The lesson of the dancing Christmas trees

Many moons ago, a San Francisco institution, Beach Blanket Babylon, celebrated its 20th anniversary in the San Francisco Opera House.  The evening was everything I had hoped for, but it contained one big surprise, in what was perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt moment of the show.

Suddenly the raucous audience was hushed to silence. It was as if we had all been transported, through some race/genetic memory, back to prehistoric “cave man” days when our ancestors sat transfixed watching a shaman create shadow pictures on the wall.

I had seen Beach Blanket Babylon about a dozen times. The show is a cross between a satirical cabaret and Carmen Miranda on acid … a witty show with over the top costumes (some headdresses are about 20 feet high), satirical lyrics and lots of local insider jokes. Each performance ends with a show-stopping version of “San Francisco”, sung by a woman with a “hat” the size of a Rose Parade float.

sf-operaThe 20th anniversary fund raiser at the Opera House encouraged attendees to come in either formal or “beach” attire. Naturally, I came in flip flops, swim trunks and a robe. When would be the next time you could dress like that in an Opera House? The lobby had huge piles of sand, artificial palm trees, and oiled down body builders (male and female) to add to the festive mood.

The show was long, with all of the show stopping numbers that had become popular over 20 years. Each costume and production number seemed more elaborate than the last. But there was one prodution in the show that literally silenced the audience; it was a profound experience I will never forget.

Beach Blanket Babylon began in the early ’70s as a street performance, with very simple and silly costumes. One of the first characters in the show was a dancing Christmas tree. The 20th anniversary had reunited many former cast members. Suddenly, all of the color and mardi gras atmosphere was gone. The stage was light by a lone rehearsal light, and three little dancing Christmas trees came out to do the simple routine that the show had started with.

The back of the huge Opera stage had three perfectly defined shadows of Christmas trees dancing this simple dance. Suddenly the raucous audience was hushed to silence. It was as if we had all been transported, through some race/genetic memory, back to prehistoric “cave man” days when our ancestors sat transfixed watching a shaman create shadow pictures on the wall. The brief time watching these dancing trees and their shadows somehow united us all in a very naked, basic aspect of our humanity. The elaborate trappings of the Opera House (and most of the show) seemed to melt away as we focused on this simple, primal image.

What did I come away with? Sometimes the most effective and memorable means of presentation is the simplest. Sometimes, black and white works better than color. Sometimes silent images work better than performances with dialogue. Sometimes something as simple and “inane” as a dancing Christmas tree can mean worlds more than a huge production number.

It was wonderful having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in an Opera box wearing casual beachwear. But what I will always remember about that night is being united with over 3,000 strangers, transfixed by three simple moving shadows on the wall.

For the holidays, I offer my favorite holiday poem, “Little Tree” by e.e. cummings:


5 Books that changed my Life

A member of one of my Linked In groups posed the question, “Name the 5 books that have changed your life.” What is your list of the slightly less than half dozen books that have made you who you are today? I was surprised at how easy it was to compose my list. Here it is.

(1) Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism by Lawrence Kushner … you don’t have to be Jewish (or even religious) to benefit from this book. Astonishingly simple, Zen-like, yet complex Kaballah-like interpretation of Life’s mysteries. It affirms that there as many answers to a question as there are listeners or witnesses

(2) Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres — historic fiction (novel with some real historic characters making brief appearances.) A heart breaking and unforgettable look at one of the tragic arenas of WWI (what is now Turkey) through the lens of a single village.

Find out how outside foreign powers decided it was better to separate Christians from Muslims and the tragic consequences (including the Armenian holocaust) that resulted.

Moments of astounding beauty that you will never forget, along with the unvarnished brutality of war.

(3) The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot — though written in 1992, a still up-to-date look at the harmony between physics, mysticism, spirituality and the real possibility of time travel. Technical, yet accessible. A real page turner, hard to put down. I have read this book 6 or 7 times.

(4) The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan — a collection of poems written by high caste Japanese women 1000 to 1100 years ago. Shockingly frank, modern and highly applicable to modern life. You will feel as if someone read your own mind or heart before she wrote these simple lines.Like seeing a sketch artist who can capture all the nuances of a Van Gogh oil painting in a few, perfect brush strokes.

The seaweed gatherer’s weary feet
keep coming back to my shore.
Doesn’t he know
there’s no harvest for him
in this uncaring bay?

(5) Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva — even if you are not a movie (or Dietrich) fan you will not be disappointed. This is an irresistibly epic and highly researched biography of one of filmdom’s greatest “creations” by Dietrich’s daughter. Maria was with Dietrich, just out of frame, during all of the major films of her glory years. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, Dietrich was very comfortable with the stark chasm between her on-screen and off-screen persona. She was a highly complex, contradictory, maddening and thoroughly lovable person.

This biography gives an unblinking look at a woman who was decades ahead of her time, who travelled thousands of more miles and entertained more many more troops (uncredited, at her own expense) during WWII than Bob Hope. She was behind enemy lines at one point and was in Holland on the ground to greet the first allies who landed by parachute!

In addition, Dietrich met anyone who mattered in virtually all circles: artistic, literary, political and of course, Hollywood. A huge, fat, heavy book that is maddeningly difficult to put down. Warning, once you read this bio, you may find yourself impelled to buy several hundred dollars’ worth of boxed DVD sets on La Dietrich. If you want to buy only one film about her, get “Marlene” (1984), a brilliant documentary by actor/director Maximillian Schell. You won’t be disappointed with either the book or the films. Crazy as it sounds, I have looked at nearly everything differently after seeing the world through the eyes of Marlene.

You can trust your book to the cat that has “that look” …

Speaking of books, if you live in the greater Los Angeles area, go to one of the world’s last true independent bookstores. Large space, great selection, and a one-eyed cat. Who could ask for more? Go to the Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood on the north east corner of Cahuenga and Chandler. And tell them “Max sent me.” I bought most of the books on this list there, and miss that place like crazy. At least I have Powell’s in Portland, OR and Beaverton, OR.

When all else fails, use candles

One Autumn when heading to the season close of the  Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon,  I arrived a day early in the midst of a strong electric storm. I decided to attend a near by, “local” theatre to see a musical version of  Tale of Two Cities in a very small, initmate theatre.

Near the end of the first Act, the power went out (for hours) and the actors had to think quickly on their feet. They decided to continue the performance by candle light. The cast or director could easily have decided to cancel the performance and give the audience a refund. Instead, the company decided to just “go with it,” and the results were astonishing.

Since the production was set in the 18th Century, the theatre company happened to have an abundance of working candelabra, so “alternate” lighting was available. With real crashing thunder and lightning for sound effects, the audience had a very memorable night of theatre. Not only did the “realistic” lighting give more edge to the acting, but the actors had to improvise blocking to stay “in frame” (or in candle’s glow) and also not set one another on fire. The actors were on edge (they could no longer see the audience, beyond the candle’s glow) and each member of the cast took on a raw vocal quality that went perfectly with a story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Ironically, the “black out” portion of this play led to a “musical” with no music. The cast had been using recorded music as background to their singing. Now, with no source of power, other than wax candles and vocal chords, each actor had to sing “unplugged”.  Again, there was a raw, haunting quality that gave the lyrics far more impact than in a normal production. The first song sung sans music, was delivered by “Madame deFarge“, harshly lit by one candle directly in front of her face. The lyrics cut like a knife, when delivered without music:

Now is the time to act not alone,
Now is the time to take what we own,
Now is the time to cut to the bone! 

The audience was transfixed. Partly because no one knew what would happen next. Would the lights go back on?We were literally on the edge of our seats. Each lyric and line seemed pregnant with meaning. I got so caught up in this unique production that I forgot how the story ended, although I had read Dickens’ novel at least twice and had seen the 1930s movie 3 or 4 times.

At the end of the production, half the audience stayed to chat with the actors and try to convince them to do all future productions by candle power only. (I have no idea whether Ashland fire laws allowed this.)

This unique night of theatre taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. When a seeming catastrophe happens (e.g. you arrive at a trade show and there is no software, or someone sent you the wrong computer), just “go with it.” Don’t cancel your performance. Give your customers and audience whatever you have to offer, even if you feel like you are performing “naked,” without your familiar props and support systems. Sometimes you actually build a stronger connection with your audience or customers because you have to “make up” your narrative as you go along and your familiar script is no longer available.

Not long after my theatrical inspiration,  I had 5 minutes notice to step in and deliver a substitute presentation to a major potential customer during flu season. My sick co-worker had the PowerPoint presentation at home with him! So, I had to engage my audience for 2 hours with nothing but a white board and 3 colors of dry/erase markers. I connected with the prospects as well as Madame deFarge had with her candles, and we actually closed the sale!

In the midst of a catastrophic economy, when you think you’ve lost the essential tools you need to “go on with the show,” don’t hide in the shadows. Take whatever “candles” you can get your hands on,  go out on stage and share whatever you’ve got.  When you have to perform “unplugged”, with no lights, no sound system, and none of the other tools you thought were essential, you are forced to fall back on just raw talent and work with what you have.

You might be surprised by the results, and your “audience” (or potential employers) may be pleasantly suprised also. During a recession, thunder and lightning can be terrifying, but they also make really great sound effects when you have nothing else to work with.

Strangers on a train: where words don’t work

Over 25 years ago I was unexpectedly thrown into a travel situation where nobody spoke English. Furthermore, nobody spoke a Latin based language, so my semi-fluent Spanish and any verbal communications were out. For four long days, in order to eat, find the bathroom, know when to get back on the train, do “anything”, I had to find alternate means of communication. I was essentially left to the same devices the Phonecians used when they encountered Etruscians for the first time. It was both an elevating and humbling experience.

But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much.

I’ve been in the translation industry going on 12 years now. Every day SMEs and linguists focus on how to get just the right meaning to transform complex, technical sentences into language that the target audience will grasp, via remote communications. But how do you communicate when neither party has a common language, or any means of verbal communication? For years there have been debates about developing a second “icon/image” based language (think airline safety card.) McDonald’s even created a visual “language” of icons to express nutritional ingredients on packaging worldwide. But overall, little progress has been made in establishing a “standard” set of icons for daily use.

Ironically, left to my own devices, I found out that an astonishing amount of communication can take place with no words, just gestures, images, and perhaps a heart felt connection with a “stranger on a train.”

It was Spring of 1982 and I had just finished a series of cruises across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through the more visited Greek Isles. We were in the midst of a severe recession, I had accumulated 5 weeks of “comp” time and had decided to use it all at once. I had wanted to complete the trip with a visit to friends in the UK and thought “wouldn’t it be fun” to take a train from Athens to Belgium, and then take the ferry to England?

My travel agent had reserved a “first class” compartment on a Greek/Yugloslav train (with dining car) that wouldn’t require a transfer until Munich. Being 1982, this meant going through several Communist countries, including the region that erupted into unimaginable violence after the break up of Yugoslavia. As a result, western tourists were not the norm, and nobody, that is nobody, spoke a Latin-based tongue!  The first class compartment proved to be a cubby hole with bunk beds. Not only was there no dining car, there wasn’t even a food vendor (e.g. somebody in a babushka peddling crackers from a basket) on the train. I soon discovered that I was probably the only person on board without provisions. I had one Greek candy bar to start the trip with.

Being the May day holiday there were about 50 Greek soldiers on board, evidently on some sort of leave. Although none of them spoke a word of English, they were intrigued with the novelty of an American, and shared wine, grapes and cheese. Being a credible artist, I was able to draw a map of the USA, delineate California and draw a bridge for San Franciso. “Oh, Hollywood!” one of them exclaimed. The only English I was to hear for 3 days.

I did have Greek currency, and using hand gestures, pointing at numerals on my watch, was able to decipher how many minutes we would stay at each train station. While sharing the food I’d bought with some of the soldiers, we tried to “explain” to one another what our professional backgrounds were. One young sergeant pantomimed plowing a field (farmer), another was a good enough actor to make make it clear that he had driven a taxi. I was a trainer and sales support person for digital typesetters. Impossible to communicate? Not really … I drew a picture of moveable, metal type (which they all understood) and then drew arrows, putting the type on a computer screen with a keyboard. One young man pretended to type and pointed at the headline of his Greek newspaper. They “got it.”

This was turning out to be too easy.

That trip was memorable for many reasons. Floating through what is now Bosnia / Herzagovia, the passing country side was like a trip back in time. Peasants were dressed in traditional garb; if it weren’t for an occasional automobile, it could have been 1860. Farm women were slaughtering pigs. The apple blossoms were in bloom. It was some of the most heart-achingly beautiful landscape I have seen, before or since.

Ironically, I should have felt lonely and isolated, being the only one who spoke English. But for the next 4 days I made many friends who were determined to draw my attention to points of interest … all without words. As we crossed on bridge, an older man (Slovakian, I think) make gestures to indicate that the bridge had been blown up. Then he drew a swastika and pointed at himself, pushing on the plunger. He wanted me to know that he had been in the resistance and had helped end the war one bridge at a time. I pretended to pin a medal on his breast, and he loved it.

Several soldiers pulled out photos of wives or sweet hearts, and sometimes even used pocket calendars to indicate when an impending marriage was coming. (Gestures showed invisible rings being exchanged.) I gestured throwing rice, which drew blank stares. Oh well, sometimes you do need words when cultural habits vary.

At the end of 4 days, I hadn’t learned a word of Greek / Croatian / Slovakian or Rumanian, and my fellow passengers certainly hadn’t learned a word of English. But in that bubble of time, in the microcosm of that train, we had learned a great deal about one another and had communicated on the most human level I had experienced in my young adult life.

When the time came to change trains in Germany, and we had to part our ways, we said our good byes. One young soldier (the taxi driver who was to get married) took my hand, placed it on his heart, and pointed at me, at him, to indicated that we were friends. And then he used his fingers to indicate “walking” and then pointed up, to “God.” In an instant, I realized that he was telling me to “go with God.” I wasn’t embarassed in the slightest by his kiss on both cheeks. I was humbled and honored. I remember giving him something as a token of friendship. It may have been a keychain, or a trade show chatschka … it may have been worth about 50 cents, but it was American, and it meant something to him. (Does he still have it today?)

Walking towards my next train, I appreciated how important language is. But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much. Not when we are one-on-one with a “stranger on a train.”

My first Fall

Until June, I had lived in California all of my life. Through lengthy business trips over the years, I had spent up to 3 months in parts of the USA where “Fall Colors” occur, usually catching glimpses of the color at the end of day across a Day’s Inn parking lot.

The idea of trees changing dramatic colors and signaling a shift into a harsh winter always seemed an exotic notion to me, perhaps the way “snow birds” feel when viewing palm trees out of their winter timeshare windows. I had so many palm trees in my life throughout various parts of California that they still seem a bit like weeds to me, rather than symbols of an exotic retreat.

No matter how much time you spend around Fall Color, if you don’t actually live there, it’s not the same.

My new home, (Portland, Oregon) has a surprising amount of Fall Color. Not as dramatic as New England or Pennsylvania, but impressive none the less. With a latitude similar to Paris France, we’re far enough North for the Sun to get low and cast a nearly horizontal light through gold, bronze, even heliotrope colored trees that have black/green fir covered slopes in the background. When you live in such a place, the changes in the trees takes on a significance that is difficult to grasp for a visitor from a milder climate.

I went to the zoo last weekend, and the Lorikeets were sometimes difficult to spot amidst the flaming foliage. It was almost enough color to make your eyes wince. Children were dressed in bright Halloween costumes. The experience was almost cinematic, a bit like walking from SUNSET BLVD into JULIET OF THE SPIRITS.

The changing colors (and decreasing amount of leaves) act like a slow motion sun dial, indicating the shift into the dark time of the year. To someone who lived all his life with two seasons (wet and dry) it is a wonder to behold. Some colors almost defy description, or cry out for new names (crimson/scarlet/vermilion). Viewing such outbursts of color through the tinted windows of a swiftly moving rental car is not the same as stepping off your own front porch, feeling the faint warmth of sun and being assaulted by an orgy of color on the way to your mail box. “These are my trees, these are my colors, they are changing for me.” It was difficult to get that emotional about a never changing palm tree. (Well, there was Palm Sunday, but that was one day a year.)

Transiting childhood in my home town of Merced, California, there were only a handful of exotic trees that changed colors. They were usually found on the lawns of the well-heeled. Such trees require a lot of water and we could go 9 months without rain, so high maintenance was the word. As I’ve revisited my birthplace over the years, the “color” trees have gradually died off and were rarely replaced. For children growing up there now, it is kind of like having one or two crayons instead of the whole box. Winter in Merced was no picnic; temperatures were relatively mild (we screamed when it hit 40 degrees F). And it was not uncommon to not see the sun for more than 95 days at a time due to the ever present tule fog!

So after over half a century, this is my first “real” Fall …. and I can’t wait to go through a “real” winter, with occasional snow, ice, the whole nine yards. (Isn’t that what gas fire places were made for?) I can hardly wait until Spring, when the cycle is complete. The currency of freshly minted, new green leaves will really mean something after an absence of several months. I can hardly wait.