The Grand Puppeteer

by Arthur Kegerreis

In November, my birthday arrived again, and as I sat in meeting that week, and a few times since, I’ve found myself thinking about my friend Peter Baird.

Several years ago, I was loyally attending a Kundalini Yoga class with a teacher who would loudly proclaim, “this life is a GIFT, right? And we’re all so BLESSED to be incarnated in these bodies!” Everybody in the class would join in agreement, and I would sit there thinking, “Ugh, I hate my life, and this class at least makes it a little more bearable!” However I dared not voice my depressed opinion.

Shortly afterwards at Cafe 101, a diner in Hollywood, I began to recount my experience in the yoga class to Peter, and shared my cynical perspective on the phenomenon of the “yogic happy people.” Peter was one of the most jovial and funny people I’ve ever known, but he turned serious for a second, and said, “Life is a curse, and we have to endure it.” We laughed about our self-pitiful lives, and the conversation turned to other subjects.

Shortly thereafter, Peter got a series of jobs that took him around the USA and to Europe. I was sitting in the same cafe with a group of friends, and one of them turned to me and said, “did you hear about Peter? He’s got Esophageal cancer, and it’s spread throughout his spine. Basically he’s a dead man.” I couldn’t believe we were talking about the same person I’d been sitting with so recently, only two tables away, or that my friend was speaking about Peter in such an uncaring manner. As I pressed for more information, it became clear we were indeed talking about the same person.

Peter and I had an unusual friendship. He travelled in my circle of friends in NYC when we first met, and before we’d talked much, I had a strange dream in which I was riding his motorcycle with him, getting into a helluva lotta trouble, not unlike the film “Easy Rider.” Then I ran into him that same day! “Stay out of my dreams!” I told him, and revealed the weird subconscious encounter we’d had.

When I moved to LA, I began to run into him everywhere. Everywhere! Glendale, Silverlake, Venice, Pasadena, Valencia, Santa Monica… you name it.

Despite this, for years I didn’t realize what he did for a living. CalArts started a puppetry program, and when he found out who was directing it, he got excited and came up to see one of the performances there. Later I was talking to the director, and she said, “you know who Peter’s father is, don’t you? He’s one of the most famous puppeteers EVER. There’s a book by him in the library; go look at it.” His father was Bil Baird, who made the famous Punch and Judy puppets, and perhaps was most widely seen when he did the marionettes in “The Sound of Music.” Shortly before he came down with cancer, Peter had been a consultant on the film, “Team America,” which he was quite excited about. The film provided jobs for more accomplished puppeteers than any film in history, I’ve been told. Unfortunately I would meet them at his memorial service.

I was fortunate to be one of only two LA friends who got to visit him in NYC before he passed away. I asked if he remembered our conversation in the cafe, and he said wryly, “Sure. Funny isn’t it?”

Then he changed the subject, and struggled to choke down some soft cooked eggs. As I was about to leave him and his girlfriend, he said, “Oh, one more thing. Notice anything different about me?” I couldn’t come up with anything. Then he coyly stood behind the door, wrapping his fingers in front of it and wiggled his ring finger, which was bearing a wedding band. His girlfriend – nay, fiancé, laughed nervously. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a mixture of happiness for somebody and sadness at the same time.

Peter died shortly afterwards, in the same terminal cancer hospital my father passed away in, on the same floor. His widow visited LA several times over the following year, arranging memorial services and visiting with me and other friends. One Thanksgiving, I showed up at a potluck dinner, having gotten the time wrong, and everyone was leaving. She offered to make Thanksgiving dinner for me, and we travelled throughout Hollywood and Koreatown looking for an open place to get food, in vain. Finally we bought a Turkey TV dinner and went to Peter’s apartment to eat it. I don’t think a TV dinner ever tasted so good. She claims now that I also took her out for Thanksgiving dinner the year before or afterwards, but I don’t remember that now. We touch base every Thanksgiving.

When I tell the story of Peter’s conversation with me to people, I usually am told, “Well, no wonder he came down with cancer with an attitude like that!” Yet I shared that perspective at the time, and I’m still kicking. Fortunately, my attitude has changed, but I live now with the attitude, “I guess God isn’t done with me yet; I wonder what’s in store now?”

In NYC, I once heard a woman recount her succession of failed suicide attempts to the audience, and the litany of failures made the film “Harold and Maude” seem like child’s play. Her final attempt was a dive from the Brooklyn Bridge, and she was fished out of the East River alive, although she claimed she now has a steel plate in her head. As I left the room, I remember thinking, “I guess it isn’t up to me to choose when I die.”

When I was in a Musical Theater Writing workshop in Glendale, one of the composers was a church organist, and she’d missed quite a few sessions. She revealed that she’d been busy playing several funerals. “It’s funeral season,” she said, “Most people die during the holidays.” I was rather shocked by that perspective, and I’d like to think it untrue.

New Years is an odd concept, if you really think about it; the death of one year and the birth of another. In reality, it’s part of one continuum of orbits around the sun. Perhaps life is like that as well.

There’s a yoga teacher named Gurmukh who teaches in Hollywood (and all over the world, for that matter.) She was with Yogi Bhajan, a Kundalini Yoga master from India, and this Indian saint came and visited Yogi Bhajan. The saint was very old, but he asked Yogi Bhajan to teach him Kundalini Yoga. Yogi Bhajan gave it a good effort, but then he stopped and told the man, “It’s no use, you’re too old to learn it now, sorry.” So the saint humbly thanked him. Shortly thereafter he died.

A few months later, Gurmukh and Yogi Bhajan were at a christening for a baby, and Yogi Bhajan turned to Gurmukh with slight surprise and told her, “It’s the saint! He’s come back as that child.” As the child grew up it had all the same mannerisms as the saint had. He went on to become a master of Kundalini Yoga. Gurmukh claims it’s the only time she’s met the same person in two different bodies. I’ve often wondered who the saint is and where he is now.

I think that story gave me a little different perspective on death as my father was dying and as Peter’s illness progressed. Losing friends and loved ones is never easy, but hearing of evidence that they might turn up in our lives again in different forms can offer a little hope, I think.

They say the more spiritually adept can choose the next life that they will return in, and it’s simply a matter of the soul needing a new body to continue its journey in. Sikhs chant, “Akaal” three times when a person dies, and it’s supposed to help the soul cross over into its next life. Akaal means undying.

While my father was dying, my friend Chris offered me a bed in his NYC apartment to sleep in. He told me the Buddhists believe the spirit doesn’t leave the body for a few minutes after the body dies. When his grandmother died, he shouted at her, “What’s it like on the other side!??” So after my dad took his last breath, as I held his hand, I woke up my mom, and she went to get the priest to say the last rites. I shouted the same thing to him, and then chanted “Akaal” three times. I never got an answer. Then the Catholic priest came, said the last rites to the confirmed Methodist, and told us we had to be out of the room within two hours. What a bizarre melange of conflicting religious rituals we bring to the one thing that we least understand and fear most!

Shortly thereafter, my visiting aunt wanted to see Walt Whitman’s birthplace near my parent’s home. We chose the one day it was closed to visit, and sat chatting on the lawn. An enormous bumblebee sat listening throughout, and finally lighted on mom’s lapel. “Maybe it’s Dick and he’s come back as a bee!” offered my aunt. “I hate bees! Make it go away!” my mom countered. In a lazy aimless flight, it floated away, and that was the last I saw of my dad.

The holidays offer more challenges than most of the year for many people, causing some to characterize them as “the threefold disease of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.” Family pushes the buttons they’ve put there, and everyone reacts. It’s been said that after three days with parents, no matter how much inner work you’ve done, you revert to your childhood relationship with them. People who’ve travelled across the country to get away from their family feel neglected and miss them. To say nothing of the savage shoppers that must be endured to navigate your way through the Christmas holiday!

So in the spirit of loving community, I hope we can hold each other in the light throughout this holiday, and appreciate the love we offer each other. I was delighted with last year’s Christmas Meeting, and am looking forward to this year’s as well. Happy Holidays!