Laugh Your Life | Part Two

Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
-Strummer/Jones
Clampdown

Free Radical

Situated with my friends, with a job and nice apartment in Ballard, I wanted to do more than work and watch movies. First,  I wanted to find and join some leftist activists. In particular, I wanted get involved in the No Nukes/antiwar movement. Somehow I was dissuaded. I became disenchanted by the prospect, or distracted, somehow. I only remember two small incidents; I can’t help thinking there must have been something more that I can’t recall. On May 3rd, there was a huge anti-war rally, and all three of us went to it.

Seattle Rally May 3 1981

At the rally, I talked with a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the same group that had been at the center of a melee I was in the day before at First and Pike.The RCP’s stated goal: the violent overthrow of the US government by the end of the 80s. I wasn’t a communist, but I was certainly leaning toward socialism and was adopting an anti-capitalist attitude that made me at least somewhat sympathetic to ‘mainstream’ communists.  But the RCP’s  program of violence, even civil war, elicited no such sympathy. As my thinking became more radical with regard to change, I also was beginning to see the further one moved from the center, the less freedom was valued. The radical, the ideologue, far enough to the left or to the right, is no friend of the Bill of Rights. Those rights stand in the way of burning down the City and remaking it according to the Perfect Plan. My opposition to violence and basic belief in the Bill of Rights wasn’t going to make me a very good radical.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to him. “You want to take over the government. Make a new constitution.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your position on freedom of religion?”

He hemmed and hawed. “Well,” he said cautiously, “religion is one of the major problems in the current power structure.”

“People in this country wouldn’t  have religious freedom under your regime, would they?”

“No.”

That means forced renunciations or – for those won’t – prison, re-education, death.

“That’s what I thought.”

Turning away, I said to Troy, “At least he’s honest.”

I was thinking, Crap, I’m marching in the same rally with this goon. Someone who’d put a bullet through the head of everyone in my family, if he had the power.

It’s funny. That was a conversation that could just as likely have taken place in 1969. As in Missoula, there was this subculture frozen in time, as if Nixon were still president and bombing Cambodia, and J.Edgar Hoover was spying on them. The world was changing around them and the agents of change had parked themselves in a timeless echo chamber, with street theatre puppets, Grateful Dead concerts and Marxist dogma.

Around that time, I went to the office of the historic underground newspaper, Northwest Passage. I told a guy there my newspaper background and said I’d like to help out. Without showing the least interest, he said maybe I could help with production. I could check back later and he offered a time I could do so.

“Actually, I’m interested in writing, too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve got plenty of writers.”

I went back and worked an evening on production, although I don’t remember it; I just havenorthwest_blog_pic2 crop letter that says so. In it I also say that all three of us wanted to work there in the fall. We never did, though. I suspect I didn’t really believe that I would get the opportunity to write. Even though the paper was known for accepting articles from readers, and getting a lot of submissions, now I got the impression they had more than they needed.

By themselves, I don’t think either of these events dissuaded me from activism. Perhaps they damped my enthusiasm, though. At 16 I had been welcomed warmly by the small cadre of peace activists at the University of Montana, even though all I had to contribute was my enthusiasm and commitment. But Seattle had thousands of activists, splintered into their little constituencies, none of whom, I thought, would care that I wanted to write for their cause. That’s what most of them were already doing themselves.

That's right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

That’s right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

Another factor was the anger and pessimism I sensed. Perhaps I was projecting, but for a town that was firmly of the left, where they held political power and cultural dominance, Ronald Reagan really had a lot of folks in a lather. Things seemed pretty rotten, I suppose, if your goal in life was turning America into one big petroleum-free food co-op with no national defense.

But not so bad if you concentrated on the positive, like getting high and doing The Pogo.

Prior Engagement
My interest in writing wasn’t in any way diminished, and I have a note recording my first serious thought about filmmaking. On April 22, Mark and I had a conversation about writing and making a film. I got very excited about the idea, but I had no idea what it would involve.

April 1981

April 1981

That conversation never developed into a script or anything beyond. But it was the impetus for me to start some screenwriting, which I believe I first put my hand to in the fall. What’s most interesting about my note is that I immediately worried that if we went forward with such an idea (making a film), it could scuttle or delay our Europe plan, and interfere with my seeing Anna. I was trying to stay focused, but having such a hard time!

Mark and Troy both knew that regardless of what I was doing in Seattle, come summer I was going back to Missoula. Classes let out at Cornell, and Anna would be returning on Memorial Day weekend. At some point though, Mark decided he was coming back for the summer as well. Troy and I didn’t care for the idea. We thought it might be hard to make ends meet, especially if we didn’t land summer jobs as we hoped. But he wanted to go, and felt sure he could at least get some work from his mom.

We returned to Missoula on May 28th. Our manager at the King Cinema said we could have our jobs when we came back. She probably couldn’t have promised it, but we did go back to work there when we returned to Seattle.

We had been in Seattle for only little over three months. Already it looked as if our plans had little hope of success. Our earnings did not exceeded our expenses, and our whole plan depended on saving money. Beside that, without any of us knowing it, our resolve was so precarious that only one change of circumstance would be enough to chuck the whole idea aside: something like a falling out, or a girlfriend or another idea.

A better idea.

Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80’s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

The Divine Projectionist

This is my contribution to the February SynchroBlog. This month’s theme is “Creativity and Christianity.” You can see links to the other bloggers’ contributions below the post.

As a teenager I worked at a downtown Seattle cinema, in the old days when our corporate chain was obliged to employ union projectionists. Our projectionist would arrive a half-hour before the first show in our single screen, 900-seat theater, and would leave minutes after the last reel had rolled out. Without him the show did not go on. We, the ticket-takers and concession clerks,  did not know how to operate the projector, and even if we did, we were not allowed to.

He loaded and unloaded the reels, focused the lens, and switched from one projector to the next just as one reel finished and the other began. He had to time it; it wasn’t automated. Most importantly, he was there should the machine jam, or the celluloid melt or break. We could count on his skill to quickly splice the print back together and get the movie up and running again.

I see art as a kind of projection, a projection of the human soul. But it comes from the broader human urge to create, to fashion, to shape, to invent, to solve. Therefore to limit this impulse to the arts would be to miss the full scope of human creativity. An engineer, a relief worker, a car mechanic, a librarian, a counselor, business owner, is each projecting their soul, communicating that part of themselves that comes out of a deep human need to create what was not there before – machines, enterprises, order, solutions, plans, tools, survival.

Where does the urge to create come from? The Creator. We have this because in making us He stamped us with Himself:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. -Gen. 1:27

What we see when we observe the creative endeavors is the work of the soul, the projection of the image of God expressing itself through work and personality in the visible and audible world. Creating may come from a desire, as in childbearing, to leave something behind, a posterity, something reaching into the future beyond our own lifespan. It may come from a dim apprehension of the eternal. It may be a kind of mirror-making: “I see myself in what I have made.”  It may be a way of opening our inner selves to others: “See who I am by what I have made.” There is an element of mystery to this;  we don’t completely understand it. And there is something that holds us in awe when we see it produce really marvelous and beautiful things. But there is without any doubt a reflection of the Creator God in it all, the One who calls something out of nothing, and it is good.

Since every human being bears God’s image, this creative urge I suppose is present in everyone. But it is sometimes suppressed. It is sometimes perverted and becomes twisted into various desires to destroy. (In Graham Greene’s  short story, The Destructors, some boys in post-war bombed-out London discover a creative outlet in demolishing a building.) It can also be hindered through our physical, mental and emotional limitations. But as a Christian, the question arises: How is creativity, especially in the artistic arena, different –  if at all –  for the Christian? Does it make a difference  that we acknowledge God, that the Holy Spirit lives within us? Would the Spirit be like a divine Projectionist, making sure that everything is as should be in the projection booth?

I have wrestled with this question for many years. I cannot cite any authority or scripture, just my thoughts and observations.  But across the board, it seems the answer is: not necessarily. I’m sure it can, and probably should. What that difference should be, though, I’m not at all sure of.  Should it make a difference whether or not an artist is a Christian? Yes, but it clearly does not, much of time.

This is for the same reason that a person’s character, their lifestyle, their worldview, does not necessarily reflect the influence of God’s Holy Spirit on their inner selves. They have some responsibility in letting the Spirit take hold of them and work that influence. But what would such influence be on their creative expression? Leaving the question of skill or talent aside, how would one paint differently, or sing differently or write differently? You see the problem: for every outstanding artist you might point to who believes, I can offer one (or five) who does not believe in God or even the soul. But they are masters of their medium. Believing does not equal better.

Two answers are usually offered. One is that the Christian artist possesses a worldview that colors everything that the artist concerns herself with, and always takes God and His revelation into account. The other is that a distinctly Christian ethic oversees everything she does in her work.  To put this in plastic-wristband terms, “How would Jesus see this?” and “How would Jesus do this?” I think for some people, these questions do not lead them into deep waters, but very shallow ones. Instead of experiencing freedom in such inquiry, they suffer the imposition of very tight constraints on their creative vision and sensibility. Often they end up seeing themselves as conscripted into a Ministry of Propaganda for God, in which every effort must be baptized with Godly Messaging or worse yet, Christian Retail. The saccharine and the trite, the manipulative and the tacky often win out.

The other way in which they might go astray is to not ask these questions at all, and concern themselves only with the mundane — without the least penetration of truth and grace into their creative work.

A person who abides in Christ, who walks in intimate friendship with God’s Spirit, is a person who is being changed. A changed person is a changed artist. But does a changed artist mean changed art? This I do not have an answer to. I have a vague idea that the art the new person makes maybe better than what the old person made, but in what identifiable way? I keep coming to the fact that the Spirit is in the business of changing what we do by the more important work of changing us. But what does He want the Christian artist to do? As with most questions of the Christian life, we begin on the inside.  Do I create what I do because of who I am, or do my creative efforts go to making me a different person? It seems that these two things work together , much the like the Spirit and the person who seeks to be ever more yielded to Him.  So why should I want to create? What do I want to do?

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. -1 Cor. 10:31

I ought to seek God’s glory. Our creative work can do that, whether it’s poetry, prose or photographing a duck. I ought to love my neighbor. I can do that through my creative work. But I have learned that one of the things that marks a spiritually mature person is their desire for Jesus. More than what He gives, they want Him, to simply be present with Him and grow to see and know Him more. If I have turned my creativity over to Him, I believe He will use it to reveal Himself more deeply to me. Just as love and generosity on my part bring me closer to Him in his love and generosity, my creativity brings me into a more intimate knowledge of Him as creator. Now I am beginning to sense that how and why I create may cause what I create to recede in importance. Perhaps now I am finding my way into the freedom that the Spirit brings. I find freedom in a simple truth I learn in the first chapter of Genesis: the Creator is always above what He creates, and that is true for us as well.

•  •  •

I have contended that there is no qualitative difference in the  Christian artist’s work. They may or may not photograph the duck differently, or choose different subject matter, but it won’t be better simply by virtue of their faith or spirituality. This may not seem to comport very well with what I have said God wants to do and may be doing on the inside of the faith-filled artist. But how can one deny that many traditionally minded Christians live in an  impoverished subculture, where art seems to be just another tool, or a distraction from truly spiritual realms of life.  And much of the schlock we sell as art is derivative at best, “christianized” versions what we admire in the “secular” world. The truth is, for whatever reason (and it may be what I alluded to above), we lack the freedom to fully express ourselves in the arts the way we do in other vocations and avocations. We produce engineers, nurses and counselors (which, again, can be creative work) but few artists. Consequently, there are few Christians found among today’s prominent painters, sculptors, choreographers, playwrights or filmmakers. And where we produce the most, in music, few have mastered their art or exercised the same degree of freedom as their secular counterparts.

Consider one of my favorite movies of all time: The Elephant Man. No Christian producer or director has ever made as beautiful and moving a statement of  the sanctity of human life as this. The creator? David Lynch, a follower of the late  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a practitioner of his Transcendental Meditation®. And one weird dude. I know people who would decorate their homes with Thomas Kincaid® prints but would never consider Lynch to even be an artist. Yet, I would contend that he has better represented a Christian perspective in this film than Kincaid’s® country cottage pastorals ever will. (Until very recently we have been offered the Left Behind movies as the best evangelicals could produce. Thankfully that is changing.)

This leaves me loosely holding the conclusion that it is the soul as the image of God (or having the image) that projects  –  produces –  the creative objects that the souls of others respond to in such profound ways. And if this is true we should expect the work of any great artist to be worthy of our attention. They may be running their booth without  the Projectionist, and without Him, things could spin out into chaos or the abyss at any time. But remarkably they manage to occasionally give us the extraordinary and the profound.

The fact that people with no regard for God often project the true and the beautiful is testimony to God’s patent on the human soul, the infinite worth of the image of God and the one who bears it.

This is what all of us, regardless of what our chosen medium is, should aspire to: a real soul-to-soul communion with our neighbors that leaves them different, encouraged, enlightened, thinking, opened to the unseen, reaching for something better and higher. And my hope would be that we fix our dependency on the Projectionist, the Spirit of Jesus, to accomplish that.

.  .  .

Here are the link lists so far for February’s SynchroBlog.