Tobacco, Flying Saucers and Hypnosis

Saucers Over Hollywood

Is every creative act a form of biography? Does everything we elect to do with purpose and care paint a portrait of us in miniature? And what about those things we do spontaneously with little care? Perhaps even carelessly? Might they actually be the most accurate indicators of who we are – even when we can’t see it ourselves?

And then there’s the stuff that comes to us uninvited? Dreams, imaginings, visions. Is that biography as well?

One of my earliest memories is of a dream. A merchant steamship is moving slowly through thick, silvery fog at dawn or evening twilight. A time that could be any time. The captain steps out of the wheelhouse and leans against a railing looking out into the mist, listening. A lit cigar is pinched between the first and second fingers of his left hand. Smoke drifts from a cylindrical ash at the tip. With the unconscious ease of a maneuver performed a thousand times, the captain brings the cigar to his lips, takes a puff, then grasps it between his thumb and index finger. He flicks briskly with his middle finger and I fall away from the glowing ember. At first I drift on a misty breeze. Then I’m bobbing on the sea, but only for an instant as I feel myself dissolve into the vastness of the ocean, becoming one with it.

I love the memory of that dream, and it may have predisposed me from a very early age to associate tobacco with transformation because I love tobacco too. I don’t smoke often. Perhaps one pipe full or a cigar every six weeks or so. This is intentional so that each experience is intense and approached with sweet anticipation. Colors are more vivid. The edges of objects more distinct, as if outlined – an especially exciting effect when looking at something detailed and dynamic like the swaying bough of a tree. My visual depth of field expands so that items both near and far appear in the same plane and in focus. And I’m filled with contentment and a sense of optimism. As the last puff swirls away and is gone a nostalgia embraces me, like a vacationer saying goodbye to Venice or some other extraordinary place.

I used to know a marvelous fellow named Fred. He was the proprietor of an antiquarian bookshop in Hollywood. For a couple of years I tried to visit him at least once a week, usually on Friday, for conversation and to pore over his recent acquisitions. Most of the books I prize are those he found for me. We had many things in common, including an appreciation of pipe tobacco.

One evening we were sitting together on the roof of his apartment building. Literally sitting on the surface of the roof with our backs against the southern parapet so that we were facing the Hollywood Hills while we smoked. The sun had just set, but the sky still held a magical Southern California summer evening glow. Suddenly we were on our feet.

“Christ on a bicycle!” Fred exclaimed. “What the heck is that!?”

“I see green disks,” I shouted.

“Me too!” Fred shouted back as we ran toward the northern edge of the building. “I count four. How many do you see?”

“I see five,” I told him, never taking my eyes off the line of green, saucer-shaped objects moving slowly westward over Hollywood.

“Are you sure? I definitely see four.”

“That is totally weird! I definitely see five! And they’re moving right to left.”

“That’s what I see too, but I only see four of them,” Fred insisted.

We walked along the northern edge of the roof describing to each other what we were seeing. The details were identical except for the number of flying objects. At the instant that we reached the corner of the roof, the green disks changed course and began moving south. We stood watching and describing what we were seeing until they were out of sight.

This is another cherished memory. Vivid and sweet with the giddy mystery of something entirely unexpected. That part of me that wants to be surprised…that wants to have to rethink everything I thought I already knew…loves to remember Fred and me standing on a rooftop, amazed and gawking at a spectacle in the heavens.

At the same time, I’m possessed of a theory regarding what might have taken place. Imagine, if you will, two guys contemplatively smoking their pipes at twilight. Something happens. Something just slightly outside the center of their vision. A super bright flash of some sort. Perhaps an arch light coming on in front of a theater a little north of them, then instantly flaring out. The light bounces off a row of windows on a high rise building and reaches their eyes in an identical linear pattern. Except perhaps that some object obstructs one observer’s view just slightly so that he sees one fewer elements than his companion.

So intense is the flash, and so wide open are their tobacco-loosened pupils, that they get temporary retinal burns that register as green disks slightly left of center in their vision. And as off-center retinal burns will do, they move away as the two amazed onlookers attempt to examine them more closely…right to left until they are gone.

I like that hypothesis almost as much as I cherish the memory of the unlikely experience.

Another time, I was sitting by myself at the beach smoking a pipe. The sun had set. The wind was up and I was cold. My senses were maxed out. I was feeling so much that I was feeling nothing in particular. Before me the sea and sky were identical gray, demarcated by a slightly darker seam horizontal across my entire range of vision.

Suddenly the horizon split. It opened so that the sky above and the sea below were separated and there was a plane between large enough for me to pass through. And I did. For what seemed a joyous eternity I moved over the water and under the sky toward something marvelous that I experienced as a meeting with a beautiful, extraordinary person.

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8mm Ideas – Small Works of Wonder

8mm Workspace

For many happy years, Molly and Ryan were my neighbors. To give you a sense of their style, a while back they brought home a beautiful, petite and anxious rescue dog named Stella. One of my fondest memories of the trio is seeing them at a distance walking together in the neighborhood. Something unexpected would happen and Stella would bark. Always, Molly and Ryan’s response was the same. They would lean down and say something gentle to their small friend, and all would be well. If called upon to draw an image of patience and kindness a tableau of the three of them in silhouette would be what I’d try to sketch.

Molly is an artist whose work can be seen at www.8mmideas.com. I’m especially a fan of her cards. I suppose greeting cards is the conventional name for what I’m talking about, but I don’t think that really works in Molly’s case since she is a purveyor of sly entertainment – of complex ideas expressed in compact images.

In the 60s Marshall McLuhan proposed that the way that an idea is expressed conveys a message that is more significant than the content of the idea. In other words, I might employ a Google search to learn the answer to a particular question. And though the answer I obtain might seem important to me in the moment, what’s more important is the implications for my life of the fact that I can secure answers in that way. The implications for my life is the message, but I can only receive that message if I look beyond the immediate answer I receive and contemplate how my life is changed by being able to secure answers in that way.

I guess that sums things up

I think Molly’s work provokes such contemplation, and in some cases the unsuspecting viewer is tossed into a contemplative hall of mirrors. For example, one of her images offers a representation of the English alphabet as expressed in American Sign Language, over a fragment of paper torn from the upper right corner of a sheet upon which an observation has been typed via an old manual typewriter: “I guess that sums things up”. And all of that appears on the front of a “greeting card.” The image content and the implications for my life message are blended together. The interpretation that came to me is that what’s important…what sums things up…is that Molly’s image describes and also embodies communication as what we do with our hands. The motion of our hands is the A, B Cs. And perhaps she is also hinting that such a notion falls on deaf ears.

Of course, it could be that I’m imposing ideas on Molly’s images that would not resonate with her at all. And I love that about her work. At least for me, her images provoke interpretation. Each is much more than the expression of a sweet idea. It is also a gentle, deeply layered provocation to tumble through carefully choreographed associations.

I Want You Here Now

Take, for example, her image I Want You Here Now in which retro elements suggest the timelessness of a particular sentiment – the desire for the return of the beloved. Carefully chosen type faces, complete with ascender elements that wave like banners, and words arranged with careful imprecision, convey the urgency of someone hastening to compose a sentence before the magic of the moment slips away.

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Earth, Air, Water

Desser House Chips

People have been acting for a very long time, and the profession is rich with allure. Nearly 2,500 years ago, in his tragedy The Bacchae, the Greek playwright Euripides observed:

Headlong he runs to death.
For death the gods exact, curbing by that bit
the mouths of men. They humble us with death
that we remember what we are who are not god,
but men.

What joy to speak such lines before an audience! To call to the assembled crowd, enjoining them to consider such themes! What ham bone could resist such glorious occupation.

But actors also engage fundamental notions by which people understand the world in a way that transforms them. There is no higher praise than when a performance elicits remarks like, “I really believed what she did!” Or “He made me forget I was watching a play – I was there with him in some other place and time!”

The desire to work such magic can tempt the actor to dabble in risky psychic business. Participation mystique, for example, regarding which C.G. Jung explained, “It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”

If everything works out all right things are cool, sometimes even impressive. But, as my shrink Tom once remarked, “It’s like walking around with your unconscious hanging out…no wonder strange things happen.”

FADE IN

Imagine the interior of a 1966 BMW sedan. We had been on the road since 2 am, talking movies and screen plays and actors and directors. Ahead Highway 86 glided through the halo of our headlights, sliding endlessly away under the car. Out the back and side windows the star crowded sky glistened above the empty black silhouettes of the hills.

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Behind the Taj Mahal

Mortier Jaj Mahal

Until 1919 Santa Fe Springs, California, was all farm crops and orchards. But then oil was discovered and within ten years the formerly tranquil agrarian community was producing more petroleum than any other town in the state. A forest of oil derricks sprang up, many on the sprawling Hathaway Ranch, and members of the Hathaway family formed the Hathaway Oil Company.

The family’s cluster of ranch houses on sites across the street from each other on Florence Avenue morphed into Mediterranean style villas. By 1968 when I began working nearby, those stately, high walled and tree shrouded residences were a little puzzling to look upon, surrounded as they were by dreary oil field desolation.

One of the children of the Hathaway oil barons, Julian Terrell, or Terry as he preferred to be called, was my boss. To the best of my knowledge, Terry had little or no interest in the oil business. Though I worked closely with him for almost two years I cannot recall him ever mentioning his family, or that they owned the oil derricks that dominated the view out the back door of the warehouse where Terry was the proprietor of a somewhat unusual business enterprise.

The warehouse included a huge workshop where my colorful mates and I punched our timecards each morning then set about repairing and restoring mechanical musical instruments. This arcane field was Terry’s area of expertise. The machines he had restored himself were magnificent. His understanding of all the arcane aspects of the field was encyclopedic.

It was great fun to watch Terry noodle over a restoration challenge. His eyes would narrow, and after a moment or two of consideration, he would explain the whole thing and give me direction. Every day was a tremendous learning experience. And it was also a marvelous opportunity to work with unusual materials. Fine woods . Exotic leathers. Kangaroo leather was my personal favorite. Shiny black on one side, soft greenish yellow on the other, and extraordinarily pliable. Great for gussets in the bellows of the pumps that pushed air through the tubing that animated the lovely old mechanisms.

The machines themselves were usually very big and very heavy. Most were constructed in Germany and Belgium between 1880 and 1920. Some were band organs, intended to produce raucous music loud enough to be heard over the din of crowds and machinery at amusement parks. Others were orchestrions intended for use in dance halls and salons, subtlety engineered to simulate an orchestra. Occasionally a simple player piano would find its way into the shop, but they were of little interest to Terry. For him if there was not at least a little mystery, or some sort of puzzle to solve, it just wasn’t fun.

Most of the time he exercised his wits figuring out how some strange mechanism was supposed to work, but on one memorable occasion the challenge was to figure out how to get an especially big machine that had been delivered in pieces put back together again within the limited vertical space available.

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Tempest in the Wild

Mountain Road

In the 70s a pal of mine, Danny, decided to stage a minimalist production of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” All fifteen of the primary speaking parts would be played by just four or five actors. The action of the play takes place on an enchanted island that is perceived differently by various characters, so Danny gave his actors the opportunity to experience first hand some distant, non-urban locales. Places like a remote area of the desert at sunrise and a sunset viewed from high in the mountains.

Dawn in the desert was an especially magnificent experience. Darkness and stars. The gradual booming of wind as the sky lightened. The silhouettes of shrubs, the ripple of dunes on the horizon, and my companions slowly appearing out of the gloom. Gray, then vibrant color as the air began to warm.

But the adventure in the mountains was different. It calls to mind a line from the play that runs, “Hell is empty and all the devil’s are here.” One of those opportunities to remember to be careful what you wish for.

To put some aspects of the story I’m about to tell in context, this was a time before cell phones and text messages. There was still enough space between all of us that the Symbionese Liberation Army could rob banks, commit murders, and elude Johnny Law for three years while accompanied by a celebrity millionaire. It was the decade of Ted Bundy – 30 homicides in seven states. And anyone who had watched footage from Vietnam on television knew what an M16 assault rifle looks like.

So imagine four people in their twenties swaying to and fro in a big, new Ford van as we wind our way through lush and beautiful mountains, looking for a place to stop for the night. We had not seen another living soul for a very long time. Danny slowed the van and we pulled off into a flat patch of forest that quickly closed in behind us. The location seemed ideal. We did not have a camping permit, but it was unlikely that we would be discovered since we could not be seen from the road.

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Boyo and the Psychic’s Gift of a Wise Man

Boyo At The Door

I have a confession to make. If it happens to be my good fortune to become a cat’s favored pal, something I like to do very much is bite my feline friend. Specifically, I will clamp my choppers firmly…but not too firmly…on the loose flesh of the back of the cat’s neck, then slowly shake my head from side to side. If I have not misread the signs, and the cat is indeed favorably disposed towards me, the delicate beast’s eyes narrow happily and he or she gives forth with thunderous purrs.

I mention this because my sister, Nanno, lives with a cat named Boyo. They have shared a lovely apartment in San Francisco for a number of years. Like most of us, Boyo has issues. But from the beginning, Nanno has been determined to make their relationship work. Her efforts have included engaging, from time to time, the assistance of a cat psychic who lives in Seattle. The way it works is that Nanno calls the psychic who, for a modest fee, acts as a mediator between Nanno and Boyo.

One holiday season Nanno came home to find that Boyo had taken liberties with the Nativity set. The small wooden figures where no longer grouped around the tiny Christ Child. Instead, Mary, Joseph and the wise men were scattered to the four corners of the living room, and one of the wise men was nowhere to be found. So the next time Nanno called the cat psychic to discuss relationship stuff she also asked the psychic to enquire whether Boyo could remember what he had done with the missing wise man.

The psychic asked, “Is there a heating vent in the floor of the hall just outside the door to the living room?” Nanno said there was. The psychic said, “Boyo knocked the wise man down into the heating vent but it did not fall very far. It’s on a ledge just a few inches under the vent grill.” Nanno got a flashlight, looked through the vent, and sure enough, there was the wise man lying on his side on a narrow ledge.

Another time when Nanno and the psychic were talking long distance the psychic asked out of the blue, “Who is the big blond guy?” Now in human terms, I’m not very big, but to a cat of Boyo’s scale I probably seem rather large. And though there is now considerable gray in my hair, the DMV still categorizes me “BLN.” Nanno suggested, “It might be my brother.” The psychic was silent for a moment then asked, “Does your brother bite Boyo?” Nanno acknowledge that I do indeed bite her small friend, and she asked the psychic, “Does Boyo mind?” “Oh no!” the psychic assured her, “He loves it.”

I’d like to think there is a moral in here somewhere. But maybe not. I have nothing more to add except to report that as cats go, Boyo is most savory. Cheers!

Crimson Rain

Nicholas

I will give a faithful account of the strange events that took place in the courtyard at the Archbishop’s residence. But to do so I will need to share some things that happened, and did not happen, a long time ago.

In my youth I was not an especially clever student, so it was frailty of constitution, the result of asthma, that spared me the burden of military service. I consider myself fortunate. My brittle wit was no match for the iron logic that sanctions contests of science and horror. I happily accepted a medical dispensation.

As a consequence, my humanist principles did not clash with societal cravings for destruction until much later when my writings began finding their way into print. But even then, I set no significant noses out of joint because my readers were primarily students of Western Cultural History – a group that is, by definition, out of touch with the present. They and I can say pretty much whatever we please since no one else is listening. Or so I thought. But I get ahead of myself.

Until the incident in the Archbishop’s courtyard it is unlikely anyone ever speculated about my motives. Or if they did, the conclusion they would have reached was that I had none beyond the reflexive promptings of habit. Nonetheless, so you will not find my actions entirely out of character, I will confess to a special interest which is inconsistent with my otherwise retiring academic persona.

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Continuity of Motion

Robert Mitchum arrives

There used to be a Tower Video store near the corner of Market and Noe Streets. I loved dropping in on the way home from work on Friday nights. Sometimes renting DVDs, but more and more often buying them as prices dropped. In the weeks just before Tower closed their doors for good they had big bins of DVDs in the front of the store near the windows, and you could buy two or even three DVDs for just a few bucks. I began picking up armfuls of noirs, mysteries and classic horror movies – genres with a high melodrama quotient. And almost all the prints were in glorious black and white.

I’d stroll out of Tower carrying a bulging yellow bag or two, stop by la Mediterranee for take out of whatever amazing chicken special was offered that evening, then hurry home to lay the swag before my wife. We usually ate dinner while watching whichever of the movies I’d brought home she thought she’d like best…or mind least…then I’d put on the earphones and watch three or four more until I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

It was during one of these late night movie binges that I discover a 1951 RKO Pictures production called “His Kind of Woman.” It was included in a film noir collection, and it certainly has the look of a noir. But it’s also wildly comical. And there’s something wonderfully fresh about its hero in terms of what he confronts, how he responds, and the liberties he achieves as a consequence. Also, as I learned about the strange circumstances under which the film got made, I came to think of it as an extraordinarily willful act of self expression on the part of its producer, Howard Hughes.

An RKO Radio Picture

Hughes acquired the RKO Studio in 1948. Over the course of the next eight years he destroyed it. His opening move was dismissal of three-fourths of the studio’s employees. As the craziness that became known as McCarthyism gained traction, he did not try to shield the studio’s talent from the purge. Rather, he enthusiastically tossed suspected Communist sympathizers off the payroll. And from first to last, his imperious micromanagement undermined his creative teams’ control over their work. Lots of theories have been offered to explain why he would do so many things that could not help but gut the studio. For example, some contend that RKO was already losing money before Hughes took the helm, and because he really didn’t understand the movie biz, he did things he hoped would cut costs that actually hurt the business more.

My guess is he never really cared about the studio as such. Acquiring RKO was just a convenient way to get all the things he needed to create self portraits on a scale as big as the technology of the time permitted. Projected patterns of light on huge silver screens that brazenly offered for examination everything he knew about everything. Images of his world view and inner self that would live on long after he was gone. When it came down to it, such a project really didn’t need a whole Hollywood studio. And it certainly didn’t need other people with other visions trying to interject their stuff. He wasn’t in it for the money, or to provide employment for others. It was self portraiture in a medium only a Titan could afford. RKO Pictures was his pantry of consumable art supplies.

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Tarot & “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Druid Craft Tarot - Strength


Spoiler Alert:  In the following discussion with tarot reader Nan Budinger some key plot elements from the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are revealed. See the movie before reading further.


Thrum:  Nan, you are a corporate namer – you’ve named companies and products. You’ve written screenplays. Spent lots of time thinking about images and stories. How did you become interested in tarot?

Nan:  I was moving my office from one location to another and I came across the business card of a tarot reader I had met years before at a party. I thought, “This is a time of great transition!” I’d never had a tarot reading and I didn’t have a clue what they were about. I just knew that this reader was an interesting person, so I thought it might be fun to get a reading. The experience included a great moment of recognition. I realized that tarot was all about engaging archetypal imagery. It just made so much sense to me. I was delighted. I gathered as many books on tarot as I could, and read as much as I could. I learned that tarot is a mystery tradition and that I really needed a teacher. So I looked on line and discovered some tarot classes were starting the following week. I took classes for a year and about nine months into the process my teacher said, “You should be doing this too.”

T:  Do you feel that there is a storytelling aspect to reading tarot?

N:  Yes. The cards all contain images of deep symbolic and archetypal significance. So the way that you do a reading is that a question or a problem is posed and you put a spread of cards in a pattern. Then you look to find the story that is emerging through the relationships of the images offered by the cards in relationship to the question or the problem that has been posed. So, yes, it’s a lot of storytelling.

T:  Do you see any similarity between film editing and what’s going on when you are doing a reading?

N:  I’d say the primary difference is intent. With film editing, as I understand it, what you try to do is create associations that are relevant from one scene to the next. And that happens most often through the placement of images that have particular symbolic meaning. So the film editor is creating associations that may remain more-or-less unconscious to the viewer, but the viewer nonetheless experiences a sense of continuity in terms of the storytelling. With tarot, however, you’re working with a pattern of images that came into relationship with each other without your conscious intent. The film editor crafts associations, images and their relationships. But with tarot you’re looking at images as they are placed in relationship to each other within the spread – and interpreting them on behalf of the client. And, hopefully, you’re able to get your ego out of the way and let the imagery speak.

T:  You recently saw the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” How did you like it?

N:  I thought it was really wonderful. It was a movie that seemed to trust in the images themselves to be able to carry the movie. There was little dialogue. The plot was really, really simple, following a young girl on an archetypal journey to establish herself in the world.

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Abandoned Farmhouse

Abandoned Farmhouse

When I was a child Telegraph Road was the boundary that separated the known from the unknown world. Most of what lay to the east of the highway was familiar – markets, schools, tracts of modest homes, and lots of churches – mostly seen from the backseat of the family car.

But to the west of Telegraph stretched a vast oil field, prickly with towering derricks that cast long black lattice shadows across amber-colored soil. The ground had been saturated with a deadly liquid, sprayed everywhere from the backs of tanker trucks to keep living things from sprouting. If the wind blew hard enough to get the grimy earth airborne its acrid scent would haunt you until you bathed.

It was a land of big things standing at a distance from each other. Massive moving parts. Perpetual mechanical labor. Never resting, or changing, or finishing their chores. Seeming to need and offer nothing. It was a place into which a child could not venture on foot because there could be no sensible answer to the inevitable question, “What’s that kid doing going into the oil field?”

So it wasn’t until I got a bicycle that I really saw the details west of Telegraph up close. Even if you’re a pale, quiet kid, if you ride with purpose, adults assume you are going somewhere. That something sanctioned is afoot. Something more than a near-automatic response to insatiable curiosity.

Each foray took me deeper and deeper into the wasteland. There I found an endless grid of dirt roads, old pumping stations, rusting chain link fences, and even the occasional incongruous cluster of small, unkempt houses with old cars or pickup trucks abandoned in the front yards.

The bleakness was an irresistible fascination. And going to see it was emancipating. I was where children were not supposed to go. I was exploring on my own terms. As long as I kept moving I had a free pass. It was the harsh counterbalance to the rest of my experience. To the dull, safe, swept-porch uniformity of life to the east of the highway.

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