Balance: a short story

photo by Marcia Sloane

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

I was the only child of elderly parents. They both died the year before I evolved out of puberty, and I was left in the care of a diminutive maiden aunt. She had absolutely no short term memory and even less money. My bedroom was my haven, my black and white television my constant companion. I was an uninspired student, a mediocre athlete, and I think it fair to say that I had no real friends, no one to confide in, no one to discuss my fears and fantasies with.

I cannot remember when I first became aware of the feeling I am about to describe. I know that I felt it when my parents were still alive, and before I could read, which means I may have been as young as four. I suppose it is even possible that I was born feeling this way, but my memory only stretches back to my late twos, when our big dark tabby cat killed a huge rat, and I saw him eating the rodent, staining the kitchen linoleum with bright blood.

And yet, even now, after all these years of living by and for this belief, I hesitate to reveal my secret. I fear it may sound trite and stupid to you. I fear you will think it little more than a poor excuse for a life poorly lived, a delusional, idiotic notion. But I must risk your contempt. It is my duty.

All my life I have been convinced that something spectacularly good was going to happen to me, though not necessarily through any particular effort on my part. That, in a nutshell, is my system of belief.

Perhaps, from this, you will make the guess that I am a lazy person. I must admit that “lacks motivation” has appeared on every report card and job evaluation I have ever received, save for the one from Mrs. Rhodes, my fourth grade teacher, who preferred her males docile. But was it laziness that made me eschew competition for quietude, or was it my philosophy? Did I survive the first fifty-seven years of a sadly uninteresting life because almost anyone can survive fifty-seven years somehow? Or did I remain a moderate optimist, despite the grotesque redundancy of my days and months and years, because I was anticipating with ever fiber of my being an unknowable event that would set me free and allow me to become whatever I was supposed to be?

It is true that over the years I passed up several higher paying jobs because I could simply not convince myself that doing so was worth the effort of relocating or re-educating myself. I never believed I could be one of those people who succeed through hard work and purposeful determination.

I did buy lottery tickets and enter sweepstakes (if they came to me in the mail), hoping, naturally, that I would win, yet knowing all the while that the winning of money was not what awaited me. No, I was certain I was going to be given something.

I never had a vision of what that something would be, but I knew it would be incredibly good, and that once I had it, I would be content. I occasionally fantasized about fabulous gifts arriving from surprising patrons, but even the effort of fantasizing seemed futile. Go along until it happens, I told myself. Don’t look for it. You won’t know it until it falls on you. Those were the guiding slogans of my life, such as it was.


So, I’m walking home from my tedious, not very difficult, fairly low stress job with the telephone company. My rather drab, comfortable, average-sized one-bedroom apartment is within six blocks of the transmission facility wherein I supervise twenty-five operators and spend my copious free time reading historical romances. The day has been a day like any other, long and uneventful, save for the obstreperous old lady who threatened to unleash the forces of evil upon me if I didn’t refund the money she claimed the pay phone ate, which I did, not wanting to take any chances with the cosmic balance, in case there is one.

I am exactly one and half blocks from home and television and reheated pizza and cold beer, when I feel something click. Do you know what I mean by click? Something both inside and outside me falls absolutely and undeniably and perfectly into place—or into various places simultaneously. Click. And I know, as surely as I have ever known anything, that the universe or whatever you wish to call this dimension we inhabit, has suddenly, or finally, lined up, synchronized all its various parts, and is now ready for whatever I’ve been waiting for all my life—a fabulous feeling, like a sudden cool breeze on a blazing hot day. All my senses are heightened. My heart picks up the pace and I feel like dancing.

I arrive home. There are two police cars, lights flashing, parked in front of the Big Tree apartments, named for our two scrawny redwoods. I am greeted by my landlord, Mr. Lester, a small man with a penchant for absurdly big white belts. He is sweating profusely, his toupee slipping.

“Try to remain calm,” he says, touching my hand. “There’s been a robbery.”  He takes his hand away. “You’ve been cleaned out.”

As I make my way through the small crowd of curious onlookers, Mr. Lester calls out to me, “And they got away in your car.”

My telephone is ringing as I enter my otherwise empty apartment. The refrigerator door is open, revealing only a glaring emptiness. I find myself missing the beer more than any of my other possessions.

“Hello,” says a voice, as I pick up the phone. “This is Jenkins. Am I speaking to operator supervisor four six nine eight dash eleven seven nine six dash four one one oh one?”

“That’s me,” I reply, hearing myself as if from a great distance, realizing I must be in shock.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to break this to you so suddenly, but…”

I’ve been terminated. Twenty-nine years. Done. Major cutbacks due to competition engendered by deregulation. No desk to clean out. No security badge to return. That’s all been taken care of. They’ve changed the locks, the codes, the special procedures. Any personal belongings I may have left in the facility will be waiting for me in a brown bag at the receptionist’s desk. Thank you very much. Click. Drone. Beep beep beep.

Mr. Lester enters. “Listen,” he says, frowning at me, adjusting his wig, “I hate to do this to you, but the police feel, and I have to agree, that it’s pretty strange that only you were robbed. It’s as if you were selected for a reason. And I’m not making any assumptions, but the other tenants, as you can imagine, are very concerned, and since your lease has expired anyway, would you mind…”

I walk out into the last few moments of sunlight—jobless and homeless and without possessions. All I have are the clothes I’m wearing and the money in my…

I feel all my pockets. My wallet is gone—my identification, money, everything—gone. I remember being jostled by a slender young man in the liquor store. I had just bought a Lotto ticket.

In my confusion, it occurs to me that I have probably picked the winning numbers. The jackpot currently stands at seventy-five million dollars. But the ticket is in my wallet. My wallet is gone.

I walk down the street to the nearest pay phone. I have a friend, well, more of an acquaintance really, who might allow me to stay at his place until I can get new identification and begin collecting unemployment. I have seven cents in my pocket. I look in the change slot, hoping for a quarter. No such luck.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn. It is a policeman. He is frowning at me. “See some ID, bud?”

I begin to tell him my story. His frown deepens. “Are you saying you don’t have any ID?” he asks. “Because if you don’t…”

On the way to jail, sitting in the back seat of the police car, I try to think of someone to call for help. I can think of no close friends, no casual date, no relative, no one I am certain will help me. I have never done a consciously bad thing to anyone, but neither have I ever been much of a friend to anyone. I decide to not call anyone right away and see what happens. You might say I surrender.

I find that I don’t mind my night in jail. No one tries to hurt me, the food is edible, and the bed has a new mattress, much firmer than the one I had at the place I so recently called home. I sleep like a babe and wake up refreshed. My sense that everything is in place and ready for spectacular change is more tangible than ever. I thrill from head to toe when they unlock my cell and lead me down the hall.

I am brought into a room and told to walk out on a narrow stage with four other men. A glaring white light shining in our eyes makes it impossible to see who or what is in the audience.

“That’s him,” someone says. “Number four.”

I am taken to another building. The guard treats me roughly. He shoves me into a dark cell. I ask to make my phone call now. He ignores me. I shout at him, protesting my innocence. He continues to ignore me. I panic and call him a filthy name. He opens my door and hits my arm with his club. The pain is greater than anything I have ever experienced. I decide not to make a fuss.

A few hours later, I am taken out of the cell and shoved along a narrow hallway to a small, stuffy room. I am left in the company of three unsmiling detectives. One of them asks me if I know why I’m here. I begin to tell my story, expecting to be interrupted, but they listen to me until I can think of nothing more to say. They look at each other, communicating in a strange silent way that reminds me of something out of a horror movie. One of them clears his throat and asks me where I was on such and such a night.

“Home watching television, most likely,” I reply, shrugging. “That’s what I do every night, except…”

“Except what?”

“Volleyball nights at the Y.”

“And what nights of the week would that be?”

“Tuesday and Friday,” I say, suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that without volleyball nights at the Y, I would have no social life whatsoever.

“This was a Wednesday,” says one of the men. “The night we’re interested in was a Wednesday.”

“Well, then…television,” I say, hearing how terribly sad I sound.

“Any witnesses to that?” asks another of the men.

“I live alone.”

The words reverberate in the empty chambers of my heart. I live alone. I am alone. I have always been alone. I have never known how not to be alone. Is this so strange? Am I a human aberration? Or am I more typical than any of us cares to admit? Am I not quite normal? Am I not Everyman, minus a few special acquaintances, a disenchanted wife, an alien child or two?

I open myself to the silent communication of my interrogators. I hear the hum of their desire. I hear gears meshing, teeth gnashing, bile gurgling. They are in no way concerned with my innocence or guilt. They are hungry for my death. I am a solitary rat in a dirty little corner of modern times. They are a gang of alley cats. They only know how to do one thing.

My court appointed attorney, a sweaty little man who resembles my ex-landlord to an annoying degree, tries to convince me to plead insanity.

“To what?” I ask. “They never did tell me what I was charged with.”

“Well…murder,” he says, frowning at my file. “Two people. It says here you practically confessed.”

I go into deep shock. My attorney summons a guard and I am taken to the infirmary where I am given an anti-shock shot. I fall into a deep sleep and dream I am standing on the threshold of the place where something spectacularly good is about to happen to me. I stand on the threshold for the entire dream and wake up sick as a dog, my legs aching, my head about to explode.

Two days later, at our next meeting, my attorney once again begs me to plead insanity. “The evidence,” he explains, “is overwhelming.”

Eye witnesses, massive circumstantial evidence, no alibi, no character references, no job, no home, a desperate situation, a motive.

“What motive?” I ask, coming out of my latest stupor.

“You’re penniless, homeless, bereft. You feel that society is responsible for your misery and so you decided to strike back.”

“No!” I scream. “I was happy for the first time in my life. Everything was finally, once and for all, perfectly arranged for the occurrence of spectacular good. I was in a state of pure bliss.”

“So you did it for the thrill,” he whispers. “I thought so.”

The judge rolls his eyes and the prosecuting attorneys snicker at each other when I announce my intention to defend myself. But I am determined to tell my story. I honestly feel that only I can do justice to the details of my life. I am determined to prove to the jury that I am not only sane and innocent, but that our so-called society is breaking down and they are all in as much danger as I am of losing their lives.

I am given six weeks to prepare my case. I write and rewrite the story of my life. I state and restate the philosophy that has guided me all these uneventful years. I practice in front of my cellmate until he asks to be transferred to another cell. I know that my coming moment in the spotlight is not the spectacular good awaiting me, but I am beginning to think my defense may lead me to that long awaited moment. I realize I am on the verge of modifying my belief system, of taking my actions seriously. The proximity of doom is a powerful agent of change.

I am eloquent. I am impassioned. I remind myself of every great attorney I have ever seen in a movie or on television, only I am even better because I am three dimensional. I move the jurors to tears.

I am sentenced to death.

But still, still, I do not doubt that very soon, a truly great good thing will happen to me.

In my cell on death row, I find it impossible, for the first time in my life, to watch television. But the moment I make the decision to have the set removed from my cell, I become suicidal.

Four months and three days before the date of my execution, I have my first session with a therapist, a Freudian. Two days later, I request a Jungian. Two weeks later, I wake up from a vivid dream and am shocked to find that I am in prison, on death row, awaiting my grossly premature death. I understand myself too well now for this to be a reasonable way to spend this brief flickering we call human existence. I try to harmonize my lifelong beliefs with the coming of my death, but all I get is atonal dribble.

I recall the story of Job and the stories of Kafka. I think of archetypes and heroes and the three times in my life when I turned down the opportunity to have sex with really terrific women. I think of black men lynched for being black, Jews slaughtered for being Jews, wars being waged for corporate gain, and me, a passive white man being murdered for being a passive white man with no alibis and a belief in something other than a vengeful God.

I begin to dream of escaping. But in these dreams escape is always secondary to where I escape to. I invariably find myself in an alpine meadow, hiking uphill toward the summit of a snow-covered peak. I have a child on my back and he or she is whispering in my ear.

Two months to go. I attack a guard in an attempt to actualize my dreams—the first overtly aggressive act of my life. I am severely beaten and thrown into a lightless confinement cell. After three weeks of near total sensory deprivation, I begin to believe that maybe I did murder those two people, whoever they were. I know I did not, I know I have never broken a law, but the brutality and senselessness of my ordeal demands of my wounded psyche that it come up with a reason for this hellish turn of events. Surely, a voice cries within me, torture and death are not prerequisites to the happiness we have postponed for so many years.

Two weeks to go. I am on the verge of accepting that I am insane. I am sticky with the feeling that my twenty-nine years with the phone company was all a vividly boring hallucination. What if my lack of ambition and my absolute belief in impending spectacular goodness is nothing more than a misfiring synapse in an otherwise perverse and murderous brain? What if I am a murderer? What if I only know the very surface of things seen on television?

I ask to go to the library. I am escorted there by two heavily armed guards. The selection is small. I close my eyes, reach out, and touch the spine of a small book. It is an account of the life and trial of Joan of Arc.

The day of my execution arrives. Joan is with me now, not so much in me, but riding lightly on my shoulder. She gives me good courage. I feel, as a matter of fact, quite calm.

And yes, it occurs to me that death may be that spectacular good I have been awaiting, that my moment of release will be the best thing that ever happened to me in my otherwise unnecessary existence. But I still don’t believe I’m going to die. I continue to believe in…well, divine intervention.

The warden arrives to tell me that my request for a pardon from the governor has been denied. For some reason, this doesn’t surprise or upset me.

A priest is admitted to my cell. We are left alone, the door closed. This is unusual, but I don’t question it. I surrender. I give myself, body and soul, to the glorious principles of Universe.

The priest is a terribly skinny man with sunken cheeks. He does not look at all well. He asks me to confess. I tell him I am not a Catholic. He asks me to confess anyway. I tell him everything I just told you, only in much greater detail. I lose all sense of time. The past and present merge.

At the end of my story, the priest smiles faintly and says, “We thought so. Our evidence corroborates everything you’ve just told me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, the back of my neck tingling.

“I mean that we have known of your innocence all along,” he explains, coughing into a handkerchief.

He shows me the handkerchief. It is stained with blood.

Quickly, he explains that he belongs to a secret organization fighting inhumanity and needless violence around the world. He has been chosen, because he is about to die of an incurable disease, to die in my place. We exchange clothes. He gives me his realistic fake moustache and heavy framed dark glasses. Before I leave the cell, he tells me exactly what to say and when and where to say it. We embrace, and in our embrace I feel the first stirrings of love.

Moments later, I am outside the prison walls, opening the door of a late model car. As I roll along the highway, making sure not to speed, I activate the tape player.

“Welcome. It is our pleasure to save you. You will find your new identification, a valid passport and one million Swiss francs in unmarked bills in the glove compartment, along with a first class airline ticket to Zurich. Don’t worry. All will be well.”

I drive to the airport, park the car, check my suitcase, and make my way to the departure gate. My reservation is confirmed. I am handed a boarding pass. I walk down the sloping hallway to the softly purring jet. I take my spacious window seat in the first class section, and buckle my safety belt, though I have every reason to believe I won’t need it.

How do I feel? I feel fantastic, swollen with life. Everything I see is sharply focused. Every sound is rich with meaning. Every moment is bursting with opportunity. I am free of the doubt that enslaved me. Every moment is now.




The Manure Chronicles, Part Two


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

“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” William Wordsworth

Long ago in the Santa Cruz of 1972, I was a member of a large commune occupying a grand old abode on the edge of the sea. A former stagecoach stop, hotel, brothel, and motel, the three-story main house shared a two-acre plot with four one-room cottages and a large barn that had once been a carriage house and served us as woodshop and garage. I am convinced that my vow to plant and maintain a big vegetable and flower garden was what decided the communards to vote me in, but it may also have been that they liked me.

In any case, I did plant a big vegetable and flower garden, roughly a fifth of an acre, and I not only grew enough vegetables to feed our twelve members and myriad guests throughout the year, but I frequently traded surplus vegetables for eggs and fruit produced by other communes in the area, and I made a bit of extra money for the communal pot from passersby attracted to my Pick-Your-Own-Bouquet sign affixed to the trunk of a fallen but still-living cypress at the mouth of our driveway. Our soil was sandy loam and needed help in the way of manure, most of which we got from a horse ranch on Trout Gulch Road out of Soquel, but there was one spectacular load of manure that came to us as a most surprising gift.

I made my money in those days as a laborer and musician. The minimum wage circa 1972 paid to Santa Cruz hippies for physical labor was two dollars an hour. Being a prideful sort, I would never work for less than two-fifty, and some people paid me three. This may not seem like much by today’s standards, but when you consider that cheese in those days, good cheese, was twenty-nine cents a pound, a loaf of fantastic organic bread made at our local bakery was eighty-nine cents (and half that a day old), and a towering glass of draft beer was fifty cents, then three dollars an hour was serious money.

But even living frugally, I was always low on cash, and so when I landed a four-days-a-week job as an estate gardener at four dollars an hour, I was suddenly a wealthy man, riding my bike six miles up into the mountains to a five-hundred acre estate of redwood forest surrounding rolling hills of wild grasses and poison oak transected by a narrow asphalt road leading to a spectacular house of stone and wood perched on a bluff overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, an eagle’s eye view of what once was surely paradise.

My employers were an exceedingly wealthy middle-aged couple, he from Boston, she from Cincinnati, with one child, a bearded man of twenty-seven who still lived at home, their fortune inherited from the wife’s predecessors who had established one of the world’s largest oil companies. The husband had an office and a townhouse in San Francisco and would go there for days at a time to venture capital, I suppose, but more probably to get away from his wife who was phenomenally bossy and intrusive and sour.

They had lived in the Philippines for many years, which is where their bearded son had developed his great passion for polo, and where they had employed legions of servants and kept dozens of polo ponies and had a mansion on the outskirts of Manila and a beach house on Puerto Galera Bay and a mountain chalet near Baguio City; and they had loved living there. However, two failed but terrifying attempts by guerillas or crime lords (they were never sure which) to kidnap the bearded son convinced them to return to America, to build a house overlooking the Pacific on one of their many landholdings, and to live in peace and safety. They missed their legions of servants and days of splendor at the polo club, and the sweet warm evenings on various verandahs, and the divine luxury of having anything they wanted at any time, but they did not miss masked gunmen trying to kidnap them.

Since returning to America, the wife had taken to raising champion Saint Bernards, which pastime was the centerpiece of her life. The sire was a massive champion weighing well over two hundred pounds, the bitch a champion, too, weighing a petite one hundred and seventy. When I began working there, the champion pair had nine yearling male pups yet to be sold, each pup destined to surpass his father in size. These enormous dogs roamed free during the day and spent their nights in a quarter-acre pen ringed by a ten-foot-high cyclone fence. They were beautiful beasts, friendly and full of fun, and God help anyone they decided to have fun with.

The first thing I did every morning when I arrived (following my strenuous forty-five minute bike ride) was to release the pups from their pen. Why, you might ask, didn’t the wife or her bearded son or the German housekeeper or the Mexican cook release the pups? Because releasing the pups was a downright dangerous and heroic act, and here’s why.

Imagine nine two-hundred pound dogs, albeit friendly and full of fun, each possessed of frightening strength, hurling themselves against a cyclone fence in a frenzy to be released to go running over the hills and through the forest, sniffing and peeing and chasing deer and all other living things. Imagine the large outward-swinging gate needing to be unlatched, the person doing the unlatching directly in the path of the nine exuberant monsters who wished to show their gratitude to their brave savior by jumping on him and breaking his bones while licking him to death.

Further imagine that some fifteen feet directly in front of the gate was the thick trunk of a sprawling old live oak, a trunk wide enough, and ascending at such an angle, that an agile human could run up the trunk some seven or eight feet before needing to use his or her hands to climb another ten feet up into the tree. Now imagine a person, me, using a very long pole to flip up the latch on the gate, dropping the pole, running up the tree trunk, and then climbing high into the tree while eighteen hundred pounds of Saint Bernard came crashing out of the pen, and six or eight hundred of those pounds came running up the trunk of the oak in joyful pursuit of me. Eventually the colossal pups would leave me treed and rush away and I would climb down, sorely regretting that I had taken this job, yet counting myself lucky to have it.

Oh, the stories I could tell about those crazy rich people; but this is a story about manure, so I will cut to the chase. One day the wife and I were doing what we did every afternoon after lunch, which was to sit in the dappled shade of an oak on the hillside overlooking the flower garden I was forever repairing and replanting because of the rampaging pups. There in that dappled shade we would comb the coats of the huge dogs in search of burrs and wild oats the dogs had collected while rampaging over the hills, some of those oats having corkscrewed into the flesh of the dogs which required us to unscrew the oats and pluck them out—a painful procedure eliciting growls and yips and sometimes snaps from the behemoth canines.

I hated this part of my job more than any other part because I knew that the moment I released the burr-free dog, he would wander into the high grass and invite more oats to jump on for a ride. Or he would traipse down the hill and roll around on the newly planted petunias or begin digging furiously in the just-repaired tulip bed, uprooting bulbs and plants in search of gophers that were never to be unearthed. And the wife would smile at the demolition of my morning’s work and say things like, “They certainly love to dig, don’t they?” or “Where do they get so much energy?”

And the wife confided in me. She told me everything about her life, her husband’s life, and her son’s life; and on this one day, for the first time in the many months I’d worked for her, she asked me about my life. I told her I was a writer and hoped one day to publish stories and novels.

“Well,” said the wife, arching an aristocratic eyebrow, “then you’ll be interested to know that we were good friends with William Faulkner. We visited him three times in Mississippi and the last time we saw him he sold us the desk on which he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Do remind me to show it to you next time you come to the house for your pay.”

“Wow,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. “The actual desk,” though the idea of these obscenely wealthy people buying Faulkner’s desk ignited a rage in me that spawned the fantasy of my stealing the desk and fleeing with the blessed thing to Oregon. Why should they have Faulkner’s desk? If anyone should have Faulkner’s desk, it should be me, not them. I had, after all, read As I Lay Dying twice!

And as I was having my silly fantasy of stealing her desk, my usually brash and bossy employer said in the sweetest way, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?”

In retrospect, I think she may have been asking me to say “Faulkner’s desk.” But at the time, her question seemed so ridiculous and insensitive—I, the struggling artist unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs, she the billionaire heiress unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs—that I almost said, “If I could have anything in the world it would be for you to hire someone to install an electric gate opener you can activate from the safety of your house so I won’t have to risk my life every day,” but instead I said, “I’d like a huge truckload of well-aged horse manure delivered to my garden.”

And two days later, as I was planting lettuce in the commune garden, a big old dump truck heaped high with well-aged horse manure came backing down the drive and hissing to a halt, the driver jumping out to ask where I wanted the glorious stuff dumped.

There should probably be a moral to this story. I dunno. I quit that job a couple weeks after the manure was delivered because a woman I was crazy about started dating the bearded son and changed overnight from a sweet hippie gal who used to come to my gigs and sing along to my songs and gift me with scintillating smiles and congratulatory hugs and kisses bordering on sex, into a snazzy club-hopping fashion plate. And she and the bearded son would come zooming up in his spanking new convertible Porsche to the fabulous house of stone and wood on the bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, dressed like movie stars at an opening night gala, while I was kneeling in the dog piss dirt replanting the flower bed for the umpteenth time under the watchful eyes of gigantic dogs…and I just couldn’t handle it anymore, though the money was awfully good.


The Manure Chronicles, Part One


Rabbit Manure Garlic Mulch photo by Marcia Sloane

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

You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Hank Williams

Sandy calls to say she’s gotten permission to harvest rabbit manure from her friend’s rabbit barn. So I load my wheelbarrow and a big shovel into my little old pickup and head for Fort Bragg. A sunny spring morning, the angry winds of the past few days in abeyance, I roll along the Comptche-Ukiah Road at forty miles per and try to remember if over the decades of gathering manure for my various gardens, I have ever scored more than a baggy of rabbit manure. Horse, mule, cow, sheep, goat, chicken…but never a truckload of rabbit poop, until today.

At the intersection of Little Lake Road and Highway One, I pull over to pick up two scruffy humans, their formidable backpacks, and three large dogs. Before I can announce how far I’m going, the humans and dogs scramble into the back of the pickup and hunker down around my big blue wheelbarrow, a smile on every face. I roll down my window and say, “I’m going to Fort Bragg. Please keep a good hold on your dogs.”

To which the taller human rejoins, “No worries, man. No worries.”

And I think to myself No worries. Why not? Sure. Let’s go with that.

As we near the new roundabout at Simpson Lane, one of the humans taps on my window to let me know, I think, that they want to disembark. Blessedly, I navigate the roundabout without incident and pull off to the side of the road, expecting humans and dogs to jump out with the same zeal and alacrity with which they jumped in, but both species remain onboard. I roll down my window and ask, “Is this not where you wished to get out?”

“Sorry, man,” says the shorter of the humans. “Can we have a minute to figure something out?”

“Sure,” I say, being free of worries and in no great hurry.

The humans confer for a moment—a fine moment full of cars and trucks and buses rumbling by on the ribbon of highway (cue the Woody Guthrie.)

“Can you drop us at the post office?” asks the taller human.

So on we trundle, I and my cargo of humans and happy dogs; and I am reminded of my favorite Sufi tales, the ones in which God speaks to a person stuck in some quandary or another and tells that person to go forth into the world, to stop fretting and fly the coop, to go on a quest, or at the very least take a long walk, and in so doing the person becomes available for interactions and experiences he or she never would have had staying home; and through these interactions and experiences, the person’s quandary is transformed into a deeper appreciation of the miracle of life.

“We have been God-like in our planned breeding of our domesticated plants and animals, but we have been rabbit-like in our unplanned breeding of ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee

We arrive at the rabbit barn, an L-shaped windowless building containing some sixty cages, each wire cage containing a single white rabbit. The rows of large square cages sit atop platforms some three feet above the ground, rabbit poop falling freely down through the spacious weave of wire into earthen troughs we find heaped with hundreds of thousands of grape-sized pellets, some freshly dropped, some several weeks old. Concrete walkways crisscross the room and are hosed off several times a day. Florescent lights give the room the feel of a factory, and that’s what this is, a rabbit growing factory, the end product being slaughtered and dressed rabbits for the restaurant trade.

Indeed, rabbits are being butchered just around the corner from where we are busily filling my wheelbarrow with rabbit manure, the rabbits in the cages near us sitting quietly, eating and defecating and waiting to die. There are no flies in here, no life really, other than the white rabbits and the man around the corner killing the rabbits and skinning them and dressing them, and Sandy and Todd, eager gardeners glad to be getting so much good shit for free.

I return home with my pickup brimming with rabbit pellets, Sandy having needed only enough to dress her two small raised beds; and the first thing I do with my bounty is mulch my burgeoning garlic. When I water down my beds, the thousands of silver gray pellets glisten in the sun, my garlic appearing to be growing in pea gravel.

But as I wheel my wheelbarrow back and forth from truck to garden, and the pile of pretty pellets grows into a goodly pyramid atop the patch of ground that last year yielded a bushel of potatoes, I keep thinking of those white rabbits, small, medium, and large, growing inexorably to the size of slaughter. They never know sunlight or grass or sex, never stand on terra firma, and never even enjoy movement because their feet are forever pressing down against the subtly cutting wire.

And thinking of what I imagine to be the constant sorrow of those rabbits, I find I am less happy about this manure than I am about the manure I bring home from Kathy Mooney’s corral, her magnificent horse Paloma so well-loved, the apples she eats from my hand becoming the manure I dig into my soil. Yes, Paloma’s crap seems imbued with love, and…I don’t eat horses.

“A lovely horse is always an experience…an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.” Beryl Markham

When I lived in Sacramento I had a huge backyard vegetable and flower and herb garden, and for three of the fifteen years I tended that soil, my manure came from a champion pony (a breed, not a young horse), a slender white pony too small to be ridden by adult humans, though children could ride her and she pulled some sort of cart in her performances. This horse had won so many trophies and ribbons in competitions all over America that her owner had dedicated a gigantic room in his house solely for the exhibition of the pony’s myriad prizes, as well as dozens of framed photographs of the pony adorned with victory wreaths and standing with her owner as he accepted trophies on her behalf.

I always went to the pony ranch with my friend Doug because he knew the pony’s owner, I’m not sure how, and because Doug had access to a pickup truck. Those were the days when I did not own a vehicle and so depended on the kindness of friends. We’d get a truckload for Doug and a truckload for me, an excellent blend of horse manure and sawdust, nicely aged in a spacious old barn so the rich mixture was not disempowered by hard winter rains.

The only drawback to this source of manure was that every time we went to get our loads, we had to pay obeisance to the horse’s owner, an elderly fellow with a terrible case of logorrhea, by going with him into the vast trophy room where he would tell us his champion pony’s life story, beginning with lengthy biographies of the pony’s champion father and champion mother, which biographies set the stage for a riveting account of the pony’s birth and her remarkable childhood full of startling exhibitions of her extraordinary intelligence and innate talent leading to her first triumphs as a young adult pony doing whatever such ponies do to win whatever they win, and moving along to stirring tales of her multiple and consecutive championships at state and national levels, culminating with her tour of England and France where she was hailed by the pony people of those nations as a visiting god.

Then we would go out to the champion pony’s barn adjacent to the barn wherein was piled the poop we sought, and we would have a look at the champion and feed her sugar and scratch her muzzle, and her owner would command her to do things, and she would bow and paw and spin around and sit on her haunches like a polar bear. Amazing knee-slapping wow kind of stuff.

Finally, before this verbal blitzkrieg of a man would let us get on with our shoveling, he would ask us each to think of a number between one and ten, and to look into the pony’s eyes as we thought about our number. And then the pony would paw the ground as many times as it took to paw the number she thought we were thinking.

Now the first time I went through this lengthy rigmarole to get the manure, I found the ordeal tolerable and even kind of interesting, though an hour and a half seemed excessive to me. But the second time through was pure torture, and the third time I had to excuse myself when the old fellow began to recount the pony’s remarkable childhood. I hurried to the bathroom where I stayed for as long as I could, humming to drown out the sound of the blitzkrieg’s voice while leafing through an excellent collection of vintage Playboys. And the following year I got my manure somewhere else.

No, the pony did not correctly guess the number I was thinking. I was thinking four all three times, and she always guessed seven. Then again, Doug was always thinking seven, and she always guessed seven, so maybe Doug’s thought waves threw her off when it came to guessing my number. I dunno.

Coming soon: The Manure Chronicles, Part Two.




Signs Of Spring

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

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

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg

Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.

The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.

After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.

The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.

Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.

Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”

And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”

Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot

I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.

But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.

In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.

I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.

But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.

Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.

And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?

Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.

I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?

I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.


Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.


When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.


So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.



Better Be Good

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

“In Hollywood they place you under contract instead of under observation.” Walter Winchell

I recently read a brief rave review of a new movie, not a remake, but the umpteenth “psychological thriller” about a psychopath keeping someone trapped in a closet for years on end. And this review, which sounded suspiciously like a press release, reminded me of one of the more bizarre and disturbing passages in my long ago Hollywood sojourn when I tried to succeed as a screenwriter. But first a little of the back-story, as they like to call the past in the movie business.

In 1981, following the success of my first novel, I was hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, with Laura Ziskin the producer. Laura would eventually produce the Spiderman movies and several other blockbusters, including the incredibly popular prostitute-to-riches movie Pretty Woman, but at the time of our collaboration she had yet to make it big. Laura was passionate about my book, had wonderful ideas about translating the story to film, and came very close to getting Forgotten Impulses made into a movie—quite the opposite of bizarre and disturbing.

As a side note to the back-story, Forgotten Impulses, an obscure novel by any measure, was almost filmed four times between 1981 and 2000, with four different screenplays written (after mine) including one by the now famous director Jay Roach; and these screenplays attracted several major directors including Sydney Pollack, Ulu Grosbard, Tony Bill, and Luis Mandoki. The why and how of Forgotten Impulses tempting and eluding production so many times would make a fascinating book about the movie business and the exigencies of fate, something I will jump right on as soon as I get that seven-figure offer from Random House. But I digress.

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” Orson Welles

Two years after I wrote that screenplay for Laura Ziskin, my Hollywood agent was contacted by a famous director of made-for-television movies who had read my Forgotten Impulses script and wanted me to write a screenplay for him based on a true story he owned the rights to. I was a newlywed, short on cash, and desperate to get my career on track, so I listened eagerly to this mogul, a man I will call Frank, though Frank is not his real name, and I mean no offense to anyone who is named Frank.

It seems that Frank read a newspaper article about a young white man, a senior in high school in a big city in the South, who died from injuries sustained when he drove his car into a telephone pole after swerving to miss a dog crossing the road. The young man’s heart and kidneys and other organs were then used to save the lives of several people in need of organ transplants. What made the story so appealing to Frank was that this dead young white man was a golden boy, a football, baseball, basketball star, a devout Christian, a straight A student with a greenhouse full of orchids: a charming, animal-loving sweetheart of a kid who dreamt of a career in politics as an advocate for the poor and downtrodden, his girlfriend a brilliant beauty bound for Harvard.

“I jumped on a plane,” said Frank, his accent unmistakably Brooklyn, “and got down there just in time for the funeral.”

“Wow,” I said, troubled by his gleeful tone. “The funeral.”

“What a scene! The cemetery was packed. Guys wearing baseball uniforms, football uniforms, basketball jerseys, pom-pom girls, a huge choir in white robes, everybody crying and hugging each other. White people, black people. You can’t make this stuff up.” Frank paused. “I got the film rights before they had the grave filled.”

“You what?” I asked, doubting my ears.

“The movie rights. His father signed in the cemetery office and a couple hours later I got his mom to sign. They’re divorced so I wanted them both on board before I sent you down there. Lisa, the mom, isn’t so hot on the deal, but Jeff, the dad, is totally onboard and can’t wait to talk to you.” Frank paused. “So…you in?”


“Oh, right. Money.” Frank named a dizzying sum. “And expenses, of course, with a fat per diem.” He named a swank hotel where I’d be staying. “I figure you go down there for a week, talk to his folks, his girlfriend, the minister, guys on the team, teachers, then you rough something out, fax it to me, and by the time you get back I’ll have this set up as a movie of the week.”

The money was too much to turn down, so I agreed to take the job. My agent was ecstatic, my wife delirious. However, before I signed a contract, I called Jeff, the dead golden boy’s father, and we talked for an hour. And then I called my agent and said I had changed my mind and would not be taking the job.

“You can’t do this,” she said harshly. “You cannot say yes to Frank and then change your mind. You’ll never work in this town again. Is it the money? We’ll get you more. How much do you want?”

“It’s not the money,” I said, the room spinning. “It’s the whole thing. This is…immoral.”

“Oh, Jesus. Immoral? Gimme a break. What’s moral? This is my reputation you’re fucking with.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is not enough. You’re gonna have to talk to Frank and explain to him that this has nothing to do with me. Nothing. Do you understand? I love the project. I think Frank is a genius. You make it clear this is your problem, not mine. And don’t use the word immoral. Please.”

So I called Frank and told him I had changed my mind; and he offered me three times the original dizzying sum to take the job. And I told him that in my conversation with Jeff, the dead golden boy’s father, I learned that the golden boy had a serious drinking problem, that he almost certainly was the father of an illegitimate child with a very young woman, and that he may not have swerved to miss a dog but swerved to kill himself. I also told Frank that the golden boy had been terribly depressed about his beautiful girlfriend dumping him when she found out about the probable illegitimate child, and that the golden boy had been benched for an upcoming big game because he was flunking so many classes. But, the golden boy’s father assured me, these were just rumors I would hear when I came down to research the story, and none of these rumors had to be in the movie.

“And none of them will be,” said Frank, shouting. “Who gives a fuck what the real story is? The story we give a fuck about is that this golden boy’s heart saves a guy’s life and the guy changes from an asshole into a golden boy himself, and the golden boy’s kidney saves a girl’s life and she becomes, I don’t know, a great singer or something. See? You can make this anything you want so long as it’s beautiful and inspiring. See? With a wise old black man, or, no, a wise old black woman who teaches him right from wrong and…okay…here, listen! Scenes from his childhood, key moments that made him a golden boy, coming off the bench to score the winning touchdown, winning basket, winning home run, whatever. Defending a cripple from bullies. A black cripple. White bullies. He’s crying in church listening to the heavenly choir, a bi-racial choir, golden rays coming through stained glass windows as we dissolve to a hot kiss and not quite sex with his half-dressed Georgia peach of a girlfriend and vows of eternal love on her front porch before he drives away and swerves to miss the dog that looks exactly like the dog he grew up with, his best friend that got hit by a car when somebody didn’t swerve to miss the dog. You know what I’m talking about. Sacrifice. Redemption. Transformation. All that shit.”

“I’m sorry, Frank. I just can’t.”

“What? You think you’re too good to write for television? Fuck you!”

And I thought that would be the last I heard from Frank and possibly from Hollywood, but two years later my agent called to say that Frank was taking a break between mini-series and wanted me to write a Christmas movie for him pronto.

“I didn’t know you were still my agent,” I said to my agent. “Haven’t heard a peep in a couple years.”

“Don’t be bitter,” she said, laughing bitterly. “You’re not exactly a hot commodity.”

True. And my marriage was foundering, our house payment was due, and I had twenty-six dollars in my checking account, so I said I’d be glad to talk to Frank.

“Listen, Todderoo,” said Frank, having won boatloads of Emmys and made tens of millions since last we spoke, “I just read your Forgotten Impulses script again and I am absolutely convinced that we’re supposed to work together, and not just on this Christmas thing, but on lots of things. I think we have some sort of cosmic connection, I really do.”

He said he wanted a two-hour Christmas movie set in New England during World War II. “Think Norman Rockwell family saga 1944 snow and sleigh bells and chestnuts roasting and funny sad desperate people and hope and redemption and presents under the Christmas tree full of forgiveness. That kinda thing.”

“And the story?”

“That’s why I’m hiring you.” He laughed a high staccato laugh. “Come on. Say yes. I hear you’re hurting for cash.”

Thus ensued eight of the craziest weeks of my life. I flew down and back from Sacramento to Los Angeles twice a week for long meetings with Frank and his “assistant”—Frank’s gorgeous British mistress who never missed an opportunity to say, “Brilliant, Frank. Brilliant!” I was never sure why we had to meet in-person so often since Frank was on the phone to me three times a day telling me everything he then told me again in these face-to-face meetings. I also attended several perplexing meetings with three young network executives who kept glaring at me and saying, “This better be good.” And I wrote dozens of drafts of a World War II Norman Rockwell family saga 1944 snow and sleigh bells etcetera Christmas thing that Frank was forever handing over to his staff writers to rewrite per his brilliant suggestions and then handing the mess back to me so I would, as he put it, “make this sing.”

After eight weeks of sheer madness, and on what I thought would be my last day of working for Frank, I arrived by taxi at the Century City skyscraper wherein Frank had his humongous suite of opulent offices, and found the man himself waiting for me in front of the building, smiling beatifically. Dressed all in shiny black leather, Frank was standing beside his shiny black Lamborghini, the mighty engine idling. He held the passenger door open for me and I climbed into a car worth more than most houses. And then, with the Bee Gees singing How Deep Is Your Love on the surround sound stereo, we drove across the stinking metropolis to Frank’s mansion in Beverly Hills, a huge Roman villa Spanish hacienda hybrid with a gigantic abstract black brushed-steel fountain sculpture installation thing splish-splashing away in the center of a circular cobblestone driveway.

Frank led me into his gargantuan dining room and there upon the massive rosewood table was a magnum of champagne riding high in an ornate silver ice bucket towering over a fat contract announcing a breathtaking increase in my fee—with only my signature lacking.

“Our next project,” said Frank, slapping me on the back. “You didn’t think I would let you get away after just one, did you?”

“What is the next project?” I asked, every cell in my body yearning to never see him again.

He handed me a newspaper clipping. The headline read FORTY YEARS IN THE DARK. An old woman died. She was a recluse with no known relatives. When folks from the Salvation Army came to clean out her house they heard scratching sounds coming from a locked closet wherein they found the dead woman’s daughter who had been imprisoned by her mother in the closet for forty years, since she was six years old.

“You were born to write this movie,” said Frank, proffering a fountain pen. “I locked up the movie rights this morning. You can do the novelization, too, and we’ll bring out the book a few weeks before we’re movie-of-the week.” He winked at me. “We’re thinking Halloween.”

“You know, Frank,” I said, only mildly curious to know how he got the movie rights, “I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve decided to only write original material from now on. My own stuff. It’s either that or go insane.”

To his credit, Frank did not damn me to hell, but said I was making a huge mistake I would regret for the rest of my life. We never spoke again. Our Norman Rockwell 1944 Christmas movie was never filmed. My agent dropped me like a hot potato. My marriage evaporated. And I have never again seen a contract with my name on it that had so many zeros following the initial digit. Yet I have not once, not even for a fraction of a split second, regretted turning Frank down.

Over the intervening decades I have written many screenplays and novels, none yet filmed, and not one involving a psychopath who imprisons someone in a closet. That, as they say, has been done and does not need to be done again. Trust me.

Creative movie producers, brilliant movie directors, whimsical book publishers, and loquacious readers are invited to contact Todd through his web site