Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. Those words of Joseph Campbell are quoted in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” and they hit me square in the middle of where I live and imagine. I saw this production just now at Berkeley Rep, and I will go back again with Conrad on Wednesday. He intended to go with me, but was slammed with illness in the morning and literally spent the whole day on the couch, with and without cat-covering. I tried to look pitiful outside the theatre and get somebody to buy a ticket from me instead of from the box office, but no luck.
In spite of the hefty price, I came back with a huge jones to see it again, this time with Conrad beside me. We each have a private weekly allowance with no accounting or justification involved, and I had a pretty good stash accumulated. I offered to blow it all on another pair of tickets; that’s how much seeing this again with him means to me. He sensibly said OK, but we do have an annual budget, we should just use it. So we’re going together.
Water. The center of the stage is a big pentagonal pool of water, surrounded by an elevated rim wide enough to walk on. Berkeley Rep is an odd-shaped space with audience in magnificently arbitrary blocks climbing a steep slant from the stage, wrapping almost halfway around. Every seat is a close seat. The front rows are, of course, way close, and in this production, way wet. Towels are provided.
What an image. A grown man in a business suit, barefoot, sits in an elaborate formal chair that happens to be placed in the pool. Midas. The billionaire who has it all and desperately needs more, sitting in absurd isolation with his feet in the water. Later, Cupid and Psyche make love on a red velvet inflated mattress in the middle of the water, and chorus members bring many wide shallow bowls of candles so that their bed is surrounded by floating light.
Floating, splashing, drowning, soggy, the characters of this public dream are always dealing with what we all must have, the element that is currently drowning Nebraska and Iowa. It’s metaphor made manifest, a power unexpectedly experienced when your car drives over low-lying water and gets wrenched in a direction you didn’t plan.
Life is big and wet and powerful, and we fondly imagine we can channel and control it. This public dream walks us through memorable stories of our collective foolishness, with respect and affection.
Forgive yet another political rant—we’ve got a lifetime supply from every side of the biosphere—but I try to keep them infrequent. I stay pretty aware of all that’s going on, have my opinions, and vote, but I see little point in saying what’s already been said, and I’d rather spend my hours in harmless tasks like writing novels and petting the cats.
But we all have our itchy spots. I’ve now heard the pejorative “old white men” quite a number of times. As an Old White Man, let me say first that I’m not running for President—I’d be a well-meaning disaster. And not wanting to sound curmudgeonly, but—
To me, that phrase is unique in its triple bigotry. I quite agree that there’s nothing intrinsically noble in being white, though nothing inherently virtuous in being black or female—cf. Clarence Thomas & Betsy DeVos. Granted, it’s
functional symbolism to break the ceilings and the chains, but in my view that’s flowed from radical societal changes—spearheaded by individuals but not caused by them. Arguably, Barack Obama (whom I admire) did less to promote civil rights than that old white asshole Lyndon Johnson, and certainly more than hot young Kennedy. And World War II made it possible—ditto with women’s rights.
As for age: the best argument against older guys as President is that two terms might be too much for a geezer, and we want a two-termer. But would you really argue that Ruth Ginsburg is a less qualified justice than Brett Kavanaugh because she’s too old? “New ideas” don’t necessarily equate with youth or inexperience. New ideas (a) aren’t the exclusive province of the young, and (b) aren’t necessarily doable.
So I’m only suggesting that we listen to the “old white men” meme as acutely as we’d listen to “women are weak” or “no blacks allowed” or “he’s just a kid.” It’s understandable revenge, but IMHO it’s unworthy.
I’m working on my own solo memoir, and I encountered a really good piece of advice. “Start with the hardest part.” OK, here’s a first draft of the beginning of my hardest part, the time between going off to college to the first move to California. Sharing it with you is a commitment: no turning back.
It was 6:30 AM, Sept. 12, 1957, and I hugged my father good-bye as he headed off for his commute to the Chicago Loop. He had to use the station wagon to get to the train station, because the Chrysler sedan was going to take me to Ann Arbor for my freshman orientation. That Chevy “Woodie” had been my ride to high school for my whole senior year, but it wasn’t going to take me to college. It was a dilapidated beast, with a leaky roof and holes in the floor, and I loved it. Brushing snow off the seat in the winter was a small price for independence. But this was my mother’s road trip, and she would drive me and my luggage on the four-hour trip in a dignified sedan.
My brother got on the school bus and then we were free to go. It was harder saying goodbye to my cats than to any of the rest of the family, because I wasn’t sure I would ever see the cats again. Nobody loved them but me. Nevertheless, it was time, and off we went.
The first hour was a route I knew by heart. Every summer we’d go to Cadillac that way, past New Buffalo and Union Pier and Bridgman to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. But now instead of going north through Saugatuck and Holland and Grand Rapids, we headed east after St Joe to Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. The car was crammed full of my stuff.
I remembered another time my mother and I had loaded the car to the gills. We were driving the station wagon to take my father’s newest hunting dog north to the trainer, but most of the load was supplies for the summer. We spent the morning lugging everything out and stowing it, and it was about at St. Joe that my mother suddenly shouted, “Oh my God, I forgot the dog!” I can’t remember whether we went back for the dog, but I don’t think so. I think we kept going.
And we kept going now, with only a short stop for sandwiches and a cup of coffee on the far side of Grand Rapids. It was a beautiful warm September day. The car was a Chrysler New Yorker, maybe 1954, automatic transmission and velvety fabric on the seats. It still smelled new. It was my chariot to a new life. I was launching into what I thought would be a brilliant prologue to a life as a practicing MD. Everything was on my side. I’d been the valedictorian, had won a National Merit Scholarship, and had been admitted to an elite honors program at the University of Michigan. And I would finally be on my own. Three years later, that Chrysler would be my own car at Northwestern University, and its back seat would be my chariot again, this time into a lifetime of love.
What did my mother and I talk about for four hours? I have no idea. I’m sure I babbled over and over how much I’d miss everyone, that I’d be sure to write often, and how soon Thanksgiving vacation would come: a shorter time than my span at summer camp. I wasn’t going away, I was moving ahead.
I was clueless. I didn’t understand the scope of what I was leaving behind. My cats. The woods and fields that had sustained me through all my childhood. The baby grand that had been my working-partner. Above all, the iron constraints that had groomed me to be the invincible star student who would soar effortlessly to a brilliant career. I would no longer be stranded nine miles out in the farmland, only being allowed out for dates by the end of my senior year. I wouldn’t have the dizzying stress of state piano contests. I wouldn’t have the oddly useful cocoon of being a high-school misfit with nothing to do every day but follow the assigned halls to the assigned classes and go home to practice the piano and do the homework.
And I would not spend my home-time fearing what my unpredictable mother would do next, whether it was her impish gift for my sixteenth birthday, Cold Cash—sixteen silver dollars in an ice-cube tray—or a razor-sharp assault on my core. This sounds weird to me now, but I think it’s accurate: I would miss the abuse. In my own way I took on that burden myself, and I did a slam-dunk job of it.
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