may 13, 2010
i’m lying on my back once again, staring up at the infinite romanian sky, on a hard wooden bench outside the small peles castle in sinaia, the cozy transylvanian town nestled in the foothills of the thin-air pine forests of the carpathian mountains. the carpathians are home of bram stoker’s dracula, and have sheltered this part of the old autro-hungarian empire from invaders as far back as genghis khan’s mongol hordes thundering in from the east.
i say "again", because lying on my back, looking up through the canopies of towering tree tops, seems always to be my default position whenever i travel and i feel like i’ve "arrived". you see, i’m something of an "anti-spalding", my deceased solo performance guru who was never able to find his "perfect moment". why do i say ‘anti"? because i find them everywhere. perfect moments. they’re simply not as elusive as they used to be before spalding’s suicide, nor at this old dog/new tricks stage of my life.
the peles castle, built by a famous viennese architect in 1873 and surrounded by 7 graceful terraces and countless, carved marble, italianate statues of lions and tigers and bears (oh my), is one of the most beautiful in all of europe. unfortunately, thanks to mr. stoker, it is also one of the most visited ones as well, with busloads of both international and local tourists coming to gawk at one of the many "vampire" castles in translyvania, and to buy souvenir boomerangs, vampire-killing, crosses that fly geo-magically back to you if you throw them perfectly into the air at menacing blood suckers.
i say i’m at the "small" peles castle because i’ve left the big one to the hordes. i’m happy enough right here on my back, communing with the carpathians in front of the junior peles. i didn’t come to romania for their clone of disneyland. that’s for the hordes, not for yours trulesly.
i’ve come up here for the day from bucharest. by four hour train. it’s only my third day here in romania and i start work tomorrow, but i wanted to get my first taste and smell of fresh carpathian-transylvanian mountain air before i do. i’m here on a fulbright grant from my imperial government – to offer two theater workshops, in solo performance and in improvisation and theater games, at caragiale university in bucharest, the best-renowned government film and theater training program in romania. workshops. it’s what i do, have been doing, at USC in los angeles for 24 years. teaching students how to discover themselves, how to tap into their creativity, harness their self- expression, and how to become theater artists. i have my act down. i’ve been doing it long enough that hopefully all i have to do is show up and trust that what comes out of my mouth will be inspiring, insightful, and best case, helpful and transformative.
but today i’m in the land of dracula, bram stoker’s mythological and fictional character based on "vlad, the impaler", the mid-15th century wallachian (holy roman, pre-romanian) tyrant who hoisted his ottoman (islamic) turkish enemies up on stakes to physically, and psychologically, vanquish them. renowned as the most brutal ruler in the history of transylvania, vlad became known as "dracul", a word that means either "dragon" or "devil" in old romanian, while adding the letter "a", made him "son" of the devil. actually, compared with this historical and monstrous "vlad", bram stoker’s "dracula" of 1897 was a rather tame, mysterious, and hyper-sensual improvement.
pre-"dracul", i discover that before vicious vlad, there were the "dracians" the first indo-european inhabitants of modern day romania, who, mixed with the "roman" colonizers of the area from the early middle ages, made up the original ethnic inhabitants of "romania". however, after the latter-arriving german saxons, the austro-hungarian hapsburgs, the ottoman turks, the boyars, the tartars, the bulgarian orthodox, you really start to get the balkan mish-mosh that has been the eternal powder keg for international war and violence for centuries and centuries of "western civilization".
me? what do i know about dracula and vampires? literally, nothing. i haven’t read a single author, not one, from bram stoker to anne rice, nor, i’m loathe to admit, have i even watched HBO’s new hair-raising sensation, "true blood". the genre simply doesn’t appeal to me. it’s, to be honest, too fanciful and entirely, unbelievable... definitely not sexy or compelling to my sensibility . of course, i’m a guy who has no interest whatsoever in the "star wars" or "star trek" phenomenons; i prefer to look penetratingly within the human soul and psyche, not freely fantasize about the science fictionally, far out. yet, here i am in fabled transylvania, maybe for the first and last time in my life, maybe it’s time to search for... the "dracul" within.
so i’ve trained up to sinaia, the quickest fix to transylvania from bucharest, and i’ve arrived at the station... in the rain. or let’s say there’s a heavy transylvanian mist, perfect for spotting elusive vampires, who are well known for making their mysterious appearances in full-out romanian storms. i’m not exactly dressed for the rain.... but since i’m already here... i absolutely have to see the infamous peles castle. so... i take out my trusty gray umbrella, the same one that i’ve had since the 1988 edinburgh festival in scotland where it rains at least 5 times a day... and i start hiking uphill between the raindrops. but after 5 minutes, i see my plan is clearly not working... my pants are getting soaked, and i’m stupidly wearing my open-foot sandals for the day. fortunately, i’ve been trained by my intrepid set designer-warlock, gray-bearded hank, whose words of wisdom always come to mind in rain-soaking moments such as these: "there are no problems, only solutions".
i hail a transylvanian taxi. good idea, right? i know, i know, such an LA-new yawk kinda thing to do. and i know, i know, i’m supposed to be hiking the draculian carpathians in search of vampires. but c’mon, you can only be who you are, right? anyway... radu, the friendly, long-in-the tooth, cab driver, lets me off right in front of the junior peles castle and points the way to the big daddy, senior peles, just around the bend. i must truly be in tune with my inner vampire, because it stops raining as soon as i get out of the cab. naturally, i decide to take the road less traveled, and walk... in the opposite direction, away from the tourist hordes.
it’s fantastically beautiful. so quiet and still. the hordes are far away near the senior castle, and i’m alone on a little path taking me deep into the carpathian mountain forrest. i’m looking... and listening... for vlad the impaler. for evidence of his wallachian kingdom. but really, the way the forrest is right now, 500 years after his death at the hands of his avenging ottoman enemies, couldn’t be much different than back in the day. the forrest is full of the same carpeted moss, the same flowing sound of mountain streams and rivers, the same feel of... hall of the mountain king, romanian magic.
"eh! bllxlxl ccclcvvl rrmx!" it’s romanian castle security. i can’t understand a word they’re barking at me, but it’s not hard to figure out that they want me back on the path. back with the tourist hordes. i’m pissed, but caught dead to rites, so i reluctantly let them round me up and escort me back to where i veered off road, back to the junior peles castle. hey, it’s good enough. "perfect" enough for today. i find my little wooden bench in front of the junior castle, lie down on it, using my back pack as a head rest, and i stare up at the transylvanian sky.
from here, it doesn’t look much different than the tree-inspired view from the rocky mountains in durango colorado, or from the one in the swiss alps near basel and "the jungfrau", or... the one from the san gabriel mountains right here in elysian park, 5 minutes from my house in lala land. i guess mother nature has this way about her. beauty in patterns. skies through canopies. it’s not like my jaded friend, michael, says , "what’s the point? LA looks like ecuador looks like turkey looks like andalucia in southern spain..." no, every place has its own foliage, colors, smells, ... it’s own uniqueness. it’s just that... the planet has, perhaps, a repeating pattern of deserts, mountains, oceans, glaciers, forests... and it’s only so far that you can travel not to be in another repository of one of its historic eruptions, earthquakes, dry spells, ice ages... or tsunamis. it’s we humans that are far more unpredictable in our brutal and bizarre histories of war, pilgrimage, ocean crossings, crusades, politics, religions, empires, and beliefs... in saints, saviors, gods, devils, vampires...
...those poor, mythological beings who are eternally bound to live off the essence of other mortals. human parasites, alive only under the nocturnal powers of the moon. "vampirs"... half human, half dead demons with supernatural powers of flesh eating and blood drinking, that have been fearfully held in the subconscious of mankind since its earliest memory. from pagan and pre-christian times. and here in romania, in the heart of the slavic, nomadic gypsies, "vampir" has been born out of ancient burial rituals. out of the fear of possession of a decomposing body by an "unclean spirit"... manifesting a permanently "undead" creature, vengeful and jealous of the living, because of its need for their blood to sustain its body and soul. yes, "soul", my fearful brothers and sisters, that unique human concept, so alien to rats, frogs, stones... that has induced human imagination to such leaps of faith and fear... as pagan worship, monotheism, prayer, war, jihad, and here in the carpathians, the cult of "vampir".
but as i’m lying here, staring up at the translucent transylvanian sky in front of the junior peles castle, i am oddly feeling my own blood course through my veins. making me think of vlad, the impaler, and of bram stoker’s mysterious and tortured creature, dracula the vampir. and i am wondering if i, myself, in essence, am more "vampir" or... victim. am i one to feed off others’ "blood", others’ essential energy, bending them to my own stubborn will and desire? or am i more the passive, unknowing victim, being driven by my own fears, my own insecurities, down an unchosen path, leading inevitably to my own demise? i have flirted with belief in god for years, but i have violently rejected it. i blame it for immeasurable death and destruction in its impotent name. but what if i’m wrong? could i have missed the boat? misread the signs? could i... am i... have i... ultimately chosen to live my life in my own atheistic, aesthetic wilderness, in my own private idaho... leading only to my sad and inevitable non-burial... in my own posthumous, "un-dead" grave?
how can i say? in my younger, hungrier years, when i still thought i could bend life to my will, i seduced many less powerful beings. i entered sacred places with women who i gave nothing to but my lustful desire. i took from life everything i wanted without ever understanding the necessity of giving something back. i was selfish. greedy. i took. never gave. from my parents. from my "friends" and acquaintances. from all in my ambition’s insatiable path. was i then, vampire-like? certainly. i drank the blood and tore the flesh of those i needed... to survive... to succeed.
but now, entering the 3rd and final act of my brief candle’s life upon the tragic and comedic human stage, i find that i’m changed. changed... by having survived cancer. by having experienced loss and death. by simply having lived this long and lucky life of mine. i find that my former selfishness, my inability to give, was, in essence, "impaling" me... upon the spike of my own "self". and i find now, now that i am pushing retirement and have finally found love and the ability to give – in my marriage – i find that i am much less vampire-like, while simultaneously, much less the victim as well.
love... it seems.... has little to do with vampirism. sucking blood... living off the life force of others. it has, indeed, more to do with giving blood, life energy, to those around you. indiscriminately. consistently. without the need of love returned. jesus? buddha? lo, mohammed? they were not jealous, vengeful, all-too-human gods... like zeus, athena, vulcan, prometheus. they did not preach vengeance, jihad, eternal punishment in a burning hell of after life. they lived in the now. with love. and compassion. and with the pain of human existence... full of suffering, disappointment, guilt... regret. sometimes, perhaps if they were lucky.... if they had a good day.... the saints and spiritual behemoths, had occasional and fleeting sensations of joy, of success, pleasure, lo... even moments of brief and translucent satisfaction and perfection.
so now, lying here on my back, high up in the translyvanian mists of the romanian carpathians, somewhere mid-step on the long and winding road of life, i decide that i’m... ok. if i just continue to make daily choices and commitments, if i accept the "instant karma" i create on a daily basis... being rewarded for acts of kindness and generosity... being rudely "reminded" for acts of pettiness and selfishness, then i.... might... even be rewarded... in this lifetime... with such ungodly but still perfect gifts... like... perception... or... insight... lo, even... epiphany. insight and perception of such astounding value and brilliance... such as those that the great writers and artists and shamans have brought back from the "undead", but really alive, parts of themselves, deep inside, which have sustained and kept all of us non-vampires alive and well in this world.... for time immemorial.
kept us alive... high up in the carpathians mountains of central romania... or in the lowest recesses of death valley in central california... or alive... in the everyday hum drum of central bulgaria or biloxi or even echo park, los angeles... where... we fortunate, non-vampires go on and on... along our very real, very banal... very beautifully-challenged.... paths of... life.
so.... here’s to...
from high up in the carpathian peaks,