Friday, September 19, 2003

Elders

People keep dying. Older than me, some younger, well known names. Known to me if not to you, for example, was John Henry Redwood. Known as an actor, some on screen, mostly on stage, he's been a developing playwright for the past decade or so, and a good one. Also a great person. A big man with a big heart and a big smile. I met him in Pittsburgh when the Pittsburgh Public Theatre put on one of his first plays. He was very interested in the craft of it. Actually we may have met when he was in an August Wilson play there. It's been awhile: I remember a patio party at someone's house where he and I sneaked off for a minute to check the Lakers playoff score---and Magic Johnson was playing then.

Anyway, he died recently. Not as heralded as John Ritter or Edward Teller or Warren Zevon or even Sheb Wooley (of Flying Purple People Eater fame), but a man whose presence and talent in this world will be missed. We will be lesser for his absence.

Which got me to thinking, not very originally, that we ought to honor people when they're still alive to hear it. I've picked some Elders I wish to honor. Some aren't in fact very much elder to me in years, but certainly in achievement.

Norman Mailer. He seemed to have retired during the Clinton years but Bush has brought Norman stormin back. Sure he's flawed in big ways, but he's a huge talent, and someone who has given me key thoughts and prompts over many years. I wasn't all that crazy about his book on the Pentagon march, though in 1968 that a writer with his credentials (and military novel) could write about anti-Vietnam and anti-draft youth with such conviction was important. His novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam?" was riveting. I loved his defense of Henry Miller when he was a notorious target of Womens Lib in the early 70s. For good or ill he's carried the torch for the heroism of writing and especially the aspirations of the novel during my lifetime.
Yet besides the example of his engagement and standards he tried to uphold, I'll remember specific things he said or wrote almost as asides. "Totalitarianism is the interruption of mood." I heard him say that on a talk show (talk shows used to have actual writers on them) and it blew me away. Later I found it in one of his books, Advertisements For Myself I think. It's still a very profound personal and political formula for me.
And an offhand comment in his prose-as I recall he was narrating that someone had apologized for not having read one of his books and he said he understood entirely-that a book and a reader have to be ready for each other. That too is a guiding light to me. It says so much about books and life, and about how we continue to have new and illuminating experiences, how books speak to us in the course of our lives, they are there as resources for us, and how even the books are treasures at the end of the hard roads of life, a kind of payoff in wisdom and light and depth for all that we've seen and felt and been subjected to.
I wonder if his more recent work has spoken to young people at the time. I haven't read him in recent years. Maybe I'm just not ready yet.

Robert Bly. Another writer with flaws, perhaps more lovable ones, but not entirely. But I doubt there's been anyone more important to poetry in America in the past sixty years. He's been at the forefront from the sixties on, with his personality and enthusiasms and in recent decades his transparency, his honesty and courage. He still gets dogmatic once in awhile but that's the kind of flaw that integral and forgivable and lovable. His powers of promotion have brought many wonderful poets to wider attention. He's kept that up, from Neruda in the early 70s to Machado and Rumi and more. He's been close friends at different times with two of the best poets of the age, James Wright and William Stafford.
He's taken a lot of heat about the men's movement from people who have entirely distorted what's he said and what he's done. I respect him as an elder and I will always listen to what he has to say. He's written some fine poems, and he has done more than anyone to revive the performance of poetry, except perhaps Allen Ginsberg (who took up the squeezebox at about the time Bly took up his stringed instrument.) He's one of the connecting points between so many important places in our culture and consciousness.

Bill Moyers. Bly was but one of the voices of our age that Bill Moyers introduced to millions of people. The range and quality of his work over the years is nothing short of astounding. I have transcripts of his programs and books from his various programs and series' going back to the sixties. Political, imaginative, artistic, thoughtful life in these decades would be so much poorer without him. Even today, his PBS series "Now" is virtually alone on television as a quality news program of relentless probity, leavened by intelligent enthusiasms in art and thought. Bill Moyers is really the hero of the television age.

Leslie Marmon Silko. She's not much older than me, but she's an elder in many ways in what she knows and writes. She's the most profound and political of the many excellent Native American novelists, poets and nonfiction writers. Her generation that came of age in the 60s with an explosion of writing turns out not to have been an anomaly. American Indian writers remains vital, and beats new paths. But the continuing energy of this generation's writers, especially Silko and Linda Hogan, still inspires me.

Doris Lessing. A writer who would never let anyone else define her. "The Golden Notebook" made her a feminist heroine, but she refused to be limited or defined by any political agenda. Her science fiction novels are amazing in their conception, though she got little credit for them-puzzling both mainstream fiction adherents and s/f fans. I don't find her much of a stylist, but her energy and intelligence propel you forward. She must be a model for other strong women writers like Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin. Atwood has a takes no prisoners intelligence, yet she's witty and civilized, and she sure can write (some of her short stories in particular are outstanding.) LeGuin is heroic as well, although she's offended me with some of her sexist talk, but like Lessing she's her own person, and quite forthright-and often right.

Maxine Hong Kingston. Again, an elder in example and inspiration, but not elderly. Her new book is courageous, not for what she's endured or even done, but in her honesty with herself, and honest attempt to tell us the truth. But not only that: it is the textures of her telling that ultimately are the most inspiring. I'll bet she's a great teacher, and I'm glad that her books are so popular on campuses. She believes in literature, in story, imagination; her new book unites the world of literature with the attempt to unite inner and outer peace-for example, by using meditation in her workshops with war veterans.

I need to add two or three more---there are many more, of course, but I can't neglect these: James Hillman , the most important of the post-Jungians, who lately has turned his attention to the subject of elders and aging. I just listened to the audiobook version of his print book (which I read when it came out), The Force of Character. It is a great listen as well as the usual rivetting and admirable read. He quotes another elder who has valuable and inspiring things to say about aging, Theodore Roszak. I've written about both these men and their work in this and other blogs.

Then there is Paul Newman , who acted in important movies as a young man, in middle age and in his later years. Then he parlayed his fame into a business that simultaneously offers good, healthy and tasty products and helps support good causes and artists. He's been a model in so many ways for so long, that his few lapses---that oil company commercial, and the promo suggesting that "Washington Week in Review" is something more than the march of cliches by timid journalists mouthing conventional wisdom very occasionally enlivened by new information or analysis---are easily forgiven. Now he's helping to bring Thorton Wilder to TV. He's been admirable in many ways, in his personal trials as well as modest in his triumphs, and so it's fitting to end this tribute to all elders with him.

Finally there's someone who exemplifies the elder perhaps best of any I can think of, and that's Gary Snyder. A poet of mythic power, whose life and work have forged crucial links important to the future, in his pioneering synthesis of Buddhism, Native American worldview, practical ecology and much more. His prose works such as The Practice of the Wild, The Old Ways, "Four Changes" and the interviews and essays in The Real Work and A Place in Space are essential as any body of work created in my lifetime. He is the elder teacher of our time, who introduces, connects and interprets knowledge as a guide on our individual, collective and planetary journeys.

I hope all of these people are around for a long time. But in my life they've been inspirations and so I testify to this, while others can still take advantage of their live presence.

Wonderful

Things are still pretty unsettled in my little world. But I've got two moments that I'd have to classify as wonderful, and both happened on the same day.

The first was a small and so far solitary personal victory. For something like five or six years now, I've had this little musical play that I wrote---a play for (I figure) junior high age kids, about smoking. It's a musical, and I wrote songs for it. I really liked it, but I've had to pick my battles-those things I tried to steel myself to send out into the world of rejection, misunderstanding, envy and heartbreak. Some of those items perhaps deserved not to be published or produced or whatever, but when you start out and believe in what you've done or at least the potential of it, you have to go forward and see what happens. But I have to be selective, not really just in terms of what I think is the quality of what I've done, but in the kind, the quality and the quantity of shit I'm inviting. For example, I can expect a nonfiction book proposal to get at least a little respect from somebody, since I've published a nonfiction book, and I'm an Author and a Freelance Writer. But if I try springing a musical play for kids-look out! Blank stares, or just total blankness. Cause you see I'm not a career playwright, I don't have my PhD in Advanced Dramatury nor have I workshopped and networked nothing but plays plays plays for ninety years---let alone musical playwright OR kids writer. In this world you write childrens books about stamps, and that's your identity for life.

And not only is the rejection more likely, it's harder to take, because I'm also insecure, for the same reason---I've got no track record. Maybe it really is shit. But I never believed this play or the music was shit. However, I could never get a recording that represented the music to my satisfaction. Because I couldn't afford the time or the money to do it, and there wasn't anyone else interested and able to help make that happen.

Then technology sort of caught up. Several years ago I got an inexpensive four track recorder. I had an electronic keyboard-not a great one, but not a real cheapo either. I composed the songs on that keyboard, with all that instrumentation, using presets in my own way. Over the course of a couple of years, when I could stand to spend all that time and belief, I recorded the songs. Actually I recorded the three songs people who heard them liked best, and they did seem like the obvious "hits"to me, too. And I recorded short versions of the other songs, just to indicate how they would go in the script. This wasn't easy.

Then I had to listen to all the takes, choose the best ones, redo several vocals, sometimes whole songs. And then, I didn't have the equipment to mix these recordings to my satisfaction. By then the programs to mix on the home computer were coming along, and so were the computers. Finally I found a program cheap and easy enough to use just to make a decent CD. It took hours more, and two computers, but just when it looked like---or rather it sounded like---it was never going to happen, it did happen. I now have a CD that sounds pretty good. Not perfect but (as we used to say) good enough for this band. It's musically okay and gets the idea of the song across. So finally, after all this time, this much exists, and that's about as wonderful as it's been in such things.

The second wonderful thing also has to do with music and technology and specifically, this laptop. On it I watched and listened to the DVD of "A Hard Day's Night" I borrowed from the library. You know how many times I've seen this movie in theatres? I stopped counting at 20. Then came the video restoration (which I have) and now the DVD. And it's the best yet. Moments as terrific as some moments in the theatre. But as an overall viewing and listening experience, better.

You can now see all the flaws that the big screen hid, but you can also see all the little subtle things. And mostly it's the presence. The immediacy. A combination of the visual image and the music through the earphones. (A lot of Beatles stuff at a certain point was in true stereo, which makes earphones worse than useless for me, since I can hear only in one ear, and therefore only half of the song---the drums and the backup vocals, or switch to the lead vocals while the rhythm cuts out-very frustrating, torture really.) But this is mixed so I get stereo through both earphones. (Something I picked up from the recording program was what added echo/reverb sounds like, and so I could identify that reverb was added to the songs the Beatles play in the concert in the end, so the music sounds like it's being played live in a hall---though of course in that hall the music wasn't heard at all, just the screaming.)

It's a nice DVD package, with interviews with everybody they could find, including the woman who did makeup, but those Brits talk so well that even all these bits were interesting and fun. I can't figure out why they didn't include the "I'll Cry Instead" footage they added in the video version, but other than that, it's a fine two DVD set. But the movie-that the thing. That's the wonderful thing.

I remember long ago---1969 to be exact---I was walking with a college friend in Berkeley, and I happened to mention Wallace Stevens' statement that the purpose of art was to make people happy. My friend, a philosophy major on a heavy political and psychological trip, laughed at me. I doubt if that's why many artists do it, he said.

Kurt Vonnegut said something like that in his novel Timequake. "I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'the Beatles did.'"

They didn't do it alone in this movie, and finding the right people at the right time and inspiring them was part of their genius, their success when it worked, and their bad times when it didn't. They rescued Richard Lester from making commercials for the rest of his life, and he turned out to be a very fine director, with several of the best films of the 60s and early 70s. They inspired the camera people, the editors, the other actors, etc. In some ways, this movie is like Shakespeare for the 60s-full of clich├ęs, because the lines became part of the culture. I could recite the times even in recent years that people have quoted from this movie. Yet I had forgotten some of the funny bits.

I've got to take the DVD back to the library tomorrow, so as soon as I post them, I'm going to watch it again.