Although I’m calling this website “a personal memoir in flux,” it is also my hope that the various sections will be of interest to people, whether they know me or not. “Out on a Lim” shares short observations on day-to-day life. “Limerances” chronicles longer remembrances of things past. “Limoscenes” presents descriptions of the plays I’ve written to date, with production photos. “Images in Limbo” shows pictures of the aging process, of me with family and friends. “Limpets” are the non-human dogs in my life, and “Limitations” are tributes to people who are no longer with us. So here I am, past imperfect, present progressive, future tense. Let me know what you think. — Paul
June 22, 2016, by Paul
I was ten years old in 1954 when I saw, in a dark air-conditioned theater in Manila, the movie adaptation of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta, The Student Prince. I thought Edmund Purdom was remarkably good looking as the prince, and Ann Blyth passing fair as the barmaid he wooed but could not marry. The songs from the show were all quite memorable, but “Serenade” was the one I liked best. It was the first real pop song I learned to sing by heart, and I still, on occasion, sing the first stanza to myself:
“Overhead the moon is beaming,
White as blossoms on the bough;
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird,
Filling all the air with dreaming.”
Also in 1954, I saw, for the first time, in the hot and crowded gymnasium of the Jesuit elementary school I attended in Manila, the 1939 movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. When Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” in the movie, I started to cry. I was ten years old and, until that moment, I had not realized that I was unhappy. I was an only child because my two older siblings had both died during the war; I had no friends or playmates because my parents were overly protective, afraid that I too might die. I had lots of toys and comic books, but I was sad and lonely. The lyrics of the song reinforced my longing for a life elsewhere:
“Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why, can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh why, can’t I?”
It’s hard to believe that Judy Garland died 47 years ago today, and that I have now been living in Kansas for 48 years. She died the year after I left the Philippines for the United States, on wings which flew me first to San Francisco, then New Jersey, and finally to Lawrence, Kansas. Both “Serenade” and “Over the Rainbow” are songs I still listen to because they are on my iPhone. But there is another one on the playlist I am fond of, also from childhood, about a pair of yellow birds, one of which flew away, leaving the other one alone:
“Yellow bird, up high in banana tree,
Yellow bird, you sit all alone like me.
Wish that I were a yellow bird,
I fly away with you.
But I am not a yellow bird,
So here I sit, nothing else to do.”
What life has taught me, now that I am 72 years old, is that being alone can be a blessing, not a curse. I lived with a good friend from 1968 to 1985. They were good years, but then I decided to buy my own house, which I eventually populated with a dog, an aquarium full of tropical fish and, yes, half a dozen caged birds. I retired five years ago. Although I continue to see many friends and colleagues on a regular basis, I also love the quiet moments alone, the solitude. My parents eventually had three more children, but they arrived when I was already in my early teens, so in my mind I have always been an only child, alone, with just my birds of yesteryear for company, taking me along on their incredible flights of fancy.
“Lullaby of birdland, that’s what I
Always hear when you sigh;
Never in my wordland
Could there be ways to reveal
In a phrase how I feel.”
February 28, 2016, by Paul
A while back, I decided to convert one of the bedrooms in my house to a combination exercise, reading and music room. Besides a bed for the occasional out-of-town guest, the room also contains a treadmill which I hardly ever use, a writing table piled high with books I have yet to read, a big boombox on which I play mostly classical music when I’m reading the local morning paper or the Sunday New York Times, and two fairly large bird cages. My father used to raise large Brazilian parrots, but I am not quite as ambitious.
Up until a year ago, I had four lovebirds, a pair in each one of the cages, but then the older pair, whom I named Papageno and Papagena (from Mozart’s The Magic Flute), suddenly died within months of each other, perhaps because they were truly inseparable. And then, when the younger pair, whom I named Gustav and Alma (Mahler), went through the motions of procreation, I placed a nesting box in their cage. Soon they were in and out of there. After a couple of weeks, I checked, and found three eggs in the box. Another five or six weeks went by, with lots of activity, and then I sensed something was terribly wrong when Gustav and Alma stopped popping in and out of the box. With great trepidation, I opened the box, and found that only one of the three eggs had hatched. The baby bird was about two inches long, was partially covered with feathers, but it was clearly dead, even though its little body was still warm to the touch. I felt remorse and guilt about having named the parents Gustav and Alma, because in real life the Mahlers also lost one of their young children, for whom Gustav wrote the very sad Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”), based on the poems of Friedrich Ruckert. These days, Gustav and Alma continue to be very affectionate with each other, grooming and feeding each other, but I don’t see them mating anymore. Perhaps they are still grieving over the loss of their one and only offspring.
Meanwhile, I could not bear to see Papageno and Papagena’s cage sitting sadly empty, so a couple of months ago I went to a local pet store and bought, not another pair of lovebirds, because Mozart’s lovebirds could never be replaced, but four parakeets instead, two of them blue, and two of them yellow. I’ve never had parakeets before, but I liked the way they chirped when I approached them. The two blue ones already seemed to be a pair, so I named them Robert and Clara (Schumann). The people at the store said one of the yellow ones was definitely a male, but that the other one was still too young to determine its gender, so I named the male Frederick (Chopin) and the asexual one George (Sand). Whatever gender George might turn out to be, they also seemed to be a pair. And now my house is filled once more with the songs of nature. The birds are happiest when I am in the room with them, reading the paper and listening to classical music. They like whatever music I put on, but definitely seem to favor Vivaldi’s guitar concertos, and old Maria Callas recordings of Puccini arias.
I am now glad to report that George is, in fact, female. But something strange is happening in their cage. While Robert and Clara (Schumann) continue to spend a great deal of time together, as do Frederick (Chopin) and George (Sand), in recent weeks I’ve noticed George in flirtatious dalliance with Robert, to the annoyance of both Frederick and Clara. But George always returns to Frederick, and Robert to Clara, then all seems well again, though only for a while. I really have no idea what’s going on with these parakeets, but I’ve now also put two nesting baskets in their cage, in the hope that they might soon produce baby parakeets. Will these be blue or yellow, or green if of mixed parentage? Just like America itself, divided politically into red and blue states, with the odd purple one emerging hither and thither.
In any case, if I do get baby parakeets, of whatever hue, and they start to make their sweet baby chirps, maybe the grieving lovebirds will be inspired to give it one more try. The nesting box is still in their cage, and maybe enough time has passed so that the scent of untimely death can now be replaced by that of new life.
February 2, 2016, by Paul
In his holy acceptance speech for being the godly winner in the Iowa caucuses last night, GOP presidential nominee Ted Cruz quotes a verse from Psalm 30: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Is this meant to be proof of his divine mission, or is he trying to console the losers last night, promising them a better tomorrow?
In any case, this being a democracy, we all deserve the officials we vote into office. To borrow a page from Eugene O’Neill’s Electra playbook, when this is all over, I hope the electorate will also welcome whatever “joy cometh in the mourning.”
February 1, 2016, by Paul
After five visits to my dentist, spread out over two months, to initiate and go through all the stages of a root canal, today the gold crown was finally installed with great fanfare. When the assistant who was helping Dr. Charlie first brought the gold crown in, she exclaimed, “This is so heavy! Do you want to feel it? It is so heavy!” When I demurred, she repeated, “Are you sure? It is so heavy!”
For the next 15 minutes or so, as she continued to do the prep work for Dr. Charlie, putting the gold crown in, then taking it out, then putting it back in, then taking it out again, all I could think of were the gruesome pictures I had seen of mounds of gold fillings which the allies had found in the various concentration camps after World War II. Were these extracted before or after the Jews were gassed to death? What was the Third Reich going to do with all these gold fillings? And then I started to cry.
“Am I hurting you?” the dental assistant inquired, sounding really alarmed.
“No,” I mumbled.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, quite sure. I’m just thinking about what all this gold is going to cost.”
“Oh,” she laughed. “You’re such a joker.” And then Dr. Charlie came in to do the final art installation.
My mouth is now golden. But will I be able to chew on my new crown without thinking of those mounds of gold fillings, ever again?
January 24, 2016, by Paul
Perhaps because I am not Caucasian. some friends and colleagues have been asking for my opinion on the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016. To one such query, I replied cryptically, “People should stop whining, and just get on with it.” Not surprisingly, my politically incorrect response was met with uncomfortable silence. Truth of the matter is, I have kept quiet about my own encounters with affirmative action for thirty years. I have managed to “get on with it,” but I think perhaps the time has now come for me to tell my story.
Up till the mid-1980s, I was content to be a “lecturer” in the English department at the University of Kansas, because the half-time appointment gave me a lot of time to pursue my own writing. However, being on half-time also meant that mine was not a tenure-track position, that there were only a limited number of courses I was allowed to teach, mostly classes in Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward. This went on for a number of years, and then an opportunity presented itself in the mid-1980s. There was suddenly an opening for a creative writing position in the department.
Although I was known at that time primarily as a playwright, having written nine plays, one of which had been presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and two of which had been produced Off-Broadway in New York, I had also already published a collection of my earlier, prize-winning short fiction. Out of curiosity, I asked the chair of the department if I should apply for the creative writing position, because I could teach playwriting as well as fiction. “Why not?” he smiled amiably. “You have all the right qualifications. Besides, it would make Affirmative Action happy.” Although I was startled by his remark, I tried not to dwell on it. So I applied for the position, submitting all the necessary documents required—samples of my work, reviews from the press, student evaluations, letters of recommendations from peers and colleagues, etc.
Weeks went by. I heard that there were a lot of applications from all over the country, but that the committee in charge had narrowed down the list of candidates to six, who were all going to be interviewed at the MLA convention in December. My name was not on the list, but I was told that I was still being considered. “Should I go to the MLA convention in Chicago?” I asked. “No need,” a member of the committee reassured me. “We know all about you and your accomplishments, so there is no need for us to interview you.”
At the start of the spring semester in January, the department was told that two of the applicants who had been interviewed in Chicago were being invited for campus visits for further scrutiny and evaluation. No more was said about my application, so I simply assumed, quite correctly, that I was no longer being considered. The two candidates who were brought in were Carolyn Doty and Tom Lorenz, both of whom were novelists. When their campus visits were over, the department was overjoyed to learn that the administrators in Strong Hall had been so impressed by both Carolyn and Tom, they had decided the department could hire both of them, even though only one position had been advertised.
Another couple of years went by. After I turned 44 and had given up all hope of ever teaching anything beyond Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward, K.U. had a new chancellor, Robert Hemenway, who was very concerned about the lack of diversity among the faculty. He sent out word that anyone of color who was already on the periphery at the university, should be brought into the fold quickly, bypassing the usual national search. The same English department chair who had encouraged me to make Affirmative Action happy, now took it upon himself to champion my cause with the new chancellor. Thus, in 1989, I stopped being a “lecturer,” and became a legitimate tenure-track professor at K.U. Another lecturer with whom I had been friendly, a lesbian from Australia who was also a novelist, confronted me at a party shortly afterwards and said drunkenly, “I may be the right gender, but my skin is the wrong color, and my eyes are the wrong shape.” I don’t know how many others in the department shared her opinion.
So that’s how I was hired, in my mind not because I was good or because I had invaluable experience to offer my potential students in creative writing, but because I was a person of color whose presence on the faculty would prove that the University of Kansas was a colorful oasis. Feeling very much like a second-class citizen, I was determined to prove my worth by working harder than anyone in the department. In 1989, when all this happened, I convinced my good friend Grant Goodman to fund not only the first Asian-American Festival at the University of Kansas, bringing in an astonishing array of Asian-American artists and scholars for a week-long celebration the likes of which has never been rivaled at the university, but also the creation of English Alternative Theatre (EAT) to produce the plays yet to be written by my future playwriting students. Sometime in the early 1990s, Carolyn Doty took me aside and said, “Stop doing so much. You make the rest of us look bad.” In the intervening years, even though I have won every single teaching award the University of Kansas has to offer, it never seems enough, because the feeling of being a second-class citizen has never gone away.
When I finally decided to retire in 2010, there was a great deal of controversy in the English department as to whether another playwriting teacher should be hired to replace me. By then, Carolyn Doty had died, and Tom Lorenz argued very persuasively that there were more students interested in fiction writing than in playwriting, so it was more important to hire someone in fiction. The new chair of the department was caught in a dilemma, and she asked me if I knew of any young playwrights of color who could be hired the same way I was hired back in 1989, bypassing a national search, so the department could have its cake and eat it too. A former student told me about Darren Canady, a young African-American playwright originally from Topeka who had moved to New York but who still had strong ties to Kansas. I put forth his name, and he was hired after a whirlwind campus visit and interview. Darren has not kept in touch with me since he was hired five years ago, so I have no idea how he feels about the way he was hired.
But, back to the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016. I have yet to see Chi-Raq or Concussion, so I have no opinion about whether or not these movies or anyone involved with their creation should have been nominated for any Academy Awards. Having lived all these years in the shadow of Affirmative Action, forgive me for thinking that the brouhaha is brouhohum.
January 23, 2016, by Paul
First we had “westerns” from Hollywood, which mutated into “spaghetti westerns” from Italy. Then came the “easterns” by way of samurai movies from Japan, which in turn mutated into the high-flying martial arts movies from Hong Kong and China. And now we have the “northerns.”
There may be earlier “northerns” than The Savage Innocents, which I found absolutely absorbing and mesmerizing when I first saw it in 1960. Directed by Nicholas Ray, it’s about an Eskimo (Anthony Quinn) in the early 1900s who, true to the rules of hospitality in his culture, offers a stranded white missionary (Peter O’Toole) not only a place to sleep in his igloo, but his wife (Yoko Tani) as well. When the missionary is horrified by the offer, the Eskimo is gravely offended and, in the ensuing scuffle, accidentally kills the missionary. The Eskimo flees into the Arctic wilderness with his family, and the rest of the movie shows the cavalry and/or police in hot pursuit.
Now comes The Revenant (2015), directed by Alejandro Inarritu, in which a frontiersman (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the 1820s, having been mauled by a bear and left for dead by avaricious members of his own hunting team, somehow manages to survive against great odds. He decides to pursue and confront the evil men who tried to bury him alive just so they could profit by his death. The narrative is riveting, the cinematography spectacular, the acting flawless, and yet…
The Savage Innocents won no awards in its day; the movie came and went without much notice, and only recently did it become available on DVD. The Revenant, on the other hand, has already won three Golden Globes (Best Movie, Best Director, Best Actor), and we are just waiting to see how many Oscars it will take home (it has been nominated in twelve categories) at the Academy Awards. It certainly deserves all the awards it can get, but in my mind, The Savage Innocents was the first “northern” I saw, and I remember it now, more than fifty years later, more vividly than The Revenant, which I saw only a couple of weeks ago.
January 17, 2016, by Paul
Nearly two years after his death, Grant K. Goodman’s scholarly research on the subject of “comfort women,” a euphemism for the sex slaves working in the official brothels established throughout Southeast Asia by the Japanese Imperial Army for the pleasure of its soldiers during World War II, continues to provide key evidence that such atrocities occurred even though the Japanese government continues to deny the truth. The most recent account of Grant’s role in exposing all the details of this lurid chapter in Japanese history appears on the front page of the The Lawrence Journal World on 17 January 2016 (http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2016/jan/17/document-proving-wwii-comfort-women-now-home-ku-li/).
Another story which Grant frequently told, but which is not mentioned in the Journal-World article, is that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was believed by many Japanese to be a deity for having defeated the divine Emperor and the Japanese Imperial Army. Thus, hundreds of young Japanese women wrote letters to Gen. MacArthur after the war, offering to bear his children because he was “a god.” Grant translated all these letters, along with the incriminating documents about the sex slaves, and turned them over to the war office. He kept a copy of “Research Report No 120: Amenities in the Japanese Armed Forces” locked up in his safety deposit box but, unfortunately, he did not keep copies of any of the letters. But they are there, buried somewhere among the archives, waiting to be discovered by the next generation of historians and scholars.
January 13, 2016, by Paul
A white supremacist group which has proclaimed Donald Trump as “The Great White Hope” is now sending out robocalls to Iowans to caucus for Trump in the Iowa caucuses. The robocalls begin with a peculiar homily from Rev. Ronald Tan, a Filipino-American pastor of the Assemblies of God Christian Church of Carson, CA. He is also the co-host of a radio show “For God and Country,” which is sponsored by the American Freedom Party, founded in 2010 as “a Nationalist party that shares the customs and heritage of the European American people.”
Here is the convoluted message from Rev. Tan: “First Corinthians states: God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong. For the Iowa caucuses, please support Donald Trump. He is courageous and he speaks his mind. God Bless.” This is followed by a crystal-clear message from Jared Taylor, the editor of American Renaissance: “We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.”
In 1935, the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established by the United States, and full independence was granted to the Republic of the Philippines on July 4, 1946. Why a Filipino-American would be affiliated with a white supremacist group in 2016 truly boggles the mind. Orange may be the new black on Netflix, but Rev. Ronald Tan and his followers seem to have convinced themselves that brown is now the new white!
January 12, 2016, by Paul
David Bowie died on 10 January 2016. He was 69 years old, three years younger than I am. The only album of his that I owned was Ziggy Stardust back in 1972 and, later, I was a big fan of three of his movies—The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also 1983). There were rumors that Bowie visited William Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, but our paths never crossed. Not in the usual way, anyway. I have already written about all this in paulstephenlim.com (under the subsection “Limoscenes” for my play Lee and the Boys in the Backroom). You can read the full entry there, but I am reproducing below the part that deals with David Bowie.
Because of my friendship with William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz (see also my NAKED LUNCH entries in the “Limerances” section of this website), it was only a matter of time before someone would suggest that I adapt something by Burroughs for the stage. I forget now who made the initial suggestion. It might have been James Grauerholz himself, or it might have been Mary Doveton, the artistic director of the Lawrence Community Theatre, where my plays CHAMBERS and FLESH, FLASH AND FRANK HARRIS had originally premiered. I was intrigued by the suggestion, and immediately read all the published works of Burroughs. The dramatist in me responded best to the novel QUEER because it was the most linear of Burroughs’ books, and also because it was a tragic love story on many levels.
When James and William both agreed to let me adapt QUEER for the stage, they also gave me permission to look through and use carte blanche any of the unpublished correspondence during the time period of the novel (1949-1952) between William and his friends back in the United States, among them Allen Ginsberg. How can any playwright resist this offer? And so I looked through the letters in the filing cabinets in Burroughs’ house in Lawrence, and the structure of the play began to emerge and evolve.
I showed big chunks of the play to William and James as I finished writing them, and they both seemed very pleased. After they read the first draft, the only suggestion I got by way of feedback from James was that I should cut some of the puns I had introduced into the text. James told me that, although William was a wordsmith and loved wordplay, he was not really a punster. And so I combed through the script and cut out most of the puns, this being perhaps the only time I’ll ever confess to being caught with my puns down.
Back in 1987, I wasn’t sure if calling the play QUEER, like the novel, would be a good move, even in a liberal town like Lawrence, KS. However, back then in America, within the homosexual community, even with thousands of people dying of A.I.D.S., it was well known that many gay men continued to have unprotected sex in gay bathhouses and also in the dark backrooms of gay bars and xxx-rated movie houses. I tried to draw a parallel between Lee’s promiscuity in Mexico forty years earlier, with what was going on within the gay community in America in the late-1980s. And, of course, there was that lusty song, “The Boys in the Backroom,” which the gay icon Marlene Dietrich had sung in the movie DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. I thought the song was rousing and carousing, maybe even arousing in a different context, and that’s why I decided to call the play LEE AND THE BOYS IN THE BACKROOM. In retrospect, maybe I should have had the guts to just call it QUEER, after the novel from which it had been adapted.
My friend Paul Hough was not available to direct this play. I did not think there was anyone else around who had the right “sensibility” for the material, so I decided to direct it myself for the Lawrence Community Theatre, May 8-12, 1987. Because William S. Burroughs is who he is, and also because James Grauerholz is a superb publicist, the production attracted a great deal of attention. I remember there being a great deal of talk about another production, Off or Off-Off Broadway in New York, but this never actually materialized.
James informed me later that I had never actually entered into a legal arrangement with William to adapt the novel and/or the letters, that there was no contract, that I had no right to pursue other productions of the play. Besides, he said, there were other “more important people” who were also interested in adapting the novel QUEER, not for the stage, but for the movies. Among the names he mentioned was David Bowie. But, to make matters worse, James dropped some hints that both he and William never really liked my play. Because of this, James and I stopped talking to each other for a long time. But we eventually made up before William died. We’ve never talked about the play again, and there has never been another production of LEE AND THE BOYS IN THE BACKROOM. Nor has David Bowie (or anyone else) ever adapted QUEER for the movies. But this may still be forthcoming.
January 10, 2016, by Paul
There were half a dozen people in the theater today for the 12:05 PM showing of THE BIG SHORT. I don’t know about the other people there, but I thought the film was brilliant, at least the 10 percent of it that I understood. I need Bernie Sanders to explain the other 90 percent, which is why he has my vote.