Monday, December 18, 2017

Learning to React

For a long time I suspected I might be broken in some fundamental way. I did not seem to feel things the way other people did. Other people’s emotional lives seemed to be richer than mine. I could fake strong emotions pretty well, but that is a thing sociopaths do, right?

It crossed my mind that I might indeed BE a sociopath, but then I did a little research and read that sociopaths have no regard for the difference between right and wrong and never feel guilt. These last two are not true of me. I definitely feel guilt—most of the time.

So if I’m not a sociopath, what is going on?

With the help of an acting class, I think I may have started to figure it out.

Early in my life I made a decision to be a person who is steady, reliable, and helpful. I always wanted to make things better, not worse. And one way to do that is to be a voice of calm. Big emotions scare me and make me feel unsafe—they always have. So I learned to tamp them down in myself and to pull others back to calmer waters when they were getting worked up.

It worked for me to be a calming, helpful presence. Turns out, people like that.

It also turns out that being a calming, helpful presence requires a LOT of self-management. I learned that if I wanted to be steady as a rock, I needed to ignore whatever emotions I was feeling and keep an even keel. Over time, it got easier and easier to forget that I even had my own reactions to things—I was always attuned to what other people were feeling and then adjusting myself to them.  

This is a great way to make the people around you feel safe. It is also a great way to lose all touch with the things you yourself are feeling.  After many years of living this way, I got to the point where I could not identify my own feelings unless they were so huge that they managed to break through my insulation and force themselves to be reckoned with. Smaller things went unrecognized and, therefore, unprocessed in any kind of normal, healthy way.

Realizing this about myself has helped me understand something that has puzzled me for years: From the age of 12, I have loved sad books, movies, and songs--the more deeply tragic, the better. I now understand that these books and songs and movies gave me a safe outlet for my emotions—they gave me a “legitimate” reason to feel powerfully sad and to cry without having to look deeper and see what was going on in me. They were a safety valve.

Oddly, sports acted as another kind of safety valve. By playing organized sports into high school and then by following professional sports very closely my entire adult life, I’ve had an outlet for other feelings. Anger and joy both find a way out when you are heavily invested in the outcome of a pitch, a play, a game, and a season.
Another obsession of mine is politics. The first time I ever got positive feedback as a writer was in a Political Writing class as a junior in college. I found I could express passion for my beliefs about politics without feeling like I was in any kind of immediate risk. And other people wanted to publish the things I wrote!

So, I had—more or less—three outlets for strong feelings: literature, sports, and politics. All three of these have been a huge part of my life ever since I discovered their usefulness.  None of the three of these serve to connect me to my own feelings or to the people closest to me. In fact, sometimes they get in the way because it is easy to convince myself that I am a passionate person with deeply-help beliefs.

I have recognized this as a problem for a while now. But I could not come to any kind of solution to the problem that worked for me. It is hard to give up an approach that has been “working” for years and years.

And then I enrolled in an acting class. It was a fairly impetuous decision that grew out of a feeling of boredom and a desire to shake up my life a bit. When I signed up I did not even think to ask about the methodology of the class or the philosophical underpinnings of the method. In retrospect, this is good. Had I asked, I might not have followed through.

The class I found was in the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. The classes at AWI are based in the Meisner Technique of acting, created by Sanford Meisner over his 55 years at the Neighborhood Playhouse. The foundation of the Meisner Technique is the ability to identify what you are feeling in the moment in reaction to the people you are sharing the stage with. Rather than memorize lines that you deliver with a preset cadence and emotional charge, you instead say your lines with whatever your emotionally honest reaction is in the moment.

You’re not acting, you’re reacting. And the reactions need to be authentic.

So, you can see how this might scare the living shit out of me and my carefully cocooned emotions. I have spent a lifetime assiduously avoiding tapping into my honest, raw emotions. And this semester I was asked to do just that, every Monday and Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm.

By the second week of classes I found myself coming up with all sorts of excuses for skipping class. But then I would go anyway.

I found the exercises terrifying—and I was not very good at them. They required me to turn off that inner voice that dominates my head—the one that is constantly sizing up the people around me and guessing at what they want or need from me. Far more often than not the words I would say came from that part of my brain rather than from somewhere more real, more honest, more ME.

BUT, there were a couple of moments when I was able to turn that inner voice off and simply react to the people in front of me. Those moments were magic and like a drug. Instead of managing myself and the other people, I simply reacted honestly. As I said, this did not happen often. But it was often enough that I have come to crave it.

It feels exactly like the emotional equivalent of learning to walk. At this point my emotional self is able to pull itself up to a standing position using the furniture and the legs of the people standing around me. Someday it will be able to toddle around. Then someday it might even run. I am still afraid of strong emotions, but I have a growing belief in the importance of letting myself feel them and whatever else is in there.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Old guy, doing push-ups

Eliza turned out the room lights and switched on the spotlights. I immediately dropped to the carpet and started doing push-ups. By the fourth push-up someone knocked lightly on the door. Without missing a beat I called out “Come in.”

The door opened but I did not look up. I kept on with my slow and steady push-ups as Ari said “Old guy, doing push-ups.”

I repeated “Old guy, doing push-ups.”

For the next ten minutes Ari, and then Eliza, continued to comment on me and my push-ups. I grew exhausted and by the end I was able to do only 2 or 3 repetitions in the final minute.

A week later, I spent the entire night in the emergency room.

Back in August it struck me hard that I used to be a person who would do adventurous things—things that scared the crap out of me and made my life exciting.  I gave myself a skydive for my eighteenth birthday during my freshman year of college.

I went to Yemen with the Peace Corps at 21.

I took a nine thousand-mile road trip around the U.S. when I got back from the Peace Corps.

I packed up my old Plymouth Valiant and moved to Maine and then to Montana on my own without knowing anyone in either place.

I got engaged after knowing Erica for just a few months.

And then we moved to Ithaca and had a child while Erica was in grad school. We counted on the income from my job as a teacher to pay our bills. Slowly, I became far less adventurous. It was not something I chose to do consciously. Over time, I self-censored my own wilder impulses.

So, back in August I decided that it had been far too long since I had scared the shit out of myself. I thought about what I could do, (short of going full mid-life-crisis and joining an ashram in India), to tap back into that part of me that likes to put myself out beyond where I feel safe and comfortable and boring. I quickly came to the idea of acting class.

Just the thought of being in front of people, exposed and alone on a stage, made me shake a little. I quickly found the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca (AWI) and gave them a call. Before I could change my mind, I committed to the Monday-Wednesday class for the entire fall semester. And I have not regretted the decision for a single moment. I am learning a lot about acting, about auditions, and about myself. I have even gotten a leading role playing a small-town priest in a student film being shot by an Ithaca College student. I already know that I will continue with the class next semester.


And that is how I found myself on the floor, doing push-ups and engaged in an activity called Repetition. Repetition is one of the fundamental activities in the Sanford Meisner acting technique that is the basis of classes at AWI. (I will not describe it here—you can read all about the Meisner Technique here if you wish to.) Suffice it to say that I was fully committed to doing as many push-ups as my body could in those ten minutes.

I have no idea how many I actually completed, since I was forced to interact with Ari and Eliza and therefore could not count. My arms were sore for days. And then my right arm ballooned up to a disgusting size. I was worried because that is the same arm that developed a blood clot 32 years ago and I knew the clot was still in place and my axillary vein has had a much-diminished diameter ever since.

A week after the push-ups I was getting ready for bed at 11:00 when Erica saw with alarm how big my arm had gotten. She convinced me to go to the emergency room to get it checked out. I ended up staying there until 8:30 the following morning. They drew blood twice, looked at the veins of my upper arm and shoulder with an ultrasound wand, injected me with an iodine dye, and did a CT scan of my chest, neck, and shoulders.

Long story short: my acting class activity led me to develop rhabdomylosis. The muscle fibers in my right arm were dying and releasing their contents into my bloodstream at a rate faster than my kidneys could deal with. The arm was swelling because my body was pumping the arm full of fluid to wash out the bits of dead muscle cells, but the fluid was backing up since my vein could not drain it all away.

The definitive test for rhabdomylosis is the creatin kinase test. My blood test that night showed a creatin kinase level of  3500 U/L---anything above 1000 U/L is considered a positive test for rhabdomylosis.  Normal levels are anywhere from 50 to 150 U/L. The doctor was a bit alarmed and hooked me up to an IV drip of saline solution right away and asked me to stay the night.

Four times that night I had to tell the story of how acting class gave me rhabdomylosis. The triage nurse, the night nurse, the CT scan technician, and the ER doctor all shook their heads—in judgment, disbelief, or both. My arm is better now and the rhabdomylosis has gone away. I have four weeks of classes left this semester and I am still scared every time I walk into the studio, but I know already that I will be back for more. Like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017

I am feeling grateful today for my family and my friends and my dogs and my life in America. But I want to acknowledge that my happiness is tainted by the headwind blowing in the faces of so many others in this country. To be grateful for what I have without recognizing the advantages I have been born into is a hollow kind of gratefulness.

I was born in 1965 in the United States to a white mother and father who were of European descent and spoke English as a first language. I am a white male. I am now 52 years old and I live in a comfortable house. My wife and I both earn a steady income. We have been able to give our daughter a life full of opportunities and plenty.

My life has been easy.

And for this I am feeling especially grateful today.

At the same time, I am feeling especially aware of the fact that my entire life I have had a tailwind helping me along.

People have not watched me carefully in stores; they have not kept an eye on me when I walked or biked through their neighborhoods; they have not clutched their bag a little tighter as I walked by; they have not wondered if I was admitted to my college or hired for my job because of my skin color; they have not refused to rent their apartments to me; they have not reached out to touch my hair uninvited; I have not had to work extra hard to put people at ease and make them understand I am not a threat.

All I have had to do is go through life being myself. Being myself is not always easy—I am a bit stunted emotionally, a bit anxious around people, a bit awkward in social situations---but being a white male American in the 1960s through the 2010s has meant that I have not had to worry about an entire layer of problems that many other people DO have to worry about.

As I said, I have had a tailwind pushing me gently forward every step of my life. It is a life I love, yet I want to live in a country where everyone has the same opportunities I have had. Sadly, that is still not the case.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Keep that shit OFF the field

The football field is no place to make a political statement. Players on NFL teams are not paid millions of dollars so that they can protest police violence against black people in America. They should leave that shit OFF the field.

I agree with the first statement above. The football field should be a place where two teams battle it out to see who is better that particular day.

I also agree with the second statement above. Players are drafted and signed because of their skills on the field and it is their skills that earn them millions of dollars.

As far as the third statement…I would agree, with one caveat.

Players should leave that shit OFF the field--- but only to the extent that the NFL leaves that shit OFF the field, too. It is not the players who have politicized the field; it is the National Football League that has done this.

By demanding players be on the field, in a camera-ready line, for the National Anthem the League is turning the field into a place where politics happen. Just like schools cannot require students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the League should not be allowed to require players be on the field, standing for the National Anthem. Requiring that players be present for a political activity—the playing of the Anthem—injects politics where they should not be.

And let's be real, here. The NFL uses the National Anthem as a marketing tool. In the wake of 9/11 it was a way to express their patriotism and support for a country left reeling. And the NFL is no fool--it knows that patriotism sells tickets. The League made a crass decision to use the National Anthem as a marketing tool. The League brought politics right out onto the field.

And once the League did that, the players had every right to do the same.

There is a simple solution: Stop making the playing of the National Anthem part of what players are expected to participate in. It has NOTHING to do with why they are hired and why they get paid. Why is it part of their job description? In what other area of life is the National Anthem played before you are allowed to do your job? NONE.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

It's a Man Thing

Now I want all the men on Facebook and Twitter who have ever sexually harassed or assaulted a woman to post that fact as their status. It could be something like “I’m one” or “I did it.”

The only thing is, the numbers would not add up.

It would not be because the millions of women posting “Me too” are lying. It would be because many men don’t even get why the things they do are wrong. I do not say this to dismiss the unwanted come-ons, the vague innuendo during business trips, the joking/not joking comments in the break room, the unwanted physical contact throughout the day, the un-asked-for confessions of attraction or love from a boss or co-worker. All of these things cross a line that should not be crossed.

Being a man, I can say with certainty that many men do not see these actions as a problem. They view their words and actions as a compliment to their female co-workers.

Clearly men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump are in a different league. They do what they do because they have all the power and taking what they want is something they have come to believe is their right. They are blinded by their own overblown sense of self into thinking “what woman wouldn’t want my penis in her mouth?”

These men will never be educated away from their actions. The only thing to do with them is to call them out loudly and publicly and press charges and hope they go to jail. Anyone they work for should fire them. Anyone who buys their products should find an alternative.

The obvious question now is “How do we make this stop?”

By “we” I mean “men.” This is not a woman problem. Women are not the ones sexually harassing and assaulting other women in the workplace. I KNOW there will be people who cite examples of female bosses behaving terribly in order to deflect blame from men, but I do not have time for the “women do it to” argument. It is a bullshit argument. This is a man problem, plain and simple.

I have a hard time imagining my Dad pinching a woman’s ass at the office. I cannot picture him touching someone’s leg during a business meeting. I certainly can’t see him demanding sexual favors before hiring or promoting a woman. (I may simply be naïve and he may have done all of these things…if he did, I would have to question everything I think I know about him.)

Most of the men I know do not harass or assault women. But clearly there are a LOT of men who do. If there weren’t, my Facebook feed would not contain a relentless list of “me too”s. For each man that harasses a co-worker there must a few men who witness it or suspect it and don’t say or do anything to stop it. Just remaining an innocent bystander is not enough. Men have to find the will to say “That is wrong. Don’t do that.”

Men need to speak up when they hear other men degrade or debase women, even if there are no women there to be offended----Especially if there are no women there to be offended.

Fathers, uncles, grandfathers, older brothers, and all men who care need to actively call other men out when they say and do harassing and belittling things about and to women. And we should NOT do this because we have a mother or a wife or a girlfriend or a daughter that we love. If the only reason we take a stand is because it affects someone we love, then that is weak. We should do this because it is wrong to harass anyone, and men who harass women need to hear that from other men.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

I'm a Ginger Person

Ginger is sick. And it’s not the kind of sick that gets better.

I can go through long stretches of my day not acknowledging this fact. But I know it is there, following me around. Patient. Just waiting to punch me in the gut again, like it does every day at some point.

Sometimes the punch comes early in the morning when I hear her get off of her dog mattress and walk to my side of the bed in the dark. She puts her face right up next to mine and waits for me to reach out and rub her ears. We start most days exactly like this.

Other days the punch comes when we are out for a morning walk at Cass Park. Ginger loves to be off-leash on a parcel of land that lies between the marina and the lakeshore. She runs like a puppy and her ears flop behind her in the wind and it is clear that she is as happy as any creature has ever been.

Once in a while, I’ll feel it when I am at work and I imagine that first time I’ll come home at the end of the day and she won’t be there…

Ginger is the first dog I have ever liked. People assume that because we have two dogs and because I love Ginger that I am a Dog Person. This is not true. I am a Ginger person. She is one of the kindest, sweetest, most patient and forbearing individuals I have ever met. Her eyes are deep and brown and soulful. When things are dark for me, sitting with Ginger helps me find calm and peace and even hope. I count her among my very best friends and I say that with all sincerity.

As Ginger’s illness has played out, there has been a long stretch of great days where nothing seems wrong at all. I am thankful for these days. Ginger seems very happy. And knowing that this won’t be the case much longer makes it easier for me to slow down, to clear my mind, and to give Ginger what she needs---which is usually just a liiiiiittle more loving.

Rather than waiting until Ginger is gone and writing a eulogy for her, I wanted to post this appreciation now, while she is still here and happy. She’ll never know the difference, but somehow it makes me feel a little better to write about my girl.