WHAT’S COMFORTABLE, AND WHAT’S NOT: PUBLICATION OF MY NOVEL “After the Devastation”

By Paul M. Lewis

As I talked about in a blog posting done in early November of last year, I began the process of writing the novel soon after retiring at the end of 2006. During that time, it has gone through numerous phases, forms, iterations, and edits, and, although it’s been a long slog, I am happy to announce that it has now finally been published.

Here is a short description of what it’s about:

It’s the year 2024 and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora Del Bosque tells her husband, Aden Delaterre, she’s leaving to report for the Los Angeles Times on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the United Nations. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. Each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal Spirit Guides.

After the Devastation is a romance, as well as a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism. It is a tale of global crisis and of a post-apocalyptic future for humanity, riven by our ever-present flaws, but bolstered by our greatest attributes. The novel poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and in the end are people capable of building a new and better world for themselves, even after the devastation?

Writing the novel was, in a sense, the easier part. I’m comfortable sitting quietly, spinning stories in my study. Someone once told me that the job of the writer is to fabricate interesting characters, chase them up a tree, and then start throwing stones at them. I like that. People in stories are at their most interesting when they have to face difficulties. And, as readers, we can relate to others who are facing stuff, either of their own making or imposed on them by forces beyond their control. One way or another, if characters are well drawn, we should be able to see ourselves in them. And in so identifying with them and their struggles, maybe this even helps us somehow gain insight into our own difficulties.

But now, I’m faced with a task that I find much more daunting, that is, marketing the novel. This isn’t something that comes easily or naturally to me. As it turns out, advertising a book once it’s written is a whole different world. The word “promotion” keeps coming up. But being center stage is not necessarily my preferred location. Generally, I’d rather stand to the side and let others bask in the limelight (to follow, perhaps too far, the theatrical metaphor). But being in that limelight, I am told, is the very job definition of an author these days. He or she has to get out there and “sell the book.”

So, I’ll do my best, and here’s what I’ve done so far. I’ve worked with someone who has done an excellent job at creating a website for me. You can go to www.paulmlewis.com and take a look for yourself and, if you’ve a mind to, you can even order a copy of the book there. I would also love to hear what you think about it, and you’ll see a place there on the website where you can go to leave comments. There’s a picture of me there, too, more or less center stage (well, center screen at least), and a photo of the cover of the book, generously and beautifully designed by my blog-partner, Kevin L. Miller. And finally, there’s a link that will lead you right back here to the Two Old Liberals site, so you can come full circle.

Another part of the process has been to send out an email blast to friends in order to alert them to the publication. Most of them have even been kind enough to write back, congratulating me, which has been enormously gratifying. Human kindness is always something I am profoundly appreciative of. And some of them have gone ahead and ordered the book.

I’ll be creating a Facebook page for the book, too, and will reach out to the local press, once I have a press release—a thing which is in process—and see if anyone might be willing to review the book. And I’m ready to make myself available to speak to anyone, or any group, at any time, about the book or about the process of writing the book. This part I really don’t mind doing at all, if it happens, as I enjoy talking to groups and grew used to it in my previous professional life. And hopefully there will be other opportunities that may present themselves for me to promote the book.

It’s true that all this comes at the expense of writing essays for this blog, or even of creating another novel (and I do have some thoughts about doing exactly that). But first things first is no doubt the best advice I can give myself. The essential question still remains: how best to gear myself up for standing in the spotlight and promoting the book? After much soul-searching, here is what I have finally come up with: I will not think of it as promoting myself. Instead, I’ll think of it as promoting the characters in the book. After all, I like them; I could say I love them, I suppose, even the evil ones. And it’s my job to try to give them a life in the wider world by letting people know about the book. Remember that part about chasing characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them, because people are at their most interesting when they’re challenged? Well, here’s my chance to chase myself up the tree. Now I’ll get to see how I handle those rocks, if any are thrown at me.

It will give me a chance to show my metal, just as I’ve given my characters an opportunity to prove theirs. And that’s only fair. So, promote away I will. I’ll stand on whatever stage comes my way, happily speak to any group, and write about my characters or my process of creating them. Because, in the end, aside from sitting quietly and spinning stories in my study, this is the job of a writer in today’s world. And—or so I’m beginning to discover—that’s the fun of it!

TWITTER, AND THE ART OF THE EPIGRAM

By Paul M. Lewis

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, an epigram is a short, pithy saying, often humorous or satirical, frequently written in a rhymed couplet, although not always. The ancient Roman poet, Martial, is sometimes said to be the Father of Epigrams, and many of his were insulting and bawdy. Here (in translation) are just a few examples, from a book entitled Martial’s Epigrams by Garry Willis. And remember, these were written two thousand years ago:

“How can the slippery son of a bitch
With all his vices, not be rich?”

Or again:

“Of course we know he’ll never wed.
What? Put his sister out of bed?”

Yet, not every epigram is rhymed. There are of plenty of one-liners out there, zingers we might call them today. And who is more famous for such witticisms than Oscar Wilde?

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a sampling of some of Oscar’s wilder sayings:

“I can resist anything except temptation.”

“Work is the curse of the drinking class.”

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

And of course, the unforgettable:

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

About which, the only comment I can make is:

Such sayings are emblematic of Wilde,
Frothy and piquant, and seldom mild.

But Wilde was not the only British purveyor of epigrammatic elegance. Coleridge practically gives us the very definition of epigrams when he wrote:

“What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.”

And John Dryden, the 17th century English playwright, literary critic, translator and, of course, poet is famous for having said:

“Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest – and so am I.”

In America, Ben Franklin is on record as having said, pithily, if not so humorously:

“Little strokes
Fell great oaks.”

But is there, I wondered, a use for epigrams in the more modern context? It occurred to me that not only are they the soul of brevity and wit, but they lend themselves to the diminished attention span of many in this age of Twitter. After all, pretty much any one of them might fit in the requisite 140 tweeted characters. Maybe there’s even a Twitter-gram in use, I don’t know, although so far I have been unsuccessful in finding any such animal. Why not start one then, I thought? Except for the fact that I don’t have a cell phone, have never tweeted, and wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to begin.

So here, in brief, is a linked series of epigrams about what I think of all of that:

I have as much an idea of how to tweet,
As a dead man would to sit and eat.

What is it with all this twitter?
I seems like so much dross and litter.;

Still, there’s something that really can be said
For making an attempt to unclutter your head

Shorter and cleaner is often better.
Not like some nineteenth century letter.

Too many words in your diet
Can twist your mind and run riot.

Why not put it all in twitter,
And in so doing, get rid of the litter?

Writers who love to go on and on
Are like Indians cooks and their naan.

They bake it in an oven or skillet,
But then proceed to butter and fill it.

It’s good, but makes you sluggish and fat.
And who needs that for his thermostat?

So I won’t keep spinning any more verse,
Lest it all just get worse and worse.

You’d think that I’d know better, in fact,
That the measured and thoughtful is what I lacked.

In the end, I’ve written way too much,
And better get up and go to lunch.

Though I’ll leave you with this one little thought,
Even if it’s really more than I ought:

A novel—good Lord!—is way too many words,
Read only by writers, and other such nerds

P.S.

If one forty a couplet I have exceeded,
My own advice I have not heeded

IS THE PRICE WORTH IT?

By Paul M. Lewis

What is the real value of something? How much does it cost? These are the questions Arthur Miller is asking in his play, The Price, now in revival at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. The question is meant to be asked on every level: the monetary, the emotional, and what might be called the karmic.

Here, in brief, is a synopsis, for anyone unfamiliar with this mid-career work of Miller’s, albeit not one of his more famous. Two brothers come together in the attic of their long-dead father’s apartment building, itself slated for demolition. The space is filled with old furniture, some of which may or may not still be valuable. Estranged for many years, the brothers, along with the wife of one of them, must come to terms with a used furniture buyer, who is setting a price on the things, the physical objects that are in a sense all that is left of the family. Naturally, Miller being Miller, we soon come to know the heartache that is the relationship of the brothers with each other, and which typified their relationship with their father, a once wealthy businessman, who lost everything in the Great Depression. The younger son, Victor, had remained to take care of the old man, while his brother, Walter, went off to pursue his education, and ultimately to become a successful physician. The stay-at-home brother, instead of pursing his own schooling, gave it all up and became a policeman, those perennial guardians of law and order. And during the course of the play, we come to realize how great was the price of Victor’s devotion to his father. His wife, too, pays a price for her loyalty, as much as she resents it and wishes they had more to show for their lives. But Walter, the prodigal son, now wealthy and divorced, refuses to feel guilty for doing what he wanted. Yet, he too ultimately has his own debts to pay off. Meanwhile, Mr. Solomon, the old furniture dealer, bargains and haggles about how much all this family stuff is actually worth. “When it comes to used furniture,” he tells them, “you can’t be sentimental.”

Victor, who sacrificed all to keep his father alive during the Depression, clings to the notion that what he did was done out of fealty and love. They literally ate garbage in order to survive, and in the process he gave up his dreams of becoming a scientist. Feelings of resentment, of bitterness, of misplaced loyalties, are rife between the two brothers, and the once elegant, now out-of-fashion furniture, stacked to the ceiling in the dusty garret, and the other odds and ends of family life stuffed into armoires and chests of drawers, come to symbolize envy and jealousy, old hurts both conscious and unconscious, and the lost opportunities of life.

At a more fundamental level, Miller may also be suggesting that the ultimate question we have to deal with relates more to how we construct our lives. What responsibility does each of us have for the choices we make? Perhaps the hardest question of all to answer is, who is to blame, if our lives do not work in accordance with our dreams? Can we hold our parents accountable? And if so, why not they theirs, and their parents before them? How far back do we go? Though this is not to deny the fact that some have it easier than others. Those who come from warm and well-functioning families (unless the very idea of such thing is its own myth), those with roots in wealth, or whose parents have connections, those able to get an ivy league education have the advantage, do they not?

It’s axiomatic that not everyone starts out equal, either in terms of wealth, or health, or family experience, or even in regard to the security and stability of the country they were born in. Think, for example, of the children these days living in Ukraine, or Syria, or Iraq, to name only a few of the more obvious places. Background—where we come from—counts, there is no doubt. And yet, in spite of this, the existential question still remains for each of us: can we construct our own lives, or are we pawns, prisoners essentially, of our circumstances?

The play may be hinting at a corollary of the above, as well, another question of equal import: how do we go about creating our lives, and what is the price for doing so? Economists believe there is a cost-benefit ratio involved with any choice we make. And every individual must decide for him or herself if the price paid is worth the value of the thing desired. This works with buying a new car, as much as it does with getting an education, entering into a relationship, or deciding on a treatment for an illness. There is always a plus and a minus, a give and a take in any bargain we make.

This question of what it costs us to create our lives, in terms of time, of energy, of focus, of determination, of sheer willpower is, in one sense, western and very modernist in its conceptualization. It is all about the individual. It raises him or her to the top of the pyramid, putting that person at the pinnacle of importance. In societies where the group reigns supreme, where what is best is the good of the collective, the answers are in some sense simpler. You do what the family decides you ought to, following a traditional pattern, or at very least pursuing a career that brings wealth and prestige to the familial group. Personal and private predilections remain secondary.

But there are fewer and fewer such group cultures left in the modern world. Even in traditional places such as China or Japan, or other areas of Asia, children are more and more choosing their own future, irrespective of what mom and dad feel is best either for them or for the family. Western individualism has spread either like a virus, or like a cleansing wind, depending on your perspective. And it should be noted that Arthur Miller wrote The Price in 1968, itself a year of great tumult, when a new generation was rebelling against the strictures of the old.

Think for a moment what else happened that fateful year: the Vietnam War was raging, along with the anti-war movement; we witnessed the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia; street riots paralyzed France for a full month (I was there and participated in them); the police moved against demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention; thirty-two African nations boycotted the Summer Olympics in protest against apartheid South Africa’s participation in the games; draft cards were burned by the thousands; Nixon was elected president by a mere .07% of the popular vote; and Apollo 8 began the first US mission to orbit the moon.

There was a price to pay for all this. Because there always is, and not just personally in terms of what we do, how we create ourselves, or how that effects other people in the family. Our actions and our choices have far wider consequences. And it is this notion that I feel may be the real, underlying theme of the play my partner and I saw at the Taper. What we do in the world has repercussions, as surely as a pebble thrown into a still pond. Ripples inevitably appear, bigger or smaller, depending on the size and the purport of our actions.

As such, it behooves us to pay attention. The first rule is perhaps to know oneself. What do we want? What will we do to get it? And then, how will it affect other people and their lives? At the end of the play, the old used furniture salesman, the ancient of days, who symbolizes—what?—those tricksters greed and time, but also compassion and wisdom (his name, after all, is Solomon), and all that we both most want and fear in life, sits alone like a ghost in the chair of the long-dead father, laughing uproariously at all he sees before him. It’s up to each of us to decide if the price of what we do is worth it, for ourselves, for others, and for the world at large.

THE QUESTION OF THE DECADES

By Paul M. Lewis

There’s something about turning 70, as I did not so long ago, that gets your attention in a way that turning 69 did not. One day, you’re still in your 60’s, and the next morning suddenly you’ve arrived at what sounds like a whole new level of agedness. Of course, these are just numbers, numerals that have their life on a page, or in a computer, or while otherwise calculating something that can be counted up. This momentous moving from one ten-year spacing of numbers to the next that startles us so is what I think of as the question of the decades.   But it’s not the numbers per se that matter; it’s more what they remind us of. They seem to say: What have I done with my life; see how fleeting it all is; and what ought I to do with what remains? Ultimately, it’s the question of mortality that we all must face. How many more of these numberings will I attach to my life’s span before this particular series runs its course? The 17th century English poet, Andrew Marvell, put it this way: “But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near.”

Time – more to the point, fleeting time – is like that. It brings with it questions of meaning, of what we have done with what has been given to us. No wonder it’s a common topic in art of all kinds, since art at its finest puts us in touch with the ultimate questions. Art can make us ask ourselves, using whatever devices and conventions are specific to its particular expression, what is most important in life. We see it in theater, in novels and stories of all kinds, in painting (note the heartbreakingly beautiful and almost too painfully truthful self-portraits of the aging Rembrandt, for example), and as noted above in poetry. William Butler Yeats is one of those poets who spoke movingly of getting older. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of the great seminal poems of the early part of the 20th century, he says: “An aged man is a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick”. But he doesn’t stop at such a simple lament. The whole remainder of the poem speaks of what to do with our lives as we age: “unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress,/Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence.”

Soul clap its hands and sing. What an interesting image; and what a wonderful thing to do as the body grows older, to make one’s own music, to choreograph one’s own life with a dance that incorporates the ages into it. How each person does that remains forever his or her own personal expression. And it is no one else’s place or right to dictate how that particular manifestation reveals and articulates itself. It is, after all, the reason for the journey in the first place, to give each of us the opportunity to create that most personal revelation of the ultimate magic of who we are. I am, as you no doubt have already noted, speaking here about nothing less than the meaning of life. And not just in some general philosophical sort of way, but specifically and most personally the meaning of one’s own life. That is the thing that no one can tell you, because as life unfolds, as we put foot in front of foot and make our way along its sometimes torturous path, our life slowly reveals itself to us, even as we create it ourselves. It could even be said that it reveals us, ourselves, as we most truly are. That’s why art is such a fine metaphor for life, because art too unveils itself through the artist’s use of what is within and without, all the while creating something utterly unique, a thing the world has never seen before, and which it will never again see the likes of.

What is it that the world sees? And in that ultimate sense, what do we see, as we both create and reveal our lives? Each day presents its own high and low points, its own opportunities for triumph and failure. Yes, of course, there are times in everyone’s life, critically divergent moments, when the choices we make set us along a certain course that veers this way or that. This also means that there were other paths that were presented, but which were not taken. Such are the decisions we all have to make, and we make them to the best of our abilities at the time. There is no room, no time later for regret, for the way we have chosen reflects who and what we were at the moment of the choice.

Still, it must be said, most of life is not so dramatic. We go about our business according to the diurnal patterns we all create for ourselves. We work each day, or we otherwise spend our time according to frameworks that have become familiar to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. Or, I correct myself, there is only something wrong with that if we do so unconsciously. Because the job of life must be to live as consciously as we can, in order to participate as fully as possible in its blossoming possibilities. It is exactly these steps we take each day, each moment, one following after the next that finally makes the fabric of the life we are weaving. Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. How many older people do we all know who have not achieved wisdom? No, it is not physically surviving for a certain number of years that counts, but the quality of the life that we have created. How to go about that? The best way I know is through reflection, dare I say meditation, that deepest form of introspection. Which one of us was born wise, and who has gone through childhood unscathed?   These are the givens that we must deal with. What we make of it all is what is ultimately important. Life never skimps in giving us opportunity after opportunity to test ourselves, to grow, to flourish and blossom, or else to wither and fade away. The highest inner qualities, peace and joy and wisdom, do not always come at first invitation. They are shy and diffident visitors; they must be coaxed and cajoled, lured even into the warm hearth of the soul.

These are some of the things I think of as I turn 70. It seems natural that one should think about them at this stage of life, but we all do well to think of them at every stage. Who we are at any moment in life is the end creation of what we have thought and done, what our hopes and aspirations are, how we treat ourselves and others in the wider world. That is as much true at age 20 as it is at 70. And we can only hope that with 50 years in between we might have learned something about what is important and what is not.

In Yeats’s symbology, Byzantium represents the goal, the hoped-for end of life’s journey. It is a mystical place that can never be fully explained, only experienced, because it is not a thing of the intellect. And that perhaps is a good part of ultimate wisdom, the acceptance of the fact that we cannot explain any of life’s final verities, only strive to achieve what a human being can never fully achieve, left to his or her own devices. In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats likens the soul, the human spirit, to a bird “set upon a golden bough to sing/To the lords and ladies of Byzantium/Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

It is a great metaphor. In the end, what more can any of us do but sing our song, work to understand the past, fully embrace each passing moment, and look with hope and trust for what is to come? Good advice to myself, as I enter into this next decade, and maybe not such bad advice at any age.

WRITING “AFTER THE DEVASTATION”

By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (Lulu.com), and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.

In Defense of Barbra Streisand, Michael Urie, and “Buyer & Cellar,” a One-Man Play by Jonathan Tolins

Dear Paul,
 
I have read your July 31, 2014 blog post, “In the Cellar,” which appears immediately below this rebuttal. Your review of Jonathan Tolins’ one-man play “Buyer & Cellar” is extremely well-written, erudite, funny in a self-deprecating way, utterly engaging and insightful, and I completely disagree with your premise and conclusions. I concur with your partner who liked the play, even though I have not seen it and have, therefore, no right to comment whatsoever. I hasten to add that just because I agree with him does NOT mean that HE will agree with ME after reading my reasons for liking the play without even having seen it. Here’s why I think I would have liked the play had I seen it:
 
“Camp” is almost exclusively a queer genre of humor: Oh, there is ironic and tongue-in-cheek humor in the straight world, as well as humor that lampoons cultural icons and sacred cows and cherished mores, but nobody does it like we gay boys, with such style in a single limp wrist, sibilant “s” or swished step, but with an evil twinkle in the eye. And yet it is done with equal measures of affection and condemnation, especially when the camp humor is directed at a beloved diva like Barbra Streisand. To my way of thinking, camp humor is a healthy way to bridge the gap between our incontrovertible status as “outsiders” in society, and our undeniable desire to somehow be part of it. Mock worship of celebrities and the very culture that excludes us in so many ways, is one method of forging our own kind of integration.

Barbra Streisand, from a mid-sixties photo shoot for the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine

Barbra Streisand, from a mid-sixties photo shoot for the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine

 
As it happens, the very day you guys were seeing “Buyer and Cellar,” starring Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame,) Robert and I were watching an extended version of the “Inside the Actor’s Studio” rare interview of Barbra Streisand by James Lipton. You see, we are among those gay longtime Barbra worshippers who adore her voice, her enormous creative talent as an actress and director, and her larger-than-life persona. We eat it up. Like so many gay fellows, we don’t just love her, we probably want to BE her, as some of us have tried to do. I disagree that it is because we all feel dreadfully insufficient internally, (although many of us certainly ARE…) but because we see icons like Streisand as accessible portals into the larger world — openings that we recognize, understand, and know how to navigate.
 
At the end of the interview on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” as always the microphone was turned over to the guest so that she could interact directly with the students. One graduate student, a playwright, said to Ms. Streisand something like, “I have adored you all my life and your work inspires my own creative efforts. I am a gay man. I know other gay men who feel as I do. Why do you think so many gay men are inspired by you?” Barbra paused to think and replied, “It’s because I am so different from the rest of the world, and yet I made it. I am successful.” She came up completely outside the system and thumbed her nose at it even as she tried to get in. She has always been very controversial and despised by many, and yet she is enormously successful. Why wouldn’t every creative gay man identify with her?
 
Human beings seek gods, kings, and queens: We hold within our DNA I suspect, archetypes of the great, powerful, benevolent, true, honest, just leaders, kings, queens and gods that we know we will one day become in some future incarnation. Until we achieve that lofty level of self-realization and, yes, internal sufficiency, we seek role models who can show us the way. But I don’t think this mentor/follower process is so much about insufficiency — that “looming lacuna” of which you write — as it is simply the way all sentient beings learn anything.

Part of that learning process involves following false prophets, silly celebrities, corrupt kings, and visionless leaders, and learning to discriminate between a real god and a false god. Once we get that right we are ready to become gods. Until then, we need graven images and icons and manifestations of divinity in form to worship.

We can be quite sure that Streisand is a flawed mirror of The Divine Mother. But she IS a mirror, nevertheless, just as all of us are. She is particularly good at demonstrating creativity, courage in the face of fire, commitment and perseverance, and most uniquely, Sundara (Glorious Beauty) formed with very imperfect initial material — a strange face, dough-like body, and nasal voice. Yet she achieves it!

2011 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Barbra Streisand

2011 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Barbra Streisand

 
Role playing as satire: This seems to be the methodology of “Buyer & Cellar” as you describe the play. The very premise that Streisand has constructed a fake shopping mall under her barn is the best example. What a great way to make a satirical statement about our cultural addiction to shopping (an activity that I personally abhor.) And it would seem that the actor does nothing but play various roles in a way that makes a satirical statement about the stereotypes portrayed. I haven’t seen the play, but I’ll almost guarantee that Barbra Streisand herself is reduced to a cliché stereotype of her superstar persona — a construct that may have very little to do with who she really is. And, as you describe the persona of Barry the boyfriend, his character sounds like a stereotype of the effeminate gay man — a type for which I have always felt great affection. The structure of the play sounds to me like a very ingenious way to weave a complex fabric of commentary about the obsessions, likes, dislikes, and bizarre behaviors of most of the members of our particular culture, employing the warp and woof of stereotypical characters revealed in a camp, satirical comedy.

A recent portrait of Barbra Streisand for "Ted Talks"

A recent portrait of Barbra Streisand for “Ted Talks”

“Cutism” as a legitimate artistic genre: As an artist myself, currently delving deeply into what I call “Cutism” as a legitimate aesthetic genre, I am now seeing examples of it all around me, and coming to realize that many artists have been working for years in this “style” with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and without sacrificing any aesthetic rigor or excellence, by the way. It could be argued that the complete oeuvres of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Wes Anderson, and Steve Martin (to mention just a few artists) are deliberately saccharine, satirical “Cutist” outpourings.

We recently watched the decidedly “Cutist” movie, “Evan Almighty,” — a powerful environmental statement about the coming apocalypse due to climate change and abuse of the planet, hidden within a high-budget commercial comedy. “Evan Almighty” is loosely based on the Biblical story of Noah. Steve Carell plays Evan, the new Noah, and Morgan Freeman plays God, responding to politician Evan’s prayer asking for help in changing the world. I had seen it before and thought it was cute and fun, but this time, especially after we watched the “bonus features” in which the director made no bones about his intentions, it seemed really profound to me. Some of us artists have decided to try to find ways to make these difficult or unpalatable statements more accessible to the masses. If we have to adopt cloyingly cute forms to accomplish that end, then so be it.
 
Well… There you have it. I’ve said my piece, and I fear it may be longer than your original post! So sorry, but your very well-written review of a play that I have not even seen, propelled me right onto my soap box. I’ll get down now and shut up. But I sure do wish that Robert and I could have joined you guys on the opposite coast at the Mark Taper Forum and then discussed the play over margaritas and Mexican dinner afterward. In lieu of that pleasure, thank you so much for your very stimulating review and this fun discussion.
 
Love, – Kevin

IN THE CELLAR

By Paul

Usually, my partner and I are in agreement about the plays we see. In fact, we go to quite a number of them up in Los Angeles, but the one we saw this past Saturday at the Mark Taper Forum was something of an exception.

What was on view was Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man play starring Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame). It’s a fantasy, based on the idea that this gay guy, a struggling actor played by the energetic and talented Urie, can’t find much work these days, and even gets fired for a misstep while playing a character in Disneyland. As any such down-on-his-luck actor might do, he grabs at a job that comes his way playing a fake salesman in Barbra Streisand’s make-believe mall-in-a-cellar. Alex, the erstwhile actor cum salesman cum actor again, “sells” stuff to Ms. Streisand that she already owns and has accumulated over years of inconspicuous consumption (this stuff is, after all, actually hidden away in the basement “mall” of the barn house on her Malibu estate). The fantasy Streisand comes to the cellar periodically, looking to pick up a bargain, and in the process lots of things happen between salesman Alex and buyer Barbra. The idea is that we are supposed to get a glimpse into the humanity and vulnerability, as well as the occasional manipulative craziness, of the lady of the house.

I have to admit that the audience howled at all of the one-liners between Urie/Alex and Urie/Streisand, as well as between Alex and Urie/Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, who admits to being something of a Streisand addict (like so many other gay men, supposedly). So, I was definitely the odd-man-out in this bunch, since I hardly snickered at all of this stuff, which I found a little over the top and, in the end, not all that interesting.

So, why did my partner like the play, and I didn’t? After all, he has training in theater in the form of a bachelor’s degree in the subject from UC Irvine, as well as having acted himself, designed sets and lighting for a number of plays, his knowledge of theater history is far greater than mine, and his judgment of both drama and comedy is usually impeccable. So, why the disagreement, I had to ask myself? I’m still not exactly sure, but here are a few random thoughts.

The whole play seemed to me a little overdone in a kind of clichéd gay way. Alex was a likeable enough kind of guy and, I have to admit, in the past I’ve known people not too dissimilar from him. At the beginning of the play, he even admits to not being much of a Streisand fan, a thing that I can very much identify with. I’m not trying to deny that she has a lot of talent, mind you, and she was of course wonderful in “Funny Girl,” but let’s just say that her voice – I don’t know how else to put it – somehow doesn’t register with my register. However, it’s clear that during the course of the play, Alex begins to buy into it, and gets swept up in the worship of Ms. Streisand, to the point that he begins to go a little gaga whenever the bell attached to the “shop door” rings at the top of the stairs, announcing her descent into the unconscious realm of the dreamland-mall-in-a cellar. In addition, Urie-as-Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, does occasionally come across as, well, a little too much in a stereotypic, flaming sort of way, prompting me to wonder what, in fact, it was exactly that Alex saw in Barry. Nothing that I found very attractive, anyway.

Still, as my partner has pointed out to me, I seem to have no trouble watching the British sit-com “Vicious” (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, playing an equally overdone, clichéd old gay couple, who speak to each other in the most vicious way, although, underneath it all, they do still care for each other). I even laugh at some of the antics portrayed therein, although not so much at the really nasty turns the dialog sometimes takes. And I can’t fully explain why I accept one, but reject the other. I’ve been told it’s because I’m an Anglophile, and that I like anything and anybody with a fancy British accent, but I don’t think that’s the case (and my Irish ancestors would be rolling over in their collective graves, if it were).

The bigger question as to what I found objectionable in “Buyer & Cellar” has to do with the adulation we in this country have for celebrities. Does that mean that I’m just envious of them? Do we, that is, those of us who are not rich and famous, simply want to have the experience of that kind of stardom? I really don’t think so. I have to wonder why anyone would ever want thousands, maybe even millions, of people to be able to recognize who they are in the street, or in a grocery store. And do celebrities even go grocery shopping? Probably not, I suppose. As much as there are those who insist that this is all just sour grapes, I actually do like the anonymity I have of nobody knowing who I am. We spent almost three weeks in Europe a few months ago, for example, and not a single person there recognized us. Who would want every other passerby on the street stopping you and asking if you’re that famous so-and-so whom they saw in whatever movie that was out last year? That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

And ought we to dig even deeper? Are there other reasons why so many in this country, and throughout the world, almost worship stars, whether they be actors, athletes, or whoever’s face has appeared endless times, “bigger than life,” on countless movie screens? Maybe it has something to do with a kind of emptiness people feel within, an unspoken dread that who they are is somehow “not enough”? I’m not suggesting that most people think this consciously. Probably very few people go about saying to themselves: “Well, I’m just not enough!” But at an unconscious level, that may be exactly what we think. We feel as though there is a hole, a lacking, a looming lacuna somewhere within, and we want, we need, to fill it. And how better to fill it safely (that is, without drugs or alcohol) than somehow imagining ourselves in the role of a fantasy movie star, to whom we attribute a “dream life” of untold fame, endless riches, the adulation of the world, and the fulfillment of every desire we have ever imagined for ourselves? The unspoken message, subtle but enormously powerful, is a simple one: “If I were he/she, if I had his/her wealth, talent, and fame, then everyone would love me, and I would be happy forever in a world without woe.” That said, one thing I did find interesting about “Buyer & Cellar” was the suggestion that even this great “lady of the house” does not experience such material and cultural success as truly enough.

I won’t tell you the ending of the play, although I’m guessing it wouldn’t be all that difficult for you to figure out. Suffice it to say that Alex learns something about himself, and that is a good thing. And although the journey there wasn’t one that I found all that compelling, in this case, I’m willing to admit that I may have been the one whose insight was lacking. After all, the theme of not buying into celebrity notoriety as a substitute for personal fulfillment in our own lives is a laudable one. And maybe, as he so often is, my partner was right after all. Maybe if Alex had only spoken with one of those lovely British accents, I’d have found the whole thing uproariously funny, witty beyond measure, and utterly engaging. Yes, that may well be the case. And if it is, heaven help me for that! May my ancestors back in the old sod forgive me for this kind of silly, and in the end, oh-so-unfulfilling adulation.