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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Welcome To The Hinterlands

Just a very brief note to share while I’m settling into a hotel for a couple days: as my bus was winding its way through the Catskills on its way to my hotel, we passed a white farmhouse with a workshop/carpentry business operating out of the ground floor.  I did a take when I saw a sign out front proclaiming one of their offerings:

AMISH GUN CABINETS

I just wanted that on record.

Fleeing For The Hills

So I have honestly been trying to do one post a week in here.  However, between the nation, my job, and my friends’ lives going nuts (let’s just put it this way – at one point I was doing Googling for emergency medical services located in a completely different continent), I need to shut up and run away and hide.

Cue more Googling trying to find some kind of hotel somewhere decent only two days before Labor Day weekend that won’t cost me a year’s pay per night and actually have available rooms.

Fortunately I found a place that’s in the middle of nowhere in the Catskills, which is quickly becoming my go-to for “I need to get out of town” escapes – it’s relatively accessible even for someone without a car, there’s a decent amount of things to do, and even if all I want to do is stare into the distance whimpering slightly – which is probably what I’m going to be doing here – at least the view is pretty.

Plus the hotel I found has free wi-fi and a pool.

 

Removed

I had a conversation with my mother once about how she felt on September 11, 2001.  I was living right smack in the middle of everything, but she was safely out on Cape Cod, about to enjoy a beautiful day. I actually managed to catch her before she saw the news, so the very first thing she was aware of was that I was somewhere safe; I was at home when the news broke, and immediately started calling family and farflung friends to tell them “Hi – the first thing you should know is that I’m fine. But something happened….” 

Mom says that she took that call and then hung up with me, and then looked outside at the cloudless sky  and perfectly peaceful street, and at some point went for a walk on the beach nearby, and the whole time was thinking how surreal it was to know that something so chaotic was happening somewhere else, and that someone she knew was seeing it, but where she was everything was just perking along and everything was normal. She even went to the hairdresser’s that day – she had an appointment, and couldn’t think what else she should do but just go ahead and keep it – and blurted out to the hairdresser while she was sitting in the chair that “you know, my daughter’s in New York right now,” and they were talking about how weird it was to know that was going on, but to not actually be seeing it.  It just felt so…removed and helpless.

I’ve been watching the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri this week with a sense of that same helplessness.  New York was already a bit raw in the wake of a similar home-grown incident; a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, died one week previously under eerily similar circumstances. But Mayor De Blasio and the NYPD seem to be taking the incident much more seriously, promising an investigation into officer training and into criminal charges against police officer Daniel Pantaleo. (Tellingly, they also made no effort to hide Pantaleo’s name from the press.) So New York did a lot of things right – things which Ferguson did wrong, so at times the news feels like some chilling Goofus-and-Gallant morality tale.

But I’m still hearing accounts of the protests on Twitter and watching the livestreams and seeing tanks roll into Ferguson and seeing them fire tear gas and hearing people say that they’re just trying to get home and the police aren’t letting them and hearing about how Mike Brown most likely had his hands up when he was shot and seeing the CNN anchorwoman wonder why the police don’t use water cannons and hearing people shouting at each other and…and I look out my window and New York’s just being New York, with the occasional traffic sounds and tourists getting confused and people walking dogs and sunbathing in Central Park and getting brunch at the local gastropub on the weekend, and I’m feeling that same sense of “this doesn’t match.”  I want to do something, I see the news and want to run out and grab the arm of a Ferguson police officer and beg them stop please think about what you’re doing, but if I run out the door I’ll only run into the little girls who live on the second floor and who like to play on the stoops and pretend they’re pirate queens.

So I just don’t know what to do.

There are plenty of people who’ve said that simply speaking about things helps; talking about how you feel, making sure people are aware of what’s happening.  But even here I feel removed, as I’ve never grown up under the thumb of racism. Not only am I white, I’m New England white, with one of the most Anglo-Saxon of names you can find outside actual peerage lists. Sure, I can say that I was “raised to be color-blind” or any one of a thousand lame platitudes, but what the hell good does that do in the face of what’s happening? One person being raised to actually live up to a basic level of human decency doesn’t do anything to help people being treated indecently – not just indecently, but cruelly and unfairly. So even here I feel like anything I say won’t make a damn bit of difference.

There’s a part of me that wants to remove myself even further, to sink back into watching Doctor Who reruns and Ice Bucket Challenge videos or whatever. But that would only help me, that wouldn’t help anyone else.  And truth be told, maybe it wouldn’t help me very much either.

So I’m left with that sense of disconnect that you get when you know something is wrong, very very wrong, but you can’t see it clearly enough or hear it clearly enough to point out to everyone else and say “ah-hah!  Here!” and have them all join you in fighting it.  All I can do, I guess, is keep as aware as I can, tell my truth as clearly as I can, and speak up when I feel I can. Even about how that still feels so weak.

But maybe that’s the point.

Robin, John, and Me (Sending Out Our S.O.S.)

About twelve hours ago as I write this, Robin Williams died.

The news is rippling its way through the Internet fault lines – one blessing and curse about social media is how easy it is for bad news to spread. Most people are posting their shock and sorrow – remembering his films, posting quotes. One wag on Twitter also said “I feel like the Internet right now is the world’s biggest and saddest group hug.”

Some people, too, are quietly talking about the cause of his death; it was a suicide, most likely. Robin Williams’ representatives have confirmed that he’s been suffering from a major depressive episode lately. And here, too, a lot of the Twitterverse and the Facebookers are posting links to suicide hotlines and depression counselling services, urging people to treat themselves more kindly.

Even more quietly, a few are saying that they saw hints of the demon that ultimately got Robin. For all he talked, they’ve pointed out, have you noticed that…there’s a lot of things he didn’t say?  His episode of Inside The Actors Studio was long, and he discussed much – but if the questions got too close, he would go off on an improv riff and distract us. In a podcast with Mark Maron earlier this year, somewhere during the last ten minutes he starts talking about facing mortality, and caught himself thinking “eh, fuck life,” and he talks about some suicidal thoughts he’d had – but then he and Maron start riffing on San Francisco vs. Los Angeles and spin more jokes and skip away from the topic. And one of the clips I’ve seen tonight was from when he was in the play Bengal Tiger In The Baghdad Zoo, where he plays the ghost of a tiger.  (It makes sense in context.) In one of his monologues, the tiger is discussing his shock at finding himself still haunting the world after death; “Tigers are atheists,” he begins.  But he ends by repeatedly asking, “Why am I still here?  Why am I still here?” And tonight I heard something in that question I’d missed before.

For all he gave us, there was a lot he didn’t share. And not sharing that ultimately got too heavy.  Except sometimes he let some of that out, and that’s when the best art came out. We just didn’t know the specifics because he found a way to spin that pain into other things. But it’s like he said – through someone else’s words – in Good Will Hunting:

You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that, do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.

Every time he got close to say the whole truth of who he really was, he got terrified of what he might say, and backed away.

But sometimes letting that truth come out in your art is what you need to do; it’s something, in fact, that I’m realizing I need to do myself.

In his own episode of Actors Studio, someone asked John Cusack for advice on really digging deep and putting the most of one’s self into their art. And his answer struck me:

Well, anything that’s interesting […] all your passion, your sex, your anger, your rage, all that, comes from that part of you that you want to hide and push away […] And most people try not to feel all those dark things. We [as artists] have to go feel them, but its an opportunity too. That’s what I do, I just try to remember that the part of you that’s going to do a good job is the part of you you want to most deny.

At the time, I was at a stuck point with my writing. I was doing a lot, sure, but getting burnt out – I was writing a lot of articles, mainly, and was slowly watching whatever I’d had that once had passed for a voice starting to ebb away. I’d gone back and reread some of my old journals, and would be struck by the images and language I’d used in the past – but then turned to the present and would despair at how lifeless and bloodless it sounded in comparison.

What John said stayed with me a long while, mainly because of how right it felt. The work I’d done before was risky and strange – and now I was playing it safe.  I was talking about things outside myself, rather than talking about me.  And that shadow side – the stuff that I wanted to deny – was getting buried deeper and deeper again, and with it went the voice that made me unique.

And that scared me a little. Granted, the thought about opening up scared me a little more – I tried to think about something really risky to write about, to try to force myself into opening up, but all I could think to write was porn and that seemed a bit like overkill. So why had I started closing down in the first place?

And after a while I started realizing that it was an old demon – the belief that no one was listening so why bother.

I was pretty flamboyant in junior high. There’s a picture of me at age 13, dressed up for Halloween as a clown with face all done up in Bozo makeup, and I’m mugging extravagantly for the camera, next to my friend Lisa who is just standing there sedately in a baby costume.  There are other pictures of me with my best friends pulling all sorts of zany comic faces.  But round about age fourteen, that starts fading.  I start turning up in pictures less and less altogether as well.

And that’s also when a lot of the music I listened to seemed to follow a theme.  I listened to a lot of Genesis and The Police then, but I’ve noticed that my particular favorites all followed a theme of sorts:

“Talk to me, you never talk to me/Ooh, it seems that I can speak/ I can hear my voice shouting out/But there’s no reply at all….

“Looking everywhere at no one, he sees everything and nothing at all/When he shouts, nobody listens, where he leads, no one will go…”

“Just a castaway, an island lost at sea/Another lonely day with no one here but me/More loneliness than any man could bear/Rescue me before I fall into despair….”

On one hand, that sounds straight out of the moody-teenager nobody-understands-me playbook.  But in my case, it was a little more subtle – I wasn’t being mocked for what I thought, or bullied or picked on.  …I actually wasn’t getting much of any feedback at all.

It actually wasn’t quite so bad as all that – I was getting plenty of praise from teachers about classwork, and plenty of praise at home. But schoolwork was something I could rattle off easily – I wanted feedback on the more personal, serious things I was writing. That was the real me. And I wanted the feedback from people who weren’t family or teachers; they had to like me, I thought.  My friends, and strangers, and other classmates….they didn’t have to.

Once in a blue moon I caught people’s attention. There was the anti-nuke movie Krishna and I wrote our senior year, which somehow actually got reviewed by our local paper’s entertainment editor. I remember being tremendously grateful that he didn’t pull any punches, and discussed it as a serious work, even offering criticism of the weak spots.

But most of the time, the things I did and the things I said seemed to fall into a sort of vacuum.  I was part of the drama club, but I was left out on the periphery of a knot of kids that were all in each others’ pockets all the time and always got all the good parts.  They were too busy with their own drama as well, and my little bids for their attention often went unnoticed….and that’s when I started fading from pictures, and started listening to Phil Collins and Sting sing about lonely men on corners and on islands and how I was talking but no one was listening.

College reversed that a while. I was in a new crowd, showing my writing to different people who actually said things about it and commented on it and asked questions, and even if the things they had to say were bad, I didn’t care because holy shit they’re acknowledging I spoke in the first place. And that sustained me for years – I kept writing, people kept reading things, and offering feedback. A short story I wrote even once got into the hands of Leon Uris, after I’d been his assistant during the workshop of a play; he called me after reading it and rather than offering some mild head-patting, he actually talked shop with me for a half hour.  He said something about how I was unafraid to look at the shadow side of things, and that was a compliment that sustained me for years afterward.

That shadow side Lee said I was unafraid to look at is the same shadow side that John Cusack talked about, and the same shadow that Robin Williams tried to cover up in his work.  So I’m not afraid of it.

The problem then, instead, is that I’m afraid no one else wants to hear it.

I had a doofy Livejournal blog back in the day, and it was pretty lively for a while. But then….the comments started slacking off. And with it went my excitement about posting.  Believe me, I know how irretrievably 90’s hipster that sounds – “oh woe is me no one is commenting on my Livejournal nobody likes me”.  But after having your say to the world, without any indication anyone’s listening, you start to wonder just what the point is.  The timing probably didn’t help either – I was also caught up in work with a theater company whose audience base was starting to falter as well, and “why are we bothering” was starting to get to be a refrain in the office.  And this was during the leadup to the 2003 Iraq War, during months and months of protests and more and more people trying to speak up about how we didn’t want there to be a war in the first place, only to have our protests ignored and the nation go into a war that is still going on over a decade later.

“Why bother, no one’s listening” was a theme for me for a long time.

But I can’t.  Not talking is going to kill me.  Not talking about the demons inside us will kill all of us. I have the luxury of this blog – I can, if I want, post anything at all here and speak my mind and know that anyone could come along and read it. I could get heard.  And if one of the things I have to say is a plea for help, that too could get heard.

However, knowing that I could get heard is different from knowing I am heard.  I’ve had this blog for a few months now, and while I can see people are lurking, I’ve only had a couple comments from you all.  I’m grateful you’re reading – but I also need to know you heard me.  Lest I start to think no one’s listening again, and I lapse back into that same silence again.

We all need to speak up. We all need to talk more about the side of ourselves we want to deny, like John Cusack said – we all need to speak up about the painful side of things, like Robin Williams tried to do. But we also need to talk back to the people who said something, so they know “I’m here, I’m listening.”

I quoted Message In A Bottle earlier – if you’ve heard it, you know the song ends with a hundred billion more messages coming back, Messages in a bottle all their own.  “Seems I’m not alone in being alone.”  Robin Williams was trying to send us out his own messages in a bottle; maybe he never got those back.  John Cusack sends his own out; he’s getting ones back.  I’m trying to send my own out now, more often.

I ask you all – please, send your own messages out, speak your own truth. Speak it in art if you need to, but speak it. And more importantly, when you hear someone speaking theirs, let them know you heard and are listening and are there.  The thoughts inside us all can eat us if we’re not careful – but speaking to a deaf world also hurts.  Let me know you’re there.  Let others know you’re there. Talk to someone yourself if you need to.  Let’s all help each other so we don’t lose anyone else too soon.

A Few Minutes’ Hate

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Well, sometimes you have to moan/When nothin’ seems to suit ya. 

– Cat Stevens

My last post reminded me of a fun afternoon from college.

It was a gloomy early spring Saturday, on a weekend before an exam. I was in my dorm room puzzling over something, when I heard someone talking out in the hall.  Actually, it was more like they were making a series of angry announcements. I looked out through the peephole.

My room was beside a room full of three freshman guys – they got feisty, but we were on generally good terms.  It was one of them out in the hallway, sitting alone on the floor with a book.  And now that I was closer I could hear – and see – that it was him speaking, making a series of complaints to the world at large.  “I hate chemistry!” he crabbed.  “I hate reading about carbon chains, I hate atomic weights, I hate memorizing different categories of elements, and I hate molecular fractions!”

Something made me want to join him.  “You know what I hate?” I said, opening the door.  He gave a guilty start, thinking I was about to complain.  So I quickly went on – “what I hate, is trying to keep straight all the different political theories driving Soviet foreign policy when we are in the middle of Glasnost anyway so it doesn’t matter.”

“Okay, here’s another thing I hate.” he closed the book and turned to me. “I hate how there’s ten of us in this chemistry class but they only have nine Ehrlenmeyer flasks so we have to share, and that is somehow our problem when we can’t complete lab work.”

“Oh, that’s like my Modern Drama class – they actually ran out of copies of the Antonin Artaud book that’s only got all the most important readings for this part of the course.”  I had come out to sit on the floor beside him at this point. “And my roommate’s boyfriend is in the class with me and said he’d loan it to me, but hasn’t finished yet, and the test is in three days.  I hate that.”

“Oh God, roommates – that’s why I’m out here, my roommate is taking a nap after his own midterm.  I hate roommates!”

“And I hate roommate’s boyfriends!”

“And roommate’s girlfriends!  And – oh, how the cafeteria is too loud to read in during meals, but they won’t let you in the space in between when it’s quiet so you have to sit out here in the hall!”

“Oh, God – I hate how they say that they’ve got study lounges on the second floor, but there’s all those guys watching basketball and they’re making so much noise…”

We sat there on the floor for a full hour, excitedly telling each other about more things that were just bugging the snot out of us.  We were near the elevators, so whenever the doors opened and someone stepped out we would turn to them with cheerful smiles.  “Hi!  We’re hating things!  What do you hate?”

The idea of a concentrated hate-off like that is frowned upon in some circles. Detractors point to the Two Minutes’ Hate from 1984, saying that dwelling in that much negativity just whips people up in to a frenzy and makes things worse.  But quite the opposite – my neighbor and I had been gritting our teeth and coping with a lot, and this was a way to give vent to it all.  The more we talked, the more we laughed.  And everything we were complaining about was all piddly little stuff – the tiny sand-in-the-sunscreen kind of stuff that you feel is too petty to complain about, but it really gets under your skin.

To be frank, I can’t actually remember what he was studying or what I was studying on that afternoon; but I absolutely remember that sometimes, once in a very great while, sitting around and hating things is just something you have to do.

Stuck

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I had every intent, when I went to the coffee shop after work today, to write about something else.  I went to Gowanus last week for the latest “Neighborhoods New York” project, and still need to write that up.

But I just couldn’t.  I tapped out a couple of desultory paragraphs and then sat, picking at a cupcake and watching a little girl on the sidewalk play with a scooter – she kept pushing it away from her, watching it roll up the sloped sidewalk towards the building, then watching it roll back down the slope and back towards her.  Her parents sat nearby, just talking; once in a while one would push her around on the scooter, but then would sit again, and she’d go back to pushing it up and down the sidewalk, all on its own.

My brain is emptied out from a recent article, and I’m waiting to hear about another.  I’m also playing a game of “prescription grab bag” with my doctor, trying to figure out how to quell the allergies I’ve got that are acting up; the latest prescription is actually making things worse, and I’ve been breathing and thinking through a low-level sinus headache all day.

At some point I watched my roommate pass by on the opposite sidewalk, his bright orange shirt catching my eye as he set out on a run.  He got into the habit during a recent vacation, he said, and is trying to keep up the momentum.  He’s way better at an exercise routine than I.

Clearly I couldn’t write about the Gowanus tonight.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. As soon as I put it away, telling myself I’d come back to it later, I started thinking about writing what you’re reading now; maybe at the end of the day, all that matters is that I write something.  Even on days when the words stick coming out.

At least they’re here.  At least I’m used to making them more regularly.  And some days that’s all you can do.