Posts Tagged ‘Todd Walton’

One Thing Leads To Another

Monday, January 15th, 2018

white winter permain

White Winter Permain photo by Todd

For several years in my childhood, there was a sentence I repeated to myself when I was riding my bike or walking home from school or climbing a tree; and I realize now, sixty years later, that I repeated this phrase as a way of countering my mother’s basic life philosophy, which was something along the lines of, “No matter what you do, it isn’t good enough.”

The sentence I repeated to myself was: “One thing leads to another.”

I was reminded of that favorite sentence yesterday when Susan Waterfall, the pianist and musical historian, and her orchestra conductor hubby Allan Pollack, came over for Marcia’s scrumptious cornbread and coffee, and brought with them the beautiful White Winter Permain apple tree, bare root, that Susan purchased for me from an heirloom apple tree nursery.

Susan gifted me with the apple tree, and got one for her orchard, too, after reading about the White Winter Permain in an article I posted seven months ago entitled Of Apples and Accordions. In that article, I copied a paragraph from the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory that read: “PEARMAIN, WHITE WINTER (Winter Pearmain) — Oldest known English apple; dates back to 1200 A.D. Medium to nearly large, round to oval, light greenish fruit turning pale yellow with numerous dots. Fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy flesh. Pleasantly rich, aromatic flavor. Fine quality, all-purpose apple. Excellent keeper. Tree is a healthy, vigorous grower; bears regularly and heavily. Splendid vitality; widely adaptable. Excellent pollinator. Old favorite dessert apple of the Middle West in early 1800s. Today is grown primarily in warm winter areas where its low chilling requirement renders it one of the few possible apples there. Ripens in late October.”

I have now planted the White Winter Permain in the center of our little orchard, and a few Octobers hence I hope to be eating apples from this tree. Thank you, Susan!

One thing really does lead to another.

A couple months ago, Marcia and I were visiting Carolyn Steinbuck, the pianist, and her husband Francis Rutherford, the cellist and fixer of just about anything needing repair, and Carolyn mentioned she was going to be selling her six-foot grand piano. Having wanted a grand piano for most of my adult life, but never imagining I would own one, I inquired of the price. Carolyn named a reasonable amount, and I replied without conscious forethought, “I might be interested.”

Hearing those words coming out of my mouth was startling to me, as was Carolyn’s response, “If anybody should have a grand piano, you should.”

What did she mean? Why should I, the past president of the Society of Undeserving People, have a lovely grand piano? A few days later, I returned to Carolyn’s house, gave the grand a good tryout, thought to myself I am unworthy of this piano and shouted, “I want it!”

With Marcia’s enthusiastic support, we bought Carolyn’s grand and had the six-foot beauty carefully moved from Carolyn’s house in Elk to our digs in Mendocino, a crew of three formidable and good-natured men accomplishing the daunting task.

the movers

The Marvelous Movers photo by Todd

But before that formidable trio brought the behemoth to our house, we had to do some serious rearranging of furniture and stuff in our living room, resulting in ridding ourselves of a gigantic old armchair, taking things down from walls, one thing leading to another, so when the grand piano was in place, our living room felt more spacious than ever before, and I still had my beloved upright piano.

When the marvelous movers were gone, I sat down at the grand, played a run of notes, and was immediately besieged by buyer’s remorse. I hurried across the room to the upright I’ve had for forty years, played a run of notes, wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake, and…

Weeks went by. The grand and I became better acquainted, but there were things about the sound and action I was unhappy with. I needed the expert advice of my tuner, Richard Kane, to determine whether those unhappy things could be made happy, which is why I so eagerly anticipated his January visit.

A few days ago, Richard came to tune the grand for the first time, gave her a test drive, and assured me that everything I felt was problematic could be rectified with proper regulation. We then discussed the subtle buzzing and somewhat metallic sound of the otherwise grandiloquent bass notes, and he said there was something he could do on the spot to solve those problems.

So rather than tune the piano, he loosened the bass strings, detached them one-at-a-time from their anchor posts (pegs?) and gave each string a bit of tightening twisting and self-Rolfing (my term) to remove accumulated stuckness before reattaching them. Then he tuned the bass strings and promised to return two weeks hence to tune the whole piano.

bass string fix

Bass String Fix photo by Todd

Alas, Richard no longer does the regulating my piano needs, but he will endeavor to find a technician willing to make the long trek to these hinterlands to make the grand right.

Now here is a deeper thing that led to those other things. I am absolutely certain I never would have even considered buying Carolyn’s piano had I not recently been through some hugely transformative experiences via psychotherapy. A fundamental rule of my former psychological operating system was to never allow myself to be my whole big self. To survive the slings and arrows of my unhappy parents, I learned to make myself small and to severely restrict my bigness and wholeness to avoid, as much as possible, verbal and physical abuse.

However, emerging as I am from the old constricting carapace of my former operating system, I am replacing many of the fundamental rules composing my operating system with new rules. And though I am still in a major reconstruction phase, the day I played the grand at Carolyn’s, Todd who shouted, “I want it!” was more than big enough to have a grand piano.

the player

 

 

 

Parts

Monday, January 8th, 2018

bred in the bone 72

Bred in the Bone painting by Nolan Winkler

 

The picture

is imperfect,

partial.

 

As when it’s said:

“I am partial

to”

             Kate Greenstreet

 

I recently came upon a short film on Vimeo entitled Nix+Gerber made by a collective of filmmakers calling themselves The Drawing Room. I have now watched their marvelous little movie three times and sent the link to several people I know. Nix+Gerber not only captures the remarkable creative process of Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, but eloquently illuminates the steps every artist must take in order to bring his or her vision to fruition.

The word artist is a loaded one in our society and has countless meanings and implications, so for the sake of clarity, I will give you my current definition of an artist. An artist is a person who is committed to making art as an essential part of her life.

The first step illustrated by Nix+Gerber is clarifying to yourself what kind of art you make. Nix tells us she considers herself a photographer more than a sculptor, and says, “I’m not the kind of photographer who is going to go out and find things to photograph. I’m gonna create things to photograph.”

Thinking about my recent novels in this regard, I would say, “I’m a fiction writer writing about humans striving to overcome self-doubt while seeking love and friendship in an imagined present-day American society.”

Regarding my music, “I’m a pianist creating melodic rhythmic patterns on which to improvise.”

The second step of the artist’s process shown in Nix+Gerber is having a vision of what you wish to create. For Nix and Gerber they have visions of things to make so they can then photograph those things.

Their vision for their series of incredibly real-seeming miniature interiors entitled The City, is of a world “post-mankind…where buildings have aged and crumbled and nature has taken back some of the spaces.”

The third and fourth steps of the artist’s process are: choosing your medium(s) and undertaking the creation. To bring their vision of this post-mankind world into being, Nix and Gerber spent many years building a series of hyper-realistic miniature three-dimensional interiors, including a medical school lecture hall, a power plant control room, the shop of a violin maker, a church, a Laundromat, and a subway car.

Each interior took them approximately seven months to create, working long hours every day, meticulously sculpting and fabricating every imaginable detail of that interior—including dust and cobwebs and rust stains—until the scene was complete and ready to photograph. And then, when they were satisfied with their photographs of these interiors, they dismantled the interiors, saved any of the thousands of tiny objects they might use again, and threw the rest away—the lasting artifacts being photographs.

I am reminded by Nix+Gerber of the work of Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor famed for his site-specific sculpture and land art, the fame of those works resulting from the excellent photographs he took of those sculptures and presented in big beautiful books, as well as in the documentary film Rivers and Tides.

My latest novel is about a woman nearing the end of her ten-year quest to find and interview and photograph a man who was a very famous chef until he disappeared and was presumed dead. I have spent a year word-sculpting the details of this novel and have recently completed the entire form, which I am now in the process of refining. I will eventually produce copies of the novel to share, and use the original pages for fire starter.

Thus my process is similar to Nix and Gerber’s process. We commit ourselves to making works of art, we have our visions, we decide on our mediums, we create the many parts composing our final creations, and we choose ways to present our creations to the world.

“A writer should immediately tell the reader four things:

1. Who the story is about.

2. What he is doing.

3. Where he is doing it.

4. When he is doing it.” Madeleine L’Engle

The final interior for Nix and Gerber’s The City, is a painstakingly accurate replica of Nix & Gerber’s incredibly cluttered home studio. In the movie Nix+Gerber, as we see in close-ups several of the hundreds of tiny parts composing the amazing replica of their home studio, Nix says, “It’s the little details that really make the scene come alive.”

This is true in a novel, too. For instance, if two people are talking, a description of where they are having their conversation, mention of a cat on a lap, steam rising from a mug of coffee, wisps of fog drifting in from the sea at day’s end, all contribute to the scene coming alive by resonating with the reader’s personal associations to these details of life.

Near the end of Nix+Gerber, speaking of the finished work, Nix says, “I’m too close to see the illusion. I have to rely on friends to tell me if it works or not.”

And this is why when I complete a draft of a novel, I don’t immediately begin working on the next draft. I need time to individuate, so when I begin the next draft I am somewhat distinct from those characters who have become so real to me they inhabit my dreams.

The little movie Nix+Gerber has stayed with me for several days now, not only because the movie is a delight to watch, but because Nix and Gerber’s astounding artistic odyssey inspires me to continue my own journey through the unknown, guided by a vision I wish to share with others.

Going Around Again

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Korte

Hymn To The Gentle Sun

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.” Lewis Carroll

If I had a dollar for every person who said to me in the last few weeks, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I could buy three excellent tacos at the new taqueria in Mendocino.

When people say, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I am tempted to reply, “Do you really think the first day of January will be a vast improvement over the last day of December?”

But I don’t say that because I know what they really mean is they hope things for them and the planet and everyone they know will improve in the future, so why not use the beginning of a so-called new year as a way to imagine the end of unpleasantness and the beginning of less unpleasantness and maybe even some really fun things happening?

A year, it turns out, for those who believe the earth revolves around the sun, is the time it takes the earth to go once around the sun. The first day of January is the day many people have agreed is the first day of that revolution, but we might agree that the Winter Solstice is the first day, or the Summer Solstice is the first day. Or, as I like to agree with myself, the day I was born is the first day of my current trip around the sun.

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Mark Twain

About six months ago, as part of my attempt to lessen the severe anxiety I was experiencing in my every day life, I stopped following the news. I stopped reading news stories on my computer, stopped listening to news on the radio, stopped reading newspapers, and excused myself when the people began talking about the latest mass murder or war atrocity or something terrible our government was doing or not doing.

At first, I felt ashamed and guilty about not keeping up with the daily horror show, but within a few days of giving up mass media, my anxiety was so vastly reduced, I hardly minded feeling ashamed; and pretty soon the shame and guilt vanished, too.

This experience confirmed for me that at least part of my anxiety was related to consuming ideas and images that frighten or anger or depress me. Given a choice, why would anyone choose to consume frightening, angering, and depressing ideas and images as a regular part of his or her daily life? My answer to that is that most people don’t choose to follow the news, but are entrained to do so, habituated to doing so, which means they are habituated to thinking of the world and human society as relentlessly terrible. Which would explain why so many people are eager for this year to be over.

However, if we continue to absorb the emanations of mass media, we will soon be eager for next year to be over, too.

Am I suggesting you stop following the news in the ways you follow the news? No.

“For years I was tuned a few notes too high—I don’t see how I could stand it.” William Stafford

In a recent letter to my friend Max, I wrote:

We change. Our tastes change. I hadn’t read any prose other than my own work for a couple years and thought I might never again read any prose by other authors (except Kim by Rudyard Kipling every few years), and then I was given two volumes of essays by Kathleen Jamie and gobbled them like a starving person. What a surprise. But reading Jamie didn’t get me reading other prose stuff again. Most contemporary prose is dreadful to my senses. But I was happy to know I might still occasionally find things that feed me.

I have become so sensitive to giant imagery and loud sounds that I will never go see a movie in a theatre again because it might kill me, literally. Even attending symphony concerts is getting harder for me because the music is often too loud for my circuits to handle comfortably, and I have to plug my ears during the loud parts.

Thirty years ago, one of my favorite poets was Mary Norbert Körte. She was a nun for several years when she was a young woman, then left the convent and moved to Mendocino County and became a hippy wild woman poet. For a time she worked on the Skunk Train, the tourist train that runs between Willits and Fort Bragg going through the redwood forests, up and down over the coast range.

I read with her once in Sacramento long ago, and listening to her read, I felt I was sharing the bill with a great genius. The first time I heard her read was many years before that in Santa Cruz, and I thought she was one of the most insightful humans I’d ever heard; and I never imagined I would one day read with her. I have a volume of her poems she wrote when she was a nun, Hymn To the Gentle Sun, and I used to love those poems. Now I don’t connect with them. I wonder what Mary thinks of those poems after all these years?

I am forever disappointing people because I won’t/can’t read books they tell me are wonderful and great. I give these books a try by using the Look Inside feature at Amazon, and if any of them ever pass the two-page test I will buy that book and give it a try, but so far none of these recommended books have passed the two-paragraph test. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful books, it just means they aren’t for me as I am currently configured.

Maybe you and I are dealing with huge self-defining issues that have shaped our lives up to now. Maybe we had roles in our families, relational roles that continue to play out in our lives. In therapy, I’ve uncovered some of those early defining issues in my life (what Gabor Maté calls coping mechanisms that become traits—things we did to survive that became habits) such as feeling responsible for everyone else’s happiness or unhappiness. Turns out I’m not. Can’t be. But my system was habituated to trying to make other people happy or feeling I was a failure and despicable if someone I knew was unhappy. A kind of less-obvious narcissism. I am responsible for other people’s happiness or unhappiness? That’s plain silly, not to mention tiring.

So follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously said. Follow what you know in this moment to be right for you, knowing you can’t make a mistake. You’re just hiking along the trail and reacting with an open heart and an open mind to what comes your way.

Love,

Todd

Her Children (Otra Vez)

Monday, December 25th, 2017

351tires

tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

Earlier this year, 2017, I brought out a collection of eighty-three of my essays and memories entitled Sources of Wonder. I had been meaning to make such a collection for some time in response to requests for such from several of my readers, but I kept not assembling these “greatest hits”, because…well, I’m not sure why I was hesitant, but I was.

Then one day Marcia got a letter from a friend who had been whiling away a little time in her neighbor’s living room and picked up a book that had for a place marker an old newspaper column. Marcia’s friend read that column from a 2011 Anderson Valley Advertiser, loved the story, and then discovered the piece was one of mine: Her Children.

When Marcia told me this story, I was finally convinced that a collection of my essays and memories would be a good thing to offer the world so copies might be stumbled upon years hence and read with pleasure by people I know and people I will never know. I’m happy to report that Sources of Wonder has garnered rave reviews from a handful of prescient souls who purchased copies in support of this author.

As a New Year offering, I present the piece that inspired the collection. Bien Venidos!

 

Her Children

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No. They always said, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.

 

Renaissance

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Balance

Balance photo by Marcia Sloane

“If you are depressed, you are too high up in your mind.” Carl Jung

We went to an excellent modern dance concert yesterday afternoon given by the Mendocino Dance Project, an ensemble of four women dancers, all of them residents of these hinterlands. I used to be a devotee of modern dance and attended countless concerts given by famous and not-so-famous troupes in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and at numerous universities. Three of the six pieces we saw danced yesterday, were, for my taste, as fine as anything I’ve ever seen. Right here in a seventy-five-seat theatre in Mendocino.

This inspiring dance concert got me thinking about the tens of thousands of artists and dancers and musicians and writers graduating annually from thousands of academic factories in America, and how most of those young artists will find little opportunity in the so-called real world to do much paid work in the arts they chose to pursue. Because we are an all-or-nothing culture, only a lucky few will even partially support themselves through their creative endeavors.

And that got me thinking about the annual defense budget of the United States, which is a trillion dollars a year, and the annual corporate tax breaks amounting to hundreds of billions, and the annual hundreds of billions we give to insurance companies to cover possible medical expenses—multiple trillions of dollars every year handed over to a relatively small number of people who already have most of everything, in exchange for almost nothing.

This enumeration of wasted trillions led me to imagine those trillions being spent on things human societies actually need, and after our energy system was infused with sufficient funds to feed the power grids exclusively with eco-friendly renewables, and our local, state, and national transit systems were made flawless and comprehensive and non-polluting, and our healthcare system was made a thousand times better and entirely free, and our educational system was made truly fantastic and also free, we would still have trillions of dollars to spend. Then, among other things, young people aspiring to be artists could be supported in practicing their art without having to be incredibly lucky.

But we probably won’t be redirecting those trillions any time soon, there will probably be no national renaissance, and we will carry on as we do, delighting in the very occasional excellent original dance or art or music or writing we stumble upon while making our way through the vast morass of contemporary culture.

Of course, one person’s morass is another person’s Valhalla, and every generation of artists in a society with no history and no artistic continuity, as ours is becoming, must reinvent their artistic wheels, so to speak. Which explains why so many contemporary books and plays and movies, and so much contemporary art and music seem so youthful to me, and by youthful I mean unrefined, unpracticed, imitative, shallow, and unknowing of what generations of preceding artists practiced and refined and deepened.

For several years I oversaw the work of gifted teenaged writers, and their promise was what was most exciting to me. I did not expect refined art from them, though sometimes a masterwork would pop out of the teenaged ferment. And that is what contemporary culture reminds me of—people with little knowledge or training trying to learn the basics of their chosen means of expression while on the job.

Imagine a person walking onto a stage in front of a large audience and saying, “Hi. Thanks for coming. I’m a mime and a dancer, or I want to be. I’ve hardly done any miming or dancing in my life, but I’ve worked up a little something, kind of, and now I’m gonna try some stuff out and see what happens. Okay, start the music. Hope you enjoy this. Let’s see, what should I do first?”

That’s what contemporary culture feels like to me much of the time; and this amateur approach does not make for strong and believable dialogue in plays and movies, nor produce much masterfully finished art or music or literature. Nor does the amateur approach fill the movie studios and publishing houses and theatre companies and recording companies with people who have knowledge or understanding of what happened artistically ten years ago, let alone what transpired fifty and a hundred years ago.

What does this have to do with our current government? Everything. I have no doubt that had a thousand more original and masterfully crafted books been published in the last fifty years, and two hundred more compelling beautifully written plays been produced in those same fifty years, and five thousand more fabulous unknown artists been more widely known, we would have an entirely different bunch of people running our government. They would be people infused with the genius of their society, which would, by definition, speak to the needs of the society. Our elected representatives would have senses of humor and irony. They would not be misogynists and racists. They would be learned and thoughtful, and they would all be incredibly compassionate and generous.

Furthermore, I think (here’s a conspiracy theory for you) that the overlords are keenly aware of the transformative power of excellent original art—they last saw that power on massive display for a brief window of time known as the Sixties (circa 1963-1975)—and have made sure since then to never allow such unpredictably transformative stuff to spread beyond an isolated watershed or two because that kind of Creative Power To Change Things messes with their control of society.

I’m referring to the ineffable power of original art to radically change people’s ways of thinking and feeling about the world.

The neato thing about humans is that we are inherently inventive and creative, and left to our own devices we will invent and create incredibly neato things, especially when we are surrounded by other people freely inventing and creating neato things that help show us the way and inspire us. Creativity is infectious.

That dance concert filled me with hope, fleeting perhaps, but fleeting is all we really have. So as I settle down to work on my novel today, I am filled with joy imagining people reading my book and having all sorts of unexpected feelings and ideas and excitement.

Sex & Power

Monday, December 11th, 2017

340swept

Swept diptych by Max Greenstreet

“As if layers of lies could replace the green illusion; or the sophistries of failure, the stench of success.” John Fowles

As part of my anti-anxiety regimen, I avoid mass media news. Even so, I still hear about the ongoing criminal acts of Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as the latest ecological disasters. And the main thing I’ve been hearing about lately are the movie stars, celebrities, politicians, and people in positions of power in arts organizations and corporations and universities, mostly men, accused of egregious sexual misconduct.

To which I say, “So what else is new?”

My mother grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother, Goody, was a close friend of Freda Sandrich, wife of the movie director and producer Mark Sandrich who directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and produced and directed many other movies. Goody’s husband, Casey, hobnobbed with movie people, too. Which is to say, when she was a young woman with aspirations to be an actress, my mother imbibed lots of insider information about the movie and theatre and music world, most of that info having to do with who was a homosexual, who was having an affair with who, and who did what to get ahead—and that what was usually sexual, and we’re not talking romance here.

My siblings and I did not want to believe our mother’s nasty lowdown on the many actors and actresses we admired, and on several occasions we protested, “Oh come on, Mom, not everyone got to be a star by having sex with the producer or the director or somebody who was already a star.”

To which she would reply, “Why do you think they call it the casting couch and not the casting stage or the casting chair? They call it a couch for a reason. I know. I was asked to audition for parts. But I wouldn’t lie down on that couch, and if you won’t let them screw you, you don’t get the part. It’s not nice, but it’s true.”

According to my mother, nearly all of our favorite male movie stars were homosexuals or notorious heterosexual predators, their prey young fame-hungry starlets. And all our favorite female stars had once been fame-hungry starlets ready and willing to have sex with whomever they needed to have sex with to succeed.

And my mother’s brother Howard, an entertainment lawyer who represented many big stars, told me stories about his clients that made my mother’s tales of Hollywood sound like Frank Capra movies. Yet when I sold my first novel to Paramount Pictures and Bob Evans (he had just made The Godfather and Chinatown) I forgot all about the casting couch and went to Hollywood under the noble delusion that my excellent novels and scintillating stories and neato screenplays would be all I needed to exchange for riches and fame.

Now lest you think my mother and her brother exaggerated the pervasiveness of sexual dominance and submission in the entertainment industry, read any thorough history of Theatre and you will learn that in Shakespeare’s time, theatre companies were composed solely of men and boys, and could only exist under the auspices of powerful aristocrats with excellent connections to incumbent royalty. Thus in order to legally form a theatre company, a man had to bend, literally, to the will of someone with greater societal power than he, and once that man had gained the requisite support of a powerful person, other men bent to him if they wished to join his theatre company. From that tradition, entrenched for centuries, was born the theatre and movie world of today.

So there I was, a neophyte in Hollywood meeting with upper echelon players, and from day one I was made aware that my excellent novels and neato screenplays were of so little consequence to the people with power in Hollywood, you wouldn’t believe how little. And every step of my way in the movie biz, and on several memorable occasions during my odyssey through the publishing world, I was presented with demands and invitations to bend to the sexual wills of men and women in order to further my career—demands and invitations I was unwilling to accept.

Thus, as a sympathetic movie producer said to me when I lamented my fall from grace in Hollywood and New York, “Listen, sweetheart, you don’t put out, you get put out.”

Which is why news of famous actors and famous writers and famous politicos using their positions of power to coerce sexual favors from those less powerful than they is very old news to me and old news to anyone who has been in the entertainment business for more than a week or two. So my question is: why is such a big deal being made about such behavior now, when Power Over Others, sexual and economic, has been an essential component of our culture for centuries?

Here’s my theory. The controllers of our media and our government and our economy are keenly aware that our stock and real estate markets are fantastic bubbles filled with hot air, and Trump or no Trump, those bubbles are soon to burst. But rather than allow the endgame of their Ponzi schemes to be the focus of our collective attention, they have pulled out the oldest arrow in their titillation quiver to distract the masses from the colossal rape of the already supine population—a rape in the form of more tax breaks for the wealthy and more plundering of the national corpus before our casino economy comes tumbling down yet again.

Or as the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and her comrades, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Keep your eyes on the screen. Pay no attention to the psychopaths ransacking your future. Keep your eyes on your screens and we’ll give you the name of yet another Famous Old Man who did naughty things to people less famous than he. Aren’t you outraged? Doesn’t it make you just want to…buy something?

In the Beginning

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Toddy

Calvin: Dad where do babies come from?

Dad: Well Calvin, you simply go to Sears, buy the kit and follow the assembly instructions.

Calvin: I came from Sears?

Dad: No you were a blue-light special at K-Mart—almost as good and a lot cheaper!”

Bill Watterson

Not long after we are born, before we know we know anything else, we know we are alive. We don’t know this intellectually. We simply know because knowing we’re alive is inseparable from being alive. And you’re thinking: so what else is new?

On assignment from my therapist, I’ve been hanging out with my baby self via photographs of me taken shortly after I was born and going up to about age five. I was ten months in utero and born with a full head of black hair. According to my mother, the black hair quickly gave way to blondish brown hair, and for a few years I might have been Danish. Then my hair grew dark brown again and I went through my Navajo/Magyar phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have two memories vying for Earliest Experience I Remember Not Based On A Photograph, both experiences occurring when I was three-years-old. One of these experiences was pleasurable, the other terrifying. I’ll start with the good news.

So…we were living in the house my parents built in Mill Valley, a little town fourteen miles north of San Francisco. When my parents built that house in 1949, the year I was born, the hillside lot and three-bedroom house, beautifully made by artisan craftsmen, cost seven thousand dollars. Today, 2018, that house, which is still standing, would go for multiple millions.

I woke up and padded down the hall in my pajamas to my parents’ bedroom where, to my chagrin, they were not in their bed. Where were they? My pajamas, I must tell you, were white, of one piece, and covered me from neck to toes, the sock-like endings to the legs having thin leather soles. I tell you this because those leather soles figure prominently in this memory.

Not finding my parents in their bed, I went in search of them, and as I emerged from the hallway into the living room, I saw our front door was open. I know this experience took place on a Saturday or Sunday because my father was home. Monday through Friday he was not home because he left the house at dawn and came home at night long after my two older sisters and I were asleep.

I stood in the front doorway and looked out on the cement walkway leading from the door to our lawn. On the right side of the cement walk was a bed of succulents—bluish plants surrounded by white sand. My mother, her black hair in a ponytail, a sunhat on her head, was on her knees, pulling little weeds growing among the succulents. I remember she was wearing a sleeveless top and shorts, and I remember thinking she was incredibly beautiful. This is my only memory of my mother ever doing anything in a garden other than strolling around. My father was further down the walkway—a blur.

I was keenly aware that my mother was calm and happy, and I was also aware that her calmness and happiness were unusual and mysterious, and this felt wonderful to me. The other mystery was: why were my parents up before me, which, apparently, was an unusual circumstance on weekends.

As I stood on the walkway beside my mother, I very slowly shuffled my feet back and forth so the leather soles of my pajamas rubbed grains of sand against the cement and made scratching sounds I really enjoyed making; and I just kept sliding my feet back and forth as I gazed at my calm and happy mother.

The second memory involves our mangy gray cat—Casey Cat.

We kept our metal garbage can on a cement patio on the backside of the house. One morning I stepped out of the kitchen onto the patio and found Casey Cat crouched atop the garbage can devouring a big rat, the rat’s dark red blood running down the side of the can—Casey Cat’s snarling face half-buried in the eviscerated body of the rat.

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” Mary Roberts Rinehart

I’m tempted to make a big deal out of these two memories because they are my earliest, but as I’ve been hanging out with these pictures of little me and enjoying the child I imagine—a kid wanting to be outside as much as possible, wanting to run and dig and shout and play with other children—I doubt these two remembered experiences are bigger deals than thousands of other experiences I don’t remember.

Still, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, there are several points of interest that may explain why these experiences are so deeply etched in my memory.

1. My mother was calm and happy, which amounted to something extremely rare in my memories of her: she was content. I have many subsequent memories of my mother smiling and laughing, but very few memories of her being calm, and no other memory of her seeming content. To be content is to feel we have enough, to feel we are safe, to feel we are loved.

2. Casey Cat, sweet purring fun-to-pet Casey Cat, turned out to be a ferocious snarling murderer. How confusing! And that torn-apart rat atop the blood-drenched garbage can was my first glimpse of mammalian death, my first inkling that my own life might have such an end.

I admire this young Todd for his openness, his curiosity, his remarkable physical energy, and his great joy at being alive. He seems sad sometimes, and worried about something, but he doesn’t let sorrow and worry keep him from dancing and singing and exploring the world.

toddy older

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?

So It Turns Out…Part Two

Monday, November 13th, 2017

Todd & Casey

Todd & Casey

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

Part One of So It Turns Out…arose from my recent opening to, delving into, and accepting that I am Jewish. What does that mean? It means, among many other things, that I was born to and brought up by a Jewish woman who spent her entire life pretending she wasn’t Jewish; and one of the results of her subterfuge, though I didn’t have a conscious inkling I was Jewish until I was twelve, was my intense attraction to other Jewish people.

My friend Colin, my best friend in elementary school, a psychoanalyst now, wrote in response to Part One, in which he figures importantly, “What’s interesting is that over the years, as you have come to embrace your Jewish identity, it has become much less a part of my identity.”

But here’s the thing, Colin. Before I can embrace my Jewish identity, I have to allow that identity to emerge. My Jewishness has been sequestered deep inside me and disallowed in my waking life for nearly seven decades. Your Jewishness was never hidden. You were openly and proudly Jewish, so it makes sense that in the course of your long life, no longer living in a predominantly Jewish environment, you might evolve away from largely identifying yourself as Jewish. But you would never deny that you emerged into this life Jewish and spent your childhood in an openly Jewish family.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

In the year before Colin turned thirteen, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. And I, still unconscious of my Jewishness, helped him study and rehearse for the ceremony that would initiate him into manhood in his Jewish community. I learned to sing and recite some of the lines of the ceremony in Hebrew, though I had no idea what I was saying. I also had no idea why I was so interested in what Colin was undergoing, but I was eager to be part of the process and he seemed pleased to have me as his occasional audience.

In a recent exchange of emails, Colin asked me if I remembered much about his Bar Mitzvah.

I replied: My mother and brother attended with me. I remember my brother and I were given yarmulkes to wear, which I thought was very cool. I remember you on the “stage” with three men, all of you in white robes with stripes and prayer shawls. I recall you were a little tentative at first, your voice wavering, and then you settled in and were wonderfully audible. I remember you carrying a big scroll, and I worried you might drop it. I can see your face. You were serious and focused. It’s a beautiful memory. I remember afterwards there was a big spread of food, and I remember there were trays of shot drinks, and some of the boys were sneaking them. I remember how excited and happy everyone was, and I didn’t want to leave when my mom was ready to go.”

Colin replied: One of my few visual memories of that day I became a man in the Jewish community is you wearing a yarmulke in a manner that exposed the fact that you were a guest in the Jewish community.

So while Colin was becoming a man in the Jewish community, I was still a boy and only a guest. Yet I felt I was something more than a guest. I felt giddy, as if I had snuck past the guards into an exclusive private party where, for a brief time, I got to be in a wonderful forbidden place full of fascinating people.

Last week during therapy, I was overcome by the sensation of being encased in a chrysalis that was no longer big enough for me. As I struggled and squirmed in my old carapace, my therapist encouraged me to break free.

“But I’ll be huge,” I said, fearfully.

“Good, be huge.”

“But I might be too big. What should I do?”

“Maybe you don’t have to do anything. Maybe you can just be big.”

But if I’m big, if I become who I really am, then people will notice me and discover I’m Jewish, and if they know I’m Jewish…

I entered therapy this time to deal with extreme anxiety that has been hampering my life for the last two years, and in the course of exploring the sources of my anxiety, my Jewishness has emerged as an important ingredient in the recipe of who I am.

My mother was a terribly anxious person, and some of her anxiety undoubtedly sprang from a lifetime of fearing she would be unmasked and exposed as Jewish—and I know I inherited my tendency to be anxious from her.

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was forty and in therapy for the first time, I underwent two rage release processes developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In the moments before my second rage release process, I had an extraordinary experience. My first rage release process had been incredibly revelatory and helpful, so I was looking forward to this second bout of battling old demons. As my therapist and I were about to begin, I was overcome by the terrifying sensation of being squeezed tightly from head to toe, as if caught in a massive vise. I could barely breathe.

My therapist had me lie down on the floor and give voice to what I was feeling. The pain was so intense I curled up into a fetal position and clenched my fists and groaned to release the terrible pressure inside me.

At the height of my suffering, my therapist pointed at me and said loudly, “What is that?”

And without the slightest hesitation I shouted, “I’m Jewish!”

And the moment I spoke those words, I knew—I didn’t think or imagine—I knew German soldiers were going to kick the door down and kill me.

At the age of forty this was wholly new information for me. I had never suspected, not for a minute, that I carried in me a fear of being captured or killed by German soldiers. Where did such fear come from? My mother was born in Los Angeles. Her parents were born in Michigan. Her grandparents were born in Poland and came to America long before World War I. Yet I believed that saying out loud, “I’m Jewish!” would result in my death at the hands of German soldiers.

Twenty-eight years later, sharing this experience with my current therapist, I recalled when I was in high school and had the role of Mr.Van Daan in the play The Diary of Anne Frank. My character was one of several Jewish people hiding from the Nazis in an attic in a house in the Netherlands. I most vividly remember the end of the play when our hiding place has been discovered and the Nazis are coming to get us.

The actress playing my wife, Gail Land, a Jewish gal in real life, looks up at me as I slowly descend a flight of stairs. We can hear the approaching sirens—the Nazis closing in on us. And I am no longer in a play. I am a Jew about to be dragged out of hiding and taken to a concentration camp where I will surely die. I freeze in terror.

Now I hear Gail whispering urgently to me. I look down at her. I am shaking so violently it takes me a moment to realize she is mouthing the line I am supposed to say. So I come back into my teenaged body in California in 1966 and say the line and the lights fade out and we are engulfed in darkness.

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.