You would have lost your shirt betting on the bear.
Had this not been a moonless midnight, Jean Houston might have stared him down from the Granny Smith apple tree whose fruit he was devouring steps from her kitchen door.
Instead, in character, the author/philosopher did what she so famously does: fearlessly, with good humor and the utmost respect, she walked right up and engaged him in an intelligent discourse. Convinced by Jean’s arguments, the bear clambered down, crashing through the branches “with apple juice just pouring down his cheeks.”
Jean shared the story as we visited in her double-dome home surrounded by the Ashland hills. As she careened around hairpin curves of conversation, sliding through segues at breakneck speed, I was reminded of an afternoon I spent as a kid with a free pass to an amusement park, racing in delicious delirium from one ride to the next.
We sat on a couch beneath a dome that defined the living room, an elastic space that seemed to respond to the swells of her spiraling energy. Though the house, designed by Buckminster Fuller, an old friend of Jean’s, had been built for a previous owner, it appeared custom-tailored to her, constructed without corners to trap or contain a mind that routinely soars the spheres.
Introduced to Ashland in 1986, Jean moved here with her husband Robert Masters in 2000. Masters, with whom she had founded the Foundation for Mind Research, died two years ago.
“This town,” said Jean, “is ancient Athens without the slaves. You have the arts, the music, the high culture; it’s a small town with urban opportunities, and one that is set in nature. It’s also a town with a heart.
“And, of course, you have more mind and body workers per square block than anywhere in the world.” Jean pauses, and with a hint of a smile and the flick of an eyebrow, adds, “I did have something to do with the Human Potential Movement.” In fact, she and her husband are considered pioneers of the Movement.
As a connoisseur of cities, Jean, who logged 160,000 miles last year lecturing, teaching at her Mystery School, and working with the United Nations, has credibility when she refers to Ashland as “the best town in America.” Even as a child she got around. Traveling with her comedy writer Dad and actress Mom, she attended 20 schools before age 12. Her father, Jack Houston, employed by the likes of Burns and Allen, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny and Bob Hope, would travel in advance of the headliners to scout and develop local material.
Jean is fairly sure that her father also played a role in penning perhaps the single most famous comedy routine, Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”
“I remember that he told me that he wrote it, and then he sort of grinned,” she said. “I suspect it was he and two Jewish guys. Because when you look at the nature of the joke, it’s absolutely Talmudic. Dad’s humor went somewhere along those lines, but he was an agnostic Baptist.”
While keeping a low public profile in Ashland, Jean has become omnipresent in social media. She starts her 16-hour day shooting off early morning missives to her nearly 5,000 Facebook friends and 3,000 Twitter followers.
In fact, it was Jean’s Facebook posts chronicling her attempts to protect the fruits of her labor from bears and birds that intrigued me to call for an interview.
My timing was good. A few nights before my visit, Jean, responding to the “hysterical barking” of her one-year-old puppies, Thunder, a German Shepherd, and Habibi, a Goldendoodle, rushed outside to find the bear pounding down her apples.
After ushering the dogs to safety, Jean approached this particularly large black bear.
“Assuming my bear persona, and in my best Albert Schweitzerian manner, I had a chat with him,” said Jean. “I talked to him about sharing.
“It was an Esalen approach to the bear,” she adds, uncorking a crescendo of contagious laughter.
“And,” I prodded, “What exactly did you say to him?”
“I said, ‘Mr. Bear, you have had a wonderful time with my grapes, now you’re into the apples. And I quite understand your needs, that you’re preparing for the winter. But you do look pretty hefty to me…Still, you are welcome to help yourself, but not, please, during the times the dogs are out, because I’m concerned about them. So take what you’d like and then, if you would leave, I’d be very grateful.’”
Earlier in the Fall, also in the wee hours, Jean had succeeded in chasing off the bear, or bears, from her small vineyard with a crash-bang cacophony of “clanging pots and pans.” However, her sense of success was short-lived. By the light of day, she saw that not only were her grapes seriously groped, the vineyard was littered with “an epiphany of bear poop. With all the many different seeds poking out, it reminded me of a Byzantine mural. It seems that I ended up raising the most expensive supply of scat imaginable.”
Picturing Jean raising such a ruckus with her pots and pans, I wondered aloud if she had felt like “the Mad Woman of Chaillot.”
“Ahh,” she replied, picking up on my cue, “I played the part of the Mad Woman when I was 17.” She not only played the part, she won a New York Critics’ Award for her off-Broadway performance while a student at Barnard College. “Let’s see if I can remember it…”
And then, suddenly, as an audience of one, I found myself caught in the thrall of Jean’s silky, spellbinding monologue: “To be alive is to be fortunate, Roderick…Of course in the morning when you first awake, it doesn’t always seem so very gay.”
As promising as her theatrical career had been, Jean heeded the voice of a different sort of muse during a post-collegiate trip to Greece. While communing at the Temple of Athena, she considered the content of three telegrams: One proffered a seven-year contract with a Hollywood studio, another, a chance to play Errol Flynn’s leading lady in a stage adaptation of Jane Eyre. (Three inches shorter than Flynn, she knew she wouldn’t be cast.) The third and most attractive was an offer to return immediately to play Viola in a high-profile production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
“‘No,’ a still quiet voice whispered to me,” Jean recalled.
“‘No? What do you mean no?’
“The voice replied, ‘Your life will have another meaning. Your mind was made for something else.”
Upon her return to New York, Jean changed course, entering graduate school and plunging into studies on the philosophy of religion.
Born, in part, of Sicilian blood—her mother’s name is as long and mellifluous as an aria—Jean took naturally to winemaking. She produces a few cases to share with friends. “Every so often, I do produce a very good wine,” she said. Her fanciful favorites have been Jean’s Charismatic Semillon Blanc and Jean’s Higher Consciousness Cab.” When the wine was “terrible” one year, she labeled her bottles, Jean’s Catastrophic Cabernet. And sometimes, she adds with a smile, “I’ll put everything together and get Asti Spumanti.”
Of course, while the quality of the grapes was good this year, the yield wasn’t as impressive, which brought us back to Jean’s therapy session with the bear. With a straight face and a familiar gleam in her eye, she said, “I don’t want this article to encourage people to go out and talk to bears.”
In other words, Please don’t try this at home.
You can find Jean on the web at www.jeanhouston.org