Happy 242nd birthday, children. May this July 4th find you full of joy and gratitude, wherever you are in this great land of ours.
Your uncle and I are doing well, all things considered. After all, we’re not as young as we used to be!
But you kids have us worried. Sam and I think you’re being especially bratty and that pains us both.
We know you’re young; your cousins Mr. and Mrs. John Bull keep reminding us their English brood is four times as old and they’ve had no end of problems with them lately, but we expect better of you. That’s why we gave you American Exceptionalism.
Don’t take this wrong, we’re still proud of you, but we think you need to step back and take a good look at yourselves.
So, here goes, and remember, we offer this with love.
First of all, stop bickering so much. Really, children, it’s gotten out of hand! If you keep screaming at one another we’re going to pull the Buckboard over to the curb and nobody goes to DC until you settle down.
I know you think these are hard times, but heavens to Betsy, there have been much worse and you never whined like this!
Really, what more do you imps want? You’ve got the best economy on the planet. People in most of the world would kill for the life you’ve got. Those poor souls to the south of you would die for your privileges, and some of them do, every day.
We’re not saying you have to let anyone in who wants to come here, that’s impossible, but can you at least try to be a little kinder to those folks who try? Nobody likes a bully.
As your Aunt, I especially don’t like the way you’re treating children, and your Uncle says you can’t have it both ways. You can’t moan and groan about your miserable fate while refusing entry to our country because you don’t want to share your good fortune.
Controlling our borders is fine, pretending you live in a swamp at the same time is immature. You’re acting like moody teenagers, nothing satisfies you, everything is bad, boo-hoo-hoo.
Look what you’ve done to the political system we bequeathed you. You’ve soiled it so badly you don’t want to go near it. But whose fault is that?
Now, we don’t want to be too hard on you. You’re still young and young ‘uns make bad choices. But Uncle wants you to “man up” (I don’t like his choice of words, but we’ve been married for centuries so I indulge him. You should follow our example.) He says you made your bed, now sleep in it. If you don’t like it, change the bedding.
But that’s not what worries us most. If you were carrying on, having fun like juvenile delinquents, we’d be upset, but we’d understand. We were young once, you should have seen us cutting up. Oh my goodness, we were bad!
The thing is, we had fun doing it. You kids don’t seem to be having any fun at all. You act like fun and hijinks are beneath you. Maybe you think it makes you look grown up and serious to be so joyless, but it only makes you look spoiled.
We’ve watched your shows, heard your music, read your “posts” or whatever you call them. Goodness gracious, you’d think you were living in the plague years! Anything nice you think is corny, anything hopeful you think is unsophisticated, anything positive is idiotic.
But if it’s gruesome or ugly or cynical, you lap it up like a starving puppy. It seems to us as if you want to feel bad.
Your uncle and I aren’t old sentimental fools; we know that saccharine music and stories are lame.
But we also know that saccharine is not sugar. Life can be sweet, if you let it. Don’t be afraid to be happy and sincere. It will make you happy and sincere.
We don’t want to rain on your parade, children. Especially your July 4th parades. But stop your tears or you’ll snuff out all the pretty fireworks.
And do try to get along. You’ll make more friends, get more done, and be much happier if you do.
But no matter what you do, know that we still love you. You’re the product of our wonderful extended family after all.
Love and happy birthday,
Uncle and Auntie Sam
How do you know if you’re an artist?
My friend Barry is basically an aging stoner in the Sunset District, but he’s an artist too. He wrote a book called Deep Fool that not many people read. It’s about his spectacularly wasted youth and some truly horrid things he did to himself and others. Deep Fool is monumentally depressing at times, sneakily amusing at others. It’s a good book that deserved more success, and I hope it gets it yet, but it probably won’t.
But that doesn’t make Barry one bit less of an artist. It just makes him poor and obscure.
My other buddy and opposite page-mate Manny Wolf wrote a book too. It’s called Almost A Foreign Country, a connected collection of essays and aphorisms that roughly outlines his life. It contains enough wisdom, and gimlet-eyed glances at America and the world beyond, for two hyperactive lifetimes. He sold some copies. Not as many as he wanted to (that is the definition of infinity, a writer’s book sales dreams) but some.
Manny is a teacher and friend, but mostly Manny is an artist, right down to his core. You don’t measure that by royalties.
In our culture, validation is money, and these are hard times for artists. The internet has just about destroyed the financial model for making a living in the arts. That cute kid with the guitar and the crooked smile dreams not of sold out stadiums, limos, groupies, sex and drugs, but of maybe getting enough itunes downloads to quit his day job at Dairy Queen.
Other artists have it no better. If Norman Rockwell were alive today you’d have never heard of him. The best he could hope for would be a job designing e-cards for Hallmark.
Except for a lucky few, the financial prospects for artists haven’t been this bad since they invented the copyright. How will the artist survive in the future?
Maybe we’ll go back to the old days, when the rich and powerful were patrons of the arts. But airbrushing the warts off the Viscount’s ugly daughter is hardly the stuff of artistic inspiration. I’m not sure we want to go back there.
What does that leave the artist? Everything but money. So what? If you’re a real artist you just keep making art.
There are compensations beyond money for an artist in America. You’ll have someone to identify with in every romantic comedy you’ll see for the rest of your life. There’s always an evil rich dude trying to get the girl, who loses to the cute poor guy, as long as he’s some kind of artist.
For some reason our culture promotes the fiction that artists are better people than your run of the mill Jill and Joe. Perhaps because artists write all the fiction. But don’t believe it. Artists are no better or worse than anyone else. They just have a jones for art. Whether anyone else pays attention or not.
But is it art if nobody sees it? Maybe. It could be art, even if people think it sucks. We try to measure art by popularity—except for the snobs who measure art by its unpopularity—but that’s an exercise in vanity.
We all know that Van Gogh couldn’t sell a painting to save his ear, during his lifetime, and now his work goes for eight figures. Couple of centuries from now Vinnie could be a zero again, who knows?
Maybe, thirty-thousand years ago, the really popular artists painted on tree bark. That cave art we swoon over today was painted by Abner Glug, who was so despised in his time he had to work underground. On rocks.
How do you know if you’re an artist? Simple. You do it despite. You give up your dreams of gold and glory, you take a job in sales, you run a chiropractor’s office, you go back to school to pick up that CPA ticket.
And when the lights are out and the kids in bed, you write your poetry. You grab your smock and start tossing paint on canvass, you sneak away to the garage and sand that duck decoy you’ve been working on for months. The one that will be your masterpiece. The one that will never lure a mallard to its death because it has a bigger job. To squat there, proud and painted on your wall-unit, squawking loud and clear to all who see it:
The man who made me is an artist.
In Defense of Cats
“The Confessions of a Catnip Junkie”
I come before you now in defense of cats. They shouldn’t need my help, Americans have over eighty million cats, more than dogs, more than any other animal. But if the cat is much loved, it is more misunderstood. I have written a novel, “The Confessions of a Catnip Junkie,” to give the cat a voice.
Cats play the villain in Western culture. It starts with Looney Tunes and never lets up. Cats have a terrible image.
If you love a cat, you love something distinctly not human. People are more dogs than cats. We hunt in packs, we’re highly social animals, we crave approval. We’d lick ourselves if we could reach.
Cats are aliens, they operate by a different set of rules. They are rarely conflicted or neurotic. For every neurotic cat there are a hundred neurotic dogs, and a thousand neurotic humans. Cats have it figured out. Cats are perfected.
It’s a paradox. Cats are what cool people really want to be. That’s where the phrase “cool cat” came from. But a cat person? Far from cool. It’s some old lady whose house stinks of litter and who hasn’t had a man since the Eisenhower administration.
Which only goes to prove how misunderstood the cat is. Cats are much more than living knickknacks for lonely shut-ins. Cats are cool, efficient, predators whose love is as unexpected as it is impossible. Yet they do it and we give it back to them. Because so are we.
Falling in love with a cat is falling in love with an equal. A cat won’t guard your house, herd your sheep, guide your blind, or chase your criminals. A cat won’t work for you or anyone else. Cats don’t work. They live. And they’re very good at it. Nine times better than we are.
Sometimes cats are in, sometimes they’re out. We all know cats were deified in ancient Egypt. This enlightened attitude was a matter of indifference to ancient Egyptian cats. We are equally familiar with the burning of cats as witches by the Church in medieval times. This behavior was somewhat more concerning to middle age felines, but they survived it.
Humans, on the other hand, got rats and the plague out of the deal. That’s a pretty high transaction cost for indulging in cat genocide, especially when the genocide didn’t work.
We are all fortunate it failed. But only some of us know it. Only some of us know the extreme pleasure—I’ll come right out and say it—the sweet bliss of loving a cat and having that cat love us right back.
It’s enough to move the poet to raptures of song, to inspire great art and lovely stories; it’s more than enough. But, somehow, it hasn’t. It is the other love that dare not speak its name. The arts have failed cats.
There is something about a cat that’s hard to capture on canvas or paper. I’ve seen paintings by the Old Masters, masterpieces of portraiture, with people so real they seem to breathe, domestic scenes so cozy and perfect you want to move right in, every brushstroke a testament to enduring genius.
Then you notice the pretty lady in the velvet dress is holding a hairy handbag with a face. I think it’s supposed to be a cat. Could be a purse, though. I know they had cats in the 17th century, but they seem to have been afflicted with a horrible, disfiguring disease.
It’s pretty much the same in literature. On those rare occasions when a cat graces the pages of a book, the imagination seems to fail even the best of writers and we get dogs that meow.
“She’s as devoted as a dog,” they write. “She follows me around, comes when I call, and licks my face, just like a dog!” I’ve read some version of that a dozen times. It’s considered a compliment.
But it’s not. It’s a cop out. The arts have failed the cat, over and over again.
That is the monumental gap I want to fill. I’ve written a story about a cat as a cat, not a dog with silky fur.
I do not believe my talent is so strong it can succeed in bringing a cat to life on paper where all the greats before me have failed. But I think I figured out what thwarted those artists and authors, I think I found the secret.
Artists have been trying to solve the riddle that is cat since the Sphinx. They’ve been looking from the wrong side of the fur. The cat’s story can only be told from the inside; you must let the cat speak.
“The Confessions of a Catnip Junkie” is my attempt to do that. It is written in defense of cats, by a cat, for the people who love them.
. If that is you, or these words have persuaded you that there is something about cats you might have missed, or you just love a roaring adventure story set all across America, take a look on Amazon.com.
You can read a chapter there. The first one’s free.
But I warn you, cat love is more addictive than heroin. And your next fix will cost you $17.99.
When Sigmund Freud launched modern psychology by naming the hidden recesses of the human mind, the unconscious, superego, id, and the rest, he forgot a part—perhaps the most mysterious part of all—The Soundtrack.
If the exhaustive survey I conducted is true (I asked my wife) then most of us have a song running around in our heads most of the time. This ever-changing score, programmed for us by our brains, provides the musical accompaniment to our lives.
We don’t chose the selection playing on our soundtrack, but it affects us profoundly.
Let the right tune be looping through your head and life is happy thing, your mood as buoyant as a child’s. But let the wrong song get stuck in your mind and all is dark.
Your own brain will torture you. An obnoxious melody, harder to shake than a stalker, makes your life a joyless heap of ashes. You have Soundtrack Madness.
For as long as it lasts, and it will seem like forever, you’ll struggle helplessly with an invader as hostile as any virus. You will curse the day you ever heard of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. “Young girl, get out of my miiind….” indeed. And take this piece of crap song with you.
Soundtrack Madness can strike without warning. Maybe you were at the office Christmas party when some goon croaked out “New York, New York” on the karaoke machine for fifteen excruciating minutes, and now you’ve got it so bad it feels like your combover is on fire.
“Dom dom doobie dom. Start spreading the noooz, I’m leaving todaaay,” the infection takes hold. It haunts you on the drive home. It’s still there when you cut yourself shaving the next morning.
“I want to wake up, in the city, that never sleeeps….” Over and over. Your brain is melting. What can you do?
Well, we here at Caught off Base can help. But like a bad case of the hiccups, the cure won’t work until the disease is ripe.
In the meantime, let’s learn something about the enemy.
What are the characteristics of song with high Soundtrack Madness potential? The first hint is any song that is so catchy you remember it the first time you hear it. Let one of those pieces of pop Velcro enter your ears and soon enough it will be repeating on you like a microwave burrito. If you like it the first time you hear it, you’ll hate it by the fifth.
Even a decent song can turn toxic if it is forced on you too often. Surely a vengeful God reserves the ninth circle of hell for the monsters who use our cultural patrimony to sell Toyotas. Twenty to life in the Empire State Building listening to the elevator version of Eleanor Rigby would be too good for those SOBs.
The first person to describe Soundtrack Madness was (as in so many things) Mark Twain. He wrote a piece 130 years ago where his hero gets a workman’s jingle stuck in his brain, and the only cure was to infect someone else with it.
Fortunately, modern medicine has made great strides since then. We have more humane treatment options than dreamed of back in the 19th century.
The cure for Soundtrack Madness now is replacement therapy, or Musical Transplant. All one need do is put another, more palatable song into one’s head, and the cure is effected. But there is a catch.
The new song has to be even stickier than the first. Only the most infectious of ditties will do the job. Cole Porter can’t help you here. Think Freddie Boom-Boom Cannon.
That’s the cure for the horrible sickness that’s boring into your synapses like a dentist’s drill. But for the treatment to take the pain has to be nearly intolerable.
Are you there yet? Are you hearing that awful song until your eyes cross?
“If I can—doom doom—make it there, I’ll make it—doom doom—anywhere. It’s up to you. Noo. Yawk. No-ooo Yawwwk!”
OK, you’re ready. Get ready to tell it goodbye. All together now, let’s sing….
“Na na na na,
Na na na na,
Once again, “Na na na na….”
Repeat until cured. You’re quite welcome.
All my life I’ve avoided funerals like they were catching. I never got much solace from them, and I didn’t think my absence disrespected the principal, the dead being rather indifferent on the subject.
I never realized the power of publicly contemplating a life well-lived until the lesson was forced on me by the death of an extraordinary woman.
It was a sunny Saturday last May; I drove out busy Geary St. to a funeral home in the Richmond. I was there to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Barbara Griffith: founder, teacher, critic and cajoler of the Sunset Writer’s Group, my writer’s group for the past few years.
Barbara had the gift of attracting and inspiring people, as much by her presence as by her words. From the barrens of post-war Levittown to the artistic ferment of San Francisco she gathered acolytes in a long an useful life. I gladly counted myself among them.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. The funeral hall was large and overflowing with mourners, almost all strangers to me; I felt very alone. Among the people I was introduced to, there was one who really got me feeling sorry for myself, a guy by the name of Joel, the best friend of Barbara’s son, Bill.
I’d never met Joel before, and yet it turned out that not only is he my 2-doors-down neighbor in Glen Park, but he also shares my last name.
Now, I will cop to being something of a hermit, but what kind of a life am I living when I can sleep 75 feet from another guy named Goldstein for seven years and never know it, never even (and take this, all you critics of the US Postal Service) get a piece of his mail by mistake? Has life in the big city become so isolating that we no longer bother to know one another anymore?
And whose fault is that? I never knocked on Joel’s door, never brought over a cold one, never even thought about it. Now here I am at the funeral of this great woman, surrounded by people who loved her, and I know virtually nobody in the room.
And yet … not quite nobody. There sits Jack, the retired hospital administrator from our group who is writing a novel about a wise-cracking merchant sailor coming of age in the post-war Philippines.
He is consoling our brilliant Penny, a legal secretary who hates her job, and who is writing a dark comedy about a woman who so hates her job she brains her boss with a plaster fish.
And next to her is Bob, our computer whiz who writes equally well about young gay men searching for love, and cats who play the piano. And Eleanor, our tiny, sardonic holocaust survivor who writes with such painful beauty that when she reads, we all hang on every heavily-accented word. And Jean, our Tenderloin security guard and comic playwright, who lives out of town and sleeps in her van when she works swing-shift so she can make our meetings. And beautiful, elegant Jo, our British-colonial expatriate, whose book on love and war in Rhodesia is so good she is already agented and on the road to publication.
I knew all these people because a magnet named Barbara Griffith had drawn us together, because a 79 year old woman had posted an Internet listing years before they became fashionable. I had a community because she took the trouble to make one. Now it was up to us to keep it alive.
When I left that dark room and stepped into the sun I was feeling better. And when I got to my car I beheld a minor miracle. Out on Geary the meter maids had done their worst. Every car on the block was flagged with a ticket. Every car but mine. My meter still showed 60 minutes, just like two hours ago.
A couple of weeks later I ran into my neighbor Joel. I was on my way to the first post-Barbara meeting of the Sunset Writer’s Group. It was another beautiful day and I had the top down. Goldstein spotted me as I backed out of my driveway.
“Hey Allan, where you heading?” he asked.
“I have a writing group meeting tonight.”
“That’s great,” he grinned, giving me the high sign. “You guys keep it up.”