Posts Tagged ‘Zorba the Greek’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

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

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

Little Men

Monday, February 27th, 2017

vito, tood, marcia

Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.

The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.

In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.

When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?

In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.

Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.

Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.

I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.

How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”

Favorites

Monday, April 4th, 2016

sunstruck tw

Sunstruck painting by Nolan Winkler

“The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within earshot went to work.” Rudyard Kipling

Reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the tenth time in the last twenty-five years, I’ve been thinking about why this novel and no other of the thousands I’ve read calls to me again and again, and why, again and again, I am enthralled from first word to last.

There are books I loved in my teens and twenties I revisited in middle age—Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Parnassus On Wheels—and a handful of other novels I’ve read a second or third time over the years; but Kim is the only novel I am eager to read again every few years.

This is not a recommendation, however. There was a time when I urged my friends to read Kim and quickly learned that women, for the most part, do not like this book, and some women loathe it. A few men I touted on the book enjoyed the tale, but I was repeatedly cautioned that Kim was out of date, racist, misogynist, and juvenile. Never mind that the writing is exquisite, those charges against the book—none of which I agree with—are prevalent today, so I do not recommend Kim.

One friend suggested I love the book because the character of Kim resonates with some vision of who I imagine I am in relation to the larger world. Perhaps. But I think the greater draw for me is the relationship between Kim and the lama with whom he travels, and through whom he discovers the spiritual side of life. Also, Kim is beloved and revered by not one but four fascinating older men, something I did not experience with my own father or any older man, and I longed for that in my life.

The words in Kim sing to me—glorious prose poetry—else I would not return so often to those pages.

Kim got me thinking about movies I have watched multiple times, as in more than three times, and one movie jumps out before any other: The Horse’s Mouth starring Alec Guinness. I saw the movie when I was eight, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven, thirty-nine, forty-eight, fifty-three, and sixty. And I was enthralled from first frame to last, moved to tears, and greatly inspired each time.

Again, not a recommendation. Having touted this film to many people, I know The Horse’s Mouth is not to everyone’s taste and many women find the movie sexist. Be that as it may, The Horse’s Mouth is still the best film I’ve ever seen about what it is to be an artist of the kind Guinness portrays—a person for whom making art takes precedence over everything else in life. Everything. And the movie is screamingly funny in parts, as well as profoundly moving.

Another film I have seen four times and would gladly watch again tomorrow is Mostly Martha, the German film about a hyper-controlling German chef who is melted out of her emotional isolation by unexpectedly becoming mother to her sister’s young daughter, while having to share her high-end restaurant kitchen with her emotional opposite, a sensual funny guy chef from Italy.

The other food-related film I love and have watched multiple times is The Big Night.

Then there is Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. I have seen this movie at least ten times, from when I was a boy until a couple years ago when I couldn’t resist renting it again. I love everything about this movie. Never gets old for me.

In that same vein: Young Frankenstein.

I once knew a man named Jack who used a particular film as a preliminary test for establishing friendships and relationships. If the man or woman being tested did not like the French film Toto le Hero, Jack would have nothing more to do with the person. If the person being tested had not seen the film, which was usually the case, Jack would screen it for them and judge them according to their reaction.

As it happened, I loved Toto le Hero, but made the mistake of raving about it to many of my friends, and with few exceptions they hated the movie. I did not hold this against them, so some of them remained my friends, whereas Jack had almost no friends. But I understood why he felt as he did. When a movie or book or work of art is precious to us, there is undoubtedly something in the work representative of our feelings and spirit, and so another’s rejection of our favorite can feel like a rejection of us.

I’ve been struggling with this very thing regarding Bernie Sanders. I love Bernie Sanders. Yes, I know. He has this flaw and that flaw and he voted wrong on this and that, and he should be better than he is, but I love him. I have never in my life liked a candidate for President of the United States remotely as much as I like Bernie, and I have a hard time feeling friendly toward people who do not share my love for him. For me, Bernie is the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his opponent the female embodiment of the plutocracy.

Yet some of my favorite people do not love Kim, do not love The Horse’s Mouth, would rather do anything than watch The Court Jester, and do not think Bernie has a chance in hell of unseating the reigning overlords.

But one of the important things I’ve learned from reading Kim ten times is that it is far better to rejoice with others who share our enthusiasms than to waste our precious time feeling bitterly toward those who do not.

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.

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”

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.

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.