Nice Wealthy

October 24th, 2016

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

I met a man the other day I described to a friend as “a nice wealthy person,” and my friend was curious to know why I called the man nice wealthy? To explain, I gave her a sketchy history of Atherton, California.

Atherton is twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco and surrounded by Woodside, Redwood City, and Menlo Park. Nowadays, 2016, only very wealthy people live there, but in the 1950s and 60s, for a brief time, Atherton was home to a few thousand middle-class folk.

In the 1600s and 1700s and early 1800s, the ground that is now Atherton was part of a huge Spanish land grant known as Rancho de las Pulgas. The famous Alameda de las Pulgas (Road of the Fleas) still runs through the heart of Atherton. Then in the mid-1800’s, Stanford and other Robber Barons, the founding rich white people of the state of California, built their mansions in San Francisco, but since summers in the city were foggy and cold, the barons also built estates in the sunnier climes of what are today Atherton, Woodside, and Palo Alto.

Stanford bought his thousands of acres of land that would eventually become Stanford University, and he and his fellow magnates traveled from San Francisco to their sunny estates in opulent private train cars attached to trains running between San Francisco and San Jose.

Then in the 1900s most of those huge estates were carved up into twenty-acre estates, and Atherton became home to several dozen wealthy families living in mansions with extensive servants’ quarters. Then in the 1940s and 50s those 20-acre estates were broken into one-acre lots, and hundreds of smaller homes were built, with some of the mansions remaining on multi-acre parcels of land.

My parents and my three siblings and I moved to Atherton in 1955 from San Mateo, and upon our arrival I entered First Grade at Las Lomitas Elementary in Menlo Park. Our modest three-bedroom house stood on the corner-acre of the 20-acre Erman Estate. The abandoned Erman mansion remained standing until I was ten, so I had the extreme pleasure of growing up near a huge haunted Victorian.

My friends and I had many adventures playing on the deserted Erman Estate. There was a still-intact tennis court, massive old oaks, date palms, olive orchards, fruit trees, a huge crumbling swimming pool that became a frog pond every winter, collapsing stables, ruined greenhouses, and several acres of neglected vineyards.

But the biggest attraction was the haunted mansion. One day a friend and I found the kitchen door ajar and went inside. I remember the wood-fired stove was the size of a car. There was a wide staircase rising from the grand foyer, and a narrow staircase behind the scenes for the servants; and there were several steps missing in that servants’ staircase, below which was a vast basement.

We ran home and got flashlights so we could see down into the abyss, and we discovered the floor of that enormous subterranean room was covered with claw-foot bathtubs. Turns out great quantities of bathtub gin were manufactured in that basement during Prohibition, though my first surmise was that the Ermans raised fish in those tubs. Silly me.

Now nearly all the smaller houses in Atherton have been replaced with huge houses owned by people who made their fortunes in the computer business. The creator of Quicken bought dozens of houses near my parent’s home and tore them down to create a huge estate crowned by a palace resembling the Disney castle. Larry Ellison of Oracle bought several contiguous Atherton properties, removed the houses, and built a hundred-million-dollar mansion on the shores of a three-acre lake.

But in the 1950s and 60s, middle class people abounded along with the newly wealthy and the longtime wealthy, and in the 1970’s many Europeans moved to Atherton to get in on the early Silicon Valley gold rush featuring companies such as Ampex, Hewlett-Packard, and other electronic and pharmaceutical companies. When I came home to visit in those days, my mother liked to introduce me to the new families in the neighborhood—the French and German and British wives staying home while their engineer husbands went off to invent the latest circuitry.

Today there are several East Indians living on the street where I grew up, but in my childhood nearly everyone in Atherton was white. There were all sorts of wealthy people: reclusive wealthy people, ambitious wealthy people, snooty wealthy people, and crazy wealthy people. And there were some nice wealthy people, too.

The nice ones I got to know were inheritors of old wealth, and not having fought to earn their money, they were gentler than those who had to claw and scratch and do bad things to make their fortunes.

Before the 1980s, most wealthy people in Atherton employed Japanese gardeners to care for their extensive gardens, and as a boy I learned to prune fruit trees from our neighbor’s Japanese gardener. He allowed me tag along on his pruning jobs in the neighborhood and very kindly taught me how to care for fruit trees. I got my first gardening job when I was eleven and worked as a gardener after school and on weekends through high school—all my gardening jobs given to me by nice wealthy people.

Which brings me back to the fellow I recently characterized as a nice wealthy person. He and I were speaking about my possibly pruning some fruit trees for him, and he reminded me so much of the nice wealthy people I knew as a boy, I assumed he was wealthy.

Unlike most of the other adults I knew, these nice wealthy adults treated me as an adult and spoke to me with respect and kindness. They trusted me with their tools and gardens, and they genuinely liked me and wanted to know what I thought, what I was reading, what I wanted to be, all of which made them remarkable to me.


October 17th, 2016

best apples

First Picture by Todd

In the days before digital cameras, I had several bouts of being a serious photographer, serious in the sense of owning good cameras, taking thousands of pictures, and even getting paid to take some of those pictures. I was primarily a black and white photographer, though not a darkroom person, and therefore availed myself of the excellent photo labs in the towns and cities where I lived—Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Berkeley.

When I moved to Mendocino eleven years ago, photography was completing the grand switcheroo to digital everything, while I was still possessed of a three-pound Nikon requiring actual film. Shortly after arriving in these hinterlands, I discovered there was no easy access to an excellent photo lab, so I stopped shooting and eventually gave my camera away.

Marcia brought a little digital camera into our marriage, and over the past decade I have occasionally borrowed her camera to snap pictures she then uploaded to her computer and sent to my computer via email.

A week ago, after several years of yearning to have a camera of my own, I purchased a diminutive Nikon weighing a mere five ounces. I must confess that electronic gizmos, even very simple ones, befuddle me, and that is the main reason I waited so long to buy a digital camera. I do not own a mobile phone, either smart or dumb, nor will I ever. For the likes of me, owning such a device would be akin to carrying around an incessantly yapping dog that can never be appeased.

In any case, my new camera arrived at the post office today and the package was so small and light, I assumed the box couldn’t possibly contain a camera but must be the memory-card-reader thingy I ordered to go with the camera. I left the little box in my truck parked in the Harvest Market parking lot and went to shop in the hardware store and in the market, today being 10%-Off-Wednesday.

And on my way into the grocery store, I saw a photograph I would have taken if I’d had my new camera and knew how to use it. A balding jowly middle-aged man was standing at the back end of his station wagon and gazing across the street at Harvest Market. In the man’s station wagon, with their heads sticking out the open back window, were two dogs gazing avidly in the same direction the man was gazing.

One of the dogs was an enormous basset hound, the other a gray frizzy-haired mutt. I surmised the man was overseeing the dogs while the man’s wife was shopping in the grocery store. The picture was poignant and hilarious; poignant because the dogs and the man were all obviously yearning for a glimpse of the person they were waiting for, and hilarious because the man’s face resembled the basset hound’s face to such an uncanny degree, man and dog might have been twins.

So taken was I with this untaken photo, upon entering the market I asked the first person I met if he had a camera (since nowadays many people carry phones that are also cameras) but he did not have one. He did, however, look out the window at the man and the dogs across the street and say, “Now that’s a great picture.”

Returning to my truck with a shopping cart full of discounted groceries, I came upon another photo I would have taken if I’d had my camera and knew how to use it. The picture was of my old white pickup, which I used to think of as a regular-sized truck, parked beside another white pickup one-and-a-half-times larger than my pickup, and that second pickup was parked beside a third white pickup one-and-a-half-times larger than the second white pickup, and that third white pickup was parked beside a fourth white pickup easily twice as big as the third white pickup—my truck now seeming toy-like.

When I got home and unloaded the groceries, I brought forth my new camera and handled the tiny thing as if it was made of rare Venetian glass. With the utmost care, I inserted the battery and memory card and started charging the battery. Two hours later, when the green light stopped blinking, I took my first pictures.

Alas, the memory-card-reader thingy I bought to go with my new camera did not come in the same box with the camera, and after checking to see why the memory thingy hadn’t arrived, I learned that the package arrived at the Mendocino post office four days ago and must have been misplaced. So I will go there tomorrow and beg Robin or Lara to find the blessed thing for me.

Perhaps by the time I finally get the memory card reader, I will have stopped handling the camera as if it is an uncooked egg. Perhaps not. Since the advent of computers, I have tried and failed to use digital gadgets and apps and keyboards and other electronic things most people have no trouble with. Why have I failed? Because I am not merely a techno doofus, I am techno-phobic.

When I was in my early thirties, I was robbed by incredibly thorough thieves. They left only my piano and a queen-sized mattress. They not only took my stereo and records and books and guitar, they took my dishes, silverware, furniture, electric typewriter, food out of my refrigerator, linens, clothing, shoes, brooms, garden tools, vacuum cleaner, and my most excellent camera.

I eventually replaced everything except the records and the camera, and for several years I was content not to take pictures. Eventually, I bought a new camera, found an excellent photo lab, and got back into shooting black and white photographs. In retrospect, that break from taking picture was good for me and my neural pathways—freed me from obsessively looking for pictures to take and allowed me to just be in the world.

Sweet Libby’s

October 10th, 2016

queen for a day toddq

Queen For A Day painting by Nolan Winkler

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

There are days when things juxtapose so exquisitely, one can’t help feeling some sort of transcendent author is writing out the simultaneous arrival of related elements composing a harmonious whole greater than the sum of the parts.

To wit: on the very day Marcia read to me from the Anderson Valley Advertiser that Libby’s restaurant in Philo is closing, we received in the mail our Netflix copy of the Japanese movie Sweet Bean. Libby’s beans—if you have never dined at that incomparable Mexican restaurant—are not sweet, but the experience of eating Libby’s beans comingled on a fork with her delectable rice is a divine culinary experience—sweet in the sense of magnificent.

The 2015 movie Sweet Bean is based on the novel An by Durian Sukegawa, adapted to the screen and directed by Naomi Kawase. An translates as “sweet red bean paste” and is the filling for a favorite Japanese confection know as dorayaki, consisting of sweet red Azuki bean paste sandwiched between two small round sponge-cake patties. The quality of the dorayaki depends entirely on the quality of that red bean paste, and thereby hangs the cinematic parable Sweet Bean.

Yes, we loved the movie. Yes, the movie made me hungry. And yes, the loving care with which the elderly woman Tokue prepares her irresistible bean paste put me in mind of Libby’s beans and rice and flan and carnitas and spicy shrimp. I have long fantasized that Libby would open a Libby’s annex in Mendocino wherein I would happily dine multiple times per month. But now she is closing her restaurant, and those four or five times a year we made the long trek inland to gorge on Libby’s cuisine will be no more. I’m sure Libby has good reasons for closing her eatery, but we are already feeling nostalgic about the absence of her food in our lives.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

When I lived in Berkeley, I discovered Nakapan, a Thai restaurant just off University Avenue. For my taste, Nakapan was not only the best Thai restaurant in Berkeley, but the best Thai restaurant I had ever been to, and I have been to many good ones. Yet Nakapan was never crowded. Indeed, when I would go there with friends, we often found the place deserted, and we couldn’t understand why. The high-ceilinged room was warm and beautifully appointed, the service fantastic, the prices low, the food incomparable, and the servings so generous I often took home more food than I managed to eat while I was there.

Every time I dined at the more famous Thai restaurants in the Bay Area and found them inferior to Nakapan, I would return to that paradisiacal food palace all the more mystified that almost no one was there: the waitresses lovely and gracious, the chairs comfortable, the ambience perfecto. I eventually surrendered to my good fortune and went to Nakapan whenever I craved Thai food and had a little extra jingle in my pocket. The owner/chef of Nakapan closed her restaurant a couple years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino, which made my decision to relocate much easier.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

My late Uncle David was a successful restaurateur. In the 1980’s he opened the Beau Thai across the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the place was instantly successful. Until I stumbled upon Nakapan a decade later, the best Thai food I’d ever eaten was at David’s Beau Thai. The Beau Thai chefs were all recent arrivals from Thailand, having been assembled by David in Thailand to cook in a restaurant he was about to open in Chiangmai. When he was offered the location in Monterey, he couldn’t resist returning to the scene of his earlier and most famous success, the legendary Sancho Panza café. So he loaded those Thai chefs onto a jet and brought them to America.

I wish I could have dined with David at Nakapan. I would have loved to hear his theories about why that magical place was not the Mecca of Thai cuisine, while inferior restaurants won Best Of popularity contests and were filled to bursting with patrons. I also regret never dining with David at Libby’s in Philo. He would have loved everything about that unpretentious place, most especially the food.

In the movie Sweet Bean, the hero, a troubled man running the dorayaki shop as a form of penance, discovers that when the creation of red bean paste becomes a sacred ritual rather than a tedious obligatory process, all of life becomes sacred, too. Schmaltzy? Perhaps. But our hero’s transformation is so subtle, and the movie’s resolution so humble, I never felt my emotions being manipulated, but rather stimulated to respond in the same way we respond to good food.

At one point in the movie, as Tokue is sweetening her beans after they have attained perfection, she cautions our taciturn hero, “Not too sweet.”

He looks at her questioningly for a moment, and though nothing more is said about sweetness ever again, the entire movie is permeated with the subtle power of that moment of communication between them.

Now that Libby’s is closing, I aspire to cook beans that make my taste buds sing a similar tune to the one they sing when I eat Libby’s beans. And as I go about experimenting, I will remember Tokue leaning over her simmering beans and inhaling the scented steam, ecstatic to be part of unfolding miracle.

Home Court

October 3rd, 2016

Home court

Old Ball photo by Todd

“There are only two reasons why people fail. One is irresponsibility. The second is fear.” Wally Amos

I have been enjoying the occasional stint in the Mendocino High School gym assisting coach Jim Young with training his most promising basketball players. The ambience of the indoor court takes me back to my two years as a gym rat at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s when that university was only a few years old. I was not much interested in academia, and when I wasn’t writing my fledgling fiction or throwing a Frisbee or hunting for pianos to play, I could be found in the field house playing basketball.

A towering five-foot-ten, I was a good shooter, a better passer, a reluctant rebounder, and a fair defender when the spirit moved me. My freshman year, in those days when basketball was still largely a non-contact sport, I was perhaps the thirtieth best player on a campus with a few thousand students, not many of them basketball players. Having honed my shooting skills on a bumpy sloping driveway with an out-of-round hoop, playing in a gym with a springy wood floor and glass backboards and perfectly round hoops was profoundly pleasurable for me.

A month or so into my second year of college, my game took a quantum leap and I began to dominate players who had previously dominated me. Faculty members who frequented the gym began to address me by my first name, and older guys who had previously ignored me, now wanted me on their teams.

One afternoon I was playing one-on-one with Alex, a fellow gym rat a few inches shorter than I, having a silly good time, when into our gym strolled two young men we had never seen before. One was a muscular six-foot-five, the other a rangy six-foot-two. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

To my ears, the tone of their challenge was condescending, and to my eyes they swaggered arrogantly as they came onto the court; and the game was no longer a game for me, but a battle, a defense of the one place in the world where I felt strong and competent and respected.

These two young giants—Clark and Zack—warmed up a bit before we played, while Alex and I rebounded and fed them the ball to expedite their warming up. This courtesy seemed to puzzle them, for they came from much less polite basketball traditions than those established in our gym. Clark and Zack were not only taller and stronger than we were, they were both excellent shooters and good ball handlers, and I could tell by the sag of Alex’s shoulders that he had already conceded defeat.

But I was determined to give these supercilious invaders a better game than they expected, and we did just that. I caught fire, we rebounded with uncharacteristic ferocity, Alex made shots I had never seen him make before, and we won handily. Clark, the taller of our two opponents, was enraged in defeat, Zack disgusted, and they demanded a rematch. We agreed, and we beat them again, though it would be truer to say they beat themselves in their furious haste to atone for their first loss.

Following their second loss to us, Clark raged around the gym, his hysterical cursing punctuated by terrible threats, while Zack sneeringly referred to us as “lucky little wimps.” When we wouldn’t grant them a third game, they vociferously suggested our testicles were either very small or non-existent. And so, wishing to avoid physical harm, we bid the sore losers adieu.

The next day, I arrived at the gym to find both ends of the court clogged with games underway. I set about assembling a team to play the winners of the game at the end of the court where the better players usually played, and espying Clark, I invited him to join my team.

“I already have a team,” he said, looking down at me. “And I got winners.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “I will continue my hunt for teammates.”

“Hey,” he said, snarling at me. “You know you just got lucky yesterday. Pure luck.”

“You think so?” I said, enjoying my recollections of our glorious victory. “I think it was more home court advantage. We know the terrain.”

“Bullshit,” he said, still seething in defeat. “I’ll kick your ass next time.”

And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Clark’s team get trounced by a team led by an Economics professor who had played on the Duke team that won the national championship a few years before. I always guarded that professor when we were on opposing teams, and I always set screens for him when we were on the same team because he never missed from anywhere unless someone was draped all over him.

Time passed and Clark eventually calmed down and became a fellow gym rat known for being a good guy prone to temper tantrums when his team lost, which was not often. Turns out he had been a high school superstar, set state scoring records, and had garnered a basketball scholarship to Stanford where his anger issues got him booted off the team midway through his freshman year. When Clark was at his best, he was stupendous, but like many great athletes, his impatience and lack of self-discipline were his greatest obstacles to success.

One day Clark and I were playing one-on-one, having a silly good time, when into the gym strolled two young men we had never seen in our gym before. One of them was six-seven, the other six-foot-three. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

They were good. Really good. But we beat them. Twice.

Afterwards, Clark said, “They had no idea who they were up against.”

“Home court advantage,” I added. “We know the terrain.”

Magenta Queen

September 26th, 2016


Magenta cover

“There are two kinds of comedy.  One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

I recently completed my new novel Magenta and brought the book out in handsome coil-bound photocopies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered, available through my web site or by bumping into me in Mendocino and arranging an exchange.

Magenta is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California, the action centered in a bookstore, a luthier shop, and an old house on the headlands. Funny and serious and poetical, Magenta is both a romance and a journey of self-healing.

My web site synopsis of Magenta begins, “On his sixtieth birthday, Leonard Porter discovers that someone has taken his guitar case and left his beautiful old guitar unprotected in a moldy shed. Leonard has not seen his guitar in thirty-two years, and finding her free of her case causes him to react in a way that radically changes his life.”

The novel begins:

Where Have You Been?

During the first few minutes of their phone conversation—Leonard in California, Sam in New Hampshire—Leonard uses the words sudden and unexpected several times, but a little while later Sam says, “So, really, this wasn’t sudden or unexpected. It was inevitable.”

“Yes,” says Leonard, gazing out his living room window at the deer gathering on the meadow as they do at the close of each day—a big battle-scarred stag presiding over a harem of four does and two yearlings, one of those yearlings a promising buck. “How we stayed married for five years is…I don’t know.”

“You must not have been paying attention,” says Sam, who has a knack for cutting to the chase.

“I don’t think I’ve really been here to pay attention.”

“Where have you been?”

“Going through the motions,” says Leonard, his fit of outrage over. “I, robot.”

“I didn’t ask what you’ve been doing,” says Sam, quietly. “I asked where have you been?”

“The only certain knowledge is the inspired guess.” Henry Kitchell Webster

Our San Francisco Giants have recently fallen into a collective slump of epic proportions. As I write this, they are playing the San Diego Padres in San Diego, having just been shellacked by the front-running Dodgers. Alas, this second half of the season, no matter how well our starting pitchers start, no matter how fantastic Brandon Crawford plays shortstop, no matter if we are ahead by a run or two going into the late innings, we tend to lose.

A few blown saves ago, Jon Miller, the rarely hyperbolic Giants announcer, declared, “It defies logic how many games the Giants have blown in the ninth inning this season.” I don’t agree it defies logic so much as it reveals the undeniable truth that great teams have great bullpens, and our pen this year lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Many of us knew at the beginning of the season we needed a new closer, and when management did nothing to address that key inadequacy by the trade deadline, we feared our chances of making the playoffs were fading. That we are still in the hunt with only a handful of games left in the regular season verges on the miraculous.

Fortunately, baseball is just a game, Sergio Romo is now closing instead of Casilla, the apple crop this year is stupendous, and the waves keep rolling into Mendocino Bay.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Having written six novels in the last five years, I decided to change literary gears and write a play. So I went to my PLAY file on my computer to find an already-written play from which to copy the Play format into a new document. While perusing the titles, I saw one that made me do a double take. Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues. The date of the file was 2002, a few years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino.

I vaguely remembered what Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues was about, and also vaguely remembered sending the play to several impregnable theatre companies. But the one clear memory I had of this play was the response from a former actor turned psychoanalyst. “As implausible as your central idea may seem, such a sudden and dramatic healing of a wounded psyche can occur when the primal truth is revealed.”

So I read the play again to see what my psychoanalyst friend was referring to, found the play compelling, and decided to rewrite the opus. Now, after several weeks of work, I am soon to make copies of Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues and send them forth.

“There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.” Robert Byrne

I was recently tempted to end my two-month fast from imbibing news of the outside world. If you haven’t tried such a fast, I highly recommend it. My chronic anxiety disappeared, my sleep improved, and I’m much less cranky.

However, a friend recently dropped by, and before I could inform him of my news fast, he informed me Hillary is only leading Trump by four percentage points in recent national polls, riots have broken out in response to more police killings of unarmed black people, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast. And though I somehow already knew these things, I decided to check them out on my computer. However, my first glimpse of Trump’s maniacal visage and Hillary’s hysterical grin inspired me to resume my fast, and I am once more enjoying the disconnect—radio broadcasts of Giants games my one ongoing link to mass media.

Also thankfully, much fascinating news is to be gleaned from talking to Marcia, reading books about neurobiology, walking to town, tending the garden, shooting hoops, communing with friends, hauling firewood, picking apples, playing the piano, blabbing with folks at the post office, and unleashing the imagination onto the unsuspecting page.


September 19th, 2016


Ampersands thanks to Max

So it’s Friday and I’m having one of those mornings where I feel certain the universe is an all-powerful sentient being picking on me for no good reason. Put another way, I’m feeling sorry for myself. If you’re human and have been alive for at least seven years, you know what I’m talking about. The rational sectors of our brains know the universe has more important things to do than intentionally make us miserable, but when we’re in the throes of such angst the rational sectors are offline.

I decide to exercise my way out of my bad mood by walking to town. I usually drive into town on Fridays in August and September because Jack almost always has a big watermelon for me at the farmer’s market, and a big watermelon is not schlepable in my knapsack.

But I need to shake off this sense of being a victim of a malevolent universe, so I decide to walk to town, mail a package, hope the very important letter that should have come two days ago is waiting in my P.O. box, walk home, and then drive back to town to get the melon.

Halfway down the hill, a long half-mile, the walking is definitely resolving my angst and I’m about to turn around and go get my truck when some idiot talking on his phone while driving almost hits me and my certainty the universe is out to get me returns in force and I decide I better walk all the way to town.

This near-death experience gets me shouting at the Great Old Demon universe and the American medical insurance pharmaceutical mafia and various other orgs and peeps I feel are conspiring to ruin my one precious life. And I am at the zenith of my ranting when something moist nudges my left hand.

I look down and here is a criminally cute six-month-old Black Lab pup. She smiles adoringly, shoves her head under my fingers, and communicates, “I love you so much. I’m going to live with you from now on. Okay?”

To which I respond, “Hello cutie. Go away now. Go home.”

The pup likes my tone and trots along beside me as if she owns me.

I make emphatic shooing gestures. “Go home. Go home now.”

The pup stops and frowns quizzically. I walk on. The pup follows. I notice there is a tag on the pup’s collar, so I squat down to glean any salient info and the cutie is all over me, licking me and communicating, “Oh good. You love me and I love you. Hurray.”

The tag reads Luz, below which is a local phone number. Hoping this means Luz’s home is nearby, I stand up and say, “Go home, Luz. Shoo.”

Now a dog barks in the distance and Luz takes off running across the field and I think she must be headed home, so I continue on my way. But now she comes racing back to me and her exuberance carries her out into the road where a car screeches to a halt and the human driving the car glares at me and says, “Leash your dog, asshole.”

All of which makes me realize Luz is not very savvy about roads and cars. And given we are fast approaching the coast highway, and given I don’t possess a mobile phone, I decide the only thing to do is take the pup home and call the number on her tag.

The very moment I make this decision, a man I know comes by in his truck with his poodle glaring out the passenger window. I know for a fact this man carries a phone, so I flag him down, point at Luz, and before I can say a word, the passenger-side window sinks down, the poodle yaps at me, and the man says, “I’m late. I can’t help you.” And he speeds away.

Before I can form an opinion of this man’s behavior, another truck comes by, this one driven by a man I don’t know. He, too, is accompanied by a dog. He pulls over and gets out to see what’s going on.

“Do you know this pup?” I ask him. “Name is Luz. Very sweet.”

“I know all the dogs around here. Never seen this one before.”

He squats down, Luz runs to him, and as she is licking him and loving him, the man’s old black hound gets out of the truck and stalks toward me growling ominously.

The man says, “Cool it, Chico,” and Chico cools it.

I smile at Chico and say, “The pup seems clueless about cars.”

The man studies the tag on Luz’s collar. “There’s a local phone number.”

“I know, but I don’t have a phone with me,” I say, feeling ancient and low-tech.

“I do,” he says, picking up Luz and putting her in the cab of his truck. “I’ll take care of this. Don’t want her getting hit.”

“Thank you so much,” I say, bowing to him. “You’re a prince.”

Now the man and Chico and Luz drive away and I understand why the universe arranged for me to walk to town today. Luz needed saving. Who better to save her than a person mistakenly thinking the universe is out to get him?

I walk into town, mail my package, and find nothing in my P.O. box, the important letter I’ve been waiting for still in transit. But for some reason this delay no longer bothers me. I walk the steep hill home, jump in my truck, drive to the farmer’s market, and arrive at Jack’s stand an hour later than usual.

Jack finishes waiting on a woman buying many tomatoes, goes to his truck, and brings forth a behemoth melon, the largest of the season. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming today,” he says, setting the big beauty on the scale.

“I was delayed by the universe for other purposes.”

“Happens to me all the time,” says Jack, carefully calculating the very reasonable price for fourteen pounds of ambrosia.

Gene and Grandma

September 12th, 2016


Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at

Mr. Bosman

September 5th, 2016

twin falls winkler and nolan tw

Twin Falls painting by Winkler and Nolan

Tim Bosman, forty-seven, boyish and playful and a superb acting coach, has been the Drama teacher at Carlyle High in Rincon, Idaho, for the last fifteen years. And though he has been happily married to Sarah for twelve years and they have produced two lovely children together, many people in Rincon still think Mr. Bosman is gay.

When he was twenty-one and freshly out of college, Tim moved to New York City and spent four years striving to succeed as a stage actor before moving to Los Angeles and spending six years laboring in the lower echelons of the movie business. And though he came close on several occasions to landing juicy roles, he never did get a big break and finally gave up his quest for stardom and became a high school Drama teacher.

His bitterness about not succeeding as a professional actor eventually evaporated and nowadays Tim loves his job, loves his wife, loves his children, loves his students, and could care less that some people think he is gay. He directs three plays a year at the high school and one play every summer at the Rincon Community Center, last year’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum a huge success.

Many of Tim’s students are so inspired by working with him that they major in Drama in college, and one of Tim’s students, Rip Morgan, is now a regular cast member of the mega-popular sit-com Get Outta My Face. Thus for aspiring thespians at Carlyle High, Tim is a god, his approval sought by dozens of insecure teenagers, mostly girls, who make casting the school plays a hellish ordeal for Tim and his wife Sarah who lives through the anguished hours with him as he decides who among his charges to make deliriously happy and who to reduce to emotional rubble.

Today is the last day of school before the blessed summer break; and the tradition at Carlyle High for as long as anyone can remember is for the five hundred students, forty-three teachers, nineteen administrators, and seven maintenance people to convene at day’s end on the football field for a mammoth barbecue. Staff and students and parents and former students gather to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and wish each other well until next year, or to say goodbye to those going to college or entering the work force or leaving town.

And it has become Tim’s tradition to use this finale on the football field as the time for speaking privately with each of his Drama students and thanking them and encouraging them and wishing them well. The graduating seniors who have taken Drama from Tim especially look forward to this day, for they have been told by those who have gone before them that Mr. Bosman becomes uncharacteristically emotional with his seniors at the end-of-the-year barbecue and says things he would never say in class or while directing a play. Mr. Bosman, as one former student declared, becomes a fountain of loving wisdom at the barbecue, and loving wisdom is what his students crave.

This year’s barbecue is an especially poignant affair for Tim because the two finest actors he has ever had the pleasure of working with are graduating. Consuela Valdez—tall, curvaceous, loquacious, and drop-dead funny—is going to UCLA, while Aaron Goldberg—short, stocky, and screamingly droll—is going to Reid. Consuela and Aaron have been in thirteen plays together since their freshman year and are inseparable pals, though they have never been sweethearts.

So when Daisy Alexander, a ditzy junior, is surfeited with Tim’s praise, Tim decides to bestow his fond farewells on Consuela and Aaron together.

Now as it happens, the moment Tim raises his hand to summon Aaron and Consuela for their grand denouement, Aaron is at the apogee of a seminal conversation with Didi Schlesinger, a lovable squeaky-voiced ingénue who has the regrettable habit of forgetting her lines at crucial moments in front of large audiences. Aaron and Didi are finalizing their plan to meet tonight to climax three years of relentless flirting by going all the way with each other.

Also as it happens, in this same moment of Tim’s beckoning, Consuela is reveling in an erotic tête-à-tête with Larry Spangler, the blue-eyed bad boy Tim cast in Rebel With A Toothache—Larry brilliant in rehearsals but so drunk on opening night he ruined the play. Consuela and Larry’s conversation is also about going all the way together tonight, an experience Consuela has imagined several hundred times since Larry kissed her during the dress rehearsal of the ill-fated Rebel With A Toothache and she nearly passed out from the pleasure of their lips coalescing.

And so when Aaron and Didi and Consuela and Larry converge on Tim—his two finest conjoined with his two most disappointing—Tim is more than a little chagrined. But before he can settle on an appropriately kind way to ask Larry and Didi to leave him alone with Aaron and Consuela, the unexpected occurs.

“I’m honored, Mr. Bosman” says Larry, speaking in his marvelous smoky tenor, “truly honored you would call me over here with Connie and Aaron and Didi. I seriously screwed up. I let you down. And I let myself down, too. Yet you still include me with these two who never failed you.”

Tim is about to reply to Larry when Didi proclaims with nary a trace of squeakiness, “Me, too, Mr. Bosman. I’m honored, too. But more than honored, I’m determined to prove you right for believing in me despite my screw-ups. You make me want to keep going, keep trying, keep working to bring my unafraid self to life on the stage. And I will.”

“Ditto moi,” says Larry, putting his arm around Consuela. “I’m not going to UCLA, but I am going to LA, and make it or not, I’m gonna try. That’s what you gave me, Mr. Bosman. For which I can never thank you enough.”

“Nor can I thank you enough,” says Didi, winking at Tim. “And now we’ll leave you alone with your stars.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Tim, seeing himself getting off the bus in New York City twenty-five years ago. “Everything I say to them is meant for you, too.”


Actual Abstract

August 29th, 2016


Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.

Strangely Early

August 22nd, 2016

All that you ask of me tw

All That You Ask Of Me painting by Nolan Winkler

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”  Mary Roberts Rinehart

One of the great pleasures of living in this rural area is that many of my neighbors and friends are avid observers of the natural world. And so in early August when I began sharing my observations that maple trees and fruit trees and blackberry bushes here on the coast in Mendocino were behaving as if it was late September, many folks concurred with similar observations about the local foliage and fruit.

In reading about climate change, I have come upon a number of reports by credible scientists suggesting that those physical indications of what we used to associate with fall—leaves changing colors, fruit ripening, colder nights—will henceforth become much less predictable in terms of when they manifest. Thus fall may come in summer, spring may come in winter, summer in spring, and…will we have a winter this year in California?

That’s an interesting question. We just had our first relatively wet winter in the last five years courtesy of a huge El Niño. The long-running drought in California and throughout the Southwest was barely dented by the glorious but not excessive precipitation. Here in Mendocino, where our aquifers are not directly dependent on Sierra snow, our water supply was much improved.

Now, however, the National Weather Service is reporting a formidable La Niña taking hold in the Pacific. Given this dramatic cooling of the ocean waters, what do the precipitation maps recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association say will be coming California’s way in the months of October, November, December, January, February, March, and April?

Not to be an alarmist, but NOAA’s maps indicate that California’s rainfall for those seven months will be Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh what do they know? Well, actually NOAA has been highly accurate in predicting precipitation in California over the last decade, and if these predictions are even close to being accurate, the state of California will soon be gripped by a disaster of epic proportions. And what about right here in Mendocino? According to those NOAA precipitation maps, we are facing disaster, too.

There is a possibility, of course, that Mendocino may receive more precipitation than those NOAA maps suggest, if, and it is a big if, some of the storms predicted for Oregon and Washington extend far enough south to douse us, too. Then our aquifers might be somewhat replenished and the scope of the local disaster somewhat diminished.

Then again, given that no one expected August to be October this year, maybe several massive storms will unexpectedly dump thirty inches of rain on us in November and December. Stranger things have happened. Yes, this is wishful thinking, but wishful thinking may be the best response to a climate verging on chaos and another year of drought looming

“One has to fear everything—or nothing.” Jean Giraudoux

I recently broke my self-imposed ban on listening to or reading any news of the great big world outside Mendocino County. I turned on the radio and caught the end of National Pentagon Radio’s daily news program Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration.

There were two young women talking to each other about this year’s crop of summer movies. I listened for a moment and decided this must be a special feature of the news program encouraging people of extremely limited intelligence to share their incredibly simplistic ideas with a national audience—some sort of diversity-enhancing show to end the doctored news on a folksy note. In any case, I couldn’t bear to listen and turned off the radio.

Then my curiosity got the better of me, and having remembered the names of the two women, I fired up my computer and did a little research and discovered that one of the women is a regular host of Only A Narrow Spectrum Of Reality Distorted For Your Consideration, and the other woman is that esteemed program’s regular movie critic. And because August is now October, I was not surprised.

“There are three things to do in dealing with a crisis—search for the guilty, punish the innocent, promote the incompetent.” Louis Goldman

Once upon a time there were billions of humans on earth and the biosphere began to disintegrate under the pressure of their personal and collective habits. And so there came a time when much of the earth became uninhabitable and nearly all those billions of humans perished along with many other living things. However, some of those humans survived, and here and there on the earth, plants and animals and sea life began to thrive again. After several thousand years of recovery, the biosphere was healed and the earth a verdant paradise once more.

But humans were no longer the dominant species on earth. Something had changed in their nature during the holocaust of biosphere collapse and they never again aspired to anything more than growing vegetables and fruit, catching fish, making and wearing comfortable clothing and footwear, singing, dancing, telling stories, and traveling hither and yon on foot or in canoes. Since there were no roads or sidewalks, skateboards did not make a comeback. No human possessed any more or any less than any other human, and the few times someone invented a weapon deadlier than a bow and arrows or someone built an engine requiring the burning of fossil fuels, such weapons and engines were ceremoniously destroyed and the inventors required to undergo extensive psychotherapy and live naked for seven years surviving on roots, berries, and small mammals caught by singing enticing songs, after which they were re-integrated into society and allowed to resume wearing comfortable clothing and footwear.

Thus the earth continued to spin on her axis and speed around the sun for a hundred million more years until the Cosmic Metamorphosis began and…but I’m getting ahead of myself.