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Death is a sidewinder. It strikes from a place concealed and unthinkable, triggering a reality completely unexpected. – Vickie Lester
Anne Brown, a New York teacher and author of literary novels is on her way to Palm Springs in the middle of winter. Movie studio bigwigs are flying her out to renew the option on her first novel, a decade out of print. Why do the rich and beautiful people welcome her with open arms? Is it because she’s the out of wedlock daughter of a retired movie mogul?
No, it’s a bit more sinister than that, Cliff, the most beautiful person there, tells Anne. An acting agent, he fills her in and offers to help her navigate the proverbial shark infested waters. And draws her into a whirlwind affair that is hardly the norm for Anne, a confirmed bachelorette, who thinks of herself as the girl that guys just want to be friends with.
It seems too good to be true, but it is, until the following morning, when Cliff is found dead by the side of the road in his Ferrari. It looks like a tragic heart attack until the coroner finds he overdosed on the kind of drug cocktail used to enhance pleasure at the gay sex club up the road. Cliff hardly seemed gay to Anne, and everyone who knew him swears he was straight in every sense of the word.
Filled with grief, anger, and curiosity, Anne begins to ask questions. It soon becomes apparent that everyone at the Palm Springs house that weekend was hiding something. “Was there not one single normal person in all of L.A.?” she wonders. And then a black Escalade tries to chase her down on the freeway…
Vickie Lester, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, used to write screenplays, “Horrid, arty, little things,” she says, “that were…optioned again and again, but never made into movies. Perhaps, because they were neither commercial or cinematic?”
Now she has turned her considerable talent and insider’s knowledge of Hollywood into a gripping mystery, with an ending I never saw coming. It’s In His Kiss is funny and smart and offers an insider’s view of a world of illusion that still fascinates.
The City of Angels was named for beings most often seen by children, visionaries, and the insane. The best novels out of LA are woven with a noir tone – all that sun and all those palm trees have to cast a shadow. Anne Brown and Phillip Marlowe are very different characters, and yet I imagine the spirit of Raymond Chandler is pleased. As a fan of both authors, I know I was!
When I first started to write, in my teens and early 20’s, I was hugely influenced by an eclectic group of American writers that included vocal social critics from the earliest years of the 20th century. People like Theodore Dreiser, who wrote famously clunky prose, but whose An American Tragedy (1925) was a stinging indictment of greed in our culture. Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis depicted the soul-crushing conformity of a milieu we often imagine as small town innocence. But greater than any other influence was Henry Miller, who demonstrated the power of personal essays. His books, like The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945) shaped my view of our dominant culture.
It was natural that this kind of critique, along with that of more recent writers and essayists like Michael Ventura, should influence my blogging. But this spring something strange happened. At the start of Lent, though I do not celebrate the season in any formal way, I announced that I would “give up” negative posts for the duration. As expected, the experiment was more interesting than I expected.
“Rodin’s thinker?” by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I’ve already blogged about some of my findings, especially the obvious ones, like the preponderance of bad news in all varieties of media. And I knew in advance there would be less to say if I excluded negative themes. What I didn’t expect was to find myself wondering whether it mattered – it’s virtuous to write about things like climate change and income inequality – isn’t it? A very interesting question since I don’t really believe many writers and artists change social ills directly. Maybe Charles Dickens did, or Jacob Riis, with his photos of child labor, but Dreiser didn’t eliminate greed and Miller didn’t break the ruts of conformity. Writers and artists sometimes change individual hearts and minds, but how does that work? That is not a rhetorical question, but something I often wonder about. How does it work?
Perhaps it was this kind of question that moved Phil Ochs, one of the best of the 60’s protests singers, to write, “You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty / Ah, but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.” Maybe it’s what led Henry Miller, in his last years, to write books like, My Bike and Other Friends, and to focus on his watercolors.
My biggest discovery, while turning away from negative stories during Lent, concerned inner dialog rather than outer events. I’ve attended to this in a focused way in the past at various times, but not for a while. Mindfulness practice appeared on the cover of Time, so it must be gaining fad status, but that does not diminish its worth. It’s an ancient contemplative discipline that involves simply watching the contents of consciousness. Not fixing, fighting, or merging with, but simply observing what flits through awareness (here’s a good introduction to the practice).
I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find a subtle but persistent stream of critical inner narrative on self, others, and events. The narratives tend grow in the darkness yet dissolve when observed, the way shadows disappear when you turn on the light in a room. Observation eventually leads one to suspect that thoughts have no more substance than shadows, and no more inherent reality, and yet they can have profound effects. I suspect we have all had interesting synchronicities, met things in the world corresponding to our inner states. And if one subscribes at all to notions of the effect of collective thoughts, an idea given names like, “tipping point” or “hundredth monkey,” then the contents of consciousness take on a meaning beyond their effect on oneself alone.
I follow the Dalai Lama on Facebook and often note that when he is asked about topical issues like climate change, he always gives a thoughtful answer, the tone of which is invariably, “I am hopeful.” If I learned anything with this Lenten experiment, it is how hard it can be to cultivate a hopeful attitude. I also cannot imagine anything more important. Can there be a more important seed to plant than this one – “I am hopeful?”
medley (med-lē) n., 1a mixture of things not usually placed together; heterogeneous collection; hodgepodge.
A quiet week, with many ideas wandering through my mind without quite attaining blog post velocity. Sitting here, with a cup of coffee and the windows open to a fine spring morning, I decided to scoop up some of these notions, not necessarily in order of importance, and present them to you as a medley, or hodgepodge as the case may be.
On Mickey Rooney: I wish I had known that last Sunday, all day, Turner Classic Movies was hosting a day of Mickey Rooney movies. I tuned in late, but did get to see Boy’s Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943), both notable for their idealistic and almost too sentimental presentation of American life. Boys Town tells the story of Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who founded a home for abused and delinquent boys in Nebraska. Rooney plays Henry Hull, the tough kid who tests Flanagan’s belief that there is “no such thing as a bad boy.”
Tracy and Rooney in “Boys Town,” 1938
In addition to the real life humanity of Flanagan, whose Boys Town still exists in the Midwest, the film reflects 1930s progressive ideals, as well as an older, deeper, American romanticism, the belief that by nature, we are noble beings, corrupted only by cultural dysfunction. Watching Boys Town, I thought of the next great eruption of that ideal in the ’60s and remembered a line from Crosby, Stills & Nash that almost stands as an epitaph for that era: “It’s been a long time coming / it’s gonna be a long time gone.” The album came out in 1969, the year Charles Manson called optimism like Father Flanagan’s into serious question.
Mother Nature on the run: Now that I’m thinking of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that phrase popped to mind as title for this subsection, though it’s really about animals on the run. An editorial in yesterday morning’s paper, The case for banning wildlife-killing contests by Camillia H. Fox, outlines the common practice of for profit, recreational predator hunting contests.
Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is heartening to learn that pushback is growing, both from citizens and state Fish and Game Commissions. In California, commission president, Michael Sutton said:
“I’ve been concerned about these killing contests for some time. They seem inconsistent both with ethical standards of hunting and our current understanding of the important role predators play in ecosystems.”
The way we treat the animals seems increasingly to be like the way we treat each other. Witness the case cited in the article, of the organizer of one of these killing contests, who (allegedly) pushed a 73 year old man to the ground for trying to photograph the event. We have to say, “allegedly” because, although the older man’s spine was fractured, the perpetrator has yet to be charged. This is not what our founding fathers meant when they spoke of a “well ordered militia.”
Of Jungians and Tibetans: I’ve recently started, with keen interest, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2012) by Rob Preece, an in depth practitioner of both Jungian psychology and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan iconography is striking and vivid, almost begging for Jungian analysis, but most western commentators, including Jung himself, have written about it as outsiders looking in.
Not Preece, who studied with Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the greatest 20th century Tibetan teachers to come to America. Lama Yeshe understood Jung and understood that Buddhist practice has always undergone change when crossing geographic and cultural boundaries.
Preece writes of Col. Francis Younghusband, who visited Tibet in 1904. Seeing pictures of wrathful deities, Younghusband concluded that this was a culture that worshiped demons. Jungians may pounce on the concept of shadow, but that too, will often be wide of the mark. Although Tibetans and Jungians both understand such imagery as depicting internal qualities, in this case, it is wrathful energy in the service of compassion. It’s the energy of, “This shit’s gotta stop!” The energy that led Camilla Fox to start a foundation to stop the slaughter of animals.
Two large gatherings: Over the last two weekends, I took part in two separate events which drew hundreds of people. Both were immensely satisfying days of harmonious groups, drawn together by shared interest, working cooperatively and having a lot of fun doing so. It’s almost enough to make you believe in no such thing as a bad boy or girl, in Mickey Rooney’s America.
That fundamental goodness is precisely what the Tibetans and Buddhists in general believe, even with their finely honed awareness of both relative truth, here in the trenches, and ultimate truth. Our ultimate nature, they say, the ground of our being is pure, unstained by any event, the way the sky is unstained by pollution. The bad news is, it can take eons for us to figure this out; a weekend at Woodstock is clearly not enough.
Still, I always feel energized after such gatherings, even as that wrathful energy rises at the thought of all the artificial barriers that divide us in our day to day lives. That’s something everyone has to work out for themselves. Meanwhile, I felt like listening again to Crosby, Stills & Nash. I hope they’re right in this song: that it’s always darkest before the dawn.
In an earlier post, Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, I announced an experiment. Following my wife’s efforts to suspend negative thinking and speech during Lent, I decided to refrain from critical posts through Easter. Here is the first of several observations I will share.
Avoiding negative and pessimistic topics leaves me a lot fewer subjects to blog about! Many of my posts begin with news stories, but often it seems, to paraphrase the old Hee-Haw song, “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” More nights than not, when I’ve checked my usual source websites (CNN, NPR, USA Today, etc.), I haven’t found a single upbeat or funny or quirky post that I wanted to write about. Sure, there was the girl scout who sold 12,000 boxes of cookies, but even if it’s a good thing for a kid to become a marketing wizard, that isn’t my kind of story.
The real question for me, however, is not the content of this weeks’ or that weeks’ news, but the systemic nature of our news media, which makes trials and tribulations endemic. These are news stories, after all, and a good story demands tension, upping the stakes, and all that. The question is not whether these are gripping stories, but the degree to which they mirror “reality.”
I’m thinking of a book I have often cited here, Neal Gabler’s, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (2000), in which the author says we are not just a post-modern culture but a “post reality culture.” Gabler locates the beginning of news-as-entertainment in America as “the penny press.” Prior to 1830, newspapers were single page “broadsheets” which appealed to the upper classes. Most of them cost six cents and the average daily circulation in New York City was 1200. Beginning with the Sun, which cost a penny, newspaper sales exploded. Gabler cites various reasons for the success of the penny press, but says that above all, it meshed with other sensational forms of entertainment:
“…for a constituency being conditioned by trashy crime pamphlets, gory novels and overwrought melodramas, news was simply the most exciting, most entertaining content a paper could offer, especially when it was skewed, as it invariably was in the penny press, to the most sensational stories. In fact, one might even say that the masters of the penny press invented the concept of news because it was the best way to sell their papers…”
In it’s first two weeks of publication, in 1835, the New York Herald ran stories that centered on “three suicides, three murders, the death of five persons in a fire, a man accidentally blowing off his head, an execution in France by guillotine and a riot in Philadelphia.” Needless to say, the Herald became wildly successful.
If it’s true that what we think of as “news” is an “invented concept,” we have to ask to what degree it mirrors reality and to what degree it creates it? Think about that the next time you open the paper or check your Tweets.
What I have discovered is how deep the contagion goes, even though I normally limit my sources, never watching the local news on TV, for instance. I confess that while I have cut negative posts from theFirstGates since March 7, I’ve probably doubled the number of depressing subjects I’ve posted on Twitter. In a way, I feel like I did a month after I quit smoking, and found that a nasty cough was still there. This is more serious than I thought at first. I’ll have more to say about it, but meanwhile, let’s change the tone as we end with a classic that came to mind at the start of this post.
Here’s some nice info to pass on. I’m already a fan of Paul Newman salad dressings and popcorn, and it’s great to hear of garments made in America once again. I like the idea of socially responsible funds too, though once when I looked at them (sometime ago) I discovered they trailed index funds in their returns. Many things have changed since then, but you’ll want to investigate or check with a financial advisor. At any rate, it’s great to hear of opportunities to shop with conscience.
It’s human nature to want to buy stuff…more and more stuff. That being said, why not try to buy from socially responsible companies? Many companies donate a percentage of their sales to charity (for example, Paul Newman’s company has donated over $400 million to charities since 1982 from the sale of grocery items.
A new company, Fed By Threads, specializes in Made-In-America organic ethical vegan clothing that feeds 12 emergency meals to hungry Americans via foodbanks per item sold. The company’s founders, Jade Beall and Alok Appurdurai, created the company when they learned about the tremendous suffering that sheep, silkworms, cows, goats and other animals experience in the production of clothing. They also are firm believers in paying fare wages to garment workers and in keeping these jobs in America.
Also, the number of socially responsible / sustainable investment mutual funds has grown over the years. Some lend money…
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, by John Snape, CC-BY-SA-3.0
This morning I showed my wife a newspaper photo depicting a politician who closely resembles a recent movie villain. “No one will vote for him,” I said.
She laughed and agreed, but a little while later said, “Wow, that made it hard. I’m trying to give up criticism for Lent.”
I apologized, for I know how hard real spiritual discipline can be. Then I reflected that her resolution echoes a thought I’ve had on and off for some time – cutting, or at least reducing, the negative topics and posts in this blog. The period of Lent, about seven more weeks, seems like a good trial period, so I’m going to try this experiment and figure it out as I go along.
When considering this move in the past, I’ve had fears along the lines of becoming Pollyanna or having nothing to write about if I close my eyes to the world’s crap. I am confident, however, that tens of thousands of writers can take up the slack if I take a break.
There are many reasons to do so. First and foremost for me is this simple truth from Zen teacher, Cheri Huber, so simple and yet so easy to forget: “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”
The same truth is expressed in completely different terms in Scott Adams’s new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. This cartoon genius who gave us Dilbert says: “Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others.” (I plan to review this book here soon).
A final, obvious example, given his recent visit to this country, is the Dalai Lama. Beyond doubt, he’s the most joyous person who lives in the public spotlight. I’ve never been in his physical presence, but I have met a few spiritual masters, men and women of several traditions, and for me, they all had one thing in common: when you get near them, you pick up their joy. And I mean a profound joy, the kind that sometimes has left my jaw aching from smiling so much more than I am used to. I’m sure the Dalai Lama is like that.
Dalai Lama with Christ University Choir, Bangalore, India
One of the many things he has said that always struck me concerns a difficulty he had when he first came to the west: he could not at first believe the degree of shame and self-hatred that are native to our culture. It was completely new and shocking to him to hear such a thing, for there was nothing like it at all in Tibet. I believe it’s no coincidence that you never hear the Dalai Lama say critical things about anyone else. He doesn’t even criticize the Chinese, saying only, “They helped me cultivate patience.”
As I end this post, I realize some readers outside the U.S. might not be familiar with its title, which comes from an old western song, “Home on the Range:”
Home, home on the range, Where the deer and the antelope play, Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, And the skies are not cloudy all day.
“Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, and like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that other great song that reminds us of Kansas, it seems to ask the question, “Why not I?” Or, “Why not us?”
Asking “why not” is itself a classic spiritual discipline. What factors hold me back from the kind of life I want to live. In my own case, criticism of self and others is part of that mix. Let’s see what happens here over the next seven weeks…
Quite a few of my posts begin with ideas that rattle around until research or mulling them over generates enough interest to get me writing. Time for contemplation and research have been in short supply recently and are likely to be for the next week, so grabbing this moment, I decided to mention a few things I am working on that may or may not get posts of their own in the future.
With the drought on everyone’s mind, I was tempted to write a piece on the symbolism of water. The problem is, (1) the subject is huge, (2) it’s already been done, and (3) a Star Trek episode keeps me from starting. Every time I remember the silicon creatures who called humans, “ugly bags of mostly water,” all my attempts to stay focused and serious fail. According to Mr. Data, it’s an accurate description of our species. Thanks, dude.
There’s another approach to discussing water in California that centers on economics and politics. I could discuss the millions of gallons we pour into fracking wells. Or I could mention the president’s three hour visit to Fresno, complete with a photo-op in a dry field before jetting off to Rancho Mirage, but I don’t think I will. If I want to get depressed over water, it’s easier just to rent Chinatown.
I’m writing a letter
Not just any letter. I’m writing a letter of condolence to someone whose dog recently died. It’s one paragraph forward and two back. Those who have lost a beloved pet will understand how this letter is siphoning off most of the emotional energy I’m willing to invest in writing at this time.
Too many choices
A chain of associations based on some of my own experiences led to a fascinating but huge subject, the difficulty of having too many choices.
photo by Alexander Acker, 2010, CC BY-ND-2.0
In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz writes that seeking the “perfect” choice is “a recipe for misery.” Other researchers say, “The current abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness,” and “Americans are paying for increased affluence and freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community.”
This kind of subject deserves elaboration, but if you don’t want to wait for me to get around to it, just Google on “too many choices” and see what you find.
I’m learning Spanish
Yup, I started last summer on Rosetta stone, for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to, or necessarily in order of importance):
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Languages are supposed to be good for the brain.
One night, flipping through the TV listing, it seemed like it would be fun to watch El Codico DaVinci on the Spanish station.
One of my Facebook friends who knew me back when, reminded me that in 7th grade Spanish, I was a class clown. The reason was simple. I believed I was “no good at languages,” and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a lot of satisfaction in erasing that misperception. I came upon the Spanish version of book I have in English yesterday and flipped through it before deciding I’d better start in the children’s section. I wonder if they have cartoons on Saturday morning on the Spanish channels?
Meanwhile, I don’t know why mid-February should be so busy, but it is, and I have to move on to the next thing, so let me summarize this post.
Water is good, though flooding is bad.
Few things are harder than losing a dog.
Choosing things can be iffy.
Learning a language sometimes carries the kind of excitement that learning to read must have done when we were kids.
Feel free to quote me. Until next time, when maybe I’ll manage to write a real post…