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Outage

Django In Dark

Todd and Django In the Dark photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” Robert Heinlein

The power was out in our neck of the Mendocino woods for nearly five days last week. Can we blame PG&E? I do. With the money they’ve stolen charging millions of people ten dollars a month not to have stupid, er, smart meters, combined with the billions of dollars they spend annually responding to multi-day power outages all over the state, they could easily have afforded by now to bury all their power lines and be done with outages forever. But that’s not how monopoly capitalism works.

“Knowledge is power.” Francis Bacon

Marcia, prescient wonder that she is, long ago chose the first four of those five days of outage to go jaunting to Santa Rosa to visit her mother Opal, indulge in cuisine not to be had hereabouts, shop for things unavailable in these hinterlands, take a workshop on musical improvisation from Joe Craven in Ukiah, catch Joel Cohen starring on cello with the Ukiah Symphony, and visit various far flung friends—leaving me in the dark with the cat.

Marcia returned for the final twenty-four hours of outage and made the best of the absence of electronic distractions—email, Internet, lights, hot water—to clean her office. Intimidated by her sensible approach to our altered circumstances, I decided to clean my office, too.

Attacking a mountain (no exaggeration) of paper on one of my tabletops, the mountain wedged between a large round rock (who put that there?) and a large glass former peanut butter jar crammed with dubious pens (where did those come from?) I found most of the mountain made of material sent to me by insurance companies urging me to buy Medigap insurance from them, and several hundred more pages of material sent by various government agencies to help me make sense of the material sent by the insurance companies—further proof of why Single Payer (socialist) Healthcare would be such a better way to go.

“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” Edmund Burke

Weary of office excavating, I ventured out into our storm-ravaged yard and discovered a large redwood branch had fallen from on high and seriously compromised a stretch of our deer fence, while another much bigger branch had torn off a chunk of our woodshed roof. Not good. On the brighter side, a large section of old wooden fence bordering the western edge of our property had been blown to smithereens by the tempest, something I’ve wanted to do since we moved here.

As I cleaned up the fence fragments, our neighbor, a chain saw savant, came over to see if we needed his services (we often do) but this time, miraculously, we did not. I spent another hour clearing the driveway of fence shards and tree branches, then suffered an energy outage and went inside to take a nap by the fire.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

I was just drifting off to sleep when Marcia reported that a friendly recorded woman at the PG&E outage number said the outage would either be over by midnight or there would be a new guesstimate at midnight of the duration of the outage. Marcia then suggested we cook supper (on our woodstove) before it got too dark.

I’d been cooking on the woodstove (we also heat our house with wood) for four days, so I was up to speed in that department. I brought in a pile of small and medium-sized kindling to enhance temperature control while I cooked, and ere long, just as darkness fell, we were gobbling a scrumptious meal of sautéed vegetables, Basmati rice, and one of Marcia’s superb green and purple salads.

Sipping her wine, Marcia opined that a day without electricity was a welcome respite from the usual order of business, and I agreed that a day without electricity was not a bad thing, but that five days (unless one intentionally goes wilderness backpacking) was perhaps not such a good thing, though certainly profound.

“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson

There was a time when a power outage meant the coming of deep regenerative silence. Not anymore. Now a power outage means people around the hood fire up their gas-powered generators (without mufflers) and simulate the sound of a major construction site in downtown Manhattan. Ah country living.

At nine o’clock, the stars fantastical in the absence of porch lights, the phone rang and a nice recorded man said that PG&E hoped to restore our electricity late the following evening. I asked him if he would like to smell my armpits after four days without even lukewarm water for a shower (our hot water heater is electric) and he thanked me for my patience and said he was sorry for the inconvenience.

“Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.” William Gaddis

Marcia suggested we drive into downtown Mendocino, get some ice and potato chips and a chocolate bar at Harvest Market and see what was happening in our beloved burg. So we hopped in the car and coasted down the hill, noting various uprooted trees and bushes along the way, and found the amply stocked grocery store with lights blazing, only a few shoppers availing themselves of the cornucopia.

We bought our goodies and then toodled up and down the streets of Mendocino—every house and business sans lights, save for the town’s three drinking holes: the Mendocino Hotel, Dick’s, and Patterson’s. Those holy places were ablaze with light—their bartenders busy quenching the thirst of outage-weary sojourners.

And for some reason, seeing those booze joints jumping while everything else was shut down brought to mind that famous Sixties slogan: Power to the people, right on.

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Self-Loving

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

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

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

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

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”