Patch Rose and the Meaning of a “Writer’s Community”

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[Patch and Cookie Rose, at rest.]

My friend Patch Rose is gone. But as sad as I feel right now, his departure simultaneously serves a great purpose. It reminds me of the importance of a writer having a “community.”

He beat the odds, Patrick Francis Rose did, living two years in remission with a virulent brain tumor called a glioblastoma. But it came back, with a fury that could not be withstood. Or understood. He was buried on Valentine’s Day, which had a doubly cruel irony, as it was also the birthday of his widow, Cookie.

And yet, when I think about Patch, I think about one of the most alive and vibrant people I have ever met.

The way I met Patch has much to do with honoring those who have left us. And it has much to do with what we writers do and how important it is to pursue a somewhat nebulous term known as “coummunity.”

My mother was a writer, an actor and a teacher and she influenced me to follow in those career paths. When she succumbed to lung cancer, I wanted to honor the work she had done and the lives she had touched. So I founded the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction in 2000. I put in some money, my father Andrew put in some money and every year, I give away three prizes to the best humor writing in any form from anywhere in the world, in my mother’s name.

In 2005, without a doubt, the funniest piece submitted was entitled “X Marks the Spot,” a wonderfully absurd rumination on the religious practice of Ash Wednesday and one person’s efforts to get his ashes in gear, so to speak, during a lunch hour. The writer was some guy named Patch Rose of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Every December 24, Christmas Eve, I call the winners of the Mona Schreiber Prize to tell them the good news. And when I reached Patch and praised him and told him I’d be sending 500 bucks his way and posting his work on my website, I could hear his voice constrict with emotion. He told me about the GBM tumor that he had overcome. I told him that his story, that the conversation we were having, was precisely the reason I had founded the Mona Schreiber Prize in the first place.

I only wish that check could have had more zeroes to the left of the decimal point.

But one thing I have always known about writers is that they often toil alone and are not always the best spokespeople for their work. Writers need to connect with writers, with readers, with organizations. In a word, they need community beyond the walls of their offices and homes.

I am convinced that after the winners of the MSP have spent their modest checks—no doubt frivolously frittering it away on food, clothing or shelter—that what might remain is the idea that their work has been acknowledged, that they belong to a new circle, a newly expanded community. That even if they have to go back to some job that depletes their soul, they can remember the feeling of officially being awarded, an encouragement to continue the often less than staggeringly wealthy lifestyle of the writer.

Patch told me, after his first place award, that he was going to come out to California to visit me, bringing his wife Cookie, who had been by his side through the trauma and was about ready for a damn vacation, thank you very much.

I encouraged him to do so but knowing that many well-meaning people (especially me) make promises about visiting friends in far away places and rarely do so.

But one sunny Southern California afternoon, I greeted Patch and Cookie on my doorstep. And let me tell you, Patch Rose, to me at first glance, was utterly elfin, with an irrepressible smile and eyes that fairly glowed, that emanated a cognition of what it is to be fully alive, to have beaten, for the moment, death.

I took him and Cookie out to my favorite local restaurant, Café 50s, where posters and paraphernalia from that era adorned the walls, where the jukebox played hot stacks of wicked wax and the burgers and shakes were undeniably good.

There was only a brief moment of sadness in that, our only day together. It came from within me, not from Patch or Cookie. Patch no longer had hair, due to his cancer treatments. But he refused to wear a wig or a baseball cap or knit cap. He was completely free from the self-consciousness of those who worry about their weight or the shape of their ears or that pimple or any other cosmetic issue. And when I first saw the scar on the side of his skull, a cold chill went through me and I felt my insides spasm.

Yet, here he was, a guy who was told, after the surgery, that glioblastoma patients, at best, had a year to leave. He was about to pass that marker, and in his eyes and words I felt the energy of a man who had been given a reprieve. It did not matter how long, to him. It was a commutation of sentence. He had defied the doctors, the odds, the Fates.

And he had come out with his wife to visit me. I spoke with them about the profession of writing. Patch was no neophyte, being a reporter at the Truth or Consequences Herald. We spoke of agents and publishing and syndication and I encouraged him to finish the book of essays he had already begun, based on his columns, both funny and frightening, on dealing with cancer.

He was calling it A Year to Live? I loved the title, the question mark at the end. And I loved its other suggested meanings. How do we live when we uncharacteristically live in a compact period of time? And how is it different from how we were living before?

At the end of lunch, they told me, excitedly, they were going to drive west to the beach, to Santa Monica, to the Pacific Ocean, and feel the water and sand seep through their toes.

They said they had never seen the Pacific, that they had always wanted to do that. They looked like exuberant young children in grownup bodies.

They didn’t know it, but in that moment, I came very close to crying in front of them. I didn’t. They would have been tears of joy. But I figured Cookie and Patch had already shed more than their fair share of tears. They didn’t need to see mine.

I have met many people who think that writers are too concerned with achieving immortality via their writing. I have to rely on the old line of Woody Allen’s: I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

I say, we all have egos. Some of us invest in our artistry. Some of us invest in our children and our lineage. Some of us get facelifts. We writers cannot know what impact we will have when we are gone. Most of us will never live the dreams we had for our work. But there is a tangible satisfaction in sharing our work with loved ones, with some kind of audience while we live. It is about community. That community might be Truth or Consequences. Or thanks to the Internet, it might be international. But part of what we writers must do is try to touch people, including the ones we will never know. Because despite their anonymity, they are part of our community too.

Patch Rose lived to 43. Now, he is somewhere else. But he is still part of my community. I have a slim but delightful volume on my bookshelf called One Year to Live? And I have in my mind the memory of a man with impossibly alive eyes who changed my world, and some others, a man who managed to make a scar on the side of his head look as natural as his smile.
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[Despite having health care coverage for Patch, Cookie is in debt tens of thousands of dollars. If you are able, please visit www.patchrose.com and donate what you can.]

Being For the Benefit of Mr. Martin!

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George Martin, in 1962, long before he was knighted by the Queen of England, heard a demo tape at Parlophone Records at EMI in London. He was not impressed. But the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, insisted Martin hear the band live to understand their appeal. Martin agreed and when The Beatles performed for him in the studio, he was still unimpressed by their music. But he heard something particular and unique in the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But as Martin explained to a packed Bovard Auditorium at USC last week, had he known every label in London had already passed, he might not have agreed to meet them.

The Grammy Foundation presented Martin, the 82-year-old “Fifth Beatle” and most successful pop record producer of all time, with their Leadership Award the night after his Bovard presentation, on the creation of The Beatles’ ground-breaking Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The weekend tribute certainly acknowledged his unparalleled 50 number one hits over five decades in the US and Great Britain. It must certainly take into account not only his utterly innovative and fascinating work with the Beatles but with names like Jeff Beck, Peter Sellers and the Goon Show, Elton John, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, The Who, Stevie Wonder and on into the stratosphere. But the instantaneous standing ovation that greeted Martin upon his arrival and departure from the stage at Bovard testified to his reputation as a gentleman as well as creative force in music.

From being an oboe player and wanting to design aircraft, George Martin evolved into scoring music and engineering, when, as he described it, a recording engineer wore a white jacket and wax discs were cut with lathes, as masters. From this, he inevitably ruled the roost at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which he called “a wonderful, musical toy shop.”

His influence upon The Beatles and their eventual releases first took hold when he heard “Please Please Me,” suggested they play it at twice the speed and turned it into a number one hit. Martin shared, with video clips, many anecdotes of this special collaboration, including urging McCartney to use a string quartet on “Yesterday,” a result that Martin claimed “…didn’t do too badly,” wringing laughter out of the audience with his understatement. More chortling was heard when the crowd saw a clip contrasting the strings on “Eleanor Rigby” with Martin’s inspiration for their use, Bernard Herrmann’s staccato violin bursts in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho.

But Sargeant Pepper not only changed the direction of popular music; the process of recording and producing it was utterly novel and at times eccentric, experimental. “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” took over 100 sound clips of steam organs and mixed them together in a crazy quilt bed of circus sounds. And when “A Day in the Life” was recorded, Martin and McCartney, to the befuddlement of the orchestra, insisted they improvise the crescendo that comes before a final monstrous, echoing piano chord at song’s end. Martin revealed he instructed them, “If you’re playing the same note as the fellow next to you, you’re doing it wrong.” The orchestra eventually got into the groove. Martin recalls one member wearing a red clown nose and another using a monkey’s paw to play his violin.

Previously reviewed in these pages is the Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas of The Beatles Love, which Martin and his son Giles worked on in secret for three years, remastering and mashing together their favorite Beatle tunes for inclusion in the technologically staggering show. It is precisely this kind of challenge to grow and to tinker and to explore that signified the work of The Beatles and George Martin. It is what made their partnership so musically magical. The first album The Beatles recorded took just under 600 minutes of studio time, according to Martin. Sargeant Pepper took over 700 hours.

And despite the joy and freshness of so much of The Beatles canon, it is both amusing and thought-provoking to hear Martin tell of a time after the Fab Four split up, when he was visiting John Lennon in the Dakota in New York City.

Lennon confided that he wished he could re-record all of The Beatles music.

“What, even ‘Strawberry Fields?’” asked Martin, citing a favorite of both men.

Martin said Lennon looked down over the tops of his oval eyeglasses and replied in his droll way, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields.’”

As Paul Valery said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.” Martin seems to have impeccable taste in knowing when to throw in the towel on recorded music. And he’s not ceasing his exploration. He’s currently working on an eight-part history of recorded music that he’ll be hosting. On Record: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is scheduled to premiere in the U.S. on PBS in the fall of 2010.

It All Goes Back to Sahl

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It is a challenge to one’s journalistic impartiality to merely say comedian Mort Sahl will be having a tribute June 28th at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. Reason one to go: Sahl deserves the epithet “legendary” more than any other comedian, outliving his contemporary Lenny Bruce in the field of political and social standup. Reason two: He turns 80 and this is a benefit for the Heartland Comedy Foundation, a provider of support to those in the comedy profession who require financial support.

Reason three: His work has made it possible for current comedy commentators Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and of course, Bill Maher, with the latter performing at Wadsworth. Reason four: Joining Maher will be an astounding line up of talent, including Albert Brooks, Jay Leno, Drew Carey, Paula Poundstone, David Steinberg, Jonathan Winters and, on tape, Mort’s longtime pal Woody Allen.

Reason five: I am fortunate to know Mort, to get to banter with him on occasion at my local Starbucks. He generously gave me a blurb on my humor how-to What Are You Laughing At?. His incisive wit skewers all sides, not easy targets. His willingness to make us think twice about our longheld notions is embodied in his line, “A liberal is just a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet.”

Tickets are available here, with a discount for using the code “MORT80.” Come, laugh and acknowledge the man who ascended the stage at San Francisco’s Hungry I in 1953, with the day’s newspaper rolled up in his hand and lightly, humorously has been swatting us with the absurdity of our world. You have more than enough reasons.

A Farewell to Art

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[Entertainment Today, Feb. 18, 2000]

Many people have waxed poetic about the Internet’s advantages. Each day when I log on, and the Yahoo! page comes up, I am greeted with the news of who has died.

Is it me or is there something wrong with the word “Yahoo!” in bright, happy red letters followed by who is recently dead?

Thus, my mornings often start with involuntary, stunned grunts. Recently, there has been a flurry of funny person necrology.

I laughed the very first time I saw rubber-faced Jim Varney on a TV commercial. Now, he’s gone.

I grew up with the comic strip “Peanuts” and now, Charles Schulz is gone.

But the Yahoo! announcement that really hit me hardest was the loss of Art Hoppe.

For those who do not read the San Francisco Chronicle or the other 100 or so papers which ran his syndicated column, Arthur Hoppe was smart without being pompous, humorous without being tasteless, passionate without being strident.

His characters were gently confused. Like redneck Joe Sikspak, put-upon Private Oliver Drab and a presidential candidate named Nobody. His better known targets included White House denizens like Nick Dixon, Ronald of Holyrude and Jiminy Beaver.

I am in year four of “Development Hell.” When Hoppe passed on to that big Copy Desk in the Sky, February 1, at the age of 74, he had been writing his column for more than forty years.

When I was editor of my high school newspaper in Northern California, the Burlingame B, my advisor, Mr. Christensen, fondly referred to me as “the poor man’s Art Hoppe.” I never considered it anything but the highest compliment.

I once attended a celebrity book sale in San Francisco, because Art Hoppe was supposed to be among those in attendance. I got there first, figuring I was in for a long wait. Art Hoppe was second.

When I told him of Mr. Christensen’s nickname for me, I received the best possible reply. A deep, resonant, honest laugh.

Hoppe was much more than a satirist. His impeccable style and journalistic acuity enabled him to report on any story, be it heartfelt or outlandish.

One of his best known columns voiced feelings so perfectly, yet so simply. During the Viet Nam war, he wrote: “The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, ‘Good.” And having said it, I realized the bitter truth: Now I root against my own country.”

And in response to inevitable, angry letters, Hoppe would often reply with one sentence:

“The cookbook you have ordered will arrive under separate cover.”

Hoppe once spent a week living undercover as a homeless man. He traveled to Europe to explain to readers the foreign policies of Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Andorra.

Who else but Hoppe, during the tensions of the “space race,” would sojourn to the African nation of Zambia to describe how astronauts were being trained by being rolled downhill in barrels?

He wrote two plays and eight books and despite lukewarm sales of the latter, Hoppe’s son Nick said he was still amused:

“Dad always said that some people collect rare books and that he writes them.”

But his books will never be as rare as Art Hoppe himself.

I can summarize his impact on me with one word.

Yahoo!