Tag Archives: Charles Deemer

Faith and ‘Gomorrah’: a hero grows old

By Bob Hicks

CJ Jones is 75-odd years old, and although he moves around slowly, he thinks in short sharp bursts, which in Portland writer Charles Deemer‘s new novel Sodom, Gomorrah & Jones translate into short sharp chapters.

Charles Deemer's "Sodom, Gomorrah & Jones"It’s almost more of a novella, really, if the categorizing makes a difference, with a lot of air: some of those chapters aren’t much more than a paragraph long. And the writing’s lean – bent on telling the story rather than playing around with the words, although the story, such as it is, is not of the traditional narrative sort. Things meander, tautly, without an awful lot happening.

But as you’re reading it you gradually begin to understand that the novel is moving on two tracks. The first tells what CJ, a retired history prof at Portland State University whose specialty had been the moral debacle of the United States’ dealings with its Indian nations, is doing and thinking. The second, more subterranean, suggests what he’s feeling. And when the thinking and feeling finally align, both CJ and the novel ride off into the sunset – CJ into a diminished but genuine if intriguingly detatched rejuvenation of further adventures, the novel to a neatly clipped conclusion.

Sodom, Gomorrah & Jones is a quick read, and deceptively simple. It begins at a funeral in Portland and ends in a minivan camper in Mississippi, with an audio reader on the stereo reciting one of the bawdier passages of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale. In between –through folk singing and drinking and encounters with younger women and older women and new technology and new sexuality and his belated discovery of the other great love of his late wife’s life – CJ slowly sheds the parts of his past that are weighing him down and keeps the parts that can catapult him into vigorous old age.

Continue reading Faith and ‘Gomorrah’: a hero grows old

Scatter update: Deemer’s hyperdrama, Mothers of God, women with whips

By Bob Hicks

With Mrs. Scatter on the road eating fresh pineapple and downing margaritas with childhood friends, Mr. Scatter and the offspring have been batching it the last few days.

Mrs. Scatter's fresh pineappleWhile that’s led to a somewhat more relaxed sense of structure (oh, my goodness: is it midnight already?), the basics have been covered: boys showered, sheets washed, fruit or vegetables shoved down reluctant teenager’s plant-averse throat, same reluctant teen’s homework swiped at (eek! it’s finals week!).

It’s also led to a more, well, scattered approach to Mr. Scatter’s schedule. While Friends of Scatter Barry Johnson and Marty Hughley have been dutifully hitting the theaters and discovering interesting things (Barry wrote about the Fertile Ground new-works festival’s Famished, Meshi Chavez and tEEth for OPB; Marty wrote about the fascinating-sounding The Tripping Point: An Exhibition of Fairytale Installations, also at Fertile Ground, for Oregon Live) Mr. Scatter’s been going with the flow.

This is how the flow went.


On his way to Mochitsuki on Sunday afternoon (one son was watching Jane Campion’s The Piano for his English class, with a welcome assist from Ms. Reality’s Netflix account; the other was home listening to Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King on CD), Mr. Scatter ran into actress Eleanor O’Brien, who was standing on a sidewalk outside the Tiffany Center with a stack of postcards for her new show, Girls’ Guide: Dominatrix for Dummies, which will run at Theater! Theatre! Feb. 10-26.

Continue reading Scatter update: Deemer’s hyperdrama, Mothers of God, women with whips

The time-traveler’s tale: reading in 2011

“By and large, time moves with merciful slowness in the old-fashioned world of writing. … (T)he rhythms of readers are leisurely. They spread recommendations by word of mouth and ‘get around’ to titles and authors years after making a mental note of them. … A movie has a few weeks to find an audience, and television flits by in an hour, but books physically endure, in public and private libraries, for generations.”

John Updike, The Writer in Winter
Collected in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism, 2011

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter contends that time is not an arrow: we all live in several pasts, several presents, even a few futures. At any moment, and in separate yet overlapping ways, we are old and young, conservative and radical, classical and modernist. We are ever-shifting texture, contradictions that forge ahead and loop back on ourselves. Crusty old children. Impetuous adults. Civilized wild creatures. Logical irrationalists. Mysteries, even to ourselves.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, "The Reader," ca. 1770-72. National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia CommonsIn that sense reading and writing may be the most human of the arts. They follow us, and sometimes lead us, into these bewilderments of emotion and thought – the places that may not make sense, but simply are. Books explain things, and smudge them up. They are private pleasures that draw us beyond ourselves. And they are time-travelers. They can be “new” to any given reader at any given time, sometimes even when that reader has experienced them before. O miracle divine!

This year, Updike’s notion of the “merciful slowness” of literature sets the table for my annual recap of my year’s readings. Considering the rivers of writing that flow into the great literary ocean in any given year, it’s a foolish quest. Yet I feel curiously compelled to undertake what amounts to a private reckoning in a public space. These books, all of which I read in 2011, engaged me. I believe in them, and like most readers in most times and places, I feel an urge to pass my enthusiasms on to someone else who might enjoy them just as much.

This is not a best-of-2011 listing. A few of the books were new last year. Several others have been kicking around for quite a while. In subject and style they sprawl all over the place, from classic animal fable to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the wonders of the Louvre and the woes of Henry Miller and Anais Nin. That sort of leaping-about is the way life actually works for most of us, and it’s the way I like it. The discipline of writing opens up the world. And it isn’t simply, or even primarily, about what’s new, although a steady flow of fresh energy is necessary to its continuing health. How can we understand the new without some familiarity with the old? Why would we want to try?

Continue reading The time-traveler’s tale: reading in 2011

Till death do us part: the junk’s in the mail

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter is getting old.

"Grave-digger," Viktor Vasetsov, 1871. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons.At least, judging by his junk mail, the world seems to think so.

Rest homes (or “active senior residences”), pharmaceutical companies, retirement financial planners, purveyors of musical nostalgia in the Pat Boone mold have got their hands, if not on Mr. Scatter’s obituary, then certainly on the records of his birth date and semi-antique Social Security number. This even though Mr. Scatter is not now nor has he ever been a card-carrying member of the AARP.

Today’s mail brought one of the less welcome of these geezerly come-ons, from an outfit called Neptune Cremation Service. “FREE Pre-Paid Cremation!” it shouted on the envelope, which Mr. Scatter refused to open. Frankly, the offer burned him up. On the other hand, something called the University of Western States also sent an offer, this one on the perkier side: “Teen Back Pain? 12-18 Years Old?” Back pain, yes. Teen, thank the lord, no. (The two teens in residence at Chez Scatter are often pains, but not in the back.)

Mr. Scatter has no immediate plans to go gentle into that good night, although he recognizes the eventual inevitability. He asks only that the eager entrepreneurs of the world hold their horses and stop trying to push him prematurely into the abyss. Today has been a chilly but gloriously sunny day, and Mr. Scatter fully intends to enjoy such pleasures to the hilt before the eternal rains settle in.

Maybe it’s the inspiration of recently reading Charles Deemer’s poetry collection In My Old Age, but Mr. Scatter has decided to versify his thoughts on biting the big one in rainy Oregon:

Ashes to ashes

dust to dust

in Portland

we just

turn to rust.


ILLUSTRATION: “Grave-digger,” Viktor Vasetsov, 1871. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons.

In his old age: Deemer at 3:17 a.m.

By Bob Hicks

So this is the way it gets.

Lying in bed awake

at 3:17 a.m.

my wife’s heavy breathing

the weight of the dog on my leg

I am visited by the ghosts

of past mistakes

and dance to a symphony

of regrets

I wouldn’t change a thing

This is who I am

counting my blessings

in the dark morning

320That’s Portland writer Charles Deemer’s poem The Bottom Line, from his new collection In My Old Age, just out from Round Bend Press. Those of you who follow Deemer’s bracing, political, personal, sometimes crotchety blog The Writing Life II will remember a while back when poems started poking out, almost on their own, as if demanding voice among the general background noise of sports rants and teaching woes and struggling with scripts and ramming one’s head against the broad national venality and extolling the virtues of a simple cup of coffee and a good plate of scrapple in the morning. Old men, Deemer has discovered to his delight, get to say and do pretty much what they like, or at least what they’re still capable of saying and doing. This book is the result of that irascible fit of creativity, and I, for one, am happy for it.

Continue reading In his old age: Deemer at 3:17 a.m.

‘Farewell Wake’: small world, big bang

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter had so much fun doing his cameo for Charles Deemer’s new micro-movie The Farewell Wake that by the time he actually saw the movie he was surprised by how complex the whole thing was.

Rick Zimmer stars as a performance artist/provocateur in Charles Deemer's micro-movie "The Last Wake."He shouldn’t have been, of course. After all, Deemer knows this stuff. He teaches screenwriting at Portland State University, and is a terrific playwright, and a pioneer in the expanded-universe form of hyperdrama, and he’d already done another ultra-low-budget film, Deconstructing Sally, which we wrote about a little over a year ago here.

Still, when you’re having fun you forget about such things. And not a lot could have been easier than Mr. Scatter’s day on location, which consisted of meeting Deemer at a downtown coffee shop, sitting outside, doing two quick improvised takes for what turned out to be about a minute’s screen time in a 96-minute film, and then shooting the breeze for a few minutes until we both trundled off in our  separate directions. Plus, Deemer himself was the cameraman, and his camera, such as it was, wasn’t much bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Not much danger of stage fright under those circumstances.

Continue reading ‘Farewell Wake’: small world, big bang

Friends of Scatter show their chops

By Bob Hicks

The thing about so many Scatterers is that they don’t just observe, they also participate. Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead would be so pleased.

Heidi Stoeckley Nogoy in Martha Graham's Cave of the Heart. Photo: John DeaneTonight we head to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where the legendary Martha Graham Dance Company trods a Portland stage for the first time since 2004. One way to think about modernism: The Great Graham was born in 1894, which would make this modernist avatar 116 years old if she were still alive and kicking, and very much of an antique. How do you keep modernism modern when it’s got so old?

One way is to keep the dancers themselves fresh and vigorous. Another, presumably, is to build on the legacy, and that’s where Friend of Scatter Josie Moseley comes in. We’ll be holding down the “observer” part of the bargain. Josie will handle the participating. Moseley, the Portland choreographer whose credits include work directly or indirectly with Jose Limon, Alwin Nikolais, Anna Sokolow and Mark Morris (among others), set a new solo on the Graham company’s Samuel Pott this fall, and it’ll be premiered tonight. Her piece is one of three new dances commissioned as responses to Graham’s seminal 1930 solo Lamentation. (The other two are by Larry Keigwin and Bulereyaung Pagarlave.) Moseley’s variation, Inherit, is set to music by jazz saxophonist and composer Joshua Redman.


Wednesday night it’s to Northeast Portland’s Blackbird Wine Shop & Atomic Cheese to see Scatter friend Charles Deemer‘s debut screening of his latest online movie, The Farewell Wake. Deemer’s made two versions of the film — a shorter, more tightly edited director’s cut and a longer version, which includes some scenes and performers who’ll end up on the short version’s cutting room floor. The Blackbird screening is the long version, and it’s a special showing for all the people who took part.

That includes Mr. Scatter, in a very brief cameo as a guy named Art Scatter, and Scatter chief correspondent Martha Ullman West in a meatier supporting role. Will Mr. Scatter survive the final cut? He’s on pings and noodles. Martha, he knows, is a survivor. Here’s what we wrote about Deemer’s last video film, Deconstructing Sally. (And here’s what we wrote about his Oregon-classic play Christmas at the Juniper Tavern.)


Sidney Paget (1860-1908): "Sherlock Holmes," 1904. Wikimedia CommonsFinally, Scatter regular George Taylor has taken a break from his sauerkraut fermentation duties to spin out yet another play, and this one sounds like a corker. It combines England’s favorite miser and its favorite violin-sawing, cocaine-snorting gumshoe into a comic mystery called The Strange Case of the Miser at Christmas.

You can see a free reading of it on Monday evening, November 29, at Theater! Theatre! under the auspices of the invaluable Portland Theatre Works (read what we had to say about them here). Among the promising-looking cast are Tobias Anderson, Dave Bodin and Maureen Porter.

What’s it about? PTW’s Andrew Golla passes this along:

It’s Christmas Eve 1882. A miserly businessman named Scrooge calls at 221B Baker Street with a problem. A series of ghost-filled dreams has made him terrified to go to sleep. He fears the last dream, which is to take place this night, may signal his last night on earth. Surely the “world’s greatest detective” can discover what, or who, is behind the dreams. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have to use a controversial form of investigation to solve The Strange Case of the Miser at Christmas.

Your participation is humbly invited.



  • Heidi Stoeckley Nogoy in Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart.” Photo: John Deane
  • Sidney Paget (1860-1908): “Sherlock Holmes,” 1904. Wikimedia Commons

Miracle elixir, that’s wot did the trick, sir

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage against the dying of the light with a well-mixed martini in your hand.

W.H. Auden, Library of Congress/Wikimedia CommonsIn a recent post about a Vox spoken-poetry performance, Art Scatter mentioned in passing “the magician’s drone of listening to the likes of W.H. Auden reciting his own work.” That phrase caught the attention of playwright, novelist and filmmaker Charles Deemer, who passed along the following memory of the great gimlet-eyed poet. (And, yes, we know it was Dylan Thomas who advised against going gentle into that good night. Thomas was known to pack away a brew or two, himself.)

Since you mention Auden …” Deemer writes, “his magical readings were more magical than meets the eye.

Dirty little martini/Wikimedia CommonsIn 1963 I had the honor of hosting Auden, who was giving a reading at a community college I attended at the time. There was a dinner and reception before the reading, during which he drank, by my own nervous count, a dozen martinis! And seemed drunk. We didn’t know what to do, and when approached he assured us all was fine, no, he didn’t want any coffee …. so off we went to the reading, nervous as hell. He still seemed drunk to me when he went to the podium. Then somehow he didn’t. He gave a brilliant, flawless reading. Then he stepped away, seemed drunk again, and wanted to know when he could have a drink.

Remembering Auden’s feat got Deemer going, and he passed along another couple of encounters.

Continue reading Miracle elixir, that’s wot did the trick, sir

A Screenplay with a Sweet Subtext, in One Act

Mr. and Mrs. Scatter, together again

The Pantsless Brother (TPB), who was so concerned about Mrs. Scatter overexposing his predicament about getting gas out of his pants, recently said, “So you haven’t written for a coupla weeks.”

Charles Deemer commented on Mr. Scatter’s recent post about – in no particular order – hairy beasts, barista whelps, a little town some miles south of Portland known to locals as “San Francisco,” and Harrison Ford’s tendency to shout in irritation.

What did Mr. Deemer say? To quote: “I don’t know of a blog with a sweeter subtext. I want to write the screenplay.”

That led Mr. and Mrs. Scatter to ruminate about what subtext he could be talking about. Meeting hairy beasts in the woods? Meeting barista whelps? A glitzed-out hotel in San Fran? Yelling dialogue?

Ah, sweet mystery of wife!Mrs. Scatter preferred to take the more romantic view and suggest the sweet subtext just might be relying on blog comments to send a message to her far-flung long-lost husband to pick up milk on the way home.

It’s true. Mr. and Mrs. Scatter have been toiling lately in diverse locales and occasionally blowing kisses to each other through the windows of passing motorcars. By coincidence, just yesterday, Mr. and Mrs. Scatter were going in separate directions to hobnob with blog buddies – Mrs. Scatter to have coffee with MTC and Mr. Scatter to have lunch with MUW.

As Mrs. Scatter stood in the shower with warm water cascading over her back and the soft hum of the fan filling the air, she thought about how much she appreciated the few precious minutes she had with her beloved husband before hightailing it out of the house.

She began to wonder what a screenplay with a sweet subtext would look like. She began to wonder if it was possible, without giving too much away, to share a rare behind-the-scenes peek of Mr. and Mrs. Scatter, of the delicate nuances of their romantic tryst, of the all-important underpinnings of their strong marriage.

Mrs. Scatter tried not to think of the baskets full of clean laundry sitting in the middle of the living room and tried not to wonder whether Mr. Scatter would have time to fold it or whether she would have to strong-arm the Large Smelly Boys. Instead, she tried to imagine a sweet, sweet subtext.

And then, as if on cue, as if the screenplay were writing itself, this absolutely true, completely unaltered exchange happened. Mr. Deemer, we are so here to help you.

(This dialogue has not been edited for brevity or clarity. This is reality blogging, people. Normally, the dialogue would be upper- and lowercase, but that’s just not the case here.)

A Screenplay with a Sweet Subtext, in One Act

Silence, except for the gentle sound of streaming water and the soft hum of a fan. Steam envelops the elegant bathroom with clean, monochromatic colors and antique tile floor. A skylight frames a cheerful view of blue sky and bare tree branches swaying ever so slightly in the breeze. A bluebird flits from branch to branch.


Heard from a long way off behind a closed door. (Incoherent blah blah blah.)

Startled, MRS. SCATTER rinses shampoo from her face.




Heard through the door, closer this time. SOMEONE SCREWED UP THE KITCHEN LIGHTS AGAIN!






Reaching for the conditioner. GO AWAY! THAT DOESN’T MATTER!

Clomping footsteps heard retreating from the bathroom door.


(Harumphing grumbles.)




Heard from afar, like a faint echo, from a bit down the hall. WELL, OF COURSE! WE’RE MARRIED! WE GOTTA AGREE ON THAT!


— Laura Grimes

Juniper Tavern: After 25 years, we’ll drink to that

A quarter-century after a literary landmark in Oregon, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Let’s see. Urban/rural split, with a vengeance. A recession in the city, which means a depression in the small towns and countryside. Newcomers wide-eyed with enthusiasm over their new home; old-timers narrow-eyed with suspicion and mistrust. Jobs disappearing as fast as the trees and fish. An almost desperate love for the land. Merry Christmas, everyone!

The script, published by Arrowood BooksA few evenings ago I sat down and re-read Charles Deemer‘s 1984 stage comedy Christmas at the Juniper Tavern. It was maybe the third or fourth time I’ve read it in the 25 years since it debuted, to great acclaim, at the old New Rose Theatre in Portland. In that time I’ve scratched my head repeatedly over why some Portland theater company doesn’t revive it for a December run. It’s topical, it’s seasonal, it has terrific characters and it gets to the heart of that elusive thing called the Northwest spirit. I’m convinced that with a good production it’d be a hit.


Well, maybe next year. In the absence of a fresh production, the next best thing is a trip on Wednesday evening to the Blackbird Wine Shop, at Northeast Fremont Street and 44th Avenue in Portland, for a 25th anniversary showing of Juniper Tavern‘s original broadcast on Oregon Public Broadcasting. A digitized version of the broadcast will be shown 7-9:30 p.m. Dec. 9. Admission’s free, and wine tasting is five bucks.


The DVD version, a copy of which Deemer sent me, is a mixed bag. It’s pretty much a point-and-shoot affair, a visual recording of that terrific original production, without the kinds of camera movement and visual rethinking that a higher budget might have brought to the project. That makes it, cinematically, more static than it ought to be.

But it also faithfully reproduces what was a top-notch stage production, solid across the board but sparked by the chemistry between Vana O’Brien as down-to-earth bar owner Stella and the late Rollie Wulff as Frank, an unemployed mill worker trying to make sense of a rural world that’s falling apart on him.

Their story is interrupted and amplified by a drinking binge, a stolen Rolls Royce, an abortive kidnapping, an angry mother in pursuit of her blissed-out daughter, a Christmas pageant, and — oh, yes — original director Steve Smith’s shockingly funny performance as Swami Kree, an Indian guru whose followers, who are building an ashram in the Central Oregon desert, have given him 26 Rolls Royces and one cool cowboy hat.

Deemer wrote Christmas at the Juniper Tavern at a time when a New Agey international religious group called the Rajneeshees and their guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, had taken over the tiny town of Antelope in Central Oregon and renamed it Rajneeshpuram.

It was one of the unlikeliest and most sensational stories in Oregon history. The split between the mostly wealthy Rajneeshees and the locals was sharp and radical. In a plot to take over Wasco County politically, members of the ashram under the direction of the bhagwan’s right-hand woman Ma Anand Sheela (echoed smartly in the play by Jane Titus as the waspish Ma Prama Rama Kree) spread salmonella poisoning through several restaurants in The Dalles, hoping to sicken enough voters that their own members would dominate the coming election. Rajneesh, who at one point had 90 Rolls Royces rolling in and out of the ashram, was eventually deported back to India.

The parallels between the Rajneeshee movement and Christmas at the Juniper Tavern were obvious, and audiences and critics alike assumed the play was a comic riff on current events. Deemer declared his play was not about the Rajneeshees (more on that below) but people didn’t pay much attention. Now, the play’s broader themes are easier to see.

As neatly as it strikes the historical chords of an outrageous cultural clash, in a larger sense Juniper Tavern belongs with a series of plays Deemer wrote in the 1980s about the social and economic strains of mostly small-town life in the Northwest. He included it in his 2006 collection Country Northwestern and Other Plays of the Pacific Northwest, which also included the title play plus Varmints, Waitresses and The Half-Life Conspiracy. Those plays mark a considerable achievement in documenting, with insight and humor, both the stubborn will of the region’s hardscrabble rural romantics and the fading of a way of life.

Listen to Rex (Gary Brickner-Schulz) in his monologue at the top of Act Two of Christmas at the Juniper Tavern:

“The bottom line is, you gotta eat. I don’t know what Margie expects me to do. You won’t find a harder working sum-bitch than yours truly but I can’t open up the mill if the company don’t want it open. If the mill ain’t open, I can’t haul logs. It’s that simple.

“There was a time when I’d’ve hit the road by now. But, damn it, I love this part of the country. I love Central Oregon. I love Juniper, the home I’m buying, my neighbors, the kind of life we share. I wake up in the morning, look out my kitchen window, and see nothing but snow-capped mountains. A rich man can’t see anything prettier.

“But you gotta eat, is what I’m saying. And if there ain’t work in the woods, you gotta find something else. You gotta use your imagination.”

I’ve spent time this year in some far corners of the Pacific Northwest. Twenty-five years ago I couldn’t have used free wifi or probably found a good cup of coffee in LaGrande, and both are easy now. Still, a quarter-century on, Rex’s description of the problem and the vague search for a solution seems uncannily familiar.


Back to Christmas at the Juniper Tavern and the Rajneeshees. A few weeks ago Deemer sent me this explanation for how the play actually came about:

“Now that you’re revisiting Juniper, maybe you’d be interested in the true roots of Swami Kree. They are different from what folks assumed at the time.

“In grad school, when I began teaching, I became interested in the possible pedagogic uses of paradox and contradiction. This culminated in a very controversial academic article, English Composition as a Happening, that was published in College English in 1967. … Later I discovered a thin book called Zen and the Comic Spirit. Historically, many zen masters used paradox and contradiction in their teachings. One was a 13th century monk named Teng Yin-feng. Teng presumably, as a lesson to his students, died standing on his head. In 1975, before moving to Portland, I wrote a one-act play called The Death of Teng Yin-feng. This was my first attempt at Swami Kree.

“In 1983 I was commissioned by New Rose to write the Moliere play [The Comedian in Spite of Himself; later revised as Sad Laughter]. I had a situation where I could live rent-free in Bend and went there. The papers there were full of Rajneeshee news, much more than in Portland. Also, the Bhagwan was on his vow of silence. This latter is hugely important. If he had been talking, he would not have fascinated me because once he talked, he just sounded like a politician to me. But silent, I could fantasize that he was a Zen clown.

“Bend was full of unemployed mill workers. What on earth would these two camps have to say to one another once the vow of silence ended? This was the question that created the play, fueled by my long interest in paradox and contradiction as methods of knowledge and enlightenment. Yes, the Rajneesh were an influence of sorts — but Eng Comp as a Happening and Teng Yin-feng are far greater contributors to the DNA of Swami Kree.”