In 1997, Tom Robbins was given Bumbershoot’s Golden Umbrella Award for “lifetime achievement in the arts.” The following, never before published, is his acceptance speech, which Robbins wants you to know is a piece of rhetoric, not an essay. “Had I intended it to be read rather than listened to, the writing would have been tighter of syntax and less bombastic of cadence,” Robbins says. Nevertheless, it’s an eloquent, full-throated tribute to the writer’s sources of inspiration.
TWO YEARS AGO, my publishers sent me on a book tour of New Zealand, which included a reading at the huge Melbourne International Arts Festival. I shared the program with four other writers—two British and two Canadian—and as each of them was introduced to read, the emcee listed their literary honors: the Booker Prize, the Whitbread Prize, this, that and the other prize. I was last on the program, and my introduction was sadly lacking in the old literary trophy department. When I got to the podium, I told the audience, “I feel so naked standing up here: I’ve never won an award in my life. You are now about to find out why.” And, after I read the bed mite scene from Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, they did.
But this evening, before your very eyes, I’ve lost my laudatory virginity. I just hope you respect me in the morning.
My first reaction when I heard Bumbershoot was to actually give me an award was, “What could they be thinking?” But now that I’ve gotten used to the idea, I’m proud and pleased and grateful. And I’m sincere when I say there’s no other prize anywhere I’d rather have. After those Swedish meatballs made Henry Kissinger a Nobel laureate, I vowed that I’d never accept the Nobel Prize, no matter how hard they begged me. As for the other big one, well, in the wake of the lurid Palm Beach sex scandals involving Roxanne Pulitzer, I decided that my sense of morality and family values oblige me to reject the Pulitzer, as well. Unless, of course, Roxanne gave it to me in person. But, no, I’m thoroughly satisfied and entirely happy with my Golden Umbrella, and I thank mightily and amplitudinously everyone who made it possible.
When I moved to this distant outpost right out of college in 1962, I only knew two things about Seattle: one, it was a long way from racist, sexist, homophobic, hide-bound, purse-lipped, gun-toting, church-crazed, flag-saluting, bourbon-swilling, buzz-cut, save your Confederate money, boys! Richmond, Virginia; and two, there was reputed to be something not quite right about its weather. I harbored vague but irrepressible ambitions as a writer and Bohemian bon vivant, and I had no idea how my proclivities and priorities might be accepted in Seattle. Soon after my arrival here, however, I encountered, if only indirectly, three local gurus whose example provided me with encouragement, inspiration, and fortification.
The first of these was a man called Spike Africa, surely one of the great names of all times. Spike Africa had been declared a celebrated sailor and international boat racer, known in his prime, when he was based in San Francisco and Hawaii, as the Mayor of the Pacific Ocean. In his last years, his career in decline, he’d ended up as the harbormaster at the Seattle Yacht Club. Now, there was a wealthy gentleman in Tacoma, a top executive at the Weyerhaeuser Corporation—we’ll call him McClellan—who moored his private vessel at the Seattle Yacht Club, and this McClellan, with the arrogance that sometimes marks those of his class, had a habit of ringing up the harbormaster on the phone, and as soon as the receiver was lifted, would yell, “Africa! Get a pencil!” And then he’d curtly list all the things he wanted done to his boat and slam down the phone. This went on for some time until one day the phone rang, Spike picked it up, and heard, “Africa! Get a pencil!” Seems that McClellan had decided he wanted his yacht brought down to Tacoma immediately.
So, Spike went out to the boat to alert its crew—which, as fate would have it, had been helping itself to the contents of its boss’s liquor cabinet and the whole lot of them was drunk as skunks. Nevertheless, Spike passed them McClellan’s urgent instructions, and shortly thereafter, the yacht weighed anchor and its thoroughly intoxicated captain gunned the engine full speed ahead. Alas, he’d forgotten to put the gears in reverse and the yacht slammed into several other expensive boats, took out the dock, and, after plowing through a flowerbed and several yards of manicured turf, came to rest on the clubhouse lawn, causing, in all, considerably more than a hundred thousand dollars in damages. At that point, Spike Africa went inside, dialed the direct line to the executive’s office in Tacoma, and when it was answered, said, “McClellan! Get a pencil!”
The second inspiring figure I discovered in this area was a woman named Emily Carr. Ms. Carr was the first white artist to make use of Northwest Indian motifs, which she incorporated into her paintings in a dramatic, modernistic manner. Reclusive and just a shade eccentric, Emily Carr spent her summers among the Indians of Vancouver Island, living in a tent. As the weather cooled in autumn, she would move into the townhouse she maintained in Victoria. There she kept a monkey and a parrot. Not wishing to be disturbed, and answering machines not having been invented, she taught her pets to handle calls. When the phone rang, the monkey would lift the receiver, hold it up to the birdcage, and the parrot would squawk, in a German accent, “You haft der vrong noomber!” and the monkey would hang up the phone.
And finally, there was Sheriff Tex. His last name is unknown to me, although I believe it might have been Lewis or Williams. At any rate, Tex had actually been the sheriff of King County, but an inordinate fondness for fermented cereals and the spoiled juice of the grape had cost him his job. At the time of my arrival in Seattle, Sheriff Tex was a country-western singer, appearing frequently at the Spanish Castle and the taverns along First Avenue. He rode annually in the Seafair Torchlight parades—on a float with his western band, in full, if somewhat funky, rhinestone cowboy regalia. And in his cups. Usually so wasted, in fact, that he couldn’t sing or play or stand up straight, a condition that never failed to elicit jeers from spectators along the parade route. But Sheriff Tex had an answer for them, and everybody else. As the parade progressed down Fourth Avenue, you could hear him for blocks, bellowing from the top of his float, over and over again, “Kiss my old rusty dusty!”
Well, armed with those three magic phrases—”Get a pencil!” “You haft der vrong noomber!” and “Kiss my old rusty dusty!”—I figured I could handle any negative situation that might arise in my newly adopted hometown. Much to my surprise, however, my experiences here, right from the start, were almost entirely positive.
The weather, for example. I was prepared for abundant precipitation, for the witch measles that pepper the rough skin of the firs, the downpours that hiss on the freeways like the water rat that mated with a deep-fat fryer and gave birth to White Center, the drizzle that sweeps down from the Sasquatch slopes in hieroglyphic circuits of bootleg microchips and translucent Cheeto crumbs to consecrate and sanctify and turn a person inward. (In 35 years here I’ve seldom felt a drop I didn’t like.) What I couldn’t anticipate was the enveloping narcotic grayness of Seattle’s light, the nearly perpetual soft-focus glow that seems to be filtered through frozen squid bladders, a kind of synthetic sunshine invented by Norwegian chemists to be sprayed in the atmosphere like a mist of radiated cod paste and bad banana baby food. Feathery and innocuous on the one hand, sodden and ill-willed on the other, it’s the meteorological equivalent of Pat Boone singing heavy metal. Yet, there’s something strangely comforting about this gray luminescence, as if a sort of quicksilver shroud has been stretched over Western Washington to shield it from the harsh and jagged rays of a more aggressive, less reflective, American pathology.
Even more unexpected was the human climate. In Seattle, I soon found that my radical ideas and aesthetic explorations—ideas and explorations that in Richmond, Virginia, might have gotten me stoned to death with hush puppies—were not only accepted but occasionally applauded. In retrospect, that shouldn’t be so astonishing, for the most fleeting overview of neurogeography reveals that for four or five thousand years, there has been a pattern of migratory movement of consciousness from east to west. The smartest people, the strongest, bravest, most adventurous, creative, open-minded, and advanced have pressed ever westward: starting from India and China, moving to Alexandria, Constantinople, and the Middle East; on to Athens, Rome, Paris, London; crossing the Atlantic, the New England of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, New York of course; then Chicago, which earlier in this century was a hot box of intellectual and artistic ferment; and, now, the West Coast, where LA, San Francisco, and Seattle represent the end of terrestrial migration.
Fulfilling its evolutionary destiny, our Emerald City has been populated by a significant number of migrants, mavericks, and mutants: seed people, future people, people on the edge of thought, the edge of discovery, the edge of tomorrow. To some extent, Seattle remains a frontier metropolis, a place where people can experiment with their lives, and change and grow and make things happen. My intuitive impulse to relocate here, on the flexible blade of this psychological jackknife, may have been the brightest thing I’ve ever done.
Having said that, I must also say that according to my agent, who pays attention to such things, the most vicious, bloodthirsty, spiteful, mean-spirited reviews my novels have received anywhere in the world have been written and published right here in Geoduck Junction. But that’s completely understandable. In the first place, proximity is frequently the mother of irritability. Secondly, despite its tremendous growth in recent years, Seattle retains, for better or worse, something of a small-town character. Its very small-townness is what keeps it fresh, friendly, relaxed, and generous. But as in small towns, a certain resentment is directed toward successful people, people whose shadow has cast itself beyond our homegrown boundaries, people we perceive as being more successful than we are, who may even have stolen or been unfairly granted the success of which we ourselves are clearly more deserving. Thus we’re inclined to heap abuse upon Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Dale Chihuly, instead of rejoicing at the luck with which they’ve thrown the dice, instead of emulating their work ethic or smiling at the favorable notice they’ve brought to our spectacularly mildewed little corner of the continental linoleum.
Eventually, perhaps, we’ll outgrow these insecure and peevish attitudes. Meanwhile, they do help to keep success in perspective, for “success,” in terms of fame and fortune, is a peculiarly modernist American word that, except in its most poignantly ironic sense, has no place in the vocabulary of the evolved. The only success, for example, with which a writer might be meaningfully concerned, is how successfully his or her adjectives exude their flavors, his or her syntax drums out its cadence, his or her metaphors eternalize their phrases, or whether or not, when their nouns meet their verbs, the verbs yell out, “Gotcha, baby!” For the task of the writer is not to attain recognition or reward but to meditate upon our passing world and, through the working magic of language, awaken in the solitary reader a sense of wonder at that world.
In that philosophical mode then, I want to reach out to those misguided little tiddlypoops who’ve maligned my books. I want to reach out and say to them, “Tiddlypoops! Get a pencil! You haft der vrong noomber! And you can kiss my old rusty dusty—and the float it rode in on!”
Yes, friends, in the ego realm, which is a very silly realm indeed, acclaim is pleasant and rejection disagreeable, but since ultimately there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose, neither really matters in the least. What matters is that we enlarge our souls, light up our brains, and liberate our spirits. What matters is that we hop on a strange torpedo and ride it to wherever it’s going, ride it with affection and humor and grace, because beyond affection, humor, and grace, all that remains is noise and sociology.
What matters is that we never forget that the little paper match of one individual’s spirit can outshine all the treasures of commerce, out-glint all the armaments of government, and out-sparkle the entire disco ball of history. Yet, at its deepest level, even the human spirit, like everything else in the universe, is only a weird dance of electrified nothingness. The undulating shadows this dance throws upon the walls of our sensorium we call “reality.” Because they are merely shadows, it’s unwise to take them too seriously—but it may be equally unwise not to cherish them.
So, in closing, I want to say unashamedly that I flat-out cherish this neck of the woods, this damp neck with its necklace of glacier ice and Blue Moon neon, with its subtle perfume of salt marsh and espresso steam, with its flaming hickey of rebellion and independence. I love this fine and flaky community and I wholeheartedly thank its fine and flaky citizens—especially those who are here this evening—for putting up with me for 35 fine and flaky years. Seattle has been good to me, and I hope that in some small way, I’ve been good to it, as well.