Last week I turned eighty. Though I received many congratulations, this was not entirely of my doing. In part, it was due to the cursed medical establishment, who over the years ran interference for me. In part, it was due to my wife, who’s cooked my suppers for 60+ years. In large part, it was the achievement of my mother, who did the hard work of labor and many jobs to keep me alive, and even survived my adolescence. I did some work at it too.
Beyond that, what’s left to say? I’m in good health, beyond a couple of chronic complaints which might kill me if something else doesn’t do it first. I’m a compulsive worker, though I’m hardly an essential one. I’m immensely proud of my wife and my children, both. I enjoy food and sex and the ocean and blessed sleep. I wish I could travel more and talk with people and miss having more immediate friends. I’m obsessed with all the great mysteries. In a way I hate to read, because there’s so much to read that I’ll never read, and that occurs to me every time I look for my place.
I’ve been all over the United States and Europe, a bit in Canada and Mexico, a week in Israel before the first Intifada. I’ve been part of the theatre community on many levels, plus Boy Scouts, academia, public radio, puppetry, polyamory, Unitarians, Quakers, neo-pagan circles, and the social-services realm—though not all simultaneously. I’ve walked up and down the streets of Manhattan. I’ve done more stuff than I thought I would.
I’ve had a fellow traveler. We met when I was 19, she was 20, and it was a lightning-swift bonding. Like all my relatives (who were farmers), we found a common career, and we’ve nurtured each others’ growth into something reasonably humanoid. Many long nights, some ecstatic, some otherwise.
What’s the result?
I have two grown children, both creative, well partnered, and human. I have a mate who’s more than I’ve ever thought possible in a mate. I have two cats.
I vote, and I sometimes post screeds on Facebook, but I’m more critical of my own tribe, their tactics and vocabulary, than of the tribe the next valley down. Not that I’m more offended by bad spelling than genocide, but frankly I’m too chicken to man the barricades, and I don’t consider posts on Facebook more than a hobby.
I have no apparent career. I’ve spent my life in theatre, directed about a hundred shows, written 50+, sculpted 18 bins of puppets, but that’s pretty much dead and buried unless lightning strikes. We’ve done some very good radio work. We’ve renovated three spaces as theatres, though none are theatres now. We’ve written 8 novels and 40+ stories with very scant readership. Right now, in relation to these worlds, I feel much as I did in high school: out of the stir of things. Yet we’ve earned a living doing it, worked to the bone, and had fun.
Currently, I’m doing the final layouts on Seven Fabulist Comedies, an anthology of some of our plays that we’ll publish in November. I’m circulating three novels to small presses and just finished editing Elizabeth’s first volume of a three-part memoir, to be published in the spring. I’m in that turbulent mental state between projects but thinking about King David, that heroic shit—doubtful, as immersion in this topic might take years and do I really want to spend that much time in a world less appealing even than Las Vegas?
Getting past the age of fifteen, you start to think of death. At forty, it becomes real. At eighty, it’s a package you expect in the mail. They haven’t sent the tracking number, but the way things go these days, who can tell? I’m in good health, and other than groping for names and words, I’m ambulatory and sentient. Main worry is that no way can I leave my campsite cleaner than I found it—there’s way too much stored in the shop—but I don’t want to leave a mess.
Both my parents are dead, and many friends. Oddly, I’ve never felt grief, just a sense of fate—maybe a trait due to my farmer genes. I would hope to spare my loved ones pain, but I don’t know how, other than staying alive.
When I was two years old, I was taught the capitals of all the states, and being only two, I must have sounded funny mispronouncing them. My mother liked to show me off as a party trick, and people would laugh and applaud. I don’t know why I thought I was being mocked, but I did, and I tried hard not to cry.
Later, when I was about four, I’d taught myself to read, and the party trick changed. Somebody would grab a book or a magazine, point to something, and ask me to read it out loud. One time it was a story about Psyche, and I’d never heard that name before. I took my best shot, and the crowd howled when I said “Pee-sick.” My insides shrank about five sizes.
When I went from the farm-country township elementary school to the town’s junior high, somebody found out I had a good memory, and I was asked to memorize a poem to recite for the Columbus Day assembly. It was Joaquin Miller’s “Columbus,” pretty long and bloated, and every verse ended with “Sail on! Sail on! and on!” and the kids were just about falling off their chairs. Laughter was not my friend.
Once I started acting, that began to change. A lot of what I did was serious stuff and my stock in trade was to cry real tears at the drop of a hat. It impressed people, and the cherry on top was that my mother wasn’t there to yell “Stop crying!”
Tears and laughter were no longer my nemesis, and in our years with Theatre X the short-skit format was great training in comic timing. I relished being able to make people laugh on purpose. Once we broke off and formed our own duo company, though, things changed. Now what I was doing was our own writing, and there was only one other person on stage. Vulnerable doesn’t begin to describe it, but it worked, and this time, when people laughed, I drank it like sweet wine.
Little by little I got funnier in real life and learned in my bones how laughter, like music, is its own bonding. When we did King Lear, my Fool character even hassled the audience as they came in, a strange cross-gender Don Rickles insult comedy. I had come full circle and was cracking people up with what had crumpled my kid-self.
Of course, nowadays it’s just the two of us, but the saving grace is that we make each other laugh. A lot. Laughter is my friend.
For some time, I’ve had the urge to write down what I believe, to see what it turns out to be. Not easy. First, because most of my writing is storytelling, not essay. Second, because posts here attract a swarm of hornets whose sniffers are out for fascists, sheeple, or driveling idiots. Third, because “belief” usually starts with “God.”
Among my friends, God isn’t popular. In some circles, He still has clout, and some friends feel He’d be OK with a sex change. But popularity is dimmed by (a) politicians who want to shove Him down our throats, (b) friends whose childhoods were steeped in guilt, and (c) evangelical entrepreneurs claiming a 5G line to Heaven.
Some see sacred myth as a worm bin of lies. On my feed, anyway, God is the subject of infinite jest or rage, second only to Mitch McConnell. God took His life in His hands when He authorized the birth of Mark Zuckerberg.
Personally, I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God, that is, a God who hovers over us like a supernatural parent. But I see no sin in belief in God. Surely, history is replete with religious wars, burnings, genocides with “God” as the watchword. Yet Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Genghis Kahn did their deeds without heavenly assistance. In my view, God is a convenient flag to wave if you want to rile people up, but others will do.
We should have a different name for “God,” as we all bring a swirl of meanings to the word. There are those—both Fundamentalists and Atheists—who argue vehemently that “God” can mean only “Jehovah”—the Big Guy who kicked us out of Eden and let Job get fucked and gave His Son to be killed to placate Himself. That stuff brings out the comedian in all of us.
But to me, a literal reading of the Bible or any other “sacred” myth flattens it. I have an enormous respect for myth—it mirrors ourselves—but only when we see it with curious eyes. In the Bible, the expulsion from the garden, the exodus, the Akedah, the crucifixion, etc., are all enormously provocative, but for me conventional religion cheapens them (a) by insisting on their historicity and (b) interpreting them, like morals tacked onto Aesop’s fables, as having a single, established meaning.
I believe in the vast “commandments” of the Universe: the law of gravity, the speed of light, the forces our sciences have begun to comprehend, the astonishing processes of evolution and interdependence, all that. It all transcends my head. We’re a single flea on the elephant, the barnacle on a whale, managing only to chart a fragment of an ear. The more we comprehend, the deeper grows the mystery. To me, the mystery is way beyond knowing, deserving of the deepest reverence.
I’m no philosopher, so i wish others with more brainpower would (a) see what’s valuable and constructive in all religions (including Marxism and atheism), (b) address the dilemma of the remnants of tribalism (both positive aspects and negative) in a new world order of seven billion people, and (c) cool it. To those who’d like to impose primitive desert tribal law, sanctioned by their idea of God, on me, get out of my face. To those who feel all evil on Earth would be cured by purging religion, get out of my face.
I grew up Presbyterian though with utterly heterodox views; attended a Unitarian church, a Quaker meeting, and Neopagan festivals. We’ve performed for many religious communities who found our work relevant to ethical issues, and I have great respect for all who’ve given themselves in service to their fellow humans, whatever their beliefs. Perhaps the question to ask is that of the Existentialists: if there is no God, never was, never will be, how would you order your life? If the answer is, I’d kill my neighbor and steal his car, then whether you quote scripture or DAS KAPITAL, I don’t want to live next door.
I have a friend in Philadelphia who is a poet. Best friend. Best poet. Her work is fierce, powerful, and cuts to the bone. Now she has a new book, laser-focused on war. Our endless war, pick your own name. These poems are not an anti-war demonstration, they’re a detonation. On Sunday I watched a Zoom reading from Larry Robin’s Moonstone Arts in Philly, and afterward sent a message of praise and thanks. I mentioned that I was sure I’d ordered the book as soon as I saw the publication announcement, but could find no actual evidence that I’d done so. I asked her to suggest how I might inquire.
This morning, wanting the book as soon as possible, I ordered it from the press. This afternoon I got a message from my friend saying that she’s gifting me with a signed copy and will mail it Tuesday. By 5 PM the mail had come and the book was in the mailbox: yes, I’d ordered it last week. Now I will have three copies. One for me, one for our daughter Johanna, and one in reserve as a gift. I feel there’s a message there.
J.C. Todd wrote Beyond Repair. Able Muse published it. If I had the wealth of our space cowboys I would put a copy in every mailbox in the country, packaged with a big bottle of aspirin and a fifth of single-malt Scotch.
I’ve made a resolution I might actually honor: to post on FB nothing relating to political or sociological debate. Those in agreement don’t need it; those who aren’t, don’t listen. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be entirely faithful to my resolution, and I retain the privilege of (a) scribbling on the wall of my own timeline, (b) posting comic one-liners if they come steaming into my head, or of (c) honest questions that might deepen the conversation without provoking outrage.
We once did a performance at a community college for a large class who sat in dead silence for the 50 minutes of mainly comic material. It was only after the debacle that we understood: they spoke only the equivalent of grocery-store English. Mostly Vietnamese refugees, they were being exposed to us as a learning experience. You have to be listened to by folks who speak the language.
It’s not the fault of FB. It’s a familiar habit of life, in controversial dialogue, to spend more brain-strain preparing your own response than listening to what’s being said. But FB is a conduit for what I’d call “Facebook activism”—an illusion that something in the real world will actually change if you’re sufficiently vehement on FB. To me, there’s a radical difference between dialectic and primal scream.
It’s complicated by the fact that I rarely respond to stuff I think is radically wrong—they don’t convince me, I won’t convince them, so best to appreciate the photos of their cats, as there’s lots to life besides the issue at hand. I’m much more critical of my fellow travelers, those making a case I agree with but making it badly or with disastrous results for a cause we both support. Invariably, the response is that at best I’m ignorant of reality, at worst I’m an unenlightened old white male.
I recall my first childhood experience that male privilege doesn’t always work to my advantage. When I was quite little, on my mom’s vacation, she drove us across the wilds of Nebraska to Denver. That afternoon, en route, I told Mama I needed to stop and pee. She was always in a hurry and said, “Open the window and pee out it.” Normally, she was a very practical soul, but in this case there’d been no way for her to learn from experience. I did as she said and quickly learned what happens when you piss against the wind.
And I’ll see what’s possible in finding more active activism. I just don’t want to spend my remaining hours on Earth splattered with my own liqueur.