I successfully completed my swim this morning. 38 minutes. It wasn’t all that hard, but I feel wasted now. In a couple of days, I’m leaving for a week in LA and will write about the swim when I get back. (Judy’s new film Pelican Dreams is going to be released into theaters this fall, and we have to do some work on it down there.) I love open-water swimming. I couldn’t do the crawl before I met Judy. Now, I’m okay at it. Slow, though. I was able to do the 1.2 miles in 38 minutes because we swam it on a flood tide. It was astonishing how fast we were moving along the city shoreline. Fun to watch.
I still get called in every now and then to deal with the parrots. This morning someone telephoned to say that he had a parrot in a bush outside his front door, that it had been there for several hours without moving. He lived just up the street, so I put aside work on the book and headed over with a towel and a small travel cage that I use for emergencies. I was expecting to find a sick adult, or maybe a bird that had crashed into a window. To my surprise, it was a brand new baby. I’d never seen one out of the nest earlier than August 31st, and usually I didn’t start seeing them until early September. So this one was at least nine days ahead of schedule. Parrots rarely go so low to the ground, so he had to have been in some kind of trouble. When I walked toward him, he bolted away to a nearby bush. I heard parrots in some trees call out and he responded. The parents! The baby then flew up to a tall poplar where they were waiting for him. He looked a little weak and sloppy, but he made it. He’s in safe hands now. My hunch is that he fledged a little too soon, or else he’d been trying to keep up with his parents before he was ready to. At first after fledging (taking their first flight) the babies take only short flights and stay in a tree for most of the day waiting for the parents to come back and feed them. I always love seeing the babies. They look so fresh and innocent looking with their big baby eyes.
On another nature note, I belong to something called the South End Rowing Club, which Judy got me into. It’s not what its name might make it seem. It’s at the north end of the city and caters mostly to swimmers, but does have rowers and handball players, too. It’s a blue collar club—not a fancy white collar one. The building is real old and located right on the beach of a cove in San Francisco called Aquatic Park. Most people stick to the cove for their swims, but there are some intrepid swimmers who venture out into the bay itself, swimming Alcatraz and beyond. Judy’s one of those. After sticking to the safety of the cove for thirteen years, I’m about to do my first out-of-cove swim. I’ll be doing a 1.2 mile swim out in the bay along the shoreline from something called Coghlan Beach back to the cove. I’ll be doing it on a flood tide, so it should be relatively easy—like a log being washed along by the tide. I’ve been training for several weeks, and it’s done a lot to take my mind off my book frustrations. (Things are getting better in that department, by the way.) The swim is Sunday morning. Wish me luck.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these. I have to say that, right now, progress is slow. A while back I saw myself zooming forward, marching boldly through the final draft. But it hasn’t happened that way. I’ve suffered through a couple of ailments in recent months, first a severe cold and then a bad back problem. I’m fine now and working, but progress is, as I say, slow. There are two reasons for this. I find the beginning the most difficult part (and I’m speaking of the beginning of the last draft). Everything has to be set up just so and you have to find your voice. I’m working out all the issues. I’m seeing what Street Song wants to be, beyond my own ideas for it. Books make their own demands. The second reason is that I’ve been working on this thing for eight years now. I still have no contract (My agent hasn’t started looking for one yet) and I feel like I’m swimming across an ocean with no land in sight. It’s disorienting and exhausting. I swim and swim and it’s hard to see my progress. What have I completed? A preface, Chapters One and Two, and two completed chapters from the middle of the book, which, realistically, will change once I work my way up to them. (These were written as samples for the proposal that my agent will take around to publishers.) I’m working sequentially now. I’m currently about halfway through Chapter Three. I also have a completed outline that may change some as I work my way through. What I need is to gather my energies and really get down to business. I’ve had too many distractions lately. A real deadline (i.e. a contract) would help immensely. But that will come in its own time.
Writing a book is hard. It’s crazy-making. But I will finish it.
Today I was perusing the New York Times web site and came upon an article about “what role poetry plays in a technologized world.” The full article belonged to the premium level of the web site, so I was only able to read the teaser. But I thought, “That’s backwards.” The root of existence is utterly pure—pure poetry. It’s the place where there is no commerce, desire, anger or lies. It’s the pure playing out of what really is. We have arisen from that, as has everything else. The poetry is karma, which is not reward and punishment, but cause and effect. Karma is the events that arise, in part, from the decisions we make, some of which are less pleasant that others. And karma is inexorable. As Stephen Gaskin once said (I’m paraphrasing), “Karma can be compared to taking a swing at a golf ball in a fully tiled bathroom. It’s going to get you.” Technology, along with a bunch of other of our creations, has been leading us away from an awareness of the purity of reality. Technology is not reality. It’s virtual reality. If we don’t reduce our obsession with the distraction, we’re going to suffer greatly for it. So the real question is what role technology might play within the pure poetry of the universe.
I grew up in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and like everybody with intellectual, artistic, or spiritual inclinations I grew up hating my hometown for stifling my aspirations. I was a big fan of the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street because it bolstered my contempt for the small-town mindset. I read it several times. I longed to move to some great city where I would find the open, cosmopolitan mindset where everybody talked about serious, creative issues. (Interestingly, Henry Miller despised his hometown of New York City for many of the same reasons I despised Vancouver.)
Forty years ago, when I arrived in San Francisco I thought I’d finally found what I was looking for. So it’s ironic that on July 7th my old hometown is getting its first marijuana store, while here in San Francisco the locals get all uptight whenever a medical marijuana dispensary is proposed for their neighborhood. It’s especially ironic for me, deliciously ironic, that the new store is going to be located on Vancouver’s Main Street and will be called Main Street Marijuana.
I’m entirely in favor of legalizing marijuana. But, as it seems to be with nearly all issues these days, my reasons for supporting it are different than that of most people. I think legalizing it for medical reasons is fine, but I don’t like the “recreational” tag. It’s frivolous. It encourages people to approach marijuana as a party drug, which is a waste of its real value. The justification for legalization is its value as a spiritual tool.
I’m well aware that you’d never get the stuff legalized taking that approach. Today’s image of the dope smoker is that of a lazy, dull-minded space cadet, a credulous fool. Furthermore, although few of them like to talk about it, a lot of people who used to smoke it stopped because, they say, it started making them “paranoid.” Marijuana is essentially an amplifier—a benevolent one, I’d say. It increases your awareness, in the beginning at least. It depends, though, on what you want it to do. When I was playing music, some of my best performances happened while I was high. (This was not merely my subjective opinion. The audiences affirmed it for me each time.) My hearing was extraordinarily acute and I was strongly aware of the smallest details in my playing and singing. Likewise, I’ve had some fine meditations while stoned, special insights that I still remember. The thing is, you always come back down. The hope is that you learned something while you were high that you could begin to strive toward in your day-to-day unstoned mind. The problem with people who smoke it and smoke it and smoke it is they blow out their energy. That’s why you get sleepy stoners who don’t seem very bright. They’ve shot their wad. (You can always get it back. It doesn’t cause permanent damage. You just have to stop for awhile.) I haven’t smoked any in 15 years. I’m still working on what I learned in those first 30 years of smoking. As for paranoia, the drug itself doesn’t make you paranoid. It simply shows you the paranoia that is already within you. It shows you by amplifying it. But it also amplifies love. It amplifies everything.
Anyway, that’s my take on the subject. I’m happy to discuss. My best wishes to Main Street Marijuana. May it be a successful enterprise.
This is my first entry on a subject that I want to address: the future of the book. It’s something that matters to me very much, of course. Many internet enthusiasts maintain that the book is dying, which I think is naive. The book is suffering right now, but it’s not going to die. The internet will die before the book ever does. I’ll go into why I think that’s true in future posts. For this first post, I want to look at a brief exchange in an interview with the poet and ecology activist Gary Snyder that I saw on YouTube. This extract confirms a hunch I’ve had about one of the beliefs of cyber-intellectuals, a belief they tend to keep in the background. I’ve put into italics the specific point that I’m referring to.
Interviewer: Do you think that there is any literary vocation, in the largest sense of the word—literary, not poetical—one that may be assumed by so-called prose writers?
Gary Snyder: Maybe. I don’t know. The publishing business is falling apart. Books are not selling. Bookstores are closing. Everybody is saying the Internet is the new thing. What do you think? It’s your generation. What do you think is going to happen?
Interviewer: I think we will still need literature for some reasons.
Gary Snyder: By literature, you mean books or do you mean writing?
Gary Snyder: Is it okay for writing to be online?
Interviewer: Honestly, I do think so.
Gary Snyder: Do you think writers should be paid?
Interviewer: Um… Well, that’s a difficult issue.
Gary Snyder: Well, you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living.
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s true. Um…
Gary Snyder: Unless you want to be an academic, but that’s not a real writer.
Interviewer: But would you say it’s just to write for a living? To earn money?
Gary Snyder: Whatever you do you have to earn enough money to feed your family.
Interviewer: Okay. So you’re a pragmatist.
Gary Snyder: Of course I’m a pragmatist. I’m a grown up. You know? I’m an adult. I know that I have to feed a family.
The interviewer is around 20 years old, a student in Krakow, Poland. I’ve looked into him a little. He’s an urban technofile. I’ve long had the sense that the real attitude of these people toward writers, musicians and other “content providers” is that they should be doing their work for free in their spare time, that to make a living doing creative work is elitist. I feel that my hunch has been confirmed here — “Well, that’s a difficult issue.” For cyber-intellectuals, the internet fanatics, the most vital aspect of the digital lifestyle is gadgetry. You need content to give the gadgets something to do, but that’s secondary. This is another example of form over content — the medium is the message — which is backwards. We live in a backward, or an upside down, era. (I’ll do a future post on Marshall McLuhan, of whom I used to be a big fan.) Listening to the interview, when the interviewer agrees with Snyder’s assertion that you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living at it, he’s not being sincere. It’s merely a tactical retreat. A grown man has challenged him over something he has not thought through, so he backs off. But his real attitude, which he’s not willing to push too hard here, is one of the most widespread that those who write books, make films, take photos, or make music have to deal with nowadays: Your work should be free, and if you’re not willing to give it to us, then we’ll simply take it from you. Can someone offer support for this idea? I’d be interested in hearing from you.
You can watch the entire 25-minute interview here.
It’s been very difficult to post anything here lately. There are several reasons: busy with the book, busy with Judy’s movie, busy with Judy’s Kickstarter campaign, have a lousy cold. Mostly though it’s because I’ve been quite pessimistic lately and haven’t wanted to unload that yet again on this blog. I wanted some good news first.
Well, there is some. First of all, Judy’s Kickstarter campaign succeeded. She made her goal of $50,000, so the project will be funded. Thank you to everyone who gave. And there is other good news: Yesterday, San Francisco voters passed Proposition B by a margin of 59 to 40 percent. Prop B requires that any building project on city-owned waterfront property that would exceed height limits already in place will require a vote of the people to proceed. There have been a lot of complaints that Prop B becomes city planning by the ballot box, that it’s inefficient, slow, open to corruption by politics and scares away developers (I hope). The reason the proposition became necessary is that the San Francisco city government is currently in the hands of developers. The city rubber stamps every development proposal no matter how massive, ugly and inappropriate. They want San Francisco to be a playground for the rich—the global rich. Local development organizations such as SPUR peddle the idea of the “New Urbanism,” which is really just the old urbanism with delusions of grandeur attached. SPUR seems to be made up of liberals who have lost their ideals but like to think that that they’re still forward-thinking. They push the idea that density makes a city vibrant. But it’s still just rats packed tight in a cage. I used to ask a friend who closely follows city politics what the ideology of organizations like SPUR was. He always looked at me with irritation—irritation at how slow and dull I was. “Money,” he would tell me. And I’ve come to see that he’s absolutely right. There is no ideology. Just the desire to get rich.
Proposition B is probably just a holding action. San Francisco has severely deteriorated in the past few years. It has become everything I came here to get away from. The cost of living here continues to drive out the people who see life as being about something more than making money. The developers and their allies are going to keep pushing. They are ruthless and see San Francisco as a goldmine that they are determined to exploit. I used to know a guy who believed that San Francisco was the New Jerusalem. It’s not. It’s just a plain old, garden-variety Babylon.
When creeks are full
The poems flow
When creeks are down
We heap stones
Gary Snyder, from Regarding Wave
My wife and wonderful filmmaker, Judy Irving, has started a Kickstarter campaign. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s a “crowd sourcing” means of funding creative projects. People make donations within a set period of time and if you meet your goal you get to keep the money. If you don’t meet it, you don’t get anything. Judy has a goal of $50,000 by May 31st. There are little (and big) perks that come with each level of donation, which ranges from $10 to $10,000. The new film is called Pelican Dreams. I’ve seen it several times now and it never fails to move me. Might I be a biased observer? Possibly. But I can never fake a lump in my throat, especially one I assume I’m not going to get this time around. All the information is right here. There’s a trailer, too. Please check it out.
At the moment, I’m in my old hometown of Vancouver, Washington working on my book. I call it “writing in place.” This is where the story begins. I’m staying in an apartment in the block between old Highway 99 and Interstate 5. It’s a strip mall. Perfect place to begin a story of despair and longing.
A couple of days ago, Judy and I drove north to Eureka to screen her new film Pelican Dreams for some wildlife rehabilitators who helped with the project. (The film isn’t ready for release yet. She still has a lot of color correction and sound work to do. But she has achieved what’s called “picture lock,” meaning there won’t be any more changes to the visuals.) The screening was an interesting experience. It was held in a creative performance space—actually an old warehouse at the edge of town. When we got there the entrance was surrounded by homeless people who were either sleeping or just hanging out. We carried our gear inside (projector, screen, laptop, speakers) and discovered that the power had been shut off by the utility company for nonpayment. Someone had forgotten to send in the check. The warehouse is divided into two spaces, and on the other side of the wall an industrial punk band was rehearsing. We got their attention during a break, and they let us run an extension cord over to their side. We were able to draw enough juice to power the projector and our small speakers. So that audience members could find their way to their seats, we lit the winding hallway into the theater with candles. The band had paid to rent the space where they were rehearsing, so they weren’t willing to call it a night. We had to run the first half of the film over the sound of their pounding drums, howling vocals, and buzz-sawing guitars, which were just on the other side of the wall. Somehow it worked. Everybody accepted the situation for what it was. I was most amused by two women in their seventies who ran the gauntlet of homeless people outside the warehouse, picked their way through the candle-lined hallway, and watched the show with the punk band playing behind the wall. They could have been old hippies, but they didn’t look it. Whatever they were, they were unruffled by it all.
I was thinking later that this is how the future is going to be. We’re going to live through a time where the availability of energy is unreliable. In this particular case, it brought people together. Everyone had a good time.