Waking heavy-limbed, my first
conscious thought is If we were not
meeting Sally and Molly at the beach this morning, I would surely sleep for
another couple hours.
But we are meeting Sally and Molly, so up I get and Marcia gets up, too.
I splash some water on my face and
traipse through the quiet house to my office, and espy a beautiful doe just
outside my window, her browsing ground so very dry, and at least another month
until the rains come, if they come. As I take her picture, I am keenly aware of
how parched the earth.
On my computer I find an email from Marion in England, recently returned from trekking in the Cotswolds. She has sent several pictures of what are called kissing gates, clever designs that allow humans to pass through, but not livestock. I’m glad to see things are not so dry in England.
In the same email batch is a missive from Clare, Marion’s daughter, with pics of Vito looking happy to be in Switzerland. Though I miss Vito and Clare and Nick, I’m relieved they are living in Switzerland now, away from the fires and smoke and political chaos and rampant pandemic in California and America. The Swiss have been quite successful, so far, in containing the virus and political chaos.
I visit the orchard before we leave for the beach, and I’m pleased to see our final lettuce planting of the year is coming along nicely, the big tub keeping the babies safe from voracious redwood roots.
The apples look ready to eat, but they are hard as rocks and will need another
two weeks to ripen before we pick them.
Big River Beach is half in shade
when we arrive, the air wonderfully free of smoke. Hallelujah. Nine in the
morning, the air is already quite warm, and I think ahead a few days to the
weekend and the predicted heat wave that will bring thousands of people from
inland towns and cities to the coast.
Molly chases her ball out into a
great expanse of foamy surf, and I think of the arctic ice sheet breaking up
and melting away as it will now more and more every year.
Molly’s exuberance lifts my somber
mood. Hurray for life!
We walk up river to complete our morning sojourn, and Molly has one last swim in the green blue waters of Big River before we head for home.
When we were children in the 1950s and 60s, adults would often ask us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I don’t recall any adults asking me what I’d been doing lately or how I was feeling. Nor do I recall believing these inquiring adults really wanted to know what I wanted to become. Their question was a ritual greeting, and my answer was the ritual reply.
When I was four and adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said cowboy, which I pronounced gowboy, according to my mother. Then when I was seven, I was given a small hardback book entitled American Indians, which turned out to be a very pro-Indian, anti-Gowboy tome. I read the book countless times and decided there could be nothing better than being an American Indian.
To become an American Indian, I stopped wearing shoes and shirts
and long pants except when I went to school, and I made several wooden spears,
which I became adept at throwing far and accurately. And for the next few years,
I spent most of my non-school hours roaming the not-yet-built-upon land around
our house—oak-studded hills, abandoned grape vineyards, piney woods. Most
summer nights, I made a camp in the olive grove adjacent to our house and slept
out under the stars. I was accompanied on many of my adventures by my dog Cozy,
an unmistakably American Indian dog, and we spent the long summer days
exploring our territory, tracking game, and avoiding contact with white people.
When my friends came to play with me, I tried to interest them in
being American Indians too, but found no takers. Some of my pals were keen on
fighting the Japanese and the Germans, so we did that, and some wanted to war against American Indians, which I
refused to do, but none of my friends wanted to be American Indians, even after I shared with them my favorite
parts of that foundational treatise American
Indians. I was baffled by my friends’ unwillingness to convert, for I saw
no downside to being an American Indian.
I know very well that the American Indian I became is not an
actual indio, not a Navajo or a Pomo
or a Lakota. But I did become my own kind of American Indian and was profoundly
shaped by those years in which I roamed the California hills with my dog and my
spear, learning the ways of Nature and avoiding the confines of the white man’s
Many a day I would settle down in the woods and sit stone still for so long that deer and rabbits and lizards and quail would become unaware of me, or cease to fear me, as I watched them going about their lives in the wilds, their complex and fascinating lives.
Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can go when things have got about as bad as they can reasonably get. Tom Stoppard
I take comfort in knowing that for all but the last few millennia of our millions of years of evolving into the species we are today, humans lived from day to day, untethered to the past or the future. Our existence was entirely about getting enough food for today, avoiding larger animals who wanted to eat us, and caring for each other. We did not concern ourselves with saving enough money to insure a comfortable old age, for we knew nothing of money or old age. We lived vigorously and alertly in the moment, ever vigilant and curious and open to what Nature was telling us.
To a great mind, nothing is little. Conan Doyle
Through persistent practice there will come a time when your playing is so clear and rhythmically consistent, and your voice and words merge so seamlessly with your music, you and your song will be one.
Every choice is always the wrong choice,
Every vote cast is always cast away—
How can truth hover between alternatives?
Then love me more than dearly, love me wholly,
Love me with no weighing of circumstance,
As I am pledged in honour to love you:
With no weakness, with no speculation
On what might happen should you and I prove
Than bringers-to-be of our own certainty.
Neither was born by hazard; each foreknew
The extreme possession we are grown into.
When I was nineteen, I became a vagabond for
some years, and carried everything I owned with me, including three books: a
paperback edition of Collected Poems of
Robert Graves, and the two-volume The
Greek Myths, also by Robert Graves, also in paperback.
During many of the hundreds of hours I spent waiting by roads for good Samaritans to stop for me, and on many a night before going to sleep, I would read Graves and take solace in what I came to think of as his cautionary romanticism.
When I was twenty-eight and had just published my first novel, I was waiting for my editor in the plush anteroom of the Doubleday offices in Manhattan. I had never met my editor in-person. We had spoken on the phone many times, and from her voice and manner of speaking, I imagined Sherry was a young white woman raised in the upper middle class who had, for some reason, fallen in love with my novel about white and black people living together and helping each other travel through this world of woe and joy.
On the walls of the anteroom were displayed the newest books published by Doubleday, each book standing on a small shelf and spot-lit as if a work of art. I blushed when I discovered my newborn book thus displayed, and then gasped in delight at the book displayed on the shelf next to mine: a handsome hardback edition of the newly revised Collected Poems of Robert Graves.
Then Sherry emerged from the labyrinth of
offices and I gasped again, for she was black and exceedingly lovely.
In my stammered greeting, I said something about the volume of Robert Graves. Without hesitation, Sherry took the volume of poems from its pedestal, handed the holy relic to me, and I felt blessed, a thousand times blessed.
Max wrote: I had a very productive morning working on my book about lizards only to wake and find it was but a dream.
I wrote back: I’ve
always liked lizards. I always feel lucky when I see one.
Max thought my response might make a good start for a story. I suggested the lines might also be good lyrics to a song. I’ve been playing around with a catchy chord progression for the last few weeks, hunting for lyrics, so I tried singing I’ve always liked lizards, always feel lucky when I see one to the music, and the words fit the tune nicely, so I got to work writing the rest of the song.
As I was trying out various combinations of words with the chord progression, the sunny day started to turn ominously gray as the air filled with smoke from the big fires inland. I stepped outside and the sun was orange. I went to get my camera and by the time I got back outside the sun was pink. A moment later, our mighty star disappeared behind the clouds and darkness fell at 4:30 in the afternoon.
I found myself quasi-panicking. Should we flee? But to where?
Marcia finished giving an online cello lesson, we shared a couple beers, and I snapped a few pictures in the eerie daytime dusk.
Then I performed my new song for Marcia and she
approved. Here is the first verse.
I’ve always liked lizards, feel lucky when I see one.
I like pelicans, too. In fact, I’d like to be one.
I like koala bears, and I like kangaroos.
I like walking on the beach.
And I really really like you.
Now I’ve got enough new songs for my next CD, and when the pandemic subsides and and the air clears and studio time becomes available again, this is what I’m gonna do.
Yes, it does feel somewhat odd to be building fires in the woodstove in early September when much of California is literally on fire and inland temperatures are over 100 degrees. But here on the Mendocino coast we’ve been cloaked in fog, cold fog, for five days and counting. We heat our house with a woodstove, and after shivering for a couple days in deference to the plight of those living inland, I resumed building fires in the woodstove so the air inside our house would be warmer than the frigid air outside.
Our wood shed is about a hundred feet from my office door through which I will bring in the kindling to start the day’s fire. In the winter I have a stack of kindling at the ready on the north porch, but since this is not usually the time of year we have fires, right now I’m making kindling as needed.
The wood shed is currently empty save for a few dozen pieces of soft wood I’m turning into kindling to start these end-of-summer fires. In another few weeks, I’ll begin bringing in wheelbarrow loads of seasoned softwood and tan oak and fill the shed completely, approximately five cords.
The firewood I’m making kindling from came from a mostly-dead 150-feet-tall bull pine we had felled three years ago. We hired a couple expert tree guys to bring the giant tree down and thereby ended the threat the tree posed to three neighboring houses. We were greatly relieved to have that tree down, and so were our neighbors.
Our neighbor Defer bucked the bull pine logs into 16-inch long rounds, which I then split into firewood.
Once I have enough kindling chopped, I bring the sticks inside and set them on the hearth while I crumple up fire-starting paper and toss the paper into the woodstove. I’m currently starting our fires with old income tax stuff we hung onto for the requisite years, old bills and bank reports now serving to keep us warm.
Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet
When we moved into our house eight years ago, I wanted to have two lemon trees growing near the house so they would be less likely to suffer during a winter freeze and so we could step out the kitchen door and pick a lemon whenever we wanted one.
I cleared the ground for a garden and dug out the redwood roots on the south-facing side of the house, a little plot I could see from my office windows, and I planted a lemon tree at each end of the plot. I watered the lemon trees and fed them and they grew into nice little bushes, but the years passed and they rarely made a blossom, and only once did one of the trees make a single desiccated little lemon.
I would visit people who had lemon trees in small wooden tubs on their decks, the little trees covered with blossoms and lemons; and I would visit people with yards untroubled by redwood roots where giant lemon trees grew in the ground and made hundreds of lemons each year.
I knew my trees were battling the redwood roots, yet stubbornly, year after year I clung to the unfounded belief that the lemon tree roots would eventually manage to descend below the redwood-root tangle and spread far and wide and empower the lemon trees to become mighty makers of big juicy yellow lemons.
After seven years of continuously battling the
redwood roots, I finally accepted that my vegetables would not grow in the
ground unless every few months I labored mightily to dig out many wheelbarrow
loads of roots. And so in my seventieth year I became a tub gardener. And once
I experienced the ease of growing vegetables in tubs free of redwood roots, I
transferred my lemon trees out of the ground into two big tubs.
As I dug up the lemon trees to transplant them, I was astonished to find that their root masses had barely grown in seven years, the little trees somehow surviving with their tiny root masses encased in massive knots of densely woven redwood roots.
Not quite two years later, the lemon trees in
the tubs are healthy, fast growing, and covered with lemons and blossoms. We
have yet to pick a mature lemon, but the day is coming soon.
I am examining my life in light of my experience
with the lemon trees.
Probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed so early today because it was foggy and cold, but I’d arranged to meet Sally and Molly on Big River Beach for a walk and flinging the ball and so forth before the beach got too crowded with dogs and tourists. Here’s a sequence of photos to show you how things went.
When we took possession of our house at the end
of the pavement on Cummings Lane eight years ago, our eight apples trees and
one plum tree were in desperate need of pruning and watering and feeding.
The plum tree, a spindly-limbed variety
unfamiliar to me, made no plums the first year of our residency, and though she
blossomed well the second year produced just a few plums that identified her as
a prune plum.
The third year, the plum tree again had a nice
blossom set and made about twenty plums. As these plums neared ripeness, ravens
helped themselves to most of the fruit before we could pick the remaining
The slender branches of the plum grew leggy and crowded, so I pruned the tree as I had pruned countless other plum trees, but this plum reacted to my pruning by giving no fruit in the fourth year.
So I did not prune the tree at all the
following winter, and in our fifth year the plum tree rewarded us with a few
dozen tasty plums. The ravens came to dine again, so we harvested the plums
before they were fully ripe and slightly tart.
That winter, I pruned a few competing branches,
but otherwise allowed the branches to be leggy and more numerous than I would
have had this tree been like other plum trees I have known.
In the sixth year, the plum tree gave us several
dozen plums and the ravens took little of the bounty.
seventh year was not a big plum year in Mendocino, but this year, our eighth,
the plum tree made several hundred plums from which Marcia made delicious jam.
We labeled the jam skunk holler prune plum jam rather than fox hollow prune plum jam because the foxes that frequently showed themselves to us during our first few years here are rare now, while skunks traipse across our deck most evenings and stop to drink from the bowl of water at the feet of our statue of Ganesh.
This is the fourth and final article in a series
commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.
February 1967. Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Redwood
When Rico had two years and five months of high
school left to endure, and I only had five more months of high school to get
through, Rico bought a used mimeograph machine and he and I and Dave Biasotti launched
Lyceum, a magazine. We brought out a
new issue every few weeks chock full of articles and poems and stories. Dave
made great pen and ink drawings for the first few covers, after which we used
photos taken by Rico’s brother Steve for the covers. These photo covers were
some of the very earliest Xerox copies.
We printed a hundred copies of the first issue and
were thrilled when fifty people ponied up four dollars to have the next six
issues mailed to them. Rico then convinced Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, the
hippest bookstore in our world at the time, to sell Lyceum for 25 cents a copy, and Rico and I hawked the rest of the
copies at school.
A heady experience of my young life was seeing
several of my peers sitting around at lunchtime at Woodside High reading Lyceum. Along with drawing the covers,
Dave drew a one-frame cartoon for each issue and wrote reviews of new folk rock
and rock albums. Rico and I wrote articles and stories and poems, and by the
third issue people were submitting poems and notices of things for sale, some
of which we published.
Were we good writers? Hard to say. Were we
That spring Rico fell in love with a young woman
named Maureen. She was beautiful and smart and sexy and funny, and she enjoyed
Rico’s company but drove him crazy because she denied him the sensual romantic
connection he longed for.
Also around this time, Rico shared with me that
his doctors were not optimistic he would survive much beyond his twenties. He
told me this in the context of a conversation in which I said something about
us getting a place together, going to Europe, and living our lives as literary
“I don’t know, Murray,” he said, sounding
uncharacteristically pessimistic. “Lately I’ve been having this fantasy of blasting
off in a rocket ship and just going.”
(Fortunately, advances in medical technology made
it possible for Rico to live to sixty-eight.)
One afternoon I was at Rico’s and he asked me to
play some jazz piano so he could jam with me on a saxophone he’d just gotten.
He hadn’t taken lessons, but he loved jazz and wanted to make music. So I sat
down at their wonderful Steinway and played a jazzy-sounding chord or two, and
Rico blew slow long notes with great feeling. We were both thrilled by the sounds
we made together, and Rico said he might take lessons, but as far as I know he
never did and we never played music together again.
We brought out the last issue of Lyceum at the end of May, right before
school ended, and Rico announced we’d made a profit of seventy dollars, which
in 1967 was a pile of cash for the likes of us. Rico proposed we use the money
to take some girls to San Francisco for walking around and supper.
I took my girlfriend Connie, Rico brought Maureen,
and I can’t remember who Dave brought, possibly Connie’s friend Harriet. For
some reason, Connie decided the gals would wear saris and she came up with
three beautiful saris for them. We took the train from Atherton to San
Francisco and caught a bus to North Beach where we hung out at City Lights
Books, had coffee and biscotti at Caffe Trieste, went shopping in Chinatown, ate
supper at The Spaghetti Factory, and came home on a late night train—everything
paid for with money made from our magazine.
With the last of the Lyceum money, Rico got two tickets for Ray Charles at Frost
Amphitheatre at Stanford, our last hurrah together before I headed off to
college at brand new UC Santa Cruz and Rico stayed on at Woodside High.
I dropped out of college after two years, which coincided with Rico finishing high school. He decided to take what they now call a gap year before attending Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During that interim year, Rico rented a room in a house in Palo Alto for some months before he moved into a hippy commune in Palo Alto with Jean Trounstine who would become his first wife.
Jean was a bright energetic Jewish gal from
Cincinnati, five years older than Rico. She had a BA in Drama from Beloit and
had come to California to join the cultural ferment going on in the Bay Area. I
first met Jean when Rico took me to House of Pies on University Avenue where
Jean was a waitress. The waitresses there wore uniforms composed of skirt,
blouse, and cap that supposedly made them resemble, symbolically, a piece of
We had a hilarious time as Jean enacted the
required shtick of House of Pie waitresses when Rico, following the printed
prompt on the table, asked in the manner of Humphrey Bogart, “What’s fresh
today? Besides you sweetie pie?”
Jean batted her eyelashes and said, “Hold on a sec,
big fella. I’ll go ask our baker.” And then she sashayed away to the kitchen,
mimed asking the baker, and sashayed back to us. “You’re not gonna believe
this, but all the pies are fresh
today. And you know what just came
out of the oven?”
“The apple pie?” I guessed, the place redolent
with the scent of apple pie.
“What are you psychic?” said Jean, gaping at me. “The apple did just come out of the oven. And the blueberry and the cherry and the lemon meringue.”
I loved Jean. She and Rico were a great match and they
were devoted to each other for several years until their lives diverged when
Rico was in his late twenties.
Around the time he was beginning his relationship
with Jean, Rico heard a talk by Husain Chung, a radical practitioner of Psychodrama
as it pertains to psychotherapy, and shortly thereafter Rico began attending
group Psychodrama sessions at a house in Palo Alto, the groups led by Vik
Lovell and his Psychodrama trainees. Interesting side note: Ken Kesey, who
lived in the area, dedicated his book One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Vik Lovell.
Rico was fascinated by the evolving use of Psychodrama
in psychotherapy, and these Vik Lovell sessions were of particular interest to
him because Lovell was, according to Rico, “constantly experimenting and
unafraid to seriously fuck up.” Rico asked me to attend one of the Lovell
sessions with him and I did.
Before being admitted into the house where the
sessions took place, participants agreed not to leave until the three-hour session
was over. Rico had told me a little bit about what went on at the Lovell
sessions, but I was wholly unprepared for what I was to endure for the next
Vik Lovell was a handsome man in his thirties with
an assured air. I am tempted to use the descriptors arrogant, insensitive, misogynist, and narcissist to describe him, but maybe he was just having a bad day.
His trainees were men and women who dressed alike in loose-fitting pants and
black T-shirts to identify them as Vik’s assistants.
Vik sat on a high stool just outside the large
circle of attendees arrayed in chairs around the empty center of the big living
room that served as the stage for the evening’s psychodramas. Vik communicated
with his trainees by gesturing and pointing, and he directed his DJ with quiet
asides to play certain cuts from a handy library of LPs—what Rico and I would
later refer to as psychodrama soundtracks.
After reiterating we were not to leave before the
session was over, Vik invited a tall bearded American man to stand in the
center of the circle and tell us what was on his mind. With little preface, the
man said he’d had sex with the wife of a friend, after which the wife and
friend broke off relations with him. To my surprise, the two people he was
talking about were there, and Vik directed the man and woman to join the
bearded man in the center of the room.
The couple was British, the woman strikingly
beautiful, the man handsome with a muscular build. The woman acknowledged she
had slept with the bearded guy, said she regretted doing so, and was grateful to
her husband for forgiving her and being so understanding. Both husband and wife
said they had no interest in rehashing the affair or having anything more to do
with the bearded guy.
The British guy struck me as intelligent and
reasonable, the British gal the same, while the bearded American seemed
seriously disturbed and obviously distraught about being booted out of his
relationship with the couple.
Vik gestured to his trainees. One of the female
trainees stood behind the British woman, one of the male trainees stood behind
the bearded American, and another male trainee stood behind the British fellow.
And then all hell broke loose. The woman trainee
accused the British guy of neglecting her sexually and shouted, “Which is the
only reason I slept with that disgusting pig!” The trainee standing behind the
British guy shouted at the British gal, “Bullshit! You slept with him because
you’re a whore!”
The British guy protested, “No, I don’t think
you’re a whore.”
And Vik asked, “Then what do you think she is?”
And before the British guy could reply, the
bearded guy said to the British guy, “She told me you were impotent with women
but got turned on by young men.”
“I never said that,” cried the British gal. “My
husband is a wonderful lover.”
I don’t remember the order of events after that,
but following a few more inflammatory exchanges spoken by the psychodrama
trainees, the British guy and the bearded guy started seriously brawling, the
bearded guy throwing punches, the British guy trying to wrestle the bearded guy
to the ground, and the British gal trying to intervene only to be restrained by
two of the trainees who continued to call her whore and slut.
Then an elderly man in the audience of attendees
shouted, “This is wrong, Vik. You need to stop this!”
And in the next moment the bearded guy broke away
from the British guy, pulled the elderly man out of his seat, threw him to the
ground and started pummeling him, which caused me to jump up and try to stop
the bearded guy from seriously injuring the elderly guy. But before I could pull
the bearded guy off the old man, two of Vik’s male trainees grabbed me and slammed
me against a wall and one of them pressed his fist hard against my nose and
shouted, “What’s your deal, asshole? Working on your hero complex?”
My nose started gushing blood and Vik signaled his
trainees to let up on me, which they did, and then and one of them took me by
the arm and led me to a bathroom where I stemmed the flow of blood with a plug
of toilet paper and stayed in the bathroom until the bleeding stopped.
The trainee walked me back to my chair and said,
“Don’t get up again unless Vik tells you to.” By then the chaos had subsided
and Strawberry Fields was playing on
the stereo. The British guy and gal were sitting apart from each other, both of
them weeping, and the bearded guy was lying face down, sobbing, and I don’t
know where the elderly guy was. I desperately wanted to leave but was afraid if
I tried to go the trainees would hurt me again, so I closed my eyes and waited
for the hours to pass.
Rico was very upset afterwards and apologized for
not warning me that I was never to intervene in an ongoing psychodrama unless Vik
invited me to participate. I suffered for some weeks with bruised ribs and did
not attend any more Vik Lovell psychodrama evenings. Rico, however, went
several more times and reported learning many valuable lessons from observing
what went on in those sessions.
Later in his career as a psychologist, Rico would
employ less violent psycho-dramatic techniques, especially when working with
children and teenagers. When we were in our thirties, Rico and I collaborated
on a screenplay called Any Time You’re
Ready about a woman psychiatrist who runs a home for emotionally disturbed
teens and employs Psychodrama as part of her work with the kids. We were never
able to sell the script, though we were certain it was the best movie ever
In 1970, when I was twenty-one and Rico was nineteen, Rico and Jean moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’d only spent a little time with Jean before they moved to Yellow Springs, but I got to know her very well when Ilived in Yellow Springs for two months in early 1971.
While Rico was attending Antioch, Jean taught
Drama at Central State University, a predominantly African American college,
and she taught theatre games to little kids and adults on weekends. While I was
in Yellow Springs, I assisted Jean with her little kid classes, took her
classes for adults, and Rico got me a job editing a student handbook for
Antioch. I’m not sure how he convinced my boss at Antioch to hire me as an
editor, but he did.
I rented a room above Deaton’s Hardware, ate most
of my suppers with Rico and Jean at their cute little house on the edge of the
campus, and unsuccessfully romanced their good friend Kay who enjoyed me but
didn’t consider me boyfriend material.
Jean was a gourmet cook and a frequent dieter. An
ongoing source of amusement for me was that Jean would serve Rico and me
wonderful multi-course meals while resigning herself to eating a hardboiled egg
and a chicken thigh. Yet nine times out of ten, I wanted that egg and chicken
thigh more than I wanted the fancy meal. Go figure.
What was I doing in Yellow Springs, Ohio, you ask,
besides living near Rico and Jean? Well, I was waiting to hear from a major publisher
in New York to whom I had sent my first novel. In my extreme naiveté, having
recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, I was sure I could write a novel as good
or better than Vonnegut’s, and while living in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon, I wrote
my first novel, The Apprenticeship of
Abraham Steinberg, and sent it to Vonnegut’s publisher, having gotten their
address from the copyright page of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
On my way to New York to find out what was holding
up my rise to lasting international fame, I stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio and
sent the publisher my updated contact numbers (Rico’s phone and address) and
waited to hear from them, not knowing they didn’t read unsolicited manuscripts
by neophyte writers unrepresented by literary agents.
In April of that year, I got a ride east with two
of Jean’s Drama students from Central State University who were auditioning to
get into the Drama department at Cornell University. From Cornell, I took a bus
to Boston and crashed in a co-ed dorm with a couple high school friends, Dan
Nadaner and Joe Tiffany, who were finishing up their undergrad careers at
Harvard, and then I went to New York to find out what was keeping my literary
career from taking off.
Interesting side note: while I was crashing at
Harvard, one of the guys I got to be friends with, Jerry Hiatt, was taking a
Creative Writing class from, you guessed it, Kurt Vonnegut.
In New York I stayed with my composer friend Scott
Oakley in his roach-infested apartment in Harlem and called the publisher to
inquire of The Apprenticeship of Abraham
Steinberg. After a long wait, a young woman came on the line and sweetly
explained that they did not read unsolicited manuscripts, but because I’d come
all this way she would read my manuscript and get back to me in a few days,
which she did.
I shaved, put on my cleanest shirt, and went down
to the snazzy publisher’s offices in the heart of Manhattan where a woman no
older than I met me in the lobby, handed me my manuscript, and said she really
enjoyed the story, that my writing reminded her of William Saroyan, keep trying,
and get a literary agent.
A year or so later, I was living in a boarding
house in Santa Cruz and looking for a job when Rico called to say he and Jean
were getting married, would I come to Yellow Springs and sing at their wedding.
I said Yes and was so inspired by the invitation, I wrote a song especially for
the wedding and then wrote a collection of short stories entitled What Shall the Monster Sing? which I dedicated
to Rico and Jean.
That collection of stories ultimately landed me my
first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman, and contained a short story
about disabled folks hanging out in a bar that presaged my novel Inside Moves.
I flew to Ohio courtesy of Rico’s folks, stayed
with Jean and Rico for a week before the wedding, sang at the wedding, stayed
another week, and flew home. Singing for all those people at the wedding in the
glen in Yellow Springs, and singing again at the big reception at Jean’s
parents’ house in Cincinnati, along with writing that collection of stories
gave me a vision of how I wanted to proceed with my life, and I have stuck to
that course ever since.
Five years later Dorothy Pittman sold my novel Inside Moves (original title The Gimp) to Doubleday. After I’d
rewritten the book with the help of my excellent editor Sherry Knox, Doubleday
sent forth the galleys and soon thereafter we had a big paperback sale and then
a movie sale, and a week after the movie sale I was summoned to Los Angeles to
meet with Bob Evans who had just made Love
Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown, and now wanted to make Inside Moves.
But rather than fly directly from my garret in
Seattle to LA, I stopped in San Francisco to commune with Rico. We stayed up
late talking and he drove me to the airport the next morning, his parting
words, “Call me if you need to talk.”
I landed in LA, got a cab to the Beverly Wilshire
with a Czechoslovakian driver who kept insisting I was Clint Eastwood, had
lunch with my new Hollywood agent Candace Lake and a vice-president at
Paramount, Nancy Hardin. After lunch Nancy dropped me off at Bob Evans’ mansion
and I met with Bob in the pool house next to his big swimming pool.
After a few niceties Bob Evans said, “You’ve
written a nice little fable here. I couldn’t put it down. But it’s too quirky,
too many cripples. You overdid the cripples. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments,
but the second act is a dud. We can fix this and it’ll be huge. So here’s what we’ll
do. We hold off on publishing while you rewrite the book the way I tell you to
rewrite it. That’s what I did with Love
Story. I told Segal what to write and he made millions and so will you.
We’ll get you a place in Malibu, a secretary, a cook, anything you need, and
we’ll get this done.”
I was in shock. Much to Bob’s chagrin, I did not
jump for joy, but said I would think about it. Somehow I got back to my room at
the Beverly Wilshire from where I called my sister who lived near UCLA and she
came and got me and I collapsed at her place.
I called my agent Dorothy Pittman and told her
what had happened. She said she would support whatever decision I made. The
book was to be published in just a few months. She had already heard from my
Hollywood agent and Nancy Hardin at Paramount both of whom had reiterated Bob’s
proposal to have me rewrite the book per his direction, for which I would be
handsomely recompensed, after which they would put big money into promoting the
Then I called Rico. He listened in his patient way
and when I was done telling him what Evans wanted me to do, he said, “Your book
tells the truth, Murray. They’re afraid of the truth. Don’t let them wreck your
story. You’ll never be able to live with yourself if you do.”
And I did not rewrite the book for Bob Evans. He
hired Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin to write a screenplay that changed the main
character from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, and they changed
the heroine from a woman with a leg shrunken by polio to a woman with two
gorgeous gams, and they changed Max from a man with no legs to a big strong
able-bodied guy, and some months later Bob Evans dropped the movie, Dick Donner
picked it up and shot Barry and Valerie’s script and added a revenge scene at
the end of the movie that was the antithesis of the spirit of the book and the antithesis of the rest of the movie.
But the novel Inside Moves came out as I wrote it, and the inspiring story of a friendship between two physically and emotionally challenged guys, versions of Rico and Murray, lives to this day, however humbly.