Sunday, May 13, 2007

Not a Shallow Ebb, But a Deep Flow

Wonderfully, the weather is nice enough this Sunday afternoon to be writing this on my laptop outside on the patio by the pool. While I have often sat out here to read, I’ve never written here before. I feel like I ought to have brought out with me some kind of an alcoholic beverage in one of the plastic, “pool-side” drink glasses I saved from my Carnival cruise of a couple of summers ago, which I do when I read, but I already feel a little “looped” from having gone out to a Sunday brunch and had my fill of champagne. Okay, so for this afternoon, it’s only a large cup of coffee, served in a cool fat-bottomed Starbucks coffee mug that one of my favorite parents at the school gave me as a “thank you for what you do” gift last year. This particular mug with a rubberized bottom is designed, I am sure, for use on a boat; it won’t slip and slide with the waves or tip over (and that’s how ultimately I would like to use it). So, it suitably adds to the outdoor, “waterside” theme.

After a week of hard work yet with a feeling of much accomplishment, I had been looking forward to a quiet weekend of solitude. However, it didn’t exactly work out that way, although these days (these past several years), I feel that I am much more “in solitude” even among crowds than my normally-extroverted self has ever been before. I have been moving much, much more into the internal realm of my self than I have been outward in my focus, and wonder if that has more to do with my advancing age than anything else. No, I think that must be less due to a particular “number” than it has to do with my perception that my time is running out and I’m somewhat dismayed at my focus having turned more toward sentiment for the past and less toward excitement about the future. I view that as a bad thing. Because, after all, if my health holds out, I actually could have more productive years ahead of me than I have already had in the whole of my adult life. So, I’ve got to work on that.

Despite wanting solitude at home this weekend, I saw that I had the third and final play of the “Reprise” season to go to Friday night, and I had been invited to somebody’s birthday party Saturday.

I remembered how on the day of the previous play of the “Reprise” season there had been that episode of the crane falling down across the 405 freeway just one side of the 101 interchange, which fouled up traffic all over the westside for four or five hours after that. The traffic from the school to UCLA (the Reprise plays play at the Freud Theater at UCLA) was so heavy that even with me taking back roads, I didn’t get down there soon enough to have dinner beforehand. This time, even with no traffic obstacles, I decided to head to UCLA right away and have dinner there on campus.

This time, I was armed with a listing, operating hours, and campus maps of all the places one can eat on the UCLA campus. None of them are really “restaurants” as such, but are more like food courts at a shopping mall. I selected a Mexican one at the North Campus Student Union and sat outside on the patio to eat. Being around 6:00 on a Friday night, I was the only person outside there eating. A group of skateboarders arrived nearby and began to practice their tricks. As usual, I was amazed at their grace and skill. I feel that skateboarding doesn’t have the respect it deserves, perhaps because it seems to mostly be practiced by rebellious, disaffected youth, maybe “losers” in some distorted high school catalogue of status that puts “real jocks” at the top and “skaters” somewhere down in the lower reaches. But I’d rather watch them (or be able to do what they can do) any day than, say, execute a perfect slam dunk or a touchdown.

The skateboarders kept it up until one of them seemed to get hurt a little too much (they are able to take quite a bit of punishment, but ultimately there IS a limit)...an older adult official of some sort came by either to help the hurt boy or else to police the area, I couldn’t tell which, but immediately after, they all disappeared and I was left with a feeling of how chilly it had turned outside.

I hurried up with the meal and then went on a long walk around the campus. There was some sort of graduation going on (as I observed from afar as an outsider), maybe the real “official” UCLA graduation, but somehow it didn’t quite look like it (gosh, are we at graduation time already?). I imagined the “real” UCLA graduation being a huge deal like the Berkeley ceremonies that fill up the football stadium. This one involved thousands of temporary chairs set up on the flat land of the campus proper, pretty enough, but not much more ceremonial than a high school graduation. However, the only frame of reference I had was when I served as an extra on a Beverly Hills 90210 episode which was a college graduation, filmed on the Occidental College campus in Eagle Rock. This ceremony at UCLA looked much like that one, so maybe the Berkeley ceremonies are unusual as far as college graduations go.

Still, despite this somewhat “inferior-looking” graduation ceremony, I felt I’d rather send a child of mine to UCLA than Berkeley. While I LOVED Berkeley when I was a student there at the tail end of the sixties, now that I am middle-aged, I view the atmosphere at present-day Berkeley with alarm. I can now sympathize with my parents who regularly phoned me with fright in their voices--of course, that was after seeing on TV police, the National Guard, and barbed wire all over the Berkeley campus. Nowadays Berkeley doesn’t seem to host civil unrest, just crime, homelessness, and heavy drug dealing. Not so with UCLA, though, which is very pretty, respectable, and filled with students more interested in making money than instituting socialism.

The play I had come to see was not one of the more popular, well-known Broadway musicals...in fact, I had never heard of it...but I do not bill myself as an expert on Broadway musicals. It was No Strings, notable for only three reasons: 1. It was the first musical written by Richard Rodgers after the death of his writing partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and so while some of the music was lush and beautiful, the lyrics weren’t much to write home about. 2. The musical featured for the first time an “interracial” love affair among the lead characters on the musical stage (South Pacific had an interracial love affair between a pair of minor characters). 3. There was one memorable song coming from this musical, “The Sweetest Sounds,” but all of the other songs were forgettable.

Interestingly to me, seeing this musical came right on the heels of a conversation I was having with my usual lunch-time eating partner earlier this week. She was lamenting that “we”, meaning “her and her fellow Democrats”, had no winnable upcoming presidential candidate. “It’s really only Obama or Hillary,” she said, “and I just don’t think the country is ready to have either a black or a female president.”

“Well,” I said, “Obama is only half-black. And it is tempting to say that Hillary is only half-female.”

“With Obama, half black is still black, I’m afraid” she said.

“For people to whom being black matters, I guess even 1/16th black is still ‘black’,” I agreed. Which led to us discussing what was “really” black, and what about it even matters. Is “black” a matter of racial genes (of a certain proportion), or is it really cultural, or economic, or a perception of a social-historical background (“once upon a time, we were slaves”)? Somewhere along the line, it becomes a ridiculous distinction. What about a person who has African genes but whose father was a doctor and whose mother was a psychologist and they had a home in an upper middle class neighborhood and all the kids graduated cum laude from Ivy League colleges? How much do they identify with or relate to what has traditionally been thought of as “black”? And contrast educated, conservative people like that but who nevertheless have black skin, with lower class white kids who go around wearing hoodies listening to hip hop and making gangland signs with their fingers every time somebody takes a picture of them? What if those wanna-be-gangsta white kids have installed “grillz” on their teeth? Just what really IS black or white, anymore, or who’s this or that?

Seeing this play featuring an “interracial” love affair carried on those same questions for me. The love affair in No Strings took place in Paris between a couple of American expatriates. The woman was a black woman who escaped Harlem and ended up in Paris as Vogue’s top and most celebrated fashion model. The actress playing her looked like Audrey Hepburn with a cocoa suntan. That vaguely dark tint to her skin and her ancient memories of life in Harlem were really the only “black” things about her. Otherwise, she had a long, lean, possibly over-skinny body, straight, elegantly-coiffured hair, Caucasian features (whether through genes or plastic surgery, I do not know), and spoke elegant, educated English and French. And in Paris she suffered no apparent prejudice against her, but was taken strictly on the face of her beauty, talent, and abilities. She was also more successful and more sure of herself than the male partner in this love affair, a white man who had escaped from the rock-bound cost of Maine to become a writer in Paris. He had long ago written a novel that had won a Pulitzer prize, but had since then lived off of his fading fame, making do as a party-boy among the rich who sought to elevate their cultural standing by consorting with “artists”, but he had failed to write a word since.

It was obvious to me that the man would be attracted to the woman, everybody else was, too, and it would have been ridiculous for the issue of “race” to be a deterrent for him (which it wasn’t). That the woman would be attracted to this man was a little less reasonable, particularly since he was an American and she (apparently) expected the fact of his nationality to stir up the racial issue that she had successfully escaped from. However, she was intrigued by the fact of his previous writing success and wondered at his present failures. No sign of his writing talent had been demonstrated in the script and had only been mentioned as a given, so it was up to the audience to accept on faith that there was something valuable in this man that was worth the woman’s while to get him back into writing again, even though he now felt that that portion of himself was dead and buried.

So for me the value of the story was the aspect of resurrecting the man’s writing talent and it took his love for the fashion model to do it, even though, ultimately, the fact of their race ended up being a wedge that was going to temporarily pry them apart, as it was detemined that the only way he was going to successfully write again was to return to the solitary rock-bound coast of Maine (away from all the social distractions of France), where the fashion model could not follow because she would not be accepted in American society (so the racism was America’s, not the writer’s). But the woman was the only person who was “real” in his life, and in order for him to be with her, in reality or in his heart, he needed to be “real” himself, too, and for him “reality” was really writing, not partying among the rich. Presumably once he got his writing back, he would be strong enough to return to France and back into the arms of the fashion model he loved.

I know from personal experience that total isolation is way over-rated when it comes to writing. Everybody thinks that they need that (and certainly they do in small, temporary doses), but it is only among people and adventure that you get any worthwhile material for writing. Also, if you really are a writer (instead of somebody wearing that mantle as a persona) people stimulate you to keep on going, rather than distract you from the task. Going off to live alone in the mountains or wherever seems to lay an even heavier blanket of writer’s block over onto you, whereas if you sat and wrote in a noisy pub or sidewalk cafe, you’d find yourself writing reams. To use Ernest Hemingway as just one example, he got so much writing done in Paris or Pamploma, Key West or Cuba, interspersing his writing day with bullfights or deep sea fishing, but suffered overwhelming writer’s block in Idaho where he died of a (some say) self-afficted gunshot wound.

By my not being familiar with No Strings, I was surprised to see that the song “The Sweetest Sounds” was from this play. That song had been used at the beginning of the Disney-produced Cinderella movie of the week (which they called Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella) that I had been a heavily-used extra in. It was so glorious to be involved in the filming of that song (and the whole movie, actually) while first Cinderella, and then the Prince, sang their verses in separate sections of the village while out among the people (and I can be seen about a dozen times throughout that whole song). Being in the movie was one of the highlights of my filming work in L.A.

This particular Cinderella was the famous “interracial” Cinderella, which Whitney Houston produced, originally planning on casting herself as Cinderella (and I wonder if at that time her idea was to make it a strictly “black” Cinderella, similar to how The Wiz had been a “black” Wizard of Oz), but ultimately decided that she was too old to play that part, so cast the young black singer, Brandy, instead, while she, herself, became the Fairy Godmother. The play evolved into an interracial one, with an Asian Prince (Paolo Montalban), a white king (Victor Garber), a black queen (Whoopi Goldberg), white ugly stepmother and stepsister (Bernadette Peters and Veane Cox), a black second ugly stepsister (Natalie Deselle), and a whole village of mixed racial citizens and ball-guests, of which I was one of the whites.

In my view, when you think of “interracial”, performers like Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg stand in as more representative of blacks than does a cocoa-skinned Audrey Hepburn look-alike, and it makes me wonder if that same criticism applied to the use of Diahann Carroll (not black enough of a black woman?), who was the fashion model in this musical when it first played on Broadway. I would almost go so far as to say that Whitney Houston and the other producers of this version of Cinderella had been disappointed in the too heavily “whitened” No Strings as a satisfactory interracial love story, and figured the time had finally come to do it up right with this Cinderella, with music also written by Richard Rodgers, and extracted the one good song out of No Strings to apply to the musical line-up of this meatier interracial love affair musical.

Other than these issues of “only nominally a black/white issue” and there being only one good song, this Reprise production of No Strings was a passable production of some interest, although it was the least good play I have ever seen coming out of Reprise. Probably the most outstanding feature of it was that it was costumed by Bob Mackie and peopled by an ensemble of appropriate beautiful girls and boys for those costumes. How very French and “St. Tropez” it all was, with the women decorated in amazingly huge and broad hats and brightly-colored flowing body-revealing capes and harem pants and the like, with the guys with tight, form-fitting, several-sizes-too-small striped t-shirts and boxer-cut shorts tighter and smaller than Speedos all looking like they stepped right out Jean Cocteau sketches or the homoerotic photographs of Pierre et Gilles. Nothing says “surface” and “temporary” better than a perfect-bodied young person dressed in high fashion; it’s the ideal rendition of a velvet trap with steel-jaw teeth. No wonder the top Vogue model craved for the writer to resurrect his talent and create something immortal.

And I understand how I, still, can be allured by that trap. Only recently have I figured out what the evil of fashion marketing really is. And what it is, is the selling of something that except for a miniscule portion of society, is something you are not, and never will be, which explains the disdainful scowling expressions of all the models. You’d think they would sell better with friendly, welcoming smiles, but no, it is similar to how liquor is sold in print ads with monsters painted into the ice cubes that alcoholics see when they suffer from delerium tremens. (I used to work in advertising market testing, so I know the technology. Really look into some ice cubes resting inside of elegant crystal Old Fashioned glasses and tell me what you see.) It’s marketing by obsession, trapping you in the shadow world of your fears and failures. The scowling high fashion model is no less of a demon than that which tortures the alcoholic (or the novelist with writer’s block, for that matter), who say to you with their face that their only regret is that that they have to endure the yearning stares of the likes of you as they saunter disdainfully down the runway, telling you by their every step that, “rest assured, you will never look like me no matter how much you want to, but that will not stop you from spending as much money as you can trying to.” (A subset of that type is the MySpace youth whose only words in his blog are the requirements for “being added” as his “friend”, a friend you don't need and certainly don't want but you feel your own page is enhanced by having his picture on it.)

Never fear that the entire entertainment world suffers from that same complex except in cases where there really is true talent. Do you get eaten up and spit out, like a Brittany Spears or a River Phoenix, or a boy band, or some pretty girl group, or do you survive out the other side of it like a Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, or Sir Lawrence Olivier?

The birthday party I went to proved to be yet another subset of these issues, this time within the alternative art world as it operates in Los Angeles. (I had already experienced this for a year working at The Getty, which I described as a snake pit. The deal with the Getty was that Los Angeles always felt second fiddle to San Francisco when it came to culture. Now all of a sudden Los Angeles had the glorious appearance of the billion-dollar Getty Center, which really was more “building” than it was “museum”, more like a movie set with nothing but emptiness inside, and attractive to those people who had money but no culture and to whom the illusion seemed quite the thing and, again, like the alcoholic drunk on liquid “spirits” instead of finding true spirit, were stuck with one foot inside the gate and had gotten no further.)

This was celebrating the 70th birthday of an artist who had been an art teacher at our school, but had retired last year. I had always liked this particular teacher (he seemed to have an appreciation of the kids) and I felt that I understood his art somewhat, although as time went on, it became clear that from his point of view, things were much more about HIM than it was about anything else, including the children he was teaching. Well, we’ve all heard “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach”, that insult to teachers which pre-supposes that a certain “doing” is superior to “teaching,” as if teaching were something inferior. The thing is that at a school, the “doing” IS teaching, so where one CAN’T teach is when they think their own “doing” is superior. As I understand teaching more and more, I understand that teaching is a form of surrender of the teacher's ego needs to the needs of the students in a way similar to how parents must surrender some of their selfish desires in support of the needs of their children. It’s a passing of a torch in a grown-up, mature way in which the ego of the torch-passer works in service to support the ego of the torch-receiver. The spirit of this is the same as the spirit of Santa Claus, that force who has the power to MAKE magic is also the GIVER of magic. Children are the unabashed RECEIVERS of magic, free and clear without strings or obligation, and this goes on until the child has learned enough to make their own magic, and then they pass it along themselves, moving over from being receivers into being givers. To fail to do that is to remain immature.

Surely the artist has learned how to create magic and it therefore should NOT be felt as a lessening of their role to pass that magic onto receivers, but if the ego is still thinking of primarily wanting and needing to receive ITSELF, then that magic is only partially given, and partially withheld, which gift becomes stagnant and polluted, like instead of fresh milk flowing straight from the cow, is a milk that has sat around in a bucket in the sun too long until it is really no longer fit for anybody to drink and therefore will be “given” away. (From sour grapes to sour milk....)

I could see that this artist and retired teacher still had those ego needs, and one of the ways that was demonstrated was in how he received the birthday gifts that several party guests (including me) had proffered to him.

What can you give to a retired 70-year-old who by now must have everything? I, myself, did not want to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. I went to the party with another retired teacher who made a better attempt at it and was more successful at it than I was...she had asked the artist’s wife what he was into these days, and the answer was “golf, boxing, and fishing,” so she bought him two books, one was a biography of a boxer and the other was Chicken Soup for the Fisherman’s Soul. I didn’t want to copy her idea, but did briefly consider getting him the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance or else Michael Murphy’s Golf In the Kingdom, but as I didn’t think of him as being particularly spiritual, I felt those would fall on blind eyes. So instead I did what counts as almost nothing...bought him a bottle of wine. I thought back to the countless gallery receptions of his that I had gone to and how much wine had been served (which also was served at this party), and figured that would be an acceptable token.

But I guess not really, even though wine was mostly what people gave him, except for a few gag gifts or else things like fish-shaped keychains and other novelties. It was when he opened the bottle of wine that I had picked out for him (the selection of which had taken SOME thought), he finally said, “For a non-drinker, I sure have gotten a lot of alcohol.”

How many guests at that party had any idea that he was a “non-drinker”? Apparently not many, and certainly not me. Is that how you receive gifts, by explaining their unsuitability? If people didn’t know that he was a non-drinker, it was now a bit too late to advertise the fact.

After the dam had broken, he continued to stress his non-drinking status which each successive bottle of wine he received. “I don’t drink, but here is another one.” “I gave up alcohol in my twenties.” “I don’t like the taste of alcohol.” “I don’t like what alcohol does to me.”

Finally, in protest, one of the guests (whose gift of a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne had been similarly rejected) said, “Well YOU may not drink, but your GUESTS certainly do!”, but which really takes us right back up to what I wrote about his teaching--it wasn’t ABOUT his guests (or his students), it was about HIM. Which may go a long way toward explaining why people love the new art teacher we NOW have so much. A very common comment that I have heard frequently this year is, “Now, finally we have a lower school art teacher!” Okay, so now we may no longer have a “famous” artist on our teaching staff, but instead, what we have is a true art teacher, and NOW you should see the output from the students! Never before has our end-of-the-year “emerging artists” show been so beautiful and wondrous, and never before had it brought so much joy to the viewers (not to mention such a justified celebration of their teacher).

I’m still a long way from 70, but I nevertheless do have an eye forward to what my life is and what it should be, and what, if anything, might be left once I am gone. The important thing to understand and accept is that I WILL be gone, that’s a fact of life and death, and therefore my self ultimately will be insignificant and unimportant and all that matters is how I lived while I was here. What does remain is an ever-continual stream of life that flowed before I was here and will flow after I am gone. With that stream being much, much bigger and more powerful than I am, it ought to be relatively easy to surrender myself into its flow and be satisfied with at least not polluting it a bit with sour milk or sour grapes. I can’t hurt the infinite stream, but how much better I would feel knowing not that I couldn’t, but that I DIDN’T.

1 comment:

Bret said...

Yeah I know what you mean with the years to come. I have thought about that some too and I think I would like to go around the age my mom and dad did. Seeing what happens when you lose any of your freedom...it can be a very lonely and upsetting time.

Thanks for letting me know you posted here.

Bret