of us remaining in the vast lecture hall, Norman rambling on, his tired face alight with what might have been happiness or possibly incredulity to have struck such a rich vein of…something; and I gave up trying to understand him. I simply surrendered to his sound and subtle fury, and fell into a trance from which I did not emerge until…Norman’s voice rose to a girlish crescendo, fell silent for a momentous moment, and finished basso profundo with: “Finnegan’s Wake. Fin! Again! Wake!”

“Hearasay in paradox lust” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

It was following Norman’s fifth or sixth or seventh lecture that I went to his office to show him a four-page play I’d written, a dumb show, a drama without words inspired by something he’d been harping on for a couple lectures. “The slave becomes the king becomes the slave.” In my dumb show, which, come to think of it, might have been choreography for a ballet, I was exploring passive aggression and aggressive passivity and the pitfalls of passion and the pratfalls of sexual positions, and (being nineteen) I thought the play was way cool, and I suspected that if anyone on earth would appreciate my play it was Norman.

I went to his office. He was sitting at his desk, weeping. He dried his eyes, rose to shake my hand, and invited me take a seat. I told him I was taking Myth & History. He said he recognized me. He said I often frowned ferociously at things he said, after which I would scribble furiously in my notebook. He said he often wondered which part of what he had just said made me frown. I said I was unaware of my ferocious frowning but wasn’t surprised to hear I frowned ferociously because ferocious frowning was my father’s habit, too. Norman said the older he got the more he reminded himself of his father, and also of his mother.

I then blurted that I found him captivating and perplexing and thought I was probably not consciously getting most of what he was trying to convey but I was apparently unconsciously getting some of it because he had inspired me to write a short play, which I then handed him. He read the pages, avidly, or so I like to think, then read them again. Then he looked at me and blinked appreciatively. “Yes,” he gushed. “The violence of Eros the inadequacy of the nuclear family to accommodate the sexual divergences of male and female energies of young and old I love the mother becoming lovers with her daughter’s lover only to discover her daughter’s lover is her father transformed. You’ve read Graves, Durrell, Duncan, Camus, Beckett. What do you want to do?”

“I want to write epic poems disguised as novels.”

He frowned gravely and pointed with the fingers of his right hand at the air just above my head. “A path of great danger,” he intoned, wiggling his fingers to incite the spirits. “Don’t be afraid.”

Todd lives in Mendocino where he prunes fruit trees, plays the piano, and writes essays and fiction. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com