Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kindred Spirits

Two nights ago, I permitted myself the luxury of spending an evening with a book I didn't have to read "for work": Orson Bean's 1988 autobiography TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH. Constant readers of this blog will know that Orson Bean has been on my mind of late, and when I saw the title of this, his second book after 1971's ME AND THE ORGONE, I recognized yet another sign of kindred spirit. This one was allied to my thoughts of last Saturday, when I ranted here about my impatient "hungry wish" to make the most of my time and energy and potential.

Bean addresses this question right away, by saying that he somehow grew to maturity with the idea that "it would not satisfy me to be less than the happiest son of a bitch who ever lived." He then goes on to explain how he learned to stop worrying and love life, essentially, by taking his ego (the classic Freudian ego) out of his driver's seat and letting the universe surrounding him take care of itself and him. The rest of the book, after covering the story of his early life and career as young Dallas Burrows (Bean's real name), is actually the story of his second marriage, to the lovely Carolyn Maxwell, with whom he forged a model of open-minded and spontaneous living that somehow (he doesn't go into reasons) fell short of "till death do us part." He notes that he once had a fabulous golden lighter that he was afraid of showing around too much for fear it would get swiped, and after three years, it finally did. By the time he wrote this book, he had gotten to the point of moving past the loss to boast, "I had a great lighter for three years" -- and also that he had a great wife once, for fourteen years. There is a sense of lament about it, and about living on his own, but also of a man unburdening himself onto paper so that he can press on with the next chapters of his life.

There is an enormous amount of serendipity in the story he tells, which is surely a sign of an attentive and appreciative fellow. One story concerns the Bean family returning to America after a retreat to Australia and buying the first suitable vehicle they saw, a used Volkswagen bus, which cost only $500 but served them well for years, eventually dying -- where else? -- in front of a VW dealership. This and other anecdotes are illustrative of the book's commencing wisdom that "things will take care of themselves." There are also chapters devoted to Orson and Carolyn Bean's experimentation with LSD (a happy trip under controlled circumstances) and open marriage, even a shy visit to the Sandstone sex commune in California, and a chilling moment near the end of the Australian section that touches on the likelihood of a local Satanic cult reaching out for their baby and culminates in a real life encounter with some spectral form of Evil that invaded their home. Here, Bean acknowledges that it's not always enough to leave Life to its own devices; that we can sometimes surround ourselves with negative energy born of our own frustrations and worries and we must find our own ways out of these quandaries with positive and decisive action. By the same token, there are also certain contracts that exist in Nature where we cannot intrude, as a fascinating story about a drama between a mouse and the family cat attests.

Sidebar to my pal Steve Bissette, who would be especially interested in the chapter that relates Bean's weird experiences as the Guest of Honor at 1976 Bicentennial festivities in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. An excerpt might make a worthwhile feature in a future issue of Green Mountain Cinema.

TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH is a good deal more than your usual celebrity bio, and covers much more ground and human experience in slightly more than 200 pages than might be expected. I was able to get through it in a single evening, and felt richer for it. I hope Mr. Bean writes another book about his subsequent experiences. In today's mail, I received my recent purchase of a signed used hardcover of ME AND THE ORGONE and I'll likely be sitting down with it soon -- though not too soon, as we're presently assembling two issues of VW back-to-back before the end of the year.

Something I've observed over the course of my own life is that, if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to someone else's work, chances are there may be personal similarities involved as well. The more I researched the career and life of Mario Bava, the more things I discovered that we had in common personally, and the same goes for my interest in the novels of Anthony Burgess; I always assumed from his erudition and vast vocabulary that he had impressive academic credentials, but when he got around to writing his autobiography, I discovered that his childhood and schooling were not all that different to my own. He too was largely self-taught. Reading Andrew Biskind's recent biography brought to light even more curious parallels. And, while reading TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH, I discovered not only that Orson Bean was a "monster kid" like me -- there are several passing references to FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, KING KONG and collecting comics -- but that he and I sort of had the same mother.

Orson's mother, never a nurturing or steady presence in his life, committed suicide when he was sixteen, after he had already left home. My father died before I was born, but my history with my mother has always been the greater tragedy. A couple of years ago, she willfully absented herself from my life (not for the first or even the second time), and today she is marking her 77th birthday, with none of her children by her side.

Once while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, the subject of conversation at a small gathering of "monster kids" turned to our mothers. To our amazement and horror, each of us could recognize our own mother in the maternal reminiscences shared by the others. Strong melodramatic mothers, absent fathers. There's a university press book in this, I tell you.

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