“And thereby hangs a tale.”

My Harlan Ellison Story

(This is the first in a series of entries about visiting writers I’ve encountered at the University of Kansas back in the 1970s, when I was working on my M.A. in English, and was still quite undecided about what to do with the rest of my life, whether to pursue an uncertain future as a writer, or maybe a more traditional career as a teacher engaged in academic research and scholarship.)

Although I had read a great many science fiction novels when I was still in high school in Manila, I did not encounter the work of James Gunn until years later, when I was a student in the English Department at the University of Kansas, where Gunn was actually one of two faculty members who taught creative writing (the other one was Edgar Wolfe).  I quickly read most of Gunn’s books, which he preferred to call “speculative fiction” instead of “science fiction.”  And, to this day, one of my favorite novels is Kampus, his Kafkaesque novel about what campus unrest would be like in the near future, a novel which I also taught regularly in a class about depictions of life in academia, alongside other, more canonical works like Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Changing Places by David Lodge, etc.

Living amongst many colleagues who were Doubting Thomases, disdainful of anything which smacked of genre writing, in which science fiction was held with the same disregard as historical romances, James Gunn tried his best to bring some respect and legitimacy to the world of speculative fiction. To that end, he brought to the campus some of the hot, young writers who were making names for themselves not just in books, but in the movies as well.

One of the hot, young writers Gunn brought to KU was Harlan Ellison, whose apocalyptic short story “A Boy and His Dog” had just been made into a movie, an underground hit, a cult favorite among the hip and the restless.  I was lucky to get a seat in the classroom where Ellison was giving a lecture. When he strode into the room energetically, for some reason I thought he looked like a younger Groucho Marx, minus the hat, the glasses, the moustache, the cigar.  Maybe it was just his grin, the gleam in his eye, the promise of unpredictability.

Actually, I don’t remember much about what Harlan Ellison said that day, in the formal part of his presentation. What I remember is what happened afterwards, during the Q&A, when one of undergraduate creative writing majors raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, “Mr. Ellison, can you give us some advice on how to get our stories published?”

“That’s simple,” Ellison smiled. “Where would you like to get published?”

“I don’t know,” the acolyte fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat.  “Maybe Playboy…or Esquire…or The New Yorker.”

“Well, it makes no difference where you want to get published,” Ellison grinned. “All you need to do is go buy some recent issues of your magazine of choice, read all the stories that are published in them, then sit down and write one just like them.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s the same editor who has been deciding what stories to publish in the magazine.. Those are the kind of stories he likes. So sit down and write one just like the ones he likes, and chances are he’ll like yours, too.  That’s how you’ll get published, sonny.”

“B-b-b-but…isn’t that like…selling out?”

“You didn’t ask me about artistic integrity,” he grinned again, his eyes gleaming. “You asked me for advice on how to get your story published.”

There was dead silence in the room.  The students felt betrayed.  Now they have to look elsewhere for another Moses to lead them out of the wilderness of creative writing classes.  To this day, one hears the same arguments being tossed around by MFA students—Isn’t this writer too commercial? Hasn’t that writer sold out? Aren’t we all just better off writing things which we can admire and discuss endlessly in our workshops, never mind if our stories never get published in any magazine anyone recognizes?

But, back to Harlan Ellison. I thought it then, and I think it now.  He told it like it is, and for that I admire him. He’s been laughing all the way to the bank, right from the very beginning, when he was writing for such TV shows as The Loretta Young Show, Ripcord, Burke’s Law, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, The Flying Nun, etc. And now, it’s my understanding that, after nearly four decades of being an underground cult favorite,  A Boy and His Dog is finally going big-time. It’s in pre-production, being remade as an animated feature, due out in major theaters in 2012.

Quite fortuitously, James Gunn is also still around.  Although he retired many years ago, Gunn still shows up daily in his English Department office in Wescoe Hall at the University of Kansas, as hale and hearty as one can expect for a gentleman his age.  Maybe it’s time Gunn invites Harlan Ellison back for another campus visit, once more to share his craft and craftiness with our MFA students.


Friends Without Benefits

Every week, I am pleasantly surprised and filled with inexplicable nostalgia when FACEBOOK sends me a message reminding me of upcoming birthdays of friends, many of whom I haven’t seen or heard from in years. Usually, because it costs nothing to do it, I send these aging friends an e-greeting of one sort or another; and I don’t really expect them to respond because, even though these e-greetings are often fun and clever, they also seem like a lazy way to maintain friendships which now mostly belong in the past.

But, occasionally, FACEBOOK reminds me of birthdays of friends who are still near and dear to me, even though I don’t see them as often as I should or would like to.  For these friends, I do go out of my way to do something special. Most recently, to someone who has worked closely with me in theatre, at a surprise party being thrown for his 40th birthday, I contributed 40 specialty cupcakes, and also gifted him with all three seasons of BREAKING BAD.  Before that, to another friend and colleague in theatre whom I’ve known since 1975, whose wit and wisdom I continue to admire, I surprised him with a bottle of imported Scotch whiskey costing nearly $150, and also took him out to a nice Japanese lunch in Kansas City.

I could list more, but the point I’m trying to make is this—in none of these occasions, when I had gone out of my way to do something special for a friend’s birthday, did I get a follow-up “Thank You” by way of a phone call, a note, or even just an e-mail. So, if our friends and neighbors just don’t do it anymore, why should we expect our elected leaders, the contentious Republicans and Democrats in Congress, to even be civil to one another?

Okay, I admit that I continue to look at the incoming FACEBOOK messages about friends with upcoming birthdays, even though I now also delete them almost immediately.  I don’t feel badly about this, because I do not want to feel worse later, about feeling badly that I haven’t been thanked properly for having gone out of my way to buy expensive gifts for these once and future friends, my friends without benefits.

I wonder if it’s significant that, even when I was young, one of my favorite songs was “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel.  I still remember some of the lyrics—

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

I also wonder if Paul Simon ever misses Art Garfunkel.  Are they “friends” on FACEBOOK?  Do they need FACEBOOK to send them reminders of each other’s birthdays, or have they committed the dates to memory?  Do they give each other gifts, send each other cards via snail-mail, perhaps even just short notes via e-mail?  Can they bear to listen to “The Sound of Silence” now?

Okay, okay.  I confess.  I’m lying.  I’m eagerly anticipating the next FACEBOOK reminder about which friend is having another birthday…and the next one…and the next one.  And now, not just for birthdays either.  I wish there were some way FACEBOOK could also alert us regularly about friends who’ve been sick, at home or in the hospital…friends who’ve lost loved ones, including pets…friends who’ve lost their jobs or their homes…friends who need friends.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary…

Through the years, I’ve had a strange love/hate relationship with Mary Doveton, the Founding Mother and Executive Director of Theatre Lawrence, formerly the Lawrence Community Theatre.  Mary directed the world premiere of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris (1984); and encouraged me to direct three others of my own at LCT—Hatchet Club (1983), Chambers (1985), Lee and the Boys in the Back Room (1987).

Additionally, through the years, I’ve directed many other plays at LCT, frequently as co-productions with English Alternative Theatre (EAT), my own theatre-producing organization within the English Department at the University of Kansas.  Among these productions are Master Class by David Pownall (1986), Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard (1989), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1998), A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (2000).

Many stories can be told about each one of these productions, some funny, some not so funny, but nothing to seriously damage my friendship and working relationship with Mary Doveton.  And then something happened during the production of Whiteout, a new play by my student Alan Newton which Piet Knetsch was directing for EAT in the LCT space in October of 2000.  I am not yet ready to share with everyone the awful details of what happened at that time. But then, in 2007, along came someone out of the blue who inadvertently “buried the hatchet” once and for all, although not in the usual sense one uses this phrase, as to where the hatchet is buried.

In June and July of 2007, Zack Mannheimer, an enterprising young director who had grown weary of the theatre scene in New York, decided to undertake “A Survey of the American Theatre Landscape” by embarking on a remarkable journey which takes him from Pittsburgh, PA to Raleigh, NC, with 25 stops in between, to see if there is a hospitable city where he can locate his own theatre company.  He started a daily blog (http://www.zacksblog.subjectivetheatre.org) which you can read in its entirety, or you can skip ahead to what he says about Day 49 of his odyssey, in Lawrence.  I’m reproducing below, the more salient passages of his account of the separate interviews he had with Mary Doveton and myself, in our respective offices.

Post 49—Day 49: Thr 7/19/2007—Lawrence

After a shower at…Jay Hawk Motel…I leave to attend my first appointment with Mary Doveton, the Executive Director of The Lawrence Community Theatre (www.theatrelawrence.com). Housed in an old church, the theatre is one block out of the heart of downtown on New Hampshire Street….

I am led downstairs to the offices by the receptionist who brings me into the green room.  Mary is busy speaking to another employee. Behind me sits a large-scale model for a new theatre, and I find out later that this larger space will be opening in 2009.

….Mary brings me into her book-lined office and we sit down. “I’m sorry, we only have a few minutes, I do have another appointment coming shortly.”  Mary sits before me, a strong-willed woman of about 55 who, despite her stern look, is as sweet as Moscato….We begin with the usual round of questions, and Mary answers: “This is our 31st season. We bought this space in 1984. Before that we were operating out of community centers or wherever we could find space.”

LCT has an operating budget of $325,000 of which 65% is earned through ticket prices of $14-$20. They do receive some assistance from granting organizations, but the other 35% is made up mostly through private donations and corporate sponsorship. “There isn’t much, we get about $8,000 from the Kansas Arts Commission,” Mary tells me after I ask her about state/city funding. “There isn’t a lot of public funding in Kansas.”

LCT produces 6 shows per year, recently closing Thoroughly Modern Millie to sold out houses….Mary explains that they try to produce cutting edge work, but the same people always come to that; there does not tend to be an overlap of those who come for campy musicals to something like the latest Shanley play. “Mysteries and musicals bring in the money, and that’s what we need right now.”

…..Her next appointment, who was running late, has now arrived. Before I leave I tell her about my quest to find a new city (to settle in). “Do not come here,” she warns me pointedly. “There’s just not enough room for another group.”

Mary asks me where I’m headed next. “Off to English Alternative Theatre to meet with Paul Lim,” I say.  She makes a face. Not a pleasant one.  “What?”  “O, nothing. Enjoy your talk with Paul.”

And with that, I’m on the road across town to the University where Paul is a professor. It seems, as I am gauging from Mary’s comment, that the theatre community here knows each other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they like each other.

I’m on the phone with Paul as I cannot seem to find the building he is talking about. “I’m in a black shirt standing in a spot for you as there isn’t a lot of parking,” he says.  I arrive almost 30 minutes late to meet him, after driving repeatedly in the wrong direction down dead end streets….

“Hello!” Paul greets me as I finally pull into my reserved spot.  “I’m so sorry, I got lost.”  “Don’t worry. Come, let’s go to my office.”  I follow Paul into Wescoe Hall for the Humanities. Paul is a lively, happy man of about 60.  Originally from the Philippines, he wound up in Lawrence at KU for college, receiving his BA in 1969, his MA and becoming a GTA in 1972, a lecturer in 1978 and was granted full professorship in 1989. He is the Chancellor’s Club Teaching Professor of Playwriting in the English Department. Not the Theatre Department. Don’t mess that up.

Paul brings me into his small office jampacked with books, posters of old productions, and endless knick-knacks. I sit down beside his desk and we begin. I have so many questions for him about his company, English Alternative Theatre (www.eat.ku.edu), and its affiliation with the university. “EAT is the only theatre company in the country run through the English department,” he tells me….

“Since you’ve been in Lawrence for quite some time, how has it changed?”  “People used to be more adventurous,” he begins, “but that time seems to have passed. There is not a great deal of risk-taking now when it comes to theatre. Lawrence Community Theatre used to take a lot of risks, but that’s not what pays the bills anymore. Still, there is a small handful of people in the community who actually miss what they used to do.”

EAT has an annual budget of $15,000 – $20,000. Most artists are not paid, as it is almost uniformly student driven, though the designers, technicians and stage managers he brings in are given a stipend. “I don’t like them to do work for free,” Paul says.  “Does the university provide the funding?” He laughs. “We have one angel who gives us money—it’s been the same person since our inception; we founded the group together.””Who is this?” I ask curiously. Paul hands me a copy of Angels in the American Theater.  Apparently, Southern Illinois University Press, who tends to publish all the important theatrical essay books, has just put out a book about theatrical donors in America, and there is an entire article devoted to EAT’s one Angel, Grant K. Goodman. Goodman has an amazing story…there’s not enough room here to go into it, but the long and short of it is that he has always had a lifetime devotion to and love of theatre. Each year he gives EAT the full budget for the season. Paul has never run a fundraiser and has never received a grant, though they are a not-for-profit.

Angels in American Theater is an important book. Never, to my knowledge, has a book been written about the donors of American theatre. This is vital as there would be no theatre without these generous folk. For better or worse, these are the first line of defense when it comes to creating theatre in this country. While I typically abhor the wealthy paying for the art that they want, this book does not only profile the typical Broadway donors. There’s a whole chapter on EAT in Lawrence, Kansas, for god sakes. Robert A. Schanke is the editor and the brainchild behind this operation. He has edited and/or written a virtual catalog of books on American Theatre, this one being part of the Theater in the Americas series that he edits….

But back to Paul, talking about who performs in his shows “The actors come from the community and the student body. I get a lot of the disenchanted theatre students, the ones who just fall through the cracks but are talented and want to perform.”  He says this rather jollily, his round face bobbing along with his words, kindness and warmth emanating from the wide hands he speaks with. “We’ve sent about 20 students to various regional festivals of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival…and we’ve had 5 or 6 go on to win on the national level.”

“It’s all about the students,” Paul reflects.

This was such a wonderful meeting, and it was warming to be back inside a university.  For all of my dislike of what some of them do, I do miss the feeling of being inside academia. I bid farewell to Paul, and am off to The Pig downtown to continue on with my writing.

I don’t know what’s happened to Zack Mannheimer, and whether he ever actually relocated to any of the cities he visited and wrote about back in 2007.  But, it has now been nearly twelve years since I’ve stepped foot inside 1501 New Hampshire.

And now, of course, Mary Doveton is in the final stages of raising $6.2 million to build a new home for her newly-named Theatre Lawrence at 6th and Wakarusa, at the western edge of Lawrence, far away from the heart of the community.  Last I heard, as of a couple of weeks ago, she was still around $600,000 short of her goal. She needs to raise the amount before the end of September, or she’ll lose a $1.2 million out-of-state challenge grant, and that will be the end of that.

Thankfully, on September 6, Lawrence city commissioners approved giving Theatre Lawrence $100,000 ($20,000 a year for the next five years). A week later, on September 13, representatives from Theatre Lawrence asked Douglas County commissioners to do the same, to give the organization another $100,000 (also $20,000 a year for the next five years).

In its editorial on September 14, The Lawrence Journal-World wrote:

“After making a successful funding pitch to the Lawrence City Commission last week, representatives of Theatre Lawrence, the former Lawrence Community Theatre, have decided to extend their tour with a stop at the Douglas County Commission…to ask county officials to make a similar commitment….To many local taxpayers, this seems like a double-dip….The theater received a generous contribution last week in the form of $100,000 in city taxpayer money. The decision now to ask the county to match that amount may be over-reaching. A large majority of county residents already will be contributing to the fund through the city’s contribution.  Should they be asked to give again through the county?

“Theatre Lawrence says it needs the money to reach its $6.2 million fundraising goal by the end of this month and collect a $1 million out-of-state challenge grant.  We hope they are successful in meeting their goal, but, especially at a time when local government dollars are in such high demand to fund essential services, the city’s contribution of local tax dollars may be enough.”

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about Mary Doveton a great deal these past couple of weeks.  And I’ve just reread what Zack Mannheimer had to say about Mary when he mentioned my name.  What I’m wondering now, of course, is whether or not to bury the hatchet, this time in the usual sense of the phrase, by giving Theatre Lawrence a bunch of money before the end of September.  If I do so, maybe Mary will no longer make a face, an unpleasant one, the next time my name is brought up in casual conversation.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle-shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.


Farewell, My Lovelies…

On the afternoon of 9 May 2011, the English Department of the University of Kansas gave a festive “milestones celebration” in the North Gallery of the Spencer Research Library for three of its new retirees, presided by Chair Marta Caminero-Santangelo, and organized by Administrative Assistant Robert Elliott.  The retirees (Mike Johnson, Jim Hartman and I) were expected to say a few words. Here’s what I prepared for the occasion.

Many, if not most, of the people here know me as, until recently, the one and only person who has been teaching playwriting in the English Department since 1989, the same year I founded English Alternative Theatre to nurture, develop and produce the plays being written by my students.  But, my history with the department goes all the way back to spring of 1969, and not many people here know how I came to be at KU, so I thought I might share the story with everyone present.

These days, if I am filled with feelings I cannot begin to describe when I’m watching the hit television series MAD MEN, it’s because I lived through the same exciting period in the 1960s as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson in the Philippines.  Many of the ad campaigns that I worked on had won various industry awards, and my colleagues in Manila thought I was “good enough” to make it on Madison Avenue in New York.

Thus, travelling on just a tourist visa, I left for the United States with my hefty portfolio in June of 1968.  To my disappointment, after they looked at my portfolio, the people at J. Walter Thompson in New York said that, ironically, I had too much experience.  They were only interested in hiring cheaper, beginning copywriters.  They suggested I try my luck with employment agencies, which I did, and they in turn told me that I could lie about my experience and start at $18,000 a year, or else I could sit and wait for a $30,000 job to open up at one of the ad agencies in the city.  Not wanting to sell myself short, I chose to wait.

Day after day, I sat by the telephone, waiting.  Nothing.  Six months went by, and I began to worry, because my tourist visa was running out.  I had only two options.  I could be deported as an illegal alien, returning to Manila with that damned portfolio, my tail between my legs, or I could exchange my tourist visa for a student visa.  And then I remembered that, back in 1964, I had met a peripatetic historian from the University of Kansas, who had been in the Philippines first as a soldier during World War II, then as a Fulbright scholar, then as a frequent visitor in the course of his academic research.  Although I did not have any of my college transcripts from Manila with me, I turned to Grant Goodman to convince the registrar at KU to accept me as a foreign student.  And, believe it or not, that’s how I ended up in Lawrence, Kansas.

As a side note, two weeks before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, the telephone finally rang, not once, but twice, with lucrative job offers from The Wall Street Journal and from Alka-Seltzer, both of whom were starting their own in-house agencies, and they were interested in someone with my background and qualifications.

Too late.

I had dropped out of school after two years of college in Manila because I was bored with my teachers, but now I felt I was ready to reenter the groves of academe.  Had I gone to work for either The Wall Street Journal or Alka-Seltzer in New York, I would not have had the joy of studying with, among many others, Ed Wolfe, Ed Ruhe, Ed Grier, Paul Kendall, John Bush Jones, Jack Oruch, Max Sutton, Hal Orel, Beverly Boyd, George Worth and Jim Hartman.  I would not have formed lasting personal friendships with, among others, such wonderful colleagues in the department as Carolyn Doty, Bud Hirsch, Mary Davidson, Mary Catherine Davidson, Jim Carothers, David Bergeron, Geraldo Sousa, Amy Devitt, Dick Hardin, Bill Scott, Bob and Dorice Elliott, Marta Caminero-Santangelo, Brian Daldorph and Phil Wedge.

When Grant Goodman himself retired from the History Department 22 years ago, he let it be known that he did not want to be presented with an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of then-KU Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs Judith Ramaley, a position which, incidentally, no longer exists in Strong Hall.  I’ve never met our new Provost, so I don’t think there’s any danger of my receiving an autographed 8 x 10 glossy from him.  Truthfully, I am quite happy with all the pictures in my mind’s eye, of everyone I’ve named, of everyone here today, to say nothing of all the wonderful student playwrights, actors and designers I’ve been fortunate to work with through English Alternative Theatre, to remind me that the journey has been worthwhile.  Indeed, it has all been more than worthwhile.

These days, given the economy, I’m thankful I never got into the habit of reading The Wall Street Journal, so there is no reason for me to imbibe the “plop plop, fizz fizz” of an Alka-Seltzer.  Actually, I’ve never in my life ever had an Alka-Seltzer, not even the mornings after the nights of heavy drinking after some of our more memorable and sometimes even deplorable departmental meetings.  I hope I live long enough to tell all the steamy stories on my website at paulstephenlim.com.

Thank you for the memories, one and all, everyone.  A special thank you, too, to all my friends and colleagues who have given so generously to the KU Endowment Association for the annual Paul Stephen Lim Asian-American Playwriting Award which has been established by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

My Memorable Movies for Good Friday

Growing up in the 1950s in the Philippines, I remember Good Fridays being especially sad and mournful, not because Jesus died a horrible death on the cross on this particular day, but because it was the only day of the year when most of the movie houses in Manila were sanctimoniously dark, and the few which dared to be open for business did so only because they were showing “religious” movies.

Five of these movies are forever etched in my memory because I don’t remember now how many Good Fridays they flickered through my consciousness for lack of any other diversion other than sermons on how the Roman soldiers nailed Him on the cross at 9 in the morning, and it took Him all of six hours to die.  Speaking of which, it’s now nearly 3 in the afternoon as I’m writing this.

Of the five movies which were shown without fail on Good Friday in the Philippines, the most popular is, of course, The Ten Commandments (1956), never mind that the Egyptian pharoah’s palace is full of scantily-clad dancing girls, because the only thing anyone wants to see is Charlton Heston waving his impressive rod as he gets ready to part the Red Sea.

Other films they show on Good Friday back in my day in Manila are—Come to the Stable (1952), based on a story by Catholic-convert Claire Booth Luce, featuring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two nuns from the Order of Holy Endeavor in France who arrive in a small New England town with plans to build a children’s hospital; The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), about three Portuguese children who, in 1917, had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white, floating on top of a bush; Marcelino Pan y Vino (1955), a Spanish-language film about a poor orphan in a monastery offering his only piece of bread to an old wooden figure of Jesus, who not only accepts the bread but actually eats it in front of the hungry boy.

But, my own special favorite among the Good Friday offerings of my youth is The Song of Bernadette (1943), based on the novel by Franz Werfel, in which Jennifer Jones plays the sickly French girl in 1858 who claims to have seen “a beautiful lady” at least 18 times near her home in Lourdes, and who didn’t mind it when the BVM never cured her of her asthma.

In subsequent years, Jennifer Jones would go on to appear in Love Letters (1945), as an amnesiac who doesn’t remember that she stabbed her husband to death; in Cluny Brown (1949), as an amateur plumber who tries to keep at arms length two men (Charles Boyer and Richard Haydn) who are actually more interested in her own plumbing; with two other men in Duel in the Sun (1946), as a Mexican half-breed torn between rival siblings Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck; in Madame Bovary (1949), where she actually betrays her husband and has an affair with Louis Jourdan before committing suicide; in Ruby Gentry (also 1952), wherein she marries Karl Malden but has the hots for Charlton Heston before he turned into Moses; and, most scandalous of all, in Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), as a married American woman visiting relatives in Rome, who ends up with Montgomery Clift as her lover in a train station in Rome while her small son (played by Richard Beymer, who will himself grow up to woo Natalie Wood in West Side Story) tries to amuse himself elsewhere in the station.

But, sinful as she is in all her later movies, I forgive Jennifer Jones all her cinematic trespasses because, on Good Friday every year, she is once again my beatific Bernadette; even now, in 2011 in Lawrence, Kansas, as I get ready to have my afternoon snack of hot cross buns from Wheatfield’s Bakery, to be washed down with my favorite cocktail for the day—3/4 oz. Scotch whiskey and 3/4 oz. Drambuie, over rocks in a pre-chilled old-fashioned glass—which, according to Playboy’s Bar Guide, is also called a Rusty Nail.

Come Easter Sunday, there will be other movies to watch, no shortage of gilded lilies. And my favorite among those is Shanghai Express (1932), wherein Marlene Dietrich utters that memorable line:  “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

I Write Like…Who???

Having read about the new website “I Write Like” (http://iwl.me/), which matches samples of one’s own prose with those of famous authors, I decided to have the site analyze some of the longer entries from my “memoir in flux,” and here are the results.

My recollection of the one time I met Arthur Miller was likened to the prose of Vladimir Nabokov. This was very flattering indeed.  I’ve read and admired everything Nabokov has ever written, most especially the novel Lolita; and, of course, his wondrous autobiography, Speak, Memory!

My account of the brief encounter I had with Kurt Vonnegut was said to be reminiscent of none other than…Kurt Vonnegut!  I’m not sure what to think about this comparison, since I am definitely not a Vonnegut fan, except perhaps for a couple of short pieces in Welcome to the Monkey House.

My story about Robert Anderson’s reply to a letter I wrote him when I was a teenager in the Philippines, asking him about possible interpretations of  his play Tea and Sympathy, was tagged as something William Gibson might have written.  Only problem is, there are at least two William Gibsons who are writers.  There’s William Gibson, the cyberpunk novelist; and there’s William Gibson, the playwright who wrote The Miracle Worker.  Surely, it must be the latter, because I’ve seen many of his plays, and because I know the former only by reputation.

One of my many entries about Sarah Palin was decoded and identified with Dan Brown, whom I’ve never read.  I did see the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, which bored me to death, so I’m baffled by the link.  But, now that I’m thinking about it, I do see some similarity between Sarah Palin’s self-satisfied smirk of a smile with that of Mona Lisa. I may be the only person in the world who thinks that Ms. Lisa looks like a balding, overweight man in drag.  I’m sure this is what Sarah Palin will look like after the 2012 election.

My retelling of what happened the night I got the long-distance telephone call from Manila that my father had died, was, to my surprise, compared to the work of Stephen King.  In truth, though, my father did have a dog once who had rabies and was Cujo-like before it had to be put down.  And, I do like Stand by Me–the novel, the movie adaptation with River Phoenix, and also the song written and originally performed by  Ben E. King.

I tried three more entries from my website—one about my mother’s laughter, and two about my various encounters with William S. Burroughs.  Remarkably, all three entries identified me as another David Foster Wallace. Unfortunately, I had no idea who David Foster Wallace was, nor what he might have written. So I looked him up on the internet.

It turns out that David Foster Wallace was a novelist, short story writer, and essayist who was also a creative writing professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.  He was the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.  The Los Angeles Times named him “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last twenty years,” and his 1996 novel Infinite Jest was included by Time magazine in its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list (covering the period 1923-2006).

This is great.  It’ll give me a good excuse to catch up on contemporary fiction. I’ve been immersed too long in theatre and dramatic literature.

By way of trivia, I also learned that David Foster Wallace was close to his two dogs, Bella and Warner, and that he had talked frequently about opening a dog shelter.  His friends said that “he had a special predilection for dogs who had been abused and were unlikely to find other owners who were going to be patient enough for them”

It gets better and better.  I really like this guy.  I’m going to buy and read all his books, see if we really view life and approach writing the same way. And then, suddenly, his name rang a bell.

According to a September 14, 2008 article in The New York Times, David Foster Wallace “died on Friday at his home in Claremont, Calif.  He was 46.  A spokeswoman for the Claremont police said Mr. Wallace’s wife, Karen Green, returned home to find that her husband had hanged himself. Mr. Wallace’s father, James Donald Wallace, said in an interview on Sunday that his son had been severely depressed for a number of months.”

Oh, God.  Now I’m depressed.

My Father’s Silence

I wrote a play in 1988 about my mother.  Although my father is talked about a great deal in Mother Tongue, he never actually appears in the play because I always thought he deserves a play of his own and that, one day, I would give him his due.  I still want to, but every time I think about him now, all I hear is his silence.

In December of 1969, seventeen months after I left the Philippines for the United States, my father died.  I wrote about those first seventeen months away from home in a short story called “Flight.” The story was published in 1970 and has been included in a number of anthologies, but I must admit that I haven’t read it, not since I wrote it, until just moments ago.

Here are bits and pieces from “Flight.”  It begins with my family seeing me off at the Manila International Airport.

I kissed my mother goodbye and told her to stop crying….Then I turned to my father.  There were so many things which I had wanted to tell him, but the words wouldn’t come.  They never do, when you most need them.  And then they sound false.  Luckily, my father understood….He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.  The strength of his grip surprised me.  I realized with a start that I had never shaken his hand before!  I withdrew my hand quickly, but he grabbed it again.  And this time he pressed his calendar-watch and amethyst ring into the palm of my hand.  The actual physical contact was brief, but his touching me like that brought back a load of childhood memories, many of them unpleasant as well as embarrassing.

Again I did not know what to say.  I could not imagine my father without his old calendar-watch and amethyst ring.  He had worn both for as long as I could remember and now he was giving them to me!

The calendar-watch had hands which glowed in the dark, so you could tell the time all the time.  It made no difference whether you were in your bedroom at 12:00 midnight or inside a darkened movie house at 12:00 noon—you could still tell the exact time because of those big luminous hands.  As for the ring, it seemed almost too large and ostentatious for anyone’s hand except my father’s.  The enormous purple birthstone was flanked on both sides by tiny white diamonds, and the whole ring sparkled with life every time light fell on it.

I fastened my father’s old calendar-watch on my right wrist and slipped his ring onto the ring finger of my left hand.  I wanted to embrace him, to tell him that I loved him, but I checked both impulses as I disappeared into the departing lounge that hot and humid day at the Manila International Airport. I vaguely heard my father’s voice ringing after me.  “Don’t forget to reset the calendar date on the watch when you get to America!  Be sure to turn the hands back. You gain a full day when you cross the International Date Line!”  Those were his parting words.

They were also the last words he ever said to me.  My mother called me the night of December 6, 1969 to tell me that my father had died.  He had not been well for a couple of years, and now he was gone.  It was Sunday afternoon halfway across the world.  My father had died ten minutes past midnight on Sunday.  Mother said many of the people from the church were at the house.  They were a great comfort to her.  No, she didn’t want me to come home for the funeral.  She said my father would have wanted me to stay in school because it was the week of final exams, so I can graduate after just one more semester. “You can come home in May, after you graduate.”

I went to the kitchen and poured myself a Scotch-and-water.  Back in the living room, I remembered with a start that, seventeen months ago, my father and I had been drinking Scotch-and-water at the bar in the airport.  It was the first time we had ever drunk together.  I thought it ironic that the first time also turned out to be the last.

The living room was uncomfortably still.  Left to myself, I decided that I wanted noise, clatter, music, life.  I looked through my records—flipping through Liszt, Chopin, Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart—rejecting one and all until I chanced upon the “Farewell, Angelina” album by Joan Baez.

Joan Baez.  Her voice has an airy quality about it which reminds me of lofty rooms and high ceilings, rainy mornings and windy afternoons, snowy evenings and cold December nights.

“You must leave now—

Take what you need you think will last;

But whatever you wish to keep,

You’d better grab it fast.”

 I poured myself another drink in the kitchen and turned off the lights in the living room when I came back.  The house plunged into eerie darkness.  I looked at my watch.  Its hands glowed luminously in the dark.  It was only 11:30 P.M.

Then it dawned on me.

I realized with a start that I had been staring at my father’s old calendar-watch.  I was wearing the watch he had pressed into my hand the last time I saw him!  What had I done with his amethyst ring? Why wasn’t I wearing that, too?  Again I stared at the watch, my eyes following the voyage of the second-hand as it overtook the minute-hand and then the hour-hand.

I remembered my father’s parting words at the airport:  “Don’t forget to reset the calendar date on the watch when you get to America!  Be sure to turn the hands back!  You gain a full day when you cross the International Date Line!”

Saturday night was nearly over in Lawrence.  Then I realized with another start that, soon, it would be midnight.  Soon it would be Sunday.  Soon the luminous hands of my father’s old calendar-watch would indicate that it was ten minutes past midnight, in mid-America.  Technically speaking, right here, right now, my father was still alive, and he was going to die all over again, for my benefit–in Kansas!

“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,

Crying like a fire in the sun.

Look out!  The saints are coming through.

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

I swallowed the rest of my drink and held back my tears.

Forty-one years later, I still haven’t wept for my father.  Perhaps because I wasn’t with him when he died, perhaps because I did not go home for the funeral so I never actually saw him dead, for whatever reason, there has never been any closure for me when it comes to me and my father.  In my mind, he’s still very much alive, although these days I no longer remember what his voice sounds like.  He never spoke much, to begin with. And now all I hear is his silence.

Today is Father’s Day.  Bless me, father, for I have been remiss.

My Mother’s Laughter

Although I emigrated to the United States in 1968, my mother did not come to visit me in Kansas until August of 1976, after she had already been in America for four months.  The reason why she decided to make the long journey from the Philippines was because my play Conpersonas was being performed in April of that year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and also because (I think) she finally realized I was never going to be a doctor or a businessman, so she might as well see what I was really up to.

I was still in Kansas when my mother’s early-morning flight on Philippine Air Lines landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington.  I was arriving later the same day, but I had made arrangements for someone to meet her at Dulles, and to check her into the room which had been reserved for her at the Watergate Hotel, right next door to the Kennedy Center.  I was about to leave the house for my own flight to D.C. when the telephone rang.  It was her.

“Why weren’t you at the airport to meet me?” my mother asked hysterically.  She had been flying for nearly 16 hours, had been in transit for over 30 hours, probably hadn’t slept a wink, and had probably been terrified of going through U.S. Immigration and Customs all by herself.  “What kind of a son are you?”

“Mom,” I reasoned with her, trying my best to explain that I had no control over airline schedules, but that I would be at the Watergate in time to have dinner with her.

“Hurry!  I’m hungry!” she wailed.

“Order something from Room Service.”

“It’s okay.  I’ll wait for you.  But hurry.”

“I’m on my way.”

“Take a taxi.  It will be faster.”

To this day, I don’t know if my mother was trying to be funny with that remark, or whether she really had no idea that, unlike the places in Manila that she frequently visited and patronized, Lawrence, KS was not a short cab ride away from downtown Washington D.C.

But, back to the momentous event at the Kennedy Center. If nothing else, I think my Chinese mother was truly impressed by the fact that my play in English was being performed by Caucasians, in front of mostly Caucasians, at the Kennedy Center.  Although Conpersonas was a serious drama about identical twin brothers who commit suicide within hours of one another, my mother sat through the entire performance at the Eisenhower Theater with an enormous grin on her face.  She might as well have been watching My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music. She had been introduced from the stage earlier in the evening, so people knew where she was sitting. If anyone in the audience had seen her beaming happily as the two unhappy brothers in the play shot and killed themselves, they might have jumped to wrong conclusions as to why I had left the Philippines, why I had safely chosen to keep my mother 7,000 miles away from me.

In any case, to my great surprise, after the hoopla of Conpersonas at the Kennedy Center was over, instead of returning with me to Lawrence, KS, where I had already been teaching as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department at the University of Kansas, my mother decided to spend some time with her friend Helen from the Philippines, whom she hadn’t seen for some time, who was now living in Brooklyn.  “Helen never graduated from college,” my mother confided, “but already she is running her own business in Chinatown!”  My mother thought it might be fun to live with Helen for a while, perhaps even work for her for a while.

Hard as I tried, I could not picture my mother working in a sweatshop alongside all the illegal immigrants from China and Hong Kong packed to overflowing on the second floor of an old building in Chinatown that probably should have been condemned years ago .  And I was terrified that she might get mugged in the subways.  But there was no dissuading her.  In the Philippines, my mother was accustomed to having servants attending to her every need, chauffeurs driving her everywhere.  But now she was determined to be independent, to earn her own keep in America, just like an American, walking the mean streets of Lower Manhattan, daring anyone to mug her, in the subway or anywhere else. “Don’t worry about me,” she said.  “Go back to Kansas.  I’ll be fine in New York with Helen.  She is like a daughter to me.  She will treat me like her own mother. If I get mugged, it will be God’s will, because I would not be here in America had you not invited me to come and see your play about those two brothers who killed themselves at the Kennedy Center.”

And so, with a heavy heart, I deposited my mother with Helen in Brooklyn.  But, before I left, I cautioned my mother never to look anyone in the eye when she’s out and about, never to argue with anyone who accosts her and, most importantly, to carry at least $20 at all times on her person, so she can give it to anyone who wants to rob her, to keep muggers from harming her because she wasted their time when they could have been mugging other rich old ladies. My mother looked at me oddly, as though I were in cahoots with her would-be muggers, but I wouldn’t leave until she promised.  And so she did.

Months went by. I called my mother two or three times a week from Kansas, and was delighted to hear that she loved New York, that she was “Miss Popularity” in the sorority of sweatshop sisters, and that she had yet to be mugged. According to my mother, Helen’s “factory” was turning out high-end clothing for fancy department stores like Bloomingdale’s, and it was her job to inspect the lingerie which were coming off “the assembly line.”  She was Inspector #17, and she tucked a slip of paper into every piece of lingerie after she was done inspecting it, signifying that the garment had been inspected by Inspector #17.

I used to daydream about anyone who might have bought any lingerie at Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue and 59th St. in New York City between early May and mid-August of 1976. Chances are my mother had her finger on the unmentionables of unsuspecting shoppers like Kim Novak or Jane Fonda long before they slipped them on (or off) to charm their beastly bedmates.

When being Inspector #17 finally lost its glamour in that non-air-conditioned loft in Chinatown in the heat of August in New York, my mother decided it was time to visit me in Lawrence, KS.  Her arrival had been much anticipated by all my friends and colleagues at the University of Kansas.  She was going to stay for a couple of weeks, so I prepared a bedroom for her on the upper level of the house, with a bathroom all to herself.  I was giving a cocktail party for her. Lovely finger sandwiches were being prepared by a woman who was nearly blind, who lived in North Lawrence.  The only way I could ever find her house was by the three-foot tall statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary she had out on her lawn. A bartender had been hired to mix and serve drinks, and to help clean up the place afterwards. Invitations had been sent out to 75 people, and everyone had accepted.

When the appointed day arrived, my mother emerged from her bedroom, resplendent in one of the many bejewelled evening gowns she had brought with her from Manila, one of which she had worn the evening of my play at the Kennedy Center, but the others she had had no occasion to wear in Brooklyn or the sweatshops in Chinatown.  She was a big hit at the party, a merry widow too young to have a son like me.  Everyone loved her.  No one suspected her secret life as Inspector #17.

The morning after the night before, sometime around 6:30 A.M., I heard my mother scratching on my bedroom door.  “Paul! Paul!” she whispered.

“What?  What time is it?  Why aren’t you still in bed sleeping?”

“Paul! Paul!” she repeated, more urgently.  “Did you take the toothpaste from my bathroom upstairs?”

“What’re you talking about?  Why should I take your toothpaste?  Go back to bed, please.”

She went away, but only briefly.  Moments later, she was again outside my room, scratching on the door.  “Paul! Paul!” again she whispered.

“What is it now?”

“Did you take the Revlon Blush-On from the bathroom upstairs?”

“What Revlon Blush-On?  What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“My Revlon Blush-On.  You know, for my make-up.  I cannot go out without my Revlon Blush-On.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.  What on earth would I do with your Revlon Blush-On?”

There was no going back to sleep, so we searched through all the drawers in her bathroom upstairs. The guests at the party had been using that bathroom all night.  All her travellers checks were still there, as were some of her more common everyday jewelry.  Nothing was missing except her toothpaste and her Revlon Blush-On.  It was a big mystery.  My mother burst out laughing.  She laughed so hard the tears rolled down her cheeks.  She laughed so hard, her knees were weak, and she had to sit on the toilet.  I’ve never heard her laugh like that, ever.

“What?  What’s so funny?”

“I lived for four months in New York, and nothing happened to me,” she howled.  “Everyday, I put $20 in my purse like you told me, to give to muggers, and no one ever mugged me.  But I come to Lawrence, Kansas to meet your friends, and someone goes into the bathroom during the party and steals my toothpaste and my Revlon Blush-On!”

A couple of days later, when I was telling this story to some friends from the Theatre Department who had not been able to attend the party because they were in rehearsal with a play, one of them snapped to attention

“Wait a minute,” she exclaimed.  “at one of our parties, the morning after, we discovered that someone had taken the Johnson’s Baby Shampoo!”

Others began to remember losing similar sorts of things from their bathrooms after parties of one sort or another. Nothing valuable.  Always small, inconsequential items.  A bathroom freak was among us!  An academic klepto!  We began to compare the guest list at these parties, and it did not take long before we thought we had our man…or woman.  No way of proving it, of course, but when I described the woman in question to my mother, she lit up immediately.  She remembered the woman, a recent arrival from Poland.

“Why, yes,” my mother laughed.  “That woman asked me how I managed to keep my skin so soft, and I told her that the only make-up I use is Revlon Blush-On!”

Mystery solved.

After that first visit in August of 1976, my mother has been back to see me in Kansas three or four more times, and each time she doubles up laughing whenever I tell people about how she once dazzled an “admirer” in Lawrence with her pearly white Asian teeth and her blushing pink cheeks.

My mother is now 86 years old, living in Manila with my married sister, her husband and their three children.  It has been thirteen years since she has visited me in Kansas.  If she is reading this now, I doubt if the story will make her double up and laugh, like she used to.  I don’t know if she will remember the story at all.

My mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  My sister says that, these days, our mother just sits there all day, not recognizing anyone, but she smiles whenever she feels a friendly presence nearby.  I hope she is smiling right now because it’s Mother’s Day.  She has had many sorrows in her remarkable life, which I’ve written about in my play Mother Tongue, so perhaps it is a blessing that she no longer remembers the wars in China and the Philippines that she has lived through, the children she bore who should not have died so young. Although my sister, my brothers and I now choose to remember only the happy times we’ve had in each other’s company, someday we too will forget that we were ever even happy together.

Chinglish, Japlish, Kapish?

An article by Andrew Jacobs in The New York Times gives some wonderfully wacky illustrations of English as it is written and spoken today in China—e.g., the Dongda Anus Hospital for what should be the Dongda Proctology Hospital, restaurants offering “fried enema” instead of “fried sausage,” and signs in parks which urge visitors to treat grass humanely, with such admonisments as “The Little Grass Is Sleeping.  Please Don’t Disturb It” or “Don’t Hurt Me.  I Am Afraid of Pain.”  Lawncare today, perhaps human rights tomorrow.  But, I digress.

Visiting Hong Kong some years ago, I was amused to see the following sign posted by the stairwell of a fancy department store:  “Foreign Ladies Have Fits Upstairs.”  And in Japan back in the early 1970s, when tourists were urged not to eat fresh fruits or raw vegetables because Japanese farmers were still using night soil to fertilize their fields, the Tokyo Hilton had elegant little placards on the tables in their dining facilities, which proclaimed that “all the fruits and vegetables served in this restaurant have been washed in water personally passed by the chef.”  And my favorite story of all is the one that a friend recounts about the early wake-up call he left at his Tokyo hotel.  When the wake-up call came as requested, at four in the morning, the ominous voice at the other end of the telephone line said, “Sir, your hour has come!”

But, why pick on the Chinese or the Japanese for trying to learn the logic and nuances of the English language?  When I first started to teach Freshman and Sophomore English at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, a group of us instructors had great fun compiling the gems we found in the essays written by our students.  I still remember some of them.

“Inductive reasoning is done inside the brain, while deductive reasoning is done outside the brain.”

“The wild, wild west was a gun-flinging society.”

“I want to mar a woman just like my father marred.”

“I’m the first person in my family to go to collage.”

“In the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Laura’s leg keeps coming up between her and other people.”

Growing up Chinese in the Philippines in the 40s and 50s, learning to speak and write English first with the Jesuits at the Ateneo de Manila, and then with the Christian Brothers at De La Salle College, I never dreamed that I would spend most of my adult life in an institution of higher learning in Kansas, teaching native speakers of English how to speak and write their own language properly.  These days, with all our students texting and tweeting, throwing out the once-sacred rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, I’m starting to think of Chinglish and Japlish as the Queen’s English.  Capisce?  Or is that Kapish?

Miss Utah Made Me Do It!

I was smoking up to sixty cigarettes a day when I finally quit in 1994.  And now, sixteen years later, when the nurse weighed me at the doctor’s office prior to my annual physical, there was no avoiding the fact that I’ve packed on sixty pounds since my last cigarette.  So how did this happen? Let me start at the beginning.  It all began with Miss Utah.

You may find this hard to believe but, back in the Philippines, when I was just sixteen years old, I was already hosting my own television show on Channel 10, the government-run station.  Our weekly hour-long  variety show was on the air for a couple of months in 1960.  It was called “Get Together” by our unimaginative producer because he claimed this was what the show was, a get together.  Needless to say, I rarely had any say about who the guests were.  I would show up every Saturday at the studio (which we called “the barn”) a couple of hours before taping the show, and that’s when I’d find out whom we were featuring at the “get together” that week.  Because it was a variety show, the guest list tended to lean more toward the entertainment industry, mostly movie stars, especially if they were Hollywood celebrities visiting Manila for one dubious reason or another.

Back then, a name we were all familiar with was Steve Parker, who was married to Shirley MacLaine but who, for some reason, did not live with her.  Alas, rumor had it that Steve preferred to sow his wild oats with a wide array of attractive Asian lasses.  Although the unconventional long-distance marriage between Shirley MacLaine and Steve Parker survived for several decades, they finally got divorced in 1982 and, to no one’s surprise, he immediately got hitched to a Japanese woman in Hawaii.  But, back to Miss Utah.

In 1960, besides being famous for being unfaithful to Shirley MacLaine, Steve Parker was also an enterprising entrepreneur.  One of his enterprises was a spectacular stage show which he produced annually, a lavish extravaganza featuring beauty queens from all the beauty pageants—Miss America, Miss Universe, Miss International, Miss Cosmos, Miss Galaxy—who were willing to tour Southeast Asia with him; parading in their swimsuits and evening gowns; showing off their unique musical, declamatory or baton-twirling talents; rousing and arousing the natives with their energetic high-kicking dance routines.

I have no idea how our producer managed to get Steve Parker to bring his bevy of buxom beauties to “the barn” but, there they were, bigger than life, that fateful Saturday afternoon in 1960, when I was expected to “Get Together” and chat intelligently with them.  What I didn’t expect was to be chatted up.

It happened during a short lull in the taping of the show, when the beauty queens were changing into their much-anticipated swim wear.  First one out of the  dressing room was the statuesque Miss Utah from the Miss America Beauty Pageant, wearing a blindingly white one-piece bathing suit with a red sash across her chest to match her flaming red hair, and white stiletto heels which made her seem even taller than the Tower of Babel, given how she reduced all the men in “the barn” to Jell-O and gibberish.

To this day, I have no idea why Miss Utah chose me, but I can still hear the clickety-clack of her stiletto heels on the linoleum floor as she headed in my direction. Once she had me cornered, she slipped her left arm into my right arm.  She didn’t seem to mind the fact that one of her breasts was resting firmly on the crook of my elbow.  “Can I have a cigarette?” she asked huskily, sounding like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or maybe Julie London in those early Marlboro commercials which aired in moviehouses in Manila prior to the trailers and the main feature.

Probably no one else but me remembers this, but when Marlboro was first introduced, its target audience was women, not men.  Long before the world was introduced to the rugged Marlboro Man, we were all treated to a black-and-white commercial of sultry songstress Julie London having some kind of dalliance with a man in a dimly-lit restaurant.  Slowly, seductively, she pulls out a Marlboro, he lights it for her, and then she blows smoke in his eyes as she starts to sing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in that breathless, whispery, smoky voice of hers.  In my boyhood, Julie London was the insurmountable Marlboro Woman, the pulchritudinous personification of “filter…flavor…flip-top box!”

And now, standing in “the barn” in her stiletto heels next to me, Julie London had metamorphosed into Miss Utah.  “Can I have a cigarette?” she repeated pointedly.  All eyes in the room were suddenly on me.  You could have heard the proverbial pin drop, but it was my pen and clipboard. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “I just had my last one. I’m out.”

“Oh.”  She looked disappointed.  She let go of my blushing elbow and clickety-clacked across the room to one of the cameramen.  I saw him offering her a cigarette, and then she clickety-clacked back to me.  She didn’t take my arm this time, but spoke in the same life-altering baritone as before.  “Do you have a light?”

I could hear the technicians in the room starting to snicker because they all knew about my pristine respiratory organs, my virgin lungs.  “I lied earlier,” I blurted out the truth. “I don’t smoke.  I don’t have a light.  I’m sorry.”

“I see,” she smiled sympathetically.  “Well, when you’re old enough to smoke, be sure to look me up in Utah.”  And then she clickety-clacked away again, to the same cameraman, taking his arm and sticking his elbow into her ample endowments.  He completed the ritual by flicking his Ronson and lighting her fire.

Before the day was over, on the heels of my humiliation in the hands of Miss Utah, I rushed out and bought my first pack of Newport mentholated cigarettes.

Shortly after that, I worked as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson Co.  One of our clients was Liggett & Myers, makers of premium L&M, Lark and Chesterfield cigarettes, which were given free to JWT employees, so we all smoked like chimneys.  Later, when Marlboro dumped Julie London and created the Marlboro Man, in commercials which showed him herding all those wild mustangs to the thumping theme from The Magnificent Seven, I shifted to Marlboros.

Flash forward to 1994.  By then, I was teaching in the English Department at the University of Kansas. I was also running English Alternative Theatre, my own theatre company.  Two years earlier, I had bought a truck on installment, to haul furniture and set pieces for the theatre company.  As for my nasty nicotine habit, well…you know how theatre people are.  I was smoking two packs of Marlboros a day, three if I was in rehearsal with a play, which was just about all the time.

In the spring of 1994, a good friend asked me what I was doing that summer. He had rented a large house for two months in Lurs, a picturesque village which dates back to the 10th century, perched on a narrow butte overlooking the Durance valley, one of the best wine-growing regions in France.  He said the house itself was surrounded by magnificent olive groves.  Would I care to spend the summer in France with grapes and olives and people who don’t speak English?  There was only one catch.  He was allergic to cigarette smoke.  I would not be allowed to smoke in the house, and certainly not in his presence.

By then, I had been smoking for 32 years.  Unbeknownst to him, I had in fact been thinking about quitting—not because of all the dire warnings from the Surgeon General, not because my dog coughs every time I light up near him, but because the University of Kansas had recently banned smoking in all the buildings on campus.  I had just spent a miserable winter putting on my bulky jacket, cap, scarf and gloves every 15 minutes in order to commiserate outdoors with other victims of the ban. Oh, how we smoked and fumed at the injustice of it all!

Thinking my silence was a sign that I was about to turn down his kind invitation to spend the summer in France, my friend made me another offer. Because he really cared about my health, he said that, if I gave up cigarettes, he would be happy to pay off the rest of the payments on my red Toyota truck. Is it a deal?

There was no way I could quit cold turkey, so I proposed a compromise.  I would bring two cartons of Marlboros with me, and when that was gone, I’d be done for good.  To my surprise, he agreed.

We left for Lurs in early June, and I stuck to my plan.  I would cut back to two packs a day for the first week, then a pack a day for the second week, then ten cigarettes a day for the third week, then five, then three, then two, and then…finally…on the Fourth of July, I would have my last cigarette and declare my INDEPENDENCE from Marlboro Country!  This I did in 1994, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.

But, as I said earlier, I’ve also put on 60 pounds in the intervening years.  When I had my last physical, I told the doctor I didn’t feel any healthier for having given up cigarettes.  Did I just swap possible lung cancer for probable diabetes?  The doctor patted my arm, the same arm which had been intimate with Miss Utah four decades ago, and said:  “If you had the will power to quit smoking, you’ll have the will power to lose weight.”

And so I’m working on it.  I’m looking for pictures of Twiggy and Mahatma Gandhi to put on my refrigerator door.

While on the internet recently, just out of curiosity, I Googled some of the people I’ve mentioned in this “limerance.”  According to Wikipedia, Steve Parker, Shirley MacLaine’s ex, was in Honolulu on May 13, 2001 when he expired of lung cancer.  Julie London was in poor health because of her long-term cigarette habit until her death on October 18, 2000, in Encino, California, at age 74.  Wayne McLaren, the actor who portrayed the Marlboro Man in print and television cigarette advertising, succumbed to lung cancer at age 51 on July 22, 1992.

As for Miss Utah…whoever she is, wherever she is…I hope that she hasn’t kicked the bucket…that she’s kicked the habit…that she is now so fat she’s no longer able to bend down and slip on those stiletto heels to go clickety-clacking with impunity…but that somewhere in back of her closet she still has that  blindingly white one-piece bathing suit…that she takes it out occasionally to look at it…and perhaps remember how she once shamed a boy in Manila to “manhood.”