FIRST LIGHT, FIRST LIFE
Expanding students' worldviews
EYES WIDE OPEN
The opening chapter, "Optical Illusions"
SEEDFOLKS PLAY OPENING
The first scene, showing the spoken musical style
FROM SEED TO SEEDFOLKS
How the book about the founding of a community garden came to be
MY HOUSE OF VOICES
A tour of my childhood home
An excerpt from my Anne Carroll Moore Lecture, describing my career as a teenaged printer
A piece published in "Shouts and Murmurs" in the New Yorker
A READER'S GUIDE TO ZAP
Information and resources on the plays and playwrights spoofed in the play
FIRST LIGHT, FIRST LIFE:
Expanding students' worldviews
With its braiding together of creation motifs from around the world, First Light, First Life might seem to have been rushed into print to counter the nationalism and religious intolerance that's erupted into American political life. If only my crystal ball were that clear. In truth the book came from far in my past, and all our pasts.
"A man is known least to himself," wrote Cicero. The same holds true for our cultures. Immersed in them, we can't get an objective view and tend toward thinking they're universal, or should be. Many are the societies whose name for themselves means "the people." I accepted unthinkingly the white, upper middle-class world of Santa Monica, California that I grew up in. We were "the people," confirmed by the programs we watched on TV. Everyone lived in the suburbs, didn’t they? But then other possibilities presented themselves.
These arrived through the air. At ten years old I received a shortwave radio. Suddenly my world's boundaries shot outward. My classmates got their news from Walter Cronkite; I got mine from the BBC, Radio Peking, Radio Australia. I listened to the latest Beatles hits on KRLA but also to music from the Middle East with its foreign, captivating scales. Each station was its country's chamber of commerce and culture. I heard programs from Norway in praise of saunas and Radio South Africa's explanations of the many benefits of apartheid. English was one tongue among many here. Listening to languages I didn’t understand showed me the purely musical side of words, something that would inform my writing decades in the future. Every house should have a shortwave.
And so it was that in high school I began slipping into churches for the first time in my life and sampling their services. I watched my neighbors and did what they did, fumbling to find the hymn that was being sung, dropping down onto the kneeler when they did. The same impulse must have led me to attend my first folk dance. The small room was packed with college students dancing in snaking lines to music from Bulgaria, Israel, Sweden, French Canada. The songs weren't just in 3/4 or 4/4 rhythm, but in 7/8 and 11/16. I knew none of the steps but I was hooked.
Though I concentrated on English and history in college, I found myself studying mythology and folklore on the side. I memorized Greek myths, filling the hole left by my secular youth. I pored over the bizarre customs and beliefs in The Golden Bough, James George Frazier's tour of the world we'd all come from. And then came one of those right-book-at-the-right-time moments: opening Patterns of Culture by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, a portrait of the differing values encouraged by the consensus-minded Pueblo Indians, the belligerent Dobu of New Guinea, and the reputation-obsessed Kwakiutl of British Columbia. For the first time I felt I had a view from above of my own society and its heavy weighting toward competition and individualism.
I finished college in multicultural Albuquerque. Living there again years later, I attended the right party at the right time, during which a woman appeared with a loop of string and did the opening move of cat's cradle. She held it out to the man beside her and though none of us had played this string game since grammar school, he remembered the next move. The string came to me. I was surprised that I remembered as well. The woman I turned to had grown up in Nepal. Amazingly, she too knew the next move. Though we'd come from many places, it was as if we'd had the same childhood.
These many tributaries flowed into Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal, a weaving of Cinderella variants from around the world into a single strand, a testament to diversity as well as the commonality of the human condition. That book in turn led to First Light, First Life. Cinderella's story is folklore, but accounts of creation are something more. Believing or not believing them matters to people. What matters for me is the larger truth: that our beliefs vary widely and that the culture around us is only one square in the quilt. And what a marvelous, many-colored quilt it is. Children are never too young to learn this.
The same goes for adults. The urge toward group identity and exclusion of others is strong, a perpetually easy sell even though we know where they can lead when stoked: to walls, scapegoating, war, genocide. Gaining altitude and perspective has never been more vital. Books can lift us above the ramparts we've built around ourselves. I salute the writers who taught me to see beyond borders, and the teachers who brought me their books.
EYES WIDE OPEN: Optical Illusions
Everybody lives inside his or her own movie. Mine had usually seemed a light comedy. Then I noticed the first dead bee on the driveway. Then three or four every week. Then the weeks became months. The soundtrack turned ominous. What was this--Stephen King?
When I was a kid, we used to cut out articles about strange goings-on and bring them proudly to school. These were "current events." Interesting fact: they only happened to other people.
The same with history. Every June we turned in our history textbooks even though our teachers might only have reached the Model T Ford. Who won World War I? Have a nice summer! History was the dusty past, unconnected to us.
Staring at the bees, I knew otherwise. History is happening right here and right now, whether you live in New York City or, like me, in little Aromas, California, a town too small to merit a traffic light. What was up with the bees, I wondered. And the environment in general. What obstacles are we facing? What solutions have we come up with?
The great thing about history happening right now is that it's all around you. That's also the not-so-great thing. There are plenty of facts, but we're so close to them that it's hard to know what they mean or which ones are important.
This is especially true today. Adolescence is dramatic and untidy; so are periods when societies change. In times like these, the street-level scene can feel too confusing to comprehend. But in the course of trying to answer those questions, I found some ways to get altitude. Each of the chapters after the introductory section offers a different lens to peer through. Suddenly, we can make out patterns and principles that are driving the headlines. Having names for them will grant you power. You'll begin noticing the same things going on elsewhere in advertising, politics, and the whole culture we're part of. It all starts with seeing, and seeing through the everyday world's two biggest illusions.
It's always been this way. Air-conditioning. Phone calls bouncing off satellites. Clothes driers and gas lawnmowers. Driving to school and flying cross-country. They're all so common that we hardly notice them, but they're barely older than your baby brother. Over the past 200 years we found out what coal, then oil, then natural gas, then the atom could do for us, making leaps in agriculture, medicine, and a hundred other fields that have given us the world of wonders we inhabit. No humans have ever lived as we do.
Everything's fine. Technology's successes have been flat-out dazzling. Now, in our era, its side effects are emerging--the jaws behind the environmental crunch. Modern farming gives us astounding harvests, but its pesticides killed many of the insects that used to pollinate our crops and most likely did in the bees I found. The amazing new world we've created has created new residues. These have led to big unintended problems, from ozone holes to changing climate. These problems were so long-term that we couldn't see them for the first 200 years. Suddenly, they're in sight, close enough to touch.
This environmental news may turn out to eclipse all the wars and other doings in your history textbooks. Other books and resources will give you much more detail on the science involved. My subject is how we're responding to the writing on the wall, with a focus on the United States. Progress, we now know, doesn’t bring only good things. Causes and effects can be separated by decades and jump over continents. National borders are increasingly beside the point while the oceans and atmosphere are more important than ever. We're all trying to catch up with these facts. It's a changed world.
The more I researched, the more I realized that science is only part of the environmental story. Money turns out to be as important as molecules. Science explains what Nature is doing; money often explains what we're doing. Power and politics are bound up with money. That's why they're included here and why I've drawn on history, psychology, and sociology to help explain what's going on.
What you won't find here: a list of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Instead, the book is a briefing that will launch you on your own list. Notice. Gather information. Reflect. Refine. Act.
You've got power in those acts--what you buy, what you eat, how you get around, what candidates you support, where you throw your energies. This book's goal is to give you a foundation under your decisions. Let's get started.
EYES WIDE OPEN. Copyright © 2014 by The Brown-Fleischman Family Trust. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
SEEDFOLKS PLAY OPENING
(Lights up revealing LEONA in winter clothes staring upstage at vacant lot with apartment living rooms left and right. She turns toward audience. Lines in italics should be spoken but delivered as if sung, bringing out the rhythm and rhyme. SAM and CONSUELO enter separately after LEONA begins.)
This lot is an eyesore!
F for content, F for neatness,
A for ugliness and squalor.
It's a nosesore!
Part sewer pipe,
part long-forgotten sauerkraut.
It's an earsore!
A symphony of breaking glass
and howling cats and squeaking rats.
Keep it down!
(HOMELESS MAN and WOMAN disappear from sight. LATEESHA, PHILIPPE, GINNY, AMIR, and GONZALO gradually enter.)
This lot is a stray dog.
An out-in-the-rain dog.
What is it with this lousy lot?
(Enters using a cane. )
Actually, this lot used to be a home. To a lot of people. There was a candy store on the ground flour. A Romanian family.
They used to have stores that just sold candy?
They didn't just sell it--they made it. Licorice, toffee, marzipan. And on this side they sold fabric and buttons, everything for sewing. My friend Marilena Macek lived one floor up. And there were three more floors above hers.
(ANA looks up at the space above the lot.)
There were wedding parties.
There were new babies born.
Shelling peas in the spring.
Husking summer corn.
Then the building burned down.
Now people walk by and don't realize
how much life was once lived there, in thin air.
(All heads are raised.)
Which is all well and good. But these days?
This lot's a disgrace!
(She retrieves the trash receptacle and slams it back in its place.)
I turn my face when I pass.
A blot on the human race.
(Enters sipping the last bit of soda from a can, which he crushes and tosses into the lot without breaking stride.)
(LEONA grabs his arm, leads him back to the can, which he picks up. She hauls him to the trash container, where he drops can, shakes free, and exits.)
It's more than the FDA's recommendation
for daily intake of urban stagnation
And poor citizenship
(to CURTIS's back.)
And bubonic plague
HOMELESS MAN and WOMAN
And annoying noisemaking!
HALF THE GROUP
I really hate this funky
good for nothing
I was sitting in a bagel shop, wondering if I'd ever find an idea for my next book. Flipping through a newspaper while eating, I came to an article that caused me to stop chewing. It was about a local psychologist who used gardening to help her clients. The story mentioned that physicians in ancient Egypt prescribed garden walks for mentally ill patients. My brain began to race. The seed for Seedfolks had been planted.
Books don't usually come from a single source. Like rivers, many tributaries flow into them. Some reach back to childhood; others might be only a few months old. I brought home the newspaper, put the article in my file, and wrote a few notes in my idea notebook. But Seedfolks actually had its start many years before.
My parents were both dedicated gardeners. In the summer, in Santa Monica, California, I could pick plums, grapes, oranges, berries, loquats, apricots, figs, tangerines without leaving my yard. Little by little, my parents had plowed under the lawn in search of more planting space. Our house was the only one in the neighborhood with a cornfield in the front yard.
My father, Sid Fleischman, was a writer of children's books as well. For him, gardening offered a recess break from his study, along with the pleasure of growing our own food. Often over dinner he'd tally up the number of ingredients that had come from our soil. Writers, like gardeners, tend to be self-taught and value self-sufficiency.
I learned to write from my father, but I'm no less a product of my mother, who took her gardening skills into the community. When I was in high school, she volunteered at a therapeutic garden in a veterans' hospital, showing men who'd served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam how to raise vegetables and flowers, helping to heal damaged psyches in the process. The example of my mother's volunteerism was powerful. Over the years, she arranged book giveaways in cash-poor school districts, used her Spanish-speaking skills to tutor students in English, and in her last years learned Braille so as to translate books for the blind.
The conflict between my parents' spheres--the printed page and the wider world--is an ancient one for me. I've solved it by keeping a foot in both. Following my mother's lead, I've tutored English language-learners, been a volunteer middle school violin teacher, and delivered library books to shut-ins. In an earlier book of mine, a character who's lost her mother vows to keep her alive by becoming her. I've found myself doing the same. My own mother died a few years before Seedfolks. She was a large part of the lure of the idea. A book about the healing power of plants would keep her flame lit. Those facts would be transformed into fiction in Kim's opening chapter.
I'd heard about community gardens--plots of land, usually in large cities, where anyone can grow food and flowers. Such a setting would offer a more varied cast than a therapeutic garden: people of all ages, from every corner of the world. I began researching and felt that exciting magnetism that takes place when I'm planning a book. Newspapers and magazines suddenly seemed filled with references to community gardens. A friend of mine took a job at a local garden for the homeless. Another friend who'd helped found a community garden in Boston made me a tape of reminiscences. I read books. I toured gardens, taking notes.
I knew immigration would be central to the book. "Seedfolks" is an old term for ancestors. I'd come across it many years before and written it in my notebook as a possible title. My thought at the time was to collect actual accounts of first-generation immigrants to the United States, those who were the founders of their families here. How had they traveled here? What were the first years like? The book had never come to pass, but the title remained on my list and on my mind. Suddenly, I had a book to go with it. Titles are tough. To have an idea that comes ready-made with a title is like buying a house that's already furnished.
My father's father had immigrated from Russia around 1900. My mother's family had come over centuries earlier--one of her relations had been tried as a witch in Massachusetts. But I wanted my book to be set in the present and to focus on recent immigrants. This led me to choose Cleveland as a setting, a city not as well-covered as New York or Chicago, a place famous for its foreign-born population in the past and now absorbing immigrants from new quarters of the globe. Famous as well for its harsh, white winters, Cleveland would be a place where the sight of green would be especially precious. Not to be forgotten in the decision were a number of friends of mine who lived or had lived there. Can you see Canada across Lake Erie? That's the sort of question that might take days to track down, but that a friend on the phone can answer at once.
Ideas are everywhere. The trick is turning them into something. What would be the book's shape and story? I decided to concentrate on the garden's first year--like the infancy of a baby or a plant, a time of dramatic growth. I also knew I wanted to tell its history through a variety of characters, each with a distinctive voice. I'd done this in Bull Run, my previous book, an account of the Civil War's first battle told from 16 points of view. The monologues in that book had been very short, each character speaking several times. I dislike repeating myself and wanted something different this time--longer speeches, closer to short stories, with characters only speaking once yet appearing in the background of other speakers' accounts.
Those characters began taking shape. Some, like sailors awaiting a ship, had languished in my notebook for years without finding their way into a book. Others popped up out of nowhere. Research is a wonderful push-pull proposition. You go looking for facts and return with fiction. I read of a garden that had problems with people raising produce for profit, and came up with Virgil's father, the would-be lettuce baron. I came across a mention of a support group for teen mothers taking part in a garden, and invented Maricela. Sae Young came from a newspaper article I'd seen years before about a teacher who'd been assaulted, lost all trust in people, and hadn't left his apartment for years.
Other characters were aspects of me. Sam, who greets everyone he sees, came from the year I spent in an Omaha neigborhood in which people still lived in the houses they'd been born in. Mine was the only beard on the block. Teenagers threw rocks at me on my first bicycle ride. Like Sam, I began going out of my way to make small talk with grocery store clerks and people at the bus stop, showing them that I was benign--and, by extension, others who looked different.
"Write what you know" is common advice for writers. In fact, I'm not much of a gardener. I studied up on soil and pests and fertilizers, but it soon became clear that the focus of the book was people. To experience some of what my characters were going through, I planted a long row of bush beans in my yard midway through the writing. Suddenly, I understood. I felt pulled out of bed to check on them every morning and gave them a last look every night. Every milestone felt worthy of celebration: the first cracks in the earth, the first sprouts poking through like bird beaks, the first flower, the first bean. I picked off bugs with fierce maternal vigilance and cursed the local pillaging rabbits. Truly, as Nora says, a garden is a soap opera growing out of the ground.
The Vietnam vet, who dropped thousands of tiny seeds on his soil to make up for the thousands of bombs he'd dropped, never made it out of my notebook. Nor did the alcoholic gardener who spoke to his plants. A book, like a plant, finds its own shape. I feared young adult readers wouldn't sit still for a book about a garden and for a time I lost faith. I put the book aside. When I returned to it, I felt that it had to have more young characters and be shorter so as not to bore my readers. Since life doesn't tie up all loose threads in a year, I also decided that the book would be open-ended, with the outcome of various characters' dramas left to readers' imaginations.
The book came out, with its lovely jacket and illustrations. Books are quite like seeds; the writer never knows exactly what will come up. Some are yanked out by hostile reviewers, others please passersby and spread extravagantly. Some travel far, to places the author would never know without fan mail. Seedfolks has led an exciting life: translated into other languages, produced on the stage, read by whole cities and states. A Japanese band has named itself for the book.
Like the ancient Egyptians, we recognize that contact with nature can heal. Hours after the 9/11 attacks in New York, scores of people were standing in wait for the gates of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to open. The city's public gardens waived admission fees and were thronged with those seeking solace and serenity. In the uprush of altruism, we also saw that a sense of community--the knowledge that we're known, that we care, that we will be cared for--provides an even greater solace.
I sense that we all have hidden stores of generosity that often find no outlet except in such moments of disaster. This was the marvel of the community gardens I visited. They were oases in the urban landscape, places where people could safely offer trust, helpfulness, and charity without need of an earthquake or hurricane.
Television, I'm afraid, has isolated us more than race or class. Throughout my writing life I've worked on books designed to bring readers together in performance, from plays to poetry for multiple voices. With Seedfolks I kept the monologues short so that the book could be used as classroom readers theater. Community gardens are places where people rediscover not only generosity, but the pleasure of coming together. I salute all those who give their time and talents to rebuilding that sense of belonging. It's a potent seed. "I have great faith in a seed," wrote Thoreau. "Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."
"I grew up in a house built of voices," Rob begins his autobiography in SEEK. Though his was a duplex in San Francisco, it was my own childhood home in Santa Monica, in southern California, that I saw in my mind: 100 years old now, with two-stories and fifteen rooms, the source if not the setting for many of my books. Let me turn back the clock and give you a tour.
You enter the living room--large, with west windows that let in the afternoon breeze off the ocean, ten blocks away. It's here that my father, Sid Fleischman, read his books aloud to the family chapter by chapter, as they were written, from my ninth year until I left for college. Listen. He's speaking Praiseworthy's lines from BY THE GREAT HORN SPOON. The room was an island of oral culture, where words were spoken, heard, performed, their sounds and rhythms relished. His readings were living-room theater, intimate, no-tech, without props or costumes, but riveting nonetheless. Decades later I found myself writing for the same stage--BULL RUN, SEEDFOLKS, MIND'S EYE, SEEK, all spoken, all suitable for performance.
In the corner of the room is a baby grand piano. Under it sit two guitar cases. Both my parents played classical guitar for a time. My mother's real instrument, and my own, was the piano. Both my sisters played flute. I grew up hearing guitar duets, flute duets, and loved playing four-hand piano pieces with a partner. It was here that JOYFUL NOISE and my other multi-voice poems were born--attempts to carry the camaraderie and synergy and do-it-yourself pleasure of chamber music into poetry. Those books weren't designed for virtuosos, but for family and friends. The concert stage I had in mind was our living room.
In the kitchen resides the radio. It's afternoon. While my mother cooks, we're both listening to the Dodgers game. A baseball game is a three-act play, complete with suspense, climax, and intermissions for sustenance. It teaches plotting and pacing. We love Vin Scully, the Dodgers' revered announcer, but Jerry Doggett mangles the Spanish surnames; my mother, a Spanish translator during World War II, shouts the proper pronunciation back at the radio. Enter later, and the radio's tuned to KFWB, playing the Beatles' new hit--"Daytripper." Later, it's pouring forth Beethoven on KFAC. Early the next morning, it's tuned to Lohman and Barkley's comedy riffs on KFI. Then to pop music--Nancy Wilson, Burt Bacharach, the Tijuana Brass. I took it all in. DJs were part of my extended family. Finding one of them in the obituaries years later was one of the sparks for SEEK.
Go down the hall into my father's study. He's out at the moment, but the room is full of voices--the voices of books. The shelves are floor-to-ceiling. When I was young, they seemed twenty feet tall. Over here are his research books on the West--THIRTY YEARS A COWBOY, BEANS AND BACON, marbled-edge collections of Harper's Weekly. Over there are the old Baedeker guides he used for his noir novels written for adults. I loved their microscopic print and fold-out maps. Little did I know that I'd later build MIND'S EYE around his 1911 edition of BAEDEKER'S ITALY.
Coming out, you pass through the den. The TV is there. So is the copy machine, which we've had since the 60s. We're the only family I knew who owned one at the time--possibly the first west of the Mississippi. To avoid endlessly renewing library books that he was using for research, my father had bought it to copy the pages he needed. After college, I began experimenting with using copiers in art projects, the results collected in my book COPIER CREATIONS.
Go up the stairs. In her room, one of my sisters is playing the Bach unaccompanied flute sonata--each phrase growing naturally out of its predecessor, the model for all the monologues I would later write. It's night now. Outside, on the sundeck, my father has his eye to his telescope. You hear long stretches of silence. Privacy and quiet were always available in such a large house. Later, you hear laughter. The TV in my parents' bedroom is on. My mother is in bed, "watching" The Tonight Show with a black eyemask on, converting TV into radio.
Strange voices are coming from down the hall. Enter my room. The lights are off, but my shortwave is on. I'm listening to Radio Canada. The announcer is reading letters to listeners' friends and family who live beyond the reach of a postman in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. For writers, eavesdropping is a job skill. I roam the dial after a while and find Radio Peking. The shortwave allows spirit travel, much as a book does. I proceed to visit Saudi Arabia, Norway, the Dutch Antilles. I finally turn it off and my bedside light on. I look at my bookshelf--Twain, Gogol, Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigan, J. D. Salinger, Sophocles, Edward Lear. Living voices, no matter how long-dead the writer. I wasn't a reader until high school. Suddenly, I found myself reading three books at once, the chorus of voices ever-enlarging.
Home on visits over the decades, I still slept in that pine-panelled room. Music continues to inspire me. History still gives me much material. And I continue to aspire to the power of a voice coming from a radio late at night in a pitch-black room.
It began the day my parents drove home with our Ford Mercury crammed with type cases, a cabinet to hold them, ink, composing sticks, the heavy composing stone, and a hand printing press. Was my foresightful father looking ahead to the era of short shelf life and insuring his ability to keep his books in print? Actually, he was indulging a long-held interest in hand printing that surfaced years later in his book Humbug Mountain. He announced that we would all learn to print.
The press was installed on a table in the guest house, a room in the back yard that no guest was ever asked to sleep in. My father assembled the type cabinet indoors and put it in our house’s all-purpose room. Immediately, we began learning a language that no one else on our block spoke. My father showed us the difference between “em quads” and “en quads”--the plugs of lead used to separate words. The heavy, iron frame that held type in the press turned out to be called a “chase.” “Furniture” wasn’t couches or chairs, but the blocks of wood used to hold type in the chase. “Tray,” “copper,” “brass,” “key,” “proof”--all suddenly acquired new meanings. Along with new words came a new skill: learning to read backwards. Holding the composing stick in your left hand, you plucked the letters and spaces out of the type case, and lined them up from right to left. After a few weeks, reading right to left felt nearly natural.
My sisters and I decided we wanted our own stationery. First, however, we had to make some choices. What style of type? What size? Name in all capitals, or caps and lower case? How much space between the name and address? Should there be a line between them? How thick a line, and what length? I'd no idea at the time that designing a letterhead was the perfect preparation for designing a story. Both confront you with open-ended questions, the sort with myriad possible answers, none of them certifiably correct. In both cases, solutions come through brainstorming, sketching, imagining possibilities. Schools rarely assign this sort of problem. Children and adults both are apt to throw up their hands in the face of so much freedom and uncertainty. An early diet of such challenges, however--art is a perfect training ground--makes it possible to face more complex assignments later on. If you can design a business card, you have a leg up on designing a novel.
And business cards I printed aplenty. I began printing stationery for my parents' friends. My fame spread through a suite of Beverly Hills shrinks; many a neurotic mailed his remittance in an envelope that had passed through my hands first. I kept up my business all through junior high school. I still have my account book. Though my profits were modest, the attention to detail that printing demands has served me well, in writing and elsewhere. To help support me during my early writing years, I worked as a proofreader for a textbook publisher, making sure not only that words were spelled correctly, but checking that chapter headings were the right size, with the right spacing below, that subheads were bold and flush left and all caps. From printing, I learned to love the look of type on a page. There is a whole visual, nonverbal element to books: you can communicate not only through the meaning of words, but through line breaks in poetry and page turns in picture books. The first thing I do when I get my first copy of a new novel of mine is to check where the chapters end on the page. Blank space at the bottom of the page is a crucial visual cue to the reader that the chapter is coming to a close, which influences how those last lines will be read.
Though I didn't read for pleasure until high school, the printing press led me to browse type catalogs. These showed dozens of styles of type, each with its own personality: stately Paladino, haughty Hadriano, funny-looking Hickory, whose letters were made to look as if they were built out of branches. I grew up with strong feelings about all the letters of the alphabet. What a pleasure it was recently to be asked to contribute to a book--a collaboration between writers and calligraphers--in celebration of the letter "a."
Today, my children change fonts and spacing with a single click of the mouse. The computer has made it astoundingly easy for them to experiment and see the fruit of their imagining. Lightning fast, no ink smudges on their clothes. But no satisfying weight of the composing stick in their hands either. No scooping the buttery ink from its can, no quiet evenings spent setting type, no tantalizing trips to the vast, dimly lit Los Angeles Type Company to pick out new ornaments and fonts. Hand printing presses can still be found occasionally at flea markets and in the pages of the classified ads. One could do worse than to take one home.
"On Wednesday night, troopers began tearing down the floodlights and putting away the bullhorns they had used, unsuccessfully, to try to talk with Allen every 15 minutes since she holed up in her home. They also began packing up the Barry Manilow tunes and classical music family members hoped would calm her enough to surrender." --Associated Press
I'd just flown in from a prison riot in Texas--mostly rap on that job, some blues, a little Flaco Jiménez. Sheila starts in again about all the traveling, we get into it fortissimo, she packs up and walks out, "Stormy Monday Blues" starts playing in my head (Muddy Waters, off the live Newport album), and right then is when the call comes in. Local, standoff, heavily armed male holding ex and kids hostage, won't negotiate. Zip for musical profile--age, ethnic background, favorite groups, meaning I have to schlep the entire human musical tradition. Yoruba work chants. Bartok. The Sex Pistols. Thirteen suitcases down three flights of stairs. Multiculturalism's breaking my back.
I slap the flashing light on my van and gun it to get there by noon. It's a ranch-style in the suburbs. They've had the whole area evacuated for hours. It's December, fifteen degrees outside. People are standing in their robes behind the barricades, blowing on their fingers, waiting to move back in. Waiting for Mr. DJ to spin the wax that'll seal the pax.
They've got the Mobile Auditory Intervention Unit set up across the street--a sound board, the usual equipment, and a coffe-maker with a "Brahms, Not Bombs" bumpersticker on it. The nicks in the bulletproof glass bring back memories. Without having to think, I slam in a cassette of "We Can Work It Out," an easy listening version. It's kind of my theme song. Non-threatening. Non-verbal. It buys me a little time. I start unpacking. They tell me the guy's Caucasian, in his forties. I need more.
Then I get it--he shoots out one of my speakers. I think: He's a purist. He doesn't like covers of Beatles songs. The song reminds him of seventh grade. Muzak reminds him of his mother. It's a statement, but what? I need something soothing and broad-spectrum, fast. I reach for Mozart. The adagio from the K.467 piano concerto. I put my hand on Perihia, then consider the purist angle and go with the scratchy Schnabel LP.
No more gunfire. Time to build some trust. He's been dumped by his wife, he can't deal with it. I've been there. Fact: women make you crazy. I take a chance--a big one. B. B. King, "She's a Mean Woman." Then Rex Harrison, "I'm an Ordinary Man" from My Fair Lady. "She'll redecorate your home from the cellar to the dome..." You can feel the tension easing up. I'm on his side. I give him a sip of Scott Joplin to clear his palate, then gently begin reminding him of all the good times they had--50s slow dances, "Moon River," then Sonny and Cher doing "I Got You Babe." I realize I'm thinking about Sheila.
No movement. Still no details on Our Lucky Listener. Then it hits me--his kids are in there. They're my lever. Suddenly, I'm loading CDs into the 12-disc like an artilleryman. Raffi, Big Bird, the theme from The Flintstones. I pound him with the innocence of childhood. Five hours, no commercial interruption. Around six the door opens and three kids walk out in a line. I can't help it. I pop in the March of the Toreadores from Carmen. The references go by most of them.
I work all night on springing the wife. "Release Me" (Humperdinck) every fifteen minutes. After a while, the cops are coming in on the chorus. Sounds like a drunken party. Finally they give me a printout on him. He's from West Virginia. Father's a Baptist minister. Off with the gloves. Solid gold gospel guilt time--"Get Down on Your Knees and Pray" by the Kentucky Colonels. The wife walks out during the second verse.
Getting him to release himself--that's tougher. He's threatening to blow himself up. I back off from the gospel, erase the blackboard, and start all over with "Born Free." Nature, plenty, no Jehovah, no sin. Then the entire Surfin' Safari boxed set. Two hours of feel-good, non-judgemental listening. By now it's 3 a.m. and my eyes are crossing. I wonder where Sheila is sleeping. I slip in Dionne Warwick, "I Say a Little Prayer," then split the cellophane on a new Hawaiian hula compilation I'd been wanting to hear, settle down with the liner notes--and the next thing I know someone's shaking me and we've got sunshine and dead air.
I thaw out my fingers in a cup of coffee. The loony's still in his bin. All that day I give him sweetness and light. It starts snowing, but I feed him Schumann's Spring Symphony, bebop, Jelly Roll--anything to keep his own sap flowing. By five o'clock I'm the one who's nearly dead. I need sleep, a hot bath, and a meal that doesn't come in styrofoam. I've had it with the guy. So have the neighbors waiting to get back into their houses. They're shouting requests from behind the barricades. I start messing with the wacko's head. I taunt him with "In My Room." Go ahead, act like a stupid teenager! Then Howlin' Wolf, "Back Door Man"--get him wondering if we're sneaking in. I try driving him out with a mixture of Penderecki on the turntable and Rap's Raunchiest Hits on CD, played simultaneously. No luck. Then it comes to me. I'll induce hypnosis.
I paw through my music, find Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, and give him a dose the F.D.A. wouldn't recommend. The third time through I feel him coming under my power. That's when I cue up "Pomp and Circumstance." He probably doesn't know Elgar from King Tut, but subliminally he'll see people walking. I'm willing him to march out the door. Tchaikovsky, "Marche Slave." A Sousa Sampler. "March of the Toy Soldiers" from the Nutcracker. I look over his sheet. His last name's McCracken. Scottish descent? I'm on it in a flash. Highland Marches for Pipe and Drum. An old budget LP I'd almost junked a hundred times. I clean it off and throw it on the turntable. The bagpipes blare like a herd of elephants. Must have hit the ancestral mark. He comes out like a sleepwalker. Side A, second cut.
I close my eyes and rest a minute. Then I wrap with "We Can Work It Out." I dedicate it to Sheila. I've decided that I'll make her a tape. I start packing, thinking about a playlist.
You can't get a joke if you don't know the references. Zap imagines a desperate theater company trying to compete with TV by offering seven plays at once and letting the audience use remote controls to switch among them. All the works except Shakespeare's Richard ÍII are parodies of well-known plays and playwrights. To enjoy Zap, you have to know what's being spoofed.
Zap begins with an English mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, followed by a comedy reminiscent of Neil Simon. We're then thrown back in time to Shakespeare, forward to a solo performance artist, eastward to Anton Chekhov's Russia, sideways to a bizarre hotel presided over by the spirit of Samuel Beckett, and finally southward to a dysfunctional family from the world of Tennessee Williams.
To get the most out of Zap, read or see plays by the playwrights above. All the works cited are easily available in libraries, bookstores, and online. If you're pressed for time, try one-act plays or short stories to get a sense of the authors' work. Movies of plays are an excellent choice since they avoid the distraction of stage directions.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976) was the queen of English detective fiction, renowned for her clever plots and prolific pen. Her sleuths include Hercule Poirot, probably the most famous detective after Sherlock Holmes, and the elderly Englishwoman Miss Marple. A classic Christie story is set in an English country house, features multiple plotlines and red herrings, and ends with a surprise solution--conspicuously omitted in Zap. Besides novels, she wrote many short stories and plays. The most famous of these is The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 in London and is still playing, the longest continuously running play in history. The bulk of her plays are collected in The Mousetrap and Other Plays (Signet Books, 2000).
A group of strangers find themselves stranded at a remote English hotel during a snowstorm. One after another, they're murdered by one of their number. A great choice for reader's theater.
Murder on the Nile
Christie's adaptation of her novel Death on the Nile.
Witness for the Prosecution
A riveting courtroom drama with a shocking ending.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Death on the Nile (1978)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
A complete list of Christie's works, with summaries.
Neil Simon (1927- ) is a comic master whose dozens of plays and screenplays have made him the most commercially successful playwright in history. Born in the Bronx, he wrote comedy for television in the 1950s alongside Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Turning to the theater, he composed a string of hits that included Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, Plaza Suite, and many more. He's the only playwright ever to have four Broadway productions running at once. Wisecracking characters, clashing temperaments, and New York settings are his hallmarks. Beneath the laughter lie personal traumas--abandonment, divorce, and the search for love.
The Odd Couple
Two divorced men try living together, with no more success than they had with their wives. Simon's best known play, later turned into a sitcom.
The Sunshine Boys
Two feuding vaudevillians attempt to bury their differences for the sake of a TV special.
Brighton Beach Memoirs
The first in a trilogy of autobiographical plays, followed by Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.
The Odd Couple (1968)
The Sunshine Boys (1975)
Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986)
Biloxi Blues (1988)
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote Richard III during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and found it prudent to paint a portrait of evil incarnate in Richard, whose dynastic line was overthrown by Elizabeth's own. Though historians today generally regard Richard as a capable ruler, Shakespeare gives us a hunchbacked monster who murders his brother, wife, nephews, and most of his supporters in his bloody climb to the throne. Opposed by the Earl of Richmond from the rival house of Lancaster, Richard is then defeated at Bosworth Field, where he utters his famous cry, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
Richard III (1955, starring Lawrence Olivier). A 1995 movie by the same name leaves Shakespeare behind in transplanting the story to the 1930s.
A teacher's guide to the play.
Performance art grew out of Dadaist soirees, political theater, and the 1960s' rebellion against convention. Sometimes geared to specific sites such as subway stations, sometimes incorporating visuals and music, sometimes interactive or improvised, performance art typically offered a soloist's angry or outrageous take on pressing issues like race, gender, or politics. Since then, the form has flowed into stand-up comedy and the one-person, autobiographical stage show, with highly polished scripts being published and performances given in plush theaters. The torch of old-school performance art has been passed to rappers and poetry slam artists.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Jane Wagner's hilarious survey of urban and suburban life, brought to the stage by Lily Tomlin.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll
Eric Bogosian's gallery of street characters sound off.
Home of the Brave (1986). The master of multimedia, Laurie Anderson mixes music, projections of words, movies, and much else in her works.
Talk Radio (1988). Eric Bogosian puts his explosive stage performance of a badgering DJ on the screen, directed by Oliver Stone.
Swimming to Cambodia (1987). Spalding Gray's minimalist and wry account of playing a minor role in the movie The Killing Fields.
God Said, Ha! (1998). Julia Sweeney's funny and moving depiction of her encounter with cancer.
History, links, and hijinks, slanted toward political theater.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) trained as a doctor, but became Russia's greatest playwright as well as a revered writer of short stories. He left a picture of Russia in an era of change prior to the Revolution, depicting the decline of the countryside's once-great families. Naïve dreamers and cynical despoilers, characters resisting change and disappointment by retreating into memories--this is the stuff of Chekhov. His plays are built around character, not plot, more home movies than Hollywood movies. Though most readers find his plays sad, Chekhov insisted they were comedies. His distinctive sun-and-storm atmosphere has been honored in the term "Chekhovian."
The Cherry Orchard
A country family's pride and procrastination lead them to lose their home and their cherished cherry orchard, symbol of good times past.
The Three Sisters
Through dreaming, scheming, and disastrous romances, three sisters attempt in vain to escape the boredom of provincial life.
The Cherry Orchard (2000)
The Three Sisters (1970)
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is the best known writer of the 20th century avant-garde. An Irishman who spent most of his life in France, Beckett offers a farcical and pessimistic view of the human condition. His novels and plays are terse, enigmatic, and wildly experimental. Characters are often stuck in maddening, hopeless predicaments. A writer who distrusted words, Beckett was drawn to silence. His play Breath lasts less than a minute and contains only a single human cry. Beckett's view of life was shared by many writers who wrote in the style that came to be known as the Theater of the Absurd. In a world ruled by irrationality--the senseless slaughter of World War I, the nightmare of the Holocaust, the superpowers' rush toward nuclear annihilation--why should art make sense? Their works featured stories devoid of plot and resolution, words that didn't mean what they said, and an atmosphere of arbitrary illogic.
Waiting for Godot
Beckett's most famous play, in which two tramps await someone they've never met and who may not exist.
A servant relates news of a disintegrating world to a blind, chairbound ruler.
Krapp's Last Tape
A short one-act, in which a disillusioned man listens to his thoughts recorded in his youth.
Beckett on Film (2003). A 4-disc series containing Waiting for Godot and 18 other Beckett plays. Highly recommended.
Info, reviews, remembrances, links.
Information on Beckett and the other absurdists.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) is famed for plays set in the South but which deal with universal themes. Like many of his characters, he came from a family rich in name but empty in pocket. As in Chekhov, characters in Williams' plays often flee from the present into dreams or drink. His plays are often violent, filled with vulnerable heroes and heroines. Williams was daring and unflinching, shattering conventions and inspiring some of the most famous performances in film and theatrical history. He twice was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The Glass Menagerie
Williams' autobiographical account of a fragile mother and daughter surviving on memory and fantasy.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Money, alcohol, sex, and power detonate family fireworks when a dying patriarch's relatives gather around him.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Blanche DuBois, faded in beauty and finances, struggles to start again in New Orleans.
27 Wagons Full of Cotton, and Other One Act Plays
A good choice for something shorter.
The Glass Menagerie (1973, 1987)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The Night of the Iguana (1964)
A teacher's guide to The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.