1. The Pinball Machine The Pinball Machine
I have a crush on you.
I know that might sound strange, or forward, but it’s the truth.
“You get crushes on everything, Val,” my ex-wife, Joanne, once told me in her proper English manner. “You have a crush on your organic garden.”
She was right. And to bring up this crush on you is not to woo you—although that may be a bonus—but to share the sound of this small swell in my heart. Your company brings me hope. To envision such a connection between reader and writer may be a fantasy, but it’s one I cannot resist. It energizes me. I have felt this Love coming from the world over lately. I have felt this Love from you. Let’s call it unity. “Let’s call it eloquence.” (That’s a line from my one-man show, Citizen Twain, that I wrote and have been touring for the last five years.) Thank you.
I’ve been drawn to this buzz as long as I can remember. The beauty of the universe. I let muses, whether people, animals, or places, infuse my life with wonder and mystery. Though I will warn you, with this ever-sparkly north star, it can be hard at times to distinguish sanctity from temptation. In the words of St. Augustine, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Muses or angels have rescued me countless times, and my own inner puckishness has not only defined my art, it has helped me stay alive. I have had from an early age the gift of healing.
You will see this book takes twists and turns. Welcome to the pinball machine of my mind. Here, authenticity lives with eccentricity. A delicious diet, if a bit unsteady. My poems, my puns, my spiritual side trips, and the names of friends, both famous and infamous, dropped along the way—I can’t stop myself. I can’t help myself. So come along. It’s dangerous, but indulge me. We will travel with lightning speed because I’ve led a lightning-speed life. Let’s begin with one of these muses.
Funniest woman I ever met. A consummate artist who displays the attributes of a child, teenager, and sagacious adult, all at once.
Once Cher works her way inside your head and heart, she never leaves. For her true friends, her steadfast love and loyalty never die. We met a lifetime earlier at a time when she was a luminous icon and I was still standing on the sidelines. We had a wild ride, running around the world, and though we’d eventually veer off in different directions, our spirits stayed united.
So when a few years ago I discovered a lump in my throat that turned out to be cancer, Cher couldn’t have been more caring. Like millions of other Americans I had been affected by the financial crisis in 2008. I’d been forced to sell my home in New Mexico and rented an aerie cottage on the Malibu coast. But after my ongoing challenges with breathing, she suggested I stay in her guesthouse.
As dedicated followers of Architectural Digest know, she commands a Venetian palazzo in Malibu. Only Cher has the chutzpah to re-create the glory of the Italian Renaissance in Southern California. The most unnerving European monarch would deem her guest quarters quite acceptable. I accepted.
Cher has a knack for finding poetry and truth. She is a blazingly fast thinker and just the best company. We cover everything from politics to poetry. Poetry always calms my soul, consuming it and creating it. One morning, I had been reading Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil and listening to the waves crash. I was in love with the line “The inaccessible blue of spiritual heavens,” from the poem “Spiritual Dawn.”
I had been awake since dawn. Cher invited me up to the grand patio for lunch. The ocean was imbued with a strange blue. Cher was chatty. I was relaxed. Cher dipped out for afternoon errands. Night fell, and I fell asleep. Suddenly I awoke vomiting blood that covered the bed like a scene out of The Godfather. I prayed immediately, then called 911. Then alerted my hostess.
Cher stepped in and stepped up and stilled my spirits. And yet even in my grave condition, I saw her scanning the paramedic, who was Gregory Peck drop-dead handsome. Only in Hollywood, right? Despite the fact that I was covered in blood, I caught her eye and bounced my brows like Groucho Marx. Hubba hubba. Cher was bashful to be busted but then couldn’t help laughing out loud at the audacity. Here we were, joking about beauty and desire, while I looked like a stunt man from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and, yes, while my life seemed to be in mortal danger. I thought, You’ll have this guy by the stroke of midnight. We have telepathy, and she opened her iconic mouth, but words failed her. A rarity. We laughed out loud before they finished with my vitals and shut me up with an oxygen mask.
It was a step along the path of gnarly throat challenges, my tongue swollen with blocked lymph passages, ultimately resulting in two tracheotomies and more than one Godfather moment. The cancer miraculously healed much faster than any of the doctors predicted. It has taken time, and taken a toll.
I begin with this memory in part to explain my current condition, as so many have expressed concern and natural curiosity. The thing is, when I speak now, I sound like Marlon Brando after a couple of bottles of tequila. It isn’t a frog in my throat. More like a buffalo. It is difficult for others to understand what I am saying. My healing is steady, but so far, slow.
Speaking, once my joy and lifeblood, has become an hourly struggle. The instrument over which I had complete mastery is now out of my control. I know the simple action of trusting and affirming Love is not just a healing balm but a primary healing source. It’s not a complicated or esoteric practice. We all know what Love can do. Sometimes one must be defiant about the material picture. I’m living proof.
I’m clear that this mind bending is a necessary part of my enlightenment. The more my puffed-up ego is deflated, the lighter I become. Some days I am weighed down. Some days I pray and listen. Some days I am light as air.
Others, not so much. I am a storyteller who has been deprived of his primary tool. So I’ve focused on listening and am so grateful for the habits of prayer and the ability to trust in its healing that I’ve developed since childhood. Stay calm and carry on. I am weighed down with worry and physical pain. Clearly I’m vain, but I’m workin’ on it, baby, I’m workin’ on it. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who has worked so hard on their vanity. LOL.
I write for relief. I write for healing. I write to view the past more clearly and place myself firmly in the center of Love. I want to get my story out as quickly as possible, but mostly I write because it feels good to share with the world what the world has shared with me.
I write from my perch immersed in the mysterious Hollywood Hills. My stylish little sanctuary was built in 1923, the year my father was born dirt-poor in the dusty panhandle of Texas. My home is overstuffed with artifacts, piles of books and tabletops of talismans from my distant past: turquoise from New Mexico, rare arrowheads, a sterling silver buckle branded with the logo of my family ranch, and hand axes from secret African anthropological sites. I look out the window and see the hills of Hollywood turn from blue to misty gold. On starlit nights I hear melodious sounds wafting through the air from fancy neighbors’ parties. This shelter was birthed in the golden age of filmmaking. I am a grateful disciple of that original vision. I am also a man on a mission.
The mission is healing, and though I have admitted my vanity, I will do my best to steer this mission from vanity to honesty. Honesty is born of pure Love. Love is the divine healer, but to get to pure Love, I have no choice but to follow the path bravely forged by Dante. I have to go through the inferno.
The distance between heaven and hell is the difference between faith and doubt. I have no doubt, for example, that my recent illness shut down professional opportunities that were really not opportunities at all. The universe’s rejection is the universe’s protection. I have faith that the shift in my physicality is crucial to the growth in my spirituality. When one sense weakens, another grows strong. I have more time to play in the metaphysical forests. That leaves me with the task of writing death-defying stories. This hole in my throat, this fat tongue that impedes my speech, this fury I’m feeling, only fuels my commitment to a long-form blues that otherwise might be called an autobiography. Like the old singer said, you sing the blues to lose the blues.
The blues are never right unless they’re raw. The blues are never right unless they also express joy. For joy at overcoming unforeseen obstacles is reason for celebration. This celebratory blues song will cover the full range of my life. Three acts do not apply. Make it ten acts. Make it twenty. Make it whatever it takes to illuminate a life that leads to understanding. I’m excited to revisit that life, excited to try to make sense out of this rapturous nonsense, and even more excited to do so in my naked now. I quote from the Christian Science hymn “Shepherd, Show Me How to Go” by Mary Baker Eddy, “I will listen for thy voice, lest my footsteps stray / I will follow and rejoice, all the rugged way.”
Like all true stories, mine includes extreme chiaroscuro, dazzling light and wrenching darkness. But light leads the way. Light might be my one defining motive and the essence of my character, and my early years were simply flooded with it.