We have house cats. House cats use cat pans. Every morning, early enough to see the glory of the rising sun, I leave Conrad to sleep another hour and come downstairs to start my day. At the foot of the stairs I unlatch the gate that keeps the cats from coming up to bounce on our bed, say hello to the sweet beasts, and hope that I can close the gate before one of them sneaks through. Then I head to the laundry room to take care of the cat pan. I will do this again before going to bed; it’s a regular ritual.
In its way, it’s a lot easier than the diaper ritual was. Modern litter makes it easy: shake the pan and the turds rise to the top. I wish our political system were so efficient. Actually, what I really wish is that we had a better turd patrol. These days it looks as if we can clearly see the offending objects but we don’t have an effective scooper. I paid more for mine than for the plastic ones, because the salesperson said, “Get this and it’s the only one you’ll ever have to get.” He was right.
Today we have a cat pan that the founding fathers never envisioned. We do have a scooper, but it is in the hands of those who do not wish to be scooped. Imagine that: “No, go over there and get that one. I’m above the law.” Meanwhile, the level in the pan rises and the stink increases. Would you put up with that?
Day by day the documented events hit the news, and day by day there seems to be nothing to do about it. It seems that we do have a Constitution, or at least we did, and day by day we see violations that would warrant the attention of the law. Nothing happens.
Hey dudes, you must have bought the cheap plastic scoopers that break easily. This pan is overflowing and smelling pretty rank. Could you invest a little more and get something that works?
As of two weeks ago, we’re laying our theatre to rest. This is our curtain call.
Simple reasons: For 46 years, The Independent Eye has been the center of our lives (apart from kids & one another), but it’s no longer functional. We’ll continue to do some performance, but we don’t need the corporate structure to do it; it’ll save Elizabeth a bit of bookkeeping and some kerfuffle when we pass.
Intention is to do some local performing and to undertake a “Bishop & Fuller Final Tour” back East when the plague lifts.
We’ll continue the website, as a rich archive, and the sale of our DVDs. We’ll keep the records worth keeping and try to figure what to do with 20 bins of large puppets. Our lives will be devoted to writing fiction & memoir.
The long chronicle can be skimmed at http://www.independenteye.org/chronicle, along with countless photos, scripts, audio, etc.
Yes, it’s long. We hived off from our first ensemble, Milwaukee’s Theatre X (having migrated from college teaching), in 1974, moved to Chicago, focused heavily on touring. Then to Lancaster PA in 1977, grew roots; uprooted in 1992 to Philadelphia and California in 1999. From Song Stories, Sunshine Blues and Dessie (1974-76) to King Lear and Survival (2017-19), touring has always been our heart (wearing out three Dodge vans, now a Prius), along with collaborations, residencies, running multiple “seasons,” a small bit of freelance work, brief sojourns into the mainstream, and a bunch of public radio. Always doomed or blest to fly under the radar.
Nearly 4,000 performances in 38 states. 104 productions, countless workshops, two children. And the dedication of dozens, hundreds, thousands of actors & artists, trustees & donors, tour hosts & collaborators & media workers, and above all, audiences who must’ve said, “This sounds weird but let’s risk it,” and came to the show.
How do I (we) feel? All sorts of ways. Of course there’s the same grief you’d feel at the passing of a beloved, even though you’ve known from an early age that people die. There’s retroactive pride in the work, and also in living a life so counter to my cautious, guarded temperament. And there’s a sense of “Enough, already!” A completion. We’ve done everything possible to avoid becoming an institution (though I have enormous respect for those who do), and we’ve surely succeeded in that.
I miss directing intensely, and an audience. I miss haggling with Elizabeth over an audio edit at 2 a.m. I have scant hope of our novels gaining traction, though I believe they’re worthy of notice. And I believe in the ocean, its gulls, its smell, its quadraphonic voices, and its endurance.
Let’s talk about Sheba.
Actually, her full name is Sheba Bigbutt. She’s a wine-red 1999 Dodge Maxivan and she brought 1/3 of our worldly possessions out to California when she was a brand-new sparkling baby; the rest of it came in what we called the Rent-O-Saurus. At that time she was the newest incarnation of a line of maxivans that had carried us all over the country from 1972 to the present. Those vans carried actors and kids and lighting equipment and sets and props and coloring books and midnight dreams all over the country. Sheba is the last of the line. In the early 2000’s she carried Conrad and me to the gigs back east that paid our bills; we loved California but couldn’t make a living here.
Eventually we got too embarassed at taking this lady whale to the Safeway and found a cheap little used red Honda CRX we named Rover, and Sheba only hit the road for long-haul gigs. Then, little by little, the long-haul gigs got sparse, and Sheba sat in the driveway, loved but lonely. I’d walk by her and pat her on the nose, but she didn’t get out much. I still have the wine-red curtains we’d put up inside for privacy, but the plywood platform we’d sleep on, elevated above the theatrical gear, is long gone. She’s a big empty shell we stuff with palm fronds and other junk to go to the dump. I still love her and pat her nose.
Well, now she’s got a starring role again. Fire evacuations are a different gig in the era of Covid, and we can’t repeat last year’s luck of finding friends to stay with, cats and all. And there’s always the question of the inevitable but unpredictable earthquake. We thought, after some late-night brainstorms, of equipping Sheba as a refuge. Not to go out on the interstates, heaven forbid, but as a traveling homestead wherever we need to go in an emergency. She’s getting petted and groomed again.
We’re assembling an emergency stash as we did last year, but this time with the goal of taking Sheba and the Prius to somewhere on the coast where we can park and live for maybe two weeks, cats and all. So far we have assembled essentials: our tent camping stuff, an ample supply of water, a big Rubbermaid tub of non-perishable food, and a suitcase with a change of clothes, money, documents, a hand-crank radio, and a pouch waiting for our backup hard disks. The cats have their own suite: two crates, a litter pan, and boxes of food and litter. I’m about to check out shoulder harnesses and leashes, and I’m sure they’ll have their own opinions about those as we try them out in advance.
The new big cooler is waiting for two weeks’ worth of pre-cooked frozen dinners; I’m cooking each night’s meal double or triple and freezing the portions. If we don’t have to evacuate, I’ll have treated myself to a big library of cook-free dinners.
Oddly, this doesn’t feel dire. We’ve always loved our camping trips, the feeling that we can provide for ourselves outside the common norm. Sheba is our beloved companion again, and I swear that when I walk past and pat her nose I can hear her purr.
Here’s a flash-fiction we wrote some time ago. It’s topical, so posting it here. Feel free to share it.
by Bishop & Fuller
I sometimes take the bus to and from my work in the city—San Francisco to Santa Rosa, GGT 101—which stops in San Rafael to change drivers. It’s a two-hour trip, but I like the chance to read: I watch the digital crawler as it repeats upcoming stops—San Pedro Rd., Ignacio Blvd.—or the warning signs along the way—Work Zone, Road May Flood, Lane Blocked. There are always little incidents: a dump truck blazing past on the shoulder or traffic cones careening across the freeway. Always something.
Coming home late Thursday, early fall, Bus #1514 pulled into the San Rafael Bus Pad, disgorged its passengers and the driver, a short brownish man who looked very tired. He had reason to. Just past San Anselmo, a stringy young guy had come down the aisle to complain the bus was going the wrong way. “I’m heading to San Jose,” he said.
“Wrong bus. We go to Santa Rosa.”
The driver explained that he couldn’t leave off passengers on the freeway. “Black shitfucker!” the young man screamed, and variants of that sentiment. The driver pulled onto the shoulder, opened the door, pointed. The young man descended into an unscheduled future.
It broke the boredom of the trip, but I wouldn’t tell my wife about it. The kid might have had a gun. I wondered how many passengers would go out and arm themselves. I wondered if I would. When the bus pulled into San Rafael, the driver was quickly gone. We all sat waiting.
Ten minutes later, an eight- or nine-year-old boy climbed the steps of the bus and wedged himself in at the wheel. I empathized with his mom or dad: how embarrassing to lose track of your kid and undergo the accusing stares. And the little boy, frankly, was obese. Had they allowed him to overindulge, or did they grieve at his glandular state? And would my own two kids ever sit in a bus driver’s seat? I’d never told them not to. So many things to tell them not to do.
I noticed then that the boy was dressed in brown and carried a bus driver’s cap. He was not an attractive child. His deathly pale skin was sunburnt. His tiny black eyes bulged out of his face like a roly-poly rat. His fingers were little pig sausages. When he put on his hat, his face bore infinite sadness.
New passengers came up the steps, flashed their cards or slotted their cash in the cash machine. I looked out the window for the parents. I looked for the actual driver. Yet this boy wore the brown uniform and billed hat. He appeared to be fully authorized. I looked to the other passengers.
The door swung shut. The child had pushed a lever and was starting the bus. The engine growled. No way could his feet reach the pedals, yet they reached the vital one. No one seemed concerned. A grayed lady touched the screen of her smart phone. A young Asian man in red tennis shoes blasted music through his head. An old hook-beaked man read a prescription bottle. A perk-nosed brunette shut her eyes, waiting for life to pass. The bus coughed, grumbled, juddered, and heaved its massive buttocks into the twilight.
No problem on the freeway at first. We passed shopping centers without incident, dealerships, rolling hills, a billboard urging us to Unite for a Drug-free World. And then we picked up speed. The child was standing upright behind the wheel. At the exits we ran stop signs, crashed through a Lane Blocked barrier. We swerved into the Petaluma Bus Pad and swerved out again. And then somehow we crossed into the oncoming lanes, headlights looming at us, veering off to the right or the left. Our hurtling bulk claimed right-of-way. The fat boy giggled.
Redwood Boulevard and Olive Avenue, Detour, Shoulder Work, Graton Resort & Casino, Bella Cox for Congress. Other drivers saw our madness a mile away and skidded into a ditch. A wheelchair broke loose from Wheelchair Securement, a spindly black woman spinning down the aisle emitting shrill parrot shrieks. A burly man flopped into her lap to stop her, but a wiry young woman pummeled his head. We roared over an underpass, under an overpass. The dotted lines blended, multiplied. There were dozens of lanes, and we were in them all. The boy steered one-handed and blew a bubble.
There comes a point in utter terror when the shuddering stops, when you know you’re in as deep as there is to go. It’s that pioneer tale I hated: the family caught in the blizzard. They kill their horse, cut it open, crawl into its warm guts and blood. The heart’s warmth fails against the ice wind, but they cling together.
We’re not heading to Santa Rosa. A streak of incidents—careening off a guardrail, side-swipes, two cyclists taken out, other near-misses—make me wonder if the cops are on the way, or why not? I pray that someone might stop him, hold him, take him home. He’d been flashing the headlights on and off, but now, near midnight, he must be gunning us up past ninety in total dark. At times a passenger screams but to no effect. I begin to wonder where I am. My wife must be calling friends. I wait for the bus to run out of gas or crash into a culvert, but it only howls faster and faster into the night.
Like many others this week, we popped for a month’s subscription to the Disney Channel and watched Hamilton. Sheesh, what a wild ride. I never thought I’d have a chance to see it, and I’m glad I did. My fervor for the first half didn’t quite hold for the second, but all in all I was amazed. Other than reverence for their creativity and stamina, what moved me most was the passion, the on-fire-ness. I couldn’t help, after it was done, comparing this to the oozing fetid rot we’re battling now. At least King George, nuts and vile as he was, could stand up straight and put words together. None of these founding dudes were without problematic aspects, but, well, you know what I mean.
Our political peril is being drowned out by our pandemic peril, and both are wiping out the fact that Siberia is melting and our wildfire season here is about to start. And it’s predicted to be a doozy. We’re been busy with our evacuation preparations, having learned some lessons from the last one, and Conrad has been doing daily battle with stray brush and tall weeds. Last year’s blessing can’t repeat: we were sheltered by friends in an unevacuated zone, and they even accepted our cats. This year, we’ve cleaned out our ancient maxivan to be a shelter, hopefully parked in somebody’s field. It’s no longer a dependable long-haul vehicle, but it would very likely be OK for something like Petaluma, and there’s space enough in it for the cats and us. We’ve had a blue ton of camping experience, just not with cats, so I think we can adapt.
But that’s just the immediate disaster prep. I don’t feel wonderful about what’s down the road. And it’s even harder to stay above water when the art you’ve based your whole life on is suspended. Theatrical production? Book publishing? When you can’t gather and nobody has money?
I inherited my depression and have spent my life surviving, but this is wicked. And yet something Conrad said today, on our way back from the ever-generous ocean, reminded me of an attitude adjustment. Our first experience with the Society of Friends, or, if you will, Quakers, was long ago when we were in Manhattan for a while and the kids were young. Leaflets were being handed out somewhere around Murray Hill, and Conrad said, “This sounds interesting.” And indeed we tested the waters at our meeting in Lancaster, and spent years as faithful attenders.
This is the core of one precept. Turn your attention to what is closest to you, and do no harm. First, your own self. If you are not treating yourself with nurturing love and care, change that as best you are able. After you have given that your best shot, consider the next ring outward: your immediate family or closest relationships, look honestly, and adjust what you can. Stay with what is nearest to you and what is actually possible to change for the better. Only then move your focus outward, to your friends and community.
Do you see how many steps there are on the way to addressing the entire society whose dysfunction is drowning us? I am not good material for demonstrations. I have no illusions that having my eye put out by a rubber bullet or having my body broken by a rage-driven car would make enough of a ripple to change anything, although I have enormous respect for those who can risk that. But I can speak softly to an unhappy friend. I can deal sympathetically with a frazzled company rep on the phone, even though I would really love to melt the wires with profanity. I can cuddle my cats and water my garden. I can let three breaths go by before responding sharply to something that nettled my butt.
And I can take every chance that comes along to let gratitude well up, to fill and spill over with love. The gold of sunrise. That first long hug of the morning. The wild wind and whitecaps of the exuberant ocean. The awakening of “yes” by those who have cared to memorize and share poetry. My own stubborn trust that somehow I can intuit structure and then let touch guide me to fix the motorized side mirror on the Prius that got yanked loose by the whap of a branch. If the Multiverse is sentient, surely it appreciates praise. No matter what you believe, you can imagine that Gaia’s food is joy.