On our afternoon walk today, I asked Elizabeth a moderately unanswerable question. I’m ready to begin the third draft of our new novel, a very surreal dystopian thing with a cast of dysfunctional characters, and I asked her regarding one character, “What does it need for us to connect with him? To empathize?”
The question has roots in a personal failing: I empathize too readily. Except for a few people over the years who’ve either hurt someone close to me or cost me money, my judgmental self is supplanted by my actor’s instinct to empathize, to see people from inside themselves. Had I the power, I still might give them 20 years in the slammer, but it would be like sentencing myself. I have to admit that would include Shakespeare’s Lear or a murderous cop or our pathetic, hideous President.
Why is this a potential failing? Artistically, because I might be too far separate from my audience. What to me might be a character vital to understand might be to someone else a soul to write off as irredeemably vile. So I might tout myself as more humane, but my story won’t work for them. I can’t ignore that issue: all my attempts in a life of art have been to build empathy.
Sometimes empathy as generosity, empathy as love, but also empathy as knowing your enemy: empathy as forcing ideology to face reality. I’m a highly judgmental creature when I face the mirror, so perhaps I’m wanting to answer that question in relation to myself.
But the more immediate question is, What makes us empathize? And with anyone outside our self-defined tribe? Collectively, we’re not in a very generous mood these days. A character you identify with? A character whom you’d invite to dinner? A character who feels your pain? A character who’s a victim? A character struggling against some inner demon? A character who’s at least trying? A character who screams? A character who entertains?
Elizabeth and I talked a long while. Useful, but the story will decide. Getting home, we packaged up the week’s bagful of cat extrusions to submit to the garbage collectors. It’s harder with publishers.
I am up to my eyeballs in 1960-1963, my years at Northwestern wherein I (a) met Conrad Bishop, (b) sank to what was unquestionably the most disturbed mental condition of my life, and (c) started the long, long trek upward to actually having a life. My memory of those years is understandably a Swiss cheese, and I’ve been reaching out to the few hardy souls we knew then who are still alive, getting some bits and pieces from their own recall to help mine tune in.
The memories have been all over the map. “Oh yeah, I remember, we were in the same dorm.” “Yes, that apartment was at 809 Foster Street.” “And omigod, this is incredible, let’s figure out how to do something together again.”
My gates are unlocking, the blocked streams are starting to trickle, and the overall effect is that I am overwhelmed with love for so many different things. Love for this person who instantly became almost part of my DNA: this weekend we used Criterion to watch Ingman Bergman’s A Lesson in Love, the movie we saw on our first date in 1960, and here we are, sixty years later, sheltered in place amid cats and stacks of paper and the keen beauty of afternoon light through the leaves.
And love for those who were part of our life then. It’s good to know that my dorm-mate has had an international high-profile career as actress and teacher, that the co-tenant of our love nest has a string of acting credits longer than the Brooklyn bridge, and that our actor-collaborator in the edgiest thing we did there (Brecht’s Baal), has combined serious theatre work with developing therapies that nurture endangered kids. Sixty years later we’re all still swimming in the same stream.
So it’s Father’s Day, and it’s the Summer Solstice, and I think of the ritual we were part of at Starwood so many years ago. Conrad was the Sun God, I was Mother Earth, and what played out was an affirmation that the pain of distancing sharpens the joy of return and the connection will never be broken. Sixty years ago, we were part of a ferment that still bubbles, where we were all the pistil and the stamen, the bee and the nectar, and after we are all gone, it will go on.
Early summer of June 1961, I called my mother to tell her I wanted to get married. I knew it would be a shock. I was 19, it was the end of my freshman year at Northwestern, she hadn’t met Elizabeth, and as a single, working-class mom she knew the trials of survival. We had a difficult phone call (500 miles apart), I wrote her a long letter, and she replied. That summer she came up to visit (I took summer classes), she met my lifemate, was totally smitten and sold. We officially married that August, though we celebrate the previous Nov. 13th as our true bonding.
In researching her own memoir, Elizabeth found those letters. I read them partly with chuckles, partly with tears. Margaret Lucille Pitzer Bishop Sagan Leuck died in the 90’s and stands before me now. Portions of her letter to me, 6/7/61:
You know I have always stood behind you in all your undertakings and always will. From your first baby steps across the floor to your fights on 6th St., your work and struggles for certain merit badges, your school plays (I was your worst critic)—your scholarships, awards and badges. My enjoyment was giving you encouragement and love because that was about all I had to offer you—the dollars were few and they were for necessities. Your many honors repaid me for my efforts.
Secretly, I have feared that you might meet and fall in love with someone who might not understand your make-up. Being raised in a little shack across the tracks on 6th St. makes one different. The outdoor plumbing, the pot bellied stove with the wood pile beside it—the little black Buzz Fly with her puppies in the kitchen, the snow blowing in the windows and the sound of the rats gnawing when the lights were turned out. These were not the highest standards of living. But this was our home and there was love in it. You would bring your book and climb up on my lap, and I would kiss you and love you and tell you that you were the only thing in the world that I really loved. Then I would kiss you and hug you and your little eyes would just smile. Then there were the bad days—when I had to punish you and tell you “no” to things that you really wanted to do. This hurt me, too. I bring all these things up because it was only yesterday…
Then suddenly, when you called out of a deep sleep to tell me you planned to be married, you were grown up all at once—I nearly folded up. All at once you had grown up— Yes, I expected it eventually but to believe you were planning your own home seemed strange. Soon another woman would take over. Will she understand his ways? Will she think I did a lousy job raising him? Will he understand his responsibilities in a home? Will he be thoughtful of little things that bring a wife much happiness? Remember kind words are easily spoken and mean a lot.
I feel, after reading your letter, you may have found the little lady who may understand you. I have every confidence in your choice. Marriage certainly is a business—not only from a monetary angle, but must be worked at faithfully and as a team to make for happiness. … I have no advice now or ever—do not plan to give any. Suggestions, yes and encouragement, yes. … But any decisions to be made are yours, the two of you.
There are very few girls nowadays that would want to sacrifice to this extent. Your plans sound workable except for the unforeseen things which might arise before your graduation. But there are always ways to work things out if there is love and understanding. As I told you I would feel that I was gaining a daughter, which I never had, and will be to her the same as to you. I certainly would want her to feel that I would be the same as a mother and not a mother-in-law.
Naturally, there will be a big adjustment—you may have a little “rough sledding” at times but if you do I have every faith in you that you won’t be a quitter. It’s getting late so will drop you a line Sunday.
This letter sounds rambling, but knew you would want an answer to your letter, so I am sure you can get the meaning if it isn’t worded in the best style. So here it is.
That was 59 years ago. It worked out okay.
Today, at last, we could visit Mama Ocean again, up close and personal. Back at the end of March all of the parking along Sonoma County’s gorgeous ocean access sites was blocked off—too many people, many of them coming from distances, crammed the sand and made virus transmission easy, so all of us paid for that for these last two months.
It’s been years now that we have come on Sundays to these shores, at first every other week, and now for a long time it’s been every week. We bring a picnic basket with our ritual food and drink, set up our little tin folding table (I have no idea why we call it the Polish Table, because we did visit Poland but couldn’t have crammed that table into our duffel bags) and our black canvas folding chairs on a bluff facing a stern array of jagged black rocks. Cormorants gather on those rocks; we call their silhouettes the Supreme Court. And then we sit for a couple of hours, nibbling and sipping and throwing scraps to the gulls and hoping to see pelicans. But mostly we’re admiring and appreciating the Mama, who decks herself in different colors every week. She knows all the secrets, and allows us to wonder what they are. Today was very windy, and she was covered with white lace ruffles for miles and miles toward the horizon.
In this interim time we had gone to the high ridge on Coleman Valley Road and pulled off to the side, a wide place in the road just after the cattle guard, and at least we could see Mama and picnic in the car. Heck, we have often had our picnic in the car down at the shore when the wind would have blown our sushi to the Farallon Islands, so the ridge was just a long-shot wide-screen Mama. But today we were back home.
Why is this so important to us? To begin with, it was me. In the twenty-plus years I had been visiting the rough coast of Bretagne in France, I let the ocean into my bone marrow. One gray drizzly day I sat far back under a rock overhang and listened to the sea I could not see, listening for two hours with a musician’s ear to the way that no wave sounded like another. The Sonoma Coast is a close kissing cousin, and once we made our home out here I dragged us to the water as often as possible. And Conrad got it. The times are many when the power and beauty have brought us both to tears.
There’s a power spot here on the coast, perhaps an intersection of ley-lines, and it feels exactly like the one at Carnac and the one in Ireland at Newgrange. I feel the buzz in the palms of my hands. In these times, if Mama is going to give milk, you’d be a fool not to drink it, and let your bones stay strong.
It’s my week to write our blog (which we alternate with) and I knocked it off by Wednesday. Then the week started happening. Along with the usual madness, there was Chapter Nineteen of the pandemic, there was the killing and the riots, and to finish it off, we watched two Sixties films by the Mayslees brothers, SALESMAN and GIMME SHELTER, both moving and enormously unsettling. Come today, what I wrote on Wednesday seemed, beyond words, irrelevant.
But I’m putting it out there, perhaps because anything *relevant* that I’d write has already been written a hundred times over. The best thing I can do regarding that subject matter is to give it more thought: if it’s taken a hundred fifty years to grapple with some of these issues, I can give it another two weeks. If an asteroid hits us in the meantime, problem solved.
So for those who’d like something refreshingly irrelevant, read on.
Being of sound mind and quite a ways over twenty-one, I recently spent the first $180 of our yet-to-be-seen “stimulus check” on, arguably, an absurdity: a year’s subscription to MasterClass.
For any who haven’t seen the ad blitz, it’s series of about 80 accomplished folks giving talks, lectures, meanderings on their chosen fields. My first six choices: Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume, Steve Martin, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Annie Leibovitz. Three writers, two directors, a photographer. They’re all interesting in radically different ways.
Why do I call my subscription an absurdity? Only because that’s what many people would call it. I’m 78, I’ve had a decent career in under-the-radar playwriting, directing and acting, now engaged in the truly jaw-dropping task of writing novels. Any brush with “lectures” has a kind of poison-ivy effect: reminds me of 19 impatient years of schooling (up thru the Ph.D.); my own problematic teaching years; my age; and how much I don’t know and never will.
Nevertheless . . .
For me, the objective is only incidentally to take a chance on learning something useful. That may happen, and I’ve made my first choices among artists of one sort or another. But I’m equally eager to hear from experts in cooking, gardening, interior design, or poker—endeavors in which I have no skill, scant interest.
Why? A number of reasons beyond gathering useful tips. Above all, I recall my most prized teachers, long past: Leon, Gerry, Charlie, and well, sorta, Alvina. Yes, from them I learned some facts, some techniques, but mainly, from each I assimilated a mind, a way of thinking that intersected with but wasn’t entirely my own. Sometimes, in fact, utterly contradictory minds, but all invaluable in forming that multifarious stew that I call my head.
I’ve never done a piece of work without all four, and sometimes others, making their presence known over my mystical shoulder. Not hero worship—I was hypercritical in those days, still am—but assimilating elements of soul, of thinking and doing, of their ways of seeing reality and making it into story. I get the same from my mate Elizabeth: we couldn’t be more different in temperament or skill set, yet apart from our direct acts of collaboration, she’s inside me whenever I work.
And so this subscription thing? In part, it’s a people-watching fling. In part, it’s hearing the keynote speaker at the conference going on much longer than scheduled. In part, it’s a stimulus to view the work I’m doing right now through other eyes. In part, it’s an avoidance of facing my challenges in Chapter 26. In part, it’s a race against the Reaper. Above all, I guess, it’s simply adding more garlic to the stew.