Theater, Workshop, and Factory of the Mind

“Engineering the Ultimate Toy,” was the title of an article in Popular Science this month. The thesis was what toys would creative inventors build if money, safety, and the very laws of physics were no objects? My favorite toy idea was an augmented reality system imagined by Joshua Garrett, a computer game developer. It would understand voice commands and comments and instantly change the child’s environment. If he or she sat up in bed and said “spaceship” the bed and its environs would instantly become a rocket ship, and the space around it would be, well space. If the child then said, “This looks scary,” little green monsters would ooze out from under the former closet door now become a spaceship portal. The child could then imagine whether to fire up his fingertip laser and zap them into non existence, or imagine peanut butter sandwiches for everybody while they all settle down and make friends.

It’s a wild concept, stretching our minds, creativity, and believability to their outer limits. “Impossible” to the digital development geniuses is like “no” to a high pressure salesman—not in their vocabulary. They have made such strides the past few decades that the system may be on shelves at Toys R Us not many Christmases hence.

There is only one drawback to this mind warping stocking stuffer. It has already been done by the children themselves. From time immemorial children have turned sticks into fiery steeds, corn cobs into cuddly dolls, nighttime shadows into monsters under the bed.

When I was a child money was so tight that we couldn’t afford to imagine space ships, but my brother Gordon and I won the battle for the skies against the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese warlords by flying dogfights in our family’s 1928 Chevrolet box on wheels. My friend Monte Montague and I freed Europe with tanks, ships and planes fashioned from railroad parts we found in the train repair yard across the street from our house.

On the home front we tamed the great American west, pulled out last second miracle victories on imaginary grid irons, and captured outlaw gangs with our bare knuckles and lightening draw index finger six shooters.

The social experts tell us we slough off that genius for creating instant worlds to live in. As we mature it’s undignified to have make believe war games around the office water cooler and ride stick horses down the city sidewalks. But I have found we can tease back our latent genius of imagination through such magic carpets as theater of the mind. For decades I have invited audiences to ride with me and my guitar chasing outlaws with the Mormon cowboy law man Porter Rockwell, saving the Union with Abraham Lincoln, following the Old Testament prophets, or swinging away with Casey at the bat.

I supply the suggestions with voice characterizations, songs and strums on the guitar, and occasional sound effects. The audience takes it from there. We can travel anywhere and any when on the wings of our minds. It’s a stimulating and refreshing way to learn by living for awhile in a world of our own creation. And unlike even the greatest movie or digital production, each person creates his own version of heroes, villains, romantic scenes, and goofy comedy. Our imaginations can create monsters that would petrify even the little green aliens oozing out from under the closet door.

This childlike ability to create the mental, and emotional world we choose to live in has great practical potential in our adult worlds as well. Environment and events give us the raw materials, but we can and do fashion them into the world we choose to inhabit. Certainly that is true of our inner world. Most of us know rich people who are miserable and people of much lesser means who picture themselves as enjoying a rich and full existence. Both are in large measure correct. And speaking large measure, Albert Einstein reconstructed our view of the universe by framing one mental question, “What would the world look like if I were riding on a light beam?”

By applying time, energy, tools, and materials to the image in our imagination, we can often replicate our inner vision in our outer world. The theater then becomes a workshop or even a factory of the mind.

In her last years my mother was still in the little house she had lived in almost all her married life. She said, “I’m so glad my house is small. I get dizzy often lately and if I start to fall there is always a wall nearby.”

Her mind turned her cramped quarters into a comfortable cocoon. I’m quite sure if she had wanted to she could have turned it into a space ship. She already knew how to create great peanut butter sandwiches.

Dissertation on Noses

Cyrano de Bergerac, the dashing poet and warrior of the stage, had the charm, wit and manners every man possesses in his fantasies. But he had one devastating drawback, or maybe it was a pull forward. His gigantic nose ruled his life and decreed his destiny. The play has been a theatrical mainstay since it was written in1890, and has been produced in several movie versions. Apparently the nose thing strikes a universal chord. In America thousands of people every year spend $3,000 to $15,000 for rhinoplasty to improve the shape of their noses.

Nose consciousness is worldwide apparently. When our son Tom and his beautiful wife Alma had their first baby, her family who are from the Philippines was joyful that the little daughter had a longer nose than Asians usually have. Apparently this was because some of Tom’s ancestors (his mother’s side of course) had noses that made them wish they had some Asian DNA to temper their profile.

The Three D’s once performed as the warm up act for a Bob Hope show. Bob was one of the most successful comedians of the twentieth century. His career spanned vaudeville, radio, TV, movies, books and world wide junkets entertaining military men and women. His fast paced topical humor kept audiences rolling for most of his century-long life (1903-2003). He was also a savvy business man and marketer. He billed himself as Bob “Ski jump nose” Hope. His middle dipping proboscis was the result of taking too many punches as an amateur boxer in his youth. The deformity could have been an embarrassment to him. Instead he turned it into a trade mark. Successful people often get there by knocking the mis- off of misfortune.

I identify with Bob Hope. Except for the fame, success, money, and circumstances of nose breaking, our biographies are identical. I rearranged my profile at a much younger age than Bob did. I was so young, that other people have had to tell me how it happened. But I do remember a steep hill, some playmates in a wagon, me pushing them, the wagon going faster until I was hanging on not pushing. I remember thinking, “This not going to turn out well,” just before the sidewalk rushed up to meet my nose.”

The next phase of my facial makeover is blank to me since I was unconscious at the time. In those days, if a child sneezed it was time to take out his tonsils. I did, and they did. After the doctor scooped out the offending organs, my mother said, “While he is asleep, could you do something to straighten his broken nose?”

This being the days before doctors were justifiably paranoid about malpractice suits, he said, “Of course.”

I am told he then twisted my nose into various contortions. Things seemed to only get more deformed, so my mother suggested we let worse enough alone. As a result I have been blessed with a nose that appears to be adapted to smelling around corners. Actually that was the first break. The doctor’s handiwork made my nose appropriate for smelling around complicated freeway interchanges. In addition, if Bob’s nose was a ski jump, mine was now a roller coaster. But like Bob, and other successful people, I soldiered on wearing my disfigurement. Arising each morning I would go forth and fight the battles of ridicule, amazement, and smothering pity that I would face and conquer that day.

Actually I wasn’t that heroic. I forgot all about it. Doctors told my parents they couldn’t clear out the wreckage inside my nose until my face was fully grown, at about eighteen. Based on the first confrontation between the nose and the doctor, this was welcome news. I grew up breathing through the open side of my nose. Then at eighteen the doctor bored out the other side. I expected this would allow me to now slam dunk a basketball with either hand, play the piano, get straight A’s in school, run and not be weary and walk and not faint. Didn’t happen.

Years later a friend of mine, Dr. Blaine Hirschi who happened to be a world class plastic surgeon offered to straighten my nose for free. I declined. I thought, “I’m too busy, and the most important people in my life love and accept me. Why bother?”

Dr. Hirschi has since past on, so I guess the offer is over until the resurrection, and I suppose then hands even more gifted than his will have already done the job. In which case I may have to introduce my new nose to my old friends who may not recognize me.

In retrospect my turning down Dr. Hirschi may have been self centered. I was focused on me. He perhaps considered it a humanitarian gesture to make the world more beautiful and other people more comfortable. I rationalize my decision by quoting Abraham Lincoln about his own homely features. Lincoln would say, “I have the advantage of you because I am on this side of my face, and you are on that side.”

Lift Your Eyes

From the east hillsides the nighttime panorama over Oakland and across the bay to San Francisco is a kaleidoscope of multi colored lights, and moving traffic fascinating to watch.

“The view down from here is spectacular isn’t it?” a voice behind me said.

I turned to see a security guard with a big but friendly looking dog at his side.

“But the view up from here is inspiring,” he added directing my attention to the temple behind us. The white stone spires softly bathed in spotlights pointed heavenward into the starry sky.

“For those who have eyes to see and comprehension to understand every pinpoint of starlight, leads on to billions, trillions more. Choose any number, even infinity and you will not overestimate the depth and scope of the heavens. And yet the creator and ruler of them all knows and loves each of us. Looking up I feel like King David in the Bible, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,’” he said.

“Eloquently stated. Where did you study all this goodly speech?” I borrowed from Shakespeare.

“I practice it on my dog,” he said.

“You’re security I see. Is he?”

“He sniffs out drugs in general, but his specialty drug is tobacco,” he said. “Comes in handy here at the temple.”

(Background note for those not acquainted with this aspect of the Mormon faith.)

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nicknamed The Mormons, temples and tobacco don’t mix. People who smoke, or drink alcohol are not barred from church meetings in chapels, but the Mormon temples are special places of service and devotion. Entrance requires a recommend from ecclesiastical leaders certifying among other things, abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs.

My new acquaintance said that he and his dog had just finished checking a suspicious aroma in the bushes landscaping the temple. As they approached, a man hiding there decided he had important business somewhere else.
The security man and I talked awhile. I mentioned I was in California on a tour doing musical concerts and promoting an album of poetry we had set to music.

“I love poetry. I could quote poems by the hour,” he told me.

“Really? What and who are some of your favorite poems and poets?” I asked.

He smiled. “I can’t remember.”

He could see I was puzzled, so he continued.

“I had a photographic mind. Read once, remember forever. My memory gave me a big advantage in my work. I was an electrical contractor. I could read through a thick book of blueprints, roll them up and never have to look at them again. This made me fast and accurate. I was very successful, big money, beautiful wife and children, respected in my work and in the community. Maybe I was too successful. I got cocky, stuck on myself, began looking for new thrills. I found them in a bottle of booze, then uncounted more bottles. I lost my jobs, my good name, my self respect, and saddest of all my wife and children. I who had been on top sank like a rock in the bay down there.

“See those lights next to the ocean. Every seaport city has a street they name first street, or front street down by the docks. It’s the toughest part of town, full of drunks and whore houses. One night at the bottom of my plunge I found myself on that street in Oakland, literally face down in the gutter. In the drunken fog bank that was now my brain I thought, ‘I’ve hit bottom. I can’t go any lower. And I can’t get up.’ I prayed the prayer of the helpless and hopeless. I said, ‘God you know me. You know what a rotten wretch I am, garbage to be hauled off with the rest of the city refuse. God, I don’t have the strength of body or will to move a muscle. Will you please help me lift my head?’

“I collapsed onto the scum and concrete of the gutter. How long I lay there I don’t know. Then I felt something move. It was my head rising up until I could see level with the sidewalk. God gave me the strength to do just that and no more. I prayed again, long and hard. Finally I could push up to my hands and knees and crawl up on to the sidewalk.

“It’s been a long, long journey with God helping me every step. I lost everything on the way down, even my great memory. Alcohol dissolves brain cells. Many, maybe most of mine were sluiced away in the booze. I don’t have my family anymore. I’m a long way from when I was on top, but I’m a longer way from where I was at the bottom. I’m grateful to work on this sacred ground, and in my off hours I try to help guys like the one we just scared out of the bushes. Thanks for listening. Good luck with your poetry music.”

He walked away. I thought, whether we are on the peaks or in the valleys of life, even if, like my new friend we have to strain upward just to see the sidewalk, looking up gives us the perspective of eventual perfection. Like my friend and King David, “I will lift mine eyes.”

Never Drop the Lid

“Had a fire in the bathroom last night. Lucky it didn’t spread to the house.” That red neck comedian joke minus the fire, describes our house for the first years of my growing up. But then we leaped into the twentieth century and got indoor plumbing.

World War II was a contributing factor. Because of the war the government built a new plant on the shores of Utah Lake. My father who was turned down by the draft for eyesight problems got a well paying job at Geneva Steel. This provided the money to build the new accommodation. On the other hand, the war effort rationed many things including toilet bowls. I’m still not sure how toilet bowls are used in a war. I’m not even sure I want to ask. We had a fair wait with uncertainty until we finally were able to purchase this home improvement. In addition to not being available at the whim of a shopping spree, the gleaming white porcelain bowl was not cheap in terms of our home improvement budget. Being porcelain it was also potentially breakable.

My mother gave us careful instruction, demonstration, and testing on how to open and close the lid without letting it fall possibly putting us out of the indoor bathroom business, and crippling the Allied war effort to some extent. My brother Gordon and I watched carefully, then successfully passed our skill test.

The great moment came. We experienced the first flush of success (sorry, couldn’t resist.) Life was better, especially in the winter.

Then one day we were at the city dump. My memory grows foggy at this point, but I assume we were there taking trash to the dump not from the dump. Things were tight financially, but not dumpster diving tight.

Gordon and I were off inspecting the interesting offerings cast from our little town. Mother called authoritatively, “Come here.” We came. She pointed at a ghastly scene, a white porcelain toilet with part of one side broken out. We stood solemn and stunned.

Secretly I hoped it was wounded in the war by a howitzer shell and not the result of some kid dropping the lid; a prodigal now stabbed with guilt every time a family member left the house in winter to visit the “facility” out back. Whatever the cause of the catastrophe, Mom reminded us again how important it was to set the lid down gently.

Though she rarely mentioned it, I’m sure I often fell short of Mom’s expectations. For example, at my request we got a correspondence course on playing the piano. It is moldering somewhere in its original mail wrappings I think.

“Move quickly,” she admonished me. My quick was her stopped.

“We’ve packed enough socks for you to wear a fresh pair every day. Then at the end of the week wash them all for the coming week.” Her parting words to Gordon and me as we left on our great summer adventure working in the Kaniksu forest in the Idaho panhandle. We meant well, but there were always so many things to do after work that were much more fun than washing socks. At the end of the summer, I suppose we hiked out of camp for the last time and left the socks lined up standing stiffly at attention in front of the tent.

But with a clear conscience on the day of judgment I will report that never, from the men’s room of the New York Waldorf Astoria Hotel, to a thousand truck stops as a traveling troubadour, to the latrine tent of a Boy Scout Jamboree, never did I on purpose drop a lid on a toilet bowl. And I am sure I never shall. The lesson is engraved on my DNA.

I think my mother would not be necessarily proud to hear this, more like puzzled. I’m sure she has forgotten the whole thing. As a parent I identify, although I don’t understand either. Why is it that we can drum great words of wisdom into our children, and the pearls will, in the words of my mother’s generation, “Go in one ear and out the other?” And yet they take some off handed comment or action we do and make it an article of faith. More sobering to me is, how healthy was the smorgasbord of words and actions that I presented to them to pick from. They have turned out to be pretty respectable citizens, so I hope that reflects our parenting.

And I’m glad I followed my mother’s counsel to be gentle with toilet lids. In part it has made me who I am. In the interest of full disclosure though, I must add, I worked summers during my college years in a service station. Once while cleaning the ladies rest room, the top of the water closet slipped out of my hand, fell and smashed a hole in the bottom of the unit on the back of the toilet. Water ran everywhere and we had to replace the fixture. The station manager was a good hearted guy who took my clumsiness in stride. But he did say, “You only have to shine up the outside of the water closet. Why did you take the lid off in the first place?”

I said, “Mom never mentioned that.”

He looked puzzled.