Monday, December 3, 2018

Pointing My Skis Downhill

I have never liked skiing very much. I did not grow up in a family that skied. The first time I went was in college and I was not very good. Then as a 30-year old I went skiing in Montana with Erica and her brother.  They took me way up to the top of a Bridger Bowl intermediate level ski run and told me it would be fine.

It wasn't fine.

It took me at least an hour to make it to the bottom and it was hell. Whenever I would point my skis downhill I would start to pick up speed and panic. I felt out of control. I DO NOT like to feel out of control, so I would snowplow or turn parallel to the hill and slide across the face until I stopped. In this way, I ever-so-slowly got to the bottom of the run.

Fast forward ten years: I am teaching at an elementary school in New Haven and we take our kids skiing at Mt. Southington.  (There are no mountains in Connecticut, so Mt. Southington is misnamed--it's really just a big hill.) The gym teacher arranged the trip each year and I got to go as a chaperone for my 6th graders.  There was no pressure on me to ski, so I had room to go and learn at my own pace and in my own way.

Even given that freedom to learn at my own pace, it still took three trips for me to discover something essential:  the only way to get better at skiing would be to let my skis point downhill. Yes, if I did I would pick up speed and Yes, it would feel scary. But nothing terrible would happen. I could always just turn and slow down if it felt too bad. Or I'd fall. Then I'd get back up and keep skiing.

I got much better at skiing after that.

The underlying lesson—that to get better at something you sometimes have to feel bad at it, (and maybe even out of control), is coming in handy years later.

I recently took up acting as a thing I do. It has been a revelation. I started acting lessons precisely because I wanted to do something that would be hard and scary. And it has been both of these things. But it has also been a way to understand myself and other people better. In order to be someone else on-stage or on-camera I have to have a good sense of what that person is thinking and feeling and then I have to find ways to convey that interior state to an audience using my face and my body as much as the words of the script.

I have been in two acting class showcases, two short plays, and six student films in the past year.  I have liked being in the films. But I have LOVED being in the showcases and the plays. There is something about being on stage in front of a live audience that is so thrilling.  The first time I performed in front of an audience there were 80 people in the crowd in an intimate theater at Cornell’s Risley Hall. Just before I took the stage I felt so nervous I was shaking and my mouth was entirely dry.
The applause for the scene before mine ended and I stepped out onto the stage. I took a deep breath and let the words of the script take over. Before I knew it, the scene was done, people were clapping, and I left the stage. I have no specific recollections of my five minutes performing the scene. The script and the scene had a gravity of their own—just like a ski run—and I had pointed my skis downhill and let them take me.

It was exhilarating.

In my three chances to be on stage since then, the same thing has happened each time. I work very hard to memorize my lines, so that when it is time to go, I don’t have to think about them at all. I also work hard to come to an understanding of who the character is that is speaking the lines. These characters are not me so when the gravity hits it can’t just be me up there saying lines. It has to be real in the context of the scene.

Once the lights have come up I have been able to turn downhill and let things play out without fear or even self-awareness. I have seen videos of these performances after the fact. They’re not bad. If I were in the audience, I would not be thinking, “that guy really sucks.”

A few weekends ago I was filming a scene for an Ithaca College student film. It is called “Assassin Camp” and I had a small role as a dorky dad who is sending his high school son off to Film Camp. There is a scene where I drive my boy to the college where camp is being held, pull up in front, and get out to give him an incredibly awkward hug. And then, as he walks away, I yell out “Knock ‘em dead!” while I thrust out a big thumbs up.

We filmed the first take and the director said, “Give me more on the thumbs up.” So we filmed it again and I thought I gave him more. He called “Cut!” and said “Even bigger. There is no such thing as too big with this line.” So we filmed it again. And again I was too restrained. Finally, I remembered the idea of pointing my skis downhill and the director said, “let’s just do this ten different times and play with it—go HUGE!”

So I did and if felt great. I had to turn off any inner voice I was hearing and simply be that dorkiest of all dads and then just let it rip.

Being me, I often get stuck in the mistaken belief that there is one right way to do something. Combine this belief with a real fear of being bad at things and you have a recipe for paralyzing self-doubt and inaction. From the outside this often looks like passivity or an unwillingness to actually do anything. My experience of these moments where I really want to be taking an action or trying a new thing is anything but passive.

My interior monologue runs something like this:

“I know I need to be doing something right now. Why aren’t I doing it? What is wrong with me? Shit? What is wrong with me? Okay—I’m going to count to three and then I’m just going to do it….one…two…thr—but wait, something just changed…maybe now is not the right time.  And maybe the thing is the wrong thing.....I’ll do it later. Yeah—this is definitely NOT the right time…..I will surely do it later.”

It can go on like this for a very long time. Days. Weeks. Years, in some cases.

But now, when I find myself spinning my internal wheels like this, I can break into the monologue and remind myself to turn the skis and be okay feeling a little out of control.

Monday, August 6, 2018

What voice can I write in?

In my 52 years I have had 2 short stories published. One was during my senior year of college. It was called “Postcard From the Past” and it appeared in the Bucknell Literary Magazine The Red Wheelbarrow.  The other came out when I was in my early 40s. It was called “Floating” and it appeared in the online literary journal called Quay Journal.

The main character in Postcard From the Past is a 12-year old white suburbanite boy. He is not the narrator, but it is his point of view we are inhabiting. Floating takes the perspective of this same character twenty years later. Both are fictionalized versions of me—a middle class white guy raised in suburbia in the 1970s and 1980s.

I have had an easy life. That’s not to say things haven’t gone bad sometimes, but my baseline has always been a place of security and support and belonging. I have never questioned my value in modern American society. In other words, I was born already on second base and I didn’t even know it.

When I write, it is most often non-fiction and the voice is clearly my own. Sometimes, I am inspired to write fiction. Usually the people I write about are white middle class people very much like me and my family and friends.  But every once in a great while a different voice will come out of my head and onto the page.

Sometimes it is a woman, telling her story. One time, the story was from the perspective of a Yemeni villager. Once, it was a dog. I don’t know where the inspiration comes from when these voices spill out of my head and onto the page. I just know that they are sometimes there and they are insistent.

And when I do write from the perspective of a Yemeni man or a woman who sings at funerals at a small Catholic church in Wilmington, I do not write with a political agenda. The first draft is always a sputtering struggle to find the right voice—the real person—who wants to come out. The story comes first and the character walks around in my head and in the story until they either seem real or they fade away because I couldn’t quite find out who they wanted to be.

I read this week about a man whose poem “How-To” appeared in The Nation. The poet is a white man. Some of the lines in his poem are in Black Vernacular English (BVE.) Some readers were offended by this white author’s use of BVE and he and the poetry editors of The Nation apologized for its publication and any hurt it may have caused.

I have not read the poem. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest. But the incident has gotten me thinking about the job of a writer. A writer’s task is to get at the truth somehow. Sometimes that means a haiku. Sometimes it means a memoir. Sometimes the truth is found in a novel or a short story. The characters who appear in all of these works have a voice and a point of view. For me, sometimes the only way for me to know how I really feel about something is to write it out. Ideas can kick around my head without scrutiny for a long time.

It’s when I see them on the page in front of me that I know if they are true or not.

And the truth of the words doesn’t necessarily depend on a one-to-one correlation between my age/sex/gender and that of my characters.

 If a Yemeni villager were to read the story I wrote telling the story of a Yemeni villager, he might laugh in my face at how wrong it all is. He might want to hit me. And those reactions would be warranted. If a woman were to read my story about the funeral singer and shake her head at how wrong it all is I would want to hear what I got wrong and ask for her help in understanding better.

Some of the value of reading fiction surely comes from the opportunity to get inside the hearts and minds and lives of people other than ourselves. We have a magical chance to become intimate with people we would otherwise never meet. I do not want to be told what books I can read and which characters I am allowed to get to know and which I am not.

I also don’t want to be told who I can write about and who I can’t. That is up to me. If I do a terrible job, tell me. Rip up my story. Tell everyone else how shitty it is and how wrong it gets everything. But don’t tell me I can’t use a different voice. That is what writers do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

This IS Who We Are

“This is not who we are.”

I have heard and read some version of this sentence dozens of times in the past two weeks—each time in reference to our actions at the border with Mexico. By “this” the speaker/writer means the separation of families and warehousing of children.

The people making this statement want so badly to feel good about the United States that they are willing to perform some sort of verbal magic by which they sever the things we as a country are doing from the country that we are.

When faced with the cognitive dissonance set off by seeing a country they love and want to feel good about doing something they hate and feel revulsion to, they make it okay for themselves by settling on “This is not who we are.”

I can’t do that verbal magic anymore. This IS who we are. We are a country that takes crying children from their parents thousands of miles from anything they know and places them in holding pens for days on end. In electing Donald Trump President and then allowing of members of Congress to get away with supporting him in his policies and actions, this is what we have become.

I appreciate the feeling behind the wish that this NOT be who we are. But the facts are undeniable. We are a country with a sizeable portion of citizens who LIKE what is happening at the border—who are cheering it on.

For much of our early history we were a country that sanctioned owing human beings, raping them, killing them, working them to death, and separating their children from them and selling those children off, too.

Even after slavery ended, we were a country that ripped Native American children away from their families and warehoused them in boarding schools where they “had the Indian whipped right out of them.”

Taking children away from their parents and siblings seems about as American as apple pie. It is in our DNA.

Whenever talk of reparations for African-Americans comes up in the national conversation I hear a million versions of “I am not the one who owned slaves, why should I pay for it?” When tribes push for an official national apology for the treatment of native children I hear “I didn’t have anything to do with that—it was 100 years ago.”

Right now---this very morning--=something is being done in your name at the US-Mexico border. If it is something you support then you should simply carry on. But if you are one of the people saying “this is not who we are,” open your eyes. Yes. This is who a chunk of us are. And while that chunk is in charge these are the things they are doing IN YOUR  NAME.
If you are outraged, show some outrage. If you live in a House district with a Republican representative, call their office and let them know this policy is unacceptable. Put the pressure on Congress. Donald Trump is proving to be as feckless and mean as I feared. He won’t change. The place to apply the pressure is Congress.

If you don’t know who your Representative is, click here  and you can find out. If that person is a Republican, call her/him and tell them this policy of separating families is not okay and you will hold them accountable in November. They fear losing elections more than anything. Hold them accountable today.

Do it now. It might take a little time to get through, but it is worth it. This is who we are, but it does not have to be who we are tomorrow. We can make it stop by letting Congress know there are more of us then there are of the people who support this heartless policy.

Monday, May 14, 2018

I think I make a good douchebag

My acting class had our end-of-semester showcase Saturday night.  We have been practicing for weeks, starting with simply memorizing lines without emotion or inflection and then slowly adding in actions and looks and pauses and shifts in tone. The process is fun and fascinating to be a part of.

The scene I shared with a very talented performer named Jess Dreiling was pretty straightforward on first read. But then as we started to think about the characters as actual people with actual histories and feelings and fears and motives, the number of choices we had to make as actors multiplied exponentially.

I did not get to see the final performance, which might sound weird, since I was IN it. But once I sat in my chair and the lights came up I simply switched into character and played the scene, reacting in the moment. I wasn’t aware of trying to elicit any particular reaction from the audience and I don’t know how it went.

I do know that I felt good about it when the scene was over. People clapped, my classmates said it went well, and I felt relieved. But I haven’t seen it yet, so I really have no idea what it looked like to the audience. I am finding that acting is funny that way—my experience of the moment is very different from the audience’s experience of the moment.

My experience of the moment, when things are working, is calm and almost quiet. Most of my brain powers down to Stand-by mode as the part of me that is the character powers up and takes over.  I rarely experience that kind of inner quiet in my regular life. Normally my brain is going a mile a minute, gauging every look, every word, every change in posture of the people in the room and of myself. I have a lot of social anxiety and for this reason being out in the world interacting with people tires me out.

I am finding that acting gives me a chance to short-circuit that endless loop of self-judgment and hyper-awareness that flood my head much of the time. I can step into a character and allow him to be out in the world while I am simply along for the ride. It is oddly freeing to be on stage in front of a whole bunch of strangers but to not really care what they think of me, since it’s not really me that is up there.

I think the guy that was up there, sitting in that chair with a black eye and the douchey attitude, had a good time being a real prick. I’ll have to watch the video to know for sure.

Then, once the showcase ended and I went to the cast party, all of my social unease kicked right back in and I left after 15 minutes of short, awkward conversations with people I don’t know very well.

Ah well, I guess THAT might be my next challenge. How do I take what I am learning in acting class and apply it to real life?