Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Spiritual Teacher

"Right now, right here, you are free."  With these seven words George Falcon began each session.  The topic was always the same.  Who are we?  How do we live a spiritual life and what does this mean? Though he was unknown to the masses, George touched thousands of people and influenced multitudes of lives. He was a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide, a man of peace.  To know George was to know God exists.

I'd heard about George for years.  He was married to my best friend Lee's sister Belinda. Lee and I would have deep discussions about life and he would always say, "you have to meet George. He's amazing."

I met George at a Christmas dinner with Lee's family in 1986.  He sat at the end of the table with his aging parents.  He was professorial in appearance, with a thick beard and olive skin that belied his Latino heritage.  He wore a blue Adidas tracksuit (his standard uniform) and he was quick to smile and laugh.  Dinner conversation was lively and entertaining, but George was largely quiet.  When the conversation shifted to spirituality, I expected him to say something.  Instead he was content to listen in silence tending to his parents' needs.  When dessert was served, he took his plate of pie and ice cream and wandered to the living room to watch the Bulls play the Knicks.

George was a huge basketball fan.  This was how we first bonded.  We talked for hours about Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and the Lakers chances at another championship.  He spoke about how Magic and Michael both hated losing more than they loved winning.  This prompted the first question I ever asked George.  "Are you saying hate is more powerful than love?"

He answered something to the effect of "love is a higher frequency emotion but sometimes we act more urgently to avoid the pain associated with hate." These spiritual/basketball talks were my first George lessons.  He loved to tell the story about Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone in the 1987 NBA Finals.  Game 1 was on a Sunday and with nine seconds left, Malone (nicknamed "The Mailman") had two free throws to give Utah the win.  Pippen stepped in front of Malone and said, "the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays."  Malone missed the shots and the Chicago Bulls won the game.  George used the story to emphasize the power of the "low self" over the body.  Pippen's statement was a subliminal suggestion planted in Malone's subconscious.  Malone could have countered the suggestion with his own statement such as "cancel cancel" as if to say 'I'm consciously canceling the words spoken to me.'  Instead, Malone took the bait and his body betrayed him.

It's been said when a student is ready a teacher will appear.  George was this teacher and I was a grateful and spellbound student.  I attended my first formal "George talk" in the late 80's.  We met at George and Belinda's Studio City home, about twenty of us seated on couch pillows around the living room. George began with a meditation, leading us through a series of breathing exercises to quiet the mind.  After fifteen minutes, George began the talk.

He spoke about consciousness and how the early Egyptians divided the mind into the low-self, middle-self and high-self.  The low-self corresponded to our subconscious, where the mind generates feelings, pictures and memories. George called the low-self "Annabelle," inspired by his small dog who was always yapping for attention.  This is how the low-self works.  While we attempt to quiet our mind we're distracted by noise such as hunger pangs or unpleasant feelings and memories.  Our job is to train our low-self to be aware of the distractions but not let them control our actions, like George ignored Annabelle's barking.

The middle-self is our conscious mind or intellect, where words, ideas and reasoning prevail.  George called the middle-self "Virgil," a nod to Dante's guide through hell in Dante's Inferno.  (In the story, Virgil lived a virtuous life on earth but was trapped in limbo unable to access heaven…an apt metaphor for our middle-self.)  The middle-self, our rational mind, can speak of concepts such as heaven and nirvana, but is unable to grok these experiences.  As George often said, "Virgil can lead you to the doorway, but he can't take you through."

The low-self and middle-self work together to create our identity, our ego, "the self." The low-self generates an emotion and the middle-self comes up with a story to explain the emotion.  The story is a "lie," but we believe it.  Over time, we become hypnotized by our individual stories.  We believe we are selves, separate from others and the world at large.  This leads to the major struggle of humanity, loneliness and a feeling of disconnection (from others and God).

The high-self is where we begin to recognize we are not that which we call "the self."  This is where we find freedom, where we touch love and peace.  The high-self is where we glimpse our true essence, where silence allows us to hear the "still small voice" inside.  George called the high-self "Beatrice," a tribute to Beatrice Portinari, the woman who inspired Dante's Divine Comedy.

George acknowledged that the world can appear difficult, rife with pain and violence.  But he reminded us "reality is illusory."  Our world view is informed by the consciousness we resonate with.  The best way to change your reality is to shift your consciousness.  The intellect (middle-self) wants to remain in charge but our job is to be still, to observe our thoughts and feelings then return to our breath through meditation.  We are magnetic beings attracting a reality that matches our beliefs.  If we resonate with harmony, our life becomes more harmonious.  If we focus on discord, our life becomes more chaotic.

The George talks were high-minded and fascinating, but initially they had little impact on my life.  It wasn't until I experienced a personal crisis that I began to view the teachings differently.  I was 28.  I was living in San Francisco and my life was a mess.  My relationship was crumbling, my finances were dismal, my creative life was stunted and I felt like I was having an emotional breakdown.  I called George and asked if we could meet in Los Angeles.  He agreed and I drove to LA the next day.

I met George at a cafe in Larchmont Village.  He listened patiently as I explained how my life was falling apart.  After a few minutes he asked, "If your life was a basketball game what would you do right now?"  I thought for a moment.  "I'd call timeout."  "Good," he said.  "And what would you do during the timeout?"  "Rest for a moment and change my strategy." "Good," he said.  "Maybe you need to rest and design new plays."  "I can't rest, George.  I'm broke.  If I sit back and do nothing how am I going to pay my bills."  "I didn't say do nothing.  I said rest."  I was confused.  "How do you rest while you're active?"  George smiled.  "Now you're asking a good question."

George discussed how meditation allows you to take a break from the usurping energy of negative thoughts and feelings.  He said an hour of meditation equates to six hours of deep sleep.  He added that all emotions have a rhythmic counterpart in breathing--anger corresponds to one breathing modality, depression another.  By learning to consciously control my breathing rate I could begin to assert control over my low-self which at that point was controlling me.

George's words had extra weight given his own recent history.  In 1990, George was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer.  Lee and I visited him at the hospital the night before his surgery.  We expected to find a somber hospital room filled with trepidation.  Instead, George gave an inspired talk to family and a few close friends.  He was smiling and energetic, no sign of anxiety or fear.  The subject was "freedom" and how to proceed when your external reality does not match the perfection within.  I was stunned at how a man on the verge of life-threatening surgery was able to exhibit such equanimity.

The day after surgery, George was walking the hospital hallways.  He was released two days later.  Doctors estimated a six-month healing period but George was confident he'd need half that time.  He woke at 4:00 am each day, immersing himself in deep meditation while seated in his favorite leather chair. He ate judiciously, mainly fruit, broth and water.  Belinda acted as gatekeeper, keeping visitors away so George had time to heal.  I visited him a month after his surgery. He was quiet and reserved, his face thin and ashen.  He had a distant look, as if lost in thought.  Years later he explained he was focused on the inner healing tones above his eardrums, a meditation technique he would soon teach his students.

Two months after surgery, George was giving talks again.  He looked fit and healthy, back to his pre-surgery weight and jovial as ever.  Rather than curtailing his schedule, he dove into his teachings with a vengeance.  He gave talks at galleries, restaurants, yoga studios, production offices and private homes.  He resumed seeing private clients, working 12-14 hour days.  On any given day he drove as far south as San Diego and as far north as Santa Barbara.  It's as if he were suddenly conscious of his limited time on earth and wanted to make sure not a second was wasted.

In 1991, I moved back to Los Angeles.  I began seeing George twice weekly for private sessions.  He asked me about the tattered journal I carried with me. I told him this was where I recorded my daily thoughts and feelings.  "So that's your low-self and middle-self manual," he said.  I never viewed it that way but he was right.  "It's time to begin a high-self manual," George said. He gave me an assignment.  Purchase a new journal and fill two pages a day with a single statement written over and over.  The statement: "I am the Temple of the Living God."

I hesitated.  I knew George was Christian.  Having grown up in a Jewish household with Orthodox grandparents, I was worried I was entering dangerous ground.  I voiced my concerns.  "George, I'm Jewish.  I don't want you to try to make me a Christian.  I'm not comfortable with that and to be honest, the thought scares me." George smiled.  "Have I mentioned anything about Christianity?" "No," I said. "Have I mentioned Christ?"  "No."  "Have I mentioned religion?"  "No." "We spoke about designing new plays.  That's all we're doing right now."

I began journaling immediately.  At first it was awkward.  I felt like Bart Simpson trapped in a Catholic School principal's office.  After a few days, the words became a mantra.  I spoke them aloud as I transcribed page after page with the sentence "I am the Temple of the Living God."  The writing was soothing and questions entered my mind.  Does "the Temple" refer to my body or my spirit?  Who is the the "I" in the statement--my mind, my feelings, my soul?  If I was "a Temple of the Living God," does this mean God is alive inside me?

I noticed small changes in my life.  I became more attentive to cleanliness, shaving and showering each morning instead of waiting until the end of the day.  I ate better, avoiding alcohol and sugar and opting for salads and fresh fruit.  I cut back on my use of profanity (f-bombs were my adverb of choice).  I became more conscious of the movies and books I selected, choosing positive stories instead of dissertations on life's misery.  I started making lists of things to be grateful for, the warmth of a sunny day or the simple miracle of indoor plumbing.

Slowly, imperceptibly, my life improved.  I found a job with a bunch of friends.  I reconnected with Lee.  My aunt gave me a car.  I began dating a beautiful woman from my past.  And I spent more time with George.  Monday mornings became "Breakfast With George" as Lee and I joined him at a Spanish restaurant on 3rd Street.  While George ate his favorite dish chilaquiles he used Lee and I as guinea pigs to practice new spiritual teachings.  He emphasized the need "to take it to the marketplace," using the lessons as a practical means to improve your life.

On one occasion, a couple was having an argument at a nearby table.  The spat devolved into a screaming match.  George said, "This is a great opportunity to practice peace.  What are some things we can do right now to help this couple?"  I said, "We can pray for them." "Good," George said.  "But if you're praying for a desired outcome--their peace--then it's your will doing the praying."  Lee added, "We could ask God to pray for them"  "Better, but again it's you asking God for a specific outcome instead of deferring to God's will."  I said, "We could visualize them in the light."  "Good," George said.  "But there's something you're both missing."  Lee and I were stumped.

George used the occasion to deliver an important spiritual lesson.  Rather than focus on the couple who was having a fight, he directed us to focus on ourselves. He asked us to close our eyes and begin our breathing exercises. He told us to imagine a feather resting on our upper lip.  Our breathing should be calm as to not disturb the feather.  He directed our attention to the center of our foreheads, to our pineal gland, our "third eye."  He said to focus on the peace inherent in our breathing, urging us to watch for a bright white light that would appear in the proximity of our pineal gland.

After several minutes, George asked us to open our eyes.  He asked how we were feeling.  Though neither of us encountered a bright white light, we both felt a sense of profound peace.  "What else," George asked.  We looked around the restaurant. The dining room was quiet and the couple had left. During the meditation, I'd lost focus on the couple.  I was only aware of a feeling of peace.  As I returned to "reality," my outer life resembled my inner tranquility.  I recalled a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.:  "Be the peace you wish to see in the world."

George gave us a valuable lesson, one he would soon crystalize in his teachings.  "Right now, right here, you are free."  The world outside is connected to the world inside.  ("As below so above.")  When dealing with a perceived problem (illness), our first step is to acknowledge our true essence is free from all lack.  Step two is to recognize the perceived problem as a lie (illness cannot exist in the presence of perfect health).  Next, we are to visualize imagery that reminds us we are part of a divine whole.  This might be a wave in the ocean or the branch of a tree.  We then turn to the breathing exercises.  We focus on our breath, becoming still and quiet, releasing the thoughts and feelings that appear.  The longer we remain in this state, the faster our outer world will resemble our inner one.

George continually reminded us there is "power and wisdom in letting go."  By choosing to release a negative thought or feeling, we are opting for universal consciousness over self consciousness.  He spoke of theosis, a divine union without distinction.  He referenced the Zen Buddhist concept of "not two," falling short of saying we are God but recognizing we are not apart from God. He utilized a myriad of Eastern philosophical texts, urging us to read the Diamond Sutra and the Tao Te Ching.  His favorite quote from the Tao was "the Tao does nothing yet leaves nothing undone."

George often referenced movies in his teachings, particularly ones that featured master-student relationships.  These included The Karate Kid, The Matrix, HoosiersRemo Williams and Star Wars.  He adored the films of Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris and especially loved Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon.  His favorite tv program of all time was the 70's show Kung Fu.  He also loved literature, listening to books-on-tape during his long drives visiting clients.  Two of his favorite books were The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein written by Kung Fu creator Ed Spielman.

Some of my favorite memories include pick-up basketball games with George and Lee at schools and parks around town.  George was a stellar basketball player in his teens and his love for the sport remained into his 60's.  He was a trash-talker on court, goading players toward their weak spot then blocking the shot with surprisingly quick hands.  Once George tried to steal the ball from an opponent and severely dislocated his right index finger.  He closed his eyes and bent the finger back into place.  When I asked him if he were okay, he replied, "I always suspected that finger had karma."  (Who knew body parts had karma?)

Driving with George provided additional spiritual lessons.  He drove like an old lady, observing the speed limit and granting others the right of way.  When someone tailgated or honked for George to go faster, he pulled over and let them pass.  On one occasion, George and I left a restaurant in separate cars headed for his home about six miles away.  I drove in my typical frenetic style, constantly changing lanes and passing slower cars.  I made it to his house only fifteen seconds faster than him.

My connection with George ran deep.  I encountered him while visiting the Grand Canyon in the 90's and a few years later my wife and I ran into him while vacationing in Hawaii.  In 2007, my wife and I were honored to have George preside over our wedding.  We participated in a six-week marriage course with George where he reminded us that our union was a three-way contract between ourselves and God.  Having George seal our marriage pact made the ritual sacred and profound.

Over time, George became more focused on the role the body plays in spiritual progression.  Perhaps inspired by his own illness in 1990, he began recommending that students observe their own relationship to sugar, wheat, caffeine, alcohol, meat and dairy.  It wasn't unusual to find George in the midst of a juice-only detox or raw-food cleanse.  He began offering meditation seminars incorporating water-only regimens emphasizing the need to cleanse the body of toxins.  He gave day-long workshops urging complete silence, focusing only on one's breath and asanas.  His goal was to show us we were not just free from negative thoughts and feelings but from the addictive foods and chemicals that often controlled our lives.

George and I always called each other on our birthdays catching up on the Lakers and their hopes for the coming season.  Though we saw each other less frequently, I applied his lessons every day.  Often I'd be walking somewhere and I'd recall one of his statements as if he were speaking the words anew.  "God does not give you his life to improve your life.  He gives you his life so you have His life."

As the years progressed, George attracted a new group of students.  He increased his workload, leading more workshops and seeing a wider array of clients.  His teachings became available online attracting new acolytes from around the world. Those close to George urged him to slow down.  But he was dedicated to service and he continued a torrid pace into his mid-70's.

For some reason, I forgot to call George on his birthday in April, 2016.  This was the first time this had ever happened.  A few months later, I left him a message. Strangely, he didn't call back.  Early on the morning of July 22nd, Lee called.  He was crying and his words were faint. "Georgie is gone," he said.  "He left us last night."  At the age of 78, George's cancer had returned. The illness was fierce and spread quickly.  He put up a valiant fight, but his body was ravaged and he died in a month's time.  He kept the news to himself, sharing it only with those closest to him.

As word spread of George's passing, a wave of shock spread through the community.  Like most of his his students, I was stunned.  How could George die? This seemed impossible.  We knew he was mortal, but he also seemed beyond death as if he'd mastered life and all it's pitfalls.  Everyone thought the same thing, that George would continue teaching into his 90's like the wise old Yoda we knew him to be.  Now he was gone.

I lived the next few weeks in a fugue state.  At the memorial, George's students expressed a similar sentiment.  People gave heartfelt tributes, sharing how George had rescued them from addiction or saved their marriage or guided them through a life-threatening illness.  We heard anecdotes about George's love of kung fu movies and his penchant for See's chocolates.  We hugged and cried and reminded each other that George's spirit was still intact, he'd merely left his body. Beneath everything there was a deep sadness. George had been a father figure. Now, suddenly, we were all on our own. Only one thought gave us peace.  "Right now, right here, George is free."
(5" x 7", black ink print)

To view videos of George Falcon's teachings go to:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Ventriloquist Dummy

Recently I was teaching a printmaking class at a senior home when I encountered a woman named Phoebe who'd lost her right arm.  We began talking and she shared her story. She'd been a ventriloquist of some renown in the early 70's. She and her puppet Rudy appeared on television programs like Captain Kangaroo and Hobo Kelly.  By 1980 her career slowed and the tv appearances stopped.  Her husband convinced her to give up ventriloquism and she found a job as a secretary.

"I put Rudy in a big wood box and stored him in the back of the closet.  At night I could hear him screaming, 'let me out, let me out.'  After a few weeks Rudy started threatening me, saying things like, 'you'll be sorry,' or 'if you don't let me out, I'm going to hurt you.'  I cried every night.  I told him how sorry I was.  But I never let him out."

In 1981, Phoebe felt pain in her right arm, her puppet arm.  She was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer.  She had emergency surgery and her arm was removed at the shoulder.  Her life was saved, but her performing career effectively ended.  "I killed Rudy," Phoebe said.  "He tried to kill me."

Ventriloquism, the art of throwing one's voice so it appears to emanate from somewhere else, dates back to Classical Greece.  Early ventriloquists were called "engastrimyths" (gaster for stomach, mythos for speech).  Onlookers believed ventriloquists had demons in their stomach belching forth language from the host's mouth.

In the book I Can See Your Lips Moving: The History and Art of Ventriloquism, author Valentine Vox writes that the roots of ventriloquism lay in necromancy. It was believed that ventriloquists channeled the spirit of the dead through holes in their body via nostrils, ears, mouth and anus.  Biblical law specifically forbids necromancy as is written in Deuteronomy: "To seek truth from the dead is abhorred by God" and punishable by death (Leviticus).

Early ventriloquists sought to convince people their practice was religious in nature.  At the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, the Pythia (high priestess) translated the strange utterances from her mouth as if the sounds were prophecies from the gods.  Centuries later, ventriloquists were consulted as a means of speaking with lost love ones.  People paid good money to converse with a recently deceased husband or long dead mother.

In 16th Century France, a nun named Elizabeth Barton uttered worldly predictions via ventriloquism.  She openly stated that King Henry VIII should not marry Anne Boleyn.  She was hanged and the king was married.

In 17th Century Europe, ventriloquism transformed from a medium of divination and prophecy to that of entertainment.  Ventriloquists appeared at traveling fairs and local markets.  In 1753, Englishman Sir John Parnell gained fame as a ventriloquist speaking through his hand.  The first known use of a ventriloquist puppet came in 1757 when Austrian Baron de Mengen incorporated a small doll into his show.

The first ventriloquist in America was James Rannie, a Scotsman who arrived in Boston in 1801.  He performed with a doll named Tommy that resembled a man but was the size of a small child.  Rannie engaged in ventriloquist pranks like the time he asked a female fishmonger about the freshness of her fish. She told him the batch had been caught the previous day.  One of the fish suddenly spoke, "It is false, I am a week older."  The woman was forced to throw away all her catch.

The 19th Century was the golden age of ventriloquism.  Early practitioners imitated animals, birds and the voices of young children.  They became adept at throwing their voices and causing sounds to emanate from men's snuffboxes and women's handbags.  Fred Russell is known as the father of modern ventriloquism.  His puppet "Coster Joe" sat on his lap and engaged him in cheeky dialogue.  He became a vaudeville hit in America and Canada.

By the 1930's, one of the biggest stars on radio was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.  Bergen popularized the comedic ventriloquist routine with rapid-fire wisecracks and one-liners.  In her autobiography Knock Wood, Bergen's daughter Candice Bergen wrote that she was raised as Charlie McCarthy's kid sister.  She recalled sitting on her father's lap and being urged to talk with her wooden brother who sat across from her.  "For me as a child," Candice Bergen wrote, "Charlie McCarthy had semi-human status.  He wasn't flesh and blood and he wasn't a doll.  He was a sacred calf.  He brought home the bacon."

Ventriloquism has always had an element of creepiness.  The dummy has wild, rabid eyes, arched eyebrows and a crude, hinged mouth that clicks open like a mousetrap.  When draped across a table or chair, away from the performer, the doll's floppy limbs resemble that of a dead body.  But the eyes remain open and the mouth is fixed with a terrifying smile as if the body is a poorly embalmed child corpse.  Adding to the creepiness is the performance itself.  The ventriloquist is often an older man with his hand up the backside of a young puppet boy sitting innocently on the man's lap.  The specter of pedophilia is unavoidable.

Many people are terrified of ventriloquist dummies.  The condition is called automatonophobia.  Hollywood has taken advantage of this fear, making films like Devil Doll (1964) where a possessed dummy possesses his master and Magic (1978) where ventriloquist Anthony Hopkins commits murder under the guidance of his deranged puppet "Fats."

Ventriloquism remains a subversive entertainment medium.  Performers utter their darkest most obscene thoughts and blame it on the puppet.  British ventriloquist Nina Conti says ventriloquism is a "sort of licensed tourettes.  I'm shocked by what the puppet can get away with, things I could never say myself." (6" x 8", black ink print)

Sunday, March 20, 2016


As a teenager, I suffered from depression.  I woke most days with a sense of ennui and hopelessness. My dark moods informed the music I listened to and led me to 80's gloom rock like Nick Cave, Bauhaus, The Damned and The Chameleons.  Occasionally I encountered albums so bleak I referred to them as "snuff music." Among these were The Cure's Pornography, Joy Division's Closer and David Bowie's Low.

Low was written and recorded in 1976 during a period when Bowie was attempting to kick cocaine. At the time, his close friend Iggy Pop was in a psychiatric hospital trying to overcome a heroine addiction. Bowie's life was bleak and chaotic and he was obsessed with black magic, the Holy Grail and paranoid delusions.  He moved to Berlin and took an apartment above an auto parts store.  Written with Brian Eno, Low is a musical exploration of anguish and suffering as Bowie struggled to remain sober.  The album became the first of Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" (along with Heroes and The Lodger).

As my own teenage moods spiraled downwards, Low became an expression of my internal pain.  I identified with Bowie's torment and the music helped me access my own darkness.  I played the album over and over, sinking deeper into the abyss with each listen.  At one point I could no longer handle the distress.  I literally burned the album in a ritual bonfire along with Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate and Lou Reed's Berlin.

Years went by and I discovered meditation, prayer and therapy.  Slowly, through God's grace and the passage of time, my depression lifted.  My twenties became a decade of growth and self-discovery and my musical choices reflected this shift.  I turned to albums that encouraged healing and a return to life.  At the top of my list were Peter Gabriel's So, Tears for Fears The Hurting and my favorite, David Bowie's Hunky Dory.

Hunky Dory is a poetic and musical celebration of life.  Though written in 1971 before Low, the album celebrates a new outlook for Bowie, one filled with hope, artistic experimentation and the inklings of joy.  Starting with the song "Changes," Bowie reflects on the "changes…I'm going through" in a Buddhist-like fashion.  He sings, "I watch the ripples change their size but never leave the stream of warm impermanence."  He has learned that all things in life are temporary, even suffering.  In the song's chorus, he urges us to "turn and face the strange, turn and face the strain."  This was a perfect accompaniment to the advice my own therapist was giving me: "face your pain, accept it and let it go."

On the song "Quicksand," Bowie acknowledges his unhealthy obsession with the occult, referencing Aleister Crowley and the frightening image of Himmler and the Third Reich.  He sings that "he's torn between the light and dark" and that "he ain't got the power anymore" to avoid "sinking in the quicksand of my thought."

Listening to Bowie's words, I felt as if he were speaking directly to my soul.  At the time I was reading books like The Road Less Traveled and the Tao Te Ching.  Hunky Dory became the soundtrack for my spiritual journey. Everything in life was teaching me that freedom comes with letting go of the ego (death of the Self) and aligning with universal energy.  Buddha spoke about surrendering one's beliefs allowing the mind to move toward release. As Bowie sings on "Quicksand"--"Don't believe in yourself, don't deceive with belief.  Knowledge comes with death's release."

The most joyous and life affirming song on Hunky Dory is "Fill Your Heart." Written by comedian Biff Rose (writer for George Carlin) and Paul Williams (songwriter for Barbra Streisand and Karen Carpenter), "Fill Your Heart" is a paean to peace and comfort.  The song promises that the suffering of life can be overcome through the power of love.  Bowie tells us, "fill your heart with love today, don't play the game of time.  Things that happened in the past only happened in your mind."  When he sings, "Happiness is happening, the dragons have been bled," it's as if Bowie is celebrating the future slaying of his own demons of addiction.  Buddhist energy runs throughout the song culminating in the lyrics, "Fear's just in your head, so forget your head and you'll be free."

"Fill Your Heart" was clearly sentimental and sugary, but it got me every time.  Like Bowie, I'd had enough of pain and misery.  I yearned for joy.  Being new to the happiness game, my initial forays were a bit simple. But they were earnest.  Jesus proclaims in the Gospels, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."  Bowie helped me become a child again, rediscovering the simple act of smiling. Perhaps this seemed infantile to others. But to me, I was learning to enjoy life.  And for this, I am thankful to Mister Bowie. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, February 15, 2016

LA Freeway

On the night of June 23, 1997, boxer Oscar De La Hoya was driving his brother's Mercedes on the 605 Freeway near Whittier. He was in the fast lane and suddenly the car stalled.  He maneuvered the car to the left shoulder but couldn't find his cell phone.  Common wisdom dictates that if your vehicle stalls on the freeway you should wait in the car and call for help.  De La Hoya felt differently.  He opened the car door, waited for a gap in traffic and sprinted across five lanes to the other side of the freeway.  Moments later a massive truck smashed into his Mercedes totaling the car.

All Angelenos have stories of witnessing horrific car accidents or being caught in nightmare traffic jams.  To live in Los Angeles one must make peace with the freeway.  You learn to accept the gridlock and reckless drivers, the ramshackle cars and ever-prowling highway patrol.  In a city that clearly delineates the haves from the have-nots, freeways are the last bastion of true democracy.  Whether you drive a Rolls-Royce or a broken-down Chevy, all drivers have equal access to the freeway.

Charles Bukowski wrote, "When I drive the freeways, I see the soul of humanity of my city and it's ugly, ugly, ugly."  The unwritten rule of freeway driving is to drive aggressively.  Traditional defensive driving is not enough. To signal before a lane change is to guarantee the car behind you will not let you in.  The trick is to quickly change lanes then hit your turn signal as if to say, "That's right man, I just cut you off."

Observing the speed limit is an unforgivable sin.  Posted speed limits are simply suggestions and most people drive 10-15 mph over the limit when traffic is flowing. Tailgating is like a religion on LA freeways.  It's not uncommon to see drivers riding each other's bumpers at 75 mph knowing that a sudden stop would be fatal. Driving LA freeways is like swimming in the ocean.  Everybody does it despite the riptides and sharks and large waves that occasionally claim lives.

Locals refer to the freeways by their route numbers as in "take the 405 to the 101." Each freeway has a distinct character and flavor.  The 405 is the busiest freeway in the world known for its unrelenting traffic jams.  This was the route OJ took during his infamous white Bronco chase and the freeway subject to the Carmageddon closure in 2011.  Driving the 101 is like taking a trek through old Los Angeles.  You pass the Hollywood Bowl, the Capital Records building, the iconic Western Exterminator offices and city hall.  The 5 links Los Angeles to Orange County and is know for its battered roads, narrow lanes and monster traffic jams.

In total, the LA freeway system spans 528 miles.  They are the defining architecture of Los Angeles and as Joan Didion wrote in her novel Play It As It Lays, the freeway is "the only secular communion Los Angeles has."

The history of freeways in the United States is tied to Los Angeles.  In 1901, the Pacific Electric Railroad created a public transit system known as "the Red Car." With its bright red streetcars, the Red Car line was the primary means of transport for people getting around Los Angeles.  It covered 25% more track mileage than New York City's subway line today.

As automobiles became cheap and plentiful, the Red Car began to lose ridership.  Vehicle congestion on local streets became a problem and urban planners spoke about "magic motorways" soaring above and through Los Angeles.  Fearing a loss of control over local commerce, the Southern Pacific Railroad (who owned the Pacific Electric Railroad), lobbied hard against freeway construction.

It took the Automobile Club of Southern California releasing the 1937 Traffic Survey to sway political opinion.  The Survey recommended extensive motorways with cloverleaf interchanges, on-ramps, off-ramps and elevated highways.  Only cars would be allowed though initial plans called for light rail tracks in center lanes.  The roads would be called freeways ("free of charge") to distinguish them from "toll ways" that cost money.

The first Los Angeles freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, opened in 1940. The six-lane, eight-mile long road linked Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles. The route reduced travel time between the two cities from 27 minutes to 12 minutes.  The original speed limit was 45 mph and the road was designed to carry 27,000 cars per day.  Today, it carries more than 125,000 cars daily.

LA's second freeway, the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) also opened in 1940. Connecting the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and downtown, the 101 made it easier for people to live in the suburbs and work in the city. Construction required the acquisition and demolition of thousands of homes and buildings via eminent domain.  Among the structures destroyed were Rudolph Valentino's house in Whitley Heights and Los Angeles High School near downtown.  Rubble and debris were dumped in Chavez Ravine, the future home of Dodger Stadium.

After World War II, pro-freeway sentiment prevailed.  In 1947, California passed the Collier-Burns Highway Act that included a 1.5 cent statewide fuel tax for freeway construction.  By 1950, the Red Car line was formally disbanded.

In 1953, a four-level interchange was completed where the 101 connects to the 110 (Harbor Freeway). This was the first stack freeway in the world.  Los Angeles became the model for freeway development and "the stack" became a symbol of local pride.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act.  The law authorized $25 billion for construction of a nationwide interstate highway system.  LA freeway construction took off and soon the city had the 405 (1960), the 134 (1960) and the 605 (1964).  Plans also called for a Beverly Hills Freeway linking the 10 to the 101 via La Cienega and Laurel Canyon. Wealthy locals protested and killed the idea.  In contrast, freeway construction through Latino neighborhoods in Boyle Heights, East LA and Lincoln Heights displaced more than a quarter-million people.

The 1973 oil crisis raised fuel prices and increased interest in mass transit. Popular opinion turned against new freeway construction.  Proposition 13 enacted in 1978 further reduced available freeway funds.  The last new freeway to be built in Los Angeles was the 105 (Century Freeway) opening in 1993.

In 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported about bizarre items found on local freeways.  These included $7,000 in quarters on the 101 in 1982; thousands of pounds of M&M's on the 57 (Orange Freeway) in 1986; 14,000 pounds of salsa on the 5 in 1987; and a body from the back of a coroner's van on the 101 in 1989.

In 1969, chickens began appearing on the side of the Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios.  Apparently, a poultry truck overturned and freed thousands of birds.  Passing motorists killed many of the hens but a colony survived and made homes in the roadside shrubbery.  In the late 70's, the Department of Animal Regulation corralled more than 100 chickens and shipped them to a Simi Valley ranch.  A few chickens eluded capture.  The so-called "Hollywood freeway chickens" can still be seen on the 101 today.  (7" x 9", black ink print)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Ernest Hemingway wrote, "All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Yet less than a year after it was published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by several American libraries for obscene language and moral degeneracy. In Concord, Massachussetts, the librarian said the book "is not suitable for trash."  Twain responded, "This will sell us sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"

To many Twain scholars, Huck Finn exposed the hypocrisy of slavery in a democratic republic while humanizing the slave Jim.  Twain's critics claim Huck Finn depicts Jim as a minstrel stereotype prone to superstitious and ignorant beliefs.  In 1957, the NAACP accused Huck Finn of containing "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations."  In 2009, a Washington state high school teacher called for the removal of Huck Finn from the school's curriculum.

Twain himself was nonplussed by public reception. He said, "I wrote Huck Finn for adults exclusively and it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them.  The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean.  I know this by my own experience and to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old.  None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave."

Twain claimed the character Huck was inspired by his childhood friend Tom Blankenship whose father was a drunk and the model for Pap Finn.  But in many ways Huck was inspired by Twain himself.  Like Huck, Twain grew up in the pre-Civil War South.  Twain's home state of Missouri was a slave state and Twain's uncle owned 20 slaves.  In his autobiography, Twain wrote, "I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another…awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market.  Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen."

As he matured, Twain's attitudes toward slavery evolved.  Twain married into an abolitionist family and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad who at one point housed Frederick Douglass. Commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation, Twain wrote, "Lincoln's Proclamation…not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also."

Amazingly, Huck Finn almost never came to be.  Twain started the book in 1876 and wrote 400 pages that he liked "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript.  Twain stopped the story about the time Huck and Jim exited the river.  He went on to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.  Seven years later, after taking a steamboat ride down the Mississippi, Twain was inspired to complete the novel.

Many have complained about the final portion of Huck Finn.  Through their journey down the river, Huck experiences Jim's humanity and a true friendship develops. But when the character Tom Sawyer enters the novel, Huck becomes passive and does nothing when Jim is captured.  All turns out well since Jim was already freed by his owner and Huck's pap is dead.  But the happy ending seems tacked on and is inconsistent with the complexity of the novel.  Hemingway wrote of Huck Finn, "If you read it, you must stop where…Jim is stolen from the boys.  This is the real end.  The rest is just cheating." (6" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Raindrops in a Puddle

I've always been fascinated by water.   As a young boy, I'd stare out the window on rainy days mesmerized by the murky outlines of trees, houses and passing cars.  I'd run outside and gaze into the sky as raindrops fell on my face and spilled down my chin.

I love sitting by a rushing river and contemplating the passing currents. Ocean waves crashing atop rocks fill me with infinite joy.  Even a stagnant puddle in a post-rain parking lot brings happiness to my soul.

We are born in water.  We are made of water.  When we die, we rejoin the great ocean from where we all came.  (4" x 6", black ink print)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


In 1921, producer Hal Roach created the Our Gang series of short films.  Later renamed The Little Rascals, Roach sought to depict "real kids doing real things." The ensemble of memorable characters included Spanky, Darla, Buckwheat, Froggy, Stymie and Pete the dog. By far the most popular rascal was Alfalfa.

Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois in 1927.  He grew up during the Depression and his parents were unemployed and broke.  In 1935, the family took a trip to Los Angeles.  They drove to Hal Roach Studios in Culver City and visited the Our Gang Cafe just outside the studio gates.  Carl and his brother Harold began singing and dancing in the cafe and in classic Hollywood fashion, they were immediately signed by the studio.

Carl was cast as Alfalfa and appeared in his first Our Gang film "Beginner's Luck" in 1936.  (Harold became an extra.)  With his ill-fitting suit, freckles and high cowlick, Alfalfa quickly became a star.  According to co-star Darla Hood, "Alfalfa was once mobbed by fans outside the studio while Clark Gable stood by unnoticed."

Alfalfa's shtick included an off-key singing voice and ongoing efforts to woo love interest Darla while fending off the local bully Butch.  On camera, Alfalfa was charming and likable.  But off screen, Carl Switzer was an obnoxious bully hated by cast and crew.

Switzer developed a reputation as a mean prankster.  He loved to put lit firecrackers into crew member's pockets and tacks on people's chairs.  On one occasion he hid fishhooks in Spanky's back pocket.  When Spanky sat down, he cut himself so badly he had to get stitches.  Another time he put an open switchblade in his pocket and convinced Darla to put her hand in his pocket telling her he had a Crackerjack ring for her.  She nearly lost her fingers.

George "Spanky" McFarland spoke about Switzer's most memorable prank. "We were filming and they were taking a long time to set up so Alfie decided to pee on the thousand watt bulbs.  The lights exploded and filled the studio with a tremendous stench.  Everyone had to be taken off set as the crew cleaned up the mess Alfalfa created."

Another time Switzer spread a large wad of chewing gum around the gears inside the camera.  According to Tommy Bond who played "Butch," the cameraman became furious and yelled at Switzer, "When you turn 21 I'm gonna find you and beat the shit out of you."

The child actors were required to attend three hours a day of on-set school. Switzer was typically late and refused to do his lessons.  He was often kept after class causing expensive delays in production.  Years later at an Our Gang reunion, Switzer encountered his old on-set teacher Mrs. Carter. According to Darla, Switzer screamed and cursed at the woman and accused her of ruining his life.

In 1938, MGM purchased the Our Gang comedy rights.  Without Roach's guidance, the shorts lost their popularity.  Alfalfa appeared in his last Our Gang film in 1940 when he was 12.  With more than 60 films behind him, Switzer's career as a Little Rascal was over.

Like many child performers, Switzer yearned to make the transition to adult actor.  He appeared in Frank Capra's classic It's A Wonderful Life playing Donna Reed's date in the famous dance floor turned swimming pool scene. He also had supporting roles in the Bing Crosby film Going My Way and the John Wayne film Island In The Sky.  In 1946, Switzer reprised his Alfalfa character as a teenager in Gas House Kids but the film was a flop.  He played a slave in Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments and made his final on screen performance in Stanley Kramer's 1958 film noir The Defiant Ones.

In 1954, Switzer married the heiress of a grain elevator empire.  He and his wife moved to her family's farm in Kansas and had one son before divorcing in 1957.  Switzer moved back to Los Angeles and took a series of odd jobs including bartender, shoeshine boy and hunting guide.  Struggling for money, he began drinking heavily.  In 1958 he was shot in the arm outside a bar in Studio City. His injuries were minor and the assailant was never caught.  No reason was given for the shooting.  A year later, Switzer was arrested for cutting down 15 pine trees in the Sequoia National Forest that he intended to sell as Christmas trees.  He was sentenced to a year probation and fined $225.

In early 1959, Switzer agreed to train a hunting dog for his friend Bud Stiltz. The dog ran away and Switzer posted a reward for $35.  Someone returned the dog and Switzer bought the man a few drinks and paid him the reward.  All told, Switzer was out fifty dollars.

Switzer spent several days drinking and began to believe the dog's owner owed him the money.  He went to Stiltz's house in North Hollywood and demanded to be repaid.  Stiltz refused.  According to Stiltz, Switzer pulled out a knife and lunged at Stiltz.  Stiltz retrieved a gun and after a short struggle, he shot Switzer in the stomach.  By the time the ambulance arrived, Switzer had bled to death.

At the subsequent trial, Stiltz was determined to have acted in self-defense and was cleared of all charges.  Cecil B. DeMille died the same day so Switzer's death received little television or newspaper coverage.  Switzer was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery near Paramount Studios.  In a strange addendum, Bud Stiltz received a Christmas card every year signed "Alfie" until his death in 1984.  He never discovered who sent the cards.  (5" x 6", black ink print)