Posts Tagged ‘Voltaire’

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.”

Chosen

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Mendocino Coastline, Todd

Mendocino Coast photo by Bill Fletcher

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

“The best is the enemy of good.” Voltaire

You have probably heard the provocative news that the New York Times recently declared the village of Mendocino and the surrounding scenic coastline to be the Third Best Travel Destination in the World. Not the best place to visit in America or in the Western Hemisphere, but in the entire world.

When I heard this startling pronouncement I went into a trance and heard someone say, “It was a tossup between Bali or Venice, but then we got the idea of cruising the fjords of Norway and we were about to book our flight to Oslo when we read the article in the New York Times about Mendocino being the third best place on the planet to visit! We rushed to make reservations at one of the inns there and soon we’ll be ogling the rugged coastline and buying T-shirts and sampling seaweed and drinking local wine and beer and eating lots of California Cuisine and, you know, reveling in the magnificence.”

Emerging from my trance, I read the article in question and was surprised to find nary a mention of the current devastating drought that puts Mendocino near the bottom of a number of other Best lists, including Best Places in the World To Take Long Showers and Best Places In the World To Grow Rice In Flooded Paddies. Nor did the article mention Mendocino being dead last on the list of Best Places With Decent Public Restrooms and Best Places With Good Chinese and/or Mexican and/or any sort of ethnic food.

Indeed, the upshot of the article seems to be that the rugged coast and gorgeous crashing waves and redwood forests are what make Mendocino the third most wonderful place in the whole world, not the amenities for humans, which I think does a great disservice to my favorite places in the village: Zo (copy shop extraordinaire), post office (world class), Mendocino Market (superb deli), Corners of the Mouth (stupendous avocados), Goodlife Bakery & Café (yummy combo salads), Harvest Market (olive bar heaven), Gallery Books (be still my heart, they carry my books), Rubaiyat (beads meet Buddha), Frankie’s Pizza (and ice cream), our lone bank (sympathetic tellers), and last but not least, the little hardware store that could.

“Avoid popularity; it has many snares, and no real benefit.” William Penn

In the mid-1970’s I moved to Ashland Oregon, having lived there briefly and happily in the early 1970’s. To my dismay, the place had changed dramatically in just the few years I’d been gone. Real estate prices had skyrocketed, Southern Oregon College had been absorbed into the state college system and doubled in size, the airport in nearby Medford had been greatly enlarged, and people from all over America, not just from California, were flocking to what was fast becoming a kind of Carmel-Not-By-The-Sea with year-round Shakespeare.

Most of the artists and eccentrics and free thinkers I’d found so appealing during my brief sojourn there in the 60’s had fled the burgeoning hamlet in search of less expensive pastures and been replaced by…well, people like Gerald, a big blustery overweight middle-aged real estate developer from New Jersey. He had only been in Ashland for two years, yet had already built two hideous, crappy, environmentally disastrous four-unit apartment buildings and was in the process of building two more such monstrosities.

I rented a room in Gerald’s house—Gerald being one of those extremely wealthy people who leave no income-producing stone unturned—and he was a nice guy, albeit reflexively combative, a reflex that quickened in direct proportion to his alcohol intake. Gerald was also extremely pragmatic, and because he liked to get smashed several nights a week but didn’t want to drive drunk, he would go to bars, meet people, buy them drinks and invite them home with him to continue their drinking in our living room. Thus on many nights for those few challenging months I shared a house with Gerald, the living room was full of strangers drinking and talking over the din of Gerald’s always-on television.

While attending my first such impromptu party, I asked Gerald what had brought him to Ashland from far-away New Jersey.

He glared at me and said, “Same thing brought everybody else here.”

“Shakespeare?” I said dumbly. “No sales tax? Pretty women pumping your gas? Rafting the Rogue River? What?”

“The thing on CBS News,” he said, his glare intensifying. “You know, the list. Come on. Don’t say you didn’t see it. Everybody saw it. The Ten Best Places To Live In America Nobody Knows About Yet. Ashland was number two. They made it look like heaven.”

“I missed that show,” I said, apologetically. “So you came here because you saw something about Ashland on television?”

“Me, too,” said a cute gal with impossibly red impossibly curly hair. “I was living in Cleveland because my husband got transferred there from Chicago, otherwise I never would have gone there. Who would? And then we got divorced and…anyway I saw the same news thing, only I think it was NBC. Anyway…they did make it look so good here, and John Denver was singing and everything was so green and the swans swimming on the pond by the Shakespeare theatre so I thought…”

“No, it was an orchestra thing,” said a guy on the sofa, holding his glass aloft. “You know…with violins? Not John Denver.”

“Yeah,” said Gerald, pointing at the guy on the sofa. “That’s the one I saw, too, the one with violins. Not John Denver.”

“I was living in Riverside,” said the guy on the sofa. “And my eyes were watering all the time, and I had this horrible cough that I could not get rid of because the air was so bad, and the traffic…ridiculous, so when I saw that show about the best places nobody knew about yet I hopped in my car and drove up here and…”

“They must have shown it more than once,” said the cute gal from Cleveland, “because the one I saw definitely had John Denver singing.”

“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.” Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday, sitting on the headlands overlooking Mendocino Bay, enjoying the spectacular coastline and listening to the crashing waves and marveling that I actually live in the third best place in the entire world to visit, I was approached by a man and a woman, their eyes shielded by dark glasses reflecting four little funhouse Todds.

“Hi,” said the woman, exhibiting brilliant white teeth. “You live around here?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“Told you,” said the man, looking away as if embarrassed by the success of his guess.

“We were wondering if you could recommend any interesting things to do around here,” said the woman, glancing at her partner. “You know…besides the scenery.” She gestured toward Japan. “We went to the bakery for coffee and scones. That was nice. And we had a beer at the hotel. And now…” She shrugged pleasantly. “Any suggestions?”

“Gosh, that’s a tough one,” I said, gazing out to sea. “We have three excellent chocolate shops in the village and a number of curio stores, but the cultural hub of the area is Fort Bragg, ten miles north of here.”

“We went there,” said the man, his voice devoid of enthusiasm.

“The Botanical Gardens? Cabrillo Lighthouse? Headlands Café?”

The woman nodded. Waves crashed on the rocky shore. Gulls flew north, ravens south. Seven vultures circled in the sky above us, patrolling paradise for dead things to eat.

“Hey, thanks,” said the man, turning to go.

“Yeah, thanks,” said the woman, turning to go, too. But then she looked back at me and asked, “Which one is your favorite chocolate shop?”

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

I asked my neighbor what he thought about Mendocino being touted by the New York Times as the third best place in the whole world to visit, and this is what he had to say about that.

“I’ve lived here sixty-seven of my seventy-four years and things were real good around here until about fifty years ago when certain types of people started moving in and growing you know what and then those crooks got hold of the lumber companies and started cutting the trees way too fast and selling all the wood to Japan and that ruined everything. No, if I were younger, I’d move to Idaho. You can still live the way you want up there, step out your door and shoot a deer. Used to be like that around here, but not anymore.”

Tenuous Grip

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Desert Dance Nolan WInkler mix med

Desert Dance by Nolan Winkler

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

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll

Have you ever had a day when you heard the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase over and over again from a variety of seemingly unconnected sources? Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, I wrote a piece for the Sacramento News & Review entitled Recurrence of Ninja, a true story of a single day in which I encountered the word ninja several times in a variety of contexts, spoken and written. Why ninja so many times on that particular day? I came to no conclusions, but I felt certain the unfathomable universe was trying to tell me something.

I was reminded of that day of many ninjas by what happened yesterday. I woke early (for me), had toast slathered with sesame butter accompanied by a banana-kale-flax seed-chia seed-apple juice-rice milk smoothie with Marcia, she the smoothie engineer, I the toaster, my bread free of gluten, her bread infested with the stuff. Then I answered a few emails, posted my Anderson Valley Advertiser article on my blog (I like to wait until the piece is in newsprint before I send the words into the ethers, silly me), worked for two hours on my new novel, and then set out on my walk to town—the day windy and cool.

Not far from home, I came upon a man in a bathrobe standing in front of his house and frowning at the sky. I said hello as I walked by and he replied, “I have a tenuous grip on reality today.”

I might have taken his self-assessment as an invitation to engage in conversation, but I did not. In the past, more often than not, I would have inquired further, but of late I am less drawn to strangers professing emotional fragility than I used to be. So I walked on and did not look back.

“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire

The wind off the ocean was fierce and the air was full of smoke from a number of burn piles unwisely lit on such a blustery day. I crossed Highway One, the road blanketed with smoke, and said hello to a tall bearded man standing on the corner gazing into a cell phone.

He frowned at me and proclaimed, “They chose a very bad day to burn.”

“Yes,” I said. “Ill-advised.”

“Because they have a tenuous grip on reality,” he said, lighting a large hand-rolled cigarette and taking a prodigious drag.

“Indeed,” I said, so amazed by his choice of words that I almost told him I had just heard someone else use the very same expression. But because I had seen this tall bearded man on previous occasions lecturing loudly to companions invisible to me, I was not greatly tempted to enter into a lengthy discussion with him.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

At the post office, I mailed two small packages and was heartened to find a few actual letters in our post office box along with the latest AVA. As I was sorting out our real mail from the junk, I overheard two women talking on the front porch of the post office, one of them saying, “So I said, ‘Rick, you gotta get a grip,’ and he said he was hanging by a thread and…”

There it was again, not the exact phrase, but the word grip and the implication that Rick’s grip was tenuous.

“Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” Tupac Shakur

In Corners, buying several fundamental comestibles, the lovely woman at the cash register made a few unforced errors (as they call them in tennis), laughingly corrected her mistakes and explained, “I’m still kind of…not all here today. Stayed up way too late last night. Haven’t had my coffee yet.”

“A somewhat tenuous grip on reality?” I ventured.

“Exactly,” she said, nodding. “Life is but a dream.”

 “For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” Jean Dubuffet

Walking home from town, the recurrence of the phrase tenuous grip on reality put me in mind of my eleven years in Berkeley where I enjoyed life without a car and patched together a minimalist living as a writer, editor, ghost writer, arborist, and babysitter. I was single for many of those eleven years and on the few occasions I found myself mixing it up, so to speak, with women more affluent than I, there always came a time, usually around the fourth date, when the question of my economic viability became the focal point of conversation and I was recurrently judged to fall far short of what was minimally acceptable to these attractive pragmatists.

One of the women, bless her heart, who I had theretofore thought to be a wild and crazy gal in the best sense of those words, interviewed me as if I was applying for a house loan. At the end of the interview, she opined, “The only difference between you and a homeless person is that you currently rent a house and don’t walk around pushing a shopping cart.”

“I beg to differ,” I replied. “I am gainfully employed, I…”

“You’re very nice,” she said, rising to go, “and we get along wonderfully well, if you know what I mean, but you’re poor and I’m not about to jeopardize my life savings by hooking up with some medical crisis waiting to happen. Better to end things now before I like you too much.”

The last of the women I dated who was more affluent than I, a successful psychotherapist who sure seemed to like me, terminated our connection after the recurrent financial disclosure date by telling me that my lifestyle choices were, well, indicative of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, though she didn’t use those exact words. She said that someone as intelligent and personable as I, with so many marketable skills, who chose to live without a car or health insurance or a viable retirement strategy, must be at least somewhat delusional and possibly a borderline personality. Ouch.

I remember replying that as far as I was concerned anyone who judged other people solely on the basis of their economic status was either insane or a member of Congress, which I knew was redundant, but I was trying for a bit of levity as she ran out the door.

Thereafter the few women I did get involved with beyond the fourth date were as financially deficient as I and didn’t worry about their nest eggs because they didn’t have nest eggs. And, yes, those sweet paupers did at times seem to have a somewhat tenuous grip on reality, but who doesn’t now and then?

Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” Bob Dylan

As I thought about the recurrence of the expression tenuous grip on reality I found myself wondering: is the universe asking me to examine the current state of my grip on reality? And what came to mind was a night when I was thirteen and attending a ballroom dancing class with forty other boys and forty girls, an ordeal my mother insisted I undergo once a month for the two years preceding high school. To attend the class we were forced to wear a suit and tie, which meant I had to learn to tie a tie, which I did, and I had to wear shoes that required polishing, which I also did.

Upon our arrival at the country club where the ordeal took place, the boys would stay away from the girls, who were wearing long frilly dresses, and the girls would stay away from the boys. Then our instructors, a champion ballroom dancing couple, would somehow get the boys paired up with the girls and try to teach us how to fox trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing. After an hour or so of rigorous practice with a variety of assigned partners, the ordeal would conclude with a half-hour of dancing without instruction. Boys were supposed to ask girls to dance, not the other way around, unless one of the champions announced that the next dance was a Sadie Hawkins (role reversal) dance. For those boys too fearful to ask girls to dance, our adult overseers would arbitrarily pair such boys with those unlucky girls remaining to be asked.

And one night, when the four or five girls I knew from school (so they were not terrifying to me) were paired up with other boys, and I was just about to make a break for the bathroom where I hoped to remain undetected for several minutes, a gorgeous young woman (as opposed to a girl) named Luisa Hernandez asked me to dance with her, though it was not a Sadie Hawkins dance! Luisa was by far the best female dancer in our mob and was often called upon to dance with one of the better male dancers to demonstrate a fox trot variation or a cha-cha turn or whatever those things are called that our champion instructors wanted us to see done well.

“I have two left feet,” I said, anxiously. “I’m no Fred Astaire.”

“You move beautifully,” said Luisa, looking deep into my eyes. “You just need a good partner.”

So we danced the next several dances together, and I can truly say that until I danced with Luisa I had never really danced with someone. I had gone through the motions with others and simulated dancing, and even had a little fun going through those motions, but with Luisa I danced, and our dancing was divine. And what I learned from her was that dancing with someone didn’t have to be about gripping the other person or being gripped by them, but was a way for two people to move together in harmonious time. Holding each other facilitated fueling off each other while enjoying the synchronous flow—the dancing never about trying to control the other—and so our physical connection was light and sure and flexible and tender.