Armoring. . .

—From CB—

I’ve never had occasion for self-analysis. Not that I haven’t done it: as a writer, both of comedy and otherwise, you’re constantly looking for material. Whether it’s a TV weatherman shopping for a new personality (Song Stories, 1974) or an investment broker taking the first big risk of his life (Tapdancer, 2022), you draw on what you know of yourself. Unconsciously but mercilessly. Even when it’s violent (Full Hookup, 1989), I’m drawing, I know, on the memory of seeing my mother being strangled, as well as having to fire an office worker.

But this is something new. “How are you feeling now?” A simple question, asked simply, at the seashore. But for some reason, it requires an answer besides “Fine.” Perhaps because I’ve written recently about Death; perhaps because I’m taking longer mid-day naps than I did even a year ago; perhaps just because the question seems to swell out of someone’s anxiety.

No easy answer. I’ve long known I was thoroughly armored against feeling. Except when it was useful. Except when it was funny or tragic or both. Except when it related to a character in a play or story. It probably came from the class consciousness of my childhood.

Ever since I remember, I’ve operated on two principles: (a) that I was a superior being, and (b) that no one would ever see it. Not that the first carried privilege—on the contrary, it held me to a higher standard than my fellows—I’m immensely tolerant of flaws in others, though not in myself. Nor did I lack the urge to excel: survival meant doing my damndest to succeed—as me, not as a faker disguised as me.

But I think the result was a vast armoring. I could get a devastating and all-too-personal review in the news, which I’d assimilate both in my eidetic memory and my bank account, and just go on doing whatever’s up next. I was lucky to have a mate who put up with that.

But does that answer the question: How do I feel? Well, I feel old. I feel off balance. I feel freaked at the next election. I feel pretty much the way my mom always felt: I don’t want be a burden. Otherwise, I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. I just don’t know what that is.

###

Working It Off. . .

—From EF—

Back in 1985 I had a long span of steel-gray depression enclosing my head like a vise. It didn’t make any sense, but then, depression never does. There were so many things to celebrate. Our theatre company had just been chosen (one of only ten in the country) to participate in a massive three-year development grant. Our board of directors had gone into overdrive and raised the down payment for us to buy the theatre building we’d been leasing—the owner had said buy it or get out. We were rehearsing a production of one of my all-time favorite pieces, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, and I was immersed in the lyric poetry with which Conrad had courted me in 1960. Our whole family was going to go to Europe for six weeks of summer camping, and here I was slogging through my days like that guy in Li’l Abner, the one with his own personal rain cloud. It didn’t make sense, but believe me, it was bad.

We had been moved by our Lancaster (PA) landlord from the sweet little bungalow we’d found in 1977 into a larger rental on the outskirts of Millersville. His mother was aging and couldn’t manage stairs—she needed what he was currently renting to us. Even though the Mill House was much larger he said he’d keep the rent low and promised to do a good job of rehabbing the mess left by the former tenant. He kept his promises, and in December of ’82 we moved into our two-story brick country home, complete with front porch and summer kitchen.

The pile of junk and rubble from the rehabbing was behind the summer kitchen, out back and out of sight, nestled up against a little wooded hill. It was two years before we discovered that the junk pile was a condo for rats, and that they were making excursions into our house. There was a new nifty poison for varmints, D-Con. The EPA pulled it in 2013 after its devastating effects on creatures higher up the food chain were revealed, but in 1985 it was hot stuff, and I used it.

We had a little side room at the foot of the stairs, a nook that housed my upright piano and our little TV set. Saturday mornings were the pig-out times for TV cartoons for our kids, and our son began sacking out the night before in a sleeping bag so he could get an early start. One cold rainy Saturday in March, he awoke to find a dead rat beside him.

I completely lost it. The revulsion was overwhelming, and I was frantic to find some way to deal with it. I didn’t have a plan, I was responding to instinct. In the early morning I bundled up, grabbed heavy gloves, and started to work. In my core I knew that fire was my ally. I cleared a circle in front of the summer kitchen and began to haul wood from the trash-pile. I’m a good camper, I know how to build a stable bonfire that will burn for a long time, and that’s what I did.

Conrad came out to look, offered to help, and retreated when I told him this was something I had to do by myself. In spite of the cold drizzle, I got it burning, and kept feeding and building it. At intervals I cried, at intervals I rested, at intervals I raked embers and kept the circle safe, but I worked all morning and all afternoon. The next day was the same. It was a rite of passage, and it was all I thought about that weekend. My family, though stunned, gave me my space, and finally the pile of rubble was gone, the muddy ashes were collected and dumped, and I stood by my empty fire circle, put my icy hands in my armpits, and breathed. I could see the light. I could actually see it. I had burned my way out of my cage.

This time, now, was not so dramatic. When I feel the warning signs, I move sooner. This time I took on the long-neglected job of grubbing out feral bushes that impede our vision of oncoming traffic at our driveway. They’d been given free rein for too long, and had sturdy trunks. But my little folding Corona hand-saw is a mighty partner, and what remains now is little ground-level stumps I need to paint blaze orange so we don’t trip on them.

In 1985, fire was my ally, but my body’s muscles were what did the job. I worked it off, and I’ve done it again.  

###

Death. . .

—From CB—

We’re all going to die. It can’t be avoided. Jump ahead a hundred years, and we’ll all (pretty much) be dead. Maybe a few survivors, hooked up with tubes, in wheelchairs and walkers, waiting out a few more years, but otherwise that’s it. That was your life. That’s all she wrote.

To me, the message from the Eden myth is simple: we have the knowledge without the immortality. If God intended that we stay as stupid as our cats, He shouldn’t have planted the tree. Indeed we’ve been punished for humankind’s sin of getting smart. And surely it’s an Original Sin: who else knows that they’re going to die?

Not that all God’s creatures don’t try. The most basic instinct is survival. Even the scuttling cockroach wants to live; even the tiny ant running across my keyboard, one of a million in his colony, who demonstrates not the slightest notion of selfhood but tries to avoid my thumb. So is it any wonder that we, taking nine months for our birth, many hours to come down the tunnel, years to learn to talk and to cross the street and to pee in a can, would want to last as many years as we could?

I know the feeling of imminent death. I’m 82. I have a hernia. I have higher blood pressure than I ought to have. I have balance problems: I’ve had falls and a bruised tailbone that limits me. I’ve had many friends who are already dead: some sudden, some long-term. And I have the age-old agenda in my head: clean up your campsite before you leave.

Nevertheless, I live day to day. I try to put words together. I try to be useful to my kin. I try to live forever.

Though I won’t. I see others trying to stay alive symbolically. They seek a national reputation. They seek power. They seek a billion bucks, hopeful that someone that fat, that affluent, that stuffed, cannot die. They seek membership in a group so righteous and powerful that every ant in the anthill will live. But guess what? You’re all gonna die.

Is that a downer? Is truth a downer? I have no idea if it’s wise to tell this to our kids when they’re young. But before they get to the stage of making major decisions, they ought to know: This is your life. You get only one. With luck, you’re going to get old, and then you’re going to die. You can take care of your health, but you never know. If your life has meaning, it’s whatever you make of it.

I can’t help thinking that might be useful to humankind.

###

Louis. . .

—From EF—

Our puppets, the creatures of Conrad’s imagination and skilled hands, are now on display at the Occidental Center for the Arts (3850 Doris Mitchell Ct., Occidental), each one has a price tag set by OCA, which will keep all the proceeds to support its activities. We made a deed of gift for the whole shebang, and are appreciating the unique experience of being Benefactors.

We accumulated these fellow-actors over the course of many years, and they are in some real way family members. Our own human kids went off to college and marrriage and the rest of their lives, but are still very present in our hearts. I find it comforting to know that the puppets are now going off to their own lives too.

At Thanksgiving, our son and daughter took an afternoon in our studio to look at all the immense array of puppets occuping the floor wall-to-wall, making their own claims on those to be kept for them. I took photos of all the ones that wound up with a piece of masking tape on their nose, saying “E” or “J”, and they’re still with us in bins, waiting to be inherited.

There’s one, though, that isn’t in a bin. He wouldn’t fit. When we wrote a play based on the trial of Marie Antoinette, we needed a King Louis. He had to be big enough to play scenes with Marie, so we built a comfy foam-rubber body with arms, legs, and a flat butt to enable sitting on a stool. Conrad sculpted his goofy, affable head, and we had our Louis. In a marvel of physical ingenuity, we figured out how to hold and animate him while playing scenes.

Then the play was over, but Louis refused to go into storage. He just hung out at the theatre and wound up in the damndest places. He even played in New York when we collaborated with Jean Cocteau Rep for a revival. But his finest hours were with the workmen who were renovating our Lancaster PA theatre in 1985/86. They always arrived early in the morning, hours before we showed up, and we never knew where we’d find Louis. Once he was sitting in one of our pricey new theatre seats, fifth row center, with his crossed feet on the seat in front of him. He was wearing a baseball cap and had an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Right now he’s napping on top of what used to be our little soundproof recording room. As soon as we clean up our studio and put away the empty bins, I’m gonna get down and sit him in an armchair. He can keep me company while I write. And if nobody’s looking, I’ll hug him.

###

 

 

 

A Fall. . .

A Fall 

In college, I played a string of old men. This was largely due to my voice, deep and full. I had no notion how to play an old man, though now I could do a pretty good job—I’m 82, for chrissake. I could even forget my lines. The greatest challenge, though, is balance and the little goose-granny steps that result from keeping attention to balance.

Last Tuesday was a challenge. For some time, we’ve each done a once-a-month solo day, an escape from our mate’s armpit and our cat infestation to do whatever we please. This was EF’s turn, and I decided to drive our semi-comatose van to a grocery store that had a fairly good hot table.

But the van wouldn’t start. We’d left it to sit and the battery died. She had our Prius, so the choice for dinner was either my home cooking or to walk the mile and a half there and back to fetch ten bucks worth of goodies. I’d done it before, and I could use the exercise.

But the audiobook I listened to on the way was not compelling, so I turned it off. I searched my blank mind for a thought, but the blank mind was blank. But I found myself walking through a field of flaming dandelions, soon after past a play-yard of children, soon after that past active tennis courts, and these got me there.

I did manage to exercise self-control on the deli stuff, but the way back was way more challenging. My steps got shorter and shorter, and as a consequence my hips began to ache. I had a cane for balance, and it saved me several times, but I still had a quarter mile, and my steps were ever shorter. At last, I fell.

After you fall—after I fall—the first moment is checking the pain, if any. The second is thinking Oh damn! By that time you’ve forgotten what led up to the fall and the actual fall, and you’re only trying to get up.

Which is harder than you think. Nothing works the way it should. Muscles that ought to lift you, don’t. And this was on a country road where nobody stops. They stopped. “Are you okay?” “Did you hit your head?” “Any pain?”

I was surrounded by people who were moved to help. Of course I was vastly embarrassed, but a woman offered to give me a ride—it was less than a quarter mile—and I accepted with thanks. Abruptly, I was home. I was bathed in the affection of cats meowing for their supper.

I learned many things. I was no longer young, but that I already knew. To play an old man, you start with the balance. From the dandelions, the children, the tennis, I saw there were uncounted wonders to think about—I’d known that, but I’d forgotten.

Above all, I found a newcapacity to accept help when it’s offered. I should have known this as an artist—having a gift to offer but none to receive it makes Jack a dull boy. I recalled an incident, many years ago, when I was in desperate need and convinced a concerned stranger that I didn’t need his help. What a foul deed to do!

I’m learning.

 ###

Subscribe

Archives

Categories

Share This