My book of short stories Little Movies came out just as we began to shelter-in-place in mid-March of 2020. I didn’t plan to bring out a book simultaneously with the coming of a pandemic, but that’s what happened.
I was trying a new
way (for me) of bringing out a book through a company that would make the book
available as a handsome paperback orderable from actual bookstores and online
sources, as well as an e-book available from Apple Books,
Kindle, Kobo, and Nook. I was hoping this new way would prove more
successful than my earlier self-publishing of signed and numbered spiral-bound editions
of my stories, and that word-of-mouth and online reviews would enlarge my
However, four months
into the process very few people have purchased copies of Little Movies and even fewer people have availed themselves of the
inexpensive e-book versions. Thus my audience has not noticeably grown as a
result of the book being so widely available.
The good news is: a handful
of readers have emailed or called to say they love the book, and I’ve gotten six
terrific customer reviews on Amazon and one lovely customer review on Barnes
& Noble. Here are those reviews followed by a few links to places where,
should you be interested, you can order paperback copies or download e-books.
Perhaps you will share these reviews with your book-reading friends.
William Carpenter wrote: This beautifully crafted, spirited and moving set of stories is the perfect antidote to pandemic isolation. As the title suggests, Walton’s scenes and characters are highly cinematic with a visual clarity that turns your Kindle screen into a home theater. Music is such a powerful theme woven through the stories that it’s like a soundtrack. These are often people in the second phases of their lives, who have learned through solitude their need for human contact and community, and they practice the generosity and openness that will enable it. They have made mistakes and have learned from them, so they approach their new choices with caution and respect. “There are no mistakes,” one the characters says, “only experience. This is about carrying on with curiosity and openness and love and acceptance.” Those qualities motivate Todd Walton’s colorful and varied characters as they work toward small personal transformations that in time could add up to a transformed world. As long as there’s a reason to stay inside and read, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Andrew Campbell wrote: A new short story collection by Todd Walton is certainly a cause for celebration. Little Movies, Walton’s first collection of stories since Calliope of Hope, is just the thing for this time of fear and uncertainty. Reading Walton’s work is like spending time in a wonderful community with clean water and clean air, with music and magic, with bright, articulate, creative, and thoughtful people, and, as the subtitle hints, with love and transformation. Todd Walton labors in the hinterlands and gives us small messages of light and hope and love. After reading one of his stories, I look out the window and the world shines a bit more brightly. No small accomplishment for an artist.
Robert Smith Jr. wrote: Little Movies is not for “Superficialists” as one of Todd Walton’s characters describes a subset of shoppers. However, if you are read-shopping for interesting characters and inspiring short stories, stop by and spend some time with these 14 engaging gems. Some of them are connected, like my favorite: “Augie and Tober’s Quest”. I also really liked the stories that focused on strong women. Mr. Walton is at the top of his game with writing like this: “I used to aspire to lifelong monogamy. But after being married for seven disastrous years to a woman I should have spent two happy days with and not a minute more, I find it much more satisfying to let relationships be whatever they want to be.”
Ken wrote: Little Movies, by Todd Walton, was the first short story book I’ve ever read, and I wasn’t disappointed. Beautifully written with such detail that you feel connected to each of the characters in a heartfelt way; and each taking you along with them on their personal journeys. Such sweet stories leaving you with an openness to ponder on life’s lessons and loves, and reminds you there is good in the world. I highly recommend!
Amazon Customer wrote: Todd Walton’s character development keeps you reading and reading to see how they develop and how the story will turn out. His description of the environments the characters live in paint an image that softly imprints on your mind and you begin to feel like you are there. Each story is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s hard to put Little Movies down. This is one of his best!
Bill Fletcher wrote: I just finished reading this book Little Movies: tales of love and transformation and I feel like I have just made a handful of new friends. I have read other books by Todd Walton and always seem to have the same feeling about many of the characters that appear and share their lives with me. This is a great set of short stories that left me looking forward to his next book. Or I might just go back and read it again.
Nancy Macleod wrote: I just finished this book, and it is absolutely delightful! Full of quirky, lovable characters, I was laughing and crying the whole way through! Crying because it is so happy and uplifting—SO needed right now! I just ordered a copy sent to my daughter. Read it, you’ll love it!
Over and over again in the course of his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known before. He met her in elementary school in 1955, fell in love with her briefly in 1962, had a relationship with her in 1966, and lived with her in British Columbia from 1970 to 1973. The last time was in 1978 when they became pen pals for six years until she broke off all communication with him.
1986. Andrew is thirty-eight and his wife Kiki is
forty. They celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary, their four-year-old son Owen
begins attending pre-school, both Kiki and Andrew get their first personal
computers, and Andrew becomes Owen’s sole parent for long stretches of days and
weeks so Kiki can pursue her burgeoning career as a modern dance choreographer.
Owen and Andrew are unhappy about Kiki spending so
much time away from their home on the outskirts of Vancouver, and Andrew wishes
Kiki was content to work with dance companies nearer at hand, but she is not
and has signed contracts to create dances for companies in Montreal, London,
New York, and Los Angeles over the next two years.
They had hoped Andrew’s success with his writing
would continue and they could afford for Andrew and Owen to accompany Kiki on her
various choreography adventures, but when a giant corporation took over the
publishing house that had done so well with Andrew’s first two collections of
short stories, his run of good fortune ended. His third collection was taken
out-of-print a few days after the book was published, and then the corporation
cancelled the publication of his fourth collection, after which his sales figures
branded him an author who doesn’t sell.
Having spent the considerable profits from his
earlier successes on doubling the size of their kitchen and building a spectacular
dance studio for Kiki adjacent to their house, Andrew has taken up carpentry
work again to pay the bills.
Kiki is unhappy about the situation, too, but creating
dances for the best modern dance companies in the world has long been her dream
and she doesn’t want to miss her chance. Knowing how quickly Andrew’s fortunes
changed, Kiki is determined to strike while her iron is hot.
Andrew’s best friend Cal and Cal’s wife Terry and
their children Felicia and Scott live a mile away from Andrew and Kiki and Owen.
Felicia is ten and Scott is five and they are Owen’s best friends and idols. Their
daily presence in Owen’s life, along with Terry as a willing mother substitute,
makes Kiki’s long absences easier for the little boy to handle.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in April—Kiki in
New York after a brief stint at home following seven weeks in Los Angeles—Andrew
is sitting at the counter in the magnificent kitchen he built especially for
Kiki, overseeing Owen and Scott and Felicia making oatmeal raisin cookies, when
the phone rings.
Before he picks up the phone, Andrew prays the
caller is his literary agent Penelope Goldstein calling from Montreal with good
news, though he hasn’t heard a peep from Penelope in three years.
“Hello,” he says, imagining Penelope sitting at
her desk piled high with manuscripts, her glasses perched on the tip of her
“Hi,” says a woman with a musical voice. “May I
speak to Andrew Ross, please?”
For a flickering, Andrew thinks the caller is
Carol Savard, his great friend and correspondent who two years ago severed all
ties with him because, as she wrote in her final letter to him, “The intensity
of my desire to be in a relationship with you makes it impossible for me to sustain
a relationship with anyone else.”
“This is Andrew.”
“My name is Luisa Morningstar. My daughter Lily is
at the Montessori school with your son Owen, and she asked me to make a play
date with him. Is that something we might arrange?”
“Probably,” says Andrew, struck by how much she
reminds him of Carol Savard, though she sounds nothing like Carol. “Can you
hold on a sec?”
“Happy to. Or you can call me back.”
“Good idea,” says Andrew, flustered by the
feelings arising in him. “He’s currently baking cookies.”
“So O,” says Andrew, speaking to his son at
bedtime, “I got a call from Lily’s mother today wondering if you’d like to have
a play date with Lily.”
“I’m playing with Scott and Felicia after school
tomorrow,” says Owen, pursing his lips and shaking his head exactly as his
mother does. “We already planned it.”
“Right, but there are lots of days when you don’t
play with Scott and Felicia. Maybe you’d like to play with Lily on one of those
“Would you be with me?” asks Owen with a touch of
worry in his voice.
“If it’s at our house, of course I’ll be with you,”
says Andrew, knowing Owen doesn’t like going new places without Mama or Papa or
Terry or Cal. “And if it’s at Lily’s house I will definitely be with you the whole
time for the first few times you go there.”
“Okay,” says Owen, nodding.
“You don’t have to have a play date with her. Only
if you like her.”
“I love her,” says Owen, gazing at his father.
“She’s so nice and she’s the best dancer you’ve ever seen.”
“Better than your mother?”
“Maybe a little,” says Owen, pouting. “When’s Mama
“In two weeks,” says Andrew, fighting his tears.
“And this time she’ll be home for a good long while.”
“How long is a good long while?”
“Lots of days,” says Andrew, his heart breaking.
“Lots and lots of days.”
The next morning on his way to the beach house
he’s building with two other carpenters, Andrew drives Owen to the Montessori kindergarten
that occupies a former Methodist church four miles from their house. Owen puts
his knapsack and jacket in his cubbyhole and he and Andrew wave to the head
teacher Mrs. Chandler who is on the phone in her office.
A sturdy middle-aged woman with short gray hair
and rosy cheeks, Mrs. Chandler waves back to them and mouths the words, “Good
morning Owen. Welcome to school.”
“Want to introduce me to Lily?” asks Andrew as he
accompanies Owen out the back door of the schoolhouse and through the children’s
vegetable garden to the large playground.
“Okay,” says Owen, who is usually among the first
children to arrive at school in the morning. “She’s always on the swings when I
get here. Unless it’s raining.”
And sure enough, on the middle swing of three, the
two other swings not yet taken, is a beautiful four-year-old girl with dark
olive skin and big brown eyes, her long black hair done in four intricately woven
braids, swinging higher than most children dare to go and singing Frère Jacques.
On the following Saturday at ten in the morning,
the sky full of dark gray clouds, Luisa brings Lily to Andrew and Owen’s house
for a play date.
Luisa’s exquisite face and her dark olive skin
remind Andrew of the famous bust of Nefertiti. She is exactly Andrew’s height,
five-eleven, and exactly his age, thirty-eight, and she wears her glossy black
hair in a ponytail—her movements and gestures full of grace.
Following a quick tour of the house, during which Owen
and Lily stay in Owen’s room to look at his stuffed animals and books, Andrew
and Luisa sit at the kitchen counter and share a pot of tea.
“You have my dream kitchen,” she says, gazing
around the splendid room. “This is bigger than the kitchen at the restaurant
where I cook.”
“Which restaurant?” asks Andrew, mystified by how
much she reminds him of his former friend Carol Savard, though she looks
nothing like Carol and sounds nothing like Carol, and yet…
Crossroads,” she says, looking at her watch. “I’ve been the breakfast and
lunch chef there for nine years now. I drop Lily off at Montessori at 6:15 and
pick her up at 3:30. I have a special arrangement with Mrs. Chandler.”
“I’ve eaten your delicious food many times,” says
Andrew, who usually drops Owen at school a few minutes after seven, which is
officially the earliest a child is supposed to arrive. “Do you pay Mrs.
“Yes,” she says, nodding. “Only way I can manage.”
She looks at her watch again. “Speaking of which, would it be okay with you if
I left now and came back at two? I know I said I’d stick around for the first
date, but I am so far behind on so many things at home, a few hours alone would
be a godsend.”
“Sure,” says Andrew, disappointed not to have a
longer visit with her. “If Lily’s okay being here without you.”
“Oh she’s used to me leaving her with people she
hardly knows,” says Luisa, getting up. “But I’ll check with her to make sure.”
Andrew accompanies Luisa to Owen’s room where they
find Lily and Owen sitting side-by-side on Owen’s bed looking through a big picture
book of Australian marsupials.
“I’m going now, honey,” says Luisa, smiling at the sight of her daughter with Owen. “I’ll be back at two.”
“Okay,” says Lily, looking up from the picture of
a mother koala and her two babies. “See you later.”
“Good luck with your catching up,” says Andrew,
escorting Luisa to her little old Toyota station wagon. “We’ll see you at two. Or
“You’re a prince,” she says, beaming at him as she
gets into her car.
At three-thirty, while Owen and Lily are giving
each other impromptu concerts on the piano in the living room, Andrew calls Luisa
and gets her answering machine. He is more than a little peeved she took thereabouts to mean an hour and a half late, but when he hears her answering machine message,
he’s glad he felt the need to call her.
She sings in her gorgeous voice, “Don’t know why
there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather,” and follows those words by
saying, “but I do know I want to talk
to you, so please leave a message and I’ll call you back.”
Andrew saunters into the living room, waits for Owen
to finish his improvised piano piece, joins Lily in applauding and asks, “Is
your mom a singer, Lily?”
“Yeah,” she says, taking Owen’s place at the
piano. “I am, too.”
When Luisa finally shows up at 4:15, Andrew is too
angry to accept her apology and she bursts into tears as she leaves with Lily.
“Papa?” asks Owen, watching the little station
wagon drive away. “Why was Lily’s mother crying?”
“I don’t know,” says Andrew, still seething.
“Can we go to Cookie’s
for pizza?” asks Owen, smiling hopefully at his father. “With Lily and her
“I think you’ve seen enough of Lily for one day,”
says Andrew, fixing himself against the idea of asking Lily and Luisa to join
them for pizza.
“What do you mean?” says Owen, frowning. “We weren’t
tired of each other.”
Andrew closes his eyes and breathes deeply to calm
“Please Papa?” says Owen, taking Andrew’s hand.
“Can we ask them to come with us?”
“Okay,” says Andrew, opening his eyes. “I’ll call
He leaves a message on Luisa’s machine and she
calls back fifteen minutes later. “We’d love to meet you at Cookie’s,” she says breathlessly. “At six?”
“Six,” he says, resisting his impulse to add and don’t be late.
Andrew and Owen arrive at Cookie’s at ten minutes past six, the place jammed as always on a
Saturday night, the din fantastic. Luisa and Lily are already there, Lily
wearing a pretty white dress with red polka dots, Luisa wearing a beautiful
turquoise shirt and a long black skirt and looking fabulous.
“We’re under-dressed,” says Andrew, sitting beside
Luisa in the booth—Owen and Lily on booster seats across from them.
“You look fine,” says Luisa, watching his face. “Are
you still mad at me?”
“About what?” says Andrew, studying the menu.
“Oh good,” she says, smiling. “I’m dying for a
beer. Want to split a pitcher?”
Along with their extra large deluxe vegetable pizza
with extra mushrooms, the children have lemonade and the grownups enjoy their
“So tell me
how you came to be the renowned chef of The
Crossroads,” says Andrew, enjoying Luisa’s company. “Spare no details.”
“I thought you might ask me something like that,”
says Luisa, smiling shyly. “So I rehearsed my answer. The first part of it
“How prescient of you,” he says, giving her his
full attention after confirming that Owen is happily devouring his third piece
“I was born in Toronto,” she says, exchanging
smiles with her daughter. “My mother, who died seven years ago, was part-Chippewa,
part-French Quebecois, and she was a fantastic cook. She worked in a hotel
kitchen and had a brief liaison with a man from Cuba. He was an engineer
working on a dam north of the city and was staying in the hotel where my mother
worked. He was unaware he had conceived a child with her until she wrote to him
in Cuba, and once he knew, he sent her money every few months for as long as I
lived at home, which was until I was sixteen.”
“Papa?” says Owen, politely interrupting. “Can we
go look at the fish?”
“Can we, Mama?” asks Lily, nodding hopefully.
When the children are safely stationed at the big
aquarium and gazing in wonder at the neon tetras and swordtails and goldfish,
Luisa continues her story.
“I started working in restaurants when I was thirteen,”
she says, nodding in thanks as Andrew pours her a second glass of beer, “and
I’d been playing piano and singing since I was a little kid, so… to make a very
long story short, my life until I had Lily was always some combination of
singing and working in restaurants. And now my life is entirely restaurant work
and taking care of Lily, though we do sing together and I’m teaching her to
play the piano.”
“And Lily’s father? Where is he?”
“He was a guitarist I used to perform with,” she
says softly. “And after a few years of successfully resisting his advances, one
night I didn’t resist and Lily was made, though I didn’t want to believe I was
pregnant until I was almost three months along, and by then her father had moved
“Did you tell him you were pregnant?”
“No, because I was planning to get an abortion. But
then I had a vivid dream in which my mother came to me and begged me to keep
the child, so I did and named her Lily after my mother. And then when Lily was
two, I decided to contact her father and tell him, partly because I needed
money and partly because I thought he should know, and that’s when I found out
he had committed suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression.”
The children return from watching the fish, ice
cream is ordered, and Luisa asks Andrew, “So your wife is a choreographer and
you are a carpenter. How did you meet?”
“At a party in Montreal,” says Andrew, remembering
the moment he met Kiki—love at first sight—at the height of his success.
“Were you living in Montreal?”
“No, but Kiki was. She grew up there.”
“So what were you
“Oh… visiting friends,” he says, in no mood to
rehash the rise and fall of his writing career.
She arches her eyebrow. “Why don’t I believe you?”
“I don’t know,” he says, caught off guard. “Why
“Because you looked away when you answered. As if
you were ashamed to tell me.”
“Ashamed,” says Andrew, considering that as he finishes
his third glass of beer. “Yeah maybe I am a little, though not about why I was
in Montreal.” He makes a disparaging face. “It’s a long boring story.”
“I’m sure it’s not boring,” she says, splitting the
last of the beer with him. “Maybe next time you’ll tell me.”
“Next play date?” he says, liking her very much.
“Yeah,” she says, liking him very much, too. “Next
That night, after Owen falls asleep during the
bedtime story, Andrew sits at the kitchen table with the intention of writing a
letter to Jason Moreau, the director of the Montreal production of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, a play
based on two of Andrew’s short stories that was a resounding success nine years
ago and helped launch Andrew’s writing career.
But instead of a letter to Jason, out comes a
story about a man and his young son who spend a week at the beach one summer in
an old falling down house, and the fascinating people and animals and birds and
curious conundrums they encounter there.
He writes for five hours without stopping, uses up
two Bic pens and most of the ink in a third, and finishes the seventy-page opus
at one in the morning barely aware of what he has written.
breakfast the next day, Andrew walks with Owen to Scott and Felicia’s house,
and while Owen and Scott build towers of wooden blocks in the living room,
Andrew has coffee with Cal and Terry in the kitchen—Cal a strapping fellow with
curly black hair who has known Andrew since they were in high school together
in California, Terry a pretty redhead who fell in love with Cal the day after
he got to Canada seventeen years ago.
news of Kiki?” asks Cal, who is a professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser
University, his specialties Ethics, Skepticism, and Socrates.
be home in a couple weeks,” says Andrew, weary from his long night of writing.
“We spoke a few days ago and she said everything was going gangbusters and she
loves New York and misses us, but she’s glad she’s doing this, and… like that.”
long will she be home for?” asks Terry, a fine art photographer who makes most
of her money shooting weddings.
less than three weeks,” says Andrew, smiling bravely. “And then she’s off to LA
for seven weeks.”
gonna take some time off while she’s home?” asks Cal, who dearly loves Andrew
and worries about him.
She’ll be working seven days a week on the new dances for LA, so there’s no
point in my taking time off.” He bounces his eyebrows. “But guess what?”
started writing again,” says Terry, nodding excitedly.
did you know?” asks Andrew, laughing.
hear it in your voice,” she says, getting up to make a fresh pot of coffee.
“What are you writing? A play?”
story,” says Andrew, having yet to read what he wrote last night. “First thing
I’ve written in… God… three years.” He frowns at Terry. “What about my voice is
sound like you again,” says Terry, smiling fondly at him. “The old sweet you.”
Owen to play with Scott for the day, Andrew returns home and sits on the living
room sofa reading the seventy pages he wrote last night.
finishes, he takes a deep breath and reads the whole thing again.
gets up and goes out into the garden and lifts his arms to the sky and says,
“Thank you. Thank you for coming back to me.”
night Andrew writes for another four hours and produces another fifty pages.
Again he has only a vague notion of what he’s writing, but he is filled with
joy to be the conduit for whatever so urgently wants to come through.
Monday night, after a long day of roofing the beach house, Andrew reads the pages he wrote last night, and is again filled with gratitude for the story he has wrought.
Now he takes up his pen and writes for another three hours.
Tuesday night, pleased with the previous night’s creation, he finds the flow of words has ceased, so he takes up his guitar and plays a lovely pattern of chords he has never played before, and after playing the pattern a dozen times, he sets down his guitar and writes a chorus and four verses as if copying them from a page hanging in the air before him.
plays the pattern of chords and sings the words, and loves the song more than
any song he’s ever written.
Wednesday night, no words come, nor music, so he wanders into the kitchen to put a kettle on for tea and thinks I should call Luisa and set up a play date for Saturday or Sunday and the phone rings and it’s Luisa.
“I was just thinking of calling you,” he says, sitting down at the counter.
“Really?” she says, smiling into the phone. “Why were you thinking of calling me?”
“Well… to set up a play date for Owen and Lily.”
“Saturday or Sunday?” she says, her voice a salve for his lonely heart. “Either or both work for us.”
“Then Saturday,” he says, picking up a pen and writing on the notepad he keeps by the phone they called each other simultaneously and each got a busy signal. “You want to come here again or…”
“Yeah we like your place much better than ours. And this time I’ll stick around and we can have a visit.”
“Oh good, and I can tell you what I was doing in Montreal when I met my wife.”
“And I can tell you my Montreal story,” she says, her kettle whistling in the background. “When I was singing with a band from hell. Shall we do ten o’clock again?”
“Perfect,” he says, his kettle whistling, too.
The date made, Andrew brews a cup of chamomile tea, fetches his notebook, takes up his pen, and writes like a madman until well after midnight.
Saturday is a marvelous and scary day for Andrew, his five hours with Luisa confirming what he already knew but dared not admit: she is undoubtedly the inspiration for the best stories he’s ever written and the best song he’s ever composed, and most terrifying of all, he’s in love with her and she with him.
Yet neither of them makes the slightest attempt to seduce the other, and at visit’s end they both honestly express how happy they are to have found a new friend.
time Kiki arrives home from New York in early May, Andrew has completed and
rewritten eleven long short stories, composed four new songs, and written two
drafts of a play based on the longest of the new stories entitled Their Summer Holiday.
weekend of family fun, Kiki gets to work on her new dances, Andrew resumes his
carpentry gig, Owen goes to preschool for six hours every day, and everything
seems to be fine.
Saturday play date is arranged for Lily and Owen, Luisa brings Lily over for
the day, and Kiki and Luisa immediately hit it off, though a few minutes into
the play date Kiki has to take a call from her producer in Los Angeles and Luisa
has to hurry away to The Crossroads to
fill in for the weekend lunch chef, and Andrew is left to supervise the
with Owen and Lily in the nearby woods, Andrew thinks about Kiki leaving again
in two weeks, and he is overcome with sorrow.
Saturday night two days before Kiki departs for Los Angeles, Andrew and Kiki
throw a small party. Cal and Terry bring Felicia and Scott, and Luisa comes
with Lily. The five dancers Kiki has been employing to help refine her new
dances come with their partners, and Andrew’s old pal Joe Ganz and his wife
Melinda come—Joe the editor and Melinda the art director of the free weekly The Weekly Blitz in which Andrew first
published the seventeen short stories that eventually became his first and most
successful book The Draft Dodger and
much eating and drinking, the party goers move en masse to Kiki’s studio where
Kiki and her five dancers perform several minutes of the two dances destined
for the stage in Los Angeles—a thrilling display of strong limber people doing
amazing things with their bodies in time to thunderous polyrhythmic music.
the dance show, everyone returns to the house where Joe Ganz requests Andrew read
one of his new stories. Andrew is reluctant to comply until Kiki nods
encouragingly, and Andrew says to the assembled host, “Well… the new stories
I’ve been writing are all quite long, but I think the first ten pages of one of
them makes a good little story within the larger story, so… I’ll fetch those
finds a seat and Andrew stands on the hearth and says, “So this is the first
part of a story I’m calling Their Summer
the first time since the collapse of his writing career, he reads to an
audience and feels again the thrill of deeply connecting with others through
his words, his final sentence eliciting loud applause and shouts of Bravo and Joe Ganz saying, “Oh please
let me run that, Andrew. It’s so fucking good.”
days later, Kiki flies to Los Angeles, and this time her going barely disturbs Owen,
perhaps because he has adjusted to the new reality of her coming and going, and
no longer fears she might never return.
Andrew this is the hardest time yet because he knows that after seven long
weeks without her, she will return for a scant few days before flying to London
where she will stay for two months before returning for a few weeks before
going to Montreal for seven weeks, and then to Los Angeles again, and New York
again… on and on for another year and a half.
her every success—and Kiki’s dances are most successful—more offers come, and when
Kiki returns in mid-September after her two months in London she proposes they
expand the two-year plan to a four-year plan.
you serious?” says Andrew, aghast at what she’s suggesting. “What about Owen?
What about me? We’re in the prime of our lives. Our child is about to turn five.
Is this what you want? To live apart from us for another three years?”
want,” she says, taking a deep breath, “is a divorce. And for you to have
custody of Owen.”
are standing in the kitchen when she says this to him—Owen and Scott in the
driveway racing around on scooters.
he says, stunned. “What are you talking about?”
someone, Andrew,” she says, trying not to cry. “I never in a million years thought
something like this would happen. I never ever wanted to hurt you. But it
happened. And now I need to go this other way. I’m so sorry.”
need to go this other way,” he says, sitting down to keep from falling over. “Is
that what you’re gonna say to Owen?”
explain it to him,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Oh good for you, Kiki,” he says bitterly. “And of course he’ll understand because he’s four-years-old and a four-year-old can easily understand why his mother would abandon him because she needs to go this other way.”
leaves the kitchen.
Andrew bows his head and closes his eyes and hopes to wake from this terrible dream.
end of September, two weeks after Kiki asked for a divorce, she oversees the
loading of her belongings into a moving truck to be driven to her new partner’s
house in Los Angeles while she flies to Montreal. Her new partner, a composer
of music for movies and television, is in his early sixties and has five grown children
from his three previous marriages.
wake of Kiki’s going, Andrew takes a month off from carpentry work to be
available to Owen all day every day, and during this break from work he has the
idea to convert Kiki’s dance studio into a two-bedroom rental unit.
for the conversion, he takes out a fifty-thousand-dollar loan on his house and
hires two excellent carpenters to help him do the work, which involves adding a
kitchen, expanding the bathroom, and putting up internal walls to make two
bedrooms and a living room out of the big open space.
into the transformation of the dance studio, a few days after Thanksgiving, Andrew
comes within a tiny fraction of an inch of cutting off his thumb with a
circular saw, and this terrifying brush with disaster makes him realize he
needs to take time off from carpentry and get some therapy.
order to afford this, he does something he has never done before. He calls his
parents and asks them for a loan of five thousand dollars. They are happy to
oblige and do him one better by volunteering to drive up from California and
stay with him and Owen for a month or two.
sense to me,” says his father Zeke, seventy-four and recently retired after
fifty years of landscaping. “Why else did I stop working?”
rainy afternoon, two days before Christmas, his parents having arrived in early
December, Andrew gets home from a revelation-filled three-hour session with his
psychotherapist and finds his mother Gloria in the kitchen making supper with
Luisa: spaghetti with a seafood sauce, sautéed vegetables, and a big green salad.
knew she was a gourmet cook?” says Gloria, pointing at Luisa. “I invite her to
stay for dinner and she turns out to be Julia Child.”
have a play date today?” says Andrew, sitting down at the counter and gazing at
Luisa. “I completely forgot. I’m so sorry.”
didn’t have a play date,” says Luisa, filling a glass with cold beer and
setting it before Andrew. “But your mother called and said Owen was pining for
Lily, so we came over and… is this okay we’re here?”
course,” says Andrew, downing the beer in a single gulp. “I’m delighted to see
you. I never get to see you enough. And how did you know I was pining for a
she’s clairvoyant,” says Gloria, stirring the noodles in a big bubbling pot. “And
maybe you don’t see her enough because you don’t call her enough. Not that it’s
any of my business.”
would have called her enough, Mom,” says Andrew, taking on his mother’s New
York Jewish accent, “but I’ve been very busy having a nervous breakdown. So sue
supper, while Gloria and Zeke play Go
Fish and Slap Jack with Owen and
Lily in the living room, Andrew and Luisa do the dishes together, Andrew
washing, Luisa drying.
have you been?” asks Andrew, smiling at Luisa. “You never stay to visit anymore
when you bring Lily for a play date, so now I’m hopelessly out of touch with
you. Have you fallen in love with someone?”
she says, drying a dish. “I fell in love with a married man.”
Luisa, don’t do that,” he says, wincing.
do what?” she asks, stopping her drying.
an affair with a married man. You’re fantastic. You’re beautiful and smart and talented
and… there are thousands and millions of unmarried
men who would love to be…”
said I was having an affair with him? I said I’m in love with him. And until
recently I have been studiously avoiding him because he was married and I
didn’t want to… you know… be a home wrecker.”
he says, dropping the scrubber into the soapy water. “I see.”
do?” she asks, setting the plate down.
he says, opening his arms to her. “Now I see.”
They make love for the first time in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1987, hoping not to wake anyone with their ecstatic communion.
Gloria wakes and rejoices her son has found such a lovely partner.
and Lily move in with Andrew and Owen at the end of February just as Andrew
completes his work on the rental unit and rents it to Chas and Betty Lowenstein,
retired schoolteachers who become instant grandparents for Lily and Owen.
rainy Friday morning in early April, the kids at kindergarten, Luisa cooking at
The Crossroads, Andrew is sitting at
the kitchen table writing a new story when the phone rings.
certain this is Luisa calling to say she loves him, he picks up the phone and
says, “I love you.”
sweet of you, Andrew,” says a familiar voice he doesn’t immediately recognize.
“How did you know it was me?”
he says, wondering if she still thinks of herself as his agent. “How nice to
hear from you. I’ve been meaning to call you and see if you got the stories I
sent. And the play.”
only got them,” she says, pausing portentously, “we have an offer from Smith
& Harte to publish the collection. And Jason has arranged for a staged
reading of your play at the Ovid and possibly a production if the reading goes
have an offer to publish my book?” says Andrew, trembling. “What about the data
base that says I don’t sell?”
Smith & Harte don’t care about that,” she says, laughing. “They’re now the
play thing of the wife of some incredibly rich computer person, and she’s desperate
to publish your stories. They’re offering a ten-thousand-dollar advance, which
is less than I’d hoped for, but that horrid database is a problem with most of the other houses so I think we should
take their offer and hope for good reviews and a nice fat paperback sale. Yes?”
says Andrew, his tears flowing.
“She wants to fly you out here to meet you and introduce you to your editor, a young woman named Candace Wollitzer who looks like she’s not yet out of high school, but apparently she’s a huge fan of Draft Dodger and says Extremely Silly Ariel changed her life. You can stay with us or with Jason. He’s so looking forward to seeing you. He’s been terribly depressed since Freddie died, and your new play has revived him. Oh Andrew, I’m so glad you’re getting another chance. I think these new stories are your best yet.”
be coming with my new partner Luisa and her daughter Lily and my son Owen,”
says Andrew, looking out the window as the sun cracks the overlay of gray
clouds and sends a heavenly beam to bathe the room in golden light.
Several times in the course of his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known before. And though the woman never recognizes Andrew as anyone she knows, she is always drawn to him.
In 1978, Andrew is twenty-nine and living ten miles north of Vancouver in a spacious two-bedroom house he built on three acres not far from the ocean. He recently became a Canadian citizen and has been in a relationship with a woman named Leslie Revere for seven months.
Leslie is thirty-eight, an aspiring playwright who
makes her living as a secretary in the biggest talent agency in Vancouver. She just
started dying her brown hair auburn and is determined to get her weight down to
125, though she looks fine at 140. Desperate to get out of the tiny apartment
she shares with another woman in a noisy part of the city, she wants to marry
Andrew, get pregnant, and quit her job.
Andrew, however, does not want to marry Leslie. They
were good friends before they became lovers, but now whenever they spend more
than a few hours together, he feels invaded and overwhelmed and creatively
So why doesn’t he end his relationship with her?
Because two years ago she introduced him to the
playwright Mark Kane who adapted two of Andrew’s short stories, Ariel Gets Wise and Extremely Silly, into a play that had a critically-acclaimed run at
the Kleindorf Theatre in Vancouver and was subsequently staged with great
success in Montreal, which success led to Andrew’s first book, a collection of
stories entitled The Draft Dodger and
other fables being published in Canada and England, and soon to be
published in America.
Thus for the first time in his life, he has enough
money to devote himself entirely to his writing and music, yet he cannot write
or compose anything because he is consumed with the dilemma of how to end his
relationship with Leslie without seriously damaging his new connections in the
theatre world, a world he greatly enjoys being part of.
Inspired by the success of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, Andrew has started writing plays
along with his short stories, Mark Kane is nearly finished with a new play
combining two more of Andrew’s short stories, and several eminent Canadian directors
are eagerly awaiting anything Andrew writes.
But what makes Andrew’s dilemma even more
difficult is that Leslie has written twenty plays over the last fifteen years,
none of which have been produced despite her tireless efforts to convince actors
and directors and theatre companies to take them on. This makes Andrew’s
success both a source of pride for Leslie because she introduced him to Mark,
and a thorn in her side because Andrew was so instantly and hugely successful
in contrast to her many years of failing to have a play produced.
To get some distance from Leslie, Andrew decides
to fly to Montreal to meet his literary and theatrical agent Penelope Goldstein
in-person for the first time, and to visit Jason Moreau, the director of the Montreal
production of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets
Despite Andrew arranging his trip on the spur of
the moment, Penelope says she’ll throw a party for him at her townhouse in
Griffintown, and Jason says he’ll throw a party for Andrew at his beautiful old
house in Little Italy.
Penelope and her partner Judith Perlman, also a
literary agent, insist Andrew stay in their guest room for the night of the
party, and Jason and his partner Frederick Holmes, a choreographer, insist
Andrew stay in their guest room for as long as he likes.
Leslie is terribly upset Andrew didn’t invite her
to accompany him to Montreal, but she hides her displeasure for fear of slowing
the momentum she hopes will carry them into marriage and pregnancy, not
necessarily in that order.
Andrew’s best friend Cal drives Andrew to the Vancouver
airport on a cloudy morning in May. Cal is about to get his PhD in Philosophy from
Simon Fraser University and lives with his wife Terry, a photographer, and
their two-year-old daughter Felicia in a house not far from Andrew’s. Cal and
Andrew were pals in high school in Redwood City, California, roomies at UC
Santa Cruz, and came to Canada together in 1970 so Cal could evade the draft
and not go to Vietnam. Andrew then fell in love with a Canadian woman named
Yvonne and ended up staying in Canada, too.
“I’m surprised Leslie’s not going with you,” says Cal,
glancing at Andrew as they drive through a sudden downpour. “She lives for this
kind of thing, doesn’t she?”
“I didn’t invite her,” says Andrew, testily. “I
don’t want to be in a relationship with her anymore but I can’t seem to work up
the courage to tell her. So I thought I’d run away for a week or two and see if
that might empower me to break her heart.”
“You don’t owe her anything,” says Cal, giving
Andrew a doleful look. “She didn’t write your stories. She introduced you to
Mark who was already a big fan from reading you in The Weekly Blitz. You went to a party with her and she knew Mark
because she knows everybody and he took things from there. Right?”
“It’s more complicated than that, Cal,” says
Andrew, shrugging painfully. “She was my great advocate and…”
“Oh bullshit,” says Cal, tired of listening to
Andrew rationalize staying in a relationship with someone he doesn’t love. “You’re
just afraid she’s gonna badmouth you to her theatre friends if you break up
with her. So what if she does? Your success comes from what you write, not from
who you know.”
“I wish that were true,” says Andrew, wistfully.
“But it’s not. My stories helped me get into the castle, but now that I’m in,
believe me, it is all about who you know among the chosen few. And if the
chosen few don’t like you, it doesn’t matter if you’re the greatest playwright in
the world, they won’t have anything to do with you.”
Cal grimaces. “But your own experience disproves
that. Your stories won the day, not Leslie.”
“If not for Leslie, I would never have gone to the
party where I met Mark.” He gazes out at the rain. “No. They lowered the
drawbridge for her and let me in because I was with her.”
“I’ll never believe that,” says Cal, shaking his
head. “I will always believe you flew over the ramparts on the magic carpet of
your wonderful stories.”
“Which is one of the many reasons I love you,”
says Andrew, smiling fondly at his dear friend.
The truth is Penelope and Judith love Andrew’s short
stories because they are great stories. And they love the play that sprang from
two of those stories because Extremely
Silly Ariel Gets Wise is a great play. They very much hope Andrew’s success
continues, but they have no expectations it will.
Penelope and Judith attained their success as
agents by working incredibly hard for decades, and though they know as well as
anyone about the potency of personal connections in the publishing business and
the theatre world, they are of a generation of agents—both of them in their fifties—who
represent uniquely talented writers regardless of who those writers know or
Forty people come to the party at Penelope and
Judith’s townhouse, mostly middle-aged editors and middle-aged writers, a few younger
editors and younger writers, and a handful of theatre people. Penelope and
Judith take turns introducing people to Andrew, and eventually he meets
everyone. He is praised many times for his story collection and for Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, eats
his fill of fabulous hors d’oeuvres, and is beginning to long for the end of
the party when a couple of latecomers arrive, the man middle-aged and heavyset,
the woman Andrew’s age and the doppelgänger of Andrew’s last great love Yvonne,
a beautiful woman with olive skin and lustrous brown hair.
They are Larry and Carol Savard, Larry a
successful actor, Carol a novelist.
“I am in awe of your stories,” says Carol, who Andrew
immediately recognizes as another manifestation of his soul mate. “I’ve read The Draft Dodger and other fables three
times and I’m about to start again.”
“Oh I’m so glad,” says Andrew, looking into her
eyes. “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.”
“There’s talk of a movie being made of your Silly Whosit play,” says Larry,
surveying the room. “My agent says most likely made-for-television, but possibly
a cute little feature. I’d love to play the silly girl’s father. Keep me in
“I will,” says Andrew, laughing, “though this is
the first I’ve heard…”
“Hate to cut you off,” says Larry, half-snarling
and half-smiling, “but I must say
hello to Jim and Kathy. Haven’t seen them in ages,” and off he goes leaving Andrew alone with Carol.
“Did I say something wrong?” asks Andrew, looking
“No, that’s just Larry,” she says, smiling
bravely. “A busy bee visiting many flowers.”
“Ah,” says Andrew, not really understanding what
“So how are you handling your sudden success?” she
asks, sounding as if she really wants to know.
“Well…” he says, deciding not to tell her she
could be the twin of Yvonne who was the twin of Laura and so on back through the
great loves of his life, “I haven’t made tons of money from the play or the
book so my life hasn’t really changed much except I get lots more mail and I don’t
have to pay my bills with carpentry work for the next year or so.”
“Or maybe never again,” she says, her voice and
Quebecois accent identical to Yvonne’s. “I think there are at least three
really good movies in your collection and before long you’ll be writing the
“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Andrew,
bowing to her.
“Are you Jewish?” asks Carol, smiling quizzically.
“I am descended from Jews but not raised in the
religion,” he says, returning her quizzical smile. “Why do you ask?”
“My Jewish grandmother says from your lips to God’s ears all the time. And so does my mother
who gave your book to everyone she knows for Hanukkah and Christmas.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t read your novels,” he says, amazed
by how much she reminds him of Yvonne. “But I will. What are their titles?”
“Oh I’m not published yet,” she says, blushing.
“Getting closer, according to Judith, but no takers yet.”
“What are your novels about if I may ask?”
“Love,” she says simply. “And the myriad impossibilities
therein and thereof. I think you’d find them kin to your stories only much more
convoluted, which is probably the problem.”
“I’ve never written a novel,” he says, sensing her
sadness. “Started a few but they either turned into short stories or trailed
off into nothingness.”
“Oh yes,” she says, laughing a beautiful hearty
laugh. “I know all about things trailing off into nothingness. And now if
you’ll excuse me, I better go be with Larry before he becomes apoplectic with
“Of course,” says Andrew, looking across the room to
where Larry is loudly telling a man and a woman a story involving lots of
gesturing. “A pleasure to meet you.”
When the last guest has gone home, Penelope and
Judith and Andrew sit in the living room sipping brandy from crystal snifters
and Judith asks Andrew, “Did you get a chance to talk to Carol Savard?”
“Briefly,” he says, relieved the party is over.
“She seemed very nice.”
“She’s a doll,” says Judith, the child of
Yiddish-speaking parents. “And a very good writer, too. She was a waitress
before she married Larry. Shared an apartment with two other women and wrote
like mad on her days off. And then… oh never mind.”
“Tell, darling,” says Penelope, pouring more
brandy into Judith’s snifter. “Andrew won’t gossip. Will you, dear?”
“Never,” says Andrew, smiling mischievously.
“Though I might put this in a story. Well-disguised of course.”
Judith sips her brandy and says, “She’s hasn’t
written a word since she married Larry two years ago. And I know I could sell
her novel if she’d do one more draft.”
“I wonder why she doesn’t,” says Andrew, in his
tiredness confusing Carol with Yvonne who was a prolific songwriter.
“Married the wrong man,” says Penelope, swirling
her brandy. “Scared away her muse.”
“I remember the day she told me they were getting
married,” says Judith, sighing. “We were having lunch and strategizing about who
I should send her novel to next, and she said, ‘After I’m married I’ll have lots
of time to write.’ But then the problem of not enough time became the problem
of too much Larry.”
“Always tricky when we make a pact with the
devil,” says Penelope, wagging her finger at Andrew. “Don’t you do that. Promise
The next day, a Thursday, Penelope and Judith take
Andrew to breakfast at an eatery around the corner from their townhouse, and
while they wait for their food to arrive, Judith says, “We would ask you to
stay on with us, but we have a dear friend coming in from England today. But next
time you come to Montreal you must stay with us for at least a week.”
“You’ll love your room at Jason and Freddie’s,”
says Penelope, signaling their waitress for more coffee. “We know their house
very well because we were each other’s beards for twenty years until we all
came out two years ago.”
“Beards,” says Andrew, frowning. “You mean…”
“We posed as heterosexual partners,” says Judith,
sipping her coffee. “I with Freddie, Penelope with Jason. But now, thank God,
we don’t have to do that anymore.”
“Much to our surprise, coming out didn’t hurt our
business at all,” says Penelope, waving to an acquaintance being seated at a
nearby table. “Or Freddie’s. Dance, you know. But Jason can’t get television
gigs anymore. No one cares in the theatre world, of course, but television and movies
are way behind.”
“You can’t be gay and direct television shows and
movies?” asks Andrew, finding that hard to believe.
“It’s not about being gay,” says Judith, enjoying Andrew’s innocence. “It’s about
being openly gay.”
The party Jason and Freddie throw for Andrew on
Saturday night is very different than the party at Judith and Penelope’s. The
music is louder, the air is heavily scented with cannabis smoke, and many of
the hundred people filling the house and spilling out into the backyard are in
their twenties and thirties. There are dancers and actors and musicians and
theatre people, many of them making no secret of their homosexuality and only a
handful of them interested in meeting Andrew.
Freddie, a handsome fellow in his early sixties,
notorious in his youth for supposed liaisons with famous ballerinas, introduces
Andrew to a striking young woman named Kiki—long black hair, carob brown skin,
wearing a black skirt and red sandals and a green T-shirt with juxtaposition of elements in tension
writ in white letters across the chest—a former ballerina now a modern dancer,
her mother Afro-Caribbean, her father Chinese.
Kiki and Andrew take to each other instantly and Kiki
suggests they gravitate away from the loud music to the backyard where they
stand under a lantern suspended from the branch of a maple tree talking about Montreal
and Vancouver and finding each other splendid.
And Andrew thinks I would love to have a child with this woman.
He has never had such a thought about any woman
he’s ever known, and he wonders why he never wanted children with Yvonne or
Laura, both of whom he loved with all his heart.
“Are you free at all in the next few days?” he asks,
holding out his hand to Kiki. “I’d love to see you again.”
“Yeah, I’m free,” she says, smiling brightly and
giving his hand a squeeze. “We could have lunch tomorrow. Or supper. Or…”
“Let’s start with lunch,” he says, feeling a gush
“I’ll give you my number,” she says, rummaging in
her handbag and bringing forth a notebook and pen. “How long are you here for?”
“Not sure,” he says, imagining moving to Montreal
and courting Kiki. “Jason and Freddie said I could stay with them as long as I
want to, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”
“Tell me again how you know them,” she says,
tearing a page from her notebook and handing it to him. “I was too busy gawking
at you when Freddie introduced us. Are you an actor?”
“No, I’m a writer. I wrote a couple stories that
were made into a play Jason directed.”
“Oh my God,” says Kiki, putting a hand on her
heart. “Did you write Extremely Silly Ariel
“I wrote the two stories it was based on, but I
didn’t write the play.”
“I went four times,” says Kiki, putting her other
hand atop the hand on her heart. “Gave me the courage to end a very bad
relationship I was stuck in. Thank you so much for writing those stories.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, finding her impossibly
At which moment, Carol Savard emerges from the
house and makes a beeline for Andrew and Kiki.
“Andrew,” says Carol, as she comes near. “We met
at Penelope and Judith’s party a few nights ago.”
“I remember,” he says, surprised to see her again.
“Do you know Kiki?”
“No,” says Carol, shaking Kiki’s hand. “Nice to
“Nice to meet you, too,” says Kiki, sensing
Carol’s urgency to speak to Andrew. “I have to go, Andrew. Call me in the
“I will,” says Andrew, exchanging quick kisses
Alone with Carol, Andrew asks, “Larry here?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “He’s in England
for three weeks. Making a movie.”
“Ah,” says Andrew, nodding. “So you have lots of
time to write.”
“Yes,” she says, clearing her throat. “I’m
wondering if… I’m wondering if you’d like to spend some time with me. I felt a
very strong connection with you at the party and…” She starts to cry. “I’m not
talking about having sex. I just need to talk to you.”
“I’d be happy to spend some time with you,” he
says, feeling the deep and inexplicable bond he has with her.
At breakfast the next morning with Freddy and
Jason in their sunny kitchen, Jason opines, “How could anyone be married to
“No one can
be,” says Freddie, shaking his head. “He was married four times before Carol and
none of them stuck for more than a few years.”
“Let me rephrase that,” says Jason, striking a
thoughtful pose. “Why anyone would want to marry him, I can’t imagine. And
don’t say for money. No amount of money would be enough to live with that horrible
“We were stunned when Carol told us she was
marrying him,” says Freddie, grimacing. “We frequently dine at Baskerville’s, the
restaurant where Carol used to be the star waiter. We always requested her and
I often said to Jason if I liked sleeping with women I would marry her in a
minute if she would have me. So sweet and kind and funny and smart and very
sexy. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” says Andrew, nodding. “Very.”
“Beware of her,” says Jason, pointing at Andrew. “You’ll
fall in love and try to save her and stop writing. And I need you to write a new play for me. The sooner the better.”
“Speaking of narcissists,” says Freddie, laughing.
“I am not a narcissist,” says Jason, indignantly.
“The world is dying for good plays and Andrew is one of the few people I know
who can write them.”
Kiki takes Andrew to lunch at a café a few blocks
from Jason and Freddie’s house, their attraction to each other growing by leaps
and bounds. For dessert they split a piece of pumpkin pie and share a cup of
coffee, black, and Andrew presents Kiki with a signed copy of his book The Draft Dodger and other fables, to
which Kiki responds by bringing forth a copy of his book she just bought.
“You can make this one to my mother,” she says,
handing him the book. “She came to your play twice with me and she’s dying to
“Do you ever get out to Vancouver?” he asks, gazing
in wonder at her. “To dance?”
“I have gone there to dance,” she says, nodding.
“And my sister lives there and we miss each other, so I try to go out there at
least once a year.”
“Would you…” he says, but nothing more comes out.
“Visit you when I’m there?” she says, nodding. “Oh
yeah. But what about tonight? My friend Juliet is singing with her trio at
Honey Martin starting at nine. You’ll love her and probably want to marry her.
I can come get you or we can meet there.”
“I have a supper date,” says Andrew, madly in love
with her. “But I could meet you there at ten.”
“Perfect,” she says, smiling rapturously. “I’ll
save you a seat.”
Before Andrew leaves Jason and Freddie’s to meet
Carol for supper, he and Jason have tea in the living room.
“I was not kidding, Andrew,” says Jason, clearly distraught. “Larry Savard is famously violent, and I wish you wouldn’t have anything to do with Carol until she is long free of him. She’s probably afraid to leave him for fear he’ll kill her.”
“I’m just having supper with her,” says Andrew, attributing
some of Jason’s upset to his tendency to exaggerate.
“Well make sure that’s all you do,” says Jason,
emphatically. “Don’t even kiss her cheek.”
“But how would Larry know? He’s in England.”
“We know two of his ex-wives, and when they were
married to him, whenever he went away he had them watched.”
“That’s crazy,” says Andrew, the back of his neck
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” says Jason, throwing
up his hands. “He’s crazy.”
In a quaint
Italian restaurant, Andrew and Carol sit at a table with a
red-and-white-checkered tablecloth and a candle stuck in a round-bottomed wine
bottle covered with melted wax.
bit of friendly chitchat, Carol says, “I felt such a strong jolt of recognition
when I met you. Not that you look like anybody I’ve ever known, but there was something
about your voice and the way you listened to me. I can’t explain it except to
say I felt I knew you and you knew me, and I thought if anyone could understand
what I’m going through right now, you would. And I thought maybe you could… I
don’t know, shed some light on my predicament or give me some advice.”
recognized you, too,” says Andrew, wondering if they are being watched. “And I
feel a similar affinity with you. So please, tell me.”
wonder if we could go somewhere more private,” she says quietly.
don’t think that would be a good idea,” he says, sipping his wine to moisten
his very dry throat. “Jason told me your husband is famously jealous and
famously violent and had his previous wives followed whenever he went out of
town. And though I’d love to go somewhere more private to hear your story, to
be honest with you I’m afraid to do that. I’m sorry.”
need to apologize, though I can assure you no one followed me here. That
happened a few times at the beginning of our marriage and when I found out he
was paying people to spy on me, I told him if he ever did it again I would
leave him. So he no longer does. And I understand why Jason and Freddie may
think I’m afraid of him, but I’m not.”
what is your predicament?” asks Andrew, lowering his shoulders and breathing a
sigh of relief.
been able to write anything since I married Larry. But if I leave him… he’ll
tell you that?”
she says, falling silent as their supper arrives.
their waiter departs, Andrew asks, “If he didn’t tell you, how do you know?”
we know anything?” she asks, locking eyes with him. “Why did you and I
recognize each other?”
just do,” he says, nodding.
I have sat with Larry on many a night watching him drink himself into oblivion,
knowing that if I leave him he will die.”
“So he does tell you. Maybe not in words, but with
his thoughts and actions. And how is that not extortion? Emotional extortion.”
if it is?” she says, shrugging. “What would you do? Knowing if you end the
relationship you would cause his death? And please don’t say you wouldn’t have
gotten into the relationship in the first place. You don’t know that. You might
have. And if you did, what would you do if you knew that leaving him would kill
would tell him,” says Andrew, jabbing his fork into his spaghetti, “that I
would help him find a good therapist and a good rehab clinic, and if he
wouldn’t make the effort to heal, I would leave him.”
he will kill himself,” she says, her eyes full of tears.
are the alternatives, Carol? Going on living in the hell you’re in? Killing your
self? Never writing again?
Sacrificing your life so he can go on drinking himself into oblivion every
night while you watch? Wait for him to die of liver failure?”
would leave him,” she says, folding her arms. “And let him die.”
are not connected actions,” says Andrew, angrily. “He is choosing to die rather
than trying to get well. And by leaving, you are choosing not to be present for
sits back in her chair and muses for a long time.
eats his spaghetti, drinks his wine, and thinks Tomorrow I’m calling Yvonne and ending our relationship.
says Carol, leaning forward in her chair.
he says, softening.
like living in Vancouver?”
I live in a house I built ten miles north of the city. Beautiful place. Good
friends. Yeah, I love it.”
you involved with anyone?”
just ending a relationship and hoping to start another,” he says, seeing no
need to hide the truth from her. “Why do you ask?”
if I leave Larry, I’d love to try being in a relationship with you.” She smiles
shyly. “If you want to.”
He thinks of Kiki and how he loves her, and he says to Carol, “How about we write to each other and see where that takes us?”
“Okay,” she says, smiling bravely. “I’d love to be your pen pal.”
next day, after a fabulous night with Kiki in the pub listening to her friend
sing, Andrew calls Leslie and ends their relationship. She is most upset with
him for breaking up with her by phone and not in-person, but by the end of
their conversation she says she understands why he had to get away from her to work
up the nerve to tell her.
be terrifying, I know,” she says, laughing a little as she cries. “But I hope
we’ll still be friends. I think you’re a great person, Andrew, a rare person, and
I’d like to keep knowing you whether we sleep together or not.”
being your friend,” he says sincerely. “I think you’re a rare person, too, and
you have helped me in so many ways.”
have helped me,” she says, weeping.
stays another two weeks in Montreal, a week with Jason and Freddie, a week with
Kiki in the house she shares with her mother, her father no longer alive.
the trip back to Vancouver by train rather than fly, which gives him five days of
rolling across Canada to write and write and write, stories and poems and
letters and dialogue flowing unabated from his liberated pen.
spring of 1980, Andrew and Kiki wed in Montreal in Freddie and Jason’s backyard,
Andrew’s parents and brother and sisters having made the long trek from
California, Kiki’s mother and grandparents and sister on hand, Andrew’s best
man Cal, of course, and Freddie giving the bride away.
comes to the wedding with Judith and Penelope, for she and Andrew have become
great friends via the postal service, her first novel Simply Love about to be published, her marriage to Larry a thing of
the past, Larry still alive and about to wed again.
In a letter to Carol dated July 14, 1981, Andrew writes from Vancouver that Kiki is three months pregnant, they are adding another bedroom to their house, his second collection of short stories Suicide Notes From My Friends is selling very well, and his play Exactly Random will begin rehearsals next week, to open at the Kleindorf in September.
“I know I have tried to elucidate this to you before, Carol,” he writes, “but I will try to put the ineffable into words again because I am overwhelmed this morning by how deeply connected I feel to you, though deeply and connected are inadequate descriptors.
“I often feel you are here with us. We will be in the garden or making supper or walking on the beach, and I will be aware of you on a cellular level. Especially when I play music.
“But the awareness of you is never intrusive. Your presence never impedes the flow of my music, never interferes with the flow of words onto the page. In fact, your spirit is a divine impetus. Dare I say you are my muse?
“Yes, Kiki inspires me. I write poems for her and passages in my stories and plays just for her, but she is outside of me, wonderfully so, whereas you are in my bones.
is to say I think our souls were one soul incubating in the womb of God when by
some miracle we divided into two halves and became twin souls loosed into the
Several weeks ago I announced the publication of Little Movies, my new book of fourteen short stories, refined versions of stories I posted on my blog a couple years ago. I said I would let you know when the e-books were online, and now they are. So…
I am happy to announce again the publication of my new book Little Movies: tales of love and transformation. I began the publishing process before the current crisis overtook us and now the book has come into being. Dramatic and often funny, these stories illuminate the transformative power of kindness, generosity, honesty, and love.
If you prefer your books in three-dimensions, handsome paperback copies of Little Movies may be ordered from your favorite bookstore or purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $16.95.
Word-of-mouth is my sole means of promoting the book, so I hope you’ll consider sharing this announcement with your friends who love fiction and short stories. And if you do purchase Little Movies and enjoy the collection, I would be grateful for a review on the site where you purchased the book.
Big thanks to those of you who have already ordered the book! Looking forward to hearing what you think of the stories.
I’m pleased to announce the birth of my new book Little Movies: tales of love and transformation, a collection of fourteen contemporary short stories. Dramatic and often funny, these compelling stories illuminate the transformative power of kindness, generosity, honesty, and love. Regular readers of my blog may recognize some of these stories as refined versions of stories I first posted on my blog a couple years ago.
I realize this may seem
like a strange time to be bringing out a new book. It certainly strikes me as
an unusual time for anything other than hunkering down and being good to each
other. However, I began this publishing process long before the pandemic was
anticipated. As it happens, the short stories in the collection celebrate our
resiliency and resourcefulness and the power of love, so maybe the timing of
this birth will be helpful and inspiring.
Several readers have urged me to make my self-published works available as e-books. Little Movies is my first attempt to do so. The e-book versions—Kindle, Apple, Nook, etc.—will debut a few weeks hence. In the meantime, the handsome paperback edition is available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or you can order copies from your favorite bookstore. The paperback price is $16.95. The e-books will be considerably less.
I would be delighted if you would share this announcement with your friends who enjoy reading short stories. And if you do purchase a copy of Little Movies and enjoy the stories, I would be grateful if you would write a review for Amazon and/or the site where you purchased the book. Word-of-mouth is my sole means of promoting the book and I think it would be wonderful if lots of people knew about Little Movies.
I hope you are staying
safe and sane as we weather this challenging time.
I’ll post another notice
when the e-book versions of Little Movies
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.
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.”
When I was a senior in high school at Fort Orford High and causing my God-fearing parents great distress by playing the guitar, I fell in love with Iriana Ceja, a beautiful Mexican woman three years older than I.
Iriana was a waitress at the North End Café, now Dave’s Donuts, and believe me, Iriana was the only reason anyone knowingly went to the North End Café. The food was bad, the coffee uniformly bitter, the décor ugly and uncomfortable. But Iriana was so lovely, so friendly, and such a sparkling conversationalist, hundreds of people made the North End Café a daily part of their lives, and I was one of those people.
I went there after school to gawk at Iriana and listen to her talk and laugh. I would buy a stale cookie and a cup of bitter coffee and stay for hours, supposedly doing my homework, but really just reveling in Iriana. My life at home was torture because my parents were so fiercely opposed to everything I loved, especially my playing the guitar and writing songs. School was drudgery and my peers were largely disinterested in the poets and artists I admired.
Iriana was my solace.
She called me Hank—no one else did—and when I finally got up the courage to ask her why she called me Hank, she gave me one of her darling smiles and said, “Como Hank Williams, por supuesto. I heard you playing your guitar at the beach. I love your music. Why don’t you bring your guitar here and play for us?”
Us meant Iriana to me, so I started bringing my guitar to the café and playing for her when she took her breaks. She would sit at the picnic table under the oak tree behind the café, smoke a cigarette, and listen to me play. She sang harmony if she knew the song and hummed harmony if she didn’t know the words.
After every song, she would say, “So beautiful, Hank,” or “I love that song, Hank,” or “You’re so good, Hank. Bueno bueno.”
So of course I wrote songs for her, and after I played her the third song I’d written for her, she kissed me and we were officially a dyad.
We had a hundred passionate tussles under that oak tree and at the beach, but whenever I asked her to make love with me, she would say so sweetly, “When we are married, I will make love with you every day.” So I vowed to her that when I turned twenty-one, if she hadn’t found someone else, I would marry her.
My parents were terrified I would fulfill my vow to marry Iriana. They were racists, not violently so, but they wanted me to marry a white woman, not a Mexican. I graduated from high school, turned nineteen, and went on a hitchhiking trip to Canada with my pal Gunnar Digs. Not long after we got back, I joined the Army.
When I came home from Germany two years later, the North End Café had turned into Dave’s Donuts and Iriana was married to Fernando Viramontes and pregnant with the first of their two kids. She was working at Stuyvesant’s by then and would work there for the next forty years. It was Iriana who encouraged me to go to Nashville and try to sell my songs.
“You have to go and try, Hank,” she said, sitting across the table from me at Stuyvesant’s, just a few weeks before she gave birth to her daughter Veronica. “God gave you a special gift. Maybe you won’t succeed, but you will never be happy if you don’t try.”
When I came home from Nashville three years later and hid my guitar away and took up the chainsaw, I ate at Stuyvesant’s three or four times a week. The food was good, but that’s not why I went there.
I went to be in the presence of Iriana, my dear friend who never stopped believing my music was beautiful.
When I was living in Santa Cruz and working in a bookstore, my greatest joy was attending poetry readings in San Francisco. I enjoyed the adventure of hitchhiking up the coast to that great metropolis, but more than the journey, I loved the atmosphere of those readings and how everyone was so curious about new and original ways of using words to convey feelings and ideas. And I was most intrigued by the couples who came to these readings, for they often seemed, at first glance, to be fantastically mismatched.
One such couple was Janice Cleveland and Rufus Borenstein. Janice was a buxom black woman in her forties with short hair and red glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She wore blouses made of colorful fabric from Nigeria, tight slacks, and high heels. Rufus was a tall slender white guy in his fifties with a pointy white goatee and a monocle that was forever falling out of his eye. He wore a gray tweed jacket over a black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and white high-top tennis shoes decorated with red and yellow polka dots.
I first met Janice and Rufus at the intermission of a poetry reading starring two of my idols, Kate Fetherston and D.R. Wagner. Janice came up to me and said, “We heard you read at the open mike after Jane Blue’s reading last month. We totally dug your poems. You gonna read tonight?”
“I am,” I said gleefully. “And I want to kiss you.”
So she puckered up and we kissed.
“What’s going on here?” asked Rufus, joining us with two glasses of cheap white wine, one for him and one for Janice. “Hey, it’s you. Your poem about waiting for a ride on the coast highway. Brilliant. Can we get a copy?”
“Of course,” I said, giddy from their flattery. “Where do I send it?”
“You got one of our cards, Rufe?” said Janice to Rufus.
He fished in the pocket of his tweed jacket and brought forth two volumes of poetry—Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth—a rubber band, three small crystals, and a somewhat banged up business card:
I took the card and said, “If only I could afford you.”
“You can,” said Janice, laughing. “You give us some poems, we give you tarot and psychotherapy.”
So I sent them some poems and the next time I was in San Francisco, I had a fantastic tarot reading from Rufus and some incredibly helpful talk therapy with Janice, after which we went out for spaghetti. They became my good friends and remain my friends to this day, though sadly they got priced out of San Francisco and moved to Victoria, Canada five years ago.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)
On Saturday February 20 at 6:30 PM, I will be at Gallery Books in Mendocino reading from the new Counterpoint Press edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup. I self-published the book seven years ago, and now the book will have a life in the larger world, so to speak. The paperback of Buddha In A Teacup from Counterpoint is beautifully designed and fits well in the hand.
Speaking of self-publishing, I just completed my first large work of fiction since finishing the four volumes of the Ida’s Place saga, and the new tome is now available from my web site. As with the Ida’s Place quartet, I present Calliope of Hope tales of the road in a handsome coil-bound photocopy edition, each copy signed and colorfully numbered by yours truly.
Calliope of Hope—tales of the road is both a collection of short stories and a novel. Any of these stories may be read as a stand-alone work, or you may read the book from start to finish and experience the stories as chapters of a novel.
Part of the inspiration for Calliope of Hope came from the late poet and translator Taylor Stoehr who was keen for me to write a companion collection to Buddha In A Teacup with a Sufi bent, which many of the stories in Calliope of Hope have, and many of the stories involve hitchhiking.
Here is the beginning of one of the stories/chapters from Calliope of Hope entitled Henry’s Expotition.
On a sunny morning in April, Henry Abbot, fifty-nine, tall and sturdy, his sandy brown hair cut short, his brown eyes full of mischief, stands on the east side of the coast highway at the north end of Fort Orford, hitchhiking to Portland, Oregon. Henry, who was born and raised in this town of three thousand hearty souls on the far north coast of California, is so well-liked, if he ever ran for mayor—which he will never do—he would win by a landslide, no matter who ran against him.
The last time Henry hitchhiked was forty years ago when he and his pal Gunnar Diggs, who was also born in Fort Orford, made it all the way to northern British Columbia before turning around and heading back to Fort Orford. Shortly after they got home, Henry joined the Army and spent two years in Germany fixing trucks, while Gunnar got a job driving a bulldozer for a local paving contractor, a job he still has today.
A few weeks after coming home from the Army, Henry moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he spent three years working as a truck mechanic and peddling his heartfelt ballads to record companies and recording artists large and small, to no avail. Upon his return to Fort Orford at the age of twenty-five, Henry embarked on a twenty-year career as a lumberjack, and for the last fifteen years he has been the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the one and only hardware store in town.
A widower with two teenaged daughters, Henry has never spent a night away from his girls, and though he only intends to be gone a few nights, this trip to Portland feels to him like the biggest adventure of his life.
Henry is dressed exactly as he does for work: brown work boots, red plaid socks, khaki pants, a black T-shirt, a blue jacket with a zipper, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. His luggage consists of a blue canvas knapsack and a large brown leather briefcase, and per the suggestion of the woman he is going to visit, he is holding a neatly-lettered sign: Portland.
Ten minutes after Henry takes his stand, who should pull up beside him in an old blue pickup but Arnold Collison, Henry’s neighbor.
Arnold leans across the seat and says out the passenger window, “Where you going, Henry? Car break down?”
“No,” says Henry, showing his Portland sign to Arnold. “I’m going to visit Jolene. Remember Jolene? Stayed with us for ten days last November?”
“Sure, I remember her. Pretty gal. Played the mandolin and sang like a bird. Why aren’t you driving?”
“Marie Louise is staying with the girls while I’m gone,” says Henry, laughing at Arnold’s stupefied expression. “Her car died and I want her to have my truck while I’m gone in case she needs to take the girls somewhere.”
“Borrow our car,” says Arnold, wondering why Henry didn’t think of that. “We hardly ever drive the damn thing. Practically new. We can get by with the pickup until you get back. How long you going for?”
“A few days.”
“Get in,” says Arnold, authoritatively. “I’ll drive you up to the house and you can take our car.”
“Well, actually, Arnold, I want to hitchhike.” Henry waits a moment for this to sink into Arnold’s famously thick skull. “I want to see how Jolene has been getting around for the last several years, and…I want the adventure.”
Arnold frowns. “Sounds pretty weird, Henry. You never know what kind of nut might pick you up. Better to drive. You’re almost sixty.”
“If I’m still here this afternoon, I’ll borrow your car,” says Henry, holding up his sign as a fancy sports car speeds by. “How does that sound, Arnie?”
“Sounds nuts,” says Arnold, shaking his head. “Seems like visiting Jolene in Portland would be adventure enough. Don’t you think?”
“Apparently not,” says Henry, losing patience with Arnold. “I’ll see you this afternoon or in a few days.”
Arnold drives away and Carlos Gomez pulls up in his ancient brown Malibu. “You hitchhiking, Henry?”
“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, nodding.
“Car break down?” asks Carlos, the longtime chef at Rosa’s, the best Mexican restaurant in Fort Orford.
“No, I’m going on an adventure.”
Carlos nods. “That’s cool. I was in Stuyvesant’s having breakfast and Pablo came in saying you were out here with your sign, so I came to see if you were okay. You okay?”
“I am, Carlos,” says Henry, realizing half the town will soon be parading by to get a look at him standing by the road. “Can I ask a huge favor?”
“Of course,” says Carlos, nodding. “What do you need?”
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)
“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel
Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.
By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.
Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.
As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige
Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.
Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.
“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra
Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.
Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.
A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.
Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”
That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.
(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2014)
“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly, too.” Rodney Dangerfield
Years before the dawn of tweeting and texting, I ran a summer writing program for high school kids who wanted to become professional writers. The teachers I hired were accomplished, open-minded, inspiring writers who could clearly communicate their ideas about the craft of writing. My one piece of advice for my teachers was that they avoid saying anything construable as dislike of a student’s writing, and I cautioned them about making even mild editing suggestions during the first week of the month-long intensive lest our neophytes experience such suggestions as disapproval.
I also asked my teachers to remind our writers that the opinions of others about their writing, even the opinions of professional writers, are highly subjective and should be taken as such. The response of a reader to a story or poem often says far more about the reader than it does about the writer, and one person’s negative response to a story doesn’t make the story bad, just as one person’s positive response doesn’t make the story good.
To illustrate this point, I told my young charges about how the advent of photocopy machines changed my understanding of taste and helped me overcome the scourge of self-doubt. Prior to the coming of copy shops in the early 1970’s, making multiple copies of a manuscript necessitated the time-consuming use of a five-layer sandwich of carbon paper and typing paper rolled into the typewriter on which the manuscript would be typed, with typos requiring fixes with white-out on the original copy and a razor blade on the carbon copies, with the end result being the barely adequate original and two smeary copies no publisher would accept. Thus most of my early stories existed as single copies, and if the first person to read a story of mine didn’t like it, my insecurity would be inflamed and I might never show the story to anyone else.
Then one day, wanting to create a special gift for my best friend’s wedding, I fell into a trance and wrote a novella and a collection of short stories entitled What Shall The Monster Sing?and other stories. (That title is a line from a poem by Lawrence Durrell.) Completing my opus coincident with the opening of the first photocopy shop in Santa Cruz, I splurged and had ten bound copies made, nine of which I distributed to friends and fellow artists, one I kept safe for the newlyweds.
A week later, a poet of local renown came to the boarding house where I lived, stood in the doorway of my room and declared What Shall The Monster Sing? a disaster and most of the accompanying stories dreadful, though he did allow that three of the stories were gems.
Before I succumbed to despair, a fellow boarder shouted, “Phone for you, Todd!” and I ran down the hall to the pay phone.
“What Shall The Monster Sing? is genius!” shouted a playwright calling from Los Angeles. “What a great film it would make. And Carli’s and Ophelia…magnificent!”
Returning to my room buoyed by the playwright’s praise, I found the poet arguing with a locally beloved chanteuse who was madly in love with Monster, as she so familiarly called my novella, and whose favorites of my short stories were the least favorites of the poet, and vice-versa. As I listened to these artists passionately praising and damning my writing, I had a revelation. Yes, everyone knows, intellectually, that taste is subjective. But to experience such extremes of taste from three intelligent and creative people in the span of twenty minutes was to have the revelation burned into my consciousness, which burning serves me well to this day.
“A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.” Jessamyn West
My essays about my past, my family, my personal life and my creative life occasionally elicit comments from readers, some thoughtful and illuminating, some praiseful, and some from people who insist I am a very bad writer and a self-pitying self-aggrandizing narcissist who would do the world a huge favor by ceasing to write.
My great grandfather, an orthodox Jewish cantor, believed gossiping to be a variation on the sin of speaking ill of others and he steadfastly refused to gossip. Nevertheless, his friends and family persisted in asking him his opinion about what So-And-So did to You-Know-Who, to which he would reply, “There are all kinds of different kinds of people.”
“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.” E.M. Forster
One of my favorite movies is composed of three movies—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, directed by Linklater and starring Hawke and Delpy, the movies were filmed nine years apart and set nine years apart, too. Each film is composed of mountains of dialogue between Delpy and Hawke as they wander around Vienna, Paris and Greece. I love their torrents of dialogue, though many people I know find such verbosity intolerable. For my taste, the individual films are excellent, their totality a masterwork.
In Before Midnight there is a scene near the beginning of the film in which the characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy sit at a big table in Greece with three other European couples talking frankly about life and death and relationships. What I so enjoy about this scene is the real-seeming depiction of people from widely varying backgrounds, young, old and middle-aged, having a lively discussion full of insights and anecdotes and disagreement, with disagreement not only perfectly okay with everybody at the table, but appreciated as the spice of a conversation in which no one is attached to being right. How deliciously un-American!