Naxos. . .


I’m not a swimmer. I love water in any form, be it brook, lagoon, hot tub, or sea, and I enjoy wading and splashing, but it takes a herculean effort to plunge in and immerse my head—I’m overcome with primal fear, every time, unless some primal pleasure is stronger. Jo and Fra got me to snorkel, joyously, when we traveled together to Sardinia a few years ago. It only took a couple of undignified clown-snorts before I got the hang of breathing through the tube, and I’d probably do it again without hesitation, but I’m not gonna snork without the equipment.

Just down the street from our room in Chora is a gorgeous white-sand beach, and I’d packed my Greek bikini (from 1984), so it put it on, added a shirt for the three-block walk, took off the shirt, then walked right into the clear warm bright turquoise water. Only ass-deep, yeah, but it felt great. Calm, sweet, Greek. There were many tanned, slim, toned bodies, and an equal number of other shapes, and mine — all of us wet and shiny as seals. I’m certainly rounder than I was in 1984, but I do go to the gym, so at least my belly has muscles. I felt OK, better than OK. I’ll go in again, all but the head. Mama understands.


On the island of Naxos, the third of our stops through the Aegean, I hiked up this morning to the Venetian fortress in the center of the port city of Chora. Centuries ago, they put fortresses high up so they could piss down on the lowly folks, and they haven’t moved them any lower for the tourists.

In one section, there’s a small archeological museum, with artifacts from the 3rd Millennium BCE up into the early Christian era. I paid my two Euro entry fee, and because the woman at the counter sounded as if she had basic English—

(My Greek consisting of “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” and “Yes,” though I’m hesitant to wish someone good morning, a standard greeting, because a slight vowel shift would have me greeting them with “Squid!”).

—So I asked, in clear enunciation, “Is the collection here entirely from Naxos or from the other Cyclades?”

The woman answered, in clear enunciation, “Downstairs.”

So I went downstairs.

Over the course of our 56 years of marriage, certain phrases have stuck. They mean something to us, though to no one else. They have a private utility. One of these is “Pork roast.” You can read our memoir, CO-CREATION, to decipher the meaning.

A new one, born today, is “Downstairs.” The ultimate answer to the impossible question. Bless the Greeks.



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Travels. . .

—From EF—

I went on a challenging, strange magical journey the night before we left Italy. Sleep was like a snoozing cat, just out of reach, and refused to come closer. So I went along with the game, and let it lead me where it would.

Before retiring for the sleep that would not come, I’d been talking with Johanna about the house where we’d lived in Millersville in the 80’s, and she was telling me about her frequent childhood visits to a strange structure in the attic. I’d been up there, more than once, but didn’t have a clue about what she was describing. Once I entered sleep’s courtyard, I found myself back in that attic, wondering what else I’d missed.

By then I was in that half-world that lets you wander strange paths, and I started visualizing other places I’d lived, wondering how exactly I could remember them. It varied, but the attempt was fascinating and I continued. I found that I could remember more clearly in some years, less in others, and started wondering about that.

Then I started feeling that I was the sum of a collection of memories, and that fuzzy parts were making Swiss cheese of my personal reality. That sent me back around the track, trying to open more doors. I got such a lot of specifics that at one point I literally couldn’t remember where I lived now. There was a little glow of light in Jo’s room and I could see the roof beams, and I was trying desperately to align that with my present home. No soap.

And I began to weep, quietly, feeling a strange sense of loss, feeling that my personal foundations were not solid. If I tried harder, recovered more tangible memories, would I be more complete? Who are we, exactly, if not the carpetbag of our memories? No one else can come closer to making that complete, so it’s our own choice to find our own stories. And there is no objective judge to say what’s true, and what’s invented.

So I’ve begun a strange project, with no goal, simply to say as much detail as I can recall about the life I think I’ve lived. Already I’ve found forgotten gems, little secret closets of childhood worlds I’d forgotten. I will walk the carpet of memory, weaving as I go.

—From CB—

We are travelers. Travel now is considered fun, but traditionally people have often found it an unwelcome experience. For us, it’s been both. Professionally, I once calculated that we’ve gone well over half a million miles, though never by muleback or camelback. Now it’s only occasional performance tours, but every year we visit our daughter in Italy and then further journeys. This time to Greece. First day here has been a joy, but getting here…

Yesterday, up early, and Fra drove us to breakfast in Pontassieve, then we caught the train to Firenze. From there, the train to Milano and the bus to the airport. Plenty of time until our flight to Athens, decent except for the on-plane dinner: a pasta better employed to glue your grandmother’s teeth in place. Landed, took a 50-minute bus ride into central Athens, where we’d booked a cheap private room. From there it got more challenging.

Our hostel/hotel was at 20 Nikis, just off Syntagma Square, only a couple of blocks from the bus stop. Got there quickly. “20 Nikis, there it is!” The door leads into a lobby with a number of signs, none remotely suggesting lodging. There’s an elevator and a dark staircase. Perhaps there’s a sign in the elevator. I punch the elevator: it’s dead. We dither. Elizabeth digs out our paperwork, sends a text message. No response. Tries calling. No response. What to do?

We climb six flights in the dark, assisted by our tiny keychain flashlight, carrying two carry-ons. One floor has a ceiling light and a half dozen office doors. We try each. Nothing. We descend the stairs. We stand in the lobby.

“It’s the Crystal Palace,” I say, referring to an ancient experience of being unable to find our campground in the night, and trying to say, in effect, Well, we’ll survive. Hey, we have a smart phone: if need be, we can find another room nearby and eat the cost of the one we’ve already paid for. But fortune smiles, as it often does when it decides not to smirk.

A young man comes down the stairs: he’s a guest in the rooms where we’re staying. It’s on the fifth floor (European style). We go back up the six flights. Nothing. But there’s one more floor. Elizabeth goes up as I sit with the bags. Yes, she says, there’s a note on the door. Go to the hotel at 40 Nikis and there will be information. We descend, cursing the dead elevator, hobble up the street, find the hotel. Yes, a young woman has our information, gives us our key and the code for the door. Back to Nikis 20. Third time up the six flights: luggage seems to have gained density.

The door code doesn’t work. Punch punch punch punch, numbers light up, go off. Same thing, different numbers light up, go off. Delving into the realms of the unconscious, I suggest to Elizabeth, “Maybe when the random numbers light up, you’re supposed to punch them.” This makes no sense, given that we weren’t told to do so. She tries it. It works.

We go in, find our room number, force the key—with foul curses—to open the door, and we’re in. Clean, bare room, but a welcome double bed. Stuffy and sweltering. Open the window: it’s hotter outside. Ah, there’s a fan. Ah, it doesn’t work, but it does make an apologetic moan. But after an hour of slow broil in the dark, the irrational thought occurs to Elizabeth (irrational given that we have a fan) that there might be an air-conditioning control. There is. We’re cool, we’re in bed, we’re in Athens. I can sleep.

I lie awake all night. But that’s okay: we’re traveling.


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Women, Kids, Life . . .

—From EF—

I’m in Mama-land, here in Tuscany with Johanna and Francesco, and it’s Full Moon. My heart runneth over. Last night was only semi-sleep, so my mind was free to drift without a pilot. It set sail from the love of daughter and son-in-law and visited a whole lot of my good friends who are mothers. Coming from the midst of all the ghastly gnarl of politics, it was blissful to float and rock on a high tide of love.

Whaddya think? If somehow a whole lot of women could all do this intentionally, at the same time, could we undo some of the shit? I’m only half-joking. That’s all, folks.

—From CB—

I just finished reading a New Yorker article on the current woes of child-protection services—the tangled skein between giving children security against abuse while avoiding the damages wrought by separation of parents and kids. Profoundly depressing, given that the identical article could have been written 40 years ago, when we were intimately involved with these issues.

In 1975, we wrote and staged a play called DESSIE, certainly the most gut-wrenching play we’ve ever made. We hadn’t thought of it as a “message” play—for us it was a gnarly character study—but it came at a time when family violence and child abuse were suddenly headline issues, and we were plunged (while creating other shows) into a 9-year span of touring cross-country, probably 600+ performances, for audiences of social workers, cops, convicted felons, congregations, parent self-help groups, lawyers, and general public coming into the church basement asking, “Is this where the movie is?” Often the post-show discussion was twice as long as the 45 minutes of the play, and we structured it to allow the full range of feelings to be vented. Feedback from performances was heartening: people on all sides of the spectrum actually listened to one another. And several times we heard from people, a year or so later, the ultimate valuation: You made a difference in my life.

Perhaps the only discrepancy between the New Yorker article and our nine years of experience was that in the profile in the article, the caseworker had a caseload of nine or ten, while some workers we met had caseloads of a hundred or more. And I’m certain that various localities have made progress. But overall, the nexus of byzantine structures, adversarial procedures, butt-covering, pathetic ignorance, isolation, poverty, and the pervasive rage that fuels our national character—well, I didn’t really want to write about this. Little point in writing utter bleakness. Except—

Last Saturday morning at the coffee shop, two women with baby carriers were conversing. One infant was 5 weeks old, the other a few weeks older, though older hardly seems the right word. Further advanced? Nearer senility? More cutting-edge? What I caught of their conversation was mainly trade talk about new motherhood. When I’d finished my coffee and writing, I approached, asked how old the kids were, and told the mothers, “Well, have fun. And courage.”

I wanted to say more but didn’t want to be intrusive. More, because for me the act of child-bearing and child-rearing is the most heroic act, both physically and psychologically, that a human being can do. Lots of people do ita pretty well, but the news (not to mention world literature) is rife with those who’ve done it abominably. There are zillions of movies about men in battle, but I can’t think of a single one about a woman in labor.

More people now admit to having serious doubts about “bringing a child into this world.” And yet, with some exceptions, most of us do wish the human race might continue—making at least a few tiny fiddles and farts toward improvement now and then. It’s no dishonor to be childless, whether by choice or by fortune. But I feel an enormous urge to honor those who undertake the damned hard physical work to bear and raise children, and the crazy belief in a livable future.

What more is needed besides my easy words? Our whole damned species pulling together to change the tide. But I want to imagine that something is gained, to a small degree, by two young women comparing notes over coffee.



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Packing & Chopping . . .

—From EF—

In a week, we leave for our annual transatlantic journey to visit our daughter in Italy, and then to voyage to other amazing places. We’ll be just short of a week with Jo and Fra, followed by a week and a half in Greece, and at the end CB and I go different ways, he to an intense week in Athens, me to my sacred grounds around Carnac. Lotta geography, lotta different climates.

I’m started on the packing. As always, we refuse to check anything, so it all goes in a single carry-on for each of us. The transatlantic carriers allow a separate smaller under-seat item, but on our short-hop airlines, everything has to go in the one bag, so we plan accordingly and do a trial run with putting our empty shoulder-bags into the carry-on to make sure we can get by.

It always amazes me that the totality of our physical needs for three weeks can be crammed into one little wheelie. When you really want to go lean, you can pare things down to a nubbin. So how come we’ve got all this stuff in the house and the studio and the shop?

At my age I start dreading those moments of “what if I croaked in a car crash,” thinking of what would confront our kids. We are indeed starting to simplify things, but it’s pretty damn daunting. In our checkered past, it has always been traumatic to make a move, but the result has been an amazing sense of cleansing. Granted, our profession results in a lot of bins of puppets and videos of nearly fifty years of productions, but do we really need old plaster casts for life-masks?

Of late, I realize how much of the cubic feet of old stuff has to do with money. Where it came from, where it went, who needs to know all about it, and so on. As I begin to start throwing this crap out, after checking the statute of limitations, it REALLY FEELS GOOD. Bank statements, boom! Credit card bills, okay! Old grant records, yes, heave’em!

All that stuff has no place in my carry-on wheelie. It doesn’t clothe me or clean me or decorate me or get me through TSA. Maybe this is a good recipe for life now.

—From CB—

We’ve finished another edit of our novel GALAHAD’S FOOL, hopefully appearing in the spring, and now back to the editor for her responses. In our estimation it’s benefited enormously from her input: both clearer craft-wise and a deeper content in several major characters. At the same time, working with an editor poses challenge.

The easiest aspect is something I’ve mentioned before. When someone offers a response, it’s usually in the form of a prescription: This needs to go faster. This needs to be cut. We need stronger motivation. Etc. etc. Those need to be considered, whether they come from an experienced colleague or an anonymous audience member. But the wise physician doesn’t order a hip replacement just because the patient says he needs one. The procedure is to ask, first, what the symptoms are, to order tests as needed, and finally make a diagnosis and a prescription. This needs to be cut may stem from its impeding the action, going off on a seemingly irrelevant tangent, or being just plain boring. So it may indeed need to be cut, but on the other hand, it may need to be amplified to clarify its relevance. In performance, I’ve had several experiences of responses that “It needs to speed up” lead to solving the problem by slowing down. There are many ways to skin a cat. Bad metaphor, perhaps, given that Shadow is snoozing beside me.

But working closely with a new collaborator, whether it’s an editor, an outside director of one of our plays, or a fellow actor, is a huge act of faith. Elizabeth and I may have major disagreements in working on a piece, but we know from experience that (a) eventually we’ll find a solution that satisfies us both if we’re patient and (b) that we’re both after the same thing overall. That trust is difficult. We’ve had wonderful experiences with other theatres doing our plays, and we’ve had some nightmares.

With book publication, two factors make it difficult to assert ourselves in the evolution of the work. First, we’re relative newbies in the realm of fiction, and the more of the craft we learn, the more there is to learn. Writing for the stage is very different not only in the predominance of dialogue but in what I’d call the absorptive factor: how the reader or audience grasps the narrative. So you have to trust your editor’s judgment—up to a point. You also have to trust yourself.

The other factor is the fact that your publisher is putting up time and money to make this happen. If it bombs, we’re not the only ones to suffer. So you’re raising the ante with someone else’s chips. That deserves respect.

In the long run, though, the process forces you to ask yourself, with the ferocity of the Guantanamo interrogator: What’s the story we’re telling? Why are we telling it? Is this the best way to tell it? And to be faithful to that story, no matter what.


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Confessions. . .

—From EF—

Color us nuts, but when the invitation came to perform at the Forbidden Puppet Cabaret this past weekend, we first said yes and only then realized that we didn’t have any suitable short pieces that we hadn’t already performed in the many past cabarets, especially since this one had a specific theme: The Summer of Love. But we’d already said yes and didn’t want to fink out. So we made a new piece. In twelve days. And I’m happy to report that it was a slam-dunk success.

We had puppets and props for a piece we did a while ago called The Death of Howdy Doody, in which an old man at the point of death wants to make a confession to his granddaughter before embarking into the unknown. Grandpa had been the lawyer who was forced to dismember and burn the original Howdy Doody puppet as part of a successful suit by the puppet’s creator, who’d been deprived of the substantial merch rights and retaliated by yanking his puppets right out of this wildly successful TV show. The producers had a new and different puppet made, that freckled insane dunce whose face went down in history, and they didn’t want the original disheveled dork to claim that he was the first Howdy Doody. The original’s creator happily accepted his big bucks and surrendered the puppet. It was cremated in a barbecue on the lawyer’s desk, so the story goes. In our story, the old man’s son had been entranced with Howdy Doody and would have been appalled at this story, hence the confession.

OK, rewrite the script to center on the wonderful, colorful inspiring stories that the old man had told his son and his granddaughter about how he’d hitchhiked from Omaha to San Francisco in 1967, and how it changed his whole life. The catch is, he lied. He was in Oakland, never crossed the bridge, and kept his hair short to sell wall-to-wall carpet. Now he wants to confess to his granddaughter.

She hears the truth, briefly deflates, then goes on to tell the old man that his stories had changed her life, that she doesn’t care that they weren’t true, and thanks and forgives him. He dies in her arms while she lullabies him with All We Need Is Love.

Performance is a blind date; you’ve never met the audience before, but you will be incredibly intimate, an improvised tango of response. Over a series of performances of a given piece, you get some idea of how this will go, but the first time is, well, the first time. You only get to do it once. Our audience was grand and generous, and we got the huge laughs and tearful responses that we’d hoped for.

A long time ago we had the temerity to call ourselves bards. Itinerant storytellers, the weavers of context (thanks to Caroline Casey) for our fragmented society. The ancient bards had their heads full of crafted and memorized songs and stories, but as they moved from village to village, they also wove new stories that connected folks who would never see each other in the flesh. Our collective memory, so to speak. If this is going to work, the new stories have to strike a chord in the new hearers—Oh yeah, that was me!

So we did a daft one-off, brought our refurbished story to a new campfire, and now move on.

—From CB—

I live my life multitasking, so you’d think I’d get used to it. As a performer, when I go onto stage, I’ve probably directed, designed, and co-written the piece, and in each of those minds—entirely different minds—I can’t help taking notes, even as I’m trying to focus totally as actor. So I ought to be able, by this time, to move suavely from one identity to the next.

It doesn’t always work. This month, our obsessive focus has been on a copy-edit of our novel GALAHAD’S FOOL, scheduled for publication next spring. The editor had many minor notes, some major ones, and even small changes sometimes reverberate like that fabled Chinese butterfly whose wing-flap will do us all in. We’re working against the deadline of flying off to visit our daughter in Italy in September, so to stay on schedule with the publication, we need to get it finished to everyone’s satisfaction.

At such times, we welcome distraction. As legend has it, the groundhog retreats if he sees his shadow, but I’d think it more likely that he’d just yell, “Party time!” and come out of his hole doing a festive jitterbug. For myself, anything that lures me out of the cesspool of my brain is a welcome distraction, and the more the merrier.

This week, it was first a performance at the Forbidden Puppet Cabaret in Vallejo, with a span of preparing a short sketch and then a wonderful reception. And then a reception-preview event by a San Francisco theatre ensemble who are dear friends.

The latter event was informal, friendly, about 25 people, with snacks and short showings of works-in-progress. And for me it was an occasion for self-analysis. Such occasions I welcome but they’re rarely occasions for joy.

In gatherings, I can sometimes set my head into a gregarious mode and survive; more often I gravitate to the snack table, to the drinks, then to a corner and at last start spelunking down into my own head as far as I can. Once I get down there, there’s no way out. That hasn’t changed since high school.

I don’t like to think people notice how alien I feel, and I don’t like to feel no one notices.

Are some of us born with the gene that asks, “What am I doing here?” or is it endemic to our social order? I could believe that the others, smiling and chatting away, are inwardly rife with anxiety, straining to keep their heads above water, but I sincerely hope not. We need more occasions for celebration, connection coming together, not fewer. So I hope I’m in the minority. Or at least I feel I should hope so.

It passes, and I look forward to RSVPing the next invitation. I’ve gotten past adolescence in a number of aspects, so I have hopes for more spirited human interchange in my eighties—five years to get there, and meantime I’ll haunt the snack table.





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Dads & Old Dogs. . .

—From EF—

My mother was the dangerous one, the ever-primed font of rage, but my dad was the big, solid, warm one,. Little as I was, I knew I couldn’t tell him anything about my need for protection, but I still took comfort from his presence, though during weekdays his presence was scant . It was just a fact that his primary bond was to my mother, and anything that might rock that boat was not on his radar screen. I don’t recall ever having felt betrayed by him—until much later, when I began to understand the clockwork of abuse and alcoholism, and how denial plays a role in that.

In my mind he was the way things should be, and I loved him. He was a good story-teller, and I remember hearing him talk about past things, and my understanding of those stories was colored by my appreciation of him as a place of comfort.

My dad grew up in Illinois, mostly in Springfield, within the professional class— his father was a lawyer. It was a shock when I began revisiting memories of his stories and understood that he was a deep-dyed racist. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any concept of what that was.

But stories that I accepted as OK when they were told became gruesome in retrospect. He talked about the Chicago race riots and mentioned stringing blacks up on lamp-posts as just the way it was. He was a Chicago executive and owned land in northwest Indiana, and at some point he hired a black farm laborer. The man became unhappy with the state of his employment and wanted to leave. My dad threatened to take a knife and hamstring him.

It makes me shudder that he told this as a joke. I makes my blood run cold that I heard this as a funny story told by a warm, jovial man whom I loved.

Our first teaching job after Conrad’s PhD at Stanford was at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. After our first play production there we had a cast party, and many parents were present. One man heartily proclaimed, drink in hand, “Now we don’t treat our niggers that bad, do we?”

Racism runs deep in our culture and it blends into the woodwork until forcibly revealed. I am reasonably intelligent and perceptive, but it took a long time before I began to recognize it. I can’t demonize my father, I can only see who he was and where he came from.

If I were magically transplanted back to that time with the full understanding of what I know now, could I have confronted him? I doubt it. I was the vulnerable one, and he was my only bulwark. In how many homes has that story played out, letting the accepted darkness pass?

I have an absolute belief in the innate innocence of humans, born spotless and totally dependent on their upbringing. A brilliant renegade priest rejected the idea of original sin, and proclaimed original blessing. I’m with him.

But those of us who have imbibed toxins in our infant milk without knowing it, we have a lot to weed out. Pick up the damn hoe, already.

—From CB—


for the old mutt who lurches
collarless, cataract-fogged
after the stringy bristled old hippie
who suns in the square

a beast who resembles a pig
who warms his belly on brickwork
who rolls up his glassy eyes
to yellowing leaves

with no injunction but breathing the next
no urge but the protoplasmic command
to spend out the stretch of his days
godfather to fleas.


© Bishop & Fuller 2017

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Seals & Kitty-cats. . .

—From EF—

We got on a whale watch boat, went out to the Farallon Islands, and it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. The ocean isn’t a Chinese carry-out where you can order what you want, but we were in luck. Our sea captain and our naturalist guide both really knew their stuff and took us to places of wonder and delight. We got the whole nine yards: greys, humpbacks, one enormous blue, plus three flavors of seals, dolphins, and even several albatrosses. The vessel also stopped a couple of times to haul junk out of the water—a sea turtle can mistake a defunct balloon for an edible jellyfish and be choked to death. The day was amazing.

And the ocean hides it all, until it wants to be seen. Unless the dolphin swims directly under your boat, you don’t know it’s there until it starts leaping. You stare at the watery horizon until your eyes itch, and you don’t remotely know whether or where the planet’s largest animal will rise and let you see an acre or two of his back, and then he does. Or you hear a big wet phoo! sound and turn to see a huge tail rise in the air and then smack down on the water. You sail into an island cove and it’s seal soup, playful guys with huge yellow whiskers, and I swear you can hear them giggle. They’re thick as spilled popcorn, then the captain starts the engine up again, and floop—all gone.

I remember the first time I saw electron microscope photographs of the interior of the human body. Coral reefs, cathedrals, bumper cars, beauty and grotesquerie galore, and it had been there all the time. Our skin hid it all until we found out how to see it.

Artists are windows, but it’s a partnership. The window is created, but then you have to want to see. What you see may change you, make you want to keep seeing, make you encourage others to see. You might not want to invite oil rigs into the sanctuary.

—From CB—

I enjoy insulting our cats much more than I enjoy insulting the President.

“You hairy frisking guts,” I may mutter as they walk about the sink while I tend my morning ablutions—not Shakespearean in its heights of castigation, but on a daily level it serves.

Shadow and Garfunkel do have some things in common with our leader. All are mammals with digestive tracts. All are off-the-dial egocentric. All have peculiar hair.

The President, of course, doesn’t know I exist; the cats simply don’t care. In any case none would get the nature of the insult—the cats because they have little grasp of English; the President, same reason.

But the differences are marked.

The cats war with each other, brother on brother, stalking, pouncing, murdering in merciless fanaticism, but they keep their claws retracted. Given that, it’s easier to joke.

The cats play with nerf balls and rubber mice; the President, with bigger toys.

The cats use the cat pan. The President uses Twitter.

One of the cats cadged a scrap of pork fat from the garbage, wolfed it down, and suffered serious diarrhea. I’m not sure what the President ate.

The cats don’t take it personally, since they don’t know what I mean. With the cats, of course, I’m joking. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it more.



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