Archive for May, 2016

Your Bliss

Monday, May 30th, 2016

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From The Chair painting by Nolan Winkler

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.” P. G. Wodehouse

Joseph Campbell used the expression “follow your bliss” when speaking about Jung’s discovery that reconnecting with a favorite childhood activity in adulthood was a great help in overcoming obstacles to his well-being. Sadly, this expression was immediately misinterpreted out of context, and Campbell was accused of promoting hedonism and other self-serving isms.

But the gist of what Campbell spoke about was, I think, a profound discovery, and one I have used to good effect as a writing teacher and to help puzzle my way through various emotional labyrinths. Campbell states the question Jung asked himself thusly (and I paraphrase): What repeated activity of my childhood was so involving, I lost all track of time when under the spell of that activity?

For Jung that childhood activity was building little stone houses and villages. So as an adult, following his remembered bliss, he undertook the building of a large stone house. As the house took shape, he had many dreams; and his interpretations of those dreams allowed him to move through a difficult time in his own psychoanalysis and successfully complete the process.

When I worked with teenaged writers, I would ask them to write responses to Jung’s question, and this proved a grand catalyst for their writing. Older writers were also inspired by this question, but many of them claimed they could not remember their childhoods; so I would ask them to imagine what their bliss might have been, and writing about that proved as inspiring as their actual memories.

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” MGM Executive reacting to Fred Astaire’s screen test in 1928

When I was a young writer in the days before online digital computerized anything, and before I learned that most publishing companies and magazines would only consider work sent to them by a literary agent, I mailed off rafts of stories and manuscripts to magazines and publishers, and got back rafts of rejection slips. In those days, relatively few people embarked on the writer’s path, and my housemates were curious about my career choice. One of those housemates, Maureen, was particularly fascinated by my persistence in the face of continuous and overwhelming rejection.

One day Maureen brought me my mail—a few letters from friends and a flotilla of rejections—and asked, “Why do you do this? Seems like you’re punishing yourself?”

I had never thought of sending out my stories for inevitable rejection as self-punishment, but the idea took root in my mind and I stopped sending my work to magazines and publishers. Almost immediately my desire to write began to wane, and I realized that submitting my writing was an important part of my process—a reason to rework and refine my stories. Without that intention, I was not inspired to write several drafts of each story, for I no longer had even an imaginary audience I wished to please, nor did I have the inspiration of the dream of being published and paid for my work.

Nowadays, I write my stories and books to share with a handful of interested readers and to satisfy my curiosity about the intriguing characters inhabiting my imagination, though my dreams tell me that I am also still motivated by the idea of my books and stories finding a larger audience.

“Art does not come and lie in the beds we make for it. It slips away as soon as its name is uttered: it likes to preserve its incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets its very name.” Jean Dubuffet

In Oaxaca in 1970, I was wandering on the fringes of a large open-air market and heard beautiful music emanating from the maze of vendors. I followed my ears and came upon a blind woman playing a mandolin and a blind man playing the guitar, both of them singing. Their playing was superb, their voices gorgeous, their harmonies fabulous, and their intoxicating songs unlike anything I had ever heard or would ever hear again.

I sought them out every day of that week I was in Oaxaca so I could steep for hours in their fabulous playing and singing. They were in rags, received little money for their performing, and were dependent on a sighted boy to lead them around. I gave them what money I could spare, which was not much, and I still remember them and their marvelous music forty-five years after I last heard them.

I was twenty and just learning to play the guitar when I heard those remarkable musicians in Oaxaca. Three years later, I formed a group with a mandolin player and we played in taverns and cafés in the Santa Cruz, from which I made enough for rent and food—the songs I wrote infused with the music of those two musicians I listened to so avidly in Oaxaca.

“We make things for somebody. This idea of art for art’s sake is a hoax.” Pablo Picasso

I agree with Picasso, for even an imagined somebody is somebody. I once read a translation of a Lakota holy man who suggested we are never alone, never unheard, never unseen, because the nature spirits are always aware of us and ready to interact with us.

When I lived in Berkeley, my friend Katje came to visit for a few days. Katje was an opera singer possessed of a superb voice, and she would wait for me to leave on my errands before practicing the arias she was working on, practice requiring a great deal of repetition. Despite my declaration that I enjoyed listening to her practice, she was concerned about imposing on me with her loud and repetitive singing.

One afternoon, I returned from my wandering in the outer world and found four of my neighbors standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, listening reverently to Katje sing.

Voting For Bernie

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

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I March in the Parade of Liberty painting by Nolan Winkler

Today I filled out my absentee ballot and voted for Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States, and I felt great about casting my vote for him. Then I tried to remember the last time I felt this good voting for someone who might end up the leader of our country, and I realized I have never felt this way before. When I voted for George McGovern and Ralph Nader, I knew they wouldn’t win, so I felt kind of wistful about voting for them. And you might say, “But Bernie can’t win either. You’re deluding yourself to think so.”

Well, I don’t believe the oligarchy’s media, and for once in my life I voted for a possible President of the United States representing what I want for America, someone who, in my current perception of reality, has a chance to win, regardless of what the lying distorting mass media tells us; and that makes this voting experience unique in my life. That got me thinking about other unexpected Firsts in my life that came later than sooner, and for which I am grateful.

When I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley ten years ago, there was something palpably different and better about living here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Having lived in a small town in Oregon, I knew the different feeling was not related to city life versus country life, and I had also lived in coastal towns, so I knew the different feeling was not proximity to the ocean. Still, it took me three years to figure out what the difference was—something I’d been missing since childhood.

This is the first place I’ve lived since I was a boy where the vast majority of people living here, want to live here. That was certainly not true in Berkeley where everyone I knew was being priced out of the area, and where the stress of that urban scene was unbearable for all but the young and the very wealthy. When I lived in Sacramento, four out of every five people I knew were desperate to leave as soon as they could afford to.

Thinking back over the many places I’ve lived, I could not come up with another place, except my childhood neighborhood, where the majority of people I knew in that community wanted to be there. The ramifications of this are vast, especially when one considers how highly interactive human beings are. We are hardwired to mirror the actions and emotions of others—so to live with mobs of people who don’t want to be where they are is, in scientific terms, an ongoing bummer.

After ten years in Mendocino, I have yet to hear anyone say, “I must leave here or go insane.” When I lived in Berkeley and Sacramento and Seattle and Medford and Eugene and Santa Cruz, I heard people say things like that daily, sometimes hourly.

True, this might say more about my acquaintances than about what life is like for most people in those other places, but I’m not talking about why nearly everyone I knew wanted out of where they were; I’m talking about how for the first time in my adult life I live in a place where virtually everyone I know and meet and overhear, save for the occasional disgruntled teenager, wants to be here.

When I turned sixty, six years ago, I decided to experiment with eliminating gluten and dairy products from my life, not including eggs. I had long ceased to eat cow dairy, but I still ate goat cheese. I was having digestive issues, notably bloating, and after decreasing my goat dairy and starch intake with little positive effect, I thought I’d see about doing without gluten for a few months.

After six weeks without gluten, the bloating problem was solved, and so I continued to abstain from gluten. And some six weeks later, I had an incredible experience—one of the best Firsts of my life. From the age of fifteen onward, I suffered from chronic debilitating joint pain, and was therefore a chronic user of aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Western medical doctors diagnosed me with ankylosing spondylitis, for which I found daily yoga practice helpful, though yoga did not cure the pain.

Thus every evening and every morning for the last forty-five years, I have done twenty minutes to an hour of stretching, without which I would be so stiff and pain-ridden, I would barely be able to move.

So…three months into being gluten free, during an evening stretching session, I was lying on my back on my mat and got up to turn off a whistling kettle. On my way to the kitchen, I was astonished to realize I had arisen with ease (in itself miraculous) and without any twinges of pain.

In a state of near disbelief, I returned to the living room, knelt on the matt, placed my fingertips on the floor behind me, and bent backwards a good five inches further than I had been able to bend in forty-five years—without the slightest pain or discomfort.

Over these subsequent six years sans gluten, I have not experienced any joint pain (save for the occasional injury from overzealous gardening or exercise.) I’m not saying this wonderful cessation of joint pain will occur for any other sufferers should they lessen or eliminate their gluten intake, but that is what happened for me. Now in the evening before bed, I look forward to getting on my mat to do some stretching by the fire, rather than dreading a confrontation with pain.

Voting for Bernie makes me happy in the same way stretching without pain makes me happy. After a lifetime of reprehensible narcissists running for and occupying the joint known as the White House, I finally got to vote for an intelligent, compassionate, generous person with a meaningful plan to improve life for all Americans, a person I believe has a chance to become the nation’s leader as we hurtle into massive economic and environmental turmoil.

Go Bernie!

Hollywood Salads

Monday, May 16th, 2016

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Sunny Days painting by Nolan Winkler

From 1978 until 1985 I was entangled in the movie business as a novelist and screenwriter hoping to get my creations made into movies. I was not greatly successful, but I made a few chunks of money and had many strange adventures with the habitués of Hollywood.

Now and then something will happen in the very non-Hollywood life I now lead, and I will be reminded of one or another of those odd adventures. For instance, Marcia and I recently dined at our neighbor’s house, loved her salad dressing, and inquired of the ingredients. Our neighbor’s enumeration of those ingredients reminded me of a supping experience I had in 1981 at a trendy Hollywood eatery.

One of my three supper companions was Laura Ziskin, who would shortly thereafter produce Pretty Woman and other big hits and eventually settle into making Spiderman movies until her recent death. In 1981, she and her producing partner Ian Sanders had optioned my novel Forgotten Impulses and cajoled Warner Brothers into hiring me to adapt the novel to the screen.

Ian was at the table with us, and so was Leslie Morgan, then a vice-president at Warner Brothers facilitating the Forgotten Impulses project. Leslie was an attractive woman in her early thirties, as was Laura. Ian was a fast-talking guy who said he had no doubt whatsoever that I would soon be taking home an Oscar for my screenplay of Ef Eye, as he referred to my novel.

So…our waiter, a lovely young woman, almost surely an aspiring thespian, came to our table to take our orders, and Leslie ordered first.

“I will have the broiled halibut,” she said, squinting at our waiter, “but please have the chef douse the fish with olive oil a minute before he thinks it’s done. And I’ll have a green salad with dressing on the side. Now for the dressing, I want two parts olive oil, one part seasoned rice vinegar, a good amount of grey poupon mustard, finely-minced onion, fresh parsley, no salt, and a dash of pepper.”

Laura was next. “I’ll have the broiled salmon, but I want the pesto on the side, and instead of mashed potatoes I’d like basmati rice, carrots, al dente, and asparagus, well-cooked. I’ll also have a green salad with dressing on the side and for my dressing I want balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a splash of a good cabernet, a large clove of garlic, minced, and I’d like that slightly chilled. Oh, and no big leaves of lettuce.”

Chagrined by the behavior of my companions, I was determined to make no such fuss when it was my turn to order. But first Ian had a go at our beleaguered waiter.

“Yes, I’ll have the sirloin steak, on the rare side of medium rare, but not absolutely rare. I do want the mashed potatoes but no gravy just lots of butter, and give me a bowl of pineapple chunks instead of vegetables. I want the Caesar salad, small leaves, and extra croutons. Those are fresh, I assume.”

“Yes,” said the waiter, writing as if possessed.

“I’ll have the halibut, too,” I said with a sigh. “And a green salad with blue cheese dressing.”

She waited for me to say more, but I had nothing to add.

When she departed, Ian said, “She’s cute. Great dimples. Walks well. We should audition her. I have a good feeling about her.”

A few minutes later our salads arrived. Laura and Leslie tasted their dressings, doused their salads, and ate ravenously, as did Ian. My salad was so thoroughly inundated with heavy blue cheese dressing, a single bite sufficed to quell what little appetite I had.

Two months later—I was living in Sacramento—Laura called to tell me Warner Brothers had offered the director Tony Bill a half-million dollars to direct Forgotten Impulses. He was thinking about taking the gig, but wanted to talk to me. Could I fly down pronto and have lunch with him?

The next morning I flew to Los Angeles and took a taxi to Tony Bill’s suite of offices in Venice. He was famed for producing The Sting and directing a quirky little film called My Bodyguard. A handsome boyish man with long hair, he greeted me warmly and said, “You like sushi? Sashimi? Good. You’re in for a treat.”

Tony and I walked a couple blocks to a Japanese restaurant overlooking the beach. We sat in a booth by the window, Tony had a beer, I had green tea, and Tony said to our waiter, “Whatever Inaba wants to make for us, I’m sure we’ll love it.”

Then we talked about my novel and screenplay and Tony said, “This is a dangerous movie. I can see why so many people want to make it, but on my third reading of your script, I realized the hero is actually the villain. In fact, all the characters are tremendously appealing, but then…no one is bad, no one is good. Who do we root for? We need at least one main character to root for?”

“I think we root for all of them,” I said, rooting for him to accept the offer from Warner Brothers so I could get paid to write two more drafts of the screenplay and have another movie made. “Their appeal is that they are believably complicated and we identify with them when they give into their passions.”

The sushi began to arrive—spectacular. Tony said he’d been to Japan several times, eaten at hundreds of sushi places, and never had sushi this good. I certainly had never had anything as good or in such quantity. Tony left a hundred-dollar tip.

Walking back to his office, Tony said, “I think we need to make Mackie more heroic and less of a bad guy. Maybe make his mother the villain.”

Two hours later, I was on a jet flying back to Sacramento.

Two days later, Laura called to say Tony decided not to make the film. “We’ll find somebody,” she said in her tough confident way. “Somebody who isn’t afraid of complexity.”

Louie & Women

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

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When I Sit In The Dark painting by Nolan Winkler

Some weeks ago I shared the opening chapter of my novel Inside Moves, and a number of readers wrote to say they were sufficiently inspired by that opening passage to read the book and/or listen to the audio version narrated by yours truly. And those responses have inspired me to post the first chapter of my third novel Louie & Women published by Dutton in 1983.

Louie & Women has an unusual structure, each chapter composed of a Third Person narrative followed by a woman’s voice continuing the story. Four different female characters take turns telling their sides of the unfolding drama. In the audio version of Louie & Women, Beth Richmond, one of Mendocino’s finest actors, brilliantly assumes the character of each of the three women and one girl who tell the tale, and I feel honored Beth agreed to narrate the novel.

In 1988, Louie & Women came tantalizingly close to being made into a motion picture with a screenplay by yours truly. By tantalizingly close, I mean the financing for the film, several million dollars, was withdrawn on the day principal photography was set to begin, the stellar cast assembled and raring to go when the moneymen changed their minds.

The hardback edition of Louie & Women was not promoted and barely distributed to bookstores, so sold very few copies. But despite the book being little known, Dell acquired the paperback rights and brought out a lovely paperback edition of Louie & Women in 1984. On the first page of that fairly rare paperback, among the several reviews, is the following from the Los Angeles Times: “You can’t help but love the landscape of this book. It is paved with real California gold. Todd Walton is such an accomplished writer and believes so strongly in his vision that the reader puts down this book fairly dazzled.”

1.

Seen from the road, it appeared to be nothing more than a large, gray plastic bag that had blown out into the field and lodged among the heads of iceberg lettuce. It was, however, not a bag but a poncho, and beneath its wrinkled exterior there lay a man named Louie Cameron.

An old brown backpack served him as both pillow and windbreak, and the inflatable pad beneath him made the lumpy ground tolerable for sleep. He had a flashlight to read and write by, dried fruit and nuts to give him nourishment, and a tiny gas stove should he desire his water hot. He lacked only company, and given the dimensions of his canopy, it was not a lack that grieved him much that rainy evening.

It was April of a very wet year in California and the lettuce harvest was at its height. Louie had been picking the heads for two weeks, going into Salinas in the evenings to see movies, to eat good Mexican food and to watch the beautiful women promenade down Main Street.

In the morning, Louie would head for the coast. He had worked hard, saved a little money, and now he wanted to sit on the sand, to soak his aching feet in the cold water, to rest a while before moving on.

 

Marie

When I was in prison, I used to lie awake, looking at the ceiling, waiting for a certain sound that I would be sure was Louie coming to take me home. He would move like a shadow past the guards, open the door, lift me from my bed, wrap me in black silk, and carry me out into the night, without anyone knowing.

When I finished my time at Chowchilla and moved back to Santa Cruz, I’d lie awake in the same way. I’d wait for my children to settle into sleep and then I’d listen for an engine sound, his old Volkswagen coughing as it shifted down from third gear to second.

But I don’t listen for his car anymore. Now, I wait for the dog to bark. Louie doesn’t like Dobermans, so he’ll stay out on the sidewalk until I come for him. I’ll put on my white kimono, go downstairs, open the door and look out at him for a long time. I want to make him wait, like I’ve been waiting for three years now. Then I’ll walk slowly down the path, stopping before I get too close. He’ll be dying to come in, but the dog will be there, keeping him out.

I never get to the part where I forgive him. I can’t conjure up how that will be. There’s just this jumble of pictures and words and anger, so I don’t know what I might do. I can’t help thinking my life would have been better if he’d stayed in Santa Cruz and waited for me.

Then again, I know he couldn’t have stayed. Everything he owned, everything he believed in, was taken from him because he didn’t know how to fight. I’ve tried to hate him for leaving, but all I can hate is his leaving. Hating Louie would be like hating a child for not knowing that fire burns and things can break.