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Another excerpt: Today Cancer, Tomorrow The World!

November 24, 2012

Jean Jones Jackson Artist and guide

(1907 – 1984)


A GIANT FEROCIOUS ROSE WAS BURSTING OUT OF A LOVELY COTTAGE. That’s what came to me after I finished Chekhov’s The Black Monk. I hadn’t thought about Jean Jackson in a long time. But cancer brings people you lost track of, back to you. She was a painter. A successful one too. She was born in New York in 1907. Studied at the Academie Julien in Paris and the Art Students League in New York. Her fantasy paintings of animals, children and apparitions had been exhibited in New York since the 1940’s, at the Iolas Gallery, the Maynard Walker Gallery and the Betty Parsons Gallery, and were bought by prominent collectors, among them Paul Mellon and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In Chekhov’s The Black Monk, the main character Kovin tells the legend about a monk dressed in black, who wandered in the desert 1,000 years ago and set off a series of mirages. His image was seen walking in different countries all over the world. This monk returns to earth and “reappears to men.” The monk visits Kovin and says, “I exists in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, so I exist in nature…If you want to be healthy and normal go to the common herd.” He doesn’t pursue the path of his talent and laments, “I was interesting and original. Now I have become more sensible and stolid, but I am just like everyone else: I am—mediocrity.” Kovin becomes obsessed, almost deranged and talks to the monk, who no one else can see but him. Everyone thinks he’s gone insane. His obsession destroys his marriage and the lives of others around him. When he realizes his errors he cries out for the life he missed, and at the end of the tale, the Black Monk states Kovin died because “his frail human body had lost its balance and could no longer serve as the moral garb of genius.”

I met Jean through a friend in Connecticut. She was in her seventies. A statuesque wisp of a woman. My Mom met her and said, “She must have been a beauty when she was younger.” I was in my twenties. Jean took a benevolent and nurturing proprietary interest in me because I read books and wanted to be a writer. She showed me her articles about her.  There was a photo of Jean with Salvador Dali. An early painting of a couple fleeing in horror from a monstrous rose bursting out of their house. Jean had a marvelous way of twisting everything into animation. One time I opened a novel she had in her house and found an elm leaf she used for a bookmark—with a few deft black brush strokes she painted the leaf so it looked like a fish. She told me about her life as an artist, fashion model for Vogue and how she was angry she missed her chance to fuck Jack Kerouac (“I almost had him!”). Anytime she saw a creative spark in life, or people, or in herself, Jean’s eyes widened, she pressed her lips together, take a long draw on a cigarette and a make a mmmmmm-sound of pleasure, and murmur, “Marvelous.”

There were many pieces of advice Jean gave me. “Every unattractive woman knows a pretty one…There’s an interesting reason why someone is boring… A rich person in a group will somehow take everyone’s money. They’re like magnets…All men have one particular dish they’re good at making…An actor is only happy when they’re someone else.” But it was her sweeping and protective beam of guidance that illuminated this day to me. I remember giving her the book, Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins. When I saw her later, she said, “I read a few pages and stopped. I’m nearing the end of my life and I need inspiration. And this book is just clever. And anyone can be clever. You just take the dullest knife and you sharpen it.”

If I went clever after I had cancer the first time, instead of chucking it all and going to California, I’d have settled for life as a journalist in Connecticut, and after ten years or so wound up at a public relations gig in New York City, then gotten married, had a kid, moved to Fairfield County or a Jersey suburb, commuted on a train to The City, spent my weekends at a racquetball spa or a country club and end up with a bad back and bum knees—or perhaps, remained a journalist and wound up an editor or columnist at some major paper, and consoled myself that I was the smartest person in the room with the least amount of money, or had a corporation consolidate the newspaper and got laid off without benefits or severance. Those choice might be good for someone else, but not me. If I remained, I’d be a three-staged rocket that never had the courage to leave the launching pad on my own power because I feared I’d have nothing to fall back on. If I remained, I’d probably start drinking too much for not seizing the opening to make the section that connected to a reforming and unpredictable world all based on the chance of being me. I’d be like a first-draft character in an unpublished John Cheever short story riding the Westport-New York commuter train in the bar car. I remembered those guys. My young, vainly withdrawn and judgmental mind assessed them but never factored myself in the equation because I didn’t want to acknowledge my life was heading in that direction.  Middle-aged guys boasted about their professional accomplishments and made sharp observations about the shortcomings of others as they pounded down drink after drink. But in the middle of their fourth vodka or scotch grunt, “It’s all bullshit.” I was young so whatever they had to extinguish was not part of me yet. But if I never lit out for California, I’d be going through Infusion for the rest of my life.

When I told Jean I was doing stand-up comedy at night. Her eyes widened as she inhaled he cigarette and she mmmmm-ed.

In comedy I avoided clever and went toward playful. The cleverest comics were the harshest guys. They had the most contempt for the audience. They were superb at manipulating the crowd, creating a false palatable image of themselves. This gave them an even greater contempt for their fans, because the person on the stage wasn’t the person the audience admired. In the end the laughs and love were for someone else. And a lot of those comics self-centered and mean. They were ambitious and calculating and succeeded in a sitcom for a few years and forgotten, while others hit the ejector seat and become the most bitter people in show business: comedians who become comedy writers. They gave up performing. They’d let some other talent harvest their best pulp—pulp that should have been the fruit of their own labors. If you polish someone else’s star you can’t be the marshal in your own town. And dammit, when the bad guy is shooting up the place, I wanted to be the man to take him down. These writers had incisive, dark and isolated minds. It’s a seductive and cruel intelligence. I thought it was amusing that most comics became funny because a bully hurt their feelings, and here they were using funny the way a bully used his muscles: to hurt weaker people. They lost their humor of kindness. They rarely laughed unless they were poked by a brutal sharp object from the dissecting perceptive darkness of another performer. I’d see these well-paid writers drinking hard liquor at the comedy club bar, seething as the comic on stage gets laughs and contemptuously spit out, “He never does my lines right.” And I wanted to say, “The reason isn’t because he’s not saying them correctly, the reason is you’re not saying them.” No matter what I did, I never let clever contaminate the performing part of me. But I will say, sometimes you do become a person you don’t like when you fight and compete to do what you do best. We all have a quirky but yet undefined uniqueness we have to develop, it could be for anything, accounting, raising a family, knitting, pottery, or whatever. Everyone is their own judge and jury. We all know what our natural resource is. Some turn it into a dry ocean bed and their souls fossilize in it. If your passion becomes your hobby, you’re embalming yourself. The real question is how close do you want to dance with your passions? I respected mine. I protected it. I never let cleverness leach into its aquifer. I think that’s always why I retained a resilient part of me that has remained unstained any rejection that tried to make me ever think I was anything less than what I wanted to be. Okay, I was broke, doing part-time work, and had cancer, but what if I ended up this way and was still back East? That would have been the dented halo of a wasted life.

Jean believed in reincarnation. She said, “I’m trying to develop my ability to watercolor so I can take that with me to the next life.” She moved with her husband to Hayesville, South Caroline. The last day I saw her, I knew I’d never see her again. She tried to compensate for the spreading gap between us by filling it with a variety of books and a drawing she did for my birthday. The day before she died, she said to her husband, “I got it. Watercoloring. I’ve finally got it.” He found her lying in dirt of the garden, claw marks in the dirt by her hands. The New York Times ran her obituary.

Jean taught me to never be clever. Be inspired.

The purest core of us is a quirky chord change of molten nectar. The hardest thing in life is to be yourself. You don’t have to work with a net if you can fly. It takes a long time to drill down and tap into the spring of this natural resource. I’d taste it on the stage, writing, improvising on the radio, hitting a pure shot in golf, pulling an instinctive move surfing an unpredictable wave. Its tight bud pops out of everyone without consciousness. It’s the heat in the fire that gives warmth to the room. That little dance move only you do as you reach for the light. It’s what’s inside you that you never see coming—even you! It’s the light that goes out when your shrunken body is lying in state without you in it. And that’s the heat where I forged the weapon to live and kill cancer.

Somehow Jean got me through this too. She’d be proud of me. I listened to her. She inspired me. I smile and see the humor in her giant rose and the fleeing lovers. Jean’s smile and widening eyes and mmmmmm-sound grows within me. Sometimes even The Black Monk worships at the wrong church. Jean visited me today. I cry in gratitude.

She loved me—and even more, she painted me.


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