Actual Abstract


Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.


Father Christmas


(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare

My father was extremely neurotic. A psychiatrist by profession, one of his more pronounced neuroses was the inability to complete anything, which made psychiatry the perfect profession for him. Our house and yard were minefields of my father’s unfinished projects, some of which became entangled with other unfinished projects, so that large areas of the domestic terrain were rendered useless except as depositories for the stuff of projects he would never complete.

When I was twelve, my father gave me the task of clearing away a great mass of blackberry brambles that was smothering our one and only apricot tree and made accessing the delectable fruit impossible. After many hours of hacking and cutting and carrying loads of brambles to the burn pile, I discovered that my father had pruned the apricot tree some years before, left the pruned branches lying around the tree, and in a subsequent year positioned a wooden ladder amidst the pruned branches in order to prune the tree again, left the newly pruned branches atop the older pruned branches, and then left the ladder surrounded by those multiple layers of pruned branches. Blackberry bushes then sprouted in the fertile soil and employed the framework of dead branches and wooden ladder as armature for their rampant growth.

When I was sixteen, my father and I attended an auction of government property, ostensibly to find a cheap filing cabinet for my mother, but really because my father loved hunting for old junky things to bring home. Among the items to be auctioned were several three-wheeled postal vans, their engines on the verge of dysfunction, their aging bodies pockmarked and rusty.

“I will buy one,” declared my father, “paint it a pleasing color, and use it to go to and from my office. Think of the money I’ll save on gas.”

My father did, indeed, make the highest bid on one of those vans, drove the cute little thing home, and parked it about ten feet to the left of my beloved basketball hoop and backboard, thereby rendering the court no good for basketball games until my pals and I pushed the little van some twenty feet from the hoop. And there that wreckage sat and rotted for thirty years until, as a gift to my mother, I had the heap hauled away.

“An overflow of good converts to bad.” William Shakespeare

Another of my father’s manias was book buying, and his favorite bookstore was Kepler’s in Menlo Park, both a fantastic bookstore and a groovy Bohemian hangout. I remember many an evening when my mother called Kepler’s, as other women might call the pub, to inquire if her husband was there. “He is?” my mother would say, exasperated. “Would you please tell him to come home? Immediately. He was supposed to be home two hours ago.”

Thus our house was not only a museum of myriad unfinished projects, but we lived in an ever growing topography of stacks of books—the dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jammed with thousands of books—and piles of magazines and newspapers and junk mail, all of which my father was adamant my mother not throw away because, “I’m going through them this weekend,” which never happened once in fifty years.

“It’s true, Christmas can feel like a lot of work, particularly for mothers. But when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you’ll find you’ve created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul.” Caroline Kennedy

When Marcia and I got married, I explained to her that Christmas was highly problematic for me due to the emotional scars I carried from my parents’ various neuroses coming to a boil, so to speak, in and around the holiday season. Never mind that my mother was Jewish, but had been raised to hide any connection to Judaism (which was one of the reasons she married my non-Jewish father.) Never mind that my father always put off buying a Christmas tree until the day before Christmas and then would get staggering drunk before he put the lights on the tree, after which he couldn’t remember where he’d put the really tall ladder he needed to get the ornament box down from the half-finished platform he had affixed to the rafters of our high-ceilinged house with twine and duct tape in lieu of the screws he would use when he got around to finishing the platform, which he never did.

No, what made Christmas such an unhappy time was the terrible tension resulting from my father having bought hundreds of books and things we didn’t want, and all those books and things had to be wrapped by our unhappy parents and put under the tree so we would have lots of presents to open on Christmas morning—the quantity of gifts being very important to my father, who always waited until Christmas Eve to start wrapping things, and as he wrapped he drank and my mother would lament, “You’ve had enough already,” and we would hang our stockings and go to bed and…joy to the world.

“And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.” William Shakespeare

When I was nine, my siblings and I gathered in the living room on Christmas morning, our parents having stayed up until the wee hours wrapping presents and stuffing our stockings with tangerines and candy and decks of cards (not again!) to keep us busy until they finally crawled out of bed some hours later to have their coffee and oversee the opening of the gifts. We noted the hundreds of presents under the precariously tilting tree, and my little brother gave voice to our collective fear, “I think it’s mostly books.”

That was the year my father gave me a seven-hundred-page (small print) biography of Thomas Jefferson and a book entitled How To Make Home Movies. Coincidentally, Santa gave my mother a home movie camera, which she promptly handed to my father, and my sister Wendy got a film editing and splicing contraption, my father expressing surprise and delight that Santa had given us these things that he, my father, had always wanted and would be happy to share with us. Yes! For a person who could never finish anything, a movie camera in those pre-digital days was the perfect thing for making huge messes and never completing anything. You go, Dad!

But the camera and associated film stuff was just the beginning of that year’s surprises. I received an electric soldering iron my father was quick to point out would be just the thing for assembling the Heathkit stereo tuner kit Santa brought my four-year-old brother, as well as the unassembled stereo speakers Santa brought my sister Kathy that would go perfectly with the Heathkit stereo tuner—none of which would ever be fully assembled but would reside partially assembled for many years under piles of useless junk on a large table in the room that eventually became my mother’s office after the defunct Heathkit project was finally added to the horror show known as our garage.

 “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Charles Darwin

As an adult, I returned to the old homestead every Christmas to visit my parents, and I frequently found the presents I’d given my father the previous year gathering dust on the floor not far from where he opened them. And it finally dawned on me that the best gifts for my father were bottles of wine he would drink that very day, though I needn’t buy good wine because my father, who was the world’s authority on everything, loved to remind me that “it has been scientifically proven there is absolutely no difference between cheap and expensive wine, except the price.”

Until he died at eighty-four, our father continued to give us books for Christmas that he thought we ought to want, and as he became less energetic, he took to buying all his children the same books from palettes of bestsellers at Costco. Three years in a row he gave me the same massive and impenetrable tome about Shakespeare by a famous Harvard professor, and each year he would ask me as I unwrapped the gnarly opus, “Have you heard of this book? Supposed to be fantastic.”

Then I would return to wherever I was living, and when sufficiently recovered from my Christmas ordeal, I would take the books my father had given me to a good used bookstore, get cash for them, and go to a café for coffee and cheesecake, both of which I really wanted. I would sip my coffee and savor the tangy cake and raise my cup in honor of my father, the great lover of books.


Moving Experiences

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

Marcia and I are moving from the house we’ve rented for the past seven years into a house (five miles away) we just bought. Miracle of miracles, the little gem came to us as if in a dream, and in the dream we could afford to buy her, so we did. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the new (old) house has required a great deal of work (eight weeks every day from morning until night) to be habitable when we make the great leap to living there this coming week, and the worse news is that we have to leave this house we have become so deeply attached to, and in so moving deal with ALL OUR STUFF!

Moving Experience #1: I confront a heavy cardboard box I dragged from Santa Cruz to Sacramento in 1979, Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, Berkeley to Mendocino in 2006, and now Mendocino to another place in Mendocino in 2012. In faint felt pen on the outside of the box are the words Todd stories, go through. And I realize that I have never followed the dictates of that bygone felt pen but have continued to schlep this fifty-pound archive around with me for thirty-some years because…

Maybe I had better things to do. Maybe I had more room, more time, more tolerance for mysterious stuff taking up space. In any case, now I open the box and spend a couple hours skimming through dozens of short stories, two plays, and two novels I have only the vaguest memories of writing, though each novel consumed a year or more of my life. I end up saving a few of the stories and the two plays because a few of the lines grab me and hint they might lead to something good and new. The rest I dump into the recycling can to be picked up tomorrow, and as I dump those thousands of pages I feel a brief twinge of sorrow followed immediately by stupendous relief.

I move to the next behemoth box inscribed in purple felt pen: Todd screenplays, 1995,  check out. And so on.

Moving Experience #2: My friend Bob calls and we talk about how work on the new house is going and how going through my accumulated stuff is going, and we share our thoughts about throwing things away. I brag that I have reduced the contents of a four-drawer legal-sized file cabinet to a half-drawer worth of stuff, and Bob asks, “So what was the stuff you got rid of?”

“Letters from friends, unpublished stories, works-in-progress that never progressed, photographs from the beginning of time to the present, cassette tapes, old book contracts, sketches for paintings I never painted…like that. The letters from friends were the hardest to let go of, though I had no interest in reading the letters again. I’m not sure why I saved them except…”

“Maybe having their letters was like having the people with you,” Bob suggests. “Their energy was present in those letters.”

“Which would explain why throwing the letters away was…is like a little death, the person no longer present.”

“Yes, death,” says Bob. “In the sense of absence. In the sense of letting go. Releasing a psychic bond. Giving something away that will never come back.”

Moving Experience #3: I recall reading interviews with several people who lost everything, as in every thing, in the great Oakland Hills fire of a couple decades ago, and how almost all those people spoke of the experience as initially devastating and soon thereafter incredibly liberating, for they were then free to re-invent themselves.

Yes. Moving gives us the opportunity to re-invent ourselves by what we choose to get rid of and what we choose to keep. I weigh several hundred pounds less than I did before we began this move, and I have come face to face with dozens of things I long ago ceased to use and certainly don’t need to carry with me so I can go on not using them. Yet if we weren’t moving, those things would continue to fill up my life and weigh me down. To get rid of things necessitates confronting those things and making decisions, and moving forces us to do that. So in a sense, moving is like a slow moving fire, sort of.

Moving Experience #4: Old photos. Good God, I was a little boy and a teenager and a young man. I had a cute high school girlfriend and I was a hippy and had nothing and then I married a woman who looked like a movie star and I owned a big house in Sacramento and there I am on the set of the movie they made of my novel and then I wasn’t married and had nothing again and…I don’t need to keep these pictures anymore. I don’t need to review my life every time I move. Enough already.

Moving experience #5: The past impinges. The past clings to things. The past imparts mojo to things and if that mojo is not sweet and inspiring, then I say jettison the thing! Yes, you’re right. That is a perfectly good chair. And someone will come to the garage sale we’re going to have at our new place and they will buy the chair and not be adversely impacted by the mojo because mojo depends on psychic interconnectedness, which garage sales tend to obliterate. What I’m saying is, it’s fine to get rid of perfectly good things because, in truth, they may not be perfectly good for me or for you because of the aforementioned psychic interconnectedness being troublesome.

Moving Experience #6: Indeed, psychic interconnectedness seems to be what is making this particular move such an ordeal. We are not just moving our bodies and our things to a new place and getting rid of things as we move, we are moving and getting rid of things encrusted with thousands of tons of memories and feelings. And it might be that we have held onto this stuff for so long because we have been afraid of losing our memories, which remind us of where we’ve been, what we’ve done, what we had. and who we were. Perhaps we are afraid that if we jettison all these artifacts we will find ourselves wandering in a void haunted by the question: Who Are We?

Moving Experience #7: So one question is: are we our stuff? No. Do we think we are our stuff? Maybe so. Oh, my. Look. There is the proof of dreams unrealized, or proof of happier, richer, better, younger times. Marcia looks at old pictures of me and invariably exclaims, “God, you had so much hair!”

Moving Experience #8: The big strong men come on Monday with their big truck to move the big heavy things, notably my piano, best left to big strong men without hernias. Thereafter, we will sleep at the new house and come back to the old house to mop up, so to speak, for the next week or so. Then we will come here no more. We will be absent to this place and this place will be absent in our lives, but for some weeks and months I will continue to know the contours of this place and the curves in the road from town to here better than I know the contours of the new house and the curves in the road from town to there. And a moment will come when my knowing of each place will be equal, and then in the next moment I will know that new place better than this place.