Why I Read

Featured

trio

When I was four I read my first word aloud as I rode in our 1939 Buick whom my parents had named “Brenda.” The word was café but I pronounced it with a silent e, rhyming it with strafe or waif. It was 1949, the war was over and I had two loving parents who quickly and proudly corrected my pronunciation.

That same year, I began reading L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. I was too impatient to wait for my mother to find time to read them to me so I figured it out.

Along with breathing, eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom, reading is what I’ve spent most of my seventy-two years doing. I read all the Oz books, uncountable comic books, most every science fiction novel published between 1955 and 1962, all of Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Howard Fast (a mostly-forgotten left-wing writer of historical novels like Citizen Tom Paine) I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, Lawrence Durrell, Mickey Spillane, Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki and Jack Kerouac before graduating high school.

Reading was my escape from boredom and bullying, from loneliness and fear. It was my balm and inspiration. It was my mother’s most precious legacy.

U.Inscription

The inscription in my mother’s copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, given to her by a man I never met, five years before I was born.

In college, I read Sartre, Camus, St. Exupéry, Racine, Moliere and others, in French.

So far this year, 2017, I’ve read several books about Buddhism, two novels by George Eliot, Don Quixote, Six novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and four by Octavia Butler. I loved them all. Or: I loved reading them all, even those books I may not have loved in themselves

These days I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s part of aging; maybe it’s the medication I have to take since I had a couple of seizures in 2015. When I finally am able to rouse myself from the intermittent doze in which I nearly drown between the hours of nine and eleven AM, I rush to prepare my gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal and coffee with rice milk in order to begin reading. I read my current book or I read this week’s New Yorker or last Sunday’s New York Times. After an hour or so of crawling, running, leaping and swimming through a few thousand words, my morning depression loses its grip and I can begin to inhabit my body.

This morning I finished reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. It’s a memoir written in very short chapters, some of which are poems. The chapters dance circles around the life and death of Sherman’s mother, Lillian, on the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington, land of no-more-salmon, ubiquitous radioactive waste, alcoholism and internalized oppression.

How can reading about such pain bring pleasure? Is it because Sherman’s stories of his painful childhood on the rez – the poverty, the bullying, the violent chaos, the twisted love – are specific, lived experiences that most humans go through to varying degrees?

I’m getting nervous as I write this. Compared to Sherman’s childhood, mine was edenic. Like all good progressives, I sure don’t want to appropriate another group’s oppression. But Sherman happens to be a fucking brilliant writer who invites everyone into his story. For instance:

After neurosurgery, I have learned that my brain is a boardinghouse where my waking consciousness rents one room with a hot plate and a black-and-white TV while the rest of the rooms are occupied by a random assortment of banshees, ghosts, mimes wearing eagle feathers, and approximately twelve thousand strangers who look exactly like me.

I haven’t had neurosurgery, though it was offered to me once. But I sure know that boarding house. Mine is occupied by rabbis, untranslated yiddish poets, old vaudevillians and my own twelve thousand imposters.

And that’s why I can never stop reading. How else could I understand the ways in which the inner life of a middle class, old, L.A.-born Jew can rhyme with the struggles and revelations of a fifty-something urban Indian writer?

Is it a tired truism to say that reading promotes empathy? Maybe so, but if my life of reading has even partly balanced the human tendancy to draw lines around one’s own race, gender, nationality, species, and place everyone else outside that imaginary circle and call them “other” or “enemy,” then I sing its praises. Reading taught me how to praise and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is as full of praise and honor songs as it is of lamentations. As in my life, I’m not sure which is which.

 

 

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