Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Bashevis Singer’

Know Your Audience

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

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

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

Old Souls

Monday, August 21st, 2017

219ladderup

ladder up diptych by Max Greenstreet

Isaac Bashevis Singer, one my favorite writers, wrote several stories set in pre-holocaust Poland about children who are thought by their Jewish elders to be old souls. These children are prodigies and seem to possess knowledge and wisdom gained in previous lifetimes. This idea of an old soul occurs in nearly all societies and is particularly appealing to those who want to believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation aside, I have always been intrigued by especially wise young children and how they came to be so wise.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a day care center for low-income children, two-and-a-half to five-years-old. Among our thirty charges were a few unusually mature children, but there was one girl named Susie who seemed to be an adult in the body of a cute little 3-year-old blonde.

Susie gladly played with the other children, especially the quieter ones, and she routinely sought me out for conversation, which none of the other children did. She had a large vocabulary and liked to share with me her insights about what was going on emotionally with the other kids and staff members. These insights would have been remarkable for a teenager, but coming from a three-year-old, they boggled my mind. Susie could be goofy and giggly, but more often she was serious and introspective.

One day Susie came running to me, hugged my leg tightly, and said, “My mother came here. I don’t want to go with her.”

I had not been given much background information on any of the children, which I think was a mistake on the part of our director, an extremely moody woman who often seemed overmatched by her job. But I knew Susie lived with a woman she called Auntie, a woman she related to in a somber way, and by that I mean Susie always became quite subdued when Auntie arrived to pick her up at the end of the day.

Most of the mothers of the kids at our center were single women in their twenties; Auntie was in her fifties. I also knew that Auntie and Susie were in dire straits economically because Auntie frequently asked me for food, which I would give her; cans of fruit and beans and tuna and soup from the day care center kitchen, though I wasn’t supposed to. I could give Auntie food without anyone on the staff knowing because I was also the janitor and the last to leave, and Susie was frequently the last child to be picked up.

So on that day when Susie told me her mother was there, I went out to the playground half-expecting to see Auntie, but there on the street-side of the cyclone fence surrounding the playground was a careworn young woman.

She gave me a fearful smile and said, “I only want Susie for an hour or so. I promise I’ll bring her back before five. Okay?”

“You need to speak to the director,” I said. “I’ll get her for you.”

“Never mind,” said the young woman, running away.

When I reported the incident to our director, I was informed that the young woman was, indeed, Susie’s mother. She was a prostitute and drug addict, and Susie had been taken away from her by the authorities. I asked if Auntie was Susie’s actual aunt or a foster parent, and the director said her records listed Auntie as Susie’s temporary guardian. The director then instructed all staff members to call the police whenever Susie’s mother showed up, which she did a few more times while I worked there, though we never called the police. I think she just wanted a glimpse of her daughter.

On the evening of that first visit from Susie’s mother, while giving Auntie a bag of food, I mentioned that Susie’s mother had come by, and Auntie, who was usually reserved with me said, “If that bitch tries to take Susie away from me, I’ll kill her.”

A couple weeks later, Susie arrived in the morning so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. The minute Auntie left, Susie lay down on a pillow in a corner of the playroom and slept all morning. And she repeated this behavior almost every day for the next several weeks. But because Susie seemed otherwise well when she woke up, the director decided to allow Susie to sleep when she needed to and not make a big deal out of her sleepiness in the morning. This abrupt change in Susie’s behavior, I later realized, coincided with Auntie no longer asking me for food.

Then one afternoon, I came in from supervising the playground, and found Susie performing a disturbingly sexy dance and singing a torch song for a spellbound group of kids. When she finished her performance, I asked her who taught her the song and dance, and she said, “Auntie did. For my show.”

The finale of this story is that on a weekend a month later, Auntie engaged me to move a new bed and furniture up steep stairs into the little apartment where Susie and Auntie lived. Auntie rewarded me for my labor with a beer, proceeded to get stoned and drunk, and boasted that she had money now because she was taking Susie to private parties in San Francisco where Susie, dressed in a variety of alluring costumes, sang and danced. In between Susie’s performances, the people at these parties, mostly women, passed Susie around, caressing her and kissing her and talking to her, for which they gave Auntie money.

I reported this to our director, she made the necessary calls, and Susie was eventually taken away from Auntie. Susie was then placed in a nearby foster home and continued to come to our daycare center for as long as I worked there. She no longer arrived sleepy and her new guardians picked her up every day shortly after four in the afternoon. Susie would be forty-eight today if she’s still alive.

Another old soul I knew was Amelia. She attended the California Summer School for the Arts when she was fourteen. I was boss of the Creative Writing department at that time, and before I learned otherwise, I thought Amelia must be one of our oldest students. The age range at the school was fourteen to nineteen, and Amelia was by far our most emotionally mature student. She quickly became the motherly friend and confidante of several of my students, and within a few days of her arrival on campus she had a handsome summer school boyfriend, one of our nineteen-year-olds.

Amelia was calm, smart, loquacious, an excellent writer, and very wise for one so young. We became good friends and stayed friends for many years. When Amelia was a senior in high school, I went to visit her and her mother and stepfather. Being with Amelia and her mother was fascinating—Amelia a mature adult, her forty-seven-year-old mother a charming adolescent. And when Amelia and I went to lunch with Amelia’s father and his very young wife, Amelia and I were the adults, while her fifty-year-old father was a classic stoner teenager.

One day when I was six-years-old, I sat in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade classroom observing my fellow six-year-olds, and I was overcome with the surety that I was an ageless being in the body of a child. I told myself to never forget this and to check in with this feeling over the course of my life, which I sometimes remember to do.

Jewish Like Bernie

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

* * So. CA trip clouds on I-5 12x18 email 

Clouds on I-5 photograph by Bill Fletcher

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

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

Reveling in the fantastic news that Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a landslide, my eyes were drawn to an article in the New York Times with the headline As Bernie Sanders Makes History, Jews Wonder What It Means. Stop wondering already. It means he won the New Hampshire Primary. It means he kicked Hillary’s tuckus. It means he espouses what most Americans want: truly affordable healthcare, raising taxes on the rich, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, ending massive fraudulent banking Ponzi schemes masquerading as our economy, and getting corporate money out of politics.

The Huffington Post trumpeted Bernie Sanders Just Made History As The First Jew To Win A Presidential Primary. The article reports that Sanders parents were Jewish and Bernie says he believes in God but does not participate in organized religion. Bernie further elucidated that when he says he believes in God, he means, “All of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Now there’s a motto I can get behind.

CNN asks: Bernie Sanders could be the first Jewish president. Does he care?

Bernie answers, “I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me. So my spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.”

The guy sounds like a Buddhist. I can see it now. Bernie Sanders appoints Pema Chödrön to be our next Supreme Court justice. Why not? Imagine someone humane and thoughtful and extremely intelligent and free of prejudice on the Supreme Court. Now imagine five of them. Every day would be Yom Kippur.

So there’s this priest sitting in the booth, a slow day in the confession business, when in comes an old guy who kneels at the little window and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned. I’m seventy-four years old. Yesterday I won the New Hampshire primary and I’m feeling terrific.”

The priest cautions the man about the dangers of arrogance and pride, and then asks, “How long has it been since your last confession?”

The old guy replies, “Oh, I’ve never confessed.”

“You’re a Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”

“I’m not Catholic. I’m Jewish.”

“You’re Jewish? So why are you telling me?”

“Telling you?” says the old guy, “I’m telling everybody!”

“He was part of a whole, a people scattered over the earth and yet eternally one and indivisible. Wherever a Jew lived, in whatever safety and isolation, he still belonged to his people.” Pearl S. Buck

I don’t know, Pearl. Had you lived another fifty years, you might have changed your tune. My mother was Jewish, so according to Jewish law, I am Jewish. She was non-religious as were her parents, but I can still become a citizen of Israel because of my bloodline. Ironically, I’d love to become a citizen of England or France or Canada, but they won’t consider me unless I promise to move there with several million dollars to spend or if I have some super-valuable skill that will greatly benefit their economies, a skill I don’t have.

When I was in my forties, I had some helpful therapy and decided I would let my friends know I was Jewish, ancestrally speaking, because hiding that fact was not good for my psyche. I had some fun telling people I was Jewish, and one of the people I told, a man born to Jewish parents, asked me if I wanted to study some Jewish texts with him to connect with the fundamental ideas of my ancestral religion.

About a half-hour into my one and only study session with my friend, I said, “This is primitive misogynist racist ignorant stuff. Want to go for Chinese?”

“I’ve got a hankering for pastrami and cheese on rye,” said my friend, tossing the prayer book away. “Let’s go to Max’s.”

“Deli it is,” I said, leaping up. “I’m too old to imbibe the dogma, but I love the food.”

Several other articles about Bernie Sanders being Jewish hint that at some point in the campaign his Jewishness will become an issue. Why should Hillary care if Bernie is Jewish? He’s not beating her because his parents were Jewish. He’s beating her because she’s a corporate stooge, a bad liar, and changes her opinion about everything every five minutes to try to sound good in front of whichever audience she’s talking to.

Do you know what Hillary said after Bernie crushed her in New Hampshire? “I need to do more to reach young people.” Puh-leez. Suddenly she wants to reach young people? What about five minutes ago? Oh. Young people love Bernie because he honestly wants to do things as President of the Unites States that will help young people. So now Hillary says she wants to do things to help young people, too, in order to steal voters away from Bernie. Listen to me, Hillary. Any young person who believes anything you say for even a small portion of a fraction of a second is nobody I want to have lunch with.

Will Donald Trump care that Bernie’s parents were Jewish? I don’t think so. In fact, Bernie’s Jewishness, such as it is, protects him from his saber-rattling opponents who might otherwise try to cast him as not being pro-Israel enough.

Come on, people. We all came from somebody who came from somebody. Go back far enough and we find every human being on earth is descended from a woman who lived in southern Africa 172,000 years ago. This genetic fact has been proven multiple times now by multiple teams of scientists. Our primal mother was brown-skinned, loved to sing and dance, and is, as Bernie likes to say, connected to all of us.

Giants & Dodgers

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Giants Mendo Hardware

Giants Hardware photo by David Jouris

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

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

In my dotage I am willing to admit that my loathing of the Los Angeles Dodgers is irrational, primitive, and downright silly, but I loathe them nonetheless and have hated them with a vengeance since the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958 and I was infected with an incurable Giants virus that not only causes blind devotion to my team, but inflames the adrenal glands whenever the Los Angeles Dodgers are mentioned on the radio or in print.

The recent three-game series in Los Angeles between my Giants and the hated Dodgers was very likely the coup de grace to the Giants’ hopes of making it into the post-season this year, 2015, with the first-place Dodgers winning each of those three games by one run. Their all-star pitchers, Greinke and Kershaw, two humorless, hateful, cheating, balking twits, beat us with their amazing array of dirty rotten borderline pitches in collusion with umpires obviously in the employ of the Dodgers.

To amplify my already enormous hatred for the highest-paid bunch of jerks in all of baseball, several questionable calls by the bought-off umpires tipped the balance in each of the three games in favor of the Dodgers. Every crucial close call, not surprisingly, went the Dodgers’ way to the delight of the hordes of blood-sucking Dodger-loving philistines attending the game in that den of iniquity known as Dodger Stadium, home of sudden updrafts of icy cold air that routinely knock down no-doubter home runs hit by opposing teams so those would-be homers drop harmlessly into the gloves of the Dodgers’ computer-controlled genetically-modified superstar outfielders masquerading as humans.

So how do I explain the Giants winning three World Series in the last five years? The same way I explain my few and wholly implausible successes as a writer and the brief cultural renaissance known as the 60s and that time I found a twenty-dollar bill and a nice pair of sunglasses on the beach—a brief fleeting triumph by the severely underfunded forces of Good over the obscenely well-financed forces of Evil.

 “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” Dale Carnegie

Speaking of the forces of evil, many years ago when I was spending way too much time in Los Angeles trying to get Hollywood sociopaths to make my books and screenplays into movies, I attended a Dodgers-Giants game at Dodger Stadium with my childhood friend Colin Vogel.

Colin was infected by the Giants virus in 1958, too. However, the particular strain of the virus that got him was slightly different than the one that got me because Colin now lives in Glendale. Nevertheless, he is still a diehard Giants fan and regularly risks his life attending games at Dodger stadium when the Giants come to town. What makes his behavior even more bizarre is that he is an excellent psychotherapist. Surely he should know better.

In any case, long before Colin completed his psychoanalysis, he and I arrived at the Dodgers’ den of iniquity wearing our Giants caps. This was several decades before the Giants won their three World Series and millions of people who had never given baseball a second thought suddenly announced they had been diehard Giants fans from the get go. No, in those days there were but a handful of us Giants crazies among the forty thousand attending that Dodgers-Giants game in Los Angeles where we were treated as if we were infected with a deadly virus.

Our seats were so far from the field, the players looked like gnats wearing uniforms. At one point in the game, the corrupt home plate umpire had a mental lapse and allowed the Giants to score two runs and take the lead. Colin and I stood up and cheered. This rash act of loyalty caused hundreds of stylishly dressed and perfectly coiffed wannabe movie stars to glare at us with undisguised hatred.

And then a woman sitting in the row in front of us, a stunning brunette with dark brown hair in a page boy, her silky blue blouse alluringly unbuttoned to the tops of her admirable breasts, her makeup applied so tastefully I wanted to comment on how exquisitely understated yet effective it was, turned to me and said with convincing sincerity, “What is wrong with you? You look like a perfectly nice guy. How can you be a Giants fan?”

Without much thought, I replied, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t look like a complete moron. How can you be a Dodgers fan?”

And who knows where our snappy repartee might have led had the alluring brunette’s large and muscular and superbly tanned boyfriend not turned to me and said, “Nip it, Bud. Unless you want to get seriously hurt.”

Colin nudged me and gave me a meaningful look, so I nipped it, the game went on, the Dodgers won, and I was permitted to live another day.

“There are people who have money and people who are rich.” Coco Chanel

Nowadays, my irrational devotion to the Giants is devotion to a team of multi-millionaires and their billionaire owners, which was not the case when I was a boy. In the early days of my obsession with the Giants, I read every scrap of news and information about the guys on our team, and one of those scraps has stayed with me for a half century.

From 1959 to 1965, the Giants had a big burly pitcher named Jack Sanford. The article about Jack I still remember had a picture of Jack wearing a plaid shirt, a baseball cap, and pants held up by suspenders. He was splitting firewood with an enormous ax. The article said that Jack stayed in shape over the winter, not in California, by cutting down trees, cutting the trees into rounds, and splitting those rounds into firewood, which he sold to supplement his baseball salary.

I’ll bet no stinking Dodger ever did something like that.

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.

Worth

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

1.50

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

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I have my piano tuned once a year. I used to have the beauty tuned twice a year, but that was when a good tuning cost sixty dollars and I was making much more money than I make now. My last tuning cost one hundred and forty-five dollars, a ten-dollar increase over last year, which was a ten-dollar increase over the previous year. Barring a bank error in my favor, another increase in the tuning fee will force me to go to once every two years. Is my piano tuner being greedy? Not at all. He’s keeping pace with the real rate of inflation, not the fake one our government reports while they funnel trillions of dollars to the Wall Street criminals to keep the global Ponzi scheme going.

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Stephen Stills

Today I went to the nursery to buy a few six-packs of vegetable starts. I bought a six-pack of petunias, a six-pack of basil, two lemon cucumber plants, a purple penstemon, a small pineapple sage plant, and a packet of arugula seeds. Total: 27.69. Are the folks at the nursery being greedy? Nope. They’re keeping pace with the rising cost of everything else.

“There’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Stephen Stills

My credit card bill came today. I like to guess what the total will be before I open the bill and I guessed it would be next to nothing. Oops. I forgot that a few weeks ago I purchased two pairs of shoes from REI, a new pillow (my first new pillow in thirty years) and a Giants sweatshirt, having worn my previous Giants sweatshirt into a frayed remnant. Total: Three hundred and nineteen dollars. And all those items were on sale. Am I being ripped off by the commercial enterprises of America? No. They are simply riding the roller coaster of Ponzi-created inflation until The Big Pop, after which anybody with ready cash will find things cheap, indeed.

“Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away.” Stephen Stills

Having recently completed the writing of Ida’s Place Book Three—Rehearsal, the third and longest volume of my massive fictional opus set in a mythical version of Mendocino, I evaluated my cost of manufacturing the first two volumes at Zo, the one and only and most excellent copy shop in Mendocino, and came to the conclusion that if I hoped to break even on this latest publishing adventure I would have to sell Book Three for twenty-four dollars, and that’s assuming I eventually sell seventy copies of the goodly tome.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to ask that much of my readers, so I set the price at twenty-two, which is the unprofitable price of Book Two. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I join my piano tuner and nurseries and REI and pillow and sweatshirt companies and the post office and shipping companies and mailing envelope manufacturers and oil companies and vegetable growers and muffin makers and pharmaceutical companies and web masters and dentists and lawyers and doctors in raising my prices to keep pace with inflationary reality? The short answer: I’m a doofus. The long answer: I’m a conflicted doofus.

“Three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful: 1: It must have a precise and suspenseful plot, 2: The author must feel a passionate urge to write it, 3: He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Yesterday in the post office, a woman who looked vaguely familiar approached me and said, “The reason I’m not buying your Ida books is we’re spending all our money remodeling our house, so we’re seriously tightening our belts and only spending money on essentials.”

Before I could ask her to tell me her name, she continued, “We went to San Francisco last weekend. We just had to get away. Stayed at the Mark Hopkins. Glorious. God, the restaurants. I gained five pounds. Speaking of which, want to get some lunch? Trillium has a pork loin to die for. I went with Cal yesterday, we skipped salads and got out for under seventy. And that was for both of us.”

“The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and, lastly, the solid cash.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Before I began making a living selling short stories and novels, I felt alone in the world, save for a few fellow artists I consorted with. But then something happened to let me know I was not so alone. A cartoon ran in The New Yorker, and shortly thereafter several dozen people sent me the cartoon. Who were these people? Friends, friends of friends, former friends, and friends of my parents.

In the cartoon, a well-dressed man is showing another man his opulent estate, They are drinking champagne served by a butler. A massive Rolls Royce is parked in front of a baronial mansion. A gorgeous woman in a bikini is sunbathing on a chaise longue by a large swimming pool next to a tennis court. The man is saying to his guest, “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the great American novel when it suddenly occurred to me, why not write the great American extortion letter?”

Were all those people who sent me that cartoon trying to tell me something? I think so. But I’d rather write novels. Speaking of which, Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade is underway.

Signed and numbered copies of Ida’s Place Books One, Two, and Three are available from Todd via his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

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

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

 

 

 

Humility

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

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

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot

Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.

“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif

A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”

“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller

One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.

Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.

One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.

“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory

I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.

“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”

He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.

“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”

And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”

“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland

The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.

Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)

Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.

Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.

A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.

“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.

“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”

“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.

“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”

“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”

“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”

“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.

“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”

“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”

“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”

“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”

“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”

“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”

“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”

“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.

“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”

“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”

“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”

Oz nods. “You write books?”

“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”

“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”

“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”

“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.

Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”

“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”

“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”

Lives Unlived

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2011)

“Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost the way the old songs were lost. When I was a boy there wasn’t a man in the barony but had a hundred songs in his head, but with people running here, there and everywhere, the songs were lost…” Frank O’Connor

I am reading The Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor for the third time in twelve years. Enough time has passed since my last reading of his remarkable stories so I have forgotten sufficient details and plot twists and endings to make the stories new to me again; and in some ways they are better than new because I know them now as I know favorite pieces of music or beloved paintings, and in this further experience of them I discover more and more of the genius they contain.

Frank O’Connor, who died in 1966, was Irish, and most of his stories are set in Cork and Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s. O’Connor was hailed by W.B. Yeats as the Chekhov of Irish literature, yet very few of my well-read friends have heard of him, and I, a voracious story reader since childhood, discovered him relatively late in my incessant search for great stories. I should note that many of my well-read friends are aghast at my reading habits which now largely involve reading and re-reading a relatively few dead writers of short stories, with barely an American among them. I find the most ballyhooed contemporary writers unreadable, and if not for a Brit or two, regarding fiction it could truly be said I read only the dead.

I have imbibed Kim by Rudyard Kipling seven times in the last twenty years, and I will probably read that astonishing book again soon. I do not read many novels, even those written by my favorite dead short story writers, so Kim is something of an anomaly for me. Every line of that book is to my taste exquisite poetry; I don’t so much read Kim as inhabit its pages. But I was speaking of Frank O’Connor.

“What makes him so great?” asked one of my well-read friends who had never heard of Frank O’Connor.

“Well,” I said, “when I read Bashevis Singer or Maugham or Wharton or Maupassant, I am enthralled by their artistry and insight, yet I know I am capable of writing stories that at least approximate the structures of their creations if not the mastery of their lines. But Frank O’Connor’s stories, though only eight to fifteen pages in length, are essentially novels with plots spanning many years, yet they have the power and immediacy and emotional depth of a D.H. Lawrence story focusing on a particular moment in time.”

We would rather be ruined than changed;

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

Nearly all of Frank O’Connor’s short stories illuminate the lives of people who would rather be living other lives—a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. Born to parents who did not live the lives they said they wanted to live, and having known many people, including myself, who have spent large chunks of our lives not living the lives we say we want to live, O’Connor’s stories continuously strike chords in me and ring loud bells of recognition. I am not speaking of people who wish to be something or someone beyond the reach of all but a few mortals, but of people who knowingly repeat, for years and decades and lifetimes, painfully self-limiting patterns they are entirely aware of yet feel powerless to change.

My father found himself at fifty entrenched in a life he loathed, living where he did not want to live, and married to a woman, my mother, he didn’t like. The last of his four children had finally escaped his direct control, he owned a house outright worth millions, and he was a successful psychotherapist, a trade he might have plied anywhere; yet he could not bring himself to change, and so daily drank himself into a stupor and outwardly blamed his misfortune on my mother.

I hitchhiked to Atherton from Santa Cruz for my father’s fiftieth birthday party, though at the age of twenty-three I was a source of shame and disappointment to my parents. I had defied their wishes and dropped out of college to create a life that made sense to me apart from the expectations of others. I had lived as a vagabond from nineteen to twenty-two, and only recently settled among the communards of Santa Cruz (circa 1972) where I earned my living as a musician and laborer. I did not often visit my parents in those days because to tarry in my father’s presence was to invite diatribes of condemnation.

On the morning following his fiftieth birthday party, as I was about to head home to Santa Cruz, my father invited me to join him for coffee on the terrace. I vividly remember that morning—a scorcher in late August—my father looking haggard and sad, the strong black coffee not yet mitigating his hangover. And before he could launch into yet another sermon about me pissing my life away, I said, “So, Dad, now that you’re fifty…if you could live anywhere and be anything you want to be, what would you do?”

“Anything and anywhere?” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I would buy a house near the water in Carmel and be a sculptor. Wood and stone.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I’m too old,” he said bitterly. “And your mother would never let me.”

“Sure she would. She loves Carmel. She loves the ocean. And you know she’s happiest when you’re happy.”

“No,” he said, continuing to shake his head. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Fifty is not old, Dad. Why not give it a try?”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said, sneering at me. “Your mother would never allow it. I’d have to divorce her to have the life I want.”

“So why not get a divorce?”

“She couldn’t survive without me. I wouldn’t do that to her. No…we’re stuck.”

Thus spoke the renowned psychotherapist; and not a word of what he said was true. My mother had recently begun practicing law and was earning a good salary. She would gladly have sold their crumbling house to start anew in Carmel; and had my father been bold enough to divorce her, she would have settled for a fortune and lived no more unhappily than she did in their loveless marriage.

We said our uneasy goodbyes and I walked down the hill to the Alameda de las Pulgas where I got a ride from a guy in a convertible Volkswagen going to Woodside. From Woodside I rode in the back of a pickup over the crest of the coast range and down through the redwoods of La Honda to the hamlet of San Gregorio where I bought cheese and bread and chocolate for a picnic on the beach. And as I walked out to the ocean, I passed the beautiful farm near the mouth of the San Gregorio where my father had taken me when I was eight and again when I was twelve, a farm for sale that my father said he wanted to buy so he could live near the ocean and sculpt wood and stone.

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

A sunny morning, the tide stupendously low, I walk the far reaches of the beach at Big River, and sing a wordless song to the drone of the roaring waves. Now an osprey plummets out of the cerulean sky and splashes down in the nearby shallows to catch a silver sliver of life.

“Good omen,” I say, watching in awe as the raptor flies up from the water to roost in a cliff-hanging pine; and sure enough, here ahead of me on the untrod sand is a magnificent walking stick, long and sturdy and bleached white by the sun.

Enter the pelicans—twelve apostles—fifty yards offshore, gliding northward in an undulating line, the tips of their wings nearly touching the dark waters.

“Omens galore,” I say, as the osprey dives again.