Archive for June, 2017

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

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

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender Fearless

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Tender fearless

Rose In Morning Light photo by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Animals

Monday, June 12th, 2017

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night 72

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Apples and Accordions

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Thinking of You

Thinking of You by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Tweed Update