Egotism and Freedom

February 22, 2018

Wayne LaPierre says that gun control advocates hate individual freedom. Like a lot of right wingers, he mistakes egotism for freedom. They are not the same. People who are tied up in egotism are not free. They are slaves to all kinds of paranoia and suffer terribly when it comes time to die. To die gracefully you have to be able to let go of life. An egotist can’t do it. He inevitably finds death a terrifying experience. To be genuinely free requires a tremendous amount of internal work—work that men like Wayne LaPierre refuse to have anything to do with. They are the real slackers.

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Progress Report #113

February 16, 2018

I’m currently working on the final chapter of Street Song, which is presenting me with some expected difficulties. The previous 41 chapters, “the story,” were told in a voice where the narrator (me) never knows much beyond what he is experiencing at the time. This was not a plan. Something inside me resisted using the voice of the omniscient narrator. So this final chapter, which I’m calling “The Afterword,” is told by me as I am today looking back at what I’ve been through, explaining certain things, and drawing conclusions. I need thoroughness and concision at the same time. Difficult to do. I hope to be finished by the end of April. We’ll see.

For the last year, I’ve been working on a collection of songs (called Street Songs) to go with the book. The book is fairly saturated with descriptions of and stories about music, and it occurred to me that you can’t really describe music with words. So I approached one of my readers of the work-in-progress, Bruce Kaphan, an outstanding musician, composer (he did the music for Judy’s latest film Pelican Dreams), and recording engineer, and worked out an agreement with him to do some songs in his studio, Niagara Falls. The original intention was to keep things fairly simple— more than just me and my guitar, but not much more. But things have gotten more elaborate. Two songs in particular have a somewhat large sound. I’ve always been curious about how recording works, and I’m getting some good lessons in that regard.

In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a musician (or a rock star, whichever came first), but never got beyond singing in the streets and in bars during band breaks. It’s difficult to explain here how it happened, but I ended up on the street at the same time my musical ambitions ended. But even after I quit playing seriously, I used to go down to City Lights Bookstore and stand in front of the doorway and sing for spare change. One of the songs I used to do was the Bob Dylan song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” At the time I was quite bereft—even afraid for my life. To me, I was the immigrant in the song—someone who’d left his old life behind but was having grave difficulties finding a new one. I sang it as if I were praying. It’s in the book, and it’s an easy one to play, so it was one of the first songs I recorded over a year ago. It was just me and my guitar, played simply and starkly. At the time, Bruce suggested he add a harmonium (harmonium is a small organ-like keyboard) and a tambourine. I thought it was a perfect idea, but we moved on to other songs and the track was neglected—until yesterday. We finally dusted it off and resumed work. I was expecting the harmonium simply to add a little instrumental texture—sound. But Bruce knows a good deal about harmony and he added extensions to the chords that gave the song colors and feelings it didn’t have before. I was so incredibly moved—laughing sometimes because I was so happy with what he was doing, at the edge of tears sometimes because it was so solemnly beautiful. Very simple, but just right.

Alabama

December 9, 2017

One of the pivotal moments of my youth was reading an article about the firebombing and beatings of a busload of black and white Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. I was shocked by what had happened there, and it burned into my mind a negative image of the Deep South—particularly Alabama and Mississippi. They seemed like evil and dangerous places to which I would never, ever go. Later, through listening to Delta Blues and the “Americana” music of The Band, I became fascinated with the mythology—both white and black—of the small Southern town. I considered it the richest mythology to have ever come out of America and they ended up making me want to see the place for myself. Around ten years ago I finally toured the “Blues” Delta in northern Mississippi. I had an interesting time. It was like visiting another country. One day, outside of Greenwood, which is very near Money, Mississippi, the place where the African-American teenage visitor from Chicago, Emmett Till, was tortured and murdered by local whites, I met a black man who’d moved there from New York City. That seemed a rather extraordinary thing to do. I guessed that the situation there must have changed a lot. I hadn’t been seeing any of the dangerous looking good old boys and wondered if they’d “died out.” He assured me they were still around, that all I had to do was look. After that I did start seeing them. I have no explanation as to why I wasn’t seeing them before. I feel them getting increasingly bold now. If Roy Moore is elected to the Senate, Alabama will once again be a place I deem too dangerous to visit or even pass through.

Progress Report #112

December 7, 2017

Today I finished the final draft of Chapter 40, which marks the end of the bulk of my story. I have two more chapters, one of which is a brief look at the years following Chapter 40, and another that I’m calling an Afterword—a summing up. But the hard part is over. It’s a very strange feeling to be at this point after having struggled with the material for nearly 12 years. Once I’ve finished 41 and the Afterword I’m going to a print-on-demand company so that I can read it as a bound book. I don’t like reading on a monitor or even on 8 1/2 by 11 manuscript pages. I want to see it as a real book. My main task, I think, will be to look for things I’ve said a few too many times, along with redundancies. So to all those who keep asking me—yes, I am going to finish Street Song. I’m very close now.

Progress Report #111

October 10, 2017

In late July I took a much needed break from my work-in-progress, Street Song, and returned to it in mid-September. I wasn’t feeling quite as fresh as I’d hoped to be, but I do feel better. A lot better. Since resuming work, I’ve finished chapters 34, 35, and 36. That’s a much faster pace than usual, and it’s largely due to some preliminary work I’d done. I started Chapter 37 today. When I finish that I’ll have only six chapters to go. The end is getting closer and closer, and, damn, does that feel good. There’s a temptation to rush through to the end, but I don’t dare. I have to take my time, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, until it’s finished. When I was feeding the parrots there was a point where I couldn’t remember how I felt before my involvement with the flock. It’s the same with the book. I don’t remember what I was like before beginning work on this seemingly endless project. I’ve said this before, but as difficult as it’s been, I feel good about it. Whenever I reread what I’ve written, it feels like an accurate depiction of what I went through. I’ve been saying that I have from 10 months to a year to go, but I feel now that it could be less than that. We’ll see.

For anybody in the area who’s interested, I’ll be reading from the manuscript on November 3rd at the Beat Museum here in North Beach. There will be two other readers, Terry Tarnoff and Phil Cousineau. The reading starts at 7 pm.

Progress Report #110

July 16, 2017
PapaJohn

Papa John Karas “making sure that the fish can swim.”

I’ve started work on Chapter 33 of a planned 43 chapter book. One of the remaining chapters has already been written, which leaves ten chapters to go. Without forcing it, the pace of the writing has accelerated, and even though I’m mostly vacationing between July 31 and September 8, I anticipate finishing within a year. I’m exhausted, but happy with what I’ve been doing.

My favorite aspect of the creative process is the unexpected development that seems to come from a source beyond my own mind—certainly beyond my conscious intentions. Music is a big theme in my book—I used to be a street singer—and you can’t really describe music with words. So I thought it would be a good idea to record a few songs to accompany the book. I’m still in the process of recording, but one stands out already, a song I wrote on the island of Hydra in Greece, when I was 17. It was based on John Karas, the Dean of Boys at my high school. A friend of mine called him Papa John, which is also the name of the song. He wasn’t a flaming liberal, but he was a decent man, friendly to the students during a time when turmoil was spreading through the country. He listened to us. I moved away from the area the day after I graduated, but heard through the grapevine later that the school’s football coach thought Papa John was too lenient, too understanding, and got him fired. Try to do something good and the forces of darkness will work to undermine you. That was the theme of the song. I retired “Papa John” from my repertoire decades ago, but the book brought it back to life. I rearranged it and came up with some musical ideas that I liked a lot. Besides my acoustic guitar and voice, there’s a subtle electric piano and three street horns blowing wild. I love it.

Judy likes the song too, and one day it occurred to me that since I have an in-house filmmaker, I ought to make a music video. So we’re in the middle of that now. We came up with an idea that actually means something to us, so it’s more than a commercial for the book. I won’t be lip-synching. I’m barely in the video at all. The subject of the song, John Karas, died more than a decade ago and never heard it. It’s a real pity. As the last line of the song goes, “I wish the best for you, Papa John.”

Progress Report #109

June 12, 2017

A month or so ago I finished Section 3 of Street Song and saw myself taking a few days off and then rolling into the start of Section 4, which is the final section of the book. It didn’t work that way. My brain revolted. Section 4 marks a real change in the story and is the strangest section in the book. My insides needed a bit of time to make the adjustment. But I’m back now. In fact, I’m almost finished with Chapter 29, the first chapter of the last section. I know how it goes, what voice to use, what approach to take—all the essentials. So this is the last leg of what has been so far an 11 year journey. Probably a year to go. It’s taken a lot out of me. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s been a much greater struggle than I ever imagined.

Office

Progress Report #108

May 15, 2017

ms_in_may

My work-in-progress, Street Song, has four sections. Today, with the completion of Chapter 28, I finished the third section. So I have just one section to go. The light is getting brighter. This last chapter was particularly grueling. Day-to-day reality got in my way a lot—as it tends to do anyway. But I think also that there is an arc to the story that my psyche resonates with as I move through it. As I come to the end of a section (which is never arbitrary) I feel the exhaustion that comes with the end of any period of life. Section Four promises to be the most difficult of the book—15 chapters, most of which are relatively brief, but unusually intense. Strange occurrences call for careful depiction. Otherwise you sound like you made it all up—which I didn’t. But I need a few days r and r first. I’m so tired…

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

April 5, 2017

I sometimes say that the only thing I’ve ever done that was harder than writing the book I’m working on, Street Song, was living out the events the book describes. It’s probably true, but it’s hard to know for certain while I’m still in the midst of it. Writing a book (as opposed to a “read”) is one of the most difficult things you can do. So much is involved and it all has to be organized in an organic way. This book is difficult not because it’s extremely personal, which it is, but because how you present your personal stuff has to be done with a special kind of care or it comes off all wrong.

When I started Street Song I thought it was one thing. Working on it, however, it turned into another and another and another. But then, a book, if it’s any good, is lots of different things. The book is partly my attempt at making sense out of my life, partly a warning to others, partly a long letter of explanation to someone I alienated that I didn’t want to alienate, and partly a plain old job. (We all need something to do.) Hopefully it will give some people inspiration—not because of anything I did, but because of what I saw.

As you’ve always heard, writing a book is an incredibly lonely task. You’re inside your head nearly the entire day—even when you’re not writing—and it goes on for years. In my case, nearly 11 years now.  It has led me to places in my daily life that I never expected to go to, created problems I never would have anticipated, as well as misunderstandings that I haven’t known how to correct. (I often feel at a remove from the world around me and can’t reach across the gulf.) This is not to say that there are no joys involved. They have happened, but they are few and far between. Writing is grueling. The greatest joy for me , I think, is the last pass, after you’ve finished the last draft and are fine-tuning the language and massaging the subtleties. I’m nearing that point. About a year away now—maybe less. I’ll be happy when it’s over.