Dancing on Thin Ice

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. —R.W. Emerson

Category: Personal

George Kuchar 1942-2011

06 September 2011 marked the passing of friend and film-maker George Kuchar. He left an indelible mark on the world with his wit and humor and his many films.

Farewell, George. I’m honored to have known and worked with you.


George Kuchar 1942-2011

Still from Thundercrack! copyright © 2004, Melinda McDowell.

the real sunshine in my life

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Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.


These photos are part of a series I shot yesterday while on a visit with my grandson Clyde, who will be three years old on June 22nd. We were playing with a little plastic rooster wearing a grass skirt and coconut shell bra (it’s complicated), and a plastic Geronimo (you know, the Native American who bravely resisted the US Army back in the 19th century). Geronimo and the rooster were chasing each other around some bowls of water (ahem! pardon me, some LAKES and PONDS) and the rooster would occasionally jump from a bridge (don’t tell me you can’t see the bridge), shouting,”Geronimo!”

and then . . .

something unexpected happens to inject some pure, undiluted joy into my life.


Leonardo and me at the Noir City 9 opening party. (Photo by Mike Humbert)

Last week my friend Mike Humbert drove all the way to San Francisco from Paradise, California to take me to the opening of Noir City 9 at the Castro Theater. Before the show we met with festival director Eddie Muller, “the voice of Noir” Bill Arney, and a handful of others at Dashiell Hammett’s old Post Street apartment, which is being lovingly restored by Robert Anderson. Altogether a completely delightful evening, one I’ll remember for a long time to come.


Friend and fellow historian Peter Field and me at Noir City 9. (Photo by Mike Humbert)

interview on healthyplace

Sorry about the advertising at the beginning, but it only lasts for a minute or so. For some background about the interview, refer to Holly Gray’s post on the TV Show Blog Living With A Mental Illness Isn’t Always Living.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

there are times

. . . when I think it’s just too damn bad that abortions weren’t legal in 1949.



The peculiar document that passes for my birth certificate.

Then again, I sometimes wonder what happened to the two children by presumably different and also unnamed fathers my mother gave birth to before me. Poor Edith, that home for unwed mothers must have been a dreadful place. When I was a child, single mothers were either widows or divorcees and “unwed mothers” were social outcasts commonly labeled as sluts or whores. I remember it well as an object lesson in hypocrisy.

Even though I have no way of proving it, it’s very likely my mother was also manic-depressive. While not conclusive, the details on my birth certificate—three children born out of wedlock by the age of twenty-four—strongly suggest sexual promiscuity, a symptom of bipolar disorder circumstantiated by numerous psychiatric annals, not to mention my own experience. What is certain is that in the ’40s and ’50s, manic-depressives were sometimes surgically “cured” by prefrontal leucotomies (the tragedy of Rosemary Kennedy is probably the most famous example of this).

Inasmuch as I’ve been unable to unearth any record beyond my birth certificate of Edith Yearwood’s existence, including a search of the Social Security Death Index, I fear she may have been institutionalized only to die an anonymous death. I hope I am wrong. If by chance you know an eighty-five-year-old woman named Edith Yearwood, originally from the state of Washington, please tell her James Lee sincerely wishes her well.

inner voices


These are some of the characters that like to have shouting matches inside my head, the manifestations of my psychosis. My particular brand of psychosis involves the fragmenting of my Self and my reactive comprehension of who I am. My thoughts and feelings take on lives of their own, becoming disparate inner voices over which I have no control, each of which is like a different “me.” I lose all sense of who I really am and thus my connection to reality is severely impaired if not altogether broken. Personal continuity is irrevocably fractured and I disengage from people and projects—my life—until such time as the episode ends and there is once again only one “me.” Then I am faced with the daunting and often humiliating tasks of repairing relationships where possible and of rebuilding my life from the pieces into which it has been splintered.

While the language I use here is deliberately non-clinical, my descriptions are subjectively accurate and true.


This poem by J.C. Squires so perfectly and elegantly describes what happens inside my head, I wish I had written it.


I and myself swore enmity. Alack,
Myself has tied my hands behind my back.
Yielding, I know there’s no excuse in them—
I was accomplice to the stratagem.




Dispossessed within the raging battlefield of my mind, hounded by thoughts and feelings over which I have no control: a casualty of my own psychosis. As to medication, I might as well be taking aspirin.

It took me half an hour to write this.

Note to the bean counters at Wellcare: go fuck yourselves.

the upside of insomnia

If indeed there is anything at all good about having a sleep disorder, it’s that I’ve witnessed many glorious sunrises. From my rooftop, I recently photographed the sun’s ascent above the horizon as the full moon was setting.

Sunrise with Cloud

“Sunrise with Cloud”

Dawn and Moonset

“Dawn and Moonset”

a visit with Serge

This post has been moved and incorporated into my story about Serge titled “Temple of the Heart’s Imagination”, on my history site Up from the Deep.

cuteness infusion

Camera in hand, I recently spent the day with my grandson Clyde. Next month is his second birthday.

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Clyde – 18 May 2010

Grandpa is putty in Clyde’s hands.


Reinventing myself meant, foremost, reactivating parts of my mind that had lain dormant for six years and recovering my hand/eye coordination. To accomplish this, I used drawing as one of my primary tools. Below is the first of my pen-and-ink drawings, dated July 2001, my third month at the Sixth Street hotel.



While still in the hospital, I had rediscovered my love of language and symbolism when I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum; afterward, once I’d secured a roof over my head, much of my time was spent poring over alchemical treatises and ars combinatoria of the Middle Ages, wherein I found the inspiration for many of my drawings including “abracadabra.” The alchemical symbols inside the little gold triangles represent mercury (mind) at the apex, sulfur (spirit) on the left, and salt (body) on the right.

setting forth from the jaws of darkness

Almost as soon as I moved into the hotel on Sixth Street, still in the early stages of recovery from a six year nightmare of heroin addiction and homelessness, I started a sketchbook as an exercise in reinventing myself. Among other things, I used the sketchbook to reconnect with my love of calligraphy and the illuminated manuscripts and decorated letters of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The exercises culminated in a small series of watercolor decorated letters, two of which paid homage to poets whose writings had influenced my life in years gone by. I offer here some pages from the sketchbook and the three watercolors for whatever they are worth.

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Happy Birthday, Erik

It’s a little early, but what the heck . . .

Erik Satie

erik satie

17 May 1866–1 July 1925

Ever since the age of ten, when I first learned to play his “Gymnopedies,” Erik Satie’s music has been a part of my life. To commemorate this year’s anniversary of Erik’s birth, I offer “The Memory of Monsieur Satie,” Part IV of a piano suite I wrote for Pulitzer nominee Cyrus Cassells in 1984.

erik satie by jean cocteau

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