1904

The Year Everything Important Happened

Go for the Gold

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Bronze medal awarded to James Joyce for his singing, May 16 1904 [source]

Joyce was one of 22 singers who entered the singing competition at the Feis Ceoil on May 16, 1904.  He was 22 years old.  He sang two songs – “No Chastening,” from Arthur Sullivan’s oratorio “The Prodigal Son”, and “A Long Farewell,” by Scottish composer Alfred Edward Moffat.  He declined to sing a third number when requested by the judges and as a consequence was awarded the bronze, not the gold medal.

What you do is what counts.  What you don’t do counts too, but in a different way.  A friend went to a party recently, in the hills.  He took video on his phone and showed me.  A techno beat accompanies a slow uncertain panning shot of the twinkle lights of the Valley at night. The infinity pool in the foreground undulates and glows an unnatural aqua.   A giant clear plastic bubble bobs into view on the water’s surface.  Inside the bubble is a female acrobat. “From Cirque du Soleil,” my friend explains as the girl bends and stretches and wobbles inside her plastic sphere.  “She was the entertainment.”  Silouettes pass back and forth.  Then the shape of a small horse obscures the view.  “The hosts have a Great Dane,” my friend adds.  “Nate and Jeremiah were there.”

He means one of the most famous gay couples in the world but not Neil Patrick and David who were on the cover of Architectural Digest recently and currently appear on a billboard in West Hollywood, or Anderson and Andy, who aren’t exactly a couple but are both TV celebrities and BFFs.  “Jeremiah spoke French,” my friend tells me, “because the hostess is.”  He shivers and makes a swooning sound as he rolls his eyes .  “So adorable.”

“I am there,” I say, pointing at the nighttime sky beyond the infinity pool.  I am one of those tiny lights in the distance.  I am not part of a famous couple, but I am part of the view.  We are all who we are, doing and not doing what we know, and what we can, and what we care to do, or not do. We are all going for the gold.

Creative Class

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Betty Compton (May 13, 1904 – July 12, 1944), Ziegfield girl and stage actress who appeared with Fred and Adele Astaire in the original stage production of Funny Face (1927), and married New York City mayor Jimmy Walker in 1933.

Lately I have heard people calling themselves members of the creative class, as opposed to being part  of the working class, although it seems to me to be a fine line between the two since the people making the distinction tend to have jobs of some sort, often at hourly rates or off the books or as a “full-time temp” without benefits and yet perhaps not technically manual labor, except it amounts to the same thing.  Sort of the difference between servant and migrant worker,  “personal assistant” versus “one of the help.”  The creative class is made up of people who have moved to poor neighborhoods (working class neighborhoods) because they can no longer afford the middle class neighborhoods they used to live in; in fact the creative class are the same as poor folks but with pretensions; you could say they are the old middle class but still in denial.

They are not really Bohemians, with all the wild glamor that old-fashioned term might suggest, with its connotations of unconventional sex and drug use and daring political beliefs.  The creative class doesn’t do drugs; they’re in “Recovery,” they want their love and their lovers approved by family and friends and state, they don’t want to live in squalor but organize to spruce up the neighborhood, and they’re not frivolous or foolish with their money either: they dream of 401Ks and owning their own homes like everyone else, there’s even a 12 step program for financial sobriety – as one very cynical friend unkindly calls it, it’s where the creative class people who want to get rich writing poems go and share their pain.

A certain famous British artist was recently reported to have said that “gay people these days are boring,” and in so doing he managed to offend lots of good people out there who are striving hard to have rich and rewarding and interesting middle class lives just like their more successful friends, except of course the reality is not quite so rosy or middle class and their successful friends in the upper one percent aren’t really their friends anymore.  But hey, once in a while a working class boy makes it big and the elite hold him up as an example to prove it can be done, and once in a while a colored girl with a dream ends up having her own televsion network and a palace in Montecito and once in a blue moon a creative geeky kid strikes it rich, so work it baby, dance as hard as you can, lie by that pool under the palms trees and hope you get yourself noticed.  And maybe, just like in the old days, you’ll end up being one of those working girls who hits the jackpot, a chorus girl who kicked her legs up high enough and became a Mrs. Somebody, one of those bad girls who got her hot stuff off the street, got down off that stage and married a mayor.  Toot toot, hey, beep beep.

More Than You

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Confirmation Class, May 22, 1904, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Fremont, Ohio

There are many paths to the Divine.

I was speaking last night for the first time with the director of my play, MORE THAN YOU.  There will be a read-through tonight, another rehearsal Sunday night, a reading for a small selected audience Monday night; it is all very exciting and odd to be talking with someone, anyone really, about characters who’ve been living in my head for so long.  We’re speaking of them as if they’re real.  They are very real, of course, to me, but I’m not used to sharing.  There are many things real to me that may not appear in your world.  And vice versa, I’m sure.

MORE THAN YOU is a miracle play.  “I make nothing up,” I tell the director somewhat tentatively because I am testing the waters.  I wait for her reaction.  She is, I’m relieved to find, unphased by my revelation.  Miracles are tough.  If they were easy, anyone could experience them. So how do you talk about them, how do you accomodate them into your life?  Do you embrace the inexplicable and look foolish?  Or do you dismiss, explain away, disregard?  The characters struggle.  They accept, don’t accept, refuse to surrender.

There are many ways to get to the realtiy beyond this one.  In theater it’s called suspending disbelief.  You can also use drugs and alcohol and sex and money to transcend this world and experience that ecstasy of being / not being in your body.  Or you can join a cult, or a church.  In the play the characters talk about the Frozen Chosen, the Dutch Reformed Calvinist Christians who have faith that they will be going to heaven and the rest of us will be going to hell.  A comforting thought to them I have no doubt, except they don’t seem to have much fun.  As for Lutherans, I’m not sure but I lived in Fremont, Ohio once and I like the picture.  Look at those young faces looking back at you out of the past.  Some expectant, others bored or uncertain.  All of them waiting for the moment to be over, dreading some pending duty or obligation, or anticipating some happy event in the near bright future; some destiny, perhaps, or fate or heavenly reward.  Or miracle.

In Praise of Shadows

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BIANCA DORSO Untitled (Chair in My Father’s House)

May 1, 1904, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak died.  He had been born in Prague September 8, 1841.   We were speaking of Prague the other day, in anticipation of seeing the Helen Mirren film The Woman in Gold.  The subject of the film is Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which hung in the Bloch-Bauer chateau in Panenske-Brezany, Prague East District.  The chateau, along with the art collection, was confiscated by the Nazis and occupied by Reinhard Heydrich until he was assassinated in 1942, after which  Adolph Hitler gave the house to Heydrich’s widow in gratitude for her husband’s heroism and his efforts to exterminate the Jewish population in the German occupied territories. Heydrich was born March 7, 1904.  Heydrich’s eldest son Klaus was killed in a traffic accident outside the gates of the chateau in 1943.  Used by the old communist government of Czechoslovakia as a secret weapons research facilty, the house is, I believe, now empty, although there are reports that Heydrich’s surviving son has plans to restore it.

The face of the woman in Klimt’s painting is surrounded by gold, as though her head floats in a swirling sea of light.  It is the contrast of abstraction and reality that makes Klimt’s work so memorable.  Tanizaki writes about the contrast of light and darkness in his essay, In Praise of Shadows:

“And surely you have seen, in the darkness … how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset.” (In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books, 1977, Harper and Seidensticker translation, p. 22,)

True beauty includes a sense of the temporal, because what is beautiful doesn’t last, like a sunset.  Dvorak’s famous “Songs My Mother Taught Me” [link to Valeriy Sokolov on violin] from a cycle of compositions based on gypsy songs, has that quality, of beauty aware of its loss, of its passing from that brief moment of light and joy into the shadows of time.

In June of 1942, the son of one of the Czech resistance fights, Ata Moravek, was captured and tortured by the Nazis. His interrogators showed him his mother’s severed head before dropping it into a fish tank.  Ata broke down and revealed the hiding place of Heydrich’s assassins, in the crypt of the church of St. Cyril.

Rude Awakening

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Edgar Leeteg (April 13, 1904 – February 7, 1953), American painter who took French citizenship when he moved to Tahiti in 1933 to paint portraits of the locals on velvet.  Considered the father of velvet painting.

Maybe you wake up one day and realize you need to change everything: what you’re doing and who you’re with.  Maybe you wake up one morning and decide to move to French Polynesia and paint barebreasted native girls.

The good news about energy work is that you shed a lot of that emotional baggage you’ve been carrying around with you, inside you, including the anxiety you used to propel you through the day.  You find yourself much calmer and much more present.  The bad news is, you’re aware of the present, and the present feels completely unacceptable.  How on earth did you get here?

In the early 60s my mother would take me on long drives with her and tell me stories.  My father had moved us to Ohio and she didn’t care much for Ohio, so I would go for rides in the car with her on the weekends; sometimes the stories she told me were not about my father and his failings but of books she was reading.  One I remember was about a young girl in London during the War (WWII) who hangs her wedding dress on the back of the bedroom door because she is going to be married the next day to the boy she loves, a handome RAF flyer, but when she wakes up she is in an entirely different room with no wedding dress hanging on the door, and she slowly begins to discover with the help of a kind but timid maid that she was knocked out and lost her memory in the Blitz and married a rich handsome cad, not the sweet boy she’d meant to marry, and time has passed and she is now the haughty bitter chatelaine of a stately home and that was as far as my mother had read.

I have discovered through very casual research that there are nearly two hundred amnesia romance novels (193 titles on a Goodreads List of Amnesia Romance).  Probably many more than that.  It is its own sub-genre in the romance world; apparently heroines are waking up all the time to discover a host of things (some unexpectedly nice, some fairly alarming) that have happened to them while they’ve been out.

I have had eight sessions of energy work.  I wake up this morning to discover that I am much less anxious and upset than I usually am on a Monday morning.  I also discover I have moved to the Valley.  In addition I realize I am much older than I normally think of myself as being and that a host of things have not happened while I’ve been out, including, for example, running away from home and becoming a backup singer or a ballet dancer.  Nor, apparently, did I manage to become the distracted and inattentive lover of a handsome titled Englishman with an ancestral family home in Wiltshire where I was taken after being found unconscious in the rubble from a bombing raid on London years earlier.  Nor am I living in the Place des Vosges in Paris with my younger lover.  Worse, there is no faithful retainer to ring for to bring me my breakfast which in the end is the only reason I get up.  To make coffee.  Caffeine does not produce the panicked rush of despair and anxiety that used to get me going, or not quite, but it will have to do.

And then what?

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Vladimir Nabokov’s map of the travels of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus in Dublin on June 16, 1904, in James Joyce’s  Ulysses.

“So then what?” I ask my friend.

“So then what what?” he replies.

“You surrender your story, your spiritual showing off, your need to explain it all to everyone, and then what?”

He looks at something far away.  “Nabokov said a writer is a story-teller, a teacher and an enchanter.”

“And you just said to surrender all that.  Let it go.”

“What you surrender is your ego.  Your attachment to the story and the magic and the telling.”

“Oh.  And then what?”

“Something so magical and so important and extraordinary happens, you’re pulled back into your need to try and tell it and explain it and revel in it.”

“And then?”

“Ego slips in and you start the process over again.”

“Teacher, Story-Teller, Enchanter.  Did Nabokov think one was more important than the others?”

“Yes.  The Enchanter.”

“I see.  So great art can tell a story and it can teach us.  But above and beyond that, it should enchant.”

“Yes.”

“And what if this is not about being a writer, but just about living your life?  Then what?”

“Above all else?”

“Yes.”

“Enjoy the journey.  Find the magic.”

“And then?”

“Help the rest of us believe.”

Notes for a Self-Help Book

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Edward Hopper “Don Quixote” 1904

Last night I dreamt I met Don Quixote in an old hotel coffee shop; I knew it was a dream because Catherine Deneuve was the girl at the register and wished me Merry Christmas. I sat at a table opening mail that had been forwarded to me, gifts from people I didn’t know. Perfume. Don Quixote came in raving and filthy and wild eyed and I was worried he would make a scene. I realized that once upon a time we’d been involved; that he might have been in love with me when I was very young and he still might be and it was going to be tricky getting away.

I woke up with these Notes which I had begun writing in the dark:

The First Stage is Ego of Ambition. “I came to this town years ago and met so many ambitious people,” a friend observed recently. “Then I went away and have come back to discover that now I know a lot of disappointed people. I know because I’m one of them.”

Age can take care of this stage all by itself, of course; you get older.

The Second Stage is Ego of Story: Pride in What Happened to You, a one-man show meant to shock and impress. This stage too tends to run its course and peter out as attendance drops; eventually you lose interest yourself, although as a wise friend once observed, some folks just can’t get better until they feel their pain has been acknowledged by others.  It may take a while and may even require wearing an albatross as a necktie, as a signal to people to flee at your approach which only prolongs the agony.

Ego of Story then fades and is replaced by Spiritual Grandiosity. The thinking goes, okay fine, my story may be ordinary, not that big a deal, and I’ve failed at everything I wanted to succeed at doing and being and having, but hey, look how spiritual I’ve become.  Am I holy or what? They used to say I’d never amount to a hill of beans, but look at me now, I have seen God, I have spoken to angels, I can read auras, I have an extensive collection of beads and crystals, I have an altar, I smell of Nag Champra incense.

Closely allied with this phase is the Temptation of Miss Jean Brodie. You are overwhelmed by a desire to Impart Your Wisdom and Tell Them How It Works.  “It” may be Life or the World, but it can also be other people – their quirks and foibles and how to manage them – or it may be your Insightful Sussing Out of the System, or your analysis of office politics, the neighbors, traffic and weather, anything you decide requires sharing.  You become the Explainer.  You revel in the Pride of Knowing.  You become a bore.

You may also, somewhere along the line, fall into the Pit of Anger.  God help you if it is justified.  Self-Righteous Indignation is worse than the eternal burning Lake of Fire and very hard to get out of.

And then what?  You have become the Man of La Mancha and sure, they might be giants.  Or maybe it’s just time for more surrender, more letting go.  I think.  Let go of the ambition, surrender the story of suffering, lighten up on the spiritual journey and stop trying to tell everyone how to do what they’re perfectly capable of doing all by themselves, unless they ask, and for the love of all that’s holy and good let the damn air out of that anger before you do something stupid.  Calm down.  Let go.  Breathe.

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Salvador Dali (1904-1989) “Don Quixote” 1957

Awareness

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Room at the Talmadge, photo by Bianca Dorso

Sir Edwin Arnold (June 10, 1832 – March 24, 1904) was a journalist and poet who wrote “The Light of Asia,” an epic poem about the life of Buddha and “The Song Celestial,” a poetic rendering into English of the Bhagavad Gita.

I think I’ve told you I’ve been having some body energy work done.  It’s been terribly interesting: I lie there and sense all sorts of things in and outside of my body.  I become aware of a narrative that begins playing out with flashes of landscapes and people I’ve known and sensations and emotions I’ve experienced intruding upon or overlaying the interior journey.  The hands-on work by the practitioner or cranial-sacral therapist – call him the Teacher – is quite minimal, as if he is only observing from a great distance.  There’s certainly no massaging or Rolfing or kneading or cracking of joints or rearranging of muscle tissue involved, and I keep my clothes on.  Yet afterward I feel I’ve really ‘gone somewhere;’ I am refreshed and rejuvenated and the world seems brighter.

Except for this last session.  I felt nothing beyond a little tingling here and there.  No visuals, no story unfolding, no glimpses of familiar or unfamiliar faces and places, no sense of the ceiling opening up and a celestial presence peeking in on me, nothing.  And I said so.  My Teacher responded by letting me know that what he had witnesed had been my most profound session to date.  I had dropped into still point after still point; my breathing had been in rhythm with the tides, I had gone more deeply than ever before. Or something to that effect, I was too surprised to pay close attention to what he was saying. I replied that I hadn’t noticed anything of that sort, and frankly I was a bit disappointed.

“You are intrigued by awareness,” he said.

I asked what that was supposed to mean.

“It can be another way to dissociate from the body,” he replied.  Especially for people, he continued, who are looking for some kind of high.  People, for example, who have exhausted all the fun out of drugs and alcohol, and so turn to spiritual practices in order to escape their feelings and recreate that ‘out of body’ experience they once achieved through self-induced or self-prescribed methods.  I admitted as how perhaps I had heard of such people, maybe I even knew one or two who’d already consumed their lifetime supply of controlled substances.  Was it so unreasonable to think that you might clean out the liquor cabinet and then go in search of an equally effective but less life-threatening and non-habit-forming alternative.  Was that so bad? I asked.

Not bad, my Teacher replied, as though there might be a better word for it.

“But -”

“But it can be an obstacle on the way to becoming present.”

“Being intrigued by awareness is an obstacle to awareness?”

“A distraction.”

“I see,” I said, without seeing at all.  Or maybe I could see enough to be interested but confused. Here I was just trying to Be Here Now, be in my body, be present, be conscious, be aware.  But okay, I confess maybe I was also a little bit intrigued by the possibility of some kind of pleasant side-effect for my efforts.  I wasn’t out to cop a buzz, or not exactly, but would it be so terrible if it happened?

And yet I think I knew what he meant.  There was this contradiction: I said I wanted to be in my body, but part of me was looking to get out of it as well.  Part of me was saying; fine, you can’t get loaded the old-fashioned way but hey, maybe there’s another way to zone out.  And I tell that part of me,  oh no oh no, I don’t want to zone out, I just want to be aware.  At which that other part of me, the lower part, is like, oh please.  Come on, it says, this dreary present is overrated, it’s hell, let’s get high, have a drink, you deserve it.  And I’m like, but maybe we’re missing something.  Maybe Awareness is fantastic, marvelous, a circus tent just down the road, glowing in the dark, full of promises.

And yet I wonder.  What would it really look like?  What would awareness in the light of day be like, without the thrill of a rush or a high?  What would I see?  What would I feel?  Maybe it would it be nothing out of the ordinary at all.  Blessedly simple, a relief. Like being able to breathe again.  Like walking into a quiet empty room.  Clean, well-lighted, and empty of distraction.  Just that.

We Were There

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Alida Sims Malkus, We Were There at the Battle of Gettysburg, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1955, detail of front endpaper and back jacket flap, collection of the author

Sometimes it feels like running in water, as if you are slogging through the waves of the day, dragging everything and everyone along behind you. Because you are, of course.  All your lives are connected: the one you are living right here right now and all of those other lives you are experiencing simultaneously in alternate realities, in other times and planes and dimensions.  All of them happening in the same relentless rushing Niagara Falls of the Eternal Moment called Now.  The headache you woke up with this morning is a battle wound somewhere else, that hangnail a shadow of the pain you feel when they cut off your hand for stealing in a desperate little village in the south of medieval France.  Your annoying co-worker in this plane is one of the ruling elite in another realm known for its vicious court intrigue and corruption – you see glimpses of it bleeding through into your dreams, that vast maze of office hallways you can’t seem to find a way out of, that long shot of rush hour traffic, that mob marching toward Versailles, the crowd fleeing the Huns, the barbarians at the gates, outside the walls of Jericho, rushing the doors of Walmart,  and you are in it, connected, not separate, that bell you hear ringing is for you and every you that is or ever has been or will be, it’s your alarm clock, it’s the bells of St Mary’s, it’s the insistent tinnitus of time.

What you do matters.  What you do matters here and everywhere.  The ‘soul’ you are saving (if you want to call it that) isn’t just yours, it is your piece of consciousness tied to all the others.  Your choice for good in this reality helps heal your struggling other selves.  Forgiveness here saves a life somewhere else, the way traveling to the past and stepping on a butterfly can change the outcome of a presidential election in the present when you get back to it, as that old sci-fi story explains.  Except, you see, the notion of time being broken into parts of past and present and future is just an illusion that helps make navigation in this set of dimensions easier.  Imagine trying to get through the day if you couldn’t distinguish between “Now” and “Then.”  It is 1904.  It is 1863.  It is 2015.

I loved the “We Were There” books when I was a kid, delightful stories of two intrepid young people, a boy and a girl of impressionable age (you could identify with either, although the boy tended to have more fun), who always happened to show up alongside famous people at just the right moments in history.  With General Washington, with Lewis and Clark, with Jean Lafitte in New Orleans or Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.  At Gettysburg, at Pearl Harbor, at the Normandy Invasion.  It felt like I was there with them.  I certainly wanted to be.  I wanted to be anywhere sometimes except for the place I was.

And I was, you see, without knowing it.  I was everywhere.  I was living in 1904.  I was born in 1904.  I was spending a day in Dublin on June 16th in 1904.  I was there and I still am.  I am there now, and so are you.  We were there.  We are there now.

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The Magic of Thinking

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After Dinner Sleights and Pocket Tricks by C. Lang Neil. London:  C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd, 1904

The other night some friends were talking about magical thinking and I started getting annoyed.  What did they mean?  Did they really know?  I came home and looked it up.  Google says magical thinking is a false belief in a cause and effect relationship.  Step on a crack, break your mother’s back – that sort of thing, where obviously one has nothing to do with the other.  Kiss the dice for a winning roll. Stick pins in a little wax doll and make your cheating boyfriend feel your pain.  Promise your firstborn for a parking space by the front door.  It even works, occasionally, (not the wax doll, I tried that) but of course you know there’s really no connection between the action and the outcome.  No link between some random event and equally random outcome, right?

Says who?

Don’t get me wrong,  I can be as cyncial as the next guy. I know how the world works. I’m no sucker for superstition, and  I can be very discriminating about where and when I see causation or mere  coincidence. Still, I am also an unreliable judge of my own experience.  I have no problem calling religion’s bluff, yet I fully accept that some of you can do anything.  I labor in vain, but all you have to do is roll your eyes to change the outcome of a decision, influence the course of events, shift the trajectory of a life.  I flay my soul and implore the gods to no avail; you smile and light up a room, alter the orbit of planets, save the world.

Okay I exaggerate, a little.  But you know what I mean.  Frankly, if I had the faith in me I have in you, I’d be fine.

Now, where these old ideas come from isn’t hard to figure out.  Beliefs born out of low self-esteem and envy are common enough.  Lack of faith and trust – in yourself at any rate – isn’t very unusual.  Letting go of those old ideas, old doubts, old beliefs (or lack thereof) is the real trick.  And yes, you can hold onto lack.  Lack is a burden like Can’t; it has convincing weight and depth and resistance.

Magical thinking isn’t the answer or the solution, but let’s be clear: Magic is just the word we use for Faith that seems silly, for blindly and foolishly accepting a connection that shouldn’t exist and can’t possibly hold up to examination if we could.  Magic is child’s play, the easy way out: a man pulls a rabbit out of his hat, I have no idea how and I’m delighted.  A bunny appears from thin air and I can’t t explain it but I suspend my disbelief and, unencumbered by logic, I’m charmed.

Try that with the big stuff in your life, and it’s not so simple.  Having faith means having no explanation and making a leap into the dizzying weightless thin air of uncertainty, no parachute of logic, nothing charming about it.  Faith isn’t cosy or safe; it’s letting go of your comforting old ideas about what you think will never work or shouldn’t and doing it anyway.   The real magic of thinking is thinking I can’t, and doing it anyway.  Thinking it won’t make any difference and being willing, in spite of yourself, to try.

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