StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Speaking of Woody Allen

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 11, 2010

This is what it was like (sort of) when Julius and I first started dating.

Hannah and Her Sisters is my favorite movie of all time.

Out of all the characters of cinema history, Holly is the one I relate to most – the creative type struggling to find her niche. In 1986, Diane Wiest won Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance as Holly.

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Getting Older

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 11, 2010

So the friend I had dinner with last night is turning 50 in a couple weeks. He has a bit of a complex about it.

I told him to rent Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988). It’s about a philosophy professor named Marion Post (Gena Rowlands), who has just turned 50 and is forced to take stock of her life upon overhearing, through a vent in a flat she’s renting, a psychiatrist’s sessions with an unnamed woman (Mia Farrow) who’s experiencing a sea-change in her own life. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’m always a sucker for movies in which people are stunned into experiencing full-on life reviews.

He said he thinks Woody Allen is annoying but only when he appears in his own films. I told him Woody doesn’t turn up in this one, but Gena Rowlands delivers the finest performance of her career.

Then I added, “Well, Joe, I’m feeling a little weird about turning 36 on May 11. I mean, I’ll be crossing the bridge over 35. For some reason, that’s a big dividing line in our society.”

Whereas I brought up Another Woman, a five-star drama, to help him through his crisis, he brought up that crappy Seventies sitcom One Day at a Time to lead me through mine. Apparently, there was an episode where Ann Romano, the mother, freaks out about turning 36 and her teenage daughters show her that she’s packed a lot of life into 36 years and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I asked Joe, “Why was she freaked out about being 36?”

Joe said unequivocally, “It means you’re getting old.”

Look who’s talking!

But, c’mon, 36 isn’t old! And maybe it’s because my parents were over 40 when they had me, but I never even considered 50 as “up there.”

But I do recall that senior citizens, who were decades beyond 50, seemed a lot older back when I was growing up than they do today. I mean, just objectively. Back then, I had a lot of old relatives who foundered in their arm chairs in near catatonia. I don’t think they had Alzheimer’s. They’d just come to a point in their lives when they decided it was time to just sit and wait out the clock.

But today, even without the help of plastic surgery, so many senior citizens are more alive and vital than many middle-aged people I know. They use Nordic Tracks. They take marathon walks. They catch up on all the books they wish they’d had time to read when they were raising families. They go to matinees and see the latest movies and get hip with the newest lingo even before I do. They always have a thing or two to say about the latest in politics, and some of them even have good politics.

I remember reading a book called Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, where the author, whose name I forget (see, maybe I am getting old), said something that to me was unforgettable. He said that he’d seen people in rest homes who just sat like zombies in front of mind-numbing TV shows, day in, day out. But there were others, who had somehow cottoned on to meditation and dharma practices, who weren’t exactly mobile but kept their minds sparklingly alive, chanting silently over their mala beads and practicing meditation. In this way, they stimulated their deepest life forces, not to mention timeless wisdom for however time-bound their bodies.

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.

Jazzonia at the Carlyle Room

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on January 18, 2010

I went through the pics on my iPhone and found a good shot I took of the Carlyle Room, which we dropped into late one Saturday night, over a month ago, when our friends Joe and Paul were in from D.C.

Now that I’ve found the photo, I think I’ll post it.

I don’t know if Woody Allen still plays clarinet at the Carlyle on Tuesday nights and I’m sure that, like everything else that’s stood the test of time, it ain’t what it used to be…

But we had a good time:

It’s not in Harlem – it’s in the Rosewood Hotel on the Upper East Side (76th St/Madison) – but this pic of the Carlyle Room still reminds me of a great poem by Langston Hughes called “Jazzonia”:

Oh, silver tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

A dancing girl whose eyes are bold

Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Oh, singing tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Were Eve’s eyes

In the first garden

Just a bit too bold?

Was Cleopatra gorgeous

In a gown of gold?

Oh, shining tree!

Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

(Langston Hughes, “Jazzonia,” 1923)

The Serial Killer in the Green Hanging-File Folder (Last Night’s Dream)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 29, 2008

Last night (or, early this morning, if you want to split hairs), I had a nightmare. There was an office off to the side of a hospital hallway, which looked like the one in the hospital where Briony worked in the movie Atonement. The bottom drawer in the gray metal office desk was open. It had green hanging-file folders in it.

I somehow knew that a serial killer was hiding in one of those hanging-file folders. I further knew that he waited for people to enter the office and then, once they’d close the door behind themselves, he’d jump out of the hanging-file folder, wielding a letter opener. Out of the drawer, he’d instantly grow to full height, maybe six feet tall. Then, he’d use that letter opener to slash his victims to death.

In the dream, I alone could see him poking the letter opener’s blade out of the green hanging-file folder. Nobody seemed to listen when I warned them that a serial killer was in there, so they got killed.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

In the next part of the dream, I was at a reception at The Art Institute of Chicago. My sister Colleen was there with my niece Elizabeth (her daughter) and my nephew Patrick (my brother Kerry’s son). Elizabeth is a recalcitrant 13-year-old, but, in the dream, she was just about to graduate from high school.

I already knew that my nephew Patrick – an 11-year-old squash player who lives in the Bay Area – has been dead set on going to Yale from the time he was eight years old. (No one knows why. No one in my family or in my sister-in-law’s family has ever gone to Yale or any other Ivy League school.)

I asked Elizabeth where she planned on going to college. I hoped she’d say something refreshing like, “I want to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.” Instead, she replied, “I’m joining the Marines.” I did a double-take. Sure enough, she still had a straight face. Elizabeth looked away. Normally, my sister would be loath to support such a decision on the part of one of her children, especially during wartime. But, in the dream, Colleen put her arm around Elizabeth and proudly assented, “Yes, she’s going to join the Marines before she goes to college.”

I woke up from the dream wondering if I should join the Marines. There are a few hitches, of course. Number one, I’m gay. I’ve published article after article citing my sexual orientation. I couldn’t be more open about it if I threw a circuit party in the middle of a Teamster’s meeting. Secondly, I’m morally and mortally opposed to this war. Third, I’m 34 years old. Fourth, if it was a choice between the military and hara kari – well, guess which one I’d pick (hint: the latter). Still, I wondered if the Marines might help me to later become more capable of plugging myself into the round hole of a mainstream profession. Then again, my Dad was a marine sergeant and he wasn’t able to straighten me out and, boy, did he work at it. (High five to my younger self.)

But, then, what is/was there to straighten out? I was a dreamy artist, a Romantic, that’s all. Even when I tried fitting in, my attempts were about as successful as those of someone trying to play an 8-Track tape in a CD player. I wasn’t on drugs (which means that I can’t put out daredevil memoirs like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and James Frey), I just wanted a more creative, a less regimented, by-rote existence. In the movie Deconstructing Harry, a therapist asks Harry Block (Woody Allen) why his alma mater threw him out. He says:

“Because I was not interested in [school]. I wanted to be a writer. All I cared about was writing. I did not care about the real world. I cared only about the world of fiction. And, plus, I tried to give the dean’s wife an enema so they didn’t take kindly to that.”

My life has run somewhat along the same lines.

But I have another nephew named David, who is my sister Colleen’s other teenager. He has just graduated from high school and will be going to college at, I believe, DePaul University. Since the tenth grade, David has wanted to be a history teacher at his high school in Palatine, Illinois. David hasn’t striven to be the next Thom Yorke or Kanye West or, let’s throw in a “now” writer, Junot Diaz. He doesn’t want to throw a sack over his shoulder and head out to New York or Europe to lead an artist’s life. No, he wants to grow up to be a high-school history teacher in the suburb where he grew up. David has set himself an attainable goal that has all the trappings of stability. Some might yawn, but I cannot help but admire the wisdom in his choice. If only my heart had such simple yearnings! Alas, it doesn’t. I’m too much like Harry Block.

Julius tells me I’m bourgeois when I say things like that. He’s right. I am. I was raised in an environment where you go straight from a Big Ten school to a job in a bank or an accounting firm. If you want to dream big, then work your way through law school or maybe get your MBA at night. It might seem drab and colorless, but at least it’s stable. But, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that quiet desperation is the way to go, I keep having dreams like the one about the serial killer in the green hanging-file folder.

Here I must remind myself of some wise words by former tearaway and venerated Buddhist teacher, Susan Piver:

“One’s own mind is the only reliable guide. The place to start is with who you already are and what you are experiencing right now. No doctrine. No ideal to emulate. I had never heard anyone say that before. On the Buddhist path particular qualifications, beliefs, or vows are not necessary. Strength and independence of mind are the qualities that are required. Maybe my inabilities to toe the line, fit in, succeed in conventional life were not such bad things after all. They were just me, and on this path, ‘just me’ is the path. You start with who you are, and the goal is self-discovery.”