Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stoned Me to My Soul

Casting Stones

My building super, José (who likes to find rocks, polish them, and paint little scenes on them, which he then places in my co-op's "garden," such as it is), had seemed distracted lately. The other morning, I was talking to Frannie the crossing guard, when I learned that José’s dog, Pun, short for Punisher—a squat little bug-eyed sweetie of a pup who stood as lookout when José was in the trash alley collecting my co-op’s garbage and recycling—died this past week; he'd been suffering and would not survive another day, so José had to have him put down. Pun had begun coughing up blood, I learned, and José suspected rat poison.

“People here are trying to get rid of the cats,” he told me when I saw him, referring to the dozen or so feral cats in the neighborhood.

“You mean the ones that kill all the RATS, so you don’t need rat poison?” I asked.

“People are idiots,” José replied. And what else is there to say?

When I related this story at work, a colleague said, “Well, cats also kill birds, and people don’t like that.” I could only gape. So killing the CATS with rat poison, a poison being eaten by dogs and other animals, is now supposed to be okay so we save birds, which are natural prey for cats?

When did we become these people?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Miss O' has been blind-sided during the past few weeks by many of the several natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The bombing at the Boston Marathon this month, to take one huge example, brought up big questions of violence in our culture. Philosopher Steven Pinker’s latest book (recommended by many of my smart and peace-loving friends), The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues (in just over 800 pages) that humans are in fact less violent now than in the whole history of humans on the planet. And while that may be true, I fear we may have crested. Bring out the bombers.

So the bombers, of course, are Muslim. Islamic extremists who hate America. They made some Al Quaeda-style bombs using plans they found on the Internet, had one unlicensed gun in their possession, and were unutterably evil, and also stupid in their execution. America is outraged. But then it gets weird, like a video game: Boston is on lockdown! FEAR is the way to go, even as we say, “Americans will not be terrorized.” Now, say the authorities, give us your liberties.

Who doesn't see her point? Thanks, Yasira.

John Cassidy of The New Yorker wonders this week: “What If the Tsarnaevs Had Been the ‘Boston Shooters’?” It’s a good read, and not a long one. Go ahead. Click.

I know, I know. “Miss O’, you and your gun obsession. ”

Shooting off my mouth. Stick to your guns. Fire off a response. Firing with both barrels. Hit me with your best shot. You’re a pistol. Nobody’s putting a gun to your head. Shoot from the hip. Look for the smoking gun. It’s a shotgun wedding. Point blank. Right between the eyes.  Fire away. Dodged a bullet. Keep your head down. Under the gun. Off like a shot.

You’re killing me here.

The metaphor of the gun runs deep in the language of our culture. Blood sports have also changed the language, making violence a casual part of any conversation.

Straight from the shoulder. A one-two punch. A left to the jaw. Sucker punch. A fat lip. Brass knuckles. A kick in the head.

Hunt it down. Bag it.

Tackle a project. Pin it down. Hit it out of the park.

You’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming.

No pain, no gain.

What do our games and sports say about us? Surely baseball is the most civilized, but it frankly bores the shit out of me. I can watch golf longer than I can watch baseball, but don’t tell my friend Jean. Video games began when I was in middle school, with Atari, and I saw the addictions my brothers formed, but those games are much creepier now. Remember PacMan? Yeah, well now the eating involves bloody heads. I've heard. (My friend Greg Ayers wrote a play called Rated M for Mature, which I personally think needs to be seen by every parent in the goddamned United States of America. It was in the Encores section of New York’s Fringe Festival in 2012, and I hope the play goes on to a swell community theater life. Because THAT is the perfect audience for that play.) But what I'm seeing around me is a culture of systemic torture, punishment, revenge, and cruelty. Bullying is making a huge comeback, protecting rapists over the raped, and gun owners over gun violence victims. And your Miss O' fears it may become worse than anything that has come before. Because what IF the Boston Bombers had done it with AR-15s instead?

And while I'm here, if ONE MORE mud-dumb cracker (thanks, George) tells me that more deaths are prevented by guns than are caused by guns: 

My cousin Bill in Iowa likes to trot out the "analogy" of
Guns : Gun Deaths :: Forks : Obesity.
If you don't see why this analogy is stupid, you are an idiot
and there is simply no hope for it.
Here's a better analogy:
Guns : Gun Deaths :: Cigarettes : Lung Cancer.
Asshole. I say that with love.

Of late, I am most creeped out by a video game called “Call of Duty,” a worldwide gamer game now. This Afghanistan War-inspired, assault-rifle toting, grenade exploding video game is in the hands of small children and teens and “grown” men who play against each other all over the world via a network. Even my eight-year-old nephew (unbeknownst to his parents) has played it—at a neighbor’s house with a kid who is essentially raising himself (my brother learned) because his parents are too busy drinking. This “friend” is a disrespectful little shit of a kid, with tremendous charisma, a future murderer of America in the making. Needless to say my little nephew won’t be sleeping over again. (So  as my brother hears his son asking “Why not?”, we realize that the adult response of “Because I said,” which was so exasperating to hear when we were kids, suddenly makes a lot of sense.) (My friend Greg Ayers's play is called Rated M for Mature. Go see it, or better yet, PRODUCE it, at a community theater near you. And soon.)

And lest you think that Miss O’ is without compassion for such kids as the little shit: My parents, Bernie and Lynne, were the parents on the block who gave every kid a chance. All manner of abused or neglected kids on Alabama Avenue or Alaska Road or Arkansas Court could find temporary refuge in the home governed by a mom who said, “You may not open the refrigerator without asking me,” and “Go outside,” and “Put that back.” Limitations are such a relief to these kids. My dad would let them help him with yard work or building a tree house, trying to show them the value of a job well done, and who doesn't love a little child labor? However, their parents and older siblings would put the younger ones up to thieving, which is how the O’Hara kids often lost all their piggy bank money, Lynne’s father’s topaz ring (the only item of her dad's she had), countless cups of quarters, to say nothing of many packs of Lynne’s Salem cigarettes. These robberies often ended with my mom saying, “Marvin/Stephan/ Yvonne/Ruby/et. al., you are no longer welcome in our home. I’m sorry about it, but you cannot be trusted.” Lynne was firm but loving. And the kids obeyed and often seemed to feel actual shame. It’s one sign of hope, but many of these kids’ stories did not end well (and end many did, all too soon).

The episode that really was the peak of these attempts to, you know, be good to people, occurred the night that Mary from next door came to our house asking if she could wait in our living room while the police questioned her mother. (I was around 13 at that time, or maybe in high school.) I can see Mary now, an ample, shapely body making her look far older than her 15 years, dressed in a tank top and jeans, her hair in pink curlers. She went out to what we called the playroom (an addition to the house) as we all sat down to dinner. The next thing we knew, a bull horn was sounding, “Mary Smith, come out with your hands up!” and when we all looked out our windows, our entire house was surrounded by Virginia State Police wearing bulletproof vests, guns aimed to kill. Lynne (and not my dad, which sounds funny, but my mom was once a military officer and my dad was only enlisted, so that’s just how we handled crises in our family) got up quickly and calmly, and went out to the playroom and put her arm around Mary and said, “Honey, you’re just going to have to go out there.” My mom called out the window, “She’s coming, don’t shoot,” and Mary was frisked and cuffed. My mom walked back in, we all sat down at the table, picked up our forks, looked at each other, and started laughing. Just another night at the O'Haras'. (Apparently, we learned, Mary was wanted in Richmond for prostitution and murder. We read by chance in a local paper, months later, that she had been killed. Eventually the crime-addled Smith family moved out, but every family who has lived in that house since has been a dicey lot.)

Christ on a Crutch

Whatever their sins, the murdering, child-molesting, and thieving Smiths were devout Christians, making them heaven-bound, as opposed to the hell-bent, pagan O’Hara clan. I am troubled, obviously, by religious devotion (though not at all by honest spiritual seeking), but more than that, I’ve long been troubled by crucifixes. They’ve always creeped me out. I learned early in my life not to voice this concern as I gazed to the front of Holy Blessed Lady Mother Queen of Saints of the Angels Cathedral Church and Wine Bar during the occasional tours and services I attended. In her dotage, Miss O’ does enjoy the occasional service, but I see it as a theatrical experience, as one might enjoy watching the reenacting of rituals that should have long since been replaced, reimagined. I think of all those Sunday mornings that all of those devoted people in the pews are not out planting food or cleaning parks—but perhaps this sacred space is how they replenish, and who am I to judge? I go to Broadway matinees.

But back to the crucifix: A few years back, I finally realized why I am repelled by it, and why it took me so long to understand this is beyond me. Whether the full-on crucifix or the simple cross, it became clear that an entire system of belief has been founded on a reverence for a person being tortured to death. A crucified person, I learned, dies of suffocation as the lungs gradually collapse. It can take days to die on it. It’s perplexing that of all the things Jesus taught—love thy neighbor as thyself, turn the other cheek, let him who is without sin cast the first stone—the symbol of worship is the torture device that killed him. (The son of my friend JC wrote a song about Elvis’s toilet, called “The One He Died Upon,” to spoof this cult of the cross.) It’s not as if this image has taught us anything about love and kindness. What about, say, using the simple uncast stone as a symbol? Stones are everywhere, lots of varieties, they cost nothing, and they are nice to rub and meditate on. You can carry one in your pocket, which is how the (discarded) Apostle Thomas says he was taught to view religious devotion by Jesus himself: God is in your pocket. But then, if that word got out, what of the role of a church? a pope? all those well-paid intermediaries who salivate over the collection plates? And what becomes of the teachings amidst all these golden crosses?

As if in answer to these questions, I went for Sunday worship to Broadway last week with my friend Richard to see a play called The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, starring the formidable Fiona Shaw; and whatever director Deborah Warner’s failings of staging (and they are myriad and massive—the show is all spoken on “one note” (of anger) that lulled this listener to sleep with its relentlessness; a needlessly distracting bunch of stuff on the stage which held more weight than the words, which should hardly be the point), the message of the drama was clear: As a tormented Mother Mary rails against what the apostles and followers of Christ turned Jesus the man into, and herself into, she makes a startling revelation in the final moment: Stripped naked, cradling an empty cloth robe, she says, simply, “It was not worth it.” (Several in the audience gasped.) Symbolism on the stage—a golden tree (of life?) and the object in Mary’s hand (an apple)—would seem to suggest that the biting of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, which is to say that eating from the Tree of Knowledge (the origin of which tree is forever a mystery), was also “not worth it.” What the play questions is pain and suffering as a lifestyle: Is any endeavor ever worth that amount of pain?

Take your punishment. Just desserts. Off with his head. String him up. I will cut you. What makes you think I won’t cut a bitch?

What I’m after is why we’re all so fucking violent in this, the 21st Century on Earth. Why are we a culture of torture and punishment? Why do we celebrate the punishers? (I have to tell you, I include cancer in this indictment: We celebrate cancer survivors, but we don't really get at the corporate-owned causes of the cancers, or the extortionist costs of cancer cures and drugs, do we? Every pink-ribboned walk for breast cancer looks like a fun party, and it makes me more than a little queasy. It's like "Go, Cancer!" though I know that is in no way the intention.)

In his blog, Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, John Fleming (Professor Emeritus from Princeton and my Chaucer teacher at Bread Loaf in 1994), wrote his own piece on peace this week, which I just now read. I sense a theme in the air for all of us, from many of us bloggers. Himself a devout Christian, he has this to say about God in our time (in reference to a concert of songs heard at The Cloisters in New York City):

God metaphorically “fighting” on behalf of mankind is a lovely if startling poetic idea.  Men literally fighting on behalf of God, on the other hand, has been an utter and dismal historical disaster.  It is long since time that the idea be junked. 

When I move through this idea, in political terms, the idea of our country (which is to say, our government, for these should be synonymous in a democratic republic, whatever the Republicans think—yes, I mean YOU, Gov. Rick “I Want to Secede” Perry, and do by all means ask for federal assistance in the wake of the explosion of a private fertilizer plant you have boasted as not needing silly state regulations or inspections) “fighting” for its citizens—for clean air and water, for jobs, for safety, for health care, for education, for protection of the vulnerable—is, too, a “lovely if startling poetic idea” (for Liberals, at least, in the U.S.), but the idea of citizens fighting on behalf of the country—in bloody foreign wars, in gun shoot-outs, in lockdowns of cities, in the accepted presence of armed military personnel walking the streets of New York City (acts favored by Republicans)—is a dismal picture of a (perhaps) necessary past, a (surely) creepy present, and an (obviously) unimaginative future which Miss O’ has no wish nor want to be part of.

This cartoon by Jack Ohman made Gov. Rick Perry really, really mad.
See, Rick Perry does not believe in safety regulations. He says that deregulation is "good for business."
The cartoon is what is called "satire," and it's wasted on him, because
he finds it, get this, "disrespectful" of the dead.
(In Your Moment of Irony, today: The U.S. government tracks all sales of fertilizer,
 in case, you know, people try to make bombs with it.
It's currently illegal in the U.S. for any agency to track the sales of GUNS.

El Purgatorio Without Possibility of Parole

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”
—Franz Kafka, The Trial

The great Russian and Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested under Stalin for creating experimental theater. He was seen as an enemy of the state for this. Take that in. (Kafka, too, knew whereof he spoke.) Taken to prison in 1939 after a celebrated international career, Meyerhold was tortured by compliant officers for almost a year for his "offense." Miss O' believes this should still piss you off in America in 2013.

"[Vsevolod Meyerhold] was sentenced to death by firing squad on 2 February 1940, and executed the next day. The Soviet government cleared him of all charges in 1955, during the first wave of de-Stalinization." (Source: Wikipedia)

I saw an op-ed in the New York Times last week by a prisoner in Guantanamo ( or “Gitmo,” as the feds who’ve never fought in actual combat nor ever served time in prison nor ever been picked up without charges because they were non-White, like to call it). The (uncharged) prisoner's name is Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel. He has a name, you see, an identify. Family, skills, dreams. Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel is a man who cannot awaken from a nightmare, who has realized he will never be allowed out for the rest of his life. Even President Obama does not have the power or will to close this utterly un-Constitutional prison, and if he doesn’t care, I wonder who the fuck does, because this is just beyond horrifying at this point.

Moqbel writes of his imprisonment:

I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a “guard” for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore. But they don’t seem to care how long I sit here, either.

And of his hunger strike, begun because no one, not even Obama, will help him (because people in power, such as my friend Patty’s brother, who works at the Pentagon, think these guys have a “great life” there (his criteria: they were "well fed" and "putting on weight")—much the way former First Lady Barbara Bush thought the victims of Katrina were “better off” (being raped) in the Superdome than being in their own “poor” homes), Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel writes:

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

And finally, these men have utterly given up all hope, not unlike the American veteran of the Iraq war, Tomas Young, who has chosen to die because the pain from his injuries is so unbearable:

And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

This statement is not so different from a soldier's, really. The prisoner’s theme is that he and many others like him prefer to die by starvation rather than sit by and watch their lives—a life more absurd and awful than Kafka’s story “The Trial,” and that story—and if you haven’t read it, fill that gap—seems like the ultimate insanity, but nobody in authority seems troubled by this atrocity of Bush, who is, he says of himself, “a content man,” and fuck him, by the way—waste away in this hell, and he is frankly bitter that the military in charge want him, all of them, for some reason, to remain alive, going so far as to tie him to a chair and force feed him.

“It would have been so pointless to kill himself that, even if he had wanted to, the pointlessness would have made him unable.”
Franz Kafka, The Trial

Our government has driven decent men, U.S. citizens, to feel that death is preferable to this American-made purgatory on Earth. Hey, Mssrs. Bush and now Obama, how does this make you feel? It makes me feel like shit.

Why Do You Hate Me?

When I read Moqbel's op-ed, I grew sick, and yet the idea of being “tied to a chair and force-fed” brought to mind other images entirely. The things I thought of, after these prisoners, were America’s corporate-run prisons (guaranteed by the government to be 70% full at all times—wonder why all those black men get “disappeared”?); our sterile and mean business culture; and then, curiously, America’s school children and the standardized tests and skills-based curricula that are slowly sucking their innermost souls and the souls of their teachers.

A gun to their heads. 

Does ANYONE like cubicles? taking tests in an auditorium? being hauled in and locked in a cell for something you didn't do? ANYONE? Why in the name of fuck do we LIVE like this?

By the time Miss O’ left teaching in the state of Virginia, as she’s mentioned many times, her high school sophomores would have to pass six (6) state standardized tests out of eight (8) they would take by their senior year (rather than what used to be one (1), on reading and literacy) in order to graduate. (The Guidance Counselors in public schools, by the way, spend literally all of their counseling time giving these tests, arranging the retakes and makeup tests, mailing these tests back to the graders, distributing the scores, and somewhere in there they schedule classes, thereby relieving them of the ONE REASON they got into the profession of being GUIDANCE COUNSELORS). By the end of sophomore year, too many of my students had made the decision to drop out (which meant the stress of being truant for two years until they could legally quit), because it was clear that they would never pass six tests. Were these kids stupid? No. Were the tests badly written, over-long, picayune, and stupid? Yes. I looked at a few of these tests in my time, and even your Miss O’ would never have passed even the Language Arts one with a big score. I wish I were kidding. (See previous blogs for examples.)

As Miss O’ has said time and time again: If I am teaching the standards set forth by the school, county, state, and/or nation; if my activities, assignments, instruction, and assessments demonstrate this—all of which any assistant principal can see in my curriculum notebooks, lesson planner, test and exam copies, and graded lessons—and the student passes my class, WHY MUST SHE OR HE PASS A TEST WRITTEN BY A LOW-BID TEST VENDOR IN MILWAUKEE?

Miss O’ often feels that she, too, is being force-fed—media talking points, Congressional stupidity, Facebook inanityand therefore tortured. Then, too, a few weeks ago she looked at her own social network “wall” and wondered, “Am I force-feeding my ‘friends’ my own way of seeing the world? Are my posts from Think Progress and TruthOut and Upworthy and TED and Daily Kos and the rest, even with my commentary and ‘read if you want’ back pedaling, little more than force-feeding? Are the comments back to these posts by right-wingers and gunslingers a kind of Gitmo prisoner sort of retaliation for the tyranny of my posts?” Miss O’ herself then went on a hunger strike of sorts and made a decision to stop engaging as much on Facebook, and also to stop posting as frequently. Emerging from the gloom of her own awareness, she now sees why so many people post pictures of kitties and videos of cats riding Roombas. They haven’t been charged with any crimes. They do not sit in Congress and shit on the American people. They are not even activists. It’s so restful.

And one then begins to think, why not let the Koch Brothers and Paul Ryan and Rand Paul just take it all? Why not let them test kids to death, and deny health care to the elderly, hastening their deaths, and reduce the poor to shreds, dissolve the middle class, strip women of their rights, and continue the torture in Gitmo, and celebrate the “library” of George W. Bush?  Why not let them destroy the entire nation for their own uses? Just legalize our pot and keep the beer in our coolers, and take the whole fucking LOT.

Put a gun to our heads.

Nail our hands to the cross.

No pain, no gain.

Miss O’, however, likes to say, “No pain, no pain.” Unlike the corporate torturers and politico punishers and haters of all things in nature, human or otherwise, Miss O’ prefers peace, joy, dancing, good work, fresh ideas, imaginative enterprises, kindness, fellowship, and pesticide-free vegetables.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Do you remember the old folktale, “Stone Soup”? The one about the people in a small village who are on the brink of starvation, and so terrified are they of anyone stealing their last turnip or carrot, they have locked themselves into their homes to suffer safely? One day a Magic Man wanders into the village square carrying a Magic Stone in his pocket. The stone, he announces, is capable of making the most delicious soup imaginable. He describes the soup so tantalizingly and loudly, that the people come out to listen. “If only I had a giant pot,” he coaxes, “and a fire,” he supposes, “and some water,” he wonders, and such is this man's charisma, the desperate people begin to capitulate and sacrifice this one’s pot, the last of that one’s firewood, and they find a flint, and someone makes a trip to the well. The Magic Man drops the stone into the giant, fired-up pot and begins to stir. He tastes. “It’s really quite delicious,” he says, “but maybe it needs salt. Does anyone have any?” Someone admits to having some. And then it turns out the soup could also use a turnip, a carrot, some cabbage, a potato, an onion, a beet, you get the idea. And as each of these starving people becomes willing to spare the last food item in the larder, and bring it all together over the fire, the magic of the “stone” creates a nourishing feast for the community to share in. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, you see. And no one put a gun to their heads to make this miracle occur. Ideas did it. Imagination created it. Need made it. Risk ensued, and everybody got a meal and learned how to make more of them.

I have lived by the story of “Stone Soup” for as long as I can remember. I was probably in second or third grade when I heard it. Miss O’ also knows that for every person who loves “Stone Soup” there is another who loves Eat My Lead and Atlas Shrugged. To each his Ayn, I guess.

What I'm saying is, I’m done with nailing my hands to the cross of causes. It’s hard to get fired up all the time, shooting off my mouth and causing a bloodbath in the Comments section, and still function with anything like a sense of humor.

Then I see this: 

"Last night at the Bush Library" from Democratic Underground

So we need to look hard at our brutish culture and resist taking up arms against the sea of troubles; and I while I think we need to change our big world religious symbol from the torturous crucifix to the uncast stone, sometimes we as a society do have to weigh the rock in our hand, by which I do NOT mean preparing to fling Shirley Jackson's random "Lottery"rock at an innocent (as has happened at Guantanamo), but instead responsibly aim a goddamned righteous, justified (court-appointed or artful) STONE at real criminals. Not out of revenge, but out of love for our fellow men who have been wronged.

A rock of ages. Old time rock ’n’ roll. Like a rolling stone. 

Snatch the stone from my hand. How does it feel?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mouthing Off

Is the Voice in My Mouth Bothering You?

Today’s accidental blog (your Miss O’ had really meant to take the weekend off and accomplish physical tasks, and then all this stuff started coming up and all these articles and videos and TED talks and Facebook posts, and all of Miss O’s spidey senses got engaged and goddammit if the only thing for it wasn't to sling some verbal webs! And she’s off!) is about the power of one. Rather than set up a thesis, let me jump to the story that was my brainchild’s catalyst:

Actress the theater director Christy McIntosh, a gorgeous human with whom Miss O’ has had the pleasure of sharing a stage, shared this theater story on Facebook. I asked Christy if I might use her post in full as part of today's blog, and she was delighted (and we hope she continues to feel that way once it's published). Here it is.

I had the great misfortune of sitting next to two clueless tourists at tonight's performance of “The Nance”, Nathan Lane's new Broadway play about a gay man in a burlesque show in 1937 when homosexuality was illegal. I knew I was in trouble when, during the first scene, they kept whispering back and forth, "I think he's gay. I think that guy is too." I say "whisper" generously. It was like a comedically exaggerated stage aside. In the second scene, the beautiful young man Nathan Lane is courting gets out of the bath tub and shows his completely naked body. They "whisper," "Oh, I like this play" and giggle. A few minutes later, the beautiful man kisses Nathan Lane. "Oh, I don't like this play." No giggling anymore. They literally said that. The woman then sighed loudly and said, "Oh Jesus Christ" anytime there was too "real" a moment or gay a scene. Then she graduated to snapping her program in frustration. I leaned over to Eli and said, "I'm going to cut a bitch." He said, "After the show, honey." During one riotously funny moment, I guffawed loudly and she looked at me and giggled. I said to her, "Wow, even YOU liked that line!" She looked confused. After the show, I asked her, "If you hated the show so much, why didn't you just leave?" She said, "I tried" and stormed away.

Dear homophobes,

Next time you go to TKTS, find out about the play you're going to see. Chances are, most options will be too gay for you. Might I suggest "The Perfect Crime”? And stay the fuck away from Broadway.

In her comments, Christy added this P.S.

My favorite part happened after the culprits left. The whole row of gays in front of us turned around and we all had a gab session about how badly we all wanted to cut her. And yet- none of us said anything during the show out of respect for the actors. But it's the gay men who behave disgustingly according to this dolt.

Christy’s Friend Tom commented: There is waaaay too much of this in NY theaters. Literally talking out loud about the play going on 20 ft in front of them. Well done for saying something. Hey boonie-dwellers - if you can't cope with plays that might challenge you a little bit, then go see Spider-Man. That's why it's there. New decree: From this day forth, any of us who witness this kind of bullshit during a play/movie/whatever have a social responsibility to swiftly tell the guilty parties to shut the fuck up. We'll call it Christy's Law.

Oh, Christy and Tom, Mama hears you. Miss O’ has a story, too, this one about the asshole family sitting behind her during the delightful musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, who as tourists were doubtless lured by Broadway’s newest low-brow bait, the Concession Stand, and said folks chatted as they opened wrappers and passed a drink, conversing in regular voices as if they were in their own living room watching a video. No amount of turning around to glare at them, no gesture of “Shhh” would shush them. They’d paid good money, one could imagine them thinking, and they would have their own experience. Oh, And fuck you. Because Miss O’ and all the rest of the audience got in for free? And the actors are holograms? Fuck YOU.

It's not new behavior, but it's no less baffling and maddening for that. During the last few years of a 15-year teaching career that began in 1987, I noticed that in the paper programs handed out at the band, orchestra, and choir concerts, the Music Department used the back to write a list of etiquette rules for concert attendance. The poor kids couldn't hear themselves perform. It was around that same time that I had a superb actor, Irwin Appel, visit my classroom for two days to teach my English and drama students about acting Shakespeare. He began by performing a monologue—Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and when he concluded, and in each of my five classes of diverse kids, he would smile and begin pointing as he spoke (with humor and kindness, but directly), “You got into your backpack just as I entered. You took out gum. You whispered to that guy, and he whispered back. You cleared your throat,” etc. He paused, surveying the room. “This is LIVE, folks. It’s live. I’m a living person, performing in a live space.” (You are not in your living room. This is not a video.) And my kids were genuinely astonished to be called out, amazed they’d been seen, even as Irwin was in the act of playing a character, and brilliantly, too. 

When did we think we wouldn't be noticed? With the advent of cell phones, too many ring tones began going off right and left and balcony throughout live performances, driving actors to distraction, and in NYC it's now a $50 fine. During one performance at, I think, The Studio Theater in D.C., an audience member in the front row took the call, and began talking in full voice. The actors stopped, and looked at her. The woman said firmly, “I have to take this, it’s business.” When an usher led her out to wild applause, the woman protested, genuinely stunned that she’d been ejected. The actors backed up to the beginning of the scene, and started again.

So why has this sort of rudeness become a new norm? Because I don’t think it’s only about a loud person at a theater performance, which is in itself be-yond. What I mean is this: Why can a tiny, tiny minority of people with money, or people who love guns, or people who fear science, DICTATE PUBLIC POLICY to an ENTIRE NATION? Because I have fucking had it with the ONE VOICE coalition. So WHY?

Easy answer: $$$$$ in the machines

Truer answer: Apathetic, distracted, self-involved citizens

I read that 65% of our nation’s citizens are online. Okay, Internet Citizens: When is the last time you read about public policy in depth? When is the last time you checked the voting record of your state  and congressional representatives? and wrote to praise or complain? When is the last time you signed a petition to your senators? When is the last time you wrote a letter to President Obama? (Miss O’ is, no doubt, on an FBI watch list by now.) When have you joined a march? Sent money for a major election? Let’s go smaller: When is the last time you attended a PTA meeting? a school board meeting? When is the last time you had a hard conversation about local, state, or national politics of any kind to the point of discomfort and rage? Miss O’ invites you to take stock. Are you as involved as you really could be? (When a fellow parent said to my brother (also a husband and father), “I don’t have time for all this voting stuff,” my brother replied, “That’s okay, buddy. I got your rights.”)

Benjamin Franklin sacrificed his entire (and potentially very comfy) old age to form a new Democratic Republic. What have you been up to? (Nearly all my “Pro-Life” friends on FB have been busy sharing “Pro-Gun” posters with compare and contrast “statistics” on them, while making fun of the folks like me who support the Newtown parents whose children were killed in a mass shooting. They are very noisy about it, these "life-loving" assholes. They all identify as “Christian.” Whom Would Jesus Shoot? Discuss.)

Use Your Inside Voice

I’ll take my voice down a tone. Let’s go to work: When I think about how much work it is to make one good lesson for an English class (several hours of reading, planning, typing, photocopying, checking out books, preparing a PowerPoint, creating transitions to the next lessons), or to create a terrific theater experience with my drama club of yore (weeks of reading scripts to choose the right one for the group; hours booking the rehearsal spaces, making audition materials, holding auditions, casting, designing sets and costumes; ten weeks of rehearsals and building; Saturdays spent at fleas markets; program creation, publicity, technical rehearsals; make-up application (foundation! all that Knox gelatin! nose shadows!); cue-calling in performance; talking to all the parents; set strike and theater clean-up), or to, say, create a new government in 1776 (read your history, for the love of god)—and how very quickly ONE PERSON’S ACTION can utterly destroy, or threaten to destroy, all that work: one kid refusing to shut up in class; one audience member refusing to shut up during a performance; one member of the Continental Congress refusing to vote on independence—I have to step back and stand in frank AWE of the power of one person’s voice.

One voice has tremendous power, but how do we choose to use that voice? That is the point.

Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, I read recently, and with each higher death toll, gun sales reach new all-time highs. On the whole, the gun manufacturers of this country are overjoyed by these killings, and the killings of the children at Newtown most of all: record profits! It’s been a heady time. These manufacturers funnel huge money to an organization called the NRA, whose spokesman, Wayne “Certifiable” LaPierre, has called for a gun in the hand of every teacher, and more than that, in the hand of every man, woman, and child, in America.

So take a moment to think about my long, hard lesson plan up there, and about the one student who would not shut the fuck up long enough for me to enact it for the benefit of my class of 30 students. Now think of me WITH A GUN. Exactly how long do you honestly think any teacher in that situation would last in a classroom before she USED IT?

One voice should not have that much power. One person’s voice is so small, so...well, nothing. Right? "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Right?

Just like when your boyfriend says, “God, you’re not going to eat another piece of cake, are you?” Or your mom says, “Honey, you look like a tramp in that skirt.” Or your best friend says, “You know, maybe red isn’t your best color. Try black, and people won’t notice, you know, your hips so much.” And inside the heart of any woman who hears even one of these remarks from even one of these people, something happens that will scar for life, almost, because what occurs is, as Stephen Sondheim wrote, “a little death.” Every day, a little death: from one voice. Negative voices win. The negative always wins. Just ask Lucifer.

But. But. But. For anything positive to occur on this Earth, all it takes is one voice, too: YOUR SINGLE GODDAMNED VOICE.

Where is YOUR VOICE? How are you using YOUR ONE VOICE?

What, if anything—and there must be SOMETHING—what fucking MEANS something to YOU? What drives you, energizes you, blows your fucking head off of your goddamned shoulders and into another galaxy?

Sure, I have questions about our sometimes stultifying fear of spontaneous responses in live circumstances, the sometimes strangling restrictions of the concert hall and theater, the inhibiting parts of being in a space with loads of other people and having to, you know, behave ourselves. That said, as adult citizens, we have to know when to use our voices for the RIGHT REASONS—speaking up for injustice, or laughing at the genuinely funny, rather than talking out inappropriately just because we are thoughtless assholes.

My Theme Song: A Moment for Stream of Consciousness

My two great drivers: education and theater—how they inform each other, talk to each other—I keep thinking how my transcendent experiences have always involved storytelling—the NPR story I heard about a recent find of dinosaur bones, being reminded that dinosaurs have been extinct for around 65 million years, and for one second, the tiniest, I felt the distance of that, and I reeled, I wanted to dance; or when my 7th grade language arts/social studies teacher, Miss Covington, asked us, “What is beyond the universe?” and we said, “Nothing,” and she said, “Well, nothing is something,” and my head exploded. Thrilling. Or reading Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” one summer in preparing my first Humanities class, and being blown away by its conclusion, which only means something because you’ve read the whole thing, so read it; or the moment when I read Stephen Hawking’s explanation of the Theory of Relativity and I GOT IT, and then, as quickly as revelation came, it vanished. I need stories, I need history, science, language, music, art—I need possibility and kindness and love. And now, yes, bourbon. We tell ourselves, each other, the story of the human condition. If we are sentient and sane, we want to improve the human condition, peacefully, joyfully. I mean, we want to set an example for the children. Right?

"One child is holding something that's been banned in America to protect them.
Guess which one."
Because “Little Red-Riding Hood” is so fucking scary. As my Grandma Kirlin would say, "And Jesus wept."

Today on Facebook, MORE Ignorance in Abundance!

FB FRIEND’S POST: The summer droughts were not caused by global warming, after all scientists say. [link to Yahoo article] See? The jury is out!
MISS O', in comment:   The earth is still losing summer Arctic sea ice at record levels (the ice that used to help deflect light and heat away from the Northern Hemisphere in summer); Australia has had all-time highs during its summer, forcing meteorologists to add a new color (purple) the map temperature ranges; the CO2 levels in the atmosphere stand at 390 parts per million when a clement Earth can only sustain life over time comfortably at 350 parts per million. The earth is still heating up, the Northern Hemisphere worst of all, and we need to end the use of fossil fuels if we are to do our part to reverse course. We just do.

FB FRIEND’S SISTER, in comment: And they say scientist are smart compared to those of us who believe in creation?

Query: Um, so if scientists would seem to support your politics on the environment, the science is okay? And because just one catastrophe cannot be linked to global warming, there is no global warming? (I can’t even address his sister’s comment. It just hurts too much.)

Goddamned IDIOTS. I wouldn't care except they fucking VOTE. (Somewhere I hear the poet Byron speaking through one of his narrators, remarking on the engraved words below my dusty, trunkless legs of sand a few years hence: “My name is Miss O’! Look upon my judgments, o, ye Mighty, and despair!” It’s why I drink.)

The Past as Prologue

Fairy tales. Rudeness. Apathy. Arrogance. Distraction. So many ills. I run up and down the stories of my life in my mind: I’m looking for the inspiration to do a thing that will matter. Something of use. Expressive. Outer directed. Performed in front of a rude, ignorant, live audience. Even my horoscope from Freewill Astrology agrees I have to get back to the garden of my inspiration.

And so it was that last week, while riding the subway to yet another day of work, I decided to start my own theater company. Now the last thing New York City needs is another theater company, but all of them are, essentially, closed doors, and I’m getting not in them. It’s tentatively titled, this company of mine, SOTS: Sick of This Shit, dedicated to Demolition of the Stupid. I’m meeting with my friends Ryan, Greg, and David on Tuesday evening to see what future there might be for such a company. I’ll let you know: As David remarked, "Well, you will never run out of material."

I say all this—write plays, share progressive items on Facebook, write this goddamned blog, and milk the shit out of it—knowing full well that what theater director Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003, of The Open Theater) said of his own explorations in the arts, is the true thing. He said in effect, “Change will not happen en masse, but one by one by one by one.”

One voice: Use your one voice to effect positive, good things.

Use your one voice.

One voice.

And, over time, it will become OUR VOICE. And I hope it's on pitch.

I leave you today with links to experiences and talks that show you just how powerful and expressive and vital one single voice can be on issues of real importance. If you want to have real impact, to make these kinds of changes happen, first you have to listen. Then you have to learn. Then you have to talk about it. Use your voice.

1. A TED Talk by Lawrence Lessig on Citizenry and how to reclaim it:

2. I fucking love science on Facebook: “Like” her page, change your newsfeed, change your life.

3. Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in rare footage, posted today on Facebook by a professor of mine. And it is what you see in this film that gives me hope for all of humanity, for all of Earth.

Much love as always, even to the idiots,

Miss O’

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Matters of Art and Death

At the Feet of the Master

“Things don't affect people the way they used to. I mean it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by something.”

“We're bored. We're all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now, may very well be a self perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks, and it's not just a question of individual survival, Wally, but that somebody who's bored is asleep, and somebody who's asleep will not say no?”

—André Gregory to Wallace Shawn, 

           My Dinner with André, 1981

Today your Miss O’ is thinking about meaning. This single week made fast work of sudden losses, health scares, deaths, and many other shocks, and at one point I remarked to my friend and colleague Howard, “I’ve started seriously thinking about what it all means.” Howard chuckled and said, “Who cares what it means?” And for some reason or another, possibly because I am less evolved than I should be, I care. My playwright friend Lynda remarked on Facebook, "I miss buying a new album and all of us sitting and listening to it, the way we used to listen to records." The shared experience of art means something, I think, and the farther we move away from it, the more remote we become to ourselves. (How's this for light reading on a Sunday in April?)

I was telling Howard about a new documentary showing at Film Forum here in New York City, André Gregory: Before and After Dinner, by his wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine, and wondered if he had any interest in seeing it (Howard and I are Film Forum buddies who share a passion for classic movies, though he is far better versed in them than I am). As he had not seen My Dinner with André (the film to which this new one alludes), and especially as he had no particular interest in parsing meaning from art and existence in general (and doubtless he is healthier for it), I realized I’d just need to go by myself.

For those of you who are not acquainted with it, the movie My Dinner with André came out in 1981 and became what they call a “cult classic”. Directed by Louis Malle, the movie took place almost entirely in a restaurant over the course of a single meal between actor and writer Wallace Shawn, and experimental-theater director and actor André Gregory. (Gregory's production of Alice in Wonderland in 1970 is the stuff of theater legend.) The two men first became friends in 1973, and they are still collaborators and friends as of the date of this blog; the film was a scripted work based on their real lives in theater, and in it they play characters named “Wally” and “André”. (Shawn has said the "character" of Wally is a man motivated only by fear, and he wrote this movie in part to try to get rid of "that guy." That insight gives the film yet another great layer.) My first encounter with the movie was on video—I’d rented it with my friend Richard—who is now a Broadway stage manager, the one with the twins, for those of you keeping up with the cast of characters in my life—while in college.

I am often teased by some friends for my lifelong habit of using names when I tell a story. You’ll never hear me say, for example, “I had dinner with a friend.” Not only will I tell you the name of the friend and fill in useful biographical data, I will usually also tell you how I met that person. The title of the film, you see, resonated with me immediately: My Dinner with André. I loved the sense of invitation and inclusion in it, as if to say, “You remember André…,” and now as you watch the film you are part of the story, as you must already be friends with Wally. Coincidentally, I read just the other night something that the poet W.H. Auden said about names, from the essay “Auden and God” by Edward Mendelson (posted on Facebook by my friend Andy Becker):

"Auden’s passion for proper names in his poetry had a moral and theological point: like prayer, it was a form of attention. A proper name was a sign of personal uniqueness, and Auden used the word “miracle” to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of their own unpredictable individuality. ‘To give someone or something a Proper Name,’ he wrote, ‘is to acknowledge it as having a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.’ The value that is acknowledged through a proper name is not measurable in any objective sense; it exists in the eyes of the beholder."

Names for me are touchstones: When I say a name to you, as I doubtless will within seconds of an encounter, I am with you and also with that person, and we are all together. Being with people is vital to me, because I spend nearly all of my time alone (the lot of the writer)—and the need to be with people, as well as to be alone, was also one of the draws of moving to New York City after 20 years of my adult life in the country. So in the naming of names, I create a society, and having dinner with André, then, felt like the most natural thing in the world. (The philosopher Suzanne K. Langer said, “The very notion of giving something a name was the vastest generative idea ever conceived,” and when you think of all the things a name begins to conjure in your own mind, you’ll see how right she is: Miss O's friend is a just a friend, until he’s Richard.) Curiously, I almost never greet a friend by name; I’ve long been a person attached to sweetie, dear heart, doll, ass wipe. But once we part, you and your full name become a story for the ages, or at least for my office mates.

But back to André and that dinner with Wally Shawn.

Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, My Dinner with André, 1981

The year is, let’s say, 1985, and Richard and I fell in love with this movie when we rented it a few years after it came out. We were seniors (or nearly, I'm not sure of the season) in Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech, and at the stage in our development where we were not only doing theater and ambitious to do more of it, but also asking why we were doing it. (It’s hard for me to imagine not getting to that place, as I seem to go there for regular and unplanned vacations, but plenty do not.) So as a gesture mimicking a Rooney-Garland barn experience, Richard and I rented the film again and had a showing in a studio in the Performing Arts Building for all the younger theatre majors, complete with bread sticks (because it's a dinner story, after all, and easy to get hungry). The result? Dead silence. Postures of annoyance. Then the words: "This is pointless," they said. "Self-indulgent," they said. "Nothing means anything," they summed up. Everyone seemed to feel his or her time had been wasted, when what Richard and I were hoping for was a rousing discussion about theater, the future of art, our roles in it. So out of the studio the undergraduates went, the breadsticks mostly untouched, off to memorize lines for scene study, to get head shots made, to prepare an audition. Richard and I could only conclude that our purpose for doing theater had changed over the years, while theirs was as yet still motivated by dreams of commercial success. Or something. Who cares what it means? has echoed in my head ever since but doesn't seem to land. "All life is an experiment,"Emerson said. "The more experiments you make, the better." Not every experiment is a success, of course, but considering my list of outright failures, it's astonishing I didn't take up drinking until I was 40.

When that movie was made, André Gregory had been a force in the so-called “experimental-theater” movement since the 1960s, studying with Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theater director and founder of The Poor Theater, and going on to create his own company. Grotowski and Gregory were contemporaries, born one year apart (Grotowski in Poland in 1933, the same year as my dad, Bernie; and Gregory, the child of Russian Jews, in Paris in 1934, the same year as my mom, Lynne—I mention my parents because I cannot imagine more different lives than those of my folks and these two guys, who seem to live in mythological time), but Grotowski was the master at whose feet every artist who cared about theater’s future went to sit. Astonishing rethinking came out of that era of experimentation, so I'm thinking about that rethinking today, and thinking, "What now, my love?"

“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” 
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

I take issue with the term “experimental-theater” only because it seems such a shame to me that theater cannot simply be theater in whatever iteration; but in the commercial world, when it’s not a Disney-style musical the whole family will enjoy (!), or a contemporary realistic play, or a revival of a classic, one must “prepare” an audience with the caveat, “experimental,” which is to say, “weird/you might not like it/it’s not worth spending as much money on/not a sure thing,” etc. (I get it: Leisure time is golden, money is dear, choices must be made; and I think, Isn’t that a shame?) I love musicals, not ashamed to say it, and loved the commercials for touring shows I'd see on TV. Really, I knew only about commercial theater—though I did not see a live show until I was 15, the first show I saw that I wasn’t in being the Dalewood Community Theater production of L’il Abner (after which show I deeply offended the lead male when I thought my friend Denise knew him from church, hers being Our Lady of Angels, and he flashed, “I’m a proud Southern Baptist,” and it just goes to show politics and religion are the inescapable realities of human life until we all decide to grow the fuck up); thence followed a few high school field trips to see A Chorus Line (by which I was boredno idea what in the hell was going on);  and Evita (thrilling!); and Mark Twain Tonight! with Hal Holbrook (really interesting).

My first encounter with the brand of theater (and may I pause to say ick? What a conceptwhat could feel more ick, really, than to become a "brand," and bless Stephen Colbert for his willingness to become one just to show us how vulgar, limiting, and creepy it is, his genius being to manage to transcend branding at the same time he makes a living from it) called “experimental-theater” occurred when I was a sophomore in college, serving as an assistant stage manager for a play called “Interview,” one of eight plays in a work called America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie, originally directed by Joseph Chaikin and developed with The Open Theater. America Hurrah premiered in New York (a faraway land hardly real to me then) in 1966, and my encounter with it would have been 1983, so the real question was, “Why was this two-decades-old play still considered avant-garde?” The term “avant-garde,” or in advance of one’s time, was also becoming creaky, and Chaikin’s work (admired by Gregory though they were not collaborators, which I learned in a film talk-back with the man himself just last week) was a revelation to me, and also a natural fit for my sensibilities. The director of this particular production was a graduate student, David Thomas, who went on to co-found ART Station in Stone Mountain, Georgia, which he still runs today (with his husband, Michael Hidalgo, who went to a rival high school of mine and whom David met at Tech—are you following?). Watching David work on this piece was fascinating, because he was taking what had been truly experimental at the time, and now directing it as a revival—which is to say a museum piece. His awareness of this irony was seminal in my education: He talked to the assembled eight actors (I’d failed the audition, but he’d seen something in me that he wanted me to stick around to assist) about the history of The Open Theater and their approach to developing a piece together: An empty space, total experimentation, exercises for building unity of the ensemble, saying “Yes” to new ideas, playing with things, seeing where it goes. That David was doing this as a graduate student project was the sticking point: He has no choice, really, but to treat Chaikin’s work as a textbook case, and reinvent it rather than create something totally new, given that the script was a finished piece, not a work in progress. There is nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes: It was a way of “sitting at the feet of the master,” as best he could at the time.

And it was during those rehearsals where I started to wonder, “Is there any experimental theater happening any more?” Too many plays we were reading for scene study, by then-contemporary writers such as Michael Weller and Kevin Wade, felt so small—stories of troubled relationships, or a bad marriage—so ordinary. Until college, to be fair, my entire theater experience amounted to being in the chorus of a handful of musicals, one Neil Simon play, one Kaufman and Hart play (“Who did you play in You Can’t Take It With You?” director and playwright David Hilder asked me early in our New York acquaintance. "How did you know I was in it?" I asked. "We were ALL in it," he said. Insert smiley face. I played Penelope Sycamore), and a few others, including forgettable competition one-acts and a children's show. That there was MORE, or that theater could be so ugly, imaginative, political, and unnerving, was a joyous discovery, because I was quite frankly bored with both realism and the stock musical comedy: I had decided to eschew acting for directing before I ever started college, mostly because I never wanted to act in anything like these plays again.  I don’t think I understood this at the time—what I mean is I could not articulate why I was disenchanted—and it wasn’t until learning about Chaikin that I awakened and I could say, “Now I know why I’ve been unhappy with acting.” At the time, I hated reading plays, and really I still do. I can count on one hand relatively modern plays that have sent me soaring and made me want to act in or direct them: America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie (by which I mean not that play, but rather it made me want to create original plays on meaningful themes with my students-to-be); Angels in America, Parts One and Two, by Tony Kushner; Fen by Caryl Churchill; The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder; and Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson. (There are others, I'm sure, but these come readily to mind.) These are wildly different scripts—but they have in common something so hard to explain: They are true. One feels it in one’s heart: “This is a true story of being human on Earth.” More than that: These plays have a social conscience and take on real issues, from AIDS, to worker and environmental exploitation, to corporate oligarchies and consumerism, to religious philosophy, to the discovery of love between two lost and unusual people. The language in each play is compelling. One cannot help but want to enter these worlds, and what we find there may or may not reflect us or console us, but it will surely awaken something in us.

"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle."
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Bored yet?

If you have found yourself drifting as you read today’s blog, it may surely be because my writing is dull, but what’s even more likely is that this sort of reflection bores the shit out of you. If this is the case, do by all means stop reading and go for a walk, and do NOT rent My Dinner With André, which has been described by at least two geniuses I know (neither of whom much likes theater, as it happens) as “self-indulgent” and “deadly.” You have been warned.

What Richard and I responded to in the Malle film was the search for meaning that Gregory was immersed in: After many years as a commercial (if unconventional) actor (you've seem him: the guy who gets his eye gouged out by Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man, John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ) and revolutionary theater director, he just lost heart. He didn’t know why he was even doing it anymore. He walked away for about six years and went on a quest—a quest that most people could not afford, by the way, but that he could and did. Now that I am 48—the age Gregory was when he made the film—I relate whole-heartedly to his mid-life crisis, but when I was 21, I related to his existential crisis, I guess you’d call it: What does it all mean? For myself, I really wondered what it meant to do theater at all, for whom, and what did they, what does the world, get out of it? And if I become a teacher, what on earth do I have to teach anyone? And for what purpose?

More Art, Less Matter

From the time I was a little kid, I worried about where the garbage went, about disabled children feeling excluded, about how much things would cost when I grew up, about people dying or not being cared for. On my first field trip on a school bus to D.C. when I was in second grade, I couldn't take my eyes off the smoke stacks of plants, those clouds coming out of them, the eerie feeling it gave me of its unnaturalness. I was a barrel of goddamned laughs. In high school and college and in my early years of teaching, I used to spend long, long hours writing about meaning, trying to make meaning out of the events of my life and of the world. Mercifully I left my twenties, but not before a complete breakdown at age 28. And then, at the point when I wanted to give up entirely, I started again. It was at this time—in the midst of beginning therapy and moving to a new school and a new house—that I began creating truly original theater with my students, guiding them to write their own work out of their life experiences, which I then shaped into a drama for performance. Mostly I followed what I’d seen David do with his Chaikin work, and yet each process was different because the kids in each cast were always different, and the real fun of being a high school theater director was having a company of actors who came in, grew over four years, flew out, and were forever supplanted by new actors. It’s really nourishing, artistically. The down side is that while you have these kids, you always have to hurry up and put on the show, so the process is truncated in a way we all would sort of resent; then again, at least we finished something we could all be proud of, and audiences saw it and responded in largely positive ways.

André Gregory was not afraid to spend years making a play. His 1970 breakthrough work, Alice and Wonderland (which coincidentally I performed in at the Virginia Tech Summer Arts Festival in 1987), was created over the course of four years with a small company of dedicated actors—the Lewis Carroll work reimagined for adults. What I learned from doing this kind of work myself, as much as I was able, was that art and life can be one thing, and this way of working affirmed for me that the process rather than the outcome is where the joy lies. I have always enjoyed the rehearsals of a show more than the performances, and I must add that I am just as happy to have performed something so I can strike the set and move to the next thing. The performance part is for other people, and it’s the least you can do: Given all the work you’ve put in, why not? (Gregory and company have spent 14 years, off and on, rehearsing Wallace Shawn's adaptation of Ibsen's The Master Builder, and this process, and the resulting handful of performances (discussed in the new documentary), is the subject of a new movie by Jonathan Demme, Wally and André Shoot Ibsen, coming out this year.) And then there’s the question of meaning: If you make a play and no one sees it, does it count? If you create a work and only 22 of your closest friends witness the performance, does it have value on Earth?

“Good theater can happen anywhere,” a professor, Michael Cadden of Princeton, declared to a group of us drama directors at an NEH summer intensive in Vermont. “It can happen in your classroom. Just because only 20 of you saw it doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

Here’s another way to think of it: If you cook the most astonishing meal of your life—Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon, say, with noodles and French bread and garden fresh peas—and only your friends Chuck and David eat it, is the meal any less of a masterpiece?

And yet we live in the age of Hell’s Kitchen and the Iron Chef, of folk legend Leonard fucking Cohen playing to arenas of iPhones; of celebrities (who are nonentities) like Kim Kardashian making money hand over fist for posing in front of plastic sheets of corporate logos at movie premieres for thousands of photographers. Do you hear the clicks, the clatters, the echoes in this empty canyon?

Five chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont, own 75% of the worlds SEEDS. Even the growing of food has become a synthetic production of the largest possible measure, and food has never had less flavor.

I submit that all this largeness is not only needless and vulgar; I submit that it is foolish, meaningless, exhausting, and that as it is, more powerfully, taking us to greater and greater levels of stupid, it is therefore deadly. My current search for a way back to meaning really is a search for what is alive

What’s the Most Annoying Trend in News? You Won’t Believe It!

Can we say THE TEASER? I am so fucking sick of teasers: What Are the Most Annoying Things Girls Say?  or What Is the Worst Food You Can Eat? The Answer Might Surprise You! or Which Famous Singer Died Today? or Who Has Your Mom Been Fucking? The Answer Might Surprise You! Does anything surprise us anymore? I want life to follow a quest narrative, and while I don't expect or even want an easy-teasy surprise answer, I really do live for a surprising question.

In the preface to the screenplay for My Dinner with André, Gregory wrote this:

 “A few weeks ago I had dinner with Twyla Tharp in her kitchen, and we were talking about the problems of the artist, or for that matter the individual, maturing in our society. Why do we have so few mature artists? Trying to answer this question, we began to speculate that your early years, say your twenties, should be all about learning — learning how to do it, how to say it, learning to master the tools of your craft; having learned the techniques, then your next several years, say your thirties, should be all about telling the world with passion and conviction everything that you think you know about your life and your art. Meanwhile, though, if you have any sense, you’ll begin to realize that you just don’t know very much — you don’t know enough. And so the next many, many years, we agreed, should be all about questions, only questions, and that if you can totally give up your life and your work to questioning, then perhaps somewhere in your mid-fifties you may find some very small answers to share with others in your work. The problem is that our society (including the community of artists) doesn’t have much patience with questions and questioning. We want answers, and we want them fast. My Dinner with André uses some of the experiences of my six years out of the theater as foundation stones for a work which is made up entirely of questions and which I would like to dedicate to all, artists and otherwise, who are out on the road somewhere wandering, with no destination anywhere in sight, almost forgetting why they ever set out in the first place, yet still unable to turn back, because they honestly believe that the shortest distance between two points just may not be a straight line.”
Miss O’ turns 49 in May. Reading Gregory's and Tharp's ideas struck a chord, you might say; this song of aging as an artist makes total sense to me. I have not had loud success, which is to say there has been no arrival, no fame, no (or little) money for my art. What our friend André is getting at is exactly what all human beings might need to be doing, especially in mid-life—it’s the opposite of settling in, shutting down, tuning out, waiting to die. Mid-life, in fact, is the most opportune time to question everything, to awaken and challenge all the old assumptions, because you have learned shit, you have experienced shit, and you still feel pretty good. (Stephen Hawking has lived far longer with ALS that most people can because, his late mother asserted, he’s a searcher.) You are no longer riding on received wisdom, but are rather becoming the potential dispenser of that wisdom.  The secret of a worthwhile life and worthwhile art, I think, is love (searching for it and giving it), followed by questing to understand more about who we all are, followed by making something out of the quest; “to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet said, to show human beings the body of their time, and then to strike it down and start again. And then, of course, to enjoy a fine malt beverage at each day’s end, with friends. I realize, as I say, as I have voiced these ideas over the years, that not everyone agrees with any of them, or with all of them, or with all of them at once. And I think that's why we seek not only our friends, but also art. In art we can feel less alone in our private insanity. Music, poetry, theater, sculpture: there's art for everyone, and an artist to speak to each of us. I never thought I'd care about painting, for example, hard though I tried, and then it happened. If you haven't found your visual artist yet—my first was Georgia O'Keeffe, "Blue Lines," at the National Gallery when I was 21; followed shortly by Van Gogh's portraits of inmates in an asylum, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; and now the list includes too many to name, but the last artist whose work caused me to sob while standing in front of it was Romare Bearden, a retrospective of his collages at MoMA, in 2006—it's never too late. You cannot plan the epiphany, is what I mean, but nor will you have a chance to experience it unless you get out there into worlds of art beyond what you currently know. 
Death in Chelsea 
All the things I'm musing on have to do with human endeavors rather than connections to the natural world, but I'm concerned today with what human beings are making out of their lives when they aren't trying to kill each other or screw each other over. In New York Magazine this week is an essay, or rather, an elegy, “The Death of the Gallery Show” by Jerry Saltz, which offers as its subhead, “Between online sales and art fairs, fewer and fewer people are showing up to see art in its natural habitat.” The author laments the closing of a lot of galleries, owners thrown out by jacked-up rents ($30,000 per MONTH?) or bankrupted by lack of attendance. “The art world has become more of a virtual reality than an actual one…,” Saltz writes. He is discussing the meaning of art shows, and he echoes Gregory, but for the audience rather than the artist:

Looking, making, thinking, experiencing are our starting point. Art opens worlds, lets us see invisible things, creates new models for thinking, engages in cryptic rituals in public, invents cosmologies, explores consciousness, makes mental maps and taxonomies others can see, and isn’t only something to look at but is something that does things and sometimes makes the mysterious magic of the world palpable. (p. 102)

Saltz concludes:

Proust wrote, ‘Narrating events is like introducing people to opera via libretto only.’ Instead, he said one should ‘endeavor to distinguish between the differing music of each successive day.’ That’s what we do when we look at art, wherever we look at it, however much noise surrounds it. In galleries, we try to discern ‘differing music,’ and it’s still there right now. I love and long for it. (p. 102)

I am always searching for great theater, and whereas most art galleries are free (though their contents are far from it), one of my frustrations about theater is the cost, specifically high ticket prices which make theater more and more exclusive; available to, and therefore too often made only to serve and flatter, wealthy people. I’m sick of wealthy people. I’ve had it with luxury goods and celebrities and blockbusters and Iron EVERYTHING. I’m sick of what my mom, Lynne, calls the vapid. Is it just me? I really do think the free, palpable art experience is worth having, worth seeking out, and worth trying to make. It's why I live, and I guess, just like Jerry Saltz up there, and André and Wally. I guess we keep writing about it because we can't help thinking you should have these experiences, too, that somehow your lives will mean more if you do. And that art will make us kinder, better people. (I'm still working on it.)

"Do you think I've gone round the bend?"
"I'm afraid so. You're mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland
Here’s to André Gregory, Before and After Dinner, and all the art in between, coming soon to a theater probably nowhere near you—its commercial obscurity doesn’t make it lesser art, but rather makes it matter all the more.
And so, to drink.
Love from Miss O'

Miss O', Elizabeth Wills, and Richard Rauscher,
BA, Theatre Arts, Virginia Tech, Class of '86,
shortly before setting off to change the world.