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November 29, 2009

Sunset Intersection

A painting by Robert Bechtle. A tutorial on seeing. A trip nostalgic.

I grew up on this street in the Parkside or Outer Sunset district, also called the Neighborhoods or the Avenues, formerly the Dunes, in western San Francisco out by Ocean Beach, out by the Zoo, out by Stern Grove. I didn’t live here for all of my childhood, but this is what I think of as home. This painting, by my favorite painter, is what I think of as home. Because home is an idea or, at best, an image. Not a place, real or otherwise, a google and oogle map mirage. If a home falls in the forest with no former inhabitant to hear it, it really does NOT make a sound, but wherever the former inhabitant is home is screaming all the time: "Come back, Shane, come back," in a crazed, ghostly voice inside the head. A siren call or the echo in a shell, it’s something you had once or think you did, maybe deja vu, maybe ocean view. Maybe home/heart is where you left it, where you lost it, where you broke it. Your time machine’s broke, though; you’re stranded in the now of the canvas.

Walking by these houses, after a hard day at Parkside Elementary, I told my friends lies about the Pacific trips and escapades that I’d had during the night in the belly of a friendly whale I met down the street at the beach (thanks to Disney’s Pinocchio). Mostly I described China to the Chinese girls I walked home with; mostly they giggled. My storytelling career begins on this very spot.

Every blink of an eye is a still photograph printed on the virgin cells of the brain, one added to all the rest, piling up like flapjacks, like the dead photo bin at the junk shop. Flipped through quickly they seem to be moving, huh? But what is beautiful, what is art? Pull one photo-card out of the deck. Magic trick time. Is one as good as the other? Certainly the one above is the best for me; coulda been the other side of the street, I guess. Who cares? Weird that it’s so quiet. Is it as peaceful as it seems? Actually—looky—it’s three paintings: can I switch ‘em around? Hang ‘em in separate rooms? By the way, what are you looking at right now at this instant? It could be your last, you know? How important is this experiential moment compared to all the rest? Keep flipping. Keep moving. Cut the cards and deal. Nothing up my sleeve.

Someone described this style of painting as a form of abstractism, at least from the painter’s point of view. That those are not houses necessarily, that’s not a street, cars; those are shapes, colors, lines. Stand on your head. Can you look at it like an optical illusion? A woman’s face or a vase? Can it not be the street of my youth 10,000 miles away? For you it’s easy. It’s another painting. Optical delusion.

I, painting, Sunset Intersection in this case, I challenge you; I defy you to make of me something for yourself. You can give me symbolic significance if you want, but it’s your contribution, not in my lines or intention. Yet, I’m not an empty container or a provocation either. I’m one card as good as any other, and I need you to make me. That’s your freedom. Go ahead, make me.

I ran into Robert Bechtle once at the San Francisco airport. I had time to kill before my flight and, wandering, I found a painting hidden in a corner (SFO has a great art collection) called Frisco Nova of a man watering his lawn in a middle-class neighborhood of white stucco houses. That painting shocked me. Shook me up. Never the same again. I know that man; I know that street; I am part of that picture! So that’s how I met Robert Bechtle, a San Franciscan. That’s how I met Hyper-Realism or Photo-Realism or Realism, which is NOT copying a painting from a photograph. I’ve seen sidewalk painters do that for tourists in a matter of minutes. This is painting as an exquisite philosophy. The painting asks, “Who are you?” It says, “I’m not an exhibitionist (like most of my colleagues), so why are you staring at me? Did you resist hypnosis or let yourself go under?”

A new way of seeing, intensity of intent, in that split second, right here right now: LOOK AT THIS! Look what I found; this is reality; this is the world you live in; this is outside your mind not on drugs. This is the other, but still your life, your still life. No judgment now, just live. Be. Like the eyes that saw this and froze it, the hands that took weeks to reproduce it, the eyes that saw it again. The farthest thing from the painting, Sunset Intersection, is the photo it was based on. Hey, what does that mean? Aren’t they the same? Bechtle in his workshop day after day bent over his table until he’s an old man won’t even answer that stupid question.

If it reminds you of something, even a false memory, you’re either in the painting or you’re outside looking in the painting. Enter at will. Get sucked in and spit out, back and forth. Or the painting will exit its frame for you and invade your space. Look around the airport, everything’s a painting! Go outdoors. Everywhere is important! And you’re not waking up from this dream. I dare you to walk down that street again.

I have been in the witness protection program here in Sicily for the last thirty years. Must have been something I saw. Chosen exile, self-inflicted house arrest, called ex-patriatism (not ex-patriotism, but a bit of that too). When you change your name and leave your family (who are always your family but feel betrayed or, at least, abandoned) and your friends (who find other friends fast), take all your belongings in a couple suitcases and tell them to give the rest away, it means you ain’t comin’ back. You, as you leave, ain’t never comin’ back.

And you don’t and can’t because what you would come back to doesn’t exist any more. Not the houses and trees, but you who were there are not you who are here. The you you left is gone. The photo card flipped by like those minute-flipping clocks. Ask the Chinese girls; you in the myth of the you of days past is bigger an’ better an’ braver than the you as you were. As you were. Attention! As you were. At ease.

Okay, you change, but Sunset Intersection stays the same, doesn’t it? Isn’t that the point, cryonics? Or do you look at it each time with different, older eyes? Wow, fixed as it seems, it’s never the same either. Anyway, you can’t choose, you can’t stop that flipping.

So you stood at the intersection, chose a direction, and cleared out towards a sunset. Don’t we all do that? Isn’t it called growing up? Leaving the nest? Heading off into the wilderness to seek your fortune. Into the wild. Being your own family of one, house of one, sack of bones you carry with you always. Embracing danger, courting adventure. Or do we all do that? Sometimes I feel like over here in the Land of Eternal Children, a.k.a., the Land of Spoiled Brats (Mommy do my laundry; Daddy get me a job), I’m a cowboy stuck in a briar patch of giant interconnected nests made of twigs and string, where there’s only one way out. Horizontal. Not today. I’m enjoying this painting. Wish I were there.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: So he found his title. ‘Bout time.
Jeff: I liked it better before. Now we’re stuck looking at the same picture every day.
Mutt: And what crap too. I may toss my cookies.
Jeff: Yeah. Nothing to get all choked up about. Sometimes he acts like such a baby!
Mutt: It’s no act. So I’ve got a question for you.
Jeff: Shoot.
Mutt: Bang.
Jeff: Well, here’s one for you: Why do psychics have to ask you for your name?
Mutt: And what happens if you get scared half to death twice?
Jeff: And if Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?
Mutt: And how do you tell when you're out of invisible ink?
Jeff: And, okay, so what's the speed of dark?
Mutt: Had enough?
Jeff: Damn Wright!

November 22, 2009

Monday Morning Mourning

I was saddened to learn of the recent deaths of two of my heroes: Mike Seeger and Sam Hinton. Both taught me a lot, although our in-person contact was brief.

I only talked with Mike Seeger once backstage at one of his concerts in Berkeley in the 80’s. He impressed me with his generosity and kindness. In a soft voice, with a Virginia hills accent, he asked about what I did and where I lived and so on. He seemed interested to know that an American musician was singing in Sicilian schools and playing old-time music on the local radio. “Sicily? Well, how about that.”

Maybe it’s silly, but I imagined we had made a tiny connection; my name and face would remain in his subconscious files, or, at least, he would represent my desire to learn from a master (I have collected all his classic records, including The New Lost City Ramblers set).

Mike Seeger was a sort of holy man of old-time music. When I saw him last in Berkeley a couple of years ago, I got to the Freight and Salvage early and sat near the front. Before the lights went down I turned around and saw many of my idols, the greatest traditional musicians from Northern California, all sitting at the guru’s feet (the row behind me, for example, was taken by the Cheap Suit Serenaders). Some of them later joined him on stage (Evo Bluestein, Maria Muldaur, Larry Hanks, Laurie Lewis, Eric and Suzy Thompson, David Grisman).

Mike Seeger was an excellent scholar, in the tradition of his father, his head full of details, but he was also a very funny and personable man. He could respect the driest mountain tradition and still put on a warm, wonderful show. And he got his gourd banjo from Bob Thornburg as did I, another connection.

Unless you were tragically immature, brainwashed or on drugs (tv, video games, commercial music, etc.), you had to like Mike Seeger, who showed us all how to respect and love our musical roots.

Sam Hinton was a mentor to me. I took a graduate summer course from him on using folksongs in education, the topic of my Master’s Degree, and he was the best example of what I was most interested in doing with my life at the time. I wanted to be Sam when I grew up. He looked and acted very much like my beloved grandfather.

Since I was the only student in the class who knew folk music well, we had a series of private conversations that I still remember vividly. He showed sincere interest in what I was doing. I gave him a copy of my Master’s thesis, a large collection of song texts and notes (now over 950 pages), and he replicated by digging out of his pick-up truck all of his cassette tapes, tapes I still cherish.

Sam Hinton’s name is not a household word, even in folk music anymore, because, though he was a pioneer, he didn’t promote himself. He promoted the music and the culture it belonged to. He was humble enough, for example, to volunteer to do the beautiful calligraphy for the fine Rise Up Singing songbook. It was the project that counted not the ego.

Sam was as warm as his voice; he was a gentleman, a gentle man, a big fellow with a big smile and big hands. You couldn’t imagine him being mean or violent. He had a childlike twinkle in his eye that told you he had another good song up his sleeve. He played his 1900 Washburn guitar, his diatonic harmonica, and his many other instruments perfectly and remembered the words to even the longest ballads. That was his scientist’s mind and precision showing through (and natural talent).

We children growing up in the sixties heard Sam’s early records at school back when a couple hours a week were dedicated to singing (along with Burl Ives, Alan Mills, Pete Seeger and others). In my fifth grade class we started every morning singing “This Land is Your Land,” instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Miss Soite was making a statement, but we just liked the music.

Getting to know Sam Hinton was the high point of my interest in folk music, having lunch together several times (I had a bag lunch; he ate beans and peaches out of the can), talking a couple hours after the last session out in the parking lot. Now he was an old man, who, I believe, died peacefully as he lived, so I don’t feel loss so much as gratitude and privilege to have known such a sweet, quiet giant.

Both men have websites, and many of their recordings are still available.

November 15, 2009

The Dreary Life of the Cowboy

Some people, many, literally thousands, well not literally in a real sense, but lots of people, uncountable, tons, whole entire gangs, crowds, mobs, teeming masses, multitudes, populations, the body politic ... okay a few people, some, several, a couple, let’s say a bunch of people have asked me to print here the words to the cowboy song I posted on my-oh-MySpace page space, and so, by popular request, here they are.

Only a Cowboy

words by E. Martin Pedersen, music by E. Martin Pedersen and Antonino Abramo

1. I can taste salt in my mouth
A clump of prairie sage near my nose
You could say I broke my back chasin’ strays
I bet you say: that’s just the way it goes.

chorus: There’s a cowboy dyin’ tonight
All alone in Montana
Where it’s cold, timberwolves will howl at the moon
Biting his old red bandana.

2. His horse ran off feeling guilty
He covered his eyes with his hat
It’s a good deep sleep out in the open
And to go with your boots on at that.

3. By the time some ranger passes
Scraps of clothing and bones
No name or documentation
A cowboy’s soul long gone home.

4. The boys might search for the cowboy
If his mount makes it back to the ranch
With a snowstorm comin’ in from Canada
There wouldn’t be much of a chance.

5. It’s all the fault of Lucien B. Smith
The inventor of barbed wire fence
He should have left the open range alone
Our wildness, gone ever since.

6. Another beef stew or a Christmas dance
The poor boy will never enjoy
Dust unto dust without even a kind word
Bob or Bud, only a cowboy.

© 2009

If you’d like to read more about the American cowboys, click on the title or go to the link, for my prize-winning article: The Dreary Life of the Cowboy: Memoir and Myth in Cowboy Ballads. The article was printed in Social Education, March 1997, pp.130-138. Please read it there, if you can, because the layout and illustrations are beautiful.

Happy trails, Martin

Mutt: One cow says to another, "Look at that bunch of people."
Jeff: The other cow says, "Not 'bunch', 'herd'."
Mutt: Heard of what?
Jeff: Herd of people.
Mutt: Sure I've heard of people.
Jeff: No, stupid, a people herd.
Mutt: What do I care what a people heard?
Jeff: I saw a people herd the other day.
Mutt: Where?
Jeff: At the moooooovies.
Mutt: You're sick. And getting worse. Must be the full moooooon.
Jeff: Yeah. I feel like howling; as the song says, I'm in the moooooood?

November 12, 2009

Human Writes

If a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters in a thousand years could write the Bible, how many would it take to make people take it seriously? Oh sorry, how many people would it take to make the monkeys take it seriously?: is what I meant. Oh wait, no, I meant the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (nobody takes them seriously). Or maybe some people do take Bill S. seriously (and the monkeys are laughing their heads off). Banana gunk and peanut skins all over the keys. The creationists breaking down the door.

And who’s gonna change the ribbons when computers replace the typewriters and you can’t buy old blue and red ribbons anymore (with over 900 years left to go)? One thing I know (and then I’ll shut up) monkeys could build computers, program them and use them, but only humans could invent (and name) The Blog. It was proposed to the monkeys and they just showed their teeth and typed WHY? WHY?

So we’re stuck with it. Every man a King Features Syndicate. When I was a little kid, and my dad had a mimeograph machine in his office, I thought I could start a neighborhood newspaper for us kids, write funny stories and drawings about the other kids, but there was something about cutting stencils or ditto masters and inking the roller, and anyway it never happened. Now, almost a hundred years later, it’s easy as pie. I have my own newspaper (two, in fact) in Blogland (it ain’t Candyland, but you can see it from there).

What’s writing take? I’m convinced that it takes sacrifice and mental imbalance. Sacrifice, maybe called ambition, means you turn your back on your family and friends, you shut the door on your spouse (if one will put up with you), you de-prioritize your job, and you write like the driven maniac you are.

And when you brood and look out the window, that’s writing too. Wallace Stevens would go for walks every morning, and a neighbor said she saw him walk along, stop, backtrack and walk over his steps again. He was composing. Living in the word world. If you do that your whole life, do you ever live? Are you ever in the horny here and now? (“But honey you seem distracted.” “Let’s do that again, I’m composing.”) And for what? Fame and fortune are a lottery win. Writers are losers. So for what? To leave boxes of paper in the basement that’ll disappear in the fire like Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece sequel to Invisible Man? Poof?

Ben Percy (hot-dog writer/teacher) gave me this quote from Harry Crews last summer:
You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live.... The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read--if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.

So if World is apart from Writer, then Writer is apart from the World. That’s a lonely place, no place. That’s a place that’ll screw with your mind. They said about William Faulkner that he’d go to parties, sit in the corner, drinking, and never speak to anyone. A weirdo. An artistic personality. Somehow exiled to another dimension, almost coinciding with where the rest live but not quite the same world, not exactly the same life.

Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson (and then I’ll quit with the examples): severe mental/emotional/social problems, chronic depression, agoraphobia, social anxiety, panic, bipolar, WHATEVER. They lived among us but were not quite like us. Over-sensitivity is associated with artists. Hmm. Hemingway’s crap-detector? or Hemingway’s double-barrel?

I got off track. The reason I mentioned Kafka and Dickinson is that they both died having published almost nothing and ordered their remaining works destroyed. They weren’t, and we are the richer. Maybe some other even greater writers’ works were faithfully destroyed by their descendents. Probably Emily and Franz thought of themselves as losers who’d wasted their lives.

Years of writing that nobody reads. Or a lifetime of ridicule (“you stink man, and your writing stinks too”), why ask for that? Why set yourself up to fail? Then there’s the self-doubt monster even when you're successful in the market (can I fool them again?), not to mention the self-pity monster. Uncomfortableness in the market at the very least, with all those shoppers bumping into you, all that yelling, those strong rotten smells, the filth on the ground. Better to go home, hide in the study, hide in books about other people’s lives in the market, and write your own strange stories that nobody even reads.

Fifteen years ago I read a book by acclaimed writing instructor John Gardner (The Art of Fiction), and I thought he was full of it, didn’t impress or help me at all, the self-worshipping jerk. Now I read another book by Gardner (On Becoming a Novelist) and every word made sense. How he changed in fifteen years! Oh wait, he died in 82 and both books came out in 83. Oops, I had changed. I had seen the path less traveled that lay before me, left the crossroads and committed to the journey. The one where you go to birthday parties but don’t have any fun. The one where you might even go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, but you can’t wait to get back to your writing desk, sit down and not ever get up.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Say something funny, man, we need it.
Jeff: How about this: a guy goes to a psychiatrist ...
Mutt: Is he a writer?
Jeff: No.
Mutt: Continue.
Jeff: A guy goes to a psychiatrist and says that he sometimes feels like a teepee and other times he feels like a wigwam.
Mutt: And the psychiatrist says he’s two tents (too tense). Man, that joke is so old.
Jeff: So old that Barney and Fred used it in their ‘that joke is so old’ jokes.
Mutt: So old the Dead Sea wasn’t even sick yet.
Jeff: So old I’ve got an autographed Bible.
Mutt: By all 1,000 monkeys?