Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Pittman’

Old Perry

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

Forty years ago, I wrote a short story called Old Perry. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, made a valiant effort to sell the story to various magazines, and three interested editors could not convince three disinterested publishers to run the story, so the fable was never published. A few years later, I showed the story to Richard Marks and he thought Old Perry would make a fine movie.

Richard was, and still is, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. I first met Richard those same forty years ago when he was working at the late great Ziegler, Diskant, and Roth Agency, an agency specializing in representing novels to the movie industry. Following the demise of that agency, Richard and I remained friends and he endeavored to interest a movie producer or two in Old Perry, to no avail.

Somewhere along the winding path of my life, I lost track of Richard and also lost my few copies of Old Perry, and until a few weeks ago I never thought I would see that story again. Every once in a while something would remind me of Old Perry—the running of the Kentucky Derby or a visit with a friend’s horse—but I remembered little more than the gist of the tale.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was in need of a little advice from an entertainment lawyer. Richard is the only entertainment lawyer who has ever befriended me, so I looked him up via Google, sent him an email, and we restarted our friendship after thirty-some years. He inquired about Old Perry and I told him I lost the story long ago. Then a few weeks ago, Richard wrote to say he found a copy of the story while cleaning out his garage. He scanned the story and sent me a copy of the scan and I had the fascinating experience of reading a story I penned forty years ago—fascinating because I can’t imagine present-day Todd writing such a story, yet I enjoyed the energy and spirit of the tale.

Here for your reading pleasure is Old Perry.

Old Perry

It hurt me because he was too good for that and I always said we could make more money if we just let him win his races, but Jackie said he was too good not to use him as our bread and butter horse and he also said Old Perry didn’t mind losing. But I never believed that, or that Jackie believed it.

Okay, now what a bread-and-butter horse was to Jackie was a horse that could win almost all the time in low stakes races, but you didn’t let him win. You held him back in five or six races in a row, or maybe even ten races if your other horses were makin’ money, and you built up the odds against that horse until he was a real long shot, say twenty-five to one, and then you’d bet four or five hundred on him, win, and there was your money for keeping seven horses in good shape for a couple months anyway.

Course you had four or five people bet a hundred each so the big take wasn’t so obvious, and you had to move your horse around to different tracks all the time, which we did anyway, and you had to talk down his workouts if they were too good, and maybe once in a while you let him Place in a couple races or Show a couple times, so people didn’t get suspicious, when actually Old Perry could have won every race he ran at those second-rate tracks, and I always thought he could win at the best tracks, but Jackie said he couldn’t and was just a damn good bill payer.

But it still hurt me. I couldn’t ever look Old Perry in the eye after a race, even if he won, because I’d ridden him some mornings when he felt so strong and smooth and powerful and came in way under his fastest official time, close to the track record, and I would tell Jackie, though I didn’t have to because he was there most of the time watching it happen. But he would say, “No, we can’t ever let him race like that or we’ll be in big trouble.”

And that’s also why Jackie named him Old Perry (he’s only three now) because when people saw that Old they backed off, because old means slow, right? Most people are so damn stupid and superstitious, including horse people, you can scare’em off easy. They don’t take the time to really look at a horse. If they’d ever really looked at Old Perry they would have seen he was good, because sometimes people who really knew horses would watch him work and say to me, “Man, that’s some animal. Wonder why he doesn’t win? No guts, huh?” Which would hurt me.

But Jackie had a point because you had to have a really good horse, a winner, if you were gonna put down a big chunk of cash so you could keep your operation going. And Old Perry was perfect for that. He’s a real big horse and bettors don’t like real big horses in low stakes races. They like peppy little horses that come out snorting. And Old Perry walks with his head hung low, which bettors hate. And he always had a geek for a jockey because Jackie wouldn’t put anybody good on him or word would have spread fast how good he really was.

He ran thirty-two races as a two-year-old, which was crazy for an animal that fine, but he did, and we bet him to win in seven races and he won all of’em easy. I know because I was that geek jockey and I was holding him back even when he won.

But it got to hurt me so much I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I’d keep Floss up late, talking to her, whining actually, and she’d try to calm me down by making love to me, but I couldn’t even do that after a while because Old Perry and Jackie were screwing me up so bad.

So I decided to let him go in his first three-year-old race, even though Jackie told me to hold him. That was in May at Golden Gate fields, last race of the day. I’ll never forget that race. Triple Jump, a big black monster from New Zealand was the heavy favorite and Jackie thought this would be a good race to bring Old Perry in second and maybe we’d win a little cash that way without wrecking the long-shot buildup. But I told Floss to bet a hundred on Old Perry to Win since I knew Jackie was betting a hundred on him to Place and the damn odds were thirty to one before the race and jumped to forty-five to one at post time because nobody there had seen him run, so nobody bet on him at all.

I swear to God I just let him do whatever he wanted. Didn’t whip him, didn’t push him, but I didn’t hold him back and he won by twenty-five lengths and came within a half-second of breaking the track record, which we coulda massacred if I’d even touched him a little.

Naturally Jackie was pissed. He was pissed when he got the purse check for five thousand and even more pissed when I gave him four thousand more and he was really pissed when the reporters came around and asked him how it felt to have a turkey like Old Perry win at forty-five to one odds. He tried, oh God he tried to smile for them, but he couldn’t, and if he’d killed me that night I would have been surprised.

Next day he calls me in and says, “Listen you little shit, if you ever do that again I’m gonna kick your butt so hard you’ll never sit on a horse again.” Then he scrunched up his ugly face like he does so you don’t know if he’s in pain or just pissed and says, “Jimmy, I wish I could make you understand about that horse. He’s gonna keep us in chips for a long time, and we can’t screw that up. He can’t ever make us rich, but he can keep us going.” Then he stalked around the stall (his office was always a stall he fixed up) and he says, “Cause if he wins too much down here, I gotta move him up, right? If I move him up, I gotta pay more to enter him, keep him, insure him, everything…and he ain’t gonna win up there. He’s a good horse, Jimmy, but he’s not a great horse, and we can’t take any chances because I might never find such a sure thing again in my life.”

And that’s when I saw for the first time that Jackie actually thought Old Perry might be a great horse, but he was afraid to admit it because he was scared shitless of winning big. Which is true of lots of little time trainers. And Jackie was definitely in the little time habit. He was a sweet guy, but he just never saw himself as quite good enough for anything. That’s why he got divorced three times, because his women got sick of him not liking himself. That was pretty obvious.

And so here was this horse that was really something, that Jackie and I had made into whatever he was, that even a two-bit, too tall, scaredy-cat jock like me could win with, and Jackie didn’t have the balls to try with him.

So I said it wouldn’t happen again and then I went out and ran a couple of our nags and tried to figure out how I was gonna convince Jackie to let that horse really run. And then as I was going by Witherspoon’s fancy pants part of the facility, I realized maybe Jackie was right. You get a champion or a near champion and you’re suddenly talkin’ huge operating fees. Which I knew we could win by betting on Old Perry, except it’s crazy to bet much on your own horses. Nobody stays in business for long betting heavy on their own horses. I mean you bet a little, naturally, because that’s what it’s all about in a way, but you’re not supposed to bet big, whatever big means to you, except we were betting our own horses, Old Perry in particular, which is why, I guess, we were considered scum by the class trainers. They looked down on us so much they didn’t even think about trying to buy Old Perry, either outright or in a claiming race.

So then I figured, who cares, I’d let him win again the next race and see what Jackie did then. Except two days later, Jackie told me he wanted me to win, that he’d entered Old Perry in a big purse race and we were gonna load the windows, too.

I was high as a kite for the rest of the week, and the night before the race I took Floss out to dinner and to a show and the next morning early I went to see my horse, to work him light before the race that evening, and he was sick. I checked him over and could see he’d been doped, and I just wanted to kill Jackie.

But I didn’t say anything because we still had thirteen hours until the race, so I got Floss to stay with him so Jackie couldn’t give him anything else, and I got Pike over. Pike wouldn’t tell on a doped horse but sure knew how to undope a horse if anybody could. He gave Old Perry something to make him piss extra and something else that made him shit extra, and then I gave him a long walk and chanced a little more water than usual, and by race time he wasn’t perfect but he was okay, pissing steadily, all the way out into the paddock.

And Jackie was there acting like nothing had happened. I tried to ignore him while he saddled Old Perry, but I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to be there. He was whistling, making wisecracks, pretending not to see the horse wasn’t lookin’ so good. I coulda killed him.

Then I got on and we got out on the track and I wondered if we’d cleaned out most of the dope. And then I thought to myself What kind of a man would poison his own horse just to keep a dumb jock from letting him win? I mean I knew I was important to Jackie. I’d been with him for six years. He liked me and he needed me because I was a jockey/trainer/stable boy/everything sorta guy, and me and Floss were just about all the family he had. But still, what was he trying to prove? That he was boss? Was he trying to put me down so I wouldn’t buck him anymore? He must have known I knew he’d doped my horse. I couldn’t figure him out.

But anyway, there we were out on the track, and I was thinking as I headed Old Perry down to the starting gate, Holy shit, I’m in a serious horse race. It hadn’t even occurred to me how big a race this was. I hadn’t ever ridden against horses like those. Blue Light, Queen’s Four, Cat’s Eye. A damn fast field. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been out there at all because I was a hack. I knew horses and I could feel their moods, but my body was all wrong and I couldn’t move with the horse the way the real artists do, the real pros.

And then I had to swallow to keep from crying, thinking about how if Old Perry hadn’t been doped I mighta had a chance against those bastards. Might, but now I didn’t because he’d been doped, and I hated Jackie and cursed him and cursed his rotten soul that he would do that to a good animal like Old Perry and to me and to Floss. I hated him and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do well, how much I wanted Old Perry to run a proud race and not to fall. Please God, I prayed, don’t let my horse fall, and for a minute I thought about pulling him out of the race, because I’d seen horses fall and later on found out they’d been doped.

So I did something I’d never done before and something that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a good reason for doing it. I reined him in and got off out there on the backstretch and I looked him over. I looked him in the eyes and in the mouth and patted him and checked for shivers or anything that might have told me he was too sick to run. But he looked okay. He usually looked great, but at least he looked okay and I knew he wouldn’t fall.

And even though he hesitated a little as we came into the gate, something he’d never done before, I knew he’d make a good run, maybe not a great run, but he’d get around okay and then I’d go into Jackie’s office and I’d say, “Go to hell you rotten bastard. Go to hell and goodbye.” Because Floss and I could get work somewhere else, and I might even report him and try to get Old Perry taken away from him so the horse would have the chance to be the horse I thought he might be.

But then for the few seconds before the race I tried to clear my brain of all my bad thoughts. That’s something Floss and I learned from this book on meditation. I got really calm and relaxed and I looked up at the stands full of people and colors and looked down the row at the other jocks, all so flashy and colorful, and I looked for beauty, like the book said to, and I saw it everywhere, and then I looked down at Old Perry, at his beautiful brown skin, and I patted him and squeezed him with my legs and felt the miracle of life rush through me, and then the bell sounded and we flew out of the gate and we didn’t touch ground for a long time.

The whole first half of the race was like that—floating, flying, and I felt stoned, like all the energy of the lights shining down was being concentrated into me and into Old Perry and the race seemed like a fantastic dream, at least the first half of it.

But then I came out of the dream and saw where I was, a tight third, right on Cat’s Eye’s tail, and Lobato was holding the Cat back a length behind Blue Light, just waiting for the home stretch to take it. And I could feel Old Perry working, struggling to get into his rhythm, but not really being able to because he just didn’t feel fine to himself. Which is when I got mad again, thinking how we hadn’t let this horse be himself, and I wasn’t allowed to be myself and Floss wasn’t herself and Jackie wasn’t himself and almost nobody was themselves because we’re all playing these shitty games to win, to pay bills, to not be ourselves because for some stupid reason we’re afraid. And I got so mad, I just went crazy and laid the crop on harder than I ever have and I could feel Old Perry brace against the blows because he didn’t like that, didn’t ever need it, but I needed it and I couldn’t hit myself, not then anyway.

But then we started to move and we seemed to lock into Cat’s Eye’s pace as we slid by Blue Light together, like a matched pair, and it wasn’t like we were trading the lead, we were sharing it, moving step for step perfectly down the run and I didn’t whip Old Perry anymore because I could feel he was locked into that other horse and all we had to do was run that last two hundred yards—no, not run, fly, because we were flying and it was like a dream again and I didn’t even feel it when we touched down. So I guess I didn’t really have to, but right at the end I touched him a little and he moved ahead by a length at the wire, just so there wouldn’t be any question.

And as I stood up in the stirrups as we slowed on the turn, I thought Holy shit, we won. Old Perry and I won. And all the bastards in the world couldn’t undo that.

But you want to talk about a surprise. When I rode Old Perry into that winner’s circle and Jackie was there crying his eyes out and hugged that horse and looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, we did it! You were right!” I about fell off. Because he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t bullshitting. He didn’t know about the dope.

Later on we put it together that somebody from one of the class acts must have doped Old Perry so we’d yank him. It figured because since he almost broke the track record a few days before, they knew he had a chance to win and that must have screwed up somebody’s big plans.

So I worried for a while they’d try to poison him, and me and Floss slept down there with Old Perry for a few weeks after. But we stopped doing that after a while, after he won three more races. And he hasn’t lost since. He’s too well known now for somebody to poison him.

Sure sometimes I wish I was racing him still, but I know if he’s gonna be as great as he can be then we’ve got to have a great jock riding him. I still run him in the morning and walk him and groom him and talk to him, cause he likes me and I can look him right in the eye now and say, “We really are what we are Old Perry. We might lose tomorrow, but not on purpose.”

Inside Moves Miracles

Monday, March 20th, 2017

inside moves cover

Inside Moves Pharos Edition 

I began writing the novel that would become Inside Moves in 1974, when the United States was on the verge of withdrawing from Vietnam. I was twenty-five and living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon, buoyed by my first ever sale of a short story. My rent was thirty dollars a month, so nine hundred dollars from Cosmopolitan magazine for a fanciful tale about a female boxer was a vast fortune and gave me time to write two novels and several short stories before the cosmic largesse ran out.

The voice that spoke Inside Moves to me was that of a young American man wounded and disabled in Vietnam. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, showed the manuscript to thirteen publishers over the course of two years. Several of the first twelve editors who read the book declared Inside Moves a narrative tour de force, yet felt the story was “an impossible sell.” Cripples and Vietnam were not considered commercially viable in those days.

Miracle #1: In 1977, Sherry Knox, a young editor at Doubleday, bought Inside Moves. My advance, minus Dorothy’s commission, was thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, which money lifted me out of dire poverty into functional poverty.

When I had rewritten the book to Sherry’s satisfaction, and my brother Steve came up with the stellar title to replace my original title, The Gimp, Doubleday decided to kill Inside Moves before publication—common practice for large publishers when the Sales Department decides not to support a book.

However, to minimally fulfill their contractual obligations, Doubleday listed the book at the back of their Spring catalogue with this briefest of descriptors: “Inside Moves: story of friendship between two men in San Francisco bar, basketball sub-plot.”

Miracle #2: As Inside Moves was about to vanish without a trace, an editor named Bill Contardi at the paperback house New American Library read the brief descriptor in the Doubleday catalogue and asked to see the manuscript. He loved the book, showed it to NAL editor-in-chief Elaine Koster, and she offered Doubleday 100,000 dollars for the paperback rights.

Miracle #3: When Dorothy called with news of the paperback offer, I was quite ill and in a very dark mood. Rather than rejoicing (I would get half of that 100 thousand dollars) I said, “Did they show it to other paperback houses? According to my contract, they’re supposed to.”

Dorothy said, “Dahlin (she was from Georgia), this is a mahvelous offer.”

And I said, “They were going to kill the book. They should at least show it to other paperback houses. Maybe there will be a bidding war.”

Dorothy reluctantly relayed my wishes to Doubleday. Moments later, some corporate honcho called to berate me for not taking this wonderful offer, and I explained to him that I knew very well Sales had intended to kill the book, and since I might never get another chance with a New York publisher, I wanted them to show Inside Moves to other paperback houses.

Miracle #4: So the honcho called Elaine Koster and asked for a few more days to consider her offer, and she countered with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 150,000 dollars and the promise of a big bonus if a movie was made. Dorothy begged me to accept the offer, so I did.

Miracle #5: Two weeks later, Bob Evans, having recently produced Chinatown, The Godfather, and Love Story, optioned the book for Paramount Pictures. I was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Bob Evans in his mansion where he informed me he wanted me to rewrite the entire novel per his directions. He wanted to eliminate the Vietnam connection and not have so many disabled characters. I refused. He was not happy.

Bob Evans then hired Barry Levinson (before he became a famous director) and Valerie Curtin (then married to Barry) to write a screenplay based on the book. They changed the narrator from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, but were otherwise faithful to the heart of the book, and Bob Evans subsequently dropped the project.

Miracle #6: In 1979, Dick Donner, fresh from directing Superman I (and before he made his Lethal Weapon movies), made the movie of Inside Moves with independent money. Beautifully filmed by László Kovács, the movie stars John Savage, David Morse (his first role) and Diana Scarwid, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Inside Moves.

Sudden Cessation of Miracles: The company that owned the distribution rights to Inside Moves went bankrupt just as the film was being released in 1980, resulting in Inside Moves having an extremely limited theatrical run. And though the mass-market paperback of Inside Moves eventually sold 150 thousand copies, and I subsequently published four more works of fiction with four different publishers, all four books were abandoned by Sales prior to publication and I became persona non grata in the world of mainstream publishing.

Resumption of Miracles with Miracle #7: Thirty years after the original publication of Inside Moves, I got an email from the man in charge of preparing the DVD release of the movie Inside Moves for Lionsgate Entertainment. His name was Cliff Stephenson. At first I thought the email was a joke, but it was not. Shortly after I responded to Cliff’s inquiry, Cliff and an excellent cinematographer, David Chan, drove from Los Angeles to Mendocino to interview me about how the novel Inside Moves became a movie.

But more interesting to me than how Inside Moves came to be a film was the story of how this DVD project came about after the movie Inside Moves had been unavailable for nearly thirty years. Cliff told me that Dick Donner had long wanted to release Inside Moves (his favorite of his movies) in DVD, but was never able to untangle the corporate mess and discover who actually owned the film. When it was finally determined that the movie was owned by a British conglomerate, Lionsgate got the rights to bring out a DVD version of the movie.

Miracle #8: Initially, Lionsgate planned to find a serviceable VHS copy of Inside Moves, transfer that copy to DVD, and bring the movie out with no extras. However, Cliff’s wife worked for Lionsgate, knew of Cliff’s love of Donner’s films, and asked Cliff if he wanted to oversee the DVD project. He said he would love to helm the project, and when he saw the quality of the VHS copy they were going to use, he felt Donner would be outraged.

So Cliff undertook a search for a good 35-millimeter print of the movie, and one was eventually found in a vault in England—not a perfect print, but far better than any VHS copy. This film was transferred to DVD and Cliff convinced Lionsgate to let him create extra matter exploring how the movie went from book to screenplay to film.

As Cliff assembled this material, Lionsgate got more enthusiastic about the project, and on February 3, 2009, they released a snazzier product than originally planned—from which I earned not a penny. About fifteen minutes of my ninety-minute interview appears in the Extra Matter on the DVD of Inside Moves.

Miracle #9: A few months after Cliff came to interview me, I was walking on Big River Beach in Mendocino and bumped into Larry Bauman, owner with his wife Margie of Redwood Audio Books. I told him of the impending revival of the movie of Inside Moves and he said if I would make an audio version of the book, Redwood Audio would release it through Audible and other audio book sites. So I went into Peter Temple’s recording studio in Albion, had a great time reading aloud the novel I wrote when I was a young man, and the audio version of Inside Moves was born.

Miracle #10: Three years later, in 2012, I was minding my own business and writing yet another fabulous novel no publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole (I have eight such novels ready to go if you are a bold and prescient publisher), when I got an email from someone named Harry Kirchner. He said he was launching a line of books called Pharos Editions. The premise of Pharos Editions is to reissue long-out-of-print books that currently well-known authors feel deserve to be published anew. Once Harry secures the rights to publish such a book, the well-known author writes an introduction for that favorite book and lends his or her name to the reissue.

Harry’s email did not name which of my novels he was interested in, nor did he name the famous author involved, but during our first phone conversation he revealed that the marvelous Sherman Alexie was keen to have Inside Moves reissued and would write an introduction and have his name on the cover with mine.

So in 2013, Inside Moves, the novel, was born anew in a lovely quality paperback edition. Sherman’s intro is funny and flattering, though I wish he had written what he told an audience in Seattle at the launching of the Pharos line. He said his father gave him a paperback of Inside Moves when he, Sherman, was fifteen, and he has since read the book twenty times.

In the copy of Inside Moves he signed for me, Sherman wrote, “I am honored to be a part of the reissue. This book was formative in my life.”

Miracle #11: As a result of connecting with Harry Kirchner regarding Inside Moves, Harry convinced Counterpoint Press to bring out a beautiful paperback edition of my collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup in 2016.

Possible Miracle #12: I recently had an inquiry about the remake rights to Inside Moves. I do not own those rights, but a new movie of the book would be most appreciated by this author.

Monsieur Russell

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Mark & Todd  Yosemite c 1961

Todd and Mark circa 1961 photo courtesy of Mark Russell

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

My friend Mark Russell recently sent me a photograph taken fifty-four years ago at a pullout on the Tioga Road halfway between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—a spectacular shot of the Sierras, the deep blue sky awash in billowy white and gray clouds, Lake Tenaya shining in the distance.

Mark is thirteen in the picture, I am twelve, and we are on our way with our fathers to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake, there to fish for trout and commune with the nature spirits. In this picture, I am a few inches taller than Mark and we are both skinny boys on the cusp of becoming young men.

Two years later, Mark and his family moved away and I would not see him again for twelve years. I had gone to New York to meet my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman in-person for the first time, and to lunch with the three magazine editors—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Gallery—Dorothy had convinced to buy one or more of my short stories. I was funding my excursion with money earned from landscaping a freeway overpass in Medford, Oregon, and on a whim, I called Mark’s parents in Connecticut, they gave me Mark’s phone number in South Carolina, and I called him to see if I might come for a visit.

I had no idea what Mark had been up to since I last saw him, but I remembered him as funny, friendly, extremely creative, and adventurous, and I wanted to see him again. In junior high school, we played baseball and football and basketball together, and he helped me live through the tedious classroom hours by passing me brief little stories he’d written about naughty children doing silly and gross things, and I would nearly bust a gut trying to contain my laughter until class ended. Thus I thought of him as a fellow writer, which was what I aspired to be.

A woman with a strong southern accent answered the phone, I told her I was an old friend of Mark’s, Todd Walton, and she went to fetch him. A moment later, Mark came on the line, his voice an octave lower than when I had last heard him speak. “Todd Walton. I was just thinking about you.”

A couple weeks later, I detrained in Camden, South Carolina late at night and was met at the station by Mark and his beautiful wife Carrie, Mark sporting a dark brown beard and towering over me. He had married into a family of folks who raised horses, and he and his wife lived with his wife’s sister and mother on two thousand acres of woods and meadows and swamps. Mark had become a maker of fine wood furniture, and I ended up staying with him and his wonderful family for a few glorious weeks in November before I headed back to California.

The climax of my visit was attending The Colonial Cup, a famous steeplechase, where I ended up betting on the winner, a spectacular horse named Grand Canyon, and I won a couple hundred dollars. I might have stayed with Mark and his family longer, but my mother called on Thanksgiving and asked me to fly to Palm Springs to take care of my grandparents who were reeling from the suicide of their son, my Uncle Howard.

Thereafter, I heard little from Mark for several years, though I did get a letter from him saying he and his wife were now members of a Buddhist community in which the renowned teacher Pema Chödrön was a leading light. When the Canadian government granted permission for Pema and members of her community to immigrate to Nova Scotia, Mark and his wife moved there.

I’m not sure if Mark and Carrie had their two daughters before they moved to Canada or shortly thereafter, but two daughters they had, and now Mark is a grandfather. He also has a successful garlic and squash and kale farm called Garlic Mountain, lives in the second home he built since moving to Nova Scotia, raises fine horses with his wife, plays the banjo, and has built a number of spectacular wooden boats.

I know these things about Mark from a handful of letters and emails and photographs he has sent me over the years, and when Mark recently sent the picture of us when we were boys becoming men in the California Sierras in 1962, I fell into musing about why he was so important to me and why I have endeavored to stay in touch with him over all these many years despite the great distance between us.

Mark liked me and I liked him. He would come over for supper and to spend the night, and we would camp out under the old olive trees behind my parent’s house, build a fire, and talk about life and the myriad unsolvable mysteries. We went on long bicycle rides together, pushing the boundaries of our known worlds. Mark got me started collecting coins: pennies, nickels, and dimes, and I became fascinated with the history of money, which led me to reading about the history of everything else.

His parents were always kind to me and honored me for being who I was, and they laughed at the funny stories I told, whereas my own parents were routinely disapproving of me and disappointed I wasn’t more studious and academically ambitious.

Mark was an avid Dodgers fan, I a diehard Giants fan, yet our passion for baseball, our interest in the details of the game, was a bond. Mark loved Sandy Koufax, I loved Juan Marichal.

But transcendent of everything, I think, was that we found each other interesting and funny and thoughtful, and when one is eleven and twelve and thirteen, such a bond is golden. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years, but I have no doubt should we ever meet in the flesh again, we will have no end of things to talk and laugh about.

The New Yorker

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

 

 

Still Moving

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

selfport2

Todd self-portrait

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

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Mark Twain

If you find yourself in the village of Mendocino on Friday August 30 a few minutes before 6:30 PM, and you happen to be walking by Gallery Bookshop on Main Street, I do hope you’ll enter that oasis of three-dimensional books because I will be there talking about and reading from my recently reissued novel Inside Moves. Originally published thirty-five years ago, my first novel has been out-of-print for thirty-two years, and this wholly unexpected revival has inspired in me myriad dreams and memories, some of which I hope to share with whoever shows up to listen.

“Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” Kahil Gibran

I wrote Inside Moves in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended, the novel’s narrator a young veteran wounded and disabled in that war. I was spared from military service by a medical condition, ankylosing spondylitis, and when the book was published in 1978 I wondered if I would be taken to task for daring to write in the voice of someone who had been in combat when I had not. But just the opposite occurred, and I met many veterans who loved the book, in part because they saw themselves in the narrator and felt empowered by his story. Many people with disabilities were also pleased to have one of their own as a narrator, and when the movie based on the novel came out in 1980, though not a box office success, it was quite popular among the disabled and remains so to this day.

The folks who made the movie of Inside Moves, despite my many protests, changed Roary, the teller of the tale, from a man crippled by war to a failed suicide, and I heard from several veterans who were outraged by that change. I remember in particular a man I’d hired to do some hauling for me around the time the movie came out, an immensely strong man who had miraculously survived several harrowing fire fights in Vietnam and had read my book many times. The day after he saw the film, he came to visit me and tearfully asked why they had changed what for him was the most important aspect of the book. I tried to explain as best I could, but he left me saying, “Maybe someday they’ll make it again and get it right.”

 “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

An original work of art is a wild thing, and once that wild thing goes out into the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what that wild thing will do and how that wild thing will interact with other things in this mysterious universe.

The new edition of Inside Moves was published because when Sherman Alexie, the charming and famous author who chose the book to be reissued, was fifteen, his father gave him a paperback edition of the book and, as Sherman wrote in the copy of the new edition he signed for me, “This book was formative in my life.” In a panel discussion in Seattle celebrating the launch of Pharos Editions, of which the new edition of Inside Moves was among their first titles, Alexie said he has read Inside Moves more than twenty times; and in his introduction to the new edition, he calls the book, “the best novel about basketball ever written.”

Having labored in obscurity for all but a few moments of my life, I find such praise from the likes of Sherman Alexie quite surreal. I’ll take it, of course, and rejoice that my work had a positive impact on such a good and renowned writer, but with my literary career reduced to making photocopies of my last several creations so I can share them with a handful of interested readers, and with publishers large and small universally indifferent to me, I cannot help feeling somewhat removed from the writer Alexie is referring to.

His love of the book reminds me that teenagers adore Inside Moves. During the few years when the book was widely available, I received letters from junior high and high school teachers all over the country telling me that Inside Moves was the first book that many of their students had ever eagerly read and written about. One teacher sent me the first two chapters of a novel that two boys, theretofore troublemakers and non-readers, had written together in the voice of Roary—an ambitious attempt at a sequel to Inside Moves. I do hope the new edition will be discovered and utilized by English teachers, for Roary connects exceedingly well with rebels and outcasts and those who feel misunderstood, which most of us at one time or another feel we are.

As it happens, I did write a sequel to Inside Moves in 1985 entitled Still Moving that was almost but never published, and I doubt very much I have a copy. I wrote that book hoping to restart my faltering career, and I think it likely I destroyed the manuscript some years later in one of my raging attempts to exorcise my unhappy past. I suppose there might be a copy lurking in one of those boxes filled with heaps of my unpublished work, but I fear I would find the sequel dreadful—a reflection of my life at that time.

“One of the most feared expressions in modern time is ‘The computer is down.’” Norman Augustine

Another of the many things that Inside Moves brings to mind is the writing of books before the advent of personal computers. I wrote three drafts of the novel longhand and three typed drafts, and my redoubtable agent Dorothy Pittman showed the book to thirteen publishers over the course of two years (in a time when simultaneous submissions to multiple publishers was verboten) until Sherry Knox, a rookie editor at Doubleday convinced her powerful editor-in-chief Betty Prashker to take a chance on the book. I then wrote two revised drafts in longhand and two typed drafts before the manuscript was ready to be copyedited.

Say what one will, pro or con, about the quality of literature since the advent of writing and editing on computer screens, but the lack of such groovy technology eliminated a good 99% of would-be writers from the field and selected for seriously dedicated wannabes as opposed to everyone and her uncle. Writing a novel in those pre-computer days was a hugely daunting undertaking, and when the writer was done he could not click a mouse and email a PDF hither and yon or self-kindleize or any such thing, and so most people, even many of those who burned with desire to be writers, did not set forth on that perilous path.

In those days before the advent of personal computers and laser printers, I never met a single person who thought she could write a novel without first learning to write a good short story. Today there are millions of people who think they can write novels without being able to write proper paragraphs. The mind, my mind at least, boggles at such monumental delusion, yet the world is awash in unreadable books born of such delusion, many of which are for sale in your local bookstore. What a woild!

“Even in a perfect world

Where everyone was equal,

I’d still own the film rights

And be working on the sequel.” Elvis Costello

“Still writing?” people are forever asking me, even people who should know better. And then they smile wistfully, their wistfulness suggesting they know of my long running lack of commercial success and the hopelessness, as far as they are concerned, of my situation.

“Yes,” I say, smiling bravely. “Seems to be my habit now, kin to breathing and sleeping and eating. And farting.”

“Good for you,” they say, for they wish to be encouraging and positive, though they really think I ought to give up writing and focus on growing especially fat carrots or something along those more edible lines. After all, how many unpublished works does one need to create before one finally…

But what they don’t realize is that I write with the firm belief that my work is so good, so interesting, so timely, and so important, in some unfathomable way, that I must keep writing, and the world will somehow some day be compelled to take notice. One might argue that I am as delusional as those who think they can write novels without knowing how to write proper paragraphs, but I would argue that since I do know how to write proper paragraphs, I am not entirely delusional.

What I do know is that the trouble begins at Gallery Books on August 30, 6:30 PM. Remember: it is never too early to sock away a few Christmas gifts, signed by the author, and it is always a good time to support your local bookstore, that rare and vanishing species of place we really don’t want to do without.

Inside Moves is also available as a downloadable audio book and in various e-formats.

My Big Trip, Part Three

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso

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

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare

My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.

In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.

We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”

I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.

Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.

When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?

Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”

“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”

“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”

“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”

“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”

“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill

Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.

I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.

The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.

 As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.

I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.

So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.

One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”

A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”

“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”

“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”

So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.

“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”

“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”

fin

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.

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.

Helen Gurley Brown

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Photo of 1978 Cosmopolitan by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

“How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.” Helen Gurley Brown

Why am I writing about Helen Gurley Brown, famed editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and a champion of sexual freedom or a promoter of sexual enslavement, depending on your particular socio-political orientation? Well, because Helen Gurley Brown just died at the age of ninety, and though many people consider her a traitor to feminism, and many others see her as a pioneering feminist and social revolutionary, Helen was one of the very few magazine editors in America in the 1970’s and 80’s who would publish my short stories about the challenges facing men and women in the chaos of sexual and social change that arrived with the birth control pill and the dawn of the feminist epoch; thus I have no doubt about where I stand regarding Ms. Brown’s place in the history of psycho-sexual discourse.

Ironically, or appropriately, I intended all eight of my stories that were eventually published in Cosmopolitan to be published in other magazines, notably Esquire and The New Yorker, for I did not read Cosmopolitan or have any great desire to be published therein. But I was not famous, nor was I a member of the literary society with access to the editors of those seemingly more sophisticated magazines, and so despite the valiant efforts of my incomparable literary agent Dorothy Pittman, I was never able to publish a story in either Esquire or The New Yorker, though we received many flattering rejection letters from editors at both magazines.

The very first short story I ever sold for actual money (as opposed to the mere glory of seeing my name in print) was to Cosmopolitan in 1975 for the staggering sum of one thousand dollars, with ten per cent of that fortune going to Dorothy. In one fell swoop I was lifted out of poverty, for in those days my monthly nut was seventy-five dollars: thirty dollars rent (I was living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon), thirty dollars for food, fifteen dollars for everything else. One day I was surviving on rice and beans and barely making ends meet with minimum wage work, the next day I was writing full-time and buying the occasional chicken to round out my menu.

Naively, I thought the publication of Willow, a provocative tale of a woman boxer who gets a shot at the male welterweight crown, would quickly be followed by more sales to Cosmopolitan and other magazines, but the gods did not so smile on me again until those nine hundred dollars were long gone and I had moved to Medford, Oregon to work as a landscaper. But oh how I relished that year of unfettered scribbling, a twelvemonth that saw the completion of my novel The Gimp that would be published three years later as Inside Moves, which publication procured for me a few more years to concentrate entirely on my writing and music.

And so I owe my fleeting success as a writer to Helen Gurley Brown, who, lest we forget, published her wildly successful and influential book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Ms. Brown is also widely acknowledged as the first editor of a mainstream women’s magazine to publish frank discussions about sex and sexuality as ongoing centerpieces of her editorial content. Speaking of which, in honor of Helen Gurley Brown, I unearthed my cache of ancient Cosmos so I might revive herein my story Annihilation, published in the American Cosmopolitan in 1982 and subsequently reprinted in the Australian and Italian editions of that fabled rag.

ANNIHILATION

“Annihilate me,” Alana whispered.

He tried to annihilate her. He tried to be brutish. He had to think of things that made him angry. Income tax. His alcoholic father. Alana’s former lover. He began to lose his erection. He opened his eyes, looked at her belly, her taut little breasts, her dark honey hair, her pleasure-wracked face. He was renewed, yet filled with feelings of tenderness.

“You were marvelous,” she said afterward.

“Thank you,” he said, unable to look her in the eye. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said.

“How am I being silly?”

“Love,” she said, shrugging. “We’re animals. The real pleasure comes when we don’t try to tame the animal with ideas. Just take me. That’s all I want sexually.”

“Which animals are we?” he asked. “Lion, tiger, hippopotamus, bullfrog?”

“Don’t spoil it,” she said, getting out of bed. “Just be the animal you are. And be wild.”

“I cannot be wild on command,” he said to his psychiatrist.

The doctor smiled over her glasses at him. “I like that. Would you mind very much if I used that? For my book?”

“Not at all,” he said. “Glad to be of assistance.”

“That’s one of the big problems, isn’t it?” she said, nodding. “I call it feminist backlash. They finally get the gentle, caring person they were so adamant a man should be, and they find him inadequate. They want what they were lobbying against. To a certain extent.”

“And the solution?”

“Be yourself.”

“And lose Alana?”

“Or lose yourself. And here you are just discovering what that is.”

“Do you wish for annihilation in sex?”

“I really don’t think it appropriate…”

“Sorry,” he said, biting his thumbnail. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Over breakfast one morning.

Alana: You were…you took so long. (A quick smile) I loved every minute of it, but I was wondering if…

Him: If what?

Alana: If you enjoyed it.

Him: Every minute of it. Though I must admit that lately I worry about…

Alana: You worry too much. Everything is fine. Isn’t it?

Him: Is it?

Alana: Of course it is. What’s wrong?

Him: (Blurting it out) Am I wild enough? Do I annihilate you adequately?

Alana: Yes. I was a fool to have ever started talking about it. Forgive me?

Him: Yes, if you’ll forgive me.

(She rises, goes to him, undoes her bathrobe, and cradles his head against her breasts.)

His friend Arthur, a notorious rogue, sat across the table from him at Chez Annihilation and gave him a rundown on the week’s activities.

“Monday night I destroyed the little brunette who sells skin cream. Massacred her.”

“Tuesday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Tennis for two hours. Early to bed. Saving myself.”

“For?”

“My day off Wednesday. Bombarded Sarah from nine till noon. Then, finally made it with You Know Who in the late afternoon. Decimated her.”

“Dare I ask about yesterday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Stayed in bed last night. Watched television. Great National Geographic show—Life and Death in Africa.”

“Anything on for tonight?”

“What’s Alana doing?” He laughed.

“Leave her annihilation to me, please.”

“It’s depressing,” he said, turning to the woman beside him at the bar.

“That’s an interesting opening line,” she said, winking. “But tell me, how did you know I was a neurotic?”

“Four gin and tonics at three in the afternoon?”

“I might just be an alcoholic.”

“True,” he said.

“What’s depressing?”

“The whole notion of sexual annihilation.”

“Nihilism?”

“Annihilation.”

“Ooh,” she cooed, her eyelids fluttering. “Sounds divine.” She moved closer. “You’re quite attractive, you know.”

“Why?”

“Well, among other things, you have very nice eyes.”

“No, why does annihilation sound divine?”
“Because to be annihilated is to be totally lost, and we only totally lose ourselves when we let go of everything, and we can only really let go when we are overwhelmed, when we simply lack the strength to defend ourselves, and have no choice. The decision is made for us by the overwhelmer. We escape our fears by becoming our fears. Ecstasy through annihilation.”

“You say that with such sureness,” he said.

“I know when I’m happy.”

That evening.

Him: (As he takes the glass of wine from her) Alana, have you ever…that is, since we began sleeping together, have you ever wanted another man?

Alana: (Eyeing him suspiciously) Have you?

Him: I prefer females.

Alana: Other females?

Him: I asked you first. Have you…

Alana: Of course. But as Mae West used to say, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, just so long as you eat at home.”

Him: And where exactly do you get your appetite?

Alana: At the movies, in the car, when I close my eyes, when I see you, when I don’t see you, when I look at pictures of naked women, when I…

Him: Really? Naked women?

Alana: Naked women. There is nothing so erotic as a beautiful naked woman.

Him: Naked men?

Alana: In my mind, yes. And you. Otherwise no.

Him: Why naked women?

Alana: Perhaps by seeing an idealized picture of myself, posed ideally, I can more easily see the ways in which a man might…

Him: Annihilate you.

(Alana closes her eyes, sighs deeply.)

Annihilate: To reduce to nothing; to cause to cease to exist; to destroy completely; to exterminate.

Professor Cardin was speaking on the sexual basis of war.

“Long ago,” began the professor, addressing a full house, “the connection between fighting and mating was obvious. One had to win a mate. Not only did one have to defeat other males, but the female had to be subdued, too. This is genetic reality.”

Several women in the audience booed.

“I am not saying that this need be manifested in a purely physical way. Courtship, after all, can be largely non-violent, but consummation must be satisfactory, and this usually calls for a modicum of physical strength.”

Several women in the audience applauded.

“With the advent of a social order wherein weak, as well as strong, individuals could survive, the population began to expand at the phenomenal rate that continues to this day. Yet, the genetic need to conquer, especially that need in the more aggressive males and in females wanting those males, began to manifest in warfare.”

Several men in the audience booed.

“Yes, gentlemen. It is threatening to realize that the major wars throughout history have been fought because of the inadequate sexual identities of a handful of men.”

Several more men in the audience booed.

“Furthermore, we stand on the brink of complete annihilation because a handful of sexually frustrated old men with severe personality disorders hold the reins of power in this country and abroad. What should be a fierceness and physicality in bed is transmuted into bullying and genocide on a global scale.”

Several people in the audience applauded.

“The solution may be in a true sexual revolution. One in which the frequency of intercourse becomes as important as the orgasm.”

The audience reaction was greatly mixed.

“Well,” said his mother, serving him a bowl of ice cream. “When are you planning to have some kids? Soon, I hope.”

“Kids are not so much the issue,” he said.

“No. What is?”

“Well, I’m not so sure I’m giving her what she wants.”

“You’re speaking of sex?”

“Not sex so much as the kind of sex.”

She sighed, then sat down and shook her head. “I never told you this, but your father…” She hesitated. “He was extremely tender when we made love.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He couldn’t help it. I learned to accept it.”

“You were taught to be accepting,” he said, pushing his ice cream away, his jaw tightening. “Times have changed.”

“Now,” said the instructor, a Burt Reynolds look alike, “hitting is not a good idea. However, shoving, grabbing, spanking, shaking, and pulling are all techniques we’ll be investigating and practicing.”

“What about verbal abuse?” someone asked.

“The entire third and fourth sessions are devoted to that,” said the instructor, nodding. “But the main thing we’ll be working on is attitude.” He pounded the blackboard with his fist. “The first thing I want to hammer into your heads is that through disdain and contempt, by learning to be an emotional brick wall, you’ll have women crawling all over you. It’s attitude, attitude, attitude.” He scowled. “Now, sure, some women want a little warmth, a little sibling give and take, but they’re the exceptions. You can handle the exceptions once you know the rules.”

He practically kicked the door down. He flung the flowers at her feet. As she knelt to pick them up, he placed a foot on her shoulder and pushed her onto her back. She looked up at him, her eyes filled with terror. He was undressing. She started to get up. He growled. She lay back down.

“Take off your clothes,” he whispered fiercely. She did. He dropped to his knees, took her roughly in his arms, and annihilated her.

“Darling,” she said in the darkness, “you exhaust me.”

“So?”

“I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said.

“Anything,” she said, pleading with him.

“Prove it,” he said. “Annihilate me.”

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