The sweet drained from the bitter.
Who was Modi, Deo, Amadeo?
I didn't know him.
Would he have known me?
No, I don't think so.
Jeanne would have.
Could they have saved them?
Saved them for what?
The bitter drained from the sweet.
The sweet drained from the bitter.
Who was Modi, Deo, Amadeo?
I didn't know him.
Would he have known me?
No, I don't think so.
Jeanne would have.
Could they have saved them?
Saved them for what?
The bitter drained from the sweet.
She was exquisite, beautiful, tall, slender, thin-boned, with shadowed grey-blue eyes, sensuously pale skin and young, long hair that was nearly white. She was 74 years old and alone. Her husband was gone and her only daughter died many years ago. She lived in a small place with her plants and a cat and her music. Most of the time, she walked and talked to herself and anyone else who listened. On a few occasions, I was "anyone else" on the street listening as she talked about her dreams, her visions, her understanding. Like many mystics and my beloved mad Aunt, this delicate, articulate woman believed that 2001 (the rightfully first year of the new millennium) marked the awakening and reappearance of the treasured and patiently lost city of Atlantis. It rose, she said, invisibly at first, high into the sky and spread like a mist across the face of this blue planet. As it slowly appeared, she said, like an apparition over moonlit water, it brought with it a display of universal life in universal clarity. All religious ideas will dissolve, all temporal laws and mores will fade. There was no past year or decade or century, she said, just one long period from the time the crystal of Atlantis slipped into the sea until now, the next time.She said this to me on more than one occasion and led me to believe her. She is my Sisyphus. What happened last year and the year before that is all part of the heisenberg rock that engulfs her and everyone else... simply to be pushed to the top of the hill and then allowed to roll down again. What intrigued Camus about his Sisyphus was the time spent walking down the hill, free-spirited, knowing what will happen, free in that knowing. So did I become intrigued with this woman who lived in the present and was free of the past and the future. The string-pullers of her life, of her being, vanished. Her sentience came from within and her consciousness clothed her from the outside. Like Camus, I concluded... she was happy.
He: No! Listen to me... you are very beautiful... you make me very beautiful... and what we have done is invent ourselves, carve ourselves out of soft stone. Nothing will ever change that. The rules don't matter, the beliefs don't matter... it's like stepping off the edge of the planet into space. All there is... is you... and me. No more ending and starting over. But don't you see, whatever it is or was, it floated us together in the same place at the same time. We have to disconnect ourselves now. We can't go off with all of the threads unraveling behind us.
She: I don't care. I want distance... and time with you. I see me, in your eyes. And then I see you. We have the eyes, remember? From one eye to the other.
He: It's raining.
She: It's quiet out there. That big rolling Hudson River, all blue-gray and quiet. Look how it refuses to let the fog come in. It's strong. And I want to be strong, I don't want to be afraid.
He: Then we won't be.
She: No, we won't be.
He: Like magic?
She: Like magic! Please, my lover, protect us!
He: Please, my lover, protect us!
He said in echo...
I am a stranger in a strange land.
Everything here is theirs.
The sky, the water, the air, blue
Blue like my world
They can not see me
Blue like my mind
They can not hear me
To be blue in a blue world
Is to be invisible
And I am blue and invisible.
The echo never ends.
She: Don't make it a nightmare again. You came in with the rain last night and flooded me with images I almost forgot. You stick your fingers into my brain and explode it. Now that the pieces are melting together again, you look like you want to run and hide, as if there's a crowd watching you.
He: What should I do?
She: I loved you!
He: I think we never grew up.
She: I think you've changed.
He: It's the old stinko.
She: And today it's dripping out of every crack in the wall. It oozes under the door.
Do you think I didn't let it rip at me, tear my guts out? Do you think sometimes I didn't feel ugly, deformed? These past few years, all of the people I've been with, lying on their skin, feeling them touch me, touching them, trying to be wet and alive. I thought.: I'll pay... almost forever. I can't have what I wasn't supposed to taste. If I bite through my tongue and my lips, the blood will pass, and the new blood will be fresh and clean. Because it wasn't true. Because you were you and I was you and they were just... all of the men in my life.
He: All of the women in my life. Remember the marvelous stories you used to read to me about courtly love. The knight and his lady. Each was married... to someone else. But what passed between them was considered pure, a pure passion. Because there were no other motives. They could never marry. Even if they ran off together. All they had was the touch between them.
She: Like us?
He: I don't know!
She: Is that us?
Or has it all come back in an ugly way... to make us sick... and twisted.
He: I don't know what we are. I don't ever want to hurt you again. I know I loved you, and you're alive, and I need to be alive with you. I don't care about the past or what's right or what's wrong. I don't care about other people and the miserable way they live with each other and the way they force us to chew on their misery. There's so little time, so little time.
She: I never left you...on that beach.
He: It was a poor place... so many stones, and all the duckweed.
She: The sun got very hot, almost too hot to swim.
He: There were little bright blue dragonflies.
HE: And you were naked.
SHE: And so were you.
HE: They want us to fall down and bow our heads. They want us to fall backwards and cluck our tongues, be part of their fear.
She: But we have a chance, don't we? We can run... inside each other, roll up inside and run... down all the dark alleys. Clear away all the shadows.
He: I'm really very afraid... frozen.
She: Inside of me you are my lover.
He: Inside of you I am your lover.
As they have come, their time has come
Time in the past and the Time after and now
All Time is now
That's how he knew they were here
power only serves power
torture is for the torturer
conquest is for the conqueror
wealth only serves wealth
She could deliver a song that was so initimately torched
so privately burnt that it lingered long after the music stopped.
She sang with her inner life wide open.
She delivered in a way that her listeners could "see" as well hear.
Images on a dark night sky... bright
They come from where?
Memory, memories, muse?
Coffee and croissants
Wine and strawberries
Warm water and skin
Guitar and whispers
There is a sadness that floats on the sea in the afternoon. It has always seemed that way to me. No matter how bright and warm, as the sun tires and drifts downward, a lingering stillness, quiet, a hesitation before the long fall into darkness. Even the horizon no longer shimmers; the dance of blue and yellow becomes a slow glide along the water's edge. Sounds blend. The salt-smells hang without any apparent change. Every thing is poised. A sadness... perhaps it's me... a loneliness as I sit on the cliff-rim rocks almost breathless. I feel... transparent. I feel... invisible.
Along the land, the coastal land, as the summer ends, a new summer begins. The nights are colder, the sun is weaker, the sea is still warm. In the warmth of the afternoon, I walk along the grass-to-sand edge of the house, circling it, painting a fence around it with my body, protecting it. She is asleep inside, I am awake.
I remember this memory, this song I sang to her:
I called you, again and again, you didn't answer. I sent you one of those goddamned text messages, three of them, you didn't answer. I went to your door, rang the bell, banged on the door... you should have been there, if you were there you didn't answer, if you weren't, if you weren't where were you, where were you at 3am in the morning. Are you treating me to the torture you once scratched on my face the torture you said I rendered you with, silence in the face of emotion, no talk, no look, no response. Is that it, are you empowering yourself to render me.
Later, she came to my room and without a word went, sat in the shower. I sat with her. It never happened again.
I remember this memory, this song she sang to me:
Why when I shout at you, you look down. Why when I cry, your eyes are wet yet you don't cry. What I need, you need. When I need, you walk away. I've let you into my dark places, you say nothing. You let me into your dark places, I call out to you, you say nothing. Is it fear. Is it loss of self. Is it panic.
I offered to touch, to kiss, she refused it. Later I began to speak. The words poured like wine through a broken cork. She listened for hours. We were free.
For ten years we were lovers... an affair of the heart, I called it. No, you are a thief of hearts, she would say. And what are you, I would say, my victim? No, she would whisper, your loot.
For ten years we touched each other's skin, we slept together and bathed together. We stared into each other's eyes until our eyes went dark. We whispered our names in a thousand different phrases, in a hundred gestures, in echoes that flooded the memory with music. We went to places, walked along streets, lonely together because we couldn't share with other people. Afraid to share, afraid to lose a moment, because above all, our passion for each other glowed... green like sea fire, glimmering like a delicate, thin glass, floating on our fingertips, buoyant from our breath, waiting to shatter if either of us so much as looked away. We believed, I believed, that one day we would fall asleep together and never wake up. We would cross from white to black... no shades or colors in between... the most dangerous expense of life, this.
Then it came. Now she is asleep, falling deeper and deeper into dark sleep... and I am awake.
Grief, mourning, remorse, regret, the breath of pain... all of these are fences around a vast shadow of silence. Memory will fade. It lives only until I am no longer awake. The expense has been paid.
The title comes from a remorseful Mekong whiskey-Beaujolais hangover-driven ditty written in a sweat-dripping room on The Peak. This is one of many notes, scibblings really, of many time-stopped moments.
In the world of Suzie Wong
Everything ends at 4:30pm
The sun always sits on the horizon
Balanced on the fingertips of a small hand
The water, like fabric, smooth at the edges
Small boats weave into the large ones
Her eyes are French
Her lips are Italian
Her body is... her body
4:30pm and she disappears
4:30pm the light fades and the harbor disappears
She was not a fantasy of Suzie Wong. Her name is Rossina, she's Eurasian... Italian-French and Chinese, very Chinese and very Italian. Like the movie, every time together, she disappeared, had to go at 4:30pm. Like the movie, the beauty of Hong Kong, its watercolor hills surrounding the blue bath harbor, its shuddering light that seems to come from below rather than above, its stir-fry of persona and traffic and winds, the laughter... all fade and disappear at 4:30pm.
At night, Hong Kong becomes a different movie, a video-game of dream-stained neon, of pulsing echoes, unrecognizable music, voices, sounds, the shrill laughter. To be alone at night in Hong Kong is to be in the deepest pit of loneliness on a cold, earthen floor. I try not to ever be alone at night in Hong Kong. I've had my share of abundant help to stay clear of that unforgiving pit.
4:30pm like the solstices everywhere is a mysterious time of convergence. Light comes down to eye level, sound drifts behind the ears, smells become muted into tastes, touch becomes electric and submissive. The blend sashays into twilight and fades. Night is another world on another planet in another galaxy.
Rossina would come back on some nights when the memory-feel of 4:30pm mercilessly lingered in the bottles, in the glasses, on the walls, on the skin. She knew. Women are wonderful aren't they? They have a sense by design, by natural cultivation, of the needed time of a lover. I'm sorry my gay male friends, if you haven't experienced the unpredictable, uncanny sensuality, sensuousness of a woman... you've missed an existential treasure. And you won't find it in the wonder of another man. The male by design is one wonder short.
Hong Kong in its region shines like a jewel above the morass of Bangkok and Kuala Lampur and Jakarta. It winks at Beijing and Tokyo. It laughs at Taipei. But it is not Paris or Rome or San Francisco... except on any day, in sun or rain or cold or typhoon... at 4:30pm.
"Distraction seems to be what we are all about," a long-gone good friend of mine once remarked. It must be true: We are a species of creatures that enter the world non-sentient, unaware of anything but the urge for pleasure and its propagandized gift of comfort. When the shell dissolves, each of us, as a young human, is shocked, stunned, shook; we tremble in the clarity of our own self-image. We become dazed with the knowledge of who we are and where we are and what it is we are doing. Then it strikes, a tremor from deep in the mind's mountain, a vision of the end. It ends, this life ends. The thought, the sensation chokes us. We struggle to break away from it, to breathe free. It flows back again, smothering us. An endless loop, a sense of futility that becomes a wind as solid as a wall. So we put our heads down and launch ourselves like small, migrating birds, furiously flapping our wings, sometimes in great glassy-eyed flocks, often alone, eventually alone, until we drop - dead. It ends. It is distraction that keeps us flying, the candies of religion that we shove into our mouth, the herd-grown palliatives that we stuff up our nose, the finger-paints that we smear across our eyes and into our ears. What are the questions? How? What? Where? When? Anything to keep us from lifting our heads and looking into the face of Medusa, rendering into stone the only reality, the only question: Why? It is the distraction that keeps us flying, and I am one of the great experts in pursuing thought-numbing distraction.
There is a sadness that floats on the sea in the afternoon. It has always seemed that way to me. No matter how bright and warm, as the sun tires and drifts downward, a lingering stillness, quiet, a hesitation before the long fall into darkness. Even the horizon no longer shimmers, the dance of blue and yellow becomes a slow glide along the water's edge. Sounds blend. The salt-smells hang without any apparent change. Every thing is poised. A sadness... perhaps it's me... a loneliness as I sit on the cliff-rim rocks almost breathless... I feel ... transparent... I feel... invisible.
Fingers long, white, lying flat
Fingers spread, quiet, soft
Only her hands
The rest in shadows
The shadows are quiet and soft
She is quiet and soft
Because her hands no longer touch mine
Where have we gone?
Where will we go?
It's today again.
Sing to me, singer of songs.
all loss, no gain
ain't worth the loss
all black, no white, no blue
ain't worth the black
glimmer, glisten. glow
Like the sea, they reflect no light
She does not see me
Deep in the water of her eyes
I see me
And I see her
As she is blind, so am I
Deep in the bright blue-green water of her eyes
Deep in the blinding glow of her bright wide eyes
Deep in her
I realize--this word for awake, for aware, for astonishment, for agony
realize, just the two of us, we could have made it
realize, that you could have made it
and I could have made it with you
realize, that I let your tears flow through you until they washed you away
washed me away in you
I hear--this word for listen, for remember, for dreaming
hear, you call
hear, you whisper
hear, you cry
your voice is my silence
my silence is breathless, silver on silver, glass on glass
I see--this word for feel, for pain, for remorse
see, the skin, the eyes, the touch
Why--this word for love, for longing, for loss
why, you said it would be in your heart forever
why did you let me throw your heart into the sea?
At the mirror in white
The white with deep stains of red
The red from the blood of my lovers
He loved me
He loved me
I loved them both
They took me
They took each other
Come, come back to me.
Rune said: If you live in the past, you have no future. If you live in the future, you have no present. The present is all you have as it rolls and curves in space-time in all directions at once.
Yet, sometimes, at the edges, if there are edges, there are tiny, tiny noises, sounds, tiny pieces of melodies? of voices? of images that can be heard but not seen? When the sky is clear and dark, when the wind is steady and plain, when the memories are quiet and the breath is almost silent... tiny noises beckon, everywhere.
Something momentous has happened. It should have been shouted in large black type across the front page of the New York Times and other news media around the world. It wasn't. It was simply posted in the aggregation of a news cycle and dust-binned into the morass of search engine indexes.
It's about us. It's about our essence.
DNA is the four "letter" structure that is the current Constant of life as we know it, as the soon-to-be-surpassed speed of light is the current Constant in the physical universe as we know it. Now we, they, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have discovered a means, a mechanism to expand that structure and to alter it at will.
Hear me: This is the most important, most momentous discovery of our new century, or the 20th century, or all of our history for that matter -- to be superseded only when we make "first contact" with other beings in our galaxy or beyond. Everything will change!
You smile at that grandiose statement and shake your head. I know you have a tendency to let your eyes glaze over whenever you confront another answer to the question "Why?". Don't. Just read on. Here is an edited digest of the announcement that appeared in the June 3, 2012 issue of Nature Chemical Biology:
"La Jolla, CA -- A new study led by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute suggests that the replication process for DNA--the genetic instructions for living organisms--is more open to unnatural letters than had previously been thought.
The new study solves the mystery of how a previously identified pair of artificial DNA bases can go through the DNA replication process almost as efficiently as the four natural bases.
The scientists studied two artificial DNA letters, and found they use a previously unknown property of the DNA replication machinery to be copied. This explains findings of earlier research and provides a firm basis for expanding the vast information-carrying capacities of DNA.
DNA provides the most versatile information storage mechanism yet known. It carries the code of heredity found in all life. Scientists have even used DNA to create computers capable of handling astronomical numbers, and to store vast amounts of information.
Any advance in adapting DNA's mechanism to human uses could vastly expand these possibilities, including the efficient creation of molecules that life doesn't naturally produce. The study indicates that Evolution's choice of the existing four-letter DNA alphabet--on this planet--may have been somewhat arbitrary. It seems that life could have been based on many other genetic systems.
An expanded "DNA alphabet" could carry more information than natural DNA, potentially coding for a much wider range of molecules and enabling a variety of powerful applications and useful new life forms."
What does this mean? It's very straight forward. Take a deep breath and read it again. It means that the irrevocable chain of identity of who and what we are and why... is about to be revoked.
As you reach for your robe of "faith", as you wrap yourself in your scarves of "moral values", as you implore your "gods", your "God", consider: All of this was manufactured in desperation by you and your ancestors to combat the great lonely fear of beginning alone and ending alone... of death. Now, everything will change.
Huxley saw it, and so did Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke and Gerard K. O'Neill. Eugenically speaking, you will become obsolete and forgotten. And your descendants will become obsolete and forgotten. And then there will be no descendants. It makes you afraid, doesn't it, to give up the drug, your fear of futility... that drug with its overpowering addiction that allowed your ancestors and you to survive. Now, everything will change.
Will your uniqueness be lost? No. But the moon that circles this planet is also unique and so are all the structures in the universe. All that will be lost is the fear. What is coming to take you home is not the darkness of "heaven", it is the expanding light of your own evolution.
Something has happened.
In 1992, a young man came to the attention of the Authorities and other interested non-governmental parties. He was eyed because his old Hungarian uncle began to talk about him indiscriminately whenever the old man loosened his tongue and sense of discretion with too much drink. It was hotly rumoured that the young man had developed or come into possession of a "Thing". Let's just call it that... a Thing. In all of its float-around variations, the rumour focused on an incredible assertion: the Thing had the power to make other things happen, to change anything into anything.
Imagine that. No one seemed to know precisely what that meant, how this device (was it a device?) worked, what its limits were (was it limitless?), and who did, could and would control it. Imagine that. Imagine the possibilities because that's what everyone else did at the time, imagine the possibilities, the assumptive facts as they vibrated out through the fantasy of the imagineers.
Apparently, the first to get to the young man and his Thing was not the government and its FBI/CIA minions. It was a consigliore from a New York Mafia family. His name was Tommy the Jew, (a typical gang moniker because Tommy was married to a Jewish lady and lived on the lower Eastside). His smooth-tongued, silky white-suit manner washed in and out of the ears of the young man. So he returned with two friends, hulking well-dressed no-necks named Vincent and Votan (Vinnie and Vo to their friends and victims). They offered him a life of riches, they bullied him, they threatened him, they terrified him. They tried to force the young man to show&tell the miracle of the Thing. How he avoided their persuasion and made them leave is unknown (they came back again many times in greater, grinning, darker numbers).
The next invasive wave that haunted the young man appeared as two FBI agents. They were both called Smith, both had short crew-cuts, both wore tailored dark suits and both wore dark glasses. They told him that he was on the 'list'. What list? They didn't say. What they did say was that he was a threat to National Security, that he could be sent to a "rendition" camp, that they would extract the information they wanted with great pain and harm to him. The young man was silent. They then did an about-face and with slight smiles urged him to be a good American citizen, to be loyal to flag and country, to save the American Dream. He was still silent. They told him: they wanted the Thing. He told them: he didn't know what they were talking about. He told them: there was nothing, he had no... Thing. They gave him a business card and said they would be back (they came back again many times with many more Smiths).
Another significant univited visit was a religious delegation: a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Monsignor. They addressed him in that order, for some reason, perhaps it had something to do with Tommy the Jew. They told him that Mankind has been waiting for the Thing since the dawning of... well... Mankind. They told him they knew that he was not the Savior but with their new vision of all the scriptural writings, of all of religious history, they knew he had the Savior in his hands, or wherever he had it. The young man was calm and silent. They cried, they pleaded with him. They held hands and danced around him, three holy men sweating in their holy garments. They fell to their knees moaning and singing and begging him to give them the salvation of all people, the instrument of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. He told them: he had nothing, he had no... Thing. They stared at him for a long, long time. Then they left, shuffling and muttering about reading the holy words again and telling him that they would return (which they did, many times, with more and more crying and pleading and singing people).
Somehow, all of this was kept from the hungry eyes of the Press. Nevertheless, the waves and floods of visitors and beseechers became unbearable. Crowds of ungainly, unorthodox, uncontrolled, imploring beggars entreating, pleading, pressing, demanding. There were times that if they weren't so menacingly bizarre, they would have been hilarious: Mafioso elbowing CIA agents, priests shoving missionaries, doctors back-handing hookers and lawyers (or vice versa). All desperate, yearning, obsessed. The chaos forced the young man to move, to hide again and again. But each time they found him. Until he evidently located a place that was not visible, off the map, a house behind a house. He lived there with a woman, a girlfriend, his lover. And he felt safe.
She was also young--lovely, bright, and exciting. And she was blind, from birth. They were happy together. One day, after many days of reclusive quiet, he sat in the living room reading. At one end of the room was a staircase that led to a bedroom loft with a balcony. The young lover suddenly appeared on the balcony clutching the railing with both hands.
She said to him: she needed his help. She said that now they were truly alone, that the craziness had disappeared, she wanted him to help her... she wanted him to use the Thing to give her the sight she never had.
After a long moment, he said, quietly: There is no Thing.
She said, more adamantly: There is, I know there is.
He said, again: No, there is nothing... no Thing.
She raised her voice: Why, why if you love me, why if you want me, why won't you do this for me?
He said: There is nothing.
She said, her voice louder and trembling: I've heard you, I've seen it, I know it exists, I've seen it.
He closed his eyes, his face tightened, he said: You've seen nothing.
She screamed at him: HELP ME!
He screamed back at her: I CAN'T!
She screamed: WHY?
He said: Because... I DON'T...
As she ran to the top of the stairs she tripped, and fell down, first one flight of stairs, then another, until she lay at the bottom. He ran to her and evidently saw the pool of blood forming around her head. He evidently thought she was dead (she wasn't). He ran out of the house and vanished.
She recovered and she told all the interested parties everything she knew. They believed her. They searched for him for years. They had many leads, many sightings, many hopes.
He had disappeared. Vanished. Gone. Not a trace of him. It was as if he had never existed. Everyone who had met him knew he did because he was The Man with the Thing. And they were not.
Midnight was the time when I slid into a deliciously dark, smokey jazz club in Chicago and was bewitched by a blend of music I hadn't heard before. It was distinctly Bossa Nova topped with a layer of bop. They were beginning to call this style "fusion" as Latin jazz had resurged. But what I heard that night was decidedly more and rarified. The piano was exceptional, technically and emotionally. And there was another layer floating underneath--subtle, classical riffs that might answer the intriguing question of: What happens when Jobim meets Bach?
That's how I met Manfredo Fest, a worldly, classically trained pianist and composer who sautéed jazz and Brazilian rhythmic harmonies into a feast of musical entrées.
We met and talked that night in between Manfredo's sets as he maneuvered through the crowd, flirting with his fans, joking with his friends, and whispering a few modulations to his band. It was a delight to see, because, you see, Manfredo couldn't see--he was blind, though you'd barely notice it. It seldom affected the rich, full life he created and enjoyed. He was a high spirit that night and for as long as I knew him.
In 1921, archaeologist Cyrus Atherton discovered a scroll on the island of Malta reputed to be a relic from the last days of the fabled city of Atlantis. It contained a prophecy... at the stroke of midnight of the new millenium, 2001, a new "first" human would emerge. Not yet female or male but still a fully sensual and sexual being, the "innocent" would search for its creator and thereby reveal to the world the next stage of evolution... maharanda.
These words opened a play I wrote entitled, Maharanda. Completely fictional, the concept is based on a theme that has permeated every culture in every period of history: the ultimate appearance of the "messiah", the answer.
The history of our species as perceived through this theme is a series of movements, like a series of master scenes. The first movement ended with the evolution of language extended to the evolution of writing. The second closed with the discovery of the sub-atomic world and extended into so-called artificial intelligence, the electronic computer. The third, scene three, has just recently faded to black in a Swedish laboratory where quietly, nearly unheralded, human thoughts and part of a memory were downloaded to an external silcon chip.
And now, the 4th Scene begins... the light slowly fades in on a brave new world. No death: immortality, timeless life. A brave new world. As this current scene in which we live extends over the coming years, there will be many less humans on the planet, almost no warfare, an end to pain, disease, poverty, and almost no suffering. Great joy and great hope? Or the distant voice of Peggy Lee singing: "Is that All There Is?" Huxley was right and it scared the hell out of him.
I had the good fortune of being born into the first generation of a European family in America. A bazaar of languages cascaded through our household and our foreign cultural traditions kept us, for a time, ostracized even insulated from the everyday red-white&blue that bullied us to join the herd. It also meant that we were usually among the last to have the latest, newest "hep-ist", "hip-ist" stuff that defined the promises of the good life... like television. (Witness: my long-pants cuffs didn't fashionably reach my shoe-tops until I was fourteen.) But we did have radio... that wondrous window of audio alchemy that vibrated a body from coccyx to fontanelle. Radio was our "Starship Enterprise."
The focus of our living room was a huge four-feet tall (or was it two feet?) fine-finished wood floor-console RCA Victor radio that gave us almost every major station in the U.S. and many from around the world on shortwave. Every non-summer day, from as far back as I can remember, when the Northen light at 4pm began to darken with eerie gray shadows, I'd hook my feet underneath the bottom of that "ship " and lie back to journey out into the world. There was "Captain Midnight" and "Sky King" and "Jack Armstrong" and "The Shadow" for adventure. There was news, the reassuring reports of local voices who spoke about "what's what" like an uncle visitng with the latest gossip. There was the important and irrefutable news from shortwave BBC, heralded by the chimes of Big Ben without commercials and spiced with short fifteen-minute side trips to "Hummingbird Haven" and "Puddings Are You". There was music... Russian, French, Greek, Spanish, Chinese and orchestral, symphonic, so-called classical.
And there was... opera, live from the Met sponsored by a big-hearted, shadow-government: the Texaco oil company. And dance, that's right, classical ballet on the radio with music and narration for the theatre of the mind. And there was NO talk radio... no one gave a damn about the chit-chat opinions of their neighbors outside the local barber shop.
Every night, in our living room "theatre" or in the kitchen, the family's activities centered around the airwaves. The beauty of it was that you could do so many other things while you listened... homework, sewing, cards, crayoning, baking, smoking, drinking, and all of those private little games that kids play by themselves while their mind's "eye" is journeying somewhere else. Even after television spread across the country, radio still provided big-time entertainment for a while. All of the show-business stars had radio shows.
When I was ten, I was gifted with my very own radio set carefully enshrined in my little bedroom upstairs. It was a herald of privacy and independence, like a first bike or a first auto. So many weekdays it was 4pm downstairs on the main stage and afterwards, upstairs in the "black box", an intimate world because I imagined and believed that the voices speaking just for me were there, somewhere alive inside the tubes and down along the wire (which they were since so much of radio was live!). Just the way I came to believe that speaking to someone on the telephone took you down the wire where you sat in a pitch black tube facing the person you were talking with... unseen, untouched but sensually and completely present (totally un-digital). How magnificent and true it was to be a child and how difficult and perplexing it is to preserve that natural beauty.
We lived close enough to the Canadian border to receive the clear signal of one of the great radio networks in the world, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting). They not only presented fully developed, variegated programming, but they also served a full menu of the world's greatest radio theatre - BBC. There was the Royal Theatre, hosted by Laurence Olivier which produced classical as well as modern drama, uninterrupted, uncut. They also produced adaptations from literature. I first discovered H.G. Wells in a Royal production of "The Country Of The Blind", narrated by Olivier himself. Cervantes joined my life with a broadcast of "Don Quixote." CBC offered its version of the "Royal"... imagine, a three-hour broadcast of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under The Elms", again, uninterrupted, uncut. No time for popcorn or peeing: a nifty piece of character-building for an energetic little boy.
On the American side, radio theatre was in abundance. Nothing, to this day, can compare to lying in a dark room and listening, imagining, staging somewhere down the wire the chilling, thrilling, nose-dripping joyful fear of "Lights Out!", "Inner Sanctum", "Suspense"... all weekly scary radio theatre shows with original scripts, guaranteed to keep you awake long past your bedtime. Film and television grab you and hold you, but radio, as it was, is a secret-sharer that enters the private world of your mind's theatre and designs the acting, the directing, the staging to fill your own inner world. Only reading comes close to that.
There were also the showcase radio theatres. The "Lux Radio Theatre" was the most famous, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille. It was primarily a marketing opportunity for Hollywood but it was grand piece of entertainment. They actually adapted movies and produced them on the air often with the original stars. There was Humphrey Bogart and Tyrone Power and Greer Garson and Shirley Temple and a bevy of big names doing it with only a microphone. Sometimes, the films had already been in the movie-houses, sometimes they were currently at your neighborhood "Cameo", sometimes they hadn't been released yet. No matter... it was for you, one on one, for you.
Radio theatre had a rich tradition beginning in the 1920's when the crystal earphone gave way to the loudspeaker. It was a special art form that required special writers like Arch Obler (find and read one of his scripts, you'll see why). And it required special actors and directors like Orson Welles and his magical Mercury Theatre. Without scenery or costumes or makeup or lighting, it drew on one major instrument, the voice. Like great musicians, great radio actors were able to paint and move the images in your head in a way that was as powerful and memory-spawning as any purely visual experience. They did it with their voices, with their breathing, with their timing, and with your willing embrace.
There has never been a radio actor to match the ear, the eye and the breathtaking talent of Orson Welles whose voice was a gift from birth, untrained, self-trained, un-trainable.
The auditory experience is unique in the way it embeds itself in the memory. The realm of those experiences remain in my memory as crystal, vacuum-tubed clear as when they first appeared. I can replay those treasured "tapes" in my mind at will, and, at will, I can dance again in the dark.
What have we lost? It echoes... what have we lost? Only The Shadow and your memory knows.
the cause of fear is ignorance
In the Ancient World, that time before Judeo-Christian morality and the steam engine, Art was not usually segregated from the days and nights of journeying through life. The vast sum of it was identified with the craft of the 'artisan' who created works out of fear, by threat, commission and the possibility of sale, often driven by the ignorance of religion. The artist as an impressionistic window into the where and why of life was uncommon and often ignored. Later, Art evolved into a primary activity of decoration, and then, for a brief time, became that impressionistic window, created for its own purpose. Eventually it morphed into the massive merchandising megalomania of today where everything is 'art' and everyone is an 'artist' and the impressionistic window of past, present and future is a disposable slide-show. The prevailing image can be summed up in the words of another Roman sage:
tempus edax rerum - time, the devourer of all things.
For a time in the last century, and an even longer time in the centuries prior, European languages dominated international communication. French was the global language of diplomacy, German the language of science-technology, Italian the language of music, and Spanish, the sometimes language of romance. Speak them appropriately at the appropriate occasion and you were considered 'civilized'. Speak them not, and you were considered 'provincial', 'back-water', 'second class'.
Today, the Lingua Franca is English. Not the Queen's British English or the lyrically-melodic Irish English or the twisted-nose Australian English or the potato-in-mouth American English. No, it is an international-English, what I like to call, Aenglish. It's a curdled stew of pidgin, business-speak, techno-speak, Americo-grunt-speak, rap chatter, and the spit-less mutterings of email, text messaging and all the rest of the internet's babble-lingo. There is no dictionary for it, no guiding Academy, no usage horizon... unless you're a charismatic Christian speaking in 'tongues'.
As air travel became the world's girdle, it was immediately apparent that all involved, from pilots to reservation clerks, had to read from the same page, an English page. When multi-nationalism became the marketing structure of the globe and the dollar became it's currency, English became its code. After the end of World War II, with Europe and Japan in rubble, and China yet to heave its masses out of the countryside into the cities, American science-technology paraded across the surface of the Earth singing in English. And then there was Hollywood, rock&roll, and television. It all said: "Move over." Or in pure body-language Aenglish: "Here's my elbow!"
Travel anywhere in the world and you'll see, read and hear Aenglish, even if it's only a short-word vocabulary consisting of 'Helloh Mistuh', 'Wat you want', 'Hay Hansum', 'Tankyu', 'Byby'. If you're a Russian traveling in Madagascar, you're out of luck unless you speak the local language or a few words of Aenglish. If you're a Chinese in Argentina, some Spanish please or just a little bit of Aenglish will do.
This planetary talk code is spoken fluently in many places and taught in many education systems, including America... but without the background and underpinning of its mother-English: its syntax, Roman Latin and Greek infrastructure, its roots. Thailand is a good example.
In this 3rd world kingdom ("Hay Mistuh, wy arnt we 1st world?"), English as Aenglish is prevalent... not quite a second language, but spread throughout signage and labeling, with even short-word vocabularies among remote villagers. It's taught in many schools in the education system--taught by teachers who learned it from books and the internet and from the very same classes they are teaching. They seldom teach conversation, how to speak. The result is a strange phenomenon, awkward but interesting. It goes like this.
Speak in English to a Thai, on the phone, on the street, in a shop, and unless you speak a little Thai, they will understand the Aenglish parts, but that's all. Now, if you write it out (print it out), the chances are they'll understand exactly. Why? Because they were taught to read and write, albeit, not too well, but well enough. Speaking, rather 'hearing' speaking, remained a mystery.
The Thai language is not a lyrical language. Like most Asian languages, it has no syncopated flow, no sense of musical sounds, a limited vocabulary. The written language has no punctuation, no capital letters, no illustrative typography. Thais do not speak, they shout (both loudly and quietly), in a droning monotony of nasal tones. And that's the way they speak English, and that's why Aenglish is a smiling, easy second language for them. Easy and smiling.
The same is true in a number of places, especially in Asia and Africa. Read and write, but no speak. Not a bad thing, this by-road to literacy... until you read their 'twitterings'. 'Tongues' are for everyone.
It's monsoon time in SE Asia, a relentless, unpredictable flow of rain and wind and little breakthrough sun. It's like being under a heavy blanket without being able to find the edges to poke a hand or toe through. But it's rain, and rain is comforting and healing. Not the pee-rain of Seattle or the oops-rain of California. The comfort comes with the downpour-rain of the tropics and the Mediterranean, of Florida and Southern Sweden, of the long-ago be-quiet rains along the Great Lakes and upstate New York. Rain that is steady and pours with not too much wind drenches, cleans inside and out, embraces with a smile of droplets. Rainwater is not as clean as it used to be or as soft or as refreshing... but until the last glacier drops in Antarctica, rain will remain one of the few bonds that keeps us together.
In Scene4 I wrote: "Amadeo Modigliani was a good painter, not a great one. He didn't have the breath-taking, explosive color madness of Van Gogh or the eclectic, mind-boggling genius of Picasso. He was a good painter like a 1000 others in the 20th century. "
I was wrong.
Among the 1000 others, including Picasso, there was only one Modigliani. No one uses color and form and an indescribable perspective as he does.
In the article, I was sneering at the merchandising of art. It's really irrelevant especially with regard to him. If he had sold his work for more than a few francs, if he had acquired patronage and some comfort, he wouldn't have lived much longer than he did. He was a haunted man and he was dying of a physical disease for which there was no medical control. Like Rimbaud, Modigliani created works with perspectives and color that linger and in turn haunt the viewer. Like Rimbaud, he was a stranger and could not live in the world in which he found himself.
In an article I wrote for Scene4 Magazine I recounted one of my most poignant and enduring experiences when I was floating around "Indian Country"─a world at that time of extreme cultural erosion, horrific social problems, smothering the joys of pow-wows, festivals, and personal religion--as much a corrosive stain on the American character as the poisonous embrace of African slavery. Things seem to be somewhat better today in Indian Country because of younger educated generations and the casino phenomenon. I mean, the Seminoles, just recently, bought the entire Hard Rock Café enterprise. That's progress, isn't it?
Though she wasn't the subject (Pola) of this article, my guide and mentor was a bright and successful artist─a painter, sculptor, creator of magical gourds, and a dreamcatcher. Since then, this high-energy light of a woman with her flashing-embrace of a smile has become nearly still, depressed by some secret over-indulgence and bent to a breaking point by the guilt and conflicts between her Cherokee and American heritages.
It was because of her that the events I described took place. We correspond... she seems to be recovering. As she says: she is dreaming again.
I don't think she ever read what I wrote. I know now that she can and will. So it's fitting to open this journey with a recounting of that story. Change the names, change the ethnicity, and you can place this experience in almost any time and almost any place. This was and still is for you, my Nannihe.
Black Elk Sings
She was an actress and an American Indian (Native American? Do you like that? Is it less demeaning? I don't like it and for all the years I've spent in Indian Country, most American Indians I've known don't like it either. They don't want to be "native" or "natural", they just want to be who they are. In most Indian languages, they refer to themselves as "people", "human beings". The Europeans, in their infallible miscalculation of every other race, called them Indians. The politics of that was irrelevant... then and now... to the Indians. So, Indians they are.)
I'll start again. She was an actress and an American Indian. I saw her at Red Earth, one of the largest and more prestigious Indian Art Festivals in Oklahoma City (a rather commercial pow-wow, if you will). Her name was Pola and she was Cherokee (I don't remember her Indian name; I haven't seen her in a long time). She was also a recovering alcoholic.
If you don't know - alcohol is the number one drug problem in the U.S., in the world for that matter. It is highly addictive, powerfully mind-bending, and more deadly to the human physiology than cocaine, marijuana, heroin and nicotine put together. But it is big, big business in a conspiracy of double-think that sponsors sports and arts and patriotism. Drink alcohol with your kids on America's newest, most important Family Holiday, the Super-Bowl of Football, but do not ogle the hidden-nipple breast of Michael Jackson's sister.
The drug, alcohol, is the number one problem... not just drug problem... the number one problem... in Indian Country. Now follow this twist... one of the largest and most influential patrons of the arts in Indian Country is the Coors Brewing Company. Guilt? I don't think so. Hypocrisy, I think so. Big business, I know so.
Before she nearly drowned, Pola had acquired some credits - some theatre, a few commercials, some television, a film. She was not particularly exotique. She was pretty, petite, a woman of color and she had a good, full voice. People liked her on stage, the camera liked her. As she emerged through recovery from her addiction, she began to focus on her Indian self... who she was and what she was becoming. On this night, the first night of Red Earth, she was going to perform at a small theatre space, downtown from the pow-wow arena. It was to be her version of Black Elk Speaks.
Black Elk was a Lakota Sioux holy man. Born in 1863, he watched the famous battle at Little Big Horn, he witnessed the genocidal invasion and destruction of Native American people and culture during the next 25 years and beyond. In the 1930's, John Neihardt persuaded Black Elk into a long series of conversations which he wrote down and published into what became an important and popular book, Black Elk Speaks. It was eventually adapted into a stage play which was beginning to gain notice when Pola created her version, her adaptation of the book. She called it: As Black Elk Speaks, Alfred Coors Sings. In her not-so-innocent, determined way, she stepped straight into an Oklahoma windstorm.
Understand, this was a small actress performing a one-woman show in a tiny theatre space in a big city (as cities go in Oklahoma) amidst a huge festival and all of its spinoff hustle-bustle. Who cares? Well someone did because that morning during her final rehearsal she was visited by an attorney who demanded that she "cease and desist" using material for which she had no performance rights. He threatened her with an injunction which proved to be unnecessary because another somebody appeared, an official somebody who informed her that her performance was illegal, immoral and would be shut down. That afternoon, someone who knew someone who knew somebody who owned the space shut it down. Why? Evidently, she struck a chord and "they" didn't like the music they heard. It had something to do with the title. If it had been called: "Time Out For Ginger", she might have at least had an opening night, but nothing further when "they" discovered what was in her performance.
As I said, Pola was determined, she had acquired a bit of pluck from time spent in New York and LA. And, she had a vision of who she was and what she was becoming. So that night she convinced a pub owner to let her entertain the crowd, free, with a roving, rolling rendition of her work. She was about twenty minutes into it when another somebody, this time a deputy sheriff, appeared and arrested her for performing without a permit (a regulation that didn't exist in Oklahoma City at that time). He dragged her out through the kitchen into the alley, gave her a couple of kicks in the ass and scared her home.
That's where the story should have ended... no one would have known about it. But it didn't. The next day, Pola took herself to Red Earth, found a friend of hers, a not-too-successful Cherokee sculptor who had a small booth tucked away outside of the main exhibit hall. He took off the booth awning, cleared away his work, put some boxes in the center to make a platform, pulled out a drum, and gave her a performing space. No permit required. That's where I first saw her. She wore a deliberately torn Indian dress that was created by a friend of mine who was a successful Cherokee artist and was a successful exhibitor in the main gallery.
Pola heeded the warnings and did not speak any words for which she had no performances rights... she sang them! Her voice was strong and clear. And she moved in that slow, deliberate, mesmerizing flow of Native American dance. With all of the sounds and noise and activity of the pow-wow around her, she drew an audience that grew into a crowd. She was a small actor, a woman, and she was not an activist, she wasn't spouting political dogma, she wasn't doing comedy. She was an actress giving a performance. The audience was quiet, entranced, some people were crying. Just before the end, a group of men (some with badges) pushed through the crowd. Pola reached down and pulled up a shawl at her feet. She wrapped herself tightly, around and around like a mummy. Only her face remained uncovered as she continued to sing. The men grabbed her and awkwardly tried to figure out how to handle this figure. So... in the bright Oklahoma sun they carried her off upright as if they were removing a statue from an exhibit. She continued to sing for a moment, then her performance was over. The audience quietly applauded.
I saw her again on the last night of Red Earth. My friend, the Cherokee designer, invited a few of us up to her hotel suite for a drink. Pola was there. That's when we learned a little about her and what had led up to the astonishing performance at the pow-wow. One of us said that he wished he had been able to see the original theatre performance. She asked if he would like to see it "now". We all wanted that, so she did it... in the diminished space of a hotel room for an audience of seven. Her piece was built of selections from the Black Elk text interspersed with stories and anecdotes of contemporary Indian life and statistics. It was about suffering and health and despair, with emphasis, of course, on alcohol, alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome. And, of course, there were stinging references to Coors and beer and hypocrisy. It was a good piece that needed work and hers was a good performance that needed work, but as a performer, she was compelling, quite beautiful. I don't know whatever happened to her.
So why do I tell you this story? For one, it has much meaning for those who are addicted to the arts and the art of life. For another, here was an actress who demonstrated the truth and beauty of the fact that she was the stuff of theatre. And for me, it is sharing with you a moment I will never forget -- the image of a statue performing in the arms of blind men, freely, in the bright Oklahoma sun.
I cut my teeth as a journalist with a news magazine and then went on to the glory and gluttony of a prestigious restaurant magazine in New York. My first international, over-the-seas assignment was to travel to Peru and capture an intriguing story or three about restaurateurs, chefs, and dining out in the not so voracious nightlife of Lima. Peru was and still is on the west coast of South America which was and still is considered to be the "hick" coast sans the vibrancy and chic of the East, of Caracas and Rio De Janeiro and Buenos Aires. It was okay by me.
I traveled on one of the last transoceanic Clipper flights with its all-night, in-flight restaurant, the overhead comfort of a bed for every passenger, and the charm of lovely and loving hostesses, stewardesses, now known, in our current politically-correct banality, as flight attendants. (Attendant. A name I always associated with the guy who gave me a hand-towel in a washroom.) Needless to say, I gathered my first story on the flight itself along with numbers and look-me-ups for a possible later survey of the East Coast (the "attendants" were all from Rio and Buenos Aires).
In my arrogant Manhattan innocence, I had made a naive mistake and so did my editor. I went to Lima in April, on a Friday, Good Friday, which provided a challenging scenario: nearly everything in this religiously over-burdened country was closed, for the Easter holiday, and the heavenly production designer art-directed a nearly unbearable heat wave for the celebration. It was an auspicious beginning.
After slowly, ever-so slowly making my way from the airport in a non-air-conditioned taxicab to the thankfully air-conditioned Gran Hotel Bolivar in the center of Lima, I called my photographer. Though I usually shot my own photographs for most of my stories, this assignment was long and broad enough to require a separate photographer, Tim McElhenny--a former news guy, National Geographic photographer and all-around shooter. Personal turmoil had reduced him to a stringer for news services, primarily in South America. But this was also his first trip to Lima. We were a couple of innocents and not too ugly Americans.
We met up at the Bolivar bar, which became our headquarters, and pumped up with the Bolivar's famous Pisco Sour, which became our anti-heat, anti-dust, anti-anti drink. Pisco is an indigenous liquor in Peru and Chile, made from grapes, a bit like brandy, but quite distinct. It taught me a lot about the hegemony of European spirits. After all, alcohol is not just alcohol, it's a fat drug.
After a restful dose, we wandered out into the thick heat of the Plaza De Las Armas (Plaza Mayor) where a huge crowd was building for the launch of the holiday. First shock to the eye: a helmeted, machine-gun toting soldier on every street corner. A scary, unfamiliar sight except in movies. Then a motorcade pushed its way though the crowd. Second shock to the eye: the government officials were arriving in brand-new shiny American Chevrolet automobiles (this before the Black SUV). The church officials including the Cardinal (who was not Peruano) arrived in Rolls Royces. Welcome to South America!
As the speeches began, newshound McElhenny decided to capture a few photos. He wormed and squirmed his way through the mass of people, as an experienced pro would do, and bounced up and down on barricades and lamp-post bases. His postures attracted attention and two soldiers, who shouldered him and grabbed his camera. He began to protest and one told him in Spanish, "No photographs!" The uniform opened the camera, stretched out the film, and threw it exposed to the ground along with the camera, a rather expensive Hasselblad. Then the other uniform leaned in nose to nose and said, "No photographs!"
A short time later, we needed to get out of the blistering sun and away from all the bombast of the speakers platform. We edged around the huge cathedral of the plaza and found a shady spot at the back wall. Suddenly, there was a familiar sound, the exciting purr of a sports car. It was a bright green racing-striped MG and it pulled up to a jolting stop just short of us. The driver was a gorgeous-looking young man, black curly hair, square-jaw, sharp roman nose--obviously a model, an actor, a playboy. But, no. When he popped out of the car, he turned his white collar around, smoothed out his shoe-length black cassock, tucked his square-cut Italian sun glasses underneath the folds of his robe, took a deep breath, put his hands together and walked quickly but easily around the corner of the church to where the voices and music were blasting. Yes, indeed, Welcome to South America!
I spent five weeks in Peru, picking up four good stories with exhilarating side trips to Cusco and the magic of Machu Picchu, and Mira Flores where... well, whatever you can't find in Lima, you can find in Mira Flores. Among many memories, two stand out.
One Tuesday, there was a power outage all over Lima. It lasted for two days. Even though the hotel had emergency generators, they only powered essential facilities which didn't include air conditioning or ice. No ice, no cold liquids of any kind, not even water. McElhenny came banging on my door. He wanted to see if maybe my water was cold enough to drink. It wasn't. Then he discovered something in the bathroom, a hilarious something which satisfied what he was looking for. The bidet--it actually looked like a water fountain with its recessed seat and skyward spout. It shot out a high stream of cold water, not just cold, ice-cold, refrigerated. Why, he chortled and wondered, is the water from the faucet warm, hot enough to take a warm bath in while the water from the bidet was frigid like ice in the heights of the Andes? It was a media question, was it not? I still wonder about it today.
A few days before we left Lima, we were lounging one night at the bar of the Carillon, a friendly place that gave us a good food service story. As the Pisco Sours multiplied, in walked a group of politicos with blonde trophies on their arms. McElhenny recognized one of them, an important Judge, and immediately whipped out his little sneak-shot Leica and began to photograph the man. Two non-uniformed guys immediately stopped him. Tim was buzzed and struggled. In a few seconds, they clipped him in the belly and dragged him and his camera out the door. As I moved to interfere, another non-uniform stepped in front me, took off his sun glasses and shook his head 'no'. I shook my head 'no', and sat back at the bar. A few hours later, I collected Tim at the local lockup, paid his fine, and understood that both our visas had been cancelled. We had 48 hours to retrace our steps to the airport. I remember thinking: I had already traveled through Europe and seen this happen there but not so blatantly.
I remember thinking: I'm happy that I live in the United States where this never could happen. That's all it is, a memory of a naïve thought. "Never" is a spike that the naïve sit on!
There is a nearly uncountable number of urban-rural myths regarding people in foreign lands--places other than where you live. Here are a few: All people want to come to the U.S.; all people have been on airplanes; all people have cell phones (mobiles). False, False, quickly becoming True. According to many reports, studies, and first-hand observations, most people want to stay in the land of their birth, and, contrary to the prophets of mobility, most people want to live in the town or village in which they were born. So it is, also, that most people do not travel outside their country. How could that be? With a billion+ passengers on airlines and trains every year? A small group of people must be taking a lot of trips. Nevertheless, it's all true.
Here's just one case-in-point. She is 35 years old and a district manager for FedEx in Thailand. Her only airplane experience has been on FedEx cargo planes. She has seldom been outside Thailand, occasionally visiting nearby Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia or Burma (or as it's called in its current ice-age incarnation-Myanmar). She is bright, university-educated, hip, computer-literate, beautiful, and loves the Bangkok discos and the night-market entertainment of her hometown, Chiang Mai, where she still lives.
She has four mobile phones, all with text-messaging, graphics and music. She adores her King, is a devout Buddhist, and a terrific cook. She hasn't married yet because of her career, her sisters' and friends' experiences with Thai husbands, and her wariness of farang (foreign) men. She meets a ton of them through her job and her vibrant nightlife.
She has a very curious mind--she reads the news avidly, sees all the latest movies, and surfs the net. She is disinterested in traveling to the countries she sees and reads about, based on her observations of tourists in her country--some 12 million annually in a country of 65 million. "Anglos (trans: Brits, Aussies, Yanks and the Deutschers) don't always smell good all the time," she says, "and they move around as if they were in an amusement park. They don't try to understand our culture, they think our food is 'cute', and they don't even try to learn a little of our language." Those are her words--her English is almost perfect--she also speaks French and German.
A point inside this case-in-point: There are huge chains of fast-food restaurants in Thailand, primarily American, Burger King, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC, et al, and they are always stuffed with tourists. During all the years I've wandered in this beautifully unusual, self-sufficient country, I've often stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of tourist-laden eateries. Once, and only once, I went into a McDonald's and asked a farang (a foreigner), "Did you travel 10,000 miles just to eat a hamburger?" He said: "Hey Mate, it's a bit of home and it makes me sleep better. Who can live on Thai food?" It was an amazing statement! Let's see: 65 million Thais live on Thai cuisine which is one of the most popular throughtout the entire world. Amazing!
So... is she somewhat xenophobic? Somewhat, some Thais are. Is she happy? Well, she believes she lives in the Garden of Eden. Might be so or maybe a delusion. Is she part of the Global Village? Indeed! Will she ever visit the other side of the rainbow? And do what--eat at McDonald's?
In a Thai village, a few years ago, I sat in a little, outdoor bar in the heat of the afternoon, drinking a cold beer. Sitting next to me, a villager, a farmer, taking a break. Between my broken Thai and his fractured English, we managed a reasonable conversation. At one point, he reached into his shoulder pack to get a cigarette and a book fell out. It was a paperback, yellowed and dog-eared. He told me it was a novel by a famous Thai writer and he carried it around with him for the past 20 years. Why, I asked? Because the book was a friend, which made the writer a friend and they were always there when he needed them. He smiled when he said that, and so did I. There was nothing embarrassing about the moment and its intimacy.
Recent surveys show that less than 45% of the U.S. population read books (or magazines or newspapers, for that matter). The numbers are similar in Europe and much higher in many other countries. The obvious and most demeaning factor is the explosion of media--the pixel is replacing the ink drop.
The internet, in its quick-fix, here and there way of comprehension doesn't lend itself to reading books. Amazon and Sony notwithstanding, the experience of reading a book on a screen is like dining alone in a delicious Italian restaurant--the intimacy of sharing is missing, in this case, the sharing of your mind with the mind of the writer. You can't get through the glass. As with all screen media activities, you're passive, sitting there as the display takes you along. With a printed book, you can touch each page with its not-perfect paper and its not-perfect ink. To experience a printed book, you have to join it, it doesn't do it for you the way a screen image does. You and the writer talk to each other and share, almost as if you and the writer were the same. You don't need an on-off switch or batteries or protocols or rules. You just need light and quiet privacy. And if you're visually impaired, you have the voice of a reader, holding a book, almost as if it were the voice of the writer.
This may all seem a bit odd coming from me as you read what I write on a screen in Scene4 Magazine, which is now an electronic publication, designed as a print publication but presented only on the web for the past eight years and not by choice. A few years ago, a group approached Aviar proposing investment financing to take this magazine back into printed distribution. Given its large readership and the idiosyncrasy of its content, they believed that it should have a printed edition (to preserve its "intimacy") and that it would make a profit (which was equally important to them). After much discussion and some irreconcilable editorial differences, they realized that only 50% of the readership was in the U.S. and reading was on the decline. It deserved a print edition, said they, but who would eventually read the paper&ink?
This is not a "luddite" tainted treatise--I find evolution and the evolution of technology exciting, thrilling and rich with hope and a vista of personal freedom. And I believe that the book will evolve and maintain its place as one of the grand devices of human history. To that I offer a vision. It's not just science fiction. Isn't all science - fiction - until it's not? Just think of describing a movie to Cicero or a mobile phone to Alexander Pope.
In the relatively near future, you will be able to hold and read a book, page for page, printed in a medium that will allow you to make your book as small or as large as you like and with any material feel you desire. It will be opaque or transparent; you will be able to see all pages including both the front and the back of any page at any time. And you will be able to make a page as large as a wall, free standing, so that you can walk along as you read and step through it to read another page. You will be able to walk into a book, touch the words, listen to the words, read the words, remember the words. The variations will be almost unlimited and yours alone. All with the privacy and the intimacy of a written, printed book--just your mind and the mind of the writer.
Perhaps my Thai friend with his book-friend might enjoy that. And then again, maybe not.
The arts of Asia abide - as expansive and merchandised as in any other part of the world. What supports this is the lingering vibrancy of colonialism. There are only small traces of the political colonial powers of the last century. Today, it is the rampage of the corporate colonial powers that divides and sub-divides the Asian world-and they don't need flags with marching bands. In fact, colonialism never left, it just changed its clothes. In fact, colonial conquistadores and robber barons have always been with us and... with Asia. Most of the newly independent nations in that large region of this small planet were at one time or another independent empires, imperialists who conquered and colonized and ruled, some in a fashion that would make the French and British look benevolent. Just roam into the history of the Khmer, or Siamese, or Burmese empires: hundreds of years of "king and country and your daughter, if you please." And, of course, there was the Chinese empire, the largest and greatest colonial power in history.
Equally striking - the numerically tiny upper classes frantically trying to keep the fattening middle classes off their backs, trying to keep entré to a trickle through the cracks in the garden wall. And both of these upper echelons are desperately trying to swat away the numerically larger lower classes from swarming into their privileged lives like mosquitoes swooshing over a downed net. It is, in this day of instant communication, an instant portrait of three primordial elements of human life: blood, oxygen, and hypocrisy.
Asia, especially the economic tigerville of SE Asia, is having a disruptive time handling the explosion of communications and goods, plus here-today-gone-tomorrow cultural influences that Westerners pour through their borders. Most are having a hellish time envisioning what they are "supposed" to look like and reconciling the ancient unquestioned difference between men and women (the only difference between human beings said Strindberg, one lonely night in Uppsala!). Arrogantly and incredibly, it includes the Japanese, as well.
But not in Thailand, a centrally positioned cultural crossroads. The Thais have a cultural ether that absorbs. It is their historical legacy.
In the hey-day of European haute-cuisine-d'imperiale and American manifest-destiny, Thailand managed a marvelous juggling act and emerged as a buffer between their colonized neighbors. Though rudely slapped around by the French (and haven't we all!), the Thais really didn't suffer the pain of occupation until the Japanese madness drowned the entire region during World War II. After that nightmare, they conservatively and cleverly allied themselves with the West, especially with the U.S. It was during the next madness, the Vietnam War, that today's colonial invasion began. The American military, operating out of Thailand, decided they had found a rest&relaxation garden of eden. And they were right.
Affectionately known as the Land of Smiles, the kingdom of Thailand offered a gentle tropical climate, a gentle, poor population with a fairy-tale exchange rate, and a gentle, affectionate, smiling-laughing, embracing flowerbed of women. The American boys, half-literate, half-mary-janed, and totally disoriented, thought they had stumbled into heaven before any bullet or blade took them there. And they were right.
So began the invasion of this dreamland of mists and smiles; so today, the tourist industry is Thailand's biggest business. Nearly 12 million come to visit a population of 65 million, every year. The commodities are - defiantly low prices, grand food, magnificent art and architecture, low prices, and low stress. In the midst of all this, facing the same doubts and troubles of the entire region, Thailand thrives. It aggressively strides to escape the third-world swamp into the garden of the first-world. It paid off its tribute to the World Bank and, recently, opened a world-class, nearly $4 billion dollar airport that rivals any airport in the world and surpasses many. The Thai infrastructure is impressive - a modern education system, modern transportation, the internet, cell phones, cable television, and a surprisingly robust health care system, along with a high tech industry, agribusiness, a home for corporate colonies looking for skilled, relatively inexpensive labor, industrious workers, and a friendly bureaucracy.
Media is abundant in Thailand, most of it, news and programming, imported because much of the local stuff is stuck in the age of the "Brady Bunch." Literature is prevalent, though Thais, like Americans and the French, are reading less. The visual arts, painting, sculpture, ceramics, weaving, are embedded in everyday life - part of a long tradition.
The film industry is lunging out of adolescence supported and spurred by the perceived wizardry of Francis Coppola and Oliver Stone. But it is the performing arts experience that is truly special... Thai music, Thai dance, and Thai theatre... different from anything else in Asia, as profound as the Japanese and Chinese, and as beautiful.
Bangkok is the hub - a sprawling, polluted metropolis of 10 million that overwhelms its 200 years of treasures, not unlike New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. As a crossroads, this charming city offers dance, pop and classical music concerts, opera, an array of world cinema, an array of the array of world arts. On a smaller scale, the smaller Thai cities reflect the hub.
Look into the mirror. The mosaic is dazzling. To grasp the range and impact, you need to step though the looking glass into a few pieces of the array, such as these:
In the party city of Pattaya, there is a palace of a theatre, with a huge faux-marble lobby that mimics a grand opera house. It boasts a large, comfortable 1000-seat theatre with an enormous stage equipped with the latest audio-visual systems. It's called, Tiffany's.
It produces its own performance - a revue, a vaudeville, a classic cabaret theatre-piece, with dance, music, synchronized song, complex staging and as many as 100 performers. The sets are as lavish and well designed as you would see anywhere. The costumes are expensive, and to coin a phrase, "spectacular." But beyond this obvious entertainment lure is the main attraction: the cross-dressing actors, mainly men with a few women. They are part of a deep tradition in Thai performing arts with little of the smirking insinuations that Americans heap on their cross-dressing performers. The colloquial word is "Ladyboy." In most quarters they are revered and they are renowned in Asia for their beauty.
Every night, two performances, packed houses, 2000 people, tourists and locals, stream into this theatre as they have done for over 30 years. It is considered family-theatre and families are abundant in the audience on any given night.
South of Pattaya, in the province of Chonburi, near the beach, behind a cluster of aging apartment houses... a theatre. Plain, portable seating, clean, a brown version of a "black box." An amazing audience of about 150, not home watching one of the 25 cable channels. A number of them from that tiny upper class, a number from the middle level, the rest seemingly ordinary people who could afford the 100 baht ticket (about $2.50US). 12 actors on a very small stage, with simple but effective lighting, painted cloth backdrops, two musicians (flute and drum) and a tech person. It was a new play by Satang, a local playwright. The title - "Here Is The Mirror". The actors were in the most outrageous, outlandish costumes and makeup that one could imagine. It opened in a flurry of slapstick, over-the-top comedy that fit the over-the-top costumes-makeup perfectly. Then the drama began, and that did not fit. The incongruity was stunning. For nearly two hours (with a slight intermission) the actors wove a story of love and pain, of coming together and breaking apart, of pairs of people interchanging their lives, finding themselves, losing themselves, finding themselves again.
Fortunately, I sat in the back next to two people who spoke some English. So every time I looked their way, they whispered a few words to clue me. It was hardly necessary. This work could have been performed in mime... it had that much clarity. The actors had that much clarity in their movement and voices, in the truth they portrayed, and their belief in the truth they transmitted to the audience. My newfound friends were rather amazed at how much of the story and the language I was able to grasp. It wasn't me... it was they, the actors. This was theatre at its essential center... actors and their audience (a wonderfully mixed audience!) without polemics and politics and without the packaging of production and effects and thrill-juice. I gratefully experienced this once more in Bangkok and again in Chiang Mai, way up North. It was life as art and art as life... through a looking glass, in Thailand, in Asia.
I saw a movie in Bangkok last month in a modern Cineplex with a huge screen, a fully-enhanced sound system, and comfortable seats. Not unlike the best in the U.S. or the UK or anywhere else where there is substantial investment in modern movie house facilities. The house was packed. About 15 minutes into the movie, I began to hear quiet, little beeps coming from different directions in the theatre. And quiet, little flashes. Then it increased, and all around me I could hear whispering and quiet, little giggles. When I finally pulled my head out of the screen, I realized that I was watching mobile phones actively connecting people throughout the audience. Hello? They were calling each other and seemingly talking about the movie, at least that's what the people to my side and in front and behind were doing. Primarily teenagers but not limited to that exploratory age group. Though to my sensibility it was rather annoying, it wasn't totally disruptive. The Thais are outwardly a polite and quiet people (emphasis on outwardly), so the noise level was at a minimum, if you can say that about hundreds of mobile phones twitching and twinking.
It was an audience-participation experience, not unlike similar audience behavior in many other countries. Try seeing a film in China or Israel or Argentina or, ouff, Russia. Audiences there, with or without phones, truly "get into it!" They talk and shout to each other, to the characters in the movie-story, to the actors. If it weren't for the distance and limited access of the movie screen, some of them would jump right to screen and try to join the action. In fact, I saw that happen in an Italian movie house in Milano─and it wasn't just someone "showing off, it was a woman who was so moved by the story that she found a way to get there to talk to one of the characters in an effort to convince him not to divorce his movie wife. She failed.
American audiences are apparently more passive (emphasis on apparently), so this type of experience isn't commonplace, except at screenings of Black movies for Afro-American audiences, and Latin movies, and other ethnic-oriented screenings. The same is true in the UK. Years ago, I saw the world premiere of Gandhi at a theatre in the Brighton Mews. Sir Richard was there along with many other celebritianos. During the entire screening, the only extraneous sounds I heard came from the tea-sellers, whispering to each other as they waited for the interval. I wondered: was the audience awake, were they alive, were they lost without subtitles?
For sure, going to the movies, almost anywhere, is wrapped in the anxious influence of television, video, email and text messaging─short spans of attention, multi-tasking with multi-pees and multi-snacks and multi-chit-chatting. Now with DVD and movies-on-demand, it's a matter of stand-up, sit-down, run around, throw it away, or look at it a dozen times and then throw it away. The great philosophical search of our time is not to achieve oneness with the universe─it is to find out how to sit still for 20 minutes. A two-hour movie? Not on the planet Earth!
My good friend, the filmmaker, Joe De Francesco, is an ardent believer in the movie theatre as the only venue for experiencing a movie. He resisted video cassettes and cable television for a long time. As embarrassing as it might have been among his colleagues, he adamantly insisted on absorbing a movie where it belonged: on the big screen. He wanted the quality of the image and the sound and the detachment of a darkened theatre. He also preferred a good French wine over a California quickie. Eventually, the pressures of family and industry forced a compromise in that resistance, but not in his belief. And he still drinks good French wine.
He was right. A movie should be seen as it was intended to be seen and as the dominant captor of all the senses in a place, a temple, dedicated to revealing its beauty. But if you're as misanthropic, rather, disanthropic, as I am, you find yourself, reluctantly and often remorsefully, dragging yourself to a movie house, less and less. You find yourself miserly hoarding your own time to recreate a movie-going experience, alone, in your own darkened room with a big tube and a big sound system... and failing to do so. But getting closer every day. Unless─you're one of the fortunate few who has their own screening room, their own personal movie theatre, which is the best of both worlds, mobile phones be damned!
Live theatre used to be a major means of mass communication, and still is in some remote places in the world. No more. Other than its entertainment and educational values, the only treasure that live theatre retains is the story-telling, the acting in real-time. It is a powerful treasure and one that movies cannot give. The closest I ever came to that real-time/live-theatre gift when going to the movies was on a warm, Tuscan night. I call it my "Cinema Paradiso" experience. I sat with a couple hundred smoking, drinking Italians watching a movie outdoors, projected on the side of a whitewashed church. Of all things, it was a Turkish movie with subtitles about immigrant fishermen. With all of the laughter, cheers, boos, singing, and, yes, chit-chat, rather than a disturbing distraction, it all became one engaging, live experience. And the memory of that night has spurred me to search for the 'oneness' of that experience. I want to see a finished movie, shown at the location where it was shot, surrounded by the characters on the screen and the actors who portrayed them, and the director and crew, sitting and watching with me. I want to see that film come to life in real time on the faces of the people around me. That's what I call─going to the movies.
My life-long love affair with books, music, and film. For the life of me, I cannot throw away a book... no matter how insipid, or useless, or decrepit. I have paperbacks, from a time when they cost only 50 cents, that are yellowed and fragile like ancient texts. I cannot break off the intimate, secret relationships, all the things we've been through together. With music... a similar nostalgia, perhaps, with the 33LP vinyls. For CD's, no. They're too disposable, can't see the face, the grooves. With film... only the celluloid, the frame-by-frame pictures that look at me when I hold the strip up to the light. I can remember the thrill of my first projector and my first movie... it was The Bride Of Frankenstein, and it was all mine. I rolled it over and over again in a little bedroom on the wall. Imagine, owning a film when very few people did! For videotape, no. Can't see a thing. The tiny magnetic bars dance in their own dimension, and exclude any touch and feel. For DVD's, no. They're also too disposable and there's nothing to see or smell.
The reason I collect these works of art and non-art is because they are part of my time continuum. They exist with me in the present, spread out in all space/time directions, and they are my friends. So I visit with my friends from time to time. I revisit the conversations and the images and the sounds that have placed me into the views of myself and the galaxy I drift in.
So it was that I recently revisited one of the best films ever made, The Lion In Winter. This is a great film, adapted by James Goldman from his own wonderful play. On Broadway in 1966, the play starred Robert Preston as Henry, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor, and as Philip, young Christopher Walken in his first major stage role. In 1968, the honored film version starred Peter O'Toole as Henry (seemingly a reprise of his performance in 1964 in Becket), Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, a young Timothy Dalton as Philip (his first major screen role), and as Richard, young Anthony Hopkins in his first major screen role. It was a magical cast with other fine actors, many of whom were unable to do anything comparable before or since. It was directed by Anthony Harvey, who also never got close to this work before or since as a director, though he was a brilliant editor. And John Barry, who did indeed match and rise beyond his work in Lion, composed the score.
This film is masterfully directed, beautifully photographed and cut... but it is the acting that accounts for the center flame of the magic. It is not an action or special effects film, it is a film of relationships... about strong-willed, self-defined people who understand the nature of their species and their roles in it. It is a film of words, perceptive, thought-sharpened, wit-honed words. In this work, Goldman is a master.
At the acting helm is O'Toole, one of the best film actors of our time and an equally superb stage actor (I haven't seen him on stage in 20 years, but the accounts of his theatre work and his films uphold his reputation.) And Hepburn... also one of the great film actors of our time and an equally great stage actor (I had the privilege of spending one summer with her as an apprentice at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut. She was the 'stuff' of theatre.) These two master talents enhanced and elevated the acting performances of everyone else into a state-of-the-art-of-acting display in a medium that tends to dismiss the vitality of the actor.
It is the words! And in the present here-today-gone-tomorrow world of disposable film and the here-today-right-back-tomorrow world of disposable television (shoving aside the "fuck-you" grunt writing of Tarantino and Mamet), even a well-crafted film like Shutter Island suffers in comparison. Despite Scorcese's ever-present inability to tell (show) a story with a beginning and middle that lead to an end, and despite the clutter of effects, this too is a film of words, an acting film. Leonardo D'Caprio is as good a film actor as we have working today, voice and all, along with another master actor, Ben Kingsley cannot overcome the missing ingredient... the words fail them. The writer fails them in the hands of the filmmaker.
The Lion In Winter is a masterpiece and it tells us this: if acting is the stuff of theatre then the playwright is the giver of the key ingredient. If directing is the stuff of film, then the screenwriter is the mind's eye behind the eye of the camera.
That's why I treasure my friends.
It was a remarkable production in Ventura, California (a not-remarkable place for the arts or anything else!). Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tariz Shanil. The play was staged without scenery against black drapes, white lights with no gels but in a lighting design that was ingeniously beautiful in its simplicity and mood shifts, the vision of a still photographer working in black & white. There was also no costuming. The actors were dressed like dancers in simple blacks and grays... the only touch was the long, silken scarves used by the two lovers. And a few props, that was all.
It was the story... and the words, the poetry of Shakespeare that flooded the theatre space and overcame the audience... it was as if we were all sitting in the shadows off to one side and just happened to come across this poignant, heartbreaking tragedy as it was unfolding. The actors achieved a sense of reality, a flow of truth that is painfully rare in our theatre, especially with Shakespeare. There were just two performances, unadvertised, both sold out by word-of-mouth, and then they were traveling on across country. All of the actors are Russian as is Tariz (she not only directed but also played the Nurse). The performance was in English...they handled the language and the music of the verse almost without fault and with only a slight British accent. They moved as I've seen the best trained actors move.
It's been a long time since I sat with a tight throat in tears, witnessing and feeling the agony and grief of this early, awkward, raw, and powerful piece of Shakespeare's writing. They captured the heart of the play, tore it out, and drank its blood. The acting was that good! Especially Juliet, played by Elana Lemtov, a woman in her early 30's who captured the self-possessed passion and physicality of a 14-yr old. Self-possessed ... without the insight or experience of a mature woman but with the femininity and bleeding passion of a young girl walking along the edge of a cliff, feeling without knowing, sensing without seeing, alive for the moment without the tyranny of hope. Lemtov's young Juliet enveloped this play with a music I've never heard before. She was simply stunning.
Tariz and her actors have worked together for eight years and travel together all over the world. Their current work includes this Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Tempest. Why only Shakespeare? Because the writing is a theatrical essence, Tariz told me. Her company has no name. Why? Because each performance is "their name that evening".
I wish we had had more than the hour we spent afterwards in an excited conversation (mainly about the show). It was raining and they were in a hurry to load their vans and head East to... somewhere.
I have nothing else to report. No one has been able to fill in the details of how, why, who. Perhaps in a few days, a week, a month... we'll connect again. It's a fond wish. As I mentioned, it was a remarkable production... so if one day you get a call (as I did) about an unannounced performance by a troupe of Russian actors, cancel your plans, turn off the tube, and just happen to be there. You'll find yourself face-to-face with what it means to jump into the fire of acting, of theatre, of... anything! You'll find out what it means to "go for it", as if there is "no tomorrow"... and, dear voyagers, the heroic truth is... there isn't!
A few years later I met Tariz again, in Bangkok. Her company was in Singapore and she was up north at a festival of international artists. They had not returned to the U.S. since the time I saw them The company was intact except for the loss of one actress who was killed in a motorbike accident. Fittingly, her place was filled by a company designer who was also an actress and trained with the company.They were still rotating Shakespeare's plays, which Tariz thought would go on for at least four more years.
This time, we spent many hours talking about her work, about theatre, and particularly about audiences, while dodging the heat, the traffic, and the lack of breathable air in Bangkok. It was not an interview... rather a long, private conversation stretched over days. Some day, I may try to profile her but only if she agrees to it. I don't know why she would.
I hope to see the company's performances again, wherever they are. Maybe this time I'll get the call from her.