Sunday, February 19, 2012

SENSE MEMORY: Wherein Miss O’ Learns the Coffee Is Hot

Oh, Baby

This weekend I was visiting my friend Richard, who has twins, Charlie and Annie, age 2, with his husband John, when a big collection of thoughts coalesced in my head. Richard and I shared theater classes in college and many show memories that translated into a love of projects. This weekend’s project was me helping to take care of his children, which I love to do because two-year-old twins give me a complete rest from my own headspace, while Richard does things like get the laundry done and make meals. One of my favorite things to do is watch toddlers eat, because as they become berry-stained, gravy-covered, cereal-splattered, all with delicious abandon—faces ever present to every taste and texture—eyes that widen, lips that pucker—and fingers that splay and offer themselves to be wiped down after each handful—I enter a world in which there is no self-consciousness, where all is sensation.

My childhood was all babies, all the time. My youngest brother was born three weeks before I turned 8. I was the right age to feed, diaper, dress, and pick him up out of the crib in the room we shared, handing him off to my mom or dad in the middle of many nights. We had Gerber baby food jars in my fridge for as long as I can remember opening a fridge; my dad cut every dinner’s meat into tiny pieces at the table for plate distribution until I was about 14 years old (for the younger ones); the smell of ammonia in the downstairs bathroom from the diaper pail is just how the bathroom smelled. When the youngest started school, my mom started babysitting a neighbor’s daughter, and the Gerber gained a fridge foothold again. By then, too, I was babysitting every kid in the neighborhood, from six weeks old to 9 or 10 years old, feeding and diapering and opening jars of Gerber to feed (um, not the 10-year-olds). It’s just what I did, who I was.  I figured I’d be married out of college and this would always be my world.

Then I knew I wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t.  And it was good. 

One day after classes during my first quarter at Virginia Tech, I returned to my dorm room and opened the little fridge I had rented with my roommate Deb. I don’t know why I opened it, or even half-rented it, because I never kept anything in it. But I suppose out of a reflex I opened it—that after-school snack habit—and I looked in. I froze before the contents: Nowhere, not in even one tiny corner of that fridge was there even one Gerber baby food jar. My eyes began to burn, and my face was soon damp with tears of relief, of joy, even: A fridge did not have to contain baby food to be a fridge in my life.  I reflected. There was no ammonia smell in the bathrooms. Sure, there was vomit smell, but I was used to that, too; what I realized is you could use a bathroom without kicking your foot into a diaper pail. How was this possible?

I never looked back. I couldn’t. And thus it was that Miss O’ vowed never to marry. When she fell in love that one time and started talking marriage, the whole charade ended in revelations: he wanted babies, and wanted them NOW, and she could not go there. There were loads of other problems and dysfunctions, but the crux of it rested on babies and the bearing of them.

Not wanting to bear children does not mean not enjoying them, but I only recently started to enjoy them (as opposed to liking them okay and being good with them, as in my babysitting days). I attribute this to a confluence of events: My youngest nephew was born when I was 41, and I was in New York City, acting and writing and working as an editor; I was no longer dating, menopause was not far off, and babies were forever not to be, and as a result, I think I felt free to just love them as I saw them, as people, knowing I’d never have to change another diaper or spoon any food into another waiting mouth. It changes everything, this view. Not into the mouth, though that is part of it.

After the Epiphany: A Cross I Bear

At home with my mom and dad this past fall, I was once again asked why I never had children, never seemed to want them, when I was “so good with them” all my life.  (They never seem to question why I have no mate—in fact, no one does—while everyone I meet does ask about “your children.”) How do you explain such reasons to loving parents, who wanted you and your siblings more than anything? How selfish must I sound? “I’m happy with life as I’ve made it,” I say, and mean this. Whatever her sadness at not having grandchildren from me, I also know that my mom respects my choices.

And she always engages in a present-tense, political way, even at 78. Lynne, my mom, is like Maude from the 1970s feminist sitcom of the same name, so it was not a surprise then, as we were watching the news on this same visit, that my mom—after a segment on an “attack on an 84-year-old grandmother”—should remark, “Do you notice how the media always identify a woman by her ability to breed?” She paused. “You never hear, ‘an 84-year-old grandfather was attacked,’ do you?” I pictured the ghost of a Salem ciggy moving to her pursed lips.

You see whence I get my voice.

And Then There’s Maude

When I was 9 years old, the Abortion Episode of Maude was televised. This was before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but abortion was legal in New York State, where Maude took place. In the 2-part episode, a 45-year-old Maude becomes accidentally pregnant by her second husband Walter. There are real health concerns to be considered, and she has a grown daughter and no desire to be a mother again. After much discussion, and with real love, she and Walter agree that she should have an abortion.

I watched these episodes the nights they aired. During commercials, my mom explained pregnancy and abortion to me. Somehow—I don’t remember what she said—I went with it, and took away from it that pregnancy was a choice. It’s astonishing how liberating knowing a thing like that can be. Not that any choice would be easy—Maude’s clearly was not, and the adult emotions shared in the show were far beyond me—but that it was important to know you had the moral obligation to make a decision that was best for everyone.

Acting on It

I held onto information like this, episodes like this show’s, all my life, as a teacher and an actor. Becoming an actor (like becoming a teacher, I think) is not really a choice, in that you simply begin watching yourself from the outside at a very young age, visualizing the acting out of every move of your own life, even as you project yourself into the lives you see around you, whether in the flesh or recorded live on tape in front of a studio audience. What takes you over is the magic “if”: What would I do if I were in this situation? What would Maude do if . . . ? What would my mom do if . . . ? You never know when a character you play, a role you take on, might be informed by this imaginative exploration.

One of the great keys to delivering an effective acting performance is not only emotional memory, but also sense memory: the ability to conjure up and bring to the fore what it (any it) would feel like, smell like, taste like, hurt like, lift like, or otherwise physically land like—if—and then be able to replicate that feeling and deliver it out to the empty air, on demand, or before a live studio audience.

This very weekend, Richard and I reminisced about a play he stage managed and I performed a lead role in, called “Ravenswood,” a one-act from a longer work called Bad Habits by Terence McNally.  I played Dolly Scupp, a middle-aged ex-smoker with a broken foot whose husband is in the mental health resort of the title. The director was our Intro to Acting teacher, and both Richard and I still remember his marvelous attention to sensory detail. This from Richard: When a character carried luggage—an empty suitcase—the director would say, “The luggage is heavy.” It was a constant note Richard had to take. “And how many movies or shows do you see,” Richard said, “where the actor is carrying a clearly empty suitcase.”

For me the note was: “The coffee is hot.” After the second time I got that note, I went back to my apartment and made a cup of tea. I held the mug in my hand (on stage I would be drinking from an empty cup), feeling the weight of the beverage and how my wrist and hand responded. I became aware of what the steam did to my face, of my eyes squinting, my brow furrowing slightly, my breath blowing, the slight hesitation as my lips met the rim, as if I might get burned. My stage coffee sipping ever after—whether with empty paper cups or full mugs of cold water or tea—has been Tony-worthy.

(The director led us through an exercise early on where we imagined our characters moving through the space, and when I got up and began walking with a limp, he laughed with such delight—because I had remembered her broken foot.)

But here’s the real story out of all this.

Yes, Greg, I Am Actually Going to Tell This Story

In 2003, I returned to Tech to celebrate the retirement of two brilliant teachers, and my acting teacher/director was still teaching there. A group of us went out for a drink. He said at one point, “I’m thinking of a story. Do you know what I’m thinking of?”

I didn’t hesitate. “Oh, yeah, I know which one...”

He looked a little unsure, “…about the cigarette?”

“I’ll tell it,” I said. And he grinned. I grinned.

So I will tell you, too, because it did a number on me:  At one point in that play, my character, Dolly Scupp, breaks down and decides she will throw away her discipline and smoke again, and she grabs a cigarette, lights it, takes a drag, and is satisfied. The trouble in rehearsal was that 1) I didn’t smoke; and 2) I didn’t smoke. So I had gotten my friend Todd to teach me how to smoke. He used unfiltered Camels (old school hard core), teaching me to do an intake of smoke, hold it without inhaling, and get it to come a little bit out my nose, so I looked like a real smoker. (The worst fake smoking by a good actor I’ve seen is Robin Williams in Seize the Day—he puffs quickly out after a short intake from the ciggy, and repeats these short, nervous puffs—whereas one needs to drag on it, hold it as for dear life—and he’s awful at it, but I suspect he didn’t have Todd to teach him.)

So I was really working on looking as if I could smoke. What I couldn’t manage was Dolly’s ecstasy, her giving in to temptation and so recapturing the great feeling the cigarette had always given her. Well, I had no idea why anyone would smoke, not then. So the director gave note after note. Finally he cried out, “That first drag: It’s like having an orgasm!” and I retorted in my mother’s flat, hard Midwestern voice: “I’ve never had one of those; what’s that like?”

The room fell silent. The director looked horrified, less by my attitude than by his own naiveté in assuming that every female artist of 20 had lost her virginity.

“Is it like hot chocolate?” I asked, fiercely. “Because if it’s like hot chocolate, I can do that.” So I replayed, not hot chocolate, but rather the moment I bit into a real chocolate truffle for the first time, how I’d had to lean against the wall of the strip mall, how I couldn’t speak. I took a drag, I had an orgasm.

“That’s good hot chocolate,” the director said.

(This could be the end of the story, but here’s the coda: A few weeks later I collared a very nice fellow I’d met on campus and made him take my virginity. Some things just have to be got rid of, and that was one of them. For art. Poor guy never knew what hit him.)

I’ll Laugh, I’ll Cry

I used to never be able to laugh on cue. I cry well, and can’t always cry on cue, but crying is a lot easier to make realistic than laughing. Lately, I’ve thought more about what makes me laugh, because I laugh a lot, and I think I could laugh on cue now.

I get tickled . . . My friend Lisa blithely swimming fast past me just hits me as comic in what it must look like; my nephew Cullen’s trike legs kicking like he knows where he’s going; my cousin John placing his hand, in greeting, tenderly . . . on my ass, to suggest that our family tree does not fork; and Richard just last night as we listened to Charlie at the dinner table saying “Slech” or “Blets” and we couldn’t figure it out, and Charlie was getting desperate, moaning the sound, so Richard said, “Let’s take a kitchen tour” and dragged Charlie, high chair and all, to cabinets and to the fridge and there it was: Ketchup. I wet my face with tears laughing.

I really do become helpless with laughter, my knees buckle, or I double over—even from the little scenarios I write for myself, as I did at work when we had screened a video of a girl dropping her books and lots of boys going over to help her pick them up, and I found myself saying, as one of the boys, “There’s a book on your boob,” and reaching to “remove” it.

I do not know how it is that people live in the world without laughing.

Yet I also know that when one is traumatized or depressed, one cannot imagine laughing ever again.

This Post Is About to Take a Dramatic Turn

When one is trying to remember one's lines in a play, it’s hard to be mindful of what one is actually doing: drinking the coffee, smoking the cigarette. Pretend takes work, emotional recall, sense memory—and one has to ask: What is the make-believe in service to?

“The coffee is hot.”

“The luggage is heavy.”

“You just found out you are pregnant.”

There were posters on the New York subway system for several months that showed a woman tucked in a fetal position, saying, “Abortion Changes You.” And I would respond, sometimes aloud, “You know what else changes you? Sex. Childbirth. Your parents dying.”

I am taking this post about sense memory back to the place of emotional recall: What would it be like if . . . you have done everything right, nothing wrong, and gotten pregnant by forces beyond your control? What would it be like if . . . you intended to do everything right, tried to do nothing wrong, and he played the “just the tip” game, and then “I’ll pull out,” and then: “Oh, shit.” And oh, shit, indeed.

No one likes abortion.  Whatever your life experience or level of empathy, that anyone imagines or pretends to know what it is like to make that kind of decision, and proposes to make a "better" one, is idiotic to me. Anyone who imagines that such a decision is made as lightly as which color socks to wear is not only utterly lacking in empathy but is at heart an immoral person.

Richard and John are gay men, a devoted couple, who wanted to be parents. They became parents. They are about the best I've ever seen. Anyone who would judge them in the negative without knowing who they are as human beings and what they can give as parents is an immoral person.

Here is my sense: One is not moral because one follows a rulebook. Anyone can follow a rulebook. Morons can and do follow such rulebooks. The truly moral person is the one who can know the rulebook, read a situation, delve deep into his or her heart, and make an actual decision, all the while understanding and dealing with the consequences, because he or she believes it is the right thing to do.

(Just so, a good actor does not read a play and set about performing merely the words, nor carry out the actions in the stage directions, such as "drinks coffee," without informing those words and actions with real intention, emotional recall, and sense memory.)

A truly moral person does not take over others' private decisions, private choices, and force people to act against their own wills and as if they have no rights. A truly moral person does not believe that a woman’s womb and reproductive life are the property of a church or the property of the government.  A truly moral person understands that personal decisions are between a woman and her god, a woman and her doctor, and woman and her conscience. A truly moral person knows that gay men and women are human beings, deserving to love and be loved.

(Just so, a good actor does not take a playwright's intention for her character and twist it to suit her own ends, her own agenda, because that would be a disservice to the character, the play, and, ultimately, to art.)

Some people have a hard time with moral living. We all do, at one time or another. Some actors give lousy performances. That can happen.

All you can do, as a person faced with life, is to try, like any good actor, to make the imaginative exploration, What would happen 
if . . ., and feel that.

“The luggage is heavy.”

“The coffee is hot.”

“You just found out you are pregnant.”

"You are gay, and you want to be a parent."

One may cry, one may laugh: Our responses to any situation, even in the pretend, can surprise us.

And then I always need to remember that, when I play the game of emotional recall, of sense memory, it was for pretend: In the end, you must know: it’s not your luggage; it’s not your coffee; her pregnancy is absolutely none of your business; their love, and how they express it, is up to them.

These moral howlings are by now part of our collective memory, hundreds, thousands of years of figuring it all out.  We have to take our places and look into the past, to those other lives, to older plays, and ask, What would I have done if . . . ? and What would I do now if . . .? Then we have decisions to make. It can be—whether you're called on to fake an orgasm on demand, or faced with the consequences of a one-night stand, or made to deliver sex, or expected to turn over your reproductive rights to a panel of men in Washington—troubling. It can trouble a person. And it should.

Still troubled? Why not have some ketchup? Or a good laugh? Or an orgasm? Or make your voice heard? After all, it's up to you. Isn't it?

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