Marcia and I are thinking of getting a new rug for the living room, our ten-year-old, four-hundred-dollar Cost Plus rug from India badly frayed from constant heavy use. Marcia has begun shopping around online and I am reminded of my last search for a rug twenty-six years ago.
I moved to Berkeley from Sacramento in 1995. Recently divorced and hoping to revive my writing career and my emotional life, too, I was off to a good start with the sale of my novel Ruby & Spear and a movie option on my novel Forgotten Impulses.
Having a little jingle
in my pocket for the first time in many years, I thought I’d buy a beautiful
rug for the living room of the house I was renting on Evelyn Avenue. To that
end, I enlisted my friend Mindy to accompany me to a Persian Rug store on
Solano Avenue, a store I’d walked by countless times, the rugs displayed in the
window ever-changing and always enticing.
A handsome Persian
fellow sitting at a desk at the back of the shop looked up as we entered. “May
I help you?” he asked, and I said Yes.
When he joined us, I informed him I was looking for a six-foot by eight-foot
rug in the thousand-dollar range.
He smiled faintly and
led us to a stack of rugs. With the help of an assistant he removed the top rug
to show us the next one down and so forth until he came to a rug that elicited
an interested Hmm from me.
“How much for this one?”
I asked hopefully.
dollars,” he said, smiling politely.
Ah,” I said, the sum
petrifying. “I was thinking of something closer to a thousand.”
“I’m very sorry to tell
you this, sir,” he said, no longer smiling, “but our store is not for you
unless you are looking for a much smaller rug.”
This piqued me and I decided
I could spend as much as fifteen hundred if he showed me something I really loved.
I told him so and he sighed. “I have a few flawed rugs I can show you, but they
are only four by six or three by five. I don’t think you’ll like them.”
At which moment another
handsome Persian fellow emerged from the back of the store, he and the first
fellow had a brief conversation in Farsi, the second fellow gave me a
penetrating look and asked, “Are you an artist?”
I said I was a writer
and a musician.
He nodded graciously and
beckoned us to follow him to another stack of rugs, much finer rugs than those in
the first stack. He and the assistant slowly removed the top rug, allowed us a
few moments to contemplate the newly exposed rug, and so on until four rugs
down they uncovered the most beautiful rug I’d ever seen. Or I should say they
uncovered a rug that sang to me, “I’m the one, baby. You know I am.”
“You were meant to have
this rug,” said the salesman, gazing at me knowingly. “This rug was made for you.”
“How much?” I asked
“Because I very much want
you to have this rug,” he said, pausing momentously, “I will give it to you for
“That’s way beyond what
I can spare,” I said, which was true in one sense, but in another sense – the
spiritual truth – I could have spared that much.
“You need to buy this
rug,” he said, gazing intently at me. “It will change your life. This rug has
been waiting for you.”
I did not buy the rug and my fortunes quickly waned. A year later my savings were gone and I was barely making enough to cover my rent and pay for groceries. And every time I walked by that rug shop on Solano Avenue I would think about my beautiful rug and regret I hadn’t been brave enough to take the beauty home with me.
This is the third in a series of articles commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.
March 1966. Menlo Park, California
About the time Rico and I became friends, the movie A Thousand Clowns starring Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara
Harris, and Barry Gordon played at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Rico and I
both loved the movie, loved the drama of a funny creative person longing to be
free in a society of copycats, and we conflated the movie with our existential
favorite Waiting For Godot.
Martin Balsam, who reminded me of Rico’s father
Robert, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Thousand Clowns and the movie became
an instant counterculture classic. At some point our WaitingFor Godot
nicknames, Didi and Gogo, gave way to nicknames derived from A Thousand Clowns: Murray and Irving. In
the beginning we were interchangeably Murray and Irving, but over time I became
Murray and Rico became Irving. In retrospect, I understand these nicknames allowed
us to be Jewish with each other without overtly acknowledging our Jewishness.
I remained Murray to Rico for the rest of his
life, and he was Irving to me for several years until one day I began a letter
to him Dear Rico, and thereafter he
signed his letters to me Rico and I
never called him anything else.
When Rico and I became friends, I didn’t realize
that my physical disability and Rico’s physical limitations were part of what
made us comfortable with each other, nor was I aware that Rico being Jewish and
my being Jewish (before I understood I was
Jewish) also united us, but both things were true.
As far as I was aware at the time, we became best
friends because we clicked emotionally and intellectually, which was a huge
relief to me at a time when I knew almost no one who felt as I did about the
world and our society. Rico was only fourteen at the outset of our friendship, but
he was far more perceptive about human affairs than anyone I knew, adults
included. He was, I came to realize, a wise old soul in a young person’s body.
Born with osteogenesis
imperfecta, which roughly translates as bone development imperfect (also
known in those days as brittle bones),
Rico wore braces on his legs until he was twelve to keep his bones straight as
they grew, and because he suffered many childhood fractures, he was often in
casts. As an adult, he was short of stature and slight of build and he could
not run. He loved to swim, which was the main physical activity of his
childhood and teenage years, and he loved to go fishing with his father and
Rico was the middle child of three brothers, Steve
the eldest, Kevin the youngest, neither afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, both of them robust and healthy. Rico’s
mother Barbara was an artist and art collector, and Rico’s father Robert was a
real estate investor. They lived in a beautiful one-story house in Atherton
full of modern art by well-known contemporary artists. Originally from Chicago,
Barbara and Bob were members of nearby Congregation Beth Am, a Reform
When I met Rico, he and I related to each other as
aspiring beatniks intrigued by the hippy counterculture of the Bay Area of the
1960s. The most Jewish thing about our friendship was that Rico introduced me
to the delights of Jewish deli, notably lox and bagels with cream cheese,
pickled herring, and pastrami sandwiches with all the fixings, such goodies frequent
lunch entrees at the Rees household.
The summer after my junior year of high school was momentous for many reasons. Not only was Rico now my good friend with whom I spent lots of time, but I had another new friend Dave Biasotti who subsequently became Rico’s friend, too. Dave was an excellent artist and a fine guitarist, and he was writing and producing musicals with another of my good friends Scott Oakley.
Dave and I started writing folk rock songs
together that summer and formed a band called Joy Ride. We were enthralled with
Jefferson Airplane, and by far the best concert I ever saw by a rock band was
Jefferson Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July of 1966. This was before Grace Slick replaced the
marvelous Signe Anderson, before Skip
Spence left the band to form Moby Grape, and before drugs eroded much of the
With Signe as their female vocalist, Marty Balin’s
voice yet to be compromised, Skip Spence superb on drums, and Jorma Kaukonen at
the top of his guitar-playing game, their three and four-part vocal harmonies were
heavenly, and the concert setting with a fantastic sound system, as opposed to
the cavernous echoing Fillmore, was ideal for the interplay of their virtuoso
playing and gorgeous vocals.
One night when Dave and I were writing a song for
Joy Ride, he encouraged me to play the piano to accompany his guitar playing, and
though I could only muster a few simple chords to begin with, ere long I added musician to writer and actor on the
list of things I aspired to be.
In August of that summer, I went to Europe for the
only time in my life, a three-week trip with my family to Ireland, Scotland,
London, Paris, and Amsterdam, the excuse for the trip a psychiatric convention
my father attended in Edinburgh. I was deeply smitten with Europe and hoped to
return one day, but never did. The Beatles had just come out with Revolver, and I brought home with me the
British LP of Revolver that had two
songs not on the American LP. Was I
hip or what?
The fall play of 1966, my senior year and Rico’s sophomore year, was On Borrowed Time. Rico was cast as Pud, another little boy part, this one a major role, and I was cast as Mr. Brink, the personification of Death.
The gist of the play is Mr. Brink comes to claim
an old man, Gramps, played in our production by Joe Tiffany. Gramps is the
guardian of Pud who recently lost his parents in a car accident. Not wanting to
leave Pud without a loving parent, Gramps tricks Death into climbing into a
magic apple tree from which Death cannot escape unless Gramps releases him. With
Death trapped in the tree, nothing and no one can die.
To outwit Gramps, Death entices Pud to climb into
the tree from where Pud falls and mortally injures himself; but the little boy
cannot die and end his terrible suffering until Gramps allows Death to come
down from the tree and take him and Pud to the hereafter. Your typical cheerful
high school play.
What I remember most vividly about the production is
the scene in which I entice Rico into the tree and mesmerize him so he loses
his balance and begins to fall…Blackout! In early rehearsals, Rico and I played
the scene as if we were Didi and Gogo in Waiting
For Godot, imbuing our lines with the abstraction and bewilderment of those
two lost souls. Our wonderful director George Ward allowed us to play the scene
that way for a few rehearsals, enjoying our theatre-of-the-absurd
interpretation, and then looked over the top of his glasses at us and said, “But
seriously, folks,” and we got the message and thereafter played the scene in
harmony with the rest of the play.
Shortly after On
Borrowed Time, in November of 1966, Rico and I went with Bill Kane, Rico’s
English teacher, to a poetry reading in San Francisco. Bill Kane was young and not
yet tenured. He wore a suit and tie to work every day, kept his hair cut short,
and did nothing to make the conservative administrators presiding over Woodside
High think he was anything but an obedient servant of the cookie-cutter system
What those administrators didn’t know and didn’t
find out until Mr. Kane was granted tenure and showed up for a new year of
teaching with long hair and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, was that he
was a rebel with a cause, and his cause was to awaken his students to books and
ideas that questioned the dominant ideology of sameness and conformity.
But before he got tenure and started rocking the
boat, Bill Kane and his wife kept their counterculture leanings secret to all
but a few people, and one of those people was Rico, and another, by
association, was Todd.
And the poetry reading he took us to was not just
any poetry reading, but one of the legendary poetry readings of the Sixties, a
lineup of the great Bay Area Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth
Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and David Meltzer.
In 1996, thirty years after Rico and I attended that
life-changing poetry reading, Bantam published my novel Ruby & Spear, the novel prefaced with a poem by Philip Whalen
and including Lew Welch’s great poem I
Saw Myself. A fictional account of that poetry reading figures prominently
in the early pages of Ruby & Spear,
complete with a cameo by Rico.
Here is that account.
And now I’m seventeen, just getting comfortable with my cane, climbing onto the train with my friend Rico, heading to San Francisco for a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch.
We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in
the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two
rows in front of us. “It’s Robert Duncan himself,” Rico whispered reverently.
“My god, my god.”
“Who is he?”
“My favorite poet,” said Rico, his eyes full of
tears. “My numero uno hero.”
“What did he write?”
“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into
The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried
to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become now that I couldn’t play
basketball? My parents wanted me to be a doctor, or failing that a lawyer. I
was singing in a rock band from hell, my antidote to screaming pain, but I had
no illusions about making my living from that. And what about college? Sex?
Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight,
looking like Errol Flynn, dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the
microphone and crooned, “I’ve been hanging out at the zoo talking to the lions.
Rrrrrr. Rahrr. Roar!” All the women
in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation
of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed.
And when the house lights came up a few glorious hours
later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums,
spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I
wanted to be. A poet.
I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.
Jim Young, coach of the Mendocino High School boys varsity basketball team, also happens to be my chiropractor and friend. I had a chiropractic appointment with him on Thursday at 11:30, and the night before he sent me an email saying: “I’m going to put one of my younger stars through a shooting workout right after our appointment. Want to help? 12:15 in the high school gym.”
Just a few months ago I would have declined Jim’s offer, not having touched a basketball in five years and being in dreadful shape as I close in on sixty-seven. However, for the last few months I have been endeavoring to right the ship and even occasionally going to the elementary school to fling a few balls at the rims, so…
While Jim expertly unknotted the muscles in my upper back and alleviated much of the chronic tightness in my neck, he explained how he and I would work together during the shooting workout of the promising young guard Nakai Baker. Jim would do the rebounding and pass the balls to me, and I, in turn, would pass the balls to Nakai, and Nakai would do nothing but shoot.
Some of Jim’s inspiration for involving me in this fascinating exercise sprang from his recent reading of my novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, the last time I was able to entice a major publisher to take a chance on one of my books. As it happened, Bantam didn’t take much of a chance and declared the book out-of-print on publication day. Thus very few people have ever read Ruby & Spear, the story of a poetical sports writer and his fantastical involvement with a phenomenal playground basketball player.
The book begins: “Once, when I was young—oh, fifteen—I stood on the western edge of my father’s driveway, focused intently on his finest gift to me, a shiny orange rim mated to a whitewashed backboard—a fresh net awaiting my throw, the summer sun warming my bare skin. I was a rosy tan white boy, longing to flee the oppressive confines of suburban dependency. Nearly all my heroes were great black men who could fly. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Earl the Pearl Monroe.”
Basketball was my refuge from an unhappy home life as a teenager, and for my two years of college I spent more time in the gym playing basketball than I did attending classes. So when I walked into the Mendocino High School gym with Nakai and Jim—my first time in a gymnasium in more than twenty-five years—I was flooded with nostalgia.
I changed from my walking shoes into low-top tennis shoes, Nakai changed from his walking-around shoes to gorgeous red and black high-tops, and we joined Jim at the west end of the court where he awaited us with three basketballs. Nakai is a slender lad, sixteen, five-foot-nine, who shows little emotion when he plays, though some of that may have been due to being sequestered in a gym with his coach and some old guy with funny hair.
After we took a few shots to loosen up, Jim directed Nakai to a spot some eighteen feet from the basket (a couple feet in front of the three-point line) and the first drill began.
Standing at the top of the key, my job was to pass the basketball to Nakai so it arrived in his hands a couple of beats after he released his previous shot, and I was to time my passes so Nakai could maintain a consistent rhythmic flow of catching and releasing the ball without pause.
It took me a few passes to get in synch with Jim and Nakai, and a few more passes to hone my accuracy and speed of delivery, but since my sole focus was to receive basketballs from Jim and feed them to Nakai, I eventually got the hang of things and greatly enjoyed myself.
On occasion I would not pass the next ball quite soon enough and Nakai would give an impatient little clap of his hands to say, “Speed it up, old man,” and I would endeavor to do so. I made one-handed passes, two-handed passes, bounce passes, fast passes, and the occasional lob, all of which Nakai handled with ease and aplomb.
His shooting accuracy was impressive, his stamina superb, and his range remarkable. A few times in the course of forty-five minutes of nearly incessant shooting, Nakai launched shots from several feet beyond the three-point arc and made a surprising number of them. My guesstimate is that Nakai took about thirteen shots per minute during the time we worked with him, or roughly six hundred shots, most of them from eighteen to twenty-three feet from the hoop, and he showed no signs of tiring until the very end.
He also executed a series of dribbling drills I cannot even imagine emulating without at least a decade of rigorous daily practice. Make that two decades. He dribbled two balls at the same time, up and down the court, and each ball departed his left and right hands at different speeds, and these speeds changed in relation to each other with each of his runs up and down the court. He also dribbled the two balls through his legs and behind his back as he ran, and I said, “Oh my God” at least seven times during his dribbling routine.
We concluded the workout with a game of HORSE, and by the time I made my last heave at the basket, I could barely lift my arms, though I had only been shooting for ten minutes, whereas Nakai had been shooting nonstop for the better part of an hour.
Jim and I bid the plucky lad adieu and walked down from the high school into town, Jim to have a swim in the ocean, brave man, I to stumble to my truck (formerly Jim’s truck) and drive home, there to lie down for an hour to recover from the rigors of feeding the ball to Nakai.
(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2016)
“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.” Michael Pollan
Last week, Bernie Sanders gave a major speech in Arizona on the eve of a day of primary elections in which he, by the way, was one of the major candidates. And not a single cable or network channel mentioned the speech or carried even a portion of his stirring address. This is not surprising, but maddening. The corporate media is called the corporate media for a reason: they do the bidding of the rulers of the large corporations currently ruling the world, and that bidding right now is to defeat Bernie Sanders and elect Hillary Clinton who has been their loyal puppet for her entire political career.
What about Donald Trump? In my opinion, Trump is part of the designed strategy to elect Hillary. She would struggle against any moderate Republican candidate, but against Trump she will easily win California, New York, and most of the states outside the South, and she might even win there. Bernie would beat Trump easily, too, so it is incumbent upon the corporate media to make sure the Bernie Blackout continues.
My grandmother Goody, who was what I call an optimistic fatalist, would have responded to my outrage about the Bernie Blackout by saying, “Don’t worry about Bernie. He’ll be fine.”
And I would say, “But Goody, this is not about Bernie being fine, this is about our country and the world being fine. We need Bernie to become President so we can begin the return to a society where more than privileged wealthy people get everything at the expense of everyone else.”
And she would say, “Thus it has always been, but look, things are better now than they were a hundred years ago.”
I have friends who are already angry with me for not voting for Hillary Clinton should she be the Democratic Party nominee for President. If Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, I will vote Green. My friends believe the media nonsense that Trump might win unless we all rally around Hillary. I’m not saying Trump isn’t a disturbing person or that his popularity with a certain sector of our population isn’t frightening. I’m saying he is yet another red herring, another Weapons of Mass Destruction lie to get us to go along with the game plan of the puppeteers.
My grandmother was right to say ‘Thus it has always been.’ Those in power have always done whatever they feel necessary to maintain their power, and that means identifying people who threaten the status quo and either co-opting those people or eliminating them. In Bernie’s case, they are trying to eliminate him by blacking him out. If people can’t hear him or experience the excitement he generates, they will be unlikely to vote for him. We would like to think we have moved beyond such primitive machinations, but by and large we have not.
My friends who are pre-angry with me say, ‘But Todd, Bernie has forced Hillary to the left. She’s starting to sound more like him now.”
Hello? She has changed her campaign rhetoric to obscure who she really is and to steal some of Bernie’s thunder, and we’re supposed to believe she is sincere about being in favor of things she was opposed to last week?
I am put in mind of my time in Hollywood in the 1980’s when a novel of mine was made into a movie and I was hired to write screenplays. I was eager to have more of my books made into movies and to sell my screenplays, and to that end I spent a good deal of time in Los Angeles and New York and had many meetings with producers and directors and agents and movie studio executives.
Time and again, whenever the person or people I met believed my little star was in the ascendancy, or if they thought my book or screenplay might become a hot item, I was treated like royalty, fabulous promises were made, I was wined and dined lavishly, and told with convincing sincerity by men and women, young and old, including several famous and powerful people, that my work was the best thing they had read since (name of a famous movie) and would make an equally great film. And I, little me, was the person they had been waiting to work with since the day they got into the business.
Myriad eyes filled with seemingly sincere tears as these charmers professed to a soul connection with me, and a sense of destiny about our meeting and working together. But when the deals didn’t happen, I couldn’t get past their receptionists. What astounds me, in retrospect, was how many times I fell for their baloney. And why did I keep falling for it? Because I wanted so desperately to believe they were speaking the truth.
That’s the secret of manipulating people: saying what they desperately want to believe—and not allowing them to hear anything to the contrary. Which brings me back to the Bernie Blackout. So long as the majority of people are not allowed to hear anything other than the same old corporate baloney as presented by seemingly sincere people with good hair and nice clothes appearing in profusion on our myriad screens, we will believe the stuff that comes closest to what we desperately want to believe.
The last time I took the Hollywood bait was in 1996. I was broke and scrambling to pay the rent. A big time agent called about my novel Ruby & Spear. He said, “This book completely changed how I think about the world. I feel my life finally has a meaning and a purpose. If ever a deal was going to happen, this is that deal. Send me ten copies of the book, signed, to give to the major players lining up to make this film. And send those copies Fed X, Brother, Friend, Savior, and I’ll reimburse you.”
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)
“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene
I like that quote, but I think for me there were many moments in childhood when doors opened and the future came in.
When I was six, having arrived mid-year in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade class at Las Lomitas Elementary, I won my first friends by telling them stories at recess, stories I made up. And there came a day when Mrs. Bushnell was desperate for a nap and asked us to put our heads down and nap with her, but Donny Dorset protested, “We’re not tired, Mrs. Bushnell. Couldn’t Todd tell us a story?”
So while dear Mrs. Bushnell slumbered, I stood before the class and told a story about a boy who befriends a talking alligator named Albert and a smart aleck parrot named Cocolamoko and the adventures that ensued from their friendship. And as I gazed out at my classmates and saw them hanging on my every word and laughing at the goofy voices I gave Albert and Cocolamoko, I saw what I might be one day: an actor playwright.
During the summer after First Grade, I fell madly in love with my classmate Diana Fernandez who lived just up the hill from me. She was the fastest runner in our class and the most fearless of girls, and to my eyes she was exceedingly beautiful and I wanted to kiss her. To that end, I started a neighborhood Science club, a fancy name for catching bugs and lizards and looking at drops of pond water through my father’s microscope and discovering the strange creatures therein. When I invited Diana to join my club and she unhesitatingly said Yes, I immediately scheduled our first field trip.
Looking back on this scheme to be alone with Diana in the forest, I marvel at my ingenuity and perspicacity, for I never again was so ambitious and calculating in my wooing of anyone or anything.
The blessed day of our expedition arrived and Diana came to my house in a darling blue dress, her long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, a bag of freshly baked cookies in her knapsack for our luncheon in the field. And then, with each of us carrying a large glass jar and notebook and pencil to record how and when we captured our specimens, we ventured into the forest of giant oaks a quarter-mile from my house.
Several of these ancient oaks had branches so long and thick that over time they had bent down to earth under their own weight without breaking and snaked along the ground before rising up again to become entangled with other massive branches.
Thus it was possible to simply step up onto one of these branches and walk along and up until we were high above the ground. This is what Diana and I did in the name of science, though we both knew we were aiming to find the perfect place for kissing, which we did. I remember feeling confident we were in no danger of falling, though I cannot quite picture our perch. I do remember looking down at my dog Cozy who had followed us, and how small she seemed so far below.
Then we gazed into each other’s eyes, and Diana hypnotized me, and I was no longer a boy but a man, and she was a beautiful woman, and we kissed for a short infinity, during which I glimpsed a future where kissing Diana or someone like Diana would be a primary motivating factor in my life. I also glimpsed (or certainly sensed) the steamy jungles of adult sexuality, though I had no ready place to file that glimpse in my emotional file cabinet, though I must have filed the sensation somewhere because I remember those moments with Diana vividly sixty years later.
And then there was the poetry reading I attended with my friend Rico in a little church in the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. I was sixteen. To quote from my novel Ruby & Spear (available for a penny plus shipping online):
“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.
“I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.”
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)
“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley
Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.
I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.
Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”
Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?
To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?
“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw
The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.
Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.
“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”
Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.
“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.
“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”
“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.
“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”
“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.
“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Speartakes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”
“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James
As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.
I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2015)
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx
I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.
Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.
Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.
Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.
Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”
“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”
Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”
“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”
“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”
The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.
“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post
Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.
Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…
Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.
In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.
The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)
“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris
Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.
After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.
Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.
“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger
When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”
Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.
Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.
“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White
The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”
The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.
“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff
Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.
Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?
“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon
As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.
Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.
And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?
No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor. Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.
“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan
When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.
“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”
“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.
Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novelIda’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)
“I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” Socrates
From the age of twenty-one until I was fifty, with only a few brief respites, I wrote many novels, most of them never published. The first dozen or so novels I wrote were related to the kind of poetry Socrates is describing when he says, “…who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” I wrote in a state of enchantment without knowing in the least what I had written until I came out of my writing trance, gathered up the pages, and read the words that had spilled from my pen. By the age of thirty-five, I had managed to publish four of those inspired novels, and then for reasons known and unknown to me, I was unable to convince publishers to take any more chances with my books; and shortly thereafter those marvelous states of enchantment ceased entirely to take me over.
“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh
As Van Gogh warned, I then became a slave to my model, which is to say I feverishly tried to think of what would make saleable novels, and I slaved away for years writing dozens of half-baked uninspired works that literally made me sick. Yet I continued to compulsively work at novel writing because I defined myself as a man who writes novels, which self-definition was how I knew, sort of, what I was or thought I was; and I desperately wanted to sell another book because I thought such a sale might save my marriage and cause my friends and family to like me again.
But my marriage collapsed before cosmic largesse might have prolonged the inevitable, and in that state of collapse and emotional free fall, the muse suddenly dropped in on me for the first time in many years and gave me Ruby & Spear, which, despite my not having published anything in a decade, was quickly bought by Bantam and brought me sufficient bread to move from the rubble of my marriage to my next camping spot, Berkeley, where I once again fell prey to trying to think up my next saleable opus, which behavior inspired my muse, the bringer of enchantment, to disappear once more.
So at the age of fifty I had a real humdinger of a breakdown accompanied by a severe depression that brought me face to face with the question: what’s with the compulsive novel writing, buster? And in the throes of my misery, I spotted a book I had been schlepping around for fifteen years but had never opened (the only such book I have ever owned) entitled Severe and Mild Depression by Silvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad, two erudite psychotherapists, their tome full of case studies of depression.
“But I’ve never really been depressed,” I said, as I leafed through the book. “Until now. Well…maybe for those little whiles between writing novels, but that was just post-partum blues. All the great writers talk about their little depressions between novels and plays.”
Then I happened upon Arieti’s case study of a compulsive novel writer, a summing up of that writer’s life that might as well have been my biography, including precise and detailed descriptions of my unhappy and unhealthy relationships with my parents, my failed marriage and failed relationships, and my decades-long compulsive attempt to try to write a successful novel. There was even mention of this writer’s early spontaneous and inspired works giving way to intellectually constructed imitative dribble. And, as was true of me, this man had not previously exhibited any outward signs of being depressed.
I read this case study as if watching a time-lapse movie of my life. I was fascinated and horrified and excited to find out what this guy/me was doing in a book about depression. Well, according to Arieti, this guy/me had been running ahead of a murderous depression for his entire life, and the source of this killing depression was his parents lifelong withholding of love from him while simultaneously denigrating his creative impulses and his desire to be an artist. And in order to cope with this painful lack of love and support and the resultant feelings of worthlessness, this writer came to believe that if he could only write a massively successful novel, he would be lifted out of his hellacious life of failure into a new reality in which he would finally be happy and his parents would love him.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Pablo Picasso
So I decided to see what would happen if I stopped writing novels. I had long known that whenever a play or screenplay or short story began to write itself through me, if, in my compulsive way, I tried to force that inspiration into the form of a novel, my state of enchantment would vanish. Which told me it was not writing I needed to quit, but the writing of novels.
And for the first year or so of not writing a novel, I was, indeed, very confused about who I was and why I was alive because I no longer possessed the identity that had been my mask and shield and raison d’etre for the previous thirty years. Eventually I embraced a more complicated and satisfying identity; and one day when I was fifty-four, I found myself writing something without thinking about what words I might write next, but rather seeing the story unfolding and writing down what I was seeing, knowing only that I’d been grabbed by something good and I wanted to read whatever that something turned out to be. So I hung onto the pen for twenty pages, then made a cup of tea and sat down to see what I’d written.
“Uh oh,” I said, speaking to the invisible ones, “this quite obviously wants to be a novel and I don’t write novels anymore. Remember? I’m okay without them now.”
“Oh, but this is a great story, Todd,” said the muse in her gorgeously non-verbal way, “and we’d really like you to write it, but not compulsively. Just as it comes to you.”
Which is what I did. And though that novel Bender’s Lover was never published, it pleased a good many of my friends and ushered in a new era in my life in which I might write anything in any form because I am no longer constrained by thoughts of what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Here for your enjoyment is how Bender’s Lover begins.
Four months ago—the ides of June—I was in Lorna’s wildflower shop ogling a maroon Sierra Shooting Star while awaiting my haircut, when I fell into conversation with an intoxicating woman who said she was looking for something to cheer her up. This woman, small and lovely and full of purpose, was torn between an Azure Penstemon and a California Harebell, and it was over this Harebell—the brightest blue I’ve ever seen—that we found ourselves marveling at the mood-enhancing qualities of flowers in general, Harebells in particular.
As her initial suspicion of me, based, I believe, on my unruly hair, gave way to a noticeable appreciation of me, based, I think, on my ability to speak in complete sentences, I was on the verge of inviting her to partake of further investigations, when she reared back and asked, “So what do you do?”
I almost replied, “Well, this morning I woke from a wildly erotic dream, masturbated, showered, had two cups of a fabulous black tea, petted my cats, played the piano for the better part of an hour, talked on the phone to a whiny friend for ten minutes and then lied about someone being at the door so I could hang up, gave a piano lesson to Ethel Zawarski, an accomplished atonalist, and then I called my whiny friend back and confessed I’d lied to her about someone being at the door. Why did I feel compelled to confess? Because I hoped to forestall the unseen powers from rioting against me.”
Instead I said, “I’m a piano player.”
“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” William Shakespeare
As it happens, I have not written or been writing a novel for several years now, and I had begun to think I would never write another novel, which would have been fine with me. I no longer define myself as a novelist, though writing is still a big part of my life. I think of myself as a person, husband, friend, gardener, cook, self-certified prunologist (pruner of fruit trees, Japanese maples, and the like) writer, musician, artist, and earthling.
But a few weeks ago, I woke to a charming voice in my head telling a story I very much liked the sound of. So I gave myself to the tale, and ere long it became clear the story being told to me was not a short story, nor was it a novella. I am now a hundred pages into whatever this opus turns out to be, and I remind myself on a daily basis that if I never finish writing this tale, life will still be worth living, the earth will continue spinning around the sun, and the countless miracles composing this astonishing reality will go right on composing. And I also remind myself that if I do finish this tale, it will be my great pleasure to read the whole thing and share it with my friends.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2012)
“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Henry David Thoreau
I am writing the first draft of this essay with pen on paper and using a big hardback copy of Buckminster Fuller’s Tetrascroll as my portable desk. I am sitting on a rug a few feet from our woodstove, the fire therein making our living room the most appealing room in our otherwise chilly house. Should I create an essay I want to keep, I will venture into my chilly office, ignite the electric space heater adjacent to my desk, and type these words into my computer to ready them for sending to Bruce and Mark at the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Marcia is in her office, a world apart just fifteen feet away, and I am thinking about several events and ideas and technological changes that have commandeered my consciousness and are asking me to write about them.
Yes, I believe that ideas and stories from sources outside our individual consciousnesses, perhaps propelled by unseen spirits or equally fantastic invisible forces of Universe, are constantly seeking willing portals (creative beings) for expression in our dimension. I know that sounds like hackneyed spiritual crap to some of you, but it rings true to me.
For the past week, Europe has been gripped by enormous simultaneous protests involving millions and millions of people in several countries, though the American media has barely covered these historic events, and we know why. Our overlords don’t want us getting any ideas about imitating our European brethren who are rising up against their governments to say: We will not allow you to keep punishing us in order to benefit the bankers and swindlers who created this economic mess.
Of course the economic mess is Europe is intrinsically connected to the economic mess in America, and messes made by the bankers and swindlers and governments here and abroad are now so huge that nothing short of near total (or total) collapse and reconstruction using new operating paradigms will improve the situation. And new operating paradigms will not be allowed to take hold until the crooks and swindlers are replaced by highly intelligent people working for the greater good.
Meanwhile, as a kind of case in point, the company that has for too long made Hostess Twinkies is going out of business, which means 20,000 American will lose their meaningless jobs along with their deeply meaningful salaries and retirement benefits, and some other company, very possibly a Chinese company, will become the new manufacturer of those nutritionally worthless and physically harmful gobs of refined white flour and refined sugar and refined chemicals. Hostess went bankrupt shortly after being bought by a group of hedge fund swindlers who ran the company into the ground in no time, crooks who will no doubt profit from their crimes and use a portion of those profits to enter politics or elect other crooks and swindlers. Is this a great economic system, or what?
Meanwhile, through a series of what I consider miracles and what those who don’t believe in miracles might call a series of astonishing coincidences, all of my long out-of-print novels are now available as e-books—kindles, nooks, apples, googles, etc.—and I may be on the verge of benefiting (we hope) from a technology I don’t use and am not attracted to but that will nevertheless bring my stories back to public life after decades of unavailability following their very brief lives in-print.
And at the very moment of the birth of the kindle nook apple versions of Forgotten Impulses, Louie & Women, Night Train, and Ruby & Spear (joining Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books as e-books) not one but three well-meaning people sent me articles detailing the evils of e-books and how these downloadable digital editions not only deprive readers of the sensual delight and healing power of reading and fondling real live books, but e-books (these articles contend) are doing terrible damage to the market for real live books. To which I say: given a choice between people reading my books as e-books or not at all, I’ll go with the e-books and trust that the sensual healing power of my stories will get through to readers regardless of delivery mode.
Meanwhile yet again, there come more dire reports of the ongoing environmental holocaust underway on planet earth that will soon dwarf and exacerbate the current global economic turmoil and make the demise of Twinkies and the coming of e-books seem like nothing of much consequence, though all these things are related and intertwined. How so? Well, I would say that the gestalt of the events and ideas and technological changes engulfing us today suggests we are in the midst of several major turning points adding up to a global turning point that rivals the Industrial Revolution in scope and impact.
As I sit on this rug (made in India) writing longhand on 100% recycled paper (made in Canada) with a pen (made in China) by the light of a lamp (made in Indonesia) and lit by energy made from oil (pumped out of Alaska or Texas or Saudi Arabia) while keeping warm by a woodstove (made in Norway) burning wood (trucked from Boonville to Mendocino), I am keenly aware that the earth cannot sustain for much longer my level of material ease and affluence for billions of people unless everything manufactured henceforth on earth is entirely and efficiently recyclable and produces zero pollution before, during and after manufacture while employing 100% renewable energy sources in the manufacturing and shipping processes. Now there’s a paradigm shift that only a few nations have embraced and are beginning to implement, while the rest of us earthlings continue our suicidal coal burning gas burning nuclear power burning ways.
Add to this mix of ideas and events the amazing (to me) news that Nigeria is one of the largest markets in the world for mobile phones, especially the Blackberry mobile phone. Selling for two hundred dollars in Nigeria, a country where sixty per cent of the population lives in dire poverty, the demand for Blackberry phones even among Nigeria’s poor far outstrips supply and…
I suddenly had a vision of a future world wherein Americans and Europeans and people all over the world have voluntarily given up many of the creature comforts that are, through their manufacture and deployment, the causes of global warming and global pollution, in exchange for being able to have cell phones and computers and a fast and exciting global internet system. In this future world, most people walk and bicycle and take electric shuttle buses and drive groovy ultra-light electric vehicles for local travel rather than driving cars running on gasoline, and capitalism as we know it today is a thing of the past replaced by millions of worker-owned cooperatives and organic farms and splendiferous public transportation systems; and we have this vivacious absolutely free computer interweb global infrastructure. Most people live materially minimalist yet comfortable lives, jet travel is an extreme rarity, international trade happens on slow boats and solar electric gravity powered trains, superb healthcare is absolutely free, and we have a super cool internet and world wide web providing everyone with marvelous cross-cultural connectivity, information, and culture.
At present I don’t own a cell phone or any sort of portable computer pad thingy and I don’t plan to own them, but could it be possible (imaginable?) that billions of people would be willing to dramatically reduce their energy consumption and assume the carbon footprints of the average Nigerian of 2012 in exchange for an ever improving lightning fast, mind-expanding, earth-saving interweb accessible through phones and pads and computers? Might we not harness this powerful desire for wide-reaching interconnectivity as a bridge to the wholly regenerative and undeniably socialist (in the best sense of the word) future?
So there I’ll be sitting on my rug (woven by weavers of the village weaving cooperative) writing longhand by the light of a solar-powered lamp I brought back on my bicycle from the village solar power collective store. The solar electric heater and the fire in the woodstove keep me warm while the six trees I planted for every cord of wood we burn are growing fast in the nearby recovering woods. When I get a draft I like, I will type the words into my computer and send the essay forth to Bruce and Mark at the Anderson Valley Advertiser and to those dozens of folks who enjoy me on the worldwide interweb.