Categories
Uncategorized

What’s In A Name?

(This essay was written for The Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)

“Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

As I answer the ringing phone, I am distracted by my cat chasing his tail and do not hear the brief telltale silence presaging a stranger seeking money. “Hello. This is Doralinda Kayamunga of the NRA calling for Mr. Tom Walsmar.” I hang up, though in retrospect I wish I’d thought to ask Doralinda how she got Tom from Todd and Walsmar from Walton.

My childhood friends delighted in calling me Toad Walnut, and did so with such frequency that their teasing ceased to rankle. Please note: their playful distortion of my name was intentional, whereas the thousand and one subsequent manglings of Todd and Walton result, as far as I can tell, from endemic mass idiocy. I have been called Tom, Toby, Tad, Ted, Tony, Don, Rod, and Scott hundreds of times in my life, usually in combination with Watson, Walters, Weldon, Waldon, Walsmar, Wilson, Welton, Waters, Waldo, and most recently Watton.

For goodness sake, my name is not Jascha Heifetz or Ubaldo Jimenez or Ilgaukus Christianoosman. In England, Walton is as common as Smith. My surname derives from Walled Town, and in medieval England nearly all towns were walled towns. In those long ago days, a person might be known as Roderick of Walled Town or Sylvia of Walled Town, and over the ensuing centuries, William of Walled Town became Bill Walton of UCLA and the Portland Trailblazers.

I’m sure that you, at one time or another, have had your name and/or names misread and mis-said, but I have yet to meet anyone with a name as simple and straightforward as mine who experiences such persistent moniker mishandling. My wife, Marcia Sloane, her first name frequently spelled Marsha by even her close friends, and her last name often presented minus the E at the end, posits that the very simplicity of Todd Walton is the cause of people mistaking my name (s) for others. She has yet to convincingly explain why simplicity breeds confusion, and in support of my theory of rampant idiocy I remind her that when she recently gave a talk at the Unitarian, both the Beacon and the Advocate referred to her as Marika Solace.

Perhaps the most egregious distortion of my first name came in 1967 at the outset of my first year of college at brand new UC Santa Cruz. Dazed and confused, I dutifully followed the orders in my freshman orientation packet and went to consult with the advisor assigned to me, a nationally renowned sociologist I shall not name. This mean little man would soon be locally renowned as a middle-aged sex fiend preying on gullible undergrad females. To that end, he made sure only females landed on his list of advisees. So why was I on his list? Because some administrative dweeb transcribed my name Todi, and this horny old fart took the misspelling to be an Italian (or possibly Finnish) girl’s name. Needless to say, he was extremely displeased when a sweaty boy and not some svelte female darkened his door. After a brief and icky meeting, he grimly suggested I find other counsel. Todi, indeed.

“And we were angry and poor and happy, 
and proud of seeing our names in print.
” G.K. Chesterton

When I published my first novel Inside Moves, I did what all first-time authors do; I visited myriad bookstores to see if they were carrying my book. In several of these stores, my book was shelved in the hobby section, the resident geniuses having read the title as Inside Movies. When the book and subsequent film provided me with a brief stint of notoriety, I was asked to provide congratulatory blurbs for other books. And on the back cover of one of these books I was Tod Wilson, author of Night Moves. On another, I was John Walters, author of Forbidden Pulses, my second novel being Forgotten Impulses. What a woild!

“Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”  W.H. Auden

In 1973 my mother offered me her doddering and essentially worthless Ford LTD so I could move with my girlfriend and our paltry earthly possessions from Palo Alto, California to Eugene, Oregon. We got as far as Sacramento when the old car began to shimmy like my sister Kate. By some miracle, we managed to pull into a wheel alignment garage moments before the car could shake into pieces. As it happened, we had just enough cash to fix our coach, but the mechanic said he was booked solid for three days.

And so, resigned to crashing on a friends’ floor for the duration, I despondently signed the estimate sheet. But when the mechanic saw my signature, his eyes widened and he blurted, “Walton? You’re a Walton? Walton’s mountain? John Boy. The Waltons. That’s our favorite show in the whole world. That show…that show is the story of our life. You’re a Walton?”

I had never seen The Waltons, but I’d heard of the popular television show and been called John Boy by countless cretins, so I vaguely knew what this fellow was talking about. I also knew that the creator of The Waltons was named something like Hammer, and the stories were based on his family’s history. However, since Hammer lacked the grace and elegance of Walton, he decided…

“I gotta tell my wife,” said the mechanic, nodding hopefully. “Could you…if we did your car this afternoon could you hang around so my wife can meet you?”

“Sure,” I said, struck by the happy realization that for the first time in my life there might be some advantage to being named Walton.

And though I felt compelled to explain to these good people that I was no relation to the fictional characters they worshiped, they would hear none of my disclaimers. I was a deity to them, and all because I hadn’t followed the lead of many of my cohorts and changed my name to Rainbow River or Jade Sarong.

The mechanic’s wife presented us with a special pumpkin pie “just like the Walton’s have for Thanksgiving supper.” She spoke of the Waltons in the present tense, for they were very much alive to her.

This blessed nonsense culminated in the mechanic donating all parts and labor to our exodus from the golden state. Then he fervently shook my hand and declared that meeting me was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. Yet neither the mechanic nor his wife seemed stupid or deranged. Indeed, they struck me as intelligent and resourceful people, their only shortcoming the inability to distinguish a television show from what they imagined to be a docudrama set in the Deep South about people related to me.

When I asked if I might know their last name, the mechanic said, “Oh, it’s a common old name where we come from.”

“Still,” I said, having finally surrendered my fate to the largesse of satirical angels, “I’d love to know your last name?”

“Knuckles,” said the mechanic and his wife, speaking as one.

“Knuckles?” I echoed. “I’ve never heard of anyone named Knuckles.”

“Dime a dozen where we come from,” said the mechanic’s wife. “And every last one a cousin.”

“Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names.” Japanese Proverb

That is, if the name left is actually your name.

Marcia and I just took possession of our two new CDs. The first, So not Jazz, features Marcia on cello and yours truly on guitar and piano. The second, 43 short Piano Improvisations, is just that: forty-three musical haiku. Our wonderful UPS delivery person brought the myriad boxes to our door, and as we gaily opened them to make sure the CDs were, indeed, ours and not those of a Fresno Reggae ensemble (which happened the last time we made a CD) I noticed the boxes were addressed to Todd Watton and Marcia Sloane. Oh, well. Just a silly typo. Todd Watton. No problem.

Yes, problem. A few days after we sent out the first batch of our CDs, my brother, a highly adept computer and Interweb person, emailed me to report that all forty-three of my piano improvisations and all nine of my collaborations with Marcia were showing up on iTunes and several other digital download sites under the purview of Todd Watton. Web crawling logarithms were gobbling the misnomer and spreading it hither and yon throughout cyber space, and good luck replacing that leading T in Watton with the L we so very much wanted to be there instead.

We contacted the manufacturer and they promised to do what they could to rectify the situation. We are moderately hopeful the erroneous moniker will be thoroughly expunged from the electronic highways and biways, but we won’t hold our breaths. Fortunately, I subscribe to the philosophy that the occurrences composing so-called reality are not random, but only seem random because we lack sufficient data to explain why the occurrences are occurring. In honor of this philosophy, I have coined the word confluencidental, and I hope one day this grandiloquent word will be granted entry into the Oxford English Dictionary and possibly into the yet-to-be-established Buckminster Fuller Hall of Fame. But again, I digress.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William the Spear Shaker

Ultimately, when my body dissolves into the mother of all molecular whirlpools and my life essence goes wherever life essences go, my names will only live as long as it takes for the people who remember me to die, for the books I’ve published to turn to dust or flame, and for the recordings I’ve made to become unplayable. Thereafter, Todd Walton (or Tom Walsmar or Toby Watson or Todi Watton) will only be remembered if things he or she made—songs, poems, stories—take on lives of such vibrancy that future generations will feel compelled to keep those creations alive. And should such miracles transpire, the names attached to those creations will surely be irrelevant.

I once met a guy who claimed to have written a famous song stolen from him by the person who got famous and rich for writing the song. I have no doubt this guy honestly believed he’d written the famous song the other person got the credit and money for writing. But I never liked that song, so I didn’t really care one way or the other.

Todd and Marcia’s new CDs and songs are available for sampling and purchase at UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Categories
Uncategorized

Social Security

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

“The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two.” Mark Twain

Today’s mail brought my annual report from the Lord High Chamberlain of the Exchequer informing me that unless I get hyper busy and super lucky, too, and start making gobs of money so the government can tax those gobs and dump loads of loot into my Social Security account, my later years, so-called, will be mean ones, as in Not Fun. True, the scribes toiling for SS (how Naziesque that acronym) are quick to point out that no reasonable human can hope to survive on SS payments alone, that such payments are merely intended to supplement the vast sums they seem to assume we have tucked away in other income-producing niches impervious to downturns in interest rates, stock markets, housing markets, and all other known markets currently falling like lead weights dropped from leaning towers everywhere.

Indeed, the verbiage attached to the SS notice trumpeting the diminutive stipend awaiting me when I crest sixty-six, puts me in mind of the surreal fiction of Calvino and Ionesco and Pinter, their ironic humor barely softening the horror of being eaten alive by the bureaucratic mouths of our overlords. For instance, here is a badly written but highly revealing passage of SS doggerel.  “If you retire early, you may not have enough income to enjoy the years ahead of you. Likewise, if you retire late, you’ll have a larger income, but fewer years to enjoy it. Everyone needs to try to find the right balance, based on his or her own circumstances.”

Try. Did you hear them? Try to find the right balance. Let me see. I know I left the right balance around here somewhere. Darn. Where did I put it? I so want to enjoy it, and by “it” I think the SS copywriter means the larger income, but (likewise) he may mean the years ahead, while I mean the right balance. Based on my circumstances. And just what are my circumstances? Well, I’m not sure. They keep changing. How strange. Are they supposed to? Keep changing? My circumstances?

Hey, maybe I could get a high-paying job writing SS brochures, a job with comprehensive government-subsidized healthcare and automatic contributions to my SS account. Here’s a sample of what I could write for them. “Life isn’t fair, you pathetic pauper. Likewise, you’d better figure out how to beat this crooked system or you’re gonna end up in deep doo doo.” Catchy, no?

When I was in my teens and twenties I knew several elderly people living adequately on no other income but the money they received from the Social Security Administration. True, those were the days when a visit to the doctor might cost you fifteen dollars, and drugs, the few we had, were cheap, food was inexpensive, rent was low, and gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon. Five per cent was about as low as interest rates on a regular savings account ever went, so if you banked some of your money, you could earn a little extra, kids were encouraged to save, to learn about saving, property taxes were reasonably high to pay for things like schools and police and fire departments; and health insurance, for those who bothered to buy it, was inexpensive. That’s how things were. Honestly.

But then things were not like that. And they are not like that now. I wonder why we and our leaders don’t go back and study, say, 1959, and see how things were structured then in terms of taxes, all the taxes, and expenditures, all the expenditures, and draw up plans to revert to some or all of that kind of taxing and spending. I don’t really wonder why. I know why. Because in 1959, corporations paid much higher taxes than they do now, and wealthy people who owned expensive houses in ritzy neighborhood paid reasonably high property taxes and were not allowed to entirely avoid paying taxes through all sorts of shelters and dodges, and a good many of the things we bought were made in America by Americans. How could we go back to that? Oh, and they had these funny things called government regulations that made it illegal for banks to lie and cheat and steal, so we wouldn’t have a repeat of the Great Depression. Imagine.

I got my first savings account in 1959 when I was ten. I got it, the savings account, because for Christmas my grandparents gave me a check for ten dollars. This was the first check I’d ever received, and it, the check, was for such a vast sum my parents thought I would be wise to open a savings account at Wells Fargo. So I did. And the very friendly woman who helped me open my account gave me a brochure written especially for children, possibly written by the father or mother of the writer who today writes the Pinteresque SS doggerel, but probably not. I remember the brochure had blue ink on glossy white paper and included a chart showing how much money I would earn if I left my ten dollars in the bank for ten years at seven per cent interest compounded daily. Are you sitting down? One hundred and sixty-five dollars.

I wrote about my new savings account and my nifty passbook and the glossy brochure and my awesome earning power in a Thank You letter to my grandparents, and my grandmother wrote back, “Imagine how much you will have if you add ten dollars a year to your account and that earns interest, too?”

Lest these memories seem maudlin and uselessly sentimental or even stupid, my point is that most of us so-called Baby Boomers grew up thinking that money saved became more money to be used later on when we needed it. The money. And that’s how we imagined Social Security operated, too. Money we put into the system would mature over the years for our eventual use. Yet here on the front page of the SS doggerel sheet accompanying the proclamation of the teensy monthly sum the government proposes to send me when I retire is the following vague and scary and infuriating statement.

“In 2016 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2037 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 76 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits. We need to resolve these issues soon to make sure Social Security continues to provide a foundation of protection for future generations.”

I’m not making this crap up. Somebody, possibly a college graduate, was paid good swiftly deflating money to write that vague and scary crap, and it, the crap, was sent to every sucker in America with a Social Security number. And who exactly is the We who needs to resolve these issues? And what are those issues? Let’s see, I may have a list of them, the issues that need resolving, wherever I misplaced my right balance based on my ever-changing circumstances.

Could SS be implying that you and I have wasted trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that you and I have spent several other trillions bailing out banks that won’t pay even one per cent interest on my savings, let alone seven per cent? Are they suggesting that you and I have given untold trillions in subsidies to big earth-gobbling corporations? I think they are. I think they are implying that we, you and I, are the cause of all those unresolved issues they neglected to be more specific about. And that’s why my puny little stipend is in danger of declining and disappearing before I even get any of it. The stipend. Because I can’t find the right balance.

Maybe I should see a doctor (though if I do they’ll almost certainly raise my already usurious health insurance rates.) But maybe it, going to a doctor, would be worth it (the certain increase in my insurance rates) because the obscenely profitable pharmaceutical cartel may have developed a drug for it. Our imbalance. Something to instill equilibrium in the corpus and stimulate the memory so we can remember where we left the right balance and the list of issues we (you and I) need to resolve to keep SS from going belly up, but likewise not so stimulating a drug that we remember to tax the b’jeezus out of the super wealthy.

Todd’s taxable creations are on display at UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Categories
Uncategorized

Ergo Ego

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my fortieth birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”

As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.

A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?

The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.

One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.

The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.

For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking”, and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.

This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”

Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.

Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.

Phase One: Inspiration

I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.

Phase Two: The Work

Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.

Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.

What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.

Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…

The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego.

Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.

Categories
Uncategorized

Writing Good

(This article originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

I daresay creativity cannot be taught. Creativity can be engendered, encouraged, cultivated, and supported, but being creative is as natural as breathing, and so to purport to teach creativity is to lie. And the multi-billion dollar creativity-teaching industry in this perpetually adolescent culture of ours is just that: a big fat putrescent lie. And the crown jewels in this cartel of deceit are the several hundred MFA programs in Creative Writing sponsored by academic institutions large and small that yearly hoodwink tens of thousands of misguided people, young and old, who very much want to become more accomplished writers and have succumbed to slick fairy tale propaganda promising mastery and success with their writing in just two or three years of apprenticeship to writers who, almost without exception, cannot write their ways out of paper bags let alone teach anyone to write any better than they.

I am particularly sensitive to and alarmed by this Creative Writing MFA fraud because several extremely promising writers I’ve been privileged to work with have been severely damaged if not entirely ruined by either undergraduate creative writing classes or these insidious MFA programs. I did my best to warn these folks of the pitfalls of embarking on such misadventures, but the temptations were apparently too many, the propaganda too convincing, and the alternative of decades of solitary labor too daunting, so they surrendered to the academic combine, walked into the maws of institutionalized idiocy, and sacrificed their inherent originality and uniqueness to systems run by sycophants and frauds.

Or to quote Allen Ginsberg, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” and I have witnessed a dozen marvelous writers deformed and defused by the madness of MFA programs in Creative Writing.

Twenty-some years ago I was hired to design and run the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. The founding mandate of this summer school for artistically inclined teenagers was that the heads of each department should be accomplished artists in their fields apart from any academic credentials they may have accrued. I was the only department head without a college degree, and though I parted ways with CSSSA after five fascinating years, in the history of that still extant school I remain, as far as I know, the only non-degreed department head they ever had.

I had never taught creative writing when I took my one and only state job, nor had I ever taken a creative writing course. However, I had published novels with big New York publishers, written screenplays for big Hollywood movie companies, published dozens of short stories, and practiced writing for twenty years, so I was confident that practicing was the best way for people to learn to write. I hired teachers who had similar notions about training young writers, set up a schedule of twice-daily practice sessions for the month we’d be working with our mob of ambitious teenagers, and we got to work.

The first thing I discovered was that most people, even those who want to be writers, are reluctant to just sit down and write whatever comes to them. They need prompting. So I invented a bunch of exercises to trick people into writing without thinking too much about what they were writing. Thinking too much about what we are writing is a huge obstacle to maximal writing flow; thus all my exercises were designed to expeditiously circumvent the inner editors/critics/intellects and postpone their arrivals until it was time to rewrite. Analysis and criticism are premiere killers of creative flow, and analysis and criticism, alas, are fundamental to all MFA Creative Writing programs. My several dozens of exercises were compiled and published a decade ago in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path. Viable used copies of that out-of-print tome may be had for a fraction of a dollar each via the Interweb, and though I don’t make a dime from those sales, I highly recommend the book.

The second thing I discovered working with teens, and later with adults, is that nearly everyone in America is terrified of being punished or humiliated or rejected for writing anything substantive, but especially for writing deeply personal things. A week into my first stint at the summer school for the arts, a promising poet handed me her very first attempt at fictive prose and said, “I think maybe I trust you enough to show this to you.” I began to read her story, but a few sentences along she snatched the page away from me and cried, “You hate it!” and fled the room. The next day, finding her in a calmer mood, I asked what made her think I hated her writing, and she said, “Your nose twitched a little and you might have been about to grimace, so…”

Granted, hers was an extreme sensitivity, but I soon discovered that all my teenaged charges, and later all my adult workshop attendees, were nearly as sensitive and vulnerable as she about their maiden voyages in writing imaginatively. With this awareness, and recalling my own experiences of being pummeled by teachers for my flights of literary fancy, I cautioned my faculty that it was essential we ease very slowly into our roles of constructive critics, and that for the first several encounters with our students we should strive to be as uncritical as possible without resorting to phoniness. Eventually, once a modicum of trust and mutual respect is established, writers worth a damn will voluntarily ask for critical help with their work, though that criticism should never be about content, and only about the clarity and efficacy of the writing.

In the adult workshops I offered, in which we simply practiced my exercises designed to trick us into not thinking too much about what we were writing, I found it helpful to begin the course by letting anyone who wanted (which always turned out to be everyone) to testify about the abuse they and their writing had received throughout their lives, and how they had subsequently struggled to overcome the trauma of that abuse. Sometimes it was one particularly horrible teacher who had demolished them for something they’d written, but more often it was a pattern of punishment beginning in elementary school and continuing through college and into the work force and MFA programs that had alienated them from their own language. And yet they all still desperately wanted to express themselves through the written word.

Then I would share my experiences of being smashed by teachers and rejected by moronic editors and agents and publishers, and the commonality of our experiences created comradeship and sped the growth of trust among us.

The other sort of abuse experienced by many of these writers came from bestselling how-to-write books prescribing writing regimens of at least an hour a day, every day. But since for most beginning writers, scribbling for an hour at a stretch is the equivalent of running five miles the first time you try running, such dogmatic nonsense guarantees failure. Furthermore, any self-doubts a writer may have about his or her ability will be instantly ignited with the first inevitable missing of a day or running out of inspiration after twenty minutes, which happens all the time to the most experienced writers.

After the venting was over, I would proclaim, “In our time together, you do not have to share anything you write unless you want to; and criticism and analysis are verboten. If you want to criticize and analyze each other’s work, do it on your own time.”

I recently met a thirty-year-old man in his fifth year of an MFA program in Creative Writing at a prestigious California university. I would name the college, but I don’t wish to be sued. I said I had not heard of a five-year program for writing credentials short of a PhD. “Oh, it’s a two-year program, but I keep getting extensions,” he said blithely. “So I can keep getting student loans until I finish my novel.”

“So do you keep taking the same classes over and over again?” I asked, barely able to conceal my disdain.

“Oh, no more classes,” he said, shrugging. “Just, you know, occasional meetings with my mentor and…” He paused ominously. “…the classes I teach.”

“Excuse me? You’re teaching classes in the MFA program you’re enrolled in? But what are your qualifications?”

“Well, I’ve already taken the classes,” he said, nodding complacently. “And, like, they didn’t get so and so (published author) like they thought they were going to, so I filled in, and it worked out, so…”

Following my interview with this fellow, I did a bit of investigating and found that the practice of “upper level” MFA candidates teaching “lower level” candidates is ubiquitous throughout the accredited creative writing industry. Keep that in mind as tuitions soar.

“And just what do you do?” I asked this buffoon. “As a teacher?”

“I oversee, you know, the seminars. Lead the critiques. People bring in their stories or chapters, we all read them, and then we, like, critique and analyze them, and then they rework them. Oh, and I also teach the how-to-get-published seminars, too.”

“And how is one ultimately judged worthy of the MFA and the title Master?”

“We each have an advisory committee that evaluates our work, usually a collection of stories or a novel, and they see, you know, a couple drafts and then the final manuscript.”

“And these advisors are…”

“Oh, we had (names a well-known writer) on board two years ago, and almost everybody else has, you know, published something, and we might get (names another well-known writer) next year to teach an advanced workshop and be on a couple committees. Man, would I love to get his name on my résumé.”

“Tell me more about the how-to-get published sessions?”

“Oh, you know, we go over the nine steps to writing a successful query letter, the seven do’s and six don’ts of pitching ideas, the five sure-fire plot devices, the four ideal manuscript lengths, stuff like that.”

“And you learned all this from…”

“A guy one year ahead of me.”

“Have you had any luck selling anything?”

“Not so far. But I’m working on a teen vampire novel with the most amazing twist. I’m trying to sell the synopsis before someone else comes up with the same idea. Promise not to tell? The teen vampire turns out to be a consulting detective name Hercules Watson. Get the references?”

I got them, and then I murdered the guy and drove a wooden stake through his heart, but I’m not telling where he’s buried.

So if you or anyone you know is tempted to enroll in an MFA program in Creative Writing, or if you have a kid in college who wants to take a creative writing class, do anything you can to stop them. Tell them if they want to become good writers to read hundreds of short stories and novels by writers who have stood the test of time (at least fifty years) and to practice writing as often as they feel motivated to do so. Tell them to stop watching television or they can forget about having an original inspiration, and tell them to ask everyone they meet along their ways to tell them stories, and to prompt the tellers with questions, and to listen intently, and to take notes if they are so inclined. And tell them if they keep at their reading and listening and practicing, they will get better and better at writing down and rewriting what comes to them from a source transcendent of the intellect.

As for the five sure-fire plot devices, they are all contained in the following sentence. “God,” said the princess, “I’ve been raped, and I don’t know who did it. But I suspect a vampire.”

Audio versions of Todd’s novels are available from ITunes. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Categories
Uncategorized

Solar School

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

Mendocino has a spanking new elementary/junior high school on Little Lake Road about a mile inland from the village, and I am happy to report that her shiny blue metal rooftops are being covered with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. I was recently at the school shooting hoops on one of the three new outdoor basketball courts, fresh nets affixed to glossy orange rims, and as I huffed and puffed in humbling pursuit of my largely uncooperative basketball, valiant technicians were hard at work affixing the solar cells.

It was a sunny day, and in the absence of students or anyone else making use of the new school, I thrilled to imagine the school’s electric meters whirling in reverse as great currents of electricity flowed from the rooftops into the greater power grid. Such imagining made me happy in the face of the murderous gusher continuing to gush in the Gulf of Mexico. I am aware that solar power is not the ultimate answer to the woes of the world. I have read myriad articles by smart people explaining how electric cars are every bit as bad for the earth as gasoline powered cars. I have read even more articles by these same and other smart people explaining how renewable energy will never replace oil and that we are destined, rather soon, for a new Dark Age of lawlessness and mass starvation. But whenever I stopped to catch my breath from chasing my runaway basketball and saw those fellows affixing solar panels to the shiny blue roof, I felt twinges of hope.

When I was a young man I decided to try to make my living as a musician and a writer. I worked as a landscaper, a gardener, a janitor, a ditch digger, a farmhand, a day care worker, and at several other low-paying jobs. With whatever energy I had left at the end of each day, I practiced music and writing. And for ten years, every person I knew, including my best friends and many smart people, told me with absolute certainty, “You will never succeed as a writer or as a musician. Give it up.” And when I did succeed, these same absolutely certain people said, “I always knew you’d make it.”

Indeed, I have subsequently observed again and again that smart people are often very good at talking themselves and other people out of doing things by stating with absolute certainty that the thing in question cannot be achieved, and they know the thing cannot be achieved because they have the data to prove it. “Oh, so you put in a gray water system to water your garden and conserve water. Big deal. That won’t help. Corporations waste millions of gallons of water every minute. Your little gray water system won’t make a bit of difference. Ditto growing your own vegetables, driving less, having only one child instead of two, vacationing closer to home, carpooling, turning off lights, lowering the thermostat, or cooking your meals with a solar cooker. Won’t help. Don’t bother.”

Alternative energy? Why it takes so much energy to mine the materials for solar cells, to manufacture the cells, package them, ship them, you might as well drive an old Chevy Impala from here to New York and back and stay in air-conditioned motels along the way. Replace oil and coal consumption with wind power and solar power? You gotta be kidding. Can’t happen. Look right here. These are the numbers. Can’t happen. Get ready to subsist on turnips if you’re lucky and huddle in caves and fight off hordes of starving cannibals until you die a premature death.

But I look up at those guys on the blue roof and I can practically hear the electricity being made out of sunlight. Gushers of electricity. I see herb gardens surrounding this new solar school, and fields of tomatoes and squash and potatoes growing where they’re currently gouging out a soccer field. I see these commodious classrooms being used by people who walk here or ride here in electric shuttle buses or come on horses or on bicycles, and I see these people learning from each other, sharing ideas and books and tools, playing music, quilting, weaving, carving, building, making food, feeding each other, and caring for each other.

I don’t think even the smartest prognosticator can predict what humans might do if we allow ourselves to be guided by our creative instincts rather than the analysis of dubious data about things having little or nothing to do with the countless things each of us might do separately and together.

That said, I do think the idea of bio-fuels is horrific on any scale larger than a backyard still, and when I hear about hundreds of thousands of people planning to gather on beaches around the world to protest offshore drilling, my first thought is, “Yes, but how will they GET to the beaches? Because if they’re driving cars, I’m not buying it.” And I agree there is a powerful denial-of-reality mantra etched into our media-warped minds that intones: They (whoever they are) will surely figure something out to solve the crises of energy and food and pollution and over-population and crime and environmental degradation and global warming and the extinction of whales and salmon and krill and phytoplankton so we can go on our merry way living high on the hog, so to speak.

But our collective denial of reality scares me far less than the growing insistence by so many smart people that there is nothing we can do, collectively or individually, that will make any positive difference to the degradation of the planet and society and the future. And I sincerely wish all these smart future prognosticators would spend more time trying to imagine and test new ways to groove efficaciously with the earth, and spend much less time explicating and arguing ad nauseum that nothing we do will make any difference, because I’m enthralled with those solar panels on the blue roof and visions of electric meters whirling backwards; and if I hear one more smart person look up at those solar panels, figuratively speaking, and say, “Won’t help, don’t bother,” I’ll throw my basketball at him. Odds are I won’t hit him, but that will be my intention.

No doubt my years of living in communes informs my impatience with those who pronounce with such certainty that the actions of individuals can’t possibly ameliorate the horrific disasters perpetrated by the likes of BP and the Pentagon and all the other rapacious forces of evil in the world. Had I not proven to myself that I could live happily with few things, and subsequently experienced a quantum improvement in my quality of life as I spent less and less money and used less and less energy as a result of my immersion in small-scale socialism, I, too, might believe that peak oil sounds the death knell for a comfy way of life. Had I not grown, with relatively little difficulty, much of the delicious food I and fifteen other people needed to survive, I, too, might believe that only misery and drudgery and premature death lie ahead. But I don’t think the transition from a greed-based society to socialism will be bad. I think the change will be difficult but ultimately marvelous.

Yes, it may turn out that Things In General will continue to go from bad to worse, and lawlessness and deprivation will soon engulf us all. But Things In General are, for the most part, so stupid and wrong and broken they ought to crash and burn and leave ashes to fertilize the new and very different system we put in place of the old general things. When I read descriptions of how the Mendocino County Supervisors are presiding over the steep decline and inevitable fall of our local basic services, I find their collective myopia and inaction highly instructive. They reveal themselves to be inmates of the larger state and national institutions that would rather take things away from the weak and defenseless than raise taxes on the wealthy. Their stupidity would be comical if the effects were not so terrible for those least able to protect themselves. The obvious solution is standing right in front of our duly elected officials, a perfect hero of a solution named Equality, except our benighted leaders cannot see her, for she wears the cloak of socialism, and socialism is taboo. But I digress.

What I’m suggesting is that there are many ways already known to us that will help spin the meters backwards, and many more ways we have yet to imagine and design and try out. Just because all these smart people have decided things are going to turn out a certain way doesn’t mean things will turn out that certain way or that we should cease our efforts to figure out ways to live less destructively on the earth. Smart people only know what they think they know. And not one of them knows some of the things you know.

We are only doomed to a disastrous future if we buy into those guesses of disaster (and that’s all they are, guesses) and forget that we, individually and collectively, are limitlessly creative. And I predict that if enough of us make it our daily practice to give some of our time for the greater good, however we imagine doing so, all heaven will break loose.

For some reason, Todd is in an optimistic mood this week. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Presence of Absence

(This piece originally appeared in the AVA June 2010)

Thursday in the village of Mendocino is the day the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) arrives in our post office boxes and at the liquor store (should we need extra copies.) Now and then the AVA is delayed for a day and arrives on Friday. But this week, the AVA did not come at all. I inquired of my heroes at the post office, but they had not seen hide nor hair of the goodly rag. And though I knew the liquor store is supplied via the mails, too, I nevertheless went thither in the vain hope that a batch had been brought by pony express or valiant pickup from the inland empire to our coastal enclave.

The liquor store in our hamlet is a living foreign movie. No matter how many times I go in there, I have the feeling something important is missing. There is an empty feeling about the place, as if the proprietors are just moving in or just moving out. The lighting is strange and forlorn and bathes everything in a pale yellow light. My friendly greetings invariably fall into a bottomless chasm of ennui, and in thirty tries I have never once elicited a smile from the fellow at the cash register. Perhaps he is hardened by years of dealing with drunks. I don’t know. I don’t buy anything there except the AVA, and maybe this bugs him. In any case, they didn’t have any AVAs and I was apparently not the first person to inquire.

Certainly one of the great appeals of the AVA to me is that I often have something published therein. Discovering that I am once again in the goodly rag never fails to impart a momentary thrill, a sense of well-being, a revivifying and inspiring validation that I did not waste however many hours I spent writing whatever I wrote. I never know in advance if my pieces will run. The editors are not in the habit of telling me, possibly because they don’t know themselves until the very last minute before they put the paper to bed, and perhaps not even then.

No, the only way to find out if I’m in the AVA is to look through her pages. Now and then I will land an essay on the front page (mazel tov!) but more often than not my pieces are tucked away in the cozy confines of the middle. In truth, I don’t care where they land, just so they do. Land.

Those weeks when I do not appear (assuming I’ve submitted something before the deadline) I invariably experience a brief emotional downturn. I want to make it clear (to myself if no one else) that this downturn has much less to do with my absence from the pages of the AVA than it does with the absence of my books from the bookstores of America, the lack of reviews of my books in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the towering indifference of the great big world to the creations of little old me. So when I am not in the AVA, it merely ignites a feeling, for just a moment or two, that I am truly nowhere, that there is no place for my words, that I am, metaphorically speaking, clinging to a leaking dinghy in a storm tossed sea, etc.

Germaine to this sense of not being anywhere, I’ve been enjoying of late a marvelous book of poems entitled I Hear My Gate Slam, Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting, translated by Taylor Stoehr. These poems, written by a handful of poets thirteen centuries ago, have survived because they are very good poems and because they speak compellingly of human emotions immune to the so-called advance of culture and technology: love, loss, longing, death. And there are two wonderful little essays at the end of the volume written by the author, one on the art of translation, the other about how the friendship among these poets inspired many of their poems. Stoehr writes, “They often wrote poems borrowing, imitating, or otherwise reflecting each other’s work.”

So as I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping black tea and stewing about the absence of the AVA, and therefore not knowing if I was absent or present therein, I came across this passage from Stoehr’s Afterword: Translating Classical Chinese Poetry that seemed to be reflecting my very thoughts. “The bereft poet is constantly in the presence of absence—an empty place at the family table, an empty bed—so that the ache of loss seems never to go away. I want to call this ‘the presence of the absence’—absent friends and loved ones hovering in the imagination.”

Now there is a grandiloquent expression. The presence of absence. And that is how it feels when there is no AVA in our post office box, no AVA at the liquor store, no AVA on the kitchen table, no fresh gossip to chew on, no fellow writers to jiggle our cognitive synapses in ways the electronic digits will never jiggle them. There is an unexpected vacancy of that certain sensibility that is the sum of Bruce and Mark and their collective writing and winnowing of the incoming verbiage of latter day exiled poets. For all poets are exiles inhabiting a terrain defined by a perpetual presence of all manner and variety of absences. That is why poets write their poems, and why we prose writers toil to put our thoughts and feelings into words. To bring light and sound and feeling to the void or the chaos or the darkness or the presence of the absence.

Then, too, the presence of absence begs to be modified to the presents of absence, presents suggesting gifts. The gifts of absence. And what might those gifts be? Well…

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain, his brief and famous preface concluding, “It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing could be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.” Despite Twain’s disclaimer, there are many moments in the course of his narrative when he is clearly constraining himself because he is, in fact, not yet dead as he dictates this last great work.

The most shocking to me of Twain’s constrained moments comes when he declares his direct responsibility for the death of his firstborn child, his only son. Though verbose about every other matter, large and small, Twain speaks of his most terrible crime for but one terse paragraph.

“Our first child, Langdon Clemens, was born the 7th of November, 1870, and lived twenty-two months. I was the cause of the child’s illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him for a long drive in an open barouche for an airing. It was a raw, cold morning but he was well wrapped about with furs and, in the hands of a careful person, no harm would have come to him. But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs. By and by the coachman noticed this and I arranged the wraps again, but it was too late. The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast at what I had done and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now.”

Twain never makes another mention of this event or of this child, though he later goes on for dozens of pages attacking and excoriating Brett Harte for what Twain describes as hideous amoral narcissism and monstrous neglect of wife and children. Yet for my entire reading of this powerful memoir, I could not get Twain’s confession of murdering his son out of my mind. Indeed, it strikes me as the truest paragraph in the entire book, constrained as it may be, for it is free of the artifice of cleverness. And I can’t help thinking that the death of his son informed everything he ever wrote thereafter; indeed, that Twain’s greatness, his profound sympathy for the poor and downtrodden that illuminates his finest works, that powerful presence of absence, sprang from his terrible trial that would never end until his own death.

Which brings me back to the presence of the absence of the AVA, which I think of as a very Twainian sort of paper, the kind of paper Twain first wrote for, the kind of paper that is not constrained by anything but the whims of her editors, both of whom strike me as having little fear of death, which the Buddha said is the fear that underlies all fears. And in the absence of the presence of fear, these editors are free to improvise, which is the mother of originality. And the present of her absence in my life this week is this essay, which may or may not make it into her pages. I’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Categories
Uncategorized

Woody Polanski

(This essay originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser)

For most of my life it has been my habit (one might even call it a duty) to write letters to artists and authors I admire. I wrote my first fan letter when I was seven years old, the intended recipient Willie Mays. Shortly thereafter I wrote to Will James, the author of Smoky the Cow Horse. Will James was long dead when I wrote to him, but I had yet to learn that authors of books could be dead. When I was seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-two, I wrote long impassioned letters to the playwright Arthur Miller asking if he would take me on as his apprentice. He did not write back. Indeed, most of my letters to writers, directors, artists, and musicians have failed to elicit responses; so now when I write such letters, I expect no replies.

On the other hand, in the course of my own forty-year career as an author and musician, I have received a few dozen letters from people responding to my creations, including much-appreciated missives from readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. And it is inconceivable to me that I would not write back to someone who has taken the time to write to me. Then again, I am not, as the famous must be, inundated with fan mail, so I suppose I should not judge the Great Ones as I judge myself. Except…

British artists and artists from the Commonwealth nations, no matter how famous and busy, almost always respond to my letters, albeit tersely. I attribute this to the British tradition of teaching their young to answer their mail. Among my prizes are a letter from the film director Jane Campion, a note from the actor and director Kenneth Branagh (dictated to his secretary), and a card from the director Nicolas Roeg.

Poets, too, eventually write back, but even moderately famous Americans of other disciplines generally do not. And once in a great while I make a connection with an admired artist that produces a lively correspondence.

Which brings me to Woody Allen. I was a zealous fan from 1965 to 1984, from my teenage years into my thirties, and I continued to attend Woody’s movies until 1995, hoping against hope he would make another good film. I wrote him several letters over the years, none of which he answered. As a young writer, I had been heartened by his leap from clunky sophomoric comedies to carefully crafted comic dramas, and I identified strongly with his evolution as an artist until, to my mind, he ceased to evolve circa 1984. In my final letter to Woody, written in 1993, I suggested he stop making movies for a few years and get a job in a grocery store, or move to Canada and work as a house painter, or get a gig on a fishing boat in Alaska. He was, I felt, not just repeating himself ad nauseam, but missing the chance to transcend the mediocrity inherent to his redundancy.

This redundancy has largely to do with Woody’s obsession with women much younger than he and his concomitant fear of mature women. Woody is now seventy-five, and the younger women in his movies are no longer teeny boppers but starlets in their twenties and thirties. When Woody was thirty-four he made the movie Manhattan in which he proclaimed his preference for docile, naïve, submissive fifteen-year old girls to women his own age. And thereafter, in movie after movie, Woody or his surrogate chooses much younger women over older women because, well…Woody can’t help himself.

If Woody had explored this paramount male obsession in depth rather than length, or if he had varied his story lines and given his female characters complex (i.e. authentic) personalities, or if his movies had continued to evolve as visual works of art, I might have been able to hang with his redundancy of theme. After all, a single overriding obsession drives the work of many great artists. But Woody’s tragedy is that circa 1990 he abruptly and completely lost his finer capabilities as a writer and a director. In seeming desperation (delusion?) he fully regressed to his beginnings as a perennial adolescent lusting after pulchritudinous gals who weren’t exactly bimbos, but were never sharp enough to resist the likes of Woody, a wealthy influential movie director.

Allen’s greatest film, in my opinion, is Stardust Memories, a film he made in 1980 in which he examines his life and motivations more honestly and openly than in any other of his films, and in which he plays a real self, as opposed to his usual self-caricature. His other standout performance is in Broadway Danny Rose, wherein he proves himself capable of superb acting at the expense of his usual schlemiel shtick. In Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, Woody involves himself with women his own age who are not obviously types, and both films suggested to me that Woody was on his way to even greater cinematic creations. Sadly, these were two of his rare box office failures, which apparently scared him away from originality in deference to making money. Oh, well.

Fast forward to the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where Woody was on hand to tout his latest movie. And though I long ago ceased to watch his self-aggrandizing voyeuristic flicks, I was fascinated by Woody’s willingness to weigh in on the question of whether Roman Polanski should or shouldn’t be extradited to California for raping a thirteen-year old girl. Woody opined, and I paraphrase, “They should leave Polanski alone. He’s suffered enough.” Suffered? Since when is living like an emperor in a French chalet for twenty years and making big budget movies considered suffering?

And I couldn’t help thinking, “Hold on here, Woody. You married your adopted daughter forty years your junior, having seduced her when she was a teenager under the not-so-watchful eyes of your then wife Mia Farrow, and we’re supposed to give even a whiff of credence to what you think about anything, let alone sexual abuse of a minor?

To be fair, Woody is not, so far as we know, a serial rapist as Polanski is reputed to be, but Woody clearly identifies with the diminutive Polish director. Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with liking beautiful young women or making a movie or two about liking them. I have no doubt that liking attractive young females is burned into the genetic code of the vast majority of male humans, and was burned there to insure the continuance of our species. The problem, and it’s a gigantic world-threatening problem, is that the genetic command to mate with every fertile young woman we can possibly mate with came about over millions of years of evolution during which individual humanoids rarely lived much beyond their teens, and the survival of our widespread little bands was an extremely iffy proposition.

What we need in this time of earth-killing overpopulation is not the glorification of perpetual adolescence, but the glorification of mature love, instinctive generosity, and collective creativity. And I think Woody was heading in that direction when he blew a main fuse. Oh, if only he’d answered my letters. We might have been friends and I could have encouraged him to continue his explorations of those deeper waters where every artist worth his or her salt needs to go.

In any case, here is what I propose for Polanski and Woody. They should be exiled from their places of privilege and given low-paying jobs in working class neighborhoods in Chicago and Cleveland, live in studio apartments, only be allowed to date women their own age, and after a few years of scrabbling for rent money and waiting in line for healthcare and serving the needs of other people, they be allowed to make movies again.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Categories
Uncategorized

Enough Already

(This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2010)

Many of us traveling into late middle age have by now laid our parents to rest and/or moved them in with us or into transitional facilities. In so doing we have come face-to-face with the detritus of their lifetimes, and having disposed of their stuff (or, heaven forbid, added their stuff to our stuff) we are seized with new ambitions: to downsize and streamline and free ourselves of the burden of so many things we used to think we couldn’t live without. We have learned again what we already knew: things, cumulatively speaking, are a pain in the ass.

Carl Jung in his old age was convinced that all things, including pots and pans and knives and books and shoes and stones, were animate entities and demanded our attention and energy. It is said that when the elder Carl entered his kitchen he would politely greet the knives and pans and forks, and ask them to be kind to him so he might successfully brew his tea and scramble his eggs. He was convinced that by acknowledging the aliveness of these allies they would be less likely to jump from his hands or fall to the floor. Thus his cooking would be a delight rather than a danger.

Indigenous North Americans, dubbed Indians by their irrational conquerors, believed, as Jung did, that spirit animated all things. Stones, water, wind, trees, stars, clouds, and fire were alive, so it was common practice (not crazy) for a person to address a tree or a rock or the sky as brother or sister or friend. Would we want to possess and keep captive hundreds and thousands of things if we felt each was our relation and possessed a soul? I doubt it.

When my mother began her Alzheimer’s adventure, she developed a grave concern about her things. How did they get here? What were they called? And what were they for? I would soon learn that Alzheimerians cannot learn. They only unlearn. But before I gained this awareness, I would patiently explain to my mother that she had bought the things called bowls and books and vases, and they were for putting things in or for reading or for holding flowers. She would nod, see another thing, frown, and ask, “What’s that?”

“That is a teapot?”

“How did it get there?”

“You put it there.”

“Why?”

“Well, because it looks nice there and you can reach it easily when you want tea?”

“But I don’t want tea. I want coffee.”

“Fine. I’ll make some.”

My father was a pack rat of psychotic dimensions. I theorize his junk was the main thing that drove my mother crazy, along with his incessant cruelty. Long before the onset of her Alzheimer’s, my mother would go into rages about the ever growing stacks of magazines and newspapers and junk mail and just plain junk, none of which my father would allow her to throw away. For some years he collected electric motors, though he never did anything with them. When I cleaned out his garage the year before he died, I found fifty-seven little electric motors in various stages of disintegration, thousands of rotting magazines, and over five thousand books, none of which had been looked at in decades.

My father went off to work every day and left my mother alone in a big house full of useless junk. When she would leave the house to visit friends or shop or do volunteer work, or for the ten years she practiced law, she was an entirely different person than the person she was in her dysfunctional house. I’m talking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde different. Away from the massive jumble of things she was brilliant, competent, funny, and happy. Then she’d come home and become helpless, befuddled, humorless, and miserable.

And isn’t it true, as Perry Mason liked to say, that when you get away from your accumulated things you feel lighter and, dare I say, happier? Why are vacations so refreshing? Certainly because we’re seeing new sights, breathing new air, and breaking free of ossified behavior patterns; but I contend we feel most refreshed because we are free of those myriad animate things, each demanding a share of our psychic energy.

Reading interviews with people who lost their homes and possessions in the Oakland firestorm of 1991 in which nearly four thousand homes were destroyed, I was amazed to discover that after their initial shock wore off, many of the survivors said they were greatly relieved to be free of their accumulated stuff and to be “getting a fresh start.” Which reminds me of cost analyses proving the average American spends a much larger portion of her income providing life support for her things than for herself.

When my first marriage ended, I went from being a home-owning car-owning person to being a room-renting bicyclist pedestrian, and I felt, literally, fifty thousand pounds lighter. Some of this lightness came from escaping an unhappy emotional life, but some of it was unquestionably the result of being freed from the psychic responsibility for a house and a car and the ten thousand attendant things.

My Jewish grandmother, poor from birth until thirty, wealthy from thirty to sixty, and poor again until she died at eighty, told me she was happiest when singing or reading poetry, no matter her financial state. And it is from that perspective I prefer to judge the current economic collapse: the failure of a thing-based economic and social order, but not necessarily the end of happiness.

The mainstream pundits and politicos and economic puppeteers keep telling us that the much-ballyhooed (but essentially non-existent) recovery is mere moments away if only people will resume buying things they don’t need. Never mind that all fifty states are bankrupt and their citizenry bankrupt with them, people have got to roll up their sleeves and start stimulating the economy. Come on! What are you waiting for? A job? Money? Yet despite historically low interest rates, people are saving money as never before, if they have any money to save. People are driving less, shopping less, and needing less than they used to think they needed.

So wouldn’t it be great if this meltdown turns out not to be a meltdown, but a turning point, an awakening? The death of the parent equals the death of the old economic paradigm. In cleaning up the parental junk, we come to terms with the futility of hanging on to huge piles of stuff. In picking up and reforming the economic pieces, we leave out the making and getting of piles of junk. If we aspire to possess anything, it will be a few high quality things we lovingly care for as opposed to crap we stack up and eventually throw away or leave to our children to throw away for us.

I know. I’m waxing utopia here, but maybe, just maybe, there are good times ahead and they won’t look anything like the previous good times but rather more elegant and spacious and egalitarian. There will be less judging people by what they own and more celebrating people for how uniquely they jitterbug, how kind they are, and how fun they are to hang out with.

Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.