Posts Tagged ‘poems’

Pruning & Practice

Monday, February 18th, 2019

peeler on pause

 

 

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk twice around the tree,

studying the relationships

of the boughs. Then I cut

to enliven the tree

with spaciousness. 

 

 

 

Big Muddy RIver

 

Practice

At last atop the mountain

we catch our breaths and look back

at the sound of avalanche—

the path of our ascent vanishing

beneath a great collapse.

 

And when the fury settles

only cliff remains—the path no more.

So now our only hope of return

is along the razor’s edge

traversing the abyss

to another peak,

the further side

invisible.

 

Or we may remain here. 

 

 

quartet

Sid Writes A Song

Monday, November 19th, 2018

inspiration

Sid Lawry is sixty-two and has been a waiter at Falcon, a most excellent restaurant in Lambertville, New Jersey for the last fourteen years. He has lived in Lambertville since he was twelve, having moved here from Queens with his mother Ruth and younger sister Lynette shortly after his parents divorced.

That same year, Sid’s father Ben moved to Los Angeles with Francesca, the woman he’d been having an affair with for several years, to pursue a career as a writer in the movie and television business. Ben sent birthday cards to Sid and Lynette for the first five years he was in Los Angeles, and then stopped sending birthday cards and did not communicate with them again for thirty-seven years, until a few months before he died. He called each of them to beg their forgiveness for being such a bad father, and they both forgave him.

Sid is five-foot-eight with a wiry build, his wavy brown hair going gray, his default expression a sleepy smile. Charming and eloquent, he is a superb waiter and was so from the moment he switched to that line of work at the age of forty-seven. Sid’s emergence as a star waiter at Falcon came as a huge surprise to his wife Elaine, who for several years prior to Sid’s success, believed he would forever be a person who boasted of unproven talent, never kept a job for long, and was often severely depressed.

Elaine is five-foot-two, petite, with long brown hair she wears in a bun from the time she gets up in morning until the supper dishes are done, after which she lets her hair down. She has been an archivist at the Princeton University Art Museum for nearly forty years, Princeton just up the road from Lambertville.

Her doctoral thesis The Inevitable Arrival of Impressionism was published as a sumptuously-illustrated coffee table book by a university press, and Elaine surely would have become a professor of Art had she not suffered from debilitating migraine headaches and ferocious anxiety whenever she agreed to give lectures to large groups of students and make presentations to her fellow academics. And so shortly after gaining her PhD, she found her niche far from the public eye in the quiet backrooms of the art museum and has worked there ever since.

Sid and Elaine have been married for thirty-five years and have two children, Jeffrey, thirty-four, who resembles his father to a striking degree, and Katy, thirty-two, who is seven inches taller than her mother and wears her auburn hair in a long braid.

When Jeffrey turned twelve, he stopped talking to Sid; and they did not reconcile until Jeffrey was twenty-three. Now they are good buddies and go to several basketball games together every year at Madison Square Garden, Jeffrey a commercial artist and set designer living in Manhattan.

Katy is a community college English teacher in nearby Bucks County. She has unceasingly adored Sid since the day she was born, and has never stopped believing her father is the great writer he claimed to be when she was a girl, despite his never having written anything in her lifetime.

Save for those trips into New York City to attend basketball games with Jeffrey, and to go to plays with Elaine, comp tickets courtesy of Jeffrey, Sid rarely leaves Lambertville, though he and Elaine have recently begun planning a trip to Europe for when Elaine retires three years from now. Elaine wants to visit museums and places where some of her favorite paintings were made, and Sid wants to go to plays and bookstores and wander around looking for appealing cafés.

On a Saturday in early November, Jeffrey and his fiancé Nina make the trek by bus from Manhattan to Lambertville, and Katy and her husband Phil drive over from Bucks County to celebrate Sid and Elaine’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Jeffrey and Nina will spend the night with Sid and Elaine in the house where Jeffrey and Katy grew up, and Phil and Katy will drive back to their apartment in Bucks County after supper and dessert.

They dine at Falcon where the staff fawns over them, Sid beloved by everyone who works at the restaurant, the glorious feast a gift from the owners. For dessert, however, they return to Sid and Elaine’s house to enjoy Elaine’s renowned pumpkin pie and sit by the fire in the living room and talk without having to shout over the clatter and din of the restaurant.

Nina, who is thirty-two and Portuguese, is new to the family constellation, she and Jeffrey having met a year ago, a spring wedding in the works, and she is most curious to learn how Sid and Elaine met.

“You go first, honey,” says Elaine, calling from the kitchen that adjoins the living room. “And then I’ll correct your errors.”

“Let us not call the details of my version errors,” says Sid, standing in front of the fireplace with his back to the fire and smiling at his children and their partners. “Let us call them variations on a theme, the original theme lost to the vagaries of time.”

“Can you agree about where you met?” asks Nina, vivacious and pretty with long black hair, a talent agent at United Creativity, her Portuguese accent catnip to Jeffrey.

Where is not in doubt,” says Sid, looking at Elaine. “But when is. She says we met in Ninth Grade at Hunterdon High, I say Eighth. In either case, we liked each other from the get go, and though we each had multiple sweethearts in high school, we were an item for the whole of our Senior year before she cruelly dumped me to clear her calendar as prelude to matriculating at Yale.”

“I would argue that he had the multiple sweethearts in high school,” says Elaine, looking up from making coffee to smile at Nina. “Sid was a notorious playboy in high school, whereas I was faithful to Ron Durant for the two years before Sid and I became the aforementioned item. But all in all, he has the gist of our getting together right.”

“So you did the dumping,” says Phil, a big gregarious Systems Analyst, thirty-nine, with carrot-red hair and many freckles. “Not Sid.”

“Amazing but true,” says Elaine, smiling sweetly at Sid. “He was staying in Lambertville and not looking very hard for a job, while I was an ambitious academic who thought I would probably marry another of my kind.”

“Which she almost did,” says Sid, nodding. “And she probably would have had not our tenth high school reunion intervened.”

“Also true,” says Elaine, coming into the living room and standing beside Sid. “I arrived at the reunion after many weeks of ambivalence, and there he was in all his twenty-eight-year-old glory. And I was a goner.”

“Love,” says Sid, putting his arm around Elaine. “The unsolvable mystery.”

“Were you a waiter in those days, Sid?” asks Nina, who can’t quite recall the specifics of Jeffrey’s synopsis of his parents’ lives.

“No. At the time of our tenth reunion I was a shoe salesman,” says Sid, chuckling at memories of those two years in the trenches at Landmark Shoes. “After that, before I became a waiter, I had many other jobs. Bartender, UPS delivery person, grocery store clerk, landscaper, and Elaine’s favorite, night watchman at the municipal dump. To name but a few.”

A silence falls, which often happens after Sid reels off some of the jobs he had before he hit rock bottom the year Katy left for college and he got fired for the umpteenth time and Elaine moved out and got an apartment in Princeton. With his job resume a guarantee no one would hire him, Sid begged an old high school friend for a job bussing tables in the ritzy café Mon Cher, and when a flu epidemic knocked out most of the wait staff, Sid was pressed into service and proved to be such an outstanding waiter, the café manager could not imagine demoting Sid when the epidemic ended.

A year later, the owner of Falcon offered Sid a job, Sid jumped at the chance, and six months later Elaine came home to stay.

“Jeffrey tells me you write poetry, Sid,” says Nina, feeling the need to break the silence.

“I didn’t say he wrote poetry,” says Jeffrey, shaking his head. “I said he wanted to write poetry.”

Elaine returns to the kitchen to cut the pie and pour the coffee.

“Both things are true,” says Sid, smiling wistfully at Nina. “Before Jeffrey and Katy were born, I wrote poems and plays and screenplays and two novels. But after the kids were born, all I did was talk about writing and how great I could be if only… something. That was before I found my way and got well. And now that I am well, I claim only to be a waiter at Falcon, husband to my marvelous wife, and devoted father to my glorious children.”

“But if you ever do write anything, I know it will be great,” says Katy, nodding assuredly.

“Why do you say that?” asks Elaine, pained by her daughter’s blind allegiance to Sid’s old unfounded boasts.

“Because it’s what I believe,” says Katy, gazing steadfastly at her mother. “I think he’s a genius with words. I think the stories he told us when we were kids are the best stories never written down, and I think the spontaneous poems he makes up for us on our birthdays and at Christmas are the best poems I’ve ever heard. And I know it bothers you I believe in him the way I do, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking Pop is brilliant.” She shrugs defiantly. “So there.”

When Katy and Phil have gone home to Bucks County, and Sid and Elaine have gone to bed, Nina and Jeffrey sit on either side of the queen-sized bed in the guest room that used to be Katy’s bedroom, responding to business-related emails on their laptop computers.

“Done,” says Jeffrey, closing his laptop. “No more hysterical clients until we get back to the city.”

“I just have one more little bit to write,” says Nina, typing fast. “Kulu is coming to New York with his wife next week and they want to take us to dinner. You up for that?”

“Yeah, that could be fun,” says Jeffrey, undressing. “What’s his wife like?”

“She’s… oh what’s the word when a woman has very large breasts?”

“Buxom,” says Jeffrey, yawning.

“Yes. She’s buxom and loud and bossy. You and I won’t be saying much.” Nina sends off the email and closes her laptop. “I’m touched Kulu wants to celebrate our engagement with us.”

“He’s quite the upcoming star, isn’t he?” says Jeffrey, crawling under the covers.

“Everything depends on his next album,” says Nina, taking off her dress and hanging it in the closet. “He’s got the most beautiful voice and his melodies are wonderful, but his lyrics… well, he’s so young.” She climbs into bed. “You’re not mad at me, are you? For asking your father if he wrote poetry?”

“No, no,” says Jeffrey, opening his arms to her. “I’m not mad. Pop didn’t mind. It’s Mom who doesn’t like talking about the hard times before Pop found his way.”

“I think Katy is right,” says Nina, settling into Jeffrey’s embrace. “There’s something remarkable about your father. I love his energy. And his talk is full of poetry. I have a very strong feeling about his talent, even if he doesn’t use it.”

“Well you certainly have a knack for discovering talent,” says Jeffrey, no longer angered by the subject of his father’s unrealized potential. “But it’s kind of a moot point. He hasn’t written anything in thirty-five years.”

“Would you mind if I asked him if he’d like to write some lyrics for Kulu?”

Jeffrey ponders her question for a moment and says, “I would bet all the money I have that he’s never heard of Kulu.”

“Probably not, but I would give him Kulu’s album,” says Nina, excited by the prospect of Sid writing something for Kulu to consider. “Or do you think asking him would awaken old demons?”

“I think he would politely decline,” says Jeffrey, smiling sadly. “But Mom would be upset. She… yeah, that’s a real hot button for her.”

“Then I won’t,” says Nina, letting go of the idea. “The last thing I want to do is upset your mother.”

A week later, in her swank office on the twenty-seventh floor of a seventy-story building a few blocks from Times Square, Nina is meeting with Kulu and his wife Sara. Kulu is twenty-one, his black hair in a ponytail, his mother Turkish, his father British. Sara is twenty-five, a blonde from Brooklyn, brash, and ferociously possessive of her talented husband.

“We were talking to Jason Royal,” says Sara, who likes Nina but wishes she wasn’t quite so attractive, “and he said he knows for a fact that movie people are interested in Kulu. Not just for his music, but as an actor. You heard anything about that?”

“As you know, we’ve gotten several inquiries from people who may want to use his music in their movies,” says Nina, nodding. “But as far as Kulu being in a movie, we haven’t had any solid offers. We could produce an acting demo if that’s a direction you want to go, but I really think focusing on making his second album fantastic should be our number one priority.”

“Definitely,” says Kulu, his accent a mix of British and Turkish. “I’m all about the music, you know, but the words just aren’t coming to me these days. I’m too crazy busy making videos. I’ve got endless music in my head, but… yeah, the words. I need some time away from all the noise. You know? I mean… those first twelve songs took me years to write. I wrote Cats In the Alley when I was sixteen.”

“Would you consider collaborating with a lyricist?” asks Nina, thinking of several songwriters she knows who would love to work with Kulu—and now Sid, her future father-in-law, comes to mind.

“Sure, if I like the lyrics,” says Kulu, nodding. “Love to.”

“Who are you thinking of?” asks Sara, frowning at Nina.

“A few people,” says Nina, directing her words at Kulu. “I’ll ask around. There’s no shortage of poets. The trick is finding the right one for you.”

With Jeffrey’s permission, and per Jeffrey’s suggestion, Nina sends a copy of Kulu’s first album to Sid at Falcon rather than to Sid and Elaine’s house.

Dear Sid,

Kulu is one of my favorite clients. I enclose his first album, Singing Dictionary, which was quite successful. He is currently looking for lyrics for his second album of songs. If his music inspires you to write something, I would love to show your words to him. I understand you may not be interested in pursuing this, but I wanted to see if my feeling about you might bear fruit. Looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving.

Love, Nina

Driving home after a busy Friday night at Falcon, Sid slips Singing Dictionary into the CD player of his twenty-year old Camry, notes the time is 10:37, and is pleasantly surprised when a solo guitar begins to play and a man with a sweet high tenor sings a lovely melancholy song about growing up in London, the child of an Englishman and a Turkish woman, his childhood friends British, Turkish, African, and Indian—never imagining that the colors of their skin would figure so largely in how their lives unfolded.

Sid is enchanted by three of the five songs he listens to on his way home and as he sits in the car in front of his house. The two songs he doesn’t care for are rap songs that sound like ten thousand other such songs, none of which appeal to him, but even Kulu’s rap has touches of melody he finds appealing; and as he climbs the stairs to his front door, he thinks I would like to try to write something for Kulu, but I don’t know if I can.

Elaine is wearing her old-fashioned blue flannel nightgown, her hair down, as she sits on the living room sofa reading a murder mystery, her nightly habit, their calico cat Cezanne curled up in her lap, the fire in the hearth spluttering.

When Sid comes in she closes her book and asks, “You okay? You don’t usually sit in your car for so long. Listening to a basketball game?”

“No,” he says, sitting beside her. “I was listening to this.” He hands her Kulu’s Singing Dictionary. “Nina sent it. Here’s her note.”

Having turned these things over to Elaine, Sid gets up and goes into the kitchen to make cocoa as he always does on Friday and Saturday nights, their two late nights together because Elaine doesn’t have to get up early for the next two mornings to make the drive to Princeton.

Elaine reads the note from Nina and says, “Why would she do this?”

“I guess she thinks I can write,” says Sid, mixing milk and cocoa powder and a dollop of honey in a pot on the stove.

Elaine frowns at the cover of Singing Dictionary—Kulu dressed as a fairy-tale prince dancing with a human-sized dictionary (with a face and arms and legs) in a fairy-tale ballroom full of people of all ages and sizes and colors wearing fantastic costumes.

“Why would she think that?” asks Elaine, irate. “Because Katy persists in her fantasies about you being a great writer?”

Sid stirs the cocoa and says, “I can’t think why else.”

“How awkward,” says Elaine, grimacing. “Do you think Jeffrey knows she sent this?”

“He does,” says Sid, pouring the cocoa into two big white mugs. “I called him on my break tonight. He said Nina asked him if it would be okay, and he suggested she send the album to the restaurant rather than here so I would have the option of telling you or not, in case I wanted to spare you the…”

“The what?” she says angrily.

“Displeasure,” he says, bringing the cocoa into the living room, handing her a mug, and sitting beside her again.

“Jesus,” says Elaine, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth. “Now we’ll have all this hanging over us at Thanksgiving. Just what we didn’t need.”

“Sweetheart,” he says, gently. “It’s not a big deal. She’s a talent agent. This is what they do. They hunt for talent. They follow their hunches. They take chances. There’s nothing wrong with her asking. She’s just doing her job.”

“What are you going to say to her?” asks Elaine, distraught. “When you send it back?”

“That depends,” he says, sipping his cocoa.

“On what?” she says, glaring at him.

“On you,” he says, meeting her angry gaze.

“What are you talking about?” she says, startled by his reply.

“If you will give me permission to try to write some lyrics for this singer, I will.” Sid waits a moment before saying more. “But if you don’t want me to try, I won’t.”

“You want to?” asks Elaine, mortified.

“I do,” he says, nodding solemnly. “I think it would be good for me. To try. With no expectations of getting anything I like. Just a bit of trying.”

“I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do,” she says tersely.

“Yes, you can,” he says kindly. “I will never again knowingly do anything that makes you unhappy. And if my doodling in a notebook, searching for words, makes you angry because of everything we went through for all those difficult years, I won’t do it. But if you can happily let me try, I will.”

“Happily?” she says, laughing despite her distress. “I have to be happy about it?”

“Yes,” he says, laughing with her. “You have to be happy about it. Not necessarily gleeful, but at least a little happy.”

“Why do I have to be happy?” she says, pouting. “Can’t I just be grudgingly accepting?”

“No, you have to be happy,” he says, taking a deep breath. “So I’ll know we’re free of the old shit.”

Now he sets his mug on the coffee table, takes her mug from her and sets it beside his, puts his arms around her and holds her close.

“Okay,” she says, relenting. “I’ll be happy. Probably not gleeful. But happy you want to try.”

“You know what I’ve discovered?” says Sid, talking to Frieda, his friend and fellow waiter at Falcon, Frieda tall with curly brown hair, the two of them checking the tables to make sure everything is in order for the first seating of the evening. “My father is with me when I’m writing. Or it would be truer to say, when I’m trying to write.”

“What do you mean ‘with you’?” asks Frieda, rolling her shoulders in anticipation of five hours of ceaseless labor.

“He’s sitting beside me, watching me,” says Sid, fascinated by the workings of his mind. “He’s young, the way I remember him from before he left us. When I was twelve. And I hear my mother saying, ‘I hope nobody wants anything that bastard writes… the way he treated me, the way he treated you and your sister.’”

“Was he abusive to you?” asks Frieda, giving Sid a worried look.

“No, he was always nice to me. When he was around. Which wasn’t often. And then he abandoned us. So I suppose if you consider abandonment abuse, then, yes, he was abusive. But when he was with us, I liked him. He was funny. Witty. Liked to wrestle with me on the living room rug. Always let me win in the end. I loved that. Took me to ball games and plays. And he knew everything about everybody in show biz, told the greatest stories about movie stars and Broadway stars and… a treasure trove of juicy gossip. My sister was crazy about him. She really took it hard when he ran off to Los Angeles. Cried for weeks. Months.”

“So do you think he’s getting in the way of your writing?” asks Frieda, continuing her warm-ups by twisting her torso to the right and left several times.

“Yeah, I think he is,” says Sid, folding his arms. “I think maybe he’s always been in the way, along with my mother’s bitterness about him leaving… and my unresolved sorrow.”

“Maybe you should see somebody about that,” says Frieda, smiling bravely at the first four patrons of the evening being led to a table in her section.

“You mean a therapist?” says Sid, frowning at the idea.

“No, an auto mechanic,” says Frieda, rolling he eyes. “Yes, a therapist. I go to a great guy. I’ll give you his number.”

“Sid,” says Olaf, fiftyish and a few inches taller than Sid, his head shaved, his red T-shirt and gray sweat pants and bare feet more suggestive of a yoga teacher than a psychotherapist. He is standing in the doorway of his office, looking out at Sid sitting in one of the two chairs in the small waiting room.

“I know you,” says Sid, rising from his chair. “I’ve seen you at Falcon, but I’ve never waited on you because Frieda always does.”

“She says you taught her everything she knows,” says Olaf, shaking Sid’s hand. “Welcome.”

Sid is surprised to see a massage table in the center of the room, no sofa, no desk, and two armless chairs facing each other by the one window.

“Now I’m confused,” says Sid, laughing nervously. “I thought you were a psychotherapist not a massage therapist.”

“I am a psychotherapist,” says Olaf, gesturing to the two chairs. “Have a seat and I’ll explain.”

Sid sits in one of the chairs, Olaf in the other.

“I am a licensed psychotherapist,” says Olaf, having made this speech many times, “and a licensed massage therapist, but I don’t give massages. I got the massage license so there would be no legal issues arising from my touching my clients. What I do is apply very light pressure to places on your body to facilitate the flow of your memories and feelings. The first session is complimentary. Some people don’t choose to come back after the first time, some people only come a few times, and some come many times. My goal is to help you get unstuck from whatever you’re stuck on. Sometimes that happens in the course of a session or two, sometimes it takes much longer. Any questions?”

“Do you think you’re psychic?” asks Sid, liking Olaf but feeling wary of him.

“I think we’re all psychic,” says Olaf, nodding. “And it seems the more emotionally unstuck we get, the more access we have to our intuitive power, which is what I think being psychic is. Uninhibited intuition.”

“Did you love your parents?” asks Sid, wanting to see how much Olaf will reveal about himself.

“Yes,” says Olaf, without hesitation. “My mother was very warm and available and easy to love, while my father related to me intellectually, but I knew he loved me, so I loved him, too.”

“Have you ever had a panic attack?” asks Sid, thinking of the many he had in the months after Elaine left him. “I’m talking about the sure-you’re-gonna-die-any-minute kind of panic attack.”

“No,” says Olaf, shaking his head. “Not yet.”

Sid laughs. “May you never have one.”

“Thank you,” says Olaf, smiling warmly at Sid. “So what brings you here today? What’s on your mind?”

“It’s a long story,” says Sid, feeling he might cry, not because he’s sad, but because he is already experiencing relief in knowing he will finally be able to tell his story, the whole story, to someone who will listen and understand and be sympathetic.

“We’ve got ninety minutes,” says Olaf, gesturing gallantly to the table. “Shall we?”

“The whole thing was amazing,” says Sid, describing his first session with Olaf to Elaine as they make supper together, this being one of his two nights off. “But the most amazing thing was when he took hold of my ankles, one in each hand, and applied a little bit of traction, and I felt myself come into my body so completely, I don’t think I’ve ever been all the way in my body until that moment.”

“What do you mean ‘in your body?’ You mean grounded or centered or…”

“I mean in,” says Sid, excitedly. “Not hovering outside of myself. My consciousness, my self-awareness, has always been barely connected to my body, connected by… I don’t know, tiny threads of floating neurons? But when I came into my body, oh my God, I felt so good, so clearheaded, so strong.”

“I want to go,” says Elaine, nodding emphatically. “Would you mind if I went to him, too?”

“Why would I mind?” says Sid, embracing her. “Imagine if we were both all the way in our bodies, and we were together.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Think of the sex, Elaine.”

“I was thinking of not being afraid of everything,” she says, laughing. “But I will think of the sex, too.”

Sid is lying on his back on Olaf’s table, his eyes closed, as Olaf stands at Sid’s head, using both of his hands to cradle Sid’s skull.

“I realize now,” says Sid, speaking quietly, “that when my father went away, my mother lost her desire to… I don’t know how to say this.”

“When your father went away,” says Olaf, slowly repeating Sid’s words, “your mother…”

“Stopped being tender,” says Sid, seeing his mother sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, her supper untouched. “Stopped being interested in us. Stopped asking us about school, about our friends, about what we were thinking.”

“So what did you do?”

“I think I made an unconscious decision to try to take my father’s place, to become my father, so she wouldn’t miss him anymore, wouldn’t feel so alone. So she’d love us again. That’s when I started writing stories and one-act plays and poems, taking Drama classes and being in plays and singing in the choir, all in imitation of my father. But no matter what I did, she didn’t change back into the sweet woman she’d been before he left. She did soften over the years, and when I became a waiter, she would come to Falcon and I would wait on her, and she… she loved that. Loved the care I took with her.”

“When did she die?”

“Seven years ago,” says Sid, opening his eyes. “The year after my father died.”

“Were you with her when she died?” asks Olaf, moving to Sid’s right side and holding Sid’s hand while gently touching Sid’s sternum.

“No,” says Sid, tears welling up from deep inside him. “I got there an hour after she died. Late again.”

“What do you mean? Late again.”

“I mean… I was never good enough. Just like my father was never good enough.”

“But you were good enough, Sid. You were absolutely good enough. And so was your father. So was your mother. You and your father and your mother and your sister, and I, too, we all traveled through this world of sorrow and delight to the last moments of our lives, which for you and me is right now. And right now, as we’ve said again and again, we can stop telling ourselves those stories about not being good enough, about always being late, about always failing. We can tell new stories. True stories. About how skillful we are at what we do, how creative and inventive and loving we are. You help me so much, Sid, as I help you. That’s the story I like telling and hearing right now. That we are beacons of love for each other and for the world.”

“It’s very tender where you’re touching,” says Sid, his tears flowing as never before. “But I love how it hurts. Fills me with hope.”

“Wow,” says Sid, standing at the window in Nina’s office on the twenty-seventh floor of the skyscraper rising from the ordered chaos of Manhattan. “What a view. Who would want to be any higher than this?”

“Not I,” says Nina, sitting at her desk typing fast, answering an email. “I’d like to have my office in a beach house in Santa Barbara, and maybe someday I will.”

Sid sits down on the plush sofa. “You’re sure I’m dressed okay for where we’re going to lunch?”

“You’re perfect,” says Nina, glancing at him.

“You said I didn’t need to wear a tie, but everyone at Falcon says the place we’re going is off-the-charts fancy, so…”

“Sid,” says Nina, getting up and showing off her slinky red dress, her black hair piled on her head, huge gold hoop earrings dangling from her ears. “I’m dressed up. Okay? Kulu’s wife will be dressed up. But Kulu will be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or a basketball jersey or… who knows? Men can wear anything they want these days. That’s the new thing for men in show biz. Anything goes. I saw Greta Gerwig having lunch with a guy the other day in a super snazzy restaurant. She was wearing a five-thousand-dollar dress and looked like she was about to accept an Oscar, and the guy she was with was wearing dirty jeans and a faded old pajama top. Trust me. If anything, you’re overdressed.”

“I wish I’d known,” says Sid, glancing anxiously at the doorway. “I have a fabulous selection of faded old pajama tops.”

“Next time, darling,” says Nina, winking at him. “Ah, here they are.”

Sara and Kulu enter Nina’s office, both of them smiling rapturously. Sid jumps up, and Kulu takes Sid’s hand and says, “Sid, Sid, Sid, at last we meet in-person.”

“Kulu,” says Sid, the name catching in his throat. “I love those two songs you sent me. My wife and I listened to them again and again and again, and we danced to them, and then I wrote two more songs for you.” He blushes. “I brought them with me.”

“You’re amazing,” says Kulu, looking into Sid’s eyes. “I can’t wait to see them. You know what happens when I read your lyrics?”

“What?” asks Sid, breathlessly.

“The melodies are already there, flowing out of your words. This morning I wrote the tune for Heart Song. It’s so beautiful. You’re gonna love it.”

Heart Song

 

Here we are, you and I, growing older, standing by.

I propose a daring quest. You go east. I’ll go west.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

What we’re seeking is what we’ll find

when we overcome the secret mind

they put inside us long ago

so we don’t remember what we really know.

 

There’s the crossroad. Here’s the dawn.

Say goodbye. We’ll both be gone.

Leap the boundaries. Break the rules.

Take no prisoners, don’t be cruel.

Sing your heart song. Sing your heart song.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

Find the entrance. Run the course.

Change your heart song at its source.

Change the grammar. Change the text.

Change your thoughts of what comes next.

I tell you, my love, we will find a way to end

the reign of sorrow and fear and misunderstanding.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

But we will always hear our heart songs.

 

Shameless Self-Promotion

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

wildgardener2

Wild Gardener Black painting by Todd

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

“And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world—unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.” e.e. cummings

In those long ago days when I was invited to read from my novels in bookstores and libraries, and for college audiences and writers groups, I was frequently asked if I had any helpful advice for people who wanted to become writers and make their livings from writing. This was before the advent of personal computers and digital everything, before people began writing with their thumbs on phones, and before a new myth conquered the collective psyche. That new myth goes something like this: Writing novels is easy. Anyone can write a novel without any practice and without ever having written a short story or even a viable paragraph. Just do it! And then publish your novel online and…voila!

Myths take hold and become established because they reflect a strong collective belief or wish. The myth that writing a novel is easy reflects a strong collective desire for everything to be easy. The suggestion by e.e. cummings that even just beginning to master the art of writing a good poem may take many years of practice, is the quantum opposite of the new myth about how easy it is to write poetry and fiction. After all, poems are just stacks of lines of words, right? So say today’s college academics and snake oil merchants making millions running the thousands of Creative Writing MFA programs now extant in America, programs wherein the only requirement for getting an MFA is enough money to pay the exorbitant tuition.

How hard can stacking lines of words be, especially now that the latest vogue in academic poetics is for those stacks of lines of words to not make the least bit of sense—literal, symbolic, or otherwise. Indeed, making sense is now considered a bad thing by academic poetry professors. Logic and meaning and connectivity are clearly signs of enslavement to something or other and must be avoided at all costs. Strike out any combination of words that might be construed to possibly make some sort of sense. Embrace the random whatever. Okay! Let’s get stacking.

Contrast the new anybody-can-do-anything-with-ease myth with cummings suggesting, “If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Ten or fifteen years of hard work? Nobody gonna buy that app.

In any case, way back when I was presenting my published works to a public still abiding by the old myth that it takes years of practice and persistence to possibly succeed as a writer or an artist, I was forever being asked for advice about how to proceed on the artist’s path. After several bumbling attempts to give helpful answers, I settled on the following. “I have two words of advice for anyone who wants to be a writer or an artist in our society, and those two words are low overhead. The less time you must spend making money to pay for rent and food, the more time you will have, as cummings put it, to fight and work and feel your way to the beginnings of mastery.”

Ah but mastery of the art form is only part of the struggle if an artist hopes to make money from his or her creations. And it is on this trying-to-make-money-from-art leg of the artist’s journey when most artists give up their quests, for this is the part of the process largely controlled by others. This is the part of the journey when the artist learns the painful truth that making money from art in America has little or nothing to do with art and everything to do with selling one’s self.

How ironic! Having worked with hundreds of writers as a teacher and editor, and having known hundreds of artists, I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of writers and artists in our society are introverts, many of them extremely introverted and painfully shy. Yet nearly all the successful artists and writers in America, as measured by the amount of money made from their creations, are extroverts. Indeed, all the most commercially successful of my former students and clients are minimally talented, while none of the several brilliant writers I worked with has had any commercial success to speak of.

This was not always the case. American literature and music and art prior to the advent of television and mass media and the corporate takeover of culture, was peopled with many painfully shy introverts represented by savvy extroverted agents and publishers who recognized the value of those oddballs’ genius.

So what? What’s wrong with most of today’s popular authors being beautiful and handsome and sexy and coming off well on talk shows and infomercials? Sure their books aren’t very good, but some of the books are kind of okay. Aren’t they? And besides, who cares about making money from art now that anybody can publish his or her book online and no one will stop him or her. That’s great, isn’t it? Artistic freedom from the tyranny of corporate lap dogs. Power to the people. A global creative renaissance via YouTube and podcasts and cyber sharing! Right on!

Yes! Nowadays anyone can publish anything and record anything and draw anything and say anything and film anything and offer those anythings to the world. And I’ve studied many of the ways people do that kind of sharing and I think that’s…yeah, exactly. Okay. But because I am a painfully shy introverted techno doofus detached from all cyber social network sites, as well as being an old-fashioned diehard three-dimensionalite, and because shameless self-promotion is a necessity for the cottage-industry artist of our time to eke out a living amidst the new electronic digital smartphone e-everything reality, I offer the following for you to reject or embrace or ignore or respond to.

Shameless Self-Promotion Presents

Todd’s New Stuff For You and To Give As Gifts

Helloooo out there wherever you are. I’ve got two new creations for you to possibly buy along with lots of somewhat older goodies you may wish to consider buying. If you’ve never bought anything of mine, that’s okay. Please don’t let that stop you from doing something you’ve never done before. I hope you’ll buy multiple things from me and in so doing support the arts and stir the synergetic pot and be happily surprised at how good my books and music are. This my hope.

I just got my shipment of Incongroovity, my fourth piano-centric CD, and I’m selling this entrancing album for a mere ten bucks. I still call them albums and array the tracks to be listened to as an album, though the new norm of perception is random individual track downloads, and you can do the download thing with Incongroovity, too, from iTunes and CD Baby etc. But you might love the original art I made to package the disc. Talk about a neato stocking stuffer. This is it. Nine groovacious piano instrumentals, one song Real Good Joe (a stirring tune about coffee and love) and two evocative and sensual poems set to piano music.

And I just picked up my second batch of my novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror from Zo, Mendocino’s premiere copy shop. Illustrated by the author, each handsome comb-bound copy is individually and extravagantly signed and numbered by the author. Oasis Tales of the Conjuror is the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in creative and harmonious ways. The stories are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival. Only seventeen (17) bucks a copy, you may want to get several because…why not? To further whet your appetite, you can read the first three chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror at Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

At this same web site you can listen gratis to big chunks of audio versions of Todd’s novels and short stories, sample music from Todd’s music CDs, peruse his art, and buy books and cards and music with a credit card or email Todd to arrange to pay with check or cash. And no matter how many of these wonderful creations you buy, shipping is only five bucks. Such a deal!

So there it is, my shameless self-promotion for 2013—my response to the new digital age. I may be out of step, out of time, out of gas, and out to lunch, but as I climbed the steep hill from the village yesterday, my knapsack full of the next twenty copies of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, I felt some invisible power lift my pack so the load did not weigh too heavily upon me. And as I began to flag on the home stretch and to doubt the wisdom of my seemingly retrograde strategy, there came a delicious tail wind that propelled me onward.

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

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

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”