Writing. . .
We’re in the final stage of our novel DESSIE, reading aloud a chapter a day, and sometimes changing a comma, sometimes a paragraph. The intention is to finish before I go to Europe on Mar. 15.
Why? It’s unpublishable—grim, funny, fits no genre, and if it were actually accepted by an agent, it’d be two years before it’s published, by which time we may be dead—not the best career move. Or if we self-publish, it’ll have a dozen sales and then lie there. But so be it. I think when it’s finished, we’ll offer free PDF’s to anyone who wants to read it. And then probably self-publish, which is cheap.
I firmly resolved that this would be the last novel. Actually, I resolved that the previous one. And so, in the tradition of chronic derangement, I’m six chapters into the next.
The new project harks back to an earlier play. Why, I’ve wondered, have we in recent years done novels of plays we’ve written— DESSIE, AKEDAH, BLIND WALLS, LONG SHADOW, TAPDANCER, MASKS, REALISTS? Perhaps it’s that we lack ideas, perhaps we don’t want those stories to die. But I think it’s more than that.
If you go back to a memory, perhaps you look on it in a different way. Same with a story. I see Kenneth from the perspective of 2023, not of 1976, and it’s the same bent character but a different person seeing him. Now he’s informed by what I see as magical thinking of the worst sort, a Don Quixote delusion born from a desperate need. Then, he was sad, lovable Kenneth. Now, we’ll see.
We’re blest with having money enough, so that imperative is off the table, assuming we don’t live to 100. There’s a freedom in being 81 and unknown. Whatever I do, it’s not for career, it’s solely for the fact of doing it. Of course I’d like readers, and of course I’d like praise; this stuff gets reworked, goes through many drafts, and edited within an inch of its life. But it’s entirely what the story wants to do.
I wonder how STORY has become so important to me. A lifetime in theatre, of course, but how did that evolve beyond a way, in high school, to meet girls? Yet after I met some, it continued. Comedy, tragedy, musical, realism, melodrama, farce, the multiplicity of forms—yet lurking behind all was a story of human yearning and choice. I’ve created some despicable characters, and played some that Shakespeare brought forth, but I’ve always tried to empathize with the worst of them, to see the action from many points of view, to tease out what calls me to it. If I know at the start, there’s no point in pursuing it.
Which I guess is the key. It’s the only way I have of knowing myself. I’ve always felt closest to Ibsen, Brecht, and Beckett, I suppose because their work embodies its own contradictions. As do I. As does every human being. Chekhov is the same, though with the edges smoothed off. On occasion, I’ve been accused in reviews of doing a show more for myself than for the audience, and there’s an element of truth in that. Of course I want people to like it, and I’m never done with the tinkering, but I have to follow what the story, taken into my heart, wants itself to be.
Last Sunday it was a wild and lovely day at the ocean, rain and wind but moderate enough for about a gazillion gulls to practice gliding in groups. We weren’t nuts, we stayed inside and had our picnic in the car, and got the added pleasure of watching the amazing pattern the rivulets of rain made on the windshield. The ocean always puts on a complicated show, Seeing that through the silken pattern of the rainflow was exquisite.
On the way home, winding the familiar road through the coastal hills, I looked across at Conrad’s profile and was suddenly verklempt, totally overwhelmed with a rush of emotion. The pages of memory shuffled like a deck of cards, and the present became alive with the past. All the times, all the miles, all the years of looking across at my man with his hands on the wheel as we traveled the hundreds of thousand of miles of our touring life on the road. We just about wore the wheels off three successive Dodge Maxivans in those years, and most of the time it was as a family.
Memories. In 1977, driving through the night from gritty Chicago toward new life in the green hills of eastern Pennsylvania, our three-year-old daughter rolled over in the big bed, looked out the window and said, “Look, Mama! The moon is coming with us!” Our first tour in Texas, realizing that the roadkill we’d been seeing was armadillos. Cresting a mountain ridge coming into San Francisco at night, suddenly seeing the land below as a velvet lapful of jewels. Following a Carolina host to his home for dinner and finding we’d been following the wrong car when it pulled into a supermarket parking lot. And omigod, the night we had to sleep in the van outside Atlanta—the four of us and two other actors.
We developed survival comfort strategies for nights in the van. A dear friend (that’s you, Michael) told us his choice of road-booze for a last nip was Southern Comfort. After nearly gagging, I came to like it. One Saturday night we were sacking out in southeastern PA, somewhere near Oxford, and realized there wasn’t anything in the flask. I’d seen a liquor store not far back up the road, but as we got there it was closing and we were told that everything in PA was closing too. We were only a couple of miles from Delaware, so we kept going. As we pulled into a parking lot we found that Delaware was indeed open later, but was also just closing. We went back to the road and took a left turn into Maryland, a dependable pit of sin, and scored. The whole three-state trip took half an hour, and then we slept well. Next morning, the Unitarians had no idea.
It was always a Dodge Maxi, not a Roma caravan, but there was a magic about being road-warriors. This spring Conrad’s going to London and later I’m going to Brittany, and each of us will spend four or five days in Italy with our daughter. The moon followed her all the way there.
DISMANTLEMENT. . .
The Facebook post screamed DISMANTLE THE STRUCTURES OF OPPRESSION! Good idea, I thought, even though it was only 8 a.m. and I hadn’t had my coffee. I could kick the can down the road forever, but the weather had cleared and this morning might be a good time to strike.
How do I do that? I wrote. I vote Liberal and I don’t own a bank.
That brought a flood of response, the gist being Figure it out, asshole. Somehow I felt they lacked the time for dialogue. One non-abusive respondent wrote Talk to your friends. I replied that all my friends would certainly agree but would ask the same question: How? Her reply was Google it.
I had thought I was asking a question. But I realized that you don’t ask a question of someone screaming a primal scream. It only proves that you’re reactionary, privileged, and impolite.
But I would take the bull by the horns. No more pussyfooting around. Later that morning, I shuffled up to a young couple in the downtown coffee shop and said in an affable tone, “Dismantle the structures of oppression.”
“How?” the young woman asked.
I shuffled off, hopeful that the pair I left giggling behind me might find a new, creative way to dismantle the structures of oppression.
I was bone weary of primal screams. Down with patriarchy! Down with capitalism! Down with white supremacy! I recalled a Shakespeare play I’d seen on stage with an old man raging against the storm, no word heard above the thunder: no actor could prevail against the special effects.
I tried to reason it out with my cats, pouring out my despair at the exploitation, the persistent wars, the death of the planet, and my own impotence in the face of it all. Shadow licked his nether parts, while Garfy scratched in the cat pan.
It happened to be my day off, so I might deal with it after lunch. Nothing was so crucial. I knew the state of the world I was bequeathing to my kids. Both were past voting age but still voted, though with scant shreds of hope. I felt akin to last year’s drunken driver who missed the turn and rammed a utility pole, with his six-year-old in the car. What got him drunk enough to do that? Only the audience at a film of limb-ripping chainsaws and exploding heads would enjoy the horror of our terror.
After lunch—I’d enjoyed the leftovers from last night, black beans and cole slaw—I sat down to serious work. On Facebook I wrote Should I die? but didn’t send it, nor did I post Let’s all die. I thought of Is it really worth it? and Put up or shut up, but it felt futile to rely on suicide for any constructive dismantlement of oppression. They would surely find a way to monetize suicide.
At last I settled on a strictly non-partisan Smash the state! True, the anarchist implications didn’t reflect the subtleties of my politics. Smashing the state might risk totalitarian rule by Amazon or rampant death-squads, but at least that would be a start.
So that’s what I posted: Smash the state! I got a couple of Likes and fourteen Laugh emojis, which wasn’t what I expected. Clearly most of the respondents didn’t take me seriously, but who ever took you seriously if you didn’t threaten mass murder, or even then?
At least I had put my voice out there, not that it did much good. I brooded all day while paying the bills, cutting the brambles away from the garden plot, washing the car, then was struck by a thought. I might suggest that we all put our kids in passenger seats, get dead drunk, and ram into utility poles—all over the country, all at midnight Eastern Standard Time. Some act of mindless desperation might at least get some play on social media.
I started to write the post, then didn’t. Someone might take me seriously, which would be even worse than getting a Laugh emoji.
Practicing Medicine. . .
When I was in the seventh grade, I was sure that I would become an MD. I still have the little carefully-stapled booklet of all the detailed ink drawings I did that year of every damn bone in the body. I managed to ignore the cognitive dissonance of embracing this path while continuing to attend the Christian Science Sunday School. I just kept my mouth shut and played the hymns on the little pump organ that nobody else could play. I never believed any of it, just memorized what I was expected to say, and didn’t ever realize how bizarre it all was.
My cover was blown when I won a Merit Scholarship in high school and a big hometown newspaper feature said I was admitted to an honors pre-med program at the University of Michigan. I more or less heaved a sigh of relief and never went back to the Christian Science place. I was enraptured with my own medical plans and could conveniently deep-six my strange schizoid “religious” experience. Neither of my parents had ties there, my mother just thought it had a rosy glow, and it was somewhere to get rid of me for Sunday mornings.
OK, I’m not an MD, I’m in theatre, but I would have been a good doc. I have an acute ability for diagnosis, but I keep it to myself. I did work in medical and dental offices while Conrad was earning his degrees, and I saw the work of some fine practitioners. In his last year, I worked for a brilliant internist who was six months behind in his billing. He was a true mensch. I remember one time when he did a bone-marrow biopsy on a patient who was a total Rosalind Russell, red lipstick and abundant dark hair and vitality that could have powered a city’s electrical grid.
That procedure is incredibly painful, involving jamming a large-bore needle directly into the breastbone and aspirating marrow. I could hear the two of them in the treatment room telling dirty jokes and roaring with laughter. He finished, she left, and he went back into the back room the nurses had prepared for him, laid himself down and wept. They’d seen it before. This was her last remission. That man practiced medicine with a capital M.
Much later we did performances and workshops in Pennsylvania at the Hershey Medical Center where a friend was on the Family Practice faculty. He wanted to expose his first-year students to our work, opening insights into the human experience before they got down to the “cellular level,” as he put it. He was not only a teacher, he was a Family Practice MD himself. In that specialty, you see and know every member of a family, which gives unique insights into diagnosis and treatment.
Soon after we moved to California, I found a good physician for us, at least for a while. He’d spent a long time as an ER doc in New Jersey, and he was a tough funny guy with a Jersey accent. No stuffed shirt he, and he’d listen when we talked to him. Time went on, and he got older, and the way of doing medicine changed. Now he had to spend most of his time with us trying his best to log everything on his office laptop, because now that was how you practiced medicine. I missed him but was relieved when he retired. It hurt him to try to give care in the middle of a machine.
We stayed with what had been his group practice, but it changed in disconcerting ways. The roster of people became a revolving door, and we never got to know any particular MD. Then Covid hit, they didn’t answer their phone, you couldn’t knock on the door, your only method of communication was to put a note on their web-portal. Primary-care physician? What’s that? But they did take Medicare.
It wasn’t useless. When CB tested positive for Covid, my note on the Portal got a prompt response and an immediate Rx for Pavloxid. But he needs a referral to a neurologist, which we requested at least two years ago. They found one, but he retired and nobody told us why we weren’t getting to see anybody. It’s all new people again now, and we’re trying again. Neurologists who take Medicare don’t grow on vines.
I asked around to try to get names of physicians who actually see people. I got one very strong recommendation, but he can’t take new patients because he’s staying in the office way past dinnertime to care for the ones he has. That office recommended two others, but they only do “Concierge” medicine. You pay $1500 a year, every year, but that just gets you on the list; you still pay for the office visits and treatment.
I’m glad I went into theatre.
Getting Rid of It. . .
At some point, accumulation becomes a curse. As one enters the age of the endgame—EF 82, CB 81—you begin to lie awake in the dark hearing the choir intone, “You can’t take it with you.”
Money is easy. We made our wills long ago, realizing that drunk drivers proliferate.The bank accounts offered little challenge. They’re just electrons and store easily. We have to depend on the good will and good sense of our kids in dividing up the other stuff of value, house and car and the like. The rest of it is what keeps me awake at night.
Books galore, some artwork, furniture, and tons of knickknacks. I can only say take what you like and junk the rest, or invite the hordes to descend to loot it. Neither kid has room for much: one lives in Italy, the other in a San Francisco apartment already stacked to the brim with books.
What’s more perplexing is our product: stacks of our printed books and manuscripts, videos, boxes of reviews & press, and eighteen large bins of puppets. If we’d gotten famous, we could donate it as archive material, but we’ve always flown under the radar in mainstream theatre, alternative theatre, public radio, puppetry, and fiction. And mostly way under the under-the-radar.
Not a big problem for me that it all gets junked. I say that repeatedly, and might believe it someday. But the truth is, my work is just one step down from my kids. Of course the kids don’t sit in a shelf, they don’t get stored in bins, they don’t proliferate, they grow and change. They’re their own creatures.
But a playscript or a novel or a puppet is a child to me, as Jeff Bezos’ net worth is a creature to him. It’s part of who I am, and we fight for survival, just as the Argentinian ants, attracted by my muffin crumbs at the keyboard, scurry around to avoid my malevolent pinch. I’ve had many other fellow artists pass—it seems to be a common thing at this age—but I’ve never had a conversation with them, since they’re dead, about what they’ve left behind.
Ir’s a crapshoot, as I learned from being on grants panels. Something gets said, and the whole discussion shifts. Ten thousand bucks vanishes or looms in the blink of an eye. (And those were the days when ten thousand bucks was a lot of money.) You can only live the life that you live. You can only spawn the work that you spawn. All the rest is the movement of tectonic plates, making the mountains rise or the sea gush in.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
Mica: 25 Flashes
Flashes & Floaters:
Elizabeth: One of Many
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