In my family searching, I have already found plenty of roots of my own life in art. My brother plays orchestral tuba. My dad and mom both had music as a strong part of their lives. My sister is a quilting artist of great repute. But where does my theatre life come from? It’s a long reach, but there’s evidently a strong connection.
A young woman born in 1915, a year before my mother (Elizabeth Day), is a clear link. Her mother and my grandmother were cousins. I look at their high school yearbook pictures, and the resemblance is uncanny; even though the blood link isn’t close, the kinship is there, and it’s her father whose spirit runs in my veins.
His own father was a grocer in Luzerne, Pennsylvania, and he had five brothers and sisters. Two brothers became farmers in Montana, two brothers migrated to Chicago, as did his parents and his sister. None of them had anything to do with the arts. But he wanted to, and he did.
He moved to St. Louis, rejoined his parents when they moved to Chicago, then returned to St. Louis until the time came when he took up a wager to get himself professional training for the musical stage. The conditions were that he should make the journey to New York within 65 days, that he should not beg, and the entire journey should be on foot. He did it, 1200 miles, 51 days, starting with five cents in his pocket for the bridge toll. And he exhibited superb talents as a promoter, because newspapers all across the country printed stories of his challenge.
I have no idea whether the “wager” was fact or fiction, but the media bought the story and it became real enough to get him the scholarship he wanted. He earned it with shoe-leather, hardship, and media savvy, and he used it to get himself work on the musical stage. The best part for me is that he sang his way across half the country, walking along the rail lines through the towns along the way—Pieron, Smithboro, Vandalia, Altamont, Montrose, Casey, then Carnegie, Pittsburgh, Blairsville, Altoona, Petersburg, McVeytown, Patterson, Newport, Harrisburg, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, Coatesville, Wayne, Philadelphia, and finally Jersey City, giving an impromptu concert at every stop. It sounds like my old tour journals.
Looking at the family tree, there isn’t any direct connection with this theatrical entrepreneur and me, just a link through his wife. But their antecedents are my antecedents, and I believe that somewhere in the mix we share something. We had an itch and did what we needed to do to scratch it. Thanks, Karl Becca!
I hate, loathe, despise making decisions. Whether it’s a major life event or the choice of using an Oxford comma, the moment has all the appeal of the electric chair. In creative work, all is relative, yet there are countless decisions before lights go up on opening night or I ship the book to the printer or I speak the first line. Always, there’s that dwarf troll who sits on my left shoulder and at every scribble on my director’s notepad or flurry of typing or thumb-wiggle in the modeling clay, he’s muttering, “Well, consider . . .”
That may be why, in realms outside my expertise, I bridle at others’ expressions of absolute certainty. Most notably now in politics, where the fur will fly for another eleven months till we’re all as bald as billiard balls. Of course I have my own preferences and loathings, but my greatest irritation is with those whom I’m in basic agreement. I want to ask them, “Where’s your dwarf troll? Have you locked him in the basement? Listen to him!”
My Facebook feed is almost entirely comprised of fellow progressives, so my posts tend to be “Let’s make our case more effectively,” which translates, for some, into “gradualism,” “fogeyism,” or “treason.” The dilemma: to be an activist, i.e., to get people off their asses and into action, you have to sound Dead Certain, utterly convinced of your own rhetoric, and consequently you’re enormously vulnerable to self-deception. You’re acutely observant of the other guy’s flaws, but your own immune system is on hold.
So I’m hereby running through a catalog of what to me are false shibboleths wherewith progressives seem to delight in carving up one another like Thanksgiving turkeys. Then I’ll shut up. Just need to get it out of my system.
- The DNC: These are people who want to elect Democrats. They’ll do whatever they can to do that. If they’re not gung-ho for your candidate, it doesn’t mean they’re corrupt. It means, right or wrong, that they want to win.
- Medicare for All: It’s an unfortunate phrase. If designed on the present Medicare system, it doesn’t involve dissolving the insurance industry. In any case, the President won’t decree it: it’ll be a huge fight even in a Democratic Congress, and predicating a vote on whose proposal is ideal is like trying to drive a hard bargain with the Tooth Fairy.
- Socialism: Why do I read tirades against “capitalism” in posts about the election, when all the candidates, including Bernie, are assuming a capitalist—though regulated—economy?
- Youth: To what extent does Youth equal fresh ideas, health, idealism, commitment, purity and wisdom, and to what extent does Age equal corruption and senility? The most radical seem to be given a pass on ageism—which, IMHO, holds the same pitfalls as racism and sexism.
- * Change: Barring cataclysmic events (World War II, 9/11, Trump’s election), change comes slowly. We may be primed for radical change, or the right-wing earthquake of the past two years may have engendered an intense desire for stability. My only point is that no one knows, and whoever professes certainty is just blowing out gas from both ends.
- Money out of politics: A great idea, which will only happen via a progressive Congress and Supreme Court appointments. Which will only happen by people getting elected. Which will only happen with tons of money. Sanders managed the primaries with small-donor money, but could he have won the election that way? Candidates who accept big money aren’t necessarily corrupt: they want to finance the staffing, the ads, the events, the voter bussing that will get them elected. They’re serious, in the current atmosphere, about getting elected, and they’re not all “bought and paid for.”
- Stupidity: One gets a certain satisfaction in calling Trump voters stupid, and there’s some reason to do so. But you don’t change anyone’s vote that way. Imagine you’re the new kid on the playground and you want to make friends: don’t start out by shouting, “Hey, assholes!”
- Certainty: I’ve always been chary of people claiming that “God says to . . .” But now we have millions of folks on the Web claiming the wide-angle vision of Yahweh and his claims of omniscience, day in, day out. So we come back to the conundrum, how to be effective if you’re constantly questioning yourself? I’d say the same way I write a play or a novel: throw yourself into the first draft, read it critically, do the second draft, etc. etc. etc., at least to the eighth.
Feel free to call me naive or Old White Man or to post screeds in rebuttal. I’ll probably agree.
Recently I read an essay by Barry Lopez in The Sun that impacted me deeply. Barry Lopez is a writer perhaps best known for Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book award in 1986; his most recent work is Horizon, relating his epic travels from the Pacific Northwest to Antarctica, his thoughts on what we have done to our beautiful Earth, and what we can do now.
He floats the concept of contemporary mankind having lost the eternal Bride: the Earth and all parts of it, not just the pretty bits. Lopez has traveled the world, more than 70 countries, and has listened deeply to communities that respect their elders. He counsels the importance of taking the time and focus to listen.
Epics and political campaigns lead us to look for a single powerful hero who can solve everything—if only we find the right one. But Lopez finds more hope in the concept “Leave no one behind.” He uses the example of how starlings accomplish the feats of flight involved in a murmuration. If you’ve never seen one, search on YouTube for murmuration and prepare to be amazed. No single bird is the leader; each one watches the four or five who are closest, and they in turn are watching a different four or five. The whole flock becomes a living organism capable of instant response, and they leave no one behind.
Are we about to leave our natural world behind? Lopez: “However it might be viewed, the throttled Earth—the scalped, the mined, the industrially farmed, the drilled, polluted, and suctioned land, endlessly manipulated for further development and profit—is now our home.” Must it be a broken home, the aftermath of divorce? “Why accept a separation from all the rest of creation? Everybody I spoke with in villages across the Arctic in the seventies and eighties, when I asked them to offer me adjectives for people in my culture, the one word I heard repeatedly was lonely.”
Listening to the land can make a difference, even if it’s wounded. But most of all, leaving no one behind, evolving a culture where no one has to be either among the elect or among the leftovers, where we’re all part of the murmuration. We’re all in the flight together, but only if we watch and listen.
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Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
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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