Monday, April 28, 2008

On the Road to Mandalay

((On the premise that not many people have ever managed to visit Myanmar/Burma, I'm returning to my 1986-87 journal to recount some adventures I had there--back before the military junta cracked down again, before Aung San Suu Kyi's seemingly permanent house arrest, back when Westerners could still visit, even if only for a very controlled single week.))

June 24

The Strand Hotel in Rangoon is another out-of-time survivor of the British Empire, preserved much as it was to please us romantic Westerners, but also slowly decaying beyond recovery. Patches on the carpet and cracked walls in the slightly seedy bathrooms bespeak the Socialist government's basic disinterest. But it continues to serve as a social center of Rangoon, ready for parties, weddings, and officials taking other officials to lunch.

Before heading up-country I'm sharing a double room at the Strand overnight, with Tomas, a professional photographer from Santa Cruz. He travelled here five years ago, says nothing has changed that he can see; but he hopes to rent a jeep and cruise the un-touristed countryside, something the government attempts to discourage/prevent. With my own more-limited time, looks like all I'll get to is Pagan's 40 square kilometers of temples and ruins (one of the wonders of the world, the books and visitors say), then back to Rangoon.

Turning the clock back (a suitable expression since Burma is the most placid and time-lost country left in Asia): it was pouring rain in Bangkok, with a two-hour wait at the airport till Burma Airways folk deigned to allow passenger check-in. There and on the flight, I spoke to more Americans at one time than I've seen in the previous five months of travel. (Everyone wants to see this mysterious country, I guess, envisioning Kipling and the Empire, WWII's Burma Road, Flying Tigers, etc.)

Then on arrival the customs/immigration/declarations/cash conversion process seemed interminable; my passport and one-week visa must have been stamped a dozen times. Anyway, I converted $100 in travellers checks, receiving 729 official kyat (pronounced "chaht"); these bills must be used for the government-sponsored travel and hotels. After that legal transaction, I ignored the inadequate offer from one of the customs officals and instead sold my duty-free fifth of Johnny Walker Red and carton of "555" cigarettes (total cost $14) to the taxi driver for 500 kyat, equal to about $70--which is how the traveller in Burma acquires "illegal" kyat to finance food, beverages, souvenir-buying, etc. The trick is to use up all the ill-gotten money, plus just enough of the official kyat to satisfy government watchdogs--a silly and time-consuming exercise in this land of double-think, where we have only seven days (six for me), much of which must be spent on planes, trains, or buses just getting around. Maddening, peculiar, confusing, and fun, and the long-standing Burmese tradition. Who am I to refuse?

(The other, more dangerous option is to sell U.S. dollars on the black market, at about 30 kyat each. My friend Patrick was here not long ago, was caught selling just $20, held for eight hours at the police station until the American Consulate effected his release.)

June 25

I stood in line at Tourist Burma to book an overnight train to Thazzi and bus from there to Pagan, then wandered the city. Rangoon seems almost blissfully quiet compared to Bangkok or Jakarta, but also unexpectedly dirty on the rain-splotched side streets.

Observations and encounters: Burmese women in sarong-like dresses, with streaks of a yellowish pasty substance dabbed on their faces, and the men in their wraparound longyis--a cascading human rainbow of colors and stripes and plaids, usually mixed together... The stares experienced by Westerners, neither friendly nor hostile, just watchfully blank until you make the first overture... The absence of garish advertising, with every movie poster subdued, save for the familiar James Bond scene of a woman's legs framing gun-ready 007; this one attracts a group of men who stare up, mesmerized...

Locals sidling up to tourists: "Anything to sell? Kyat for dollars?" One man's rapid-fire rap listed 20 different items he wanted to buy, but we couldn't agree on price. Another was dying to acquire two of my old shirts: "I'm a poor man. Many children. Not sell. For myself. How much you want?" He started at 20, went to 30, tracked me down a half hour later to offer 40. But, finally, I only sold him a Bic lighter for 10.

Block after block of grubby, three- and four-story, cracker-box-shaped buildings, all in need of a sandblasting facelift... Pouring rain driving me indoors to a cafe lunch of noodle soup (good) and lime pop (execrable). Suddenly a man sat down at my table, ordered his own meal, and began passing the dishes to me to share. We soon swapped names, addresses, and Burmese phrases as well. ("Thank you" sounds like "Je-zoo-te-mah-day," and "Hello" equals "Mingle-a-bah.") Then departing for his work just as quickly as he came in, Mr. Ko Kyaw Swe insisted on paying for both of our meals. "Welcome to my home," he said as he left.

On to Sule Pagoda, a tall gold-plated spire surrounded below by many Buddhas of terracotta, painted soapstone, and gold. From the many sellers clustered at each entrance, worshippers buy paper parasols, floral wreaths, braided ribbons, and incense sticks, all to offer up. Workers prowl the grounds pouring water over the Buddhas' heads. Young women stand pitching coins into buckets rotating on a lazy susan. A fascinating exhibition of photos and painting from all of the varied Buddhist countries of Near and Far East also includes three-dozen bright cartoon drawings like Disney animation cells, on the life and miracles of Gautama!

Finally, ambling back to claim my pack and head for the train, I stopped in a busy bookstore full of ancient dusty stacks of old Penguin and bantam paperbacks, most from the Fifties and Sixties, Classics and hot rods and Westerns, but also Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar and Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues! But all of these are ignored by the thronging Burmese who instead crowd the long front counter, shouting and waving their hands to obtain the latest International issues of Time and Newsweek.

The ride north on wooden seats should be interesting.

((As indeed it was, to be recounted next post.))

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Things Are Looking Up

Humans are always looking up--to the Heavens, to constellations and particular stars, to mountains in the distance, to birds and leaves overhead, to the roof and even the ceiling, to sports figures and silly celebrities, to fast-talking politicos, and, of course, to a hoped-for future.

Here are two poems of mine about looking up from inside (and please note that the first, lacking a final dot-period, ends as intended; it's not a typo):


I was thinking of rafters, of being
up in the rafters: a summer cabin,
crumbling wasps’ nests, cobwebs
misplaced with dust. A boy climbs
and becomes the inheritor of these.
Beams come together at certain angles,
and join, like the bones of the sky’s foot;
nerves and muscles ease, and he fulfills
flesh with his silence and his joy.

He is high. From his ribbed haven
he lords it over all gravity’s playthings,
exulting in his horde of small pleasures:
the planed feel of fir, knotholes
slipping through other worlds, the archeology
of dry husks, the reinvention of listening--
Stella Dallas’s torments diminished,
Green Hornet’s cousins mutable,
Jack Armstrong, All-American boy…

himself aloft. He waves his arms
and the NBC Symphony swells,
buoying the rafters, sounding
and resounding in the fiber
of sullen air. Broken wings
of wasps are made whole,
spider’s silk releases, the heel
of earth lifts. Transported
he flies, he cannot fall,

he is as he dreams in the music
of first memories where
dreaming is flying and falling
is flying and rafters are
flying and I am still


The Dormer

Rising from sleep’s undersea,
decompressing in gradations, I
see liquidly: the perfect shadows come,
hold for a moment,
then melt… or break and run.
Wrapped in the same flowing stillness but
attenuated by daily circumstance,
last night at the edge of sleep we
found each other’s heat in supine flesh,
stirring just long enough to meld
greater than we are apart.

Now from this nest of sheets and haunches
I see new wings, fleet limbs
flickering on the dormer ceiling,
spirits recreating us in light and shadow:
the cars that flutter past outside
bounce over pitted concrete, braking
for the downturn, scattering
their two-tone, heads-and-tails illumination
across the darkened pale of
walls that are not walls
to our slant, unceilinged selves.

Beyond this life,
splotches of evergreens sharpen and shift
in the brightness thrown by cars ascending;
then, bathed in red, they drift
and fall away, as we do
when we are not ourselves,
convected by each day’s disappointments.
I see the stress and hurry,
the spectres of cash and loss,
take up the trees and rush them away;

and I would become
some changing angel of the rooftops,
enveloped in loving possibilities--
who dances at his moment, then
vanishes in ambient light,
overwhelmed by morning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Get the Full Treatment

As a freelance writer with an interest in film, I spent a pretty fruitless decade (late Sixties to late Seventies) trying to sell to Hollywood and/or the networks, first the idea for a grand documentary series devoted to the amazingly varied "Music of the South," then my script on Robert Johnson, then a host of other ventures--the subject of this post.

One of the directors at King Screen (which specialized in educational films when I was writing for the company in the early Seventies) was named Paul Preuss, who later enjoyed some success as a science fiction novelist. Paul and I teamed up to develop a few feature ideas, for which I then wrote treatments. Our Western was called Deadwood City--yes, the very place immortalized (trivialized?) by a raw and powerful series on cable TV nearly three decades later. The treatment I wrote had Calamity Jane as our scruffy and rowdy, in-need-of-a-bath heroine, residing in the sea-of-mud town of Deadwood trying to track down the killer of her (unrequited) love Wild Bill Hickok.

We also plotted out a Ross Macdonald-styled hardboiled mystery titled The Chinese Puzzle, with a disenchanted Vietnam vet who had stayed on in Southeast Asia to become a martial arts master (some bizarre combo of kung fu and Thai foot boxing!) and then returned to Seattle as a private detective; our case involved dark secrets in the past of a wealthy family, the pieces of the "puzzle" open to differing interpretations and wrong conclusions.

About then, Paul decided to move to the Bay Area, and we opted to split "ownership" of the treatments--he got Deadwood and I got The Puzzle, which I then had no luck selling anywhere. I hope Paul got something from the version of our gritty Western that finally made it to television, but probably not, since no one has a copyright on history. He'd have had to prove direct theft of our treatment somehow.

Anyway, I kept plugging away. With consulting input from a Black friend named David Carr, I wrote the pilot for a sit-com series, called something like The Arletha Jones Show, which had a pop/soul star as lead (sort of Diane Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin combined), supported by her Phil Silvers-like manager; her backing-combo led by arranger/pianist boyfriend; and her richly varied, ghetto-but-cheerful extended family. It seemed promising as a concept, but I never managed to get it read by anyone important.

I also spent a long time researching and writing a full-length script I titled Union Maid, involving labor organizing in the Northwest logging industry circa 1920, by the I.W.W., with a firebrand woman--a "Wobbly" organizer from the Eastern coal country--as lead, accompanied by a Guthrie/Dylan folksinger guy as her (unwanted) sidekick. The first half had some fairly comic, character-driven stuff, sort of "tough, good-looking woman trying to persuade crude loggers to think," while the second got tragically serious, culminating in the notorious Everett Massacre and subsequent trial.

But Union Maid got put away before it ever circulated. I couldn't quite make the two halves work together effectively, with the late trial dragging the whole film down... (But I still believe today that the largely forgotten Everett Massacre would make a powerful feature, a saleable combination of action film, tragicomedy, and historical look back, with many visual horrors revealed.)

The last script I wrote back then was also promising, and it actually got produced. But almost no one's ever heard of, much less seen, the film titled Doubles--and that's a suitable review right there.

Here's the story: another wannabe director I knew named Bruce Something asked me to write the screenplay for an idea he had. A bored Seattle dentist decides to create a second life for himself, setting up another residence and dental practice north in the Skagit Valley; not yet satisfied, he then hires a hitman to "kill" that second persona. That was pretty much all Bruce offered, but I was intrigued, pretty confident I could make something out of it.

And I did, adding the plot twists and turns (how to put the killer on the trail without him realizing that he's to kill a guy who knows he's coming; how to manipulate the hitman through a series of near successes; etc.) as well as the character details, indeed adding several other characters to flesh out the bare bones idea. My biggest contribution was to make the hitman one of a pair of twins--second brother the by-telephone contact man who serves as go-between--doubling our idea of "doubles." So when the lead guy finally manages to turn the tables, killing the killer first as it were, he thinks he's avoided any repercussions, legal or otherwise. But he then finds that he is being stalked by someone else he doesn't know about and can't control.

The twin brother is no killer, however, so he tricks the dentist into a final deadly confrontation that he (the brother) expects to lose. Then he cleverly arranges for the local sheriff and others to arrive at the murder scene before the guilty dentist can escape, with all evidence pointing to him as cold-blooded murderer.

I've spent some time detailing this plot mostly to make the next point. I finished the script, Bruce loved it, and he set out to raise money for a small-budget feature shoot. But he circulated the script with only his name on it. And when I learned this some weeks later, he persuaded me that I'd get full credit eventually, but that his apparent sole ownership would make a production deal easier.

I guess anyone reading this can pretty much guess a lot of the rest. The film did get made, but Bruce chickened out on trusting the rather hardboiled script I'd written. Oh, he didn't change the plot or dialogue or my script writing at all, but he added a framing device, a stupid dinner party setting where the whole "doubles" plot was told merely as a story, with no visual attempt to make it seem true or real; the inner story's actors even wore the same clothing in every scene! So all suspense was lost and the new ending just lame.

When I did get to see the butchered film, I also learned that my credit had gone from "Screenplay by" to the meaningless "Script Consultant." But the film was so wretched I decided I was better off not connected with it. Rather than file a grievance with the Writers Guild, I just left Bruce to make what he could out of the mess. Which was nothing.

I pretty much gave up on the notion of a screenwriting career after that. Hooray for Hollywood and its hucksters, wherever they reside...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ban Microsoft!

A temporary message while I scramble...

Microsoft oh-so-generously sent me some sort of upgrade the other day, which I attempted to stall off because I was in a hurry to read emails before departing the house. But the damned intrusion failed to go away and, ever since, my computer sits in some sort of screwed-up mode unable to proceed. The upgrade won't install, the error code seems unfixable since I lack the tool it wants, and I can't get to any of my subprograms, frozen out by the error code. I can override to shut down, but when I boot up again, the whole scenario repeats again, just as in that movie Groundhog Day. Trapped in a time glitch, or a Microsoft niche maybe!

So I type (yeah, yeah, I'm supposed to say key or whatever) this from my wife's laptop, can't add pictures of course, and must wait till I can settle in for a long and irate session with some Microsoft tech helper answering from his/her distant corner of the world.

I'm too old to appreciate the qualities of computers. Bring back my Underwood!

Two days later. I am back on my own computet, following a painful 90 minutes on the phone with a Microsoft techie, a nice guy named Amul (spelling may be wrong) speaking from somewhere in Ingleshtan. He kept suggesting ways to solve the impasse, the machine kept ignoring him and me, and after six such failures he/i resorted to some surprising trickery to erase my Groundhog's Day glitch. Commanding the computer as "Administrator" (which evidently means "God" to a chip entity), he took my recalcitrant machine back in time to a day previous to the beginnings of the problem--et voila! stubborn download gone!

I guess time travel may be possible too.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The O'Day Conspiracy

Writing recently about my brief foray into deejaying (radio, that is, not hip-hop) reminded me about the odd experiences I had with a disc jockey named Pat O'Day, probably the all-time best-known jock from this part of the country. (The photo is not of O'Day, but rather Sam Phillips, who was sort of Pat's role model.) O'Day was variously a deejay, a concert promoter, an m.c., a busy entrepreneur, a station manager, and god knows what else, most of those careers overlapping and continuing on for decades--in fact, at 75 or 80 he's still on television doing ads for Schick Shadel!

Here's how I came to know Pat... When I moved on from the University of Washington's Alumnus Magazine to the original Seattle Magazine (circa 1965-1973), I quickly became the local-color writer on staff, impressionistically covering archeological digs, Olympic Peninsula logging, the Black Power movement in Seattle, the then-new Seattle Repertory Theater, and so on. I tended to write multiple smaller descriptive scenes that, combined together, gave a bigger overview.

Anyway, Pat O'Day was THE major force in radio and rock music concerts at the time, and the editors decided to profile him. Pat's ego was healthy enough that he was quite willing to welcome me and a photographer into his life. I interviewed him a few times and visited his station--the regional powerhouse KJR--as well as a concert or two he was promoting (got to meet the guys in Buffalo Springfield at one); I hung out at his home in Bellevue, and so on. Then I wrote up the story.

Now, Seattle Magazine was known then as a wise-ass, full-of-attitude, gadfly-on-the-rump monthly journal, always willing to pry into things and take a sarcastic stand whenever possible. I locked horns with the editors often, as those carpetbagger East Coast snobs rearranged or rewrote my copy to give it an edge, sometimes rather mean-spirited. For example, I profiled an old-time police chief up in Darrington in the Cascade foothills who claimed to have been on the posse that hunted down Bonnie and Clyde; he had lots of other good stories too. And I added plenty of local color and scenic history; the town had been founded by loggers and others from North Carolina, and was still a hotbed of Tarheel culture in a strange and distant place--with tobacco-chewing workers, bluegrass music, Southern food and manners, etc.

Well, I told the chief's story sympathetically, but the editors turned it into a sarcastic piece mocking dumb rednecks. When it ran, we (meaning I) got nasty letters and angry phonecalls, and the old guy lost his job for innocently helping to make a mockery of Darrington. And when I turned in the O'Day story, the churls went to work again, playing up Pat's nouveau riche suburban lifestyle, his motel-like house furnishings, the big-hair look of his wife, his own obvious toupee, and so on. When the article appeared, well, he definitely wasn't happy with me. (In point of fact, I only lasted a little over a year on staff at the magazine; just couldn't stand the editorial policies and general rewrite interference.)

So we parted ways, both and all of us. Several years went by. I was busy with Rainier and other TV and radio ads, working often with a company called Kaye-Smith Productions (the owners being actor-comedian Danny Kaye and businessman Lester Smith). And in the course of things, KJR and other stations Pat was connected with were acquired by the Kaye-Smith parent organization.

Out of the blue one morning I got a call from O'Day, who wanted to talk to me about a writing project; I had continued to write scripts and such, freelancing apart from my regular job (the next blog chapter will discuss that), and someone at Kaye-Smith had recommended me. So I went to see Pat.

This was the post-Watergate era, when many strange figures connected with Nixon and his minions had made it into dubious history. (Which reminds me that I interviewed John Erlichman for an article before he ever went on to D.C. and disaster.) And O'Day wanted me to write what's called a "treatment," meaning a pared-down script with plot and scenes but without most dialogue and camera shots spelled out, expanding his conspiracy idea. Can't remember whether it was E. Howard Hunt or Gordon Liddy, but one of those creeps was married to a woman who died in a mysterious plane crash; and there was some speculation that she had been killed to keep her husband from telling all.

That was the extent of it. Pat wanted me to turn this broad suspicion into the script for a feature film. I wasn't too excited by the thing, to tell the truth, but he was willing to pay me $2500 for my time, so I went at it. Dreamed up minor characters, twists and turns in the behind-the-scenes action, showed how and why the wife died, etc. Typed it up clean, about 25 pages of stripped-down story, and turned it over to O'Day, who intended to use his Kaye-Smith and other show-biz connections to get a production going; I'd even get to write the shooting script maybe (wasn't holding my breath). He seemed pleased, told me to submit a bill, which I did.

A month went by; no check. I invoiced him again. Another month; still no money. I phoned a few times as a third month went by, couldn't even get him on the phone of course. Finally I asked a lawyer friend to send him a threatening letter... and was then paid within about a week!

I don't know if O'Day was making me sweat for the long-ago article, or merely being a typical, slow-to-pay producer hustler, but the $2500 check actually arrived at just the right time. I used it as the small down payment due on the house my first wife and I were trying to buy. Sold that house a decade later for big bucks, and I certainly owed some of our good fortune to my prickly dealings with one famous deejay!

The conspiracy movie was never made, of course.