Good Night, Sweet Prince

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“…and when no hope was left in sight, on that starry, starry night
you took your life, as lovers often do…”

~ Vincent by Don MacLean

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

 

 

So, yes . . .  in the heartbreaking wake of Anthony Bordain’s suicide, like so many, I find myself at sea, a myriad of thoughts and feelings washing over and through me, as I am now presently in the midst of binge-watching all 8 seasons of “Parts Unknown.”

I was first smitten by him when he was a judge on “Top Chef.”  Oh, that one-in-a-billion personality, the elegance, the earthiness, the tall, dark, handsome yumminess, the gold earring, the silver hair, the wicked wit and the effortless panache as he’d say something to a contestant like, “The meat was perfectly prepared, though the presentation was somewhat Flinestone-ian.”  Well, my mind was instantly and permanently blown.

Now it must be noted that I’m someone who is generally allergic to cooking.  It basically annoys me, and I use my oven exclusively to bake sculptures.  To further illustrate, a man I once dated, upon first beholding the contents of my kitchen cabinets, said, “Jesus Christ. It’s like a galley on a slave ship.”

So, yes, Monsieur Bourdain would’ve dubbed me the worst kind of Phillistine, for sure. In fact, I once fantasized about doing a crazy cooking show with him, in which I would be the quintessential village idiot of the kitchen, and he, poor guy, would be contractually obligated to culinarily enlighten me.

But back to the dull, sad thud of reality… I’ve been reading a lot of comments about how everybody’s feeling, and in the midst of the grief and the shock and the tributes, I’ve seen quite a few remarks like, “Well, if somebody that famous with that kind of life doesn’t think it’s worth hanging around, what does that say about my boring life?”  And in response to that very complex question, the one small thought I’d like to offer up in this moment is that it seems to me — in my experience of it, anyhow — fame isn’t exactly chicken soup for the soul.

In my intermittent travels through show business I’ve had a few ringside seats, now and again, to observe the strange effects fame has on people — very much including myself, of course.  By its nature, or rather its unnatural nature (there’s nothing natural about it), I’ve found that fame can be a force of distortion in some particularly insidious ways.  Limelight does not have the soothing properties of moonlight or sunlight, and it sure ain’t gonna comfort anybody on a cold, dark, tormented night.  And mega-fame… well, for one thing, it is infamous for being ironically isolating.  And I’d wager a lot of money that it can give anybody’s demons sharper teeth.  Yes, sometimes it has seemed to me as if fame is that voracious monster from the ancient folktales, demanding blood sacrifice now and again in exchange for supernatural riches.

And I’d just like to add — a vegetable to throw into the stew, if you will — having once worked the late night shift on a suicide hotline, having had the privilege of speaking so intimately to some of my fellow humans in those bleakest of bleak moments, and having experienced a few of those bleak moments myself, I’m guessing it’s quite possible that this marvelous man may have been hanging on emotionally by his fingernails for a very long time.  We don’t know, nor will we ever know the reasons for the way he left this world.

Anyhow, before I stop writing and start making dinner — remedially, of course, over-steaming the spinach, as usual — and before I turn on the next episodes of “Parts Unknown” to learn so much more about the world than I would have ever thought possible on a TV series, I’d like to raise my glass of surely sub-standard, too-sweet champagne to Anthony Bourdain, master chef, writer, traveler, truth-teller, cross-cultural harmonizer, brilliant, badass, beautiful human being.

What a piece of work is man, indeed.

 

Befriend The Dragon Who Guards the Treasure?

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Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

~ Anne Stokes

 

I think that’s the takeaway here.  I’m not sure, though.  You decide.

So, when I was a kid, maybe seven,  I was supposed to be learning how to dive into the deep end of the pool.  You know, the dive you learn when you’re a kid, kneeling by the side of the pool, hands pointed down toward the water.

The thing was, I could already dive in the shallow end and was never remotely fearful; but suddenly, faced with diving into the Deep End (Yes, I know, Life – quite the metaphor, thank you) I was frozen solid.  Kneeling by the side of that community center pool, aiming my hands into that threatening dark green Deep End, it looked to me like the ocean at its most treacherous.

So, I can’t move, I’m paralyzed, I just can’t do it.  When the swim teacher became concerned enough, somebody called my mother — my mother who, by the way, can’t swim.  And I can’t remember if I somehow spoke to her on the phone or if they did and relayed the message, but my mother said something on the order of, “If you don’t want to dive in the deep end, you don’t have to. It’s just not that important.”

And somehow this pronouncement magically broke the spell and into the water I slipped without hesitation, like a happy fishie.  And suddenly, I absolutely can’t get enough of diving into the Deep End and I do it over and over again until I’m punch drunk with the fun of it!

The odd thing about it was, not only did the fear vanish, but I completely, truly forgot that I’d ever had it!

Cut to:  A solo trip to Ireland in my 30’s.  I couldn’t wait to go.  But the one thing I dreaded, and with perfectly sound reason, was the Driving On The Other Side Of the Road.  Matthew Broderick had recently been involved in a terrible car accident there, in which somebody had died, because of that very reason.

So, I was haunted by this Other Side of the Road thing day and night for months.  I desperately tried to visualize, over and over again, being on the other side of the car, on the other side of the road, certain it wouldn’t work and I would be too apoplectic to even think of driving anywhere myself.

Well, I land at the airport, get my bag, get into the rental car, and take off, heading to the town of Arden, I believe.  And about hour in as I’m motoring along, admiring the indescribable gorgeousness in every direction, it suddenly occurs to me that all this while I’ve been driving on the Other Side of the Road!  From the second I got into the car, I not only forgot to be afraid, I forgot that I ever WAS afraid!

And thereafter, I had an effortlessly marvelous time following any old country road that took my fancy with nary a fear anywhere.  (I probably should have visualized coming back home, though.  Re-entry to Los Angeles and switching sides again was, well, shall we say… interesting.)

These are just two examples of this type of experience, but it’s a pattern, for sure…

So, what’s the Dragon of the tale?  Well, Fear of course.  And to what extent is that Fear just illusion?  You know “False Evidence Appearing Real” — that old saw.  And what’s the Treasure?  Some sort of giddy freedom, I think.  And maybe the bigger the fear faced, the bigger the payoff in feeling free?

No answers here — just questions, folks.  Just questions.

The Muse Is a Bossy Broad

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The muse whispers to you when she chooses, and you can’t tell her to come back later, because you quickly learn that she might not come back at all.

~ Terry Brooks

Art by Victor Nizovstev

 

 

So, I’m in the midst of birthing the album DidnWannaDoIt!”  Having never committed to coming up with song after song before, the journey was full of surprises.

One night, in the middle of a deep sleep, I’d heard a few phrases of the song “At the End of My Day, singing themselves to me, over and over again, like a lullabye on a broken record that wouldn’t stop until I got up, turned on the light, wrote down the words.  And in the morning, I had no idea what to make of that bit of song yet, but it didn’t go away for the rest of the day and I was hooked on it.

A few days later, I go to the supermarket.  I’m buying vegetables.  Something green.  Baby broccoli, probably – which I don’t really even like, and nearly always overcook.

So, I’ve got the plastic bag in my hand and I’m aimlessly humming to myself.  And – suddenly — a really big chunk of the song starts pouring itself through me right then and there in the organic vegetables section.

And I panic because I don’t have a pen (nope, no iPhone, at the time)!  So there I am, frozen to the spot, in suspended animation, mid-reach, softly trying to sing the thing to myself so I won’t forget it.  Though there’s nobody in the near vicinity, I attempt to look casual (or at least not too demented) as I stand singing to myself with a furrowed brow, like maybe somebody let Miss Havisham go grocery shopping.

But the music and lyrics flow so freely and so fast and feel so right and so delicious that I’m terrified I’ll forget it all, so I make an executive decision to get the hell out of there and get home ASAP, so I can sing it into my little recorder. So, I abandon the vegetables and make a beeline to the checkout.

And the split second I do, the song’s gone.  Just… evaporated.  And I’m standing next to the “People” magazines, while somebody’s checking out in front of me, and dammit, I can’t remember a single second of the song.  Not a word, not a note.

So, of course, I have no choice but to go directly back to the baby broccoli and – sure enough, there it is!  Like a clear stream into my mind.  And as I stand there, pretending to be very discriminating about my greens, I’m softly singing what I’m hearing of the song, repeating it a few times over to imprint it firmly into my memory.

Well, I nabbed those pieces of song , got myself home and got ‘em into the recorder.  Later, in the studio, Jay (the producer) and I fiddled with this and that, and after a few rewrites, that song got born rather smoothly.

When I told Jay about how the song came to me while I was in the middle of broccoli shopping, he grinned and said, “There must be a Music Vortex over the produce section.”  And we laughed, but I swear he was right!  There were, in fact, several other times while writing that album that I’d suddenly “hear” other key parts of other songs while absent-mindedly motoring around that same section of the supermarket.

Obviously, not only does the Muse knock on my door whenever it damn well pleases, it also reminds me to eat my vegetables.

Art Heals, Of Course

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Art, like prayer, is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace, which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts.

~ Franz Kafka ~

(Detail) “Daedelus and Icarus” – Caravaggio

 

 

Well, it’s healed me, alright, plenty of times.  Sometimes truly pulled me from the brink.  And I say that factually, without melodrama, dramatic persona though I may be.  Both in the creating of it, and in the deep receiving of it.

There was a particularly dark year one year, one very bleak stretch of life, when – by reasons of a confluence of influences – I was peeking into the Great Abyss.  Yes, so dark as to be questioning the point of Going On At All.  It happens to a lot of us, eh?  Artistic-types and all types of types.  For although this is a glory of a planet, it’s also brimming with endlessly erratic human-types and replete with crushing systems and expectations and disappointments and despair and traffic.

So, I was getting Netflix DVDs at the time and somehow I got hooked by the idea of watching all five seasons of the original “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which I hadn’t seen since I was a child. (Period pieces are my ice cream; I slurp them up by the gallon.) And I spent all day, during that shadowy stretch, living for the moment that I could put on a fresh episode at night, curl up on the couch and be pulled into the warm, deep, healing waters of Great Art.

Now, if you know the original “Upstairs Downstairs,” you know how exquisitely it expresses so much tragedy, so very eloquently.  And somehow the soul of that series (though as far removed from my life cirsumstances as it could possibly be) resonated with the depth of my despondancy, and by doing so, nourished my spirit and my perspective profoundly.  That consistently brilliant, humble artistry that I relied on night after night during that black tunnel of time sent glimmerings of light into my darkness, and impressed upon me, viscerally and forevermore, the miraculous ability of Great Art to pull a sad soul to shore.

And as for the soul-soothing powers of art-making, well…  I was fortunate enough to have once worked on a suicide hotline for a stretch of time (without a doubt, one of the most meaningful and educational chapters of my life).  At some point in a conversation with certain callers, I often ventured to ask if they created art of any kind.

And I will tell you this, with zero hyperbole: whenever I asked that question, every single person not only said “yes,” but that was the very moment I could hear in their voice that the sun had broken through the clouds inside of them.  And we’d begin to talk about how they felt about their creations, and maybe somebody’d read me a poem or tell me how much they love to paint wild images on cars or restore the beading on vintage handbags.  And the conversation thereafter so often took a crucial turn in the direction of hope.

So yes, for me and obviously for so many, creating art is also the turning of heart and hand away from defeat and toward purpose, toward meaning.   And receiving Art, that is, being soulfully receptive to timeless, towering talents (whether they be musical or comic or literary or whatever) has the miraculous ability to uplift, soothe, validate, and if we’re very fortunate, transform us.

That’s some very big medicine, indeed.

The Manna of Mistakes

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Mistakes are the portals of discovery.
~ James Joyce ~
Mistakes are the portals of discovery. ~ James Joyce

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I hate making mistakes as much as the next person.  Sometimes enough to lose sleep over a typo in a crucial letter or to obsess over some nonsensical sentence that pops out of my mouth at the wrong time in the wrong context or… well, you know, the endless litany of possible mistakes, from the microscopic to the titanic.

Particularly when I was a young actress, just starting out, I used to dread mistakes with all my heart and soul. I was abjectly terrified of saying a line “incorrectly” or of anything at all going wrong onstage.

A thousand and one years ago, around the time that I was doing improv comedy on the Bowery, I was also, at the same time, playing Gwendolyn Fairfax in a mangy, flea-bitten production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” right down the street. (For those of you who don’t know “Earnest,” it’s Oscar Wilde and very light and lacy and, of course, a natural selection for one of the diciest neighborhoods in New York City at the time.)

Anyhow, in the middle of the play, I had to enter down a long flight of stairs into Cecily Cardew’s garden and I would pass beneath a pretty white trellis strung with plastic roses — a trellis which happened to be prettily perched between some ominous looking paper mache boulders, intended for the concurrent production of Dracula.

So, during the whole first act, while I’m sitting backstage waiting for my cue, I’m hearing these small, strange, creaking sounds coming from the stage.  I have no clue as to the source of these sounds until I make my entrance at the top of the stairs, at which point I see that this pretty white trellis with the plastic roses has been tipping over, inch by inch, and is now teetering mid-waist.  The only way around it is to climb over those paper mache boulders in mid-Victorian costume, beckoning disasters too complex to even contemplate.

Ordinarily, I would’ve been paralyzed when faced with such an onstage emergency, but because of the improv comedy pumping through my veins at the time, I just stood there for a moment, gazed disdainfully down at the trellis in character, and then — did the limbo walk underneath.  I got a big laugh and even a bit of applause from all four people in the audience.  It was the most fun I ever had during the run of that show.  And it’s one of the reasons I still miss improv, which always kept me facile and fluid and fearless.

The thing is, mistakes do feel infinitely more hazardous on stage in front of a live audience, as the world that you’ve built with your fellow thespians is paper thin and ultra-fragile and really can fall to pieces if something goes too ridiculously wrong. That’s what’s so terrifying and exciting about live theatre; it feels a little like playing at the edge of a cliff.

I once had the good fortune to play opposite Anthony Newley in a national revival tour of “Stop the World I Want to Get Off.” Just after we opened in Pittsburgh and began the run, Tony addressed my anxious, feverish devotion to perfection, “You know, Suz – it ain’t Shakespeare.  They’re just skits, really.  And sometimes, we’ll just…you know, play.”

Well, I felt a cloud lift as he smiled at me with a twinkle in his eye, even though I had no idea what he was talking about — until one day, somewhere along the road, when he screwed up a line.  And I saw the corners of his mouth turn up. And then the corners of my mouth turned up.  And then the audience started to giggle as they saw that something had gone “wrong.” And a “dangerous” moment of Who Knows What’s Going to Happen Now dawned…

And I really can’t tell you how, but from that moment, obviously bouncing off some unspoken cue from the maestro, I instinctively assumed the role of Actress Trying Desperately to Remain Professional, while Tony assumed the role of Very Badly Behaved Star Doing Whatever He Could to Undo the Teetering Resolve of Said Actress.

Well, from that night forward, it was a little improv thing we’d slip into whenever something went wrong.  For several performances in a row, he’d repeat the “mistake” and we’d mess around like that in the vicinity of it.  We never talked about it, we just did it.

The pay dirt here was that each time he made a mistake and then milked it, he’d have the audience eating out of his hand for the rest of the show.  One of the very richest lessons in showbiz I ever got, and far and away one of the most fun.

Oh, I’m still pretty partial to perfection.  But in all the different creative expressions I’ve explored, over time I’ve learned to be more and more welcoming of mistakes.  They so often tend to be goldmines.

To Blog Or Not To Blog

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“Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by action alone.”

~ Thomas Carlyle ~

Art by: Anton Hickel

 

 

 

 

 

So, it seems I’m gonna try blogging for a little. I never thought about doing it ’til just recently and I’m not altogether sure if it’s a good idea yet.

What happened was, while reinventing my website, the now natural cyber-question arose: “Do you want to blog?” asked my wonderful, wizardly website whiz.

Hmmm, I thought… Could be fun. Could even be useful somehow. But what the hell do I have to blog about? What do people blog about when they blog? And does anyone really care?

Well, apparently, many people care — a lot. Rumor has it that bloggers are some kind of formidable force to be reckoned with, which, like most contemperary cultural trains, I’ve missed entirely as they’ve gone whizzing by me. I decided I needed to do some research about this blogging thing they do nowadays, here in the 21st century, which I never feel as if I’ve fully arrived in.

So off I go, reading blogs, all kinds of blogs, blogs about blogging classes, blogs about blogging, and soon I’m in a fog of blogs, a bog of blogs, and I just want to nap and go back to the 19th century, where it’s quiet.

Frankly, the only solid, certain thing I came away with from all the annoying blather about blogs was how thoroughly and utterly and completely I despise the word BLOG. How bored I am saying it and seeing it everywhere, especially when it is given such prime cultural real estate on the internet. The thing it describes is supposed to have to do with writing, while the word for it sounds like some onomatopoeaic burping sort of a sound you might hear coming out of a bullfrog — which suits a thing having to do with a frog, but does not suit a thing having to do with writing.

And then I find myself profoundly peeved that all those ingenious tech-folk don’t consult with linguists or writers, for Christ’s sake, when they come up with new names for new things, so they don’t end up settling for ugly-ass words like BLOG that litter the lingual landscape like plastic cups and bags and crap that will never, ever decompose.

And may I also say, not so by the way, why do these oh-so-innovative geniuses have such a dearth of linguistic imagination that they constantly co-opt and ruin perfectly innocent, previously beloved words like “cookies,” goddammit. In the whole history of snacks, the word “cookie” was only and ever and always a good-natured, kindly, yummy treat. What used to be purely innocent (or cool, as in “being a smart cookie”) is now something so invasive, so nefarious, so insidious as to be spying on you, even. I mean, seriously… You’re smart enough to invent “a small text file created by a website that is stored in the user’s computer whose purpose is to remember information about you, similar to a preference file created by a software application” and you can’t come up with a snazzy new word for the thing? Or even think to call somebody who can?

And don’t get me started on the slandering of the word “twitter.” Twittering and tweeting used to be the exclusive, exquisitely soul-soothing province of birdsong, for pity’s sake! But thanks to the mob rule of social media, the word Twitter is now synonymous with the mad, bubbling miasma of the collective human subconscious. Bah, humbug.

Okay, so, sure, maybe I’m just too cranky to blog. Who has a gun to my head, you ask? No one. But I’ve decided I’m going to take a why-the-hell-not run at it for a while to see if maybe, for once in my life, I can feel like I’m in sync with the zeitgeist of the age. The chances aren’t good, I’m telling you that right now. If you lower your expectations, I’ll lower mine.

And at the very least, if it turns out that it just ain’t my cup o’ tea, I will never have to say or write the word BLOG ever again.