Tag Archives: Highway Home the novel

Street Show as Heart Song

New York Times in New York City, Sunday Edition

My career in show business spans almost four decades. For
many years I have presented somewhere around 300 performances per year. That’s
a solid number. Some years I didn’t do that many shows and in other years it is
likely that I approached as many as 750. There were a chunk of years that I did
shows in Fisherman’s Wharf, at a rate of 15 shows per week. Do the math. I’ve
done a lot of shows.

 

We become
creatures of the stage. We are always in front of audiences. We dial in and
fine tune. We can feel energy. We can remember the last few days and if an
audience is tired or uptight we pick it up right away. We know how to handle
it. We know what to do. We are prepared. We’ve come up with solutions to
situations and have tested the material. For a veteran act we can work with
confidence. In one situation it might mean trying harder, picking up the pace,
or perhaps it means slowing down, relaxing and accepting the audience’s
collective consciousness just the way you find it.

Poster Graphic circa 1977, by Mari Dempsey Artist/Performer

I’ve put up numerous pages now. If you stroll through my
performing blog pages you’ll find pictures and stories from a wide range of
different points in my career, a wide range of different shows, presented in
different places. It is difficult to sometimes convey how this mosaic of
experience affects us. We can be the center of attention while we are doing a
show and can be utterly alone and isolated moments after the performance is
complete. We can travel for days and do one show for an audience and then pack
up and travel again for days before we do another. A solo performer must be
good at being alone.

 

I place
emphasis upon heart. Show business requires a certain kind of mental toughness,
but it also demands sensitivity. We must be capable of empathy. We have to feel
our way into a performance. We need to read our audiences. Look at a face and
know by that quick glance what that person might be feeling. We listen
carefully. Too much noise and it might mean the audience is restless, maybe
they can’t focus, perhaps it is late in the afternoon, they’re hungry, tired.
You have to know how to pick up on these things. A performance is collaboration,
a two way street, it is audience and artist, the world’s oldest biofeedback
system.

Sing...."Oh... its lonely at the top....."

Our lives are different. Our children, our partners, friends
they see it, they know. It is more roller coaster than merry-go-round. We get a
big fat contract and find ourselves in the chips and the next month we are
scuffing up work here and there as we can. It is a groundless life or perhaps a
secure life. Learning how to gather a crowd and do a show and then pass that
hat if you are skillful can be something to depend on. Still I would suggest
street performance is heart driven, you have to put the whole of your heart
into the thing. If you don’t want to use your whole heart, you’ll want to get
off the roller coaster and buy a ticket for the merry-go-round. Each ride is
its own experience….

HIGHWAY HOME                 THE FIRST NOVEL 

 

 

She was rail thin, clad in denim, a
cotton blouse, and a white straw cowboy hat. She had white hair gathered up
with a silver and turquoise clasp into a ponytail. She’d been riding a while
and sweat had come, and dust clung to the wet patches on her shirt. She had a
pair of leather gloves stuffed in her back pocket and a handkerchief tied
around her neck. Noel didn’t know how old she was. She moved better than she
looked. She had lace-up boots with a riding heel and spurs strapped on. She had
an easy look in her eyes. They were brown, clear, and kind looking. She looked
into Noel’s eyes when she spoke, otherwise she tended to keep her eyes held
away from things. She had a way of being polite and giving a person their
space. Lot of sun had damaged her skin. Parts of her face had lines, other
parts had deep creases. Her skin had been wrinkled by what appeared to be a
hard climate and a long stretch of time.

She admired his van. “Got a pretty good
home away from home. Looks like you know how to take care of yourself.”

“I’m out here for a few days. Maybe
more.”

“Taking your time out here. That never
hurt nobody; more harm in rushing.”

Highway Home Copyright © 2009 by Dana Smith

 

The Prison of Thinking That Can Not Be Changed…

It is too dangerous to go in there...

I noted in my surfing the digital highways this morning that in two sites, http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2011/05/24/red-brain-blue-brain/   here that there is indeed a measurable difference in the way our minds work from one person to the next. The workings of political liberal minds activate different regions of the mind than conservative minds. Hard wired into our bodies are tendencies of cognitive inclinations to see things from the way our particular mind has been wired by our DNA to work. These brain mapping results are just the initial steps being taken by researchers to objectively understand how we arrive at our point of view, how we decide how we feel and think about a particular topic, and what if anything we can do to open our minds to seeing a bigger playing field that is not held captive by our inherent physiological structure. Walk away with me for a moment from the hot button issues of the day and imagine with  me a world in which you explore an area of information with a curiosity to see into something you don’t know much about, that you evaluate the subject areas facts independent of your minds tendency to resist them, that you are self aware that the topic is flipping involuntary switches off inside your mind, shutting you down, arousing immediate skepticism, and that your intuitions and instincts suggest none of this can be true. I think it is becoming clear that we all have “a mind”, but it is not necessarily one that is “our mind” to do with as we wish, but rather a rather “independent mind” that we have to keep an eye on, and take care of, manage, and restrain from doing whatever it pleases after an unexamined, unsubstantiated, likely false thought rushes through our mind and before we think twice in some spontaneously bizarre action commit an irreversible action, or say something we will later regret because we confuse the fact that our mind does much of its thinking independent of us. In that sense we have to learn to take care of our mind rather than trusting it is always right and will always take care of us.

Highway Home                  The Novel

” It was hard to let go, might be an empty
and open country ahead. Riding off the mountain meant he’d be leaving this
experience. Things must come to an end.  Time was running out, he’d never be able to explain it, but he had this land
pictured now—the way lakes gleamed like jewels, the crests of glacial-cut rock
ridges, groves of brush and trees mixed and weaving through the mountains, each
community suiting itself to some piece of shade, some advantage of elevation,
some right conditions that sustained them.”

Changing Positions

Excuse me there's a dog on your head

It started out as a stunt in the act, then Pier 39 in San Francisco asked if I’d come down with Lacey and do some publicity shots, and the shots were for a long time part of the promo at the Pier, and let’s face it a cute dog standing on a jugglers shoulders is cute. I thought it was a good stunt, gave Lacey one more bit in the show, and didn’t mind the way it looked, thought it looked cool. But, never thought it would be a shot that a major tourist attraction in the United States would think would be just what the doctor ordered to perk up those lagging indicators and sluggish attendance figures. It comes as something of a shock when we find our work changing other peoples ideas of what they will and will not do. With regard to this particular image, but of course……….it’s a help wanted sign. And if you have a dog on your head it is pretty obvious you might need help! And remember that in the midst of all this is a man finishing his second novel. I know the question that is going through your mind right now, your thinking to yourself, does a man who balances animals on his head have a future in fiction?

Defiant Experimental Discovery of Change

The Biggest Little Defiant One of All...

We all have to do what we have to do. We might have to learn how to play guitar, parachute from a plane, water ski, or hunt for mushrooms. What is in my cue? What have I got to do? I’m not talking about chores. I’m suggesting that there are actions we can take that go against our instincts, but in so leaning against them we discover a new way forward. You might notice the nature to experiment seems inserted into us at birth and we begin exhibiting a tendency to push boundaries right off. Still seems to me we are prone to lose our spirit, our nerve, our conviction. One of the big traps of street theater is polishing an act until it is efficient, until you can draw a crowd, do a show, pass the hat, and get a
dependable return on the effort. After a while an act can get stuck. Finding new material always seems to set back the edge your most polished routines have over your new bits. This paralysis sets in and in the flash of a lifetime you
end your career too close to where you started. My show dog Lacey is 14 years old. She is deaf, she is gimpy, she is cute, has heart, and she is retired, she couldn’t do the act if she wanted. That is the second dog I’ve gone through
this with, and in each case the journey to a new show has been awkward, uncomfortable, painful, one step forward two steps back, and in general difficult, what we might call a giant pain in the butt. Still another colleague of mine has a fake animal act he has been doing too long. Been a real gold mine for him, and has provided a living for decades now. He’d love to do a new show, scrap out the old one, start with a clean slate. Problem is he’d have to take the old act down to the county dump and toss the thing in the garbage. Otherwise it’s just too tempting, too easy when he hits his first rough patch to get the old act out and show his audience a thing or two. Letting go is way hard, in variety show work it is almost impossible. It hurts like hell to fall into this hole.

Highway Home     The Novel

“Noel was chilled, but it was exhilarating
and the more he moved the more comfortable he was. Leslie came up for air. Noel
dove toward her and swam deep beneath the surface of the stream toward her. He
looked up, and when he saw her feet kicking he ascended right up and into her
arms. He put his arms around her and they both sank below the surface. Noel
kissed her.”

Change of Address of Changes

One of my homes....

I’m in my home up in the hills. I can just see the chimney of Eugene O’Neil’s Tao House from the living room. I’ve been here since January 2010. We came from Telegraph Hill in San Francisco where my wife and I lived together since March of 2007. We had an apartment at the edge of a cliff and we faced east. The view of sunrise was sublime. We often got up just for that show. When we met I was living aboard Maestro, my 25 foot wooden sloop. I’d found my way to this home by 2004. I lived in the San Rafael Yacht Harbor. I loved it. I did a piece of life in Berkeley near the Rose Garden not far from the Gourmet Ghetto. That began in 2001. In the first six months of 2001 I lived in my travel trailer in Castro
Valley. My trailer prior to that resided on the bumper of my truck. More or less I bounced between the American Southwest for half the year and the Northwest and into Canada for the other half. That segment began in 1999. I owned my trailer until 2007 and used it for work where in autumn for this last decade I worked in Queen Creek, Arizona at Schnepf Farm where my performing dog Lacey and I spent October’s entertaining visitors. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the back of my truck where I have often slept while out doing dates on the road. For example in 2004 I did the Ohio State Fair and didn’t want to pull the trailer and in that case I slept on my bunk in the back of my pickup truck…very nice. If it was all added up I’ve lived on things that move almost as much as I’ve lived on things that don’t in the last twelve years. The biggest change of all isn’t where I sleep, but with whom and of all the changes that has been the most amazing change of all.

Highway Home    The Novel

” The first decision he made was to keep on sleeping in the back of his van. He might get a place later. He found several
places to park where he wouldn’t be rousted out or hassled by anyone. He rotated from one spot to another and was careful about attracting attention. It
was a good time to hold his cards close. In the morning he’d get up and have coffee at The Irishman’s Café, an offbeat joint near Portland State
University where customers poured their own coffee, borrowed the newspaper from the person next to them, and spoke in neighborly tones to the workers.”

The Concise Pocketbook of Change

That would be me in the center of the brochure. I didn’t runaway with the circus I took a Peerless Stage System bus. I began this journey in downtown San Jose, a not altogether bad place to begin. At least people stuck there are honest. I traveled the highway in the bus by way of the long way with stops in Pleasanton, Livermore, Tracy, Stockton, Lodi and finally to Sacramento. I slow walked my change. The circus had just been gifted a Red fox that was pacing back and forth in its cage in the backyard where the circus was parked for the night. If you haven’t heard a Red fox do its impression of a chicken clucking you haven’t really seen or heard it all yet. I found the animal’s invention and mimicry a curiosity of the highest order. I studied the animal for hours. He was wild and never going to be tamed. I think we were in agreement on that. Some animals would rather die than go against their nature. Of all the things in this foxes life he’d confronted changing the fix he’d found himself in was about the only thing he wanted out of life. He’d either have it the way he wanted it or be defiant in the involuntary captivity he’d found himself trapped into. We turned the fox over to a man who knew a good place for an animal like that to thrive back in the wilds. A few months later I found myself with a miniature horse to train. This is an animal that will open up to you, if you feed it, provide it water, good pasture, and attend to the horse’s needs it will come to trust you, care for you, and learn to enjoy being part of your life. This miniature horse was a stallion that was named Othello. Perhaps no sight in nature has been more beautiful than when Othello, the miniature horse met up with prettiest mare he’d ever seen, and she liked him too. Of course like so much love in the world, sometimes it’s just not meant to be. She lived in Ohio. He lived in a traveling circus. She was a full blooded draft horse, probably stood 17 hands, weighed 2500 lbs…Her head and neck was probably as big as the whole of Othello… head to tail. Still, it was one of the great romances, and like so many of the truly great love affairs, the one’s you remember often are the one’s where for reasons hard to understand it just never ever was going to work out…Othello I’m sure thought given half a chance if we’d just let him take a stallions chance he was sure could change all that…Honest to god I swear I heard Othello tell me to go get the stilts from backstage…

Small Horse, Big Heart

Highway Home   The Novel

” Jasper heard the horse approaching and
rolled up off his side and stood for a better look. The rider had two dogs with
her, a pair of Border collies, herding dogs. Jasper walked out toward the dogs.
The animals slowed at the end of their approach and walked up, respectful of
each other. The three canines traded sniffs and identified each other with
caution. Jasper had a good nature and his tail wagged and the Border collies
seemed harmless and ready to make friends.”

Caving into Change

Primordial marbles for brains

Petroglyphs in the American Southwest, cave paintings in the South of France, the stunning piece of ochre discovered in the Blombos Caves in Africa dating back some 77,000 years suggest our ancestor’s minds had developed profound new emergent skills in both language and symbolism. It wasn’t our good looks, our sex appeal, our standing on two feet, our thumbs, but instead in the discovery of these artifacts is evidence of our greatest achievement. We celebrate celebrity, fame, wealth, sexuality, power and physical beauty. Much less attention is given to our minds, our wisdom; the power we have to solve problems. In the digital age we mark our moments here with our 0’s and 1’s in
soon to be obsolete storage devices where our ancestors etched into stone or stained onto cave walls markings that remain tens of thousands of years later articulate, evocative, revelatory examples of what concerns they faced in their brief moment of being here. Imagine being dropped off in Nevada and then marching off into the wilderness, trying to remain alive long enough to mark on stone or draw in a cave a message that might weather the onslaught of yet more tens of thousands of years and still be there for future humans to find, to discover, that might move them to wonder about the majesty of your consciousness. Our earliest ancestors are dated back by two or three million of years, but in just
the last 110,000 of those years something changed, something in our minds abilities changed. Now we can not just solve problems with our minds, but it turns out we can also make problems. This paradox has a way of capturing both our brilliance and our stupidity and the challenges we face in not just using our minds, but in changing the way we use our minds, so that we might leave to the universe through our wisdom more than what we found when we arrived.

Highway Home      The Novel

 Here swept out before Noel the boundless Great Basin Desert of the American West. Sagebrush
saturated the land. Horizons stretched wide, and the contours of ridges, rims,
and hills squatted low, shaved by ice, wind, and time. Here, east of Burns, at
first appeared wasteland and despair. It reminded Noel of how he felt within
his heart. At the same time there was a solitude to this place of a kind that
was rare.