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:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Ventriloquist Dummy

Recently I was teaching a printmaking class at a senior home when I encountered a woman named Phoebe who'd lost her right arm.  We began talking and she shared her story. She'd been a ventriloquist of some renown in the early 70's. She and her puppet Rudy appeared on television programs like Captain Kangaroo and Hobo Kelly.  By 1980 her career slowed and the tv appearances stopped.  Her husband convinced her to give up ventriloquism and she found a job as a secretary.

"I put Rudy in a big wood box and stored him in the back of the closet.  At night I could hear him screaming, 'let me out, let me out.'  After a few weeks Rudy started threatening me, saying things like, 'you'll be sorry,' or 'if you don't let me out, I'm going to hurt you.'  I cried every night.  I told him how sorry I was.  But I never let him out."

In 1981, Phoebe felt pain in her right arm, her puppet arm.  She was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer.  She had emergency surgery and her arm was removed at the shoulder.  Her life was saved, but her performing career effectively ended.  "I killed Rudy," Phoebe said.  "He tried to kill me."

Ventriloquism, the art of throwing one's voice so it appears to emanate from somewhere else, dates back to Classical Greece.  Early ventriloquists were called "engastrimyths" (gaster for stomach, mythos for speech).  Onlookers believed ventriloquists had demons in their stomach belching forth language from the host's mouth.

In the book I Can See Your Lips Moving: The History and Art of Ventriloquism, author Valentine Vox writes that the roots of ventriloquism lay in necromancy. It was believed that ventriloquists channeled the spirit of the dead through holes in their body via nostrils, ears, mouth and anus.  Biblical law specifically forbids necromancy as is written in Deuteronomy: "To seek truth from the dead is abhorred by God" and punishable by death (Leviticus).

Early ventriloquists sought to convince people their practice was religious in nature.  At the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, the Pythia (high priestess) translated the strange utterances from her mouth as if the sounds were prophecies from the gods.  Centuries later, ventriloquists were consulted as a means of speaking with lost love ones.  People paid good money to converse with a recently deceased husband or long dead mother.

In 16th Century France, a nun named Elizabeth Barton uttered worldly predictions via ventriloquism.  She openly stated that King Henry VIII should not marry Anne Boleyn.  She was hanged and the king was married.

In 17th Century Europe, ventriloquism transformed from a medium of divination and prophecy to that of entertainment.  Ventriloquists appeared at traveling fairs and local markets.  In 1753, Englishman Sir John Parnell gained fame as a ventriloquist speaking through his hand.  The first known use of a ventriloquist puppet came in 1757 when Austrian Baron de Mengen incorporated a small doll into his show.

The first ventriloquist in America was James Rannie, a Scotsman who arrived in Boston in 1801.  He performed with a doll named Tommy that resembled a man but was the size of a small child.  Rannie engaged in ventriloquist pranks like the time he asked a female fishmonger about the freshness of her fish. She told him the batch had been caught the previous day.  One of the fish suddenly spoke, "It is false, I am a week older."  The woman was forced to throw away all her catch.

The 19th Century was the golden age of ventriloquism.  Early practitioners imitated animals, birds and the voices of young children.  They became adept at throwing their voices and causing sounds to emanate from men's snuffboxes and women's handbags.  Fred Russell is known as the father of modern ventriloquism.  His puppet "Coster Joe" sat on his lap and engaged him in cheeky dialogue.  He became a vaudeville hit in America and Canada.

By the 1930's, one of the biggest stars on radio was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.  Bergen popularized the comedic ventriloquist routine with rapid-fire wisecracks and one-liners.  In her autobiography Knock Wood, Bergen's daughter Candice Bergen wrote that she was raised as Charlie McCarthy's kid sister.  She recalled sitting on her father's lap and being urged to talk with her wooden brother who sat across from her.  "For me as a child," Candice Bergen wrote, "Charlie McCarthy had semi-human status.  He wasn't flesh and blood and he wasn't a doll.  He was a sacred calf.  He brought home the bacon."

Ventriloquism has always had an element of creepiness.  The dummy has wild, rabid eyes, arched eyebrows and a crude, hinged mouth that clicks open like a mousetrap.  When draped across a table or chair, away from the performer, the doll's floppy limbs resemble that of a dead body.  But the eyes remain open and the mouth is fixed with a terrifying smile as if the body is a poorly embalmed child corpse.  Adding to the creepiness is the performance itself.  The ventriloquist is often an older man with his hand up the backside of a young puppet boy sitting innocently on the man's lap.  The specter of pedophilia is unavoidable.

Many people are terrified of ventriloquist dummies.  The condition is called automatonophobia.  Hollywood has taken advantage of this fear, making films like Devil Doll (1964) where a possessed dummy possesses his master and Magic (1978) where ventriloquist Anthony Hopkins commits murder under the guidance of his deranged puppet "Fats."

Ventriloquism remains a subversive entertainment medium.  Performers utter their darkest most obscene thoughts and blame it on the puppet.  British ventriloquist Nina Conti says ventriloquism is a "sort of licensed tourettes.  I'm shocked by what the puppet can get away with, things I could never say myself." (6" x 8", black ink print)

Sunday, March 20, 2016


As a teenager, I suffered from depression.  I woke most days with a sense of ennui and hopelessness. My dark moods informed the music I listened to and led me to 80's gloom rock like Nick Cave, Bauhaus, The Damned and The Chameleons.  Occasionally I encountered albums so bleak I referred to them as "snuff music." Among these were The Cure's Pornography, Joy Division's Closer and David Bowie's Low.

Low was written and recorded in 1976 during a period when Bowie was attempting to kick cocaine. At the time, his close friend Iggy Pop was in a psychiatric hospital trying to overcome a heroine addiction. Bowie's life was bleak and chaotic and he was obsessed with black magic, the Holy Grail and paranoid delusions.  He moved to Berlin and took an apartment above an auto parts store.  Written with Brian Eno, Low is a musical exploration of anguish and suffering as Bowie struggled to remain sober.  The album became the first of Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" (along with Heroes and The Lodger).

As my own teenage moods spiraled downwards, Low became an expression of my internal pain.  I identified with Bowie's torment and the music helped me access my own darkness.  I played the album over and over, sinking deeper into the abyss with each listen.  At one point I could no longer handle the distress.  I literally burned the album in a ritual bonfire along with Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate and Lou Reed's Berlin.

Years went by and I discovered meditation, prayer and therapy.  Slowly, through God's grace and the passage of time, my depression lifted.  My twenties became a decade of growth and self-discovery and my musical choices reflected this shift.  I turned to albums that encouraged healing and a return to life.  At the top of my list were Peter Gabriel's So, Tears for Fears The Hurting and my favorite, David Bowie's Hunky Dory.

Hunky Dory is a poetic and musical celebration of life.  Though written in 1971 before Low, the album celebrates a new outlook for Bowie, one filled with hope, artistic experimentation and the inklings of joy.  Starting with the song "Changes," Bowie reflects on the "changes…I'm going through" in a Buddhist-like fashion.  He sings, "I watch the ripples change their size but never leave the stream of warm impermanence."  He has learned that all things in life are temporary, even suffering.  In the song's chorus, he urges us to "turn and face the strange, turn and face the strain."  This was a perfect accompaniment to the advice my own therapist was giving me: "face your pain, accept it and let it go."

On the song "Quicksand," Bowie acknowledges his unhealthy obsession with the occult, referencing Aleister Crowley and the frightening image of Himmler and the Third Reich.  He sings that "he's torn between the light and dark" and that "he ain't got the power anymore" to avoid "sinking in the quicksand of my thought."

Listening to Bowie's words, I felt as if he were speaking directly to my soul.  At the time I was reading books like The Road Less Traveled and the Tao Te Ching.  Hunky Dory became the soundtrack for my spiritual journey. Everything in life was teaching me that freedom comes with letting go of the ego (death of the Self) and aligning with universal energy.  Buddha spoke about surrendering one's beliefs allowing the mind to move toward release. As Bowie sings on "Quicksand"--"Don't believe in yourself, don't deceive with belief.  Knowledge comes with death's release."

The most joyous and life affirming song on Hunky Dory is "Fill Your Heart." Written by comedian Biff Rose (writer for George Carlin) and Paul Williams (songwriter for Barbra Streisand and Karen Carpenter), "Fill Your Heart" is a paean to peace and comfort.  The song promises that the suffering of life can be overcome through the power of love.  Bowie tells us, "fill your heart with love today, don't play the game of time.  Things that happened in the past only happened in your mind."  When he sings, "Happiness is happening, the dragons have been bled," it's as if Bowie is celebrating the future slaying of his own demons of addiction.  Buddhist energy runs throughout the song culminating in the lyrics, "Fear's just in your head, so forget your head and you'll be free."

"Fill Your Heart" was clearly sentimental and sugary, but it got me every time.  Like Bowie, I'd had enough of pain and misery.  I yearned for joy.  Being new to the happiness game, my initial forays were a bit simple. But they were earnest.  Jesus proclaims in the Gospels, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."  Bowie helped me become a child again, rediscovering the simple act of smiling. Perhaps this seemed infantile to others. But to me, I was learning to enjoy life.  And for this, I am thankful to Mister Bowie. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, February 15, 2016

LA Freeway

On the night of June 23, 1997, boxer Oscar De La Hoya was driving his brother's Mercedes on the 605 Freeway near Whittier. He was in the fast lane and suddenly the car stalled.  He maneuvered the car to the left shoulder but couldn't find his cell phone.  Common wisdom dictates that if your vehicle stalls on the freeway you should wait in the car and call for help.  De La Hoya felt differently.  He opened the car door, waited for a gap in traffic and sprinted across five lanes to the other side of the freeway.  Moments later a massive truck smashed into his Mercedes totaling the car.

All Angelenos have stories of witnessing horrific car accidents or being caught in nightmare traffic jams.  To live in Los Angeles one must make peace with the freeway.  You learn to accept the gridlock and reckless drivers, the ramshackle cars and ever-prowling highway patrol.  In a city that clearly delineates the haves from the have-nots, freeways are the last bastion of true democracy.  Whether you drive a Rolls-Royce or a broken-down Chevy, all drivers have equal access to the freeway.

Charles Bukowski wrote, "When I drive the freeways, I see the soul of humanity of my city and it's ugly, ugly, ugly."  The unwritten rule of freeway driving is to drive aggressively.  Traditional defensive driving is not enough. To signal before a lane change is to guarantee the car behind you will not let you in.  The trick is to quickly change lanes then hit your turn signal as if to say, "That's right man, I just cut you off."

Observing the speed limit is an unforgivable sin.  Posted speed limits are simply suggestions and most people drive 10-15 mph over the limit when traffic is flowing. Tailgating is like a religion on LA freeways.  It's not uncommon to see drivers riding each other's bumpers at 75 mph knowing that a sudden stop would be fatal. Driving LA freeways is like swimming in the ocean.  Everybody does it despite the riptides and sharks and large waves that occasionally claim lives.

Locals refer to the freeways by their route numbers as in "take the 405 to the 101." Each freeway has a distinct character and flavor.  The 405 is the busiest freeway in the world known for its unrelenting traffic jams.  This was the route OJ took during his infamous white Bronco chase and the freeway subject to the Carmageddon closure in 2011.  Driving the 101 is like taking a trek through old Los Angeles.  You pass the Hollywood Bowl, the Capital Records building, the iconic Western Exterminator offices and city hall.  The 5 links Los Angeles to Orange County and is know for its battered roads, narrow lanes and monster traffic jams.

In total, the LA freeway system spans 528 miles.  They are the defining architecture of Los Angeles and as Joan Didion wrote in her novel Play It As It Lays, the freeway is "the only secular communion Los Angeles has."

The history of freeways in the United States is tied to Los Angeles.  In 1901, the Pacific Electric Railroad created a public transit system known as "the Red Car." With its bright red streetcars, the Red Car line was the primary means of transport for people getting around Los Angeles.  It covered 25% more track mileage than New York City's subway line today.

As automobiles became cheap and plentiful, the Red Car began to lose ridership.  Vehicle congestion on local streets became a problem and urban planners spoke about "magic motorways" soaring above and through Los Angeles.  Fearing a loss of control over local commerce, the Southern Pacific Railroad (who owned the Pacific Electric Railroad), lobbied hard against freeway construction.

It took the Automobile Club of Southern California releasing the 1937 Traffic Survey to sway political opinion.  The Survey recommended extensive motorways with cloverleaf interchanges, on-ramps, off-ramps and elevated highways.  Only cars would be allowed though initial plans called for light rail tracks in center lanes.  The roads would be called freeways ("free of charge") to distinguish them from "toll ways" that cost money.

The first Los Angeles freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, opened in 1940. The six-lane, eight-mile long road linked Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles. The route reduced travel time between the two cities from 27 minutes to 12 minutes.  The original speed limit was 45 mph and the road was designed to carry 27,000 cars per day.  Today, it carries more than 125,000 cars daily.

LA's second freeway, the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) also opened in 1940. Connecting the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and downtown, the 101 made it easier for people to live in the suburbs and work in the city. Construction required the acquisition and demolition of thousands of homes and buildings via eminent domain.  Among the structures destroyed were Rudolph Valentino's house in Whitley Heights and Los Angeles High School near downtown.  Rubble and debris were dumped in Chavez Ravine, the future home of Dodger Stadium.

After World War II, pro-freeway sentiment prevailed.  In 1947, California passed the Collier-Burns Highway Act that included a 1.5 cent statewide fuel tax for freeway construction.  By 1950, the Red Car line was formally disbanded.

In 1953, a four-level interchange was completed where the 101 connects to the 110 (Harbor Freeway). This was the first stack freeway in the world.  Los Angeles became the model for freeway development and "the stack" became a symbol of local pride.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act.  The law authorized $25 billion for construction of a nationwide interstate highway system.  LA freeway construction took off and soon the city had the 405 (1960), the 134 (1960) and the 605 (1964).  Plans also called for a Beverly Hills Freeway linking the 10 to the 101 via La Cienega and Laurel Canyon. Wealthy locals protested and killed the idea.  In contrast, freeway construction through Latino neighborhoods in Boyle Heights, East LA and Lincoln Heights displaced more than a quarter-million people.

The 1973 oil crisis raised fuel prices and increased interest in mass transit. Popular opinion turned against new freeway construction.  Proposition 13 enacted in 1978 further reduced available freeway funds.  The last new freeway to be built in Los Angeles was the 105 (Century Freeway) opening in 1993.

In 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported about bizarre items found on local freeways.  These included $7,000 in quarters on the 101 in 1982; thousands of pounds of M&M's on the 57 (Orange Freeway) in 1986; 14,000 pounds of salsa on the 5 in 1987; and a body from the back of a coroner's van on the 101 in 1989.

In 1969, chickens began appearing on the side of the Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios.  Apparently, a poultry truck overturned and freed thousands of birds.  Passing motorists killed many of the hens but a colony survived and made homes in the roadside shrubbery.  In the late 70's, the Department of Animal Regulation corralled more than 100 chickens and shipped them to a Simi Valley ranch.  A few chickens eluded capture.  The so-called "Hollywood freeway chickens" can still be seen on the 101 today.  (7" x 9", black ink print)