I’ve always loved music but my real musical education kicked in in my early thirties. Many of my greatest teachers were friends like Paul and Brian who turned me onto Carmen MacRae and Cesaria Evora. Sheila and Mario, who took me to see Jimmy Scott at Catelinas in Hollywood. I saw Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl. Nancy Wilson also at the bowl, Shirley Horn at Catalina Bar and Grill. Anita O’Day at the Atlas-- so many incredible singers and musicians.
I also got to see Abbey Lincoln at the Jazz Bakery in Venice, California. It had become a popular jazz spot and drawing big names and when Abbey Lincoln was announced it was an opportunity not to be missed.
The venue was inside the old Helm’s Bakery building on Venice boulevard, a block long building from the 1920s which used to house the company that made bread for much of Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century.
I knew the building from when it was called the Antique Guild. When I was a teenager, my mom would take me with her on antique finding missions. It was a massive, open space with endless rows of stuff from all over—and the best kind of antiquing, not all cleaned up, or well arranged, or presented, but clumped together for you to climb through and discover.
By the 90s the building had been cleaned up. Gentrification. The club was a small part of a large complex of offices and studios and showrooms.
I’d never been there before so was excited to see what the buzz was all about. It was surprisingly mundane inside. I was used to old-school clubs with dark corners and small tables squeezed in front of a small stage. A bar over to the side where regulars would nurse dark brown cocktails in tumblers.
This was more like a room where you’d see a powerpoint presentation. Sensible plastic chairs in rows, the walls covered by those heavy curtains that slide on a runner at the ceiling in an attempt to add warmth to a conference room. The place filled up. It wasn’t a big room, maybe 200 hundred seats, maybe? On the stage was a baby grand piano, drum kit and set up for several musicians. The lights dimmed and the band entered—young guys, in suits. Nice—serious like. They jammed for a bit and then over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jazz Bakery is proud to present, Abbey Lincoln.”
I first heard Abbey Lincoln on a CD that I stole from the Brand Library in Glendale. I’m not proud of this, the stealing, but I am glad that I got to know her music. It was a rough time for me. I was living in a small forest service cabin on the side of a hill in Echo Park. I was a terrible drunk and was having a lot of anonymous sex. I was a mess. Anyway, one day I drove out to the library for some music I was trying to find for my day job. The Brand library is an incredible place, the collection focuses on visual art and music. It’s in a former private home built in 1904 and resembling a combination of Indian Palace and Spanish Villa. My tale of stealing gets worse, I checked out 12 CDs that day and never took them back. It wasn’t my intention to keep them but somehow it was just too much for me to figure out how to drive the 25 minutes to another part of town and get them back to the library where they belonged.
I had a little boom box in my cabin and in the afternoon with the parrots of LA flying between palm trees, I’d open all the windows and the front door, put on a Betty Carter CD and transport myself to another place, a better version of the life I was living, a life rich with music. I’m telling you this to explain that the music, those singers and those songs, they’re a major part of what got me through.
Abbey Lincoln entered, all in black, characteristic black hat on her head. And she began to sing. The kind of singing that feels like dance, or love or a Sunday afternoon on a boat. Sometimes the singing felt scary like it might lose its way, but it was her playing with the melody, the phrasing, the song. At one point she said, “We’re now going do The Windmills of Your Mind.” A song I love, originally sung by Dusty Springfield for the film The Thomas Crown Affair, Ms. Lincoln was known for hiring your musicians, just out of school, giving them an incredible education in performance and the life of a jazz musician. They began to play.
“Stop, stop.” The band stopped and she had some words with them. They started up again. “Stop stop,” she said again, they stopped and more words, “Let’s take it from the top again.” She said. And the band started up again. This time she started slapping her open palm on the lid of the piano. Was it the rhythm? Was it anger? Was it both? “No, no, no.” she said as she slapped the lid, the band stopped once more.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Abbey Lincoln said, “It’s a very difficult song and we just don’t have it tonight, so we will move on to the next song.”
I’d never seen any performer take such control of a performance, of a room, of a stage full of musicians. I often say in my workshops that, when making something, the artist must think of themself as god. Responsible for the creation of a new world within their song or book or play. And, let’s face it, musicians are perhaps the greatest of all the art gods, creating the invisible, life sustaining magic of music. Imagine the past several months without it. Or, no, don’t. Life would be too terrible to imagine.
A short postscript to this story: I found some of the cds years later in storage and mailed them back to the library with a note of apology. It doesn’t make it right, but I wanted someone else to have the chance to hear what I heard. For someone else to have a chance to be pulled through
I take Sally for a walk most days, at the nature preserve which was a farm, the meadow has been returned to grassland with wide mown paths. Because there are no trees in the grassland, you can see where everybody is which makes walking and social distancing much easier.
One day last week, we pulled into the parking lot and I after getting everything together. Mask, poop bags, Sally on the leash, we got out.
From the small hill overlooking the entrance to the paths, you can go right or left. Below was an older couple, they must have gotten here just ahead of me. They had two large dogs, on leashes. The woman was having a terrible time with a chocolate standard poodle. Snapping at the dog, and yanking his leash; the dog lunged at something and nearly pulled her off balance. She snapped at him in a chirpy way, yanked him back on the path. “That lady does not know how to control her dog,” I thought and led Sally the other direction.
The day was glorious and once we were in the open, the big long path before us, I took Sally off her leash and she tore off.
You can take the walk as a loop. But several paths cut across the middle making it possible to turn off if you see someone coming, or walk around someone if they’re going slow, or lolling about. Standers, I call them. They only become a problem if they’re on the path ahead of you and you’ve got to negotiate how best to get past.
I had made my way half way around when I noticed a young girl squatting next to the path, looking at some bright yellow flowers. She was 3 or 4, just ahead were two young women walking slowly. From their posture they were clearly looking down at their phones.
I was barreling forward, Sally up ahead of me. You should know that the preserve asks dogs are to be kept on leash, which no one really observes. But if your dog needs to be on a leash, put him on a leash.
One of the young woman heard Sally’s collar and turned around, “Oh hi!” Sally stopped. “She’s skittish,” I said. Sally has the desire to connect, but she’s too afraid. One of the reasons I let her off leash is so she can skirt around everything and everyone. I like to say, “Speed is her superpower.”
Sally and I left the path and made our way around them. I saw then there were two young men a short distance ahead, waiting for the women and the girl to catch up. I took these men to be their husbands. They were wearing masks, as was I. “She’s skittish,” I said again, as Sally stopped to look at them. “She wants to be close to people but she’s not really able.”
“Just like us,” said one of the guys and we all laughed.
“Yes,” I said, “Just like all of us.” And, making our way past them two guys I hollered, “Enjoy your walk!” “You, too!”
And then, here they came: the older couple I had spotted at the start of our walk. The man was walking a sweet old lab. The woman, in her 70s and very slight of frame, was still being dragged by that poodle. Sally and I were in the grass about ten feet off the path and as we passed each other, the poodle lunged off the path and started to go for Sally who darted away. I stopped, the leash was stretched taut, right in front of me, my kneecaps right against it. Woman to my right, dog to my left, making a sort of trip way in front of me
I said, “Could you call your dog, please?”
She yanked, the dog gagged. She was more like someone who couldn’t get a lid off a jar rather than someone who was inconveniencing someone else. The dog kept gagging. Finally she managed to pull the dog back. But nothing was said, not an I’m sorry, or he just wants to play, none of that. Sally and I called back to her, “Curb your dog.”
The woman yelled out to me over her shoulder, “Go home!”
Here in Woodstock that means: I live here and you need to go back to the city with your city ways.
“I live here,” I yelled back.
“So do I,” she yelled. Which seemed like an old comedy routine.
“Well, my dog didn’t go after your dog,” We were having a proper yelling volley now.
“Stop yelling at me,” she yelled back at me. “It’s making me upset.”
If I weren’t upset myself, I would have laughed at this. I stopped and turned back, “Did you not yell at me first?”
“I did not,” she yelled, a bit softer now.
Sally and I went on our way. Was I fuming? Hm, maybe. In my world, the way to respond to your dog lunging at my dog would be to acknowledge your part and apologize. She probably didn’t like me pointing out her inability to control her dog. People don’t like to have their weaknesses pointed out. I know I don’t.
This event with the dogs was a blip. But it made me think about how differently people think about what is proper behavior. And what if your idea of etiquette is based on feeling scared? “Wear your mask!” People are screaming at people in public. Or, “You can’t come in here with a mask!” Maybe we were raised differently. Or, our values are different. Proper etiquette dictates not drawing attention to someone’s poor etiquette. But what if someone not following protocol puts other people’s lives in danger? After writing all this, I realize it’s not a matter of etiquette at all. Maybe the word of the day should be compassion. Or maybe it should be care, as in caring for others, maybe the word should be love, or mutual respect—maybe we can look underneath the manners and behaviors in search for a better way to live together.
Several years ago when I was still living in New York City, a writer named Jeff Wise got in touch with me, I can’t remember how he got my name but he was writing a book about fear and wanted to talk to me. We set a time to speak on the phone. He called and I began telling him about my terrible stage fright. In the midst of our conversation, I remembered playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde’s comedy masterpiece. Lady Bracknell is often played by a man but in our production, every role was played by a gender for which it wasn’t originally intended.
Lady Bracknell is considered one of the great comedic roles in the English canon. With lines such as:
“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”
“Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”
Our production was performed at a small space on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake, on the east side of Hollywood. Last time I was in the neighborhood, it was a fancy Indian restaurant. The entire neighborhood has changed dramatically since I lived there.
Our director was a bit of a mad genius, and was also the set designer and costumer. From the moment our show opened, it was a smash hit, packed houses, extensions, etc etc.
The theater finally had to close the run because they had another show scheduled so we moved the production to a theater on the West side of town called the Evidence Room. We put the show back up a month or so after our closing and our successful run continued.
As Lady Bracknell, I was a towering figure. I’m 6’2, and depending on the time, weigh in at 250 or more. Imagine me in full Victorian drag topped with a huge hat and large plumed feathers coming out the top.
Lady Bracknell has two major scenes, with some smaller business in a group scene. Her scene in the first act is the legendary interview where she asks Jack Worthing—who is interested in marrying her daughter Cecily—if he is in fact worthy of her. She asks everyone except for Jack to leave the room and the interview begins.
I was seated on a velvet settee at center stage, Cynthia Orthal, the actor playing Jack Worthing, was standing and we launched into the scene we had done hundreds of times.
I gravitated toward the theater when I was a kid for the structure it gave me and my life—walk over here, say these words, take these actions, enter now. Of course, flubbed a word here or there as actors will, and even occasionally dropped a line and had to cover for it somehow. But I was quick on my feet, able to be in the present and cover for those common errors.
In the theater, when an actor forgets a line, this is commonly called, “going up.” The origination of the phrase is believed to be because when you forget something you often look up, as if the thing you’ve forgotten is floating just above your head.
But there in the middle of the scene, I suddenly blanked. I was sitting there but entered a completely different reality. Some small part of my min knew I was onstage and that it was my turn to say something. But the larger part of me was elsewhere, or maybe it wasn’t elsewhere, maybe it was right there, next to the regular reality that we know.
I looked up at the stage lights, small dust mites floated there, a dim grey mist hung over the audience. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was as if I had been walking along the street and suddenly was transported into space where I was floating.
Cynthia finally fed me my line and brought me back. How long was I gone? A few seconds? More? A minute?
This morning I woke up I was backstage in a large theater, in the green room. I was in costume, dressed sort of like a ghost in white shredded cotton. Intermission had just ended and the second act had just begun. I heard the performance through the monitor backstage and knew I had an entrance pretty soon but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
You could say this was the classic actors’ nightmare, only it wasn’t exactly scary, more like a great unknowing. What will the second act require of me? What will my role be? What will I say or do?
All of our attempts at remembrance keep us from floating away, into that twilight place that might be right beside us, all the time. What we remember—what came before, the people who’ve left, the ways of life that are no more—and trying to hold onto these things, anchors us. Staying just a bit in the past helps us live in the here and now.
In my late twenties I had my first band. I had been connected to a piano player, Fred Cassidy, if you’re here today, Hi Fred! We were asked to provide live music for a fundraiser for a theater company we were both working with.
The theme of the fundraiser was James Bond so we put together a set of covers from the 60s and 70s, Fred got a drummer and a bass player. I found a white dinner coat and an eye patch. Right before the gig I asked two of my girlfriends if they would be gogo dancers. The whole thing was thrown together but Fred and the band were electric, everyone there people danced for hours, the girls shook their money makers all night long and I found I had a front man inside of me, roaring to get out. Except for losing my balance from wearing an eye patch, and nearly falling off the stage, it was an excellent night.
Chris Wells and the Highballs, Featuring the International Kittens, was born.
We became the best party band of all time—our gigs were legendary. We got a monthly residency at The Atlas, a really swank nightclub inside the same deco building as the Wiltern Theater at Wilshire and Western, with the big gold sun on the wall behind the stage, and large gold sculptures of Atlas suspended from the ceiling.
From the James Bond look I moved onto wearing my dad’s pilot uniform, the dancers dressed like stewardesses. The gigs were more ecstatic rites than shows…one of things I’ve always wanted to bring people in my performances, ecstasy. A feeling of overwhelming happiness.
But while I was making these high octane performances my personal life was highly dysfunctional. I didn’t have my own place, I house sat for friends, a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there. Kept my clothes and possessions in the trunk of my car.
My friend Bridget connected me to some friends of hers in Santa Monica. They were going out of town for a week and needed someone to dogsit.
One sunny weekday afternoon I visited them in their airy apartment on a shady side-street, Sarah made tea, Matt was funny in a pointy-headed way. They were smart and kind but reserved, not like theater people, more like academics.
While we talked, their bulldog sat on the couch like a chunky old man, trying to catch his breath. I wish I could remember his name—Mr. Pickles or Chauncy or Bill. Anyway, we agreed I would stay there while they went to visit Sarah’s mom back east.
The week was sweet, I dragged the dog around the block once or twice a day and enjoyed the peace and quiet of Santa Monica, happy for a respite from the drama of living out of the back of my car.
They came back and we had a little meeting where I gave back their keys, as well as their dog, their plants, their kitchen—everything that had been mine for one week, returned to the people they really belonged to.
“Thank you so much,” Sarah said, handing me a tissue wrapped package. A gift, for being able to stay in their home. So gracious.
I took the softly crinkly package, heavier than it appeared but limp, its edges flopped over the sides of my hands.
“My mother runs a fabric import business,” Sarah said, “specializing in Chinese silk.”
I slipped my hand under the scotch-taped flap and inside the tissue. My fingers met the smoothest, softest secret. Had I ever touched anything so soft?
Inside were two pairs of silk pajamas. One pair was deep purple with a subtle pattern of dark red watercolor smudges. The other was cheetah print. Even now, after decades of incredible costumes and outfits, beautiful things custom made for me, sequined capes and kimonos, rompers, jand dresses, these pajamas remain among the finest things I’ve ever worn.
I couldn’t tell if Sarah realized the magical power of her gift. She gave it so easily, no build up or fanfare. If I were giving someone a life-changing gift, I imagine I’d draw some attention to it.
I drove away, to my next house sitting gig, or rehearsal or whatever day job I had at the time. But as soon as I could, I stripped and tried on the pajamas. In many myths, the hero becomes the recipient of a transformative garment, so were these pajamas. They became my pre-show outfit for our nightclub shows, and I would mingle with the crowd before the show began, wearing them, exuding an air of cool control and swagger. Feeling ownership over something I didn’t yet possess.
It is said that only someone who hasn’t had a home can truly know what a home can mean. Only those who’ve felt the hardness of life—not just in its difficulty but its surfaces: plastic, glass, cement, the earth, tough against your bodies—can know what softness means. May you have ease today, may you slide our way through the hours, may the edges you meet feel soft to the touch.
We were not a puzzle family. My folks preferred cards. I loved those nights sitting around our dining room table, mom having cleared everything off in preparation for a few hands of gin rummy.
But, what do I remember of puzzles? Missing pieces, mostly. What a disappointment to spend all that time getting everything in place only to realize there were little creature shaped holes in the picture. That happened with cards, too, you’d pull out an old deck and toward the end of a game you’d realize that fourth queen you were waiting for no longer existed or if she did she was hiding in the junk drawer of the kitchen with old rubber bands, extra scissors and coupons that would never be used.
I like the puzzle-making part where you get the border all figured out, and you have a frame with all the other random pieces in a messy spread in the middle, but that’s where it ends for me.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy a challenge—my life has been a series of preposterous feats I put before me and then attempted to conquer, or at least survive.
The greatest puzzle at the moment, of course, is how will this moment play forward. Here in my office as I write this, it’s a beautiful spring morning: Bobby’s upstairs painting, Sally’s dozing in her third bed upstairs, I move toward noon with clarity and purpose, after the show the day has an order that I can easily follow. Beyond that, problems arise: what about tomorrow and the next day and will our town be overrun with city folks and will the reopening lead to disaster, will there be a second wave, worse than what we’ve already seen? How do the impacts of a virus suddenly just get better just because people want them to?
With so much uncertainty, it’s important to nail down whatever we can—this is this and that is that and this is not that, to name things.
And yet, we swim in mystery, the world isn’t solid, it’s liquid, in motion, atoms swirling. Matter becoming gas, liquid becoming solid. I remember when I first learned that glass was made from sand.
My great Aunt Ruby had an irrational fear of sitting with her back to a window, until she had someone tell her that in her previous life she was a pioneer women and had been killed when an arrow flew through her window and into the back of her head.
“The windows were just open?” I asked my grandmother when she told me this.
“There was no glass at the time, the windows were just openings in the walls of a house, shutters were used to close up the house at night or during cold weather.”
How comfortable are you with the unknown, that’s what we’re being asked, can you live with not knowing how things are going to end, the way the story is going to go, who’s going to live, who’s going to die? When you’re going to travel again?
Our human brains have been wired for millennia to find solutions. We read mysteries, we follow stories, we devour horror movies—all of it touches the delicious sensation of not knowing. But what we really want is to find the killer.
How do we become comfortable with no satisfying outcome? Even the word satisfaction implies the receipt of something. But what if what you receive at the end of the mystery is a batch of not-knowing? If what you’re left with in the end is more uncertainty? Can you live with that prize?
We like to hang a picture on the emptiness before us and look at that instead of the darkness beyond. The nature of the picture, what we each choose to look at, matters: some lead to more darkness, some lead to delusion. The best pictures comfort, us—not with simple answers but the solace that no one really knows what’s out there. The maker of the picture serves as a sort of guide.
Art, music, poetry—these things point at the mystery all around us, they sometime manage to capture it and make it easier to live in a world where the days stretch out, unmapped, unknown.
Joni Mitchell, in her great song, Both Sides Now, wrote this:
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
Here’s a mystery, how did a twenty year old write that song?
It occurs to me that instead of being bad at it, I might have mastered puzzling—leave the picture undone, the pieces unfitted, without their proper place. Maybe puzzles are there to teach us to let them be, unsolved, unanswered, unknown. You might have a different idea about that, but really, in the end, who knows?
I was 25 and working at Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, I had recently moved out of Lancaster and gotten my own apartment in the San Fernando Valley, a bungalow from the 1930s, built for agricultural workers when the valley was all orchards and fields.
I was an actor, working in a store for actors and I was on my way to making a life for myself.
Samuel French was ripe for a workplace sitcom—like Cheers or Taxi. But maybe too niche?
The employees were aspiring screenwriters and stand up comics, fresh faced actors and old timers who once dreamed of making their mark but now worked in a bookstore and cracked jokes about the kids who’d come in, stars in their eyes, saying, “I’m looking for a monolog,” which sent the entire back office into gales of laughter.
“I’m looking for a monolog.” It was a constant refrain—for auditions and acting class, they all needed someone to be. Some of us handled it than others, “What kind of monolog?” “Oh, you know, something interesting?”
The walls of the store were lined with plays: Albee to Wasserstein, and shelves of screenplays: All Bout Eve to Xanadu. Sections of monolog collections—Monologs for Men, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or Make ‘Em Laugh, monologs for funny ladies. And so on.
So to ask a staff member, “I need a monolog,” was akin to someone standing in the middle of Times Square and asking for directions to New York City.
The thing is, no one wanted to be pointed the way to the monologs, they wanted insider knowledge—what I really want is for you to to show me the way, for you tell me what monolog I should do.
I was at the grocery store recently--all masked up, wearing blue latex free gloves--checking out, the plexiglass between the cashier and me. While waiting for my debit card to clear I asked her, “How has it been, being here?” “Oh, fine,” she seemed bored, not concerned at all.
“How’s it been for you?” she asked me.
“I’m lucky in that I live here and work at home.”
“Oh, what do you do?”
It’s still sometimes a feat to say succinctly what I do—what I do? I make magic! I provide transformative performance experiences to my community. I build art rituals that unite people. My friend Celeste, whenever she was out at a bar or a party, used to just tell people she was a nurse. I didn’t feel like I could get away with that, conditions being what they are right now.
“I run a non profit arts organization and I write.” I said.
“Oh, you’re a writer.”
“Yes,” I said, sort of reluctantly. I don’t consider myself a writer, which is strange because it’s what I do.
And then she said the sentence that no artist ever wants to be asked—“What have you written?”
I may have looked at her witheringly. She then made it worse by saying, “Anything I might have read?”
The obvious and bitchy response is, “I don’t know, what have you read?” I resisted saying this and moved on.
Dan Peace was one of the people who worked at Sam French, a really sweet gay guy from small town Kansas. Dan was a sort of stock gay character, popping in with a funny quip, a touch of the downhome, “Mm Hm, that’s right,” or, “You betcha, mister.” I feel Dad would have been really close to his grandmother.
And, Dan was a Cher fanatic. Every album, every tour, every outfit, every film, every episode of her TV shows, every bit of trivia. Now, I loved Cher when I was a kid, watched her TV show, even owned the 45 of Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. But, by my 20s, I was beyond Cher. “Really,” I’d think, whenever Dan would start talking about Cher, “isn’t she kind of a joke?”
One day I had to go over to Dan’s place to pick up something for the store, he lived in a classic Hollywood apartment complex, two rows of apartments facing in on a central grass courtyard. Dan met me on the small stoop out front of his place, the door was open and Cher’s voice wafted out from inside. Behind him I saw Cher posters on the wall. He handed me the stuff I needed and we chatted for a second. Dan was so sunny, with a bucktooth smile. As I turned to leave, he put his hand on my arm, like a friend. “You take care,” he said. I liked Dan but maybe I thought he was lacking in substance. Maybe he was kind of a joke, too.
Sometime after, I quit Samuel French and went to Europe in search of a life I never found. I heard that Dan had died from AIDS, a much different virus than the one we have now, it still has no cure and still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. Cher lives on, of course, she’s appeared on Broadway, films, won an academy award, a Kennedy Center Honor. Her work for HIV/AIDS has helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Turns out she’s not a joke at all.
I lost my interest in the movies. But the creative spark prodded me on and I dove into the wilderness with curiosity to guide me. Whenever I got lost, which was a lot, I just kept going.
My work now is to find meaning in the artist’s life. I do this by writing about it, in words, like these here. If anything I’ve ever made endures, it will be my writing.
I had a friend in my 20s, her name was Susannah and I met her while working at the Bodhi Tree. Susannah was one of those preternaturally creative people. For her, everything was an art project and everyday was filled with making.
One day at her apartment in Beachwood Canyon, Susannah agreed to give me a haircut—just a trim, my hair was long back then. As we were finishing up she pulled the bed sheet off my shoulders and lay her scissors down, saying, “Man, you’ve got a beautiful head of hair.
It’s true; I had been blessed with a gorgeous head of thick golden curls down to my shoulders, giving me a Byronic air.
“Let’s go to the park and take pictures.” Susannah said.
“I really want to photograph your hair.”
When I was 12, my pencil straight hair began to change. Every morning and every night, I would stare into the bathroom mirror, leaning in. My hair was beginning to curl, within six months my head would be an explosion of curls.
I spent so much time back then, wondering about hair, when would it come? My best friend Cam was a year younger than me but one day when we were swimming in his backyard, I spotted a brown smudge when he raised his arms in preparation of diving. “What?!”
Later in that same bathroom, I held my arms up, one at a time, leaning into the mirror. Nothing. That age is so precarious, isn’t it? Wondering if you’ll get what the other kids have already got? Or maybe you were given more than anyone else. In my Junior HIgh locker room, changing out of our sweaty clothes, in the midst of our sea of pubescent bodies, there was my classmate Jimmy Holmsy, like a miniature man, his arms legs and bush dark with thick hair. He chuckled when anyone made anything of it—but was he tormented by his otherness, I wonder?
In the park with Susannah, she asked me to pose in all sort of ways, always featuring the hair, then she asked me to take my shirt off and she shot my profile against a white pillar.
A couple of days later I was working the register at the bookstore when Susannah began her shift.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said, with a wink.
“Ooh,” I was intrigued.
“Come find me on your break.”
Break time came and I followed Susannah out the back of the store, we lit up our cigarettes and made our way to her car.
“I got so inspired by our photo shoot.”
She opened the back door of her car and pulled out a small box, like something you’d keep stationary in, with a lid and deep sides. She removed the lid and reached into the box and brought out what looked to be a baby food jar. She handed it to me.
The jar had a lid, on its side was a small picture of me from our photo shoot, shirtless in the bright sun, big smile on my face, the picture was outlined with copper puffpaint.
“Look inside,” she said.
And I began to open the lid.
“No, no, don’t open it.” She placed her hand on mine. “Just peer in.”
I held the small jar up to my face, inside was a sort of brown mass.
“It’s your hair.” She said.
Did I handle this moment well? I hope so. I hope I was kind and generous and supportive of my friend’s creative output. But I remember feeling kind of creeped out.
She reached into the box and took out another one and handed it to me.
“I made a whole bunch,”
And she handed me the box of little baby food jars with my hair in them and photos of me glued to the side.
Humans are amazing, the things they make. We’re like bodies that keep producing hair—it just keeps coming and coming. Even when it stops coming in certain places it pops up in others. I don’t have much hair on my head anymore, it’s migrated my ears, my eyebrows, my back. Even after death, the hair keeps coming.
Throughout this shutdown, everyone’s relationship with their hair has shifted. Some are just letting it go, some are having couple of glasses of wine and waking up the next morning with a really awful haircut. Women are letting the legs grow in, the pits fill up, men are letting the beards come in…maybe I’ll keep it that way, they might think. Some people are just horrified at their hairy selves—they spend hours wandering around the house wondering, who am I if I can’t keep up my grooming habits?
I was cleaning out my mom’s garage a couple of month’s ago when I found one of Susannah’s little hair jars in a box of stuff from my 20s. I don’t really miss my hair, I loved it while I had it and then it left.
Now, in a storage unit three thousand miles away from here, there’s a baby food jar with my hair in it. When will I be back there? Is that life just over, the one where I visit California and can drive to the desert to continue emptying out my mom’s house, getting my stuff out of storage, driving it across the country back here to where I now live?
And, if that life has just disappeared, will it, like hair, spring up elsewhere, will it require a different kind of care?
Opening my calendar this morning I read: Provincetown, with the same thing written for the next five days. Bobby and I have been going to Provincetown for vacation for the past 4 years, at least once a year, twice if we can swing it. It’s a magical place. The farthest tip of Cape Cod where the pilgrims first landed and spent a winter before moving to the mainland. Those people who instilled in all of us the need to move elsewhere.
Obviously, we’re not going to Provincetown this week. We’re not going anywhere. Well, I went to the dentist this morning, had a pressing issue and decided it was more important to brave the potential dangers of the dentist’s office than to brave the potential dangers of not getting my teeth taken care of.
The technician said she had to ask me a bunch of questions before the dentist could look in my mouth. Have you had a cough? No. Have you had a fever? No. Any flu like symptoms? No—I finally said, “I’ve been nowhere for the past 10 weeks. Housebound.”
I’m not a person who’s comfortable being still. All of my mechanisms for survival depend on moving forward. Low to the ground, always spreading out, on alert, onto the next and the next. These shows have been great for having a place to put my energy. I don’t think people should feel they have to accomplish anything right now but for me, and maybe others like me, to do nothing would lead to insanity.
I admire people whose homes are sparsely furnished, the walls clear except for one perfect object or image. Streamlined rooms, with beautiful, simple pieces. Our rooms are filled with objects, color, images, things—not cluttered but full.
I imagine people in those clean spaces as having the ability to be still—like people in Edward Hopper’s paintings but not as sad. Perhaps that’s part of my issue with stillness, the potential for sadness. If I stop moving, will I be inundated with all the things undone, unsaid, never were, never to be?
Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite writers—his most well known novel is Angle of Repose. The title comes from physics—it describes the degree at which an object placed on an incline will remain stationary. Like the point at which a rock will remain stopped on the side of a mountain, for example. Repose is the more sophisticated cousin to stillness, alluding to parlors with women in white dresses laying about reading, summer sunlight pouring in through gauzy curtains at tall windows. It’s a slippery slope from repose to ennui.
I have attempted a meditation practice for many years. I end up using guided meditations because the silence is impossible for me to bear. There are things that we try and try that lead to breakthroughs, and there are things that, no matter how much we try, will never change. I’m not sure but for me, silent meditation might be one of the former. One of the reasons I turn to art and performance, I am forced to stop, to take it in.
A few weeks ago an acquaintance of mine returned from India where she had gone to study Vedic Meditation. She wrote a post about it on facebook. Flush with the experience she was now trained to give these lessons to others. “Message me if you’re interested in learning more.”
I messaged her. We made a time to speak. I was looking forward to connecting.
She’s a wonderful person, an artist whose work we’ve shown at The Secret City. But as I said, I don’t know her well.
These past two months, my days have taken on a structure I like. I have begun implementing some new boundaries to take better care of myself. One of them is to limit phone calls to one per day, if possible. Her call was the call for that day.
The appointed time arrived, no call.
10 minutes after, a text saying she was on another call, she’d call shortly.
25 minutes later—a text saying, I’m so sorry, I need a few more minutes.
I wrote back, “It’s no problem, let’s reschedule, I’ve got stuff I have to get to.”
She texted with apologies, asking if we could reschedule. She followed up again. I’ve been unable to reply. Something fragile had been broken. Stillness makes us vulnerable, The skeleton teeters, bones gently knocking against each other, like a bamboo windchime.
Stillness is not simple—there is momentary stillness; external stillness and internal. We say our heart stood still when we see something beautiful, or the person we decide we’re going to marry some day. We’re so overcome by emotion that the heart stops beating. Stillness isn’t empty—but when we stop moving. there is so much to notice right now, look, listen, take it in. This global shutdown.
The best gift is something you’ve really wanted but haven’t been able to give yourself. Like this gift of stillness: everyday I unwrap it and peer inside, and even if I can’t use it yet, I dream of the day I’ll be able to put it on.
I saw a friend yesterday from the safety of our respective cars, and when I asked her how she was doing, said she’d been making stupid choices. I was intrigued, I love hearing about other people’s stupid choices. It puts one’s failures into perspective, “well, at least I’m not that stupid.”
“Yeah,” she continued. “I gave Amazon my social security number. But of course, it wasn’t Amazon.”
This seemed mild. When I think of my stupid choices, well, let’s just say the stakes have been much higher.
“Oh,” I said, “I thought you meant really stupid, like you hooked up with a stranger, had sex with no masks.”
Which must be the new definition of unprotected sex.
“Yeah, I could have done that.” she said, looking off, almost like she was sad that she hadn’t thought of it.
“No,” she said, “just the social security number.”
She had spent the entire day on the phone, cancelling things and changing cards on her accounts.
“Ha,” she laughed, “Imagine all the kids born nine months from now, they’ll all be the result of hook ups, cuz no one would plan to have a baby during this.”
I got thinking about kids who were slightly older. Toddlers I guess you call them. Imagine all you know is that you have to stay indoors, avoid other humans whenever possible. When you do go out Mommy or Daddy or Grandpa or Aunt Judy or anyone else who might care for you puts on a mask and puts your mask on, too. Ok, now let’s jump to whenever this thing gets settled, meaning there’s a vaccine and we all know it’s ok to come out and not be suited up—that toddler, who’s only ever known this present we’re living in, they’re gonna freak out! Where’s my mask! Are we creating the most neurotic generation of children ever? How do you teach a child context?
I know there are parents who come to the daily shows—some of you have young kids, some of your kids are older. But what the hell? You finally get the kid into school and you can sort of breathe, finally, ok, we made it to 4 or 5, whatever, there’s preschool, maybe there’s daycare, you think: I can do other things or get back to things I did before the kids but now, here they come! They kids are back!
I can’t imagine.
For some families it must be sort of nice. To have the kids back, under one roof, like a long holiday break. And, they can’t really run off after dinner to go hang at Chad’s place or go the movies with Janelle because everyone is a potential assassin. For other families and for lots of kids, I’m sure it’s pure hell. That feeling of being trapped at home.
Are kids angry—they already had a ton of nasty stuff they were going to have to deal with: environmental crisis, late stage capitalism, the rise of authoritarianism, our divided country, but a pandemic?
Do we hand things off to our children? I guess so, but I don’t remember this being defined in any way, I just sort of slid from baby to toddler, kid to teenager, young adult and then, bam, tossed into the sea of humanity. And I’m lucky; what if you live you’re forced into child labor or some other horrible existence?
I long for things to be specified—this is this and that is that. You’re a child but now, with this honored tradition, we’re going to mark your transition into teenager. Some cultures do this—Jews have their mitzvahs, Latin Americans have the Quincinera, And native American tribes had ways of transitioning the newer humans from infancy to adulthood.
I saw a show once, a tribe in Africa holds a ritual whereby a boy is inducted into manhood. The boy, looking to be about 12, 13, stood in a clearing, his father stood at the edge of the clearing, some 15 or 20 feet apart, perpendicular to each other. The father held a long narrow spear. The boy stood very still with his mouth opened as wide as it could be. The men of the tribe played drums and sang—the sounds built to a crescendo. And then, the father threw the spear across the clearing and it pierced the boy’s cheek and went through his face. He stood with the spear through his face. The men of the tribe cheered and danced around the boy. Welcome to manhood!
Imagine the trust the child must have had, and the confidence required of the father?
We have different notions of what makes a good child. Does terror help children? I don’t mean abuse, but does exposing children to the fears of the world help?
Do you say to a young child right now, it’s all going to be ok, we’ll get back to those things you used to know as your life in just a little while, while moving the goalposts every couple of weeks as necessary? Or do you say, “this is a very strange time in the history of human civilization, we’ve never ever had to deal with this before, and neither I nor anyone else has any idea what’s going to happen.”
I’m not a parent, all I have are opinions, and I bet parents just love when people who aren’t parents have ideas about how they should be raising their kids. My perspective is that of a former child—sometimes I can remember how it used to feel. The constant newness, everyday fear and excitement. The desire to name things: what is that? And why is this thing this way? Or who decided this would go like that?
Facing this moment, we have the same amount of information the kids have. We may have more opinions but we’re all untried, longing for answers—even when there weren’t any.
Aren’t people the worst? They cut you off in traffic, take the parking spot you were waiting for, say mean things to you from a passing car. People ruin everything, destroyers of all things good and beautiful.
Aren’t people the best? They help strangers, and support causes, provide comfort. People invent solutions and work for equality. They make beautiful things with their bodies and words. Music comes from people.
In the 70s, there was a lot of talk about overpopulation We’re at 3 billion people! We’ve got to do something!. There were even commercials about population control. Now, at 7 billion people, no one talks about overpopulation, we just keep coming.
I believe there should be fewer people on the planet. And over the years, I’ve imagined ways that the population could be reduced. Poison the water supply, mandatory vasectomies, or just do it by lottery. Announce it on TV every Saturday night. “Come on down to deathtown!”
But what if you’re one of the people who gets picked to die? When they show up at your door and grab you by the arm, you resist, “Wait, wait, I was one of the guys who dreamed this thing up, you can’t kill me!”
We’re all vulnerable. I guarantee you: someone, somewhere thinks you’re one that should go first.
This virus brings out the best and worst in us. I just read about this nurse who came out of retirement, left her family and flew to New York to help out in one of the hospitals. All on her own dime.
But did you see the footage from that restaurant in Colorado on Sunday? The owner took to social media the day before and said, “I don’t care what the governor says, we’re open! Come on by, bring your mommas…” something like that. The place was packed for Mother’s Day brunch, not a mask in sight, no one keeping their distance.
The me who wants to be compassionate, he has been tried by this. When you start hoping that some of these people catch this disease so that they will take it seriously. When you start thinking: You don’t think that what’s been happening in New York City really happened? Or that it couldn’t happen to you, well I wish you’d get it and a bunch of your family members would get it and people around you would start dying and then, you’d see. But would they? And is that really what I want to wish for people, suffering? But, but, but, why won’t people listen? It’s so upsetting.
It’s like when you were a kid and you saw someone do something bad and you ran to tell someone. They said, “ok, just calm down and tell me what happened,” and through your sobs, you managed to get your words out and they said, “Are you sure that’s what happened, really?”
And your little kid heart just broke.
We’re all children, just older. We long to be believed. But if everyone longs for that, even the people we disagree with, then aren’t we the same in some very fundamental way?
When I want to love people, I think of people who’ve been kind to me. When I was thirteen, I had a medical condition and spent a month at UCLA hospital. It was a difficult time, missing the beginning of freshman year and freaked out about my body. One Saturday afternoon, one of the nurses checked me out of the hospital and took me to the movies, bought me popcorn and a soda. It was The Main Event, starring Barbra Streisand. I felt so special, so seen.
I think of the movies, sitting in the dark, large faces sparkling on the screen. I think of painters making images out of pigment and hair. I think of the books of James Baldwin. Dancers, like Cyd Charisse, who always makes me think of Gene Kelly. Who always reminds me of Fred Astaire who brings me to Ginger Rogers and the movie Stage Door, about actresses in New York City, all dreaming of a life on the stage. Broadway! One of people’s greatest inventions. They just announced that it would remain dark until at least Labor Day, a holiday that celebrates workers—early mornings in LA I used to see all of these women of color getting on buses to ride to the rich neighborhoods where they would clean and cook, take care of other people’s children. I think of the people who lived on this land before the Europeans arrived.
I think of Jewish refugees playing checkers in the park, the ones who managed to escape the tyranny of terrible people.
I focus on the good people.
It seems to me that there’s a perpetual war between those I consider to be the good people and those I consider bad. But that’s just my perception. I’m still that little kid wanting someone to believe that someone over there did something wrong. Though I like to consider myself a pacifist, it occurs to me that just the way I see people has a kind of violence in it.
Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” But we’re more than that. It’s not that people are heaven, not the people I like, anyway. They’re earthy, flawed, playful and charming. Like all of you here. You’re what I live for.