The Year Everything Important Happened

Message for You

message in a bottle

Message in a bottle, released into the North Sea in 1904 by the Marine Biological Association, found this past April on a beach in Germany.

A friend has been to a psychic who talks to the dead.   She has a place on Lankershim here in the Valley, it’s twenty bucks, you tell her who you want to chat with, my friend thinks we should go.  Wait, I say with a note of caution, the Long Island Medium channels whoever happens to be hanging around, what does it mean you get to ask who you want to talk to?   This one makes you choose, my friend explains; she doesn’t have time to pick the most interesting or poignant ones, she’s not doing a reality show.  Oh I see, I say; like they’re lined up invisible in the ether behind you, waiting, like she’s the pay phone outside the counselor’s cabin at Camp Wanna-Go-Home.  Up to you, Mr. Skeptic, my friend says.

Fine, I say; I know plenty of people on the other side, who do I ask for?  Who might have something to tell me I need to hear?  Some friendly advice,  a handy tip, a little helpful guidance?  I can’t get the living to return my calls or answer my emails, I tell my friend; what makes me think the dead are any different?  But my friend says he had a great chat with his dad, and this with a man who’d hung up on him seven years ago and then abruptly gone and dropped dead without warning, so as you might imagine there was more than a little catching up to do.  “It was very healing,” my friend says.  “We both got to tell each other how we would have done things differently if we’d known then what we know now.”

I think that’s wonderful, I tell my friend, and I mean it.  There are many paths to healing.  I’m just not sure who I need to talk to over there.  Me, is who I really want to ask for.  I want to talk to the me who passed over in some other time and place, another reality, the me who didn’t make it in one of the countless variations on this plane of existence, the me who made different choices, who didn’t move to the Valley, who got someone to read that screenplay, buy that pitch, the me who hung in there, or the me who gave up and threw in the towel sooner than maybe I should have.  I wonder what that me would have to say to this me here and now.  What could he tell me about how it all works, how our choices matter or don’t matter in the general scheme of things?  How the ebb and flow of fear and courage affect our course, and how the currents of time and circumstance end up taking us to distant shores, foreign lands, and whether we like it or not, to where we need to be?

But I don’t know.  Talking to the dead, ourselves or others, probably isn’t the easiest way to get answers.  Like messages sent in bottles by sea, hardly the most reliable or efficient communication system.  Still, it might be worth a try.



Sergei Polunin

Where do I leave off and everything else begins? Children think nowhere, they stretch and strain and wail, willing the world to obey, to come to them, do their bidding.  I lock myself out on my own balcony when no one’s around; stranded alone and too far to climb down and too shy to call for help.  I leave the truck parked on an incline and the emergency brake slips, the vehicle rolls a city block while I’m attending a play, hits no one, nothing, just isn’t where I left it when I return.  They call it a miracle.  It is.  What might have happened?  Awful to think.

Why did it happen? I wonder.  What’s my part?  Where did I lose control, create the circumstances, set myself up? Is there a message, a lesson?  At what point does gravity take over?  Are the laws of physics kicking in or is my mind going? I ask a friend who says I’m simply not grounded, I need to get conscious. Another friend says, but how lovely, what a relief if that’s the case, you won’t know when it happens; you’ll be able to relax.  Will I?  Or will I feel my influence fading, receding like the tide, pulling away from the land, withdrawing from the world?  I stood there in the bright sun at that railing like a passenger who’s seen his stop go by, and I wasn’t even moving.  What did I just do?  What did I let happen?

Oh Yeats, wondering where the line is drawn between the dancer and the dance.  Let’s go to that cabin and the sound of bees, and the peace dropping slow by that lake.

Oh Balanchine (1904-1983).



Sam Swann in rehearsal for RSC’s Peter Pan

Bosun first seen in 1904, 4 letters, answer below.

So much deja vu lately.  Walking to work yesterday, a jigsaw puzzle someone’s thrown in the trash is spilled on the sidewalk.  My life is a spilled jigsaw puzzle.  Somewhere a piece of smoke blue sky with a strand of palm frond, a shiny isosceles  triangle of downspout and the smudged orange of a roof gable would complete me.   A dream so vivid I wrote it down years ago, with its impossible combination of shadows and lighting and me in the middle, distracted by a splash of vivid colors coalescing in the next room while people near me have a political conversation I want to be a part of except I know it will spoil the moment if I do, so I wake up.  If I could find those dream journals I used to keep I could prove it.

In a flash it is happening, yesterday, the odd pieces and light falling into place, making sense.  The surprise when something makes sense out of disparate elements is marvelous, isn’t it?  Turning that bit of puzzle around in your hand until pure intuition tells you to try it where that distant shoreline meets up with the bow of the yacht in the foreground in the view of the Bay of Naples you put together on a rainy day in a cabin in Vermont.  You are a little startled it fits. Deja vu is like that: is this remembered, you wonder, because it’s the very last thing in this plane of reality you will ever know?  A memento mori?  A lost collection of stimuli stored in a forgotten synapse, waiting to fire one final time? You hold your breath.  Later, the next day, stuck behind a dusty teal green behemoth of a garbage truck, you notice how the oak leaves spill lace on the narrow turn on Nichols Canyon; the filigree light dances just as a yellow Shelby flies into view and a sudden crush of traffic creates a spasm of panic and you wake up and it is deja vu again.  I was here before, you realize; I saw this before, is this the end?

Where do I leave off and everything else begins?  Jigsaw or crossword, it amounts to the same sort of challenge, doesn’t it? A puzzle to sort out, a solution scattered on the curb.  Where does my world end and another’s begin?  Where do my efforts run out of steam and the law of physics or gravity take over?  At what point do you say, this is not me, not my doing, out of my control, and this is the part I was missing, and now it makes sense?

Other clues: Peter Pan pirate; Hook’s mate, Hook’s sidekick


The Wreckers


Ethel Smyth (1858 – 1944) completed the composition of her opera The Wreckers in 1904.  The Fisher Center at Bard College performed Smyth’s work in its first American staged premiere last week.  My dear friend Rose attended.

Based on historical facts, The Wreckers is a familiar and timely tale of a desperately poor community using fanatical faith in Christianity to justify theft and murder.  Encouraged by their pastor, the inhabitants of an isolated village on the Cornwall coast lure ships to wreck upon the rocks in order to plunder and steal their goods.  It is God’s will, the people are told by their religious leader, to use violence against others for their own gain.  “I wanted to go up there and give the stage a good scrubbing,” Rose told me, indicating the extent to which the set designer had gone to portray the squalor and filth of the lives of those righteous folks.

Wrecking is a wonderful word.  Wrecking for profit, to feel like a wreck; to wreck something sounds like more than spoiling it or tearing it apart, there’s a jagged messiness about it.  You don’t win by wrecking, but that’s the point, isn’t it?  Internet trolls and Fox News know that.  You wreck because you have nothing better to offer; you make a mockery of the truth, of other people’s hard work.  Dame Ethel Smyth knew about wreckers; she didn’t just write operas, she was also a suffragette, she spent time in prison, she knew what good Christian men do to women to keep them subservient, control their bodies, deprive them of their rights and freedom.  She knew that sometimes violence was necessary on both sides.  That the world as it was then could not last.  The score, as Rose described it, sounded like a mash up of Wagner and Elgar, a cacophany of Gotterdammerung and Edwardian Pomp and Circumstance.  The sound of wrecking can be marvelous.  Violence at the end of empire can be extraordinary, musically.

In America, violence is an especially powerful force; there’s a mythic belief in the regenerative power of violence (Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence, 1973).  Americans ripped a nation out of a hostile wilderness, they tamed the west with guns and whips and bare fists.  In more recent times American violence seems to have become its own reward.  “Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer,” observes Fight Club‘s lead nihilist Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt; “Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”  Perhaps deep down the evangelical right believes that, even longs for it, to be destroyed in order to make way for a new Eden, a new world.  Or maybe the impotent rage of ignorance and poverty, fanned and fueled by religious zealots and Fox propaganda, will simply lead to destruction for destruction’s sake.  If you can’t offer a real solution, make a circus; send in the clowns.

In England women went to prison, went on hunger strikes and were force-fed, humiliated, degraded, treated like animals in their fight for the right to vote.  In America they’ve been beaten, shot, raped and murdered, sometimes just for being black.  And they’ve written operas.  And they’ve run for president.  And in the end, one way or another, they win.

The Theater of Change

Cambridge (2)

We arrive in Cambridge, New York in a gentle rain.  At the corner of Main Street and Memorial Drive, a scattering of war memorials, monuments, an old piece of artilery, a gazebo decorated with bunting.  It is the Fourth of July 2015.  The cupola in the distance belongs to the Jerome B. Rice Seed Company building. Across the street is The Rice Mansion, which the family moved into inJanuary of 1904; it is now a bed and breakfast.


The Rice Mansion

The family would have moved in earlier than 1904 but the Cambridge Hotel a few blocks away burned soft coal, and the new structure had to be washed before it could be painted.  The Cambridge Hotel had opened in 1885 and ran for years and even appeared in an episode of the Fox reality show Hotel Hell; then it closed, was auctioned in foreclosure, is now being renovated as an assisted living home.

We get a tour of Hubbard Hall from Hannah, local volunteer and tour guide.  Hubbard Hall has a general store on the ground floor and an opera house above.  Small towns in America had opera houses once, sometimes more than one because nice ladies, Hannah explains, wouldn’t dream of entering a saloon or a dance hall unaccompanied; an opera house, however, was something else.  Language helps you negotiate the world; names matter.

Times change.  A business thrives and an opera house opens, a mansion gets built, a railroad arrives.  Small towns boom then bust, retreat into quiet neglect and some are spared earlier cycles of improvement, ill-conceived ‘urban renewal’ projects.   New people show up.  There’s now an arts and theater community growing up around Hubbard Hall, Hannah tells us.  Could I live here? I ask my traveling companion Rose. We have an app for available real estate. We look around.

The baking cheesecake nuns have a convent here, I discover, and brother companions in the local monastery breed and train German shepherds.  There is also a community of married monastics.  “Like the Shakers,” Rose observes, referencing another leg of our journey through this part of the country. “Segregation of the sexes but industrious, and lots of opportunity for religious devotion and sublimation,” she adds. The Shakers, I remind my friend, were responding to change, to the Industrial Revolution, to the transformation of the world.  “And an opera house,” Rose throws in for good measure.

I am reading Stella Adler on American theater.  “Very few people can take change,” Adler says. Think of Miller, Williams, O’Neill. The marriage isn’t working, the family is falling apart, the career has failed, the job is degrading.   “American playwrights write about the difficulties of giving up one way of life and going into another.” (Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, p. 203).

I am always thinking about giving up one way of life and going into another. Could I live here? I ask.  Could I take that kind of change?  Could I make cheesecake?  Volunteer in the local theater group?  Raise dogs?

What You See


Bachelor Dinner, 1904, the Yale Club [Source]

You see what you know; you don’t what you don’t.  The nine of us look like a fairly diverse group to me: from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, a couple native Californians, at least one Midwesterner, a variety of religious persuasions represented, Protestant to Catholic to None of the Above.  We’re all over 21, yes, but with an assortment of occupational and recreational interests; a mixed bag of tastes and talents and styles, out to get something to eat on a rainy night in the Valley.

A lady of a certain age approaches our table.  “Nice to see,” she observes approvingly.  “Nice to see.  You’re a Wolf Pack, right?”

“A what?” asks the Colombian with a slight German accent.

“A Wolf Pack,” she repeats.  “My husband was part of one.  He did enjoy it, I can tell you that.  ‘Goin’ out with the pack,’ he’d say to me and out the door he’d be for a night with the boys.  Hardly boys, though.  He’s dead now, my husband.  Of course, most of the rest of them are too.”

“None of us getting out of here alive,” I offer, and she smiles and nods with an ‘ain’t-it-the-truth’ look around the room.  “Nice to see you men enjoying yourselves,” she adds and wishes us all a good night.

“What on earth was she talking about?” Charlie asks.

“She thought we were men on the town without our wives,” I explain.

“Mine’s right here,” says Hans, and Keith kicks him.  “Husband,” he corrects himself.

“Why would she think that?” Jose asks.

“You only see what you know,” I reply.

“It’s a Valley thing,” observes Steve, which isn’t quite what I meant and probably only true if you’re comparing where we are to West Hollywood.  But we aren’t in West Hollywood and even if we were you still can’t see what you don’t know.  And so even if she didn’t see wives, she knows the defining characteristic of a group of grown men (if you’re a woman of a certain age) is that they’ve got wives at home or used to or at any rate ought to; and having been one herself she also knows how men like getting away from them, and so being the enlightened kind of wife she’s okay with it and even thinks it’s nice.

“Wow,” says someone.   “You get married just to get away?  It’s so… confusing.”

“You think that’s confusing,” says someone else, “try dating one.”

“A wife?”

“No silly, a married man.”

Which we all agree would be very confusing indeed.

Not in this world


Shaker Museum, North Family community, Mount Lebanon, NY

“You have left the world,” our young guide Benjamin tells us.  “You are now in the community of the Believers, otherwise known as the Shakers.  You have entered another realm here,  a new kingdom, a new Eden.  In 1774, a Scottish woman named Ann Lee had a vision to lead her followers to America.   She had a vision of a large tree in America, with every leaf like a bright burning torch, representing the Church of Christ which was to be in this land.”  He gestures to the buildings and fields and woods around us.  It is very quiet and orderly looking here, and very green.  It is also a thick and alive sort of quiet, as if old machinery is whirring somewhere far away, a murmuring in the distance, beyond the tree line; the kind of quiet that makes a buzzing in your ears.  Benjamin tells us about the Shakers, and I am not surprised to learn they kept bees.  The grass is freshly cut and moist, a heavy wet green.  Benjamin explains about the simplicity of the Shaker lifestyle, their passion for order, for economy, their devotion to work and God, their celibacy.

“He had me up to the celibacy,” my friend confides.  Someone asks Benjamin where the children came from.  He explains they were the pre-existing offspring of converts.  And the Shakers also took in orphans.  You could have done worse, I think, in 19th century America, than to grow up in a place like this.  I wonder if I might have been an orphan in those days, adopted by the Shakers.  A psychic told me I was a servant girl in one of my past lives, a maid in a great house ravished on the back stairs by the first footman.  An experience like that would put you off sex, surely; perhaps that was why and when I’d run off and joined the Shakers.  “Dying in childbirth,” I suggest to my friend as a common pitfall to life in the world outside, another reason for becoming a Believer.  My friend concedes that avoiding the perils of constantly having babies would be an incentive; still, he sees the downside: control by relgious doctrine, isolation, subjugation, rejection of the modern.

But the Shakers embraced modern technology, Benjamin tells us.  A Shaker woman invented the circular saw.  The Mount Lebanon community had a telephone line installed in 1883; limited service at the beginning but it was a start; they could communicate with their brethren in Albany without making the time-consuming trip by horse and wagon.  They believed the day would come when telephones would connect them to the world beyond and even make it possible to converse with departed Believers, for they assumed it would be possible one day to speak with their dead.

We decide to go.  We are off to see Whistler’s Mother; the painting is on loan from the d’Orsay in Paris to the Clark Museum in Williamstown which is not far from here.  Whistler died in July of 1903 but the painting was on exhibit in a memorial exhibition in Boston as early as February of 1904.  Unappreciated, even ridiculed when first exhibited, Whistler’s portrait of his mother is later embraced by the public as an iconic image of motherhood, particularly American motherhood; the unconventional and unacceptable becomes traditional; she is put on a stamp in 1934.

We get lost.  Our GPS app fails; it spins aimlessly, looking for coordinates.  My friend is convinced it stopped working as soon as we left the world to visit the Shakers.  The Believers embraced technology all right, he says: they stole our GPS.  We were carjacked by ghosts, he claims.

Departed Believers, I think, who wanted to be in touch.  Watching us as they danced in the thick dizzy summer light, in the burning bright leaves of the trees. Curious about our world, and how we could travel to theirs by satelite instead of stars.

Let’s Go



“For Euler” Mark di Suvero, 1997.

The Universe has a map.  Being part of the universe, you do as well.  But you also possess the ability to second guess and doubt and exercise free will.  So you say, ‘This doesn’t look right,’ or ‘I’m certainly not turning left there,’ or ‘If only I knew where this was all going.’

I have been traveling lately.  How in the old days did we ever go anywhere without phones?  I don’t remember. We got lost.  People trusted we’d show up eventually, or fretted, or formed search parties.  Now we get to talking and disregard the app, or disobey the directions, and she makes a sad sound as she recalibrates our route.  I think the Universe does the same, without the sound effect.  You pass on an opportunity, you second guess an intuition, you think you’re doing it wrong or you pay no attention to what your heart is telling you and turn left instead of right, and the Universe readjusts, corrects course.

We can choose not to pay attention or overthink the situation.  Rodin’s Thinker was conceived in 1880 as part of a larger work but later exhibited on its own and enlarged into the famous monumental bronze version in 1904.  We think too much or not at all.  It is the Fourth of July; we are in Cambridge, New York, and we decide to drive on to Salem.  We skirt the town’s parade and arrive at Salem Art Works.  There’s a gentle rain and students working in the foundry, in the barn, a dog follows the car. We drive up Cary Hill to see the Suvero.  I take a picture with my phone.

Another day we are driving and miss a turn.  We arrive somewhere unexpected.  ‘Oh you’ll like this,’ my friend says. ‘Just around the corner is an old hotel.  It looks abandoned but it’s not.’

‘I know,’ I reply and am surprised to hear myself say so.  ‘I remember.  I stayed here once with a friend.  A long time ago.’

A long time ago indeed.  Thirty years ago.  Before we had phones and apps.  The place was in disrepair then but still taking guests.  It was an adventure staying here, there were supposed to be ghosts. I was with Skip and we had come to visit friends of his with a bookstore in Bennington. Until now I’ve only remembered the trip in pieces.  It was a difficult time, a terrible time, a different world, Skip was more than a friend and I depended on him. I relied on him for so much and I was scared.  We both were, I suppose, but I didn’t think about that, I was too busy counting on him to know the way and I was afraid the day would come when he wouldn’t, when he wouldn’t be there to show me the way and I’d be lost.  I didn’t know there would ever be phones and apps.  I didn’t realize the universe had a map.  I didn’t think I would ever find my way without him.  I worried about being lost.  I thought about it, didn’t think about it, didn’t want to think.

Now seemingly by accident I’m back again.  Skip is gone, has been gone for a long time and without him I have been lost and I have also found my way, and then I’ve gotten lost again, and recalibrated my route, corrected course, moved on by myself.  Or perhaps, having been part of the universe, he is still part of it.  As I am.  As we all are.

‘We were here,’ I hear Skip say.  Or I hear myself say, or I hear a ghost say it.  My friend opens the app on his phone and types in a new destination.  We wait for the GPS to find us.  ‘Let’s go,’ she says cheerfully, as if she knows the way and all we have to do is trust.

‘Let’s go,” I say and set aside my fine ability to second guess and doubt, and I try not to wonder if there is a map and where we might be, on it.



You’ll find the recipe for a Manhattan in Thos. Burdett & Co.’s “Hotel and Saloon Supplies” catalogue (Montreal, 1904) along with a variety of witty toasts, corkscrews and spittoons.  For the very best cocktail recipes, however, you need Harry Craddock’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book” (First edition, London, 1930).  Harry was an  Englishman living in New York, tending bar at the Knickerbocker, who headed back to England during Prohibition and developed his expertise for mixing drinks at the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London.  (He later worked at the Dorchester, after the War, and at Browns).  The creator of such classics as the Corpse Reviver II and the Hanky Panky, Harry also popularized the dry martini.

At a very lovely wedding this weekend the table bases were decorated with reproductions of Gilbert Rumbold’s marvelous illustrations for Harry Craddock’s famous recipe book.  Beneath glass tops and surrounded by Philippe Stark’s Louis Ghost chairs, the illuminated bases cast a soft glow and the effect, on a summer evening on the penthouse terrace of a very chic hotel in West Hollywood with 360 degree views of the Hollywood Hills, Sunset Strip and Los Angeles twinkling all the way to the ocean, was enchanting.  Combined with guests who were sophisticated and beautifully attired, the food fantastic, the drinks intxoicating, a pair of adorable grooms and a hotel staff who could not have been more congenial or helpful and genuinely happy to have us there, and you had an absolutely perfect recipe for magic.

Not all wedding venues are as welcoming, however.  There are also some sanctimonious cake-makers out there – probably a few bitter bartenders and caterers and cooks too – who aren’t about to lift a finger to help celebrate a loving union between two men, or two women.  Love wins, eventually, but not everyone’s going to be happy about it.  My own opinion is, don’t force the haters to host, and don’t ask somebody who thinks you’re going to hell to bake for you.  It won’t turn out nicely.

But make no mistake: this has nothing to do with their religious freedom, it’s about entitlement and it’s at your expense.  They feel entitled to their beliefs and are bound and determined to make sure you aren’t entitled to yours.  It’s sad, really, the way some people will go to such lengths to feel superior.  Not to mention the hypocrisy; preach abstinence while you sleep around.  Really.  It reminds me of Prohibition.  Oh look, they said; look how the working class drinks so much, it’s really not right, they can’t hold their liquor, they’re not like us, with our occasional glass of a fine Merlot, there really should be a law against it.  And then there was, except it didn’t work.  Harry Craddock moved back to England though, where at least you could enjoy his cocktails with impunity.  He never came back.

Don’t get me wrong: few things can destroy a family, ruin lives and careers and marriages or just a fun night on the town like too much alcohol.  You know what else does that kind of damage?  Sex.  Lying about it, cheating around it, keeping it a secret or pretending it doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist, or using it to hurt other people or using it for power or control.  Too much of it or not enough.  It’s a dangerous thing, sex.  So is alcohol.  So is money.  They all lead to ruin if you aren’t careful or aren’t paying attention.  Banning them or outlawing them isn’t the answer.  Because they can also lead you somewhere else.  They are all doorways, after all.  They are ways to experience something beyond the immediate world, which is what makes them potentially so dangerous.  Because in the right amount, in certain combinations, with the proper recipe, what they have to offer you is a glimpse of the divine.


June 22, 1904


Teddy Roosevelt takes time off from being president to write a letter to his daughter Ethel and illustrate it with a drawing of her disciplining her brothers Archie and Quentin, June 22, 1904 (Harvard University, Houghton Library).

I have no desire at the moment to grab anyone by the collar or the hair and swing them around but that doesn’t mean I’ve let go of my need to judge or exert control and be in charge.  I’m not sure what’s changed exactly.  Probably me, certainly not the number of folks out there who could benefit from a little “necessary discipline.” Plenty of them around; if you have any doubt, try merging into moderately heavy traffic on an L.A. freeway sometime and see who let’s you in.  Or not.

I’m not into statements, political or otherwise, emblazoned on the vehicle I drive; I’ve been cut off and sideswiped one too many times by recklessly aggressive motorists with trunk fish and “Baby On Board” warning decals in the window: I’m wise to false advertising.   But someone with more wisdom than I possess recently talked me into putting a rainbow colored OM sticker on the back on my truck.  As if the ancient syllable of creation, message of Peace, Love, Shanti Shanti, would have any effect whatsoever on that Lincoln Navigator pulling up to my bumper baby at 80 mph, right?  Trust me, it doesn’t.

But it seems to have had an effect on me.  A little at least, against my will and in spite of my highly refined sense of justice and self-righteous indignation.  Even if it says nothing to you (or sends the wrong message: ‘old hippy dude in a pick-up’), me it seems to be helping, this sparkly sacred symbol on my tailgate, don’t ask how or why. Lately there’s been a whole lot of people dismayed and distressed by the behavior of other people, and I’ve been told how they need to straighten up, not do that, do something else, never pull that again, watch the f-bombs, and so forth.  A whole lot of some people thinking what other people need is a good swinging around by the collar.  And those other people telling me, just try it, mister, f-bomb you,  f-bomb them.

So there I am, seemingly stuck in the middle, Ethel swinging Archie and Quentin, when all I want to do is merge into one more sunny day without being killed.   And I think, hey, you know what? I’m not going to try and keep the peace or swing around anyone, okay?  I’m not going to grab any collars or hair or control or authority.  Because it’s not necessary, and I’m not in charge, and it’s not about getting you or anybody else to understand or do or see or fix anything.  In the end, for me, it’s about my awareness, my clarity, my consciousness, my peace.  It’s not about you at all.  OM Shanti Shanti.

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