In the past I’ve read posts about racism, sexism, etc., and tried to distinguish between folks making rational points and pissed-off folks just ranting. But I’ve not felt personally involved. Now I’m moved to post about “ageism.”
I’m 82, and it strikes home. I’m not directly affected: I don’t seek a job, and some folks even open doors for me. True, I can’t get a literary agent, as no one would make any money from me over the long run, but that was probably true thirty years ago, when I had one—she died.
Nor am I vitally concerned with the “creeping invisibility” factor that hits men at the point when you no longer look like a rapist: I’m used to it. Maybe it’s because I’m shy, or a left-over condition from high school, where I got good grades and consequently didn’t fit in, but it’s been only on stage that I’m visible, because then I’m a more interesting somebody-else.
I’m more concerned with national politics. I see daily headlines about Joe Biden’s “gaffes” but nothing about Trump’s ambling, rambling, utterly demented speeches. That’s not “news,” that shows he says what he thinks. As to Biden’s gaffes: I myself have many moments of not remembering names, and of having to use the thesaurus to find words. That’s a part of aging, and I have no trouble making a choice between “senile” and “long in the tooth,” depending on the context. I certainly admit to being the latter.
At last resort, I should launch into a speech castigating my fourth-grade teacher and all the migrants who’re writing best-sellers. If I do it loud enough and often enough, I’ll be lauded as tough-minded enough to make our enemies cringe.
In the meantime, what’s to be done in more general terms? Senility is a medical condition; it can be diagnosed or ruled out. Other medical conditions give credence to the saw that old age isn’t for wimps. More problematic, for me, are other common cliches of age.
“Stuck in the past” is an euphemism for “close-minded,” and it’s inarguable that the past plays a role in one’s thinking, starting with my mother’s admonition to look both ways before I cross the street. Yes, there’s the danger of not adapting to new technology—I don’t do texting, both because I type very slowly with my thumb, and because I don’t like a dozen new ways to miss your message.
Other ways of being closed-minded? It’s my observation that younger folks—which includes almost everyone now—are more prone, not less, to adopt the “flavor of the day.” Who else would try bubblegum-flavored ice cream?
I readily admit that people of my generation have problems. I hate to drive at night, Balance uncertainties, sleeplessness, and so on, not to mention other less mentionable details. But assuming that particular people who belong to a demographic have all the characteristics associated with that grouping, I think, is bigoted, plain and simple.
Everyone—any age, any race, any social standing—very easily falls victim to the idea that they’re persecuted, that others are more privileged, lazier, dumber, more something, less other. Is it economic disparity, one of thirty billion ism’s, or just grading on the curve? Maybe we’re back to Jimmy Carter, where great tumult was made of “malaise.” Maybe there’s no one answer, but I feel it’s profound.
I am a week behind in writing a blog, but I am busy forgiving myself.
It has been an unusual week. I have been massively involved in doing a collection of tasks related to preserving the value of our house, given that at our collective age it’s time to take more care of resale value. I have the unusual advantage of collaborating with a person whose trade skills embrace a wide range, including those of storytelling: we are entertaining ourselves as we go. We have attacked a number of weird needs around the old homestead, including my primary focus of designing and building a front screen-porch addition that will function as a cat air-lock. Age is not improving our ability to keep the escape artists confined to the house, thus evading their destiny as road-kill. With this porch addition, we will have the ability to catch them if they sneak through our major front door.
Given that this is a significant modification, it needs to be something that looks intentional and comely, and I have seized this portion of the various projects as my own. Design is something that comes to me stepwise, and it takes a while. I am finally in the end-game and am pleased with how it will look. The rains make building and painting sketchy and episodic, but the finish line is now in view. I have greatly enjoyed re-entering the realm of sawing, fitting, and screwing
Other energy bursts? Well, I turned eighty-four this week, and I think that’s a powerful number. I rejoiced in the cascade of FB birthday wishes. The Occidental Arts Center scheduled our Frankenstein on their regular play-reading series and we were there to appreciate a very powerful rendition; given that Covid had put an end to our lifetime of having our work shared with audiences, this was a gorgeous reanimation.
And then there was Rite of Spring. This was my birthday gift to myself. The epic score by Stravinsky—so powerful that the Paris premiere audience tore up the seats and rioted—was choreographed by the audacious Pina Bausch into a powerful ballet in 1975. What I just saw was a recreation of her choreography by a company of 38 dancers from 14 African countries, and it pummeled me. I was in tears and shaking.
Her question to her company: How would you dance if you knew you were going to die? This is an enactment of a an ancient fertility ritual to ensure the crops. The entire community gathers to select the maiden who will dance herself to death, a sacrifice for the survival of the whole. In our time, Navalny just surrendered his life, and left a message:
“If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong.”
Watching this young dancer push through the desperate fear of death to give her life for the community, I could not help making this comparison. Life commands dedication to the energy of existence. I give thanks.
I’m exploring history. My historical lifetime, to be specific. Creatively, by choice: remembering my life and strapped to the keyboard.
It’s not a memoir: it might as well be, though lots has happened that’d be irrelevant, as happens in life. I find myself in the throes of adaptation: old plays to prose fiction. The first was REALISTS and LONG SHADOW, then BLIND WALLS, and most recently TAPDANCER. I thought initially it was a hedge against running out of stories to tell, but the human race is bent on supplying thousands daily. Then I thought to preserve my creative output against the probability of death, but that privilege extends to only a few books of still fewer writers.
Now, it’s simpler: I find that telling old stories uncovers new forms of sea life swimming in there that you’d never imagined before.
This time it’s an adaptation of an adaptation: a version I wrote and staged in 1968 of Euripides’ HECUBA, retitled THE BITCH OF KYNOSSEMA, though I can’t recall what we called it in the entertainment listings. But it held the question I ask of every project: why bother?
In this case, the answer loomed. I always tend to write something horrid after writing something sweet, and vice versa. TAPDANCER isn’t entirely sweet, but kinda. It’s at least what passes for me as funny. Then too, I’ve also seen HECUBA as—well, not exactly flawed, but kinda clunky: my first play, many since then. Could I do it better now?
The first rough draft was very short, not even novella length. But how to pad it out: as slender and compact as a prima ballerina, you couldn’t just add thirty pounds. But I see that the story now is in the years before and the many years after: my gut relation to its content, to my relation, at second hand and at third, to war and the madness that drives it.
And maybe in 1968, I was still hung up on the notion that Greek tragedy had to be tragic. Perhaps Euripides won so few prizes and was only popular in the next century was that the conflicts at the heart of his great plays were profoundly self-contradictory: the essence of comedy. Medea murders her children to avenge herself on her hubby, Pentheus has his head ripped off by his mother, who thinks she’s killed a lion, on and on.
My own history is recent, as history goes. I recall hearing about the end of WWII, when we moved from my grandparents’ farm into town, where my mom got another job. She had been commutiog to the bomber plant in Omaha, where she’d likely put rivets in the wing of the Enola Gay. And then came Vietnam and other wars that didn’t win any Oscars, right up to the present, when we’re counting the dead on the fingers of one hand—our dead, at least. (The other dead, on the fingers of a millipede.) But how do you write about an experience you’ve never had?
I guess you write about the experience you did have. The movies, the books you’ve read, the newscasts you listen to, the very few episodes of violence you’ve been part of. Arrows or automatic gunfire do the same job of killing, and the Mideast still echoes the dead Achilles’ demand for a bride and the threat that no one goes home till he gets the one he’s been promised.
Perhaps what was lacking in my long-ago staging of the play is that I didn’t fully understand I had written a farce. Can I write one now?
“We will offer no relevant evidence. Facts limit freedom.” That is the opening statement from the prosecutor in Tapdancer, our latest book. It’s a surreal farce along the lines of what would happen if a Kafka nightmare was staged by the Marx Brothers. I’m having fun carrying the orders to the post office because I know what the buyers are getting. We first wrote it as a radio play, then adapted it for the stage in 1992, and now it’s between covers. So it’s 32 years old, my age when I had our first baby. A lot has happened since then, and what was first written as farce is increasingly our reality. Recently the governor of Texas, giving the finger to the Constitution and the Supreme Court, has been supported by 25 other Republican governors who think the original 13 colonies made a mistake. You can’t make this stuff up, commentators say, but they’re wrong. We already did, and I wonder if I should apologize.
This crackpot comedy had innocent beginnings. When our theatre company was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, one of our board members was a petite blonde investment broker. At one of our fundraising gala events we asked audience members about their unfulfilled dreams, and her questionnaire confessed that she’d always wanted to learn to tap dance. A friend gave her a gift certificate for tap dance lessons, and months later, at another gala, she bravely got on stage and did her basic tap routine.
A good friend from our first theatre ensemble always wanted to be a lounge singer, a good one, and his aspiration paid off. He and his band became a sensation in Milwaukee with a repertoire of tunes from the 1940’s, and supper club patrons danced cheek to cheek to music from their courtship years. And at the end of every set, our friend came out in a tux, cleared the dance floor, and performed a very spiffy tapdance.
Then one night Conrad woke in tears from a nightmare. In his dream, our beloved tapdancing friend had been sentenced to death for defacing a billboard. Conrad took that nightmare by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a farce about an investment broker who tries to tap-dance and is awful, but loves it. One dare begetting others, he defaces a billboard that offends him and is sentenced to death by lethal injection. (He survives.) In reality, our friend’s dancing was top-notch, but all of us in the ensemble had experienced the indignity of being ridiculous in tap shoes when we were urged to take group lessons. If it’s ridiculous, use it, says the writer.
The book is funny, but crammed with things that are pretty scary if you take them literally. The villain in the piece is a court bailiff who has never been given the respect he wants, so when he accidentally gets to preside over the trial he becomes a maniac—a sadistic fascist who finally has control, taking revenge to pathological levels. Nothing to see here, folks, just move along. Remember, we wrote this a long time ago.
In a Kurt Vonnegut novel I just read, there’s something called Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. It’s not a very nice church, but it’s founded on a principle I find myself in agreement with, this: the universe, as far as we can know it, is a unity. Its commandments are things like the Law of Gravity, thermodynamics, relativity, all that. No reason not to call that “God,” unless giving it a name implies the presence of an educated, infinitely powerful, confused something-like-a-human-being.
I have no quarrel with religion, though I know friends who’ve felt its bite. The crimes usually charged—war, totalitarian persecution, shame, etc.—would have likely come about for reasons more tangible than “the will of God.” There are incessant Facebook posts on the absurdity of the stories, but for me the absurdity comes only if you adopt the fundamentalist belief in their historical accuracy rather than the symbolism permeating any myth. Like any myth, you’re free to read in the meaning.
Of course, the adherents at least of the Abrahamic religions seem to see them applying to all humankind.
Growing up, perhaps what had the greatest impact on me was the Book of Job. As I read it, all attempts to explain reality—in this case, absolute disaster—are absurd. The whirlwind itself rules all: it takes away and it gives. And of course we try to make sense of it. All systems of belief—philosophical, scientific, religious—are attempts to understand what’s hidden under the rock in the desert under heavy bombardment—a human task as noble and inevitable as it is absurd.
For me, the value of a religion is solely its effect on the individual adherent and those directly in his path. It’s like a machine at the gym: if it keeps you in shape, it’s good for you; if it only gives you a bulgy butt or cracks your joints, you’d best lay off. And what works for one may cripple another.
I’m not immune to thinking something comic, as witness my lifelong writing of comedy. Yet for me the folks who slip on the banana peel are less absurd than the guy who thanks God for saving him when the other 300 passengers fall to their fiery deaths. Gratitude is good, but I doubt that Yahweh or Krishna or Dionysus or Spider Woman was directly responsible for saving his sorry ass. Call it dumb luck.
For me, I’ve never felt the presence of an afterlife. No question I don’t appreciate having to die, but an afterlife—for me, again, again—is one of those things you dream, the way my cats dream of catnip or getting squashed. When I’m dead I’ll likely be dead, despite whatever songs I sing.
That’s me. I’ve known many, many people—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Moslem, Neopagan, Quaker, Unitarian, Secularist, and even actors—who have their own takes on what they believe and are decent human beings. Like all of us, they sometimes slip on banana peels; there may even be peels in Heaven.
Though of course you always think: suppose there IS an afterlife. Countless people have believed it; and I can’t say there isn’t, of course. I can only say I’ll try to live this one as best I can. It’s likely to be as in watching a movie you saw fifty years ago: you recall this scene, or something like it, but you can’t remotely follow the plot. It must be by Nicholas Roeg.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
A Visit to Life:
a historical fantasy
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein