From A Floating Life

“These elephants have learned to hate people,” Pecheur said, “They attack without provocation.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Wherever there are wild elephants. In the last year, there have been almost a thousand attacks.”
“There’s no explanation?” I asked.
“I think they fear extinction. They’re fighting back.”
“But . . .”
“Futile?” The model maker gave a grim smile. “What else can they do?”

The photograph of this elephant is by Geir Kiste [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. It is at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/African_bull_elephant_Tanzania.jpg.

For further information about elephant attacks on people, see “Elephants Attack as Humans Turn Up the Pressure” (National Geographic), “An Elephant Crackup” (The New York Times),
and the various Youtube videos such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13qUJrMCoDU.

Murakami, Baseball, and Fiction

In my recent blog post on Shelf Awareness, I suggested that Haruki Murakami’s “mesmerizing fantasies offer a tonic to a culture overly enmeshed in the realities of the day to day.” In this and subsequent posts I’ll explore the many ways in which Murakami’s unique qualities make his writing such a tonic not just to the culture but to each of us as well.

A curious facet of Murakami’s life story is how he came to his breakthrough realization that he could be a novelist. One day in April, 1978, while he drank a beer and watched a baseball game between his favorite team, the Yakult Swallows, and the Hiroshima Carps, the Swallows leadoff batter in the bottom of the first inning hit a double to left field. At that moment Murakami knew that he could write a novel. After the game, he purchased a fountain pen and paper and every day after work he would drink beer and write.

I’ve played baseball and coached baseball, so I can say with certainty that baseball exists outside of day to day realities. Every fan knows the joy of being utterly absorbed in the outcome of the game, the heroics of the players, the championship race. Watching a game, or playing in one, we forget the realities of mortgage payments, home repairs, domestic crises, and international tensions. A baseball ticket (and perhaps a beer) transport us to an alternative universe where human striving, heroism, and failure all play a role in the drama.

The unusual source of Murakami’s belief that he could write a novel, that moment when the batter hit a double to left field, remains an aspect of so much of his writing. He isn’t wed to the realities of the day to day, but he lives in the world of the imagination, the drama of the life game. Here he is as free as anyone with a beer and a baseball game to watch to let an imagined sequence of events unfold (last inning, bases loaded, full count, two outs, the batter representing the winning run standing at the plate). He is relieved from accountability to the world outside the baseball stadium. He doesn’t have to pay the bills, feed the pet, or vote for a politician. And, when we read his fiction, we too are freed to linger awhile in the realm of the imagination, in a heightened and deepened experience of our inner realities.

This photograph of Tsubakuro, mascot of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, at Meiji Jingu Stadium is by ぽこ太郎 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Creating From Within

C. G. Jung, in undertaking his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, said he would not begin such a project unless it was imposed on him from within. That is a high standard that I believe is met by anyone who works for the primary reward of experiencing the creative process and what that process brings forth. But tasks can also be imposed from within that are undertaken for purposes other than the creative process.

I spent a summer between my second and third years as a law student working for a large law firm. My main project was a lengthy research project to try and determine whether the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II was a motorboat under the Florida motor boating statute. Like so much that is done to advance a career or earn money, this task felt imposed from without and not from within.

Early in my work as an attorney I became an advocate for the rights of artists and authors. I did extensive, time-consuming research for the books titled Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and The Writer’s Legal Guide. The nature of the legal research was much the same as that done with respect to the status of the Queen Elizabeth II, but the research felt imposed from within because of my strong belief that strengthening the status of artists and authors served a valuable societal function.

More recently, I completed my novel A Floating Life. Here the imposition from within is easier to see because the novel reflects the vivid images and encounters of a life journey fleshed out by the play of imagination.

Of course, work imposed from within can be strenuous, difficult, and frustrating. But its correspondence to inner desire also makes it challenging and rewarding in ways that work done without inner compulsion can never be.

C. G. Jung carved the figure above of Telesphorus in stone at his estate in Bollingen. For more information about the carving, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollingen_Tower. The photograph of the stone is by Philipp Roelli [GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Royalties for Visual Artists?

We’re all familiar with royalties for writers (or visual artists who write books). A percentage of the retail price or the net price (what the publisher receives for the book) is paid to the author. But what about royalties on the sale of paintings, sculptures, and other unique works of art? The Copyright Office has now asked for comments about whether federal legislation should be enacted to create such a right to royalties.

This “follow-up” right has existed in France since 1920 and also exists in many other countries. In the United States a number of model contracts were proposed that, if signed by the buyer of a work, would create a right on the part of the artist to receive up to 15% of the profit in the event of a resale. In 1977, the state of California pioneered by enacted an art resale proceeds law that required payment to the artist of at least 5% of the resale price. The complexities of the law are explored in Legal Guide for the Visual Artist (pages 131-132).

Some commentators questioned the constitutionality of the California law. It appeared that a 1981 case resolved this issue in Morseburg v. Balyon in which the court held the law to be constitutional and wrote in its opinion this “is the very type of innovative lawmaking that our federalist system is designed to encourage.” However, a federal
judge struck down the entire law in May, 2012, because the law controlled transactions occurring outside of the state of California and thus violated the commerce clause of the Constitution. This decision is now under appeal.

Bills introduced in the House and Senate in December, 2011, would create a resale proceeds right for artists along the lines of the California law.

The Copyright Office is now seeking to gather information about a federal resale royalty right. The Copyright Office “published a Federal Register notice requesting written comments on how current copyright law affects and supports visual artists and how a
federal resale royalty right for visual artists would affect current and future practices of groups or individuals involved in the creation, licensing, sale, exhibition, dissemination, and preservation of works of visual art. Specifically, the Office seeks comments on the means by which visual artists exploit their works under existing law as well as the issues and obstacles that may be encountered when considering a federal resale royalty right in the United States. The notice of inquiry is available at www.copyright.gov/docs/resaleroyalty. Comments are due by 5:00pm EST on November 5, 2012.”

Whatever the fate of the California law, an amendment to the federal copyright law would be a far more efficient and wide-reaching mechanism to ensure that visual artists benefit if their works increase in value over time.

Crafting a Strong Title

Titles can be admirable for different reasons. My nonfiction book, Legal Guide for the Visual Artist, has a good title because the title very accurately describes the contents of the book. My novel was far more difficult to title because it moves through the fantastic images of the soul with striking juxtapositions and lacunae as the narrator
embarks on a voyage of sea changes. Ultimately, A Floating Life worked as a title with an embracing openness that served the novel well.

I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts my admiration for The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. On first encountering the title, I felt dubious because “Sense” seemed indefinite while “Ending” allowed no qualification. After reading the novel, I find the title very apt. The novel deals with how the process of contemplation can affect our view of the past. The word “sense” takes several meanings. It refers to how the ending of the narrator’s relationships felt—which undergoes an enormous change as the narrator is forced to reflect on the past. It also suggests trying to make sense of complexities that defy easy calculation. And it may also suggest how the narrator, at an advanced age, senses more closely the final evaluation of himself that he will carry to the grave. By the time I finished reading the novel, “ending” seemed quite open to qualification. Which ending was being considered—the ending of a love affair as the narrator saw it as a young man or as he understood it four decades later? Or the ending
of certain illusions about his past and himself? Or a different ending entirely, such as the approaching end of the narrator’s life? Did these endings make sense? Could the endings carry multiple meanings, be sensed in different ways? How did the narrator sense it, the
other characters? How did I sense it as a reader?

The more the title’s ambiguity offered up different meanings appropriate to the story, the more I appreciated it as a title worthy of a fine book.

Another Meaning of Junk

“Which of the ships excites you the most? Which ship could carry you across the boundaries of the known world and take you to foreign lands? What adventures might you have in those longitudes and latitudes? You can look at boats,” Pecheur went on, “but understanding what makes you desire one thing or another is more elusive.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 4)

This model is of one of the enormous junks that sailed in the treasure fleets of Cheng Ho, admiral of the western seas. For more about building model boats, visit http://www.modelshipwrightsdatabase.com/Articles/ScratchBuildingaModelShip.pdf.

The Automaton Opponent

Carafe at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

“The machines were called automatons, and the chessplaying ones usually involved a human figure sitting behind a large box. The most famous was a European creation called the Turk—a figure dressed exotically to suggest that he was not part of the day-to-day world. But,” Pecheur continued, “What if the Turk decided he wouldn’t play chess anymore—that he wanted to learn to play the piano or fall in love?” –from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 17)

For more information about chess automatons, visit http://www.geocities.com/siliconvalley/lab/7378/automat.htm.

For a Freudian interpretation of chess, visit http://chess.eusa.ed.ac.uk/Chess/Trivia/psychology.html. Two novels that I like about games and those who play the games are The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov and The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata.

Can We Change the Past? (Part 3)

In Part 2 of this blog post I related how my fifth grade principal, mistaken in his belief that I was laughing at him (I was laughing at a classmate’s joke), struck me eight or ten times with his open hand. My mother had promised to take action if anyone ever abused me, but I told her what the principal had done and she never went to confront him. Considering who she was, how bravely she faced so many other circumstances, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t go. Years later, it remained with me as a perplexing instance when my mother said one thing but did another.

With the passage of time, in this case three or four decades, I gradually began to put this story beside other stories and see a very different picture. In that time women certainly weren’t treated as equals. Many career paths simply weren’t open to my mother. In addition, my parents were divorced. All in all, she may have decided to pick her struggles wisely and concluded this vain (and obese) principal with his old guard, country club friends would never apologize and might even be vindictive.

I realized how frustrating it must have been for her to be limited because she was a woman. How thwarted she must have felt to need a husband to take an active role in business or stand up to a man like the principal.

A few years earlier, at midlife, she had gone to college to get a teaching degree so she could earn a living. When I was nine, she took a year off from college to create abusiness making placemats. Money was always tight. She tried to borrow for the business, but she couldn’t. Eventually it failed for lack of capital. All this had been going on during the time I asked her to go to the principal.

I’ll never know exactly what went through her mind, but I no longer think of her as having failed me. Rather, I see the difficulty of her situation and how she tried in so many ways to move her life—and mine—forward.

So the event, the blows showering down on me, remains the same, but its meaning is transformed. And with new meaning comes a reshaping of my story. Was it untruthful before? Is it fully truthful now? With each metamorphosis of a life story we shape anew the past and our own lives.

Can We Change the Past? (Part 2)

Part 1 of this blog post discussed Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, and its premise that we make stories of our lives. If this is true, we can change our lives, change our pasts, by gaining new understandings that reshape our stories. I wanted to relate this concept to a personal experience.

When I was a boy, my mother told me that if anyone laid a hand on me I should tell her. She said she would deal with that person. I believed her because she was strong in many ways, including her temper, her sense of humor, and her love.

My story takes place only a few years before the crucial events of the 1960s that the narrator is recollecting in The Sense of an Ending. I was in fifth grade. During those happy moments between classes when the kids would turn sideways and backwards in their desk chairs and chatter until the noise level soared, a friend told me a joke and I started laughing.

At that moment the principal entered the room. He strode directly to me and started hitting me with an open hand.

“Laugh at me, will you?” he demanded as he struck my head and upper back eight or ten times.

I was in pain and stunned. My friend and I exchanged puzzled glances.

I took my mother at her word and told her what happened.

She promised that she would go and speak to the principal and ask him to apologize. But she never went.

In my next blog I’ll discuss how my perception of my
mother’s failure to act changed with the passage of years.