Sunday, June 30, 2013

Adventures in Lucasland

Some very strange things have happened in and around my lifelong home, the Ross Valley of Central Marin County, but the latest is perhaps the strangest of all. In the heart of downtown San Anselmo, the Hub City where the Ross Valley meets The Miracle Mile from San Rafael, a hundred year-old building that once housed the Rexall Pharmacy and still had Rx mortar and pestle insignia on the buffed metal central door handles, was torn down to build a park and in the center of the park stand two of the Ross Valley's central defining characters: Indiana Jones and Yoda.
The park is named "Imagination Park", and it abuts the Spanish style city hall and one of the branches of the freshly merged Central Marin police. From the time the first wrecking ball began taking out Kenny Harris' pharmacy and the subsequent furniture store, to the time the statues were unveiled a few weeks ago - a mere three months - the curiosity has been palpable. The patron saint of San Anselmo was at it again. After transforming a hilltop mansion perched above a mortuary and surrounded by apartments and single-family homes into a compound of  high security designer redwood lodgings surrounded by an instant forest of 100-gallon trees, some of us started to have ancient, archetypal flashbacks to the feudal days of King Arthur and Lancelot. But our king was the quietest of royal highnesses, more likely to be found at a school board meeting than a
Opening Day
Hollywood awards ceremony. After a long period of relative quiet, our lord emerged from the shadows to purchase the land where on old wooden instrument shop, Amazing Grace, had sat untouched for centuries. He so loved the shop and so hated the little spit of land it occupied between westbound and eastbound traffic on The Miracle Mile that he built a new Sonoma fieldstone/redwood Amazing Grace a little further up where the space between the two lane one way thoroughfares is wide enough for a few parking spots, and filled in the little spit by the intersection with another one of his signature redwood-tree landfills; just because he thought it would look better, and he didn't want to lose the wooden instrument store to progress and Musician's Friend. Plus he had to drive by the little shithole whenever he stayed at the San Anselmo estate to go anywhere. (Personally, I think a 15 ft. tall Chewy Chewbacca statue would be super cool nestled between the redwoods, with perhaps an Ewok in one of those groovy little shuttle units suspended above the trees.)
The new Amazing Grace wooden instrument store
    Anybody that has seen a Lucas creation knows that aesthetics are everything; the combination of the acting, the special effects, and the composition of his frames are what makes him more than your garden variety action adventure dude. He extends his sense of aesthetics to his surroundings, be they the gazillion acre production facility, Skywalker Ranch, that Lucasfilm LTD, now another little tiny head on the multi-headed Disney hydra, built and ran for several thousand years, to the Victorian mansion overlooking Red Hill Avenue and all the surrouinding buildings - his downtown compound - to the little spit of intersection and Amazing Grace music to, ultimately, Imagination Park. There are doubtless other smaller projects that he's had his hand in here in San Anselmo, and of course there's the high profile empire building going on in the Presidio across the GG bridge, but nothing, no matter how grand in scale or significant in impact comes close to the bronze statues of Indiana Jones and Yoda in Imagination Park.  
George, dedicating...
These are the characters that made one of the town's citizens gazillions of dollars, a smidgen of which he has bequeathed upon the civic landscapeto honor his own imagination and the notoriety it has brought him and, by default, our town. And, as if he were doing everybody a big favor, he's turned a very nice little park into a tourist attraction, a landmark of sorts where folks can pause for their Raiders of the Lost Star Wars photo op while shopping at one of the shops along San Anselmo Ave., perhaps as a detour on their way to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore or The Wine Country to the north. And what a great way to ensure the popularity of not just a couple of movies but an entire portfolio of films.  It's unfortunate that Indiana Jones doesn't look anything like Harrison Ford: there isn't even the slighest hint of a crooked smile or a sneer or bemusement of any sort, those characteristics that make Indy such a memorable character. No, this statue looks like an archeologist with a bullwhip and a Stetson. Thankfully, Yoda is Yoda. 

While the research has yet to be done, my guess is that there are very few, public spaces that pay homage to imaginary characters from films, books ( or even the mind of the rich industrialist that perhaps founded the town). If there's a rich dude or dudette building parks for the townsolk, the statue is most likely to be of him, or her, or perhaps an president or public figure: Ike, Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Genghis Kahn etc. I suppose the statue builder could honor anybody their little heart desired, even their own imaginary creations, just so long as they were building a park to go with it and footing the bill.
But the quirk of Imagination Park in downtown San Anselmo isn't so much about a famous film maker and civic philanthropist paying homage to his own creations - I think just about anybody might observe that it's a little strange, regardless of whether they like it or not. And of course it's completely different than naming his vast production facility and offices "Skywalker Ranch", though it is ironic that he chose Lucas Valley for the location. Instead, the presence of Dr. Jones and Yoda in bronze, surrounded by a reflecting pool, next to the City Hall in downtown San Anselmo and just a couple miles from one of Junipero Serra's historic California Missions in downtown San Rafael, is practically a throwback to the days where every town had a statue of some important historical figure on the village green.

But we roll differently in these parts: our history isn't defined by the Miwoks, or the Alta Californian Rancheros, the lumberjacks, sawyers and mills that raped the Ross Valley and it's watershed of it's redwoods to build San Francisco, only to see it all go up in flames in 1906 (those lumber guys thought they were doing the right thing at the time...), or the quiet Theologians that have been coming to the seminary in our town for over 100 years, or even that scoundrel and pirate Sir Francis Drake (besides he already has his statue in Larkspur Landing), and of course we could go on and on; just the hubbiness of San Anselmo and it's distinction as a crossroads warrants some notoriety.
Instead, San Anselmo pays homage to two of very recent history's most memorable imaginary heroes. I guess we've tacitly decided that when visitors come to San Anselmo, this is what we want them to remember about our home town: that a world-renowned storyteller, film maker and entrepreneur with industrial-strength imagination and drive chose to live in San Anselmo instead of Modesto (his home town) or Hollywood, and that this exceptional civic philanthropist has almost single-handedly given birth to one of the most powerful economic and creative forces in the entire Bay Area, drawing stars from around the world to Skywalker and the greatest special effects producers to ILM. We want visitors to know that this amazing guy is our homie, and that we rub shoulders with him at school board meetings and soccer games. We want visitors to note that two of the world's most beloved characters were invented right here in San Anselmo: a green-skinned squashed-face midget in jammies with camel-toe hands and bat ears who inverts his noun/verb phrases such that talk funny he does, and a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, chauvinistic womanizing trophy hunter who is a magician with a bullwhip and hates snakes.
Then, once we get Luke, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan, Jar Jar Binks, Darth, and most of all Jabba the Hut, along with Indy and a few Nazis, painted over the Waldo tunnel entering Marin, and we replace Sir Francis with Chewbacca at Larkspur Landing, the naked lady in front of Bon Air with Indy surrounded by bloodthirsty scimtar-weilding fez-heads, and the San Rafael Mission with a life-sized replica of The Cave of The Crystal Skull - then we will have truly created a civic identity of which we can all be proud.

Smelly Foot Note: Personally I think it might have been classier to wait until after George became one with The Force and sprouted bat-ears of his own. Then we could have a statue of George, surrounded by his beloved characters and Yoda... on his lap.
(Has anybody heard about The Godfather statue planned for the Sonoma town square? Coppola makes wine in Sonoma, he might as well have a statue, too. Right?)


Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Mill Valley Literary Review Summer Issue

for immediate release 6-14-13

The Mill Valley Literary Review publishes Summer Issue 2013 June 15th. 
The Mill Valley Literary Review is a quarterly Digital Magazine providing encouragement, wit and resources for Marin and San Francisco Bay's literary renaissance. Enthusiastic readers and writers – Welcome! 

The Bonanza Summer Local Authors Issue: Our 4th issue is the largest MillValleyLit to date! Get the scoop on our exciting Literary Scene. A New Audiobook Section celebrating National Audiobook Month. 

Features include: 
  • An interview with audiobook narrators, including Simon Vance, award winning Narrator " was a narrator who could somehow embody not only the voices but the personalities of a staggering number of characters? How?" by Jeb Harrison,
  • An interview with Paul Costanzo, voice actor for the Catherine Coulter novels, among others.  
  • The Growing Audiobook Phenom with an  Audiobook review of "Madame Bovary," and a Writing Contest. 
Mark Susnow - Dancing on the River
Melanie Thorne - Hand Me Down
Joshua Mohr - Fight Song 
Gil Mansbergh - The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill
Cary Jane Sparks - Incensed
Claudia Chapline - Seaglass: Stinson Beach Poems
Jeb Harrison – Hack
Eddy Ancinas – Squaw Valley and  Alpine Meadows: A Tale of Two Valleys
Christie Nelson - Dreaming Mill Valley

Tav Sparks - Through Thunder 

Larry Lingeman's Tarzan Adventures, local connections J.D. Salinger, faux writings of James Joyst, William "Billybob" Blake, George Ohwell, and a new Writing Contest.

See write-up on us in this month's Marin Magazine  (The Fall issue will focus on San Francisco authors and locales )

Reality Avoidance at The All-American Picnic

 I have a sneaking suspicion that I picked up on this blogging business about 10 years too late, or that the blogging business picked up on me after my natural blogging abilities had already come and gone. I only say this because of my observations of other bloggers, whom I study more intently now that I've joined the ranks of HuffPost bloggers who will happily blabbinate for free in return for exposure outside of their established circle (in my case all 6 of you that visit Limboland regularly). The difference between me and them is that they are all self-proclaimed subject matter experts on something - politics, religion, celebrities, sports, world events, books, music, life over fifty (one might guess I would know something about that), parenting, pets, food - the HuffPost categories seem almost bottomless. What's more, these SME, in their youthful exuberance, always have something to say, whereas the only reason I say anything at all is to attempt to herd the random thoughts rattling around my cranium like marbles in a tin can, and when I do manage to herd the naughty naked gnomes into some type of thematic structure, it almost always falls into a category that you would be more likely to find in a Bellevue therapy circle than the HuffPost.

For example a couple of days ago I realized that living so close to Stinson Beach State Park on the weekends is like living on the border of not one but at least four third-world countries (is it more polite to refer to these nations as "emerging markets"? ) Our little hillside bungalow in Coon Hollow is a five minute downhill walk to the Stinson Beach Market at the junction of Highway One and Calle Del Mar, the only ingress to the residential neighborhood on the hill known at The Village. Across Highway One is the town park, the post office, The Lunch Box, a housecleaning service, and The Parkside Cafe. A little bridge over Eastkoot Creek leads to the north end picnic grounds of the state park, beyond which lies the official state beach, complete with lifeguard towers, The Surfer's Grill, and, on the weekends hordes of extended families , nuclear families, partying youths and the occasional couple playing tonsil hockey, tickle the bean and snap the carrot under a strategically placed beach towel.

What hits your average lily-white boy-in-the-bubble Marinite upon venturing to the state park is that these aren't the same folks you see over the hill at Whole Paycheck market or sipping lattes at The Depot in Mill Valley, nor are they the tourists escaped from the Muir Woods adventure. No way. Most of these groups have been on the road since dawn, escaping the Daly City scene, over from Richmond, San Pablo, Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, Castro Valley and points east where a little cool drizzle is a welcome respite from the fumes of the bay lowlands. They've brought patio canopies for the picnic ground, tents for the beach, portable tables and little kettle bbqs to handle the overflow from the park grills, coolers on wheels full of beer and Chablis, bowls of Safeway potato salad, macaroni salad, jello ambrosia, nachos and beans, sheet cakes and buckets of ice cream. Sometimes the half gallon bottles of vodka, rum and brandy are parked proudly in the middle of it all, sometimes they're partially hidden in grocery bags under the table. But you can tell from the clear plastic cocktail cups with the slices of lime that come 3PM there will be some serious napping goin' down.

The families at the picnic tables are practically sitting on top of one another, with a couple sets of grandparents parked off to the side under a shade tree in the best portable chairs with cupholder armrests, blankets over their legs and a grandkid or two yanking on their skirts or jackets. The picnic table is piled high with bags, bowls, and buckets of food as are the benches leaving the picnic-goers to sit around the table in their colorful fold-up nylon chairs to hoist and masticate. Some have boom boxes blaring Ranchero or some hippity hop rap rhythms while others rely on shouting, laughter, and crying rug-rats to drown out whatever worry may be may be lingering in their addled heads.

And that's where the similarities between the packed weekend picnics ends. At one table tucked under a low slung wind flattened Monterrey cypress a Hindi family, recognizable from the bindi on Grandma's forehead and the bright sari wrapped around her sea lion bulk, seems to be hiding from the boisterous gang of young Mexicanos across the asphalt path. The Hindi grandma sits in the deep shade, a garish yellow windbreaker pulled over her sari, quietly eyeing three tattooed young men in tank tops kicking a soccer ball from one to the next, each attempting to display their hands-free  juggling ability before passing it on and taking a drag off the cigarettes stuck to their lips.

Grandma motions to a son-in-law in short-waisted sky blue jacket and horn rim glasses, khakis and topsiders,  looking like he just stepped off the Cisco corporate campus after a day of coding, to take a look at the Mexican futbollers. Frowning, she nods at the tatooed tank tops like she's giving her son-in-law an order to go whack their jabbering asses, but the Punjab programmer just looks at her, palms open, with a "what am I supposed to do about it" expression of bewilderment across his dark French roast face. In a classic act of Punjabi disdain, Grandma hocks a thick forest green loogie and lets it hang off her cracked lower lip before it drips onto the grass, then bares her yellowed dentures at her daughter's husband. Bristling at this blatant act of disrespect, the son-in-law now grabs the arm of his wife, who is quietly jib-jabbing at the table knee to knee with two other young brides, and spins her around to look at her own mother, who is now a picture of the calm, respectful old Hindu grandparent, smiling sweetly and almost imperceptibly swaying to and fro on her fold-up chair. He points at her and shouts something directly into his wife's ear and she is just about to get up when the soccer ball comes flying across the picnic ground and smacks Grandma right on the forehead causing her dentures to pop out of her mouth with such force that they land with a rattle and clatter directly in the red plastic beer cup of a 325 lb black man sitting in a portable recliner at the next picnic spot over.

"Well shit goddamn!" cries the big man, staring into the cup and sticking his chubby fingers in his mouth thinking for sure those are his teeth in there. He hoists the cup and drains the brandy press on the rocks before fishing out the yellowed dentures and holding them up for closer inspection. After a few moments turning the teeth and looking at them from various angles he looks up into the sky and the wisps of late afternoon fog beginning to blow off the ocean. His companions, like him just moments ago, are all asleep, or passed out, after starting the day at 7:30 with Smirnoff canned screwdrivers from Leroy's Liquors and Donuts in Vallejo, then switching to Budweiser followed by Beam and Coke once the beach camp was set up. Upon moving to the picnic ground the group of 12 opened several gallon jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy to wash down the chips n' dip, bbq chicken, po sal, mac sal, ambrosia, somebody made the mistake of bringing straight fruit salad which went completely untouched for fear of further loosening up some already very loose bowels), cornbread, watermelon and cookies of a dozen varieties direct from Safeway, like everything else.

So while Grandma Poonjabber sits semiconscious slumped over in her chair, tongue lolling out the
side of her toothless slack-lipped frown, and the big fella from El Cerrito tries on a new set of teeth, the Salvadoran (or did I say Mexican? Or perhaps Honduran?) soccer stars are trying to negotiate for their ball with 3 very upset Hindi women who are so goddamned happy to be able to yell at men with impunity that they'll keep these poor boys at bay until the park closes.

And I'm still sitting here wondering what I could possibly blog about that would be of any value on the swingin' Huff n' Puff home of the digerati, something that the urban urbane will like and share, pin and retweet with unbridled enthusiasm to their thriving networks of pundits and soothsayers. Because I'm pretty certain that whatever it is, it has very little to do with any of the HuffPo categories and, barring some unforeseen miracle, will probably be relegated to Limboland forevermore!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Writer's Good News Bad News Blues

A Writer's Good News Bad News Blues

The good news is that anybody can publish a novel. The bad news is that anybody can publish a novel. Discuss.

I've been contemplating whether to expend my breath on a topic that is already so swollen with hot air it explodes every time it’s broached. However the topic has generally been examined by the cool, analytical eyes of the industry pundits, whose interest is in creating headline op-eds with brash predictions and “I told you sos”, rather than the “content creators” themselves. To those that continue to inform us that the “content” industry has been turned upside down and is suffering an embarrassing case of itching, burning entropy I say: Thanks. I think we’ve got that.

(Note: For this writer, reading about the business of writing is an evil distraction and time suck that, if allowed to mushroom, can lead to a dangerous evaporation of the creative juices. Writing about the business of writing is much, much worse.)

For the novelists, the self-publishing explosion is a topic supercharged with emotion from both those that feel that publishing a novel should be a privilege, as well as those that argue that publishing should be an unalienable right. On one side, the emotion wells up from a literary culture that was brought up to believe that getting published was a mark of distinction, an accomplishment, a reward of recognition for commitment, dedication and hard work, and thus an invitation to the show. On the other side, cheap/free self-publishing is a triumph of democracy that has torn down the wall imposed by the self-appointed arbiters of taste, allowing imaginative folks to test their storytelling and writing talents on the reading market mano a mano.

Both sides are right, of course. And while the industry-watchers examine the economics of the new content creation and distribution model, others are wondering what the impact ot free e-publishing, free e-books, fanfict etc. etc. has on the job, and the psyche, of the novelist.
I remember my Mom trying to explain communism to me. She said that if all the doctors in the country get paid exactly the same thing, none of them will be motivated to cure diseases. In other words if there’s no money, or recognition in coming up with a cure, then why bother trying?
If a writer’s novel doesn’t have to be better than the next one on the slush pile to get published, why bother trying to write the better novel? Or your personal best novel? Many publishers take on novels that they were dead certain would never make a bestseller list, (which these days can easily be bought) in the interest of pushing the envelope of the art form. Will they continue to do that? Can they afford to do that? Or will they just stick with the tried and true Shades of Thrones and tell the Faulkners, Updikes, Plaths and those that continue to test limits to go self-publish and see what happens? As in “get back to me when you sell 500 books.”

The self-publishing conundrum for the trained, experienced and/or professional writer goes beyond the basic motivation to write the best kick-ass novel they can possibly write in hopes of getting published. Just a cursory look at Amazon or Goodreads illustrates how difficult it must be for readers to differentiate, on the surface, between novels written by working professionals and others schooled in the craft versus novels written by amateurs. In other words you still can't tell a book by it's cover. Or e-cover. But inside it could be like night and day.

So while the playing field may appear to have been democratically leveled, allowing writers of varying experience, skill and talent to compete for the same reviews, the same readers, regardless of genre, it is anything but level. The explosion of "anything goes" novels, ebook and print, has buried every genre - romance, western, sci-fi, paranormal, lit fiction, chick lit etc. etc. - in almost illegible, incomprehensible junk. And the only way to determine what is worth reading is to actually read some of it.

So what, right? What's the sour grapes hoity-toity novelist going to say when told that he/she can take Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Clemens and Flaubert, along with Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and our more current masters of the craft and shove them up his/her puckered up, snobby, judgmental asshole? It's not like pulp fiction, grocery store romances and dime store novels are anything new. But the homemade variety is.

Perhaps the industry needs to establish some sort of rating system or seal of approval that at least acknowledges a level of quality within a genre, so that readers that enjoy C-grade sci-fi know where to get it, and those that want some AAA historical fiction to give to their crotchety pipe-sucking father-in-law can easily track it down. Doesn’t matter if it’s self published, indie-published or published by a major. At least then the readers can navigate through the chaos, and the writers have a clear target audience to go after and, more importantly, a reason to give each novel a best shot.

Of course that's a ridiculously stupid idea, but I can't help feeling that simply accepting the status-quo is going to somehow backfire on everybody: publishers, writers, readers, reviewers... we all sense that something is not quite right with this picture but nobody can put their finger on what it is. The inevitable conclusion that getting published is no longer a mark of distinction or accomplishment, or a reward of recognition for commitment, dedication and hard work, or an invitation to anything except Amazon, and that unless you're trying to win a Pulitzer, Man-Booker, National Book Award or the Nobel Prize, there is simply no reason to try harder... the whole business still has me scratching my head.

And from now on I promise to do my damndest not to think about and, God forbid, should you find me writing about it again take me out and shoot me, please!

- Blockhead, June 2, 2013