Outtakes from Who Was I? – Fundamental Uncertainty

In the process of rewriting my music-theatre piece, Who Was I?, I wrote a lot, exploring the geography of memory. As I get closer to performing the new version of the show, I’ve decided to post some of that writing. Read more about the piece by clicking here


The Buddha says that clinging to the idea of a fixed, unchanging, personal identity is the source of human suffering. We create and maintain the illusion of a permanent “self” in order to avoid the full experience of the “fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human.” (Pema Chödron, Living Beautifully, p 4)

So I can view my recent neurological episodes – auras, transient amnesia, seizures – as opportunities to experience that very uncertainty. The two times I emerged from oblivion with no memory of how I had come to be lying on the floor felt intensely groundless.

The second time I came back to awareness from a seizure, my wife and three paramedics were all telling me that I’d had a seizure. For several minutes, I could not figure out what that word, seizure, meant. I had no story to tell myself. That came later:

I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing some dishes. The dishwasher was open. That’s the last thing I remember before coming to on the floor with everyone telling me I’d had a seizure. I must have fallen on the open door of the dishwasher and then slid onto the floor. Now I’m in an ambulance on the way to the Marin General Hospital emergency room. But my consciousness still seems intermittent as if the movie I’m in had several random jump cuts and was being shown at an inconsistent speed.

A lot of spiritual teachers talk about the benefits of “dropping your story. ” About twenty years ago, not long after my mother died, I went to see Gangaji, an American woman who was a student of “Papaji” a self-arisen Indian mystic. At the time both Papaji and Gangaji were very popular among American spiritual seekers. Gangaji was very big on story-dropping. I raised my hand. “But I’m a storyteller,” I said, on the verge of tears, “I love stories!”

“Well, then,” she answered,”You’re just a sentimental old fool.” I’m even older now and still hopelessly tangled in story.

The difference is that I’m finally willing to consider that changing my attitude toward the stories might be a Good Thing.

I noticed, a couple years ago, that Gangaji had written a book calledHidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in your Life Story. I should read it, I guess. But my Buddhist teachers seem to be saying that the notion that there is anything “true” about one’s “life story” is, itself, suspect.

Perhaps this is the opposite of Alzheimer’s or amnesia, this flood of memories.

Continued in next post

Outtakes Continued: Memory Flood

I started making lists:

When I was two and a half years old, I learned to speak French fluently.

When I was five, on my first day in kindergarten, I cried and cried, breathlessly sobbing, “I want my mommy,”

When I was ten I dreamed that my father had died and become a bird perched on a telephone pole on Ventura Boulevard.

When I was eleven, on the first night in the desert town we’d moved to, I was so frightened by the large moths that kept flinging themselves against the window screens in that furnace of a night that I didn’t sleep at all.

When I was eleven I met a devoté of Edgar Cayce, a man in his thirties, who used “hypnosis” to put me into a “trance” in which I accessed my “past lives.” I couldn’t tell if I was making up all the things I said or not.

When I was eleven I read my first grown-up novel: The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

When I was eleven I acted in my first play, The Clown who Ran Away.

When I was fourteen I kissed a girl on the mouth for the first time while acting in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

When I was fourteen my Aunt Eleanor taught me the guitar chords to Careless Love.

When I was fourteen, standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed the corpse of a man who had killed himself with a shotgun in his mouth. It didn’t look real.

When I was fourteen I imagined, for a few months, that I would become a rabbi when I grew up. i urged my secular parents to keep kosher. They didn’t.

When I was fourteen standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed a couple having sex. The man was naked except for a pair of wing-tip shoes – the kind my father wore. The woman was also naked and quite hairy. It looked too real.

When I was fifteen I heard a Ravi Shankar record for the first time and felt completely disoriented, unable to tell where the music began and ended.

When I was sixteen, at the start of my senior year, I discovered that I had become the tallest person in my high school, faculty included.

When I was sixteen, in home room, I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. The kid behind me pulled me upright by the collar of my shirt.

When I was sixteen I started smoking.

When I was seventeen my friend Betsy and I hot-wired her father’s 1939 Buick convertible and drove the deserted desert two-lane highways all night long.

When I was seventeen I got a small part in a professional play.

When I was nineteen I had sex and marijuana for the first time.

When I was nineteen I went to France for my third year of college.

When I was twenty I met a blind Algerian student in Bordeaux who, when I asked what it was like in Algeria, said, “Ça chie,” which means, literally, “It shits.”

When I was twenty, hitchhiking alone through Algeria, a small truck I was riding in had its windshield shattered by a large watermelon hurled from an oncoming car

When I was twenty one I got my first acting job on television.

When I was twenty one, at my draft board physical, I sat in my jockey shorts in front of an army psychiatrist who kept an unlit cigar stub in his mouth while asking me how I expected to amount to anything if I continued to use illegal drugs.

When I was twenty two I moved into a group house in Echo Park. My roommates smuggled large quantities of hashish from Lebanon, built a sauna in the laundry room, introduced me to intravenous cocaine and methedrine and to vegetarian cooking.

When I was twenty two I appeared as a “bachelor” contestant on The Dating Game, simply because, as a union actor, I’d receive a hundred dollars for a day’s work. A “starlet” was to choose one of us as her “date” on a whirlwhind trip to Bangcok. The “bachelors” were hidden behind a screen and the starlet had to bas her choice on the answers we’d each give to her questions. She asked us to “imitate you favorite hero.”   I was high on grass and speed and heard myself paraphrasing, in French, Jean-Paul Sartre. Something about “L’éxistence précède l’essence…” She picked me.

When I was twenty-three I was cast in the film, M*A*S*H.

When I was twenty-four, I read The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel and understood how little I knew about brutality and despair.

When I was twenty five, a roommate said that I was the most selfish man she had ever met.

When I was twenty six I spent a day watching crows in the snow in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

When I was thirty, I called a phone number I saw in an ad in an alternate newspaper from an institutionalized Jewish man who requested visitors. He asked me to bring him a pastrami sandwich. I said I would. I never did visit him.

When I was thirty-one I turned down a small role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in order to tour the country with a political theatre ensemble.

When I was thirty one Joseph Chaikin invited me to join an experimental workshop he was launching in New York.

When I was thirty three I started Traveling Jewish Theatre with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg.

When I was thirty nine I stopped using alcohol and marijuana.

When I was forty one I stopped smoking cigarettes.

When I was forty two I got married.

When I was forty five I walked from Mill Valley to Bolinas and back.

When I was forty nine I sang to my mother as she took her last breaths. Later that year I made a solo performance that told the story of her dying.

When I was fifty I woke up one morning seeing double, the result of a small tangle of redundant capillaries in my brainstem.

When I was fifty one I moved my father into a dementia-care facility

When I was fifty three I sat with my father’s lifeless body and sketched his face

When I was fifty four I took up scuba diving, completing 300 dives in kelp forests and coral reefs during the next seven years.

When I was fifty five I adapted the Israeli novel, See Under: Love, for the theatre.

When I was fifty five I met my first grandson, River, born at the turn of the millennium.

When I was fifty nine I had open-heart surgery to repair a prolapsed mitral valve.

When I was sixty two I played Willie Loman in TJT’s Death of a Salesman

When I was sixty-nine I experienced thirty minutes of “transient global amnesia” and began developing a music-theatre piece about memory and aging.

When I was seventy I had a seizure.  I lost consciousness, fell and tore a ligament in my thumb. Six weeks later, I performed my music-theatre piece about memory and aging for friends. Two months later, I had a second seizure.

Read more about Who Was I?  by clicking here

Who Was I?

On March 14, 2015, two weeks after my 70th birthday, I gave a work-in-progress living-room performance of Who Was I? the music-theater piece I’ve been working on for almost two years. You can hear excerpts from the live recording of the show on my SoundCloud page

Performing that night, I reentered the stream of life that I had gradually stepped out of in the time after TJT closed in 2012.

After TJT closed, I threw myself into  a job directing The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay. It was a great experience that I’ve written about before on this blog. I’ve also written about the cancellation of a trip to China where I had been invited to spend time with director Stan Lai. That was in January 2013. Suddenly I had a lot of time and space in which to feel the loss of TJT, my artistic home of 34 years, and grieve.

The two things that brought me the most comfort during this time were music and meditation. I’ve been meditating off and on since the 1960s, trying various practices including the Maharishi’s transcendental meditation, Rajneesh’s chaotic meditation, Jewish meditation, and for the past 30 years or so, Buddhist meditation. The spiritual teachers who influenced me most profoundly have been Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Pema Chodron and Norman Fischer. Norman, a poet and a Zen priest, is the only person in my life who is a friend, a fellow artist, and a spiritual teacher all in one body, I often find myself repeating lines of Norman’s in different contexts, surprised by how apt they always are. In 2002, I wrote and directed an ensemble music-theater piece from his book, Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew psalms.

cf.guitar.1975Music has always been an important part of the theater I’ve made. Even before I ever made a theater piece, I wrote songs. I started playing guitar as a teenager swept up by the powerful and haunting currents of old-time music that were enlivening America in the late 50s early 60s – the days of Folkways records, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Jack Elliott, the world out of which sprang Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and so many more. As I tell in Who Was I? I spent several formative summers at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation (ISOMATA) in the San Jacinto Mountains where Pete Seeger led an annual folk music workshop in the days when he couldn’t get much work due to the “blacklist.”

The very first songs I wrote were in French. I spent my junior year of college in Bordeaux, France. I got a job playing and singing in a restaurant by the train station called Chez Jimmy. Jimmy was a very large man of indeterminate age from Martinique. I stuck a pickup in my old Martin and ran it through a Grundig radio so I could be heard over Jacques, the French pianist I played with. I didn’t know a whole lot of songs, just a few chestnuts like Freight Train and Railroad Bill. The rest of the time we played 12-bar blues to which I’d sing every maverick verse I knew. In order to feel like I really earned the meal and the drinks that Jimmy would give me in exchange for playing, I enlarged my repertory by writing some songs. Since the majority of Jimmy’s customers did not speak English and I had been speaking French all year, it didn’t seem all that bizarre to start writing chansons.

Back in the states music soon took a backseat to acting and later to writing and directing. But I never stopped playing guitar and after TJT closed I found myself devoting more time to music than I had in years. I discovered a new cf.guitar.3.14musical world through the Internet. I found classes and blogs and song-sharing platforms that supported and inspired my return to songwriting.

But I was still lost in grief and fear. I felt diminished if not finished.

In August, 2013, I went to a Jewish meditation retreat taught by Norman Fischer, Sylvia Boorstein, Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz.

During a period of walking meditation at the retreat, the thought arose that I should create something to perform for friends and family on my 70th birthday which, at the time, was a year and a half in the future. I had no idea what it was I would make.

Soon after the retreat I realized that I felt most energized when I was singing or writing songs. This was brought home to me at the end of 2013 when I wrote a song for my wife China’s birthday and sang it for her and a few friends. I realized how much I missed performing, how much I missed the sense of community that can arise when we give each other the gifts of our imagination.

A few months later I sang a bunch of my songs for Naomi Newman, cofounder of TJT, dear friend and collaborator for almost 50 years. She suggested that I make an actual theater piece around some of those songs and offered to direct it.

A week or two after that I had a life-changing experience in the form of a thirty-minute-long episode of transient global amnesia.

cf.3.14.zol.kaknIt was as if I’ve been given an assignment: make a music-theater piece about memory and aging. It suddenly became obvious to me that most of the songs I was writing were, in fact, memories. I spent the next nine months reading about memory, working with Deborah Winters, my superbly talented vocal coach, and, with Naomi’s help, shaping the material.

Somewhere along the way I made a decision to work with musicians – live musicians – rather than continue using my home-recorded backing tracks as accompaniment.

I had already done some work with the incredible drummer Barbara Borden, who had helped me with the rhythm and phrasing of the spoken-word pieces in the show. She recommended two gloriously talented players – Ross Gualco to do the arrangements and play keyboards and John Hoy on bass and guitar. We were only able to rehearse together twice as a full band, but musicians of this caliber have a magical way of absorbing the structure and feeling of a song after barely hearing it once.

The experience of making music with people like this was completely new to me and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was an ecstatic one. Actors may talk a lot about the importance of listening to each other onstage but it seems to me that musicians are the true masters of deep listening.

The morning of the day of the performance, as it is often the case during those in-between times, I had no idea what to do with myself. Fortunately I had a lecture by Norman Fischer waiting for me  on my iPhone. It was a talk he had given at Green Gulch Farm about his process of writing poetry. In it, he spoke about the ways his Buddhist practice informed his writing. One thing he said gave me a new way to view my own experience of making this stuff we call art:

“I know a lot of artists and they practice their art with a tremendous devotion.  And they sacrifice a lot for it. And so they appreciate one another for sharing this devotion to an endeavor which nobody else appreciates quite the way they do.“

By the end of the performance on Saturday, I felt that all the people in the room had come together in that shared devotional space.

The event was a collective endeavor. It could not have happened without the generous engagement of dozens of friends, co-creators all. I’ve already mentioned Naomi Newman, Deborah Winters and musicians John, Ross and Barbara, but I also need to acknowledge the loving support of my wife, China Galland, who not only put up with my daily vocal practice but constantly reminded me of all that really mattered. Friends Evan Specter, Jonathan and Jori Walker, George Carver, Jonathan Greenberg, David Chase, Beth Sperry and Jennifer Asselstine helped with myriad, essential tasks. My son Ben Galland directed the two-camera video shoot with Jeanette Eganlauf on second camera. Our family friend, producer Ben Krames, took on the complex job of making us sound good, in the room and on the audio recording.

At the end of the evening, I told everyone that I hoped they would find a moment to meet anyone they did not yet know. For me, one of the most important reasons for doing theater is the opportunity it can give us to connect with each other, to become – even if only for a short while – a community.

chinaflowerDriving home from the event, China said that she wished we had given people time to share their responses to the performance and speak about their particular connections to me and the others in the room. When I told her that I planned to write about the experience on my blog she suggested that I invite you to post a “reply” or “comment” about your experience of that evening and your own connection to community, art, each other, aging, memory and anything else. We hear a lot these days about neuro-plasticity, how we can create new networks and pathways inside ourselves.   I imagine that we can do something similar between ourselves as well. Let’s begin.

Note: We’re currently raising funds so we can complete editing, mixing and mastering the terrific video that was shot on the fourteenth.  The finished video will be available online and will be an important tool as we seek more opportunities to perform Who Was I?  To support the project, please click here to visit our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, where you can make a tax-deductible donation.

Why I am not in China

It’s been a strange year, so far. The excitement of Obama’s reelection last November gave way to frustration and severe disappointment as Republican intransigence imposed an increasingly unlivable status quo on the country. In spite of nearly ninety percent of the population favoring at least some sort of regulation on the sale of anti-personnel automatic weapons and some sort of meaningful background checks on gun purchasers, absolutely nothing has happened legislatively. Obama’s defense department, and/or the CIA assassinates targeted suspects with remote-controlled aircraft. Polarization of attitudes on race, the economy, religion, the status of women, gay marriage, keeps being exploited by right-wing demagogues. Guantanamo remains open for business. And now we have this counter-productive instance of magical thinking with the non-sequitur name: The Sequester. Sounds like a comic book anti-hero. A new nemesis for Batman, maybe. Anything really valuable is sucked into his force field and rendered worthless

As if mirroring these “outer” events, my own life has become rather surprisingly constricted lately as exciting plans, made months ago, had to be cancelled last March. As many of you who read my blog know, I had been invited to Beijing, Shanghai and Wuzhen, China, to observe rehearsals of an eight-hour long play, A Dream Like a Dream, written and directed by Taiwanese director/playwright Stan Lai whom I’d met in August, 2012. I posted that story with a video of Stan telling how, unbeknownst to me, he had seen TJT’s The Last Yiddish Poet in 1982, while getting a PhD at U.C. Berkeley, and the remarkable effect it had on his work when he returned to Taiwan the following year that.  Meeting Stan, his invitation to spend time with him in China, and a grant from TCG to support the trip all happened soon after Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company I co-founded, closed down after thirty-four years of continuous creation and production.  At the end of 2012 I took what turned out to be an all-consuming and very satisfying job directing Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay.  So I was much too busy to let myself feel the full force of the grief that came with TJT’s closing.

About three weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Beijing I noticed that I was literally seeing double. In 1995, I’d had the same symptoms which an MRI scan revealed were caused by a tiny cluster of non-functional capillaries in my brain stem known as a cavernous hemangioma, which I’d apparently had since birth, but which had just bled a bit, for the first time. The very small volume of blood, not actually needed by my brain, wound up putting just enough pressure on a nerve to impair the movement of my right eye, causing the diplopia, or double vision. At that time, I was told by neurosurgeons at UCSF that the brainstem was far too delicate and vital an area to risk any sort of surgical intervention.  After about six weeks the blood was reabsorbed and the diplopia disappeared.

But, this spring, eighteen years later, it was back. Now an MRI scan showed that the hemangioma had grown as well as bled again. And this time, the neurosurgeon I saw as soon as the MRI results were available felt that surgery might now be possible. In any case, he said that I should not think of going on a trip as arduous as seven weeks in China.  As it turned out, a more experienced neurosurgeon, one of the country’s leading specialists in cerebrovascular surgery, pointed out that the hemangioma was still too far from the surface of the brain-stem to make any surgical intervention possible. His view was that the risks of doing nothing were much less grave than the risks of damaging crucial parts of the brainstem if surgery was attempted.  But the hemangioma has moved closer to the surface of the brain stem since 1995, which is why Dr. Arora – the first, younger neurosurgeon – thought that surgery might now be a possibility. Now the plan is to have MRI scans every three months to monitor the hemangioma.  Meanwhile the diplopia continues.  I wear an eye patch when I drive so that I don’t see two roads and twice as many cars.  But it’s still a strain, as are a range of activities I’ve taken for granted for most of my life.

I’m still learning the boundaries and limits of this condition.  A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a public reading of a new play by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, for San Francisco’s Golden Thread Theatre.  I read a major role in The Admission, a fairly long play that’s extremely dense with history, ideas and competing Palestinian-Jewish narratives.  We rehearsed for two four-hour sessions before the reading. Though I found the first day energizing and engaging, by the time we finished the reading at the end of the second day, I felt as tired as I remember ever feeling after several weeks of full-on rehearsing.

On the other hand, I recently attended a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center given by Norman Fischer, poet, Zen Priest, former Abbot of SF Zen Center, and old friend.  I’ve known Norman for over thirty years, since I moved to the Bay Area, but it was the first time I’d been to a teaching of his.  What an amazing gift to discover an entirely new and inspiring aspect of someone you think you know well.  I knew Norman was a gifted poet with a unique voice. I had once conceived and directed a theatre piece for TJT based on Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew Psalms.  I also knew he was a great father to his twin sons and a loving husband to his wife Kathy, with whom I used to scuba dive in the kelp forests south of Monterey.  Nevertheless, I  had no idea how powerful, clear, funny and moving a teacher of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation practice (Zazen) he is.  The retreat was based on the processes he discusses in his newest book, Training in Compassion.  Since the retreat, my meditation practice has found new life and consistency with no sense of effort on my part.  Reading a few pages of Norman’s book and then sitting simply makes me very happy.  Had I gone to China as planned, I would not have been at Norman’s retreat.  In the phrase Kurt Vonnegut made indelible, “So it goes…”

Though I wasn’t able to visit Stan Lai to begin discussing a possible collaboration, as planned, TCG has extended the  grant period and I hope to catch up with him somewhere in the world by the end of the year.  His eight-hour long A Dream Like a Dream has completed its run in Beijing by now and the review from the China Daily was glowing.

a moment from "Dream"

a moment from “Dream”

Night Falls by Julie Hébert. Co-Directed by Deborah Slater and Julie Hébert. Choreographed by Deborah Slater

ODC Theatre, October 30, 2011

When Lee Strasberg, long associated with “psychological” acting in its most extreme expression, traveled to the U.S.S.R in 1933, he became fascinated by the work of the Russian icon of physical Theatre, Vsevolod Meyerhold. According to some accounts, Meyerhold admitted to Strasberg that his actors had no understanding of the psychological dimension of their work, that they moved as they were directed to, based on Meyerhold’s system of Biomechanics. Nonetheless, Strasberg was gripped by the powerful physical theatricality he saw in Meyerhold’s work, more so than he had been by what he saw at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, in fact.  The two director/teachers agreed that if their methods could be integrated by a single group of actors, something completely new could be achieved.

I thought of this story after seeing the marvelous Night Falls,  a collaboration between playwright Julie Hébert, choreographer Deborah Slater and an ensemble that included two master actor/movers, Joan Schirle and Bob Ernst as well as the luminous  and subtle actor, Patty Silver, two gifted, younger physically accomplished actors, Stephen Buescher and Jessica Ferris and the compelling singer-dancer Patricia Jiron.Bob Ernst, foreground; Jessica Ferris and Joan Schirle, background, in "Night Falls"

Hébert’s eloquent and understated script follows one woman, Peregrine – a  respected filmmaker who is neither rich nor famous, about to turn 60 – through a sleepless night as she agonizes over the unwritten speech she must give the next day at an awards ceremony honoring her work. Peregrine is embodied prismatically by Schirle as what might be called the ego, persona, or that part of Peregrine who lives in the material world; Silver as the “old” woman inside her;  and Ferris as the puella – that part of her psyche which is a perennially adolescent girl.  Ernst appears as Peregrine’s ex-brother-in-law, summoned by a cell-phone call to the wrong number.

The narrative is wonderfully specific, filled with surprising and quirky details that ground what could, in less skillful hands, become heady and abstract. Hébert, Slater and company clearly understand that it’s the concrete particulars that allow a story to become universal.  This rigor exists in both the narrative, with its knowing allusions to filmmaking, both avant-garde and commercial and to the dilemma of the aging artist, as well as  the movement vocabulary shared by the ensemble, pulsing dynamically through the piece.

The masterful integration of the narrative and psychological realms with the physical, gestural life of the piece makes Night Falls a rare and wonderful event.  That’s what brought Meyerhold and Strasberg to mind.  I experienced this sense of super-dense reality most powerfully in the interplay between Schirle and Ernst.  Late in the piece, for example, these two wounded and well-defended survivors of failed loves, meeting by “mistake,” begin to see each other – and themselves – differently. What could be rendered as either a conventional “scene” or as a “poetic” movement duet becomes a stunning, layered, complex exploration of the necessity for and the impossibility of authentic connection. I’d need to see the piece a few times in order to begin to adequately describe what these two brilliant actors do, how they manage to play together in so many different modes at the same time. Their voices and words do one thing, their faces another, their gestures a third. Rather than illustrating what’s being said, the physical interaction arises from a different, parallel dimension so that we experience not only what is but what isn’t, what might be, what is longed for and what is feared. I’ve only experienced such expressive abundance a handful of times in all my years of seeing theatre.

It’s essential to point out that what was being expressed – the pain, frustration, fear, disappointment, wonder and acceptance of mortality; the courageous insistence on knowing self and other – was, to this audience member, vitally important.  That the questions raised were equally urgent to all concerned – actors, writer, director, design team  – was never in doubt. All the collaborators were burning with a shared passion and the result was incandescent.

My only regret is that I saw the piece at the end of its brief run and won’t be able to return several more times and bring everyone I love and care about.  Night Falls proves, once again, that live performance is life-changing. I know this intuitively, subjectively, in my cells.  My entire adult life has been dedicated to making theatre with similar aspirations, so I don’t feel that my praise is in any way exaggerated. The fact the piece had a run of only a few performances, that no venue seems to exist locally that could give work like this a real home for six or eight weeks exposes the shameful state of support for the arts in this city, this state and this entire nation. The fact that such work is being made anyway, is a testament to the very spirit the work so movingly expresses.