StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Cock Loft

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 17, 2013

mugshott

I’ve gotta start putting the things I put on Facebook on my blog. This one is from  January 16, 2013. I wrote it up right after it happened.

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Some guys just shouldn’t have a Cock Loft–and Julius and I are two of them. I only found out what a Cock Loft was yesterday. I’d been meditating on our top floor and both the cats were with me. I kept hearing all this scratching on the closet door behind me but I just thought it was Giuseppe, our Tabby, playing around. He’d never taken any interest in that door before, but I thought this was just one of his new things and I didn’t want to break my concentration, so I just focused on my breath and kept meditating. Boy, there was a lot of scratching going on, though, and since I meditate with my eyes open, Zen-style, I couldn’t help but notice that my other cat Marquez was staring at me all spooked with his ears pricked up, but I just thought he was acting dramatic over Giuseppe being all crazy with the door. But soon Giuseppe walked up from behind me and looked equally alarmed and the scratching hadn’t stopped.

After my meditation was finished, I got off the cushion and heard scurrying. I didn’t think it was a burglar since our alarm system would’ve let me know, but I kept hearing it. I looked up to the ceiling above our staircase and saw a squirrel skittering on the plate-glass sunroof. Julius called from Washington, where he’d been working for a couple days, and I told him I was looking at the squirrel’s belly. He said, “Oh, that’s bad. If it’s above the staircase, that means it’s in the Cock Loft.” I said, “What’s a Cock Loft?” He said it’s that aluminum-and-glass contraption we have on the roof, which is full of insulation and electrical wires. It’s supposed to be sealed shut, but somehow the squirrel got in. They call it a Cock Loft because it resembles a rooster’s lookout for available hens on his horny days. Already it was sounding like something we shouldn’t be the owners of.

So, we called Animal Care and Control and they put us in touch with Allstate Animal Control, who said they could send some guys out to do a catch-and-release on Sunday. Now Julius was having heart failure over how the squirrel could get at the wires or it could die up there with no food and water or it might be nesting and having babies. After a lot of back and forth, Julius managed to rattle enough cages to get Allstate to send somebody over this afternoon and then he flew in on the two o’clock shuttle to be there for it.

By 4:00 pm, we were both home. We both went upstairs and looked up at the glass plate floor of the Cock Loft. We didn’t see a squirrel, but that didn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t there. It might have been in a corner we couldn’t see. We hoped the Allstate guys could find it, catch it and set it free in Prospect Park. We then went to the room where I’d been meditating and opened the closet that I’d thought Giuseppe had been expressing undue interest in. Julius took out his iPhone, clicked on his flashlight app and looked at all the corners that the closet light couldn’t light up. All over, we saw claw and paw prints. We also saw that the squirrel had kicked in a board that had blocked an insulated passageway to the Cock Loft. We surmised that the squirrel had gotten into the closet but then got scared and scurried back into the Cock Loft.

Ah, well, all we could do now was wait for the animal-control guys. We walked downstairs to our kitchen. Julius started fixing himself a sandwich and I was doing some dishes. We talked about whether we should keep taking the cats to the same vet or whether we should start taking them to one of those Park Avenue vets who charge a lot more but also set cats up with longevity plans and do extra tests to ensure that absolutely everything’s up to snuff with them.

As we’re talking, Giuseppe came trotting in. He seemed to have a whole new burst of energy about him. He was running something into a corner and it wasn’t his new Nobbly Wobbly toy. I looked closer, “Shit! JULIUS! He’s with the squirrel!” Julius couldn’t hear me over my screaming but my screaming alone made him make his first flinch: “WHAT? Wait, what’s the matter?” I bolted out our kitchen’s saloon door with a sponge and soapy glass in my hand, “GIUSEPPE’S WITH THE SQUIRRRRRRREL!!!” Julius’ skeleton damn near ran out the saloon door after me leaving the rest of him behind, “What? Where?” Then Julius saw the squirrel and let out a scream that momentarily stopped traffic on Third Street. We both then booked it into the dining room and slammed the door behind us.

While we were so busy running around our dining-room table like Girl Scouts on meth, we forgot that we’d left Giuseppe in kitchen with the squirrel. We caught our breath, went back, and opened the door about as much our primordial fears of vermin would allow. The cat came flying out. Realizing he’d come face to face with an interloper from the animal kingdom, Giuseppe, who’d once slugged it out in brawls at the ASPCA, proceeded to go catatonic with PTSD on the oriental rug.

The situation wasn’t going to improve until we manned up–or at least did something worthy of being Cock Loft owners. So, I put the cats in another room and opened the outside door, hoping the damn varmint would scurry out. Julius normally assumes command in the various crises we’ve had to face together, but for this one, he was utterly unprepared. He hopped up and down in his slick Gregory Peck pinstriped suit, screeching, “Wadda I do? Wadda I do?” I said, “Jesus, Julius, how ’bout opening the window? I’ll go man the door.” (And, for this situation, I use the term “man” loosely.)

Oh, sure, squirrels look all cute in Washington Square when they’re coming up to you, twitching their noses for peanuts—and you always weaken and maybe even go to the store and come back with a jar of Planters to appease them. But this thing was H-I-D-E-O-U-S as it scampered and scavenged on and around our kitchen table. Now that it was in our kitchen, we could do the math and figure out it’d been in the house without food all night, so it was all skin and bones and squirrel hide with a spiny tail that just begged for all the rat comparisons that its species had once seemed to so unfairly inherit. Julius had long thrown open the window but this thing wasn’t moving anywhere in the direction of outside. As I stood by the outside door, wincing, I kept hearing Julius making vain attempts at a masterful voice as he admonished the squirrel, “Don’t you eat my geraniums! Hey! Those are my persimmons, not yours! Stop eating them!” For lack of a lion tamer’s chair, I gave Julius a slab of cardboard from a PetCo box, which he used as a shield as he jumped at the squirrel and back…and at it and back…and at it and back…but mostly back.

I watched in fascinated horror as the squirrel seemed to ignore him. By now, it was investigating all of our baskets and pots. Finally, when it decided it was good and ready, it sauntered out the window. As it took a nice cool drink of water by the koi pond, Julius made bold to close the window screen and the window behind it. A real Cock Loft owner would have said, “And stay out!,” but not us. We knew that, out of everyone present, Giuseppe was the one who had shown the most valor.

The animal-control guys came about half an hour later. They were two big Blutos from Staten Island, wearing hoodies and construction boots. They didn’t seem scared of no squirrels. They looked like the kind who wrestle raccoons to the ground, each with one hand tied behind their backs. One of them carried a Medieval-looking metal trap and threw it from one hand to the other, just waiting to get a chance to use it. They didn’t end up needing it, though. One of them stood on a ladder, opened the Cock Loft and saw nothing else up there, no squirrels or rats, which is what squirrels look like to me now. They checked all the access-points and assured us that we were fine and the squirrel hadn’t opened up its big mouth about the house to its friends, at least not yet.

It’s a relief to know we’re not going to find anything next time we rummage around our Cock Loft.

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Even in the Best-Regulated Families

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 14, 2013

I keep forgetting I have a blog. This next piece is going up on NY Insight’s meditation blog soon, but I thought I’d post it here too.

Even in the Best-Regulated Families

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Julius made reservations at Aquavit on E 55th St for dinner before our show at The Mint Theater on W 43rd. Normally he’d choose a place that’s closer to where we’re heading next but I can tell he’s feeling nostalgic for the trip we took to Stockholm over Christmas. Aquavit is Swedish chic—minimalist décor; dim lighting; tables, chandeliers and mobiles all evenly spaced like a feng shui dream—and right down the block is the St. Regis Hotel, which is reminiscent of so many of the Beaux Arts buildings on the cobblestone streets of Stockholm’s Old Town.

Before last year, I’d never been to Sweden and we’d had misgivings about going at the beginning of winter when it’s so cold and there’s no sunlight but we found Stockholm to be every bit as romantic as Paris. I’ll never forget how the moon glanced off the ice on Lake Mälaren and the Royal Stockholm Palace, the hilly park with the carousel, the incomparable attractiveness of the people. It doesn’t hurt that the Scandinavian countries always rank highest in terms of quality of life too and I know Julius, chief compliance officer at a major bank, appreciates how everything there is up to code and orderly to a T.

Julius realizes he can be too sanguine about things running like a top. That’s why once, when we were at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, he bought a refrigerator magnet that featured a quote from David Copperfield that he’d hoped might help him remember to manage his expectations: “Accidents will occur in the best regulated families.” It turns out that our family, comprising two gay men and two cats, is no exception to this rule.

Before we even decide what to order from the menu, which lists dishes crowned with herring and arctic char, Julius says, “I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack last night.” I lower my menu and look into his eyes. As I recall, all that had occurred in the middle of the night was that he’d jerked his shoulder and ended up with a neck pain. He’s prone to think this is what happens when you get past fifty, but I have friends who pulled their backs or wrenched their necks just bending down to tie their shoes or reaching over to turn off their alarm clocks when they were all of twenty-five. But he goes on to say that he woke up to get a drink of water, with his neck feeling like it was on fire, and he became dizzy and had to clutch the sink to stay on his feet. He started sweating and was going to call out to me but was able to steady himself and stumble back to bed. The stumbling part I do recall. He was breathing heavy but, when I asked if he was okay, he said it was just his neck giving him problems. Now he’s telling me he was afraid he was having a heart attack, though he’d had no pains in his chest. I take a deep breath and do my best to stay mindful.

It’s hard, though. Last week, my friend Jill’s wife died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. They’d adopted a newborn baby girl three years ago. Four months ago, my mother died of ovarian cancer too, although she had lived to be 80 and my father had enjoyed almost fifty more years with her than Jill had been able to enjoy with her wife. The year before Mom died, Rachael, one of my all-time dearest friends, died of liver cancer just three weeks after diagnosis. She was 43 and was survived by her 45-year-old husband, her 10-year-old daughter, and her one-year-old daughter whose first birthday she had celebrated less than a week before she died. I’d been at Rachael’s home in London for dinner only days before she was diagnosed and she’d seemed just fine. Ten days before she died, I’d flown in on my way back from Rome to check up on her and she was frail and rickety but her laughter was robust, her spirits were high and I felt confident that we had years ahead of us and could beat this thing. I had no idea I’d be flying back for her funeral a couple weeks later. Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend (a widow) who told me a woman we used to work with, whom I was frankly not fond of, had keeled over in her apartment at the age of 50 while getting ready for work. She’d had a health scare but the doctors said she was fine now and she exercised regularly, had a good diet, didn’t drink or smoke. Julius is 51 now. Sure, he takes care of himself, but so did all those other people. (And, yes, I’d feel better if he’d meditate, it’d make him less stressed, but I don’t want to be like one of those spouses who hector their husband or wife into going to church or whatever when they don’t want to.)

After a lot of discussion on these matters, I tell Julius, “I hope I can stay cool. I’ve been working a lot with all this stuff in meditation.”

In fact, right before I’d arrived at Aquavit, it struck me how much recent events have changed my motivation for sitting. For the longest time, I came to the cushion twice a day because I wanted to find inspiration for writing. It might not be the highest motivation, but it was mine, and whatever gets you there, gets you there and, in getting there, I’d developed a practice I could come to at times like this. Rachael died, Mom died, Dad and I are all but estranged and I’m not close with the rest of my family—and my meditations have been so intense-feeling that it’s an ongoing effort not to call time when the sitting gets tough. Life might be fragile, but my practice isn’t and I intend to keep it that way.

Still, I don’t want to lose Julius. He says he doesn’t want to lose me either. Neither one of us knows how we’d get on if one of us lost the other. And yet life is such that people do lose each other.

These same sentiments were expressed in the play we went to after dinner. I love The Mint Theater. They’re the friend to the friendless play. They revive all these works that time forgot but that were something in their day. Also, at 39, I’m always by far the youngest in the audience, something I seldom experience in New York. The play was called A Picture of Autumn by the late British dramatist N.C. Hunter. In it, younger members of a family compel their older kin to sell the family estate, the only world the old folks have ever really known. It might be The Cherry Orchard-Lite, but I still couldn’t help but feel for the characters, especially since Julius has remarked on many occasions how sure he is that he’ll die before me. I could see myself one day having to sell our home, including the roof deck we were married on, and weighing how much I could bear to part with it all.

Yet for however heavy life has been, for however little I know about what it has in store for us, I am grateful that I have a meditation practice and a Cherry Orchard in my mind, so full of fond memories, that I can maintain and that can never be sold away from me. And so I’ll continue coming back to the cushion every day, so I can be fully present for whatever happens now and whatever may happen next.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel, 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). A longtime meditation practitioner and active member of New York Insight, he lives in Brooklyn with his husband and cats. He is currently at work on his new novel, A Sorcerer on Montmartre.

Stirring on Zafu and Zuton

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 18, 2010

There’s a scene in Annie Hall, where Annie and Alvie are in bed after coming back from seeing Alvie’s favorite movie, The Sorrow and The Pity, a three-hour documentary on Nazis. Annie says, “Boy, those guys in the French resistance sure were brave…I sometimes wonder how I’d stand up under torture.” Alvie replies, “You?  They’d take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell them everything.”

That’s about the level of resilience I’ve been feeling on the meditation cushion lately. Above all else, you’re supposed to hold your seat, hold your seat, no matter what internal or external stimuli are trying to get you to break meditation. Thing is, lately I’ve been getting all these random ideas for writing (not ideas for novels, just for doo-dads, but still…) while I’m watching my breath and focusing on my hara. I keep feeling like, if I don’t get up and write them down, they’ll slip out of my hands like restive eels. Still, I hold my seat. I hold my seat. And I’ve found that, after my timer goes off, I often manage to rise up from my cushion with the same eels still slithering and flopping around in my brain. I’m also a lot better able to deal with life this way.

For years, I’ve tried to get Julius to go to sangha with me and meditate.  Most months, he’s on the road five days a week and I know my own body couldn’t man up under all that pressure. Meditation could be good for him. Yet he’s all but said to me, “I am a gay, Puerto Rican, Jewish, quadro-lingual, Jesuit-educated, agnostic democrat and that is quite enough for one lifetime!”

He did actually buy a zafu, zuton and meditation gong at Integral Yoga on 13th St, though. But it’s collecting the same dust as the copy of Jack Kornfield’s Meditation for Beginners, which he also bought that day, and the Meditations for Inner Peace CD that I got him as a Christmas gift from Vajradhara Dharma Center.

I’ve mostly backed off. I mean, look at how many times my parents forced me to go to Mass when I was younger. We see how well that went! For Chrissake, yesterday I was walking down Fifth Avenue and was floored by how I saw three separate women, within three blocks of each other, with smudges on their foreheads. “What the fuck’s going on!,” I thought, “Is some kind of cult taking over? Is this some sort of al Qaeda plot?” Then I found out it was the beginning of Lent. Yet another facet of my upbringing that I’ve succeeded in screening out.

For Julius, the main challenge is stress. For me, it’s patience. Much like with my own zafu and zuton, I come to my writing desk each and every day, but the muse comes only when it damn well pleases. When it blows me off, as it sometimes does for months at a time, it takes all my might to keep my self-worth above water. It’s at these times that I wonder if I’m up to the task of being a writer. But I sure as hell can’t think of anything else to do with my life.

Then I remember something Woody Allen wrote in his Hemingway parody, “A Twenties Memory”:

In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, ”No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.

That somehow puts everything back into perspective.

HAIR at The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park and “Pseudo-Lysergic”

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 26, 2008

So, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times had his misgivings about The Public Theatre’s 40th-Anniversary Production of Hair at Shakespeare in the Park, but, methinks he was just being his usual contrarian self. Especially in the wake of The Public’s watered-down Hamlet this summer, Hair was a tour-de-force of high dimension.

A high dimension albeit not the highest, let’s just get the downside out of the way first. I’ve always found the first few scenes of Act I to be Godspell-silly with their Romper Room antics and Muppet Babies, hippy-skippy sing-a-longs. The social taboos of long hair, drugs, and free love pale beside the follow-ups of punk, Studio 54, crack babies and the AIDS crisis. The Nude scene could probably even make prime-time TV in the 2000s. But, then as now, we are a nation stumbling under the weight of a criminal war and the environmental ruin presaged in the song “Air,” so there is a certain currency to Hair’s staging today.

The pluses far outweigh the minuses. The performances resurrected an era, which, while it preceded my birth, also – through its music and images – helped form so much of my consciousness and so many of my political, social and spiritual ideals. To depict Washington Square and Central Park, the Public set out astroturf before the bandstand, where the prodigious musicians were swaddled in Age of Aquarius, Stevie Nicks drag. The gorgeous Will Swenson embodied Berger, the New Jersey drop-out, in all his grungy idealism, just as Bryce Ryness did with the swishier character of Woof whose questionable sexual orientation The Public did not disguise. As a matter of fact, The Public did a delectable job of simulating center-stage daisy chains and sideshow gay make-outs for an age that’s jaded enough to take it. The dry cunilingus was a salient ornament to the polemic “Sodomy,” which Swenson deftly reinterpreted before the crowd. These upgrades kept the show from disintegrating into pure nostalgia.

Mick and Keith 1975

Mick and Keith 1975

(By the way, the poster that Claude hands Woof (not the one above but something like it) of Mick Jagger was from 1975, eight years after Hair was first produced. Mick had already gone from a hippy to a glam god. That was one little directorial anachronism, but I guess you had to be Stones-aholic like me to catch it, so no harm done.)

Jonathan Groff played Claude Bukowski, the protagonist who experiences the greatest identity crisis and risk of any member of his Tribe. He’s the Polish Catholic boy from Flushing, who walks around with an English accent in front of his assimilationist parents, who are all too proud to hand him his draft card when it comes in the mail. Tony Award-winning Groff (Spring Awakening) may not be able to boast Swenson or Ryness’ magnificent bodies (he performed with his shirt on the whole time), but his voice filled Central Park with every bit as much bravura soulfulness as it did the amphitheater where, as far as I could tell, everyone sat enraptured.

Speaking of voices, good God! Dig that Patina Renea Miller on “Aquarius” and Saycon Sengbloh on “Four Score and Seven Years Ago”/”Abie Baby”! These were divas to the nth-degree. I’m hoping to God that I see them in more productions around town.

Naturally, Act I sparked all sorts of audible compare-and-contrast-then-and-now conversations by the concession stand at intermission. Some greenies asked why we don’t have the same wave of protest against Iraq today. Well, the most obvious answer is that we don’t have the Draft today, so young Americans’ lives aren’t as directly endangered. Secondly, we’ve seen how the hippies were too stoned to stop the war and how, on balance, those trippy zombies didn’t end up wearing so well ten years down the line. One only has to watch a few Bally’s commercials to understand that, for better or for worse, self-preservation appeals to today’s culture in ways that it didn’t to the Flower Children.

Last year, though, I did a review for Edge Magazine of Peter O. Whitmer’s Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counter-Culture That Changed America, where William S. Burroughs rails against people who claim that the Sixties didn’t accomplish anything: “They don’t seem to realize that [in the 1940s], four-letter words did not appear on printed pages…the idea that a Mexican or a black or a queer was anything but a second-class citizen was simply absurd.” But Burroughs also said, “The 1960s stuff about solving the world’s problems through peace and love and nonviolence – I said then that the only way to give flowers to the police was in a pot from a high window.”

One of the things that amuses me most about the hippies are their concepts of meditation and all their woo-woo talk around it. I have been a meditator for over ten years and I’ve never found it to be about “mystic crystal revelations,” levitation, and astral projection. In fact, most of the time, it’s searing, boring, frustrating. A regular practice of meditation requires tremendous exertion (and it’s worth every pang). Clearly, most of these people didn’t have a daily practice.

I even wrote a short-memoir piece about my old, Sixties-inspired take on meditation called “Pseudo-Lysergic.” I’ll even post it below.

But, before I do, let me exhort you to see Hair! It is intoxicating and sensual. You’ll be so electrified, you’ll stand up screaming out of your seat, if not jumping on stage to sing and dance (a permissable act) by play’s end.

And now, “Pseudo-Lysergic” by Kyle Thomas Smith:

Pseudo-Lysergic

(read at The Interdependence Project, September 2006)

By Kyle Thomas Smith

This morning, after I meditated, I took the subway and reflected on how the experience of meditation is often similar to the one you hear on the “Revolution #9” track of The White Album. Riots, parades, protests, peccadilloes, fires, bombings, orchestras, orgasms, sci-fi scenes – all rising and falling, ebbing and flowing with each inhalation and exhalation, each coming and going of breath – rising and falling – like the emcee’s mantra: “Number 9…Number 9…Number 9.” Incidentally, Charles Manson envisioned the apocalypse happening to the same tune. I shudder to think that my mind is joined with his, but, if we’re all interconnected, interpenetrated, and interdependent, then I guess mine would have to be. But, by the same logic, my mind would also have to be linked with those of the Beatles, both dead (like John and George) and alive (like Paul and Ringo).

The Beatles were the ones who first turned me on to the idea of meditation. I was 12 years old and watching A Current Affair. They had a special on the spiritual practices of celebrities. They flashed to a picture of the Fab Four, where they were all propped up, cross-legged, on cushions and surrounded by a harem of British blondes in a genie-bottle room. The narrator said: “At their creative peak, The Beatles explored eastern religions, studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi.” This scandalized my parochial schoolboy mind.

My family was Catholic of Irish descent. You didn’t leave your religion. That would land you in hell as sure as pre-marital sex or masturbation would, neither one of which I’d attempted yet, apart from a few feels. The Beatles started out as Liverpool Protestants. That afforded them so much more freedom than I knew, growing up in the archdiocese of Chicago. Protestants had flouted Rome’s authority long ago. They were not bound by the same rules as I. They were free to explore. Oh, how I coveted their freedom! On the sly, I asked around the neighborhood and heard that meditation could be used as a substitute for LSD. I didn’t want to do drugs and end up like the burn-outs in the park, but I did want to trip, so this was good news.

That was 1987, the summer Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was first released on CD with the sales slogan, “It Was 20 Years Ago Today,” commemorating the album’s 20th Anniversary. My brother Kent bought it the same afternoon it hit the racks. At the time, I didn’t know what meditation was, but I sensed it had something to do with what I was about to start a habit of doing: cueing up my brother’s Sergeant Pepper’s CD and closing my eyes as I leaned up against my bedroom wall, never stopping my mind from wandering into a pseudo-lysergic trance.

Well, that was just shy of twenty years ago to the day. On the F train out of Brooklyn this morning, I put my hands in a Cosmic Mudra, breathed deeply and contemplated how much has changed for me since then. Today, I’m a member of a Buddhist sangha. Formal meditation has become the mainstay of my everyday life. I’m a writer. I live in New York. I’m openly gay. I never even had to drop acid or become a burn-out or a Mansonite to acquire this freedom, just as I’d suspected.

But, then, meditation is not what I’d suspected. It’s not a means of escape. It’s a means of presence. You train in keeping your mind from wandering by bringing it back to the vacuous narration of the breath – over and over and over again. Once, I would have considered anything that curbs imaginative transports to be nothing less than fascist. But now I see that, in the present moment, to which our breath binds us back again and again, there exists a kaleidoscopic experience – more luscious than Strawberry Fields – that you never would have had if you’d allowed your mind to go too far afield. So, my thanks to the Beatles for loosening my shackles, giving me vision and starting me on this path. And my love to the Interdependence Project for helping to fine-tune my vehicle and for accompanying me on this most meaningful of journeys.