Constant Havoc

Yes, I thought about this stuff before I put it here.

Month: September, 2013

Casual Conversation

Cable car in San Francisco's Union Square

Cable car in San Francisco’s Union Square

I walked up as innocent and excited as any this-is-my-first-day-on-the-job I. Magnin employee could be. The late fall air in San Francisco filled my head with vapors better than any coffee high. The cable thumped and sang beneath the street.

She lay in wait.

I was dressed in my best: charcoal gray wool pants, a silk sport coat, a plain white Oxford-cloth shirt with a button-down collar, and a brown and black faux-regimental tie that might still nestle in a bag somewhere under my bed. Nah, possibly gone to Goodwill ages ago. All that covered by a London Fog coat.

She was short, dark hair, mid-thirties I’d say. None of her dress flashes back now. Too many decades intervened. Glasses? Yes, maybe glasses. Clear, fair skin and dark eyes. No makeup to remember. Plump.

I glanced to the hilltop, looking for the cable car.

“I could drop dead any minute they say.”

Pivot. Eyes wide. A full step back. I reply, “Good morning?”

“The doctors, you know. They say it could happen any time.”

“Oh.” A look up the hill.

“Waiting for the car? It’ll be here any second. Where are you going?”

“To Union Square.” Still not used to talking to strangers in The City.

And rescue crested the hill, clanging and wrenching its way down to us. I wrestled my wallet out of my pocket ready to brandish my fresh MUNI pass, my ID that I belonged in The City. The car thumped and almost shrieked to a halt in front of us, and I stood aside allowing the lady to climb aboard first. I followed and flashed my pass.

I found a seat far from her and imagined my coat was warm.

But is it ever cold in San Francisco?

I mean, apart from out in the avenues in June?


The Heirloom

worn out book

Names carry weight. A good one can lift a person through life, while a bad one can anchor him like a ball and chain. I am named after both my grandfathers, and when it came time to name our children, my wife and I took pleasure in passing down family names. I had a grandmother and gladly gave her name to one of our daughters.

Recently, one of my older sisters called me mentioning she had our grandmother’s Bible. She asked if my daughter would like it, and I did not hesitate to say my daughter would love to have something of her great grandmother’s. It dutifully arrived in the mail, and I opened the box to find a carefully wrapped package. I left that for my daughter.

She and my other daughter came to my house in the evening after I told her I had a special present to give her. Who can resist such enticement? I told her it was from her aunt. She sat on the sofa, and I placed the package in her hands. She gently removed the paper to reveal an aged book. The black leather smoothed from years of handling. No lettering to be seen. No binding left to contain the covers. Simple masking tape crossing the back hoping to hold it.

Cautiously opening the front, we read the simple inscription of my grandmother’s name and “from Mother, December 25, 1909”. She was seventeen when she received it at Christmas.

There was a gasp from my other daughter, “You’re seventeen, too.”

We all smiled at the beautiful coincidence, and we explored the treasure further. The pages quickly opened to bare paper-thin pressed flowers of untold age. A Christmas card marked another page. One fragile page had been torn loose and was held in place by the finely cut edges of some very old postage stamp.

Between the Testaments, my grandmother wrote in exquisite penmanship her husband’s name, her own name, and the names of each of her five children. Beside each, she added their date of birth, and two of the children were marked again by their dates of death, dying in childhood.

My grandmother died 37 years ago at the age of 84. I remember her white hair and slow walk. Her kitchen had its own odor. It was an amalgamation of years of cooking. Rarely but occasionally, I will smell something wrenching me back in time to her tiny house with its ramshackle, odd bathroom added at some undetermined date after the original structure was built.

There was a barn in the back filled to the rafters with stuff. After it was emptied, the building collapsed in a big wind. The contents had literally held it up for years.

The root cellar contained shelves of preserves from decades before. I kept two antique jars. One was from Folgers coffee with mountains silhouetted on the glass and the paper wrapper still in place. There was also an old jar of Crisco shortening with a complete wrapper in light blue.

Families carry us. We are held aloft by our past, guiding us forward. My grandmother’s presence is very much here, and her Bible rests safely in a chest.

Thomas Pynchon’s Got a New Book

A well-worn book

A well-worn book

Bleeding Edge will be available in just two days, and I can’t wait. It’s Thomas Pynchon’s newest book, and the reviews promise more of what I love about his work: conspiracies, paranoia, funny names, and a critical eye on modernism. The setting is New York City in 2001. Pynchon writes about history and how events shape people. His plots always threaten to drown the characters in impossibly complex underworlds. His books stop me and force me to think about my little place in the world.

I read his most famous work, Gravity’s Rainbow, when I was a university student, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since. That was back in the early 80s before the Internet. It was back before personal computers and the World Wide Web were ubiquitous. Books were made of paper.

I spent last evening delving into the dark underbelly of Amazon’s Kindle books downloading all the free ones I could find. I got some great stuff. I found well over a hundred, which are now stored safely on my computer and even more loosely in The Cloud.

I have not downloaded any of Pynchon’s books onto my Kindle. Bleeding Edge will be the first.

Back when I read all books on paper, I kept a little one of quotes I found particularly poignant. I have wide ranging entries from many different sources. Gravity’s Rainbow moved me to include a few as well.

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates the incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines.

These sentences come early in the book before the conspiracies are too thick. The idea that there is a connection between the animate and inanimate is praised. Human bureaucracy and man made definitions push things apart.

Pynchon values love and all its entanglements. Roger Mexico writes movingly about Jessica:

You go from dream to dream inside me. You have passage to my last shabby corner, and there, among the debris, you’ve found life. I’m no longer sure which of all the words, images, dreams or ghosts are “yours” and which are “mine.” It’s past sorting out. We’re both being someone new now, someone incredible….

Here is not only love but touching the deepest core. Here is where real human interaction shows us importance.

And then there are the missiles. Roger and Jessica shelter in each other’s arms while bombs fall on London. On the other side of the war, Franz Pokler works designing them to go aloft. He experiences the change in the environment where the scientists labor.

No one was specializing yet. That came later, when the bureaus and paranoias moved in, and the organization charts became plan-views of prison cells.

The team succumbed to the bureaus. Men define and separate instead of build up and celebrate.

Is redemption possible in the post-modern world? Is there no more connection? Will even the rainbow surrender?

…plastic saxophone reed sounds of unnatural timbre, shampoo bottle ego-image, Cracker Jack prize one-shot amusement, home appliance casing fairing for winds of cognition, baby bottles tranquilization, meat packages disguise of slaughter, dry-cleaning bags infant strangulation, garden hoses feeding endlessly the desert

In the end, Tyrone Slothrop, the Rocketman, fades somewhere we seemingly cannot follow, and we wonder. We hope. We pray:

But an Aether sea to bear us world-to-world might bring us back a continuity, show us a kinder universe, more easy-going….

Should we look to the heavenly spheres that assuaged us before Copernicus obliterated them? Where do we fit into Galileo’s assertion “It moves”? Are humans evolution’s pinnacle or just a chance occurrence? Is continuity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki merely a dream? Can we love any more?

I hope Bleeding Edge enlightens some of the dark corners of our questions.

A Directing Adventure


Today’s the day! Over the next two months, I will be co-directing a play with a seasoned director, and the auditions are tonight and tomorrow night. I have done my homework by reading and re-reading the script many times. I’ve studied the characters and their motivations and come up with a list of verbs describing each one. The theatre’s designer has come up with a beautifully simplistic set that will give the actors a space in which to explore their various roles and actions and emotions.

The play is The Spoon River Project, which is made up of poems excerpted from Edgar Lee Masters’ early twentieth century American classic Spoon River Anthology. Citizens of the fictional town Spoon River speak from their graves, remembering, inspiring, preaching, ruing, accusing, and confessing. There have been numerous adaptations of the anthology for the stage over the past hundred years. This one is by Tom Andolora. He chose a representative sampling of the graveyard’s characters, and importantly, he researched and included some period songs that the actors will perform.

Mr. Andolora also uses one of my favorite theatre techniques. Each actor plays multiple roles. They do three or four, in fact. By careful use of small costume pieces and physical changes, the actors will have to differentiate each character, and they will have to make it believable.

The space will be bare, befitting a graveyard, with a few movable benches, and room is even being made on the stage for audience seating. There will be a small ensemble of musicians to accompany the cast in the songs. The only props will represent what the individuals have taken with them to the grave. They will make use of shawls, vests, and other small items of clothing.

The process of directing is not absolutely new to me, but I am a novice. I have directed before, and in that play, the actors were also called on to delve into different characters. I revel in seeing a good craftsman make the necessary adjustments in a second to change from one role to another. When it’s done well, it makes me squirm in my seat.

I have already mentioned reading the play multiple times to really feel it. I searched and found what I believe may be a through line or what’s also called a plot line. The great twentieth century American director Harold Clurman dubbed it the spine. It’s a simple word or phrase or very short sentence describing the central theme of the piece. I like to pick words from the actual script for this note when possible. The through line does not have to be communicated to the actors, but it informs all the director’s choices.

This script is full of wonder. The poems are alive with active verbs that make imagining staging it a joy. The anthology is a pleasure to read for its own sake. Mr. Andolora did not choose my favorite poem, so I will include it here.

Edmund Pollard

I WOULD I had thrust my hands of flesh
Into the disk—flowers bee-infested,
Into the mirror-like core of fire
Of the light of life, the sun of delight.
For what are anthers worth or petals
Or halo-rays? Mockeries, shadows
Of the heart of the flower, the central flame
All is yours, young passer-by;
Enter the banquet room with the thought;
Don’t sidle in as if you were doubtful
Whether you’re welcome—the feast is yours!
Nor take but a little, refusing more
With a bashful “Thank you”, when you’re hungry.
Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!
Leave no balconies where you can climb;
Nor milk-white bosoms where you can rest;
Nor golden heads with pillows to share;
Nor wine cups while the wine is sweet;
Nor ecstasies of body or soul,
You will die, no doubt, but die while living
In depths of azure, rapt and mated,
Kissing the queen-bee, Life!

The speaker, Edmund Pollard, wishes he had dived into all that living had to offer, and he implores the hearers to do so. He speaks of flesh, alluding to bees’ stings, and fire and light. To those of us above the graves, he commands we attend the banquets and feasts that lie before us. Let us feed! Love and intimacy take their places, too. Finally, he returns to bees and their kissing sting of life.

I am living today. I am excited at my new adventure in theatre starting tonight. Life moves me, and I take joy in it.

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