Posts Tagged ‘Lily Tomlin’

Stuff of Dreams

Monday, August 28th, 2017

233totality

totality diptych by Max Greenstreet

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare

There’s an old vaudeville routine in which a guy goes to a doctor, painfully lifts his arm above his head and says, “Doc, every time I do this, it hurts like crazy.” The doctor looks at the guy and says, “Don’t do that.”

I recently had a run of lousy nights of sleep. When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am not a happy camper the next day—an afternoon nap my only hope of regaining equipoise. While searching for reasons why I was sleeping poorly after a spate of nights when I slept like a well-exercised child with a clear conscience, I realized I’d been reading national news within a few hours of going to bed.

To which the vaudeville doctor said, “Don’t do that.”

So I stopped reading or viewing any news for a few days and thereafter limited my intake to a little news in the morning; and thereafter having a good night’s sleep became much less problematic.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

For most of the days of my life for the last forty-five years I’ve been writing a novel or play or screenplay or collection of stories. I write these longer works sequentially, not simultaneously. I’ve tried to write multiple works of fiction simultaneously a few times in my life, and my muse is never pleased. However, she does not mind sorties into non-fiction while I’m creating my larger fictive works. I theorize that my fiction writing employs neural pathways distinct from those used for writing non-fiction; thus the two processes do not collide.

My dreams, on the other hand, seem to share neural pathways with my fiction writing, and if I drift off to sleep thinking about the novel I’m writing, my dreams will compose scenes, often nonsensical, to fit, sort of, the fiction I’m working on. These dream/fiction hybrids can disturb my sleep much as nightmares will, so I try to leave my work at the office, so to speak, when I lay me down to sleep, though I’m not always successful at keeping my characters and plot twists at bay.

“In my dream, I am your customer, and the customer is always right.” Laurie Anderson

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve remembered dozens of dreams in which I am giving a piano concert for an enormous audience, or I am about to give such a concert. In some of these dreams, I enter the concert hall, see the piano I am supposed to perform on, and various obstacles and detours keep me from ever reaching the piano. In other dreams, I make it to the stage, sit down at the piano, and find keys missing or the piano is terribly out-of-tune or the piano is full of vines or cats or naked women, and is therefore unplayable. Or I begin to play and the keyboard disintegrates.

However, in two of my piano dreams, the pianos remained intact and I played gorgeous danceable music, my fingers incapable of making mistakes, every note just right—and the crowd went wild.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama

The brain/body/mind consortium is highly suggestible. I often forget to remember this. But when I do remember how suggestible my system is, and I take a few minutes before falling asleep to suggest to my brain/body/mind that I will sleep wonderfully well and wake rested and full of energy, I very often do.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I’ve always liked this pronouncement of Jung’s, which I take to mean that our unconscious patterns of behavior shape our waking lives as much or more than the conscious choices we make. From what I’ve read by and about Jung, I think he might also have said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it will express itself in our dreams, and we can interpret those dreams to help us uncover and perhaps overcome some of those unconscious patterns of behavior that are interfering with our happiness.”

Joseph Campbell frequently recounted the story of Jung undergoing psychoanalysis and reaching a profound impasse that stymied him for several months until he had an epiphany about the most blissful activity of his childhood: building little stone houses and villages. So he “followed his bliss”, bought some land on the shores of Lake Zürich, and built a stone house. While building this house, he had a series of dreams, the interpretations of which helped him overcome the impasse in his psychoanalysis.

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

Marcia and I both had bizarre dreams last night. Marcia’s dream involved going on a quest to find beer for the many uninvited guests crowding into the living room of our house that was not our house. She eventually made it all the way from Mendocino to India and forgot about trying to find beer.

My dream starred two darling children and their young mother who were trying to teach me their language, which seemed to be a mixture of Spanish and Arabic. I was sitting facing a large blackboard on which the children took turns writing words they wanted me to learn. One of the words was arastó. The children gleefully shouted arastó, but wouldn’t tell me what it meant.

Then a handsome young man entered the room and said his name was Abababus. He warned me to never forget the second ba when saying his name. I woke from this dream and could not go back to sleep until I got up and wrote down Abababus, lest I forget the second ba.

What caused these dreams? Marcia theorizes my spaghetti sauce—turmeric, cumin, garlic, various unusual heirloom tomatoes, red wine, olive oil—may have been the author of our dreams.

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

andmischief

Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Stuff

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2012)

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Henry David Thoreau

The calendar says it is springtime, but the temperature and relentless rain say winter continues apace, this being the second year in a row that a very wet March will save Mendocino and Northern California from terrible drought. Yes, we are starved for sunlight and the woodpile is shrinking at an alarming rate, but the ongoing deluge bodes well for salmon and redwoods and huckleberries and forest frogs, so we shall not complain.

On Sunday we attended a gathering at the home of a recently deceased friend of Marcia’s, his children and grandchildren and ex-wives and friends filling his moldy old house and spilling outside to honor his memory. I was impressed by his large collection of paperback books from the 1950’s and 60’s, many of them stuck to various shelves and to each other with the mysterious glue of time. When I pulled on a volume of Kazantzakis, the book broke into several pieces, ditto a Kerouac tome, so thereafter I contented myself with reading the spines and forming an impression of the person from the books he read.

But I was most impressed by the dust that coated everything in the house and gathered in drifts in corners and indentations—dust as a measure of many years passing wherein the man left large parts of his life untouched. And I have been thinking about this dust ever since and seeing it on the surfaces of things at our house, particularly on books we will almost surely never look at again.

So on Tuesday, housebound by the pouring rain, I emerged from my den to find Marcia confronting several shelves of CDs and books in the living room, shelves of things we still love and things we once loved and things we never loved but kept because someone gave them to us or because we couldn’t think where else to put them. Now, however, inspired by the dead man’s dust and the coming of spring, we emptied the shelves, mopped up the dust, and put back only those books and recordings we wanted to keep for the next leg of our journey. The rest we will give away and never think about again.

“Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.” Lily Tomlin

In 1971, having only recently learned to play the guitar, I felt certain that if I could convince a record producer at Columbia or Warner Brothers to listen to me sing my jazzy folk songs I would be the next big thing—James Taylor meets Bob Dylan meets Carlos Jobim—or so I fantasized. A highly impressionable teen growing up in the San Francisco Folk Rock scene of the 1960’s, I watched dozens of obscure musicians vault from garage bands and cafés onto the world stage and saw no reason why I couldn’t achieve the same kind of success. Yes, I was delusional, but without delusions I never would have done most of the things I tried to do.

I found, however, that my ears and psyche could not tolerate Really Loud Music, so Acoustic Folk Rock became my genre. The record companies were in Los Angeles, so that’s where I went, my Aunt Dolly providing a base of operations for me in the living room of her cluttered home. For money I sought work as a gardener, papering Dolly’s neighborhood with flyers and receiving an unexpected response that created a whole new career trajectory for me.

“I don’t need a gardener,” said a woman most definitely from New York and certainly Jewish. “But I’ve got a garage full of stuff I need to sort through and my back is not so good, so…”

Elaine had a two-car garage packed to the rafters with boxes of books, clothing, barbells, golf clubs, photographs, paintings, suitcases, furniture—tons of stuff she and her deceased husband had been stacking in there and forgetting about for thirty years. Now she wanted to go through everything and see if there was anything she wanted to keep. I would carry her things out into the light of day and she would decide what would stay and what would go and what would come into the house to live with her. She paid me two-fifty-an-hour plus lunch, and I could keep anything she didn’t want.

On my second day of working for Elaine, an elderly British fellow stopped by, chatted with Elaine, and then asked me if I might do the same kind of work for him, only in his case it was an attic he wanted to explore. “More of a crawl space, actually,” he said, bowing politely. “Accessible by ladder. What’s wanted is a strong back and good balance. To bring things down and take them back up. Boxes of books mostly. Rugs. And I’m not sure what else.”

So began two months of helping elderly people sort through piles of stuff in their garages and attics and spare bedrooms, with my evenings devoted to recording songs on a neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder pursuant to my becoming a rich and famous troubadour. My most profitable find in those two months of excavation was a mint condition Danny Kaye album, a massive book-like thing containing eight 78-rpm records, each in a separate sleeve. I made a trip to a famous used record store in downtown Los Angeles and sold Danny for sixty dollars! I probably could have gotten more, but sixty was a fortune to me.

The work was one part schlepping and five parts listening to the oldsters tell stories about their various things. Some people wanted to throw everything away, others were more interested in discovering what they had kept. Everyone I worked for was a unique individual, yet to me there was a sameness to everybody’s stuff, and a sameness to their feelings about the stuff—regret and annoyance larded with nostalgia. So I vowed never to accumulate more than I could carry with me on a train, even when I became famous and wealthy. So much for vows we make at twenty-two.

Miracle of miracles, I did actually talk my way into a meeting with a record producer at Columbia, a kindly longhaired guy with gold records on the walls of his office who listened patiently to three of my songs before stopping the tape player and saying, “You’ve got a beautiful voice. What say we stay in touch and see how you’re doing a couple years from now? I wish I could sign you, but you’re just learning, you know? No offense, but you need time to develop your talent. Maybe start a group. Imagine some guy with a really rough voice harmonizing with your sweet tenor. Could be great. Think about it. You’ve got potential. And I’m not just saying that.”

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Joseph Campbell

Fast-forward forty years to Todd and Marcia creating stuff we hope people will buy from us—CDs, books, and note cards—Marcia vastly more successful than I, and with far fewer products. Her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation sells like hotcakes, whereas my creations…well, let us just say that as I peruse the many boxes in my office full of my creations that hardly sell, I, too, experience regret and annoyance, but not larded with nostalgia. No, my regret and annoyance are larded with amazement at the audacity (delusion?) of hope.

Slow Going

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Five years ago, a few weeks before I made my move from Berkeley to Mendocino, I came within a few inches of being killed by a young man who was driving his pickup truck very fast while simultaneously using his mobile phone. I had just stepped into the crosswalk at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Avenue, having been given the go ahead to cross by the illuminated symbol of a human being taking a walk. The young man who was driving his pickup very fast apparently did not see the red light or me or possibly anything as he sped through the intersection with his phone pressed to his ear. I don’t know if he was talking to someone or listening to someone else talking, or perhaps he was listening to music; I am only certain he was pressing his phone to his ear as his two-ton missile shot by within inches of my puny little flesh and blood body. And whether there is such a thing as fate or whether life is a muddle of meaningless happenstance, had I been one step further along at that moment, I would have been smashed to smithereens.

So today I’m driving our old truck into our soggy hamlet to get the mail and groceries, a cold rain falling, and because I am the unelected president of Mendocino Drivers Not In A Hurry To Get Anywhere, I’ve only gotten a few hundred yards down the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway before my rearview mirror is filled with the sight of a pickup closing fast upon me. As is my custom in these situations, I move to the outer edge of the road and slow to a crawl, timing my move so that whoever is driving that oncoming pickup will have an easy time passing me—the road ahead empty, the broken yellow line entirely on our side. But this particular pickup (going at least seventy miles per hour) zooms to within a few feet of my bumper before swerving around me and becoming a dot in the distance; and I, frightened and angry, unleash an obscenity-filled and punctuation-free description of this person’s intelligence, sexual predilection, and everything I wish to befall him in the near future.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mohandas Gandhi

Seriously, folks, the village of Mendocino is not, I repeat, not a city. I’m not even sure we qualify as a town given we only have one criminally usurious gas station and nary a Mexican restaurant. Yet on most Fridays, some Mondays, every summer weekend, and unpredictably throughout the year, people drive around the village as if they are in Santa Monica at lunch hour late for I don’t know what, surgery? and in mortal fear of not finding a parking place and therefore doomed to die in their cars.

At first I thought these lunatics had to be tourists or weekend residents bringing their urban neuroses to our hinterlands, but over time I have come to realize that such irrational behavior is contagious, that locals participate, too, and that even I, determined to honor my inner slow poke, do at times react to this transplanted insanity by momentarily joining in the madness.

“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place.” Mark Twain

A good friend recently visited from San Francisco and accompanied me on my errands in the village. He was envious there was no line at the post office, and he was impressed that the postal employees knew me by my first name, but my gabbing with Jeff and Patty at the Mendocino Market as I lollygagged in front of their delectable fish and fowl drove my friend mad with impatience. And as Garnish struck up a conversation about opera with me as he rang up my purchases in Corners, and I having already complimented Sky on the fabulous cauliflower and blabbed at length with Deborah about the benefits of cocoanut oil, my friend began whirling like a dervish and I had to send him outside to wait for me, though he is sixty-one and should know better.

“Teach us to care and not to care.” T.S. Eliot

I first delved into Buddhism in the late 1960’s when I ran into Buddhist references in the poetry of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, my favorite San Francisco Beat poets. For many years thereafter I read essays and books by American, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, and Korean Buddhist teachers discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of Buddhist dharma.

Nowadays I’ll go a year or two at a stretch without reading any dharma, and then a book will befall me or I’ll be hunting for something in my bookshelf and pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or White Sail by Thinley Norbu, and the next thing I know I’ll be deep into a refresher course in mindfulness and the wisdom of no escape.

Most recently I couldn’t resist buying a brand new hardback copy of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, his four-hundred-page treatise on Buddhist psychology for only a few dollars from the Daedalus Books catalogue. Such a deal! One of my all-time favorite Buddhist texts is Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, a brilliant illumination of both Buddhist psychology and western (derived from Freud) psychology in which Epstein compares and contrasts these two very different yet complimentary views of human emotionality and behavior. So far, I have only read sixty pages of Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, but the text has already proven to be a good kick in my mental ass, so to speak, to slow down and smell the moments.

So this morning I decided to walk very slowly on my way to pick up the morning paper at the mouth of our driveway. As I took my slow and mindful steps, I focused on what I was stepping on. Lost in fascination with the conglomerations of pebbles and soil and dead leaves and tiny green shoots of new life composing my path to the highway, I arrived at my destination in no time at all. The newspaper in its plastic sheath seemed enormous and prophetic, and my hand as it entered the frame of my vision to pick up the paper seemed incredibly complex and beautiful—everything shaped by the quality of my focus.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

I have been practicing the piano every day for forty-five years. Of late, I have been playing tunes as slowly as I can without entirely abandoning their rhythmic forms, and in so doing I have discovered tunes within tunes I would otherwise have never guessed were there.

“People ought to listen more slowly.” Jean Sparks Ducey

In 1972 I attended a single meeting of a group practicing Therapeutic Conversation. Had I been a bit more emotionally evolved, I probably would have attended several more of their meetings, but one of the members so repulsed me I never went back. However, I learned such valuable lessons from that one meeting, I was changed forever as a conversationalist.

The first process of the evening was Circle Talk, in which we took our turn speaking after the person to our right had finished saying whatever he or she wanted to say. However, we couldn’t just jump right in the moment the person finished speaking. We had to wait a full minute before we spoke, the time being kept by the leader. And I discovered, in the silence of that incredibly long minute, that what I initially thought I wanted to say was almost never a real response to what the previous speaker had said, but something only tangentially related. Yet if I could be patient, a true response would rise from the depths of that short infinity.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com