original sin vs. original blessing
paranoia vs pronoia
evil by nature vs decent by nature
The litany of human awfulness has been getting to me. I haven’t been quite to the point of cutting off Facebook and the news, but close. Close. It’s been helpful that good initiatives have been coming out of DC, but not at all helpful that the goopers are standing fast in their resolve to oppose everything. Gaah. Yuck. Phooey.
And suddenly I started reading a book sent to me for my birthday. It’s a BIG book and I was not in shape to start it, even though it was sent by one of my dearest lifetime friends—until now. And within two pages, something in my heart and brain went “tilt” and my brain opened up like a wide-screen zoom. I remembered two other writers who have consistently asserted the same premise: humanity is by nature essentially decent and caring.
Years ago we interviewed Matthew Fox for our radio series, “Hitchhiking Off the Map.” He had proposed the concept of “original blessing” rather than “original sin” and his church took considerable exception to that concept. He was a priest in the Dominican Order. Joseph Ratzinger of Opus Dei was a cardinal, and he forbade Fox to teach or lecture for a year. After the ban was lifted, Fox said, “As I was saying…” and went right on. One of his books, of which there are many, is Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality.
Rob Brezhny has been a great spirit-lifter for me, many times posting an exuberant joyous contribution to Facebook when I most needed it. His excellent book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia, is subtitled “How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.” He is so magnetic and smart that he disarms my automatic rejection machine before I can begin to rev it up.
And my new fat book? Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. One of his opening shots across the bow of “Humans Suck” is his account of a real Lord of the Flies event. William Golding hit it big with his novel and it became almost a textbook for the veneer theory, which states that there is a thin level of civilization restraining our true natures as destructive beasts. Bregman began to wonder if there had ever been a real-life event that stranded schoolboys on a deserted island. He found one from 1966, telling the tale of six boys, aged thirteen to sixteen, who had been marooned for more than a year. By the time they were found, they had set up a commune with food garden, tree-trunk barrels to collect rainwater, a badminton court (!), chicken pens, and a fire that they never allowed to go out. When a physician finally evaluated them, they were in peak physical condition.
The writer describes the placebo effect, in which believing something will make you better often has that effect totally aside from literal causation. Then he proposes that there is also a nocebo effect, wherein something can cause harm just because it is believed to do so. He then suggests that our grim view of humanity is a nocebo.
Sure. Right. Anticipating this response, he lays out well-documented chapter and verse about how cynicism can claim that it is always right. By and large people are likely to assume that their family, friends, and neighbors are not dastardly, and would be likely to offer help in an emergency. It is when looking to others whom we only know through the news that the cynicism kicks in.
This is not an airy-fairy book. It is meticulously documented and footnoted and provides real research and real stories. It will take me a while to finish it, but I will. And Bregman has teamed up in my mind with Matthew Fox and Rob Brezhny to lift my ragged spirits.
I get tired, which I guess is normal at 79. But what’s tending to tire me out these days is the past. I’ve been sorting and filing tons of the remnants of a life: scripts, photos, reviews, grant applications, correspondence, etc. etc. etc.—knowing that when I die I’ll inevitably leave a mess, but a less disorderly mess.
I’ve been a bit startled to see how much we’ve done in the last 20 years since moving from our pleasant & well-funded nest in Philadelphia: 19 stage productions (of which we’ve written 17); 92 episodes of a radio series; sculpting of 95 puppets; editing 4 dvds, 40 short stories (7 published); 8 novels and a memoir (5 published); two unproduced screenplays; plus a garden and two cats. Right now, I’m in the 3rd draft of a new novel, editing a memoir-in-progress by Elizabeth, doing interior layout for an anthology of our comedies, and waiting for the world to open up.
Our purpose in life? For sure, the urge of protoplasm to persist in its structure and to replicate itself is pretty certain. Anything beyond that is for us individually to decide. The sky’s the limit, even for those who want to get to Heaven. For me, it’s to offer love to my family; to tell stories any way I can; to behave like a decent human being; to struggle against the solipsism that stemmed from the genes and from being an only child; and to leave my campsite cleaner than I found it, or at least interesting.
Why the storytelling? Beats me. I’ve worked mostly on stage, but also on the page, in radio, video, puppetry—since the age of fifteen. At that time, the motive was clear: a way to meet girls. But by now I’ve met a number of girls and I still persist.
At one time, it was to get famous, to leave Iowa behind, to gain the means—money, prestige, connections—to enable more & better work, and for the work somehow to achieve longevity. That’s long gone.
In part, I guess, it’s curiosity: it’s a safe way to meet people, explore them and their deeds, always wondering why. Some writers write to express themselves; I think I write or act or direct to discover what’s in this creature and its fellows.
And in part, it’s the same urge the cats have to chase a foam ball over the sofa, across the living room, and up the cat tree in the corner—not for the sake of the foam ball but just to feel the muscles. To feel alive.
I am having a difficult time with an old lover: music. We had children, lots of them, and they got lost. Now they’re turning up and asking why I didn’t keep them, feed them, give them a life. I’m torn between joy and the pain of not knowing what to do now.
Music has been a huge part of my life, and not many people know that. The years of my being a keyboard performer are eminently forgettable, rightly so, but my decades of being a theatre composer are more problematic. I have boxes of old tapes and disks and files of music and am trying to organize and preserve them, and in the process I made a spreadsheet of all the productions we’ve done, and listed the ones for which I composed music. Sixty-three. That’s not counting five radio series.
Being the compulsive soul that I am, I am embarked on the process of transferring everything I have that is still playable to digital files, listening to them, and trying to decide what to do with them now. Over the years we’ve done many revue shows, so a lot of the music is like what you’d find between segments of a radio show, i.e., charming audio wallpaper. My problem is the rest of it.
This week I loaded and processed a show from 1969. We were in our first year at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, the Fine Arts School, and another new faculty member directed a production of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man. I did a new translation from the German, including song lyrics, then wrote music for the songs, arranged it for Widow Begbick’s all-girl canteen band, and played piano myself alongside the trumpet and drums. The trumpeter was brilliant, and the drummer was really cute in drag, being a skinny little guy with nice legs. As a promo before opening the theatre department loaded an upright piano on a pickup truck and we paraded through the streets playing my music, with me in a skimpy little fringed sequinned mini-dress trying not to congeal from the Milwaukee cold. It was a hit.
I’ve got a complete recording of a performance, not bad quality considering that this was reel-to-reel from fifty-two years ago. I listened to it and cried. That music was rowdy, energetic, and really good. It got gestated, birthed, did its job, and passed out of existence except for its ghost preserved on tape. I have about thirty more of these full-length scores.
That old lover has been patient for decades, but time is getting short. I just have to keep this process going, keep the kleenex handy, get new shoes for the kids and figure out where we’re all going.
Each week has its challenge with reality. Sometimes it’s profound, sometimes trivial, though the trivial always has the potential of swelling into a hippopotamus. This week, the trivial stayed trivial.
We were in our usual Sunday place at the ocean. It was too windy to take our table out on the bluff for our picnic, so we stayed in the car, put an album on the radio, and ate our weekly sushi.
As we lounged in the distant crash of the waves and the sight of gulls riding the wind, we heard a sound. Something gravelly near the car. I thought it was to the left, since I was sitting on the left, Elizabeth thought it came from the right. To me, it sounded like a cranky radio tuning in. To her, it was a tree branch scraping the car.
I suggested it might be a radio scraping the car or a tree branch tuning in. She got out to look. Nothing. I backed up slowly so she could look underneath, but there was no snoozing wino.
We sat a while, drowsing, then started the long way home. Still on Highway 1, we suddenly heard the same scratchy sound. I pulled off the road, and she got out, checked under the car, under the hood, under her jacket—nothing. She did find a huge, impacted collection of leaves and pine needles under the hood, removed them. Later, we had a small squabble as to whether or not that was the source of our problem.
We went on.
There are elements of reality one can never decipher, even with an astute partner of sixty years and counting. It reminded me of our first venture into East Berlin, when the wall was still up and the border guards were poised to kill. For each car that went through the checkpoint, they had a little wheeled mirror device they rolled under the car to discover any concealed passenger. We were on a Vespa scooter, but they wheeled their device underneath, presumably to catch any freedom-loving pigeon making its escape.
Reality is sometimes hideous, sometimes almost fun.
We first came to California in 1963 after three years at Northwestern, and moving cross-country to a new life changed everything for me. The North Bay climate returned me to the happily embodied life I’d had when I was a pre-school proto-pagan playing in the Indiana woods and fields. The magnitude of this hit me the day we moved into our first California apartment. Once we got the VW unloaded, I kicked off my shoes and went outside. The drive from Evanston IL had been a long grind, we’d just finished an intense three days of apartment-hunting, and I was frazzled. But it was a sunny September day and the concrete patio was smooth and warm. As a kid I’d always gone barefoot in the Indiana summers and wiggled my toes in the sandy beach at our summer home in Michigan. Then I grew up, and sidewalks locked me into shoes, but enough was enough. This was my home now and dammit, I wanted my bare feet on the ground. I wasn’t prepared for that first moment. It was like a strong electric shock: the soles of my feet tingled and a current shot up my spine. It was an intense sensation of belonging, of being welcomed home. California moved into my being and never left, even during the thirty-three years when we lived elsewhere.
Stanford was a whirlwind schedule for both of us, but on weekends we could spend time at some of the relatively unpopulated beaches like San Gregorio and Pescadero, and I developed a ritual picnic menu: a plastic bag of chicken legs in teriyaki marinade, another bag of juicy figs, a chunk of Muenster cheese and a bottle of semi-dry ruby port.
The narrow winding road wound up and down the hills to the coast, and I loved the way I could make the VW dance on the curves. Turning south along the coast we’d pick our beach and park. I’d take the food sack in one hand and my sandals in the other and try not to yip at the sharp pleasure of being barefoot in the soft white sand. Conrad carried rolled beach towels and tatami mats, the bag of charcoal and a metal rack; a short walk south along the high bluffs usually gave us a place to ourselves in one of the sheltered coves among the huge rocks. We had swimsuits on under our clothes, but sometimes it was secluded enough to get naked.
Broiling the chicken didn’t require constant attention. I patrolled the waterline looking for treasures, and when I was sitting at the fire I could watch the hawks riding the updrafts. Sometimes I could count to a hundred before a wing moved. It was quiet, the air smelled like salt and seaweeds, the sun was gentle and my job at the orthodontist’s office was a million miles away. The barefoot bond I’d felt on my first day outside our California apartment was now humming through my whole body. I hadn’t felt so completely alive since my pre-school days wandering solo in woods and fields. I was home in my skin again.
Conrad’s first teaching job was in South Carolina. Leaving was hard for both of us, but for me it was a piercing pain. I’d bonded fast and hard to California, and in these three years the bond had only deepened. Working for the orthodontist in San Carlos, I’d drive home every day with the intoxicating colors of sunset over my right shoulder behind the sharp silhouette of the hills. When I got home, I could walk barefoot on the soft dusty streets of our home neighborhood. As we were about to leave California a spontaneous song came to me, “San Gregorio Sands.” It was my celebration and farewell to that special place.
the last sweet drops of the tangerine sun
trickle down, and the surf is tangerine foam
San Gregorio sands are honey and gold
and the fog is waiting till we’ve gone on home
perfect day — there’s a hawk there playing
where the warm air climbs up the rocky cliff
he can stay there floating forever
like a daydream balanced on the point of “if”
if I had my way, that tangerine sun
would stay floating right there like the lazy hawk
and San Gregorio sands would always be warm
for an hour of love and a barefoot walk
now the road is twisty and the summer is hot
our bags are packed and we’re ready to go
there’s not much time but we’ll take what we’ve got
when San Gregorio calls we don’t say no
perfect day, and it’s almost over
but there’s two more sips of the ruby wine
we can stay for five more minutes
watching gulls play hopscotch at the water line
the sun is down, it’s past time to go
I’ll be back some day but I don’t know when
San Gregorio sands will be honey and gold
and l’ll shed my shoes and be home again.