Posts Tagged ‘Inside Moves’

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

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

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty Years Ago

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

crossroads tw

Crossroads painting by Nolan winkler

I completed my novel Inside Moves in 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended. I had a medical deferment that saved me from going to that war. I lost friends to that needless conflagration and had friends who came back from those horrors emotionally disturbed. And long before the Vietnam War, my uncle Bob was severely disabled in a car accident, and spending time with him as a boy and a teenager was a huge influence on how I looked at the world.

Before I wrote Inside Moves, I lived in Santa Cruz and played music in a tavern in which one of the booths was reserved for a group of disabled men. I like them and they liked me, and I wrote a short story about them and then attempted without success to craft the story into a one-act play.

These were all antecedents to my writing Inside Moves, though the largest influence was being disabled as a teenager and spending half a year unable to walk and several years with terrible hip and back pain and a pronounced limp before regaining normal physical functioning in my late twenties.

I would like to share the opening chapter of Inside Moves with you. If I had not succeeded in publishing Inside Moves—a miraculous saga in itself—and if it had not been a modest success and made into a motion picture, I almost surely would not have had a career as a professional writer. The gods, I believe, wanted me to keep writing books and so engineered the unlikely process that brought Inside Moves to the world in 1978.

Reading these opening lines today, forty years after I wrote them, they feel as relevant to me today as they did in my youth when the voice of a man began to tell me this story and I wrote it down.

1.

My name is Roary and I’m the kind of person that scares people just looking like I do. I’m the kind of person people see coming and lots of times they’ll cross the street rather than walk by me, or if they do walk by me it’s quick and nervous, like they’d walk by a dog they weren’t sure of. I don’t blame them at all because I am pretty gross-looking and I walk funny because I’m a cripple.

I got hurt in Vietnam. This land mine blew a hole in my upper back and destroyed some vertebrae and part of my spinal cord and part of my brain. I was paralyzed for about a year. Then one day I was talking to this guy Schulz, who was just an orderly, and I told him I felt okay, that I was pretty sure I could walk and use my arms. Next thing I know, this psychiatrist is there telling me that I’ll just have to accept the fact that I’m gonna be paralyzed for life. He was trying to help me face reality, which I suppose was his job, but since I knew I could walk he just irritated me. Sometimes you just know something, no matter what anybody else tells you.

So I told him, “Really, Doctor, I can walk.” He’s a young guy, luckily, so he still has some energy and curiosity. He goes off to talk to a surgeon to find out if I can be disconnected from the bed and the tubes they had going into me. He wanted to let me try to move so I’d know I couldn’t, which he figured would help me accept my paralysis. So the surgeon comes back with the psychiatrist and a couple orderlies and couple nurses and some patients come in too. It was a big event. I could write a whole book on that hospital, but they’ve already written so many like it, there wouldn’t be much point.

The surgeon says go ahead, unhook him. The nurses pull my tubes and then very dramatically this one nurse throws back the covers and there I am in my crummy, piss-stained bedclothes. Nobody’s changed me in over a week. Like I said, I could write a book about that place, but don’t worry, I’m not going to. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

Anyway, after the surgeon says what a disgraceful situation it is, me not being changed and my tubes not functioning properly, and the nurses and orderlies get done passing the buck to some boy who works the graveyard shift, I swing my legs off the bed, push off with my hands and stand up for a few seconds before my legs, which I haven’t used in a year, give out and I sit back down on the bed.

I’d give a hundred dollars right now to have a picture of all those people staring at me.

But I can’t really blame them for not changing me. What difference does it make when you think somebody’s just a vegetable anyway. I was just a raspy voice coming out of a scarred up face to them. Most of them didn’t even know I had a body.

So that’s why I shuffle when I walk and why my head leans to the side a little. I grew a beard and let my hair get long because that covers the scars front and back, and also my head leaning isn’t so noticeable with all that hair. I guess I’m fat because when I’m lonely I tend to eat to fill in for whatever I’m lonely for. Sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes I just need somebody to talk to So I eat.

But I don’t want you to get the idea this book is about me, because it isn’t. It’s about Jerry, but I thought I’d better say something about myself so you’d know what kind of an angle you were getting. In a way, you’re getting a cripple angle, but then again I wasn’t born a cripple. There’s a big difference between a born cripple and somebody who gets crippled. The main difference seems to be how bitter they are. That isn’t always true, but take Jerry, he was born cripple and he’s the sweetest guy in the world. Me, I was born straight, played fullback in high school. Me, I’m bitter. I’m no sweetheart.

Cover Stories

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

idas2-cover-sm

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2015)

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.

Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.

Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.

Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.

Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”

“But why?”

“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”

Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”

“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”

“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”

The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.

Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…

Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.

The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com

LA Jewish Money

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Goody, Red, and William

My Grandmother Goody with Red Skelton and William Bendix

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“The argument that all Jews have a heartfelt investment in the state of Israel is untrue. Some have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches.” Judith Butler.

The Mendocino Film Festival took place these past two weekends and the little town was jumping with out-of-towners, some in the movie business, some wanting to be in the movie business, and some who enjoy watching movies on screens larger than postcards and wall calendars. Endemic rural funk collided with visiting urban slick, and being highly susceptible to ambivalent ambience, I avoided the commercial sector of town for most of the days the film festival was underway.

Didn’t I want to see the movies? Not really. The good documentaries are already, or soon will be, available to watch in the peaceful atmosphere of home, the fictional shorts shown at the festival are usually several years old and I’ve already seen the good ones, and listening to filmmakers pontificate about their creative processes makes my stomach gurgle, so no.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the film festival coming to town. I was involved in the movie business for several years in my salad days, and the vibe in the town when the film festival is underway brings back loads of good and bad memories from those tragi-comic years. For instance, on Saturday, in search of a good chicken to bake, I entered the Mendocino Market, a most excellent deli and sandwich shop across the street from the post office, and was greeted by an ambience I am deeply familiar with: LA Jewish Money.

I am Jewish, genetically speaking, and throughout my childhood I spent part of each summer with my Jewish grandparents, my mother’s parents, in Los Angeles. My grandparents were in the real estate business and many of their friends were in the real estate business and show business, those two enterprises conjoined since the birth of the film industry in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. LA Jewish Money was the primary fuel of the American movie industry in the twentieth century, both in Los Angeles and New York. Indeed, LA (and New York) Jewish money has been the primary fuel for all of show business, with much of that money coming from the fantastic profits accrued from buying and selling and developing real estate in the greater Los Angeles area (and Manhattan and Miami.)

Thus long before I became professionally entangled with Hollywood, I had listened to and partaken of hundreds of conversations in which Jewish men and women discussed life and business with a vocabulary and style and energy that evolved over decades of first and second and third generation American Jews settling in Los Angeles to partake of the land and movie gold rush that made Los Angeles into the vast city state it is today. Jewish money financed most of the movie studios, record companies, Broadway plays, television networks, television shows, and magazine and book publishers in America from 1900 until today—Facebook and Google the inventions of smart Jewish boys.

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Which is to say, when I walked into the Mendocino Market and found myself in the midst of a dozen gregarious young Jewish men and women, the men overweight and excited and funny, the women stylish and clever and droll, the air rich with frying pastrami accompanying those Los Angeles movie peeps buying bushels of cookies and wine and beer and chips and potato salad and pickled herring to go with their sandwiches, everyone talking loud and fast and sarcastically, I not only understood everything they were saying to each other, I recognized these young Jewish movie people as the great grandchildren, figuratively speaking, of the cohorts of my Jewish grandparents.

“Jews have a tendency to become comedians.” Sacha Baron Cohen

So if Jewish movie people are so smart and funny, why are American movies today so uniformly stupid and unfunny and downright bad? I think the answer lies in the word business. Artists tend to have little or no interest in business. And most good artists who become big successes have a businessperson taking care of business for them. If you are of my generation, you will remember when Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were major goddesses in the record business, but you may not know it was David Geffen who managed their careers and gave them the wherewithal to succeed. Business. LA Jewish Money.

Ergo: a good movie is a work of art, but the people in charge of financing and producing movies are concerned with profitability, not art. Thus a good movie is both a work of art and a miracle to emerge intact from the meat grinder of the ultra-commercial uncreative imitative movie business. This, I think, is the greatest irony about the movie industry and American culture in general. Smart people, very smart people, are responsible for the flood of dreck and mediocrity that is our culture today. Or maybe it isn’t so much ironic as tragic and pathetic and annoying.

“Jews don’t care about ancient rivalries. We worry about humidity in Miami.” Evan Sayet

When Dick Donner, born Richard Schwartzberg, was directing the movie of my novel Inside Moves, he kindly allowed me to hang out on the set in Echo Park in Los Angeles for a week during the shooting. While I was there they filmed several scenes lifted unchanged from my novel, and one of those scenes was an emotional tour de force performed by the gifted actors Amy Wright and David Morse.

At scene’s end, the spellbound crew and cast members and show biz visitors to the set burst into applause and the air was filled with shouts of Bravo, to which Donner responded by slowly shaking his head and saying, “Not if we want to get a distributor.”

Because the name of the game is show business, not show art.

Goody’s Song

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

As recently reported, Marcia and I are getting more airplay for our music on KVRF, a radio station in Palmer Alaska, than we’ve had anywhere else in these United States, and our song getting the most play recently is “Goody’s Song” with lyrics based on a poem by my grandmother.

In 1979 I turned thirty, moved to Sacramento, bought a fixer upper, my novel Inside Moves was being made into a motion picture, and my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published. In the midst of this hoopla, my grandmother Gertrude, known to friends and family as Goody, sent me a poem she hoped I would turn into a song. I loved Goody, and she had just lost her husband, my grandfather Casey, so I said Yes.

Her verses rhymed, sort of, but were syllabically inconsistent from one line to the next, and she used several gigantic words that simply would not sing. Nevertheless, I made a few feeble attempts to set her poem to piano music, and then gave up.

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” Lucille Ball

Two months later, I got a call from my brother Steve who lived near Goody in Menlo Park. “So,” he began in his no-nonsense way, “how’s Goody’s song coming?”

“Er, uh, oh, yeah. Goody’s song. I’ve been so busy that…”

“She doesn’t have long to live,” said Steve, not buying my excuses. “It’s all she talks about. Write something. Soon.”

So I dug up Goody’s poem and spent an hour at the piano searching for chords and a melody to carry her heartfelt lines, gave up again, went for a walk, and had a revelation. The song was not a piano song, but a guitar song, a lament worthy of Tammy Wynette. The words would need to be simplified and the rhythm of the lines made consistent, but the gist of the poem would remain.

I returned home, got out my guitar, and taking liberties with the original poem came up with:

I made a terrible mistake when I left you.

But what can I do about it today?

Ran at the first sign of trouble,

Now you’re telling me to stay far away.

I was so lucky when I met you,

Now I just can’t seem to forget you.

Please take me back, help me find that loving track.

What was I thinking of

When I made so little of such a great love?

I was a terrible fool to have left you.

What can I do about it today?

I ran at the first sign of trouble,

Now you’re telling me to stay far away.

But I’ve learned my lessons,

Won’t you help me out of this mess I’m in?

Please take me back, help me find that loving track.

What was I thinking of

When I made so little of such a great love?

I ran and ran and ran and ran,

Now I want to run back to you.

A month later, after five takes in a recording studio with a drummer, guitarist and bass player, Steve and I went to Goody’s apartment to play her the song. But before we rolled the tape, Goody made a speech. Picture a diminutive eighty-year-old woman, four-foot-ten in high heels, with curly silver hair and a twinkle in her eyes. Born to orthodox Jews in Detroit in 1900, her father a cantor, her mother the breadwinner selling groceries from a little shop, Goody had always wanted a career in show business and never stopped believing that one day, somehow, she would be discovered and become a star.

“I have a premonition about this song,” she said solemnly. “Even before I hear it, I know it will be great.”

Because Goody was a fantastic joke teller, my brother and I thought she might be setting us up for a punch line, but not this time.

“This song is the fulfillment of my dream. The spirit of my father lives in this song. It will be a beacon of hope for generations to come.”

We played the recording and Goody wept as she listened, and we hoped she was crying because she liked it.

When the song ended, Goody proclaimed, “Now if we can just get this to Johnny Mathis, all our troubles will be over.”

“You know, Goody,” I said, glancing at my brother, “this is not really the kind of song Johnny Mathis tends to record.”

And without missing a beat, Goody said, “Well, then that other guy who’s always on Merv Griffin. Mac somebody.”

“Mac Davis?” prompted my brother.

“Yes,” said Goody. “Get it to him and all our troubles will be over.”

“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Woody Allen

Goody died six months later, having outlived Casey by a year. We tried and failed to get the song to Mac Davis and Bonnie Raitt and several other famous recording artists, but “Goody’s Song” became a staple in my repertoire and an audience favorite. And every time I sang the song and told the story of how it came to be written, someone would ask if I knew who it was Goody wanted to run back to, since she wrote the poem when she was in her late seventies.

I didn’t know the answer until thirty years later when Marcia and I recorded “Goody’s Song” for our album So Not Jazz, the version currently getting airplay in Palmer Alaska—Todd playing guitar and singing, Marcia enriching the song with her fabulous cello playing.

Goody wanted to run back to Goody—the Goody she was before she surrendered to the cultural imperatives of her generation, married, had kids, and suppressed her desire to be an actor and a singer.

“Goody’s Song” is downloadable from iTunes and Amazon and CD Baby. You can purchase So Not Jazz from Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com or from Marcia’s web site NavarroRiverMusic.com

Curse Lifted

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

eggs & roots

Eggs In Hands photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“You didn’t have a choice about the parents you inherited, but you do have a choice about the kind of parent you will be.” Marian Wright Edelman

The curse that shaped the life of my grandmother, the lives of my mother and her brother, the life of my brother, and my own life, has finally been lifted. My brother and his wife lifted the curse, and their daughter Olivia, my charming niece, is the prime beneficiary of their heroic reversal of our family pattern, though I feel gifted by that reversal, too.

With the blessings and support of her parents, Olivia is now living in Los Angeles and embarking on a career as an actor. Whether she succeeds in her chosen profession remains to be seen, but the active support of her parents is the force that dispelled the multi-generational curse. Let me explain.

My mother’s mother Goody was born Gertrude Borenstein in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit in 1899. Her father’s last name was actually Baruchstein, but was changed to Borenstein by hasty immigration officials at Ellis Island. Goody’s parents were orthodox Yiddish-speaking Jews fearful of the machinations of the secular world of America. Goody’s father was a cantor reputed to have a voice so beautiful that whenever he sang even the cynics wept tears of joy. Goody not only inherited a beautiful voice from her father, she was such a talented and beguiling little actress and dancer, that when she was seven-years-old her schoolteacher invited a wealthy Jewish matron to come watch Goody sing and dance and act in the school variety show.

The wealthy matron was so taken with Goody’s talent and charm that she went to visit Goody’s penniless parents and told them she wanted to pay for Goody to study with the best music and dance and drama teachers in Detroit until Goody was old enough to go abroad to continue her studies with European masters of those arts, all to be paid for by this generous matron.

Alas, Goody’s parents thought the wealthy matron was an emissary of the devil, for they believed all actors and dancers and practitioners of non-religious music were vile sinners. So they sent the wealthy woman away and forbade Goody to even dabble in music and drama and dance or any combination thereof.

Fast-forward fifteen years to Los Angeles where Goody gave birth to my mother Avis in 1922 and my uncle Howard in 1926. Avis, as her mother before her, was a fine singer, dancer and actress, and my uncle Howard was a marvelous actor and singer and comedian. Both of them starred in plays at Beverly Hills High, both were Drama majors at UCLA, and both intended to pursue careers as actors despite their parents repeatedly warning them that show biz was a terribly iffy business, the life of an actor no picnic, and it would be a much wiser course for my mother to marry a doctor and for Howard to become a lawyer.

When World War II intervened, Howard joined the Army and served in the Pacific and in the occupation of Japan, while my mother abandoned Drama school the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, went to law school, married my father (a non-Jewish doctor), graduated from law school and started having babies. When Howard returned from Japan, he entered law school and eventually became a big shot entertainment lawyer.

Family legend has it that my brother and I both started singing and dancing and telling jokes a few minutes after we learned to walk, and in actual fact, both of us were high school thespians and singers, and both of us aspired to be actors despite the fierce objections and interventions of our parents. My brother persevered as an actor in college and beyond, but eventually gave up the stage to become an Internet Technology wizard while I abandoned the footlights fantastic a few years after high school and became a writer and musician and pruner of fruit trees.

At last we come to Olivia, the fourth generation of talented performers in our line yearning to become actors, and for the first time in over a hundred years there are no parental objections or obstructions to one of us at least trying to make a go of acting, with Olivia’s parents actually helping her make that go. Hallelujah.

“I have also seen children successfully surmounting the effects of an evil inheritance. That is due to purity being an inherent attribute of the soul.” Mahatma Gandhi

Can you imagine being the parent of a gifted artist or musician or actor or singer and doing everything in your power to stop your child from using her gifts? Seems diabolical, doesn’t it? Yet if you believed that art and music and theatre were evil, truly evil, how could you not try to save your child from such evil? If you believed that artists and musicians and actors were sexual predators who used their arts to seduce and molest innocent young people, how could you not try to keep your child away from such monsters?

“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.” Ethel Waters

In 1980 I was given a big chunk of cash (big by my standards) for the movie rights to my first novel Inside Moves and I used a chunk of that chunk to make a short movie Bums At A Grave, which I wrote and directed and acted in with my brother (you can watch Bums gratis on my web site.) At the world premiere of the movie—a party at my house in Sacramento—the guests were asked to come as their favorite movie stars. To my chagrin, my parents made the long trip to attend the party, and to my surprise and delight my mother came as Gloria Swanson.

Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899, the same year my grandmother Goody was born in Detroit. Gloria Swanson’s mother was Jewish and married a Lutheran. Gloria was married six times and had several high-profile affairs with powerful men. She was a fiercely independent person best known as an actress, but was also a groundbreaking movie producer, writer, artist, and social activist, as well as a staunch Republican.

My mother’s choice to impersonate Gloria Swanson at the premiere of her sons’ movie puzzled me for many years, and by the time I got around to asking her why she came as Gloria Swanson, my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and did not remember Bums At A Grave or the party, let alone that she came as Gloria Swanson.

But now I think I know why she chose to impersonate Gloria Swanson. For one thing, my mother’s middle name was Gloria, and for all I know Goody gave her that name in honor of Gloria Swanson. But beyond the name, Gloria Swanson was the kind of woman my mother might have been if not for the family curse. Gloria Swanson’s family helped and encouraged her to get into show biz, and once she was in the biz she succeeded despite a thousand obstacles.

“The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” Arthur Miller

I will never forget the night my mother came backstage after our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, speaking of Jews in hiding, in which I played Mr. van Daan, the character most disapproving of the high-spirited Anne Frank. My parents had come to the play the previous night and damned the performance with their faint and phony praise, but the night of which I speak my mother came alone to see the play.

My mother was always much more present and grounded and warm and relaxed and happy in the absence of my father—so much more honest and forthcoming.

Taking my hands in hers, she looked into my eyes and said, “You were great, Todd. Amazing. I don’t know where you learned all those subtle things you do, but…you’re a great actor.” Then she looked around the stage and out at the hundreds of now empty seats and added, “But you do know, don’t you, that all the other boys are homosexuals and all the girls are whores.”

“Mom,” I said, squeezing her hands, “that’s not true. Some of the boys are homosexuals and some of the girls like sex, but I’m not a homosexual and I’m not a whore.”

“You’re a child,” she said, sadly. “And school is not the real world. The real world is those Nazis coming at the end of the play and killing all the good people.”

Self-Loving

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

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

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”

Threes

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

InTheRealmsOfGold-SmuinBallet2

In the Realms of Gold (Smuin Ballet © 2012 David Jouris/Motion Pictures)

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

“If you’re a basketball player, you’ve got to shoot.” Oscar Robertson

I recently took up shooting hoops again at nearby Mendocino K-8 School after nearly two years away from the courts. Sadly, I found four of the six hoops adorned with the tattered remnants of their nets and the other two nets verging on dissolution. Shooting hoops on a rim without a viable net is deeply unsatisfying and actually punishes the shooter for success since a ball tossed through a hoop without a net will frequently bounce faraway rather than drop down conveniently in front of the successful shooter.

And so for selfish reasons, but also for the good of our local youth, I went to the school office the next morning with four new nets and presented them to a friendly volunteer who said she would give them to the principal, which she did. The next day I received a phone call from the school principal and she thanked me profusely for the nets. I told her the nets only cost three dollars each, that I would be happy to buy more as necessary, and that I would have put the nets up myself but had no easy way to get a ladder to the courts. She assured me that she would have her maintenance people take care of the situation, and they did.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

One hears varying accounts of the financial state of our public school system, state and local, with the latest rumors suggesting that things are somewhat better this year than they were the previous four years following the economic meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent takeover of the federal government by the supranational Ponzi scheme operators who are now permanently in charge. However, there is still apparently nothing in the budget to cover the purchase of new nets for the school’s basketball hoops.

What makes this especially poignant and silly to me is that every time I go to shoot hoops at the pragmatically named Mendocino K-8 School, which I think we should rename Little Lake Lyceum, the playground is heaped (no exaggeration) with expensive clothing discarded daily by students in the heat of play and left for scavengers and pissed off parents to deal with when the pampered children return home sans jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and backpacks.

Indeed, on a recent weekend visit to the courts to shoot hoops and admire the new nets adorning the rims, I watched a mother and her two children shopping for clothes by carefully assessing each of the thirty-some items of clothing strewn about the playground. In the end, they chose two sweaters and a brand new rain jacket for the youngest child, a 49ers sweatshirt, a down vest, and a brand new backpack for the oldest child, and those kids were thrilled with their new gear. Are these people thieves? Nay. Many of those items of clothing had been on the playground for several days and were destined for the garbage or the Salvation Army. The least expensive of the many discarded items cost more than six brand new nets for the basketball hoops, hence the poignancy of the situation.

“You look at today, it’s a different situation. You have a game that has been transformed into a game where almost every shot is either a three-point shot or a dunk.” Oscar Robertson

I published my first novel Inside Moves in 1978, the year before the NBA (National Basketball Association) introduced the three-point basket in imitation of the upstart ABA (American Basketball Association). Not much would have changed in my novel had my hero’s long range shots been three-pointers, since basketball is merely background to the drama, but the meteoric rise of an unknown little man might have seemed more plausible in the three-point era than in the previous age of two points per basket.

So last week I was shooting hoops at Little Lake Lyceum shortly after 3:30, before which interlopers are not allowed to use the courts, and I was joined by four Eighth Grade boys who asked if they might shoot around with me since they did not have access to school basketballs after school hours, which at first struck me as more poignant silliness, but then made perfect sense when I considered the aforementioned discarded clothing all over the playground. Having completed my very slow routine of shooting baskets to help me get back in minimal aerobic shape, I told the boys they were welcome to join me, and we proceeded to take turns shooting baskets.

To my bemusement, none of these lads ever took a shot unless he was behind the three-point line painted on the asphalt, twenty-some feet from the hoop. When it was my turn to shoot, I shot from close and not so close and occasionally from afar, but these fourteen-year-olds (they told me their ages) never took a single shot that wasn’t a three-pointer. And they almost never made a basket. We played together for thirty minutes. Each of the four well-coordinated boys, all of them on the Little Lake Lyceum basketball team, took upwards of twenty-five shots, and cumulatively they made a grand total of three baskets.

As an experiment, I asked them to shoot from closer range and they proved to be entirely incapable of making anything other than a layup, and even those very close-in shots were difficult for them. I then asked why they only shot three-pointers and they looked at me as if I had asked why they wore clothing or if they played video games. Why, they suggested (and I paraphrase and delete dozens of likes and y’knows) would a reasonable person bother to shoot and probably miss a two-point shot when he might just as well shoot and probably miss a three-point shot?

“You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing.” Meryl Streep

Try as I might, I can’t seem to separate the goofy incompetence of those Little Lake Lyceum hoopsters and the piles of discarded clothing on the playground of that esteemed institute of lower learning. Extrapolating further, I can’t separate those incompetent hoopsters and the discarded clothing from my brother telling me that there are now thousands of job openings in the IT (Internet Technology) field in San Francisco for which there are almost no qualified Americans, making it necessary for American companies to continue flying in thousands of well-qualified people from India, Russia, China, and other places where the children most definitely do not discard their brand new clothes on playgrounds.

“Gather in your resources, rally all your faculties, marshal all your energies, focus all your capacities upon mastery of at least one field of endeavor.” John Hagee

We recently attended a play hereabouts, and because the play was so badly written and I couldn’t convince Marcia to flee with me at intermission, once I got over my dismay at having to sit through yet another award-winning piece of junk, I decided to use the time to study how the various actors dealt with having to recite such garbage. And it was fascinating to see how the one really masterful actor in the show chose to speak her lines sotto voce (because the words themselves were so ill-conceived) and how she almost-but-not-quite transcended the putrid script with her subtle physical movements and telling facial expressions, while the other actors lacked the skill (and direction) to do anything other than stand around in stiff discomfort and raise their voices, as if they thought shitty writing might be improved by shouting.

And I couldn’t help but relate the crappiness of the play and the shortage of masterful acting to those goofy incompetent hoopsters and those piles of perfectly good discarded clothing on the playground at Little Lake Lyceum and the tragic incompetence of the people hired to build the website for the new Big Pharma National Healthcare Debacle and the ongoing and worsening disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and our collective inability to do anything about the vast overriding and killing mediocrity that seems more and more a sure bet to render our beautiful planet uninhabitable.

Then yesterday Marcia and I attended a fantastic concert at Preston Hall, a pianist and cellist playing Brahms, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev—brilliant players playing the works of genius composers. And as a result of listening to that magnificent music, I felt a little more hopeful than entirely hopeless, an illusion, perhaps, but also a relief to be reminded that humans are not inherently mediocre and incompetent. For though I don’t know this to be true, I would bet good money that neither of those brilliant musicians we heard, had they chosen to pursue careers in basketball rather than music, would have only shot threes on their long roads to mastery.

Life & Death

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Rose for Life & Death

Autumn Rose photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“All men’s misfortune, and the appalling disasters of history, the blunders of statesmen and the errors of great generals, come from the inability to dance.” Jean Molière

Marcia and I had breakfast on Wednesday morning at Ravens’, the wholly vegan restaurant at the Stanford Inn, our meal courtesy of a gift certificate Marcia received for officiating at a wedding. I especially enjoyed the coffee and orange juice and the view of Big River Beach. We were celebrating Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria just yet, and I wore my new salmon-colored shirt Marcia bought for a mere four dollars at a thrift shop in Santa Rosa. Having recently exchanged our life savings for a house on land suitable for growing vegetables and fruit, we rarely dine out on our own dimes these days, so the experience of eating at the Stanford Inn, an establishment catering to wealthy people who like to travel with their pets, felt decadent and strangely fun.

After breakfast we drove into the village of Mendocino to get our mail and take advantage of the 10%-off-everything sale at Harvest Market, and in the beer section we ran into a friend who informed us that Antonia Lamb had just died. We finished our shopping in stunned silence and drove home feeling discombobulated and saddened by this unexpected loss.

I saw Antonia several times in the last month as I walked to and from the village on Little Lake Road and we waved to each other as she zoomed by in her station wagon. The last time I had a conversation with Antonia was in the post office a couple months ago, the post office being where the majority of my meetings with her took place over the last six years, which is how long I knew her. I asked how she was doing and she said, “I’m very sad. My best buddy John (Chamberlain) just died and everything feels…” She shrugged and fought her tears.

“I’m sorry,” I said, embracing her.

After our hug, she told me all about her new CD and asked what I was up to musically these days. I said I was working on my fourth piano-centric album, and then I shrugged and said, “Though I sometimes wonder why I bother.”

“You bother because you’re an artist,” she said in her forthright way. “That’s what artists do. We make art. That’s our job. Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Samuel Beckett

As antidote to the sorrows of the world, we recently watched Blazing Saddles, found in the DVD section of our tiny village library. I first saw that zany film in 1974 at the Fine Arts theatre in Palo Alto when my brother was the manager of that comfy popcorn palace. Blazing Saddles was on a double bill with another Mel Brooks film The Producers, and I laughed my butt off and fell in love with Madeline Kahn.

For being such a silly movie, Blazing Saddles was and still is an irreverent, daring, and surprisingly frank portrayal of American racism, sexism, thoughtless violence, and endemic government corruption. Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, the only non-racist white person in the mythical town of Rockridge, is brilliant as an urbane drunk who befriends Bart, the black sheriff, played by the charming Cleavon Little, their friendship a model of non-racism in a viciously racist society. Movie lore has it that Wilder only agreed to play the part of the Waco Kid after Brooks promised Wilder that their next film would be Young Frankenstein, their crowning achievement as collaborators, in my opinion, another movie about friendship that transcends spoof and slapstick and rises into the realm of sublime revelation.

“An actor is totally vulnerable. His total personality is exposed to critical judgment—his intellect, his bearing, his diction, his whole appearance. In short, his ego.” Alec Guinness

Speaking of ego, I recently made an appearance at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino to tout the new edition of my long out-of-print novel Inside Moves, and I’m happy to report we had a good turnout with several attendees announcing they were readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Mazel tov! Despite my usual pre-performance anxiety, I enjoyed the evening, my first public appearance in some years, and I especially enjoyed the questions the audience asked after I shared a few of my adventures in publishing and read the first chapter of Inside Moves.

Two of my favorite questions were, “Do you ever incorporate your dreams into your fiction?” and “Why don’t you do a one-man show at MTC? (Mendocino Theater Company).”

My answer to the first question was that I do sometimes incorporate my dreams into my fiction, and to the second question I replied, “I did give a reading some years ago at MTC, and counting my wife, four people came to the show, so I have not been asked or inclined to perform there again.”

“I delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.” John Cleese

In the midst of writing this piece, I got a phone call from Kathy Mooney and she shared a beautiful poem she had just written in honor of Antonia Lamb. With Kathy’s permission, I present the beginning of her poem for Antonia.

Up on her toes

she goes

strumming to the

stars—she brought

them back down

for us, in wisdom,

myth, mirth and whimsy

Singing

she bared her heart—for us

who knew the Mendocino

she was missing—

and now, oh yes,

we miss you

“The theater is the most beautiful place on earth.” Anne Bancroft

My niece Olivia just graduated from the University of Oregon where she starred in several plays, and now she is on the verge of moving to Los Angeles to see if she can make it big in the movie and television business. Heaven help her. She is young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart and ambitious, and she will be competing with tens of thousands of other young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart, ambitious young women trying to make it big in show business.

I have no advice for her other than to watch her ass, literally and figuratively, nor can I open any doors for her. However, I will make a habit of imagining her auditioning for a part in an independent film and catching the eye of a latter day Mel Brooks who recognizes in her the comic genius of a latter day Madeline Kahn. I will imagine Olivia getting a juicy part and giving a remarkable performance that makes her the darling of great directors of stage and screen. I believe this will help Olivia, my imagining her becoming a big success because of her talent and originality, and not because she somehow manages to hook up with well-connected sleaze bags. And even if she doesn’t make it big in show business and does something else entirely with her one precious life, I still think it will help her if I visualize her winning the day with her unique talent. And if that sounds like hackneyed spiritual crap to you, so be it.

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

So the last thing Antonia said to me was, “Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

Which infers that we know what we were born to do, and I think by born to do she meant something beyond staying warm and dry and getting enough to eat. But how do we know what we were born to do? Or maybe a better question would be: how do we go about discovering what we were born to do? And the answer is: we go on a quest, otherwise known as living our life. We keep our eyes and ears and hearts open in anticipation of seeing and hearing and feeling things that will guide us on our way to discovering our life’s purpose, which might ultimately be many purposes, though underlying and connecting those multiple purposes is our desire to be of service to others, to share our passions, to give, to connect, to love and be loved—or something along those lines.

Copies of Inside Moves signed by the author are available at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.