Monday, July 15, 2019

Van Gogh

I teach art classes. I often ask my students to name their favorite artist. The name that comes up more than any other is Vincent Van Gogh. When I ask why I hear things like "he suffered for his art" or "he'd rather paint than eat." This is true, of course. Van Gogh gave his life for his art. In the process, he became an iconic role model. I know this because he's always been a role model for me. But Van Gogh is a terrible role model. And I'm ready to give him up.

I create art both as a writer and a printmaker. The Van Gogh energy field has not served me well.  Mind you, I'm not comparing myself to Van Gogh the artist. I'm referring to Van Gogh the life coach. The Van Gogh who were he alive today would likely host a podcast on living your life as an independent artist. This is the Van Gogh I'm eager to expunge. The struggling Van Gogh, the miserable Van Gogh, the Van Gogh who paints a life picture of pain, hardship and death. If a 12-Step Van Gogh Anonymous Group exists I'm ready for an intervention.

First, let's recap the Van Gogh ethos. Van Gogh was dedicated to suffering. Like Nietzsche, he believed melancholy had creative value. In one of his letters to his brother Theo he wrote, "What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that's adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed."

Van Gogh's painting Old Man In Sorrow (At Eternity's Gate) is possibly the most intense depiction of misery ever painted. In a letter from 1882 he wrote, "I do not wish to express in my landscape a sentimental sadness, but a tragic grief." This grief engulfed him. The fact he completed 900 paintings in his lifetime is a near miracle. His creative output did not cure his ills. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.  In 1890 at the age of 37 he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

I agree there is value in melancholy. Wistful periods allow you to mine your subconscious and find the gold that resides in the darkness. Carl Jung referred to our Shadow Side that holds a seed of creativity. Tapping this resource can yield greater awareness, compassion and artistic output. But melancholia can become a self-fulfilling trap. To believe you must feel pain in order to create is to play with fire. You build resistance and must summon deeper reserves of agony to stimulate creativity.

It's easy to forget the muse can take many forms. This includes desperation and inspiration. Van Gogh was a desperation tweaker. He battled poverty, suffered from mental illness, quarreled with family and was spurned by potential lovers. He put his faith in difficulty. He wrote, "One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end and shows himself entirely different from what he had seemed at first sight."

Van Gogh ultimately reached land as an artist. But his journey helped fuel a false narrative that artists must suffer to create. Historians have theorized that Van Gogh's psychological and emotional troubles fueled his creativity. In my mind, his depression enslaved him and prevented him from achieving even greater success. He remains a mentor for me but he's become a cautionary tale. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the novel The Subterraneans, "I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he's left us." (7" x 10", black ink print)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Babe Ruth

There's a famous story told by the legendary sportswriter Fred Lieb about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth from the 1920's. The two stars were scheduled to share a cabin on a Georgia hunting trip. Cobb refused. When asked why he said, "I've never bedded down with a n---- and I'm not going to start now."

George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the most renowned baseball player of the 20th Century, the embodiment of a time when only white athletes played pro sports, may have been black. It was not just his "broad lips and wide nose" hinting at mixed heritage. Or the fact he loved to date black women and spend evenings at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. It was that many of his contemporaries believed he was black.

During the 1922 World Series at the Polo Grounds, a Giants player named Johnny Rawlings shouted racial slurs at Ruth. After the game, Ruth burst into the Giants locker room and challenged Rawlings to a fight. Only when Ruth noticed the baseball writers standing nearby did he calm himself. According to biographer Robert Creamer, Ruth begged the journalists not to write anything about the incident. He told Rawlings, "I don't mind being called a prick and a cocksucker but none of that personal stuff."

Ruth had an affinity for black ballplayers. After the Yankees won the 1927 World Series, Ruth joined a barnstorming tour against Negro League teams. He befriended Satchel Paige, sat in opposing dugouts and mingled in the segregated stands. This upset the racist baseball commissioner of the day, Kennesaw Mountain Landis who wanted to prevent integration in the major leagues. According to baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, Ruth sought to become a baseball manager after he retired. He "didn't get the job because Landis...knew if hired as manager, Ruth would have openly supported signing black ballplayers." Ruth never became a manager and baseball did not break the color line until after Landis' death.

Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1885. His parents were of German ancestry. He was raised in poverty and only one of his six siblings survived infancy. His father owned a saloon and his mother was an alcoholic. After his mother had an affair with one of his father's bartenders, his parents divorced. At age seven, Ruth was sent to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. During his time at the orphanage, he was taunted with the nickname "n---lips."

Early on there were rumors that Ruth had African-American ancestry. His parents were less than faithful and it was possible Ruth was illegitimate. Ruth passed for white and enjoyed all the benefits of a white man in American society. It wasn't uncommon for African American celebrities of the era to pass for white. Actress Carol Channing had a black grandmother. Oscar winner Merle Oberon had an Indian mother and white father.

From a historical standpoint, Ruth's background is significant. He enjoyed white privilege during a time in America when racism and the KKK were thriving. For Ruth to have mixed ancestry would cause heads to spin from Alabama to Arizona. He always denied the rumors. Of course this was in his self-interest. Jackie Robinson would not break baseball's color line until 1947, one year before Ruth's death.

There was never hard evidence Ruth had a multiracial background, only supposition. He empathized with black athletes like he empathized with all who were underprivileged. Perhaps he was a black baseball player in the same way Bill Clinton was a black president.

In a 2001 article in Gotham magazine, film director Spike Lee related that his father, a huge baseball fan, always said Ruth had "some of the tar brush in him." Lee suggested that if DNA testing was appropriate for Thomas Jefferson's remains, to see if he fathered children by slaves, then perhaps Ruth's remains should be tested as well. (7" x 7," black ink print)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Lou Reed

The first time I heard a Lou Reed song I was 18 years old and floating down the Chattahoochee River in a canoe. A shirtless Georgia teenager stood on the riverbank slapping his paddle at some swimming kids while a boom box blasted "Walk On  the Wild Side." At one point the teen's paddle made contact with a young boy's skull. I heard a loud "thwappp"and the boy fell face first into the water. The teenager laughed maniacally as the boy's friends pulled him to safety.

This is how the music of Lou Reed entered my life. There was something magnetic about the music, the raw and minimal guitar riffs, the shocking lyrics (did he actually say "even when she was giving good head"). Most pop music was safe. Lou Reed was dangerous. The sound had a dark energy, an urgent power with distorted guitars and atonal vocals.

The first Lou Reed album I purchased was Transformer (1972). From the moment he sang the words "Vicious, you hit me with a flower" I realized there was something deeper going on, ironic storytelling in a way I'd never heard. On "Perfect Day" Reed sings, "You made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good." The line perfectly encapsulated my teenage angst, my self-doubt and dim hopes for future redemption. Reed goes on to repeat the frightening refrain, "you're going to reap just what you sow." The words penetrated my soul like a warning, a call to pay attention to my own words and deeds.

When I discovered the Velvet Underground, I was spellbound. The music was real and edgy as if made in someone's garage. The guitars were droning and slightly out of tune, the drums scratchy and dirty. This was my first experience of lo-fi music and Reed was my first rock star crush.

He was a prototypical rock and roll bad boy. He abused drugs and alcohol, trashed hotel rooms, cursed reporters and engaged in bar brawls. But Reed was different. Where most rockers had affairs with supermodels, Reed opted for trysts with transvestites. While typical pop stars sang about how much they missed old girlfriends, Reed sang about bondage and sadomasochism ("Venus In Furs").

Google the words "Lou Reed was an asshole" and you'll find dozens of incidents describing his brutal, selfish, misanthropic behavior. There was the time he slapped David Bowie after Bowie suggested Reed cut back on his drug and alcohol use. Or the time he called Bob Dylan a "pretentious kike." (Reed himself was Jewish.) His Velvet Underground band mate John Cale called Reed "a twisted scary monster." Paul Morrissey, manager of the Velvets said Reed was possibly "the worst person who ever lived."

Friends and admirers grew familiar with Reed's moody tantrums and profanity-laced assaults. At the Manhattan clothing store RRL a sales clerk told Reed he was a big fan. Reed responded, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Fuck off." Howard Sounes, author of Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed writes that Reed "was constantly at war with family, friends, lovers, band members, managers and record companies." Reed even described himself as a "fucking, faggot junkie."

This begs the question does it matter? As a person, Reed was clearly complicated. As an artist, Reed inarguably shaped the musical landscape. Without him there would be no punk rock. (Sid Vicious took his name from the Reed song "Vicious.") There would also be no grunge or shoe gazer scenes. Brian Eno claimed, "everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band." Reed's songs directly informed the musical style of Joy Division, Jesus & Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, Dream Syndicate, Luna, Spacemen 3, the Dandy Warhols, the Feelies and the Pixies.

Reed was an avant-garde storyteller who wrote about misfits and lost souls. His song subjects were junkies and drug dealers, transsexuals and schizophrenics. He chronicled trips to the bad part of town to buy heroin. In the brilliant but dark album Berlin, he told the story of Jim and Caroline, a troubled couple whose relationship crumbles as they fall into drug use, prostitution, domestic violence and suicide. This is the heady stuff of literature, not the trivial fare typically found in rock music.

Reed's heroes were literary figures like Hubert Selby Jr., Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. During his days as a student at Syracuse University, Reed started a literary journal called The Lonely Woman Review. He wrote short stories and read poems aloud at St. Mark's Church along with the New York writers Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. Reed studied creative writing with the poet Delmore Schwartz whom Reed credited for teaching him to "use the simplest language imaginable" to impart the heaviest impact. (Schwartz was the inspiration for Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift.) Under Schwartz's tutelage Reed wrote poems that ultimately became the songs "Heroin" and "Sister Ray."

One of Reed's poems was titled "We The People." The words are as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.

We are the people without right. We are the people who have known only lies and desperation. We are the people without a country, a voice or a mirror. We are the crystal gaze returned through the density and immensity of a berserk nation.

One of Reed's favorite books was the 1963 John Rechy novel City of Night. The book was a landmark of queer literature chronicling a gay street hustler's travels through America. Reed channeled this energy into his own songs about street life such as "Waiting For the Man."

Reed yearned to write the great American novel and put it to music. In a 1991 interview with author Neil Gaiman, Reed explained how he used prose technique in songwriting. "There are certain kinds of songs you write that are just fun songs, the lyric can't survive without the music. But for most of what I do, the idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist's eye to it, to try and have that lyric there so somebody who enjoys being engaged on that level can have that and have the rock n' roll too."

Reed grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. When he was nine, the family moved to Long Island. His mother had been a teenage beauty queen while his father abandoned dreams of becoming an author to become a tax accountant. At a young age, Reed experienced social anxiety, panic attacks and depression. He spoke of being beat up routinely after school. He escaped into music, mimicking the guitar sounds he heard on the radio.

During high school he formed a doo wop band called The Jades. He also began experimenting with drugs. The band played gigs in shopping malls and dingy bars. His parents were overprotective and fought often with Reed. In one instance an inebriated Reed crashed the family car into a toll booth on the parkway.

Reed waited tables at a local gay bar and began having sexual encounters with men. He tried heroin for the first time and contracted hepatitis. He attended New York University but during his freshman year he had a mental breakdown. His parents drove to the city and brought their son back home. They sought professional help. Psychologists suggested Reed might have schizophrenia. He was briefly admitted to a psychiatric institution where he confessed to homosexual urges. Doctors recommended electroshock therapy. His parents consented and Reed endured more than two-dozen ECT sessions. The treatments wreaked havoc on his short-term memory. Reed never forgave his father, something he wrote about in the 1974 song "Kill Your Sons."

Reed recovered and enrolled at Syracuse University. After college, he moved to New York City and befriended the Welsh musician John Cale. The two became roommates in a lower east side apartment and busked the Harlem street corners, Reed on guitar, Cale on viola. They formed a band initially called the Warlocks then the Falling Spikes. They settled on the name the Velvet Underground (taken from a book about a 1960's secret sex subculture).

In 1965 they met Andy Warhol while playing a gig at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village. Warhol became the band's producer and the Velvets recorded four studio albums. The albums sold poorly but the work is among the most innovative music of the period. Reed grew frustrated as his peers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen skyrocketed to fame. Reed fired Cale, Warhol and the singer Nico and the band disintegrated. Reed had another breakdown and moved back into his parents' home. He took a job at his father's tax firm as a typist for $40 a week. In 1971, he signed a contract with RCA to be a solo artist. His career was back on track.

For Reed, the 70's was a decade of substance abuse and excess. He told a friend he "was going to take meth every day for the rest of his life." He binged on scotch and according to his first wife Bettye Kronstad he became a "violent drunk." During a 1975 tour through Italy he pulled a knife on his violin player and told Italian reporters he came to Rome to have sex with the Pope.  His reputation for misbehavior grew as he hung out with drag queens and became romantically involved with a transgender woman named Rachel.

It wasn't until the late 90's that Reed finally seemed to find a semblance of happiness. He took up meditation and practiced tai chi several hours a day. After two failed marriages he began dating the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. The two made several recordings together and were married in 2008.

Reed's years of hard drinking and drug use led to hepatitis and liver disease. He developed liver cancer and underwent a liver transplant in May 2013. After the surgery he posted on his website of feeling "bigger and stronger than ever." He died of liver disease in October 2013. He was 71 years old.

Laurie Anderson wrote that Reed "was a prince and a fighter" and that his last days were peaceful. She did her best to debunk Reed's dark reputation saying, "I never saw the blackness." After his passing, the rock community paid tribute. Bono said, "Every song we've ever written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song." David Bowie said, "He was a master." Cale wrote, "I've lost my schoolyard buddy." Reed's last tweet posted hours before his death read simply: "The Door." (7" x 9," black ink print)

Monday, September 3, 2018

William Burroughs

William Burroughs is largely known for three things. He was a junkie, he wrote Naked Lunch and he shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer. The incident haunted him the rest of his life. It also prompted him to become a writer. In his autobiographical novel Queer, he wrote: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never become a writer but for Joan's death…the death brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I had no choice except to write my way out."

Burroughs was born in 1914 in St. Louis, grandson of the inventor of the adding machine and founder of the Burroughs corporation (this became Unisys in 1986). His maternal grandfather was a minister who was close friends with Robert E. Lee. Surrounded by wealth, he began writing in his early teens. He published his first essay Personal Magnetism at the age of 15 in his high school journal. He also discovered an interest in magic and the occult claiming to see "ghostly grey figures at play" in his bedroom. He was sent to a boarding school for the wealthy in New Mexico where he wrote in his journal about his attraction to boys.

He attended Harvard where he studied English and anthropology. During this period he traveled to New York where he discovered the city's gay subculture and underground club scene. His family sold the right to his grandfather's invention just before the 1929 stock market crash. Burroughs received a $200 monthly allowance from family.  This guaranteed his freedom and survival without needing to work for the next twenty-five years.

Burroughs briefly attended medical school in Vienna. He became involved with Weimar-era gay culture and had liaisons with men in steam baths. He also met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis. Burroughs married Klapper in Croatia allowing her to obtain a visa. Back in the states they divorced and Burroughs resumed his dalliances with men. In 1939, he cut off the joint of his left little finger above the knuckle to impress a man to whom he was attracted. (This inspired his short story "The Finger.") He enlisted in the army in 1942 but was as accepted as infantry, not an officer. He grew depressed and was released from the military for mental instability. He embarked on a series of menial jobs including one as an exterminator. (This later informed his novel Naked Lunch.)

In 1943, Burroughs moved to New York. He attended writing salons at the apartment of Joan Vollmer. These gatherings included the future Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs and Vollmer moved in together sharing an apartment with Kerouac and his future wife Edie Parker. Around this time, Burroughs began using heroin. He became addicted, a struggle he fought most of his life. He was arrested for a prescription narcotics violation and moved back to St. Louis to live with his parents. Vollmer, addicted to benzedrine, was diagnosed with temporary psychosis and admitted to Bellevue. This placed her custody of her daughter at risk. Learning this, Burroughs returned to New York and asked Vollmer to marry him. They never formally married but she lived as his common-law wife. The two would have a son together, William Burroughs Jr..

The couple moved to New Orleans. Facing possible detention in Angola state prison for drug charges, Burroughs and Vollmer fled with their son to Mexico. They planned to live abroad until the statute of limitations on his charges expired. Life in Mexico was difficult. Unable to obtain heroin, Burroughs suffered through brutal detox symptoms. He abused Benzedrine and frequented Mexican gay bars in pursuit of men. Vollmer drank excessively and mocked Burroughs in front of his friends. Their drug-fueled fights grew violent.

On the evening of September 6, 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer met friends at a party at an American-owned bar in Mexico City. The details remain disputed but Burroughs allegedly took a handgun from his travel bag and said to Vollmer, "It's time for our William Tell act." Vollmer, who was drunk and suffering through amphetamine withdrawal, placed a highball glass on her head. Burroughs aimed and fired. The bullet struck Vollmer in the face. She died a few hours later. She was only 28.

Burroughs initially claimed he dropped the gun and it accidentally fired. He spent 13 days in a local jail while his brother traveled to Mexico and bribed officials to release Burroughs on bail. He hired a prominent Mexican attorney. Two witnesses testified the gun accidentally fired while Burroughs was checking to see if it was loaded. A ballistics expert was allegedly bribed to corroborate this story. While awaiting trial, Burroughs' lawyer fled Mexico to escape his own legal troubles. Burroughs promptly left the country himself returning to the United States. He was convicted in absentia of homicide and given a two-year suspended sentence. He never served his sentence since he never returned to Mexico.

Burroughs would go on to write 18 novels, 6 short-story collections and numerous essays. His novel Naked Lunch was the last prominent book to be prosecuted for obscenity in the United States. He became a popular counterculture figure, associating with artists like Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Kurt Cobain. He suffered another tragedy in 1981 when his 33-year old son died of a cirrhosis-linked hemorrhage. Burroughs died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 83. (7" x 9", black ink print)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Singin' In The Rain

In 1949, the writing team of Betty Comden & Adolph Green walked into the MGM offices of Arthur Freed. Freed, a lyricist and renowned film producer, specialized in movie musicals. He told Comden & Green, "Kids, your next movie is going to be Singin' In The Rain and it's going to have all my songs in it." There was no plot. No characters. Just a bunch of unrelated songs and the notion that one scene would have someone singing while it was raining. Somehow this became the greatest movie musical ever made.

Singin' In The Rain debuted in 1952. The film offers a comedic depiction of Hollywood's transition from silents to talkies. Choreographed and directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the film stars Kelly, Donald O'Connor and 18-year old beauty pageant winner Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds was a gymnast with no dance experience.  Kelly was a harsh taskmaster who criticized her dancing skills. One day, Fred Astaire visited the set and found Reynolds crying beneath a piano. He agreed to give her dance lessons. By the time she filmed the "Good Morning" scene, she was able to keep up with Kelly and O'Connor. The 14-hour shooting days caused burst blood vessels in Reynolds' feet. Years later she said, "The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin' In The Rain."

O'Connor also succumbed to the stress of production. During the "Make 'Em Laugh" number, he resurrected an old vaudeville routine of running up a wall and completing a somersault. A four-pack-a-day smoker, O'Connor was so debilitated he had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and severe carpet burns. When an accident destroyed the footage, O'Connor gamely agreed to re-shoot the scene from scratch.

The iconic "Singin' In The Rain" number was filmed while Gene Kelly had a 103-degree temperature. The scene took 2-3 days to shoot and Kelly was constantly soaked causing his wool suit to shrink. Technicians covered two city blocks on the MGM backlot with tarp to create darkness for the night scene. Overhead sprays were installed, a potential problem since there was a water shortage in Culver City. During dailies, it was determined the rain did not show up properly on screen.  Milk was added to make the rain more visible.

The song "Singin' In The Rain" appeared six previous times on the big screen. It debuted in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Jimmy Durante sang the song in Speak Easily (1932) while Judy Garland sang it in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). The song also appeared as a musical sequence in The Babe Ruth Story (1948). In Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Malcolm McDowell performs "Singin' In The Rain" during a controversial rape scene. Gene Kelly was so incensed, he deliberately ignored McDowell at the 1972 Academy Awards.

O'Connor respected Kelly but dreaded making a mistake for fear Kelly would yell at him.  Reynolds wrote that Kelly "was a perfectionist and a disciplinarian" but he was also "the most exciting director I've ever worked for."  Kelly later admitted he'd been ill mannered on set but he claimed it was all an act to get the studio to release him from his contract.  MGM obliged in 1954.

Singin' In The Rain was initially released in 1951 but pulled from theaters so it didn't compete with An American In Paris, also starring Gene Kelly. The film did modest box office at the time, though it was not nominated for Best Picture. Over the years, the film became influential among modern filmmakers. Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais both listed the movie as their favorite. The 2011 Best Picture The Artist was clearly influenced by Singin' In The Rain as was La La Land. Ryan Gosling acknowledged, "We watched Singin' In The Rain everyday for inspiration."

The network television premiere of the film was scheduled for November 23, 1963. It had to be postponed two weeks due to the assassination of President Kennedy. The original negative of the film was destroyed in a fire. In 2007, the American Film Institute rated the movie the "#5 Greatest Film of all time." (7" x 9", black ink print)

Monday, January 2, 2017

El Presidente

Looking back, there was a clear sign that Trump might actually win. On Election Day, an angry horde of bees circled our polling place, dive-bombing voters as they neared the front of the line. In the hour I waited to vote, two people were stung. Both were Clinton supporters.

In the months since the election, I'm slowly adjusting to life in Trump Bizarro World. Trump perceives Sean Hannity as Walter Cronkite, Vladimir Putin as Winston Churchill and The New York Times as "fake news." In my own circle of family and friends, Trump's hammer blows have wreaked havoc. My dental hygienist, a woman from Iran, cancelled a trip to visit her dying father in Teheran for fear she may not be let back into the States. My mom's caregiver, a lovely lady from Belize, is terrified she'll never see her family again. My wife and I wonder if we're on the verge of losing our health insurance (we're grateful for Obamacare) and my aging father is afraid Medicare and Medicaid are about to unravel.

I understand I live in a Los Angeles bubble and my views are out of touch with most of the country. What's troubling is how many friends and family are coming out as Trump supporters. It's as if I'm suddenly in a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers where alien walk-ins have possessed those around me and no one is who they seem.

My grandfather always advised me to see the world from someone else's shoes. In this spirit, I've opted to leave the shores of the familiar and take a journey to Trumpland. The voyage might be terrifying and I may lose my mind. But as a member of the losing team I've deigned to extend an olive branch and ask the Trump supporters in my life to explain their views.

First on the list is my favorite cousin Dave. We meet at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Pacific Palisades. Dave's a real-estate investor with properties all over town. He owns a beautiful home overlooking the Pacific Ocean and has two lovely daughters and an amazing wife. In the eight years under Obama, Dave did incredibly well financially, but he's happy to see Obama go. When I ask him why, his answer is simple. Israel.

"Obama was an enemy to Israel. He opposed new settlements and refused to veto the UN resolution against Israel. He went out of his way to insult Netanyahu and made a stupid deal with Iran, Israel's greatest enemy. Trump supports Israel and understands that a two-state solution is impossible. He realizes Israel is our only true ally in the Middle East. He knows you can't negotiate with terrorists and you have to rule with strength."

I ask Dave why half the Israeli population supports a two-state solution if it's impossible. "Because they're stupid and weak. Too many Jews are self-hating. We live in an anti-Semitic world and if you don't see this you're blind. Only the strong survive and Trump is strong." I ask Dave his opinion about Trump's advisor Steve Bannon, a supposed anti-Semite. "Bannon doesn't hate Jews. He hates Muslims. Don't let the liberal media brainwash you."

Next on my list is Andrew, a basketball buddy who works as an Emergency Medical Technician. Andrew has saved more lives than all my friends combined.  He's a strapping man from Ohio with a good sense of humor and a deep baritone voice. When I ask why he supports Trump, he morphs into Archie Bunker. "Gangs. I'm tired of seeing the Mexicans and the blacks kill each other. In the 14 years I've driven an ambulance in Los Angeles, I've seen almost a thousand gunshot victims. You know how many were white? Less than 10. I'm sick of it. Black Lives Matters is a terrorist organization but Obama made them acceptable. Now we have monsters hunting cops and illegals living off welfare. We need tight borders. We need to keep out the illegals and put the gang members in jail. Trump's the only guy who has the balls to make this happen."

I ask Andrew to expound on "the Wall" and who will pay for it. "Who cares? Once we keep out the Mexicans we won't have to support them anymore. We can take that money and use it on border security. It might be a wall, it might be a fence…you should listen to what Trump means, not what he says."

I parted ways with Andrew and met Lynn, an accountant from Orange County. Lynn's a devout Christian in her 60s who works for a software company. We met at a record company in the early 2000s. Despite our differing backgrounds, we became friends. Lynn's support for Trump is based on his stance toward abortion. "I've always been pro-life. For the first time I see a chance to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Trump is a wild card and I don't like his attitude toward women. But Hillary was pro-abortion. There's no way I could have voted for her. That's why I voted for Trump. It's the only way I could live with myself."

Next is Jeremy, an artist I met at a local coffee house. Jeremy creates wall-sized assemblage paintings incorporating items found in junkyards. Given his aesthetic leanings, I assumed he was liberal. Then I visited his studio and saw a painting featuring an image of Obama with horns. I asked him to explain the imagery. "The devil is the father of all lies. He's clever, handsome and charming. His smile melts our hearts and we let our guard down, unaware of his guile. This is how the false prophet gains control of the world. And this is how Obama allowed his minions into America. Trump sees what's happening. He calls a spade a spade. We need someone rough and tumble to save us from the last eight years. Trump is our only hope."

I parted from Jeremy feeling rattled. The final person on the list was Adam, a motion picture camera operator. We met while working on a film in the 90's. In the subsequent years, Adam worked his way to major Hollywood movies. He bought a house, got married and had kids. All was rosy until the digital revolution hit the film industry. Then his career slowed and good jobs became hard to find.

"Obama seems like a good guy. But he hasn't been a leader for everyone. I think in his heart he cares more about minority issues than the everyday struggles of white people. It's not his fault. It's his background. He was a community organizer and spent most of his time with poor blacks. They need help, I understand. But so do we. In the eight years Obama was in office, I've struggled. I used to work six films a year. Now I'm lucky to get one. It's time for a change. Trump might be crazy but the world is crazy, right? Maybe crazy is what we need."

Adam was reasonable in his support of Trump though his conclusions were correlational instead of causal. I understood his sentiments and why he wanted a new direction for the county. He has nothing to lose. Or so he thinks.

As I returned from Trumpland, I reflected on the journey. What did I learn? One, I'm a self-hating Jew. Two, I should "listen to what Trump means, not what he says." Three, Obama might be the anti-Christ. All the Trump supporters in my life were white, over the age of 50 and homeowners. More importantly, everyone seemed normal (except for Jeremy) and were just trying to do their best for their family and themselves. Trump might erect a wall but it's important I don't do the same. (6" x 8", black ink print)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Spiritual Teacher

"Right now, right here, you are free."  With these seven words George Falcon began each session.  The topic was always the same.  Who are we?  How do we live a spiritual life and what does this mean? Though he was unknown to the masses, George touched thousands of people and influenced multitudes of lives. He was a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide, a man of peace.  To know George was to know God exists.

I'd heard about George for years.  He was married to my best friend Lee's sister Belinda. Lee and I would have deep discussions about life and he would always say, "you have to meet George. He's amazing."

I met George at a Christmas dinner with Lee's family in 1986.  He sat at the end of the table with his aging parents.  He was professorial in appearance, with a thick beard and olive skin that belied his Latino heritage.  He wore a blue Adidas tracksuit (his standard uniform) and he was quick to smile and laugh.  Dinner conversation was lively and entertaining, but George was largely quiet.  When the conversation shifted to spirituality, I expected him to say something.  Instead he was content to listen in silence tending to his parents' needs.  When dessert was served, he took his plate of pie and ice cream and wandered to the living room to watch the Bulls play the Knicks.

George was a huge basketball fan.  This was how we first bonded.  We talked for hours about Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and the Lakers chances at another championship.  He spoke about how Magic and Michael both hated losing more than they loved winning.  This prompted the first question I ever asked George.  "Are you saying hate is more powerful than love?"

He answered something to the effect of "love is a higher frequency emotion but sometimes we act more urgently to avoid the pain associated with hate." These spiritual/basketball talks were my first George lessons.  He loved to tell the story about Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone in the 1987 NBA Finals.  Game 1 was on a Sunday and with nine seconds left, Malone (nicknamed "The Mailman") had two free throws to give Utah the win.  Pippen stepped in front of Malone and said, "the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays."  Malone missed the shots and the Chicago Bulls won the game.  George used the story to emphasize the power of the "low self" over the body.  Pippen's statement was a subliminal suggestion planted in Malone's subconscious.  Malone could have countered the suggestion with his own statement such as "cancel cancel" as if to say 'I'm consciously canceling the words spoken to me.'  Instead, Malone took the bait and his body betrayed him.

It's been said when a student is ready a teacher will appear.  George was this teacher and I was a grateful and spellbound student.  I attended my first formal "George talk" in the late 80's.  We met at George and Belinda's Studio City home, about twenty of us seated on couch pillows around the living room. George began with a meditation, leading us through a series of breathing exercises to quiet the mind.  After fifteen minutes, George began the talk.

He spoke about consciousness and how the early Egyptians divided the mind into the low-self, middle-self and high-self.  The low-self corresponded to our subconscious, where the mind generates feelings, pictures and memories. George called the low-self "Annabelle," inspired by his small dog who was always yapping for attention.  This is how the low-self works.  While we attempt to quiet our mind we're distracted by noise such as hunger pangs or unpleasant feelings and memories.  Our job is to train our low-self to be aware of the distractions but not let them control our actions, like George ignored Annabelle's barking.

The middle-self is our conscious mind or intellect, where words, ideas and reasoning prevail.  George called the middle-self "Virgil," a nod to Dante's guide through hell in Dante's Inferno.  (In the story, Virgil lived a virtuous life on earth but was trapped in limbo unable to access heaven…an apt metaphor for our middle-self.)  The middle-self, our rational mind, can speak of concepts such as heaven and nirvana, but is unable to grok these experiences.  As George often said, "Virgil can lead you to the doorway, but he can't take you through."

The low-self and middle-self work together to create our identity, our ego, "the self." The low-self generates an emotion and the middle-self comes up with a story to explain the emotion.  The story is a "lie," but we believe it.  Over time, we become hypnotized by our individual stories.  We believe we are selves, separate from others and the world at large.  This leads to the major struggle of humanity, loneliness and a feeling of disconnection (from others and God).

The high-self is where we begin to recognize we are not that which we call "the self."  This is where we find freedom, where we touch love and peace.  The high-self is where we glimpse our true essence, where silence allows us to hear the "still small voice" inside.  George called the high-self "Beatrice," a tribute to Beatrice Portinari, the woman who inspired Dante's Divine Comedy.

George acknowledged that the world can appear difficult, rife with pain and violence.  But he reminded us "reality is illusory."  Our world view is informed by the consciousness we resonate with.  The best way to change your reality is to shift your consciousness.  The intellect (middle-self) wants to remain in charge but our job is to be still, to observe our thoughts and feelings then return to our breath through meditation.  We are magnetic beings attracting a reality that matches our beliefs.  If we resonate with harmony, our life becomes more harmonious.  If we focus on discord, our life becomes more chaotic.

The George talks were high-minded and fascinating, but initially they had little impact on my life.  It wasn't until I experienced a personal crisis that I began to view the teachings differently.  I was 28.  I was living in San Francisco and my life was a mess.  My relationship was crumbling, my finances were dismal, my creative life was stunted and I felt like I was having an emotional breakdown.  I called George and asked if we could meet in Los Angeles.  He agreed and I drove to LA the next day.

I met George at a cafe in Larchmont Village.  He listened patiently as I explained how my life was falling apart.  After a few minutes he asked, "If your life was a basketball game what would you do right now?"  I thought for a moment.  "I'd call timeout."  "Good," he said.  "And what would you do during the timeout?"  "Rest for a moment and change my strategy." "Good," he said.  "Maybe you need to rest and design new plays."  "I can't rest, George.  I'm broke.  If I sit back and do nothing how am I going to pay my bills."  "I didn't say do nothing.  I said rest."  I was confused.  "How do you rest while you're active?"  George smiled.  "Now you're asking a good question."

George discussed how meditation allows you to take a break from the usurping energy of negative thoughts and feelings.  He said an hour of meditation equates to six hours of deep sleep.  He added that all emotions have a rhythmic counterpart in breathing--anger corresponds to one breathing modality, depression another.  By learning to consciously control my breathing rate I could begin to assert control over my low-self which at that point was controlling me.

George's words had extra weight given his own recent history.  In 1990, George was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer.  Lee and I visited him at the hospital the night before his surgery.  We expected to find a somber hospital room filled with trepidation.  Instead, George gave an inspired talk to family and a few close friends.  He was smiling and energetic, no sign of anxiety or fear.  The subject was "freedom" and how to proceed when your external reality does not match the perfection within.  I was stunned at how a man on the verge of life-threatening surgery was able to exhibit such equanimity.

The day after surgery, George was walking the hospital hallways.  He was released two days later.  Doctors estimated a six-month healing period but George was confident he'd need half that time.  He woke at 4:00 am each day, immersing himself in deep meditation while seated in his favorite leather chair. He ate judiciously, mainly fruit, broth and water.  Belinda acted as gatekeeper, keeping visitors away so George had time to heal.  I visited him a month after his surgery. He was quiet and reserved, his face thin and ashen.  He had a distant look, as if lost in thought.  Years later he explained he was focused on the inner healing tones above his eardrums, a meditation technique he would soon teach his students.

Two months after surgery, George was giving talks again.  He looked fit and healthy, back to his pre-surgery weight and jovial as ever.  Rather than curtailing his schedule, he dove into his teachings with a vengeance.  He gave talks at galleries, restaurants, yoga studios, production offices and private homes.  He resumed seeing private clients, working 12-14 hour days.  On any given day he drove as far south as San Diego and as far north as Santa Barbara.  It's as if he were suddenly conscious of his limited time on earth and wanted to make sure not a second was wasted.

In 1991, I moved back to Los Angeles.  I began seeing George twice weekly for private sessions.  He asked me about the tattered journal I carried with me. I told him this was where I recorded my daily thoughts and feelings.  "So that's your low-self and middle-self manual," he said.  I never viewed it that way but he was right.  "It's time to begin a high-self manual," George said. He gave me an assignment.  Purchase a new journal and fill two pages a day with a single statement written over and over.  The statement: "I am the Temple of the Living God."

I hesitated.  I knew George was Christian.  Having grown up in a Jewish household with Orthodox grandparents, I was worried I was entering dangerous ground.  I voiced my concerns.  "George, I'm Jewish.  I don't want you to try to make me a Christian.  I'm not comfortable with that and to be honest, the thought scares me." George smiled.  "Have I mentioned anything about Christianity?" "No," I said. "Have I mentioned Christ?"  "No."  "Have I mentioned religion?"  "No." "We spoke about designing new plays.  That's all we're doing right now."

I began journaling immediately.  At first it was awkward.  I felt like Bart Simpson trapped in a Catholic School principal's office.  After a few days, the words became a mantra.  I spoke them aloud as I transcribed page after page with the sentence "I am the Temple of the Living God."  The writing was soothing and questions entered my mind.  Does "the Temple" refer to my body or my spirit?  Who is the the "I" in the statement--my mind, my feelings, my soul?  If I was "a Temple of the Living God," does this mean God is alive inside me?

I noticed small changes in my life.  I became more attentive to cleanliness, shaving and showering each morning instead of waiting until the end of the day.  I ate better, avoiding alcohol and sugar and opting for salads and fresh fruit.  I cut back on my use of profanity (f-bombs were my adverb of choice).  I became more conscious of the movies and books I selected, choosing positive stories instead of dissertations on life's misery.  I started making lists of things to be grateful for, the warmth of a sunny day or the simple miracle of indoor plumbing.

Slowly, imperceptibly, my life improved.  I found a job with a bunch of friends.  I reconnected with Lee.  My aunt gave me a car.  I began dating a beautiful woman from my past.  And I spent more time with George.  Monday mornings became "Breakfast With George" as Lee and I joined him at a Spanish restaurant on 3rd Street.  While George ate his favorite dish chilaquiles he used Lee and I as guinea pigs to practice new spiritual teachings.  He emphasized the need "to take it to the marketplace," using the lessons as a practical means to improve your life.

On one occasion, a couple was having an argument at a nearby table.  The spat devolved into a screaming match.  George said, "This is a great opportunity to practice peace.  What are some things we can do right now to help this couple?"  I said, "We can pray for them." "Good," George said.  "But if you're praying for a desired outcome--their peace--then it's your will doing the praying."  Lee added, "We could ask God to pray for them"  "Better, but again it's you asking God for a specific outcome instead of deferring to God's will."  I said, "We could visualize them in the light."  "Good," George said.  "But there's something you're both missing."  Lee and I were stumped.

George used the occasion to deliver an important spiritual lesson.  Rather than focus on the couple who was having a fight, he directed us to focus on ourselves. He asked us to close our eyes and begin our breathing exercises. He told us to imagine a feather resting on our upper lip.  Our breathing should be calm as to not disturb the feather.  He directed our attention to the center of our foreheads, to our pineal gland, our "third eye."  He said to focus on the peace inherent in our breathing, urging us to watch for a bright white light that would appear in the proximity of our pineal gland.

After several minutes, George asked us to open our eyes.  He asked how we were feeling.  Though neither of us encountered a bright white light, we both felt a sense of profound peace.  "What else," George asked.  We looked around the restaurant. The dining room was quiet and the couple had left. During the meditation, I'd lost focus on the couple.  I was only aware of a feeling of peace.  As I returned to "reality," my outer life resembled my inner tranquility.  I recalled a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.:  "Be the peace you wish to see in the world."

George gave us a valuable lesson, one he would soon crystalize in his teachings.  "Right now, right here, you are free."  The world outside is connected to the world inside.  ("As below so above.")  When dealing with a perceived problem (illness), our first step is to acknowledge our true essence is free from all lack.  Step two is to recognize the perceived problem as a lie (illness cannot exist in the presence of perfect health).  Next, we are to visualize imagery that reminds us we are part of a divine whole.  This might be a wave in the ocean or the branch of a tree.  We then turn to the breathing exercises.  We focus on our breath, becoming still and quiet, releasing the thoughts and feelings that appear.  The longer we remain in this state, the faster our outer world will resemble our inner one.

George continually reminded us there is "power and wisdom in letting go."  By choosing to release a negative thought or feeling, we are opting for universal consciousness over self consciousness.  He spoke of theosis, a divine union without distinction.  He referenced the Zen Buddhist concept of "not two," falling short of saying we are God but recognizing we are not apart from God. He utilized a myriad of Eastern philosophical texts, urging us to read the Diamond Sutra and the Tao Te Ching.  His favorite quote from the Tao was "the Tao does nothing yet leaves nothing undone."

George often referenced movies in his teachings, particularly ones that featured master-student relationships.  These included The Karate Kid, The Matrix, HoosiersRemo Williams and Star Wars.  He adored the films of Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris and especially loved Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon.  His favorite tv program of all time was the 70's show Kung Fu.  He also loved literature, listening to books-on-tape during his long drives visiting clients.  Two of his favorite books were The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein written by Kung Fu creator Ed Spielman.

Some of my favorite memories include pick-up basketball games with George and Lee at schools and parks around town.  George was a stellar basketball player in his teens and his love for the sport remained into his 60's.  He was a trash-talker on court, goading players toward their weak spot then blocking the shot with surprisingly quick hands.  Once George tried to steal the ball from an opponent and severely dislocated his right index finger.  He closed his eyes and bent the finger back into place.  When I asked him if he were okay, he replied, "I always suspected that finger had karma."  (Who knew body parts had karma?)

Driving with George provided additional spiritual lessons.  He drove like an old lady, observing the speed limit and granting others the right of way.  When someone tailgated or honked for George to go faster, he pulled over and let them pass.  On one occasion, George and I left a restaurant in separate cars headed for his home about six miles away.  I drove in my typical frenetic style, constantly changing lanes and passing slower cars.  I made it to his house only fifteen seconds faster than him.

My connection with George ran deep.  I encountered him while visiting the Grand Canyon in the 90's and a few years later my wife and I ran into him while vacationing in Hawaii.  In 2007, my wife and I were honored to have George preside over our wedding.  We participated in a six-week marriage course with George where he reminded us that our union was a three-way contract between ourselves and God.  Having George seal our marriage pact made the ritual sacred and profound.

Over time, George became more focused on the role the body plays in spiritual progression.  Perhaps inspired by his own illness in 1990, he began recommending that students observe their own relationship to sugar, wheat, caffeine, alcohol, meat and dairy.  It wasn't unusual to find George in the midst of a juice-only detox or raw-food cleanse.  He began offering meditation seminars incorporating water-only regimens emphasizing the need to cleanse the body of toxins.  He gave day-long workshops urging complete silence, focusing only on one's breath and asanas.  His goal was to show us we were not just free from negative thoughts and feelings but from the addictive foods and chemicals that often controlled our lives.

George and I always called each other on our birthdays catching up on the Lakers and their hopes for the coming season.  Though we saw each other less frequently, I applied his lessons every day.  Often I'd be walking somewhere and I'd recall one of his statements as if he were speaking the words anew.  "God does not give you his life to improve your life.  He gives you his life so you have His life."

As the years progressed, George attracted a new group of students.  He increased his workload, leading more workshops and seeing a wider array of clients.  His teachings became available online attracting new acolytes from around the world. Those close to George urged him to slow down.  But he was dedicated to service and he continued a torrid pace into his mid-70's.

For some reason, I forgot to call George on his birthday in April, 2016.  This was the first time this had ever happened.  A few months later, I left him a message. Strangely, he didn't call back.  Early on the morning of July 22nd, Lee called.  He was crying and his words were faint. "Georgie is gone," he said.  "He left us last night."  At the age of 78, George's cancer had returned. The illness was fierce and spread quickly.  He put up a valiant fight, but his body was ravaged and he died in a month's time.  He kept the news to himself, sharing it only with those closest to him.

As word spread of George's passing, a wave of shock spread through the community.  Like most of his his students, I was stunned.  How could George die? This seemed impossible.  We knew he was mortal, but he also seemed beyond death as if he'd mastered life and all it's pitfalls.  Everyone thought the same thing, that George would continue teaching into his 90's like the wise old Yoda we knew him to be.  Now he was gone.

I lived the next few weeks in a fugue state.  At the memorial, George's students expressed a similar sentiment.  People gave heartfelt tributes, sharing how George had rescued them from addiction or saved their marriage or guided them through a life-threatening illness.  We heard anecdotes about George's love of kung fu movies and his penchant for See's chocolates.  We hugged and cried and reminded each other that George's spirit was still intact, he'd merely left his body. Beneath everything there was a deep sadness. George had been a father figure. Now, suddenly, we were all on our own. Only one thought gave us peace.  "Right now, right here, George is free."
(5" x 7", black ink print)

To view videos of George Falcon's teachings go to: