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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The Rabbit of Synchronicity

Sally by Beth Van Hoesen

It is no coincidence that too much has already been said about synchronicity, so I’ll “hop” straight into my narrative.

The most excellent bunny pictured at right is Sally, as rendered by San Francisco artist and printmaker Beth Van Hoesen. One day in the late 1980s, while walking west on Sacramento Street, Sally came to mind. I was on my way to see my shrink, Tanya, imagining what it would be like in a few minutes when I entered her office. On the wall just inside the door to the waiting room would be the handsome print of a rabbit.

That image always made me smile. The outright beauty of the creature, its composure, and, as I imagined, a look in her eye that seemed to say, “I’m going to have to think about that.”

As I strolled down Sacramento Street, something struck me that I had not realized before. Tanya’s waiting room was not the first place I had encountered Sally. I suddenly realized Sally used to keep me company while I did my laundry.

There is a coin launderette at the corner of Noe and 22nd Streets in San Francisco that I visited once a week during a period in which I was reading a lot of books on Jungian Psychology – and thinking that being in therapy with a Jungian might be a wonderful experience. On the wall above the driers hung an identical print of Sally.

One day while my laundry swirled, and I had my head in a copy of “A Primer of Jungian Psychology”, a pleasant fellow about my age approached and asked, “Are you a student?”

“Actually,” I smiled, “I’m thinking about getting into therapy with a Jungian, and I figured if I carried this book around long enough I’d meet one.”

I was kidding, or at least half kidding, but the guy was not amused. Rather, he turned suddenly peevish. “That is SO Jungian!” he growled and stomped away a few paces. But then he stopped and stood shaking his head. After a couple of deep breaths he came back, asked me if I had a pen, and gave me Tanya’s phone number.

“How funny,” I thought. Sally saw the odd encounter at the launderette that lead me to therapy with Tanya, and now Sally sees every time I come in for a session.

Something on the sidewalk in front of me caught my attention. I was in that block of Sacrament between Buchannan and Webster, on the north side of the street in the cool shadow of the California Pacific Medical Center. At my feet was a quantity of cedar clippings, some raisin-like rabbit turds, and even a trickle of milky rabbit urine – the entire contents of a rabbit hutch sans the rabbit. “Tanya’s gonna love this!” I recall thinking.

About fifteen minutes later when our session began I described the progression of recollections and discoveries related to Sally that I had just experienced. Tanya laughed and said, “The man who gave you my number is one of my graduate students.” I had not known that. “Did he tell you his name?” she asked. He had not. She laughed some more and told me her student’s name, but I didn’t get the joke so she explained. His last name – Lapin – is French for rabbit.

The Wikipedia tells me that “In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations that contradict prior beliefs.” Whew! Nonetheless, gentle reader, I confess that to my untrained eye, Sally looks very French to me. Perhaps someone who knows their rabbits will weigh in on the lovely creatures likely nationality. Merci !


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The White Mountain Crash

The White Mountain Crash

Part II
( Read Part I )

The White Mountains ranged low and drab to the east, and the Sierra Nevadas rose grand and snow capped to the west. Crisp wind rippling down the valley fumbled over a rusting gas station on the outskirts of Bishop with a sound like strong men shaking out great sheets of canvas.

“You see that little thing at the top?” The kid pumping gas pointed around the back of my VW van. “That little thing sticking up?” The crest line was rugged, but had no distinct features except for a very small projection where he pointed. “I don’t know what it is but somebody put something up there where the plane hit.”

He told me the fire had burned for hours. On dirt bikes he and a buddy had tried to get to the site, but even with all the blazing airplane fuel, the moonless night was so dark they could not see five feet in front of them. And if they kept going the chances were good they would have ended up at the bottom of one of the steep ravines that scar the slopes.

I tried to align the marker on the eastern crest line with the gas station and one of the Sierra Nevada peaks, then headed back the way I had come on Route 395. The first chance I got I turned left onto a dirt road that seemed to run almost directly to the base of the slope below the marker. When the road ran out I parked on the flattest patch of ground I could find and turned off the engine. I was already high enough above the valley floor to have an unobstructed view for miles to the north and south. The gas station was a small box a long way off.

It was about 2:00 in the afternoon. The crash had occurred in complete darkness between 8:24 and 8:28 pm. I reckoned I had maybe three and a half hours to find the point of impact and get my act together before it would be too dark to see my hand in front of my face. I donned my goggles, hoisted my pack on my back, looped the strap of the ice axe over my right wrist, and began climbing a ravine that seemed to run straight up the slope to a vertical rise just below the marker.

It occurred to me that I could easily lose course and waste precious time wandering around. The marker was already almost concealed by the outcropping on which it rested and I knew that very soon I would not be able to see it at all. I decided to remain in the ravine until it ran out, then try to stay aligned with it behind me as I approached the crest.

I could not have invented a more strenuous approach. From bottom to top, the ravine was full of sharp, broken rocks of all sizes that I climbed over and around, drenched in sweat, hands and feet aching.

Around 4:30 the ravine flattened out onto a slope from which rose a sixty-foot-high wall of rocks. I was pretty sure the marker – whatever it was – stood on a plateau straight above me. I was exhausted. Wearier than I had ever been in my life, and a biting wind seemed determined to carry away what little energy remained.

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