Every year, every decade has brought me gifts. Sometimes they aren’t fully-appreciated until their picture has a frame, and I received a beautiful frame this Thanksgiving. Our family was together at our house. Our daughter Johanna, who has lived in Italy for over twenty-five years, makes a twice-yearly visit now that our own transatlantic travel is not as frequent, and she arranged to come for the family gathering—specifying that she would be in charge of menu and prep. Our son Eli and his beautiful Lady Meg didn’t have to endure eighteen hours in assorted overgrown sardine cans, just a drive in their first all-electric Zipcar.
This year will be the first year that Jo’s husband Francesco will celebrate Christmas without his mother, and Jo won’t be preparing the epic event of an Italian Christmas feast. She welcomed the idea of doing an elaborate Thanksgiving whose menu would allow our one vegan celebrant to eat just about everything. The one turkey item was the one that engaged me in substantial prep, boning a pair of big turkey thighs, stripping the skin, and surgically removing all the ropy tendons. Aside from that, my major contribution was delighting in a half-day of shopping with Jo. A lot got done on Wednesday, but Thursday really hit high gear after we all shared a big elaborate salad at lunch—my major kitchen contribution for the day.
Here’s what we enjoyed: a stuffed mushroom appetizer, followed by turkey cutlets wrapped in prosciutto and fresh sage, then Lobio (a Georgian red-bean stew with walnuts) accompanied by pan-cooked cornbread patties and a relish of pickled lettuce. A substantial entree was a mixed-root-veggie layered gratin, baked with a cashew bechamel in lieu of cream; the thin bands of color were spectacular, shading from the dark red of beets through the different red of purple potatoes, then orange squash topped with white turnips. Pickled lettuce was a new concept for me, even more so the roasted fennel with radicchio and red grapes, and both were piquant and wonderful.
After lunch Eli and Meg were fully involved with Jo’s kitchen prep, and the three of them were having a great time together chopping, schmoozing, and catching up on the past months’ events. Everything was proceeding smoothly, my kitchen is small, and I surprised myself by asking Jo if I was a needed pair of hands or if I could take some time at my computer doing memoir-editing. She briskly allowed me to avoid guilt, and it wasn’t until close to sit-down time that I rejoined the crew.
That was the lovely frame. For maybe the first time in a lifetime of “doing everything,” I savored the distance of age. The three were working as a lively team and sounded as if they were enjoying it. I was not excluded, I was privileged. Elderhood can be beautiful.
It’s taken me a very long time to die. On stage, that is.
I walked onstage for the first time. I carried some fake cherry blossoms. I was weepy. My duchess had died. I’d known someone very slightly who died, but it wasn’t really part of my daily life. Later, as it came closer, it was more meaningful. But the best I could do at the time was “weepy.”
My second stage appearance was as a high school kid. The play was a comedy, and all I recall was that I knocked down a big brawny kid during rehearsal. I was playing an intellectual wimp, which was pretty easy for me, and when the script said “He hits him,” I asked the director what I should do. “Just hit him,” she said. So we said our lines and I hit him. He fell. I’d hit him. He wasn’t so brawny, and I wasn’t enough of a wimp.
Maybe the next was a community-theatre production of OUR TOWN. I was too young for much of anything, but wound up playing the paper boy, who comes on in one scene and doesn’t do much. His big moment is when the Stage Manager reports that Joe Crowell Jr. was killed in the Great War, but that’s when I’m back in the green room waiting for the curtain call. I don’t get to act dying in agony with a bullet in my gut.
That doesn’t happen till the next show. I’ve convinced the drama teacher at my high school to take a show to the state contest. It’s Saroyan’s one-act HELLO OUT THERE, starring me. And I get to die. The guy is in jail for rape, but he’s innocent, and at the end he’s killed. We had the problem that there weren’t any rapes in the Fifties, or at least you couldn’t say it on stage, so it was my maiden playwriting effort: turns out it’s shoplifting. Still, they kill me and I die and win a best-acting award.
It’s a long time before I get to die again. I’m Elwood P. Dowd in the junior class play, an immigrant son at the community theatre, a waiter at the Omaha Playhouse, and another crazy in the senior class play. Meantime, I’m surviving day by day until the time for state contest rolls around. By this time I’ve read a bunch of Ibsen and convince our drama teacher that we ought to do GHOSTS. I cut it down to forty minutes, and fortunately I don’t have to inflict Oswald with a gum disease: Ibsen has already adapted to the morals of his time, alluding to syphilis without ever mentioning it. And I didn’t properly die, I just lost my mind, so it took longer. But we won a lot of “bests.”
In college it took much longer even to go nuts. I played a Duke who condemns a prisoner to death, but it’s not the same thing as if he died himself, and he doesn’t. I did have a couple of major roles, but I can’t remember the end. I discount my role as Laertes in HAMLET, which was purely fake. The starring guest artist was no fencer, and neither was I, but for the final duel we had a fencing coach who was pretty good. Unfortunately, the actor playing Hamlet really got into the role and started to improvise the duel, and since we knew only the choreography we’d both thrust and parry together, which was a bit absurd. I got an arm wound for real, and finally we managed to kill one another.
Subsequently, in my theatre career, I’ve died a few times, and I think I’ve done it well, though mostly in the times leading up to it. When I drifted into directing, others bit the dust and I leaned back in my chair, never to die.
Today is our anniversary, 63rd. I have to confess that Elizabeth had to remind me: the only dates I remember are Christmas, the Fourth of July (which usually happens on 7/4)—though I don’t think of myself either as Saved or as especially patriotic,—and anything where stuff is likely to be closed. Anything else, I try, but it rarely makes any impact on my work habits. Today, though, I thought, “I could write about that.”
We were formally married the following August, but the commitment to a life together was made on this date—or something near it, as we really weren’t thinking about the calendar at that point in time. We had met sitting across the aisle in stage lighting class, both noticing that we laughed at the prof’s deadpan jokes and soon after collaborating—I as director, Elizabeth as actress and co-translator—in a scene that stunned the directing class. That led to a number of dates and walks by the lake and at last—this being the days of restricted dorms—to climbing into the back seat of a chilly, decrepit car.
I was 19, EF was 20, and suddenly we’re 82 and 83, and all we really know for sure is that that clamber into the back seat was a pretty good idea. Sometimes following instinct has a result that works. I recently wrote a flash fiction based on a wedding we attended, where the bride processing down the aisle burst into unstoppable laughter. I have no idea what struck her funny, but I speculated in the fiction that it was every crisis we’ve had in our marriage together—and lived through them.
To my mind, the essential thing in marriage is Heinlein’s definition of love: that the happiness of your mate is essential to your own. That bypasses all traditional rules and vows, yet imposes a huge imperative. And a risk: that your mate plays a charade to keep you happy. Which imposes an equally challenging need for both parties: honesty.
But anything I can say about marriage, I won’t. That sounds like advice, and the only advice I can offer with certainty is to live from day to day. Which will happen whatever I say. The godawful thing about advice are the moments that rise to contradict it, and in marriage that happens with the added effect that there’s “something wrong.” Which indeed there may be.
Probably no different than diplomatic relations between nations or political relations between diverse parts of local population. The sports metaphor rules: keeping score. But in other contested issues, you can blame the ref, you can blame critical injuries, you can blame the left tackle who comes through the line like a tank, and your instinct militates against empathy with the team you’re against. Marriage requires the opposite.
So we’ll find a way to celebrate, and continue on our path to the unknown future. The path has calla lillies along both sides, and the blossoms persist.
For a very small bear, I’m having huge dreams. (When I wondered about the profusion of intense and complicated dreams I have during the darker months, somebody told me I was probably part bear, dreaming during hibernation.) Aging is upping the ante, since sleep now comes in blurts and dribbles.
In my early years I had terrifying nightmares, to the point that I resisted sleep. Then in my late 20’s I learned something about dream-work and started working with the threats. Lately, for some reason, I have even had adventures that left me feeling really good by morning, even though they involved a lot of effort. Many of these have been images of new forms of community and mutual support, and I was a part of making them work. Wow.
But last night was awful. It was one of those post-collapse scenarios where the fabric of society has come apart and danger was everywhere. I had escaped into a beautiful area like west Marin, rolling grassy hills, and was commencing the process of improvising shelter. Just as I began to feel safe and comfortable a crowd of loud, aggressive people came into view. I was alone and feared that they would find the survival supplies I had just stashed.
Some part of my mind remembered that I’d had other dreams where I had success organizing people and forming good relationships. I tried to be friendly and become part of the group, but it didn’t work. They were already in a fighting mood when they came into view, and I was a good target. The bullying started at a low level, masking itself as nasty comedy, but it was going to get bad. I did what I could—I woke up, drenched in sweat but safe in my bed.
It was my night-time version of the daily news. Generalized road-rage is rising steadily, and slowing enough to make a turn into our driveway provokes horn blares and jabbing fingers. The red tide is rising, and the media are falling all over themselves to make sure we know every grotesque detail.
It was only 4 AM when I woke and I didn’t want to risk going back into Part Two of the same damn dream. It’s hard to focus with a racing pulse and sticky skin, but little by little I mucked myself out. I need to get some instruction on dreamworld martial arts.
I’m shy. This was a recent realization, one of those moments when it all comes clear. The revelation would be natural, of course, with the advancement of age. That hesitation of speech when the word is almost there, but it doesn’t come, when pauses are longer, when something comes out that makes no sense. Yet it isn’t a new characteristic; it’s long-standing.
One doesn’t really think of such a thing, given the risks I’ve taken, from ditching an academic career, marrying at nineteen, crossing Europe twice on a motor scooter, or stepping out on stage for thousands of shows. Or raising a couple of kids. But that doesn’t conceal the fact that I’m shy.
What in fact does that mean? It means a reluctance to engage with others. It means a morbid fear of the telephone. It means hovering near the snack table at parties, smiling vaguely at friends, but exhibiting an undue interest in the deviled eggs. In radio interviews or any moment of public display, it means shifting into another persona—not fake, just different. It means armor against feeling.
Why? I once thought it stemmed from my lifelong sense of empathy. Hypothetical empathy, I might better call it. Not that my sense was accurate, but if it seems possibly true, then it has to be paid attention. Did the person you’re phoning just now take a break to go to the can? Does the person you might engage in conversation really want to talk? Or talk to you? Does the person you’re asking directions speak English, or can I muddle through in my fractured German or Spanish or French?
Every start to a conversation is like a dive off the high board at Crystal Pool, a public pool where I sometimes went to swim as a kid. I hated diving, you got your head wet, but I had to dive because I paid to get in, and maybe once I dived off the high board. I don’t know if I did, though I remembered thinking about it. How many conversations have I actually dived into, and how many just thought about it? The last time I was in Council Bluffs, where I grew up, Crystal Pool was paved over. No one could dive into the asphalt.
Nothing to be done to enshrine this realization in behavior, or to contradict it. It’s as much a part of me as the hair of my beard. Which sometimes itches, sometimes tickles my lips, and regularly needs trimming. You just look in the mirror and think, That’s me. Or you scratch.
You do think, Is this truly me or only a mask? Do I grow this as a convenience, so I don’t have to shave every day? What if I never answer this question?
Meantime, I go on with life. More weeding to do, and I’m never moved to question the weeds. The greens barrel gets emptied on Thursday morning, often at dawn, when the garbage trucks do their concert. We live on a half acre of tangle, never clear, always spawning something new to try to clear: sticker weed, stink weed, crawler weed, tall sprout, duff.
What happens when we die? The yard will presumably get sold, perhaps paved over like Crystal Pool, perhaps refurbished as a luxury dwelling, perhaps leveled for apartments. Or perhaps children will build houses in the trees—tall observation points to see the future. If the trees don’t fall on the house.
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