Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2010

Spalding Gray’s macular pucker and mine

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

So a couple of months ago I went to my eye doctor to check the pressure on my right eye. Even after laser surgery, it had still been a bit high at 21. To bring it down, I began taking Xalatan, one of the most heavily prescribed medicines for glaucoma.

After she gave me the good news was that the pressure had dropped to 17, we chatted a bit about my cataracts. To speak intelligently, she brought up large-scale photos that they had taken of my eyes on one of my early visits. They were about the size of a honeydew melon. After a moment, she turned to me and said that she was not sure whether the degraded vision in my left eye, which up to this point had been understood to be a function of a more advanced cataract, was actually due to a macular pucker rather than a cataract. When I heard the word macular, my knees went weak. My old friend Cynthia Cochran, the widow of Bert Cochran who died in late 2006, suffered from macular degeneration, a disease that would eventually lead to blindness.

I asked immediately if that was a form of macular degeneration. Her reply was that it was not. A macular pucker was a form of scar tissue that formed on the macula, a part of the eye that transmitted visual images received through the lens onto the nerve cells that led to the brain. After reading the leaflet on macular pucker she gave me, I feel relatively certain that this is my problem since it describes as one of its primary symptoms a tendency to see straight lines, like in a lamppost that appears as slightly wavy. The other symptom maps much more to cataracts, which is an inability to see fine print. The first time I noticed this was in an eye exam about four or five years ago when I could not make out the inner three letters in a string of five letters on an eye chart. “a z q w d” would appear as “a * * * d”.

Fortunately for me and the rest of the human race, we see through both eyes and not separately like a lobster or a flounder. When I have my glasses on, I can read perfectly well. I am holding out for the possibility that the pucker will not get worse on my left eye and not ever show up on my right eye. From what I have seen on the Internet, this just might be the outcome—the best that I can hope for unless I get surgery on my left eye. Since getting a macular pucker scraped or peeled (the terms used by eye surgeons) is a fairly invasive procedure done when you are awake and since it only leads to a total recovery in only about 25 percent of cases, this is something I would prefer not to have done. The general consensus of the medical profession, including my doctor, is that if you can get by without surgery, you should.

After I got home, I began wondering if this is what Spalding Gray was suffering from, as described in his monologue “Gray’s Anatomy”. When I first learned about Cynthia’s problems, my curiosity arose over how he overcame his illness, which involved the macula. Surely, it could have not been macular degeneration since surgery is not an option. Sure enough, after picking up “Gray’s Anatomy” from the Columbia Library, I learned that this is exactly what he had.

(I should also mention that I learned about another more serious ailment involving the macula just today. It appears that Glenn Beck has been diagnosed with something called macular dystrophy, a rare genetic condition that can lead to total blindness, perhaps within a year. Maybe because of my own precarious situation, I find myself feeling no schadenfreude over Beck’s problems, or Christopher Hitchens’s for that matter.)

Gray milked his ordeal with macular pucker for all it was worth, drawing bleak humor out of visits to the doctor and to various “new age” healers around the world. His first doctor told him that there was no harm in “alternative” therapies even though they were likely not to work.

Missing from Gray’s chronicle is any sense that the macular pucker will not inevitably lead to blindness. As a performance artist, it was necessary for him to draw out all the melodrama from the situation. I also found it unlikely that he really believed that an American Indian sweat lodge or a Philippine psychic surgeon could do anything for him. As someone brought up in a Christian Science household, Gray would obviously lean in the direction of spiritual healing but the idea that sweating or prayer could remove scar tissue would strike just about everybody as preposterous, including Spalding Gray.

When the doctor tells Gray the news that he has a macular pucker in his left eye (the same as mine), he responds:

(Ahh—you laugh. All of my friends laughed when I told them that. They said, “Yeah I knew a girl in high school named Macula Pucker, and she had syphilis.”)

One of the legs of his spiritual healing odyssey is spent with a guy named Sebastian Sherborne in Oakland who supposedly healed himself of cataracts by rubbing his hands together and then palming his eyes. One gets the sense that Gray’s experience with this treatment and just about everything else of a “spiritual” nature hastened his decision to get the surgery done. He reports:

I’m riding around San Francisco rubbing my hands and covering my eyes, causing incredible problems. I’m in a bus doing it, and a little girl behind me says, “Daddy, is the bus going to crash?” I go to a Shirley MacLaine concert in San Francisco with a friend, and I’m rubbing my hands and covering my eyes, and my friend asks, “Do you really think she’s that bad?” Wherever I go, people come up beside me and ask, “Are you all right? Is there anything I can do for you?” Because I have my hands over my eyes they think I’m in despair. I’m getting a lot of attention, but my eyes aren’t getting any better. I think, How is this going to help a macular pucker? Maybe it will help something else. The thing is, I can’t stop doing it.

“Gray’s Anatomy” premiered on November 28, 1993. I can’t remember if I saw it in a theater or first saw it in the film version that came out in 1996, directed by Steven Soderbergh. I do remember, however, being utterly shaken by this harrowing story, while laughing all the way through. This was admittedly not one of the critics’ favorite Gray monologues. The San Francisco Chronicle hated it:

Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. We’re trapped at a party with a bore who insists on telling us about his operation. It’s not pleasant, but usually within a few minutes it’s possible to escape, either by running away, changing the subject or feigning a seizure.

Perhaps I am soft on Spalding Gray, but I didn’t have this reaction at all. In fact, I found “Gray’s Anatomy” just as enthralling as Harvey Pekar’s tale of battling lymphoma in “Our Cancer Year”, co-written with wife Joyce Brabner. It was also as gripping as one of my favorite Charles Bukowski stories, one that dealt with having his boils lanced as a miserable teen-ager. Now, this does not mean that I am into stories about illness. It only means that I am into Spalding Gray, Harvey Pekar, and Charles Bukowski—my three favorite writers. When news arrived about their respective deaths, I felt like I was losing a friend.

Unlike Pekar and Bukowski, Gray killed himself. When it was discovered that he had jumped off the Staten Island Ferry, it shook me to my foundations. This is what I wrote at the time. You will see a reference to my first encounter with eye problems. You will also see that I incorrectly link macular puckers to blindness, when in fact they are related to degradation–some consolation I suppose.

* * * *

Spalding Gray

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on March 12, 2004

Apparently Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island ferry on January 10–the last day he was seen alive. His body finally washed up from the East River on March 8. As somebody who has both seen him perform numerous times over the years and gazed into the waters from the side of the ferry on the way to Staten Island, his disappearance and death has been more on my mind than that of other deceased personalities.

Gray was a true genius. He virtually invented a new art-form in the 1970s, which combined autobiography with stage performance. Sitting at a table on a bare stage with nothing in front of him but a couple of sheets of paper, he spoke for an hour or two without interruption about important events in his life. As a story-teller, Gray was unmatched. With a flair for the telling detail and a dry self-mocking wit, he could hold an audience in the palm of his hands.

The last time I saw him perform was back in 1993 in something called “Gray’s Anatomy”. It had to do with his search for a cure for macular degeneration in his left eye, which can lead to blindness. Before opting for surgery, he tries a Filipino psychic surgeon and other “alternative” therapies. This was as much a function of fear of the knife as it was of a Christian Science upbringing that was reinforced by experiments with Eastern mysticism throughout the sixties. Stephen Soderbergh, who also directed “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and other films, made a movie of “Gray’s Anatomy” in 1996 and it is well worth tracking down. This year, when I developed a “floater” in my left eye (and then in my right) because of retinal deterioration, I thought about “Gray’s Anatomy” a lot. Fortunately, my problems were mild by comparison.

Before that, I saw “Monster in a Box” in performance, which is about his often futile efforts to turn an enormous sprawling manuscript into a novel. It too was turned into a film (directed by Nick Broomfield) that is available in video/DVD. It is a meandering but hilarious account of his various procrastinations to avoid completing the novel, which mostly takes the form of vacations to far-off spots like the USSR.

I love to tell one of Gray’s stories to friends who are as addicted to coffee as me. Since he knows that you can’t get real coffee in a Russian hotel, he brings his own with him that he brews in his room in the morning. The hotel’s ersatz chicory brew not only doesn’t taste right. It can’t help you get that first bowel movement going in the morning. When desperate members of his tour group discover that he has the real thing, they come to his room to get a “fix” that he charges a premium for.

Another bit from this performance sticks out. In attempting to explain in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room. For Gray, that quaint but human form of communication has the same kind of charm as that expressed in objects of “Ostalgie” in the former East Germany.

The only other Gray performance I attended is not only his best known and highly-regarded but a highly acclaimed film as well (also available in video/DVD). Directed by Jonathan Demme, “Swimming to Cambodia” is the story of Gray’s involvement with the film “The Killing Fields”, in which he plays the US Consul in Cambodia. Once again, there is a passage in his narrative that has stuck with me over the years. He cites some academic study using quantitative indicators that maps abnormal human behavior to the stresses of wartime, especially involving bombardment. The study states that on a scale between 1 and 10, people begin to exhibit abnormal and destructive behavior when the stress level reaches 4. Based on all available data, the stress level reached 8 in Cambodia just around the time that the Khmer Rouge was getting off the ground. That bit of information helped me (and him) to understand the killing fields more than any article in the NY Times or the left press for that matter.

Gray spawned a number of imitators, including an ex-girlfriend who was an aspiring director before she launched a career as a performance artist. One morning I was up at my mother’s house in the country when she came on the air on Mike Feder’s show on WBAI, the local Pacifica affiliate. Her story was basically about her relationship with me and what a bore I was. All I was interested in, she complained, was radical politics. She said that despite my admiration for Cuba they would never let me into the country because I had an expensive stereo. I should mention that her venues are church basements generally.

Feder, I should add, did the same sort of thing as Gray, but not nearly as successfully in professional terms. Gray’s persona is New England and waspish, while Feder is the quintessential neurotic NY Jew. Over the years, his shows have been filled with complaints about how he hasn’t been able to “make it”. That being said, I consider him one of the more interesting figures on WBAI and an exception to the “preaching to the choir” monotony that prevails. Even though it is good that the network resisted the Nation Magazine-supported takeover, they still have a long way to go to reach the level of professionalism and creativity that was on display through most of the 1980s.

As most comrades know, I have agreed to review fiction for swans.com. As anxious as I am to read a good novel, the pickings are rather slim. Over the past couple of months, I have begun reading one or another recent work, but have put them aside because they lacked one basic element, namely interesting characters. What made Gray’s work memorable was his ability to convert his own confused and futile search for a meaningful life into something that engaged your mind and your heart. He was the ultimate character. Even though I never met him or spoke to him, I really feel like I have lost a friend.

1 Comment

  1. […] “And Everything is Going Fine” features the late Spalding Gray about whom I have written in the past.  The other movie is “Saint Misbehavin’: the Wavy Gray Movie”, a […]

    Pingback by Documentaries about Spalding Gray and Wavy Gravy « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 8, 2010 @ 8:28 pm


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