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The Double

Here’s Todd reading “The Double”, a story which was published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but is not part of any of his collections:

The Double

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piano meditation

Here’s “What Comes Around”, a meditation for solo piano, composed and performed by Todd:

What Comes Around

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Tiger Bunnies

On this rainy December day, we cannot resist tying together the feeding frenzy on the carcass of the icon known as Tiger Woods, the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, the extensive media attention awarded a woman in Arkansas for giving birth to her nineteenth child, the so-called jobless recovery, the so-called healthcare debate, and our collective denial of what actually going on here on spaceship earth, circa 2010 (Christian calendar).

Ukiah Blog Live, a culling of thought-provoking counter-mass media internet essays provided by the estimable Dave Smith of Mulligan Books, has been rife of late with articles about the impending worse-than-ever economic collapse, vegetarianism versus the eating of mammalian flesh, and our inevitable return (as a species) to a genteel version of the Dark Ages (if we’re lucky) in the aftermath of peak oil and the bursting of various noxious economic bubbles. These reports are countered hourly in mainstream media mouthing government/corporate propaganda with happy news that things in general are getting better even if they seem to be getting worse in the majority of specific cases. The jobless recovery, reports The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, will soon create new jobs because, well, it just will.

The climate talks in Copenhagen have everybody buzzing about the billions of dollars to be earned through not releasing carbon into the atmosphere. That’s right. If you can prove you’re not being bad, Daddy will give you some money. How will you prove you’re not being bad? You will pay some scientists (with bona fide college degrees, mind you) to say you are being good. Won’t that be nice? How about that for some job creation?

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, a very rich and famous golfer and salesperson for several powerful multi-national corporations, has been having copious sex with expensive prostitutes for several years, but the news just recently leaked out to the mass media, so Tiger is currently being publicly flayed for popping the noxious bubble about the what why who he never was.

Also meanwhile, Michelle Duggar of Arkansas just gave birth to her nineteenth child, and Michelle’s husband (reputed to be the actual father of the nineteen kids, one of whom just had a baby, too) told the adoring media, “We will continue welcoming children as long as Michelle is able to have them.”

“Welcome. You will be in bed number twenty-two. Here’s your meal card, your blanket, your pacifier, and your cell phone. Try to be good.”

Why, I wonder, are we celebrating one American woman having nineteen children when there are millions of women around the world (and in America, too) having more kids than they can adequately feed? And why is over-population not the number one topic of discussion and emergency planning at the Copenhagen climate talks?

Recent studies by bona fide universities and scientists with actual college degrees have proven conclusively (and this even got a mention in the Press Democrat) that the most effective way, by far, to reduce carbon emissions in the world is to spend money on birth control. By far. Seven dollars spent on birth control saves something like four trillion tons of carbon emissions. Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I wanted to get your friggin’ attention.

There are nearly seven billion people on our beautiful little planet (that’s not an exaggeration). The regenerative carrying capacity of the planet, depending on which bona fide scientist one speaks to, seems to be somewhere around a billion of us, give or take a few hundred million. Regenerative Carrying Capacity refers to what a particular eco-system can support without necessarily suffering any damage to its health and viability as a system. Put another way, there would be plenty of everything for everyone forever if we would thoughtfully reduce our population and stop being so violent and greedy. As soon as possible.

Why don’t we do that? Why do nations in Europe go into panic mode when their populations begin to finally decline due to falling birth rates? Because capitalism (otherwise known as a big old pyramid scheme) is founded on, runs on, exists because of, continuous growth coupled with continuous consumption. Which explains why the official verbiage from the Copenhagen climate talks goes something like this, “Please reduce your carbon emissions, once you’re born, but don’t not get born because we need the system to keep growing.”

What does Tiger Woods have to do with over-population? For all his fooling around with high-class hookers, Tiger and his official wife only have two children. So far. Well, but, see, Tiger likes, apparently, to have sex many times more often than his one wife wants to have with him. (Oh, maybe not. Maybe she’s ready to go twenty-four seven and Tiger just longs for variety.)

Now listen up, boys and girls. Tiger is not some oversexed stud. He’s a normal healthy young man with a normal healthy sex drive and average sexual capacity. Nature, over millions years of evolutionary tinkering, designed human males to function exactly as Tiger functions (physically). Remember: it has only been in the last few dozen human generations that we tasty animals have been much more than easily caught snack food for gigantic carnivores, otherwise known as lions and tigers and bears. We got eaten as fast as we could breed. Thus male humans evolved to be capable of (and desiring) lots of sex, while human females evolved to want sex, too, while being capable of getting pregnant every month as opposed to only once or twice a year, as is the case for most other large mammals. Mice and bunnies, it should be noted, not deer and whales and lions and tigers and bears, are the procreative peers of humans.

We wonder if the previous paragraph about human sexuality made you, dear reader, uncomfortable, or even somewhat anxious. Have we broached a taboo subject? Heaven forbid. Perhaps a few minutes of watching television or surfing the Internet or leafing through the newspaper or skimming a fashion magazine will ease your anxiety. You won’t have any trouble finding some psychosexual stimuli to feed your cognitive addiction to titillation. Sex, sex, sex. Watch it. Hear about it. Click on it. Be assured you can get it if you really want it (or some facsimile thereof.) Be pharmaceutically supported in being able to perform adequately should the golden opportunity arise. But whatever you do, don’t connect your fantasies of sex with shortages or pollution or urban sprawl or economic disparities or starvation or the deaths of thousands and millions of superfluous humans in China, India, Iraq, America, Brazil…

Thank goodness the phony healthcare bill they’re about to force on us (a bill that will make it a crime not to buy inadequate usurious insurance from organized criminal organizations) will allow a woman to have an abortion. Hallelujah. A great victory for women and polar bears, we are told. And jobs will be created. In the insurance industry. To process all the new folks being forced to buy inadequate usurious insurance.

I’d go on, but I’m itching to watch the Victoria’s Secret Anniversary Runway Show featuring twelve of Tiger’s thirty-seven mistresses wearing almost nothing and promising everything as they strut and jiggle their impossibly perfect bodies to electronic sex music. And then I may catch a little of the Bangladesh flood coverage and that great new documentary about the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers, source of most of the water for most of the people on earth.

I used to belong to an organization named Zero Population Growth, but they were forced, yes, forced by popular demand and funding impasses, to change their name to The Population Connection because so many otherwise reasonable people were offended by the very idea of zero population growth.

How we survive big cats

and long winter

we no have many baby?

Aye, there’s the rub.

Todd is currently writing the sequel to his novel Under the Table Books. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com.

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The Toilets of Mendocino

I was going to title this piece Pay To Poop or The Pooplic Option or something else related to the maddening absurdities of the current healthcare debate and the ongoing economic meltdown, but I didn’t want to offend anyone until they started reading. But seriously, folks, the powers-that-be have announced they are closing the only public restroom in the village of Mendocino! And these same enlightened ones just carted away the handicapped-access plastic latrine at Big River Beach. That’s right. The idyllic village and tourist destination of Mendocino may soon have No Public Potties. Why?

According to Sigmund Freud, the short answer is that Americans are insensitive barbarians. Freud made his one and only visit to America in 1909, and his most lasting impression of our great land came not from Niagara Falls, but from the lack of public restrooms. He said, and I paraphrase, “A society that does not provide public bathrooms for its citizens is essentially cruel and maladjusted and barbaric.”

When I first moved to Mendocino four years ago, I was struck by the brusque, dismissive, and sometimes cruel manner in which merchants would respond to my query, “May I use your bathroom?” I was inevitably directed to the state-funded public facility on Main Street, a stinky concrete bunker maintained by the state park people on whose land (our land) the bunker resides. I would sometimes find a homeless fellow bathing in the toilet stall. Sometimes the floors were so slick with piss, the journey across the cement floor wasn’t worth the risk of a fall. But most times the place was relatively clean and usable, and I was relieved and grateful that such a depository was available to the likes of me.

Why aren’t there two or three public restrooms in a village whose economy is tied to the tourist trade? Good question. In my fourteen hundred days as a resident in Mendocino, I have been asked at least three hundred times by visitors in the vicinity of the post office, some doing that telltale jig as they asked, “Is there a bathroom around here I can use?” And I have dutifully sent them to the distant bunker that our public servants tell us they must close because it costs them twenty-five thousand dollars a year to maintain, and the state is bankrupt, so… Really? Twenty-five grand to hose the bunker out every few days? Well, yes, because the hosing must be done by someone in the union, you see, so the numerous offers by the community to maintain the bunker must be declined because, well, hosing out bunkers is, what, highly technical?

The removal of the bathroom at Big River Beach has caused the bushes thereabouts to bloom with toilet paper and stinky residue as needy beachgoers do what any of us would do in the absence of an official portal in which to relieve ourselves. Now the briny air of my favorite beach mingles with the scent of urine and feces. Ain’t it grand?

Let us look a little deeper into this stinky mess. Who will be most impacted by the closure of the public option? Not the wealthy tourists staying at one or another luxurious inn. They will have toilets to use before and after sallying forth to buy trinkets stamped with the local moniker. At a recent farmer’s market I heard a well-heeled couple returning their purchase of jars of honey, explaining, “When we got back to the Stanford Inn, we realized the label didn’t mention Mendocino.” These folks will not miss the missing toilet, nor will patrons of the Mendocino Hotel.

The Mendocino Hotel, by the way, is the current provider of the nicest quasi-public option available in the village, and I will be forever in their debt for allowing me to use their facilities even when I’m not dining or drinking therein. Scruffy folks, however, need not apply. The only time I was ever questioned by hotel staff while en route to the hotel bathroom was on a bad hair day when I hadn’t shaved for a week.

Hmm? Is it too much of a stretch to connect the closure of the public restrooms to the ongoing harassment of the growing population of poor and homeless folks living on the fringes of the village? Not at all. The local grapevine is buzzing with news that our local gendarmes are now arresting folks for sitting or lying down on the headlands overlooking Big River Beach, calling this resting “camping”, which is illegal and punishable with a two hundred dollar fine. I wonder at which sector of the population this new interpretation of the camping law is aimed?

So…for the time being I suggest you take preemptive measures before heading into the village. And should you tarry long enough to need to, you know, make water, be resigned to buying something (or pretending to buy something) at an establishment possessed of a john. Yes, they tell us a portable latrine will be placed somewhere near the Kelly House, and won’t that be an attractive boost to tourism?

But I say let us laugh in the face of economic collapse and start a fund raising campaign to buy the land across the street from the Mendocino Post Office whereupon we will erect a large scale model of the Parthenon in which will reside state-of-the-art toilets and all necessary extras pursuant to a fully satisfying elimination experience. The south-facing roof of the Parthenon will sport highly efficient photovoltaic cells producing lucrative electricity feeding back into the omni-grid, since bathrooms use little or no electricity. All waste will be recycled and eventually certified organic for use on the new community garden where cabbages the size of basketballs will rise from the amply fertilized soil.

Artists disenfranchised from the recently conquered art center will be invited to display their wares in the lavatory courtyard, and in good time a public bath, sauna, showers, and massage parlor will be added to the complex. Bumper stickers will be sold extolling the experience of “going” in Mendocino, and tourists from around the world will come to “have a go” in the famous pooper. I DID IT IN MENDOCINO and I WENT IN MENDOCINO will soon adorn a million bumpers, as locals proudly sport the resident variant I GO IN MENDOCINO.

Let us rise above the barbarism of our time. Let us be a beacon of light and a model for the rest of this plundered nation. Let us come together to build the Parthenon of public restrooms so that in our middle and old ages we can hang out in the village secure in the knowledge that when we have to go, the way will not only be clear, but commodious.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com. This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in November 2009.

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The Devolution of Basketball

birthday jester

John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team just turned ninety-nine. Wooden coached the UCLA team from 1948 to 1975 and won ten National Championships in a span of 12 years, including 7 in a row from 1967 to 1973, a feat so unimaginable today it seems more myth than fact. As a college player, Wooden was a three-time consensus All-American, the first ever, and spent several years playing in the early professional leagues while simultaneously coaching high school teams. During one 46-game stretch as a pro he made 134 consecutive free throws. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He never made more than $35,000 a year as the UCLA coach, and never asked for a raise.

Wooden said: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” and “What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.”

In an interview with him on the day before his 99th birthday, he was lucid and wry, and made a fervent wish that “they” wouldn’t do anything special for his birthday. “If I make it to a hundred, well, okay.”

Among Wooden’s many famous protégé’s was Lew Alcindor who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. We often hear superlatives connected to the superstars of today, but none of them single-handedly changed the game of basketball as Alcindor did. Few remember that when Alcindor began his college career at UCLA, freshmen were not permitted to play on varsity teams. Alcindor’s freshman squad played the UCLA varsity squad, the number one-ranked team in America, and beat them 75-60. Alcindor scored 51 points, many of his baskets dunks.

As a result of this overwhelming display of his dominance, and before Alcindor could join the varsity squad as a sophomore, the NCAA banned the dunk in college basketball, a ban that was lifted three years later when Alcindor graduated and turned pro. That’s right. They imposed a national ban to contain one specific player. But even without the dunk, Alcindor was so dominant (and seven-foot two inches tall) that for the first time in the history of basketball, referees allowed defenders to constantly foul another player (Alcindor) to keep him from scoring. I am absolutely certain that when defenders were given the green light to hold and push and hack Alcindor, the game of basketball began its swift devolution to the completely different game we have today.

Basketball was invented as a non-contact sport in 1892. And by non-contact, I mean No Contact. No touching; something hard to imagine as one watches the physicality of today’s pro and college games. When I played basketball in high school in 1964, we were stringently coached that any contact with the player we were guarding was a foul. Any touching at all, even a slap on the wrist, was a foul. The only permissible contact was when players bumped each other going for a rebound. If you went over somebody’s back or intentionally pushed another player to get a rebound, you were committing a foul. Five fouls and you were out of the game.

I played on the university team in the early days of UC Santa Cruz. We played in an industrial league that included Sylvania, a cannery, a meat packing company, a couple taverns, and a Bible college. No contact allowed. Good referees. Big fun. When I dropped out of college, I continued to play in pickup games and on city league teams wherever I lived. Then in 1974 I moved to Eugene, Oregon and encountered the newest kind of basketball, a dangerously violent game wherein if I dared call a foul when someone shoved me or punched me, I might get punched again.

As it happened, John Wooden was in his next to last year as coach at UCLA when I lived in Eugene, and he seriously considered forfeiting the Eugene game with the University of Oregon because “the kamikaze kids”, as the Oregon team was nicknamed, might seriously injure one or more of the UCLA players as part of their game strategy. Yikes. I soon discovered that such intentional violence had taken hold in the gymnasiums and on the playgrounds of Eugene, along with another truly absurd wrinkle in the game: legal traveling. Traveling in basketball refers to a basketball player carrying the ball several steps without dribbling the ball, a thing that used to be verboten. But in Eugene, players were suddenly taking several steps with the ball before shooting or passing, and the few times I called someone for traveling I was threatened with bodily harm.

I am not a large person, and one of the supreme joys of the original game of basketball came from knowing that the rules protected me from having to go mano a mano with anyone, let alone someone a hundred pounds heavier and a foot taller. Finding these protective rules removed, I spent the remainder of my year in Eugene shooting hoops solo or playing volleyball with a net separating me from my opponents.

John Wooden was horrified by this sea change in the game he loved, and he became a vocal advocate of raising the height of the hoop from ten feet to at least eleven feet, and the addition of a new rule: when the shooting team got a rebound, the rebounding player had to make a pass before that team could take another shot. He tried using this new rule with his teams in scrimmages, and sure enough, much of the bullying big man domination was neutralized.

But Wooden’s suggestions came too late, as size and brute strength and dunking became all the rage in college and pro ball, and by the time Magic Johnson played one year of varsity college ball as a freshman and then turned pro in 1979, the old game was dead. Magic was six-foot nine inches tall, and played guard, the little guy’s position.

In 2008, the NBA added yet another new rule to professional basketball: players who have the ball low in the key, within five feet of the hoop, can charge and knock over any player between them and the hoop without being called for a foul. They’ve even painted a No Charge Will Be Called stripe in the lane to mark the magic boundary. This ridiculous new rule allows huge players like Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James to use their enormity to shove or scare defenders out of their way. Violence has now been officially written into the professional rules, along with allowing players more and more steps without dribbling prior to a dunk. This new dunking protocol facilitates more spectacular dunks, which are now the most popular part of the professional game.

As a teenager, basketball was my escape from an unhappy home, and as a young adult basketball was a big part of my social life. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent shooting hoops from age twelve to forty I could buy a nice new Japanese pickup truck. Two of my eight published books are novels with basketball as backdrop to the human comedy, which is to say the devolution of what was once my favorite sport saddens me. My novels Ruby & Spear and Inside Moves can be purchased for mere pennies, and I mean a few coppers, from myriad used bookseller on the internet.

For many of us who knew the game thirty years ago, today’s professional games are fairly redundant variety shows of semi-staged performances by amazingly gifted athletes, but not often contests between whole teams. And as the pros play, so do the young players who watch them. I recently gave a ride to a tall young man hitchhiking with a basketball under his arm. We began to speak about the game, but within a sentence or two, I realized he might as well be Russian and I Turkish, with no common language regarding the game, so we fell silent.

I have a friend with whom I used to avidly play basketball. For the last twenty years, he has been playing basketball four mornings a week at the YMCA in Sacramento with a bunch of guys who play by the old non-contact rules. He says the game continues to be a fabulous workout and a supreme blast, and I am deeply jealous.

Todd’s web site is underthetablebooks.com

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Competitive Meditation

What a silly idea, competitive meditation. Yet in America all things become competitive and hierarchical as reflections of the dominant operating system. Twenty years ago the notion of competitive yoga would have been just as absurd as competitive meditation, yet today yoga competitions are all the rage with big cash prizes for top asana performers ranked nationally. An asana is a particular yoga pose. Could league play be just around the corner?

The history of Buddhism, with meditation as its foundation, is a fascinating study in what happens to a non-hierarchical, non-competitive, crystal clear philosophy when it comes into contact with different societies, each with entrenched systems of social organization and religious dogma. Because Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, it is easy to discern how in coming to China, Tibet, Japan, and now the United States, the original tenets of Buddhism have been deformed to fit the pre-existing religious or pseudo-religious structures.

Organized religions universally feature a head priest or priests, priest lieutenants, their favored adherents, the less favored, and so on down the steep slope of the pyramid. Trying to fit the fundamental Buddhist notion of the essential emptiness of reality into such a pyramidical structure is akin to building a complicated factory in order to produce nothing. Delusion, greed, arrogance, jealousy, all of which Buddha called enemies of enlightenment, are, ironically, the building blocks of organized Buddhism in America.

One of my favorite stories about Freud, not to change the subject, is that he said to his American cohorts on several occasions before his death, and I paraphrase, “Whatever you do, please don’t make being a medical doctor a prerequisite to being a psychiatrist.” He made this plea because many promising psychotherapists in Europe, among them Erik Erikson, were not medical doctors, and Freud didn’t want to preclude this valuable source of input to the field.

Sadly, the Americans did just what Freud feared they would do, and we suffer the consequences to this day. Why didn’t the Americans heed Freud’s advice? Because greed, arrogance, and most importantly the desire to control who gets into the exclusive club, won the day. People at the top of pyramids will do almost anything to stay there, and since there isn’t much room at the top, the maintenance of the ruling elite requires the ruthless exclusion of anyone or any idea that threatens the status quo.

Indeed, our government and our entire economic system reflect this basic tenet of organizations structured as steep-sided pyramids. Ironically, the collapse of such pyramids is inevitable because without new ideas and original personalities, these systems decay from the top down. This is why Jefferson suggested revolutions at regular intervals were essential to the continuing health of any large organization such as a nation.

The worship of celebrity, not to change the subject, is a hugely important aspect of the American psyche. Americans aspire to be celebrities, to associate with celebrities, and to know all about celebrities. I attribute this particular mania to our collective genetic memory of being subjects of kings and queens for the thousands of years when members of the royalty were the primary celebrities until the Industrial Revolution spawned a middle class. Regardless of how it came about, celebrities rule our psyches, individual and collective, and American Buddhism has become a celebrity-based system, too; a happenstance every bit as absurd as the notion of competitive meditation. Absurdity, however, is another hallmark of American culture along with ignorance, racism, and senseless violence.

The historical Buddha, Gautama, so say the texts, witnessed these hallmarks of American culture as they manifested in India circa 600 B.C. and was so disturbed by the terrible suffering such ignorance and violence caused victims and perpetrators alike that he left behind his princely life and embarked on a journey, both inward and outward, to discover the root causes of pervasive human misery. And the vehicle he rode, as it were, on his quest to discover the source of suffering, was meditation.

Now here is something crucial to remember about Gautama Buddha: no one anointed him, no one taught him, and he did not belong to a lineage of teachers. Through meditation he attained enlightenment and discovered what he believed to be the source of suffering, and he did this…drum roll…all by himself.

Today in America or Japan or Tibet or China or Indochina, one would be extremely hard-pressed to find any “officially recognized” Buddhist master who would dare say that a practitioner can find his or her way without the guidance of an “accredited master”. I am currently reading for the third time Sogyal Rinpoche’s wonderful text The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in which he repeats ad nauseum that no one can ever hope to understand the true nature of mind or really make much spiritual progress without devotion to, and instruction from, an accredited, official, bona fide Buddhist master, and to think otherwise is dangerous and foolish and wrong. In subtle ways, he contradicts this message throughout the text, yet he seems terrified to overtly suggest otherwise.

Which brings me to The New Testament, not to change the subject. There is now both academic and popular support for the theory that the gospels of The New Testament were selected from a much larger body of Gnostic gospels in order to espouse the view that it is impossible for a regular person to connect with God except through an accredited, official, bona fide priest who somehow or other is linked by direct transmission to Jesus Christ. Any gospel that suggested you and I might connect directly with God through our own efforts without the intervention of officially accredited priests were simply not allowed into the anthology, i.e. The New Testament.

I may be stating the Gnostic case in an extreme nutshell, but I think it an accurate description of how a hierarchical system was imposed on the teachings of a Buddha-like being (Jesus Christ) who got His download, so to speak, directly from God, with no accredited anybody officiating. Which brings me back to Buddhism and competitive meditation.

I first became interested in Buddhism when I fell in love with the poetry of Philip Whalen in the late 1960’s. Searching for texts to explain Whalen’s passing references to Buddhism in his poems, I came across a little book, and I mean a tiny paperback of less than a hundred pages, written by Alan Watts entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity. Reading this book was more than a revelation to me; the experience rearranged my synapses. The basic premise of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that if I am thinking about the past and/or thinking about the future, I’m not actually here because our awareness determines our place in time and space; from which followed the popular expression Be Here Now.

The Wisdom of Insecurity was new stuff in America when it was published in 1949 (the year I was born) and it was one of Watts’s many attempts to elucidate the primary purpose of Buddhist practice, which is to bring the mind into communion with the present moment and thereby reveal the past and future to be illusory. Watts, it should be noted, has of late been marginalized by contemporary American Buddhist orthodoxy because he adamantly rejected the idea of official anointment and wasn’t particularly keen on formal modes of meditation. In this way, he was another of those folks who apparently “got it” without being knighted by an official of the hierarchy he helped found.

Inspired by Watts and Whalen, I continued to read Buddhist texts, contemporary and classical, for some years, and I was inspired to write a batch of contemporary short stories springing from various aspects of Buddhist philosophy. For instance, I would read about generosity, meditate with generosity as my starting point, and then write a story that welled up from that meditation. Then I’d send copies of the story to several friends, some versed in Buddhist philosophy, some not, wait for feedback, and then rewrite the story. Over the course of three years, I wrote forty-two such stories that eventually became a manuscript entitled Buddha In A Teacup, the title homage to Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories.

I made a photocopy edition of a hundred and fifty copies of Buddha In A Teacup, informed my friends I had done so, and within a few months sold all the copies for twenty-five dollars each, which covered my copying and mailing costs. Many of my readers urged me to try to get the book published, so I sent the manuscript to a half-dozen publishers of Buddhist texts in America and Canada. Reaction was swift and universal; the book was fascinating and fresh, but I, Todd Walton, was no one of even minor note in the galaxy of Buddhist celebrities, so No Thank You. To which I replied, “Is not the goal of our practice to transcend the illusion of ego and embrace the essential truth of our no oneness?”

Only one editor replied to my reply. He reiterated how much he liked the stories, and regretted that his company only published well-known Buddhist teachers armed with rave blurbs from really famous Buddhist teachers.

I eventually self-published a lovely edition of Buddha In A Teacup through Lost Coast Press in Fort Bragg, and though not a single Buddhist publication large or small would deign to review the book, Buddha In A Teacup has now sold over fifteen hundred copies and continues to gain a wider audience. People, those not constrained by the worship of celebrity or constricted by devotion to orthodoxy, love the book, and I think they do because the stories illuminate essential messages of the Buddha; that we are all on the same path, each of us seeking to become less fearful and less judgmental of ourselves and others, each of us aspiring to become more loving and generous.

In the vast Buddhist library there are many versions of what happened at the moment Buddha’s body died and his essence returned to the essential ground of being, an extremely subtle and eternal energy field from which you and I and all things arise and dissolve. My favorite version of this last corporeal moment is a poem by Mary Oliver entitled The Buddha’s Last Instruction in which his only spoken words are, “Make of yourself a light.”

And that is what I suggest you say to anyone who challenges you to a meditation contest. “Make of yourself a light,” and leave the competition to the organized and fully accredited yoga teams.

Copies of Buddha In A Teacup signed by the author are available from Underthetablebooks.com.

(This article first appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)

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Three Presidents (and a First Lady)

For most of my sixty years on the planet I have been a social recluse. Yet through no conscious intention on my part, I have come face-to-face with three presidents of the United States (and a First Lady).

In 1962 I was in the seventh grade in Menlo Park, California. I was a baseball fanatic and not much interested in politics, though I was fascinated by Fidel Castro and the possibility of nuclear war.

“Class,” said Mr. Arbanas, our perpetually befuddled teacher. “President Kennedy is coming to the University of California to give a speech. Each core class will elect two students, one boy and one girl, to attend. If you want to go, raise your hand.”

We all raised our hands. By secret ballot and the intercession of angels, I was the boy chosen to represent my class. On the morning of March 23, 1962, I boarded a school bus with several other students and a gang of teachers, and we rumbled across the San Mateo Bridge and up through Oakland to Berkeley. We had been advised to bring a sack lunch and binoculars. I was one of those unfortunate children whose mother had no interest in making my lunch. Ever. From the age of five I made my own lunch, the same lunch, every day: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and a carrot. This is the lunch I brought and ate on that historic day.

I did not have a pair of binoculars, but everyone else had a pair, so my plan was to borrow. We most definitely needed binoculars since our seats were the very highest in the stadium, the podium on the stage at midfield barely visible to our naked eyes.

There came a great parade of men and women in caps and gowns representing their illustrious alma maters, the day being the 94th anniversary of the charter establishing the public universities of America, which is what Kennedy spoke about. To my twelve-year-old ears and mind, the speeches preceding Kennedy’s speech, and his speech, too, were numbingly boring. I certainly enjoyed my glimpses of Kennedy and his marvelous hair through borrowed binoculars, and I thrilled to his voice, but not nearly so much as I thrilled to the myriad alluring females filling the stands around us.

Near the end of Kennedy’s address, a lunatic classmate threw an orange that struck the back of my neck. The shock of this sudden and unexpected attack caused me to pick up the exploded orange, turn in my seat, and hurl the gucky missile back at my assailant. He ducked, and the mess struck Miss Imbach (destined to be my eighth grade teacher) in the face. For this heinous crime, I was immediately yanked from my seat and marched out of the stadium by someone (I can’t recall who) to wait in ignominy on the bus.

However, my ejection coincided precisely with Kennedy finishing his speech and exiting the stadium ahead of the ceremonial finale so he might escape the ensuing gridlock. In the tumult outside the stadium, I was separated from my escort and swept along in a crowd of people hoping for a glimpse of the president.

And lo and behold, I found myself walking beside President Kennedy. Right beside him. And he was smiling. And he had a big head and fabulous teeth. And here’s the thing, honestly, he seemed genuinely happy, even perhaps enthralled, as he strolled along in the excitement of Berkeley in early spring being President of the United States. Then he looked at me and said “Hello,” or “How are you?” though I might have imagined that. But I didn’t imagine what I said to him, which was, “Thank you.”

I’m not sure why I said “Thank you”, but it may have been because I was grateful he hadn’t started a nuclear war with Russia over Cuba.

Back on the bus, one teacher after another chewed me out for throwing the orange at Miss Imbach. I was threatened with expulsion for dishonoring our school, and told I would definitely not be allowed to go on the upcoming field trip to the beach. But all I could think about was how happy Kennedy had seemed, and how I wished I had said to him, “Can’t we be friends with Fidel?”

The text of the speech Kennedy gave that day, which is both sad and ironic in light of today’s economic and educational meltdowns, can be read at the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum web site.

&

May 1969. I was nineteen and in my last few weeks of college (forever) at UC Santa Cruz. The People’s Park revolt was underway in Berkeley and I was involved in sympathetic protests at our new university in the redwoods. At the height of the carnage in Berkeley, the Regents of the University of California, including Governor Reagan, came to the Santa Cruz campus to hold their annual meeting. Perhaps they thought Santa Cruz was far enough away from bloody Berkeley for them to be safe, but it’s more likely they were just arrogant despots.

So the fat cats had their meeting in the new cafeteria at Crown College, and I went with a gang of demonstrators to mill around outside and voice our dismay at the university’s support for the war in Vietnam and to protest their violent response to unarmed people trying to create a park in Berkeley on vacant land. That’s what I was dismayed about. The more sophisticated demonstrators were dismayed about many other things, too, but I just wanted the stupid war and needless violence to end so I wouldn’t lose any more friends and we could have, you know, a cultural renaissance.

I suppose for the same reason Kennedy made an early exit from the stadium in 1962, Reagan was hustled out of the Crown cafeteria several minutes before the regents’ meeting officially adjourned. We saw the governor board one of the large snout-nosed yellow school buses used to ferry people around the bucolic campus, and we, the people, went chasing after him.

Crown College was a maze of buildings on a steep hillside with more dead ends than through streets, and it was up one of these dead ends that Reagan’s misguided driver turned. We followed en masse and effectively corked Ronald’s escape route with our bodies, and then several of the protestors began to rock the bus. There were some, perhaps, who hoped to roll the bus, but most of us just wanted to scare the crap out of our putrescent governor.

The cool thing was, before the police came and chased us away, we had several minutes of this good college fun, during which I was hoisted onto the shoulders of my fellows and brought face-to-face with Ronald Reagan. His nose and mine were no more than two feet apart, only the glass of the bus window separating us.

I suppose I might have shouted, “Off the pigs,” or “Get out of Vietnam,” or “Free People’s Park,” but I could only muster a hopeless, contemptuous, bewildered smile, because I really couldn’t think of anything to say that would mean anything to him. I could see by his face and demeanor and, if you will allow me, his aura, that he didn’t have the slightest understanding of why we were so upset. To Reagan, we were just hooligans, and to me Reagan was just a mean man of no great intelligence working for a bunch of other mean men and saying whatever they told him to say. He was a puppet. He was the guy who introduced Death Valley Days and sold Borax. He was nobody. He was a rich dupe and he was annoyed we had him temporarily bottled up, but he wasn’t afraid. He looked me in the eye and smiled a sneering smile, and then he slowly shook his head as if to say, “You’ll be sorry,” and he was right because my comrades dropped me like a hot potato when the cops converged on us, and I hit the ground hard before I ran off into the woods.

Okay. So Reagan wasn’t yet president, but he would be soon enough.

&

My dear friends Bob and Patty were married in Sacramento on September 4, 1975. I took the train down from Eugene, Oregon to be in their wedding in an old brick cathedral. The processional was Stevie Wonder singing, “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever,” and the recessional was the overture from Camelot. Thirty-five years later I’m delighted to report that Bob and Patty are still happily married.

The morning after the wedding, I was strolling down L Street and nearing the capitol when my way was blocked by a barrier of police tape stretching across L Street and the sidewalk and up to the capitol building. Why? President Gerald Ford was staying at the Senator Hotel on L Street and was soon to cross over to the capitol. Had they not strung up this barrier, I am certain no one would have known or cared that Gerald Ford was planning to cross the street there; but that was only the prelude to a most peculiar presidential event.

I was no fan of Gerald Ford or the mass murderer he’d replaced, but I thought it might be fun to see the president and then tell Bob and Patty I had. There were only a few dozen people on hand to witness Ford’s transit, all of them “caught” as I had been and not there out of any abiding love for Gerald. As we stood behind the flimsy barricade in the growing heat, I noticed a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood on the wrong side of the barrier chatting with a state policeman. They spoke amicably for a moment, and then he gestured for her to get back on the spectator side of the tape, and she did so, standing a few feet away from me.

A moment later, Ford came out of the Senator Hotel flanked by several men in suits. They crossed L Street and started along the walkway that transects the lawn to the capitol building. I remember being struck by how big Ford and the Secret Servicemen were, as if they had armor on under their suits. I remember, too, there was nothing festive in this transit, and that when Ford was ten feet away from me, his face looked grim to the point of horror.

Then Gerald abruptly veered away from the tape until he was at least thirty feet away from the nearest spectator, at which moment one of the Secret Servicemen launched himself toward, I thought, me, but actually toward Little Red Riding Hood, who turned out to be Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson. The big guy wrestled the little woman to the ground as Gerald was literally picked up and carried into the capitol building by his huge henchmen.

Squeaky was sentenced to life in prison for what she allegedly did that day, attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford. She was released from prison in August of 2009 after serving nearly thirty-five years for pointing an unloaded gun in the direction of the president. At the time of Squeaky’s symbolic act, there was hope among Republicans that Squeaky’s and a similarly bizarre attempt on Ford’s life by another woman two weeks later, might improve Gerald’s chances of election, but that was not to be.

The odd thing from my point of view was that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, none of the authorities on hand were interested in speaking to me, though they eagerly recorded the testimony of people standing much farther away than I had been from the flying Secret Serviceman. Perhaps my unruly hair and raggedy clothes and overall counter culture appearance rendered me an undesirable witness. And, yes, whether it was or not, the entire event seemed so obviously staged as to be laughable.

&

Three years after my brief encounter with Gerald Ford, I published my first novel Inside Moves (you can download my new reading of it from Audible.com) and the publisher was Doubleday.

My editor was a young woman named Sherry Knox. She and I had spoken on the phone while working on the rewrite, but we didn’t meet in-person until I flew back to New York for the publication party in the spring of 1978. Judging by her voice and her manner of speaking, I assumed Sherry was a highly educated white woman. As I sat in the foyer at Doubleday, I rose twice as white female editors came out to meet their authors, but neither woman was my editor. Then a beautiful black woman emerged from the editorial catacombs, recognized me from my author’s photo, and introduced herself as Sherry.

And I, thunderstruck by the realization that Sherry must have bought my book (about black and white people loving each other) at least in part because she was black, said without a care for political correctness, “Sherry, I never once thought you were black.”

To which she replied, “I’m glad.”

On our way to Sherry’s office, we stopped to pay obeisance to Betty Prashker, the powerful editor-in-chief who lent Sherry sufficient clout to purchase my unlikely novel, and then Sherry whispered, “Would you like to meet Jackie Kennedy? Her office is right next to mine.”

So we popped into Jackie’s office, and there was the former First Lady looking trim and slim in a crisp white blouse and a gray skirt, her eyes shielded by gray-tinted glasses. She was poring over proofs of an enormous glossy coffee table book, probably something to do with the lives of the super wealthy, of which she was an authority. Sherry introduced me. Jackie took off her glasses, smiled a crinkly smile, and shook my hand.

What I remember most about her was that she didn’t sound at all like the soft-spoken Jackie Kennedy I recalled from her days as First Lady. There was nothing soft or slow in her speech, but rather roughness, even harshness, as if she had taken on the accent of greater Manhattan.

“Sherry’s great. You’re in good hands,” said Jackie, her grip impressively strong. “Good luck to you.” And then for some reason she laughed, and I heard the same harshness in her laughter, and I laughed, too, though more out of nervousness than because anything was funny.

Then Sherry took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant where we were joined by Sherry’s close friend, Olga Adderly, the widow of a great hero of mine, the tenor sax giant Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. And for the entire meal I marveled that both Jackie and Olga had been married to men who were now legends, both men dying at forty-six, which even at my tender age of twenty-eight seemed terribly young to me.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)

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Of Trees and Money

This is about firewood, water, the San Francisco Giants, and Single Payer Healthcare, among other things.

Marcia and I rent a house on Comptche Road, our backyard abutting a vast redwood preserve last logged some eighty years ago. In the wake of that clear-cut came madrone, manzanita, pine, fir, tan oak, spruce, and redwoods. Now, left alone for the span of three human generations, the redwoods have re-established their supremacy on the north-facing slope and the “transitional forest” is swiftly dying in the persistent shade of the towering monarchs.

Thus our backyard is both fabulous forest and graveyard to thousands of dead and dying trees—fallen, falling, or easy to fell. It has become my practice to harvest a tiny portion of this perfectly seasoned wood with a buck saw and ax to help keep us warm through the winter, give my body a good workout, and to absent myself now and then from the human realm.

I walk down into the forest this morning en route to a copse of several dozen dead fir trees, their trunks eight inches in diameter, each tree about sixty-feet tall, the whole bunch of them sun-starved by an uphill gang of surging redwoods springing from the trunks of giants cut down a moment ago in redwood time. I’m thinking about the San Francisco Giants, another exciting and frustrating baseball season about to end, our valiant squad ultimately no match for the big money teams, and I have a vivid memory of Jack Sanford, a heavyset right-hander who threw for the Giants from 1959 to 1965. My memory is of a picture of Sanford in the off-season staying in shape by sawing up logs and chopping wood. The picture, which must have appeared in the Chronicle, shows Jack working next to his small house. Big-time professional baseball player. Small house. Chopping wood.

As my buck saw cuts into the standing firewood, I realize that when I was a kid idolizing my Giants, it never once occurred to me how much money any of the players made, and most of them didn’t make much to speak of. Doctors and lawyers and plumbers made more than most ball players in those days. Contracts were for a couple years, and if a player ceased to be productive, the team was not encumbered by a long-term contract that kept them from letting the player go and buying or trading for somebody younger and on the upswing.

I further realize that much of my latter day frustration about our team is related to the mess that money has made of sports, all sports, and of our society in general. We’ve got Aaron Rowand, a chunky over-the-hill center fielder making six million a year and we are bound to keep him for three more years because nobody else wants him and our dimwitted general manager signed him to an absurdly long contract. We gave Barry Zito a zillion dollars for what turns out to be almost nothing, and we couldn’t trade him today for a cup of coffee. But we’re stuck with these guys for years to come. Meanwhile, our young stars can now ask for what we gave Barry Zito, because they are unquestionably better than he. And if we don’t give them what they want, the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Angels or the Red Sox will.

The fir falls cleanly down the slope, and it occurs to me that the drought may have something to do with the sudden swiftness of all these trees dying, in combination with the deepening shade beneath the redwood canopy, the same drought that has hastened the disappearance of the salmon as the dunderheaded powers-that-be divert the dwindling Delta flow to the millions of people who shouldn’t be living in southern California because the place was never meant by Nature to sustain more than a few hundred thousand people, if that.

When my folks were born in Los Angeles in 1922, the entire population of southern California—that’s everything south of San Luis Obispo, including LA and San Diego—was less than a hundred and fifty thousand people. When they were cutting down the redwoods in my backyard here in Mendocino eighty years ago there were less than a million people in the entire state of California. Today there are forty million if you count the ones they don’t count.

I cut the dead fir in half and drag one thirty-foot length at a time up the steep slope to my woodshed. I’m fairly winded by the time I get the second piece home, so I take a break and water my vegetable garden. We water our garden with gray water caught in a hundred and fifty gallon tub I sunk in a hole not far from the tallest redwood tree on our property. Without the gray water, we couldn’t have a garden since the spring that supplies our water is perilously low this time of year and serves to quench the needs of two other homes on the property.

So we catch our shower water, bath water, washing machine water, and sink water. Only the kitchen sink and the toilets flow into the septic field; the rest we recycle. And I have to tell you, now that we’ve been growing a big garden with gray water for the last two years, I don’t understand why everybody in this drought-stricken state isn’t compelled by a reasonable law to install such a system.

Reasonable law. Hmm. Something about those two words together sounds funny. Someone, probably Michael Parenti, once said that nearly all the laws in America, federal, state, and local, are essentially about protecting those with property from those without property. What that has to do with recycling water, I’m not sure, but I am sure that for many people the idea of being compelled to reuse bath water to water their gardens would seem like the onset of socialism, so forget about it. Let the salmon die. And let the whales that eat the salmon die. Let everything die, but don’t tell me I can’t take long showers with the last fresh water from the high Sierras. It’s a free country, right? Anybody should be allowed to do anything they have the money for even if it means ruining the environment. So what if some out-of-state corporation wants to buy the local election and evade local oversight to build a monster mall that will be the ruination of Ukiah? Let the free market decide everything, unless the free market turns out to be a massive Ponzi scheme, in which case, please, have the government bail us out. But don’t call the bail out socialism, because, well, socialism is bad.

So I’m sawing up the length of fir. Based on the ease of cutting, I guess the wood has been standing dead for three years. Perfect. I buy a cord of wood every year from Frank’s Firewood in Anderson Valley to augment what I drag out of the forest. We heat the house with two woodstoves, wood heat being one of the rare luxuries of living so far from urban areas where too much wood smoke combines with too much automobile and factory effluent to make the air unhealthy to breathe. Or so they say.

As I’m sawing the wood, my thoughts return to money and how out of whack our culture has become since I was a kid, and how this out-of-whackness and money seem inextricably bound. By American standards, Marcia and I live simply, our three largest expenditures being our rent, health insurance, and food. I didn’t have health insurance until a few years ago when I suffered through a medical emergency and felt threatened with the loss of everything I owned or might ever own.

I remember when I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz in the early seventies and I had an abscessed tooth, though I didn’t know that’s what I had. I only knew my head hurt and I was blind with pain. So my fellow communards drove me to see Doc Willis. He was an old man, a real doctor, and he charged ten bucks a visit. I waited a half-hour to see him. He came into the examining room, winced in sympathy, touched my upper lip, and said, “You need a dentist. Call this guy.”

When I tried to give his nurse/secretary ten dollars, she waved me away. “He said no charge.”

So today the San Francisco 49ers are without the services of their first round draft pick because this misguided young kid Michael Crabtree won’t sign with them because he’s been told he should get ten million dollars a year instead of eight, though he has yet to prove he can do anything as a pro except complain. Today, actors without talent made famous through media saturation get twenty million dollars to be in truly awful movies. Today corporate executives get hundreds of millions of dollars a year for successfully stealing money from a gullible supine population. And today we have a medical system that is the number one cause of homelessness.

If you go see a doctor today, about anything, your usurious medical insurance premium will almost certainly go up. So maybe you don’t go to your doctor, though you really think you should, because you really can’t afford to go to the doctor, either because you don’t have medical insurance or because you do.

The nights have turned chill this early October. I’m about turn sixty. If I had eight million dollars, no, if I had eight hundred thousand dollars, I would never have to work again, and that would be after I gave you half the money. And if we didn’t spend a third of our income on health insurance we’re afraid to use, who knows what we and everybody else might do with our lives?

In the meantime, I’m cutting wood, recycling water, hoping the Giants can re-sign Lincecum and Uribe, hoping we dump Molina and Rowand and Winn, and wishing Sabean would have an epiphany and move to Tibet. I continue to write to Obama and our corporate congress folk urging them to push for Single Payer. I continue to tell my Mendocino friends to vote No on Measure A. And I continue to believe the wisest course to follow is to spend at least as much time being a good friend as I spend trying to make money.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)

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The Death of Literature

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)

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Restoration and Redemption

Before

During

After

With Under the Table Books