Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Tender Fearless

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Tender fearless

Rose In Morning Light photo by Todd

The following is a revamped version of Falling Behind, an article I first published in 2011. I was moved to revisit this article while listening to a piano tune of mine on YouTube called What Comes Around.

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing success was turning steeply downward, my humorless Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages. Most of the people who called me seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change them lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days, which habit caused my regular callers to complain I was erasing good messages before their friends got to hear them.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the interweb, which was not very long ago, but now seems prehistoric. And I tell you, if by some miracle I could remember that message and put it on YouTube today accompanied by a movie of a woman walking on the beach with her dog, or a movie of three cute kids making cookies from scratch, or a movie of a man reading a book with a cat on his lap (with my piano music as soundtrack)—I have no doubt the message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from hundreds of millions of hits and links and apps and downloads and streams and billions of pennies such prodigious sharing and streaming would bring me.

Sadly or ironically or luckily, I only remember the feeling of that once-in-a-lifetime message, not the words. The feeling was one of deep contentment—of thoroughly enjoying the moment. I recall the day was sunny and warm, my office flooded with light, and I remember being massaged from head to toe by the feeling—the knowing—that simply being alive was a profoundly fulfilling adventure.

Within a few days of recording my message, the phone was ringing off the hook. Many of my friends called multiple times so their friends could have a listen, and then I started getting calls from people I did not know, people who had heard about the message from friends of my friends. And over the next few weeks I got hundreds of calls from all over America and around the world—people calling to hear my outgoing message and leave responses.

A poet called from Germany, and after hearing my message, he recited a poem by Rilke, first in German, then in English—something about the coming of spring.

People partying somewhere in England called, and when the beep sounded, those Brits applauded and shouted “Bravo!”

An elderly woman called from Seattle and said, “I see why my daughter wanted me to hear your message. I can’t stop smiling. I’m going to call again and then tell my friends to call you.”

A man from Scotland left a long friendly-sounding message ostensibly in English, but no matter how many times I listened to his enchanting spiel, I could not understand him.

A bunch of children called, and when the beep sounded, they laughed and giggled—one kid shouting, “You a silly poo poo!”

A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated for me: “I adore what you say and want to have your child.”

I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words made people laugh and cry and rejoice; and many callers responded with impromptu continuations of the message—addenda full of love and humor and gratitude. That message was an elixir, a soothing salve, and some sort of answer to the question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger on my answering machine for a month until one day I got a call from a friend who had heard the message one too many times and asked me to please make a new one. So without a thought for posterity, I hit the Record button, improvised a new greeting, and thereby erased the greatest outgoing answering-machine message I’ve ever made.

I only heard the message one time, and that was immediately after I recorded it and checked to make sure it sounded okay.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

Fast-forward thirty-four years. My wife Marcia and I both have web sites where we display our wares and talents to entice people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs a chamber music camp for beginning adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her camp and sells her CDs and gives away sheet music of her compositions. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD downloaded and streamed by thousands of people every month. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to her customers.

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell handsome coil-bound copies of my many books that publishers, so far, are indifferent to. Thankfully, several dozen people love my self-published books, so I persevere. I also sell my five CDs of original piano music, two CDs of original songs I recorded with Marcia, story CDs, birthday cards, postcards, and notecards of my zany drawings. Visitors to my web site can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) and read articles on my blog. In contrast to Marcia’s ongoing deluge of listeners, I am not so besieged—my creations purchased, on average, by three people a month—three insightful unique magnificent people.

And, yes, my experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering-machine message, as well as a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse that have befallen me over the course of my life, keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again.

Oh I wish I could remember those remarkable words that inspired so many people to call and leave such lovely messages. I remember the tone, a tender fearlessness—but the words elude me.

Wild Animals

Monday, June 12th, 2017

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night 72

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night painting by Nolan Winkler

“Of all the lessons I have learned from the natural world, the most compelling is this: thousands of different kinds of us are here, doing what we must to meet our basic needs. Our methods are different, but our object is the same.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

There has been much news lately, locally and around the state, about mountain lions eating cats and dogs. How local? This morning we got word from a neighbor (a hundred yards away) that a trio of big pumas had just emerged from the forest and strolled across her driveway.

A new report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reveals the stomach contents of 83 mountain lions were composed largely of cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals. And of the lions examined, only 5 per cent had eaten deer.

When my sister lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she had two big beautiful cats. When those cats were three-years-old, my sister witnessed a huge hawk snatch one them off her patio; and a few days later she watched the other cat killed by a coyote twenty feet from her house.

Which is to say, not only mountain lions eat cats and dogs.

“Few animals are as capable or resourceful as pumas or have been as successful. Even today, after having been exterminated throughout much of their former range, pumas are returning in eastern Canada and New England, where their habits seem to differ somewhat from the habits of western pumas in that they are even more shy.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Yesterday was a day filled with sightings of wild animals. In the morning, I was sitting on the deck on the south side of our house, enjoying the long-awaited sun, when up through a knothole, about ten feet away from me, came a glossy brown-and-tan snake, three-feet long. She slid along the deck and down into our vegetable garden, and when I stood up to see where the snake was going, she made an abrupt U-turn and slithered back under the deck. I think she was a Coast Patch-nosed snake, but she might have been a garter snake.

I was still tingling from my snake sighting when two bright yellow birds came zooming into the yard and began rummaging around in the ferns and berry bushes adjacent to our deck. I assumed these birds were goldfinches, but when I perused my bird book, the Wilson’s warbler became a suspect, too. What fabulous energy these little birds have.

Hours later, walking home from town, as I climbed the steep stretch of Little Lake Road just east of Highway One, a large skunk approached, walking down the hill with great determination, oblivious to me and the passing cars. Knowing skunks have poor eyesight and excellent hearing, I said loudly, “Hello cutie,” and the skunk reacted by raising his tale as he continued his downhill march. So I gave him a wide berth, he lowered his tail, and when he was another twenty feet down the hill, he left the road and entered the woods.

“Well-meaning human vegetarians notwithstanding, cats must eat animal protein or they slowly decline and eventually starve. Not for them the comfortable middle ground, eating meat one day and berries the next, and no carrion either. Fresh meat killed by themselves or by their mothers is virtually the only item on the feline menu.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was forty-two, I became a vegan. Feeling poorly after a year on my vegan regimen, I went to an acupuncturist, she took my pulses, looked at my tongue, inquired about how I was feeling physically and emotionally, and opined that I would benefit greatly from the introduction of animal protein into my diet—fish and eggs if I was opposed to eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals.

But I was determined to stick to veganism and did so for another two years. My strength and stamina, as well as my tolerance for cold temperatures, diminished profoundly under the reign of veganism, though I made every effort to eat the proper combinations of foods and sufficient quantities to sustain me healthfully.

Then I blew out my knee. While convalescing and making little progress in healing, I consulted a dietician and an acupuncturist, and they both urged me to add animal protein to my diet, though not necessarily dairy products. Desperate to heal my knee and regain my strength, I added chicken and fish and eggs to my diet. And literally overnight I felt stronger and warmer and happier than I had felt in many years.

Nowadays, two or three times a week, I eat locally caught fish or locally raised chicken, and very occasionally pork from a local farm. We eat eggs we buy from our neighbor, and three or four days a week we are vegetarians, though not vegan. I have a gluten-free diet and do not eat dairy products. I find this diet sustaining and in no way a hardship, especially now that I have access to excellent locally made organic gluten-free bread.

We recently visited friends who raise two pigs a year from which they make pork chops and pork ribs and pork sausage. At supper I asked our hosts if they ever get emotionally attached to their pigs. They said they loved their pigs, petted them, bathed them, talked to them, brought them special treats, and killed and ate them with gratitude. I said I didn’t think I could do that—kill an animal I was emotionally attached to. Our friends said they were not sentimental people, and the meat of animals treated well tastes much better than the meat of animals treated poorly.

“The fact is, the important thing about big cats and small cats is not that they are different but that they are the same. And like so many other truths about cats, their sameness is due to their diet and their hunting.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I remember reading an article years ago about an exceedingly wealthy couple in Manhattan who invited a famous Chinese artist and his wife to dine with them in the wealthy couple’s spectacular apartment high above the city. When the Chinese guests were seated in the million-dollar living room, eating scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and sipping expensive wine, into the living room sauntered the wealthy couple’s cat, a magnificent blue gray behemoth.

Seeing the cat, the Chinese artist nodded appreciatively and said, “How good of you to purchase such a delicacy for our supper. We are deeply honored. Thank you.”

Of Apples and Accordions

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Thinking of You

Thinking of You by Todd

“Around 50 to 65 million years ago, the apple ancestor separated from its Rosaceae cousins on the evolutionary pathway.” Dr. Roger Hellens

Long before there were humans, there were apples. More recently, as in right now, for the first time since I moved to Mendocino twelve years ago, the local apple crop is minimalist, and some orchards hereabouts have set no apples at all. Last year was an epic apple year, and this year the blackberries and huckleberries are promising massive fruit deliveries; but the wonky weather, the cold persisting after blossoming—something—blocked the fruiting of many of our local apple trees.

Last year our own seven not-very-big apple trees produced more fruit than Marcia and I could greedily consume. We canned several big batches of spicy applesauce, gave bags of apples to friends and horses, made gallons of apple juice, kept big boxes full of apples that lasted until January, and refrigerated several dozen apples, too, with some lasting until May. But today I counted but a couple dozen apples on the trees in our orchard, so we will have to go begging or buying apples this year. Darn.

 “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

I was trying to remember the name of a certain apple and resorted to a favorite book I got at a yard sale in Berkeley twenty years ago: Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, subtitle: an inventory of Nursery Catalogs Listing All Fruit, Berry and Nut Varieties available By Mail Order in the Unites States. My paperback edition came out circa 1989, and a quick search of the interweb shows there have been subsequent editions with web sites added to the information. The Inventory, however, seems to be out-of-print, with used copies going for hundreds of dollars. My copy, albeit out-of-date and falling apart, cost me a dime and has provided me with many hours of delightful reading.

Trusting the editors of the Inventory won’t mind, here are a few tasty tidbits from their goodly tome.

PEARMAIN, WHITE WINTER (Winter Pearmain) — Oldest known English apple; dates back to 1200 A.D. Medium to nearly large, round to oval, light greenish fruit turning pale yellow with numerous dots. Fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy flesh. Pleasantly rich, aromatic flavor. Fine quality, all-purpose apple. Excellent keeper. Tree is a healthy, vigorous grower; bears regularly and heavily. Splendid vitality; widely adaptable. Excellent pollinator. Old favorite dessert apple of the Middle West in early 1800s. Today is grown primarily in warm winter areas where its low chilling requirement renders it one of the few possible apples there. Ripens in late October.

Wow. I have never knowingly eaten such an apple, but reading about the White Winter Pearmain makes me want to plant seven White Winter Pearmain trees and eat hundreds of White Winter Pearmain apples every year.

POMME ROYALE (Dyer)—Greenish yellow fruit usually covered with veins of russet. Fine, highly spicy flavor. Believed to be an old French variety brought to Rhode Island by some Huguenot settlers who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Introduced in 1685.

Fleeing France in 1685. What shall we take to the New World? Cats, of course, to quell the rats. Favorite vegetable seeds. Pumpkins and rutabagas? And, of course, Pomme Royale rootstock so we can grow our trees and harvest apples from which we will make the hooch that has gotten us through hard times for generations, while from those same sacred orbs we will make our famous spicy Huguenot apple pies.

SCARLET CROFTON —Small to medium, flattish fruit. Orange-yellow with brilliant scarlet flush, sometimes solid scarlet, always overlaid with singular network of russet veins and conspicuous dots. Crisp, juicy flesh. Old Irish apple from County Sligo grown since Elizabethan times. Brought to general notice by John Robertson, famous Kilkenny pomologist and nurseryman. Introduced [to America] in 1819.

Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a famous Kilkenny pomologist bringing apples and intriguing short stories to general notice. I wonder how John Roberston went about bringing things to notice. Did he have a wide correspondence with other pomologists? Did he wander around Ireland giving talks and preaching the gospel according to apples? Did he have a column in a popular Irish newspaper?

Or was there a large board affixed to the south-facing wall of the Kilkenny Post Office known as the General Notice Board upon which John Roberston posted articles about apples as well as compelling short stories with endings that could be interpreted any number of ways, so the people of Kilkenny were forever discussing John Robertson’s stories over apple crumble and tea? No wonder the man was so famous!

So…I was in the middle of writing this article when I took a walk into town, the town of Mendocino in County Mendocino, and in our post office box (I’m not making this up) there was a letter to me from Ireland writ by the marvelous accordion player and composer Karen Tweed, and included in the missive was a handout informing her many admirers of what she’s up to these days. And front and center in the handout (which is no doubt the very kind of thing John Roberston posted on the General Notice Board at the Kilkenny Post Office) was the following:

New & fruity project all about apples. Karen TWEED (accordion)—Karen STREET (accordion/saxophone) & Fiona TALKINGTON (voice) explore fact, myth & magic through music, cider, crumbles, poetry & spells…

Karen Tweed Update

Paterson Jarmusch

Monday, May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

Weekly Offerings

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

signed & numbered

Twelve by Todd

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

I was nearly forty when it first occurred to me to write anything other than fiction and poetry and plays. At thirty-nine, I still thought of myself as a moderately successful novelist and short story writer. Furthermore, I rarely read non-fiction; and so in 1989, when Melinda Welsh, the editor of the brand new Sacramento News & Review invited me to write essays for her paper, I accepted her invitation with little understanding of what such reportage entails. Now, thirty years later, writing essays is my most persistent writing habit.

When my fiction and screenwriting ceased to bring home the bacon, so to speak, writing essays became a source of much-needed income, and I have no doubt that without such financial incentive, I would never have become habituated to writing non-fiction. Which is not to say I ever earned vast sums writing essays. Melinda paid me one hundred and fifty dollars per essay for the Sacramento News & Review; and for the entirety of my eight-year tenure writing a weekly piece for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, I was paid twenty-five dollars per. Nowadays I am paid by the knowledge that at least a handful of people look forward to my weekly offerings.

Melinda Welsh was a wonderful editor. She generally liked my take on things, appreciated my senses of humor and irony, edited my lines with a light hand, and rewarded me for my non-fiction efforts by paying me relatively large sums to write the News & Review’s annual Christmas story (fiction!) for several years running. One of those Christmas stories, The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger, was syndicated after appearing in the News & Review, and appeared in dozens of weeklies and dailies across America. Eureka!

In those pre-internet days, I belonged to a lucky little population of writers in America who made actual money writing original works for actual three-dimensional publications. Then seemingly overnight (but really in a few shocking years) our numbers were reduced to virtually zero by the advent of the worldwide web and the simultaneous and astounding (to me) discovery by magazine and newspaper editors that most people cannot distinguish good writing from bad. Therefore, why should those editors pay good money to good writers when, for little money or no money, they can avail themselves of quasi-readable chunks of verbiage yanked from the internet?

When I moved to Berkeley in 1995, I submitted essays and stories to four different Bay Area weeklies, but found no editorial champions and so ceased writing essays for the next eleven years. Instead, I wrote hundreds of short stories, forty-two of which became my book Buddha In A Teacup (recently issued in a lovely paperback edition by Counterpoint Press), and another hundred of which became my novel of stories Under the Table Books, winner of the 2009 American Indie Award for Best Fiction.

In 2007, the year after I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley, I sent an essay entitled Sister to Bruce Anderson at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and Bruce published the piece. He then invited me to become a regular contributor to the AVA, a regularity that produced four hundred essays and gave me the ongoing pleasure of hearing from readers who enjoyed my work, as well as the ongoing displeasure of hearing from readers who were adamant my essays were a blight on the AVA.

As of mid-May 2017, my AVA career a memory now, I continue to write a weekly essay and post it with an accompanying photo on my blog at Underthetablebooks.com. Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith does me the honor of presenting my article and photo on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

And today I am pleased to announce the birth of Sources of Wonder, a handsome coil-bound collection of eighty-three of my favorite essays culled from the aforementioned four hundred, available exclusively from Under the Table Books. Among the stories in Sources of Wonder are Sister, Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs, The Double, Three Presidents (and a First Lady), What’s In A Name, Her Children, and My Butt (The Musical)—all the essays in the collection having elicited heartfelt responses from readers.

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

Speaking of heartfelt, as I was putting the finishing touches on Sources of Wonder, I was given a book of essays by the Scottish poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie, and I was thrilled to discover an excellent living writer, writing in English, who is not even close to being old or dead—an experience for me akin to coming upon a living and breathing unicorn who allows me a good long look at her before she winks slyly and saunters away into the mystic. I highly recommend Jamie’s books Sightlines and Findings.

If you have never purchased any of my coil-bound self-published works, I hasten to tell you that each copy of Sources of Wonder is signed and dated and numbered, the whimsical numerals sketched and lavishly colored by the author to make each volume a collector’s item and an ideal gift for friends who love to read and enjoy pondering the divine and mysterious and hilarious and fascinating interconnectedness of everything.

As Mr. Laskin says to Derek at the end of Under the Table Books, “I refer to it as chumming for synergy. There is nothing the universe appreciates more than action. Do you know why that is? Because action is the mother of the whole kit and caboodle.”

Bill and Ted Arrive

Monday, May 15th, 2017

129things

129 Things photo diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Four score and…seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends: Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition, which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other and Party On, Dudes!” Abraham Lincoln in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

We recently watched the movie Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve. Arrival is a well-meaning and humorless look at the arrival on earth of beings from another solar system, and how contemporary humans might react to such an arrival. Denis Villeneuve is also the director of the soon-to-be-released Blade Runner sequel, and he has recently been signed to direct yet another movie-version of Dune. Based on how Denis did with Arrival, I’m not optimistic his Dune will be much better than the previous Dune disasters.

In any case, we enjoyed Arrival, though the sound was problematic and the transitions from one scene to the next were often jumpy and confusing. Much of what the characters said to each other was partially or completely drowned out by competing noises. Thus we could not depend on the dialogue to let us know what was going on. I think this was the director’s attempt to simulate what he believed to be sonic realism, but I found the muted dialogue annoying.

When Arrival ended—as I was trying to make sense of the more confusing parts of the movie—I had the following epiphany: the underlying idea propelling the plot of Arrival is identical to the underlying idea propelling the plot of the super great 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. To wit: time is not linear and future events influence the present as profoundly and immediately as do events from the past. Once I had this epiphany, the puzzle pieces composing Arrival fell into place and I ceased to be annoyed and bewildered.

Amy Adams is the star of Arrival. Her character not only saves the world in the movie, her performance saves the movie. She plays the part of a brilliant linguist surrounded by a mob of not-very-bright men trying to figure out what the aliens are doing here. Thus I found her easy to identify with. Hers was also the only character in the movie appropriately awed by, and respectful of, the big octopus-like aliens. And her character was also the only human believably afraid and troubled by the challenge confronting her. Everyone else in the movie seemed void of emotion, one-dimensional, and superfluous. I suppose it could be argued that the entire film was Amy’s character’s dream, but that would be silly.

Nevertheless, I really liked what the movie gave me, which is the message that to overcome our fears we must move toward them with open arms. Trying to run from our fears or kill them or deny them won’t do the trick. We must embrace them and transmute them as we allow them to transmute us.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, on the other hand, has excellent audio and is filled with humor. Keanu Reeves is stupendous as Ted and will never again be so good in a movie. Alex Winter as Bill is also great, and never again has done much of anything in the movies. And the late great George Carlin is supremely excellent as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor and guardian from the future.

Disclaimer: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of several movies I love that many of my friends and age-peers do not like. For this reason, I will not recommend the movie except to say that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works wonderfully well if you need help making sense of Arrival.

Speaking of movies, we also recently saw and enjoyed the 2013 Chilean-Spanish movie Gloria, written and directed by Sebastien Lelio and starring Paulina Garcia. I first saw and admired Paulina Garcia in the marvelous American movie Little Men, written and directed by Ira Sachs, and so I was eager to see more of her work. Gloria is both comic and tragic, and felt ultra-real to me. Paulina Garcia’s portrayal of a lonely middle-aged woman riding the ups and downs of a difficult relationship with a narcissistic sociopath is so moving and believable, this otherwise depressing story becomes a luminescent homage to the resiliency of an inherently good person.

I was reminded by Paulina Garcia’s performance in Gloria of Sally Hawkins’ stellar performance in Mike Leigh’s extraordinary film Happy Go Lucky.

Thank goodness for foreign movies and foreign directors (and American directors who might as well be foreigners), else what would the likes of me have to watch?

Meanwhile, I have recently completed work on two stupendous screenplays—The Magic Pen and Larry Story—and eagerly await inquiries from imaginative movie producers, brilliant directors, and superb actors interested in making fabulous cinematic art with excellent audio and unforgettable dialogue.

Bumble Buzzing

Monday, May 8th, 2017

spider web

Spider Web photo by Todd

“That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without it’s meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.” A.A. Milne

Yesterday I went out to the woodshed to get firewood. The shed is fourteen-feet-wide and sixteen-feet-long with a high ceiling and a plywood floor. When I picked up a few pieces from the Small Log section, I heard the sound of small waves crashing on a distant shore. Then the sound stopped. So I picked up another couple little logs and the sound came again, only this time it sounded more like a choir of Tibetan monks singing far in the distance.

I carried the wood into the house and wondered what could be making those strangely beautiful sounds. So I returned to the woodshed and removed a few more small logs, and the sound came again, but only for a moment; and for the first time I thought the makers of the sounds might be bees. I then retrieved wood from another part of the shed, and this removal did not cause the bees to sound. Thus I was able to say with some assurance that the hive, if that’s what I had disturbed, was located in the southeast corner of the shed behind firewood created from a few small redwood trees we had felled last year.

Thinking Marcia might enjoy hearing the strangely beautiful sounds, I fetched her from her studio and we went to the shed where my removal of a log caused the loudest humming sounds yet. Marcia backed out of the shed and said, “I’m scared.”

And the moment she expressed her fear, a bee flew in through the open shed door and disappeared into the stack of wood. I was fairly certain this bee was not a honeybee or a yellow jacket, but a bumblebee of some sort. Yellow jackets and wasps are extremely aggressive defenders of their nests, whereas these buzzing beings seemed fine (for the time being) with my getting wood from the shed. However, we need to get at the wood where the hive is, so we called the local pest-control folks to come have a look.

The friendly woman who answered the phone at the pest-control place explained that they did not exterminate honeybees because honeybees are an endangered species. If they determined our buzzers were honeybees, they would refer us to a Beetriever who would come and capture the hive and give the bees a new place to live. I feared our bees were not honeybees, though they were probably valuable pollinators.

In the early afternoon, a pest-control guy arrived and I led him to the woodshed and demonstrated how moving a log or two caused the bees to sound. Thinking our bees might be carpenter bees, the pest-control guy asked if the bees I’d seen were solid black. “No,” I said, “the bees I saw were definitely yellow and black.” With that in mind, the pest-control guy began removing handfuls of little logs from on top of where the buzzing sounds were coming from, and out flew two bumblebees. This emboldened the pest-control guy to remove a few more logs, which allowed him to shine his flashlight onto the outer edge of a small hive of bumblebees.

By this time, several irate bees were zooming around us, so we stepped out of the shed and the pest-control guy said, “Here’s the situation. These bees are not usually much trouble. They don’t want to sting you because if they do, they’ll die, so they really have to feel attacked to attack you. If you’re not allergic, I’d suggest you just gently harass them a couple times a day by removing wood, and they’ll probably leave in the next few days. If they don’t leave and become a problem, we can come back and treat them.”

So that is the plan: daily gentle harassing and avoiding being stung.

Shortly after the pest-control guy left, Marion dropped by for tea, and when I told her about the bees in the woodshed she said, “That reminds me of a story Ann told me.” The story goes something like this.

One day when Ann was living in Oakland, she opened the kitchen cupboard where she kept her tea and found a large spider in residence there, a non-poisonous kind of spider. Rather than remove the large spider from the premises, Ann decided to let the spider live in the tea cupboard. She then informed the human members of her household about the resident arachnid, and the humans named the spider Lipton.

Lipton lived contentedly in the tea cupboard for several years until one day it became necessary for the humans to have the house fumigated to eradicate legions of voracious termites. The day before the exterminators were to arrive, Ann opened the tea cupboard and said to Lipton, “Dear friend, due to unfortunate circumstances and our desire to keep our home from turning into sawdust, we are having the house fumigated with a terrible poison that will kill you if you stay in the house. So I am going to open the window right here over the sink and hope you will skedaddle so you can keep on living.”

And Lipton did, indeed, skedaddle out the open window before the exterminators came to douse the house with poison.

With this story in mind, I now speak to the bees in the woodshed whenever I go to gently harass them. I say, among other things, “As you may have surmised, we’re starting to clear out the wood in here and I’m hoping you will take advantage of the lovely spring weather to find a new place to hang out. We greatly appreciate your pollinating efforts and want you to continue pollinating and proliferating—just not in our woodshed. Many thanks.”

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

My Grandmothers

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Goody, Red, and William

Goody with Bill and Red 

Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

 Whilst thoroughly cleaning my office, something I do every five years whether the office needs cleaning or not, I came upon a small cache of letters from my maternal and paternal grandmothers. Neither of my grandfathers ever wrote to me. Why I saved these letters—the most recent dated 1981—I do not know, having thrown out hundreds of other family letters over the years, but I’m glad I saved these because I had a fascinating time reading them and appreciating the influence of these two very different women on their progeny and grand progeny.

My father’s parents were white Anglo Saxon Protestants, intelligent, humorless, and proud members of the John Birch Society. They disowned my father when he was twenty-one because he married my Jewish mother. However, some years later when they needed financial help and eventually became economically dependent on my father, they re-owned him, and by association us, their half-breed grandchildren.

My mother’s parents were born in Michigan to Jewish parents who came to America from Poland in the late 1800’s. Goody and Casey (Gertrude and Myron) changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression so they could get housing and jobs in that time of extreme anti-Semitism. Goody was brilliant and multi-talented and largely self-educated; and she loved to mix Yiddish with her English when she told jokes and stories.

Here is a birthday letter my paternal grandmother Helen wrote to me shortly before I dropped out of college in 1969.

Dear Todd,

This is to wish you a very happy 19th birthday. It was good to be able to spend some time with you on the trip over the hill to Santa Cruz. It seems like I’ve never had time to sit down and really talk with my grandchildren, so I hardly know any of you. I’m sorry for that.

This book [unknown] I am sending you I ran onto a number of years ago. It fascinated me, being, as I am, a frustrated archaeologist. I had borrowed the book and later, when I tried to buy a copy, I learned it was out of print. Then David [my uncle] picked up a used copy at a second hand bookstall in Athens, of all places, and when he had read it he sent it to me. Now, I discover, it is back in print and I want to share it with you.

History, archaeology and anthropology go hand in hand. The more we know about them the more we know about ourselves. Our genes carry the history of the world and mankind. In them are our roots and our roots tell us who we are. If we don’t know who we are, we are nobody.  

Therein lies the tragedy of the dissolution of the family. The family is the closest touch with our roots. Today the world is full of wandering youth who have repudiated family and have, thus, cut their roots. They say they are “trying to find themselves”, and no wonder. Their road is the wrong turning. They are the modern version of the ‘lost souls’ that Milton and other poets and philosophers have written about. The allegories written about the ‘search for happiness’ are myriad, and all end much the same way. Just for fun read the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Well, anyway, I hope you enjoy this book. When we begin to realize that our civilization, so called, as we know it, limited as we may be, is just a speck in the history of civilizations that have occupied this planet, we should be somewhat humble. Our roots started way back someplace in antiquity, and it does seem that we should make them bear good fruits in us. Have a happy birthday. Love, Grammy

And here is an excerpt from a letter penned in 1970 by my maternal grandmother Goody. To best appreciate Goody’s tone, try reading this in the manner of a Jewish comedian.

I have two good stories. First: The aged Jewish wise man was dying. All of his disciples gathered at his side for a final profound idea. He declaimed, “Life is like a river.”

Down the long line went the word, beginning with the Number One follower down to the end where stood the dolt of the group who asked, “What does he mean that life is like a river?”

Up the line came the question until it reached the Number One follower who asked his mentor to explain the statement. The savant answered, “So, it’s not like a river.”

My dear grandson, can you appreciate that story as can your grandmother who lived in an Isaac Bashevis Singer atmosphere all her formative years with a father who was rabbinical in his parables?

The other story comes from another part of the forest. Lillian Hellman tells the anecdote in her An Unfinished Woman about her great friend Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy’s husband Alan Campbell had just died, probably a suicide though no charge was ever made. Among the friends who stood with Dotty on the California steps when the coroner’s car came for him was Mrs. Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, had pretended to like Dotty, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles.

Mrs. Jones said, “Dotty, tell me dear, what can I do for you?”

Dotty said, “Get me a new husband.”

Mrs. Jones said, “I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.”

Dotty turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye, and tell them to hold the mayo.”

Margaret Mead said her grandmother told her to learn to nest in the gale. What should I tell you, our dear grandson, except to say that we love you and miss you and we pray that you will find fulfillment. Love and kisses.