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  • Keith Johnstone

RANDOM THOUGHTS, FACTS, MUSINGS - TO BE SORTED INTO OTHER POSTS

Updated: Apr 24

GETTING ON

I saw a specialist for eyes

Because of an annoying flicker.

He said, “Oh well, that’s no surprise;

You’re old and so the days pass quicker!”

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DANES

1973? I was in Copenhagen, walking towards the Modern Art Museum, when I took a short cut through a graveyard. The first tombstone that I saw had the words ‘Tak for alt’ carved into it. There was a bench nearby so I sat and wondered about this dead person – I forget his name (Oscar something) – who chose ‘thanks for everything,’ as his epitaph: thanks for the failures and thanks for the successes, for the people he liked and the people that he didn’t like, for the pain and the pleasure, the joy and the grief.

It gave me an overview of my own life. I couldn’t say those words, not truthfully. I had no peace in those days, no equanimity, but at least ‘tak for alt’ gave me something to aspire to.

It's fifty years since I saw that tombstone but I often think of it. I’m closer now to being able to say those words truthfully, and if I live longer than I expect, perhaps I'll eventually earn the right for them to be my epitaph. (Better than R.I.P. which really means 'don't come back and bother us!')

“What did the old guy say after the truck hit him?”

“I don’t know. It was in a foreign language.”

I walked on through the graveyard, wishing that I could have known Oscar - that remarkable man - but I didn't get far before I noticed that every tombstone said, ‘Tak For Alt’.

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TRAGIC CHIMP

A man who had taught chimps sign language told me a story that will be with me to my grave. And if I tell it in Heaven they'll kick me out.

He was inspecting a research facility that was using chimps for AIDS research. There was a long row of small one-chimp cages, and in the furthest cage a chimp was ‘going bananas’, as they say.

“What’s wrong with that one?”

“Oh, it’s psychotic, but that doesn’t affect the research.”

He approached the ‘psychotic’ chimp and saw that it was an old friend that was signalling the equivalent of: “Get me out of here! It's horrible here! These idiots don’t understand anything! I’m so happy you’ve come for me!”

But he hadn’t.

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ANIMALS

Backstage at the Berkeley Aquarium was a beautifully patterned shellfish. I had found its twin in my grandmother’s drawers when I was a child (in her chest of drawers), but this one was alive, and a notice in large letters told me what to do if it ‘stabbed’ me', advice that, if taken, might give me some small chance of survival. These pretty little shellfish, aka 'cone shells', have the strongest venom ever discovered, and no anti-venom exists, so don't annoy it.

The next tank was dark. Rich Ross (who had taken me there) slid back the lid a few inches, and asked me to place my hand on the edge. A octopus tentacle came out and touched me. Then it began to explore this warm, five-fingered object, as if trying to construct a mental map. This sign of advanced intelligence is still vivid in my memory (thank you, Rich). I would also have explored the shape of something that I could feel but couldn’t see - if I had the courage!

I asked a man in Seattle why he became a vegetarian. He said that he was scuba-diving in Puget Sound, in poor visibility. A darkness had appeared, a darkness that grew larger. Something huge was approaching. It resolved into a gigantic manta ray which swam slowly up to him and 'observed' him. Manta rays have the largest brains of any fish, and seem to recognise themselves in mirrors, so very likely it was wondering what he was, how much was flesh and how much was breathing apparatus, while brooding on the impossibility of ever really communicating with another species.

He said the size was overwhelming (mantas can be over twenty feet across and weigh three thousand pounds) and that the experience was so profound that he couldn't eat fish or meat from that moment.

I was at a Maine art centre in South Paris, living alone at the house next to the 'Celebration Barn'. It was the middle of the night but I was still writing. I had paused for thought, when a very furry and clean looking rodent strolled along where the floor met the wall.

I thought 'mouse' but it was too large for a house mouse. Was it a plump country mouse, fresh out of the bath? Actually, it resembled a hamster. It stopped, and looked at me, occasionally tilting its head as if it couldn't believe what it was seeing. (Perhaps it was infected by T-Gondii, a cat virus that gives rodents courage.)

Twenty minutes went by while I marvelled that each of its billions of ancestors had managed to breed successfully, and that my ancestors had done the same, and that this was true of the grass and the trees and the birds and the frogs and the porcupines (porcupines were a hazard at night unless you had a flash light). All of nature had been reproducing itself almost perfectly (even organs as complex as brains) until this universe could at last begin to investigate itself!

It also occurred to me that if intelligence made an animal curious about dangerous things this could be detrimental. Perhaps higher consciousness could only develop in a social species that could profit from the errors of its kindred.

"Don't go there, Stanley - remember what happened to Arthur!"

I imagine that the little animal’s thoughts were rather different. From the way it looked at different parts of me it may have been wondering if I was really one gigantic animal, rather than a temporary assemblage like a huge ‘slime mould’. I could have given it ten commandments to see if it would worship me, but I just wished it, “Goodnight!” and watched it stroll around the corner.

I felt 'honoured' but I don’t think it the encounter changed me, at least not as much as if it had been twenty feet across and had emerged gradually from the darkness to come right up to me and stare at me, face to face.

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POLTERGEIST

My Grandfather’s research on poltergeists was probably his last chance to leave us a ‘nest egg’, but it was not cheap. For example, hundreds of plates were broken before he succeeded in forcing a poltergeist to do the washing up (and there were medical bills).

Our house had become a nightmare of slamming doors, breaking plates, levitated objects that were often hurled with violence - and ‘ectoplasm’ that spewed from the heating ducts. One evening my Grandfather came in from the garage (where my Grandmother had banished him) and announced that he had succeeded in confining a poltergeist to the gas tank of the family car. From then on it had a top speed of twelve miles an hour but never needed refuelling. He was sure that by adding more poltergeists, speeds of well over a hundred miles an hour could be achieved, and that the replacement of fossil fuels by poltergeists would save the earth from the heat-death that had boiled the oceans on the planet Venus.

Early next morning a series of crashes had us running onto the landing. Granddad was sprawled at the foot of the stairs with his neck at an impossible angle. It was only when he arrived at the undertakers that it was noticed that his shoelaces had been tied together.

******************************************************************************* Odsherred, Aug 2014

A CHOICE?

When Andy Warhol was shot by the founder of SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men) the ambulance driver asked if he wanted the siren turned on: 'it'll cost you an extra fifty bucks.'

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MINE FIELD

I arrived to give a demonstration class at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. The theatre was packed.

I said: ‘Good evening. It’s nice to be here.’

There was an explosion of laughter. These ‘inscrutable’ Japanese roared! They were hugging each other! They were sliding off of the seats. The ones at the front where I could see them seemed to need medical attention.

I waited, trying to look like someone who has made a splendid joke and was being modest about it. Then I worked for two hours with no idea what had happened. The performers, and the few hundred watchers, might have had a better time if I hadn’t felt that I was having to step carefully through a mine field.

The translator was an Australian improviser. He had translated: ‘Good evening. It’s nice to be here,’ as, ‘Mr Johnstone says, “Go fuck yourselves!”' The Australians have a word for such people. They call them, ‘fuckwits’.

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CENSORED

When Don Hewitt (the producer responsible for Sixty Minutes) retired, the team presented a four hour ‘retrospective’. One ‘story’ had compared the US, Canadian, and Cuban health systems. The Cubans lacked the latest technology (partly because of the Americans’ embargo) but the Cuban health system was by far the best – and also the cheapest.

I remember this because they weren’t allow to ‘air’ this story until it was altered to say that Canada had the best system.

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NIGHTMARE

I wake up sweating from a dream in which the 'White House' gave Saddam carte blanche to attack Kuwait, and then tried to blame the Ambassador (but they couldn’t because she had copies of all the communications).

It’s good to be awake after a dream like that.

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NO PROGRESS

I was in Boston when the World Trade Centre was destroyed. Each morning Rumsfelt was posturing at a televised press conference (dropping hints that prisoners would be tortured), but one morning he was replaced by a religious discussion that was intended to help heal the rift between Christians and Moslems. I think there was one Catholic priest and one non-Catholic priest, one Shiite priest and one Sunni priest.

The meeting began so well that even when the non-Catholic Christian produced a Koran with some sentences that he had circled in red, the Moslems refused to lose their cool. They explained that the world had moved on since the Koran (blessed be its name!) was written. and thoughts like ‘kill all the infidels!’ or whatever, are no longer relevant.

I was busy making toast, and scraping off the burnt bits, and not really paying attention, but the moment when one of the the Christian priests produced a very large pair of scissors and proposed cutting out the parts of the Koran that no longer applied, was unforgettable.

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GREEK GOD

1944-5. On a cold, blustery day when I expected to be alone, I met a boy on Breakwater Beach. He was about my age (ten?) but better dressed. He was from the big house – now a hotel – at the top of the cliffs. He asked me to throw stones at him as hard as I could. When he finally persuaded me to do this act of seeming violence, he plucked them out of the air as easily as picking apples. I never saw him again. Had this happened in ancient Greece I’d have been sure that I’d met a God who was manifesting as a child.

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HEROES

Gordon White was playing the part of a criminal to help give police cadets some experience. They 'arrested' him and put him in a police car which he then drove into the distance

Buzz Aldrin. About to step onto the moon, and describing everything that he was doing, he said, "...Leaving the lunar module...and being careful not to lock it..."


MOVIE OMISSIONS:

Captain Bligh suffered from severe migraine but I’ve never see him stamp about the poop deck of the Bounty, clutching his head as he cursed the brilliance of the equatorial sun.

I’ve seen several versions of Jane Eyre. Some peasants find her when she dying of hunger and exhaustion and misery out on the moors. They save her – but only because she speaks in an educated accent. I’ve never heard this ‘educated accent’ reason in one of those movies.

In Amadeus the Archbishop does not kick Mozart down the steps.

I watched a bio-pic of Alan Turing but it did not show him building up layer after layer of prussic acid on to a luscious apple and killing himself by taking a bite.

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SCHARDENFREUDE

Anthony Quinn insisted on a four engined aeroplane to fly him into the desert (for the Lawrence of Arabia movie). The pilot forgot to lower the undercarriage. The plane slid for miles with Anthony Quinn bouncing about like a pea in a whistle.

OH, OF COURSE!

A friend phoned me and said, “what have you doing this afternoon?”

I said: “I’ve just read five Chinese plays from the ‘Yuan’ period. One is called The Child of Chao and I’ve been trying to find out about the author.”

There was no response. I thought we’d been disconnected.

“Hallo? Hallo?”

The shock had left my friend speechless, but he recovered:

“Why are you reading that? You’re not a Drama Professor any more!”

How could he have forgotten that learning is a pleasure? Then I remembered that he was back at University, taking an advanced degree.

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KILLER DUCK

The New Scientist recently - well, in the last ten years - printed a letter from two New Zealanders. They reported that long ago, in the sixties, they had been in Regents Park (in London) where a man had coaxed some ducks onto dry land by feeding them small pieces of bread.

Amazingly, a duck had picked up a sparrow and had run with it to the water to drown it. I was the man, and I remember them, although I thought that they were Australians. This bizarre event – strange enough to be in the mind fifty years later – happened in a section of the park called ‘Queen Mary’s Rose Garden’. I was surprised that the duck was quick enough to be able to grab a sparrow, and then to grip it in its beak without seeming to damage it. The sparrow flapped frantically, eighteen inches from the edge, and managed to ‘row’ ashore. There was no concrete rim, the asphalt sloped gently into the water, so it was able to extricate itself and join the others.

(CLARIFICATION: I didn't coax the ducks out of the water; I was feeding sparrows. When the ducks arrived I continued to feed the sparrows - and only the sparrows - to see what the ducks would do.)

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DREAM

I woke up convinced that the Japanese had started a war by a surprise attack on Russia’s Pacific fleet and that a few decades later they had started a war by a surprise attack on America’s Pacific fleet, but by the time I was dressed I realised that it was just a bad dream because the Americans couldn’t possibly have been unaware of such recent history.

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CURRENT - FIONA HILL

Dec.2019. I watched some of Fiona Hill’s testimony to a committee of the US congress. I had wanted to see how and when this important and very 'savvy' bureaucrat exposed her teeth, but she hid them. I saw about a hour, and in the last minute she allowed a very few quick glimpses of white as she answered a sympathetic questioner. (Ms Hill would have been perfect casting for the opening reels of Ninochka.)

I had assumed that people hide their teeth from shyness, but now I understand that people may be hiding their teeth to conceal their feelings of dominance or submission. I'll try asking my students to improvise without showing their teeth to see if it changes them.

(When men ejaculate in heterosexual porn movies the women always display their top teeth - at least in the ones I've seen. I’ll check out what happens in gay porn; I think it may be different.)

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HILARY

I’ve occasionally seen Hilary Rodham Clinton looking really strange – as if she had an inflexible smile stuck on her face. She’s a serious person in a culture where people are expected to smile, so very likely she has been advised to smile more often (which is like being told ‘look insincere so that you’ll get less votes').

If you want people to smile more, tell them to keep trying not to smile. Try it! Look at the objects and/or the people around you. Can’t you feel your body beginning to lighten up? And your mouth relaxing? Trying not to smile makes you more likely to smile and even if you don’t you’ll look more positive.

(Look about you when trying not to frown – what does that do? Does it affect the mouth?)

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A THOUGHT.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously claimed that the limits of his language were the limits of his world - but he was wrong. We know this because when words failed him he knocked one of his students unconscious.

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LOSING HERSELF

A student said that she was afraid to read novels because ‘it all became so real that she lost herself’.

'Easily orgasmic,' I thought. Then I said: “That’s wonderful. That’s what novels are for! When you start to read, set a cooking-timer for a four minute egg, and gradually expand the time until you’re reading deeply enough to roast a turkey. But if you really need a cure, take a course in English literature.”

Was I serious? Of course I was serious. You can’t be ‘lost in a book' and criticising it at the same time!

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FOR FEMINISTS

Herodotus tells us that when the Babylonians decided that they could withstand a siege by Darius (who was demanding tribute from them) they removed excess mouths by killing all the excess women. Feminists might like to use that example.

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TWO POEMS FROM THE 1914-18 WAR (NOT FROM AN OFFICER).'

THE TARGET

I shot him, and it had to be

One of us. 'T was him or me.

'Couldn’t be helped’ and none can blame

Me, for you would do the same.

My mother, she can’t sleep for fear

Of what might be a-happening here

To me. Perhaps it might be best

To die, and set her mind at rest

For worst is worst and worry’s done.

Perhaps he was an only son...

Yet God keeps still, and does not say

A word of guidance anyway.

Well, if they get me, first I’ll find

That boy, and tell him all my mind,

And see who felt the bullet worst,

And ask his pardon, if I durst.

All’s a tangle. Here’s my job.

A man might rave, or shout, or sob;

And God He takes no sort of heed.

This is a bloody ness indeed

Ivor Gurney

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ANOTHER POEM FROM IVOR GURNEY

TO HIS LOVE

He's gone, and all our plans

Are useless indeed.

We'll walk no more on Cotswolds

where the sheep feed

Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick

Is not as you

Knew it, on Severn river

Under the blue

Driving our poor boat through.

You would not know him now...

But still he died

Nobly, so cover him over

With violets of pride

Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!

And with thick-set

Masses of memoried flowers -

Hide that red wet

Thing I must somehow forget.

Ivor Gurney

'Memoried' sounds wrong to me. Could it be an error? KJ


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CROSSWORD

I was in a CBC studio in Calgary, being interviewed by a journalist who was at the BBC in London, when the taping was interrupted.

“We keep getting a tiny intermittent noise that our technician can’t get rid of,” he said. “Do you have any idea what it might be?”

“Is this this sound?”

“That’s it!”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea that you could hear it. It’s the sound of my pencil as I write the solutions to a crossword puzzle.”

The journalist seemed miffed: “You’re doing a crossword puzzle while I’m interviewing you!”

I said something like: “This interview was supposed to last ten minutes but your producer keeps buying more time, so he must be happy. You've been interviewing ‘spontaneous Keith’ while ‘defensive Keith’ was occupied with the crossword, and I promise you that you wouldn’t have got much out of him.”

We continued, while ‘defensive’ Keith distracted himself by remembering each bus stop between Brixham and Totnes. We talked for well over an hour – about creativity - but I wish they had they recorded that excellent example of 'removing the censorious self'.

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WORLD WAR TWO

I saw a documentary about the struggle to expel the Japanese from a Pacific island where they were ‘dug in’. An interpreter said that prisoner after prisoner had a bleeding mouth – but why? He discovered that that the guards were smashing the prisoners in the mouth with rifle butts to pick out the gold from the broken teeth.

I thought there would be an investigation, or a denial, but I haven’t heard of one.

(Such prisoners were almost certainly shot after interrogation. The Americans took thousands of prisoners (they didn't all fight to the death) but where were the prison camps?

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BREAKWATER BEACH

This will not surprise those born into a technological world but it astounded me (born before TV and camcorders and computers).

A breakwater protects Brixham harbour. On the seaward side are a few hundred yards of white pebbles called ‘Breakwater Beach’. I used to hurl these pebbles – largish stones – into the air and run desperately in the hope that they wouldn’t smash my head.

A safer game involves typing my name into ‘Google’ plus a noun to see what emerges, for example, ‘Keith Johnstone and cabbage’, or ‘Keith Johnstone and dogs.’ On impulse, I typed the words ‘Keith Johnstone and Breakwater Beach’, quite sure that there must be thousands of such beaches in this world, but it showed me ‘my’ beach - in real time - with people paddling, and lying on towels that they had spread out on the stones.

‘I’ve lived too long,’ I thought, ‘I should have died at seventy-two as I had planned!

It put me in a sombre mood.

(I’ve typed ‘Breakwater Beach’ into Google after writing this and there are now dozens but only the Brixham one turned up the first time that I typed the name.)

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EXPERTS

Have you noticed that when science may have taken a leap forwards, a distinguished scientist will appear on television to say ‘we don’t have to panic yet?’ Wouldn’t it be better to let a distinguished – but younger – scientist say ‘we don’t have to celebrate yet?’

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PROBLEM SOLVED

I think that the ‘tragic chimp' person’ may have told me this story. It’s from Africa where Wole had volunteered to drive a busload of mental patients from one hospital to another. All went well until he stopped for gas and went inside to chat with the owner. When he emerged, the patients had run into the bush.

Drama is about people being altered, and I’m sure that Wole would have been altered, but he was resourceful.

1. He drove to a bus stop and filled his bus with ordinary passengers (and he must have taken their fares or they'd have been suspicious).

2. He delivered them to the other hospital, telling them to get out and that another bus would be coming for them immediately.

3, He returned the empty ‘bus to the depot.

Problem solved!

The mental patients would have been altered but probably not as much as their replacements, or even the staff at the hospital. I like to imagine lawyers insisting that they really were lawyers but being tranquillised and strapped to gurneys, plus frazzled teachers being convinced that they were only hallucinating that they were teachers, and furious businessmen being wrestled into straight-jackets, etc.

I'm reminded of a friend who interviewed a Civic engineer on the radio under the impression that he was talking with a schizophrenic.

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DREAM

I dreamt that Khrushchev and Kennedy made a deal: ‘No Russian rockets in Cuba if the American removed their rockets from the Russian border’, but I woke up to hear the radio telling me that Kennedy made Khrushchev ‘back down’.

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RAPIST DUCKS

I was at Emerson college in Boston, and had been working on ‘pecking orders’ just before lunch. There was a park across the road so some of us went there to eat our sandwiches in pleasant surroundings (grass, trees, a small lake, amicable water fowl). I had brought some bread with me which I shared out so that we could feed the ducks.

I suggested to a tall, slim, mature student – actually a professor who was auditing the course – that she should feed just one particular duck. I should have realised by her still youthful figure that she had been some sort of athlete. Anyway, whatever her sport, she threw with great accurately. Each piece of bread landed right beside this duck, a female at the bottom of the pecking order who couldn't believe her luck, but then the male ducks mobbed her and tried to push her under the water.

The reversal of the pecking order – alpha ducks usually get first choice - had activated quite normal duck gang-rape behaviour, but before I could explain this the professor had hurried away, crying ‘Oh, you monster!’ and did not return to the class.

God or evolution was to blame. Rape among ducks is so prevalent that the females have evolved clockwise vaginas as an obstacle to the anti-clockwise penises of male ducks (yes, ducks have penises. and the 'clockwise/anti clockwise' story is in the literature). Darwin was baffled by the evolution of the eye (solved!) but knowledge of duck's sexual anatomy might also have kept him awake.

I returned a year later, and the professor audited the class again, but when I went to the park with some students to eat our sandwiches she did not join us.

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I'M GETTING OLD!

I always seem to nod off before those parts of Eco-documentaries that blame the destruction of the forests (or anything else) on over-population. Last night I saw a documentary on PBS which I thought was about the physics of water but it was about drought and I must have nodded off again - no mention of over population being responsible!

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XMAS DELIVERY

Hi William and Sophie!

Congratulations! But it’s not so great 

When birthdays are so close to Christmas day!

(Less presents! And less cards!) Another date

Would be a kindness, and I found a way!

I saw an auction on the Internet

And made a bid for Norma Jean's birthday! 

I did not think I had a hope to get

This abstract thing, and yet it came today!

Mine was the only bid. So now I own

This problem-solver, which, without delay

I give to you, and when this child has grown

I hope t’will say: “I love this special day!”

The first of June! I think it’s perfect, so

Accept it please - from Marilyn Monroe.

Love from 

Keith

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I saw a specialist for eyes

Because of an annoying flicker.

He said, “Oh well, that’s no surprise;

You’re old and so the days pass quicker!”

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Hi Ubaldo,

How nice to hear from you - and thank you for that interesting chapter. Maybe it’ll inspire me to look at a second Mask essay that I wrote a few years ago.

It astonishes me that people doubt that Hypnosis is real. 

I live in a universe in which you can speak to someone in a special way, and then saw his or her leg off without any anaesthetic (or protests!). Back in about 1840, or 50 a British surgeon did thousand of such operations in India, and yet there are still doubters!  In this century the board of the New Scientist magazine had themselves hypnotised to ‘see if it was real’ before publishing an issue on trance.

There’s an extraordinary BBC documentary, in real time that interviews a patient, takes him across the corridor for abdominal surgery under hypnosis - cutting through to the intestines - and then brings him back, stitched up, to interview him again.

My favourite moment happens when the surgeon is interviewed immediately after the operation  and is saying - ‘I do six of these operations a day. Makes no difference if the patient is anaesthetised by chemicals or hypnosis’ -  and realises that the patient is off of the table and standing next to him, waiting his turn to be interviewed!

(I'm an ape at the internet - but you could probably find it.)

When volunteers on stage are asked to pretend that they’re not hypnotised they show no stage-fright.

One problem with understanding what’s happening is that normal people are in trance most of the time - each time they become absorbed. When deep, such absorption can remove pain, but these trance states operate independently of the conscious mind. It would be fun to film someone reading a book about a desert island, and then have the room fade away, and then have the reader fade away, and then have the book cross-fade with the reader on the desert island pursued by ‘savages’.

I hope you’re well. And prospering. 

I’ll send you a video to entertain you!

https://vimeo.com/30858483

Sorry! I can only get the 'call number' for this video.

All the best from

Keith

(The chapter that Ubaldo sent me is Experiencing The Impossible (The Science of Magic) by Gustav Kuhn, The MIT press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. London England.

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Keith, is this the documentary? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgDQRDroSv0 📷Hynosurgery live - shows surgery performed under hypnosis Documentary about 'hypnosurgery' - surgery done without anaesthetic but instead performed under hypnosis.www.youtube.com. - Ubaldo

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Dear Ubaldo! I’ve just looked at the video . The one you found is a copy - or the original - of the one that I saw. More of less the same but the  people are different and the details are different. For example, a wheelchair was late arriving for the patient in mine, which is why ‘my’ patient got off of the table and stood beside the surgeon. Anyway it shows exactly the same procedure. At the end of this one I notice that the observing anesthesiologist is still not entirely convinced. Astonishing to me is that the Belgian patient having the throat operation had never been hypnotised before!

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FIVE IDEAS

At age twelve I thought that it was important for writers to be able to create similes and metaphors, so I invented a game that I’ll share with you. I’m very bad at it, but it may have altered me; people are surprised that I can so quickly replace one idea by another, that I’m not attached to my ideas: this game may be responsible.

Choose something, anything, and find a phrase to describe it. For example, ‘a dog’; a dog could be ‘a mouth on four legs’. It’s a description that could apply to many animals, but we’re not deciding good or bad, we’re just trying to get an underused part of the mind to operate. And, anyway, ‘a mouth on four legs’ might be exactly how you saw a dog that was leaping up to bite you.

That’s not the game. The actual game demands that you find five ways to describe something. They don’t have to be ‘right’, or ‘clever’, ‘or witty’ but you’re not allowed to say that you can’t think of anything. As a game for two people, you lose when you can't think of anything, but when you play it solo you’re not allowed to lose – this forces you to ‘lower your standards’. (In improvisation there are no good or bad ideas: a good idea is one that you take somewhere; a bad idea is one that you don’t.)

Other people change the game. They lower the number of descriptions demanded from five to two – but then it’s hardly worth playing. Supplying five ideas is cruel (at least it is for me) but it forces bad ideas out of your subconscious – and that’s a different process. It helps you to by-pass the crippling self-censorship that demands only ‘good ideas’.

I’ll think of five descriptions for a dog: ‘your heart medicine’, ‘the thing that has to love you’, ‘your furry philosopher’,’ the member of the family,’ the guardian of the house’. My mind freezes here, but I’ll keep going by lowering my standards: 'my bone cruncher’, 'my rabbiter’, ‘the only creature I can trust’, ‘God spelt backwards’, ’the tyrant that makes me go for walks’. I could try for twenty, but I might start screaming. The point is that my mind wants me to do well, so it protects me from ‘bad ideas’ by insisting that it can’t think of ideas of any kind, and yet the suggestions I get when I ‘lower my standards’ may be better than the previous ones.

I’ll try 'autumn leaves': ‘memento mori’s from the trees’, ‘panicking crowds’ (as the wind blows them across the road), ‘a billion announcements of the death of Summer’, ‘the tears of the trees’, ‘nature’s dandruff', ‘like walking through cornflakes’.

A version that you can play each time that you look through a newspaper involves covering the last ‘cell’ of a strip-cartoon and writing down five possible endings. I usually feel that I’ve failed miserably, only to find that I’ve had the same idea as the cartoonist, or a better one.

I realise that although I've never considered myself an expert of this game, no one else is even playing it. And if you play it all your life – as I have - you’ll certainly be less afraid of ideas. I’m proud of my twelve year old self for insisting on five ideas; where did I get the courage?

Joseph Conrad might have been a good player. Someone asked him to describe a woman entering a hotel bar: he said something like: “An exquisite woman with a speck of dirt on one nostril.” (But could he have done it four more times?)

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A PHILOSOPHICAL TAIL

The Philosopher and his Student are discussing the impossibility of proving a negative. The Philosopher says:

“For example, can we prove that a tiger is not crouching behind that sofa?”

Their inability to disprove this hypothesis leads to the Philosopher approaching the sofa to look behind it, with disastrous results, because ‘knowing’ that a tiger couldn’t be there prevented him from looking properly. The student runs into the corridor and slams the heavy oak door, but the Philosopher is torn to pieces.

After giving his statement to the police, the Student gets moderately drunk and returns to his lodgings. He climbs the stairs quietly – to avoid his landlady - and stands in trepidation before the door of his room (because how can he be sure that a tiger is not waiting in there?) He decides that the chance of a Philosopher and his Student being killed by a tiger at different locations on the same day are vanishingly small, so he enters the dark room boldly, but then, as his hand reaches for the light switch, he is overwhelmed by the most enormous doubt - because, after all, no one can prove a negative.

Alerted by his cry (and by what sounded like the bursting of a gigantic, slightly damp, paper bag), his landlady gets out of bed, and hoping for at least a cuddle, crosses the landing to scratch gently on the Student’s door. Failing to get any response, she goes in and screams at the blood splattered walls and at the bits of student that are draped on the bookcase, and on the wardrobe, and that dangle from the curtain rods.

The case is quoted in the medical literature as the strongest known example of the ‘placebo effect’.

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RAPIST DUCKS

I was at Emerson college in Boston, and had been working on ‘pecking orders’ just before lunch. There was a park across the road so some of us went there to eat our sandwiches in pleasant surroundings (grass, trees, a small lake, amicable water fowl). I had brought some bread with me which I shared out so that we could feed the ducks.

I suggested to a tall, slim, mature student – actually a professor who was auditing the course – that she should feed just one particular duck. I should have realised by her still youthful figure that she had been some sort of athlete. Anyway, whatever her sport, she threw with great accurately. Each piece of bread landed right beside this duck, a female at the bottom of the pecking order, but then the male ducks mobbed her and tried to push her under the water.

The reversal of the pecking order – alpha ducks usually get first choice - had activated quite normal duck gang-rape behaviour, but before I could explain this the professor had hurried away, crying ‘Oh, you monster!’ and did not return to the class.

God or evolution was to blame. Rape among ducks is so prevalent that the females have evolved clockwise vaginas as an obstacle to the anti-clockwise penises of male ducks (yes, ducks have penises. and the 'clockwise/anti clockwise story is in the literature). Darwin was baffled by the evolution of the eye (solved!) but knowledge of duck's sexual anatomy might also have kept him awake.

I returned a year later, and the professor audited the class again, but when I went to the park with some students to eat our sandwiches she did not join us.

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I'M GETTING OLD!

I always seem to nod off before those parts of Eco-documentaries that blame the destruction of the forests on over-population.


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XMAS DELIVERY

Hi William and Sophie!

Congratulations! But it’s not so great 

When birthdays are so close to Christmas day!

(Less presents! And less cards!) Another date

Would be a kindness, and I found a way!

I saw an auction on the Internet

And made a bid for Norma Jean's birthday! 

I did not think I had a hope to get

This abstract thing, and yet it came today!

Mine was the only bid. So now I own

This problem-solver, which, without delay

I give to you, and when this child has grown

I hope t’will say: “I love this special day!”

The first of June! I think it’s perfect, so

Accept it please - from Marilyn Monroe.

Love from 

Keith

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THE LIFE OF KLAUS

Klaus may rummage through the earth,

Or ride a rocket into space

But wicked fairies at his birth

Said, ‘he will never find his place!’


Klaus bit the gynaecologist

And struggled to retreat;

She seized him by the cord, and said:

‘This is your first defeat!’


Klaus woke his parents every night,

His tears overflowed;

‘Why did you do this thing to me!’

He would not be consoled.


Klaus was sent to Sunday school,

A place where I would learn

Just who the naughty people are

That God would have us burn.


Klaus could see the earth was flat,

Until it morphed into a sphere,

And Santa Claus did not exist,

And life was accidental here.


Klaus goes to Hell, let’s not forget,

Unless he follows Christian ways,

And yet the Buddhists in Tibet

Are born again in fifty days.


Klaus,who planned to live forever,

Learns that mountains turn to dust,

And that in fifty million years

Whatever’s here it won’t be us!


Klaus can see that Mum and Dad

Are bottling-up enormous rage;

What looks like domesticity

Is desperation in a cage.


Klaus is injured in the blast

When bits of Mum and Dad fly past;

That families can split apart,

Is like a pen-knife in his heart.


Klaus, believing he is ugly,

Turns the mirror to the wall;

Actually he is quite cuddly -

Children are not scared at all.

Klaus has seen some ancient Castles

Built by slaves for royal rascals:

He is not so sycophantic

As to find such things romantic.

Klaus is starving in a garret

Where his future seems quite grim.

All he eats is boiled carrot,

Will this be the end of him?

Klaus has tried for many years,

And never loses hope,

To light a match by striking it

Upon a piece of soap.

Klaus has made a time machine,

It takes him a decade;

He sends it back into the past

To get it ready-made.

Klaus constructs a man of steel,

That can think but cannot feel;

Driven mad by jealousy

He’s marched the thing into the sea.

Klaus designed a metal bird

That flapped its wings and sang.

One day it laid a metal egg

That went off with a bang!

Klaus loved his country, right or wrong,

And took up arms against its foes,

‘Till deconstructed by a bomb –

Now no one knows where each bit goes.

Klaus is reborn as a spider,

That has lots of legs and eyes.

See it run across the ceiling,

Chasing those delicious flies!

(Do not say they are not tasty,

As compared to caviar;

Only when you are a spider

Will you know how nice they are.)

Klaus has now become a crab,

His surface is a shell

He sidles off when introduced

And does not mingle well.

Klaus wakes up beside a fiend

That farts out smoke and belches fire;

Yet each night he lies beside her,

Rendered helpless by desire.

Klaus has found himself a wife,

Domestically she is a treasure;

Would have loved her all his life,

But her sister gave more pleasure.

Klaus is followed home by Death,

They sit and share a beer;

Death says: ’I have not come for you,

But is your daughter here?’

Klaus dived deep into the ocean

(Deeper even than the whales);

When he surfaced he was silent,

Would not speak of his travails.

Klaus is jealous of the stars

Because they feel no pain;

Perhaps it’s time that someone told him

That the stars are in the brain.

Klaus is wrestling with an angel!

Day and night they fight together;

Seventy years the battle rages -

All he wanted was a feather!

Klaus explores a labyrinth

Where someone’s life is flashing past;

Doctors shake him, intubate him,

Will not let him breathe his last.

Klaus wakes in a state of bliss

To hear the doctors say he’s dead;

He disputes their diagnosis

From a coffin lined with lead.

Klaus is seized by cherubim

Who waft him up to Heaven’s Gate;

Tries to enter, Peter stops him,

Says,“You have reformed too late!”

Klaus expects a warm reception

In that furnace far below;

The elevator descends gently,

Klaus steps out and says, “Hallo.”

Klaus is welcomed by a wassail,

Pliant girls are wearing thongs;

He has horns, and sports a tail -

Can this be where he belongs?

Wicked fairies that prevented

Klaus from ever being at peace,

Whisper, ‘God has been invented’:

Klaus now prays for thought to cease.

A few years ago verses about someone called Klaus kept floating through my brain. I wrote some of them down, and when I collected them (those that I could find) they seemed to be his biography. I put them together in a loose chronology, with some connecting verses, and here they are. I notice, of course, that ‘Klaus’ has the same number of letters as ‘Keith’ and the same initial, but I haven’t been in the army, my wife had no sister, I have no daughter, my parents did not divorce, and I’ve yet to invent a successful time-machine. KJ

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STILL LEARNING!

Goya drew a long-bearded and long-haired old man who was tottering forwards with the help of two sticks. He captioned it: 'I’m still learning.'

When I was young I thought this was intended to be satirical, but Goya was old when he drew it.

When Pablo Casals, the great cellist, was in his eighties he was asked why he still practised for several hours a day, he said:

“I think I’m getting better.”

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PROVERBS

You can take a moose to an Alp but you can't make it yodel.

That white horse that you see in the park may be a zebra synchronised with the railings.

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HAPPINESS

In Berlin I was asked if I would let a film company film me for thirty seconds. (I had turned down such a request from Yoko Ono years earlier and discovered later that it was for her film on naked bottoms.) This time the film company would come to me, so I agreed. I was asked - on camera - the question 'what is happiness’? I said, without thinking, ‘oh, happiness is function’. And that was all - except they said afterwards, ’no one else said anything like that!’ But I think it’s true. Functioning well equals happiness. Functioning badly equals unhappiness

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VERSE

The American administration

Sees torture as a step it will not take,

And yet permits ‘enhanced interrogation’

For use on those whose will it wants to break,

And says ‘don’t worry, it’s a legal thing’.

The sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

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SACRIFICE

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would have been even more shocking (in 1913) if it had ended with the truth – that we don’t skulk off after the moment of sacrifice feeling guilty. We feel absolved. And therefore happy.

If we sacrificed something precious to ensure a good harvest, or for success in battle, everyone would rejoice (unless the sacrifice wasn’t good enough). There might be suspense as we waited for the Oracle to say if the sacrifice had been accepted, but when it had, there would be laughing and cheering and the music should change to exaltation and celebration.

Vast crowds attend public executions to feel better.

Tragedies cheer us up by showing the removal of the person at the top of the pecking order so that we experience ‘going up a step’. After a day of tragedies the Greeks presented a comedy.

(Alex Comfort wrote that it might be better to sacrifice one person than to murder six million.)

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