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.
The best book-to-movie adaptations are those which capture the essence of the original work but don’t attempt to repeat it. They translate and, if possible, enhance the original.
Stephen King is said to have hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Kubrick said that when he first read the book, he saw how to make it work as a movie, and in his screenplay, he made significant changes, adding some things, cutting others. The book is great, the movie is great but they’re different.
There’s an entire set of ad-words that all swim in the sea of change. Adhere—to stick to. Not really changing, just tacking yourself to another object or idea. There’s a lack of elegance in adhering. The word adjusting contains its own reluctance. Just a bit of change. I’ll only change this much. It’s a small shift.
But, adapting is about fitting something into, like water being poured into a glass, it takes the shape of the glass.
For many people, we discover our creativity by adapting to either difficult circumstances or to a way of life that didn’t suit us or into which we didn’t fit. Like weeds coming up through the concrete, coming up in isolation, becoming strong, or strong enough, to thrive in an unlikely setting.
It’s almost as if I believe that well-adjusted people can’t be artists—which I don’t believe. Not at this moment, at least. Ask me in an hour and I might. When I believe it one way, I can see how the other way is the better way to believe, and vice versa. When I was a kid, I used to love the see-saw. When the see-saw was well balanced, it was magical. The up and down, the exchange of weight. But if little Johnny on the opposite end decided to jump off, you’d be slammed down into the ground, your butt smashed, falling off the side into the dirt. See-saws were dangerous, too. Probably why you don’t find them much in public parks anymore. Cause for lawsuits.
I’ve been an amateur gardener for much of my life. My mom’s a great gardener, as was her mother. Mom grows the most beautiful roses in the brutal heat of the Mojave desert. At the last apartment where I lived in Silverlake, before moving to New York, I had a patio in front of my door and I created a container garden and planted seeds an flower in the beds. In the time I lived there, the place bloomed and flourished.
The first spring we lived here, in early May, as soon as it got warm, I made a container garden out front. I gathered clay pots and tubs made of tin and I planted them with lobelia and pansies, portulaca and daisies. I had a string of bells I hung an a few pieces of pottery, some shells. Really cute. I took lots of pictures in anticipation of beautiful before and after shots.
I’ve never lived in a forest before. I’m from the desert. I’m used to sunshine, lots of it. By the end of May the trees started to get full. My little garden was still holding on. By the end of June, when the forest begins to find lushness, the pansies died, the daises began to wilt. July marked the beginning of the end and by August I had removed all of the containers.
Shade. It never occurred to me—but for most of the day during summer, the front of the cottage is in the shade.
Since March 12th, when we started these daily shows they’ve given me a place to put my focus—they also allow me to gauge the changes we’ve been through since this whole thing started. After two months of this, it’s not the sudden, shocking, oh my god, what am I going to do? Now it’s, oh my god, what am I going to do? Adhere, adjust or adapt.
We are all being adapted, from page to screen. Details will change, Whole chapters will be cut. A story that was set in the city, might change to the country. People will come and go. In old soap operas, when a beloved character was re-cast, just as they made their first entrance a voice over would announce, “The role of so and so will now be played by…” and they’d name the new actor.
No! Cry out from your sofa. What happened?! Bring back what’s her name, I liked the way it was before.
If you’re going to continue to watch the show, you’re going to have to get used to this new performer. Or, I don’t know, change the channel, or turn off the TV altogether. Go outside, I was going to say plant a garden. But that sounds sappy.
What I would really counsel you to do, before anything else, is watch the sun, know what kind of light you’re dealing with, wait for the trees to come in. Then grow something you’ve never grown before.
I woke up yesterday morning from a dream that was so filled with emotion—you know how that is? You’re deeply immersed in dream reality and waking up the dream doesn’t slam shut, it slowly becomes waking, and the feeling of the dream carries over from sleep into consciousness.
I began to speak the dream to Bobby, groggily. Sometimes I will do this the dream is somewhat whole when I wake, to sort of pin it down with language.
It can be a burden to have someone tell you their dreams but for some of us, we’re lucky to have someone to listen and someone to share theirs, too.
Bobby got up to start this day and I began to text my friend who had starred in that morning’s dream:
“I was lying on a city beach, reading. A bridge overhead made it shady.
I was lying on my side, several small groups of friends of families were nearby. I knew you were staying somewhere nearby, too, and I was expecting to see you at any minute, we had planned to hang out. The feeling on the beach was post-warlike but old timey—like you’d imagine Italians going to the beach at the end of WW2, when the fighting may have ended and people could come out to the beach, but the cities were ravaged, silenced. It wasn’t the typical beach day mood, but one of shock, as if everyone was exhaling after holding their breath for a long time. Everyone was sort of stunned, sitting there in the aftermath of something that, if they were lucky to have survived, they had all lived through and shared. They sat staring out at the sea or speaking quietly, in fragments.
You stepped out of the stone base of the bridge, right near to where I was lying. We made eye contact but I understood that you had other people you had to tend to before we could hang out. You may have been living under the bridge, was it an Inn you were running? Many of these people knew you and you walked among them like a beloved proprietress.
You squatted nearby to talk to a young boy sitting with his father on the shaded beach. I understood that you would join me once you were finished with them.
“I’m going to be leaving.”
You spoke gently to the boy.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“I don’t know yet, but we’ve packed up the house and we’re getting ready.” I knew that you knew I could hear you, that, like the boy, I was hearing this news for the first time. And that your telling the boy was also a way for you to tell me something that would be hard to tell me directly.
I was still on my side, unable to read now because my eyes had filled with tears. ‘Right,’ I thought. ‘It makes sense that she would move.’
After a couple of minutes you came over, grabbed a folding chair and placed it near me. I rolled into my back and looked at you, sitting backwards on the chair, looking at me. You were so vividly you, in the pair of pale jeans I’ve seen you wear and a pink long sleeve T-shirt. Your long blond hair was loose. You sighed, with a slight chuckle. I smiled but was crying still.
“So you’re going.” I said.
“Do you know where?”
“Are you going to stay in Los Angeles?” As if you might move to another part of the city.
“No, Berlin maybe, London.” I thought of you in those other cities; you could live anywhere, really, and make it work. You’d do your job remotely and come back to LA when and if you needed to.
“When are you going to leave?”
It was a bright sunny day, but the shady air beneath the bridge was cool. I heard the sound of the waves crashing nearby then realized, no, it was the sound of cars driving overhead. It had been silent earlier when I got there so this sound was new, the traffic was new.
I knew then that a great exodus was coming, everyone would be leaving, going other places. And that I may never be back to this place in my lifetime, that I may never see you again. I lay there feeling such tenderness and love for you, for all of the times we’ve been together and for what a good friend you’ve been to me.’
It’s the longest text I’ve ever written. I sent it.
I lay there crying—there was sadness, yes, but it wasn’t simply that. It was a fullness of feeling for the life I have lived-- places, and people, times. Did I love them enough? And, how can I love this strange new life more fully? It’s my belief that things will no longer be the same, there are people we may not see again, places we may never go. Things we love to do that we just might not be able to do.
I’ve always had large emotions, for me, part of the work of this moment is to experience them fully. Follow them.
I imagine myself getting up off that beach in my dream and walking into the ocean, there’s a sea dragon, which lives off the coast. He knows me. When I was young I feared him, called him a monster. We’re close now.
I swim out to him, take hold of one of the fins on his back and climb on. He begins to move, diving down to the depths of the sea and then back up, breaking the water, up into the sunlight. We travel together, my emotion dragon and me, he takes me around the world, shows me things. Hold on, I tell myself, just keep holding on, take it all in, it doesn’t matter if you remember it all, feel it as it’s happening. You’re alive.
For the past two months, during self-quarantine and sheltering in place, if you listen closely you’ll have heard, beneath the relentless screaming of the news, under the raging culture wars there’s a low hum. Shhe listen: it’s the sound of millions of women taking off their bras—breasts loose, tits free, or as they say in Latin, tatas liberatus. I made that last one up.
Do men know what a big deal it is to negotiate life with a set of boobs? Straight men seem to be focused on not staring at them when they’re at the bank or ordering fast food or paying for gas. Or just staring, they say they can’t help it. They hear the song of the boob, calling to them. I’m gay so I’m just guessing, my relationship to boobs is different.
In my late twenties I had a regular drag show at a funky little theater in Highland Park, on the eastside of LA. Being a big guy, I wanted big boobs. At first, I was from the athletic sock school of stuffing—roll em up and stuff em in, one sock per cup. It was several years before I learned the birdseed technique. Mark Brey taught me that. But he was tall and slender—willowy, you might say—and his boobs could be small and high on his chest. That wouldn’t be right for the woman I wanted to be when I dressed up.
I was talking to a friend who recently got her breasts reduced. “How do you feel,” I asked.
“Uh, fantastic. Imagine the part of your body you hate the most, the thing that’s caused you pain, discomfort and difficult feelings for most of your life—and then one day, it’s just gone, I mean, they’re not gone, I still have big boobs, but the problem is gone.”
She had worn a compression bra most of her life. To compress a part of the body sounds—what? Cruel? Sad? It made me think of Judy Garland and how they had to bind her breasts for Wizard of Oz because she was starting to develop. Like an old photograph in a darkroom, a woman’s body emerging in the red light.
The bra was invented as a tool of liberation—prior to that, woman seeking support wore corsets. Talk about compression. I wore a corset in a production of The Importance of Being Ernest, I played Lady Bracknell and it gave me a different carriage. I held myself high, taught myself to take shorter breaths because I was tied so tightly into my costume. Sitting became a completely different deal, the leg muscles required to hold the torso just right. The moment my ass hit the setee was one of such relief. I carried a parasol to steady myself to avoid being jabbed in the flesh by the boning. Or as it came to be called, ribbing, another word for joke, which is fitting because I remember thinking, are you serious, women used to have to wear these, like, all the time?
After curtain call I would walk stiffly back the dressing room where the dresser would untie the laces at the back and my big flabby body would expel. “Aaahhhhhh.”
Corsets were invented in France in the 1500s, in response to a decree by the Queen, Catherine de Medici. She decided there would be no thick waists in her court--excuse me? To this contemporary reader, it sounds like she didn’t want any thick bitches up in her castle.
The word corset comes from the French corps, for body—then diminished with et at the end. So: little body. That’s what they were going for. Some corsets were made of iron. It’s no wonder the issues woman have faced in liberating their bodies.
Corsets were controversial for centuries—tightlacing led to deformed bodies, sickness, death. In Victorian times, there was backlash against corsets because they were said to sexualize the female form. Well, yeah.
In 1917, corsets were outlawed in the US. By that time, they were made with metal instead of whalebone and, because of World War 1, there was a metal shortage.
Here’s a short list of nicknames for bra:
-Over the shoulder bolder holder.
Why are bras funny? Are they? Are breasts funny? Sometimes. I can remember so many girls I’ve known, woman, joking about their breasts, lovingly, intimately. But I’m sure for some they represent oppression—maybe a symbol of the patriarchy.
I was trying to think of the male equivalent of the bra, I guess it would be a necktie. But it’s not the same. I mean, yes, I’ve exhaled when taking off a tie and loosening my collar. But the tie doesn’t restrict a secondary sex characteristic—it ties around the neck, and everyone has a neck.
What business do I have writing about bras? They’re not really my domain—but I wanted to honor those of you who have such a personal relationship to them. Whose breasts rely on them or don’t. Who own several or none. Who haven’t worn them in years or have decided during all of this to never wear one again.
There are so many ways that our lives are falling apart. So many of our societal structures are crumbling.
I’ve always loved the concept of Gaia, the earth as a woman, mother of all life—and isn’t it almost as if, at the end of a long, long day, a day which has lasted millennia, she’s taken off her bra? The breasts of the world have been freed, the earth is breathing deep, her mountains jiggle. Hear her sigh.
Hi, I’m Chris Wells and I’d like to share something with you. It’s a powerful new way of living. Like many new ideas, it may upset you at first. I guess you’d call it radical. And, let me say, before I go any further, I’m not being paid for this. The news I’m going to share with you can’t be bought, but the information is invaluable.
For the next several minutes, I’m going to ask you to just open your mind and heart, just listen. If there’s time at the end, I’ll take your questions.
Alright, let me get make sure my powerpoint and my clicker are working—I’m so bad at tech—check check. Ok. Great.
Slide one: The Religion of No, a society of people whose practice consists of saying NO.
I know what you’re thinking. When I was first exposed to these ancient teachings I thought, wait, religion? Isn’t that a bit much, off-putting even? Let me assure you, it’s for good reason, if you’re called to this work, and I hope you will be, it’s a practice that asks to be taken seriously. The effects of your dedication will be life changing.
Slide two: How did it begin?
Founded in 1995 in LA by Bridget Carpenter and Chris Wells, self-employed artists who were in desperate need of tools for managing their time and ways to stop doing things that they either didn’t want to do, couldn’t afford to do or they used to do but didn’t want to do any more, While talking on the phone one day, they stumbled upon the ancient power in the word NO. They discovered that it wasn’t just word; NO was a portal to a land they had only dreamed of before. The land of the life they wanted to be living. Since that day, their hope is that they can help others find this place in themselves.
Next slide: How Does it Work?
As you can see from the diagram, early instruction focuses on creating first the N sound, placing the tongue at the front of the palate, adding that nasal sound, followed by the rounding of the lips to create the O. N, oh. N, oh.
What follows are many awkward attempts. These early sessions are marked by embarassment but laughter, too. The elders are patient knowing that early NOs are rarely elegant.
Next slide: Implementing the NO. Role-play is crucial. The elder poses a series of questions drawn from the initiate’s life:
Hi, I see you do this thing for a living. But, would you do this for me, for free? The beginner then attempts to make their first NO sounds.
The feeling at the root of a real, solid NO, is rarely ever there at the start. Or if it is, the initiate has been so distanced from their own feelings and their own needs—hell, they might not even think they have any needs--that they can’t feel it. Thus beginners must approach their practice with trust, emulate experienced NO practitioners, and work from the outside in.
Following the initial instruction, newcomers are given at-home exercises—saying no in front of the mirror. Saying no to your pet. There are handy tips like post it notes with NO written in them, placed strategically throughout the house. When I first started practicing the Religion of No, I taped a post it with a big, fat NO written on it, to my phone—this was back when I still had a land line. Everytime that phone rang my entire body would tingle with fear, what will I be asked to say yes to today? But one day, with the support of the Religion of No, I was able to pick up the phone, and like a baby bird in its nest, my first little NO peeped out, so softly that the person on the other end couldn’t hear me. To my embarrassment, I had to repeat it but I did, just a little bit louder. No, I said, still slightly shaky but there it was, rather well placed, too, I might add. Beginner’s luck, I’m sure. But, I was on my way.
It’s important to know, this is not something you learn once and then expect your life to unfold with no problems. You’ll forget why you started saying no, you’ll be riding high, wow, look at me, aren’t I awesome? Then before you know it you’re having meetings with people you don’t really need to meet, taking gigs you wish you had turned down, engaging in behaviors and relationships that you know, deep down, aren’t good for you. Even after all these years, I still have moments when the phone, now it’s an Iphone, will buzz and I’ll think, oh, god, whatever it is, I can’t handle it. I don’t what to say. I take a deep breath and remember the sacred prayer of my teachers, No is a complete sentence.
The Religion of No is there for you, whenever you need it. Saying, Come back to the NO.
With our current crisis, these teachings are needed more than ever. I’ve created some easily accessible online tutorials including such topics as:
How to say no to a virus
Nos for germaphobes
Saying no to baked goods
And, How saying no can create boundaries for health and sanity as the country re-opens prematurely from a global pandemic for which there is no vaccine.
You can also download this handy wallet card, Saying no to stupid people.
Join the Religion of NO, celebrate your boundaries, state your needs, exercise your right to not do things that don’t serve you.