Lemon Trees Very Pretty

honey bee on lemon blossom

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.

lemon trees flanking the garden plot

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.

lots of blossoms

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.

lemon clusters

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.

neighboring lemon trees in tubs

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.

intermingling branches

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.

nearly yellow

I am examining my life in light of my experience with the lemon trees.



Foggy Beach Dog

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.

leaving the house on a foggy morning in August
heading down the hill I see the guy who walks his two black dogs here every day
where Little Lake meets Highway One, the only traffic light in Mendocino
heading south on Highway One
entering Big River Beach state park
the beach parking area, just a couple cars here today so far
Molly waiting for Sally to give her the okay to get out
Molly tiny in the distance waiting for the slow humans to catch up
walking along beside Big River
Molly went out into the waves in pursuit of an intriguing harbor seal
emerging from the waves with her ball
negotiating a challenging swell to get her ball
heading back the way we came
one last long swim to get the ball
galloping on the flats
back at the cars
one pooped pup
getting back on Highway One heading north
steep uphill
passing the empty elementary school
home again
rinsing the sand off my feet

Beautiful as performed by Todd and Marcia


Skunk Holler Prune Plum Jam

Prune plum blossoms

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.

Prune plums

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 handful.

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.

Prune plums cooking down

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.

Prune plum jam

 The 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.

Skunk Holler Prune Plum Jam 2020

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.

Ganesh and water bowl



our farewell visit

This was my last conversation with Vito before he and his parents left Mendocino for their new life in Switzerland.

Vito: Todd, I want to tell you something about my mind. Every second I remember everything that ever happened to me. And then the next second I remember everything again.

Todd: And you can talk to other people and eat apples and play with your friends while you’re remembering?

Vito: I do it at the same time. My mind is just always remembering everything.

Todd: I remember things about my life, but not everything.

Vito: Do you remember when you were 6?

Todd: I remember what I got for my sixth birthday.

Vito: What did you get?

Todd: A puppy. I got to pick her out and I named her Cozy. (I describe Cozy)

Vito: What did you get when you were seven?

Todd: I think maybe a bicycle.

Vito: How about when you were nine?

Todd: A bow and arrows.

Vito: Could you shoot an arrow higher than those trees? (points at giant redwoods)

Todd: Not as high, but almost.

Vito: How about when you were eighteen?

Todd: My mom gave me her electric typewriter.

Vito: What’s a typewriter?

(I explain)

Vito: How about when you were forty-nine?

Todd: Hmm. Possibly a new frying pan.

Vito laughs.

Ceremony of the Child


The Rico Chronicles: Inside Psychodrama

Rico with his daughters Rachel and Sarah circa 1990 photo courtesy of Steve Rees

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 City, California.

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 enthusiastic? Very.

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 bohemians.

“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 pie.

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 three hours.

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 written.

Rico on the James River photo courtesy of Steve Rees

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 book.

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.

Thank you Rico for being my friend.

Rico photo courtesy of Steve Rees


Why Now? for Rico

Audible Inside Moves narrated by Todd

Inside Moves Amazon

Inside Moves Apple Books


The Rico Chronicles: 1966

Guild Theatre, Menlo Park circa 1967

This is the third in a series of articles commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.

March 1966. Menlo Park, California

About the time Rico and I became friends, the movie A Thousand Clowns starring Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara Harris, and Barry Gordon played at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Rico and I both loved the movie, loved the drama of a funny creative person longing to be free in a society of copycats, and we conflated the movie with our existential favorite Waiting For Godot.

Martin Balsam, who reminded me of Rico’s father Robert, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Thousand Clowns and the movie became an instant counterculture classic. At some point our Waiting For Godot nicknames, Didi and Gogo, gave way to nicknames derived from A Thousand Clowns: Murray and Irving. In the beginning we were interchangeably Murray and Irving, but over time I became Murray and Rico became Irving. In retrospect, I understand these nicknames allowed us to be Jewish with each other without overtly acknowledging our Jewishness.

I remained Murray to Rico for the rest of his life, and he was Irving to me for several years until one day I began a letter to him Dear Rico, and thereafter he signed his letters to me Rico and I never called him anything else.

When Rico and I became friends, I didn’t realize that my physical disability and Rico’s physical limitations were part of what made us comfortable with each other, nor was I aware that Rico being Jewish and my being Jewish (before I understood I was Jewish) also united us, but both things were true.

As far as I was aware at the time, we became best friends because we clicked emotionally and intellectually, which was a huge relief to me at a time when I knew almost no one who felt as I did about the world and our society. Rico was only fourteen at the outset of our friendship, but he was far more perceptive about human affairs than anyone I knew, adults included. He was, I came to realize, a wise old soul in a young person’s body.

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, which roughly translates as bone development imperfect (also known in those days as brittle bones), Rico wore braces on his legs until he was twelve to keep his bones straight as they grew, and because he suffered many childhood fractures, he was often in casts. As an adult, he was short of stature and slight of build and he could not run. He loved to swim, which was the main physical activity of his childhood and teenage years, and he loved to go fishing with his father and brothers.

Rico was the middle child of three brothers, Steve the eldest, Kevin the youngest, neither afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, both of them robust and healthy. Rico’s mother Barbara was an artist and art collector, and Rico’s father Robert was a real estate investor. They lived in a beautiful one-story house in Atherton full of modern art by well-known contemporary artists. Originally from Chicago, Barbara and Bob were members of nearby Congregation Beth Am, a Reform Synagogue.

When I met Rico, he and I related to each other as aspiring beatniks intrigued by the hippy counterculture of the Bay Area of the 1960s. The most Jewish thing about our friendship was that Rico introduced me to the delights of Jewish deli, notably lox and bagels with cream cheese, pickled herring, and pastrami sandwiches with all the fixings, such goodies frequent lunch entrees at the Rees household.

Jefferson Airplane 1966

The summer after my junior year of high school was momentous for many reasons. Not only was Rico now my good friend with whom I spent lots of time, but I had another new friend Dave Biasotti who subsequently became Rico’s friend, too. Dave was an excellent artist and a fine guitarist, and he was writing and producing musicals with another of my good friends Scott Oakley.

Dave and I started writing folk rock songs together that summer and formed a band called Joy Ride. We were enthralled with Jefferson Airplane, and by far the best concert I ever saw by a rock band was Jefferson Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July of 1966. This was before Grace Slick replaced the marvelous Signe Anderson, before Skip Spence left the band to form Moby Grape, and before drugs eroded much of the band’s talent.

With Signe as their female vocalist, Marty Balin’s voice yet to be compromised, Skip Spence superb on drums, and Jorma Kaukonen at the top of his guitar-playing game, their three and four-part vocal harmonies were heavenly, and the concert setting with a fantastic sound system, as opposed to the cavernous echoing Fillmore, was ideal for the interplay of their virtuoso playing and gorgeous vocals.

One night when Dave and I were writing a song for Joy Ride, he encouraged me to play the piano to accompany his guitar playing, and though I could only muster a few simple chords to begin with, ere long I added musician to writer and actor on the list of things I aspired to be.

In August of that summer, I went to Europe for the only time in my life, a three-week trip with my family to Ireland, Scotland, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, the excuse for the trip a psychiatric convention my father attended in Edinburgh. I was deeply smitten with Europe and hoped to return one day, but never did. The Beatles had just come out with Revolver, and I brought home with me the British LP of Revolver that had two songs not on the American LP. Was I hip or what?

Gail Land and Rico in On Borrowed Time
Joe Tiffany, Todd, Scott Oakley in On Borrowed Time

The fall play of 1966, my senior year and Rico’s sophomore year, was On Borrowed Time. Rico was cast as Pud, another little boy part, this one a major role, and I was cast as Mr. Brink, the personification of Death.

The gist of the play is Mr. Brink comes to claim an old man, Gramps, played in our production by Joe Tiffany. Gramps is the guardian of Pud who recently lost his parents in a car accident. Not wanting to leave Pud without a loving parent, Gramps tricks Death into climbing into a magic apple tree from which Death cannot escape unless Gramps releases him. With Death trapped in the tree, nothing and no one can die.

To outwit Gramps, Death entices Pud to climb into the tree from where Pud falls and mortally injures himself; but the little boy cannot die and end his terrible suffering until Gramps allows Death to come down from the tree and take him and Pud to the hereafter. Your typical cheerful high school play.

What I remember most vividly about the production is the scene in which I entice Rico into the tree and mesmerize him so he loses his balance and begins to fall…Blackout! In early rehearsals, Rico and I played the scene as if we were Didi and Gogo in Waiting For Godot, imbuing our lines with the abstraction and bewilderment of those two lost souls. Our wonderful director George Ward allowed us to play the scene that way for a few rehearsals, enjoying our theatre-of-the-absurd interpretation, and then looked over the top of his glasses at us and said, “But seriously, folks,” and we got the message and thereafter played the scene in harmony with the rest of the play.

Shortly after On Borrowed Time, in November of 1966, Rico and I went with Bill Kane, Rico’s English teacher, to a poetry reading in San Francisco. Bill Kane was young and not yet tenured. He wore a suit and tie to work every day, kept his hair cut short, and did nothing to make the conservative administrators presiding over Woodside High think he was anything but an obedient servant of the cookie-cutter system of education.

What those administrators didn’t know and didn’t find out until Mr. Kane was granted tenure and showed up for a new year of teaching with long hair and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, was that he was a rebel with a cause, and his cause was to awaken his students to books and ideas that questioned the dominant ideology of sameness and conformity.

But before he got tenure and started rocking the boat, Bill Kane and his wife kept their counterculture leanings secret to all but a few people, and one of those people was Rico, and another, by association, was Todd.

And the poetry reading he took us to was not just any poetry reading, but one of the legendary poetry readings of the Sixties, a lineup of the great Bay Area Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and David Meltzer.

In 1996, thirty years after Rico and I attended that life-changing poetry reading, Bantam published my novel Ruby & Spear, the novel prefaced with a poem by Philip Whalen and including Lew Welch’s great poem I Saw Myself. A fictional account of that poetry reading figures prominently in the early pages of Ruby & Spear, complete with a cameo by Rico.

Here is that account.

And now I’m seventeen, just getting comfortable with my cane, climbing onto the train with my friend Rico, heading to San Francisco for a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch.

We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us. “It’s Robert Duncan himself,” Rico whispered reverently. “My god, my god.”

“Who is he?”

“My favorite poet,” said Rico, his eyes full of tears. “My numero uno hero.”

“What did he write?”

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.’”

The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become now that I couldn’t play basketball? My parents wanted me to be a doctor, or failing that a lawyer. I was singing in a rock band from hell, my antidote to screaming pain, but I had no illusions about making my living from that. And what about college? Sex? Money?

Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight, looking like Errol Flynn, dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, “I’ve been hanging out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rrrrrr. Rahrr. Roar!” All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed.

And when the house lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.


(Ruby & Spear is available as a Kindle or Apple Book, as a used paperback, and as a delightful audio book narrated by yours truly.)

Miles In Mind


The Rico Chronicles: Bye Bye Birdie

Joe Tiffany and Rico in Bye Bye Birdie 1966

My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico and the myriad ways our lives intersected over the years, I am posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the second of those memories.

Spring of 1966. Woodside High School. Redwood City, California.

When I was sixteen and a junior, much to my surprise I landed the part of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

I had been in constant pain and walking with an extreme limp for the year preceding being cast as Conrad Birdie. The medical diagnosis of my malady was ankylosing spondylitis, a premature fusing of the lower vertebrae in my spine. For the first few months of dealing with ferocious pain in my lower back and hips, I could barely walk. Eventually I was put on a regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers that significantly dulled my senses but allowed me to go to school. For most of my junior year I was excused from PE and spent that hour every day in the school library reading plays and short stories.

My disability marked the end of thinking of myself as an athlete and decided me on trying to be an actor and a writer. I would eventually overcome many of the physical challenges associated with ankylosing spondylitis and become a backpacker, a physical laborer, and an avid playground basketball player, but when I was sixteen the medical prognosis was for a sedentary life dependent on painkillers.

To play Conrad Birdie without a limp was one of the great challenges of my young life, and many years later I discovered that contrary to what my doctors believed, I was able to transcend my physical challenges because the root cause of the inflammation was not physical, but rather the severe emotional distress I experienced in relation to my parents. When I was performing, both my emotional distress and physical pain disappeared.

In Bye Bye Birdie, a teenage girl wins the honor of being kissed by Conrad Birdie as part of his farewell shenanigans before going into the Army. The girl’s father, mother, and younger brother are important characters in the play, and Dick (Rico) was cast in the role of the younger brother. In makeup and dressed as a little kid, Rico was entirely convincing as a goofy ten-year-old, though he was fourteen and had a deep voice.

The wonderful George Ward (who died just two weeks after Rico died) directed Bye Bye Birdie and surprised everybody by casting me in the role of Conrad Birdie. George was the longtime Drama teacher at Woodside High and had a gift for bringing out the best in his young thespians. How he brought out our best was something Rico and I discussed at length when we were in Bye Bye Birdie together, and again the next year when we were in On Borrowed Time together.

We concluded that though George had his favorites, he rarely cast anyone in a part they weren’t inherently suited for. This may seem like something all directors would do as a matter of course, but in the theatre world favoritism often trumps talent—not so with George.  

Nor did George begin rehearsals by describing how he wanted us to play our parts. Instead he allowed us to find our ways into our characters over the course of acting out the scenes with the other characters, and as we became familiar with our lines and the flow of action, he would occasionally comment about a line’s delivery or a character’s motivation in a particular moment.

Prior to being cast as Conrad Birdie, I played the part of Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank, my first major role in a play. Mr. Van Daan is a terribly conflicted person and the nemesis of young Anne. I remember a rehearsal a week or so before opening night when we did a scene in which Mr. Van Daan is particularly cruel to Anne.

When the scene ended, George said to me in his quiet way, “Are you angry? Or are you frightened? Or both?”

And in that moment I understood that though it was appropriate for me to mask my fear with anger, less anger—a more transparent mask—would make the scene work better and make my character more believable. This understanding not only changed how I played the scene, it transformed my character for the entire play.

Todd and Nancy Losey in Bye Bye Birdie 1966

In one scene in Bye Bye Birdie, Conrad enters the kitchen of the family in which Rico played the brother of the girl he is destined to kiss. Breakfast awaits Conrad, but instead he gets a can of beer out of the refrigerator, makes a mess opening the can, guzzles the beer, and belches.

Time and again I overplayed this scene until George said, “I don’t think Conrad does this on purpose. I think he’s oblivious to other people.”

And thereafter I stopped trying to be funny and played the scene as if no one else was there; and then the scene was funny.

Bye Bye Birdie was the first play Rico was in at Woodside High, and we met for the first time backstage at the first rehearsal. The moment we saw each other, we both felt a jolt of recognition.

So I limped across the expanse between us, looked into Rico’s eyes, and said the opening line of Waiting For Godot, which I’d just seen for the first time and then read and was enthralled by. “Nothing to be done.”

Rico’s eyes lit up and he replied, “Are you Didi or Gogo?” (the nicknames of Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters in Waiting For Godot)

“I never can remember which one is Didi and which one is Gogo. Who do you want to be?”

“Either one,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t think it matters.”

Then we blathered on for a few more minutes as if we were characters in an absurdist drama, which of course we were, and then rehearsal began.

The next day at lunchtime, I found Rico hanging out with the counter culture kids of our high school, known as the Water Fountain Gang because they congregated by a certain water fountain—kids into Drama and art and folk music and folk rock, the first hippies of our generation, a daily potluck of mostly girls and some boys, the boys letting their hair grow long, the girls nascent feminists—rebels fighting The System designed to squish us into versions of our conformist parents, high school a genteel prison we longed to be free of. And when we were free, then what? We didn’t know, and that was our bond: not knowing.

I hailed Rico with “Didi!”

“Gogo,” he said, raising his hand in greeting.

And for the next few months we were Didi and Gogo to each other and it didn’t matter who was which so long as we were together in the absurdist drama of our young lives.


The Magician


The Rico Chronicles: First Sighting

Rico at Fourteen with his father photo courtesy of Steve Rees

My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico’s life, I will be posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the first of those memories.

October 1957. Atherton, California.

I was just about to turn eight, riding on the big school bus on our way to Las Lomitas Elementary situated on the border of Atherton and Menlo Park. A sunny morning, Mr. Viera, one of the kindest and most patient human beings I have ever known, was driving the bus down Atherton Avenue in his never-hurried way. The morning ride to school was usually a calm affair, in contrast to the afternoon ride home when things often verged on chaos, the main instigators of that chaos holding sway at the back of the bus.

I loved Mr. Viera. His first language was Spanish and he only spoke a little English. Nevertheless, he connected with each of us in a friendly way as we got on and off the bus, unless he was in a bad mood, which he sometimes was, and then he was merely silent.

He ferried me and many of my classmates to and from school every day from First Grade through Sixth, and when my dog Cozy had her one litter of puppies when I was in the Second Grade, he came to our house with his wife and they took two of the pups, after which he gave me occasional reports about que buenos perros they turned out to be.

My bus stop, which was right across the street from our house, was near the beginning of Mr. Viera’s route in the morning, so I always found an empty seat halfway back where I would sit by the window and hope someone I liked sat beside me. Sometimes kids I didn’t especially like would sit with me because I never had the heart to tell them not to sit with me. Many other kids saved the space beside them for kids they liked and wouldn’t allow other kids to sit with them.

I always sat on the right side of the aisle (right facing forward) because this afforded me a view out my window of the kids waiting for the bus as we approached their stops, as well as a view of them getting on the bus, which for some reason I just loved. We weren’t supposed to stick our heads out the windows that were easily opened in those bygone days, but I sometimes leaned out my window to watch the kids getting on and maybe call out to a friend before he or she ascended onto the bus.

On this particular morning in October, the bus nearly full, we stopped on Atherton Avenue just west of Selby Lane, and after the few regulars got on, a pretty woman with black hair, half-carried and half-assisted a little boy with braces on his legs up the stairs onto the bus. He had two short metal crutches attached to his wrists by what appeared to be metal bracelets at the tops of the crutches. As the little boy reached the top of the stairs and the woman released him to stand on his own, Mr. Viera directed a kid in a front seat to relocate to make room for the little boy.

I was amazed and awed that someone so small and fragile and walking with crutches would get on a school bus and go to Las Lomitas where before school and during recesses and after school, the corridors and playground seethed with unhinged children racing around and crashing into each other. How, I wondered, would this fragile child survive?

This child was Richard Rees. He was six-years-old, though at the time I guessed he was four or at most five. I never imagined that eight years later, when I was sixteen and a high school junior, and Dick (Rico) was fourteen, a freshman, that he and I would meet backstage in the Woodside High multi-purpose room where we were both in a play, and we would become instant friends and best friends for life.

It wasn’t until we’d been high school pals for a few weeks and I found out where he lived, that I realized Dick was the little boy I had watched get on and off the bus those many times before I went off to junior high, and how each time he mounted those steps to get on the bus he was more and more capable of getting on without assistance, how he became progressively bolder and more talkative as he rode to school, and how ever after he was my hero.


Rico’s Dance


Zemel and the Pope

Several hundred years ago, when the Vatican was a powerful city state and the Pope commanded a great army, Jews escaping trouble in Europe and the Middle East settled on the outskirts of the Vatican, their population grew, and soon there were thousands of Jews living in close proximity to that most Catholic of places. Cardinals and bishops were outraged and petitioned the Pope to send his army to clear away the heathens who were, according to Christian dogma, the killers of Christ.

The Pope at that time, his name eludes me, was deeply pious and spent many hours a day communing with God, so at first he ignored these petitions from the bishops and cardinals. But finally he was compelled to listen to their demands, and he said, “Arrange for me to meet with the wisest of the Jews and then I’ll make my decision.”

A proclamation is sent forth into the Jewish community that on such and such a day, at such and such a time, the Pope will be enthroned at the entrance to St. Peter’s awaiting the wisest of the Jews.

As you can imagine this proclamation sends the Jewish community into a tizzy as one group claims their rabbi is the wisest and another group says, “Are you kidding? Our rabbi’s little finger is smarter than that guy.” And so on. The bickering continues night and day, and no one is chosen to speak to the Pope.

The day comes and the Jewish community prepares for the worst. The Pope takes his place on his throne in front of St. Peter’s and a red carpet is rolled across the plaza and lined with soldiers of the Papal Guard. Hundreds of Jews venture as close as they dare to witness the terrible failure of their community leaders to choose a spokesperson.

And who should come walking by just as the momentous moment arrives? Zemel the Fool, an unemployed bum and one of the more problematic members of the Jewish community. He sees the red carpet and all those hundreds of soldiers holding their swords in salute, and he feels inclined to take a stroll down that beautiful red path.

Assumed by the Vatican honchos to be the wisest Jew, Zemel is not impeded in his progress and ere long, after complimenting the soldiers on their nice duds and impressive swords, he comes to where the Pope awaits him.

The Pope looks at the man in rags and is reminded of Saint Francis who eschewed all worldly goods and was a friend to all God’s creatures.

Zemel looks at the Pope and is reminded of his old friend Ezekiel Goldberg who also tended to overdress on warm days.

The Pope raises one finger skyward.

Zemel considers this and raises two fingers.

Now the Pope opens his arms in an expansive gesture.

Zemel thinks for a moment, raises both hands a little, palms up, and shrugs.

Now the Pope takes a bite of a holy wafer and follows this with a sip of wine from a bejeweled goblet.

Zemel nods, takes an orange out of his pocket, peels the orange, and eats it.

The Pope watches Zemel relishing the orange, rises from his throne and proclaims, “The Jews may stay.”

As you can imagine, this gets the cardinals buzzing angrily and they assemble around the Pope and demand an explanation.

“The Jews agree with us entirely,” says the Pope, still elated from his encounter with such a wise person. “They are every bit as reverent and knowing of His truths as we are.”

The Cardinals are dumfounded and ask the Pope to explain further.

The Pope says, “We conversed in the silent language of spiritual understanding. I raised my finger to say, ‘God is the father,’ and he raised two fingers to says, ‘And the son.’ Then I lifted my arms wide to say, ‘God is everywhere,’ and he made the holy gesture that means, ‘God is here.’ Then I ate of the body of Christ and drank of our savior’s blood, and then that wise man ate of the holy fruit of Israel. I tell you the Jews are our brothers and may stay.”

Meanwhile, Zemel is carried back to the Jewish settlement on the shoulders of his cheering brethren and deposited in front of the four most popular rabbis, all of them having watched in horror as Zemel communed with the Pope.

They begrudgingly thank Zemel for saving the community from annihilation, and ask what went on between him and the Pope.

Zemel frowns. “That guy was the Pope? I thought he was just a rich guy with a big house.”

“But what did he say to you and how did you answer?”

“Oh that,” says Zemel, scratching his head. “Well I get there and he puts up one finger that means, ‘I’ll give a you one.’ So I top that with, ‘I’ll give a you two.’ Then he says, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ Then he eats his lunch and I eat mine.”


The Goodly Fool