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Finishing Things

Bound By Certain Forces Nolan Winkler Oil on Canvas

Bound By Certain Forces oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

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

“The human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” Theodor Adorno

In his famous essay on parenting, Punishment Versus Discipline, Bruno Bettelheim wrote that children do what their parents do, not what their parents say to do. My father, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was a big fan of Bettelheim, but he did not heed Bruno’s advice in rearing my siblings and me. On the contrary, my father rigorously did the opposite of what he said we should do, and the results were as Bettelheim predicted: we ignored most of what my father said and imitated many of his repeated actions. My mother also modeled behavior that contradicted her spoken directives, and we generally imitated her behavior rather than the dictates of her speeches. Thus we were initially formed.

My father loved to talk about things he was going to do, and once in a great while he would start something, but only rarely finish what he started. I made several determined efforts in my teens not to follow in my father’s footsteps, especially when it came to the completion of tasks, and thought I had succeeded in not imitating my father in this regard, but later discovered I had followed his example in many ways.

Because school was easy for me, one of the ways I imitated my father that escaped my attention and the attention of my teachers was my reluctance to complete tests and homework. I would answer eight of ten questions on a quiz, and three-fourths of the questions on big tests, but never all the questions. I rarely completed my math homework or essays for English, but I still managed to get B and C grades, my teachers would tell my mother I needed to make more of an effort, and life went on.

By the time I took (and didn’t finish) the SAT exam my senior year of high school pursuant to going to college, I was aware of my quirk of not finishing school things and told myself it was because tests and essays and homework were stupid and irrelevant and I was so smart I didn’t need to finish things. But the truth was I could not finish things, and I didn’t know why.

A few years after dropping out of college—speaking of not finishing things—I thought I’d try to get a job with the United State Postal Service. Two-thirds of the way through their employee exam, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, and my only recourse was to rush out of the building without finishing the test. I remember getting home and explaining to my girlfriend that I hadn’t finished the test because “I just wasn’t into it,” though many years later in therapy I saw my failure to complete the postal exam as part of a larger pattern of not being able to finish things I started.

“If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked.” George Carlin

When I was in my early twenties, I went to work for a man who had no trouble finishing what he started. I will never forget the day, early in our friendship, when this man and his four children and I took our sandwiches and drinks outside for an impromptu picnic and one of the kids said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a picnic table like that big one in the park with the benches and top all connected?”

And moments after finishing our lunch, we were building that table. Three hours later we were sitting at that beautiful six-person table drinking lemonade. The tools had been cleaned and put away, the sawdust swept up and added to the compost pile, and one of my boss’s children was sitting at the brand new table doing her homework. Making that picnic table was nothing out of the ordinary in the life of my boss and his family, but for me it was a cataclysmic event and the beginning of my transformation into someone who finishes what he starts.

For you see, my father spoke of building that very same table from the time I was a little boy until I left home at eighteen. He doodled countless sketches of that table over the years, and when I was twelve he and I went to buy the wood for such a table only to have him declare the people running the lumberyard crooks, so the project went no further. And now, with joy and ease, this confident man and his children and I had made this handsome sturdy table that would serve them wonderfully well for the rest of their lives. That which had been an impossible dream for my entire childhood and teenage years turned out to be no big deal.

“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” E.B.White

I am in the midst of creating a multi-volume work of fiction under the primary title Ida’s Place, and I am currently birthing Book Two. A couple days ago on Big River Beach, I found a comfortable perch on a driftwood log, watched a line of seventeen pelicans glide northward over the sparkling water, and then I commenced to write. After I covered a few pages with hopeful scrawl, I read what I’d written and realized my epic had jumped ahead to Book Three or possibly Book Four.

I gazed toward Japan and said, “I’m onto your tricks. Back off. First we finish Book Two, and then you may bring me Book Three. Not before. Agreed?”

Two ravens materialized in the proscenium of my vision and performed a breathtaking aerial pas de deux before winging away to the south, a performance I took as Universe and Subconscious acquiescing to my request.

When I was in my late twenties, over and over again, just as I was about to finish writing a book or play, my psyche would be invaded by a fantastically compelling idea for a new novel or play, and I would put aside the nearly completed work because this new thing was just too thrilling not to pursue. And there came a moment when every surface of my hovel was stacked with the pages of four nearly completed novels and two nearly completed plays…and when a fifth novel began to speak itself I finally realized what was going on: I was a prisoner of the imperative Never Finish Anything.

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” Marshall McLuhan

When I was in my mid-thirties I visited my parents at the house where I lived from six to eighteen, and my mother begged me to finish something my father had started building several years before—a small deck adjacent to their redwood hot tub. Soaking in that tub was one of my mother’s few unmitigated pleasures, and the unfinished deck was a minefield of accidents waiting to happen to anyone getting in and out of the tub, especially at night. So I informed my father that I was going to compete the job, and he huffed and puffed and said he would go to the hardware store later that day and get the things we needed.

My father’s tone of voice implied he had no intention of going to the hardware store, so I said I would be happy to get whatever was needed and do the job without him. Having built several decks by then, I calculated the work, including a trip to the hardware store, would take about two hours. My father then suddenly remembered he already had everything we needed to complete the job, and we got to work.

After an hour of my father telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, he said, “That’s enough. Let’s have a drink. I’ll finish this after you leave. You didn’t come home to work, did you?”

And I looked at him and said, “But all we have left to do is screw down these last few boards and put up a railing along the side there. I’m enjoying this and I want to finish in time for Mom’s evening soak.”

“Oh, I see what you’re doing,” he said, sneering at me. “You want be the hero, don’t you? Save the day.”

“Right, Dad,” I said, mystified as always by his contempt for me. “I want to be the hero and save the day.”

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Magical Thinking

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.” Tom Robbins

Big game tonight, our Giants scrapping for first place in the National League West, a dozen games left in the regular season, our first shot at making the playoffs since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds. So this morning I hand-washed my black Giants sweatshirt and smudged it with white sage to amplify the winning mojo therein. Do I really believe wearing this particular sweatshirt will make a difference in the outcome of a distant baseball game? Was Yogi Berra a catcher? If reputable physicists seriously aver that butterflies flapping their wings in China impact the weather in Brazil, why wouldn’t my choice of sweatshirts influence a baseball game a couple hundred miles away?

Maybe you don’t believe butterflies contribute to the creation of weather? Do you believe that devoutly imagining something can make that something happen? As in envisioning Juan Uribe hitting a home run, and then he does? Hit a home run? Coincidence, you say? Then how about this: you’re stuck on the sofa, too tired to get up, or you’ve got a cat on your lap so you can’t get up, but you fervently wish someone would bring you a beer or a cup of tea, and suddenly here comes somebody with exactly what you wanted. That’s never happened to you? God, I’m sorry.

“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” William Burroughs

In 1962 the Giants went to the World Series. I was in the eighth grade at La Entrada Junior High in Menlo Park California. This was before the passage of Jarvis Gann Proposition Thirteen that annihilated the common good, so California still had the best system of public education in America. Indeed, the system was so good, the powers that were wheeled a television into our classroom so we could watch the World Series. Talk about having your priorities right.

So the bell rang at the end of class, lunchtime upon us, just as Willie Mays was coming to bat, at which moment Nancy Woolf, the girl of my dreams (though I was too shy to tell her so), approached that television, kissed her right index finger, and with that lucky finger touched the tiny projected image of Willie Mays on the screen. And on the very next pitch, Willie hit a towering home run. I saw this happen with my very own eyes, in real time. Everything was live in those days, no tape delay as I witnessed the power of love and divine pulchritude precipitating a mighty swing. Coincidence, you say? Magic, say I.

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.” Thomas Szasz

My father, a medical doctor and a Freudian psychoanalyst, was a religious atheist. He felt it his un-God-given duty to debunk and demean anything and anyone tainted with even the slightest whiff of what he called magical thinking, which included believing in God, astrology, reincarnation, and Santa Claus. Near the end of his life, my father proselytized zealously about his latest and greatest theory explaining everything that had ever happened in human history. To wit: most people are genetically incapable of not thinking magically, and are therefore easily controlled by vastly more intelligent people who don’t believe in magical thinking. Shamans and priests and gurus and messiahs and emperors and popes and politicians throughout history were those born free of the magical thinking gene, but they pretended to believe in magical thinking in order to rule the roost. For thousands of years, anyone who didn’t believe in magical thinking and was naïve enough to say so publicly was branded a heretic or a lunatic, until finally science overcame religion and reason prevailed over superstition. But magical thinking, according to my father, still must be ruthlessly opposed or the charlatans will make use of this dominant genetic propensity to seize control once more and plunge the world back into ignorance and organized religion.

My father insisted that spirituality was synonymous with magical thinking, and he declared all spiritual experiences to be fake or delusional. On those rare occasions when I used the words spiritual or mystical in my father’s presence, his reactive rhetoric rivaled the fieriest of fire and brimstone preachers. This was before he developed his ultimate theory of the genetic inevitability of magical thinking, which allowed him to express pity for the inferior masses rather than hatred and contempt.

“Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.” Theodor Adorno

My mother was not a magical thinker, nor were my siblings, but I have always been so. This means, according to my father’s theory, that I was born with the gene for magical thinking and my siblings were not, which may explain why they are atheists and I have never felt that the geological, chemical, and biological workings of nature in any way preclude the existence of an intelligent universe. Indeed, my recent reading of a rigorously scientific text on hummingbirds confirms my view that the universe is a fully conscious artist.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

I have recently heard the expression magical thinking used to castigate those who believed Obama’s campaign promises, to ridicule those who think solar energy can effectively replace fossil fuels, and to pour salt into the wounds of those who lost their shirts and pants and everything else in the ongoing economic meltdown; and I realize from these vitriolic usages that the expression magical thinking is used primarily as a synonym for stupid and/or ignorant, which conforms with my father’s theory of cultural history.

So let us deconstruct the expression and see what we find. On the surface we almost have an oxymoron. Magical—Thinking. In my experience, magic only fully manifests when the linear logical mind is quieted or turned off, and disbelief (preconception) is thereby suspended. That is, if our brains are on red alert to not believe in anything contrary to our current notions of reality, our brains are highly unlikely to be open to magical occurrences.

I think this brings us to the root of the inquiry as well as to the root of magical, which is magic, a seriously loaded word. There was magic in the air when he saw her. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Love. Angels. Pleasure. Luck. Fate. Sunsets. Kittens. Simultaneous orgasms!

As with most loaded words, magic behooves us to find a less loaded equivalent to make our point. I nominate the word extraordinary, which means beyond the ordinary, something unexpected, perhaps even unprecedented. We’re down one to nothing in the bottom of the ninth, Posey on second, two outs. Juan Uribe steps to the plate. I am suddenly overcome by an extraordinary thought, one might even call it a vision, of Juan connecting with a fastball and hitting the ball out of the park. And he does, Juan does. He hits the ball out of the park. Fair. Not foul. Gone. Outta here! Adios pelota! Extraordinary! Did my wanting him to hit that home run make the home run happen? Or was my vision merely prophetic? Whoa. I don’t know. For if I knew, then my thoughts would be what? Scientific?

“Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.” Margot Fonteyn

There is a marvelous passage (marvelous to magical thinkers) in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in which Merton tells of his extraordinary experience in a cathedral in Mexico City. As Merton prayed fervently to God that He exert His extraordinary power so that Merton’s first book would be accepted for publication, Merton was filled with an extraordinary energy (a magical thinker might call such energy the light of God) and Merton was shaken to his core. And though his book was not published, Merton came to understand that God had not forsaken him, but had given him exactly what he most needed, not what he most wanted.

So tonight when I don my black sweatshirt and perform on our extraordinary piano an extraordinary blues progression in lieu of the national anthem, and Marcia (yes, I’ve converted my extraordinary wife to the cause of los Gigantes) and I take a moment to visualize our starting pitcher throwing extraordinarily well and our hitters making loud and extraordinary contact with the ball, we will trust the unseen powers, otherwise known as the baseball gods, to grok from our vibes that we don’t just want to win, but that our need is extraordinary.

(Todd worships los Gigantes in Mendocino and blesses KMFB for broadcasting the games locally. This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010.)