Transcript of an interview by Diana Hume George which ran in the Erie Times Showcase on December 7, 2000.
[***Edits from the interview that did not appear in the paper are in bold-face.***]
Photo by Sandra MacGlaughlin-Lopez
Lopez on The Whole Shebang
Musician, theater director, discographer, baseball nut, author and publisher, and home-care provider Rick Lopez will vent, bare all, and otherwise seek the truth tonight at Penn State-Behrend.
"My savior complex is out of control," says Rick Lopez, wryly nailing himself to the cross of his reverse ego-trip.
"What do you mean?" I ask, knowing that Rick is the least prideful and self-important person I know.
"I think if everyone would just shut up and listen to me, I could save the world." [See Question 19.] I refer you to the "Game of Twenty-and-Then-Some Questions" on his omnivorously titled Web site, "The Whole Shebang [now The VORTEX]: How to Build a World-View; an Epistomology; Some Idea of Where the Hell We Might Be."
And where might Lopez be these days? He and his wife Sandy are still caring for his 93-year-old grandmother, Lucille Abbey, in their home. In May, Showcase ran an article promoting a highly successful benefit concert to raise money for Rick and Sandy's efforts to keep Lucille, Rick's family matriarch, out of a nursing home. Half a year later, Rick still shares his small study with Lucille, who delivers commentary from the bed just behind where he writes, when he isn't doing hands-on personal care for her ailing, frail body.
Rick and Sandy care for her soul, too, and the record of all this is contained in the three issues of "Lucille: A Reverential Journal of the Care of the Beloved Hag." In it, you'll find ongoing news alerts about Lucille's latest strokes and seizures, her increasingly finicky food tastes, Rick and Sandy's efforts to keep in-home care workers from slitting their wrists, poems of praise for this tiny, powerful woman who helped raise Rick here in Erie, and tales of broken noses, cancer scares, bathroom adventures, and field trips to Barnes & Noble.
I assumed Lopez has run into many people doing in-home care for elders since this started almost a year ago, but Rick says no, only a few. This is a measure of the way we care for our elders in this country: 20 years ago, home care was the norm.
One of Erie's homegrown Renaissance men, Lopez has been at various times in his life a musician (drummer for Field Theory, Ape, Blood Pudding, 3bak Beast), publisher (Kangaroo Court), theater director (QuaQua Productions), discographer (Crispell, Ibarra, Parker, Rivers, Shipp, Spearman, Ware... names recognizable to aficianados), and a baseball fan ("Baseball & the 10,000 Things" and "Time Stops: A Book about Baseball" with Art Becker). Writer and on-line open-letter and 'zine-man is the Lopez identity that Behrend has invited to speak in the Smith Series, which has recently hosted luminaries such as Tim O'Brien, Carolyn Forche, and Lucille Clifton.
Lopez's visit to the series promises to be very different from the usual lecture or reading format, in which writers appear at the podium, clear their throats, read decorously from their books, then take a few questions and sign some books. As his title indicates ("A Venting, Bare-All, Truth-Seeking Mission") Lopez won't be letting his audience be passive, nor himself. Here's what he had to say in a recent interview about writing, life, and the writing life, as he now lives it with Lucille and Sandy.
Interviewer Dr. Diana Hume George: Has the role of writing in your life changed over the years? Not just what did you used to write, and what do you write now, but why did you used to write, and why do you now, when you do?
Rick Lopez: Of course it's changed. In the beginning I think it had to do with excercise in the worst cases—can I perform this trick with language, can I conjure that—whereas in the best cases it concerned coping with life's dramas and trials in a way that others could identify with and draw something from, like shared perspectives put to words, or new twists on things you may have felt but had never said aloud.
Nowadays I'm just trying to blow as much honesty out the top of my head as possible, because I've been told by others that it does some serious good, that it helps others to hear it, and after hearing this repeated over the years I've finally started to believe them! I'm at a point now where I feel I've put so much together that it would be criminal to not do something with it, or it may just be that I've been brainwashed and I'm totally deluded...
DHG: How DO you build a worldview?
RL: Work. The more you work at it, the more tools you accumulate, and the easier it becomes. Now I've spent perhaps too much time on it, I mean it has been the one thing that drives me, trying to get as many pieces of the puzzle in place as possible before my light goes out, and so after a few thousand books, conversations and introspections, I've got myself a freight-train's worth of tools. Big powerful tools. Most people might settle for a small plastic tackle-box worth of cheap hand-tools to do their thinking with, probably bought at Wal-Mart off some dusty sale table, because they're way too busy after work drinking beer, being lulled by the latest TV schedule, having as much fun as they can squeeze into their free time—but this does not qualify as a true human life to me, and so I can't do it. I need more.
So you track knowledge. It's a tree. You climb one branch, and it leads you to several others, and those to several more each, and knowledge of course does the 1+1=3 thing. like two eyeball views (1+1) giving you the combined view (2) along with the added (+1 more) quality of depth perception (=3). It's the best drug. This is going into a newspaper?
Anyway, the most important thing for me is that a world-view be anti-formulaic, a work that takes a lifetime (because it's what I feel a lifetime is for), and one that is as different from every other as the person building it. A crazy-quilt type deal, because everyone would track knowledge in their own way, and build their views from their own blends of things found and cherished.
DHG: Do you have some idea of where the hell we might be?
RL: Yes. In a scary yet beautiful little hand-basket. "Of the world as it exists, it is not possible to be enough afraid." [--Adorno]. To which I would add: in awe; enraptured; desperately interested; in love; flat out crazed.
DHG: Who's the "we"?
RL: Well I'd prefer everyone who can still move get doing so immediately. Realistically though, it's mostly a bunch of esoteric obsessive types like myself, impatiently waiting for everyone else to stop screwing around and do some catching up. Stop behaving like bad children—destroying the planet, abusing one another, doing the trivial pursuit thing. Is this too demanding?
DHG: And if you have an idea of where we might be, how do you think you got that idea?
RL: I'm not sure yet, but I think it might have something to do with my being a generalist. I mean whereas I might not be able to explain the specific "why" of a particular aspect of this web we call reality, I do know enough about the web as a whole, the surroundings of each aspect, that my picture has become a real burner. I mean it gets rather vivid in here.
DHG: Are the baseball fan and the drummer and the publisher and the guy who takes care of his family elder in close contact with each other? Is there a sense of continuity for you in these things you've spent your life doing and loving? (I can see how the publisher became the discographer, how they grow out of each other in different decades of your life—but do all these things feel vitally connected somehow?)
RL: Absolutely connected. I wrote once that the way I lived life was by trading one obsession for another, and that's true enough. All the things I've done are the same thing—each just the latest warp in my looking at challenges and passions as something impossible to resist. I really haven't been able to help it, this flurry of a life. Like why can't I relax for a minute?
DHG: What are you going to do with all of your feelings and memories and notes about taking care of Lucille?
RL: Oh, it's eating my head. It is. I'm not sure. I've always worked in short blasts when it comes to writing, but this experience, this Lucille Warp I've been in for very close to a year now, is enormous and all-involving and if I can figure out a way to make it all come out it may turn out to be something "large." I'm still too deeply buried in the thing to dream of what I may do with it after. Perhaps I'll conjure up Lucille on a stage, or something.
DHG: Oh, you're maybe thinking of a book? If so, who would you want to read this book? And what would you want them to understand from it, if there's any way to say that?
RL: I'd want people to understand that the horrors of anyone's life are a test, and that fighting the good fight, not giving up, trying to do the right thing always—I mean if you can figure out what that might be—and taking strength from the fight, responding to hardships with grace, as opposed to bitterness or withdrawal. And for me it has been an incredible outward movement. I am by nature a recluse, self-absorbed, usually too busy for anything outside my own head—but this episode has reconnected me to many of my friends, even friends I didn't know I had. I don't mean I go out more—I don't! But I am now aware, through the phenomenal amount of help that I received, that I am not nearly as alone as I once pictured myself. Pretty amazing.
DHG: What do you mean by "responding to hardships with grace, as opposed to bitterness or withdrawal?" Might a person respond outwardly with grace, but
inside be growing bitter? Did you ever used to feel that way? You talk as
though it's almost easy to choose grace over bitterness in life, but given
that more people seem to choose bitterness than grace—look at the faces
on the street, in the diners, the faces of people we all know—maybe it's
not so easy.
RL: No, no, nothing is easy. If I talk as if it is, it's only because I mean to underline the fact that it is possible. So what do I mean? I think it's to indicate that the possibility of change or growth is something that should not be denied. Especially in a case like mine-- I mean I really don't have any problems, do I? My son is not covered with flies and starving to death. Mortar shells are not falling into my backyard. I am not in a cell somewhere with electrodes attached to any part of my body whatsoever. The world is crawling with the most horrid forms of violence and suffering, and all I have to do is surmount my difficulties without acting as if they are larger than they are. Perspective is all. As for the faces on the street-- there are many people unequipped to prevail. The deck is stacked against them. I don't have answers for this. I didn't put them there, and all I have the ability to do is keep my own corner of the world as orderly as I can, and hope it yanks response and change out of those around me. I used to believe that many of my inner problems were intractable. I don't credit myself with growing up, with beginning to become anything like a "man", until I was maybe 40 years old. Granted, my standards for this are incredibly high, but really it came about mostly through my altering a number of things that I felt were WRONG with me. This all has to do with the differences between "guys", who are everywhere, and "men", who are a rare form of being indeed. Anyway, if you can get the inner dialogues going relentlessly, not accepting certain things in yourself, changing the way you think about them, you can remold yourself and get past many utterly stupid learned behaviors.
It's all process. Okay, so in the case of Lucille I spent time trying not to pass judgement on some of the family members. There were some things said and done which I found both reprehensible and indicative of a deep cluelessness. But these are not bad people, these are just people who are afraid, unequipped, short on options. My job in dealing with it has been to maintain civility at all costs. This is not about me, it's about Lucille. So I try to get myself to where what I feel is compassion, empathy, and humor above all else, in order to cope with it all. We makes our choices. What shows more wisdom, begrudging, or forgiving?
DHG: So how's it going with Lucille? Is everything still working out?
RL: Well, yes, amazingly enough. Just a few weeks ago we were maybe 48-72 hours away from having to abandon her to a nursing home. I understand that many folk do just fine there, but my Grandmother has been warning me for a few decades now that she was afraid she'd be put in a home, and I kept telling her that it would not happen. Her mind is slipping more and more out of its frame lately, and sorting out the home-care mess has caused us much frustration and craziness, but we did some brainstorming, and my wife and boss actually came up with a very elegant and obvious solution. So we're still with her. She's frail beyond belief, very fragile, but as long as she keeps laughing at our jokes, she's here.
DHG: What are you going to read and talk about at Penn State on Thursday,
RL: Oh, I'll have to read at least the two long pieces from the LUCILLE journal: "The Wonderful World of Strokes" and "Seizures, Free Jazz, and the Island of Catatonia." And then talk, I imagine about whatever anyone wants to know, and where-ever that leads us. One thing I've found (is this why you keep bringing me back every few years?) is that the more you open yourself up and go looking for the truth in revealing the mayhem of your life, the more you learn about yourself. There's no surplus of an ability to be self-critical in this world. I ALWAYS end up saying things, in searching for honest answers to tough questions, that I didn't know I knew. I become more clear about who the hell I am, what the hell it might mean, and where the hell we might all be. That's why I keep saying yes whenever you ask me back.
--November 28th, 2000.
Diana Hume George directs the creative writing program and the Smith Visiting Writers Series at Penn State-Behrend.
[...the book I'd like to write. "A Game of Twenty-and-Then-Some Questions," which might someday act as some very nice chapter titles. The answers given here are from a letter I wrote about five years ago to sage, friend, and mentor Charles Ventrello, who had asked what I was doing...]
Now What the Hell Am I Doing?
A- An obvious question, I guess.
Can You Come Out and Play?
A - This'll be about the mentoring process and why it's important, how we feed each other.
MUSIC? [A Multi-Voice Fugue on Classicist Rules, Jazzy Anarchy, and The Lure of the Sandbox.]
A - A friend of mine has a million rules to live by, mostly because he doesn't trust himself or others to behave. He's also got rules for musical
enjoyment, etc. He the Classicist. So I'm intrigued by this and suspect it's necessary, even though I'm the Jazz anarchist (which intrigues him)—we have fun influencing and challenging each other on this.
How Do Your Gardens, Public and Private, Grow??
A - Public gardens: my readings; my music performing; work; etc. Private gardens become more and more important. They include my discographies and music research; the music of Cecil Taylor / William Parker / Ornette Coleman / Anthony Braxton / Marilyn Crispell / Matthew Shipp / ETC; the actual garden in my backyard; an imaginary game-world where I learn about the Negro Leagues (my mentor had a BIG hand in this one); my website. So little control over the world at large, that the Private Garden becomes a bastion of sanity for the thinking reed. I'm going "inside" more and more allathetime.
But Is It Intrusive?
A - TV, violence, pop culture, cheap fast-food, WalMart, MacDonalds, "YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT???" How to take the rings out of your nose, one by one... maybe figure out how to be human bein's again.
What About the Issue of Purity? Huh?
A - Oh big intrigue for me. The Amish drive me nuts. I want to ask them lots of questions. I feel there's something valuable in striving for this... but unfortunately most seem to do it in insane ways.
Why Is A Serious Game Theory Our Best Tool?
A - How to treat life as a really serious game. Keep the play in it. Be serious in how you go about it, but keep a sense of humor/game-as-reality about the outcome-- so's you don't go nuts having such limited influence...
When Does 1+1=3?
A - Infoland. Left view + right view = rightview/leftview combined + depth perception, an added and new Quality. Same with information. How learning an answer adds ten new questions... How only people who know nothing think they know everything. How intense the complexity becomes, how nearly overwhelming the scope of one's own ignorance becomes the more you learn.
How Did "Epistemology" Become a Four-Letter Word?
A - Gosh, how many people in the world give a damn about having a world-view, let alone an accurate one?
But You Must Believe In Something, Mustn't You?
A - No.
Can I Explain My Need to Search for Self in Public?
A - Sure. the Saviour Complex. The self-imaging problem. The entertainment value.
What Do You Tell This Kid?
A - This comes with a photo of a kid being arrested at CHAOS DAYS in Germany-- chains, mohawk haircut, a young punker... So I want to tell him that there's a more sophisticated and much cooler kind of anarchy. I call it Moralist Anarchy, and it involves becoming such an amazing human that you don't NEED other people's rules. You trust yourself to behave benevolently and responsibly. You WORK at it. That's the real deal, the important game. That bumper sticker that says whoever dies with the most toys wins? That's extremely dim kid's stuff. People are dying and suffering. Maybe we ought to grow up?
Hey, Like, Y'Know What I'm Sayin? [The World As Filler-Phrase Factory, Or Whatever...]
A - Most of the people I meet in the workaday world are only functionally literate. NO READING. Ever! My feeling is that literature is "an entrance to other people's lives, a door to understanding." So a link with it is essential. It could cure racism, chauvinism, intolerance and ignorance of all kinds. Most get their opinions from TV, bars, etc., like cheap candy. They don't know anything of real value or sophistication when it comes to other people. Their world is a shoebox. I know they love their children and all that, I AM compassionate and all, but if people cannot speak or do not read and are only functionally literate, how can they ever hope to be able to think their way out of the next paper bag?
How to Ignore the Trivial When It Is So Pervasive?
A - Well... It's tough.
Is It Folly to Search For A Coherent Culture In A "World That Fragments Everything?"
A - No. It's just... Difficult.
Of All the Wonders Upon The Earth, Is There Any More Wonderful Than Man?
A - Oh the evils...
Of All the Scourges Upon The Earth, Is There Any More Heinous Than Man?
A - ...and the splendors that we do...
Does The World In Its Extremity Subvert All Definitions of Appropriate Behavior?
A - This starts with the Jack Micheline poem:
"Goddamn it all and I'm gone for a walk and take
another look around. While my eyes are still bright
before I fall on my face and cry or buy that
baseball bat at Goodwill and start swinging.
Considering the way the masses drive home on 12th Street every night, would it really be THAT inappropriate for me to stop traffic for one minute and bust out some headlights to slow them down? One day about two months ago I watched a twelve-year-old girl make it halfway across the street before she had to stop on the two-foot-wide center-lines to avoid being killed. I watched for three full minutes (I was waiting to pull out) as cars whipped by at 50-60 mph on both sides of her, in all kinds of hurry to get to the next red light. About ten seconds after both her hands came up to cover her face (I think she may have been crying) I slowly pulled out into the street and FORCED traffic to stop. Squealing tires, honking horns. STILL, no-one saw her, a few guys started getting out of their vehicles to come at me, and I rolled down my window and went right back at them. They all slunk back into there vehicles humiliated, me ending a really intense rant by screaming into the face of an ex NFL lineman to Think About What You're Doing For One Minute And Slow The Fuck Down! An interesting afternoon.
Why *Doesn't* Every Schoolboy Know?
A - Tons of very basic info that most people have no clue about. Inspired by the Gregory Bateson book "Mind & Nature" which contains a chapter by that name. "Divergent Events Are Unpredictable" "There Is No Objective Experience" "The Map Is Not The Territory and The Name is Not The Thing Named", etc. We ought to try just a little to understand the world we live in.
A - Oh geez...
How Much Does the Reason That I Often Find Myself Going At People in That Tone of Voice Keir Dullea Used the Third Time He Said "Open the pod-bay door please, Hal," Have to Do With the Fact That Most Don't Know What I'm Talking About Right Now?
A - I just wish I could relax a bit more. You know? Become an actual wise man and empty myself completely of anger and frustration... But I'm getting there.
[note: This last is the most likely question to be removed because of irrelevance. --RL]