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The Same Woman (Jennifer)

Every so often throughout his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he knows, though he has never seen her before. He met the first of these women in elementary school in 1955, the second in 1962, the third in 1966, the fourth in 1970, the fifth in 1978, and he married her in 1987.

In 1993, Andrew and his wife Luisa are both forty-five and have been married for six years. Their children Owen and Lily are both eleven and in Fifth Grade. They live in a beautiful house Andrew built not far from the ocean about ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Andrew wrote a collection of short stories when he was in his mid-twenties that launched a string of successes for him, and at the height of his good fortune he met and married Kiki, a dancer and choreographer with whom he had Owen. When the exigencies of fate removed his star from the firmament of Canadian culture, Andrew returned to carpentry to pay the bills and ceased to write.

When Owen was four and going to kindergarten, Andrew met Luisa whose daughter Lily was in school with Owen. The marvelous simpatico Andrew experienced with Luisa inspired him to start writing again. A few months later, Kiki got involved with somebody else, divorced Andrew, and gave him full custody of Owen.

The following year, Andrew and Luisa were married. When Andrew’s literary star began to rise again and his income was sufficient to cover the financial needs of their family, he convinced Luisa to give up her cooking gig at a popular restaurant and become his assistant and collaborator.

The business end of publishing books and producing plays holds little interest for Andrew, but for Luisa the commercial aspects of publishing and show biz are endlessly fascinating and she has become quite learned about the interconnected complexities of publishing, theatre, and the movie business. Indeed, her expertise regarding these interconnections has resulted in their most lucrative contract yet.

Two years ago, Andrew’s play Their Summer Holiday ended a long run in Vancouver following a successful premiere run in Montreal, and now the play is being performed in small theatres across Canada, America, England, and France.

Their Summer Holiday is a whimsical romance about a single father and his adolescent son spending a few magical weeks in a coastal village populated with colorful eccentrics and an alluring French woman with whom both father and son become enchanted.

The play was thought too quirky to be made into a movie until Luisa convinced Andrew to create with her a movie synopsis of the play focusing more on the love story and less on the eccentrics. Their elegant four-page synopsis, refined over several months, was pitched by Andrew’s agent to a select group of actors and producers, the movie rights were subsequently optioned by a big Hollywood studio, and Andrew and Luisa were contracted to write the screenplay.

They finish the third draft of their screenplay on a Friday in early April, each new draft written in response to notes from the film’s two LA-based producers, a fast-talking fellow named James Skidmore and a somewhat slower-talking woman named Jennifer Zindel, both of whom will be arriving in Vancouver in mid-April to spend a few days finalizing the script with Andrew and Luisa, filming to begin in September.

Most week days Andrew and Luisa wake to a 6:30 alarm, stay in bed for a while talking, take quick showers, make breakfast for the kids, and then one or both of them bicycles with the kids to the public elementary school three miles from their house, unless it’s raining or snowing or too bloody cold, in which case one of them drives the kids to school.

When Owen and Lily have been safely delivered to the halls of learning, Andrew and Luisa have coffee and breakfast over which they plan their morning and early afternoon. This planning session sometimes leads to a return to bed before the commencement of one or more of the following: writing, gardening, business correspondence, music making, beach combing, shopping, visiting friends, and going into the city for business or pleasure.

The kids get home from school by 3:30, have snacks and debrief with Luisa and/or Andrew, do their chores and homework, help prepare supper, eat supper, practice music for an hour, and gather in the living room with the adults for some sort of group activity, musical or otherwise.

Both Owen and Lily are studying piano with Luisa and both of them love to sing. Lily plays the guitar, Andrew her teacher, and Owen plays the clarinet, his teacher Chas Lowenstein who happens to be Andrew and Luisa’s renter and lives next door with his wife Betty.

Lily and Owen are both avid readers, excellent students, and aspire to be writers and musicians. They are each adept at walking on their hands, juggling three tennis balls, and throwing Frisbees with remarkable power and accuracy.

When the kids have gone to bed, Luisa and Andrew like to sit by the fire with cups of tea and talk about their children and anything else that comes to mind.

One evening after supper, a week before the movie producers are due to arrive, Owen and Lily and Luisa and Andrew gather in the living room for a game of Charades and Owen says, “Today Miss Tucker gave us the choices for our final big project of the year. We can either do a ten-page report on some important event in Canadian history or…”

“A ten-page biography of someone famous,” says Lily, taking up the recitation. “Or five two-page book reports on books from her list of acceptable books or a ten-page family history.”

“We have a week to decide,” says Owen, pursing his lips and gazing thoughtfully at the fire dwindling in the hearth. “Then we have to turn in a detailed proposal and once Miss Tucker approves we have to write a first draft, a second draft, and a final draft.”

“History repeating itself,” murmurs Andrew, thinking of the three drafts they’ve done of their screenplay.

“I’ll probably do a biography of either Mendelssohn or Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald,” says Lily, wrinkling her nose. “I was going to do the book reports, but Owen and I already read all the books on her list two summers ago and she won’t let me do To Kill A Mockingbird because she says we don’t get that until high school even though Owen and I read it last summer.”

“I might do the family history,” says Owen, looking at Andrew, “and if I do you’ll need to remember back as far as you can and then I’ll call Grandma Gloria and Grandpa Zeke and Grandma Kaylia and ask them to remember.”

“I was gonna do a family history,” says Lily, shrugging, “but there’s only you, Mama, and you only remember Grandma Lily so there won’t be ten pages unless I write about Owen’s side and he might already be doing that.”

“Well don’t forget I also remember Grandma Lily’s mother,” says Luisa, smiling at her daughter. “Your great grandmother.”

“You do?” says Lily, excitedly. “I don’t remember you ever telling me about her.”

“I did when you were little,” says Luisa, thinking of her mother and how much she would enjoy Lily and Owen. “But not for a long time.”

“Like what do you remember about her?” asks Owen, who thinks Luisa is the most wonderful person in the world, right after Lily.

“Her name was Ziibi,” says Luisa, closing her eyes and seeing her sturdy grandmother shooing chickens into the coop at dusk. “Ziibi means river in Ojibwe. My mother and I visited her a few times when Ziibi was living in Baudette, a town in Minnesota just across the border. She had an old house on the Rainy River and raised rabbits for meat and pelts, and she rented out a room in the house to an old Chippewa man named Ray who was deaf and smoked a pipe. I stayed with her there without my mother for six weeks the summer I was thirteen. I remember she’d get the barbecue going and I’d pick ears of corn from her big garden and she’d set them on the coals in their husks, and then she’d walk out to the river with her fishing pole and right away catch a big fish, a trout or a pike or a walleye, and clean it in no time and cook it right up. Most delicious fish I ever ate.”

“What did she look like?” asks Lily, eager to know. “Was she as brown as you?”

“No and my mom wasn’t so brown either. I never met my father, but I must have gotten my darker brown from him. He was from Cuba, but I don’t know what he looked like because my mother never showed me a picture of him, though I think she had one.”

“My mom got her brown from Grandma Kaylia who was from Barbados,” says Owen, who hasn’t seen his mother in four years. “My mom’s dad was Chinese, but he died before I was born so I never got to meet him.”

“Ten pages won’t be enough,” says Andrew, knowing Owen longs to see his mother.

Andrew and Luisa meet the movie producers James and Jennifer at Tangelo’s, a trendy restaurant a few blocks from the famous Hotel Vancouver where James and Jennifer have booked a suite on the fifteenth floor.

James is slender and balding and nattily dressed, has a strong Chicago Jewish accent, laughs explosively, and only grows serious when discussing the script for Their Summer Holiday.

Jennifer is short and buxom with shoulder-length bleached blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Raised in New Jersey by Yiddish-speaking grandparents, the first thing she says to Luisa and Andrew is that she hates the name Jennifer and wants them to call her J.

Luisa and Andrew both order fish and chips and beer. James and Jennifer both order gin and tonics, garden salads, and shrimp scampi, and they both give their waiter ultra-specific instructions about how to make their gin and tonics, how to prepare their salad dressings, and how they want their linguini and shrimp cooked.

As Jennifer hands her menu to the waiter she says, “If you overcook my shrimp or serve me a shitty gin and tonic, things will not go well for you.”

To which James adds, “As for my gin and tonic, when in doubt err on the side of gin.” Having said this, he laughs explosively.

When the drinks arrive, Jennifer holds her glass aloft and says, “Here’s to the best script I’ve ever worked on.”

Glasses are clinked, drinks are drunk, the gin and tonics are declared delicious, and Jennifer says, “We are so close to signing Paul Sydney to direct I can’t tell you. The only wrinkle with Paul is he wants to shoot this in Thailand, turn it into a tropical fairy tale with half-naked Asian beauties and sampans. But we really don’t want to go that way.” 

“Thailand?” says Andrew, the back of his neck tingling. “You’re kidding.”

“You know what I just realized,” says James, pointing at Andrew. “This movie is a whodunit. Only nobody gets murdered.” He arches an eyebrow. “But maybe somebody should.”

“This is not a whodunit,” says Jennifer, glaring at James. “This is a brilliant coming of age story meets gorgeous mid-life crisis love story.” She pauses. “We’re thinking a few songs sung by the characters might really work in this film. One song for Leo, one for Jonah, one for Louise. Not a musical really, but quasi.”

Andrew recalls his agent Penelope Goldstein saying Have no illusions, Andrew. By signing this contract you are giving them permission to do anything they want with your story. Yes, you will write a screenplay, but they are not obliged to use it. Do you understand?”

“I’m sure you’re aware there are three wonderful songs in the play sung by those characters,” says Luisa, taking a deep breath. “But after we sent you our first draft you said nix the songs.”

“Not those cutesy folk songs,” says James, shaking his head. “We’re talking Elton John, Randy Newman. Big time movie songs.”

“A quasi-musical?” says Andrew, locking eyes with Jennifer and connecting with something deep inside her. “Is that what you want, J?”

“No,” she says, flustered by this unexpected breaching of her usually impenetrable defenses. “I want to shoot this just the way you wrote it, but my job…” She glances at James. “Our job is to get this movie made, which always means deviating from the source material. It just does. For instance, if we sign Marc Laredo, and pray God we do, he’s gonna play Jonah a bit fay, though Jonah in your script is definitely not fay. He’s a serious romantic, ultra-sensitive, thoughtful and kind, yet wonderfully masculine, too.” She laughs self-consciously. “Somebody stop me. I sound like Pauline Kael on Ecstasy.”

After lunch they move to James and Jennifer’s suite on the fifteenth floor of Hotel Vancouver and array themselves on comfy chairs around a big coffee table.

“Drinks?” says James, bouncing his eyebrows. “Coffee? Brandy? Martinis? Champagne? Cannabis? Cocaine?”

“Coffee would be great,” says Luisa, looking at Andrew and saying with her eyes We’ll get through this, darling. Please don’t tell them to go fuck themselves.

James calls room service and orders coffee and cookies, scripts are gotten out, and pens are poised.

Jennifer, still a little woozy from Andrew’s deep dive into her psyche, clears her throat and says, “I wasn’t kidding when I said this is the best script I’ve ever worked on. However, there are two large problems we need to solve before we can sign the likes of Marc Laredo or Shirley Stone who, as you know, got the ball rolling when they both flipped over your pitch.”

“And what are those problems?” asks Luisa, noting Andrew’s growing disquiet.

“Leo,” says James, throwing up his hands. “He’s got more screen time than Louise. And by the way, we found a brilliant unknown to play Leo. When we tested this kid he practically melted the camera. British. Of course. Gorgeous. The young James Dean meets the young Johnny Depp. Eighteen but plays thirteen no problem, and he’s a far better actor than Marc or Shirley will ever be, but even so we can’t have him upstaging them.”

Andrew is about to say something when the coffee and cookies arrive and Jennifer makes a pretty show of serving everyone.

“And the second problem?” asks Luisa, bracing herself.

“Jonah and Louise,” says Jennifer, adding a huge amount of sugar to her coffee.

“Ah,” says Andrew, pretending to understand. “So the two big problems are the three main characters. Anything else?”

“Andrew?” says Jennifer, looking at him and pursing her lips as if wanting to kiss him. “We love the whole not-liking-each-other-at-first turning into a crazy funny love thing. It’s genius. And I don’t use that word lightly.”

“Academy Award stuff,” says James, winking at Luisa. “You can start writing your acceptance speeches now.”

“But then you leave us hanging,” says Jennifer, clasping her hands. “Do they get together at the end? We never find out.”

“What are you talking about?” says Andrew, looking at her as if she’s insane. “Jonah and Leo pull up in front of Louise’s house in their big old convertible and she comes down the walk wearing a quasi wedding dress and dragging her gigantic suitcase and Leo and Jonah jump out of the car and load her suitcase on top of all their stuff and she gets in beside Jonah, and Leo gets in beside her, and off they go and we track back into an aerial view as they speed along the coast highway and make the turn inland. How is that not getting together? She goes with them at the end.”

“Was there a love scene I missed?” says James, flipping through the script. “I can’t find it? Where is it?”

“The whole movie is a love scene,” says Andrew, horrified by these people.

“Of course it is,” says Jennifer, nodding sympathetically. “And some people…”

“One out of twenty,” says James, chewing on a cookie. “Maybe.”

“Some people will get that the whole movie is a love scene,” says Jennifer, smiling sadly at Andrew. “But most people won’t get that unless we show them Louise and Jonah sealing the deal. Kapish?”

“If this was an arty French film,” says James, smacking his copy of the script with the back of his hand, “or even an arty British film, okay, be subtle. But this is a big budget American movie. Subtle won’t fly. Big budget movies can’t afford to be subtle. At the very least we need passionate kissing and the tearing off of clothing, though much better would be the onset of hot sex and exclamations of ‘You’re the best yet, babe,’ or words to that effect.”

“Who would say that line?” asks Andrew, getting up to go. “Jonah? Who would never in million years say something like that? Or Louise who would never in a million years say something like that? Hey I have an idea. Let’s have a parrot watching them fucking and he can say You’re the best yet, babe. Are you truly not aware after reading three drafts that Jonah and Louise never state the obvious?”

“Hey,” says James, waving his hand to dispel Andrew’s outrage. “We’re on your side. But we didn’t spend all this time and money not to make a movie. Right? And though I totally respect your desire to have a movie made that is a hundred per cent true to your vision, that will never happen unless you write and direct and produce your own movie, and even then it won’t turn out the way you want it. I hate to tell you this, pal, but every movie you have ever loved did not turn out the way the playwright or the novelist or the screenwriter wanted it to. They don’t. They never do.”

“Thank you for enlightening me,” says Andrew, feeling as rotten as he has ever felt. “I think the best thing for us to do right now is go home and discuss all this and meet with you again tomorrow.”

“We’d be happy to come to your place,” says Jennifer, getting up and holding out her hands to both Andrew and Luisa. “We are truly honored to be working with you on this movie and I know we can create something fantastic together. I know we can.”

Andrew is too upset to drive home, so Luisa drives, neither of them saying a word until they are free of the city.

“I wonder why they waited until we’d written three drafts,” says Andrew, wishing he and Luisa had never created the enticing synopsis, “before telling us to shrink Leo’s part, expand Louise’s, and finish the movie with sex. Couldn’t they have told us that after the first draft?”

“Maybe they didn’t know what they wanted until now,” says Luisa, wishing she’d never suggested writing an enticing synopsis. “Or maybe they thought we’d be more likely to agree to those changes if we thought a long delay would jeopardize the chances of the film getting made.”

“I couldn’t make those changes if I wanted to,” says Andrew, looking at her. “Could you?”

“No,” she says wistfully. “It would ruin everything.”

“It’s like one of those dreams where you win the race,” says Andrew, laughing despite his angst, “and then you step in a pile of shit and no matter what you do you can’t get the shit off your shoes.”

At supper, Owen and Lily want to hear all about the movie producers.

Luisa and Andrew exchange looks and Luisa says, “They took us to a snazzy new restaurant called Tangelo’s and they were very particular about the proportions of the ingredients in their gin and tonics and their salad dressings and about how to prepare their scampi, and then we went to their snazzy suite in the Hotel Vancouver and talked about the screenplay, and then we came home.”

“The key word here is snazzy,” says Andrew, who is slightly drunk. “They were both very snazzy people, Jennifer perhaps a bit snazzier than James, and they want us to rewrite the screenplay so Louise has a bigger part than Leo and in the end Jonah and Louise have a big sex scene.”

“Yuck,” says Lily, disappointed with their synopsis of the movie producers. “I thought you were done writing the screenplay.”

“So did we,” says Luisa, making a mental note to check their contract about compensation for any writing they might do beyond the third draft.

“When you say snazzy,” asks Owen, frowning at Andrew, “do you mean he’s handsome and she’s beautiful? Because they sound stupid.”

“I would not say James is handsome,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “But I would say Jennifer is beautiful, though for my taste she wears too much makeup.”

“And if you meet her,” says Luisa, smiling at the children, “call her J because she hates the name Jennifer.”

“We might meet them?” asks Owen, sounding worried. “When?”

“There’s a slight chance they’ll be here when you get home from school tomorrow,” says Luisa, looking at Andrew. “We’re still negotiating the location of our next meeting.”

Andrew barely sleeps that night and rises early to have a cup of tea and think about life before he makes breakfast for the kids and bicycles to school with them, the day sunny and cool.

He gets a flat tire on the way home and has to walk the last mile, and as he pushes his bike along the country road something shifts inside him and he lets go of needing to defend the screenplay.

When he gets home he finds Luisa sitting at the kitchen table, still in her nightgown, writing in her notebook.

“What are you writing?” he asks, sitting beside her.

“My dream from this morning,” she says, writing the last few words. “Want to hear?”

“I do,” he says, closing his eyes to listen.

“I’m walking behind my mother on a slender trail following a fast-flowing river through a forest of tall trees. Now we emerge from the forest and come to a corral in which there is a beautiful brown horse.

“My mother says, ‘This is the horse you wanted when you were a girl, but we lived in the city and had no place for him. He is young and wild. You can tame him or let him go.’

“‘I want to let him go,’ I say. ‘But where is the gate?’

“‘There is no gate,’ she says, handing me a saw. ‘You have to make an opening for him.’

“So I take the saw and start sawing one end of the top plank, and I hear someone else sawing and look up and see you sawing the other end of the plank, and I wake up.”

Jennifer and James arrive at one, the day turning cloudy.

Luisa serves lunch on the deck overlooking the garden: chicken quesadillas with homemade guacamole and a garden salad dressed with olive oil and white wine vinegar and a splash of lime.

James raves about the food and the salad dressing and says to Luisa, “You should open a restaurant. I’ll invest heavily.”

“Luisa was the chef at a restaurant not far from here,” says Andrew, gazing fondly at his wife. “I ate her ambrosia for years before I met her.”

“Do you miss it?” asks Jennifer, wrinkling her nose at Luisa. “Working in a restaurant?”

“I sometimes miss the comradery,” she says, looking at Jennifer. “But I don’t miss the pressure. The relentless pressure to produce.”

“Speaking of pressure to produce,” says James, playing a drum roll on the edge of the table with his index fingers. “How soon can you make those changes?”

“We can’t,” says Andrew, relieved to be saying so. “We understand why you want them, but you will have to find someone else to do that for you.”

James and Jennifer exchange looks of surprise and Jennifer raises her hand and says, “Hold on now. Not so fast. We will be happy to pay you for two more drafts.” She puts her hand on her heart. “We love your characters and we love your dialogue and we want to get this right.”

“The thing is…” says Andrew, looking at Jennifer and connecting again with something deep inside her, “we are too much in love with the story and the characters to betray our love.”

“Makes perfect sense,” says James, pointing with both index fingers at Andrew. “You guys are too close to the material. And fortunately, we know some of the best finishers in the business.”

“Would you at least be willing to vet the final dialogue?” asks Jennifer, clearly upset to be losing them. “We really want the dialogue to be consistent.”

“We’d be happy to,” says Luisa, a moment before Andrew can say No.

“Mahvelous!” says James, raising his glass. “Here’s to wrapping this puppy up and signing some sexy A-list stars.”

Andrew and Luisa accompany James and Jennifer to the big shiny black car they hired for the day—the driver waking from his after-lunch snooze and jumping out to open doors.

“We’ll be in touch,” says James, giving Luisa a kiss on the cheek and shaking Andrew’s hand. “You guys are special.”

“Thank you so much,” says Jennifer, pecking Luisa’s cheek and intending to peck Andrew’s, except he embraces her.

“We are of one mind with you, J,” he says, holding her for a long moment. “And we know you will represent us well in the battles ahead.”

“What a wonderful thing you said to her,” says Luisa, holding Andrew’s hand as they watch the big black car roll away. “I think she probably would make the movie the way we wrote it if only she could.”

“I do, too,” says Andrew, feeling light as air. “I also think we should go to the beach now and take the kids out for pizza tonight.”

The movie based on Their Summer Holiday is not filmed in Thailand or anywhere else in September because in July the American movie studio that optioned the movie rights and paid Andrew and Luisa to write three drafts of the screenplay and then paid two other writers to write three more drafts, drops the project after the overseeing studio exec reads the sixth draft and says, “By page five I wanted to vomit.”

A year and a few months later, in October of 1994, a maverick Danish filmmaker named Nicolas Thorsen options the film rights to Their Summer Holiday from Andrew and Luisa for five thousand dollars, writes a new screenplay based on the original play, has Andrew and Luisa tweak his screenplay, and makes the movie for two million dollars.

A charming thirteen-year-old from Bristol plays Leo as if born to the role of a preternaturally kind and imaginative person.

A beguiling French gal with red hair and emerald eyes plays the part of Louise with an irresistible mix of innocence and savvy.

A droll self-effacing fellow from Oxford who reminds everyone of the young Rex Harrison plays the part of Jonah.

The three songs from the play are performed in the movie by the three main characters accompanying themselves on ukuleles.

And the movie ends exactly as Andrew and Luisa imagined it would, except when Louise gets in the car she gives Jonah a marvelous kiss—an unscripted kiss that turns out to be cinematic genius.

Their Summer Holiday, the movie, is released simultaneously in England and France in October of 1995 and is an instant success. By December the movie is playing all over Europe, and in the spring of 1996 Their Summer Holiday opens in a hundred theatres in North America and becomes an art house sensation.

That same spring, Andrew and Luisa and Owen and Lily are in the throes of mighty change. The kids are now in Eighth Grade, Lily fast becoming a young woman with suitors galore, Owen falling in love every few weeks but too shy to approach the girls he’s smitten with.

Luisa and Andrew are writing a play together, a comedy drama set in a bookstore, Andrew is working on a series of short stories about carpenters, and Luisa is writing a quasi-autobiographical novella about the six weeks she spent with her grandmother on Rainy River.

On Tuesday mornings, just for fun, Andrew and Luisa write screenplays together, acting out the parts and imagining how Nicolas Thorsen, who is now their hero and friend, might film the scenes.

In the fall of 1996, Jennifer calls Andrew to see how he and Luisa are doing. Several times in the course of their conversation she refers to Their Summer Holiday as the one that got away, and though she recently had a big hit with a serial-killer flick and has a prostitute-becomes-a-princess film about to open in thousands of theatres, she insists Their Summer Holiday is the best movie she’s ever seen and would love to work with Andrew and Luisa again some day.

When she’s done dropping the names of all the big stars she’s working with, Andrew asks, “So what’s going on with you apart from the movie biz?”

And after a moment’s hesitation she says, “I wonder if I’ll ever be in a relationship with someone who really understands me, really gets me. Like you get me, Andrew. Someone like you.”

fin

One Fell Swoop

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The Same Woman (Yvonne)

Every few years Andrew meets the same woman and always recognizes her, though she never recognizes him as anyone she’s known before.

The first time they met was in elementary school in 1955. The second time they met was during the summer of 1962 when they were both thirteen. And starting in 1966 they were in a relationship that lasted a year until she—her name was Laura then—left him for someone else.

In December of 1969, shortly after Andrew turns twenty-one, the first draft lottery takes place in America and he draws number 344, which means he no longer has to be in college to avoid being sent to the war in Vietnam. However, one of Andrew’s very best friends, Cal, draws number 3 and is certain to be drafted even if he manages to get into graduate school.

When Cal is denied conscientious objector status, he decides to move to Canada rather than go to prison or Vietnam. Cal has a cousin who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia who agrees to house Cal until he gets settled in Canada. Cal asks Andrew to drive him to Vancouver and they leave California for British Columbia in June of 1970, just a few days after they graduate from UC Santa Cruz, Cal with a degree in Philosophy, Andrew with a degree in Drama.

Funded by Cal’s parents, they rent a big orange van to carry Cal’s books and records and clothing and musical instruments, including two guitars, an electric bass, an amplifier, and a drum kit. They stay in motels, eat in diners, and make the trip to Vancouver in four days.

By 1970 the Canadian government is no longer making it problematic for American draft evaders to move to Canada, so Cal and Andrew have no trouble entering the country.

Cal’s cousin Frank and Frank’s wife Jean live in a small house in a suburb of Vancouver. They are both in their early thirties, Frank a surveyor, Jean a piano teacher, and Jean is pregnant with their first child. They are not thrilled about sharing their house with Cal, but they are thrilled about the thousand dollars a month Cal’s parents are giving them for as long as Cal lives with them.

On the evening of their second day in Vancouver, a few days before Andrew is planning to head back to California, Cal and Andrew go to a pub called Angel Alley in downtown Vancouver to hear a lineup of local musicians. The drinking age was recently lowered to 18 in British Columbia, and the place is mobbed with college kids and hipsters.

Cal, who has been playing guitar and writing songs since he was eleven, is keen to explore the music scene in Vancouver. Andrew took up the guitar after his relationship with Laura ended three and a half years ago, and with Cal as his teacher he has gotten quite good.

So…

After a middle-aged woman does a fair imitation of Judy Collins singing Joni Mitchell songs, and three earnest fellows cover Dylan and The Beatles, a young woman takes the stage with her guitar and stands a few feet away from the microphone as she waits to be introduced.

Andrew looks at the young woman and his jaw drops because as far as he’s concerned she is none other than Laura, the great love of his life who jilted him three and a half years ago and moved to England with her new partner—yet here she is in Angel Alley about to perform.

“That’s Laura,” says Andrew, nudging Cal who is conversing with a gal at the adjoining table. “Has to be.”

Cal turns to Andrew. “Sorry. What did you say?”

“Look,” says Andrew, pointing at the stage. “Tell me that isn’t Laura.”

“Sure looks like her,” says Cal, studying the lovely woman with shoulder-length brown hair wearing a white blouse and black slacks and standing at ease with her guitar. “I thought she was in England.”

“Last I heard she was,” says Andrew, his heart pounding. “Three years five months and two weeks ago. But this is definitely Laura. Who else could she be?”

“I didn’t know Laura played guitar,” says Cal, trying to discern the make of her reddish brown parlor guitar.

“She didn’t,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “But neither did I until she left.”

Now a big burly fellow with spiky gray hair steps up to the microphone and says, “Without further ado, it is my great pleasure to introduce Yvonne Garnier.” 

Loud applause and whistling fill the air as the woman steps to the microphone and begins to play and sing. Her voice to Andrew’s ears is Laura’s voice, a sweet woman’s tenor, and he cannot hold back his tears.

When she finishes her first song, Cal whispers to Andrew, “She’s fantastic, but I don’t think she’s Laura.”

“Why? Because she changed her name?” asks Andrew, certain she is his lost love.

“No,” says Cal, putting his hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Because this woman has been playing guitar since she was a kid. I’ll bet you anything.”

After a scintillating set of original songs and a few folk classics, Yvonne leaves the stage to thunderous applause and many of those in attendance head for home.

The bartender calls “Forty minutes to closing,” and Andrew and Cal shift their chairs to join the two women and a man—Terry, Sheila, and Chas—at the adjoining table, Terry of great interest to Cal and vice-versa.

“So are you moving to Canada, too?” asks Chas, directing his question at Andrew.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” says Andrew, still under the spell of seeing Laura again. “I got a very high draft number and I’m hoping to get into grad school one of these days, but I am loving it here, so you never know.”

“And he’s gonna visit me often,” says Cal, his eyes full of tears. “Aren’t you, A?”

“Much as I can,” he replies. “Much as I can.”

Now the woman Andrew thinks is Laura emerges from backstage and comes to join them because Terry and Sheila are her best friends, and Chas has been her devoted fan for years.

Chas rises to give Yvonne a kiss on the cheek and Terry says, “Fantastic Evie. You just get better and better.”

“Thanks,” says Yvonne, turning to Cal and Andrew. “Who are these hunks?”

“I’m Cal,” says Cal, shaking her hand. “And this is Andrew. I’m just moving to Vancouver and Andrew drove me up from California.”

“Why don’t you move here, too?” says Yvonne, shaking Andrew’s hand.

“No good reason,” says Andrew, barely able to breathe.

“At least come to my birthday party before you go back,” she says, sitting down to have a beer. “My twenty-first. Day after tomorrow. At my mother’s farm. You’ll love it. Say yes.”

“Yes,” says Andrew, laughing to keep from crying. “Of course.”

But he almost doesn’t go to Yvonne’s party because in the half-hour he spends with her in Angel Alley, he falls in love with her again—or discovers he is still in love with her—and he can’t bear the thought of her breaking his heart again.

The night before the party, he and Cal go out for fish and chips at a place Frank and Jean recommend.

“Using linear logic,” says Andrew to Cal, “I know Yvonne is not Laura. But every cell in my body tells me she is the same person.”

Cal ponders this for a moment. “What do you mean by the same person? They could be twins, but twins aren’t the same person. They may resemble each other, but they have different brains and hearts and personalities and experiences. So what do you mean by the same person.”

“I mean that when we were in the pub with her, I knew she was Laura.” Andrew clears his throat. “I know that sounds crazy because she is not Laura, and I know that because Laura’s mother still lives in San Francisco, not on a farm in British Columbia. And I know that because I called her today to confirm she still lives in San Francisco and to ask her if she’d heard from Laura recently and she said she had, that Laura was still in England with what’s his name.”

“Therefore?” says Cal, smiling at the approach of their waitress with two big platters of fish and chips.

“Therefore she cannot be Laura,” says Andrew, nodding his thanks as the waitress sets the feast before him.

“Anything else I can get you?” asks the waitress, making eyes at Andrew.

When Andrew does not reply, Cal says, “We’re good. Thanks so much.”

“And yet,” says Andrew, staring at his food and seeing Laura/Yvonne playing her guitar and singing, “I know she’s Laura.”

“Did you also know that our very attractive waitress was interested in you? No, you didn’t. Because a big part of you isn’t even here.” Cal sighs in sympathy. “I think you never got over Laura. You never broke the spell. So of course you see her in Yvonne who looks very much like her.”

Andrew closes his eyes. “But it’s not just the resemblance, Cal. Yvonne is two or three inches taller than Laura, and her speaking voice is deeper, and she talks much more slowly.”

“With a subtle sexy Quebecois accent,” says Cal, smiling quizzically at his friend. “So why do you say she’s Laura?”

“I think she has Laura’s soul. Or her spirit. Maybe they’re the same thing.”

“What about the Laura in England?” asks Cal, chewing thoughtfully on a delicious French fry. “Does she share her soul with Yvonne or did it somehow leave her and enter Yvonne?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, shrugging. “I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t know how to else to explain it. Yvonne doesn’t just remind me of Laura. She is Laura. And that’s why I’m not going to the party tomorrow. Because the only way to end this madness is to avoid her whenever she manifests in my life. And I hope she never does again.”

“But you love her,” says Cal, frowning. “Maybe this time she’ll want to be with you and not leave you for someone else.”

“Why would she be any different this time?” asks Andrew, still pained by his memory of the moment Laura told him she’d found a new love. “If she has the same spirit, then she’ll act the same way. Right?”

“Maybe she’s changed. Maybe she’s evolving as you’re evolving. Maybe this time she’ll be ready to make a life with you.”

“I doubt it,” says Andrew, sipping his beer. “Though I do love the idea of souls evolving together. And maybe she won’t even be interested in me this time.”

“Oh she seemed pretty interested in you,” says Cal, loving the fish and chips. “That’s why she invited us to her party three seconds after she met you.”

“Maybe I won’t be interested in her this time,” says Andrew, wanting to sound disinterested.

Cal rolls his eyes. “Maybe you’ll grow wings and become a bird.”

“So what if she breaks my heart again?” says Andrew, abruptly changing his tune. “Maybe that’s part of the evolutionary plan.”

“So you are going to the party with me,” says Cal, laughing. “I hope so. And I hope you do fall in love with each other and you stay in Canada and then I won’t feel so alone.”

Yvonne’s mother is named Charlene. Her farm is an idyllic place, ten acres of level ground seven miles north of Vancouver, eight of the acres in permanent pasture, one acre for summer vegetables, the remaining acre occupied by a big old farmhouse and a rundown cottage and a flower garden and outbuildings for chickens and rabbits and pigs.

Charlene is fifty-two with long brown hair going gray. She speaks English with a strong Quebecois accent and has lived on her farm for twenty-one years, having moved here from Montreal when Yvonne was in utero.

“I was a singer, too,” says Charlene to Andrew as she gives him a tour of her farm—the birthday party in full swing at the farmhouse. “But when I got pregnant with Yvonne, I thought, ‘No, I’ve had enough of this struggle. I will go west and live in a quiet place near the ocean. I had some money from my father, so I bought this farm and we have been very happy here.” She smiles as she remembers her first years on the farm. “Of course I sang to my daughter and taught her to play the piano and the guitar, but I never thought she would try to make singing her career as I did. She is more successful than I was, but still she makes her living as a waitress.”

“This is such a beautiful place,” says Andrew, wondering why Charlene singled him out for the tour and not Cal. “How far to the ocean?”

“Two miles,” says Charlene, stopping with him in front of the dilapidated cottage. “Yvonne says you are thinking of moving here. Perhaps you would like to fix up this cottage and make this your first home in Canada.”

“Oh I’m not moving here,” says Andrew, embarrassed by the mix up. “My friend Cal is moving here.”

“Yes, I know,” says Charlene, nodding, “but Yvonne says you are thinking of moving here, too, and if you will do the work on this place, I will give you free rent for two years, and, of course, pay for all the materials. She told me you are handy with tools.”

“I’m a fair carpenter,” says Andrew, intrigued by the cottage. “But I’ve mostly been a landscaper. Built decks and sheds and…”

“Well this is like a big shed, isn’t it?” says Yvonne, beaming at him. “A sophisticated shed with a toilet and shower and kitchen and living room and bedroom.”

“Maybe Cal could live here,” says Andrew, imagining settling down on Charlene’s farm for a while, playing music with Cal and getting to know Yvonne. “Can we have a look inside?”

“It’s falling down,” says Charlene, pushing open the front door of the little house. “You would mostly be building it all over again.”

“I’d need a place to stay while I was doing the rebuilding,” says Andrew, warming to the idea of a Canadian adventure before going to graduate school. “There’s no room for me where Cal is staying.”

“I have an extra bedroom in the farmhouse,” says Charlene, nodding assuredly. “You would be welcome here.”

“But you hardly know me,” he says, taken aback.

“Yvonne says you are wonderful,” says Charlene, matter-of-factly. “That is good enough for me.”

So a few days later, after he drops the van off at a car rental place in Bellingham, Washington, Andrew returns by train to Vancouver and begins a new chapter of his life.

Having brought very few things with him, he moves into Charlene’s farmhouse with a small suitcase of clothing and a knapsack containing notebooks, pens, dark glasses, a few books, a Swiss Army knife, and a camera.

His parents are surprised by his decision to stay in Canada, but understanding, too, and they ship him a box of clothes and shoes. Cal is thrilled with Andrew’s decision to stick around and comes to the farm every day to help with the renovation until a committee assisting American draft evaders gets him a job as a dishwasher and janitor at a college cafeteria, after which he can only help on weekends.

Charlene’s boyfriend Walter, a roofer, outfits Andrew with most of the tools he needs, shows Andrew the best places to buy building materials, and lends his expertise to Andrew when the going gets tricky.

And what of Yvonne? She is delighted to have Andrew living on the farm and staying in her former bedroom. Throughout the summer, she comes for supper a couple times during the week, and every Sunday she spends the day and sometimes the night at the farm.

She is greatly attracted to Andrew, as he is to her, and they spend lots of time talking, playing guitars, going to movies and plays, and walking on the beach. But they rarely touch and never kiss except on the cheeks as French people do when greeting each other and saying goodbye.

As the weeks and months go by and summer turns to fall, the cottage lacks only a new roof to be ready for Andrew to move in. Charlene’s beau Walter does the roofing job with Andrew assisting him, and Walter is sufficiently impressed with Andrew’s skills and strength and amiable nature to tout Andrew to a builder he knows, which results in Andrew being hired for eight weeks of good-paying work that gives him a nest egg for the winter.

Charlene loves having Andrew on the farm and hires him at a decent wage to help around the place a couple hours a day.

Not being in school or working for his father as a landscaper for the first time in his life, Andrew starts writing songs and stories, and he discovers he is much more interested in those art forms than in acting.

On a Sunday evening in early December after the supper dishes are done, Andrew and Yvonne and Charlene and Walter and Cal and his sweetheart Terry gather in the living room to hear Andrew read a short story he’s been working on for some weeks now, The Precipice. This is the first time he has ever shared his writing with anyone other than Cal, and though nervous at first, he grows more confident as he reads.

“That was so moving for me,” says Charlene when Andrew finishes reading. “I was on the verge of tears from the beginning to the end.”

“Really good,” says Walter, nodding in agreement. “Kind of a fable, but it seemed very real, very true. Just great.”

“I loved it,” says Terry, smiling wide-eyed at Andrew. “I know an editor at The Weekly Blitz who might want to publish it. Can I show it to him?”

“I need to polish it,” says Andrew, overwhelmed by the praise. “But yeah, that would be wonderful.”

“You’re amazing,” says Yvonne, gazing at Andrew as if seeing him for the first time. “Will you read it again to us when you finish polishing?”

“I… yeah,” says Andrew, blushing. “It really helped knowing you were listening. I mean… I read my stories out loud to myself, but it’s not the same as reading to an audience.”

“Same with a song,” says Yvonne, wanting to kiss him. “I always think of the audience as the final ingredient.”

The response to his story from his new family of friends ignites Andrew’s writing fire as nothing ever has and he starts waking early every morning to write for a few hours before doing his farm work or going off to a carpentry job. He writes in the evenings, too, if he’s not going somewhere to hear Yvonne sing or visiting with Cal.

Andrew’s parents offer to fly him home for Christmas, and to please them he flies from Vancouver to San Francisco a few days before Christmas, spends seven days in Redwood City with his mom and dad and brother, sees a few old friends, and flies back to Vancouver in time to attend Charlene and Yvonne’s New Year’s Eve party.

The day before the party, Andrew gets a phone call from the editor of The Weekly Blitz, a guy named Joe Ganz. “We would love to publish The Precipice,” says Joe, his voice deep and gravelly. “I can pay you twenty-five dollars. I know it’s not much, but that’s what we pay for feature stories. And I’d love to see anything else you want to show me. We don’t often publish fiction, but this story fits us to a T.”

Which means the New Year’s Eve party is also a celebration of Andrew’s success, and Yvonne asks him to read The Precipice to the fifty or so party goers, many of them artists and musicians and writers.

“Not tonight,” says Andrew, hating to disappoint her. “I’m feeling shy and I’d rather not be the center of attention. If you know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean,” she says, putting her arms around him. “But I really want you to read that story for everyone. It’s just what we need to hear right now. Please?”

So Andrew agrees, a microphone and amplifier are set up, Yvonne plays a beautiful guitar tune to get everybody’s attention, and exactly an hour before 1970 gives way to 1971, Andrew reads his story to the assembled host.

All the usual clichés apply. You could hear a pin drop. They hang on his every word. Again and again he has to hold for laughs. There isn’t a dry eye in the place. And when he reads the last word of The Precipice, there is a collective gasp and the crowd goes wild.

At midnight there is much hurrahing and hugging and kissing, and when Yvonne and Andrew kiss, they cease to hold back from loving each other, though they do not take the physical loving beyond their kiss.

In the days that follow, Andrew gives himself so entirely to his new life, he forgets all about trying to get into graduate school. He works on the farm, takes the occasional carpentry gig, writes for hours every day, plays music in the evenings with Cal, and he and Yvonne start spending big chunks of time together on Saturdays and Sundays, exploring the city and the coast, and reveling in their friendship which continues to deepen in spite of (or maybe because of) their unspoken agreement not to become lovers.

 ∆

One day in early summer, as the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Canada approaches, Andrew and Yvonne sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their backs against a driftwood log on a gorgeous beach a few miles north of the farm.

“The thing is,” says Andrew, smiling out at the sparkling sea, “I feel married to you. Yet we are not lovers. Which means…”

“Soul marriages aren’t about sex,” says Yvonne, taking Andrew’s hand. “They might include sex, of course, but they aren’t founded on sex.”

“Do you think if we had sex we’d lose our soul connection?” He frowns. “I wonder if that’s why we haven’t. Because we’re afraid we might.”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “Our souls will always be connected, even if we never see each other again. But I do think we’re afraid that becoming lovers would complicate things. And it would. Sex always changes everything. Don’t you think?”

“I’ve only been sexually involved with one woman in my life, and we started having sex right from the get go, so there was never any question of changing the relationship with sex.”

“I’ve had a handful of lovers,” she says, sounding somewhat bitter about it, “and in every case, the minute we had sex, even really awful sex, they thought they owned me, as if entering my body gave them dominion over me, and I hate that.”

“I think that’s a primal belief among most humans, don’t you? Claiming each other by having sex. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand why people feel that way. Not just men. It’s not just cultural, it’s biological.”

“It’s learned,” she says, angrily. “Taught to little boys from the day they’re born.”

“What is taught to little boys?”

“That they are superior to girls and should be able to dominate them.” She frowns at him. “You don’t think so?”

“My darling, Evie,” he says, smiling at her. “I have two brilliant older sisters and learned ten thousand times before I was seven that girls are stronger and smarter and more capable than boys in every way except, eventually, in terms of brute strength. And I’ve never liked brutes.”

“So if we become lovers you won’t think I’m your exclusive property?”

“You mean will I be okay with you sleeping with other people?”

“Would you be okay with that?”

“Well the thing is, I wouldn’t want to be in a sexual relationship with you if you want to sleep with other people. But I’d still want to be your friend.”

“How is that not owning me?” She pouts. “You would own the exclusive rights to me sexually if I wasn’t allowed to sleep with other people. Right?”

“No,” he says, laughing. “I just wouldn’t be in a sexual relationship with you. You can sleep with a different person every night if you want. Or two. I just don’t want to be involved in that kind of sexual dynamic with you or anybody. It’s not who I am.”

“Hmm,” she says, pondering this. “Because I really want to make love with you, A, but I can’t promise sexual fidelity.”

“Are you sleeping with anyone now?” he asks innocently. “I won’t mind if you are.”

“I’m not,” she says, pouting again. “I haven’t in over a year. Since a few months before I met you. And every time I’ve been tempted since then, I always think, ‘But I like Andrew so much better than this guy. Why would I ever sleep with this guy if I can sleep with Andrew?’ And then I don’t because I want you instead.”

“I’m flattered,” he says, holding out his arms to her.

They embrace and feel marvelous.

“So let’s make a pact,” she says, kissing his chin. “If we do sleep together and sleeping-together doesn’t last for some reason, we’ll always be friends.”

“Sounds good,” he says doubtfully, “but we can never know in advance if we’ll always be friends. We only know our souls will always be connected, which is not necessarily the same thing as being friends.”

“So how about this,” she says, moving apart from him so she can see his face. “We commit to sexual exclusivity with each other for one year with an option to renew for another year if we both want to.”

“A one-year marriage?” he says, loving everything about her. “Will we live together?”

“Yes. I’ll move into the cottage with you and save oodles not paying rent.”

“But what if we make love…” he says, pausing portentously. “And it’s really bad? Marriage annulled?”

“No,” she says urgently. “If the first time is bad, we have to try to make it better. We have to help each other in every way. Sexually and creatively and emotionally and spiritually.”

“I’m game,” he says, looking into her eyes. “What are you doing tonight?”

She takes a deep breath. “Being with you.”

The morning after their first night together, entangled in Andrew’s bed, Yvonne says, “Laura may have broken your heart, but in the ways of lovemaking she was a very good teacher.”

A few days after becoming Andrew’s lover, Yvonne gives notice she is vacating her apartment at the end of the month and starts moving her things to the farm a carload at a time. What doesn’t fit nicely in the cottage, she stores in the attic of the farmhouse.

After two months of commuting at night to and from the restaurant where she works, Laura shifts from supper to lunches so she can spend her evenings with Andrew. She makes less money, but now she’s paying no rent and can gig during the week, and she’s happier than she’s ever been. Ditto Andrew.

 ∆

In October, they borrow Charlene’s car and drive to California to visit Andrew’s folks, after which they continue on to Los Angeles where Amelia, one of Yvonne’s old friends, now lives and has arranged a couple gigs for her.

Much to Andrew’s surprise, Yvonne loves LA, and on the way back to Canada she says she’d like to live there one day.

“What do you like about it?” he asks, much preferring life on the farm in Canada.

“I love the weather, the people, the energy,” she says, gazing out at the passing scenery. “And if I really want to succeed with my music, that’s the place to be.” She turns to him. “If we got married, we’d essentially have joint citizenship and you’d be free of any hassles about living in Canada and I’d be free of any hassles about living in America. So we could live either place. Or both.”

“Is that a proposal?” he asks, deciding not to tell her he hates Los Angeles, the putrid air, the terrifying traffic, the absence of forests and wilderness, the millions of desperate people.

“Something to think about,” she says, kissing him. “I know you love where we live now, but I’ve lived there my whole life and I’m ready for a change.”

Which is why in the summer of 1973, after two years of living together, Andrew and Yvonne part ways, she to pursue her music career in Los Angeles, he to stay in Vancouver and carry on with his writing.

One evening a few months after Yvonne moves to Los Angeles, Andrew and Cal are in Angel Alley having beer and burgers, and they realize they are sitting at the same table where they first met Yvonne and Terry, who is now Cal’s wife.

And their reminiscence about that fateful evening prompts Andrew to say, “You’re the only person who could even begin to understand what I want to tell you.”

“About Yvonne?” asks Cal, knowing Andrew is hurting terribly from his loss of her. “Tell me.”

“You remember how in the beginning I said she was Laura, not in body but in spirit?”

“I remember.”

“Well I continued to feel that way until about a year ago.”

“What changed?”

“Well… I came home one day and she was on the phone with Amelia, and something was different about her. I couldn’t say exactly what it was, but she was different. Still sweet and funny and loving and wonderful, but different. And I came to realize she no longer reminded me of Laura. A particular kind of energy I have never been able to describe was gone from her.”

“Yet you still loved her.”

“More than ever.”

“So where do you think the Laura energy went?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, his eyes sparkling with tears. “Your guess is as good as mine.”         

fin

the song Just Love

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Do I Know You?

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

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Actual Abstract

shallwedance

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.

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Stripes

this song's for you site

This Song’s For You by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” Pema Chödrön

A friend recently sent me a link to a short movie about a high school art teacher in St. Paul Minnesota whose students are recent arrivals from other countries, refugees from military conflicts. Many of the students barely speak English, so this teacher has devised fun and creative ways to explore color theory without needing much language for the learning.

Watching the film reminded me of another short art-related movie made by a friend of mine in 1976 called Stripes, about stripe patterns in paintings and life. Dan Nadaner, now a professor of art and a successful artist, made the three-minute long film in those pre-digital days while doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. For the soundtrack, he wrote a ditty about the stripes that appear in paintings by famous artists, and he asked me to play guitar and sing his lyrics in the way he imagined, a kind of slow-going country song.

I was twenty-six and living in Medford Oregon at the time, working as a landscaper. I had stopped writing and making music entirely for a reason that may sound ridiculous, but which made perfect sense given the accumulation of neuroses characterizing me in those days.

I took up the guitar at the age of twenty when I needed a more mobile instrument than a piano. Three years later I was making a large part of my minimal living playing guitar and singing in pubs and cafés in Santa Cruz, and it was during this time I entered into a relationship with a woman who was studying piano.

My relationship pattern at that time and for much of my life was to choose partners and friends who were openly hostile toward my music and writing. Why would an artist repeatedly get involved with people who despise his art? The short answer is that my parents were contemptuous of my music and writing and violently opposed to my pursuing those art forms as my life’s calling. Thus as a child and teenager I became habituated to abuse and disdain for what I was passionate about, and as I progressed into adulthood I repeatedly and unconsciously chose people reminiscent of my parents to be my mates and friends. This continued into middle age when I finally broke free of that debilitating pattern.

But before breaking free, I spent much of my life enmeshed with people who thrived on disparaging the likes of me, and one of those people was my girlfriend when I was twenty-four and twenty-five and making part of my living as a musician and selling the occasional short story. My girlfriend hated the relative ease with which I made music, and by the end of our relationship she had convinced me that my desire to entertain people with my music and stories was an emotional crutch. She preached at me incessantly that if I ever wanted to become a whole and genuine person, I needed to quit making music and stop writing.

So I gave up writing and music, she and I broke up, I went to work as a landscaper, and I didn’t play a note or write a word for one long year until Dan called me from New York and asked me to play guitar and sing the soundtrack for his movie Stripes.

I clearly remember telling Dan that I no longer played guitar or sang or wrote stories, and I remember Dan calmly suggesting this was a passing phase, that I was a good musician and he was sure I would do a fine job singing his ditty about stripes.

So I borrowed a guitar and played and sang the Stripes song into a cassette recorder and sent the tape to Dan, thinking it would be something he could use to clarify his vision of the soundtrack, but then he called and said, “That’s perfect.”

The next day I woke up with a new song forming and I barely got the words written down and the chords figured out before another song began to emerge. Then the floodgates opened, I purchased the borrowed guitar, wrote dozens of songs, started playing the piano again, and haven’t stopped playing since.

Shortly after I began making music again, I wrote the first short story I’d written in two years and immediately sold it for five hundred dollars. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is entirely true. Dan asking me to play and sing for his movie, and his approval of what I created for him, lifted the curse and turned Toad into a functional writer and musician again.

“How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss

More than thirty years later, Dan sent me a DVD of Stripes, and when I watched the movie again after all these years, my gratitude to him was as big as the moon. The film is somewhat rosy now, having lain in a canister for three decades before being transferred to digital format, but I still find it a most beautiful creation. Our web meister Garth has posted Stripes on my web site so you can take a look. Just go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on Films.

Alas, my resumption of writing and making music way back when did not go hand in hand with an end to relationships with abusive people who hated my music and writing. That blessed day would not come until I was in my mid-fifties and I finally ended the last of those debilitating connections. What took me so long? I guess these kinds of transformations take time.

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Trish

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

Friends of ours recently told us that their twenty-five-year-old son, a bright personable college graduate, but no techie, found the job market so grim he signed up for a seven-year officer training program in the Navy. The benefits are socialist utopian—excellent pay, free healthcare for him and his wife and children (should he ever marry and have children), subsidized housing, free travel, his children’s college educations entirely paid for, fabulous retirement pension and benefits—and he can go to graduate school online while serving in the Navy and becoming a helicopter pilot or a meteorologist or a navigator or just about anything else he can imagine becoming.

The big problem is that he will be a cog in the imperialist war machine and his superiors may ask him to kill people or support the killing of people, which won’t be easy for him because he’s such a nice guy and doesn’t want to kill people or help other people kill people. And, of course, he might get killed or maimed in the line of duty, though if he doesn’t join the Navy he is just as likely to get killed or maimed by some idiot drinking or talking on the phone or taking drugs (or all three simultaneously) while driving.

In any case, the idea of a promising young person joining the military because he or she can’t see any other way out of the putrid economic situation engendered by our insanely selfish stupid shortsighted overlords reminded me of Trish, and I thought you might enjoy hearing my story about her.

Twenty-five years ago, at a low ebb in my writing career, I was invited to take the reins of the Creative Writing Department of the California State Summer School for the Arts, a brand new program for ambitious teenagers who wanted to see about becoming writers, artists, dancers, actors, animators, and musicians—a one-month summer residency program at CalArts in Valencia on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The first person they hired for my position stuck around long enough to hire two writing teachers, but then quit when he realized the job actually required a couple months of hard work. I took the job because I was out of money and my wife said she would leave me if I didn’t take the job.

The school’s charter explicitly called for the department heads to be experienced professionals in their fields and not academics, yet I was the only non-academic among the department heads, a situation profoundly disheartening to me because academics, even the nice and well-meaning ones, tend to be maddeningly unimaginative and profoundly crippled by dogmas every bit as stifling as the dogmas of organized religion.

Trish only got into CSSSA because the school was so new there were very few applicants. The second year we turned away many promising writers, but that first year all thirty-two of the Creative Writing applicants were invited to attend, and twenty-seven accepted those invitations.

Growing up in a trailer park in a rough-and-tumble part of San Bernardino, Trish was eighteen going on thirty-five, and one tough cookie. Tall and slender with carrot-red hair, she wore tight blue jeans, T-shirts with NAVY writ large across the chest, and her boyfriend’s big black leather jacket, her boyfriend being a badass biker in jail for aggravated assault but hoping to transfer out of the county jail in San Berdoo and into the Marines. Trish was going into the Navy a few weeks after she finished her month at CalArts and “the only reason I did this summer school thing is because Miss Engle said I should.” Miss Engle was Trish’s English teacher and Trish adored her because “Miss Engle is the only teacher I ever had who thought my poetry was good.”

Trish wrote poems that rhymed, and her rhymes precipitated my first big crisis at the summer school. One of the two teachers working with me, a died-in-the-wool academic, told Trish that rhyming was infantile and creatively restrictive and Trish should write poems that didn’t rhyme. This was before rap lyrics and competitive poetry slams rife with rhyming became all the rage in the hipper college English departments and before I managed to convert my faculty to my teaching philosophy best summed up by Johnny Mercer: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

So three days into the program, Trish came to my office, stood in the doorway, looked at the floor and said, “I’m quitting because Donna said my poems were restricted kindergarten shit. Fuck her. I’m outta here.”

To which I replied, “I’m sorry she said that to you. What a thoughtless thing to do. She’s obviously wrong and doesn’t get the gist of song. Some of the greatest poetry ever written, rhymes. She’s hopelessly out of step with the times. I love rhymes. Bob Dylan, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves, and all those Led Zeppelin songs. I think Donna just stayed in college too long.”

Trish frowned and said, “You want to read my poems?”

“I’d love to. I can read them tonight and…”

“No,” she said, stepping into the room and placing a big black binder on my desk. “Read them now. Okay? I’ll wait outside.”

Her poems were written in curly cursive on lined paper, brief chronicles of her hard scrabble life in a trailer park in San Berdoo with her alcoholic mother and promiscuous sister. Her father was in prison and one of her poems about him rhymed mail and jail and bail and tail, his latest crime statutory rape. Her boyfriend was a heavy equipment operator and a biker who was sweet when sober, crazy violent when drunk. Yes, her rhymes sometimes muted the power of her narrative, but the discipline of rhyming seemed to help her make sense out of the chaos from whence she came.

“Trish?” I called, having lost myself in her poems. “You there?”

She reappeared in the doorway and gave me a furtive glance before returning her gaze to the floor. “You took a long time.”

“They’re fantastic,” I said, tapping her binder. “Why don’t we switch you into my section and see what happens?”

“You like them?” She squinted suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that so I won’t quit?”

“I love them, and I’d love to see you try your hand at writing a story or two.”

“I just write poems,” she said, picking up her binder. “Poems that rhyme.”

So Trish became a permanent member of my morning section, and over the next three weeks she changed considerably, something that happened to many of the students who attended CSSSA where for the first time in their young lives they found themselves in the company of fellow artists and social misfits and original thinkers, free from the constraints of parents and old haunts and habits and educational dogma—breathing the air of creativity and freedom, however fleeting the experience.

Trish eventually wrote several good poems that did not rhyme, at least not overtly, and she wrote a brilliant and painfully realistic story about a young man who robs a liquor store, flees on his motorcycle to the trailer park where his girlfriend lives, and convinces his sweetheart to ride with him into the desert where they are ambushed by the police and the young man dies in his girlfriend’s arms—drenching her in his blood.

For the Creative Writing denouement that first year, we commandeered a large conference room and invited students and faculty from the other disciplines, as well as parents and friends, to attend a performance by our writers of their best new work. Participation was voluntary and those writers too shy to read were encouraged to enlist fellow writers or Drama students to read their stories and poems for them.

I very much wanted Trish to perform her story because I thought it by the far the best short story produced by anyone during that long hard month of work. But Trish said she couldn’t possibly get up in front of an audience and the only way she would consent to having her story read was if I read it.

The great day dawned, and in our audience of a hundred or so students and faculty and parents were Trish’s big handsome boyfriend en route from jail to Camp Pendleton, and Miss Engle, Trish’s high school English teacher.

The show was a resounding success, the audience applauding loudly after every poem and story, and for the grand finale I performed Trish’s tragic tale. And when I finished reading the last sentence and looked out at the audience, there was not a dry eye in the place. And then came thunderous applause and everyone shouting “Author! Author!” until Trish stood up to receive her due.

When she came to say goodbye to me the next day, Trish declared, “They only liked it because you’re such a good reader.”

“Not true. They loved it because it’s a great story. And you wrote it.”

“I’m not a writer,” she said, looking me in the eye. “I don’t have enough to say.”

“That’s what life is for. To give us material.”

“I’ll send you a postcard,” she said, gifting me with a rare smile. “From wherever I go after basic training. Promise.”

But she never did write. So it goes. That’s just the way the wild wind blows.

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How Stupid?

Simon

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

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

A recent phone conversation with a friend caused me to comment, “How could they have been so stupid not to know that?”

Our conversation was about a film my friend is working on, a documentary extolling the virtues of a pilot program in California called Pre-Kindergarten. I know what you’re thinking, and I thought the same thing. Isn’t pre-kindergarten just another name for pre-school or nursery school? No. Because kindergarten in America is no longer what kindergarten used to be. Why? Because Bill Clinton and George Bush and now Barack Obama have overseen a demolition of education in America that has damned an entire generation of students to ignorance and semi-literacy, and that demolition includes a tragic transformation of kindergarten.

To make a long horror story short, beginning some twenty years ago the morons (evil ones?) in charge of dispensing federal education dollars to the public schools of our fifty states, declared that America was falling behind the rest of the world because of low test scores in our public schools. The thinking of these evil ones (morons?) who had somehow gotten into positions of power in our government went something like this: “Well, heck, if low test scores is the problem let’s just bring those test scores up by making the kids memorize a bunch of useless crap so they score higher on the dang tests. Yeah. Sure. That should do the trick.”

Well, making kids memorize a bunch of useless crap without also teaching them to read and write and think and understand didn’t do the trick. In fact, it did the opposite of the trick because memorizing is not learning. Hence most Americans graduating from high school today can barely read, cannot write worth a damn, and they don’t know how to reason or think critically and creatively, nor can they speak in complete sentences, nor do they know anything about anything except what’s on television. Thus no one wants to hire them for anything except the most menial of jobs.

There are currently, right this minute, many thousands of internet technology and bio-technology job openings in the Bay Area and other techno-hubs across America that are simply off limits to most Americans because most Americans looking for work today are not even minimally qualified for such jobs or even qualified to be trained for such jobs; and so American companies continue to bring in jet loads of men and women from China and India and Russia and Pakistan to fill these positions because for some reason China and India and Russia and Pakistan have no trouble producing jet loads of literate and well-educated people.

So…back to the evil ones (morons) continuing to pursue the disastrous No Child Left Educated programs that currently hold sway in America. Confronted by the failure of trying to make uneducated children memorize useless data in order to attain higher test scores, these cretins (devils) decided: “Hey. You know what? Maybe the problem is we’re not forcing these slaves, er, children to memorize useless crap when they’re really young. How about we start the usual idiotic First Grade training in Kindergarten? You know, get those teeny kids learning their ABC’s and adding and subtracting while being forced to sit at desks and act like drones right after they learn to walk and talk so they can start memorizing useless crap pronto. Yeah. That should do the trick.”

Well…guess what? Aborting children’s natural creativity and curiosity while they try to learn to read and write and add and subtract and sit quietly at desks before their brains and bodies are organically ready to learn those kinds of things, is the surest way to produce an epidemic of dyslexia and learning disorders and behavioral problems that qualify nearly all children subjected to such insanity for, you guessed it…Special Ed!

Faced with this disastrous tidal wave of seriously fucked up children, and confronting the formidable power of the evil morons, a few brave educators and educational bureaucrats in California said, “May we make a suggestion? How about we try a little something before kindergarten, not nursery school or pre-school, but pre-kindergarten to see if that little something we want to try improves the kids’ learning abilities and better prepares them for actual kindergarten and First Grade and beyond.”

“You mean start them memorizing useless crap even earlier than we were already making them do that?” asked the evil morons, liking that idea, of course.

“Well, no,” said the brave educators. “That doesn’t seem to be producing very good results. We thought we’d try something else. Just to see. Okay?”

Though the vagueness of the educators’ plan perplexed the evil morons, they gave the California educators the go ahead to operate a number of pre-kindergarten pilot programs wherein the kids sang and danced and finger-painted and went on nature walks and listened to teachers read stories and, you know, kind of exactly like good old kindergarten used to be, and by golly those kids did do much better in the new moronic kindergarten and idiotic First Grade classes than the kids who didn’t go to pre-kindergarten.

And that is what prompted me to say, “How could we have been so stupid not to know that?”

One of the answers to my question is that over the last twenty years (and before that, too) tens of millions of people, those that could afford to, removed their precious children from the ass backward public schools, and so those millions of people were too busy earning money to pay for private schools to join in any sort of meaningful fight against the evil morons destroying our public educational system with the blessings of our evil moron presidents. Another answer is that most people, smart or stupid, don’t question how their children are being educated but get mighty upset when their children graduate from high school and can’t read or write or get a job.

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Somerset Maugham

I became interested in dyslexia some forty years ago when I was working in a day care center and three of my little friends insisted on signing their drawings and finger paintings, though none of the other three and four-year-olds attending our center knew how to write their names. Each of the three precocious scribes had well-meaning parents who thought if they could make their children learn to read and write when they were only three and four-years-old that their kiddies would have a competitive advantage over their classmates.

One of the three children who had been pushed prematurely to learn to write his name would labor for several minutes to sign SIMON upside down and backwards. Another of the children always misspelled her name with oddly incomplete letters, and the third child made a line of various-sized rectangles she insisted spelled SUSIE. What especially concerned me about these three children was that they all exhibited extreme anxiety about making mistakes, no matter what the activity, even when they were just finger painting or drawing with crayons or building towers with blocks.

Concerned for my kids, I began reading articles about learning disorders, including dyslexia, and was heartened to find that a number of comprehensive studies had proven conclusively that most cases of dyslexia and many other learning disorders, too, could be traced directly to children being forced to try to learn to read and write and do mathematics before their brains were ready to learn these things.

But what about my cousin Ward? He learned to read when he was two! He used to dazzle us by reading the dictionary aloud, no word too big for him to pronounce. I know this may come as a shock to the evil morons, but exhaustive research has proven that every human brain is unique, and each unique person attains his or her optimal brain state for learning to read and write at a unique moment in his or her life. Shocking but true: some people’s brains click into readiness, so to speak, to learn to read at two, three, four, five, six, on up to twelve-years-old. And if someone’s brain is not ready to learn to read and write, and that someone is forced to try to learn, there is a strong probability they will develop some form of dyslexia or learning disability.

What’s more, this cause of learning disorders and dyslexia has been common knowledge among educators for forty years. Yet our public education system has done virtually nothing to accommodate this incredibly important truth about how we learn. Waldorf education, you may know, makes individual brain readiness a centerpiece of their learning system, but our public schools and charter schools and even most private schools…well, how could they have been so stupid not to know what precipitates learning disorders?

“One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” Douglas MacArthur

The recent news that our overlords are trundling out the same old Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction ruse to pave the way for the United States to start bombing and/or invading Syria, made me snicker at first, until I realized that a population of semi-literate tweeters will believe anything if that anything is presented to them as the truth because they were never taught to think critically or logically or even just minimally for themselves. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it certainly appears that the overlords have engineered a perfect system for creating mass stupidity to serve their needs in the short run, and short runs are all they care about.

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Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”

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The Death of Literature

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)

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Writing the Sequel to Under the Table Books

I’ve been madly writing the sequel to my just-published novel Under the Table Books. Given that only a handful of people have read Under the Table Books, and confronted by barely discernible sales of the mighty tome, my rational mind warns me that my current literary labor is folly, that years spent on a sequel to an unknown novel will amount to yet another wasted effort, and we’ve already got piles of those gathering dust.

What my rational mind fails to comprehend (no matter how many times I explain this to her and because logic only takes us so far) is that I do not think these things up, these stories and plays and novels, and then decide to write them down. I do not plan what I create. Nor do I consider anything I’ve ever done wasted effort. What happens for me, and has been happening since I was a little boy, is that I hear a story being told to me and I see a movie unfurling as I hear the words, and my mission, if I choose to accept it, is to transcribe what I’m experiencing as vividly and musically as I can. I say musically because my taste runs to prose that swings to consistent and compelling rhythms.

I have written other sequels to other books I’ve published, though I have yet to publish a sequel, so I certainly understand the concern of the pragmatic sector of my brain as it worries about the aging corpus laboring over a saga that may never be published and may never bring us money or something we can trade for food and shelter. And if that’s the case, why bother? In all honesty, I bother because despite the latest data from my personal commerce department, I find the thickening plot and the seductive characters irresistible and I can’t wait to read what I write down next. I’m hooked.

When I lived in Berkeley some years ago I was in range of three or four radio stations that presented bestselling and/or academically anointed fiction writers talking about their latest books and their lives and how they went about writing. Some of these writers spoke at length about what their books meant, which always made me uneasy. Even more disturbing to me was that the vast majority of these writers claimed to know what they were going to write before they started writing. They actually thought things out ahead of time and got their ducks in a row in a barrel before they started shooting. They said things like, “I thought I’d like to write a book about…” Or “I knew I could sell this if I set it in Venice and opened with a scene in which…” Or “Gardening and cooking and infidelity are all the rage right now, so I decided…” All of which were ways of thinking I considered antithetical to originality and intuitive creativity.

But as depressing as all that intellectual hoo ha was to me, the thing almost all of them did that made me want to smack them with a bamboo pole, was to claim they were speaking for other writers. They would employ phrases such as “every serious writer eventually discovers…” or “of course any good writer will tell you…” or “the best writers always…” or “one should never…” and many other repulsive and stupid things; thus I surmised their books would be poo poo.

So what does that have to do with me writing a sequel to my virtually unknown novel? Everything! And should I ever be asked to speak about my writing process, I will say essentially what I’ve just written here, though I will do my best to let my characters speak for themselves.

A Brief Excerpt From the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Natasha—tall, brown, graceful, and vastly pregnant—stands behind the bookstore counter reciting the lyrics of the Under the Table Books anthem to Hansel and Gretel Hosenhoffer of Stuttgart, a middle-aged couple in heavy gray tweeds blowing through California on a whirlwind tour of esoteric bookstores of the western hemisphere—Hansel sporting an ebony monocle, Gretel wearing a necklace of tortoise shell reading glasses.

“All books are free,” intones Natasha, her voice deep and sonorous. “If you want to leave something you value as much as the book you’re taking, cool. Have a book you don’t want? Drop it on by. And don’t get us wrong. We enjoy receiving stacks of quarters and piles of dollar bills. We delight in all forms of currency, including tasty comestibles. Yes, and keep those potted plants coming. May all beings be well read.”

Hansel Hosenhoffer frowns quizzically. “From zis you make a living?”

“Amazing but true,” says Natasha, resting her hands on the drum of her belly, her soon-to-be-born baby kicking gently in 4/4 time. “The kindness of book lovers knows no bounds.”

Gretel Hosenhoffer smiles in mild horror at the foundational implications of the anarchist bookstore. “But how does anyone determine the worth of anything?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” says Natasha, moving out from behind the counter to join Bobo in the Reading Circle where he has been waiting patiently for her to read to him from his current favorite book The Adventures of a Naughty Boy Named Knocker and His Trusty Sidekick Poo Poo Head.

The bell above the door jangles and Iris Spinelli dashes in out of the rain. A spry ninety-four, her curly white hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her leotard blue, her slender frame draped with seven purple scarves, Iris is wending her way home from the weekly gathering of the Society of Impersonators of Famous People (formerly the East Side Philatelists Association.) Iris is currently impersonating the interpretive dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927). Last week she was the movie star Claudette Colbert (1905-1996).

“Z around?” asks Iris, going up on her toes to kiss Natasha’s cheek. “How’s baby today?”

“She’s a busy girl,” says Natasha, smiling down at her swollen belly. “Z gets home tomorrow from the Frankfurt book fair. Having way too much fun, if you ask me.”

“All morning,” says Iris, gazing into Natasha’s eyes, “I’ve been hearing a fabulous three-part harmony for The Look of Love. You and me and Z.”

“Let’s do our parts now,” says Natasha, lowering herself into a big armchair. “So when Z gets home, we’ll have it down.”

Iris smiles sublimely and hums a warbling note to set the key. Natasha breathes deeply of the trembling tone and eases into harmony with Iris—every molecule of the old building vibrating in sympathy with Iris’s quavering alto and Natasha’s superlative soprano, the blend of their voices unspeakably sweet.

Hansel and Gretel look up from their respective books—he leafing through Goethe, she inhaling Rilke—each moved to tears by the unfettered magnificence of the choir of two.