Monday, December 23, 2013

I don't do yahrzeits; or: good grief!

I don’t do yahrzeits.

In case you were wondering what those are, they are a widespread and ingrained part of Jewish tradition.

It’s the observation and commemoration of the date of death of a close relative, spouse, or friend – parents, particularly. The kaddish (mourner’s prayer) is recited, a candle is lit, a palpable act of tzedakah (charity) is encouraged, and Torah can studied in honor of the memory of the deceased.

Sounds laudable. And very depressing.

My mother died a year ago today. I have my share of problems about that . . . but commemorating it doesn’t help to solve any of them. (Yes I did say kaddish for her for 11 months. I’m not a complete monster.)

Maybe I don’t feel the pull of the ritual because I’m a relatively new Jew. I come from Lutherans, from the shady Christian hollows and hilltops of the Missouri River valley, Alexander Payne country, right around Omaha, where the blues are more commonly referred to as “our Scandinavian heritage.” It’s Garrison Keillor without the charm. Performed in stiff motions of despair.

In that primal culture, death is seen as a relief from earthly trials. More accurately, life is conceived of as one long “American Gladiators”-style competition against temptation, sin, and error. A vestibule crowded with a kaleidoscope of potential soul-destroying torments to be sidestepped.

Plus, we had this quirky family tradition of TAKING A PICTURE OF THE DEAD RELATIVE.



My paternal grandparents’ walls looked like they were hung with pictures of fallen Pez dispensers. This is not OK, I thought then but confirmed objectively years later. This kind of familial focus on the Grim Reaper explains much of my reluctance to memorialize the departed.

In fact, we spent our fair share of time in cemeteries, sprucing up our people’s plots, or just taking a drive out to visit that field full of unresponsive relatives. Out of boredom, I would run up and down as a kid, vaulting over the headstones, until my grandma caught me and scolded me out of it.

Dad’s death, 20 years ago, didn’t help. The first mortuary we went to, the guy started off by saying, “Well, what can I help you with?” We moved on. Later, the unfamiliar minister faked his way through Dad’s eulogy, throwing in a plug for the funeral home smack dab in the middle of it.

I did make a habit of visiting his grave on the Day of the Dead. I thought treating it as a festive occasion was at least a move in the right direction. And those visits did actually lead finally to a kind of peace for me. So, memorialization works.

But Mom got cremated. So . . . she’s out blowing around somewhere right now. That’s not comforting.

More to the point – if I’m going to remember someone, why am I going to remember them on THE DAY THEY DIED? I can testify from personal experience that this is not when people are really at their best.

“Hey, remember that day Mom died?” is just not something I’m willing to entertain. It seems -- gauche.

Plus there’s the letter. I know it’s traditional, but I don’t want an ecclesiastical form letter reminding me of what happened, especially one containing a donation suggestion and envelope. Nope. Don’t like that.

So, smartass, I ask myself, how should you remember someone? I would pick out the nice bits to mull over, to start. That’s what I’ve been doing.

For better or worse, the parental influence is pervasive. I work in the arts, after a childhood my mother flooded with films, books, and music. I write; she wanted to. I read my kids Laura Ingalls Wilder with the same intonations Mom used. And we all seem to laugh in the same places.

So I currently choose just to remember the funny stuff. That’s what I can handle, that’s where I’m at. When I go, don’t light a candle or nail a little brass plaque to anything.

It’s like the old joke:

The teacher asks the class what their fathers do for a living.

Little Betty says, “My daddy’s a doctor!”

Little Billy says, “My dad works at the grocery store!”

Little Jimmy doesn’t say anything. Teacher asks him, “What about YOUR daddy, Jimmy?”

Jimmy says, “My daddy’s dead.”

Teacher says, “Oh, dear, I’m so sorry. Tell me, what did he do before he died?”

Jimmy clutches his chest and yells, “GGGGAAAAHHHGAKAKAKAKAAUGHHHH!”

Just remember the funny stuff.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Prologue: ‘I think I’ll just come in’

I have been ignoring the best writing advice I ever got.

In the foreword to radio comedian Fred Allen’s autobiography, “Much Ado about Me,” Fred relates advice John Steinbeck gave him.

“. . . try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. . . . Put it all in. Don’t try to organize it. . . . Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. . . . cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling.”

The one time I followed these dicta I produced my most odd and most widely-read independently published story to date (it didn’t hurt that it centered on midget wrestling). It took over a year to write, and it probably shows. It was the most challenging and the most rewarding project I have undertaken to date.

And I couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

I’ve been writing for 40 years, professionally for 30. Along the way I’ve written standup, sketch comedy, plays, for radio and TV, newspapers, magazines, and websites. I’ve interviewed famous people, covered crime, tracked political upheavals, and written about just about every art form on the planet. I have a leg up on all the templates, in style as well as form -- the advertisement disguised as breaking news, the heart-tugging feature, the seemingly balanced analysis, and the crooked results imposed by all the teapot tempests and pet peeves of moneyed clients, publishers, owners, editors, and controlling interests.

At any given moment I am writing or selling something. This incessant practice has led to a craftsmanship of which I am justly proud. But what good is it to crank out technically perfect and quite readable stories about shit? In comedy, it’s called being a hack. This slew of imitative, safe, predictable content producers persist everywhere, shovel the publishers’ furnaces full of words that curl, crisp, burn and are ash-expelled in the blink of an eye. The avalanche of data continues, whether I pitch in or not.

In this post-journalism world, acting as a communicator for private interests is no better. Hey, believe me, I tried to sell out! Over and over again, I attempted to gain acceptance, to find a group to be a part of, to sand down my prickly talents to fit the required measurements. Few takers. My level of talent, my faint-heartedness, my sheer self-destructive cussedness, luck, destiny has seen to that. So what do I want? Not to engage in precocious journaling, or addled gonzo narratives. What is the way out of the impasse?

Truth, first. Why is speaking the truth such an imperative? I grew up surrounded by lies and evasion, I developed a desire for truth. To root the truth out of myself, a practiced dissembler. Not facts. Truth. I’ve seen too many pages of bland facts obscure the truth. Alan Moore, in his “Promethea,” states that humans are amphibians of the psyche, half in the world of reality and half in the world of imagination. I would like to hear the clear clang of these hemispheres colliding in my head, for once, instead of being worried about it or muffling it with fears.

So, an approach that blends the reality and the imagination, the personal and the general. Open, relaxed, and conversational, admitting bias and uncertainty. Playing up and down the spectrum of the dynamic paradox.

What if I write with the intent of seeing what happens? Am I capable of being honest? Above all, will it be interesting? Enjoyable? Helpful? Readable? A kind of Fourth Step for public consumption? At this point, it does not matter. I am still turning out the standard fare for fun and profit. But it’s not enough.

Look for installments in my “Pursuit of Happiness” series in the months to come, centering on such unoffending topics such as sex, drugs, God, money, power, society, family. Maybe it’ll be fascinating, maybe it’ll be crap. Maybe it’ll be both. We’ll see, won’t we?

The source of the title quote comes from an anecdote I recall reading about actor Ralph Richardson, which of course I can’t find the source of now. Still, it sticks in my mind so strongly that, if it is not true, it oughta be. Evidently Richardson was a stickler for establishing his character with his first entrance. Well, in a show in later life, he could not get his entrance down. He drove the director and his fellow actors mad for weeks, trying every conceivable way to get on stage in character.

Finally, the night before opening, Richardson went to the director and told him he had solved the problem. “I think I’ll just come in,” he said.

I think I’ll just come in.

"In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it." – David Foster Wallace

Thursday, December 12, 2013

EARGASM: 'Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities'

“Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities”

OK, not the catchiest title. However, if you learn the context behind this recording, it becomes a riveting piece of theater, one composed on the fly by the master playwright Brecht himself – under the threat of imprisonment and deportation.

Bertolt Brecht is the one of the most influential playwrights and poets of the 20th century. Coming of age in chaotic Weimar Germany of the 1920s, he began his career as a balladeer and cabaret performer of anarchist bent. Beginning in 1926, his study of Marx and socialism led him to develop stunning works that eviscerated the capitalist system and what we now term the military/industrial complex – in plays such as “The Threepenny Opera,” “Mahagonny,” and “Mother Courage.” He also worked with writing collectives to create a didactic “teaching theater” that would hasten a people’s revolution, preferably a Communist one.

Of course, Hitler didn’t like this at all. In February 1933, Brecht began his long hopscotching exile from Germany, settling first in Denmark and then, as German troops moved closer, to America. From 1941 through 1947 Brecht joined the American colony of European writers and artists dispossessed by the Nazis. During his time in New York and Los Angeles, he became familiar with prominent American theater and film people. He wrote “Galileo” for Charles Laughton, and penned the screenplay for “Hangmen Also Die!”, a thriller based on the assassination of fearsome Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

Unfortunately, Brecht made the American government just as nervous as the Nazi government. The FBI began tracking his movements and monitoring his phone calls and mail almost from the moment he landed. His open Marxist leanings, along with his friendships and collaborations with numerous Communist artists (most notably the composer Hanns Eisler) left him open to scrutiny. On Sept. 19, 1947, he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, along with 18 other writers, directors, and performers who were tarred with the brush of association with “Communist influence.”

Brecht was the only non-American named; as a resident alien his legal status was somewhat more secure than his uniformly uncooperative, combative fellows. They could be jailed up to a year for contempt of Congress (and were – Dalton Trumbo yelled, as he was hauled out of the hearing, “This is the beginning of an American concentration camp!”); Brecht could only be deported – but could be held indefinitely before that happened. Not wanting to lose his freedom, Brecht planned and rehearsed his appearance with his lawyers. Finally, on Oct. 30, he went in front of the Committee, five newsreel cameras, and a host of microphones.

The key to his strategy was to appear as cooperative as possible, while not admitting anything that might get him in trouble. Unlike many idealists of the time, Brecht had a strong pragmatic streak. He didn’t believe in martyrdom – at least, not as far as he himself was concerned. He played the language barrier for all it was worth, engaging a translator when he did not really need one. He even resolved to smoke cigars throughout the hearing – giving him a chance to delay his responses and inflect his timing, much in the style of George Burns, Groucho Marx, and other cheroot-wielding comics.

The recording, produced in the spring of 1963, is narrated by Brecht champion and translator Eric Bentley, whose learned interpolations add much. He sets the scene and explains much of the texts and individuals referred to by Brecht’s questioners.

What follows is what Bentley terms a “Brechtian tragicomedy”; James K. Lyon in his book “Brecht in America” calls it simply “a polite exercise in cunning and duplicity that lasted a full hour.”

Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling’s harsh, nasal Southern twang dominates. Brecht, in contrast, is halting, seems shy, sometimes plaintive – but level-headed and seemingly cooperative and detailed in response.

To demonstrate the conceptual gap here, Stripling asks Brecht what he does for a living.

“I am a playwright and a poet,” Brecht answers.

Without a pause, Stripling asks, “Where are you presently employed?”

It’s like listening to Bugs Bunny being grilled by a panel of Elmer Fudds, to the amusement of the live studio audience. (The repeated laughter of the crowd in the hearing room gives the whole affair an unreal comic sheen.)

When asked, Brecht says, “I am a guest in this country and do not want to enter into any legal arguments so I will answer your question fully as well I can. I was not a member or am not a member of any Communist party.” Now this, ironically, is certainly true – our ever-clever friend never officially joined the Communist Party.

“Is it true that you have written a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings?”

Brecht characterizes his works as anti-Fascist, not pro-Communist.

He is asked if he knows composer Hanns Eisler. Brecht’s friend and collaborator of 20 years, like him a refugee from Hitler in America, is at the very time Brecht is speaking, under arrest, awaiting his deportation hearing for Communist leanings (Eisler’s brother Gerhart was head of Germany’s Weimar-era Communists, and supposedly ran the American Communist effort during and after the Second World War.) Brecht knows all this. He minimizes his connection to Eisler.

The hollow drawl of Stripling drives on, as Brecht calmly sidesteps. Stripling addresses Brecht’s 1930 cantata with Eisler “The Measures Taken” -- a rigidly doctrinaire play that endorses political murder in the name of international Communism. Brecht equivocates (in fact he and his heirs denied permission to perform the play until 1997, which indicates some distaste for it).

Stripling begins to read from a translation, a riot in itself to hear:

“My heart is beating for the revolution
The witnessing of wrongdoing drove me into the lines of the fighting
Man must help man
I am for freedom
I believe in mankind
And I am for the rules of the Communist Party
Which fights for the classless society”

Brecht fobs it off as a bad translation.

The questioning runs out of steam, despite a few more sallies by Stripling. Brecht is commended for his forthrightness.

“You’re a good example” to the other witnesses, he is told, and dismissed. He leaves. Less than 24 hours later, he is on a flight to Europe. He would never return to the U.S.

Bentley states that Brecht kept a recording of the proceedings and would play it for laughs. Of the Committee, Brecht said, “They weren’t as bad as the Nazis. The Nazis would never have let me smoke.”

No matter how lightly Brecht played it later, it could not have been less than a harrowing experience for him. Like so many of his bitter, clever heroes and heroines, Brecht had dreams for mankind but saw all too clearly how the world goes. In this most real piece of political theater, he kept his freedom, didn’t rat out his friends, and glibly deceived the U.S. Congress in a language not his own.

Brecht, Eisler and others constantly found themselves on the outs – in Nazi Germany, in supposedly democratic America . . . finally, even in Communist East Germany, where they grew disaffected from the revolution they helped make. Whether the artistic person is fated always to end up in this position is another story entirely. Meanwhile, Brecht’s victory on this recording is little but profound.

[A personal note: I first heard this on vinyl at my friend B's house in Kansas City in '80 or '81. He was a crazy artist, and when we weren't pulling tubes and checking out the Buddhist art at the Nelson, we were bandying socialist concepts. That young-adult glee at the prospect of a trickster outfoxing the Man was intoxicating.]

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

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