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Whoopsie Doopsie

Drawing by Todd

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

“The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.” Henry Miller

A couple years ago I created a catchy blues tune entitled Whoopsie Doopsie, and after I performed the song to the apparent delight of my wife Marcia, I thought I might make a recording of the tune and see how the world liked it. I wrote a note to myself—Whoopsie Doopsie Project—and put the note in the center of my just-cleaned desk, thereby establishing a new bottom layer for the accumulation of papers and books and drawings and letters and bills that would inevitably grow into a high plateau of dysfunction until, in a fit of frustration, I abstained from eating and drinking for several hours until the mess was properly expelled.

Thus time and again over these many months, I worked my way down to a little yellow square of paper on which was writ Whoopsie Doopsie Project, a trio of words that sent me to the piano to bang out the latest rendition, after which I would say to myself, “Yes, I really should record that and see what the world thinks of it.” Then the tides of time and paper would rush in again and submerge the note, and the project would largely vanish from my consciousness, except on rainy mornings when I was practicing the piano, at which times I might essay a version or two of the pleasing apparition.

Feeling especially sad one such rainy morning, I played a very slow Whoopsie Doopsie, and the sweet little love song became dark and plaintive; and I appreciated the song in my bones rather than with my sense of humor. And that very night we went to a dinner party at which the hostess asked me to play, and Marcia suggested I premiere Whoopsie Doopsie for the public, as it were. So I performed a rather timid version of the tune, the piano unfamiliar to me, and everyone in the audience said I must bring out a recording of the song—everyone being four people.

Here are the lyrics, in their entirety, of Whoopsie Doopsie.

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Whoopsie daisy, I’m in love with you

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Tell me how you like it,

Tell me what to do

Wanna make you happy

When we’re making whoopsie do

The last line is a not-so-subtle tribute to Ray Charles. As you can see, we’re not talking about great art here. However, we are talking about the artistic process, which I find fascinating and difficult to write about. The difficulty in writing about creative processes, for me, lies in the non-verbal nature of those processes through which original art and original concepts emerge and evolve and are ultimately captured so others may experience those creations. Since there are no words for that which is wordless, the best one can hope for in describing such wordless processes are faint approximations. And the other large challenge for me in writing about making art is to ignore the nagging feeling that I am describing a process that almost always results in mediocrity or crap, otherwise known as failure.

“There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

On the other hand, many great teachers, Buckminster Fuller among them, espouse the idea that there are no failures in the inventive process, that everything we do is a valuable part of the continuum of experience. Failure, these wise ones suggest, might more usefully be understood as a necessary step along the way to discovery and fruition. Two of my favorite quotes about this idea, referring specifically to musical improvisation and composition, are from Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Miles said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” And Bill said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. I think of all harmony as an expansion and return to the tonic.”

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

My favorite composer of classical music is Felix Mendelssohn. Why? Hard to say, for love is as ineffable as creativity. Maybe his use of complex harmonies resonates especially well with my chakras. Maybe the brilliant confluences of his polyrhythms synch perfectly with my inner groove. I don’t know. In any case, I dig the cat. So a few years ago our very own Symphony of the Redwoods performed Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and after hearing Marcia practice the cello parts for several weeks, and then being enthralled by the marvelous local rendition, I got out my Mendelssohn books to read about the Italian Symphony.

In Conrad Wilson’s Notes on Mendelssohn, to my great interest, I found that though the Italian Symphony was an instant and enormous success (the composer conducted the world premiere in London in 1833 at the ripe old age of twenty-three), Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the composition and immediately after its premiere set about “changing the coloring of the andante, adding fresh touches of poetry to the third movement, and considerably extending the finale.” Yet despite Mendelssohn’s great fame, “his revision remained unperformed for a century and a half, and has only recently been issued in a performing version upon which most conductors are turning deaf ears.” I rushed to get one of the few extant recordings of the revised symphony (not readily available in the United States, but gettable from England) and to my ears the revised version is vastly superior to the original.

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Oscar Wilde

With the help of Peter Temple, I have made two solo piano CDs in these last year two years: Ceremonies and 43 short Piano Improvisations. While working on those albums I was forever being seduced by a particularly alluring chord pattern I would improvise on for hours at a time; yet only one diminutive piece born of that pattern was strong enough to include on 43 short Piano Improvisations. However, I continued to be enamored of that pattern and felt that one day I might succeed in recording a few longer takes of what I call Mystery Inventions.

Meanwhile, the Whoopsie Doopsie Project was bubbling away on a back burner; and verily it came to pass (driving to town one day, singing nonsense songs to the clickety-clack of our old truck on a country road) that a new and very different version of Whoopsie Doopsie escaped my lips and catalyzed an epiphany: why not make an album composed of several different interpretations of Whoopsie Doopsie, and throw in a Mystery Invention or two, too?

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

As of this writing (early October 2011) the Whoopsie Doopsie recording project has been seriously (or at least continuously) underway for a month, and save for a slightly menacing a cappella version of Whoopsie Doopsie that came to me in the absence of a piano, nothing is turning out as I imagined anything would. Indeed, I would say the Whoopsie Doopsie Project is currently in creative free fall, and I am not surprised. The song that inspired this undertaking becomes less and less significant with every new Mystery Invention we capture, and new tunes audition daily as I chop wood and plant garlic and pick apples and make spaghetti sauce. Old tunes, too, long neglected, saunter out of the woods, tap me on the shoulder, and sing, “Hey, what about a revised version of me?”

The floodgates have opened. Mazel tov! So long as I don’t panic and attempt to control the flow too soon or too restrictively, there’s no telling what might come pouring out of that mystery reservoir I am convinced was once a river free of dams.

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Young Pot Moms

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

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Kings and Presidents

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Divine right of kings means the divine right of anyone who can get uppermost.” Herbert Spencer

I just finished reading an excellent book by British historian Derek Wilson: A Brief History of Henry VIII, 386 pages of densely informative prose that is certainly not brief by American standards. I do not often read history, but I’m glad I read this book because it illuminates much of what’s going on in the world today. But before I tell you a little more about Henry VIII and why his story reminds me so much of George H. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and innumerable bullies and louts responsible for the ruination of our local, national, and global societies, I thought you might enjoy knowing how I came to be interested in Henry VIII.

“Kings are in the moral order what monsters are in the natural.” Henri Gregoire

Several years ago, I wrote a play about a history professor who has a nervous breakdown that features visitations from Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter. When I came out of my trance and found that the rough draft contained a goodly amount of Queen Elizabeth data, I thought it prudent to run a fact-check on my muse and see if she knew what she was talking about. So I read two biographies of Elizabeth and was pleased and mystified to find that the information in my play did, indeed, jibe with those historical records.

If this sort of precognition seems implausible or impossible to you, well, so be it. I had never read or seen anything about Queen Elizabeth prior to writing the play. I only knew she was not the same Queen Elizabeth of my childhood who was forever appearing in National Geographics watching African warriors and soldiers dancing and marching in her honor. Twenty years ago, I wrote a novel (not yet published) in which the protagonist, a pianist and piano teacher, knows a great deal about the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn, all of which was news to me. Shortly thereafter I bought my first recordings of Mendelssohn’s music, which I loved, and I read two Mendelssohn biographies to make sure the references in my novel were accurate, which they were.

How do I explain this sort of thing? Well, if you’ve ever been struck hard and completely out-of-the-blue by thoughts of a friend you haven’t heard from in years, and then the phone rings, and you pick up the phone, and it is that very friend, or if you’ve ever for-no-reason-in-particular decided to turn right instead of turning left as you have always turned a million times before, and because you turned right instead of the usual left you saw something that cleared up a mystery or changed the course of your life, then maybe what I’m about to say will make some sense to you.

Jung spoke of a collective unconscious wherein the cumulative experience of humanity resides and may be accessed by individuals, usually through symbolic dreams. In more modern terms, perhaps there is some sort of psychic internet, if you will, from which surprising and informative responses to our thoughts and desires may come, causing us to do things or create things we might otherwise not have created or done. Or maybe I have supra-phenomenal hearing I’m unaware of and without knowing it I listened to long and learned lectures about Mendelssohn and Queen Elizabeth emanating from UC Berkeley five miles from my house. I don’t know.

In any case, when I saw A Brief History of Henry VIII advertised in the Daedalus remainder catalogue for only five bucks, and wondering if there might be any new revelations therein about Elizabeth, I decided to give the book a try.

“If you’re asking me as President, would I understand reality, I do.” George W. Bush

Henry VIII became king when he was a teenager. George W. Bush became President of the United States and might as well have been a teenager, and not a bright one. Henry let other people run the country while he hunted and jousted and partied. George W. let other people run the country while he, I don’t know, watched television? They both had rotten fathers who thought their sons stupid. They both presided over ill-fated military adventures and appeared at staged victory celebrations—George W. emerging from a jet on an aircraft carrier, Henry arriving in a conquered French city wearing armor. The big differences seem to be that George W. only presided over the ruination of his country and the world for eight years, while Henry ruined England and France and Scotland for almost forty years, George W. wasn’t obsessed about producing a male heir and Henry was, and Henry founded the Anglican Church, had scads of wives, and was apparently lousy in bed, whereas George W. had only one wife and founded no church.

“Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings.” Frederick the Great

One of my favorite books is The Prince and the Pauper, which is ostensibly, fictionally, about Henry VIII’s son. Interesting note: when I tell people The Prince and the Pauper is among my favorite books, I usually get one of three responses. 1. Dickens? 2. The children’s book? 3. Never read it. When I tell these respondents that The Prince and the Pauper was written by Mark Twain, that only smart and imaginative children will enjoy it, that I think the book is Twain’s most beautifully written work, and that I’ve read it five times, my respondents are invariably surprised.

Twain vividly portrays with fiction, and Derek Wilson shows with meticulous biography, that not only does Might Make Right, but once Might has established an entrenched bureaucracy and controls all the money and weapons and commerce of a nation or a world, then absolute nincompoops can be made kings (or presidents) and the monstrous pyramid will lurch along for decades before finally collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and stupidity.

In The Prince and the Pauper, which, by the way, is great fun to read aloud with your mate or children or friends, a pauper (who happens to be physically identical down to his eyebrows to the heir to the English throne, and who learned to mimic courtly speech and manners as a means of escaping, at least in his mind, the violence and grossness of grinding poverty and an abusive father) quite accidentally switches places with the boy who would be king, and the would-be king becomes a pauper in the manner of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Once the switch is made, the rulers of the entrenched bureaucracy conclude that the prince has gone mad rather than been replaced, and when they report their finding to Twain’s brilliantly drawn fictional Henry VIII, the king, who is dying, orders that the prince’s madness be tolerated and ignored, and that anyone spreading news of Edward’s distemper outside the castle will be summarily executed for treason. And that, from what I gather from Wilson’s biography, would have been just like Henry.

O, what a tangled web we weave;

When first we practice to deceive! Sir Walter Scott

Lying is the primary method of rule by an oligarchy masquerading as a monarchy or as a democracy with a congress and president. I am thinking specifically of what is going on right now at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan, and how we, the people, are being lied to so egregiously it would be laughable except the powers-that-be, so far, are getting away with their lies and what they are lying about is the ruination of an entire nation if not a larger part of the entire world.

So why did Henry VIII lie as a way of life? Why did Bill Clinton lie with every breath he took? Why does Barack Obama lie with such maddening frequency? And how did these guys get so good at lying? My hunch is that they each developed a false persona early in life in order to survive a childhood that did not permit honesty, either self-honesty or honesty to others, and these false personas served them so well that they became, Henry and Bill and Barack, thoroughly false.

Of equal importance, of course, is why we, the people, so readily believe the lies of our lying overlords and keep electing and/or not overthrowing these monsters? After painful consideration of my own enduring gullibility, I think we believe our lying overlords (at least enough not to revolt) because the entrenched bureaucracy, by successfully controlling our religion, our media, and our education, has instilled in us from cradle to grave a foundational mythology of lies with which their current lies resonate as entirely plausible.

“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Aristotle

Regarding Fukushima, the foundational mythology says that the corporations that build nuclear power plants are inherently good. General Electric, after all, is synonymous with light bulb, and who doesn’t love a light bulb? Thus it is inconceivable to a well-indoctrinated citizenry that those who give us light and electricity to run our computers and play our video games would ever build a power plant that might turn Japan into an uninhabitable wasteland for centuries to come. Who wants to believe that? No one. And the puppeteers of king and president puppets know we don’t want to believe what may very well be true. So they say things like, “We are rigorously monitoring the situation, and we are confident the situation will be stabilized relatively soon and that negative impacts on the environment will be minimal,” when the truth is just the opposite.

Here’s a little tidbit I snatched from Reuters that sheds a tiny light of truth on what’s going on at Fukushima. “In its attempt to bring the plant under control, TEPCO is looking for “jumpers”—workers who, for payment of up to $5,000 a shift, will rush into highly radioactive areas to do a quick task before racing out as quickly as possible.” See? Clearly they’ve got things under control. And if you need some quick cash…

“Compassion is the basis of all morality.” Arthur Schopenhauer

In The Prince and the Pauper, while the pauper is fast learning to play the part of a prince, the real prince, who had yet to solidify his false persona, is learning firsthand what life among the downtrodden is really like. And ultimately he learns what it is to sacrifice one’s self for the good of others; which is the quantum opposite of what kings and presidents learn to do. Alas.

If only Obama and Bush and Clinton would each take a turn or two as “jumpers” at Fukushima. Maybe then we would finally see the beginning of the end to the nuclear madness.