I’ve been traveling in my way-back machine lately, visiting various eras and speaking to the locals. I needed a vacation from our crazy times, and wanted to meet people with different points of view.
Unfortunately, where and when ever I went I heard the same sad story.
In Renaissance Italy Leonardo told the tale, in revolutionary France Marat shrugged it wistfully, Nigel in Victorian England and Fred in Ike’s 50’s America sighed the same sour song. “We live in complicated times, my friend. You should have been here yesterday; things were so much simpler.”
This turned out to be a universal expression of the human condition. Yesterday was always simpler, sunshine, roses and lollipops. Before the internet, before jammed airports, before reckless driving kids in their horseless carriages, before science challenged the received word, the world was simple, uncomplicated and pure.
But only in hindsight. In all my time travels I couldn’t find a single soul who thought his or her times were simple, stable or grand. Those emotions were reserved for yesterday. If a complicated present is universal, so is a nostalgic past.
Waking up again in Trump-disrupted America, I’ve been assured that these are the most complicated times, ever, ever, ever. Had I not just been surfing the ages I’d probably agree.
But now I think we’ve been looking at it the wrong way. If all times seem complicated to those doomed to live in them, I think life is trying to tell us something.
All times are complicated, and all yesterdays are simpler, because the past knows something the present never can. How it all turns out.
The most convoluted, twisted mystery novel ever written is boringly simple if you flip to the last page. When the present becomes the past.
Chaos is always now. We’re always confused, blinded by the light of the present. We recognize this in our everyday speech. When will we know what happened? At the end of the day. When all is said and done. When the dust settles. When the fog of war clears. When we cash in our chips and see where we stand.
I think the problem isn’t complexity, I think it’s suspense. Suspense can be unbearable in a two-hour movie or a four-hour baseball game. But at least you know, barring power failures or rain outs, that you’ll know how it all turned out that day.
Now imagine suspense that plays out at the speed of life. Agony, right? Too much to bear, no?
Well, actually, we deal with it pretty well. We’re human, we cope. Which basically means we rationalize, construct a narrative, and stop worrying about it.
The story we tell ourselves, at all times, is that these are complicated times, and yesterday was simple, but gone forever.
But it’s only a story. I hate to bust your bubble, especially if it keeps you afloat over the stinking swamp of the present, but it’s just an illusion. These times are no more or less complicated than any others. The only difference is we’re living this one and we have no idea how it turns out.
Which is why the past is so much simpler and sweeter. The past has no secrets that amount to much. Oh, the historians will argue about this point or that, but we all pretty much know who won the 2014 World Series.
Yesterday is never dire. It was, but that’s when yesterday was today. Once it’s past, it’s in the books. Some of those books were tragedies. Wars, plagues, floods and pestilence. They were very bad times and complicated beyond imagining to those who lived through them, or didn’t.
But to us? Nothing we can’t comprehend, nothing that can’t fit between commercials in a two-hour History channel doc.
Perhaps that’s the lesson here. Our terribly twisted, complicated times will be tomorrow’s entertainment.
It’s been complicated since Homo Erectus struggled to flake that damned rock the right way to make a hand axe.
Life is complicated; death is simple. When you’re gone, all your complexity goes away. It collapses down to your name and a pair of dates, maybe a nice slogan and RIP. Do not crave simplicity.
May you live in complicated times for a long, long time. And may your chosen afterlife be blissful. The best thing about heaven is that you get to see how it all turned out. And laugh indulgently at the foolish mortals, living their little lives in what they think are complicated times.
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.
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.”
If you’re fortunate, you will live to be old. Yet old age brings thoughts of dread to the young; the best they can say about it is that it beats the alternative.
How little they know. But that’s the defining characteristic of youth: How little they know.
In truth, the “golden years,” are the most liberated, blessed and privileged time of your life.
To appreciate a joyous old age you must accept one inevitable truth: You cannot save your life. You can only spend it.
Know that, and out the window with so-called life-extending diets, which not only are a misery to follow, but change every three months. Fats were suicide a few years ago, now a couple ounces of cheese daily is good for you. Emaciation was the key to longevity just the other day, now carrying a few extra pounds means a few extra years.
Keto diets, paleo diets, the fads never end. The smartest diet is a diet from diets. But try not to get too fat.
The best reason not to gain weight as you age is your wardrobe. If you’re lucky, it, like you, is old. But if you get fat and have to buy new, you’re going to become more stylish. There is nothing more ridiculous than an old person being trying to be stylish.
When you’re young, you’re always struggling with one existential question: “What’s wrong with me?” The answer is “nothing” but you’ll still delve deep into your youth-addled unconscious for a reason, usually wrong. When you’re old you’ll figure that out. End of angst.
When you’re old, people will disregard you. You might think this would be a liability. You’d be mistaken.
Plus, you get to be a grump. I’d tell you about the extreme bliss getting license to be a grump provides, but you’ll have to find out for yourself. So maybe you should do that keto diet after all.
You will gain altitude as you age. Eventually you’ll crash and burn, but until the accidents of living murder you, you’ll gain perspective, every day, with every new, or, more to the point, repeated experience.
Even politics is easier to take when you’re old. Donald Trump came as a shock to the system to most young people. They didn’t see him coming and when he came they didn’t know what they were seeing.
Donald Trump surprised most of us ancient mariners too. But we know exactly what we’re seeing. We’ve seen it before.
Youth lacks humility because youth is an ass. We’re all asses but the young haven’t been alive long enough to know it. Along with age comes humility and a healthy skepticism of everything, especially oneself. That gift is invaluable.
I remember, must have been around 1964, a new food stand near the beach at Ocean City Maryland. It had a big sign saying, “Will the taco replace the hot dog?”
I got a good laugh about that for the next decade or so. Then again, their tacos stunk, so it wasn’t all my fault.
When you turn 65 the government should swap your Social Security card for an Old Folks License. “The bearer of this card shall be entitled to the best seats on public transit, shall be able to cut the line at any theater, entertainment venue and restaurant, and park in any designated handicap parking place, so long as another is open for authorized placard holders.
“His or her use of antiquated racial, sexual or ethnic terms is a part of his or her cultural heritage and shall be excused.
“In addition, the bearer of this card is allowed to call wait staff and other service providers “honey or doll” without said employee taking offense. In bearer’s time, such terms were expressions of endearment, not harassment or disrespect.”
These are great times to be an old person. We may not be able to tweet or blog or snapchat, but we’re vintage. And nothing is hipper than retro.
There is joy to be had between Depends and dementia. You’ve earned the right to ignore the fashions of the day, to laugh at the follies of the present, to live both in the moment and in all the moments you’ve lived.
Old age is all you have to look forward to, children. So take good care of yourself, but not too good. Enjoy the present. There could be an idiot Uber with your name on it barreling down Market Street. You never know.
February is the month of love, but it sure doesn’t feel that way now. This feels more like a time of spousal abuse and sexual harassment than chocolate hearts and romance. Love is out of fashion, the culture doesn’t believe in it much anymore. A couple generations ago we were urged to “get on board the love train,” but that caboose ran off the rails.
What changed? Reality changed. We virtualized our lives and lost our real ones. The digital life is seductive but unsatisfying. Because it’s not alive at all.
Love is biological; it is not virtual. We are biological beings. If you sense a love deficit, and how can you not, it’s because you’re human.
Be my virtual valentine? It’s not enough, is it? That requires flesh and breath. The difference between real love and virtual love is the difference between intimacy and internet porn.
This isn’t just a rant by a superannuated technophobe. The spiritual emptiness of the digital life is no secret; it’s expressed all over our language and contemporary culture.
Consider the two meanings of the word surf. Ocean surfing has a mystical place in our imaginations. Surfers talk about bliss, being one with the wave, the ocean, mother earth. When you surf you feel your body move, and your spirit, too. Surfing, at its best, is reverence, it’s a living being floating on the mind of God.
Then there’s the virtual surf of bytes and bits. The detached, alienated connection with every other digital entity through a cold, hard screen. You surf a screen with your eyes and maybe your ears, not active but passively consuming. You are not biological, you are a digital end point, a receptacle.
That’s why there is so much anger in the digital world. Screens are cold, anger is hot. Anger penetrates the screen. And then us.
One kind of surfing produces joy, the other angst. One is biological, the other dry and dead as a zombie.
Which maybe explains why pop culture is so captivated by the zombie apocalypse. Maybe it’s because we’re already living it.
Why does anger seem more relevant than love these days? Because we’re trapped in a web that feels like landfill. A vast garbage dump, littered with jagged edges. Shards of life, shattered by rage.
For all the “likes” we tap online, there isn’t much liking going on. Mostly we fight and insult and snark at one another. And why not, it’s only a screen we’re insulting. We rarely do that face to face. Face to face anger is dangerous, painful and bad for your blood pressure.
A screen has no blood pressure, it’s ice cold and responds best to hot emotions. But that screen is reflective, the anger we pound into it bounces right back.
We don’t have a Valentine’s day for anger. That’s because we recognize anger as a vice. But we’re in an angry time. If an ad has a woman in it, she’s always “fierce.” As if anger was necessary to be fully human today.
On some level we feel the dead hand of the digital on our souls, and we fight against it. Our sports have become more and more extreme because only facing death makes us feel alive. Used to be you could just go bowling; now you have to jump off the Matterhorn in a wingsuit.
The allure of the virtual, and it’s emptiness, are on full display in cat videos. A cat video is cute, watching them is addicting, and really, what’s not to like about a cat video?
Nothing, except that a cat video can never be a cat. A cat video can’t purr, or scratch, or love.
Nobody understands the dangers of over-technologizing better than the tech moguls. Tech gurus are very open about the damage their products do to children. Most of them won’t let their kids use the media they make.
Here’s the thing, though. If virtual, non-biological life is bad for kids, it’s bad for everyone. It’s the same as smoking. We don’t let kids smoke, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad for adults. Smoking doesn’t become harmless because you’re over 18.
There is no turning back the clock, I know that. The virtual isn’t going away, we need to transcend it. We need to reach for love. Not the virtual golem of digital anti-social social love, but the real, biological thing.
Because we’re biological creatures. Analogue beings lost in a digital maze. Pixilated and furious.