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24 Aug

Some years ago I let a co-worker talk me into trying my luck on a TV game show. Everybody in the office was doing it; every week, two or three people went over to the studio from our division of a medical publishing house to submit to the qualifying interviews. I didn’t know anyone who applied who wasn’t selected; it seemed easy. People came back with a check, some of them winning big. And the ones who didn’t claimed they’d had “fun.”
This was the last year of the war, which was winding down but not before taking the life of my young brother. I was an activist, demonstrating in the streets, tithing to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, arguing, writing letters. But I couldn’t talk to my brother, who was on his way to Vietnam. He didn’t talk to me either, especially after OTS. He went before he heard the statement “We had to destroy the village to save it,” but the OTS prepared him to understand its sentiment. I wanted him to ask me questions. I had an argument against that war, but I hesitated to argue with him. He might, I thought, have to fight for his life, and what could my argument do for him then?
At that time, I knew the country’s geography; I knew names like Phu Bai and Danang, names I’ve nearly forgotten, although they say that Vietnam is now a big tourist destination. There’s a travel magazine devoted just to Vietnam. That summer, I wanted to get out of my own country, just get out. If I won some money, I reasoned, I could take my two kids and leave as soon as school was out.
So I went, with another editor, to sit in a waiting room and listen to a cheerful, conservatively dressed man with a buzz haircut tell us about the show and how much fun it was going to be. We filled out forms with our names and occupations, and we stood in front of a camera and said a few words as a test.
We were passed on to the next stage, where we sat in a small studio where the assistant producer explained the rules to us. Two contestants and a celebrity made up a team. The team would be asked a question. We must each write (in large print) an answer and, when asked, hold up our chalkboards to display our answers. When all three gave the same answer, we won money. It didn’t matter what we wrote on the chalkboard. To win, we must, without consulting, be in agreement. The opposing team, two contestants and another celebrity, would try to outscore us.
“You see, the point — the point of this whole wacky game — is that there’s no ‘right’ answer!” the assistant director said, making a funny face.
I punched my co-worker in the shoulder. “You didn’t tell me about this. What does he mean, there’s no right answer?”
“Shhhhh!” she poked me back.
“But how can that be? If I’m asked a question, I try to — to come up with the right answer. It’s my nature.”
“Here’s the classic example of the way to play the game,” the assistant director was saying. “Suppose I ask you to name a kind of pie. A . . . kind . . . of . . . pie. What would you say?”
The word rhubarb came to mind. Rhubarb pie, tart and sweet, with powdered sugar dusting the top. When I was a child, rhubarb grew wild on the other side of the barn. I’ve never made a rhubarb pie, although I’ve got a great recipe and have thought about it. If someone were to offer me a piece of pie at this
moment, and I had my choice of any pie on earth —
“The answer is apple pie. See? There is no right answer, but if you all give the same answer, you win. Remember that. Name a pie? Apple pie!”
Not only was I not a performer, but I didn’t think fast on my feet, I went into paralysis when a camera pointed at me, I tended to lose my voice — but I also just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get my head around it. To win, I had to
think of what everyone else was going to say. No individuality, no quirkiness, no imagination. Just pronounce the cliché. Come up with the word everyone else is thinking of. But it was harder for me to think of the obvious thing than to think of a dozen other answers to the question. The obvious was the last thing I thought of.
But I was picked as a contestant, and I needed the money, so I signed the release form.
The master of ceremonies, pink and polished, his face full of color as if some assistant had slapped him on both cheeks just before he took the stage, turned to my team and sang “Hello!” We gave it back to him, and the audience laughed. He leaned over his lectern and said to me and my partner, a young sailor on leave in the city, “We have a surprise for you today. You’ll never guess who your celebrity partner is going to be! Oh, you’re in for a treat,” he promised and held his hand toward the wings.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Gloria Swanson!”
A thrill of fear ran through me. I was so sure Gloria Swanson was dead, must be dead, that I thought something had gone wrong with the people who ran the show; they had made a terrible mistake. But the audience was cheering wildly, led by the assistant director who stood out of range of the camera and urged them on.
A thin, bony, turbanned, heavily made-up and bejeweled woman took tiny steps onto the stage.
She came over and sat between me and my partner. I tried to look at her without turning my head. It was like looking at a mummy. Her face was almost without wrinkles, except for the deep lines that showed how the skull was formed.
She was not only alive — she was to live another seven or eight years, in fact — but she proved to be remarkably quick-witted. A leading question from the master of ceremonies gave her an opening to lecture us briefly and succinctly on fresh fruits and vegetables and apple-cider vinegar baths. When the master of ceremonies explained the game, she gave a quick nod and picked up her chalk. No right answer? She seemed to know exactly what he meant.
I can’t remember who the celebrity was on the other team — perhaps someone whose fame had passed me by. The questions came; we moved right along.
“Whose profession would you recognize anytime you saw one on the street?”
Policeman, I wondered? But sometimes they are plainclothesmen. A military man? But soldier, sailor, which branch? And they don’t have to dress in uniform all the time, do they? A nurse? A doctor? Only if he wore his scrubs on the street. The master of ceremonies pressed me — my partners were ready and waiting.
I scribbled something on my chalkboard and we turned our answers over in unison: Police, Police, Model, the boards said. You can always recognize a model, because they never wear makeup on the street, and they all carry a huge makeup case.
In the end, because of Gloria, Miss Swanson, we scraped through, and I came away with enough money to pay Icelandic’s airfare to Prestwick, and to live for two months in an apple orchard on a farm in the Firth of Clyde where Nubian goats were raised, gentle, sloe-eyed creatures. Every morning, a bird walked across our roof. The time passed slower than the tides below our cottage.
One day as the kids dug canals on the beach for streams to run through, we watched a submarine surface out on the Firth. It was, we learned, on its way to the American nuclear submarine base at the north end of the waterway. It seemed there was no place to get away from the war.
We came home to the soap opera of Watergate. “Why did I come back?” I asked my friends, but Watergate, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was fun; I missed it later, when it was over. Or was it my marriage I missed — my marriage and Watergate ended about the same time.
There’s no right answer to that question, I guess. It might depend on whether anyone else agrees with me. Miss Swanson, would you come out, please?


20 Apr

This piece was published in HUMOR IN AMERICA; THE VIEW FROM OPEN PLACES, eds. Eleanor M. Bender and Nancy Walker, in 1985. In the Foreword, the editors noted: “Women writers, instead of imaginatively re-playing scenes from their own childhoods, tend to comment on the idea of childhood itself. Thus Martha Moffett imagines a “Who’s Who of American Children” in which can be recorded the triumphs of the young—”Prize essay, 6th gr.: ‘The Most Hated Math: Roman Numerals’—while mocking the very concept of a Who’s Who.”


MOFFETT, KIRSTEN R., student; b. New York, N.Y., Ap 14, 1968; d. Robert and Martha (Leatherwood) Moffett; edn: 96th St. Co-op Nursery, N.Y.C, 1972-73; Emily Dickinson Elementary Sch., N.Y.C., 1974-79; V.P. student council, 1977; introd. resolution to wear costumes to school on Halloween. Sch. crossing guard,1979. Prize essay, 6th gr.: “The Most Hated Math: Roman Numerals.” Group show, The Clothespin Gallery, 1976. Lassie League Softball Trophy, 1978. Honor Camper, Camp Timber Trails, 1977-78. Mem. G.S.A. (Gypsy Badge, Cookie Badge), 1978-79. Grad. Miss Gillian’s Ballet Class, 1979. Author (with Billy Barfield), musical comedy “How Bums Bum Around.” Contrib. articles to Meatball; Emily Dickinson Comics; others. Contact: Ms. M. Moffett, 2 Shady Lane, Bloomfield, NJ.

The E-pistles of St. Paul

7 Apr


The E-pistles of St Paul are issued weekly by journalist Paul Bannister, a Brit and an old friend.  Feel free to read his entertaining archives online; in a recent development, you can listen to him read them on a worldwide webcast from the UK.

I’m running part of a recent posting because he mentioned me; but he does go on and on, and it’s all extremely enjoyable, especially for sentimental Anglophiles.

E-piphany e-pistle  #129.   Posted on Jan 6 2013

First of the year, some new readers, and a whole lot of new listeners on radio, so here’s what’s what:  you are receiving the ramblings of a self-appointed and decidedly dodgy saint, in the e-pistles of St Paul.These email -pistles began 128 weeks ago, that’s more than two years in old money, when I realized that standard paper and envelope post was no longer tumbling through the letterbox in the way it once did. People had simply stopped writing to each other. They were texting, twittering, tweeting, Facebooking  and  photomailing, lots of BTWs, LMAOs and LOLs but they were not actually writing  or exchanging what I consider real information, news or ideas. And I missed that.  So I imitated Saul of Tarsus, whose revised name I share, and began sending evangelical epistles to the faithful, and to those who have not yet been caught.  But, I didn’t want to push them to seek a website or scroll through pages of Facebook entries about what kind of sprinkles I’d ordered on my moose saliva latte.  I wanted to keep it simple. So I began sending a weekly email. Want to read it? Click. Don’t want to read it? Click ‘Delete.’ No offence taken,  and it’s easy.

This saint does not suffer from delusions of adequacy, and knows that his written efforts wouldn’t keep anyone awake for long, so invited people to respond, however briefly, to the weekly e-chat. And people did. His illiterate rugby friends took up their crayons, the erudite journalist colleagues tapped their keyboards and the psychics all sent telepathic messages. That input of opinions, anecdotes and insights launched a discourse and suddenly we’re in week 128 and have a regular readership, all for free, all for entertainment and you don’t even have to be this tall to go on the ride. And, under the deal outlined below, your name goes worldwide, too.

This week launches something new. The saint, in full mellifluous voice,  is reading the epistles on, on Alan Cox’s worldwide webcast  from the UK and he has set up a link on his site. You can read past e-pistles on   and can email the saint directly at if you’d like to share your own anecdotes or observations.


On Finding That My First Novel Can Be Bought at for $0.01

20 Aug

The Common Garden by Martha Moffett

Am pleased or horrified? Or am I happy there are even a few copies left…or what? “One cent” seems somehow archaic. People toss pennies away now, rather than adding their weight to their pockets or purses. If not for the $3.99 shipping charge, it would probably be more bother than it’s worth for the bookseller to engage in a one-cent transaction. But, of course, he does clear his shelves.

I do have a few copies of “The Common Garden” on hand, bought when its going price at Amazon was $1.75. There’s a story there. I once came across a book dealer who had two copies, so I ordered both. Before I got to Check-Out, I had a message that one copy was no longer available. What? After all these years, there’s someone besides me looking for my book? At the same time? But I let it go, content that another reader existed somewhere. A few days later, when I tried again, that same dealer had listed a single copy of my book – but now it cost $27! All by myself, I had created a new demand – and driven the price up!
Since that one-time spike, my novel’s price has leveled out at a consistent $0.01. I have a soft spot for my first novel, an erotic tale that seemed sexy in 1977 but seems quite naive today. I wrote it when I still lived in Manhattan.
My friends in The City were mostly like me, all from somewhere else. Many of us had come to New York to be writers, painters, actors, musicians and the rest. We were just a wave, possibly a wave and a half, ahead of the Youth Revolution of the ’60s. We were already in regular jobs and pushing regular children in regular strollers when the younger people with their own music and styles came rolling through. When I first saw Bob Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, for example, it was my first night out after giving birth to my second child.

I longed to be a writer, but nothing I was doing was leading me that way until pornography came to my rescue. I had occasionally read porn, whenever it fell into my hands. But for pornography, I might never have known about the possibilities of sex, although I must have guessed that those possibilities existed. Sex was never discussed in my family, and neither my schools nor my teachers ever brought up the subject. I grew up isolated, in an Appalachian hamlet, riding the bus to school and back each day, with no society of girlfriends to enlighten me, either. Nowadays, my many feminist friends often call on me to condemn pornography and sign petitions and complaints and so forth, but instead I look with some benevolence on The Lustful Turk and The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe – these were textbooks to me.

In New York City, I worked as a copyeditor and proofreader, for publications ranging from Gentleman’s Quarterly to The Weekly People, an old-time Socialist rag. I sometimes worked on staff, but always picked up freelance assignments whenever I could. I wanted to write, to be a writer, but while I was sure of my style and voice, I realized I had no story to tell. In my voracious reading as a child, I never anticipated the ending of a story because I always wanted to be surprised. Somehow, this singular penchant kept me from inventing my own stories. If I knew how the story turned out, how could I be surprised? How could I write a novel if I could not even think up a plot?

At a publishing party, I met Maurice Girodias, owner of Olympia Press and publisher of the famed olive-green Traveller’s Companion erotic books. I had heard that he recently lost his copyeditor, so I went up to him and proposed doing the work freelance, saving him a staff salary with benefits. He agreed, and I began to read the entire upcoming list of Olympia Press productions.

As I copyedited and proofed the work of Marco Vassi, Frank Newman, Tor Kung, and other writers, I had a revelation. Pornographic novels had no plots. They all jumped from simple to complex, and only the growing complexity of each story’s sexual activities served as plot. Every story had this sensation of movement, of progress, of development that almost fooled the readers into thinking they were reading a story. For example, the first chapter might be a man and a woman having sex, Chapter Two might be a woman and two men, Chapter Three might be a houseparty or an orgy, and on and on. Well, I can do that, I thought, so I proceeded to write my first novel.

I already knew what the setting would be. While wheeling my first child to the park, I walked along a block on the upper East Side where, sometime in the past, the wooden fences dividing the back lots into long, narrow backyards had been taken down and the householders had created a community garden. They had installed play equipment in one area, flowerbeds in another, several trees – mostly plane trees, but also one well-shaped pear tree that bloomed during its season.

I used to peer inside from the end of the block, and I envied the inhabitants their green and private space in the middle of the city. I also began to see that this common garden provided a means of connection among all the families on that block – every back door, literally, opened into every other back door, and by extension, into every bedroom. My characters would have no problem finding each other. I decided to title my book The Common Garden.

Another problem I had was too little time to write. I had a full-time job that paid very little; I did all the shopping, cooking, laundry, and so forth for my family, and I also had a constant supply of freelance work, because I never turned down a job. In a flash of inspiration I decided to give up my bike, which I rode to my office in midtown, and took the subway instead, creating two forty-minute blocks of time that were unavailable before. I would miss my ride – I came down through Central Park, sometimes on the Promenade, sometimes through the Sheep Meadow, on certain mornings with the full moon hanging on my right and the sun rising on my left, a magical scene that meant a lot to me. I would miss shooting out of the park at 59th Street, competently changing lanes, heading east toward my waiting desk. But I simply I had no other time to call my own.

I bought a notebook, an old-fashioned one with the marbled black and white covers, and a reliable pen. My first few days were a struggle. I had to shake off our family’s morning rush to get us fed and dressed and out of the house. Soon, however, I began to be able to enter an intense, more productive state of mind. Once I had put in a few days on my new schedule, I reached a plateau where entering the subway car triggered my writing; I could always begin immediately, just where I’d left off the day before. I didn’t have a plan; if I got a seat, I wrote with my notebook on my lap. If not, I wrote while swinging on a strap. Quite by chance, I found out that my method was working when some of my neighbors began to tell me that they sometimes spoke to me on the subway, saying “Good morning” or asking me a question, or even touching me or tapping my shoulder. Regardless, I was oblivious. They wondered if I was mad at them. I was just writing my novel.

My heroine, a naïf from the Midwest subletting for the summer, began to realize that her block association was not a merely a civic but a sexual organization. The characters in my novel who shared the common garden were finding themselves in more and more complicated circumstances. It was all building up to something. But what? My writing felt like a novel. I could see a bad end ahead for my heroine, poor girl, even as I learned something else about writing a novel: a surprise ending can surprise the writer, too.

A year later my book (the one selling for $0.01 on was published, not by Olympia Press, it was not their cup of tea, but by Berkley, who bestowed on it the label “a novel of suspense.” I went on to write other books, even some with plots. Several friends followed my lead, writing about sexual subjects for the first time, in plays and poems and novels.

That’s why now I’m compelled to give credit where credit is due. Not that I’m saying, “Let pornography flourish,” nor that it’s an ideal template or springboard for writing your first novel, nor that it will work for everybody.

I’m only saying it worked for me.

Note: The Common Garden has been republished by Event Horizon Press