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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Monday, September 4, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 64

5 out of 10 psychics can't be wrong


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


I suffer from ESP envy. It’s said that everyone is born with this intuitive ability, but most don’t know how to access it. I’ve never had much confidence in my own intuition, since my predictions were often wrong, which can be really embarrassing. Consequently I have sought and paid for the advice of professional clairvoyants whose powers of foresight made me jealous.

Over the years I must have seen a hundred psychics. I used to belly up to the smorgasboard and heap my plate. Whenever someone raved about a new one, I shot to the phone and made an appointment. My curiosity about my future was actually less than my curiosity about their techniques, which varied widely. I’ve already written about the Marrakesh shuwafa whose divinations were based on the shapes that hot lead made when poured into cold water. Another medium relied on the pronouncements of her spirit guide, an ancient Chinese princess who was obnoxious beyond belief. Another psychic simply stared at me for an hour before speaking. I kept notes on every session and, in the years that followed, I would re-read them now and then, to see which prophecies had come true. Did I indeed have an affair with a European man, possibly from Spain, with a drug problem? Not even. Did I get chronic ear infections when Mars in Virgo transited my second house in Taurus? Wow, yes. Bang on.

According to my records, not one of these soothsayers had a higher percentage of correct predictions than about 50%. When told they were wrong half the time, they shrugged. “It’s an imperfect science,” they said defensively, “but look at the half I got right!”

My obsession with fortunetellers came to a head when I was chasing a most elusive man. I was dead certain he was tagged for me forevermore, and with my whole heart wagging I dogged his footsteps all over town. During a two-year pursuit, I polled psychic after psychic: Would he be mine? Or was it in vain?

It wasn’t helpful that half said yes and half said, just as emphatically, forget it. I decided this was a great way to rate them. Eventually my question would get answered: either this guy would spurn or return my love. Then I could stop seeing the psychics who were wrong, and only subsidize those who were right. It would thin out my Rolodex.

After I married the elusive man, I became so content with my lot that I felt no need to spy on the future as I used to. I still saw, once a year, a few psychics whom I thought stupendous, like Maria the Russian painter whose day job was reading coffee grounds for eighty bucks an hour. She would brew a very strong, topsoil-thick expresso, serving it with a cloth napkin folded between saucer and cup. After the client drank the coffee, Maria upended the cup onto the napkin, draining any remaining liquid. She would then examine the dregs left in the cup. In their configurations she picked out images that could be translated into the language of destiny.

“I see a big ‘C’,” she told me once, inspecting my dregs. “You’ll be writing about a classical composer. I hope you do. I want to see this film.” This took me by surprise. For some time I had been tempted to write a spec script on Frederic Chopin’s affair with George Sand, but decided it would be a lot of work to no avail. Though the story gave me writer’s drool, producers were not beating the bushes for a movie about the 19th century French Romantics. And I was too busy with paid assignments anyway. Nevertheless, when Maria told me I was going to write that script, I took courage and wrote the thing – because it was my fate, right? Two years later, I invited Maria to the premiere of Impromptu, with young Hugh Grant in the role of ‘C’-for-Chopin.

I don’t think it’s amazing that Maria saw a ‘C’ in the coffee grounds, which could have left any random shape in her cup. The genius was in her interpretation. Where did she get “classical composer”? The ‘C’ could have stood for colorectal cancer, or Cleveland, or coffee cup. How did she know? Once again I lusted for ESP. If only I could do that, be able to pull names and specifics out of thin air, to tell someone, “I see you’re going to fall in love with a woman who wears a sapphire ring. I get the name Marianne – or Miriam? Maybe Marilyn. My ancient Babylonian guide isn’t clear. It’s an imperfect science.”

The most gifted and accurate clairvoyant medium I ever met was Colette Baron-Reid, a singer-songwriter from Toronto who supplemented her income by reading Tarot cards and relating whatever popped up on her mindscreen. A friend told me that Colette was extraordinary, so of course I made an appointment with her when she was visiting clients in New York, in January of 2002. On the day of our session I was in very high spirits, bursting with some terrific news I’d received earlier in the morning. I told none of this to Colette. Whenever I have a first encounter with a psychic I stay quiet, giving no information about myself other than my name. We were only a few minutes into the reading when she interrupted herself: “I’m seeing you in a dry place, a desert area, with palm trees…I’m going to say southern California. It’s a city with some mountains in the background. Looks like Los Angeles? Anyway, you’re there for some award. Wait – !” Her eyes grew wide. “Could this be an Oscar?”

The Academy Award nominations had just been announced that morning. My film Thoth was chosen for the Short Documentary category. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m not going to win.”

Anyone would have agreed. I was up against two other nominees. One rival film was about Eurasian orphans, a feel-sad weeper narrated by Rosie O’Donnell. Academy members couldn’t vote unless they’d attended an official screening of all the nominated shorts; I knew Rosie would pressure her many friends in the Academy to go see her film.The other short was about an adorable children’s chorus, a feel-good weeper. The directors were a mother/daughter team. The mother was head of the Academy’s documentary branch. She knew many, if not most, of the members and could likewise urge them to attend the screening. I had no inside connections to Academy voters, and my film was a non-weeper about a weirdo in a gold loin cloth.

“Well, you’re gonna win, girl,” Colette insisted. “You don’t believe me, but I’m seeing it.”

I thought, of course she has to say that. What psychic is going to hose your hopes by saying you’ll lose? I wrote the prediction in my notebook, as I had jotted so many others from so many fortunetellers. If Colette was right, cool. If she was wrong, then my Rolodex shed another card. I would know the answer very soon, since the awards ceremony was only two and a half weeks away. And, as there was no chance of my winning, my overwhelming anxiety became about the gown.

Thirty years before, I’d accepted an Oscar in a tuxedo. This was less a fashion statement than a practical solution. I couldn’t afford a nice dress. My partner and I had not been paid for producing and directing our nominated feature documentary Marjoe. I was living with my parents to save money. In my closet there were not many clothes not made of denim. I did own a nice black pant suit with satin piping, and black patent leather boots. I borrowed my father’s cummerbund, bow tie and cuff links, and bought a boys’ tuxedo shirt. Thirty dollars total did the trick. By wearing men’s clothes I also accomplished one of my main missions in life: to stick out.



This time I wanted a real gown in which to stick out. I couldn’t see the sense of paying thousands of dollars for a single occasion; the dress would have to be a loaner from some designer. There was no question of my wearing anything but a Romeo Gigli gown. I’d been collecting his unique creations for fifteen years; my closet barfed Romeo. He was my fashion soulmate. I would never cheat on him with another designer.

However, Romeo Gigli was having business problems. American boutiques no longer carried his collections; he was down to one eponymous store in Milan. I called the shop and spoke to the sales assistant, who happened to be American. He informed me the press office people were “idiots”; if I called out of the blue, they would very likely turn me down because they’d never heard of me. He advised me to come in person.

My husband gifted me a round-trip ticket to Milan, and off I flew. My new friend the sales assistant marched me into the publicity office, explaining in Italian what a golden opportunity it was to dress an Oscar nominee. He swore I was a celebrity. After all, I’d won the award previously.

Sure enough, the press folks were slow to comprehend. Sensing their reluctance, I entreated: “Please! If I win, I promise to thank him in my speech.” With that, they relented. Which dress did I want?

I had no idea, since Romeo’s fashions were not on view in the U.S. anymore. The publicists sent me to a workroom that held a few pieces from his spring collection. My spirits sank. There was only one gown on the rack. Entirely made of ribbons, it was voluminous; I would have needed two chairs to sit in it. The rest of the evening wear pieces were out to style editors all over Europe.

The press people decided it was time to be actually helpful. They handed me the “look book” from the runway show. If I would choose a dress from the photos, and if they could locate it in time, they would have it shipped to New York before I flew to L.A. for the ceremony.

I paged through Romeo’s typically brilliant collection. His inspiration for that season was the ocean: fish scale sequins and foamy bubble patterns and lacey sea fans. I spotted an exquisite black evening dress with tendrils of chiffon hand-snipped to look like seaweed floating about the shoulders and skirt.

The seaweed dress

I’d look pretty good in that. Marking the page, I continued flipping through the look book until I arrived at the final garment in the show.

Hanging by thin strings from the model’s shoulders, the dress consisted of a double layer of black tulle, with long tatters at the hem and gleaming crystal globules of all different sizes scattered over the airy fabric. It looked exactly as Romeo had intended: water drops on a fisherman’s net.

It was also totally transparent. The model’s nipple dots and perky boobs showed clearly through the tulle. She wore black briefs to cover her pubes. I was fifty-four non-perky years old and I would definitely stick out – everywhere – if I wore this one.

The fisherman's net dress

Not feasible.

And then came the Flash. Suddenly I saw myself mounting the left side of the Kodak Theater stage to accept a gold statuette from the Academy, and I was wearing this gown. The image did not come from my always-febrile imagination. The scene seemed as fresh and detailed and factual as if it had happened mere seconds before, yet it was not a memory. Where did the image come from? Neither imagined nor remembered, it was an orphan, born in a brain place that was unmarked on my map. My flash presented itself, not as a known fact, but as a thing simply known.

Now I understood what the psychics experienced. After years of ESP-ness envy, I had my first moment of “extraordinary knowing.”

The peeps in the press office, who had been leery of me before, now thought I was mad. The dress I requested was an “editorial” piece, designed only for eye-popping runway effect and for press photos; the fishnet gown was never meant to be worn by anyone real. If I would choose a second gown, they would ship both, in case this one (insert raised eyebrow) didn’t work out (which heaven help us it wouldn’t). I chose the seaweed dress as backup.

Back in the U.S., I worried that the publicists would deliberately fail to locate the water-drop dress. As more days passed I worried that, worse, they wouldn’t send either dress in time. Then I’d have to do the black pant suit all over again.

Three days from our departure for Los Angeles, the seaweed dress arrived, a size 4. My husband thought it beautiful, though I would have to cease eating for a few days to get into it. A day later, just as the palace clock chimed midnight, a second box arrived, with the fishnet dress crumpled inside. There was no fit problem. It floated away from the body like a mist. The glass droplets gleamed on the black tulle. You could see my caesarian scar and count every mole on my torso. My husband made no comment because he knew I would come to my senses eventually.

I had 48 hours to solve the see-through problem. We commandeered a theater designer to run up a black body suit to hide my bits. The morning of our departure, the designer called from the lobby. He was dropping off the slip, but had discovered an unanticipated problem with the dress. And he had been unable to solve it.

Each of the hundred droplet crystals had a flat back, which had been glued on the tulle. The glue leached through the net, making the crystals tacky when touched. If I sat down in the dress – if, for example, I were to sit for hours through the interminable ceremony until my category came up – my body heat, pressed to the fabric, would warm the glue further. When I rose – as, for example, to collect my award – the dress would stick to my ass and the backs of my legs, producing a sort of wadded-up bustle effect. Possibly no one in the audience would think my outfit was any more bizarre than my seat companion Thoth wearing a gold loin cloth and chest chains. On the other hand, my husband and daughter would be mortified.

“You don’t understand,” I raged. “I saw myself in this dress! I won’t win if I’m not wearing it!”

“You’re being ridiculous,” my husband retorted. “The votes are already in. It makes no difference what you wear.”

Once again I faced the inevitable. The gown was not created for any event except a quick walk down the runway. Not to be sat in, nor slept in, nor wept in.

Still undeterred, on the plane to L.A. I racked my brain to find a way of fixing the problem. That evening I had to attend another ceremony for the International Documentary Association, where my film had already won an award. On the way back to the hotel I stopped off in a 24-hour Rite-Aid to buy a roll of Scotch Magic Tape and a pair of sewing scissors.

All night I stayed up meticulously cutting little rounds of tape in the shape of each individual crystal. I stuck the rounds to the underside of the tulle, covering the glue on the back of a hundred glass droplets. I then sat in the dress for thirty minutes, warming up the crystals, at the end of which I rose up. The dress swung free, swishing about my legs as I walked experimentally around the hotel room. At last I had a dress to match my fate.

Here is what happened the next night:



My husband had been right. Fishnet or seaweed, the outcome would have been the same. I couldn’t explain that, far more important to me than winning the award, I desperately wanted my psychic flash to prove true. At stake was my belief in the paranormal experience. I fought hard for that gown because I needed my instant of knowing to be accurate in every detail.

I still can’t figure out, though, why I saw myself so clearly mounting the stage from the left when, on the night of, I actually entered from the right. But it’s an imperfect science.

The next morning, as Romeo Gigli walked to his workroom through the streets of Milan, people kept coming up to him and exclaiming that someone had thanked him onstage at the Oscars. Puzzled, he asked his press staff if they knew anything about it. The fools hadn’t thought to mention my visit to him. They admitted they’d loaned me a gown from his new collection. Which one? he wondered. They answered, the last one in the show.

His mouth fell open. “She wore that?! But – it’s completely transparent!”

(To be continued.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 63



Thoth in prayformance (Photo courtesy HBO)


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


He wasn’t half-naked this time. Though he still sported the headband, red feather and Egyptian-deity makeup, the chill of late November had forced Thoth out of his customary gold loincloth and into black tech pants and windbreaker. Surprisingly, he could still move his fingers on the violin neck as he played, danced, stomped and sang in his multiple voices – all at the same time.

The sun dipped behind the buildings surrounding Central Park; cold shadows slid across Bethesda Terrace. He’d begun promptly at 3 pm (his time slot by arrangement with some other buskers who shared the tunnel). No passersby gathered to watch. On weekdays at this time of year, the few people still in the park by dusk were hastening to warmer places, too rushed to stop and appreciate the whirling one-man opera in the Arcade. Yet Thoth performed full out, to the point of exhaustion, as if to a crowd instead of an audience of one.

That one, a tall blonde bundled-up woman in a felt hat, leaned against a pillar and watched him for two hours, even after darkness fell and the tunnel’s ceiling lights switched on, along with the park’s sixteen hundred streetlamps. Whenever Thoth took a break to drink water from a camelbak, the woman moved off, walking around the terrace briskly to keep warm, then returning when she heard him tune his instrument for the next aria. She did not applaud, nor drop money into his violin case; whenever he glanced at her, she looked away.

I didn’t want to engage with him in any way until I had observed a complete “prayformance” from beginning to end. When I chanced upon him the month before, I’d only witnessed the opening prayer that convoked his invented gods in his invented language. Now that I was experiencing the whole work, I was even more astonished. People have to see this, I thought. Lots of people everywhere, not just parkgoers and tourists.

His was a unique feat. So many gifts had to exist in one person to accomplish it. The imagination, composing, fantasy writing, an extraordinary voice, impressive musicianship, foot percussion in complicated meters, all had to combine and work simultaneously. (You try singing Wagner while jogging.) There might be only this man in human history who could bring it off; hence it would live and die with him. A phenomenon of such fragility could collapse at any moment, with no record that it had ever occurred, except for the snapshots and videos that tourists brought home, describing how they’d witnessed an only-in-New-York freak show.

Thoth belonged on film. Should I take the next step and make it happen? That hefty fee I’d just received for my ill-fated script would cover the cost. He was a great subject. Even for an outsider artist, he was way, way out on a limb. Yet his commitment was unwavering. One could feel his faith; it altered the air around him. Speaking in tongues, he had his own Holy Ghost infilling him. The sight repelled some, captivated others. Thoth moved me. He reminded me of all the sacrifices artists make, in ways small and huge, and the loneliness of our endeavor as we inch out on the limb. A documentary would show audiences not only what he could do but what it cost him to do it.

But I still didn’t approach him because I hadn’t decided if he was nuts in a bad way.

There is clinical-crazy, and then there is artist-crazy. The latter doesn’t frighten me, because I have my own seat on that spectrum. I love the company of wild and weird creators and visionaries; they’re my family…as long as they have some measure of self-control. It’s the ones who slice off their ears that I step away from.

I checked my watch nervously: five o’clock. The park was now too empty and dark for my comfort; I wanted to leave. Thoth had paused to rest again. If there was more to come, I would have to miss it. And I still didn’t have my answer on the subject of his mental health.

An old man with a cane shuffled into the Arcade. Thoth evidently knew him. The man stopped and they chatted quietly. Suddenly Thoth busted a laugh so big and loud the entire tunnel vibrated: a barnyard donkey laugh. Someone else, like you perhaps, might hear it as the kind of crazy bray common to the funny farm. But I went the other way.

That’s it, I thought. He’s sane.

Arriving home, I sent Thoth a message on his website: I was a filmmaker, wanted to make a short documentary about him, contact me if interested….

As I grew to know him over the seven months I shot the film, Thoth proved to be only slightly more wacky than I, and otherwise was as centered and responsible a person as one could hope, the opposite of a prima donna. He lived with his mother in Queens, though he kept as aloof and ascetic as a monk, striving to improve and purify himself as a receiver and transmitter of messages from unnamed sources. Unsure of his ethnic identity, as a mixed-race son, Thoth believed he was channeling the spirits of his ancestors, who had originated in every part of the world; accordingly his music sounded as if it came from many cultures, though so commingled they were no longer identifiable. He channeled the words as he played, later figuring out their meaning, as we pick up any foreign language in a strange land, and he was compiling a dictionary as he went. It was a neverending project because the spirit communications never stopped flowing. He was a fully open flume.

This was his full-time work. He lived off contributions from audiences in the park. Some days they gave nothing. He didn’t know how long he could keep it up. Rather than become incapacitated by age, he hoped to die while prayforming.

The subject of my first documentary, Marjoe Gortner was a prevaricator who kept much of himself hidden – even from himself. By contrast, Thoth was always striving to locate the truth that defined his being. This involved constant and rigorous introspection, a dismantling of walls within, so that in my interviews I was able to probe as deep as I liked. He was familiar with his own complexity. However, there was one wall that did not yield to my pressure, a mystery that he’d lost interest in solving, or so he said. Yet it was the very thing that drove him onto the path to mysticism.

It was easier for Thoth’s sisters to identify as African-American because they were quite young when their white father divorced their black mother. The family never saw him again. On the other hand, Thoth (or Stephen Kaufman as he was then known) was older and had been very close to his dad. He took the sudden abandonment very hard, bewildered by it, and also left bewildered about his racial identity. Bewilderment led to depression, and depression to withdrawal. In college he stole sleeping pills and tried to commit suicide. Before he was found and revived from his coma, he experienced a voice telling him to go back: “You have more to do.”

A long period of self-emancipation followed. Ethnically, and sexually as well, he found freedom in being ambiguous. He rediscovered his many creative gifts. Financially, he made do by playing Bach for handouts in San Francisco’s subway stations. And ever since the near-death voice sent him back to life, he sought to find out: what was the “more” he was meant to do? He took the time to be quiet, and listen for answers. The other-world revelations began; the art of prayformance was born.

Thoth was 46 when I started filming him. He had long since put away the matter of his father’s disappearance; he rarely thought of him. I, however, was not satisfied to let it lie. A reunion of father and son would be so dramatic on film – if I could find Dr. Kaufman. I began with a simple internet search. What came up was a death notice.

Thoth’s father had died only six months before. All along he had been practicing medicine in Rockville, Long Island, a mere half-hour’s drive from Queens where Thoth had grown up and was living now. And it was my duty to deliver the news.

As I paused with my hand on the phone, I suddenly felt an inward urgency from an outward source, an insistence so strong that my own self seemed crowded aside. It was a message I didn’t understand, that was meant for Thoth. I recognized it as the same feeling that had overcome me when I delivered a message to my dad from his dead father (see Chapter 15), a message that was not to be denied.

When I reached Thoth, he received the word of his father’s death in neutral silence. Either he felt nothing or didn’t know how to feel. I tried to keep quiet out of respect but the inner crescendo forced me to stand down and let the message come out. “There’s something else,” I said, “and please forgive me for this, I don’t know what it means, but I’m supposed to say your father wants you to forgive him for something.”

Another silence, a long one. Then Thoth spoke up: “I think I know what that is.”

He had never told the story to anyone. In fact, he had utterly forgotten it, buried and blocked it, until this moment when his dad’s message broke through. As if shot from the depths, memory burst its secret, as fresh in detail as when the young boy Stephen had sealed it inside.

For a little while following the divorce, Dr. Kaufman faithfully visited his children, sometimes taking his son out for a spin in his little red sportscar. He always drove too fast, and this particular day, with nine-year-old Thoth buckled into the passenger seat, was no exception. As his dad’s car approached an intersection, the traffic light was changing; he sped up, just as a boy stepped out on the crosswalk. “He hit the boy, and the boy bounced up and against the windshield and fell off to the right. It was horrifying, it was the worst thing…The boy died at the scene.

“When the police questioned my father, he said the light was green. But I knew, and saw, that the light was yellow turning red. And it was a really hard thing because my father, being a doctor and the most moral person that I knew, he was lying, and I couldn’t believe it. I was not able to understand.

“My father stopped contacting me after that and I never saw him again.”

Opening up to grief was a difficult passage for Thoth. The tears simply weren’t there, until he saw the finished film and witnessed the scene where he visits his father’s grave, and speaks to him at last, and cleanses them both of the past. There in the editing room, he finally cried.

Thoth seemed to never shy away from the truth, even if some of it came from invisible ancestral spirits. Whatever he held inside, he was addicted to putting it all out there. And I do believe that truth is rewarded, when we make the effort and sacrifice to find it. There may be no recompense but only reprisal in one’s lifetime here, but the eternal Elsewhere is all rejoicing. For Thoth, his reward was 39:58 minutes of fame, the length of our film Thoth – two seconds under the maximum length required for submission to the short documentary category of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

When we got the nomination, Cinemax bought the film. Between cable TV and YouTube, and his presence onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony where the film won, Thoth and his work would eventually be seen by over a million viewers. I’d told myself, People have to see this. I’d fulfilled my promise to the universe. As for my own reward, helping Thoth brought me more satisfaction than anything I’d ever created for my own ego.

I must add, the Oscar did feel really, really good. Thirty years earlier, I’d shared the Feature Documentary award with my older male partner. Overlooked was the fact that I was the first woman director to win an Oscar, and it was further assumed that my partner had done all the work and that I was just the cute young tagalong. Thirty years later, winning a second award as a solo filmmaker told everyone, “Yes, I was always more than the girlfriend.”

It almost didn’t happen, though. Making a good film was not the only hurdle to clear on the way to an Oscar. The other necessary was finding the right gown.

(To be continued.)

Here's the full film:


Thursday, August 3, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 62

The Artist Known As Thoth. Photo by Jennifer Leigh Sauer.

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


These days, whenever a social conversation lags, usually in the lacuna between entrée and dessert, someone asks “What shows are you binging on?” This is the dessert topic, and thank god for it; otherwise people would lapse into embarrassed silence. In a recent era, the question was, “Did you see [insert movie title]?”; and once upon an ancient time they asked “Have you read [insert book title]?” Folks turn gratefully to the topics of art and entertainment, even if they disagree; they compare and argue but remain friends; the same cannot be said for mine-filled subjects like politics or religion; and money is just plain ill-mannered. Art performs the invaluable service of keeping people talking. Artists don’t merely communicate, they fertilize communication.

All the same, I view my profession as wankery. Mind you, I’ve never doubted that I was put on the planet to write. It felt like a perfect fit the moment I settled into that chair, the heart-shaped dent waiting for my ass, as if the cushion had been broken in by centuries of self-absorbed scribes before me. Nevertheless, over the years I felt I was enjoying myself too much, sitting alone and spinning stories and not contributing a jot toward world peace and understanding.

“Use me,” I urged the universe. Show me a good thing to do, that will help. I waited for a sign. Meanwhile I wrote and directed a movie that I hoped would empower young women. It went straight to video. I took a few assignments I thought would make a difference, including a biopic about Alfred Nobel and the genesis of his Peace Prize. The films didn’t get made; the universe, indecipherable as ever, withdrew its backing. So much for lofty intentions. I stopped waiting for a sign.

In 2000 I took on a project that had no redeeming value, yet would give good dessert topic. I pitched, sold, and wrote the script. It was fiction, based on the true experiences of a living individual, a madman who downloaded all his fury and psychosis on me, day after day, as I sat and took notes. At times I thought I was going crazy by osmosis, but I hung in there because it was too great a story. The studio agreed, and officially greenlit the picture. However, when they attempted to renew their rights agreement with the maniac, he refused. He’d read the script, and flew into a rage (his normal state). To placate him, I was fired off my own project. The green light went red, and remained red despite the efforts of many more writers. For the umpteenth time, my father said, “You should get out of that shitty business.” Now, this was odd advice, coming from a guy who taught entertainment law, and whose former students included several studio heads. But he had a point, namely “What’s the point?”

In the end, the only point was the luchre. Stuffing the fat script fee in my bank account, I felt both demoralized and relieved. Now I was free of that madman’s negative force field, and free to figure out how I’d lost my way as a writer. What did the universe want? I renewed the request: “Use me.”

On a Sunday autumn afternoon, when I was hurrying home from a quick walk in Central Park, I heard a distant strain of music on the air that intrigued me: a violin droning on open strings, serene and meditative, joined by a soaring soprano voice. There was no time to track down the source, but I paused anyway, turning my head to listen. Though unamplified, the violin-soprano duet cut through the chattering and noise of the park throngs, as if close to my ear.

It was then I sensed a pressure like a hand between my shoulder blades, urging me to move toward the music, and, as I complied, I felt somewhat weightless, a sensation of being conveyed without effort. The music drew me down a flight of stairs and into a tunnel, the Bethesda Arcade, which passes under the 72nd Street transverse. There I found the soprano: a small tawny man of uncertain ethnicity, with waist-length dreadlocks, gold loincloth, chains across his bare chest, body covered in twinkling gold glitter, eyes lined black like a sphinx, a red plume stuck in the back of his hair. Singing in a high countertenor register, he accompanied himself on the violin, kneeling as if in prayer before a gathering crowd of tourists.

Abruptly the man leapt to his feet and launched into a violent tarantella; his voice now a thundering baritone, he beat out the rhythm on a manhole cover with his sandals, the bells and shells tied to his ankles rattling for emphasis. And then he was dancing, twirling like a dervish – while playing and singing simultaneously. He had been soothing before; now he was fierce; the crowd recoiled a little. The music was both primitive and sophisticated, seeming to come from all cultures and none. The words gave no clue what language he was singing in; I couldn’t place his accent.

The dervish dropped to his knees, returning to the long droned notes of the prayer, his voice low and quiet. As he ended, the audience applauded. A few people dropped crumpled bills and loose change into his violin case, which was propped open for contributions. Some paused to pick up one of the yellow brochures beside the case before moving on. He nodded silently as they passed, but no one dared talk to him, so he busied himself biting off some horse hairs that hung loose from his bow; he’d sawed the strings so hard during the dance that the strands broke. He appeared resigned to having frightened people. They had witnessed a kind of controlled madness. Even if controlled, it was madness all the same.

Yet, madness wedded to extreme talent is spellbinding. And if this phenomenon was a busker, then he was the most extraordinary I’d ever seen.



I grabbed a brochure and rushed home. I tried to recreate what I’d seen to my husband but gave up in frustration. It was like trying to describe last night’s dream; the experience was yours alone, in a private reality, and fast fading in the daylight as you turned to your morning chores.

I glanced through the brochure before tossing it on my cluttered desk. The man called himself Thoth; he termed his act “solopera.” He didn’t perform, he “prayformed,” Tuesdays through Sundays in the Arcade. He was available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. He had a website. I had to make dinner.

In the weeks that followed, the yellow brochure disappeared under piles of books and papers while I prepared for another studio assignment. When the time came to clear my desk, I discovered the brochure I’d forgotten. On the verge of throwing it out, I remembered the ghostly hand at my back, and the peculiar energy that suffused me when I watched Thoth prayform. I took a moment to check out his website, in case it would answer some of my lingering questions: Where was he from? Foreign, of course, but what nationality? What culture’s indigenous songs was he singing?

The website was elegantly designed. The homepage invited visitors to click on a portal to enter the realm of Thoth. I went straight to his bio, where I found some surprises. He was born in the mid-50’s and raised in Queens, a biracial child back when mixed marriages were a lightning rod for hatred, even illegal in some states. His mother, Barbados-born, was a tympanist and the first black person to become a principal player in a major symphony orchestra. (This accounted for his classical training and foot percussion.) His father was a white Jewish doctor and civil rights activist. Their son eventually became a street musician in San Francisco, then moved to New York after changing his name to Thoth, after the ancient Egyptian messenger-god.

The bio offered no explanation of what had transpired to cause a child of relative privilege, now a man in his forties, to embrace life as a nearly-naked busker – for what gain?

His site did offer CDs for sale, of his self-composed three-act solo opera, “The Herma.” So the music was his own. What about the accent? The language? I read on.

He had based his opera on the legends of a place called Festad. I’d never heard of it. Then it became clear that the land, its map, its tribes, its myths, its melodies, its customs and costumes and mother tongue, were all invented. Thoth had created an entire world from top to bottom, in such confident detail that, at first encounter, one would not suspect that the unknown words, the unplaceable accent, the weird clothes and alluring songs were from no country but his own mind.

In a short statement Thoth claimed that, for him, “prayforming” was an essential spiritual practise that helped him to “be.” By helping himself, he hoped to help the universe.

Then I knew what I was meant to do. I was going to help him. The universe had a job for me at last.

But first, caution dictated that I must find out: was he a madman? I could not afford another one of those.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 61


On set of Marjoe. Photo by Jeanne Field.

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I began this memoir by recounting my first contact with the spirit of my grandfather in 1974. Yet he was not my first ghost. Three years before, I had an unexpected run-in with the front office: the supreme all-infusing Holy Ghost.

It was July 1971, a hot and humid night in Texas. Parishioners attending the evening service sat on folding seats and fanned their faces with paper paddles. A country-western band played their original composition “God I Love You”; the pedal steel swooned around the singer. What was I doing in a Pentecostal revival tent in Fort Worth?

I had only attended Christian church services a few of times in my life, on the insistence of my mother. My dad, adamantly agnostic, used to claim with a straight face that he was a Druid, or “Druish.” Meanwhile Mom had four children to raise, with little energy remaining to drag us all to the local Episcopal church, which had no ramp for her wheelchair anyway. She let the matter slide.

By the time I turned ten, I was in love with Greek mythology and showed every sign of becoming a pagan. Mom got the idea to turn me over to her mother, who was passing through New York, asking her to introduce me to the church experience. My grandmother’s religious affiliation was indeterminate, as she was always shopping for sects. I took the train in from Connecticut; Grandma scooped me up and plunked me down in the vast, packed Madison Square Garden to hear Billy Graham, her new crush.

The ensuing yell-fest traumatized me. When my mother met my train afterwards, she picked up a quiet, cowed, unnervingly polite child. I was so afflicted with sin, and remorse for sin, that I went on a goodness binge for a week. Yet I knew so little about what defined a sin that it seemed I could make no move without committing one. Practice-kissing the mirror was vain and carnal. Stealing my brother’s dirty books and not returning them: lust and theft. And candy? It was discouraged in my home, on account of the dentist bills for my mouthful of silver fillings. I ate it in secret, which made it a lie. Gluttony, falsehood, and cavities. The noose of sin drew tighter.

Eventually I began to suspect God wasn’t watching. The thought brought me great spiritual comfort. I stole my parents’ marriage manual; my tongue turned green from lime lollipops; my dark side, sensing the coast was clear, crept back from exile.

Still, Mom felt guilty that she had not given her children a religious education. My two older brothers were teenagers and no longer meek enough. There was still hope, however, for my younger brother and me. Mom dressed us up and dropped us off at the nearest spire, St. Paul’s Church, along with a small sealed envelope containing a quarter for the collection plate. We knew no one in the congregation, and were too shy to ask for help deciphering the service, which was utterly bewildering. How did people know when to stand up, sit down, or kneel? We didn’t realize that the numbers posted on the bulletin board were hymn numbers and not page numbers; opening the hymnal at the wrong place, we could never find the songs everyone sang. Plus, even at one hour, the service was excruciatingly long. My brother and I were hungry.

One morning at Holy Communion, whatever that was, I dared to go to the altar and kneel at the rail with some other people to get a snack. The body of Christ turned out to be a thin scrap of something that tasted like office paste (which, in larger quantity, was delicious, but in wafer form was just a cruel tease). The priest deliberately didn’t tip the chalice far enough for me to get even a drop of the blood of Christ. I think he knew pretty well I was not confirmed and shouldn’t be hanging there with my tongue out in the first place.

So it came to pass that my little brother and I associated church with two things: hunger, and feeling like idiots. One Sunday, when we were deposited at St. Paul’s, instead of entering I tore open the offering envelope and extracted the quarter. About a half mile away, a brisk fifteen-minute walk, was a tiny convenience store the kids called The Louse House because it was run by a woman named Louise. Louise sold penny candy. A quarter bought twenty-five pieces, from a huge variety in her display case. Twelve pieces for me, twelve for little bro, and we could split the twenty-fifth, snapping the last raspberry licorice shoelace in half. Fifteen minutes to walk to the store, ten to buy the candy, and fifteen minutes to eat all of it on the way back to church, joining the congregation streaming out of the service just when my mother arrived to pick us up: it was a perfect plan.

The Louse House orgy came to an end when Mom stopped Sunday deliveries without explanation. I think that chauffeuring kids to cello, piano, violin, oboe, and trumpet lessons, soccer practice, the allergist and, all too often, the dentist, Monday to Saturday, was punishment enough for her sins. She really did need a day of rest.

My next exposure to Christian ritual came in prep school. Weekday mornings at Rosemary Hall began with chapel service. It was pleasant enough, and brief: ten minutes of mad singing and very little worshipping. I loved the music, so I joined the chapel choir to do some more of it. Thus I innocently committed to show up for Sunday services. The tedium of a full-length service was a revelation. I quit the choir. There was one particular image I took away, when at the climax of the service the minister approached the altar and raised the gold collection plate of cash to show Jesus the fruits of his sacrifice. It offended me that faith should be mixed up with money.

In college, Religion 101 was a required freshman course. Here I honed my objections to Christianity. Like my father, I ticked off the items that strained credulity. For example, why did God the Father need to have a gender, which can only be determined by examining someone’s sex organs? Surely God was bigger than anatomy. Most important, why was it a Christian deal-breaker that we accept Jesus as divine? Why couldn’t he just be the son of Joseph and descendant of King David, as the apostle Luke claimed; why couldn’t we just recognize him as a great and wonderful teacher for the ages? Or was the Son of God a better plot device to lure people into the theater? And get their money. The whole enterprise felt fraudulent.

I seemed to have a much higher opinion of God than the one that scripture described, and a lower concept of Jesus. Still, I was moved by flashes of beauty and wisdom in the text. And I would miss the music.

Meeting Marjoe Gortner, when I was 23, brought the issue of fraud into full spotlight. At the time, I was a budding screenwriter; my boyfriend Howard Smith was a newspaper and radio journalist. One day Howard was approached for an on-air interview by a lanky, handsome, charismatic man with a scrapbook under his arm. The contents were staggering. Photos and news clippings from the 40’s and 50’s revealed this man’s early career as a child preacher. His parents, both Pentacostal preachers themselves, ordained him when he was three; promoting their son as the world’s youngest minister, they coached the bright little boy to perform a wedding ceremony at the age of four. Filmed by Paramount News, the stunt was shown in newsreels all over the country, and little Marjoe Gortner the holy-rolling phenomenon was launched. He told the press he received his sermons directly from God; he filled churches and revival tents throughout the Bible Belt, healed some of the sick, made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and earned his family a lot of cash in offerings over the years.

The Great Gantry
By the time Marjoe approached puberty, the “child of God” act was wearing thin; his father absconded with all the money, creating a simmering resentment toward his parents and mistrust of people in general that never left Marjoe. He ran away, knocked about on his own in California through most of his adolescence. Then, in his twenties, he went back on the evangelical circuit – for the money. Preaching was what he knew best how to do, and if he could keep up the man-of-God masquerade for six months, winning souls to the Lord, he could make enough money to chill with his hippie friends for the remaining six. Congregations welcomed grown-up Marjoe heartily. He cut a spectacular figure in foppish mod threads; he moved like a rock star; his sermons were riveting. They paid up. He did the same thing the next year. And then he found he couldn’t stop.

In Marjoe’s entire life, he had never believed in God. On the other hand, the power he held over parishioners, the excitement and the adulation, bound him to the church as firmly as faith. He was, in his own words, “a religion addict.”

When he met us, he had just arrived in New York to take a whack at an acting career. If he could achieve stardom, it would replace the high he got from preaching. But he had no patience to start at the bottom. A radio interview with my partner Howard was just the exposure Marjoe needed to lift him above the crowded pool of anonymous actors struggling for recognition.

I don’t know why I thought it was such a good idea to make a film about this two-faced preacher. Documentaries were not commercially viable then. There was really only one distributor who exhibited them. But Howard knew the guy. And I don’t know why this distributor and his millionaire partner thought it was such a good idea to finance the project, but they gave us the money immediately. From there everything went very fast. Looking back, it was as if a wind blew eerily at our backs, a wind that would blow us straight to the Oscars, where we accepted the feature documentary award for Marjoe two years later.

Howard and me with two bad boys
Marjoe had agreed to let us shoot him on tour, cautioning us to be on our best behavior and blend in with the born-agains. “They already accept me as real, so, with me bringing you in, they’ve already accepted you, too. Just call everyone Brother this or Sister that, and they’ll be happy.” He also agreed to expose all the cons and tricks that ministers, radio and TV evangelists, and Marjoe himself employed to whip up a congregation and extract money for “ministries,” cash that was mostly used to line their own pockets.

One of Marjoe’s gimmicks was the sale of “prayer cloths,” actually cheap red bandanas; if the believer really believed, and prayed hard over these schmattes, blessings and salvation might follow. For an additional sum, people could line up and Marjoe would personally “lay hands” on them; God’s grace would flow through his touch. If he laid on hands extra hard, some would be seized with joy and fall to the ground. And when the Holy Ghost was present, folks could experience the “infilling of the spirit,” to be set free from their troubles for a moment, an hour, a day, maybe ever after.

Marjoe laying on hands
We had already filmed revivals in Los Angeles and Anaheim, so we’d grown accustomed to the sight of evangelicals, overcome with ecstasy, writhing on the floor, speaking in tongues, weeping, beaming, after being harangued with threats of hell and damnation by crooked ministers who were blatantly manipulating them. (The minister in this particular church in Fort Worth was later arrested for running stolen cars across the Mexican border.) But on this Texas summer night, my cynicism faded.

I became transfixed, instead, by the manifest beauty of the same sight: of people released, to dance, sing, quake and faint, giving themselves completely to a ghost, a vibe that permeated everyone. I envied their child-like porousness. It didn’t matter how they got to that state, or how much they’d paid: they were euphorically happy in these moments. The only time I’d felt like that was when I took LSD. These enraptured folks took pharmaceutical-grade Belief. I wished I had some. I wanted to be infilled by Spirit.

Marjoe said, toward the end of our film, “If I could just do the faith number, and get up and say, ‘Okay, everybody, let’s really get loose this afternoon, get rid of our hang-ups and have nice group therapy,’ that would be great. But you can’t do it that way. I have to throw in the sin and damnation and ‘you’re all going to hell’ – it’s got to all be done under this façade of holiness.”

Yet he was a gifted preacher, good enough to give folks a taste of pure Spirit – almost in spite of himself. A friend once asked him, “What if Jesus was working through you anyway?” What if a conman could still be a conduit?

Marjoe looked wistful. He knew he was the very definition of a sinner. But could you lie, eat candy, fool everyone and hate your parents, and still be good?

That film about a religion addict set me on the highway to find heaven, running through checkpoints and scattering traffic cones, to seek my own Belief. Ghosts lay ahead, all with something to teach. One day, I would be infilled by Spirit. But I’d be nowhere near a church.

Thirty years after Marjoe, I made another documentary. A wind at my back propelled me toward another flamboyant subject, this time a dancing, singing, junkie for truth.

(To be continued.)

You may download, rent or buy Marjoe here.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 60

Putucuci Mountain and the secret door. All photos by Barbara Doran.

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


There was no reason for him to be here. The little yellow mutt sat beside my left hiking boot, gazing up at me. He must have crept up from behind, while I was standing at summit’s edge and panicking at the sight of the vertiginous plunge and the infinite stone stairs I’d have to stagger down if I was to reach camp before night fell.

But how did the dog get here? To arrive at my feet on Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the Inca Trail, he would have had to climb for a day and a half, just as I had done. Did he belong to a hiker from another group headed for Macchu Pichu, and had somehow gotten lost? Yet dogs were strictly prohibited on the ancient trail.

Nor was he feral. He was not bony, dirty, hungry, tired, or fierce. Instead he was plump and clean, and as friendly as if he had met me on a previous occasion and, after sniffing me thoroughly, judged me to be okay. His brown eyes were sweet. I could have bent down to pet him, except my knees were shot and my legs gone rigid in the cold.

Or was he a spirit? Had the little dog materialized out of the very thin air of the Peruvian Andes, right when I was begging the universe out loud for help to get down the mountain? After all, we were 12,000 feet above reason.

And I did need help. I was the only one left of my group. By now the others were probably halfway to the next mountain, where the porters were setting up tents and cooking dinner. My Outward Bound guide Robert and one of the Peruvian guides remained behind to make sure I survived the long descent. The two men were waiting for me, some thirty steps below; an opaque mist was rising fast to envelop them. Still I couldn’t move. Even with the aid of my hiking poles I had no strength left. I was Dead Woman Not Walking.

My insurance would cover a medivac rescue, if there was room on the pass for a copter to land, or if it could even fly this high. No matter, my friend Arthur had the satellite phone, and he was far away with the rest of the merry band. That left – what? Crawling down on my butt?

The dog seemed to have other ideas. He jumped down to the next stair, turned, and regarded me with encouragement. “You can,” said the brown eyes. So I planted my poles on the step below, and painfully lowered myself to his level. But the animal had already moved on, this time two steps down, where he paused again, offering his faith, and a promise of safety.

I simply couldn’t disappoint him. He’d gone through a lot of trouble to be real.

And that was how we did it: together. Step by step, my knight in yellow fur escorted me down, coaxing me past my pain, giving me the heart to go on. We breached the fog to find Robert and the other guide, who were relieved to see me walking again but mystified by the dog’s presence. I introduced him: “This is Li’l Yeller.” Adding, “If you have any questions, I don’t know.”

We hastened on. Li’l Yeller ran back and forth, romping around the men’s feet, then bounding back to me as I struggled to follow. He always tested the next step before I moved to it, finding the best spot to support my poles, then sending me a look of recommendation. Inky darkness overtook us; we turned on our headlamps.

Then the camp lights came into view. Perhaps smelling the food from the cook tent, the dog raced ahead; this time he didn’t return. I was too exhausted to wonder where he’d gone. Thrusting the flap aside, I fell into my tent and burrowed inside the sleeping bag. My tentmate Barb brought me some food from dinner, but I fell asleep between the first two bites.

Our tent was pitched on an incline. During the night, my sleeping bag gradually slipped downwards until, at dawn, I woke up at the bottom, curled in a fetal position and pressed against the flap. I could hear the breakfast pots clanging and the footsteps of my comrades heading for the makeshift johnny. As I sat up, to my surprise, my muscles obeyed without protest. It seemed that they had finally become habituated to abuse, and that the days of agonizing aches, the seizures and refusals, were behind me.

Something appeared outside the tent opening, a blurred silhouette. I unzipped the flap and stuck my head through. There was my magical mystery mutt, seated on his haunches like a sentry. He turned his head and gave me the brown-eyed once-over. His glance said, “Ah! You’re all right now – good to go. My job’s done.” And he scampered off.

I didn’t see Li’l Yeller again for the remaining two days of the hike. He went ahead with the porters, who had become enchanted with him, feeding him scraps and naming him Picchu (meaning “mountain,” from whence he’d come.) One porter decided to bring him home on the train back to Cusco, as a pet for his kids.

On the fourth day, my group reached our destination, entered the Sun Gate, and beheld the marvels of Machu Picchu. We showered off four days of body mung in a hotel that seemed like a mirage.

The following dawn, we convened to explore the sacred city before the trains of tourists arrived. Arthur decided, instead, to keep climbing. He was determined to scale Waynu Picchu, an even higher mountain nearby that overlooked the ruins.

Waynu Picchu looms over the sacred city

The top native guide recommended against the plan, warning that the path was too primitive and dangerous; only the year before, two people had fallen to their deaths; Arthur could proceed, but on his own and at his own risk. Incredibly, four others from our group leapt to join him. They all geared up and set off for the mountain.

Meanwhile, the porters were ready to go home – but Picchu had disappeared. They searched everywhere for the little dog, but in the end they had to leave without him.

After absorbing all I could of the stupendous Incan ruins, I paused to sit alone and meditate on a grass terrace facing Waynu Picchu. Faraway, one could see Arthur and his gang creeping like ants up the steep green flank of the mountain. I hoped they had some kind of divine protection. And I thought back to my little yellow companion who had appeared and vanished so eerily.

If you are open to the idea of spirit animals, those creatures who act as guides throughout our lives, whether in real form or symbolically, then it becomes fun to identify them. Once, before going to sleep, I experimentally asked my unconscious to reveal my personal spirit animal in a dream. My unconscious obliged. I was shown a wooden rabbit perched like a signpost at the head of my driveway. I was unsurprised; I’ve always adored rabbits and owned many. They represent my soft and vulnerable side, needy of protection and love, that I prefer to hide from most people. Yes, it is true: I’m basically fluffy.

People generally have more than one animal guide, so I asked to glimpse a second one in the next night’s dream. Accordingly, I was shown a painted snake with its jaw encased in a tin muzzle. This one came as a shock: I never imagined a spirit animal could be a creature that has always terrified me. Yet in my dream I was not afraid of the snake; being muzzled, it would not bite me. I grudgingly recognized that, like rabbits, snakes have been a constant throughout my life as well. They tend to show up when I need the message: to take my head out of its cloud hat and look where I’m going. I fear but also admire their stealth, their shape-shifting, their dynamism. If I can accept that the snake is actually on my side and not against me, then it’s a powerful defender for the bunny-self to have.

Was there a third? This time I posed the question while meditating. Suddenly I found myself gazing down into the shallows of a limpid pool. I saw weeds wafting over colored pebbles, small fish flicking by. I stood utterly still on long legs, watching, analyzing...At length I raised up, spread my wings, and flew up into the sky. I was a crane. This was a perfectly apt metaphor for an artist. We stare intently into the secret world of the unconscious, pluck an idea or an image from the depths, and fly away to present our findings to the world.

As I mused on animal guides, in the meantime Arthur and company had arrived successfully at Waynu Picchu’s peak. On top they found someone already there: a hiker, apparently Jewish because he wore a tallis shawl, who was seated on the ground in meditative prayer, eyes open and focused on an invisible point beyond. As Arthur looked on, a huge condor swooped down and alighted in front of the praying man. The bird folded its wings and stared straight into the man’s eyes. Neither moved. Minutes passed. At last the bird turned away and sailed back into the air. The man blinked, then rose and quietly gathered his things, not acknowledging the new arrivals as he passed them to begin the hike down.

It was then that Arthur and his friends saw another animal was present. It was Picchu. How he got to the top of the peak, no one could imagine. This time, the dog was completely exhausted, with nothing left in him to go down. This time, he was the one rescued. One of the group carried Picchu all the way to the bottom in his arms, and, in the process, fell so deeply in love with the little mutt that he resolved to take him back to U.S., no matter what it took to get him out.

The divine Picchu, saved

After moving heaven and hell, hacking at red tape and offering bribes, Picchu’s savior had to admit failure. The dog remained in Peru, and the expedition cook took charge of him, intending to keep him as a family pet. I’ve often wondered if, as the cook approached his house with Picchu at his heels, the man turned around to find the pup gone.

Picchu was a gift of the mountain, after all, to which he returned.

I had one more encounter with the cosmic before leaving the sacred city. On my way out I took a last glance at Putucuci, a third mountain thrusting up between Waynu and Machu Picchu, like a green-mittened hand with the thumb folded in. As I stared, I felt an immense pressure pulling me toward the mountain – so potent that I had to grip the railing to keep from being swept off the edge. The fold in the mountainside opened, showing a triangular entrance. The urge to fly overwhelmed me. If I succumbed, if I let go of the rail, if I trusted the power that both compelled and paralyzed me, if I took a few deliberate steps forward, I would leave the parapet and soar over the depthless chasm, through the mountain door and into the mother ship.

Eyes locked on this portal, I could not turn my head. “You’re going to die! Look away! Look away!” I hollered at myself inside. Tourists streamed by, unaware of my battle with reason. Someone jostled me, and broke the trance. I ripped my gaze away from Putucuci, hurrying from the site.

Later I pulled one of the native guides aside to tell him about the experience, asking if this had occurred to anyone else. He allowed that one year, someone stole onto the site during the night and stepped off the edge to his death. “There’s nothing strange that can’t happen up in these mountains,” he added, with an odd faraway look that implied both fear and respect. “Things you can’t even name.”

I had felt that same unseen pressure a few years before, pulling me to a fateful encounter with an unusual man.

(To be continued.)

To Picchu with thanks:
 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 58

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


Harry's ghost requested it. I refused. I fought it. In the end I wrote it: the story of two musicians trying to write one song, groping desperately through a fog of drugs and alcohol. By contrast, creating the script about them took no effort, took no time at all, and I had a bewildering amount of fun. This was so unusual, in my long experience as a screenwriter, that I had to wonder, was it really I who had written it?

What does it really mean when we writers say that something "wrote itself"? It has happened to most of us at least once, unpredictably, and it's a wicked ride. All of a sudden the work gushes out; riding the giant surge of inspiration, we're barely able to type fast enough, forgetting to eat, sleep or pee. The exhausted writer will say afterward, in a happy daze, "I don't know where that came from."

Writers crave this mysterious and violent visitation, which feels like being mauled by your muse. But you can't order up a delivery if you don't know where it comes from.

Thus we are drawn to the treacherous lure of ju-ju, the magic substances and talismans that bargain with the brain to synthetically recreate that ride. It's like hiring a hooker or buying an inflatable doll when your true object of desire is out of town. We pretend she's our muse, an artificial version of what we're seeking but that has been known to get the job done. You tell yourself the trick will work - until one day, it doesn't.

The menu of paid companions is long and diverse, because selecting a writer's helper from the catalog is a very personal choice. There are the hallucinogens, the opiates, the stimulants, everything from absinthe to Adderall. Complications may include dizziness, shortness of breath, sudden rage, loss of equilibrium, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts and, in some cases, death - but hey. It's for the work.

In the previous chapter I described Harry Nilsson and John Lennon trawling Palm Springs for mind-altering materials, so that they could get to work on some music. The search absorbed so much time and energy that the writing never even began. I was no different; I too believed that my best work only manifested if I was artificially plugged into an exalted state. Like Harry and John, I needed to override the pain.

I refer to the painful difficulty of writing itself.

Yet when I was a child discovering how much I loved to write, it was easy, all play and no work. After all, why would any kid choose to do something painful? Or ask where the ideas came from? They simply tumbled into your imagination, and the fun began. You felt good about yourself when you made something from nothing; and if you were a child who generally didn’t feel good about herself, you became willingly addicted to the pleasures of creating.

So when did it become painful?

I decided to be a writer when I was 14. My boyfriend, who was five years older, dropped out of Princeton to write a novel. He wrote every day, or tried. It had never occurred to me that I could write as a profession, until I observed the simplicity of his choice: first decide you’ll do it, and then just do it. Even on days you don’t want to. This is your work.

I started practicing right away. That was when anxiety first crept into what was once playtime, now called work. As the professional I imagined myself to be, I was no longer courting only the praise of parents and teachers, whose support I could always count on, but also exposing myself to the judgment of strangers. I felt the pain of expectations – my own, and those of nameless numberless readers to come.

I needed help to quiet the jitters. I noticed my boyfriend drank beer and bourbon, and smoked cigarettes. It lodged in my mind that this, too, was professional. I didn’t much like smoking but I manned up and inhaled. It more often made me want to take a shit than write. Alcohol was better. Although my parents didn’t drink, there were a few liqueurs like Dubonnet in the sideboard for guests. The trouble with alcohol was, after the first giddy page zipped off the typewriter carriage, the mind started to leak fuel. Incoherence was only a half a page away. Still, that first page was a winner, and I could start all over the next day, with Marlboros and some horrible aperitif helping me to nail page two.

Once I’d polished off all the guest liquor, and was busted for it, I turned to caffeine. By this time I was writing my first novelette, and wildly menstruating. Midol became my boughten friend. Since I was pretty sensitive to drugs, a single Midol tablet was the equivalent of a cup of strong coffee. My mother dutifully purchased Midol for me at the pharmacy, while my manuscript pages piled up: sixty pages, and no cramps.

To double my supply, I exaggerated the quantity of my periods. As far as Mom knew, my menses were titanic. In my high school senior year, she took me to a gynecologist, who prescribed Daprisal. Oh, the rapture of Daprisal: dexedrine and aspirin, for gals on the rag, Baby’s first speedball. In college, taking Daprisal and staying up all night to write a paper in a single session was like a sacred ritual. I presented my mind on drugs as a kind of burnt offering to the muse. In return I could reasonably expect to finish the paper by dawn, at twice the page length required and in passionate prose that had deteriorated to blabber by the time I came to write my conclusion.

Halfway through my junior year at Sarah Lawrence, I followed my boyfriend’s example of dropping out of college to write fiction. While holding down a job at the Village Voice, I wrote in my spare time. By then, pot, mescaline and acid were also available for muse-chasing, but proved too unpredictable. I might just as easily wind up on the roof, cackling at the stars, as hunched over the typewriter. Marijuana tore me from my desk and sent me out for ice cream. Daprisal, alas, was discontinued (as was my boyfriend).

As I became a true professional hired to write screenplays, I sought anything with an upward tilt. Uppers brought not only energy but grandeur: words came intercut with imagined applause, awards accepted, revenges accomplished, certain select people eating crow, and approval from both parents plus God. When I took uppers, I didn’t merely feel good about myself; I thought I was a flaming genius. Still, I was too tense with ambition to tolerate straight amphetamines; they made me hypomanic. I needed that yin/yang upper/downer speedball combination, like cocaine with wine, a treasured formula when I could afford it. This mixture saw me through a novel and its script adaptation. Whenever inspiration flagged, I’d stumble up the Pacific Coast Highway to the bar at Moonshadows, still dressed in my nightgown, which I wore with boots, hoping people would think it was a granny dress but really not caring if they didn’t. There I would chug a legal speedball: Irish coffee, the Tao of caffeine and bad whiskey with Reddi-Wip and a cherry.

I always wrote at night, but had to change my habits when I got married and had a baby. Then my work window shrank to four hours in the daytime. Drugs and wine were inappropriate for breakfast, especially while I was breastfeeding, since I’d be transferring my jones to my daughter via the nipple. I settled for a weak juju of Darjeeling with milk, and redoubled my entreaties to whatever was passing by – deity, angel, ghost, muse – to help me meet studio deadlines. I asked for easy inspiration to do work in which I took small pleasure, except when I got the checks.

By the time Harry Nilsson’s ghost appeared in 1994 I was down to green tea, Chupa Chup lollipops, and anti-depressants: not much in the way of mind-altering drugs, but I still believed you had to pay some kind of fee, anything, to receive brilliant ideas from wherever they came from. Hell, once I’d even slaughtered a sheep to that end (see Chapter 26 and 27) Writing is hard, I would tell anyone aspiring to push words. And, I should have added, expensive. Because ever since adolescence I’d been treating my muse as coin-operated.

That changed on the day I sat down at my desk, early one morning before I’d even made tea or unwrapped a lollipop, and began writing a script I had no intention of writing. I was idly noodling around, dreading another day of unemployment. It was so baffling not to have a job, when for years I’d had my pick of offers. Why now, at my peak? Just write anything, I told myself. See what happens. I opened a blank script document and typed “EXT. – DESERT – DAY”. And so began the saga of Harry and John Lennon and May Pang and me on our lost weekend in Palm Springs.

Five hours later found me still writing. I could have gone on, except it was time to make dinner for my family. As I fried fish, I pondered what had just happened. The tidal swell of inspiration, the hot rush and rapids of ideas, the obsessive focus to the exclusion of all else, the feeling of being wrung dry afterwards – in short, the headlong ride that writers crave – none of that had occurred.

I had been calm, patient, entirely free of anxiety. The flow of words, scenes, imagery was gentle and constant. The characters had been simply there. It was as natural as stepping into a shower already running.

And every day afterward was the same: the water waiting for me, generous, regenerating, until the script was done.

I thought back to the vision I’d been shown in my meditation trance a few months before: an image of creation as a ladle pouring forth sheer radiance, a shower I had merely to step into whenever I felt ready to join the flux. It had no location. It was just there.

Muses and ghosts, grandfathers and jinns might act as sherpas to the source, but I was astonished to realize I didn’t need them anymore to find the shimmering falls. I had only to drop my towel and get naked before wading in, and that small action was called…trust.

Trust was the one and true juju, my offering to that effulgence of spirit: if I trusted that inspiration was eternally there, a gracious unending flow, then creation would grant me my portion.

It didn’t matter that the script, called Karma Kamikazes, was never produced (although it remains one of my favorites). It appeared heaven intended that no paid employment would come my way until I completed this one project, a divinely scheduled lesson wherein I would learn, finally, how to write.

From that time on, I have written in this way. I know where the words come from, and I trust that the water is always on. I’m back in playtime, in the fun.

Further, it was a kind of goodbye to all the spooky that had gone before. At long last, I had outgrown my need for the dead and disembodied, a need that had occupied my life since my first contact with my deceased grandfather.

The day after the script was finished, I got a call offering a job. The producer claimed to have been unable to reach me for weeks, unaware she was using a wrong number. Never mind, I said. Even if you’d had the right one, I was unreachable.

The universe had hardly ceased doling out lessons, though. The hardest one seized me high in the Andes, on the second day of a 2005 hike up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. What lay before me was Dead Woman’s Pass, and another goodbye.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 57


                                                                Yep, hot pants.
                                   (Bad scan of photo by Norman Seeff for my album cover)


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I love writing on planes. I find my voice easily at great altitude, along with focus, inspiration, and the odd sensation of being assisted. One could say that, if help comes from heaven, then we are closer to heaven inside that speeding silver bullet, aloft in the outer atmosphere. (Except I don’t believe the afterlife is high in the sky, or even in a separate place. I prefer to think of fellow spirits as living in the next room, and we share a wall that doesn’t actually exist.)

On this particular flight from LA to New York, the last thing I expected to be writing was song lyrics. I was no stranger to channeling music, though it hadn’t happened in a very long time – more than a couple of decades before boarding this plane. In my twenties, when I was a recording artist, I used to receive snatches of songs from my late grandfather in the lull between dreaming and waking. I would be fed an idea, an image, a phrase, a melody. In the morning, I would finish the song, in the manner of a collaborator. These episodes were uninvited and ultimately frightening. Thankfully, they ended once I had completed the assignment: a one-act musical that was produced in 1981, after which I stopped writing songs entirely.

Channeling is not for me. I’ve never liked working with another writer. As a collaborator, I do not play well with others – I can blow on my own soup. Neither am I a candidate for “automatic writing,” which my mother’s father did after his mother’s death, allowing her spirit to guide his pencil on paper as his hand traced her words of advice and comfort.
But when I suddenly started jotting the words for a song on that plane, there was no ghostly pressure pushing my pen. And yet, the voice wasn’t mine. For one thing, I was alive, whereas the person writing the song was deceased and thought being dead was funny.

I’m over

Over and out

What was that

All about?

I’m over

Over and done

Sorry to

Miss the fun

Hanging in the air like a fading star

I’m just a breath away, yet so far

I’m over

That was all. The moment passed, the voice withdrew, and I looked at what I’d just written. The wordplay, the humor, the touch of wistful nostalgia…

I smiled. Hi, Harry.

Also: I’ll take it from here, thanks.

I completed the song and recorded it on MIDI equipment I set up, to my husband’s displeasure, in our dining room. Though I wrote the rest of the verses as well as the music, I considered the whole of “I’m Over” so suffused with Harry Nilsson’s sensibility that it felt weird to claim sole credit. I couldn’t discuss the song’s provenance with anyone, since my reputation as a rational person was already frayed.



With the song finished, I felt I had done what Harry had asked when he visited me after his death. I was grateful for the nudge that got me composing again, which enlivened the tedious months of waiting for my next script job.

Time passed; no ship came in. My mind wandered back to the idea of writing a script about my dissolute “lost weekend” with Harry, John Lennon and May Pang in Palm Springs. The logline would be easy: “A world-famous pair of pop stars attempt to dry out and compose songs for an upcoming recording session on which their careers depend. Bringing a couple of female companions for sustenance, the musicians book into a stolid Palm Springs hotel. From that moment, our heroes proceed to do everything possible not to succeed.”

That sounded like a movie I, for one, would want to see. I’d have to change the names, set it in the present, and delete myself from the story, since my own behavior made me sick to remember. Owing to the buckets of alcohol consumed, there was plenty I didn’t remember, too: holes in the narrative. I assumed my behavior was sickening there, too. By fictionalizing, though, I could paper over the holes. And some scenes would be wicked fun to write. For example, the tram incident! I recalled that escapade in detail because I was not drunk when it took place. It began like this:

Harry and John woke up in the late afternoon as usual. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was undisturbed. Palm Springs was quiet on any day, but Sundays, at least in 1975, didn’t even have a heartbeat. Yet the clock insisted this was the happy hour. The lads were out of drugs, which was providential because they were supposed to detox and had been putting it off. On the other hand, songwriting was out of the question until one’s consciousness was altered or askew. Liquor seemed both attractive and appropriate.

None of us liked the idea of hanging around the hotel bar, where all these terminally sedate guests were giving us the hairy eyeball. May’s denims and mine were cut off an inch below the pubes, for easy access, and between us we didn’t own a single bra. Harry and John looked seedy and uncouth in their patchwork denims, porkpie caps, and famous-person shades. I doubt if any of those clueless fossils recognized there was a Beatle on the premises, except maybe the concierge, who was all for getting us off the premises.

Harry asked the concierge if there was a bar that was out of the way and relatively uninhabited. (The boys were supposed to stay out of the public eye, since their misadventures in L.A. had been all over the press recently.) The concierge recommended a mountaintop cocktail lounge in the area. During the day, people took a scenic tram up to the summit, to eat lunch in the restaurant and admire the spectacular view, but at this late afternoon hour almost everyone would’ve gone back down the mountain.

Our driver (of the same limo that delivered us to Palm Springs) was Mal Evans, the road manager who had been with the Beatles since the early days of mania, a burly, sweet-tempered man who had seen too much of everything. Mal dropped us off at the tram and parked the limo nearby to wait for our return.

We had the tram to ourselves, a welcome sign that the day traffic was done and the lounge would be quiet. As we began our ascent, rocking on the cable, I glanced out the wraparound windows and fell into a panic. No one had informed us that we would climb to 8000-plus feet above sea level over a two-and-a half-mile vertical drop. Because of my vertigo, I’d never so much as been to the top of the Empire State building. I spent the endless 15-minute trip with my eyes squeezed shut and my face buried in Harry’s shoulder, praying not to blow my lunch, which, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t eaten. My knees wobbled so badly he had to help me off the tram when we arrived. Feeling the solid floor under my wedge platforms, I made straight for the bar. For once, I needed a drink more than the boys did. And I wondered how the hell I was going to get back down the mountain again without full-on primal screaming.

Only about twenty visitors remained in the lounge, an older crowd, couples at intimate tables, a few dancing to music from a jukebox, no loners or barflys. The ambience was quietly convivial. We parked at the bar with our backs to the people to make sure no one recognized Lennon. I sank my muzzle in a beer, and Harry ordered four double Brandy Alexanders for himself and John. I don’t remember what May drank, or if she had anything; of the four of us, she was the designated grown-up.

The sun dipped behind the mountain, the sky faded to black, and the small crowd got a little rowdier as closing time neared. We realized we had wandered into a nest of single (or cheatin’) geezers, all looking to hook up in a discreet romantic setting. The bartender announced last call. We bought ourselves a round for the road.

And then the jukebox played the opening bars of Yesterday. That’s how John knew he’d been made. “Someone sees me and thinks it’s cute to play ‘Yesterday’ and I hate it. Or ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Hey Jude.’ They’re Paul’s songs.”

A few emboldened people approached the bar to talk to him. Time to get away: we abandoned our drinks, moving out to the tram platform – but not before John went over to the jukebox, located some of his songs, then plugged in enough quarters so that ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘You Know My Name, Look Up the Number’ would play repeatedly. Let the fuckers try to dance to that.

We were first onto the tram when it arrived, but it didn’t take off immediately as we hoped. People streamed out of the lounge: it turned out to be the last tram of the day; everyone was headed home. Surrounding us, the geezers packed in tight, until there was barely room to breathe. Harry, John, May and I were mashed into the middle, turning protectively inward to face each other. The door slid shut; the tram swung away from the platform and proceeded downward.

I didn’t have to wrestle with vertigo this time because it was dark out; the night obscured the steep drop; only the lights of Palm Springs sparkled through the ink, growing closer as we descended. There was silence in the car, but for communal breathing.

Then some wag started to hum “Yesterday.” We heard suppressed laughter. I felt a hand on my butt. I looked at Harry but his arms were pinned to his side. It wasn’t his hand. May gave a little yelp and turned to John: “Is that you?” – “Me what?” Then I felt another set of fingers sliding up my leg. May’s eyes bugged; she whispered, “They’re feeling me up!” -– “Me too,” I said. “Me, too,” said Harry, said John.

We were trapped, unable to move as people groped and prodded our bodies. The crowd’s hilarity overflowed. They were in command, and they were horny. “John!” One grandma fought her way through the crush, jamming her boobs against his back. “John! Bite my tit!”

Clearly Beatle frenzy wasn’t just for teenyboppers. It can happen that in advanced age, we grow unruly and shameless all over again. I am a fogey now, so I know.

The tram touched ground. The people who had been pressed to the door spilled out when it slid open, the crowd parting just enough for us to make a break for freedom. We all four sprinted toward the parking lot, with a pack of rabid, frothing seniors in pursuit. Mal Evans, trained by Beatles’ tours, instantly appeared with the limo, jumped out and opened the door. We piled inside as he thrust the crowd back.

The limo peeled out. After we recovered our breath, with the too-quiet streets of Palm Springs sliding past our windows, Harry suggested we look for another place to get a drink. And that led to the next adventure….

That scene would be fun to write, too. If I wrote the script that I’d refused to write for so long. Oh just do it, I told myself. You’re bored. Write the first page and see what happens.

I opened a blank script file.

What happened next was of far greater moment than my little tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; of channeling and Schmilsson’s ghost. By the end of three weeks I had lifted a little closer to heaven.

(To be continued.)

For those requesting, here are the complete lyrics for "I'm Over":

I'm over
Over and out
What was that all about?
I'm over
Over and done
Sorry to miss the fun
Hanging in the air
Like a fading star
I'm just a breath away
Yet so far
I'm over, over, ah…

I'm over
Over the falls
No one writes, no one calls
I'm over
Over the hill
Hardly time to drink my fill

Stranded in the space
Between here and now
Seems I lost my place
Don't know how
I'm over, over, ah…

I been underprivileged undermined Undersold undersigned
Underrated
Overlooked overthrown
Overcooked overblown
Overmedicated
Overtaxed underpaid
Oversexed underlaid
Underprepared
Overloaded overdosed
Over easy over toast
Overscared
Whee-hoo-hoo…

Overhunted overrated overcomplicated
Oversaturated overstimulated
Overrun overdone
Over knocked over raked over fucked over
Run over hung over warmed over leftover
Overruled overused overheated overshoes
Overwhelmed overfed overbred overspent over
Bent over keeled over reeled over
Head over heels over dead oh
Whee-hoo-hoo…

I'm over
Over the moon
Out of sight, out of tune
I'm over
Over and above
Is it too late to show you my love?
My love, my love…