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The Same Woman (Yvonne)

Every few years Andrew meets the same woman and always recognizes her, though she never recognizes him as anyone she’s known before.

The first time they met was in elementary school in 1955. The second time they met was during the summer of 1962 when they were both thirteen. And starting in 1966 they were in a relationship that lasted a year until she—her name was Laura then—left him for someone else.

In December of 1969, shortly after Andrew turns twenty-one, the first draft lottery takes place in America and he draws number 344, which means he no longer has to be in college to avoid being sent to the war in Vietnam. However, one of Andrew’s very best friends, Cal, draws number 3 and is certain to be drafted even if he manages to get into graduate school.

When Cal is denied conscientious objector status, he decides to move to Canada rather than go to prison or Vietnam. Cal has a cousin who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia who agrees to house Cal until he gets settled in Canada. Cal asks Andrew to drive him to Vancouver and they leave California for British Columbia in June of 1970, just a few days after they graduate from UC Santa Cruz, Cal with a degree in Philosophy, Andrew with a degree in Drama.

Funded by Cal’s parents, they rent a big orange van to carry Cal’s books and records and clothing and musical instruments, including two guitars, an electric bass, an amplifier, and a drum kit. They stay in motels, eat in diners, and make the trip to Vancouver in four days.

By 1970 the Canadian government is no longer making it problematic for American draft evaders to move to Canada, so Cal and Andrew have no trouble entering the country.

Cal’s cousin Frank and Frank’s wife Jean live in a small house in a suburb of Vancouver. They are both in their early thirties, Frank a surveyor, Jean a piano teacher, and Jean is pregnant with their first child. They are not thrilled about sharing their house with Cal, but they are thrilled about the thousand dollars a month Cal’s parents are giving them for as long as Cal lives with them.

On the evening of their second day in Vancouver, a few days before Andrew is planning to head back to California, Cal and Andrew go to a pub called Angel Alley in downtown Vancouver to hear a lineup of local musicians. The drinking age was recently lowered to 18 in British Columbia, and the place is mobbed with college kids and hipsters.

Cal, who has been playing guitar and writing songs since he was eleven, is keen to explore the music scene in Vancouver. Andrew took up the guitar after his relationship with Laura ended three and a half years ago, and with Cal as his teacher he has gotten quite good.

So…

After a middle-aged woman does a fair imitation of Judy Collins singing Joni Mitchell songs, and three earnest fellows cover Dylan and The Beatles, a young woman takes the stage with her guitar and stands a few feet away from the microphone as she waits to be introduced.

Andrew looks at the young woman and his jaw drops because as far as he’s concerned she is none other than Laura, the great love of his life who jilted him three and a half years ago and moved to England with her new partner—yet here she is in Angel Alley about to perform.

“That’s Laura,” says Andrew, nudging Cal who is conversing with a gal at the adjoining table. “Has to be.”

Cal turns to Andrew. “Sorry. What did you say?”

“Look,” says Andrew, pointing at the stage. “Tell me that isn’t Laura.”

“Sure looks like her,” says Cal, studying the lovely woman with shoulder-length brown hair wearing a white blouse and black slacks and standing at ease with her guitar. “I thought she was in England.”

“Last I heard she was,” says Andrew, his heart pounding. “Three years five months and two weeks ago. But this is definitely Laura. Who else could she be?”

“I didn’t know Laura played guitar,” says Cal, trying to discern the make of her reddish brown parlor guitar.

“She didn’t,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “But neither did I until she left.”

Now a big burly fellow with spiky gray hair steps up to the microphone and says, “Without further ado, it is my great pleasure to introduce Yvonne Garnier.” 

Loud applause and whistling fill the air as the woman steps to the microphone and begins to play and sing. Her voice to Andrew’s ears is Laura’s voice, a sweet woman’s tenor, and he cannot hold back his tears.

When she finishes her first song, Cal whispers to Andrew, “She’s fantastic, but I don’t think she’s Laura.”

“Why? Because she changed her name?” asks Andrew, certain she is his lost love.

“No,” says Cal, putting his hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Because this woman has been playing guitar since she was a kid. I’ll bet you anything.”

After a scintillating set of original songs and a few folk classics, Yvonne leaves the stage to thunderous applause and many of those in attendance head for home.

The bartender calls “Forty minutes to closing,” and Andrew and Cal shift their chairs to join the two women and a man—Terry, Sheila, and Chas—at the adjoining table, Terry of great interest to Cal and vice-versa.

“So are you moving to Canada, too?” asks Chas, directing his question at Andrew.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” says Andrew, still under the spell of seeing Laura again. “I got a very high draft number and I’m hoping to get into grad school one of these days, but I am loving it here, so you never know.”

“And he’s gonna visit me often,” says Cal, his eyes full of tears. “Aren’t you, A?”

“Much as I can,” he replies. “Much as I can.”

Now the woman Andrew thinks is Laura emerges from backstage and comes to join them because Terry and Sheila are her best friends, and Chas has been her devoted fan for years.

Chas rises to give Yvonne a kiss on the cheek and Terry says, “Fantastic Evie. You just get better and better.”

“Thanks,” says Yvonne, turning to Cal and Andrew. “Who are these hunks?”

“I’m Cal,” says Cal, shaking her hand. “And this is Andrew. I’m just moving to Vancouver and Andrew drove me up from California.”

“Why don’t you move here, too?” says Yvonne, shaking Andrew’s hand.

“No good reason,” says Andrew, barely able to breathe.

“At least come to my birthday party before you go back,” she says, sitting down to have a beer. “My twenty-first. Day after tomorrow. At my mother’s farm. You’ll love it. Say yes.”

“Yes,” says Andrew, laughing to keep from crying. “Of course.”

But he almost doesn’t go to Yvonne’s party because in the half-hour he spends with her in Angel Alley, he falls in love with her again—or discovers he is still in love with her—and he can’t bear the thought of her breaking his heart again.

The night before the party, he and Cal go out for fish and chips at a place Frank and Jean recommend.

“Using linear logic,” says Andrew to Cal, “I know Yvonne is not Laura. But every cell in my body tells me she is the same person.”

Cal ponders this for a moment. “What do you mean by the same person? They could be twins, but twins aren’t the same person. They may resemble each other, but they have different brains and hearts and personalities and experiences. So what do you mean by the same person.”

“I mean that when we were in the pub with her, I knew she was Laura.” Andrew clears his throat. “I know that sounds crazy because she is not Laura, and I know that because Laura’s mother still lives in San Francisco, not on a farm in British Columbia. And I know that because I called her today to confirm she still lives in San Francisco and to ask her if she’d heard from Laura recently and she said she had, that Laura was still in England with what’s his name.”

“Therefore?” says Cal, smiling at the approach of their waitress with two big platters of fish and chips.

“Therefore she cannot be Laura,” says Andrew, nodding his thanks as the waitress sets the feast before him.

“Anything else I can get you?” asks the waitress, making eyes at Andrew.

When Andrew does not reply, Cal says, “We’re good. Thanks so much.”

“And yet,” says Andrew, staring at his food and seeing Laura/Yvonne playing her guitar and singing, “I know she’s Laura.”

“Did you also know that our very attractive waitress was interested in you? No, you didn’t. Because a big part of you isn’t even here.” Cal sighs in sympathy. “I think you never got over Laura. You never broke the spell. So of course you see her in Yvonne who looks very much like her.”

Andrew closes his eyes. “But it’s not just the resemblance, Cal. Yvonne is two or three inches taller than Laura, and her speaking voice is deeper, and she talks much more slowly.”

“With a subtle sexy Quebecois accent,” says Cal, smiling quizzically at his friend. “So why do you say she’s Laura?”

“I think she has Laura’s soul. Or her spirit. Maybe they’re the same thing.”

“What about the Laura in England?” asks Cal, chewing thoughtfully on a delicious French fry. “Does she share her soul with Yvonne or did it somehow leave her and enter Yvonne?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, shrugging. “I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t know how to else to explain it. Yvonne doesn’t just remind me of Laura. She is Laura. And that’s why I’m not going to the party tomorrow. Because the only way to end this madness is to avoid her whenever she manifests in my life. And I hope she never does again.”

“But you love her,” says Cal, frowning. “Maybe this time she’ll want to be with you and not leave you for someone else.”

“Why would she be any different this time?” asks Andrew, still pained by his memory of the moment Laura told him she’d found a new love. “If she has the same spirit, then she’ll act the same way. Right?”

“Maybe she’s changed. Maybe she’s evolving as you’re evolving. Maybe this time she’ll be ready to make a life with you.”

“I doubt it,” says Andrew, sipping his beer. “Though I do love the idea of souls evolving together. And maybe she won’t even be interested in me this time.”

“Oh she seemed pretty interested in you,” says Cal, loving the fish and chips. “That’s why she invited us to her party three seconds after she met you.”

“Maybe I won’t be interested in her this time,” says Andrew, wanting to sound disinterested.

Cal rolls his eyes. “Maybe you’ll grow wings and become a bird.”

“So what if she breaks my heart again?” says Andrew, abruptly changing his tune. “Maybe that’s part of the evolutionary plan.”

“So you are going to the party with me,” says Cal, laughing. “I hope so. And I hope you do fall in love with each other and you stay in Canada and then I won’t feel so alone.”

Yvonne’s mother is named Charlene. Her farm is an idyllic place, ten acres of level ground seven miles north of Vancouver, eight of the acres in permanent pasture, one acre for summer vegetables, the remaining acre occupied by a big old farmhouse and a rundown cottage and a flower garden and outbuildings for chickens and rabbits and pigs.

Charlene is fifty-two with long brown hair going gray. She speaks English with a strong Quebecois accent and has lived on her farm for twenty-one years, having moved here from Montreal when Yvonne was in utero.

“I was a singer, too,” says Charlene to Andrew as she gives him a tour of her farm—the birthday party in full swing at the farmhouse. “But when I got pregnant with Yvonne, I thought, ‘No, I’ve had enough of this struggle. I will go west and live in a quiet place near the ocean. I had some money from my father, so I bought this farm and we have been very happy here.” She smiles as she remembers her first years on the farm. “Of course I sang to my daughter and taught her to play the piano and the guitar, but I never thought she would try to make singing her career as I did. She is more successful than I was, but still she makes her living as a waitress.”

“This is such a beautiful place,” says Andrew, wondering why Charlene singled him out for the tour and not Cal. “How far to the ocean?”

“Two miles,” says Charlene, stopping with him in front of the dilapidated cottage. “Yvonne says you are thinking of moving here. Perhaps you would like to fix up this cottage and make this your first home in Canada.”

“Oh I’m not moving here,” says Andrew, embarrassed by the mix up. “My friend Cal is moving here.”

“Yes, I know,” says Charlene, nodding, “but Yvonne says you are thinking of moving here, too, and if you will do the work on this place, I will give you free rent for two years, and, of course, pay for all the materials. She told me you are handy with tools.”

“I’m a fair carpenter,” says Andrew, intrigued by the cottage. “But I’ve mostly been a landscaper. Built decks and sheds and…”

“Well this is like a big shed, isn’t it?” says Yvonne, beaming at him. “A sophisticated shed with a toilet and shower and kitchen and living room and bedroom.”

“Maybe Cal could live here,” says Andrew, imagining settling down on Charlene’s farm for a while, playing music with Cal and getting to know Yvonne. “Can we have a look inside?”

“It’s falling down,” says Charlene, pushing open the front door of the little house. “You would mostly be building it all over again.”

“I’d need a place to stay while I was doing the rebuilding,” says Andrew, warming to the idea of a Canadian adventure before going to graduate school. “There’s no room for me where Cal is staying.”

“I have an extra bedroom in the farmhouse,” says Charlene, nodding assuredly. “You would be welcome here.”

“But you hardly know me,” he says, taken aback.

“Yvonne says you are wonderful,” says Charlene, matter-of-factly. “That is good enough for me.”

So a few days later, after he drops the van off at a car rental place in Bellingham, Washington, Andrew returns by train to Vancouver and begins a new chapter of his life.

Having brought very few things with him, he moves into Charlene’s farmhouse with a small suitcase of clothing and a knapsack containing notebooks, pens, dark glasses, a few books, a Swiss Army knife, and a camera.

His parents are surprised by his decision to stay in Canada, but understanding, too, and they ship him a box of clothes and shoes. Cal is thrilled with Andrew’s decision to stick around and comes to the farm every day to help with the renovation until a committee assisting American draft evaders gets him a job as a dishwasher and janitor at a college cafeteria, after which he can only help on weekends.

Charlene’s boyfriend Walter, a roofer, outfits Andrew with most of the tools he needs, shows Andrew the best places to buy building materials, and lends his expertise to Andrew when the going gets tricky.

And what of Yvonne? She is delighted to have Andrew living on the farm and staying in her former bedroom. Throughout the summer, she comes for supper a couple times during the week, and every Sunday she spends the day and sometimes the night at the farm.

She is greatly attracted to Andrew, as he is to her, and they spend lots of time talking, playing guitars, going to movies and plays, and walking on the beach. But they rarely touch and never kiss except on the cheeks as French people do when greeting each other and saying goodbye.

As the weeks and months go by and summer turns to fall, the cottage lacks only a new roof to be ready for Andrew to move in. Charlene’s beau Walter does the roofing job with Andrew assisting him, and Walter is sufficiently impressed with Andrew’s skills and strength and amiable nature to tout Andrew to a builder he knows, which results in Andrew being hired for eight weeks of good-paying work that gives him a nest egg for the winter.

Charlene loves having Andrew on the farm and hires him at a decent wage to help around the place a couple hours a day.

Not being in school or working for his father as a landscaper for the first time in his life, Andrew starts writing songs and stories, and he discovers he is much more interested in those art forms than in acting.

On a Sunday evening in early December after the supper dishes are done, Andrew and Yvonne and Charlene and Walter and Cal and his sweetheart Terry gather in the living room to hear Andrew read a short story he’s been working on for some weeks now, The Precipice. This is the first time he has ever shared his writing with anyone other than Cal, and though nervous at first, he grows more confident as he reads.

“That was so moving for me,” says Charlene when Andrew finishes reading. “I was on the verge of tears from the beginning to the end.”

“Really good,” says Walter, nodding in agreement. “Kind of a fable, but it seemed very real, very true. Just great.”

“I loved it,” says Terry, smiling wide-eyed at Andrew. “I know an editor at The Weekly Blitz who might want to publish it. Can I show it to him?”

“I need to polish it,” says Andrew, overwhelmed by the praise. “But yeah, that would be wonderful.”

“You’re amazing,” says Yvonne, gazing at Andrew as if seeing him for the first time. “Will you read it again to us when you finish polishing?”

“I… yeah,” says Andrew, blushing. “It really helped knowing you were listening. I mean… I read my stories out loud to myself, but it’s not the same as reading to an audience.”

“Same with a song,” says Yvonne, wanting to kiss him. “I always think of the audience as the final ingredient.”

The response to his story from his new family of friends ignites Andrew’s writing fire as nothing ever has and he starts waking early every morning to write for a few hours before doing his farm work or going off to a carpentry job. He writes in the evenings, too, if he’s not going somewhere to hear Yvonne sing or visiting with Cal.

Andrew’s parents offer to fly him home for Christmas, and to please them he flies from Vancouver to San Francisco a few days before Christmas, spends seven days in Redwood City with his mom and dad and brother, sees a few old friends, and flies back to Vancouver in time to attend Charlene and Yvonne’s New Year’s Eve party.

The day before the party, Andrew gets a phone call from the editor of The Weekly Blitz, a guy named Joe Ganz. “We would love to publish The Precipice,” says Joe, his voice deep and gravelly. “I can pay you twenty-five dollars. I know it’s not much, but that’s what we pay for feature stories. And I’d love to see anything else you want to show me. We don’t often publish fiction, but this story fits us to a T.”

Which means the New Year’s Eve party is also a celebration of Andrew’s success, and Yvonne asks him to read The Precipice to the fifty or so party goers, many of them artists and musicians and writers.

“Not tonight,” says Andrew, hating to disappoint her. “I’m feeling shy and I’d rather not be the center of attention. If you know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean,” she says, putting her arms around him. “But I really want you to read that story for everyone. It’s just what we need to hear right now. Please?”

So Andrew agrees, a microphone and amplifier are set up, Yvonne plays a beautiful guitar tune to get everybody’s attention, and exactly an hour before 1970 gives way to 1971, Andrew reads his story to the assembled host.

All the usual clichés apply. You could hear a pin drop. They hang on his every word. Again and again he has to hold for laughs. There isn’t a dry eye in the place. And when he reads the last word of The Precipice, there is a collective gasp and the crowd goes wild.

At midnight there is much hurrahing and hugging and kissing, and when Yvonne and Andrew kiss, they cease to hold back from loving each other, though they do not take the physical loving beyond their kiss.

In the days that follow, Andrew gives himself so entirely to his new life, he forgets all about trying to get into graduate school. He works on the farm, takes the occasional carpentry gig, writes for hours every day, plays music in the evenings with Cal, and he and Yvonne start spending big chunks of time together on Saturdays and Sundays, exploring the city and the coast, and reveling in their friendship which continues to deepen in spite of (or maybe because of) their unspoken agreement not to become lovers.

 ∆

One day in early summer, as the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Canada approaches, Andrew and Yvonne sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their backs against a driftwood log on a gorgeous beach a few miles north of the farm.

“The thing is,” says Andrew, smiling out at the sparkling sea, “I feel married to you. Yet we are not lovers. Which means…”

“Soul marriages aren’t about sex,” says Yvonne, taking Andrew’s hand. “They might include sex, of course, but they aren’t founded on sex.”

“Do you think if we had sex we’d lose our soul connection?” He frowns. “I wonder if that’s why we haven’t. Because we’re afraid we might.”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “Our souls will always be connected, even if we never see each other again. But I do think we’re afraid that becoming lovers would complicate things. And it would. Sex always changes everything. Don’t you think?”

“I’ve only been sexually involved with one woman in my life, and we started having sex right from the get go, so there was never any question of changing the relationship with sex.”

“I’ve had a handful of lovers,” she says, sounding somewhat bitter about it, “and in every case, the minute we had sex, even really awful sex, they thought they owned me, as if entering my body gave them dominion over me, and I hate that.”

“I think that’s a primal belief among most humans, don’t you? Claiming each other by having sex. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand why people feel that way. Not just men. It’s not just cultural, it’s biological.”

“It’s learned,” she says, angrily. “Taught to little boys from the day they’re born.”

“What is taught to little boys?”

“That they are superior to girls and should be able to dominate them.” She frowns at him. “You don’t think so?”

“My darling, Evie,” he says, smiling at her. “I have two brilliant older sisters and learned ten thousand times before I was seven that girls are stronger and smarter and more capable than boys in every way except, eventually, in terms of brute strength. And I’ve never liked brutes.”

“So if we become lovers you won’t think I’m your exclusive property?”

“You mean will I be okay with you sleeping with other people?”

“Would you be okay with that?”

“Well the thing is, I wouldn’t want to be in a sexual relationship with you if you want to sleep with other people. But I’d still want to be your friend.”

“How is that not owning me?” She pouts. “You would own the exclusive rights to me sexually if I wasn’t allowed to sleep with other people. Right?”

“No,” he says, laughing. “I just wouldn’t be in a sexual relationship with you. You can sleep with a different person every night if you want. Or two. I just don’t want to be involved in that kind of sexual dynamic with you or anybody. It’s not who I am.”

“Hmm,” she says, pondering this. “Because I really want to make love with you, A, but I can’t promise sexual fidelity.”

“Are you sleeping with anyone now?” he asks innocently. “I won’t mind if you are.”

“I’m not,” she says, pouting again. “I haven’t in over a year. Since a few months before I met you. And every time I’ve been tempted since then, I always think, ‘But I like Andrew so much better than this guy. Why would I ever sleep with this guy if I can sleep with Andrew?’ And then I don’t because I want you instead.”

“I’m flattered,” he says, holding out his arms to her.

They embrace and feel marvelous.

“So let’s make a pact,” she says, kissing his chin. “If we do sleep together and sleeping-together doesn’t last for some reason, we’ll always be friends.”

“Sounds good,” he says doubtfully, “but we can never know in advance if we’ll always be friends. We only know our souls will always be connected, which is not necessarily the same thing as being friends.”

“So how about this,” she says, moving apart from him so she can see his face. “We commit to sexual exclusivity with each other for one year with an option to renew for another year if we both want to.”

“A one-year marriage?” he says, loving everything about her. “Will we live together?”

“Yes. I’ll move into the cottage with you and save oodles not paying rent.”

“But what if we make love…” he says, pausing portentously. “And it’s really bad? Marriage annulled?”

“No,” she says urgently. “If the first time is bad, we have to try to make it better. We have to help each other in every way. Sexually and creatively and emotionally and spiritually.”

“I’m game,” he says, looking into her eyes. “What are you doing tonight?”

She takes a deep breath. “Being with you.”

The morning after their first night together, entangled in Andrew’s bed, Yvonne says, “Laura may have broken your heart, but in the ways of lovemaking she was a very good teacher.”

A few days after becoming Andrew’s lover, Yvonne gives notice she is vacating her apartment at the end of the month and starts moving her things to the farm a carload at a time. What doesn’t fit nicely in the cottage, she stores in the attic of the farmhouse.

After two months of commuting at night to and from the restaurant where she works, Yvonne shifts from supper to lunches so she can spend her evenings with Andrew. She makes less money, but now she’s paying no rent and can gig during the week, and she’s happier than she’s ever been. Ditto Andrew.

 ∆

In October, they borrow Charlene’s car and drive to California to visit Andrew’s folks, after which they continue on to Los Angeles where Amelia, one of Yvonne’s old friends, now lives and has arranged a couple gigs for her.

Much to Andrew’s surprise, Yvonne loves LA, and on the way back to Canada she says she’d like to live there one day.

“What do you like about it?” he asks, much preferring life on the farm in Canada.

“I love the weather, the people, the energy,” she says, gazing out at the passing scenery. “And if I really want to succeed with my music, that’s the place to be.” She turns to him. “If we got married, we’d essentially have joint citizenship and you’d be free of any hassles about living in Canada and I’d be free of any hassles about living in America. So we could live either place. Or both.”

“Is that a proposal?” he asks, deciding not to tell her he hates Los Angeles, the putrid air, the terrifying traffic, the absence of forests and wilderness, the millions of desperate people.

“Something to think about,” she says, kissing him. “I know you love where we live now, but I’ve lived there my whole life and I’m ready for a change.”

Which is why in the summer of 1973, after two years of living together, Andrew and Yvonne part ways, she to pursue her music career in Los Angeles, he to stay in Vancouver and carry on with his writing.

One evening a few months after Yvonne moves to Los Angeles, Andrew and Cal are in Angel Alley having beer and burgers, and they realize they are sitting at the same table where they first met Yvonne and Terry, who is now Cal’s wife.

And their reminiscence about that fateful evening prompts Andrew to say, “You’re the only person who could even begin to understand what I want to tell you.”

“About Yvonne?” asks Cal, knowing Andrew is hurting terribly from his loss of her. “Tell me.”

“You remember how in the beginning I said she was Laura, not in body but in spirit?”

“I remember.”

“Well I continued to feel that way until about a year ago.”

“What changed?”

“Well… I came home one day and she was on the phone with Amelia, and something was different about her. I couldn’t say exactly what it was, but she was different. Still sweet and funny and loving and wonderful, but different. And I came to realize she no longer reminded me of Laura. A particular kind of energy I have never been able to describe was gone from her.”

“Yet you still loved her.”

“More than ever.”

“So where do you think the Laura energy went?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, his eyes sparkling with tears. “Your guess is as good as mine.”         

fin

the song Just Love

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What Are Dreams?

what are dreams?

On a rainy morning in November, Alberto Puerto Vallarta, Paul Windsor, and Herschel Steinberg share a table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Alberto is seventy-four, a performance artist with wavy black hair turning gray, Paul Windsor is fifty-nine, a writer and musician with short wiry gray hair, and Herschel Steinberg is seventy-two, a dream interpreter with spiky gray hair.

Alberto: I was walking the dogs on the beach yesterday and it came to me that maybe the purpose of dreams is to balance the mundane with the fantastic, the fantastic with the mundane.

Paul: Not sure what you mean.

Alberto: If you have a boring life, your dreams will be exciting. If you have an exciting life, your dreams will be about feeding your cat or doing the dishes. Maybe the psyche needs to maintain an equilibrium of…

Herschel: Excitement and mundanity?

Paul: I would think just the opposite, that an exciting life would give rise to exciting dreams, a dull life to dull dreams.

Herschel: It’s an interesting idea. Psychic equilibrium. After all, we need the right amount of salt to function properly. Not too much, not too little. The same is true of sugar, exercise, affection. Maybe dreams provide psychic sustenance, and different kinds of dreams provide different kinds of stimulation for proper neural functioning.

Paul: I think dreaming is the way our subconscious tells our conscious mind the truth, tells us things we’re unwilling to accept when we’re awake.

Herschel: Are we unwilling to accept them or simply unaware of them?

Paul: Might seem like we’re unaware, but we’re really unwilling.

Alberto: Which might be another way the mind is attempting to reach psychic equilibrium.

Herschel: I think dreams are the way we tell stories to ourselves, stories with messages that can help us if only we can decipher what those messages are.

Alberto: Are all dreams symbolic?

Herschel: Not necessarily. I have one client who has dreams he says are indistinguishable from his waking life.

Paul: Maybe he’s attained a perfect equilibrium between the fantastic and the mundane.

Alberto: I wonder if his waking life is both fantastic and mundane.

Herschel: Well… in a way everyone’s life is both fantastic and mundane, and depending on our state of mind, the mundane can be fantastic.

Alberto: So true.

Paul: I often dream I’m trying to get somewhere, but I never quite reach my goal. And by often, I mean almost all my dreams are about being diverted or obstructed from some destination, and yet I don’t feel I’m being obstructed in my waking life.

Alberto: Are people obstructing you in your dreams or is it things getting in your way?

Paul: Usually people. I’m often trying to reach a stage so I can perform. Tell a story or play the piano. But I don’t ever reach the stage because there’s always someone in the way who wants to talk to me or show me something, or there’s a huge mob blocking my way.

Alberto: I used to have those kinds of dreams before I began performing regularly. When did you last perform?

Paul: Three years ago.

Alberto: Aha.

Herschel: Aha what?

Alberto: Perhaps these dreams spring from his subconscious desire to perform, and his conscious self is the obstruction. As long as he doesn’t perform, his dreams will be about not being able to.

Paul: But I have no desire to perform again.

Alberto: Or so you think when you’re awake.

Herschel: A client once recounted to me an incredible dream that she had over the course of several consecutive nights, a saga of epic proportions involving huge battles and complicated love affairs and long journeys and countless brushes with death, all of which she remembered in fantastic detail. And at the end of this monumental odyssey, she arrived at an animal shelter where she chose two kittens and took them home.

Alberto: So did she go in her waking life to an animal shelter and get two kittens?

Herschel: Two kittens and a puppy.

Paul: And was that the end of her epic dreams?

Herschel: No, but ever after in her dreams, she was accompanied by two lions and a wolf.

Alberto: She found spirit allies to accompany her in both the dream world and the waking world.

Herschel: I think so.

Paul: Last night I dreamt I was at a party trying to get to a table laden with guacamole and chips and shrimp on skewers, but I could never get to the table because I was waylaid by one person after another.

Alberto: What finally happened?

Paul: I woke up, went to the kitchen, ate a banana, and went back to bed.

Alberto: I would have made guacamole.

Paul: We had no avocados.

Herschel: Dreams are often full of things we want and things we don’t want. Things we have and things we don’t have. Much like life.

Alberto: I think dreams are every bit as real as so-called waking reality.

Herschel: Yes, and isn’t it wonderful how often we dream of being in this lovely café together?

Paul: Shall I order us some guacamole and chips and a plate of spicy prawns?

Alberto: So sayeth your dream. And should anyone obstruct you on your way to place the order, I will come to your aid.

Herschel: I will too, Paul. In this dream no one will stop you from attaining your heart’s desire.

fin

 

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Actual Abstract

shallwedance

Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.

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Choosing Names

Mementos NolanWInkler

Mementos by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“I only like two kinds of men: domestic and foreign.” Mae West

Our dear friends Nick and Clare Bokulich, Nick the noted fermentologist, Clare the renowned musicologist and daughter of local viola legend Marion Crombie, recently sent us this pregnancy update. “Had one of those crazy 3D ultrasounds and they were able to see all of the organs and blood pumping through the veins and everything! It was completely overwhelming and exciting all at the same time. And we found out it’s a boy!”

After digesting this exciting news, we wrote Clare a brief email with names for boys we think go well with Bokulich. I suggested Felix and Noah, Marcia was partial to Benjamin (Ben).

Clare replied, “I like all of those, too. Nick and I are pretty hopeless on agreeing on names, though, so we’ve decided to give ourselves a break and not worry about it until after he’s born (though suggestions still welcome!) because there’s just so much else going on right now and we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.”

And that reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was twenty (now lost) that was my first story to garner handwritten rejection notes (as opposed to form rejection letters) from editors at two different prestigious magazines. Both editors said they loved the story but were sorry to say they only published well-known writers. The story was entitled The Name and was based on the true story of how my friend Grover got his name.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

Grover was born in eastern Kansas in 1931. He was the seventh son and ninth child of hardworking Methodist wheat farmers. Grover’s father was over fifty when Grover was born, and several of Grover’s siblings were already married and had children of their own. Tractors were just displacing teams of horses for plowing the fields, and Grover’s father and brothers and mother worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, to make a go of farming—Sunday reserved for church and socializing and resting up for the coming week of toil.

Naming their last-born child was of no pressing importance to Grover’s parents, so he had no official name until he was six. He answered to Baby and Sluggo for the first five years of his life, and it was only when he was about to start school that his parents decided to give him an official name—Ernest favored by Mother, Grover favored by Father.

Inspired by Grover’s vague recollections of why he chose one name over the other, my short story imagined a scene in which Mother plied the boy with pumpkin pie while lobbying for the name Ernest, and another scene in which Father took the boy for a ride in his truck to get an ice cream cone—a great adventure! On the way to and from the soda fountain Father made the case for the name Grover, pointing out that Grover Cleveland had been President of the United States, twice, and Grover Cleveland Alexander was a great baseball player, whereas Ernest was a name better suited to a sissy than to a big strong farm boy.

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

Recalling the story of how Grover got his name, I was reminded of another naming story told to me by a former prison psychiatrist whose first name was Edward. One of the men Edward ministered to, a mountain of a man who had spent many years in prison for manslaughter, came to see Edward shortly before his release.

“Doctor, you helped me so much,” he said reverently. “If I ever have a son, I’d like to name him after you.”

Edward replied, “I would be honored if you named your son after me,” and thought no more about it.

A few years later, Edward received a phone call from a frantic nurse calling from a hospital in San Francisco. The former inmate had begotten a son and the newborn’s birth certificate required a first name. However, the name chosen by the former inmate was deemed inappropriate by whoever was in charge of that sort of thing at the hospital, and now the very angry mountain of a man was threatening to destroy the maternity ward if the name he wanted for his child was disallowed.

“He says he wants to name the baby after you,” explained the nurse. “He said you told him you would be honored if he named the baby that.”

Edward collected his thoughts and replied, “Why would anyone object to naming a boy Edward? The name has served me and thousands of other Edwards, kings included, very well for hundreds of years.”

“He doesn’t want to name the boy Edward,” cried the exasperated nurse. “He wants to name him Doctor.”

“Well, if I were you,” said Edward, recalling the size and emotional disposition of the man in question, “I would grant him his wish and trouble him no further.”

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

I am currently in the throes of writing Book Three of a fictional saga called Ida’s Place. Set on the far north coast of California in the mythical town of Big River, the cast of artists and eccentrics grows larger with each new volume. Thus I have given names to a good many characters of late, with several more characters about to enter the fray. Fortunately, one of my great pleasures is choosing names for those who populate my fiction, though, in truth, they invariably choose their own names before I can consciously intervene.

Which is why I appreciated Clare writing, “…we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.” I have no doubt the boy’s name will come to them from him.

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Unpublished Work

Multiple Moons painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

They haunt me, the dozens of novels and novellas and stories I’ve written that have never been published—those relatively few survivors of my periodic assaults on bookshelves freighted with my collected unpublished fiction, each manuscript a Sleeping Beauty, alive yet so deeply asleep she might as well be dead; her only hope the kiss of some fairy tale publisher prince or princess who discovers the comatose fable despite the impenetrable forest surrounding her and despite the curses of the wicked witches and sorcerers and evil schmucks who rendered her, for all intents and purposes, lifeless.

“Why do you think we chose to speak ourselves through you, Todd?” ask the stories and novellas and novels and plays and screenplays. “So you would give birth to us and spend years shaping us and then pile us on your shelves to collect dust until you murder us? No! We chose you to bring us into the world so we can do our work—the work of inspiration and healing and love. How can you leave us here, moldering in our living graves?”

“Well,” I retort, “you cannot say I haven’t tried with all my might and guile (such as they are) for the better part of my sixty-three years to bring you to a larger audience, larger, that is, than the few friends I’ve shared you with. I’ve spent whatever money I managed to accrue to make copies of you and mail you to myriad publishers and magazines of every size and shape, and I have kissed the asses of far too many so-called literary agents who wouldn’t know a work of literature if it bit them on their much-kissed butts. And I have managed to publish several books and stories, however brief their appearances in bookstores and on the literary stage. I’ve even self-published two of my most vociferous volumes—Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books—and gone bankrupt in the process. So you cannot say I haven’t tried.”

Still, they haunt me, my unpublished works, especially the ones most recently born. The older manuscripts rarely shout at me these days, but the books I’ve written in the last decade, they squawk and yell as I walk by them or when I see their titles in the Writing folder on the screen of my computer. “Todd! What have you done today to find my publisher, to share me with your society, to bring my boon to the world? I’ve got work to do, people to touch, minds and hearts to open. What’s holding up the show? I’m ready!”

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” Jessamyn West

My most recent work of fiction (longer than a short story) is a novella entitled Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, a book I feel certain would be a big help in the crusade to save our planet while providing exciting and gratifying entertainment for millions of readers. Here is the brief synopsis that has accompanied my submissions of the manuscript to publishers hither and yon.

Oasis Tales of the Conjuror tells the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in exciting and creative and harmonious ways. The tales are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival.

I have now sent the manuscript to twenty publishers—small, medium, and large—as well as to three so-called literary agents, and the swift and universal response has been, “Never!” However, the thirty copies I gave to friends and my most clamorous readers elicited quite the opposite response. “Yes! You must publish this book! Couldn’t put it down! Riveting, gorgeous, powerful, important! Quick! There’s not a moment to lose!”

Ah, but that is the great divide I have encountered all my life—the responses of far-thinking and creative people as opposed to the responses of publishers. “So, Todd,” say more and more of my correspondents of late, “if the old ways won’t serve you, why don’t you publish Oasis Tales of the Conjuror as an e-book available online, and help save the world that way?” To which I reply, “I am such a colossal techno doofus, I not only don’t know how to do such a thing, I would be incapable of doing so even if I theoretically knew how. Besides, how would anyone know the book exists simply because I’ve added it to the billions of other e-things collecting digital dust in the ethers?”

That said, I do resonate with the idea of posting Oasis Tales of the Conjuror on my web site so people can read the story and send a link to their friends, though I still think an actual three-dimensional version of the book would be the best way for the tale to live in the world. To that end, I suppose I could make photocopies for those who wish to read hard copy (and pay for such) and post the manuscript online for people to read. That would eliminate the possibility of earning any money for my work, but given the urgency of the ecological and economic crises confronting us, perhaps aspiring to earn money while trying to help save the world is counter-productive if not downright silly.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling

Though I began to sell my short stories to men’s and women’s magazines in the 1970’s through the tireless efforts of the late great Dorothy Pittman, a saint disguised as a literary agent, and I eventually published several novels with big New York publishers and made my living as a novelist and screenwriter for some years, I continued to submit my short stories to literary magazines. Through thick and thin, success and failure, minor renown and major anonymity, I have never ceased to send my stories to itsy bitsy magazines and great big famous magazines and every size of magazine in between—for nearly fifty years. I would guesstimate I have now mailed (snail mail) over three thousand packets of stories to editors at hundreds of magazines and have made another three hundred electronic submissions since the advent of the interweb, yet I have never had a single one of those stories accepted for publication. True, I have published stories in a few little literary magazines, but those were stories solicited by editors who were fans of my writing or were introduced to my work by mutual acquaintances.

Just today, for instance, I received three rejections of stories I submitted electronically to so-called literary magazines, and I received a rare snail mail rejection (a form letter in the self-addressed stamped envelope I included with my submission) of a story I was sure would be taken by a miniscule quarterly with a circulation of seventy-five—photocopied, folded, and stapled in the editor’s garage. The form rejections from all these magazines said the same thing: Due to the thousands of stories and poems we receive each week, we regret that we cannot respond personally to your submission. Even so, how could they not want my stories? Such funny and piquant and timely tales, and I was absolutely certain that…

But then I have always been absolutely certain that every story and novel and novella and play and screenplay I have ever sent out is going to be published or produced or filmed. Indeed, over the decades, through agents and on my own, I have submitted more than a hundred short stories and humorous essays to the New Yorker, and with each and every submission I have been absolutely certain that my phone will ring (any minute now) and some wonderful guy or gal New Yorker editor (smart and funny and good) will say, “Todd, Todd, Todd. This is such a great story. Gads! (I just know they’ll use the word gads.) Where have you been all our lives?” Which is a question I will take great delight in answering.

And over the course of those same decades, I have had my astrological chart interpreted by four different astrologers, and each of those seers noted something in my chart indicating that the sun and the moon and the planets have collaborated with the earth to predispose me to be preternaturally optimistic, no matter what befalls me. This astrological indicator is, so far, one of only two plausible explanations for why, despite the formidable and ever-growing odds against me, I continue to campaign on behalf of my unpublished works. The other explanation is that several times in my life, and always just as I am about to give up the fight, someone writes or calls to let me know that my words got through to them and they were moved to reach out to me.

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Cautionary Tales

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

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

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

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Children

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

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

I was in Corners a few days ago, perusing the bananas, when a little girl, four-years-old, came right up to me and said, “Know what?”

“What?” I replied, never having seen her before.

“I made up a special song.” She nodded to affirm this. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course,” I said, delighted by her. “Who wouldn’t?”

And without a moment’s hesitation she began to sing about how beautiful the day was and how happy she was and how much she loved her mother and having chocolate milk. The melody was something of a hybrid, Mary Had A Little Lamb meets Oh What A Beautiful Morning, and the tune changed key several times throughout her rendition. In short: a masterpiece. Oh, and she danced as she sang, a subtle shimmying hula. Brilliant.

“That was fabulous,” I declared, applauding. “I loved it.”

“Do you want to hear another one?” she asked, frowning quizzically, as if she couldn’t quite believe my reaction.

“Sure,” I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Who wouldn’t?”

So she launched into another song with a melody not unlike the first, this one about her favorite foods: fruit, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, popcorn, and spaghetti, with each verse ending in “minestrone soup.” Another masterwork.

I applauded again and said, “Thank you so much. You made my day.”

“I would sing another one,” she said, shrugging apologetically, “but we have to go.”

“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” Bill Evans

“When I was two-years-old,” said my grandmother Goody, her voice ringing with passion, “my mother had another baby, and a few days later the baby died in her crib and my mother screamed at me, ‘Did you touch the baby?’ That’s the very first thing I remember about my life.” She reflected for a moment. “I think that’s why I always feel responsible for anything that ever goes wrong.”

“For anything that goes wrong in your life?” I asked, adjusting the volume on my tape recorder.

“In my life, your life, anybody’s life.” She laughed her musical laugh. “I’m responsible for everything bad that happens to anyone. It’s all my fault.”

Goody was born in 1900 in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit, her father a cantor with a golden voice who made a few pennies preparing boys for bar mitzvah, while Goody’s mother was the primary breadwinner by keeping a little grocery store above which Goody and her two brothers and parents lived. When Goody was six-years-old, her performances at school—singing, dancing, and acting—caught the eye of a wealthy Jewish matron who felt Goody possessed talent worth cultivating, and this matron offered to pay for Goody to have the best singing, dancing, and acting lessons Detroit had to offer. Alas, Goody’s parents, orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, believed the theater world was the Devil’s playground and so they rejected the generous offer.

“I might have been a star,” said Goody, aiming her words at the tape recorder. “I could sing like a bird and dance like Isadora what’s-her-name, but what I loved most was acting, turning myself into people who did all the things I was forbidden to do.”

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung 

When I lived in Berkeley, I earned a small portion of my income as a babysitter. My favorite babysitting job was a three-hour stint, two afternoons a week, overseeing three little boys playing in my neighbor’s backyard. The boys were five-years-old and they had a fort, a small wooden platform four-feet off the ground accessible by a wooden ladder. The railing around the platform was tall and sturdy enough to keep the boys from accidentally falling off, though the boys sometimes climbed over the railing and jumped to the ground.

Because these boys had a fort and were possessed of fine imaginations, I had very little work to do except watch from a distance, intervene on rare occasions when their sword play became too emphatic, and serve them snacks around four o’clock to tide them over until supper. Sometimes they would tire of their games and come ask me to tell them a story, but usually they played happily without me for the entire three hours. Their fort was variously a spaceship, submarine, tree house, castle, armored attack vehicle, clubhouse, and pirate ship. Their bamboo sticks were variously swords, spears, guns, lasers, propulsion devices, magic wands, and fishing poles. The boys were usually united in combat against some imagined foe, though now and then they would war against each other. And what struck me as most interesting was that in all their games they imagined themselves to be men, not boys, but men they hoped to become—strong and daring and resourceful.

Watching those little boys play, I would often recall the large wooden platform in the far corner of my childhood backyard, a makeshift deck ten-feet long and six-feet wide piled with old hand-hewn redwood grape stakes. This platform served as the stage for much of my play with one particular friend, Colin, when we were six and seven and eight-years old, Colin being much more inclined to partake of character-driven dramas than those carnage-driven dramas preferred by my other friends.

Colin and I pretended our platform was a raft floating down a mighty river, and we imagined ourselves to be fugitives, heroic outlaws, with much of our discourse the recounting of harrowing tales of how we came to be fugitives. In this way, we spent many summer hours inventing plots and autobiographies, excellent practice for what would become the main literary focus of my life: writing fiction.

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

Here is a very short story, a chapter from my novel of stories Under the Table Books, about children and memory and imagination.

The Big Green

People have always told me I’m weird. But who isn’t a little weird? You know what I mean?

In First Grade, I would stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and I could feel stories coming into my feet and traveling up my legs and through my heart and out my mouth into the air. At first, the other kids laughed at me, but I had to do it. Every recess I would run to the tree and pull off my shoes and start babbling.

I didn’t have a single friend when I started telling the stories, but one day this boy sat down nearby and listened for a few minutes. Then he got up and ran away and came back with four other kids, and pretty soon they got up and ran away and came back with more kids, and I just kept telling about the children lost in a mysterious forest called the Big Green. Pretty soon there were dozens of kids sitting around me and when the bell rang none of them would budge until I said The End.

Well, from then on I had lots of friends and my teacher invited me to tell stories to the class while she took little naps and pretty soon I was going to other classes and telling them stories, too, until finally I was named the official story teller of the school and I was interviewed and photographed for the school paper. And then there was an article about me in the local newspaper, which is when my mother and father found out about what I was doing.

I’ll never forget that night—the day before my seventh birthday. My father came home from his office and my mother showed him the article in the paper about me and he became furious. “What are all these stories about?” he wanted to know.

I told him they were mostly about lost children and he said, “You’ve never been lost. That’s lying.”

“They’re just stories,” I said, trying to defend myself. “They like us to make up stories.”

Who likes you to?”

“The teachers.”

“Why didn’t you tell us about this?” He glared at my mother. “Did you know about this?”

“Heavens no,” she said, cringing. “He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“So now all our friends are gonna see this and…”

“We’ve had five calls already.”

“Sonofabitch,” said my father, clenching his fists. “That does it. No more story telling. You hear me? No more.”

“But…”

“But nothing. You quit telling stories or you’ll be in big trouble.”

So I stopped. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I lost most of my friends and I got beat up by some older kids who tried to force me to tell them stories, but I’d been in big trouble with my father before and it wasn’t something I would risk again until I was seventeen and left home for good.

Now here’s the amazing part. I didn’t remember any of this until last year when I went to a psychic astrologer to celebrate turning forty-seven. The first thing she said to me was, “Your great gift emerged when you were six, but something happened and you were forced to squelch it.”

“Gift?” I said, remembering only my profound loneliness. “What kind of gift?”

“You were psychic. And judging from your chart, such a gift would have been unacceptable in your family. Even dangerous for you.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, straining for any sort of memory from my early years.

“Then you turned to the physical. Sports?”

“All I did,” I said, remembering the endless baseball—the safe simplicity of bat meeting ball, a boy drifting back in left field to catch another towering drive, never wanting the day to end.

“And now?”

“I work at a preschool. I’m a teacher’s aide.”

Then it hit me, the way I keep the kids entertained between four and six waiting for their mommies to pick them up. I stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and tell them stories about the children lost in the Big Green. And though the children in my stories are definitely lost, they are not alone. They have each other, and so never lose hope of finding their way home.


 

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recordings

The Double

Here’s Todd reading “The Double”, a story which was published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but is not part of any of his collections:

The Double