Posts Tagged ‘stories’

Actual Abstract

Monday, August 29th, 2016

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.

Choosing Names

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

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.

Unpublished Work

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

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.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

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.

Children

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

(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.


 

The Double

Friday, February 5th, 2010

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