Archive for January, 2013

My Big Trip, Part Two

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” Tim Cahill

Staying with friends was the only way I could afford to make my trip to New York in 1976 last more than a week or so, and I wanted to stay in or near Manhattan for at least three weeks. When I left for New York, I thought I had two places to stay, one in Newark, New Jersey with Dan and Janka, and one on West 83rd Street in Manhattan with Scott and Richard, but when Janka’s mother learned I was planning to stay in the area for several weeks, she invited me to use the guest room in her apartment on West 94th Street, three blocks from Central Park.

When I tell longtime New Yorkers where I stayed in 1976, the usual reaction to West 83rd Street is, “A bit edgy in those days, but not terrible,” while the take on West 94th is, “I hope you didn’t walk around alone at night.” By 1983, the last year I visited New York, West 83rd had become a chichi high rent neighborhood and West 94th was considered relatively safe, but in 1976 Richard and Scott’s old apartment building on West 83rd was guarded by a big Puerto Rican guy armed with a baseball bat and West 94th…

Imagine dusk descending in early October as young Todd enters Central Park at West 96th with the intention of walking across the park to meet a friend on the Upper East Side. A few hundred yards into the park, Todd notices two things: the back of his neck is tingling and the park is completely deserted. He walks a bit farther, but stops when his heart begins to pound and he has the distinct feeling he is being watched. At which moment, a police car comes rolling toward him on the wide asphalt path. Todd steps to one side, the squad car stops beside him, and the driver’s window sinks down a few inches so the officers might converse with our quaking traveler.

“Where you goin’?” asks the officer behind the wheel, a portly middle-aged guy.

“I’m meeting a friend on East 85th,” Todd replies, smiling wanly. “Is this not a good idea, walking across the park here?”

“Indeed,” says the officer, nodding. “Not good.”

“Not good at all,” says the other officer, shaking his head. “Where you from, champ?”

“Oregon,” says Todd, hoping the officers will transport him to safety.

“Well,” says the officer behind the wheel, “we’ve had some muggings around here recently. Exactly right here, in fact. Yesterday. So we encourage you to exit the park and take the subway or a cab to meet your friend.”

“Can you guard me until I get out?” Todd asks, nodding hopefully.

The officers exchange smiles and the guy behind the wheel says, “Sure. We’ll follow you out. How about that?”

 “One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” Edith Wharton

Janka’s mother (I will call her M) was a most serious person, her pretty face carved by worry and suffering. She was a medical doctor working in a hospital in a part of Harlem so dangerous she had to be escorted to and from her taxi by armed guards; and how she came to be a doctor was a most incredible story. When she was a teenager living in a small town in Poland, the German army invaded her country, and as the German soldiers approached her town she fled on foot in the direction of Russia, following the railroad tracks. As she ran, a slow moving Russian-bound train overtook her, the cars full of wounded Russian soldiers. A nurse on the train, a young Polish woman, knew M and urged her to jump onboard, which M did.

“Now,” said M’s friend, “you must pretend you are a nurse or they will throw you off. I will show you what to do.”

“And,” said M, telling me her story thirty-seven years after jumping on that train, “by the time we got to Russia, I was a nurse, learning what to do as we went along.”

M was given more formal medical training in Russia and sent to work in a Leningrad hospital, arriving shortly before the German and Finnish armies laid siege to the city, a terrible siege that lasted nine hundred days and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 people.

“Many days,” said M, heaping my plate with food, “we had nothing to eat. We would make soup of hot water and anything we could find to put in, sometimes a potato, sometimes nothing but onion peel. We all expected to die. We were living skeletons. To this day I don’t know how I survived.”

When the war ended, M attended medical school in the Soviet Union and then returned to Poland to find that the Germans had killed every member of her family—grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. She practiced medicine and married a man who became a well-known economist. They had two children, Janka and Helena, and during a brief political thaw, so-called, in the 1960’s, M divorced her husband and immigrated to the United States with her teenaged daughters.

My first evening with M, she cooked enough food for ten. “I know, I know,” she said apologetically, “I have problem with food. I buy more than I need, I cook more than I need, but…when you starve for so many months and years, well…”

I liked M very much and I liked hearing her stories of life in Poland and Russia and America, and I liked her guest room and the fabulous food she served me, but I had to leave after three nights with her because she was miserable when I didn’t have supper with her, and she would wait up for me because she was worried about my safety.

On the second night I stayed with M, I came home after midnight and found her cooking up a storm. “I made nice roast and mashed potatoes and green beans and chocolate cake. You are hungry, yes?”

“Actually, I’m stuffed,” I said, hating to disappoint her. “And I’m exhausted, so…”

“Oh, stay up a little while, please? Talk to me. Have something to eat. I want to hear about your day. Did you go to Museum of Modern Art?”

So we stayed up until two, and before she left for work early the next morning, she wrote me a long note describing what she was cooking for supper, though I had told her I was dining with friends. And when I came home that night, she was waiting for me with mountains of food and insisting I eat and stay up with her; and if I hadn’t already made other plans, I might have stayed with her for weeks and months and grown tremendously fat, but that was not why I thought I had come to New York.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber

I thought I had come to New York to immerse myself in what I imagined would be a scintillating literary scene, and to make friends with other people passionate about writing. So when my agent Dorothy Pittman invited me to a party at her Greenwich Village pad and said she had invited writers and editors and theater people, I felt certain I was about to walk through some magic portal into a world I had long dreamed of inhabiting.

This would also be my first meeting with Dorothy in the flesh, though we had spoken on the phone and exchanged many letters. I had no idea what she looked like, this being long before the advent of computers and Google and sending photos in emails; and I’m fairly certain Dorothy didn’t know what I looked like either, so there was excitement about that, too—finally laying eyes on the great advocate of my writing.

Dorothy’s husband John—a handsome man recently transplanted from California—answered the door and ushered me into their crowded little flat, the air dense with cigarette smoke. “How you holding up?” he asked, giving me a knowing smile. “This city can knock the shit out of you.”

Which was true. I’d only been there five days and I was totally worn out and longing to do nothing but sleep for a day or two.

And here was Dorothy, tall and slender with short silvery hair and shining eyes—a radiant being illumined from within—beaming with pleasure. “Well there you are,” she said with her marvelous Georgia drawl. “I am so happy to see you.”

She took my hand and led me into their little living room and introduced me to the dozen or so men and women gathered there—every last one of them smoking a cigarette—and I was sure I was going to pass out from lack of air. But worse than the smoke was how deeply uninteresting I found these people—save for Dorothy—and how obviously disinterested they were in me, so that when the party was over, I rode the subway back to M’s place feeling downright sad.

Nearly all the talk had been about money and who had gotten how much of an advance and how much someone else hoped to get for an advance and how big a paperback sale someone else had made; and when they weren’t talking about advances and sales they were talking about, I kid you not, cigarettes and where they bought them and how they were going to quit smoking or how they had given up trying to quit smoking—and nary a word about the books and plays I hoped they were writing or reading, works of divine imagination that had conquered their psyches and taken over their lives.

“A wise traveler never despises his own country.” William Hazlitt

The next day I had lunch with my editor from Seventeen magazine in a swank restaurant a few blocks from the towering office building wherein Seventeen shared a floor with TV Guide, both magazines owned by the same massive media conglomerate—our lunch costing that conglomerate more than I spent on groceries in a month. My editor was an attractive, fast-talking woman with short blond hair who surprised me with a beautiful color proof of the delightful illustration for my upcoming Christmas story.

“Everyone loves your story,” she gushed. “Isn’t this picture a knockout?”

“I love it,” I said, glad I didn’t have to lie. “Perfect.”

“So, listen,” she said, taking a deep breath, “there was a problem with space. Some big last minute ads came in so…I had to do a little cutting. On your story.”

“Oh, well I’m sure…”

“Just eighty lines,” she said, smiling and wincing simultaneously. “I don’t think the cuts really hurt the story, maybe rushed things a little here and there, but…”

“Eighty lines? How many words in a line?”

“Six to eight,” she said, giggling nervously. “I took out about, oh…six hundred words, but it’s still great. You’ll see.”

“Out of three thousand?” I was incredulous. “How could…” And then I caught myself, remembering how lucky I was to be published at all. “I’m sure you did a fine job. Can’t wait to see it.”

After lunch we returned to Seventeen and a young intern took me on a tour of the editorial offices. The intern turned out to be Howard Cosell’s daughter (you remember Howard Cosell, the famous sports journalist); and she did, indeed, look very much like her father. We peeked into the mail room where two young women were rifling through the several hundred unsolicited manuscripts they received each week, and then we came to a big room where the magazine was laid out (remember these were pre-computer days) and I was amazed to see the walls adorned with dozens of lascivious photos of scantily clad young women in highly suggestive poses—outtakes from Seventeen fashion shoots—worthy of the most risqué Playboy spreads. Now there was a bestseller waiting to happen: Nasty Seventeen.

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” Danny Kaye

On my sixth day in Manhattan, I went to stay with Scott and Richard in their commodious rent controlled apartment on West 83rd Street, Scott being one of my very best friends since Fourth Grade, Richard his longtime partner. In 1976 Scott had yet to come out as a gay man to any of his old friends or to his parents and siblings who lived on the West Coast, though I had known he was gay since we were teenagers, and I am fairly certain he knew I knew. Even so, this was a big deal, my staying with them and being shown that they shared a bed and the physical intimacies of a sexual couple.

When I set my suitcase down in their living room and Scott dashed to his grand piano and started playing Willkommen from Cabaret and belting out those welcoming words in his best imitation of Ethel Merman, I felt I had finally and truly arrived in the Big Apple.

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.

Four Hundred Thousand

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

I Never Heard The Warning (mixed media on wood) by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need, if I die by four o’clock.” Henny Youngman

Do you earn four hundred thousand dollars of taxable income in a year? Have you ever earned four hundred thousand dollars in a single year? Do you have friends who earn or have ever earned four hundred thousand dollars in a year? I thought not; nor do I have friends earning that kind of money, though I do know some certifiably wealthy people. Earning two hundred thousand dollars is a different matter. According to government statistics about 1.5% of American households make two hundred thousand a year, and I can think of three or four couples out of the hundreds of people I know who might earn as much as two hundred thousand dollars in a single year.

So…households earning more than two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year were the lowest income earners President Obama said he was going to tax at a wee bit higher tax rate if only we would re-elect him. So we re-elected him and now he has chosen to go along with the certifiably insane Republicans and only increase taxes a teeny little bit on households earning more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, while also allowing the current payroll tax cut to expire, an expiration that will immediately cause taxes to increase for 78 percent of U.S. households, with an average increase of 1,635 dollars. In other words, the lower middle-income folks got screwed again and the rich people, well…

Those three or four couples I know who might earn two hundred thousand dollars a year, and everyone earning more than that, all have accountants who are absolute wizards at manipulating the tax code so their clients pay little or no taxes at any rate—the tax code being essentially a compendium of loopholes to benefit wealthy people and their corporations. Thus, as far as you and I and 99% of the American population are concerned, the recent fiscal cliff circus might as well have been about raising taxes on unicorns for all the good the new law does you and me and the economy we struggle to survive in.

“It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics.” Robert Byrd

Meanwhile, as a sneaky side note to raising taxes on unicorns and 78% of the American people who already pay far more than their fair share, President Obama and his troops are now marching in lock step (goose step) with the Republicans to lower those damn Social Security cost-of-living increases that are the life blood of millions of certifiably poor Americans. Never mind that Social Security is an entirely solvent system that has never added a single dollar to the national deficit. “Such terrible awesome annual increases,” cry our insane overlords, “must be curtailed.”

I, for instance, under the current system of calculation, will see my massive Social Security payment of 663 dollars per month skyrocket to 674 a month in 2013. Katy bar the door! What is that sucking sound? Must be Todd and his deadbeat kind draining the treasury! Quick! Print trillions of more dollars to fund endless war and to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars interest on the national debt and to make unlimited funds available to banks and Wall Street crooks, interest free, so they can keep their toxic derivative bubbles bubbling. Whoopee!

 “Ben Franklin may have discovered electricity—but it is the man who invented the meter who made the money.” Earl Warren

When I think about the many vicious lunatics in Congress tirelessly stealing from the poor to benefit the rich, those duly elected crazy and vicious people with apparently no other agenda but accelerating the enrichment of the already incredibly wealthy, I can’t help but think that getting and hoarding huge quantities of money must be the cause of their insanity. And when I examine my own brief brushes with wealth, I am further convinced that the wealth/insanity connection is no figment of my imagination.

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” Woody Allen

Twice in my life, I earned more than one hundred thousand dollars in a single year, fortunes resulting from moviemakers buying or optioning the rights to my novels Inside Moves and Forgotten Impulses. Inside Moves was made into a film in 1980 and Forgotten Impulses was optioned several times in the 1980’s for small amounts of money, with the largest option (one year for 100,000 dollars) coming in 1995, though a movie of that book was never (has yet to be) made.

The IRS audited me for each of those stellar years, though I had dutifully given the government more than half my earnings each time. My auditors in both cases were well-intentioned young people who told me I was being audited because the dramatic spike in my income (up from next to nothing) was a red flag, an indication of possibly illicit activity, as if people engaged in illicit activities would be so stupid as to report their illicit gains. In both audits I was found to be a good boy, much to the disappointment of those hapless revenuers assigned to gather loot from those of us unprotected by savvy accountants.

However, despite surrendering half of my windfalls to Uncle Sam, I still found myself possessed of much more money than I was accustomed to having, and so in the first instance I bought a house and made a short film and gave money to friends and embarked on a disastrous marriage and became a pauper again just a few short years after becoming sort of a success. In the second instance, I moved from low rent Sacramento to high rent Berkeley, gave away most of the money to friends, and in just a few short months was back to scraping together my minimalist monthly nut. Why did I give my money away so quickly? After much thought, and believe me I’ve thought plenty about how swiftly I got rid of that extra do-re-mi, I concluded that I was so psychically uncomfortable having lots of money when so many of my friends had so little money that it was either share my wealth or go insane.

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Imagine getting four hundred thousand dollars, giving a little bit to the government, and then…getting another four hundred thousand, and then another four hundred thousand, and so on for years and decades. Who are you? What have you been doing to get that money? And what have you done with all the money you’ve gotten? Have you helped your friends and your community? I hope so.

Whoever you are, the insane people running our government have decided you should give them a few thousand dollars more this year than you did last year so they can continue destroying the earth as fast as they can. How does that make you feel to be told you have to give a teeny bit more of your four hundred thousand to the government? Do you shrug and say, “No problem. I make that much in an hour from the bubbling hedge funds I own, and I make that in a day from the rents paid to me by my many tenants living in the houses and apartment buildings I bought with my wads of excess cash. And besides, my accountant will jiggle my numbers so I end up paying even less taxes than I did last year.”

Or do you say, “Why me? Why have I been singled out to pay more when everybody else (except 78% of the population) is paying the same amount they did last year? And what about people like Todd getting an eleven-dollar increase in his Social Security allotment? It’s an outrage, I tell you, and I’m going to make a large tax deductible donation to a fascist political action committee to get this usurious tax increase reversed and stop those deadbeats from draining the treasury dry!”

Sadly (or happily) we will probably never know what those rare and elusive four-hundred-thousandaires will do or say about the tax increase on their unimaginably vast (to me) influx of moolah, because we will probably never meet them, just as we will almost surely never meet a unicorn, except in our dreams and fantasies. What we do know is that the President of the United States and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are united in their utter contempt for common Americans, and by common I mean households earning between thirty and seventy thousand dollars a year, which is the average income of most households in America, not counting the tens of millions of households mired in poverty.

Which reminds me of that old joke about Bill Gates walking into a jam-packed bar and suddenly the average person in the joint is worth more than a billion dollars.

Unpublished Work

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Multiple Moons painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

They haunt me, the dozens of novels and novellas and stories I’ve written that have never been published—those relatively few survivors of my periodic assaults on bookshelves freighted with my collected unpublished fiction, each manuscript a Sleeping Beauty, alive yet so deeply asleep she might as well be dead; her only hope the kiss of some fairy tale publisher prince or princess who discovers the comatose fable despite the impenetrable forest surrounding her and despite the curses of the wicked witches and sorcerers and evil schmucks who rendered her, for all intents and purposes, lifeless.

“Why do you think we chose to speak ourselves through you, Todd?” ask the stories and novellas and novels and plays and screenplays. “So you would give birth to us and spend years shaping us and then pile us on your shelves to collect dust until you murder us? No! We chose you to bring us into the world so we can do our work—the work of inspiration and healing and love. How can you leave us here, moldering in our living graves?”

“Well,” I retort, “you cannot say I haven’t tried with all my might and guile (such as they are) for the better part of my sixty-three years to bring you to a larger audience, larger, that is, than the few friends I’ve shared you with. I’ve spent whatever money I managed to accrue to make copies of you and mail you to myriad publishers and magazines of every size and shape, and I have kissed the asses of far too many so-called literary agents who wouldn’t know a work of literature if it bit them on their much-kissed butts. And I have managed to publish several books and stories, however brief their appearances in bookstores and on the literary stage. I’ve even self-published two of my most vociferous volumes—Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books—and gone bankrupt in the process. So you cannot say I haven’t tried.”

Still, they haunt me, my unpublished works, especially the ones most recently born. The older manuscripts rarely shout at me these days, but the books I’ve written in the last decade, they squawk and yell as I walk by them or when I see their titles in the Writing folder on the screen of my computer. “Todd! What have you done today to find my publisher, to share me with your society, to bring my boon to the world? I’ve got work to do, people to touch, minds and hearts to open. What’s holding up the show? I’m ready!”

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” Jessamyn West

My most recent work of fiction (longer than a short story) is a novella entitled Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, a book I feel certain would be a big help in the crusade to save our planet while providing exciting and gratifying entertainment for millions of readers. Here is the brief synopsis that has accompanied my submissions of the manuscript to publishers hither and yon.

Oasis Tales of the Conjuror tells the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in exciting and creative and harmonious ways. The tales are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival.

I have now sent the manuscript to twenty publishers—small, medium, and large—as well as to three so-called literary agents, and the swift and universal response has been, “Never!” However, the thirty copies I gave to friends and my most clamorous readers elicited quite the opposite response. “Yes! You must publish this book! Couldn’t put it down! Riveting, gorgeous, powerful, important! Quick! There’s not a moment to lose!”

Ah, but that is the great divide I have encountered all my life—the responses of far-thinking and creative people as opposed to the responses of publishers. “So, Todd,” say more and more of my correspondents of late, “if the old ways won’t serve you, why don’t you publish Oasis Tales of the Conjuror as an e-book available online, and help save the world that way?” To which I reply, “I am such a colossal techno doofus, I not only don’t know how to do such a thing, I would be incapable of doing so even if I theoretically knew how. Besides, how would anyone know the book exists simply because I’ve added it to the billions of other e-things collecting digital dust in the ethers?”

That said, I do resonate with the idea of posting Oasis Tales of the Conjuror on my web site so people can read the story and send a link to their friends, though I still think an actual three-dimensional version of the book would be the best way for the tale to live in the world. To that end, I suppose I could make photocopies for those who wish to read hard copy (and pay for such) and post the manuscript online for people to read. That would eliminate the possibility of earning any money for my work, but given the urgency of the ecological and economic crises confronting us, perhaps aspiring to earn money while trying to help save the world is counter-productive if not downright silly.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling

Though I began to sell my short stories to men’s and women’s magazines in the 1970’s through the tireless efforts of the late great Dorothy Pittman, a saint disguised as a literary agent, and I eventually published several novels with big New York publishers and made my living as a novelist and screenwriter for some years, I continued to submit my short stories to literary magazines. Through thick and thin, success and failure, minor renown and major anonymity, I have never ceased to send my stories to itsy bitsy magazines and great big famous magazines and every size of magazine in between—for nearly fifty years. I would guesstimate I have now mailed (snail mail) over three thousand packets of stories to editors at hundreds of magazines and have made another three hundred electronic submissions since the advent of the interweb, yet I have never had a single one of those stories accepted for publication. True, I have published stories in a few little literary magazines, but those were stories solicited by editors who were fans of my writing or were introduced to my work by mutual acquaintances.

Just today, for instance, I received three rejections of stories I submitted electronically to so-called literary magazines, and I received a rare snail mail rejection (a form letter in the self-addressed stamped envelope I included with my submission) of a story I was sure would be taken by a miniscule quarterly with a circulation of seventy-five—photocopied, folded, and stapled in the editor’s garage. The form rejections from all these magazines said the same thing: Due to the thousands of stories and poems we receive each week, we regret that we cannot respond personally to your submission. Even so, how could they not want my stories? Such funny and piquant and timely tales, and I was absolutely certain that…

But then I have always been absolutely certain that every story and novel and novella and play and screenplay I have ever sent out is going to be published or produced or filmed. Indeed, over the decades, through agents and on my own, I have submitted more than a hundred short stories and humorous essays to the New Yorker, and with each and every submission I have been absolutely certain that my phone will ring (any minute now) and some wonderful guy or gal New Yorker editor (smart and funny and good) will say, “Todd, Todd, Todd. This is such a great story. Gads! (I just know they’ll use the word gads.) Where have you been all our lives?” Which is a question I will take great delight in answering.

And over the course of those same decades, I have had my astrological chart interpreted by four different astrologers, and each of those seers noted something in my chart indicating that the sun and the moon and the planets have collaborated with the earth to predispose me to be preternaturally optimistic, no matter what befalls me. This astrological indicator is, so far, one of only two plausible explanations for why, despite the formidable and ever-growing odds against me, I continue to campaign on behalf of my unpublished works. The other explanation is that several times in my life, and always just as I am about to give up the fight, someone writes or calls to let me know that my words got through to them and they were moved to reach out to me.

E-Book Press Release

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Rewriting Kerouac

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac

More than fifty years after his novel was first published (in 1957), a movie has finally been made based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have not yet seen the film, but because the movie was written and directed by Walter Salles, the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker who made the most magnificent Central Station, I wager his movie of On the Road will be beautifully made. I will also wager that On the Road, the movie, will owe much more to Salles’s genius than to the text after which it is named.

“I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to come incongruous matter which quit distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.” Alfred North Whitehead

Any meaningful discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road must take into account when the book was written and published. The book is a loose-knit rambling account of male friendship set in America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when automobiles and the advent of suburbia were swiftly reshaping the physical and social landscape of the country and accelerating the breakdown of the social mores that had defined America for generations. Outside of this specific historical context, much of the novel will have little or no relevancy for most contemporary readers.

I think many of the complaints (and they are legion) about On the Road being badly written, boring, misogynistic, juvenile, shallow, and a colossal waste of the reader’s time are the result of readers hoping the book will reveal itself to be a timeless masterpiece, a revelation that will elude the reader unless he is that rare bird who enjoys Kerouac’s speedy chatty name-dropping word flow that is short on plot and continuity and long on…word flow, which in the context of the literary style-revolution of the 1950’s is significant. I think it no coincidence that Samuel Beckett’s highly abstract existential play Waiting For Godot, about two guys hopelessly lost on the road, was written and produced at roughly the same historical moment that On the Road was written and published, both works eschewing many of the structural and grammatical rules that theretofore governed their respective literary forms.

“All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land.” Jack Kerouac

I first tried to read On the Road when I was thirteen, a paperback edition being available on our living room bookshelf. I was hunting for sex scenes and hopeful of finding them because the cover illustration on the 25-cent paperback featured a sexy young stud in the foreground with little pictures of scantily clad women in the background, including one picture of a couple in bed making love. Racy! Alas, careful skimming of what was to my young mind nearly unintelligible prose, uncovered only a few references to people having sex or having had sex, with almost nothing remotely juicy or graphic or titillating. Even the Mexican whorehouse adventure—a sort of climax to On the Road—was not particularly sexy, but rather pathetic. Fortunately, I would soon discover Lady Chatterley’s Lover and need no other masturbatory aid for years to come.

 “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Jack Kerouac

In 1966, when I was sixteen, I was introduced to the San Francisco Beat poets by my friend Rico, and over the next several years I attended poetry readings featuring Philip Whalen (my favorite), Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. In retrospect, I find it fascinating that though all these poets owed much of their notoriety to their intimate connections to the world-famous Jack Kerouac, I never heard a single mention of Jack at any of those readings. When I was twenty, and only because I was so enamored of Philip Whalen’s poetry, I attempted to read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (starring fictionalized versions of Whalen and Snyder) but could not force myself to read more than a few pages, no matter how many times I tried. Then shortly after giving up on Dharma Bums, I learned that Kerouac had recently died at the age of forty-seven from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.

“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Jack Kerouac

And so I attained the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having read any Kerouac (other than my teenaged skimming of On the Road). I was living in Sacramento and very much enjoying the local poetry scene when I was invited to participate in a show entitled October in the Railroad Earth, a celebration of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. My fellow readers were D.R. Wagner, Patrick Grizzell, and Bari Kennedy. The format of our show, which became an annual event for many years thereafter, was that we would read works by Kerouac and his Beat poet pals in the first act and our own work in the second act. The readings took place in October in various dives around Sacramento, and for the first few years one of us was assigned to read October in the Railroad Earth, Kerouac’s poetic prose account of riding the train from San Francisco to Gilroy in October.

When I confessed to D.R. Wagner (a great visionary poet) that I had never read any Kerouac and had no idea what to read for the show, D.R. suggested I find a little something in On the Road. So to find that little something I decided to read the book and see what jumped out at me. Alas, if Kerouac’s word flow was largely unintelligible to me as a thirteen-year-old, On the Road held even less interest for me at thirty-two. And so I resorted to skimming, which brought me to a passage in which the narrator (the fictional Kerouac) hooks up with a young woman he meets on a bus—a passage I hoped to perform with some success for an audience of inebriated poets and poetry lovers.

However, when I previewed my reading for an audience of friends after supper one night, the unanimous judgment was that despite my best efforts, the narrative was difficult to follow and essentially pointless. And so, though I knew I was committing a great sacrilege, I spent some time editing the passage, adding a descriptive line here and there, and clarifying the myriad antecedents therein, something Kerouac seemed little concerned with, as if he assumed his readers needed no such clarity.

“It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac

When the night of our performance arrived—the venue appropriately a subterranean bar (appropriate because one of Kerouac’s novels is entitled The Subterraneans)—the place was packed with Kerouac aficionados and poets and the special sort of people drawn to such literary social alcoholic events. And as I listened to D.R. and Pat and Bari read their Kerouac selections, I was filled with dread about what I was about to do: read my rewritten Jack to some of the only people on earth who might know that I had dared revise the work of their god. Was I crazy? Well, I was young and arrogant, which sufficed, so I took my turn, read with zeal, and garnered loud applause for my perfidy.

During the interminable intermission, I was approached by an enormous man with a prodigious mustache and a menacing look in his eyes. I braced myself for condemnation, but none was forthcoming. On the contrary, he shook my hand and declared, “You nailed it, man. You got the rhythm of his words absolutely spot on. I could hear the bass line going as you read. Bravo.”

And hot on the heels of the mustachioed behemoth came a gorgeous woman wearing a slinky sheath that clung most pleasingly to her many admirable curves. She clasped both my hands in both of hers and gushed, “Wow, I hate to admit, but I never really got Kerouac until now. I just…he never made sense to me, but as you read that scene I saw everything so clearly, like a fabulous movie. Thank you.”

At the next year’s Kerouac reading, I read Jack’s October in the Railroad Earth, and I didn’t change a word; and as I read that lovely flow of words I really got what Jack was trying to do with language, which was, I think, to sing like a jazz musician, talking and emoting through his instrument of words while staying open, wide open, to the feelings of the moment.