Posts Tagged ‘Todd Walton’

My Grandmothers

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Goody, Red, and William

Goody with Bill and Red 

Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

 Whilst thoroughly cleaning my office, something I do every five years whether the office needs cleaning or not, I came upon a small cache of letters from my maternal and paternal grandmothers. Neither of my grandfathers ever wrote to me. Why I saved these letters—the most recent dated 1981—I do not know, having thrown out hundreds of other family letters over the years, but I’m glad I saved these because I had a fascinating time reading them and appreciating the influence of these two very different women on their progeny and grand progeny.

My father’s parents were white Anglo Saxon Protestants, intelligent, humorless, and proud members of the John Birch Society. They disowned my father when he was twenty-one because he married my Jewish mother. However, some years later when they needed financial help and eventually became economically dependent on my father, they re-owned him, and by association us, their half-breed grandchildren.

My mother’s parents were born in Michigan to Jewish parents who came to America from Poland in the late 1800’s. Goody and Casey (Gertrude and Myron) changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression so they could get housing and jobs in that time of extreme anti-Semitism. Goody was brilliant and multi-talented and largely self-educated; and she loved to mix Yiddish with her English when she told jokes and stories.

Here is a birthday letter my paternal grandmother Helen wrote to me shortly before I dropped out of college in 1969.

Dear Todd,

This is to wish you a very happy 19th birthday. It was good to be able to spend some time with you on the trip over the hill to Santa Cruz. It seems like I’ve never had time to sit down and really talk with my grandchildren, so I hardly know any of you. I’m sorry for that.

This book [unknown] I am sending you I ran onto a number of years ago. It fascinated me, being, as I am, a frustrated archaeologist. I had borrowed the book and later, when I tried to buy a copy, I learned it was out of print. Then David [my uncle] picked up a used copy at a second hand bookstall in Athens, of all places, and when he had read it he sent it to me. Now, I discover, it is back in print and I want to share it with you.

History, archaeology and anthropology go hand in hand. The more we know about them the more we know about ourselves. Our genes carry the history of the world and mankind. In them are our roots and our roots tell us who we are. If we don’t know who we are, we are nobody.  

Therein lies the tragedy of the dissolution of the family. The family is the closest touch with our roots. Today the world is full of wandering youth who have repudiated family and have, thus, cut their roots. They say they are “trying to find themselves”, and no wonder. Their road is the wrong turning. They are the modern version of the ‘lost souls’ that Milton and other poets and philosophers have written about. The allegories written about the ‘search for happiness’ are myriad, and all end much the same way. Just for fun read the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Well, anyway, I hope you enjoy this book. When we begin to realize that our civilization, so called, as we know it, limited as we may be, is just a speck in the history of civilizations that have occupied this planet, we should be somewhat humble. Our roots started way back someplace in antiquity, and it does seem that we should make them bear good fruits in us. Have a happy birthday. Love, Grammy

And here is an excerpt from a letter penned in 1970 by my maternal grandmother Goody. To best appreciate Goody’s tone, try reading this in the manner of a Jewish comedian.

I have two good stories. First: The aged Jewish wise man was dying. All of his disciples gathered at his side for a final profound idea. He declaimed, “Life is like a river.”

Down the long line went the word, beginning with the Number One follower down to the end where stood the dolt of the group who asked, “What does he mean that life is like a river?”

Up the line came the question until it reached the Number One follower who asked his mentor to explain the statement. The savant answered, “So, it’s not like a river.”

My dear grandson, can you appreciate that story as can your grandmother who lived in an Isaac Bashevis Singer atmosphere all her formative years with a father who was rabbinical in his parables?

The other story comes from another part of the forest. Lillian Hellman tells the anecdote in her An Unfinished Woman about her great friend Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy’s husband Alan Campbell had just died, probably a suicide though no charge was ever made. Among the friends who stood with Dotty on the California steps when the coroner’s car came for him was Mrs. Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, had pretended to like Dotty, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles.

Mrs. Jones said, “Dotty, tell me dear, what can I do for you?”

Dotty said, “Get me a new husband.”

Mrs. Jones said, “I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.”

Dotty turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye, and tell them to hold the mayo.”

Margaret Mead said her grandmother told her to learn to nest in the gale. What should I tell you, our dear grandson, except to say that we love you and miss you and we pray that you will find fulfillment. Love and kisses.

Huckleberries

Monday, April 10th, 2017

turn left at the moon tw

Turn Left At the Moon painting by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

If even half the blossoms on the huckleberry bushes in the Mendocino area this year become fruit, then the huckleberry harvest will be by far the greatest since I moved here eleven years ago. Bushes on our property and in the surrounding woods that previously sported no blossoms or only a few are now white with hundreds and thousands of the lovely little bell-shaped flowers. And friends in nearby Albion report the huckleberry bushes thereabouts are also heavily freighted with flowers.

My guess is that the great rains of this seemingly interminable winter following four years of drought inspired the huckleberries to such prolificacy, though we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. Those myriad flowers must be pollinated, and the primary pollinators of huckleberry bushes are bumblebees; and the bumblebee population has been in decline due to the use of pesticides that should never have been invented, let alone deployed.

Alas, even if you and I and our close neighbors don’t use those ghastly poisons, it only takes a few shortsighted fools in the watershed spraying their shrubbery with bad stuff to decimate the bumblebees and honeybees in our area. Thus the fate of those blossoms is, literally, in the hands of fools and which way the winds blow.

But assuming we do have a bumper huckleberry crop, a few days of picking will fill our freezer with the dark little orbs for smoothies and pancakes and crisps throughout our next winter. And if the harvest is truly epic, we will make great quantities of jam and not have to wonder what to give our friends for Christmas this year.

Whenever I see huckleberries on their bushes, and especially when I am standing by a goodly bush grazing on the delicious fruit, I think of two novels by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. These marvelous books are about a small population of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia 20,000 years ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth and wolves were yet to be domesticated. And in each of these books there are vivid scenes in which bushes of wild berries are all that save the people from starvation and dehydration.

We think of the wild huckleberries hereabouts as delicious additions to our store-bought main courses, but twenty thousand years ago, such berries might have been the only thing we could find to eat for days on end, and we would have been gleeful to see the bushes as laden with blossoms as they are in Mendocino these thousands of years after the last wooly mammoth succumbed to human hunger.

I am currently reading a collection of intoxicating essays entitled Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish poet with a most intriguing way of writing about birds and stones and landscapes and the ocean. Published in 2012, two of the longer essays in this volume are about remote islands—St. Kilda and Rona—off the coast of Scotland. Jamie writes with exquisite sensitivity about the birds and plants and seals that live on these islands, and the killer whales patrolling those seas. Inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, these islands are no longer home to any people, with only the decaying ruins of the old colonies remaining.

For me, Jamie’s collection of essays composes a deep meditation on the interaction of humans with the natural world, and how that interaction has evolved into estrangement for most of us, though we need not be estranged. Jamie is obviously enmeshed with the natural world, and her essays show us how we might experience ourselves as integral parts of the fantastical whole of life on earth.

I’m hoping the local huckleberries will set in profusion and turn darkly purple and come to taste of divine earthly sugars, so I may stand in the dappled forest light and eat my fill as I give thanks to the nature spirits for bringing me the boon of life.

Mutant Ideologies

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

something greather we could be tw

Something Greater We Could Be painting by Nolan Winkler

“Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself.” Alexander McCall Smith

In 1968, when I was nineteen, I read The Population Bomb by Paul and Ann Ehrlich. That book and several others I read over the next few years, along with a life-changing journey through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist, turned me into a zealous proponent of zero population growth, mass transit, organic gardening, and material minimalism.

That was fifty years ago. Since 1968, the world’s human population has more than doubled to over seven billion, the world’s automobile population (non-electric) has more than doubled to 1.2 billion, and organically grown food accounts for less than five per cent of the food grown in America. The earth’s fisheries are depleted, carbon emissions are increasing rather than decreasing, and we have an American government dedicated to undoing what little good our government did for the environment over the last forty years.

When I find myself in conversation with people who are just now becoming alarmed about climate change and the unfolding economic and environmental disasters engulfing us, I am reminded of the anger and disinterest and disingenuous lip service that greeted me for most of the last fifty years whenever I wrote about or discussed these issues and suggested ways to avoid much of what has now befallen the world. And though I am sad and disheartened about the unfolding disasters decimating human societies and life on our precious planet, I am not surprised by these disasters or the lack of substantive response to them.

My more cynical friends explain the collapse of our environment as a result of human nature. But even a cursory study of the myriad indigenous societies that existed prior to their annihilation by the forces of capitalism and overpopulation, reveals that human nature created thousands of societal systems that depended on sustaining the optimal health of the environment. And at the heart of those sustainable practices were minimal population growth and zero net pollution of the environment.

Thus I would argue that human nature is not the cause of the various crises threatening us today. I would suggest that the great threat to the continuation of life on earth was caused by mutant ideologies—capitalism and patriarchal monotheism—that destroyed those thousands of indigenous societies forming the fabric of humanity for tens of thousands of years—societies that evolved to harmonize with nature, not in opposition to it.

One of the books I’m currently reading is the beautifully written Wisdom from a Rainforest by Stuart Schlegel, a recollection of his two years of living among the Teduray of Mindanao in the 1960s.

“They had lived for untold generations in the forest—since ‘the beginning of time’ they believed—without its becoming destroyed and replaced by grassland. They carefully protected certain forest trees, which they valued for fruit or other potential gifts. They avoided overcutting bamboo stands that they considered particularly useful. Hunting, fishing, gathering were all carried out with care not to overexploit the natural resources on which human life depended. Their lives were simple, but not poor, and life was a journey, not a battle.”

Yes, Schlegel is describing a pre-industrial society, a system of living that evolved without money or cars or telephones or machines of any kind. And it is possible, I suppose, that money and machines and the changes they bring to society inevitably elicit a self-destructive response from our human natures. Maybe my cynical friends are correct, and human nature, when exposed to all the modern inconveniences, becomes a globally destructive force impossible to curtail.

I met Stuart Schlegel when I was nineteen, the same year I read The Population Bomb. He was my Anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and I took two courses from him. When I was trying to decide whether to stay in college or drop out, I went to him for advice, and he was the only adult of those I consulted who suggested that a break from academia might be just the thing for me.

Reading Schlegel’s bittersweet memoir, I now understand why he gave me such counsel. He clearly felt that Western Civilization was a plague upon the earth, and he saw American academia as an extension of that same male-dominated hierarchal system that is the antithesis (and ultimately the killer) of the Teduray manifestation of human nature—egalitarian, non-competitive, regenerative, and highly cooperative.

As Schlegel writes in Wisdom from a Rainforest, “Teduray children were taught from an early age to scan their social world for what they could do to encourage and assist all other people, and they were taught most certainly never to inflict physical or spiritual injury on anyone. This commitment to mutual aid, support, and respect gave these people a quality that is almost impossible to describe, a sort of peace combined with a palpable graciousness.”

The News

Monday, March 27th, 2017

metaphors

(a story from Todd’s novel of stories Under the Table Books)

I don’t have much, but there’s one thing I treat myself to every Wednesday, and that’s a newspaper, fresh from the rack. No one else has touched it. The news is absolutely fresh. You can smell its freshness. The folds of the pages are sharp and clean. This is my greatest luxury, my last strong link to civilization. It may not seem like much to you, but for me buying the Wednesday news is absolutely, without question, the zenith of my week.

Furthermore, it is absolutely essential that I pay for it. If someone gave the newspaper to me, it would have no importance whatsoever. I must get my news through ritual.

Every Wednesday I wake up early, wherever I happen to be, and I take a bath. Sometimes I bathe in the river. Sometimes I use a garden hose, if there’s no one around to tell me not to. Sometimes I am somewhere with a shower, and now and then I find myself in a house with a bathtub. That, of course, is the ultimate luxury, to soak for a while in a tub full of truly hot water.

Then, once my body is washed, I put on my cleanest clothes and set forth to find a newspaper rack. I do not buy my papers from vendors or in stores. I want my news direct, no middlemen. When I have located a rack I like the look of, I approach it slowly, with solemnity. I do not allow myself to read the headlines. To know anything at this point would destroy the purity of the experience.

I take three quarters from my pocket. Seventy-five cents still buys the news in this town, thank God. I will have had these quarters since the day before, at least. I will not beg on Wednesdays. No, the day I buy my paper is a day of dignity for me. On this day I am as good as any other man, even the President, even the Pope.

I hold the quarters, heads side up, between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. I read aloud the dates on each coin. Lately, I’ve been getting lots of those bicentennial ones. 1776-1976. George Washington on one side, a Revolutionary War drummer on the other. On the George side it says LIBERTY up above his head, and then in smaller print under George’s chin it says IN GOD WE TRUST. If we didn’t know better, we might think George was a mannish-looking woman, hawk-nosed and severe, with silly curls and sillier ponytail, with a ribbon in it yet. There is no mention anywhere on the coin that this person is George Washington. Somehow we know. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, somehow we have not yet forgotten.

I put the quarters in the slot, give the handle a pull, and listen carefully as the quarters roll, then fall into the change box. Sometimes the chamber is empty and the quarters clonk against the bottom in a sad hollow way. Other times the coins settle gently onto a good pile of fellow coins, making a beautiful clinking sound. I sometimes think the sound my quarters make going in is more important than getting the paper itself. If I am sad, that beautiful soft musical sound can cheer me up. And if I’m happy, that hollow clonking can leave me doubting everything.

There are times when the paper on top of the stack is damaged, dog-eared or torn. I take the next one down, or the next. I want perfection of form if I can’t get it from the contents. And sometimes only one paper remains, the paper held against the glass by the metal frame. I do not like these papers as well. They have been looked at by countless passersby and handled roughly by the person stocking the rack. I take them, but those Wednesdays are never quite as good as the Wednesdays when the quarters fall just right, and the papers are many and fresh, smelling strongly of ink, hot off the presses, still warm from the ovens of thought.

I tuck the paper under my arm and go in search of a place to read. I need a table, sunlight and good coffee. I will not drink cheap coffee on Wednesday. Fortunately, there are many good places to go in this town, many good cups of coffee to be had. I am known in these places. On Wednesday I am not a bum, a freak, a shopping cart person. My shopping cart is hidden somewhere safe. I am free of my few things on Wednesday. I have a dollar to spend, a morning to dedicate to my god, the news. If all my days could be like Wednesday there is nothing I couldn’t accomplish.

I read the paper in order, front page to back. I read every word, save for the Classifieds section, and on a rainy day I will read that, too. I study the advertisements. I ponder the editorials. I read every comic strip, every statistic in the sports section, every letter to the editor, every shred of gossip. I meditate on my horoscope. I scrutinize the photographs and wonder at the movie reviews. I fall in love with the fashion models, devour the food section, second guess the business experts and check my stocks, the ones I would have bought a year ago when the market was way down and the time was right.

All in all it takes about four hours. Then I carefully reassemble the paper and carry it to my friend Leopold who meets me in front of the library, downtown, every Wednesday at one o’clock. Sometimes I get there before him. Sometimes he is waiting for me, leaning against the old stone building, holding it up with his strong little back.

I give him the paper. He always asks, “Anything good?”  I usually say, “A few things.”  Though once I remember the paper was as empty of anything good as I have ever seen it, and I said, “No, Leo, not a god damn thing.”  To which he responded by putting it directly in the recycling bin without so much as a glance at the sordid headlines. And once, yes, once I said, “Oh Leo, it’s incredible. You won’t believe all the good news.”  To which he responded by hugging the paper to him like long lost best friend.

And then, with or without Leo, depending on his mood, I walk to the Post Office where I purchase a postcard on which I write a brief note to the President, which I then send. Now and then I’ll include a poem, if a good rhyme comes to me. Sometimes I’ll quote an editorial or a news item. Whatever I write, it is inspired by the news I have just read.

One time I wrote him a postcard that said, “Dear Mr. President, it is clear from the news that you have lost touch with the will of the people. As they grow more and more desirous of a peaceful world, you grow more and more vituperative, angry and irrational. I urge you to take some time off to search your soul, to listen to the inner voice, lest you drift too far from your purpose.”

And the very next week the headline read PRESIDENT IN SECLUSION. Had he heard me? Did he read my note? I don’t know. I only know that he cancelled all appointments for three days and went into seclusion. To think. To ponder. Perhaps to study the news.

I like to think that he reads all my notes, and that he looks forward to my postcards as I look forward to the Wednesday news. He listens to me. He didn’t at first, but now he does. Now his aides sort through the avalanche of mail to find my cards. They know my handwriting now. And I mark my notes in another way, too. I take a quarter, with the bust of George face up, and I press the postcard down onto the coin and then I take a pencil and I color in over the quarter, so that George and LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST and the date come through, like a temple rubbing.

I’m not insane. I don’t believe the President listens to me. I am a man who lives for Wednesdays. I once owned fleets of cars, now I push a shopping cart, which I did not steal. I found it by the river where the shopping carts grow. I will return it someday. Perhaps the day before I die. I have never stolen anything. I fathered three children. I had tens of hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars. I lived with a woman, my wife, and could not love her.

What am I saying? Why have I told you this story? Because though the news itself may be a mass of lies and half-truths, rising above it, every Wednesday, is a tone, a feeling, a universal hum. And it helps me. It allows me to go on, to hope.

Some find salvation in prayer, some in music. I am not saved yet, but if I am ever to be saved, if I am ever to find the peace I seek, I know where I’ll read all about it.

 

Beautiful hardback copies of Under the Table Books illustrated by the author are available from Todd’s web site for just seven dollars plus shipping.

A thirteen-hour reading of the novel by Todd is available from Audible and other audio book sites.

Inside Moves Miracles

Monday, March 20th, 2017

inside moves cover

Inside Moves Pharos Edition 

I began writing the novel that would become Inside Moves in 1974, when the United States was on the verge of withdrawing from Vietnam. I was twenty-five and living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon, buoyed by my first ever sale of a short story. My rent was thirty dollars a month, so nine hundred dollars from Cosmopolitan magazine for a fanciful tale about a female boxer was a vast fortune and gave me time to write two novels and several short stories before the cosmic largesse ran out.

The voice that spoke Inside Moves to me was that of a young American man wounded and disabled in Vietnam. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, showed the manuscript to thirteen publishers over the course of two years. Several of the first twelve editors who read the book declared Inside Moves a narrative tour de force, yet felt the story was “an impossible sell.” Cripples and Vietnam were not considered commercially viable in those days.

Miracle #1: In 1977, Sherry Knox, a young editor at Doubleday, bought Inside Moves. My advance, minus Dorothy’s commission, was thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, which money lifted me out of dire poverty into functional poverty.

When I had rewritten the book to Sherry’s satisfaction, and my brother Steve came up with the stellar title to replace my original title, The Gimp, Doubleday decided to kill Inside Moves before publication—common practice for large publishers when the Sales Department decides not to support a book.

However, to minimally fulfill their contractual obligations, Doubleday listed the book at the back of their Spring catalogue with this briefest of descriptors: “Inside Moves: story of friendship between two men in San Francisco bar, basketball sub-plot.”

Miracle #2: As Inside Moves was about to vanish without a trace, an editor named Bill Contardi at the paperback house New American Library read the brief descriptor in the Doubleday catalogue and asked to see the manuscript. He loved the book, showed it to NAL editor-in-chief Elaine Koster, and she offered Doubleday 100,000 dollars for the paperback rights.

Miracle #3: When Dorothy called with news of the paperback offer, I was quite ill and in a very dark mood. Rather than rejoicing (I would get half of that 100 thousand dollars) I said, “Did they show it to other paperback houses? According to my contract, they’re supposed to.”

Dorothy said, “Dahlin (she was from Georgia), this is a mahvelous offer.”

And I said, “They were going to kill the book. They should at least show it to other paperback houses. Maybe there will be a bidding war.”

Dorothy reluctantly relayed my wishes to Doubleday. Moments later, some corporate honcho called to berate me for not taking this wonderful offer, and I explained to him that I knew very well Sales had intended to kill the book, and since I might never get another chance with a New York publisher, I wanted them to show Inside Moves to other paperback houses.

Miracle #4: So the honcho called Elaine Koster and asked for a few more days to consider her offer, and she countered with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 150,000 dollars and the promise of a big bonus if a movie was made. Dorothy begged me to accept the offer, so I did.

Miracle #5: Two weeks later, Bob Evans, having recently produced Chinatown, The Godfather, and Love Story, optioned the book for Paramount Pictures. I was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Bob Evans in his mansion where he informed me he wanted me to rewrite the entire novel per his directions. He wanted to eliminate the Vietnam connection and not have so many disabled characters. I refused. He was not happy.

Bob Evans then hired Barry Levinson (before he became a famous director) and Valerie Curtin (then married to Barry) to write a screenplay based on the book. They changed the narrator from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, but were otherwise faithful to the heart of the book, and Bob Evans subsequently dropped the project.

Miracle #6: In 1979, Dick Donner, fresh from directing Superman I (and before he made his Lethal Weapon movies), made the movie of Inside Moves with independent money. Beautifully filmed by László Kovács, the movie stars John Savage, David Morse (his first role) and Diana Scarwid, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Inside Moves.

Sudden Cessation of Miracles: The company that owned the distribution rights to Inside Moves went bankrupt just as the film was being released in 1980, resulting in Inside Moves having an extremely limited theatrical run. And though the mass-market paperback of Inside Moves eventually sold 150 thousand copies, and I subsequently published four more works of fiction with four different publishers, all four books were abandoned by Sales prior to publication and I became persona non grata in the world of mainstream publishing.

Resumption of Miracles with Miracle #7: Thirty years after the original publication of Inside Moves, I got an email from the man in charge of preparing the DVD release of the movie Inside Moves for Lionsgate Entertainment. His name was Cliff Stephenson. At first I thought the email was a joke, but it was not. Shortly after I responded to Cliff’s inquiry, Cliff and an excellent cinematographer, David Chan, drove from Los Angeles to Mendocino to interview me about how the novel Inside Moves became a movie.

But more interesting to me than how Inside Moves came to be a film was the story of how this DVD project came about after the movie Inside Moves had been unavailable for nearly thirty years. Cliff told me that Dick Donner had long wanted to release Inside Moves (his favorite of his movies) in DVD, but was never able to untangle the corporate mess and discover who actually owned the film. When it was finally determined that the movie was owned by a British conglomerate, Lionsgate got the rights to bring out a DVD version of the movie.

Miracle #8: Initially, Lionsgate planned to find a serviceable VHS copy of Inside Moves, transfer that copy to DVD, and bring the movie out with no extras. However, Cliff’s wife worked for Lionsgate, knew of Cliff’s love of Donner’s films, and asked Cliff if he wanted to oversee the DVD project. He said he would love to helm the project, and when he saw the quality of the VHS copy they were going to use, he felt Donner would be outraged.

So Cliff undertook a search for a good 35-millimeter print of the movie, and one was eventually found in a vault in England—not a perfect print, but far better than any VHS copy. This film was transferred to DVD and Cliff convinced Lionsgate to let him create extra matter exploring how the movie went from book to screenplay to film.

As Cliff assembled this material, Lionsgate got more enthusiastic about the project, and on February 3, 2009, they released a snazzier product than originally planned—from which I earned not a penny. About fifteen minutes of my ninety-minute interview appears in the Extra Matter on the DVD of Inside Moves.

Miracle #9: A few months after Cliff came to interview me, I was walking on Big River Beach in Mendocino and bumped into Larry Bauman, owner with his wife Margie of Redwood Audio Books. I told him of the impending revival of the movie of Inside Moves and he said if I would make an audio version of the book, Redwood Audio would release it through Audible and other audio book sites. So I went into Peter Temple’s recording studio in Albion, had a great time reading aloud the novel I wrote when I was a young man, and the audio version of Inside Moves was born.

Miracle #10: Three years later, in 2012, I was minding my own business and writing yet another fabulous novel no publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole (I have eight such novels ready to go if you are a bold and prescient publisher), when I got an email from someone named Harry Kirchner. He said he was launching a line of books called Pharos Editions. The premise of Pharos Editions is to reissue long-out-of-print books that currently well-known authors feel deserve to be published anew. Once Harry secures the rights to publish such a book, the well-known author writes an introduction for that favorite book and lends his or her name to the reissue.

Harry’s email did not name which of my novels he was interested in, nor did he name the famous author involved, but during our first phone conversation he revealed that the marvelous Sherman Alexie was keen to have Inside Moves reissued and would write an introduction and have his name on the cover with mine.

So in 2013, Inside Moves, the novel, was born anew in a lovely quality paperback edition. Sherman’s intro is funny and flattering, though I wish he had written what he told an audience in Seattle at the launching of the Pharos line. He said his father gave him a paperback of Inside Moves when he, Sherman, was fifteen, and he has since read the book twenty times.

In the copy of Inside Moves he signed for me, Sherman wrote, “I am honored to be a part of the reissue. This book was formative in my life.”

Miracle #11: As a result of connecting with Harry Kirchner regarding Inside Moves, Harry convinced Counterpoint Press to bring out a beautiful paperback edition of my collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup in 2016.

Possible Miracle #12: I recently had an inquiry about the remake rights to Inside Moves. I do not own those rights, but a new movie of the book would be most appreciated by this author.

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Wrong Ending

Monday, March 6th, 2017

inside moves covers

Four Editions of Inside Moves photo by Todd

“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” George Orwell

A few weeks ago I had an inquiry about the movie remake rights to my novel Inside Moves. I replied to the inquiry (I do not own those rights) and then burned some sage and prayed to the gods of cinema to please make a second film from my novel. And though a remake is highly unlikely, just the thought of a new iteration of Inside Moves took me back thirty-eight years to the making of the first movie and the many conflicts I had with the filmmakers about how that movie should be made.

The narrator of the novel Inside Moves, Roary, is disabled from wounds suffered while fighting in Vietnam. For the movie, made in 1979, the screenwriters changed Roary from war veteran to a man who attempts suicide by jumping from a tall building. He miraculously does not die from the fall, but is somewhat disabled due to his injuries. I fiercely opposed this change because I felt it undermined the veracity of the entire story, nor is it ever explained in the movie why Roary wanted to kill himself.

John Savage plays Roary in the movie, and though superb in the role, I didn’t find him credible as someone who wants, or wanted, to kill himself. But the moviemakers were shy of bringing Vietnam into the story and they loved the shock value of showing someone jumping from a tall building. To compound the wrongness of their idea, when they filmed that suicide-attempt scenes they blocked traffic on the streets around the tall building and a huge crowd gathered. That crowd appears in shots of Roary’s jump, though in the movie, Roary sneaks into a building, goes to an upper floor, and quickly jumps, so there would have been no witnesses, no crowd. Oops.

One of the things many people love about the novel Inside Moves is the generosity and kindness of Roary and the gang at Max’s bar, where most of the story takes place. And this generous spirit does infuse the movie. However, the screenwriters added an ending in which Roary does something so antithetical to his nature, so opposed to the message of the rest of the movie, I several times beseeched the director, Dick Donner, not to end the movie that way. I also spoke at length to John Savage, and he agreed the ending was terribly wrong. John was certain that when Donner saw a rough cut of the entire movie, he would not use the misguided ending.

But because the people making the film were spending a large part of the production budget staging and filming the ending scenes of the movie, I was not hopeful. I attended the filming of those scenes at what is now Oracle Arena in Oakland, and was deeply saddened by an ending that had nothing to do with my book or the rest of the movie they made.

A couple months before the movie was to be released, I was invited to attend a sneak preview in a huge theater in San Francisco. I brought several friends with me and we sat in the jam-packed theater with hundreds of other people, most of them unaware of what movie they were about to see.

This was my first time watching Inside Moves, and I could barely process what I was seeing. There were times when the audience howled with laughter, and there were moments when I could feel everyone in the theatre deeply connecting to the characters and the story.

Then came the final ten minutes of the movie. In the scene just before those scenes filmed at the Oakland arena, Roary and several characters from Max’s bar are on their way to attend Jerry’s first basketball game as a member of the Golden State Warriors. While the group is waiting for their bus to arrive, Roary encounters Ann, Jerry’s former girlfriend, a hooker, who knows nothing of Jerry’s success. The interaction between John Savage and Amy Wright in this scene is a brilliant enactment of a scene lifted verbatim from the novel. As Roary says goodbye to Ann and joins his pals on the bus, the music swells and EVERY PERSON IN THE AUDIENCE THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS OVER!

Because it should have been. The audience began to applaud and cheer, and hundreds of people gave the movie a standing ovation. But wait. The movie wasn’t over. Alas, there was an implausible and wrongheaded revenge scene glued to the end of the film. So people sat back down, and all the excitement and good feelings drained from the theatre as the senselessly violent scene played and then the credits rolled.

Filing out, we heard dozens of people saying how wrong the ending was; and many people made that comment in the questionnaires accompanying the screening. Then we went to a pub full of people who had seen the movie, and everyone was talking about the movie—how good it was except for that terrible ending.

And I hoped the director and producers, who were all in attendance at that sneak preview, would see the wrongness of their ending and cut it. But instead they shortened the scene of the bus driving away with the gang from Max’s, and they brought up the announcer’s voice at the Oakland arena while Roary was getting on the bus, to insure the viewer understood the movie was not over yet, lest they miss the violent ending.

So if by some miracle the cinema gods do remake Inside Moves, I hope they allow Roary to be a man transcending the wounds of war, and they end the movie with a message of kindness and generosity, not vindictive violence.

Little Men

Monday, February 27th, 2017

vito, tood, marcia

Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.

The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.

In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.

When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?

In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.

Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.

Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.

I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.

How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”

Ignorance

Monday, February 20th, 2017

strength for tw

Strength painting by Nolan Winkler

The earwigs are a plague on the garden.

Jonathon—a thickset man with an unruly gray beard—wanders up and down the rows of decimated bean plants searching for surviving leaves, finding none. How curious, and what a disaster for the community. He has been gardening for fifty years, since he was six years old, and he has never experienced such an infestation—nothing even close to this. Only the garlic shoots have weathered the onslaught of the ravenous bugs, and even they show signs of being nibbled.

Having tea with Malcolm, his predecessor at the helm of the abbey garden, Jonathon says, “I went out last night at midnight and there were thousands and thousands of earwigs clinging to every stem and leaf. I’ve scoured the garden for their nests, but except for one small concentration near the old greenhouse…”

Malcolm, eighty-seven, a slender man with boyish dimples, shakes his head. “You won’t find concentrations.” He swirls the tea in his cup to bring out a last burst of flavor from the leaves. “They’re everywhere in the ground.”

“But why this year?” Jonathon gazes at the slice of garden he can see through Malcolm’s open door. “There’s nothing much different about the weather this spring than last. Our methods haven’t changed.”

Malcolm settles back in his rocking chair, a smile playing at his lips. “I must tell you, I’m glad it’s not my worry now. I’d be out there all night picking the buggers off one by one.”

“But what do you think it is?” Jonathon frowns at what he can see of the ruined planting. “We’ll have to start over again. And we’ll have to buy vegetables this year. I feel like such a fool.” He turns to Malcolm. “Can you make a guess?”

“No need to guess,” says Malcolm, finishing his tea. “The same thing happened to me my third year here—forty-four, no, forty-five years ago. And ever after we always dug the compost in deep and never top dressed with young compost that had any wood chips or sawdust in it. That’s just elixir to an earwig.”

“Oh my God,” says Jonathon—awareness dawning in his tired eyes. “The sawdust we got from the mill in January and mixed with the manure.”

“Yes, and you have five new apprentices who don’t know how to thoroughly rake the clods out of the new beds. Those warm little pockets under the clods are perfect boudoirs for earwig orgies.” Malcolm rocks forward and rises from his chair. “But even so you might not have had this plague if there’d been a good freeze this winter to kill off most of their eggs, but it never got terribly cold.”

Jonathon stares in amazement at Malcolm. “How long have you known?”

“All along,” he says, stepping into his garden clogs.

“And you didn’t say anything because I told you not to butt in anymore.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I’m such an idiot.”

“No, no,” says Malcolm, putting a hand on Jonathon’s shoulder. “You’re a fine gardener. We can’t know everything.”

“So what did you do back then to kill them off? Poison?”

“Never.” Malcolm laughs as he steps outside his cottage—his sinecure for fifty years of service to the sangha. “What we did was double dig the ground and make the new garden immaculate. Then we sunk big bowls every six feet along the rows and filled them with beer. Earwigs love beer even more than they love baby basil. That drowned a good many of them, and we were out every night for two weeks picking the rest of the buggers off by hand until the plants were strong enough to fend for themselves.”

“I guess that’s what we’ll have to do,” says Jonathon, relieved to have the mystery solved, however difficult the remedy.

“Have you seen my little vegetable patch?” asks Malcolm, starting up a narrow trail leading away from the main garden. “Up in the old orchard?”

“I didn’t know you’d planted anything this year,” says Jonathon, watching him go. “I’ve been so busy with the expansion of the fields, and the master classes, and…”

“I’ve been fortunate.” Malcolm beckons him to follow. “Not many bugs up there. Might get enough beans and such to see us through until yours come ready. Come on. I’ll show you.”

(This is a story from Todd’s book Buddha In A Teacup. An audio version is also available.)

Pollination

Monday, February 13th, 2017

winter mint

Winter Mint photo by Todd

“When the flower blossoms, the bee will come.” Srikumar Rao

Well, maybe not. With bee populations in decline worldwide and the so-called civilized world in no hurry to eliminate the known causes of these precipitous declines, more and more flowers are going unvisited by those faithful little pollinators.

Fear not. Scientists in Japan recently tested miniature drones equipped with sticky tendrils and were successful in transferring pollen from one flower to another with the little robot copters. Soon, say these triumphant scientists, orchards and vineyards and backyards will be abuzz, so to speak, with millions of little hovering robots doing the work bees used to do.

Somehow I am not reassured. Why not just stop producing and dispensing the pesticides and herbicides known to be decimating bee populations? A silly question, I know. Kin to asking: why not stop producing and dispensing the substances known to cause global warming? The answers are the same. To stop producing pesticides and greenhouse gases would be unprofitable in the short term for the huge corporations who have more power than nations.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Albert Einstein

We recently watched the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. This movie turns out to be a perfect Trump-era movie, for it is about a not-very-bright narcissist with no talent and too much money, and the people who feed off her. I was hoping for something to take my mind off of the over-arching stupidity and insensitivity of the new regime, yet found I was watching a goofy and pathetic drama based on that same kind of stupidity and insensitivity.

For me to enjoy a movie, I must care about at least one of the main characters, and preferably all of them. In the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, I cared about no one and wondered why anyone would want to make a movie about such shallow and uninspiring people, unless it was to demonstrate that much of our culture is deformed by the machinations of such dreadful people.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

Just for fun, I tried to imagine explaining to Donald Trump about declining bee populations, but in every imagined scenario, he kept interrupting to say, “That’s not true. There are plenty of bees.”

I recently saw a film clip of Donald addressing a group of law enforcement officials and telling them the murder rate in America is at an all-time high, though the FBI recently reported the murder rate is at an all-time low. Whenever he is asked about disparities between his claims and the claims of researchers and scientists and government agencies, Donald likes to say we’re not hearing the truth because the media won’t report the truth.

What makes this extra confusing is that the media frequently does not report the truth, so Donald is correct in saying so, but the media does report everything Donald says, whether true or not, and then some parts of the media try to decipher which part of what Donald said was the truth and which part was not true. In the end, vast swaths of media time are filled with this nonsense, all of which adds up to little or nothing, but does leave us mentally exhausted and feeling as if we are trapped in an absurdist nightmare written by Ionesco.

There was something absurd and pathetic about Florence Foster Jenkins, and there is definitely something absurd about the reign of Trump, though it is now obvious that Trumpian absurdity is intended to keep us from paying attention to those men behind the curtains pulling all the important strings the media so rarely tells the truth about.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Florence’s sycophants spend most of their energies handpicking the audiences for her truly terrible singing performances so no one will guffaw and point and say, “The emperor is a talentless buffoon.” But in the end, the truth about Florence is revealed to the world via a newspaper review and Florence is crushed.

Alas, the truth never seems to dent Trump, let alone crush him, but washes over him like gentle rain and only seems to make him more certain that whatever he says is brilliant and right on key.