Archive for September, 2016

Magenta Queen

Monday, September 26th, 2016

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Magenta cover

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

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

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

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

The novel begins:

Where Have You Been?

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

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

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

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

“Where have you been?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luz

Monday, September 19th, 2016

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Ampersands thanks to Max

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

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Mischief painting by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Mr. Bosman

Monday, September 5th, 2016

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Twin Falls painting by Winkler and Nolan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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