Wait, there’s more. The incomparable Ida’s Place novels, books One through Four, are now all priced at twenty dollars each, each copy lavishly signed and numbered. If you haven’t embarked on the Ida’s Place journey yet, or you want to continue your journey, the saga grows deeper and richer with each book. Dazzle your friends (who still read literary fiction) with the entire quartet. http://underthetablebooks.com/words/pubs/ida.php
Trail To Garfield Peak (Crater Lake 2015) photo by Marcia Sloane
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)
“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell
Do you sometimes look back on your life and recall those turning points that made you the chiropractor you are today instead of a tax attorney, a real estate agent instead of a dance instructor, a massage therapist instead of a taxidermist, a school teacher instead of a stockbroker, a hedge fund billionaire instead of a white water tour guide—or vice-versa?
Or your daughter calls you from her dorm at Pepperdine and says something that makes you think of the dance your sophomore year in college when you snubbed Andy Philips who was crazy about you because you thought he was dorky, though you liked him and laughed easily with him and you both loved Dickens and bird watching and Joni Mitchell and Emily Dickinson, and you adored Andy’s voice and sense of humor, but you were smitten with Brad Hamilton who was a total hunk, so you did everything in your power to seduce him, and you succeeded and got pregnant and married Brad, though you and he had nothing in common, and you ended up with three kids in Modesto where Brad is a clerk at Home Depot and you are a legal secretary.
So you Google Andy Philips and here he is, a professor of Poetics at the Institute For Transcendent Happiness on the island of Majorca, and the picture of him with his adorable cockapoodle Artemis on the shores of the Mediterranean is so lovely, and Andy, Andrew, is so handsome and lean and romantic looking you want to scream, but before you can scream Brad waddles into the room, bald and enormously fat, and says he can’t find the remote for the television and the game is just about to start—where is it?
But sometimes you look back over your life and see a key moment when you took a certain road that changed your destiny, not because you wanted to take that road, but because forces seemingly beyond your control forced you to go in a direction you might otherwise not have gone. I say seemingly in deference to those who believe we create our own karma, and even forces seemingly beyond our control are set in motion by our unconscious expectations of how things are supposed to be.
“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was in my early twenties and roaming around the country, my supreme wish was to break into the movie business and eventually write and direct movies. But how could I do that as a vagabond in Vermont, hitchhiking to Canada, my destination Montreal? Three weeks earlier, I had been refused entrance into Canada because I lacked sufficient funds—two hundred dollars—and therefore qualified as a potential vagrant and drain on the Canadian economy.
This was when thousands of American youth were taking advantage of Canada’s marvelous system of hostels providing free meals and beds to transients—yay for socialism—and the Canadian border guards were under orders to do what they could to restrict the influx of undesirables from America.
So I had gone back down into New England, worked on farms, hauled crab traps, and washed dishes in restaurants until I amassed two hundred smackers, and now I was on my way to try those border guards again.
I was standing by the road, my cardboard sign reading MONTREAL, lost in yet another fantasy of my meteoric rise as a filmmaker, when a car driven by two friendly men stopped for me. I loaded my guitar and backpack and myself into their back seat, and off we went. They asked where I was going and who I was, and after my brief autobiography, they informed me they were filmmakers, had just completed a documentary about Tiny Tim (the longhaired fellow who played ukulele and sang ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’) and were on their way to Quebec City to make a movie about a famous bike race.
We got along splendidly and they offered me a job assisting them on their film. I could hardly believe my good fortune. At the border, they showed their passports to a young border guard, he welcomed them to Canada, and then he asked me to get out of their car and show him two hundred dollars, which I did, much to his surprise and chagrin.
“Can we go now?” asked one of the filmmakers. “We’re due in Quebec City tonight.”
“You can go,” said the guard, “but I have to search this guy’s stuff. Lots of drugs being smuggled into Canada these days.”
So the filmmakers left me at the border and said if I could get to Quebec City the next morning, the job was mine.
Overhearing their offer to me, the guard made sure I would never make it to Quebec City the next morning. He tore my pack apart. He crushed my aspirin pills to see if they were cocaine. He measured the largest blade on my Swiss Army knife to determine if I was carrying a concealed weapon. He jumbled my food and clothing together and unrolled my sleeping bag and tent on top of the jumble. I knew he wanted me to protest his absurd search so he could use my belligerence to deny me entry, but I gave him no such satisfaction, and finally, with darkness and a hard rain falling, he let me walk into Canada.
I camped in the woods that night, a mile past the border, and the next day, after waiting for several hours, I caught a ride with a longhaired guy smuggling several pounds of marijuana into Montreal. I suppose I could have hitchhiked to Quebec City the next day and begged those filmmakers to take me on, but I chose instead to spend the next week busking on the streets of Montreal and gawking at the gorgeous French Canadians.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)
“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything.” Shunryu Suzuki
As I was sitting by the woodstove last night—this November much colder than last—scribbling away on my latest something, I was struck by how little connection I feel to the books and stories and plays I’ve written over the last forty years, or even to the book I finished writing earlier this year.
How does it happen that something I thought about constantly and worked on for several hours every day for months on end is now but a vague memory? How can something that meant so much to me, mean so little now? Can the creative heart really be so fickle?
Then this morning our neighbor came by with a dozen beautiful blue and brown and white eggs just laid by his prolific chickens, and I thought I’m a hen, and the egg I’m laying right now is the most important egg in the world to me, but a few eggs hence I won’t remember this egg at all.
That put me in mind of when I was a young writer and would spend a year or two furiously working on a novel, my work fueled by a palpable visceral erotic majestic sense of how staggeringly great the story was. When at last the first draft was finished, I would let it cool for a few weeks before reading the entirety; and more often than not, I found the story and writing less great than I had sensed they were while in the throes of creation. And often that was the end of the process, the novel stillborn. But sometimes there was enough mojo in that first draft to inspire a rewrite, and once engaged in remaking the story, I would again be filled with certainty I was birthing a masterwork.
As I got to know more artists and writers, I learned that they, too, were often taken over by a sense of the importance and brilliance of the things they were creating, and when the things were done, the veils of grandiosity would be lifted, and they would see their creations in a wholly different light. So I came to think of this recurring self-delusion as a necessary trick of the mind enabling artists to complete creations requiring hundreds or thousands of hours of work. If the inner critic became engaged too early in the process, the flow might stop.
But what is that trick of the mind? How do we fool our egos again and again into thinking something is great when it isn’t yet great, and may never be great?
“What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naïve, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.” Jonathan Ive
I have spent the last three years writing a quartet of connected novels called Ida’s Place, and when I completed Book Four in August, it never occurred to me the saga was at end. I was so much in the habit of writing these books, so emotionally enmeshed with the large cast of characters, and so enamored of the ongoing drama, I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t be another book or two or seven.
Indeed, the first chapter of Book Five poured forth from my pen as effortlessly as the previous four volumes. But then the flow ceased, the Ida muse done with me. However, my ego was not yet ready to let go of this large self-defining undertaking, and for several weeks more I labored away and cranked out five more chapters, though the process was no longer about harnessing an artesian flow but wringing water from stones.
Then on one of my walks to town, I was finally able to admit I was done with the Ida saga, or the saga was done with me, and the moment I admitted this to my conscious self, I realized that the last line of Book Four was a fine place to stop. And now, some weeks later, when I pick up one of the Ida books and read for a page or nine, the story and the writing are new to me. I’m happy to say I find the tale deeply engaging, but who wrote these volumes? Was Buckminster Fuller correct in saying we are verbs, not nouns?
So now what do I do? Now how will I be conjugated? Now who am I if not the person writing a series of novels set in a bakery café on the far north coast of California, a mythic version of Here?
“When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life without feeling any difficulties. The purpose of our practice is to be aware of this fact.” Shunryu Suzuki
There is no rushing a muse, and no telling when or how she will come to you. I once asked a painter I admire if he painted every day. He replied, “I go to my studio every day, except Sunday, and some days I’ll paint for fifteen minutes, some days for five hours, some days not at all. I made myself paint every day when I was a neophyte because I wanted painting to become a deep habit. And now that it is, showing up every day is the important thing.”
My favorite Sufi stories are those in which a person is at an emotional and spiritual impasse, and one of two things happens. Either a visitor arrives and does something or says something that liberates the stuck person, or the stuck person goes out into the world and has an experience that opens his mind and breaks down the wall around his heart.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)
I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.
In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.
Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”
I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.
Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”
And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”
Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.
Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.
As one might expect of a book published in 1939 summarizing the history of English Literature, there are few women authors mentioned therein, though Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bronte, and Emily Bronte all garner tiny paragraphs, with George Eliot and Jane Austen winning half-columns, and Charlotte Bronte nearly a whole one.
Another delightful feature of the book is that for super famous authors—Dickens, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Melville, Thackeray etc.—in addition to their biographies, there are separate entries synopsizing of each of their most famous books, plays, and poems, as well as separate entries for important characters in those works.
What a different culture we had before the advent of television. In that sense, the 1939 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature is a fascinating time capsule from the end of an epoch in our cultural history when literature was of paramount importance and influence, and hundreds of great novels and plays and poems lived for hundreds of years as part of the contemporary cultural fabric.
Have you perchance heard of the book The Old Wives’ Tale? “…a novel by E. A. Bennett (1908) one of the greatest novels of modern times. It is the long chronicle of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley, from their ardent girlhood, through disillusionment, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, its trivial incidents, are made interesting and important. Constance, a staid and sensible young woman, marries the insignificant Samuel Povey, the chief assistant in the shop, and spends all her life in Bursley. The more passionate and imaginative Sophia elopes with the fascinating Gerald Scales, an unprincipled blackguard, who carries her to Paris, where she is exposed to indignities, and finally deserts her. She struggles to success as a lodging-house keeper in Paris, where she lives though the siege of 1870. The sisters are reunited and spend their last years in Bursley.”
Never heard of E.A. Bennett, the author of this greatest of novels? “Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867-1931), became a solicitor’s clerk in London and in 1893 assistant editor and subsequently editor of the periodical ‘Woman’. After 1900 he devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre journalism being among his special interests. His fame as a novelist rests chiefly on ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ series. ‘Clayhanger’ (1910) ‘Hilda Lessways’ (1911) ‘These Twain’ (1916). The ‘Five Towns’ which figure prominently in these works are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton, centers of the pottery industry; and the features, often ugly and sordid of this background are skillfully woven into stories of lives which he presents dispassionately, with an infinite delight in significant detail. Among Bennett’s other best-known works are: ‘Riceyman Steps’, ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’, ‘Milestones’, and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ (short stories, 1912)”
Then there is John Knox (1505-72) who “…addressed epistles to his brethren in England suffering under the rule of Mary Tudor, and in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine. It was this situation which led to the publication of his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), of which the title, Saintsbury remarks, was the best part.”
Saintsbury? “George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933), a distinguished literary critic and historian…”
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Alfred Hitchcock
In 1976 I was in New York when the play Comedians by the British playwright Trevor Griffiths opened on Broadway. I was so inspired by the play—I saw it twice—that when I returned to Oregon, I quit my job as a landscaper and moved to Seattle to concentrate on writing plays and trying to get them produced.
Alas, I found no takers for my plays anywhere in America, though I sent them to scores of theatre companies, large and small, and personally delivered them to theatre companies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Ashland, Portland, and Seattle. The dozen or so theatre people who were kind enough to respond to my plays all made the same comment: no theatre company in America produces three-act plays anymore.
Well, Comedians is a three-act play and I’d just seen it on Broadway. But the play was an anomaly in America, a throwback, and very British. And I should have known better because in the same week I saw Comedians, I attended the play that was the talk of the American theatre world at the time, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a play of many little disconnected scenes in one fairly short act.
Had I only seen For Colored Girls, I would not have changed the course of my life to write plays, and certainly not three-act plays. But Comedians touched me deeply and so greatly expanded my notion of what a modern play might be, that I ignored the mores of my culture and wrote a trio of three-act plays I was certain would take the American theatre world by storm.
Self-delusions aside, the changes in the American cultural landscape that took place in the first forty years of my life are nothing compared to what has overtaken us since the advent of personal computers and the internet, which might also be described as the coming of universal Attention Deficit Disorder and the attendant SCB: sit-com brain.
“Within the reigning social order, the general public must remain an object of manipulation, not a participant in thought, debate, and decision.” Noam Chomsky
Marcia and I recently went on the first journey I have made away from Mendocino in seven years, not counting a few overnights to Santa Rosa. Marcia has gone on a number of far treks in those seven years, but not I, so our eight-day trip to Oregon was a big deal for me.
Our big splurge was spending two nights at the Crater Lake Lodge, and though the big old lodge was filled to capacity, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. How can that be?
The first night there, we dined in our little room on cold cuts and hummus and other goodies from our cooler, but for hot water for tea we had to make the trek down to the vast lounge on the first floor where two enormous fireplaces ablaze with gas-fueled flames shone on seventy guests arrayed on comfortable sofas and armchairs, some of the guests waiting to go to supper in the dining hall, some drinking wine or beer or cocoa in the commodious surround.
And I felt I was stepping onto the set of the latest remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers because every person in the room, save for the waiters, was staring into either a smart phone or a tablet. Every single person. These were not teenagers or college kids or even thirty-somethings. No, these were people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, staring zombie-like at little screens. They might have been in a bus station or inmates of a sanitarium for the demented, though I did not see anyone drooling.
The big terrace outside the lounge features several dozen large rocking chairs facing the spectacular crater, and during daylight hours lodgers can eat and drink and rock out there with a fabulous view of the incredibly blue lake and the spectacular rock formations surrounding that blue. Except that all the people in those rocking chairs were looking into screens, too, which is why I say we practically had the place to ourselves.
Why, I wonder, did all those people spend so much time and money to go to Crater Lake and not be there?
“Intolerance is evidence of impotence.” Aleister Crowley
In 1989 the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out and caused a sensation that reached beyond the art houses. I was living in Sacramento at the time and loved the movie for its subtlety and complexity, and because it was so French, yet the actors spoke English. I was writing screenplays at the time, and Sex, Lies and Videotape was the first American film I’d seen in many years with a sensibility kin to my own.
The winter of 1989 was a very wet one, and when I went to see Sex, Lies, and Videotape a second time, the old Tower Theatre where I saw the film the first time was closed due to leaks. So my friends and I ventured far into the suburbs to a multiplex where the kiosk sported the shortened title Sex Videotapes—a foreshadowing of the experience awaiting us in the theatre.
In Sex, Lies and Videotape, you may recall, James Spader plays a reticent man who frequently pauses to think before speaking. Well, the audience of suburbanites at the showing we attended responded to these pauses with nervous giggling and catcalls such as, “What’s his problem?” and “He is so lame,” and the oft repeated, “Weirdo!”
We left the theatre despairing for humanity and desperate to get out of the burbs. A week later I went to the movie again at the Tower Theatre, and the first few times James Spader paused before speaking, I braced myself for shouted insults from the audience. To my great relief, the downtown audience had no trouble with a person thinking before speaking.