Yasiin Bey at the Blue Note

Yasiin
Sorry my photo isn’t better. Trying to keep it together, I spilled a glass of water.

Robert Glasper and his band are performing at NYC’s Blue Note for a month’s residency.  The guest performer for October 11-14 was Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. For  Saturday night’s performance, some of Yasiin’s lines were familiar. Some were not. His delivery, however, struck me as wholly original. He seemed to sculpt rhymes and rhythms in the air, where they lasted all night. He was emphatic and ecstatic, but more than that, he was intent and serious while creating art in real time. Yassin Bey has perfected his rapport with the energy of a spirit at large.

(An original, outside spirit filling one with artistic energy was once what inspired meant.  But its overuse, often regarding not much, has led it into the awesome muck. Possibly, not too distant from Mark Zuckerberg’s empathy.)

During a pause, the young man next to me asked, was this hip-hop? He wondered, too, why change your name when Mos Def is such a great name? Mos Def is a great stage name, but it conveys none of real-life seriousness of an artist who dares to take his work seriously. Of course, all art depends on being playful. Many people play all their lives and are undeniably artistic. But taking the risky, sky-leap into serious art occurs to very few people, and even then, it demands nerve, commitment, and luck.

At one point, he started “Ms. Fat Booty,” and Anderson.Paak joined him onstage. (A surprise–AP had been sitting in the row below me, among the “cheap seats.” The younger rapper, his voice higher, his intention pure fun, blended, perfectly with Yasiin’s lofty joy.

The show ended with Yasiin’s ecstatic litany starting in contradiction, moving through repetition, in which a word or emphasis is altered in loop until what you hear is something like a koan, or no, original truths. (That’s what I thought, anyway.)

Yassin Bey’s raspy voice and supreme invocations offered everyone present the “Sun, Moon, and Stars.”

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Bill Irwin on Beckett

bill-irwin-2nd-headshot-200x300-1

Last night we saw Bill Irwin’s Exploring the Work of Samuel Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre.  The actor and clown you need to see to believe presented pieces developed from Beckett’s writings: Texts for Nothing; The Unnameable; and Watt.  The actor’s interaction with the prose–words he said haunt him–elevated dense prose into fast and riveting dramas about struggling to live, claiming to “give up,” (a slump, a sinking, and for a second it appeared he might sink into a grave), but as language persisted until the momentum seemed inescapable, admitting, perhaps not yet.  He also acted parts of Beckett’s plays, Endgame and, of course Waiting for Godot, in which Irwin has played the character Lucky and Vladimir. He said that, after memorizing the lines for the roles, he cannot forget them. And his presentation of Lucky’s monologue, along with examples of Vladimir interacting with Estragon, left no doubt that Samuel Beckett’s characters run through his head almost constantly. I learned, too, that while in the U.S., we pronounce Godot as Guh-DOE, in England and Ireland’s it’s GOD-oh. He said when he first appeared in the play in England someone asked if him by saying Guh-DOE, he was trying to seem “French.”

My husband overhead someone saying after the ninety minute performance, “That was a master class.” I wouldn’t know, except that it certainly didn’t strike me as a class. Staggering, funny, and enlightening, yes. But no class ever tapped so deeply into my self-awareness or made the fantastic and hilarious but dire struggle to survive seem so tangible.  My five (or six) senses absorbed things that were new to me, things I will never forget.

Virtuoso Timing

arnold

Dan Leo’s This World or Any Other, the perfectly titled Volume Two of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel intensifies the stakes and comic timing. The first volume  unfolded at Cape May, New Jersey during several weeks in the summer of 1963. This second volume occurs on the night of August 10. With virtuoso precision, Arnold’s adventures expand and contract in time, toggling between the astonishing and the familiar. Read this memoir and then the first, or vice versa. The same characters reveal new depths and peaks, while several new friends, saints, demons, and provocateurs prey upon Arnold’s unfailing good manners.

Arnold gives his attention, aid, and counsel to eccentrics and barflies, while worrying about his sanity. Yet he also enjoys a few romantic respites with his beautiful, talented, and profoundly level-headed “lady friend,” as she’s called in 1963. Before long, he’s waylaid by a panoply of supernatural errands, prompts to acts of kindness, calls of nature, and pleas to have one more drink with a deity seeking his human aspect. All necessary and all keeping Arnold from his lover. Indicative of 1963, men openly rate women by their appearance. And while the white characters drop by “the Negro bar,” Arnold casually notes the unlikeliness of reciprocal activity. These signs of the times are asides.

The author’s timing as characters drink one beer and then another, and a few Manhattans followed by more beers, reminded me of a first-rate comedian’s. As a teetotaler, I often find drinking scenes to be the same thing all over again. Not here, though! The repetition works because the writer’s timing keeps every round, down to every swallow, humorous.

Freewheeling through portals and considerate while cringing, Arnold’s concessions to have “just one more” are endearing and funny.

Post Card

trumpet

Saturday night, Manny and I went to the Met’s exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings. Many of the drawings, paintings and even the few sculptures were studies by the Master’s students and imitators. The picture above (in fact, a photo of a post card I bought) Michelangelo drew.

The plaque explained that an angel, also known as a genius–a usage I’m familiar with, although I didn’t know it harked to the Renaissance–is blowing a trumpet into the man’s head. The angel/genius inspires the man with a blast note to the head. I’ve slightly emphasized the trumpet because to me it looks like a weapon for a blow dart to the naked artist’s brain.

Instead of hearing a trumpet when I saw the drawing, I thought of Bob Marley singing “Trenchtown Rock,” specifically the lyric that includes “hit me with music…brutalize me…”

Crowds filled the space, Two women seemed unaware that assistants had created much of the art. Or that other pieces were intended in homage. Much awed murmuring regarding “the folds of fabric.”

We hadn’t visited the Met in many months, because the new Whitney is walking distance–a nice long walk. Michelangelo’s drawings didn’t move me as much as I expected. But these days, Leonardo da Vinci is my hero. I keep sending my novel, The Vitruvian Man, to people and places to no avail. Meanwhile, I’m rewriting the sequel, The Vitruvian Woman.

Leonardo didn’t care very much if people read what he wrote, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography. He kept intending to order his notebooks and studies for publication, but some intriguing new puzzle always seized him the minute he proved a theory through drawing, observation, and experiment.

He loved learning for its own sake. Being illegitimate and homosexual, he enjoyed being a “misfit.” It freed him from having to meet common social expectations. Mostly unschooled, he sought knowledge relentlessly, and rarely accepted received wisdom without applying his own tests.

But because his discoveries were unpublished, many, if not most, had to be rediscovered hundreds of years later. Isaacson posits his famous “mirror-writing” was not a code, but a method to keep from smearing ink, and one other left-handed writers used.

The one and only trait Leonardo and I have in common is left-handedness. Unlikely to take up mirror-writing, I smear stuff everywhere.

 

For William Todd

Not Waving But Drowning

picture of English poet, Stevie Smith

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
 And not waving but drowning.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
*

William Todd, partner to my dear friend Diane died, five years ago today.  When Diane phoned to say William, for whom she administrated end-of-life care for months in their tiny apartment, had died in the night, Manny and I weren’t surprised. We had visited the night before. The end hovered in the room.

I had always been very fond of William, who was among the most knowledgeable, literate, artistic men I have ever known, as eager to learn as to teach.

I remember Diane, who had been heroically devoted and conscientious for months, telling us, after we had been away, that William had lost most of his body weight. I wasn’t afraid of that. What I feared more was that I would annoy him. Inadvertently, I would add to his discomfort when he had been suffering so awfully for so long. For instance: after saying hello, I asked, “Are you scared?”

His face lit up. For once, my inappropriate curiosity was appropriate! Too weak to talk much, he said, “I’m petrified.”

Diane had set up a table near the hospital bed brought in by Visiting Nurse Service of New York. On the table was a photograph of William and his sister in Liverpool, ages perhaps seven to ten. I saw that same handsome, nonchalant little boy in the photograph lying in the hospital bed. He shook his head.

I said, no, you’re the same.

Another photograph was of a man in flight gear. Unlike me, William rarely talked about himself. And at the end, talking was difficult for him. Manny asked if the photograph was his father. He indicated yes. His father had fought in WWII as a bombardier. The last word I heard William Todd say was, “bombardier.”

Sitting with William as he died, I witnessed moments when he broke through the terrible pain and became more than lucid–pure. His death convinced me that a person’s death involves triumph, not an earthly triumph, but something larger than sorrow, and everlasting.

The poem above by Stevie Smith was familiar to me but when I spotted it on a blog William was designing years ago, it suddenly became ingrained in my memory.

Departure

departure copy

Last summer, I decided to stop writing this serial fiction.Don’t know if anyone’s looked at it, but I planned to end it when Jasper leaves with Sung to make the movie, Readiness IS All. That’s not the end of the story, but it might have felt more finished to a reader than departing from James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock at episode 79. (previous post)

Last year life threw me into a grief-stricken tailspin. And this summer a few sorry events kept me from writing serial fiction for two months. My recent small sadnesses may have increased my capacity to realize more of last year’s everlasting loss. But either way, after this latest break, I’m convinced that persisting with another serial installment makes no sense. Naturally, I often doubt my ideas and abilities, but this time I don’t doubt I’m right.

I had hopes for this story when I started it here. And yet I knew well enough that James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock is way too long and wide-ranging, with too many characters, for me to write it as serial fiction. Also, it quickly became obvious to me that any coherency achieved by alternating between Brooke and Jasper’s point of view was a poor trade-off for a slower pace than I wanted.

Serial fiction should be fast and plot-driven. The episodes should consist of five hundred words, at most. (Try as I might—countless rewrites—the episodes here average nearer to a thousand words.) But I admit to using serial fiction as early drafts for novels or short stories. It keeps me writing and I truly do everything I can to make it readable and fun. Nevertheless, what’s here is an unfinished experiment. I loved writing it and discovered many little techniques that were new to me. It’s unlikely, however, I’ll ever reimagine and rewrite James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock. Also, any fiction I write from now on, will occur offline. At most, I might post a quote with a photo.

Simultaneously with my serial fiction, I was constantly rewriting my novel, The Vitruvian Man. The title comes from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of a man positioned within a circle and a square. (See the version above.) Every time I had to face another rewrite, I despaired of doing the impossible. Such as, writing a novel that would draw readers into it, unaware; and keep them there with prose so delightful they would never ever realize they were—reading. But once I got into the story (which, I’m afraid, does call upon a reader’s time), it exhilarated me—even more than before. In the middle, I soared. Upon finishing another rewrite, however, I felt exhausted and heartbroken.

Finally, I believe—and more significantly, my husband believes—The Vitruvian Man has reached its peak. When it’s published, mu blog and/or site will undergo radical changes. The serial fiction and excerpts from Diary of a Heretic will disappear. No doubt these things will take years. Anything I try to accomplish takes forever.

Fifty-Fifty

Number sixteen of my serial fiction. Probably, cherry-picking episodes and putting them here is futile. But I’m always aiming to shoot the moon. So if one person reads this here, and wouldn’t have found it there, why not? And as always, if anyone’s interested in the progression, click here. 

Fifty-Fifty

Typically, when Jasper insisted Sasha check into rehab, she laughed at him.  A nondrinker—a teetotaler—he couldn’t compare bumps or puffs to a splash of wine. So, why she complied now mystified him.

He had assumed she would leap at a divorce that kept their finances intact. Sasha believed he owed her everything. Without her, he couldn’t say who or where he might be.

As for breaking into acting in L.A., she had said, “Leave it to me.” Sasha would discover the one person who could project his handsomeness, his long, strong grace, quick, easy reflexes, and genuine niceness around the world.

In those days, before serious substance abuse, she focused on power: who had it; who didn’t; and how it worked. Once, when she had boasted that she “smelled” power, he had asked why she didn’t accumulate and wield her own.

Her answer? “Too much work.”

They were both 18. Weeks after his mother died, his sister had sent him on to LA, where Sasha was waiting. She greeted him, saying, “Ta da!” Sasha had opened the invisible door. Meaning, she convinced a silent producer, who’d quit drinking for the third time, to hire Jasper  as a personal trainer and all-round companion.

Sasha had been drinking in a packed, rooftop bar when she spotted him. It had taken her half an hour to insinuate herself through the crowd of roaring drunks, grab grab Bill’s hand, and lead him downstairs and outside. Under the streetlights, she peered at him. And yes! He was indeed the obscure 65-year-old power-broker. Hailing a taxi, she pulled him inside and told the driver Griffith Park. They wanted to watch the sun rise.

There, walking around, then sitting on a hillock, Bill confessed that he’d started drinking again when his third wife left hm. Sasha patted his hand, “Poor you,” and remained beside him as the sun rose high. When it vanished inside a blinding white sky, Bill said, “Better check into a hospital.” Sasha’s warmth and understanding (he must have been exceedingly drunk) had convinced him to conquer his alcoholism—again.

“Wait.” Sasha told him that to stay abstinent he needed Jasper. “My husband will set you straight for life.”

Jasper had probably laughed at this. She gave Jasper a phone number, which he expected to be a joke.

But Bill answered. They met and he offered Jasper a full-time job that paid more than he needed, even with Sasha demanding they split his earnings fifty-fifty. After all, she had discovered Bill and his secret clout. Besides, they were married.

Jasper agreed.

And what luck! He liked Bill. Jasper needed everyone to like him.

Bill chatted happily while Jasper coaxed him through the circuit machines in his mansion’s oxygen-rich gym. After lunch, Jasper spied the golf clubs.

“Do you play?”

Bill loved the game until last ex-wife had said—her or golf.

“So let’s golf.” Growing up in Sedona, Arizona, Jasper had caddied at the resorts since he was ten. He could easily find fail-safe corrections for a non-professional.

They spent two full days selecting a new set of clubs. Jasper studied Bill handling each one and assessed his swing, chip, and put. They practiced at dawn. With Jasper caddying, Bill won every game. And every time, his friends were amazed. Later, by Bill’s pool, sipping Jasper’s icy concoction of ginger-lemon tonic, they reviewed his game that day and devised strategies so Bill could choose whether to come from behind, lead the whole way, or win in a squeaker.

Soon, Bill was spending more time in long, private phone conversations. So Jasper swam or worked out as he wished. Then Bill told him that even at 18, Jasper personified the clairvoyant child psychiatrist, “Dr. Monroe,” star of Children’s Minds. Bill arranged an audition.

Years in the making, Children’s Minds aimed to reestablish a cable network’s superiority, and it did, starting with the pilot. Soon, Jasper was very rich. He hired the contingent of experts Bill recommended for his share and didn’t ask about Sasha’s 50 percent. Yet he knew she wasn’t refusing to submit to three months in rehab because of money.

And, she wasn’t desperate to remain his laissez-faire wife because of the kids. Her pregnancies, and the total abstinence they had required, followed from intense infatuation.  With Dex, she had longed for their neighbor, Caroline and her bare, burgeoning tummy. Four years later, Ivy was conceived when Sasha asked her girlfriend, Rosalie, if she was a teetotaler like Jasper. Draped in layers of patterned silk, Rosalie pressed Sasha’s hands against her belly. “Feel him?”

Both times, Sasha immediately became pregnant. She and her pregnancy girlfriend attended birthing classes together. They discussed nutrition, cravings, and discomforts. Once Caroline and Rosalie became mothers, however, Sasha’s enchantment ended.

Now, preparing for rehab, she said, “Promise you won’t divorce me,” and clung to Jasper—a first.

The treatment isolated her. She and Jasper could talk only when her therapists arranged conference calls—twice. Sasha’s addictions required lifelong vigilance. His abstinence would help. Jasper almost said they spent minimal time together, but decided the therapists must have already discussed his and Sasha’s marriage. He had no idea what Sasha might have told them, however.

Home in March, she was terribly swollen and lethargic. As if bubble-wrapped in apathy, she never left her room. Jasper entered only to tell her that his screen test for James Bond had gone well. He shot guns, said catch-lines like he meant them, and ordered martinis as the world surrounding him blew up.

Sasha said, “Dex hates me.”

“Some boys act like that.” Jasper didn’t remind her that she had encouraged the kids to prefer Inez.

Or, that Dex talked about Brooke in a way that sent Jasper into incredible reveries. After an hour or a even a moment, he woke, exposed.

Mostly, he worried about going to France. He left in 10 days but hadn’t told Sasha. Spending three weeks to make Marie Deux Fois seemed selfish.

by kathleenmaher