Monsters as Heroes

The Shape of Water for me at the moment is, well, the shape of tears.

I know that melodrama is squarely out of fashion and I’m trying not to get washed away in these tears of mine, especially considering that they are for someone I’ve never met before. I wish I’d had the chance. The fact that he passed away in 1994 didn’t stop me from spending this last year of my life with him and I’m now convinced that he’s one of the most charming souls to have ever emerged in human form. I’m talking about the incomparable Henry Mancini.

I could hardly believe my good fortune when I was approached to write a book on the brilliant and groundbreaking film composer. I’m now finishing the work and never would have expected to be entering a period of mourning over it. One of the final chapters I have been working on just this week focuses on a certain year in the career of my pal “Hank,” when he received three Oscar nominations. So being that it’s Oscar weekend with all this rain here in Southern California, I think it may be a good omen for The Shape of Water. By now surely you know how much I love two things that may seem totally unconnected at first glance.

Consider this: The Shape of Water may have never been if it wasn’t for the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Director Guillermo del Toro tells the story about this in almost every interview about The Shape of Water. His own “Gill-man” creature that he designed for the film and put $200,000 of his money into developing (it had to be anatomically correct so that the love story could be consummated) is modeled on the creature from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro describes all of this going back to being six years old and kneeling in front of the TV watching the movie. So taken was he with the image of the woman in the white swim suit floating on the surface of a river in the Amazon with the creature swimming below looking at her, that he never forgot it. He loved that the creature was in love with her and felt that it spoke volumes about its character, especially compared to the regular people in the movie, caught up in all their boring human drama.

“It’s a movie where a woman falls in love with an elemental god of the water. The creature is not a slimy monster. He’s the shape of water.” – Guillermo del Toro

Henry Mancini wrote a good part of the score for Creature From the Black Lagoon when he was first starting out in the business as a staff composer at Universal Studios. Despite it being some of his earliest work, it is also some of his most ethereal and breathtaking. In those days at Universal, things were run like an assembly line — a movie would be divided up amongst  several staff composers. They felt that this was the most efficient way of tackling the work load, since the studio was turning out about 50 movies a year. While researching for the book, I learned that the term B-movie did not originally refer to something that was necessarily schlocky or low quality (though sometimes they were) but rather, a ‘B-movie’ was simply designed to be the second movie of a double feature, and thus have a shorter running time than the main feature — usually just over an hour or even less.

Neither the young del Toro nor the grown-up could ever understood why the creature and the woman didn’t end up together at the end of Creature From the Black Lagoon. The title of the film makes it seem as though he could be the hero. Del Toro was gravely disappointed by the ending and didn’t understand why it should be so unusual for them to be together. Clearly the creature loved her intensely — enough to risk his life repeatedly to get close to her. He became so obsessed with what he believed to be their destiny that he began sketching the two of them: sharing an ice cream cone, riding a tandem bicycle, going out to dinner. Then when he became the famous film director Guillermo del Toro, he would talk to anyone who would listen about his spinoff idea. Not surprisingly, no one understood his vision. After making his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, he pitched Universal on the idea of remaking Creature From the Black Lagoon with his so-called happy ending. Their response was essentially that he needed a one-way ticket back to Crazytown. But now here we are with The Shape of Water leading the field with thirteen Oscar nominations. Crazy is such a relative term, isn’t it?

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Del Toro has said on many occasions that Mancini is one of his favorite composers. And indeed, Mancini and his oeuvre can be heard and felt in The Shape of Water in ways that make my heart sing. First, there is the inclusion of the song “A Summer Place” performed by one of Hank’s best friends, Andy Williams. Williams literally made his career on Hank’s Oscar winning song “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He recorded “A Summer Place” for his album, Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes and even named his autobiography, Moon River and Me.

The next nod to Hank in the Shape of Water is the Glenn Miller classic featured in film, “I Know Why (And So Do You).” When Hank was only a freshman at Julliard, he registered for the draft on his 18th birthday and was called up shortly thereafter. While serving, he  liberated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. But that’s another story that’s in my book due out later this year!

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Hank had been already been doing professional gigs as a student in New York and a bunch of his musician buddies urged him to go see Glenn Miller about getting into the Air Corps band that Miller was assembling. It was a painfully short meeting and young Hank was disappointed that he was not chosen to be in the Miller band. He soon found out however, that Miller had recommended him for a different Air Corps band, which Hank credits with saving his life because it kept him out of gunnery school. He’d been told that the life expectancy of a tail gunner in combat was measured not in minutes, but in seconds. Years later when Hank was a staff composer at Universal, he was tapped by the head of the Music Department to do his first score for single credit for The Glenn Miller Story precisely because of this history with Miller. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his work on this film.

The third way you to hear Mancini in The Shape of Water is of course in the Alexandre Desplat underscore. Like del Toro, Desplat has been listening to Mancini since he was a child. And like Hank, Desplat started in music by learning to play the flute. He has such a love of flute that he used a section of 12 flutes on this score, opting to strip all of the other woodwinds out and let the flutes carry it. One of the 13 Oscar nominations for The Shape of Water is for Best Score, which it will undoubtedly win. (I’m not big on predications, but you’ve probably picked up on what I think will win Best Picture, too.) Desplat owes a great debt to Mancini and in my ultimate Oscar fantasy, will invoke Hank as an inspiration in his acceptance speech. If you’d like to compare some of the themes for yourself, stream Desplat’s gorgeous score alongside Hank’s cues “The Diver” and “Unknown River” from Creature From the Black Lagoon.

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 When I was asked to write a book on Mancini for The Mentoris Series — fifty titles now, focusing on the contributions of Italian and Italian-Americans, I felt that I had really reached a pinnacle in my writing career — one that I thought I might never reach. Becoming a produced television writer was a huge milestone, so I don’t want to diminish that, and if I hadn’t started out in TV, I never would have met my dear friend and brilliant writer, Ken LaZebnik, who is the Managing Editor of The Mentoris Series and hired me for this book on Hank. Many writers dabble in all forms, partly as a way to eat, but sometimes just for creativity’s sake. Like many writer friends of mine, the calling often starts out with a urge to write poetry. But I haven’t written any poetry since it almost killed me. Yes, you read that right — poetry can kill. Because once you write a poem for someone you consider a hero and then they end up being a monster — it’s death to a poet’s heart. It was this experience and now The Shape of Water that has made me realize that monsters are the new heroes.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art certainly celebrated this idea with an exhibition of del Toro’s amazing creatures. http://www.lacma.org/guillermo-del-toro#about-the-exhibition The director even shares his home with full sized monsters because they inspire him the way heroes do.

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But let’s break it down very simply. The word monster — is  “an animal of legend,” like animals of strange combinations such as a sphinx or a centaur. It’s also “any animal or human deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character.” Would you consider this a monster, or divine inspiration?

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So let me pose this question. Is it any mistake that del Toro refers to the monster in the his film as THE ASSET? If it is indeed an asset, how can we extrapolate this notion?  We see it with indigenous people who traditionally wrap themselves in the skin of a particular animal in order to embody some of the spirit or characteristic of that animal that they need the help of. How can one creature taking the skin another creature help us or even completely transform us? Just ask the bears badly burned in wildfires who are being healed with wraps of fish skin around their paws. This is anything but monstrous. It’s miraculous.

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I think it’s important that we as humans, being so ‘civilized’ and all, don’t lose the whole point by trying to change the creature, but we look at what that creature has to offer us. As del Toro points out about the ultimate arc of the love story.

“We don’t transform the creature. We don’t transform it into a boring prince at the end of the movie so that they can be together forever. He stays in his carnal form — an animal. And he still has a very controversial diet of raw protein that includes cats, you know? He doesn’t get civilized and eat a cat with a fork and a knife.” – Guillermo del Toro

No, he doesn’t. In fact, Eliza goes to live in the Gill-man’s world at the end by activating her own set of gills.

The film’s original title: A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times

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So lest we not forget, we humans are made up of almost entirely water. So does that mean that we are the shape of water? That this “fairy tale for troubled times” came into being exactly when it was meant to? And that the timing of it goes all the way back to 6-year-old Guillermo del Toro seeing the Creature From the Black Lagoon? That he had to persevere through all of the rejections of his idea to be able to bring it to audiences now? For anyone who has not seen the film, remember that it’s set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War right during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Del Toro said that the character played by Michael Shannon, clearly the villain in this movie, would have been the hero had this movie been made back in 1962. “It’s an antidote to today’s cynicism,” he said. “The movie is about love. That’s the one force we’re really afraid to talk about now.” Which is why needed a monster to become the hero of a movie — to show us what love is.

I’ll be putting the champagne on ice now. I’ll be watching the Oscars and toasting to my friend Hank and the countless artists he’s influenced. It makes it a little easier to let him go. I know he will continue to work his magic in many ways for both the makers and recipients of art. As Film Score Monthly said, “A Mancini composition makes you forget the ugliness of the world.” So thank you, Hank, for all those you have inspired and continue to inspire with your artistry and more importantly, your humanity.

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Vibes From Beyond the Veil

What if there were no endings, only beginnings?

In our American culture where we are taught to fear death, I always look forward to the approach of Dias de los Muertos. Ironically, it feels to me like a transfusion of life and gift of another cultural perspective. A complete lack of Mexican heritage has not prevented me from fully embracing this holiday as my own. Dias de los Muertos speaks very deeply and directly to my gringa soul. Dancing skulls and vivid colors laden with symbolism. Courting death instead of fearing it. I’ve been obsessed with it for so long, I can’t remember how or when it first came into my sphere of awareness. But now I know why.

It is believed that at midnight on October 31, the gates of heaven are opened and the spirits of deceased children, or angelitos, are released to reunite with their families. Toys and candies left on Dias de los Muertos altars are there for them. Rural Mexican families and indigenous people are known to spend the equivalent of two months of their income to honor their dead. They see it as a worthwhile investment — knowing that happy spirits will continue to provide them protection, wisdom, and good luck. From a young age, children are taught not to fear death — with skeletons incorporated into their games like loteria.

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To the inhabitant of New York, Paris, or London, death is a word never uttered because it burns the lips.                                                           The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and most permanent lover.                                                                                                                                    — The Life of the Dead in Mexican Folk Art

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It gives my spirit such lift to ponder the way the Mexican people live in perfect harmony with death, simultaneously respecting and mocking it. This can be seen in the art inspired by Dias de los Muertos in music, dance, painting, sculpture, and poetry written in a sometimes humorous hand. Around the time of the American colonization of funerary rites in Mexico when ecclesiastical ordinances were introduced, the custom of writing verses called “skulls” emerged. Just as skulls and skeletons permeate Mexican folk art, skull verses speak to social and political satire. Since the authors of these verses were thought to be ‘dead,’ such writing had the unique ability to criticize all dead people for one day; in essence, making fun of the entire human race without fear of reprisal.

It is a sincere truth what this phrase tells,                                                                                  that only he who is not born cannot be a skull.                                                                              — Anonymous Skull Verse     

So it was as if this lifelong obsession with Dias de los Muertos was preparing me for the confluence of two very important life events. On the side of joy was a trip to Sayulita, Mexico to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary. On the side of sorrow was losing one of my most precious loved ones.

Auntie Karen made me into, well, me. Without her, there is no me — at least no me you’d want to know. And she did this without the benefit of proximity for much of my life, until I turned 18 and she invited me to come and live with her family in Washington D.C. so that she could finance the remainder of my undergraduate studies. She was able to do this as a co-producer of Broadway hits such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. For my readers who aren’t also personal friends, please read more about Aunt Karen here…

Auntie raised a third of the budget for the original London production of Les Mis, about $300,000. It opened in October 1985 and served up a return of 167% to investors in the first year and a half alone.

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Auntie visiting me in San Diego shortly before her tremendous London opening of Les Miserables, 1985.

As much as I’ve tried, I can never seem to quite capture the right combination of words to express how much I love this woman, although I am convinced that there has never been anyone like her and there never will be again. Even when I was on a real bad path as a teenager, her voice was the one I always heard in my head from 3000 miles away: I see you. If she couldn’t be with me in person, she was going to scaffold my shaky existence with books that showed me a way to think in the way she did.

She sent me so many books over the years that I could build a home out of them. And I have. What’s that you say? YOU don’t have a book on Hildegard of Bingen?? Well Aunt Karen would have made sure that there was a copy for everyone who wanted one! Who knew how much there was to learn from the German Benedictine abbess and writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and polymath! Auntie was one of the most impressive polymaths I have ever encountered. I believe this is why she took so much inspiration from Hildegard. Through Hildy and others, she introduced me to the concept of the sacred feminine. Every book she ever gave me included a magnificent inscription in a hand so distinctly Karen’s…

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This now IS the later she was referring to here in 1992.

From the jacket cover of this book:

Some unconscious myth has been at work on us, forming us,                                                   and serving up our fates. For the soul is an old, old thing that goes back                                 to the beginning of time, formed slowly and in layers of dreams and shadows                      and repetitions determining the future.                                                                                           — Here All Dwell Free, Gertrud Mueller Nelson

While I was wiling away the dreamy days in Sayulita, I did not realize how quickly my beloved Auntie was slipping away. Her bionic Mama Bear instincts meant protecting this cub from anything that could potentially destroy me emotionally. (That bar is actually kind of low.) So for example, when she was the victim of a shooting that occurred when I was in high school, she made sure that I was not to learn about it until much later when my school year was over. She knew she couldn’t keep this secret forever, especially because she had to walk down the aisle at her wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with a cane wrapped in white satin.

Likewise, during her protracted battle with breast cancer that included successes, remissions, and recurrences, I never got the full scoop from Auntie because she didn’t want me to hurt. She was stubbornly protective. She’d been receiving the best care in the world at Memorial Sloane Kettering in New York City, and as a woman of strong faith, she never stopped believing that one day this cancer would be gone from her body for good. She’d traveled to Lourdes in the hopes of a miracle. She gave me only the broad strokes of her battle, which has my heart in a million pieces just thinking about it. What was happening then, leading up to my trip to Sayulita, is that the cancer had become much more aggressive than most of us around her knew.

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Me & Auntie on my wedding day, 20 years before Sayulita. Perhaps this is the kiss I wasn’t able to give her as our last, as I realize most people don’t kiss their aunt this way.

I was in the dark about the cold hard truth of her health when I left for my 20th anniversary trip. To use an Auntie word, I was rhapsodic about the celebration. I’d found a spectacular house on the hill overlooking the bay that had an open-air living room and kitchen, and an outdoor shower. The temperature of the ocean in June in Mexican Riviera is about 75 degrees, where pelicans nose dive at an amazing rate of speed and precision, entering the water inches from swimmers. This also happened to be during the World Cup in which Mexico was competing, so that made it even more festive. That and the fact that we ran into some very sweet friends who just happened to be there the same week. Sayulita is a small fishing village, with horses that roam the streets, because why not? We only had a rented golf cart to get around and since the town’s dirt roads have lots of holes, I’m quite sure that we wouldn’t have ventured too far from our lodging had it not been for Scott and Daphne who were staying on the opposite side of the bay.

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Free-range caballo, Sayulita.

Our friend Scott is the kind of dude who does enough research for a dissertation before any trip in order to find the best kept secrets. It is all thanks to his efforts that we were able to enjoy one of the most magical spots I’ve ever been to — a beach called Playa de los Muertos. It is so named because of the only route to get there, which is through a beautiful graveyard of multi-colored tombstones, where candles burn day and night and graves are adorned everyday, not just during Dias de los Muertos. Once you wind your way through this hilly enchanting stretch of remote road, you come to the cove of Playa de los Muertos, Beach of the Dead. To some, this may sound morbid and I suppose I can understand some people may not like the idea of swimming so close to bodies buried in the ground, but trust me when I tell you it was the most mystical and extraordinary beach I’ve ever been to.

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Graveyard next to Playa de los Muertos.

James and I returned to Playa de los Muertos on the night of our anniversary. I’ve never been a big nighttime ocean swimmer, but something was calling me out there. Now I can’t help but wonder if it was a salt water cleansing that I needed to face the days ahead. I dragged James to come with me, and as we began to splash around, reveling in the bath tub temperature of the Sayulita Bay, we began to notice the bioluminescence in the water, surrounding us. We began to whirl in circles dragging our fingers across the surface of the water to light up the night. I gasped and laughed and cried.

We turned around to face the shore and far off in the background was the flickering of the candles in the graveyard. No, not candles. Fireflies! Just to add to the visual symphony — turning on and off, according to the chemical reactions in their tiny bodies. I later learned that female fireflies chose mates depending on specific male flash patterns. And there I was in the water with my chosen mate, feeling that I’d chosen well as he was just as ecstatic as I was in this moment, and then just as devastated the following day when we’d learned that Auntie was not going to make it.

As I stood in the water of Playa de los Muertos that night, I let my spirit out of its cage and found it curious that it seemed to want to drift in the direction of the graves that were so lovingly bedecked with flowers and the favorite foods of the dearly departed. I don’t know how many hours removed it was from the time that Auntie left this earthly plane, but I felt that a seed of some kind was being planted in my soul. The beauty of the beach and the agony of the graveyard were crashing into one another like the waves hitting the rocks in that dark cove.

When I returned home, I got to work right away on this ofrenda for Auntie. I didn’t put much food or drink on it, because I hadn’t yet learned that the reason for creating such strong aromas on the altar is to capture a unique, not-smelled-every-day combination. These usually include foods with strong flavors of their own — moles alone may have hazelnut, sesame seeds and chocolate — sweet smells of flowers, earthy smells of tobacco, the smokiness of mezcal — all work together to attract the souls back home and satisfy the dead who can no longer eat. Hungry ghosts.

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With Auntie gone from this world, I started to notice a new visitor in the backyard and got such a strong sense that it was her — or at least a messenger sent by her to let me know that she was okay.

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Not just your ‘garden variety’ butterfly. A MONARCH.

I’d had a strong feeling that spirits can and do return to us in the form of butterflies. Around 2000, at a benefit concert in Avila Beach, CA to raise money to help clean up oil spillage from from Unocal pipelines that had been leaking since the 1950s, a group of Chumash Indians came to bless the event and pray for the renewal of the land. As the leader, an Indian woman was singing and calling on their ancestors to help them in their efforts, a swarm of butterflies appeared around her on stage. I was so struck by this and what I thought it could signify, that I asked her afterwards that if in her culture it was believed that spirits could return in the form of butterflies. She told me, “Spirits can return in many forms. But especially butterflies.”

But it was just a few weeks ago that I’d begun to wonder if butterflies were connected to Dias de los Muertos. It turns out that there is a stronger connection than I could have ever imagined. You see, there’s a mountain village called Anguangeo in Mexico where every year for Dias de los Muertos on November 1 and 2, millions of monarch butterflies stream into the groves of oyamel fir trees in the hills above the town. I was in utter disbelief, remembering that my butterfly visitation was a monarch.

The locals have long believed that these butterflies are the returning spirits of the deceased loved ones, mysteriously returning to coincide with Dias de los Muertos. This belief dates back to the Aztecs who saw the return of the departed in butterflies and hummingbirds and there is plenty of evidence for this in the stone carvings of them in many Aztec monuments. As sure as autumn follows summer, they return for the 3-day period between October 31 and November 2: All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day (honoring the souls of children) and All Souls Day (honoring adults), celebrated collectively as The Days of the Dead. This is the time that the Mexican people believe that the veil between the living and the dead is lifted.

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Celebrating both Dias de los Muertos and the return of the monarchs.

With the advent of the first frost of fall in southern Canada, the monarchs begin their epic journey. They are drawn south by some unseen compass that remains a mystery to scientists. They fly 50 miles a day for two to three months — a journey that is 3,000 miles in total, culminating in their ancestral wintering ground in central Mexico. Here they spend five months huddling together against freezing rain, fog, and even snow some years. They cling to the trunks of the firs in a semi-dormant state until warm spring winds return and send them north once again. It takes four to five generations of monarchs to make this journey, as one butterfly only lives 3-4 weeks. But they all play a part in one incredible cycle.

Could it be that we are we in the same kind of cycle? The single unique migratory generation born in late summer lives eight months, and flies all the way back to Mexico. No one has yet to figure out how these particular butterflies manage to find their way to Anguangeo, having never been there before.

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Monarchs roosting in oyamel fir tree.

Can the intergenerational aspect of this tell us something about our own existence and the unspoken communication between generations? Even communication from beyond the grave? Is it coincidence that Auntie’s inscription makes reference to a ‘queen’ (monarch)? Are the vibrating wings of monarchs connected to the energy of our loved ones from the other side of the veil? Geez, I have a lot questions.

What is for sure is that monarch flight is different than other butterflies. Described as slow and sailing, their wings flap much slower than other butterflies — perhaps as an invitation for us to get a close look at them as they stop time around us momentarily.  They also happen to fly with their wings held in a ‘V’ shape. To guide us beyond the veil through their calming vibration?

Ancient Mexico did not know the concept of hell.                                                                           It is possible and even probable that in the subconscious of the people,                                      a faint remembrance of the life beyond.                                                                                           — The Life of the Dead in Mexican Folk Art

As if to offer a piece of final punctuation, as I write this at my beloved Altadena Library, I look outside to see the street sign, Mariposa. That’s Spanish for butterfly. This week, don’t miss the invitation to transcend fear and be on the lookout for those whom you have loved and lost — they could be fluttering by this very moment. The cult of death in Mexico could really just mean life everlasting. No endings, only beginnings.

Death was not life’s natural end, but rather a phase in an infinite cycle.                                  — Mexican poet Octavia Paz

To help the spirits: http://www.monarchwatch.org

 

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Chiaroscuro Candor

I’ve gotten kind of used to it. I make a lunch date with someone who lives in San Diego to meet halfway in Newport Beach. The thing is, she’s always late — blame the Southern California traffic. Or not. It’s become our tradition to rendezvous at Fig & Olive on Fashion Island. (How Orange County can you get?) But if you’ve ever been to a Fig & Olive, you’ve seen the bookcases. I’m not so naïve that I don’t realize that the book-look is just the work of a some savvy interior designer, but damn — those shelves are stacked with some inspired titles and gorgeous art books. Kudos, whoever you are.

With my lunch date was running late once again, I decided on a radical act. And I don’t mean the midday cocktail. I am referring instead to taking one of these perfectly posed books off the shelf. This was to the horror of those around me, who looked at me like I was holding up the restaurant. Did they think the book collection was made up of fakes or that we weren’t supposed to get our figgy/olivey paws all over them? I guess they just didn’t know that I am an actual grown up with library cards from around the country who can be trusted with even your most cherished book.

I reached for the title that was calling to me, Chiaroscuro — a word I hadn’t thought about since Art History 101. This is the distribution of light and shade in drawing and painting made famous by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio and it got me thinking about the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.

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When I cracked open Chiaroscuro by Troy Little, I quickly discovered that it was a graphic novel and almost shut it immediately, as if I was looking at completely indecent. It’s a genre I’ve never even remotely been interested in. Call me old. Or small-minded. Or a more aptly, a convert. I have to admit being completely taken with this weird and wonderful black and white world. The universe inside this black linen hardcover demanded to be recognized as a formidable work of art. It spoke to my angsty-artist self and the emotional and financial insecurities that come with the territory. Reading Chiaroscuro was exactly what I needed that day — a beautiful metaphor for the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen. And here’s the important part: the word itself doesn’t simply mean light and dark. Translated literally, chiaro means clear and oscuro means obscured. So thanks for being late that day Ma, and putting me on to this.

I began to wonder if anyone had written about the concept of chiaroscuro in relation to total solar eclipses. In my web search for this combination, wouldn’t you know that a page one hit was from a professor/astrologer who’d written about the astrological birth chart that had been done for the film Moonlight. What’s that, you say? You didn’t know they did charts for movies?? C’mon, now. It’s the 21st century! (As much as some would like to have us believe otherwise. )

Landing on this astrologer’s page was significant. The character of Chiron in Moonlight is played by our family friend, Ashton Sanders, who my daughter met when the two cute kids were starry-eyed freshman actors at The Theatre School at DePaul in Chicago. Here’s a photo of me and Ashton taken on the set of a music video I produced with him in the starring role before he was a RBD. (Really Big Deal). You can see it here and marvel at how joyfully Ashton plays his role in the video and then watch Moonlight if you haven’t already seen it (all will be forgiven) for what is maybe the breakout performance of the decade, with his portrayal of the teenage Chiron.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GASyRezQ1kQ

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My pal Ashton before he was a Calvin Klein model

Professor/astrologer Demetra George makes some pretty profound observations about the Moonlight natal chart:

“The interplay of light and dark shadows characterizes the visual phenomena of eclipses, and the cinematography of Moonlight was a study of this chiaroscuro effect of light and shade. Eclipses portend fated events, the revelations of secrets, and sudden unexpected reversals. The events that take place on eclipses have a destiny that are carried forward in time.”

You won’t have to think too long about this year’s Academy Awards and the sudden unexpected reversal that occurred when Warren Beatty read the wrong film for Best Picture before the wrong was righted. Back in November, I met a brainy grad student who was a big fan of Moonlight and he told me that Chiron is also a constellation of a centaur. I texted Ashton to share this fun discovery — that the centaur from Greek mythology was known as a great healer, respected oracle, and master of the healing arts. When Chiron could not heal himself from his own physical wound after being shot with an arrow, he willingly gave up his immortality. Chiron’s half-brother Zeus rewarded him with a constellation in the sky that would immortalize him. I told Ashton that I also had no doubt that Moonlight would win Best Picture, to which he replied, “It’s written in the stars.” Literally and figuratively.

If you’re at all dubious about astrology, I only ask you to consider this: As mere mortal humans, we are much more able to easily predict the movement of celestial bodies (astrology) than we are the day to day weather over our own heads. Remember the Reagans’ astrologer, Joan Quigley?! She consulted on matters that went well beyond normal every day President stuff — offering her astrological advice on matters of diplomacy, Cold War politics, and the timing of Ronnie’s cancer surgery.

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It is my very firm belief that Monday’s total solar eclipse has the same potential to bring forth sudden unexpected reversals and I think we can all agree that one may be needed like its never been needed before.

The impending eclipse has much to teach us about our world and our place in it. One thing is that we all have a shadow side — our own personal chiaroscuro. I know many of us are terrified of it. But there’s too much other scary stuff in the world to be afraid of our own damn ourselves, as “normal” as that can feel sometimes.

The brilliant Frida Kahlo recognized that our shadows  have great power. If kept in the dark all the time, Frida believed that they would have “the potential to haunt our lives like hungry ghosts.” I looked up a review of the graphic novel Chiaroscuro, seeing how I was never able to finish all 233 pages of it that day at Fig & Olive. The first one I came across at www.goodokbad.com went like this:

Chiaroscuro tells of a young man haunted. By ghosts, by mystery, by his inability to fill a canvas.”

The wisdom of Frida is endless. It can be seen in the way she seduced her own shadows out of the darkened corners of her psyche and brought them into the light of her paintings. Just like the myth of Chiron, Frida is an archetypal symbol of “the wounded healer.” The same can be said of the Chiron from Moonlight — a centaur of a different kind who was incredibly wounded but whose very existence served to heal others in his orbit. For Frida, the accident changed everything, but her pain didn’t begin or end there. It’s notable that she named this painting Tree of Hope. As a wounded healer, she would not give up her hope for a sudden unexpected reversal that only nature could provide.

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Arbol de la Esperanza (Tree of Hope)

What is the gift of the wounded healer for humanity? It’s an archetype that provides us with a lens to view our own suffering, so that we too, may draw enormous strength from the wounded healer to live openly with our vulnerabilities. Ignoring our own fears and shadows doesn’t erase them from human existence; it merely gives them more power over us. As author Bradley Thomason writes in his eye-opening work, Potentialized:

“Unfortunately, most people these days do not have a conscious relationship with their fears and so they allow fear to run their lives. We must develop a new relationship with fear. We must challenge it. Question it.”

Frida knew that our shadows carry rich secrets for the journey.  By boldly painting her suffering, she revealed her pain, liberated herself, and liberated all of us. By giving us her body of work, she encourages us to embrace our shadows and what is difficult in our lives. Unwanted agonies, like the state that our union finds itself in — can also be one of our greatest teachers.

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With the shadow of the moon upon us on Monday, my greatest wish it that we all be flooded with insights and epiphanies that couldn’t have occurred without the momentary darkness. For those in the path of totality, I wish you clear skies so that you may drop to your knees and weep! It has been said that no matter how prepared the intellect is for a total eclipse, the body will have its own response, being made up of up to 75% water, that is ruled in some way by the moon. While many of us can appreciate the workings of the solar system and the vast nature of time and space, a total solar eclipse makes itself felt on a visceral level.

Umbraphiles are eclipse chasers who travel the world to witness eclipses because of their life-changing effects. If you’re willing to travel to the far-flung corners of the earth, you could catch a total solar eclipse about every 18 months. I like the other name for these people even better… shadow lovers — like Frida.

The fact though, that THIS eclipse is happening here in the United” States for the first time in a hundred years is simply no accident. It seems painfully clear (chiaro) that we are in desperate need of a once-in-a-century event to set things right. Are we in for a Moonlight style sudden unexpected reversal?

When the sun turns black on Monday, perhaps those who have lost their way (oscuro) about who we are as a human family, will come back into the light of awareness once the shadow retreats. Grab your glasses and take in the show that just might provide the universal shift many of us have been waiting for. I’m thinking Debussy’s Clair de lune for the soundtrack to a fully mystical eclipse viewing.

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LIVE VIDEO STREAMS from locations across the country can be seen on https://www.nasa.gov/eclipselive

THANKS, SCIENCE!!!

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Estonian Charm Offensive

It’s official, friends. Music festival season is here.

In lab terms, music festivals are now almost TNTC. (Too numerous to count.) But just to name a few, let’s start with Bonaroo! Because I don’t know about you, but once I start saying it, I can’t stop! Bonaroo, Bonaroo, Bonaroo! I wanna howl it at the Bonamoon.

It also happens to be a real word in Creole that means a really good time. Between the festival’s green initiatives like the Refill Revolution and the Vonnegut-sounding names for locations within the venue…

 What Stage

Which Stage

This Tent

That Tent

And the Other Tent

I could be totally down for a trip to Tennessee. Never thought you’d hear me say those words, did ya?

Then we’ve got Coachella… with her precious flower crowns, nipple-baring macramé, and Hollywood ingénues attempting to blend in to the crowd. (Pay no attention to the supersized sunglasses.)

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Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny.

Oh my, and the technical difficulties! Poor, poor Radiohead. Any artist offering their music for whatever fans can pay just does not deserve what happened to them a few weeks ago at this year’s Coachella. It’s a bit of a disgrace. And don’t forget the time Coachella cut Arcade Fire’s set short forcing Win Butler to grab a bullhorn, jump down into the crowd to finish the song, and stir up the world’s longest mambo line of fans behind him. And what about Andre 3000’s 20th anniversary show in 2014 when the power was cut to the mics, too! Is this what the parents of millenials are paying up to $900 for?

If you’re more down for a European vacay this summer you can head across the pond to Glastonbury June 21. With its wellie-clad supermodels trudging through more mud than Woodstock, and a bunch of Liam and Noel Gallagher-looking blokes fresh in from their pilgrimage to Stonehenge, it’s a bloody good time and place to ring in the Summer Solstice while checking out Katy Perry, Barry Gibb, and Radiohead sans the technical problems.

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Not Actual Supermodels

Glastonbury is five days of not just music — but also, dance, comedy, theatre, cabaret, and because they’re Brits… circus?? Personally, I would go for The Healing Fields of Glastonbury alone, hold the juggling monkeys.

www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk/areas/the-green-fields/the-healing-field

Then of course there’s Outside Lands, the Bay Area’s answer to the dry heat of Coachella and the humidity of Lallapolooza. Held in Golden Gate Park, imagine a foresty diorama filled with cabalistic creatures, palm readers, and freezing cold teenagers too young to know the Mark Twain quote:

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.

BUT A MUSIC FESTIVAL THAT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR A REVOLUTION?

This is one I’m gonna guess you’ve never heard of.

Estonia has a tradition of gigantic song festivals dating back to 1869 featuring 20,000-30,000 singers. Music is woven in the fabric and fiber of Estonian life. The Atlantic going so far as to call it, “a country created by music.”

What is known as The Singing Revolution refers to the events that occurred between 1987–1991 that helped usher in an end to decades of Soviet occupation. Music was the Estonian people’s weapon of choice in this peaceful struggle for independence.

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As one of the oldest inhabited lands in the world, (going back 5,000 years – with some estimates putting it closer to 12,000 years), Estonia was on their own for a very long time. Right up until 1208 when Pope “Innocent” III decided to send a crusade to convert the pagans. After a 20-year war, the Estonians were defeated. Then from 1228-1918, they were continuously occupied by one country another (Sweden, Poland, Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union). Finally, they won their independence on February 24, 1918, which was followed by twenty years of prosperity.

But this was not to last. In 1939 Stalin came in and took over Estonia. They were terrorized by Stalin, then Hitler, and then Stalin again, and for 50 years were part of the Soviet Union. Then in 1986, Gorbachev came in promoting perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (freedom of speech), but this kind of change did not happen overnight and the old guard police were constantly having to reinterpret how to deal with the new freedoms under Gorbachev.

During the ‘white nights’ of June 1988, Estonians gathered to sing patriotic songs that were once forbidden under Soviet rule — not so much in defiance, but in a spirit of pride and joy. After many hours, the police decided that the festival had gone on long enough and tried to break it up and send people home.

But instead the people walked 3 miles to an open field and continued singing throughout the night. From there, it grew every night for 5 nights until their numbers reached 150,000 people singing in a field. How do you arrest 150,000 people? With the largest collection of folk songs in the world, they were prepared to be there for a while.

Somehow I’ve gone my whole forty-something years without ever having met an Estonian. That changed last year when I met bass player Mai Agan who was at my home recording music for the upcoming David Crosby album. I walked in the front door and found her sitting at the dining room table, one of her delicate arms inked with a large angel. I told her how my own daughter called my bluff and went ahead with several tattoos, even though I threatened to stop paying her college tuition if she did.

I asked Mai about the angel on her arm and she lovingly told the story of how each feather represents someone in her family and that whenever she looks at the angel she feels closer to them no matter how far away she may be. At this point, I felt like a big jerk for having such a reactionary feeling about my own kid and her ink — which now includes one wrapped around one side of her torso with some of Grampma Croz’s lyrics…

We have all been here before.

A few months later, said tattooed daughter and I went to Sunset Sound to hear some of the final mixes of the upcoming Crosby album, Sky Trails. (Stellar!!) Mai contributed the gorgeous track Here It’s Almost Sunset for the record and I’m sure she would have loved to be there. But it seems that she was kind of with us in spirit…

You see, we headed to Wood & Vine www.woodandvine.com in Hollywood, and there we were greeted by an Estonian waitress. (The odds are a little crazy when you consider that there are about 1.3 million people in Estonia and about 4 million just in Los Angeles.) She recognized Croz who was really excited to tell her about Mai. But it was this girl who dropped the mic when she said, “Did you know that Estonians fended off the Russians by singing??”

She lit up as she told us the Reader’s Digest version of the story. I couldn’t help but be bombarded with Les Miserables imagery of these people singing for their liberation. It got me thinking: If a tiny country like Estonia can pull off a peaceful revolution to win their independence from Russia, think of what else is possible when done in this spirit. An editorial in an Estonian newspaper said it best:

A nation who makes its revolution by singing and smiling is a sublime example to the world.

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With a husband on the road from time to time, I become a groupie once in a while and follow him around on tour, which is always an adventure. Last week I went to Portland to hang out with him on his day off, see the show there, and meet up with my Pops and his wife who just moved to Oregon.

Riding on the tour bus with the band to the venue, James’s little brother Django Crosby spotted a piano store across from the Aladdin Theatre. Then another one. And another. It was a virtual piano row. How serendipitous for my piano playing husband and the other new member of the band, Michelle Willis, who plays keys and sings like a whole chorus of angels.

We poured out of the bus to rush this storefront only to find it all locked up. We knocked on doors and peeked through windows, hoping to find someone inside. Around back was a workshop with a couple of Portlanders working on piano hammers with their resident Jack Russell Terrier, contentedly sitting on the sidewalk in the rain. These guys pointed us in the right direction finally where we were greeted by the lovely Peggie Zackery, manager of Classic Pianos of Portland. www.classicportland.com

With her cherubic smile, Peggie surmised pretty quickly that she had a couple heavyweights on her hands in James and Michelle. Yup, this was one third of the band playing the Aladdin that night. She didn’t have to offer twice before James and Michelle got down to business. There were rooms upon rooms upon rooms packed tightly with pianos. It turns out, Classic Pianos is one big giant store comprised of many buildings. Once Peggie got a little sampling of James and Michelle’s playing, she led us to the most special room of all — the space that housed the Yamaha C9 — the nine foot concert grand piano that both James and Michelle www.michellewillis.ca got to lay hands on. The resonance, the brightness, and the richness of this sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. So that’s what a $130,000 piano sounds like!

As Croz, Peggie, and I were being treated to an impromptu concert of double pianos playing the fat chords of The Doobie Brothers Minute by Minute, I was already streaming tears of joy when I looked around and my gaze landed on a ESTONIA piano. Really?!?! Where the heck was Mai? (She told me later she was napping on the bus. Smart girl.)

But I mean, shit! I’d been putting a lot of pressure on myself to finish this piece so that I could publish it before I left on this trip. Then I find out that the reason I couldn’t was that there was more to discover. I believe this is what is meant by a story taking on a life of its own. Revelations need time to unfold.

As Peggie started telling me about these extraordinary ESTONIA pianos, I asked if she’d ever heard of The Singing Revolution. Since she hadn’t, I shared with her what I was writing about and she was just as moved by it as I have been.

Then she tells me that their resident piano finisher, Arno Arrak, is Estonian as well. He is a master who brings his artistry to repairing and refinishing pianos — including one that fell off a truck and when Arno was finished with it, it was better than new. Peggie suggested that I talk to Arno to find out how he feels about his country’s incredible legacy of music preserving their culture and The Singing Revolution. I can’t begin to describe the sensation that came over me. Why is coincidence even a word?

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Michelle Willis, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Back in Los Angeles, I reached out to Arno and learned about his own involvement with the movement. He told me that in 1987, he risked imprisonment when he printed postcards with the Estonian flag on them, which was forbidden at the time. In 1989, in resistance to the Soviet occupation, Arno emigrated to Sweden to become an artist and printmaker.

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Arno Arrak — Painter,printmaker, piano refinishing miracle worker.

“While I paint I often listen to music. Vibration and rhythm directly influences the sensitive watercolor medium. I wish that in my painting I can create the window of inner peace and healing.”                                                                                             – Arno Arrak

Arno travels back to Estonia often to exhibit his paintings and be a part of the rich culture and art scene. His work is represented in numerous galleries and is a part of both public and private collections around the world.

And back to that badass, Mai — who just completed her thesis for Stockholm University via David Crosby’s tour bus somewhere between Boulder and Dallas…

“I was about 4 or 5 years old when I started going to the song festivals with my parents, at first just to listen and later on as I started school – as a singer – many, many times. What an incredible feeling to be on stage and sing national songs for our country and for the freedom of our spirit with 20,000-30,000 other singers, and around 100,000 people in the audience. These festivals connect our people to a depth that is hard to describe. In 1870, Estonian folklorist and linguist Jakob Hurt said that if we, Estonians, cannot be great in population, we have to become great in spirit! Perhaps that is something that has been carrying us through the darkest days. Even though I was too little to take part in the Singing Revolution or the Baltic chain (2 million people holding hands and creating a human chain from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for around 420 miles), I have so many musician friends who wrote the patriotic songs that were sung during the Revolution. Songs that we still love to sing! I believe that love is the greatest weapon in the world, not because I’m naive, but because I’ve tried everything else. In that case, the love that we had for our country, won over the Soviet regime. My roots are extremely important to me and I am really proud to be an Estonian, and furthermore, an Islander.”

To learn more, watch the documentary The Singing Revolution.

https://singingrevolution.com

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No False Bingo!

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Two-Spirit Camp, Standing Rock #nodapl

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just get really tired of all the played out stale cultural narratives that we live with. A while ago, I came across the term Two-Spirit, which is the name that many Native American and Canadian First Nation tribes use for their brothers and sisters who embody both male and female spirits. Two-Spirit. How beautiful is that?!

Now before I go any further, I want to stress that I am not a gender expert — just someone easily moved to tears by beauty. Incidentally, I just learned that I’m an HSP — Highly Sensitive Person. If you’re taking the time to read this blog, you could be too! HSPs make up about 20% of the population. If you’re at all curious, you can take the quiz: http://hsperson.com Know thyself and maintain a humble curiosity… that’s my new mantra.

So it is with this humble curiosity that I delve into Two-Spirits. One of the things that I find so profound about this notion is that it can be a metaphor for so many things — reconciling our shadow side with our light. Meeting strength with humility. Think of the classic Myers-Briggs personality types: Introvert/Extrovert, Thinker/Feeler, Perceiver/Judger, and Senser/Intuitive. The whole idea of Myers/Briggs is to ascertain your type and then challenge yourself to move more toward the center in order to achieve better balance. Yoga for your personality. OH! And to try to understand others better, of course. Let’s not forget about that.

At a meeting in 1990, tribes chose to adopt the term Two-Spirit, in order to dispense with the antiquated anthropological and derogatory term berdache. Simply being gay does not make one a Two-Spirit, even though many Two-Spirits identify as LGBTQA+. Most tribes widely agree that in order to be a true Two-Spirit, one must be actively participating in their culture.

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Candi Brings Plenty, Leader of Two-Spirit Camp, Standing Rock

Prior to colonization, tribal Elders saw Two-Spirit people as sacred and gifted among all beings and as bridges between the two genders with the power to bring them together. Two-Spirits would often fulfill the roles of medicine people, peacemakers, and mediators. Their dual perspective and orientation made it possible for them to always see both sides, and they were honored and revered for these abilities. Nearly every Native American and First Nation tribe has a word or words in their language to describe Two-Spirits, as well as for multiple genders in addition to male and female.

Under the influence of colonial and Christian influences though, some native cultures and their Two-Spirits went through a dark period, and in some cases, acceptance turned into homophobia. Two-Spirits began to feel less and less integral or even welcome in their communities. Some Navajo point to their creation story in which the first men and first women fought and ended up on opposite sides of a river. There they stayed for some time — the women wanting to prove to the men that they could live without them. It was only with the help of a Two-Spirit that this divide could be mended, through the medicine that bridges the gap between genders.

But now, like a sacred hoop, things are coming full circle and Two-Spirits are banding together across tribal affiliations to celebrate all they have to offer and to support one another. It’s notable that within these cultures it is often believed that actions have effects for seven generations. Many tribe members believe that the absence of Two-Spirits triggered a period of imbalance that is just now beginning to shift.In October, the newly formed Two-Spirit Nation was honored with a official grand entry blessing into the camp at Standing Rock.

 “If the sun is male and the moon is female,

then Two-Spirit people are the dawn and the dusk.”

— Sheldon Raymore, Cheyenne River Sioux

It got me humbly curious about some of the other cultures in the world that have the wisdom to honor their two-spirit people in their societies. As you can imagine, there are many variations, and in a way, they can all be traced back to Greek mythology and Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed child of Hermes and Aphrodite.

I found a wonderful story of a the third gender in ancient Indic society. Some versions of the epic Sanskrit poem Ramayana tell the story of Rama, the hero, heading into the forest in exile. At the halfway point, he finds most of the people from his home town of Ayodhya, were following him. He said, “Men and women, turn back,”causing those who were neither men nor women to stay where they were. When Rama returned from exile years later, he discovered them still there and blessed them, saying that there will be a day when they, too, will have a share in ruling the world.

I feel mixed emotions when I pivot to another culture that I first learned about from my Albanian friend, Andamion Murataj. We were both Puglia Film Commission Fellows, where he was working on a feature film about the sworn virgins of Albania. His script, Man of the House, is a poignant tale that stays with you longer after you’ve read it. It was followed up recently with a photographer who went to Albania to shoot portraits of the sworn virgins.

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

The choice to live as men in this remote region of Albania has more to do with gender roles than any statement of sexuality or asexuality. This tradition goes back to 15th century Balkan tribal law, under which families lacking a male head of household were considered social outcasts. Often times blood feuds wiped out all the men in a family and so the only way to carry on was for a woman to step into the role of patriarch. These women take a vow of celibacy and swear to live out their days as men, gaining the privileges afforded to men only — smoking, drinking alcohol, voting, swearing, carrying a gun — you know, all the fun stuff!

Directly across the Adriatic Sea in Italy, which is always FULL of surprises (See Lucky Number Eight), I learned that in traditional Neapolitan culture, there were men known as the femminielli. These were homosexual males with a female gender expression, who were revered and enjoyed the full support of the community. For starters, the term femminielli unlike berdache, is not derogatory. The femminielli are so highly regarded that they played an important role in traditional and religious events such the matrimonio dei femminielli, where femminielli dressed in wedding gowns and were accompanied by a “husband,” as they traveled through the streets in horse-drawn carriages.

But the real kicker? The femminielli are considered good luck! People want them to hold their newborn babies and participate in games such as Tombola, which is the basis for what we call Bingo. So here’s the part where I call out TIME magazine. In 2007, they published an article attributing Drag Queen Bingo to a woman in Seattle.

“Bingo and drag queens. Where, you might understandably ask, did this ever come from? In the early 1990s, as director of development for the Chicken Soup Brigade, a support organization for people with AIDS, Judy Werle was charged with dreaming up fundraising events. ‘I checked out places where people gathered and spent money, because I figured if you had that, you could redirect the money to a good cause,’ says Werle. That logic led her to bingo halls. ‘They were totally full of obsessed people,’ she says. ‘But it was also extremely boring. So we decided to liven it up in the way that only gay men can.’”

So I must call a FALSE BINGO on TIME magazine, since it’s the femminielli that can legitimately lay claim to the origin of drag queen bingo, or shall we say, Tombolata dei femminielli. If the Native Americans are right about one’s actions having ripple effects for seven generations, then is it possible that the femminielli of the 1800s laid the groundwork for the drag queens of bingo today? Just sayin’. It’s fun to think about anyway.

All I know is that you don’t want to be spanked by a drag queen at bingo.

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Drag Queen Hostess Porsha Hayy & me

It happened because I called False Bingo. ROOKIE move! I just got way ahead of myself and overexcited. And boy, did I pay for it. Miss Porsha is not playin’ with that switch. And since I already got my spanking, I feel empowered to call False Bingo whenever I see it. Someone cuts you off on the road?? False Bingo! Not honoring Two-Spirits?? False Bingo. For any rejection of the wisdom that recognizes the special gifts in each of us?? False Bingo, for sure.

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Marching & Mysticism

Venice Beach, 1994

A stormy January day at sunset. The ferocious weather and the marbled purple sky, a perfect reflection for my own personal turmoil.

On Christmas night a week or so before, a man I’d only known a few months had asked me to marry him. Marry him! A memorable night for obvious reasons, there was also a hilarious part of the story (funny now) about getting locked out of my apartment after going outside for the big moment. In retrospect, it does seem incredibly symbolic — the time had really come to lock out the fear that had had me in its grip for too long.

You see, I saw myself as damaged goods. Possibly unlovable. That day on the beach I was torn apart by two equally strong impulses — one to run as fast as I could, and the other, to trust a person with my heart for a lifetime. These warring sides drove me out of the safety of my car and right to the edge of the earth where massive waves were pounding the shore.

There wasn’t another person on the sand. Tears squirted out of me like I was a cartoon character. I tasted my own salty sadness. Confusion swirled round and round, until I became so truly terrified over being that out of control of my own emotions that I wished I could have crawled out of my own skin, or traded skins with a seal who wanted to be a person for a while.

But then a spray of ocean mist came over me, mingling with my own tears. And that’s when it hit me. Suddenly I understood all at once that I was not separate from the world, I was of the world. My tears and the ocean were from the same source. The universe, Mother Earth, God… whatever name for the divine you want to use, was speaking to me.

I knew I hadn’t been hit by lightning (unless I was dead and didn’t know it), but a surge rushed through my veins all the same, as if someone had hit me with the lifesaving paddles. The trust problem I was having was not with the man I was in love with. The problem, was that at some point I’d stopped trusting myself. What changed in me right then and there on that squally beach was me finally insisting that I trust me. Since there has never been any satisfying combination of words that could ever adequately describe this experience, I did as Joan Didion tells us to do in times of crisis… go to the literature.

The literature in this case was the work of Abraham Maslow, who coined the term ‘peak experience’ after it became clear that his original term, ‘mystical experience’ would not be accepted in psychological literature. Some people also know it as Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime or Freud’s oceanic feelings.

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Check out the instruments that James played on the song

She would walk to where the land and sea/met each other in a dance of violence/She found a treasure of untold beauty/tossed it back and swore herself to silence…                                                                                                                     One for Every Moment — Crosby, Pevar & Raymond

Downtown Los Angeles, 2017

Another January, twenty-two years after that day on the beach. I found myself marching in the Women’s March in Los Angeles, my daughter heavily on my mind. Were her rights and the rights of every woman really being threatened? How could it be that this many people felt under seige on so many fronts?

The last thing I expected was to feel anything like I did that day at the beach all those years ago. While I didn’t know at the time that my group was marching with 750,000 of our fellow Angelenos, it didn’t change the fact that I felt awed and humbled and overwhelmed by all the people who had come together. I felt unity on an unimaginable scale, at a time when we’re always being reminded of how divided we are. The mystical experience is one of communion, a momentary dissolution with the self and its boundaries in order to become one with our surroundings. This is what leads to moments of transcendence.

But I also felt the fear again, so what was going on??

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You’ll see that at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is self-actualization. The self being referred to here however, is not the egoistic self, but the self we recognize when we are immersed in awe and the recognition that we are part of something much bigger and powerful than we are. The call from this ‘self’ is to fulfill the deepest possibilities in our being.

Mytical experiences are glimpses of the divine. Those moments that grab and take hold of you, like when your breath is sucked out of you as you stare wild-eyed at Half Dome or drop into a wave for the first time. Some people describe them as feelings of limitless horizons. And yet, there is something inherently overwhelming about witnessing the vast power in our own being. Many people speak of being simultaneously more powerful and more helpless than ever before while having a mystical experience.

I had to go back to the literature. It was there that I discovered a another aspect of Maslow’s theory, referred to as The Jonah Complex. For a bible refresher, Jonah was called by God to share a prophecy and instead of fufilling this destiny, Jonah resisted and sailed away in another direction. This caused a great storm and flood and landed old Jonah in the belly of the whale. And there he stayed for 3 days until he was given another chance to deliver on what he was called to do.

The Jonah Complex is our desire to escape the fear of responsibility that accompanies self-actualization. We are terrified of our own potential because of the interpersonal and social consequences that can happen with that kind of change. It could mean a complete obliteration of life as we know it so that a new and more powerful and impactful way of living could emerge. Sometimes we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. -Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love http://www.marianne.com

When Maslow set out in this study, even he believed that mystical experiences happened to one saint every century. What seemed to blow his mind the most was learning that not only was that not true, but the fact that all of his subjects used the same kind of language to describe their experiences — from an 18-year-old athlete to Mother Theresa.

Some people do not remember having mystical experiences. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t forever changed by them, because science shows that they are. A 2016 Johns Hopkins study found that stronger mystical experiences tend to “reframe life priorities, with pleasure-seeking dropping, and other aspects increasing family, connection, higher principles.” [i]

Self-actualizing people are,without a single exception,involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves.      – Abraham Maslow

As Gandhi said, “Politics should be sacred.” And by sacred, I don’t mean necessarily religious, but that which originates from the deepest part of ourselves. The march manifested universal belonging. Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of the Imagination Institute at University of Pennsylvania said, “Peak experiences shake us out of our ordinary concerns and point our attention toward something higher, perhaps greater visions of ourselves and others. Peak experiences come along with a realization of purpose or higher meaning for one’s life.”

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Sometimes a higher meaning for one’s life isn’t exactly what we thought it would be. But a hero or heroine is made by the strength of the villain or villains they have been called to defeat. With great power or knowledge comes great responsibility. I know I’ve said those words from time to time, but I couldn’t come up with who said it without a search. Turns out no one knows! (It’s not Spiderman, as some would like to believe.) The strongest evidence traces it back to a translation from a moment during The French Revolution. And here we are on the precipice of our own revolution.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, puts it brilliantly when he says, “The mystic is not a kind of human being, but every human being is a special kind of mystic.” So please. Do not fear your own formidable power. Let us not languish in the belly of the whale when there is so much at stake.

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[i] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/00952990.2016.1170135

 

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