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George Is Writing A Play

Joan and George’s living room. A fire burning in the hearth.

Joan and Marilyn, actresses and retired psychotherapists, are sitting on the sofa drinking wine. Joan’s husband George, a writer and retired community college English professor, and Marilyn’s husband Michael, a realtor and actor, are playing Ping Pong somewhere in the distance, the sound of their game faintly audible.

Joan: Drum roll please… (clinks glasses with Marilyn) George is writing a play.

Marilyn: I thought he was never in a million years going to write another play. Isn’t that what he proclaimed on New Year’s Eve?

Joan: He proclaims that after every play when no theatre company besides ours wants to produce it. Then time heals the wound and off he goes again.

Marilyn: Well I’m thrilled. I love his plays. If it were up to me, he’d win a MacArthur and be a national treasure. What’s the new play about?

Joan: The inadequacy of language to reveal the hidden sorrows that make us what we are.

Marilyn: Is that what he told you?

Joan: No, I came up with that a few years ago, for those awkward moments when people ask George what his plays are about and he answers by making spluttering sounds.

Marilyn: The inadequacy of language to reveal…

Joan: The hidden sorrows that make us what we are.

Marilyn: Do you think that’s true? We’re shaped by our sorrows?

Joan: Ooh I like shaped better than made. May I plagiarize you?

Marilyn: Please.

Joan: Yes, I think we’re shaped by our sorrows and our joys, though I interpret George’s spluttering sounds to mean our sorrows.

Marilyn: I’d say we’re shaped by imitating our parents and siblings, if we had any, and by the time we’re five-years-old, we’re a fait accompli.

Joan: With parents and siblings providing most of our primal joys and sorrows.

Marilyn: In my case, mostly sorrows.

Joan: I was on the phone with Tina yesterday and heard myself sounding exactly like my mother talking to me when I was Tina’s age. Gave me the chills.

Marilyn: I know the feeling.

Enter George and Michael. They claim glasses of wine from the coffee table, Michael strikes a pose by the fire, and George sits in an armchair.

Joan: Who won?

Michael: Who always wins?

George: I got lucky.

Marilyn: (to George) Joan says you’re writing a new play. Do tell?

George shrugs and makes a spluttering sound.

Michael: A new play? Are we in it?

George: Of course. You’re in all my plays.

Marilyn: I never recognize myself.

George: (to Marilyn) That’s a wonderful line. (picks up his notebook and pen and writes) I never recognize myself. Monologue to follow.

Michael: I rarely do either. Except for the accountant in Simple Math. That was me, right?

George: His manner of speaking is definitely you.

Marilyn: Who am I in Simple Math? You cast me as Louise, but she’s more Joan than I. (looks at Joan) I had so much fun playing you. Couldn’t believe how many laughs I got being you.

Michael: None of us in the cast thought the lines would play so funny, though George told us they would, and the audience roared from start to finish. Sold out the entire twenty-seven-show run. Standing Room Only. We could have run it for another month if not for the annual Neil Simon nipping at our heels. I’m campaigning to stage it again next season.

George: (to Marilyn) In answer to your question, you’re not a specific character in Simple Math, but your essence dominates the first act.

Marilyn: I was so sure that play was going to be a huge success for you. But then I think that about all your plays.

George: Yet none of them ever make it out of our little town. Except for the first one, which I wrote before I moved here and long before I knew how to write.

Michael: If only you hadn’t learned. Think where you’d be today.

George: Can’t imagine.

Joan: We can be fairly certain you wouldn’t have moved here and married me. Another big success and you’d have married a famousactress and lived on a country estate an hour by train from your piede-à-terre in Manhattan.

Michael: Where you hobnobbed with other famous writers who didn’t know how to write. Daiquiris at the Algonquin. Schmoozing on yachts at Cannes.

George: Thankfully that was not my destiny, and I moved here and married Joan and we had our marvelous children and I wrote plays for you to be in and…

Marilyn: And we’re glad you did. But surely you wanted another success. Your plays are so good.

George: Of course I wanted another success. Still do. Though I must say, the little taste I had of that other life was not… nourishing.

Michael: How not nourishing? Money. Fame. Producers and directors clambering for your next play.  

George: Clambering for another play like the first. Which is not my way. And the deeper truth is, I didn’t really click with anyone on those upper floors of the cultural pyramid. Lots of hungry ghosts, as the Buddhists would say, but no one I could relate to emotionally or creatively.

Marilyn: Which is no doubt why they couldn’t relate to your subsequent plays.

George: Seems so.

Michael: So it was you who closed those magical doors because you didn’t like the people who were holding them open for you. Created your own fate.

George: Our lives are made of the choices we make.

Joan: And by endlessly enacting two or three foundational psychodramas from our childhood.

George: That’s a good title for an evening of one-acts. (writing it down) Three Foundational Psychodramas. A theatrical pastiche.

Michael: (to Joan) So are you suggesting we are little more than the aftershocks of our childhood?

Joan: Unless we get well.

Marilyn: And we can’t get well by enacting or writing the same drama again and again. We have to break character in order to learn a new way of being.

George: To sing as only we can sing.

Michael: I don’t think I’ve ever broken character. Never had a reason to. I play myself as a husband and father. Play myself selling real estate. And when I get cast in a play, I play myself. Seems to work just fine.

Marilyn: We only intentionally break character when our old character no longer serves us.

Joan: And speaking of serving… let’s eat.

fin

Dream of You

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No I

I’ve been reading Joseph Goldstein again, his instructions for meditation, and he repeats many times there is no I. Yet I feel I am me. He says the more I meditate the less I’ll feel I am me. I hope so, though he says hoping is a hindrance to fully embracing my non-I-ness.

Buddha suggested that the concept of I, the sense of a separate self, is the source of my suffering. Our suffering. Since you and I are not separate, my suffering is yours, yours is mine. Except there is no you or me, and the you I think you are lives in New Hampshire or Ukraine, and I’m here in California. Illusion says Goldstein. And I believe him. I feel what he says is true on a gut level, my gut being an organ in my amalgam of transitory phenomena otherwise known as my body.

So here is this non-existent self wanting to meditate. I define meditation as not thinking while remaining conscious of the illusory nature of everything, in order to attain a state of greater clarity. Yet who attains clarity if there is no I? Where will the clarity reside? In the mind of the non-existent? How does that work?

The thing is, I benefit from meditating. Indeed, meditation seems to strengthen my I-ness, and reading Joseph Goldstein’s thoughtful insights regarding meditation greatly enhances my meditation practice. After a good sit, I feel less anxious and my appreciation for being alive is vastly amplified. Yet the question keeps being asked: is there anything to realize beyond there’s nothing to realize?

What I’ve decided, for my own illusory purposes, is to be okay with thinking I am a particular person. Marcia suggests that who I am, the me I think I am, is my vehicle for navigating this illusory existence. After all, Goldstein’s instructions are addressed to a you, a thinking feeling you (me) and his kind and gentle and thought-provoking way of communicating makes it possible for me to accept what he says.

And he does acknowledge I have a mind, which I find reassuring, even though he also says that depending on someone else’s reassurance is a hindrance to freeing myself from the illusion of separateness. Oh well.

So this is where we are right now in the stream of illusory phenomena.

fin

Light Song

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Connecting

rice

I am hoping to never have a smart phone. I don’t need one (as long as landlines are available) nor am I suited neurologically for such a device. I am, as my brother dubbed me long ago, a lightweight. He was referring to my profound allergy to alcohol, but the same goes for electro-techno input. My mind body spirit no like.

That said, I have a giant computer in my office and I’ve become accustomed to having good fast Internet for email and research (including tennis and soccer highlights and Penelope Cruz interviews) and every few weeks someone does call me on my telephone, usually the dentist’s office, so I need a reliable phone.

Before the advent of the Internet, you may or may not recall, the phone and postal service were our main ways of connecting with people we couldn’t reach by shouting. Not only did we somehow survive, we were happier, much happier, according to those agencies annually monitoring such things as collective happiness.

Am I suggesting the Internet and cell phones are the cause of growing unhappiness in the general population? No. Merely noting the coincidence. There’s also accelerating climate catastrophes and the cost of living outstripping income and 1% of the population gaining more and more wealth while almost everyone else has less and less. And then there’s war and over-population and starvation and the melting glaciers and the ongoing pandemic and…

pinto beans

Which is all to say, as I write this, my phone and Internet, which we have bundled (technical term) are out. Not working. And both have been spotty (technical term) for several weeks now. We get our phone and Internet through our very local Mendocino Community Network (MCN), an outfit operating under the auspices of our local school district. Gosh are they ever nice about the frequent outages. Usually the problem is with the phone lines, which MCN rents from AT&T, and usually the problem gets fixed within a few days.

Were I still a mover and shaker in the larger cultural matrix… scratch that. Had I ever been (actually and not delusionally) a mover and shaker in the larger cultural matrix, I might find such frequent outages untenable. But I have never moved or shaken much of anything except my booty, though I certainly aspired to move and shake things in that great big world on the other side of the tracks until one day…I’ll spare you the (yawn) details.

Thus, since I am not (see above paragraph), these outages are merely annoying at first, and then they free up time for thinning the arugula and schlepping firewood and meditating and writing scintillating musings such as this one, which I’m sure you’ll want to send me an email about, and I’ll get your email in a few days when the AT&T person fixes the short in my line.

walnuts

I know the problem is a short because the boss of MCN, the head of the entire operation, aptly named Sage, personally took my call and ran a check on my line while I held on. I called him on Marcia’s phone, which still works. You see we have two lines, two different phone numbers, that supposedly join forces to give us something called Fusion, ostensibly a much faster Internet connection than one line would give us. They told us this when we signed up for the service. I’m not sure I believe them.

What a great guy, Sage. He explained everything to me in terms even I could understand, sort of, and now I am at peace. Sort of. Even though my phone and Internet still don’t work.

Several friends of ours, tiring of the recurring outages, have given up on our local system and opted for service from giant multi-national corporations offering better and faster and more reliable Internet along with free sports and movies and many other perks. Not I. Multinational corporations creep me out.

raisins

Interestingly, or ironically, or mysteriously, and most definitely irksomely, Marcia’s phone and her half of our fusion never go out, unless there’s a power outage in most of California due to a hellacious storm or historic wildfire, whereas my phone and my half of our fusion go spotty and shorty and, I won’t mince my words, dead several times a year even when the weather is fine.

Marcia says my half of our fusion goes spotty and shorty and dead because I get upset about the disconnections, whereas she would not, she claims, be upset if her phone and Internet went out, which is why they don’t. Go out. I have suggested to her it’s easy not to be upset when she never experiences the outages, but she insists that on some metaphysical level I am causing my own outages, whereas she simply doesn’t cause outages of things she needs.

She also can drink coffee and booze and eat gluten and dairy and feel just fine, and I can’t. So maybe she’s on to something. Maybe these outages are the result of my karma. Of course they are.

mung beans

I’m going to bring this up with Sage the next time I call him on Marcia’s phone after they fix my phone and Internet and then they go out again. I’ll say, “Sage? Do you think these recurring outages of my line could be the result of my karma?”

And I’ll bet you a dollar he says, “Unlikely, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility.” And then he’ll call AT&T.

fin

What Comes Around piano solo by Todd

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More Historical Musicals

My first piece in this series, entitled simply Historical Musicals, ranks as one of my most popular blog postings ever. By that I mean I heard from three people who said they very much enjoyed the piece. So… as I explained at the beginning of Historical Musicals, one of my hobbies is leafing through the massive one-volume Columbia Encyclopedia (I can barely lift the thing) and finding entries I think would make successful Broadway musicals now that Hamilton has made historical musicals popular again.

Here are three more excellent candidates.

*

[Insull, Samuel 1859-1938, American public utilities financier, b. London. He arrived in the United States in 1881 and was employed by Thomas A. Edison as a secretary. He later became prominent in the management of the Edison industrial holdings. By 1907 he overcame competing pubic utilities companies in Chicago and soon controlled the city’s transit system. After numerous mergers he expanded his operations throughout Illinois and into neighboring states. He formed (1912) a mammoth interlocking directorate that operated over 300 steam plants, 200 hydroelectric generating plants, and numerous other power plants throughout the United States. Insull’s public utilities empire, at its height worth more than $3 billion, collapsed in 1932. Insull went to Greece and later to Turkey. He was extradited (1934) to the United States, faced charges (1934-35) of using the mails to defraud investors and embezzlement, but he was acquitted.]

That little blurb is dry pith compared to the juicy Wikipedia article about Insull, which includes tantalizing info about Insull’s much younger wife, a popular Broadway ingénue named Gladys Wallis. The musical version of Insull’s life is called Let There Be Light. The show features maddeningly repetitive synth pop melodies and kicks off with Insull, a handsome British stenographer, typing his way to the top of the British secretarial pool before coming to America to take the helm as Thomas Edison’s personal secretary.

The opening song, Type Your Way To The Top, features dancers dancing on the keys of a giant typewriter, with Insull singing and dancing his way around and over other typists to reach the top of the typewriter from where he walks onto the deck of the ocean liner taking him to America.

Type Your Way To The Top is soon topped by the show’s title song Let There Be Light, a touching duet sung by Insull and Edison as they share the moment the first light bulb goes on. Their happy pas de deux, however, is quickly followed by Edison’s lament He Stabbed Me In The Back when Insull leaves Edison and goes off to conquer Chicago. The songs You Ride You Pay Me and Your Money Or Your Light chronicle Insull’s ruthless exploitation of the electrification and light-bulbing of America.

Oops Went Too Far is a comic-tragic tune and dance number about the collapse of Insull’s vast utilities empire during the Great Depression, with the fast-paced Greece and Turkey Here We Come adding a bit of levity to Insull’s flight abroad.

The show closes with the heart-breaking song sung by Insull’s gorgeous widow He Died In the Paris Subway.

He once owned all Chicago and most of the greater Midwest.

When it came to suits and ties and shoes, he always wore the best.

But nothing was ever enough for him, and eventually he went too far.

He died in the Paris subway, the former electricity czar.

*

[Grassman, Hermann Gunther, 1809-77, German mathematician and Sanskrit scholar, educated in Berlin. He invented a new algebra of vectors (somewhat similar to quarternions), presented in his book Die Ausehnungslehre (1844). He composed a translation of the Rig-Veda (1876-77). The linguistic law reformulated (and named for him) holds that in Indo-European bases, especially in Sanskrit and Greek, successive syllables may not begin with aspirates.]

What are aspirates, you ask? “In phonetics, aspiration is the strong burst of breath that accompanies either the release or, in the case of preaspiration, the closure of some obstruents.” As I’m sure you know, an obstruent is a fricative or plosive speech sound. Ah linguistics.

And what better title for the opening song of the hit rap musical Grassman than the bouncy Ah Linguistics sung by young Hermann to his perplexed parents.

Nobody knows what I’m talking about,

which is how I want it to be.

Linguistics is just plosive poo,

oh Mama can’t you see?

Fricative speech is my ticket

to big time fame and renown.

I’ll take those ivory towers by storm

and be the incomprehensible talk of the town.

Other hits from this mind-warping rap opera are built around Grassman’s fathering of eleven children while writing thousands of pages of unintelligible nonsense. Who could ever forget such hit songs as Advanced Tongue Roots, Conjunctive Illocutionary Acts, Deviational Affix, Hierarchical Lexical Relation, and the controversial Homophora Intensifier, with perhaps the best known lyric from the show being the oft-imitated What I didn’t know didn’t matter because matter didn’t know what mattered to not know what didn’t?

*

And speaking of sexually suggestive shows, how about another Hamilton? In this case, Lady Emma Hamilton.

[Hamilton, Emma, Lady 1765?-1815, mistress of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. Born Emma Lyon, she became the mistress of Charles Greville, then of Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to Naples, whom she married (1791). She gained enormous influence with Neapolitan Queen Marie Caroline. Her intimacy with Nelson began in 1798, and after returning to England with him, she bore him a daughter, Horatia, in 1801. Although she received legacies from both her husband and Nelson, Emma died in debt and obscurity. Portraits of her were painted by many of the famous artists of her day, especially George Romney.]

Further research reveals that Emma was more than a renowned beauty. She was a brilliant woman who used her sexual appeal to rise from extreme poverty and illiteracy in England to become a charming erudite hostess occupying the heights of British and European society. Along her way, she transformed herself into a cultural icon and invented a performance art form called Attitudes, in which she posed for audiences as the subject of a classic painting. She lived the high life as long as her wealthy (much older) husband and lover were alive, but when Nelson and Hamilton died, their heirs and friends turned on Emma, and her fall from grace into poverty and drug addiction was swift and tragic.

With songs suspiciously reminiscent of hundreds of other Broadway musical songs, the long-running Lady Emma Hamilton has it all. Gorgeous young British girl uses sex to escape poverty and opens the show with the boffo torch song If You Got It, Use It.

Whilst mistress to a series of wealthy men—recounted in the tell-it-all song Knowing What They Want And Giving It To Them—famous artists paint provocative portraits of Emma to capture her awesome beauty and sex appeal, with the artist George Romney singing the beguiling rhapsody Oh What A Face and the Body That Face Is Attached To.

Emma then moves to Naples to live with soon-to-be-her-hubby Sir William Hamilton, and quickly becomes bosom buddies with Neapolitan Queen Marie Caroline, their sexy duet Daughters of Venus now a ubiquitous erotic feminist anthem. In Naples, Emma becomes renowned as the inventor of the performance form known as Attitudes, and her performing career climaxes with the way-too-sexy Hold That Pose. Thereafter, she hooks up with Horatio Nelson, their love affair summed up by Emma in the show-stopping I’ve Always Liked Men Who Sail (Especially Boats With Guns).

Upon her return to England, Emma has a beautiful daughter and lives a fabulous life until her tragic end, the final song in the show the painfully eloquent Beauty Fades.

When I was young my beauty opened every door

to fame and wealth and love galore.

But beauty fades, believe you me,

hence the word contingency.

Alas I did not save enough for all these rainy days.

And now the piper’s at the door, he’s come to get his pay.

But I am out of beauty, to spend instead of cash.

So he will take the rest of me, and soon I will be ash.

fin

Darling piano solo by Todd

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Discipline

In the days of yore when I taught writing, many of the people who took my workshops and consulted with me had previously read books about writing that directed them to write for a certain amount of time every day (often quite a long time) or to produce a certain number of pages of writing every day. Or they had taken courses and been told by their teachers to write for at least an hour every day. And they all tried to fulfill those directives for some days or weeks before missing a day, and then missing another, and eventually ceasing to try. Or they found themselves forcing the words to fulfill the mandates of their gurus, and the forcing was painful and depressing, so they quit and felt like failures. 

When I told my writers that such arbitrary directives almost always fail to help writers establish a viable daily practice, and that they were among hundreds of thousands of people stymied by such misguided orders, they felt much better about having terminated the self-torture; and they wanted to know what I recommended they do to establish a writing practice.

Writing, I told them, and I mean handwriting, is a physical activity as well as a mental activity. If you have a goal of doing twenty pushups, and have never done one pushup or only ever done a few, I think you will agree you would be foolish to try to do twenty pushups on your first try. You will have a much better chance of attaining your goal by starting with one pushup and working your way up to twenty, gradually, over many weeks of practicing. Similarly with writing, if you have a goal of writing for an hour every day, you will have a much better chance of attaining that goal by starting with five minutes and working your way up from there.

Furthermore, every writer is unique. You may be someone for whom, ultimately, writing every day is not ideal. You may be a three days on, one day off kind of writer. Or you may be a half-hour in the morning, an hour in the evening writer. The idea that everyone should follow someone else’s arbitrary idea of how much and how often a person should write has proven to be hugely destructive of the creative impulse in countless people who tried to follow such ill-conceived directives.

We develop habits through repetition of behavior. Every time you do something, your neurological system makes a brain map, an actual map in your brain composed of sequences of synapse firings, and this map is literally etched in your brain. Every time you repeat a particular behavior, your brain map for that activity is strengthened. When you repeat a behavior hundreds and thousands of times, your brain map for that behavior becomes a veritable super highway of habit.

So if you wish to develop a viable writing practice, decide on a comfortable place to write, show up there every day with the intention of writing something, and stay there, uninterrupted, for an amount of time that feels reasonable to you, whether you write anything or not. I suggest you begin with fifteen minutes. You probably will write something, but if you don’t, that’s okay. Or if you write for a few minutes and nothing more wants to come out, that’s okay, too. The important thing is to show up every day for a certain amount of time with the intention of putting pen to paper and seeing what happens.

If you enjoy writing exercises, start with a writing exercise to get your writing juices flowing.

I knew one writer who began her daily writing sessions by writing a postcard. She had a little stack of postcards with stamps affixed, and after lighting a candle and asking the writing gods for inspiration, she would write her postcard. By the time she completed the postcard, her writing engine was warmed up, and off she’d go. Or not. In any case she was there. Ready.

That’s the key: every day readiness in a situation conducive to doing. If you do so every day for seven weeks and don’t get in the habit of writing for a time every day, then perhaps writing every day, at this point in your life, is not your thing. Okay.

Many aspiring writers would say to me, “I need a goal, a purpose, something to inspire me.”

I would respond: in my experience, goals and purposes emerge from the practice, not the other way around.

fin

Pep Talk #1: a one-minute video by Todd

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Writing Exercise

Long ago, I held writing workshops in my living room. There were eight people in a group, and I was one of the eight. We met once a week for two hours. My courses lasted eight to ten weeks. There was no homework, nor did people bring stories or poems to share with the group. The purpose of the gathering was to do writing exercises I invented to illuminate various aspects of the writing process, and after each exercise, to share what we’d written.

No one had to share what she or he wrote. Sharing our work was voluntary. No judgments were made by anyone in the group, and the only outward responses to shared work permitted during the sessions were smiles, nods, and positive humming. If a participant had a negative reaction to something, they kept their response to themselves.

In every group, despite my assurances to the contrary, there were people who thought they would be judged and critiqued for what they created during the sessions. In fact, most of the people I worked with over the years were sure they would be criticized and judged, though I told them when they signed up for the workshop there would be no analysis or criticism, and I restated that rule at the outset of every session.

And so for the first few exercises of every first session, only I and a few other people (usually those who had previously taken one of my workshops) would read aloud what they wrote. Then once it became clear there would be no judgment or criticism, most people were emboldened to share some of what they created.

There were often people who would wait until the second or third sessions before sharing something with the group, and one person waited to share something until her fifth session. When she finally got up the courage to share a few lines of what she’d written, and her offering was greeted with smiles and positive humming, she wept, and thereafter eagerly shared her work.

What I learned from working with hundreds of writers, teenagers to oldsters, was that virtually everyone had been shamed and traumatized regarding their writing. The main traumatizers were unskillful teachers, though parents and fellow students were frequently traumatizers, too.

And though my exercises helped people practice their writing skills, the greatest boon of the sessions was that people got to experience sharing what they wrote without being punished for doing so.

fin

Just Love

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A Paragraph

Paragraphs, as I’m sure you know, are collections of sentences usually related to each other. If a paragraph is the first one in a story or essay, it introduces what will follow. If a paragraph is the last paragraph in a story or essay, it will conclude the collection of paragraphs composing the story or article. Any other paragraph in the story or article springs from the preceding paragraph and leads to the paragraph that follows.

A paragraph, as you know, is a series of sentences describing something. If the paragraph is the first in an essay or story, it will act as the introduction to all that follows. If the paragraph is the last paragraph of the piece, it will end the story or essay. However, if the story is a chapter in a longer work, the last paragraph of the chapter may (or may not) hint at what is to follow. Any other paragraph in the story or essay is usually influenced by the preceding paragraph and usually suggests what the subsequent paragraph will be concerned with.

You almost surely know what a paragraph is: a sequence of sentences arranged to describe something to the reader. The paragraph might describe what a person looks like. Or it might describe a particular action, someone making coffee or jumping out a window. If the paragraph is the first one in a story or an essay, it will act as an intro, though not necessarily as an introduction to whatever follows. If the paragraph is the last one in the collection of paragraphs composing the piece, it will be an ending even if whatever is happening in the piece doesn’t necessarily end. If the paragraph is not the first or the last, it will be sandwiched between two other paragraphs, rubbing shoulders with them, as it were, and feeling connected to them if only by proximity, but also maybe by a continuum of content.

Let us begin by assuming you are aware, at least in a general way, of what a paragraph is, and my saying a paragraph is a sequence of sentences describing something to the reader is perhaps annoyingly obvious, though I have no intention of annoying you. I’m merely rewriting the previous paragraph in an attempt to… what? Demonstrate the process of rewriting? Maybe. We’re not sure. In any case, assuming you know what a paragraph is, you don’t need me to tell you that the first paragraph in a story kicks off the show, so to speak, and the last paragraph closes the act, in a manner of speaking, and the paragraphs in between the first and last paragraphs are the body of the story, the first paragraph the head, the last paragraph the tail. And I do hope you’ll forgive me for mixing my metaphors or similes or whatever they are.

You know what a paragraph is. Right? A collection of sentences, or one long sentence with lots of dependent clauses, a mass of words describing something that doesn’t want to be broken into two or more paragraphs, but wants to be one unit of (meaningful?) words describing a particular something. And you also surely know the first paragraph in a story is like the opening act, the comedian who comes on to loosen up the crowd for the main act to follow, and it, the paragraph, should be enticing and intriguing, so the readers will want to read the next paragraph, and the next and the next until they, the readers, come to the end of the collection of paragraphs composing the story, for which the final paragraph is the last hurrah of the ensemble of paragraphs. Or maybe not the last hurrah. Not if the story turns out to be a chapter in a longer work, a novel or a memoir, in which case the first story or chapter is the opening act of a longer work composed of multiple chapters, each chapter composed of paragraphs, each paragraph containing sentences, and each sentence made of words. In that case, the first story (or chapter) is some sort of harbinger (comedian or seer?) of what is to come in the subsequent story chapters, and the first paragraph of the first chapter is the comedian’s opening joke or the seer’s opening prophecy. For instance: So a guy goes to see a psychiatrist or Beware the Ides of March.

fin

Real Good Joe song by Todd

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Beginnings

baby collard greens

Here I am starting to write a story I’m calling Beginnings. This is the beginning of the story. Or is it a story? Maybe this is a musing. Maybe, probably, when I have the first draft written, I’ll rewrite this beginning and then the beginning will be a resuming.

first apple leaves

Why do I want to write something called Beginnings? Because spring has sprung! The apple trees are just beginning to leaf out. The chard and collards and lettuce babies are emerging from soil in which I planted seeds from packets promising lettuce, collards, and chard.

Yesterday I planted potatoes and sugar snap peas, while all around me the Japanese maples were disporting new leaves, the bare branches bare no more.

new Japanese maple leaves

When I used to help people with their writing, I discovered beginning was difficult for most of them. They kept trying to figure out what they were going to write before they wrote anything, as if writing was akin to building something, and one had to conceive of something and then design the thing and then figure out the dimensions and secure the necessary building materials, and then begin constructing (writing) whatever the thing was.

They were afraid they might make mistakes. I told them they couldn’t make mistakes; that the rough draft is anything that wants to come out, including random words, sentence fragments, nonsense, doodles, gibberish. Anything. Alas, school and society and parents and silly books about writing taught them otherwise. They believed fiercely in wrong and right and good and bad. They felt they might be punished for something they wrote. They were stymied by lies they’d been told and believed.

So I invented a whole bunch of exercises to trick them into starting to write, and then I’d have them quickly make changes to what they’d written so they had no time to get attached to their creations; and in this way they experienced writing without expecting anything except the experience of doing some writing.

dog ball beach

I was tempted to compare writing to meditation, but I didn’t want to confuse my writers with comparisons and abstractions. They needed basic training, not poetical philosophizing. However, today, as I’m in the midst of expanding my daily meditation practice, I understand the purpose of meditation is to meditate, not to get something from meditating. Hoping to get something from meditating creates an obstacle that gobbles up many minutes better spent meditating instead of hoping. The same is true for writing. Hoping to get something from writing creates an obstacle to writing.

This article is a meditation of sorts, except I’m thinking as I write. In meditation, thinking is something to become aware of and let go of. Non-attachment to what comes up is the essence of meditation, which is true of writing, too. Had I been attached to a certain idea about where this musing should go, I might never have veered off into talking about meditation.

chard

Everything changes. The tiny lettuce and chard and collard plants – little leaves collecting sunlight to empower the growth of secondary leaves – will soon be mature plants destined for our digestive systems and a return to non-being.

The first sentence of this piece – Here I am starting to write a story I’m calling Beginnings. – is no longer true. Now the truth is: There I was starting to write something I’m still currently calling Beginnings, though who knows what the title will be when I finally post the piece, if I post this.

Simply begin. Now begin again. All our beginnings will merge into a flow that is the process. When we meditate, ideas and images and feelings and sensations arise and dissolve, are born and die. Writing is a process of writing down what arises, and once the words are written, they vanish for the time being, and maybe forever if we don’t revisit them. If we get attached to something we’ve written while we’re writing, the flow of words will slow and tangle and stop.

The first draft, the beginning, springs from seeds that sprout underground and send forth shoots growing up through the soil and emerging into air and sunlight.

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La Entrada piano solo by Todd

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Words Words Words

My mother told me that until I was two-and-a-half, I barely spoke. She said this was because my two older sisters, close to me in age, would intuit what I wanted and speak for me. My mother further informed me that when I finally began to speak, I did so in paragraphs.

In school, from First Grade through Twelfth, I was forever speaking when I wasn’t supposed to be speaking, much to chagrin of my teachers. I understood intellectually why I wasn’t to speak unless given permission, but I found such a dynamic emotionally abusive, so I rebelled and suffered the consequences, which were not usually dire, but frequently annoying.

I remember learning the word obese when I was eight. The moment I learned the word, I encountered obese everywhere, as if the word had been waiting for me to know its meaning before manifesting in the rest of my reality.

In Tenth Grade, I seriously overused the word naïve, having been called naïve by a young woman who was briefly my girlfriend. “You are so naïve,” was the denouement of her breaking-up-with-me speech, as if that particular word explained everything wrong with me as a boyfriend. And so, while recovering from the breakup, at every opportunity I would respond to things my friends said with a sarcastic, “How can you be so naïve?”

However, I did not know how to spell naïve, and one day during my senior year of high school in Advanced English – oh God the embarrassment – we were taking turns reading aloud from some famous work we were supposed to admire, and when it came my turn to read, I encountered the word naïve and pronounced it knave, which inspired great mirth and guffawing among my classmates.

And my teacher, who had long endured my aforementioned habit of speaking without first gaining his permission, declared with vindictive delight, “The word, Mr. Walton, is pronounced nigh-eve, not knave as you have so grievously mispronounced it.”

To which I, red-faced, replied, “Oh how could I have been so knave?”

Which rejoinder brought the house down and killed my teacher’s momentary joy.

When I was in my forties and living in Berkeley, I was listening to a cassette recording of the Monty Python sketch The Cheese Shop, in which one of the characters enters a cheese shop and explains to the proprietor, “I was passing by and suddenly felt esurient.”

The proprietor replies, “Say what?”

And the first character repeats, “Esurient. You know. Peckish.”

So I looked up esurient, found that it means hungry, and thereafter used the word zealously, which informed me that almost no one I knew had the slightest idea what esurient meant.

Not long after learning the new word, I went to San Francisco to have lunch with a friend who was vain of his vast vocabulary and loved displaying his familiarity with Latin. When it was time to leave his flat and go to lunch, I said, “None to soon, for I am profoundly esurient.”

He frowned and said, “Say what?”

With a British accent I replied, “Esurient. Surely you know this word.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Something you made up?”

“Nay,” said I. “Esurience is hunger. When one is hungry, one is esurient.”

He rushed to his OED, looked up the word, and for years thereafter used esurient at every opportunity.

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Ceremony of the Child a piano song by Todd

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Thoughts On Art & Culture

Marcia showed me a cartoon e-card today of some people on a bench in an art museum looking at the most famous of Monet’s water lily paintings. After a moment, a big black dog jumps into the lily pond, swims across the pond and disappears out of frame, and then appears beside the people looking at the painting and shakes himself, thereby spraying the people with water.

My response was to say, “That’s just what those paintings have always needed.”

Some time later, thinking about my response to the humorous desecration of that iconic work of art, I recalled the many times I’ve seen Monet’s water lily paintings on walls in various art museums. Monet made hundreds of water lily paintings, which is why they’re in museums all over the world.

I once was in a gigantic room in a gigantic art museum, and all the walls in the gigantic room were full of big Monet water lily paintings, all quite similar to each other. And though part of me thought the overall effect was beautiful, another part of me thought the room resembled a wholesale interior decoration warehouse – the water lily paintings this week’s special, the paintings being cranked out by the thousands in a factory somewhere.

Then I recalled going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1980s when I was a “successful” writer and I’d go to New York twice a year to talk to editors and visit my agent and go to plays and museums.

On this particular visit to MOMA, I was accompanied by a friend who was a painter becoming a professor of art. We walked through the current show, a retrospective of Andrew Wyeth paintings, complete with Wyeth’s sketches and watercolor studies for each of his famous oil paintings, along with the famous paintings themselves, and then we made a quick trip through the rooms of MOMA’s permanent collection.

I am the kind of person who, after seeing three or four great paintings, has no more aesthetic synaptic space in my psyche, if you know what I mean, so the experience of looking at dozens and dozens of paintings, one after the other, was dizzying and made of the many masterpieces so much annoying drek.

As we were leaving the museum, my friend said, “The arbitrary defining of culture by a few narrow-minded people.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, feigning innocence, though I knew the same was true of literature and music.

“I mean a few people in control of the cultural spigot determine what is defined and will be defined as ‘great art’ for generations. Never mind the thousands of other artists of equal greatness who no one will ever know about because they weren’t chosen by the privileged few.”

Some years later I saw the movie Basquiat, about the heroin-addicted abstract painter Basquiat who was chosen by Andy Warhol and a few other powerful cultural arbiters to be “the one” for a while, and Basquiat went from poor and unknown to wealthy and famous virtually overnight, and then he died of an overdose at the age of twenty-eight. The movie depicted the arbitrary nature of who gets to be famous and who doesn’t.

As my mother liked to say, “Thus it has always been.”

Which is why you will sometimes see a painting by someone not famous or hear a song by someone not famous or read a story by someone not famous and you’ll think, “She’s every bit as good as Monet or Dylan or Dickens, well, maybe not Dickens.” And then you’ll tell yourself that can’t be possible, that if she was really any good she’d be famous, right? So you must be imagining things or you had too much coffee or something.

But maybe you didn’t have too much coffee. Maybe a thing is great because the thing is great, not because someone tells you the thing is great. As my friend Murray likes to say, “When it comes to art, open your mind and trust your feelings.”

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Miles In Mind piano solo by Todd