Thursday, November 20, 2014

One of the Great Ones

In memory of Mike Nichols, a hero of mine, who died last night at age 83:

I met Mike Nichols in his apartment at the Carlyle Hotel in 1984, and he changed my life.  My best friend, Terry Beirn, and I came there to ask Mike if he would help us do a benefit for AIDS research at the Shubert Theatre in New York.  There had never been a benefit for AIDS, and most people did not want to know anything about the disease or talk about it.  As we sat with him, Mike said over and over to us that he didn’t do benefits.

Finally, desperate, I said, “I don’t do benefits either, but Terry is my best friend and he has AIDS and he’s dying, so I’ve got to do something.” Mike looked intensely at my handsome thirty-four year old friend and began asking him questions. For twenty minutes, Terry told Mike how he was feeling and what he knew about the disease, which was a lot because Terry was a very smart man. There was no cure – at that point, there wasn’t even a test yet to prove you had it. Then, Mike turned to me and said, “No one wants to hear about this. People stick their heads in the sand. If we want them to pay attention, we are going to have to make them laugh.”

He called on many of his friends, Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin, David Geffen, and for the first time in twenty-five years, he performed on-stage with Elaine May.  We raised a million dollars for AIDS research at a time when there was no money coming from the federal government. Mike guided me, gave me confidence, always expected the very best from me and never let me down. I teased him that he was even more of a perfectionist than my mother, but she had given me thirty years of grooming to prepare me to work with him.  When my first marriage ended with the abruptness of a major earthquake, Mike offered me a small room in the basement of his office to pull myself back together again and write a screenplay. It gave me a reason to get up every morning, and he helped me re-build my confidence and my crumbled life with his wise advice and humor.

And now, he is gone.  A brilliant light that has left an impact on so many creative people’s lives.  Mike had a razor sharp mind, the courage to go where many others feared to tread and the biggest, most generous heart.  It was an honor and a privilege to have him as a mentor, and I would not be the person I am today if I had not met him.  The world has lost a shining star.

“The only safe thing is to take a chance.”  
--  Mike Nichols

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Bloom is Still on the Rose

    When my mom died, our good friends gave us a little yellow rosebush to plant in the front garden. It has been blooming and blooming, even as the temperatures drop to freezing. When I bent down to take this photo, the sharp sweet scent from the flowers was so strong that it really surprised me.  I came in and wrote this poem for the roses and my mom.

The Bloom is Still on the Rose

Didn’t anyone tell you that
It’s time to stop blooming?
You won’t listen to that,
Even when it gets hard and cold,
That only strengthens your resolve
And opens your heart scar once again
To the suffering of others
Before the raggedy stitches that you used
To darn it back in place
Have been able to settle and mend.
Never give up.
Not now or ever,
Even when you know
It’s time to move on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Dog's Tale

The dog didn’t understand where everyone else had gone. One minute, there was the Leader of the Pack, barking orders and charging around the house, and then the big box on wheels came out, was filled with clothes, and he was gone. Next, the Roommate, who slept in the bed alongside the dog’s crate, packed up most of the stuff in the small space that they had shared for all those years and went to somewhere ominously referred to as “college”.  So, the dog was left there with only the One Who Feeds Me to pay attention to the basic wants and needs of every day existence like bowls of food and goodies and ball throwing.

The One Who Feeds Me talked to the dog a lot, but never said anything profound or worth remembering. She added to each bowl, on top of the boring, dry kibble, a spoon of canned food from the wonderful white box that was full of human treats.  She sat on the couch next to the dog, turning the pages of a book, clicking on the keys of the little folding screen or too often staring at the big screen that was constantly blaring voices and moving pictures of people sitting around saying things that the dog did not care about one hoot. 

When the dog barked at the little creatures that had the audacity to race around the yard, picking up nuts and burying them in the piles of leaves, the One Who Feeds Me got annoyed and tried to make the dog stop jumping on the window screens and scratching the wood on the back door.  The dog felt bad that the One Who Feeds Me did not understand the importance of keeping the yard free and clear of these impudent invaders.

Sometimes, the dog would drop the tennis ball in front of the One Who Feeds Me, hoping that she would not be so lazy.  It only worked three or four times each day, but when the One Who Feeds Me grabbed the ball and opened the back door, the dog knew that she understood the joy and meaning of racing across the yard back  and forth with the soggy, chewy rubber prize in the dog’s mouth.  The dog decided this was good exercise for the One Who Feeds Me, who had to bend over again and again and walk, or even run, to reach the ball before the dog snatched it up.

Every night, after the moon was high in the sky, the One Who Feeds Me would reach for the blue leash one last time and take the dog outside into the dark night.  She would wait patiently while the dog sniffed all the significant spots and, nose to the ground, ran in circles following every clue about who and what had crossed the yard after the sun went down. Then, marking the territory so anyone who came through here would be sure to notice and move on, the dog trotted back to the house.  Upstairs, the One Who Feeds Me would open the door to the black wire crate and drop some biscuits inside on the soft pad. The dog crawled right into the cozy den as the door was shut and the blanket covering the crate closed out all the light.  The dog wondered what the One Who Feeds Me was going to do now, but fell asleep rather than worry about it.

This was the routine, day after day, night after night.  Then, without warning, on an evening just like any other, as the One Who Feeds Me was mesmerized by the big screen after dinner, the dog heard voices, deep angry voices, outside, and knowing exactly what must be done, the dog began to growl and bark as loud as possible. The One Who Feeds Me jumped up and peered under a small corner of the closed curtains. In the street, red lights began flashing, and more voices shouted. The dog barked more emphatically, and for once, the One Who Feeds Me did not object. A loud sharp noise rang out, and the voices were silent. The red lights stopped flashing, and everyone went away. The One Who Feeds Me patted the dog on the head.

That night, when the dog headed towards the crate, the One Who Feeds Me did not open the door. Instead, she motioned to the bed in the room where she slept and invited the dog to jump up on it. The dog knew a good opportunity must never be ignored and leaped up, snuggling close against the One Who Feeds Me’s leg.  She put her arm around the dog’s soft, thick middle, and the dog reached up and licked her on the nose. “Good dog”.  And they slept together happily ever after.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Facing the Orange Sun

I looked at the weather forecast yesterday morning, and my heart sank.  They were predicting 2 to 3 inches of rain and severe thunderstorms overnight and into Thursday morning.  I hate thunderstorms, and that much rain means flooding around the barn and the house.  Here I was, facing the first of these fairly frequent weather dramas all alone.

My fears are not unfounded. When we moved into this house ten years ago, I was with my daughter and my mom on a summer afternoon when lightening struck.  It was like a bomb going off. A pine tree caught on fire in the pasture. The fence post exploded. It blew out fans, the microwave, TVs, stereos, computers, as the shock waves shot through our home like a giant spider web of static electricity. Later, I learned that the temperature inside a lightening bolt can be 50,000 degrees F, hotter than the surface of the sun. 

When I was a kid, growing up in Illinois, tornadoes and thunderstorms were common hazards. The sirens went off at the firehouse to warn us, and my mom would make us go down to the basement.  Sometimes, the risk was so great that we would sleep down there.  I got up for school one morning when I was about eight years old, and as I walked down the hall to the kitchen, the big elm tree outside the window in front of me was split in half by a bolt of lightening.  

Soon after that, I began having “The Dream”, and I’ve had it ever since, over and over.  It is always the same: I walk into the kitchen in the home where I grew up, look out the window over the sink. The sky is a pea soup green, like it looks before a tornado hits. The sun is a big orange ball.  Suddenly, the sun explodes like the world has ended. And I wake up, heart pounding, afraid to go back to sleep.

So, fearing the worst once again, I resolved that I would do everything possible yesterday to prepare for the upcoming storm.  I cleaned the drainage ditches around the barn, added wood pellets to the stalls in case there was flooding. I asked my neighbor to help me clean out the gutters around our house that were clogged with falling leaves. After I did all the physical preparations, I decided that I would sit down and paint my recurring nightmare to see if I could clear it from my consciousness.  In one burst of watercolor frenzy, I made the orange sun and the green sky seen through a window. It was primitive, like an eight year old might paint it.  Afterwards, I felt calmer, realizing that I had done what I needed to do here to feel safe.

And safe I am. Sleeping through all the wind and rain with Stella, my “dog log” on the bed next to me, I felt no fear at all. The storm blew over us, not flooding or thundering as much as predicted. This morning, I looked up the meaning of dreaming that the sun exploded. I discovered that the sun is a masculine symbol representing the conscious mind and the intellect. It can also be a symbol of the true self and intelligence, as opposed to intuition. So, blowing up the sun might be a message from my soul to my mind. Mysteriously, I do feel protected, and I understand just a little deeper that I must always honor and trust my intuition.