the near side
i am my mother’s son
she calls for
she calls at
what was easy
now at rest and not at peace
she reveals conspiracies that i know not of
in which i am intimately involved
i am becoming an unwilling warrior
idle of body feverish of mind
far side near
choice subjected to inertia
inertia becomes the boy
I think of Joanne as my second acting teacher. Skip, the first. Really, though, she co-taught that first class – Shakespeare – right along with him. That first class about acting that changed the course of my life in inexplicable and lasting ways; lessons that go on informing what moves me, and orienting me in the presence of critical decision points all these years later. When not knowing is an insufficient alternative, the choice that gets made might, if we could trace such things, very well wind back through relationships and neurons and labyrinths of previous choices, back and back to adolescent experiences during six short weeks in summer of 1988.
Skip enjoys pride of place in my memory because his teachings were overt. The exercises and explanations spoke largely to who we were already. He knew how to have fun while imparting knowledge to us. His teaching felt seamless; a natural extension of our identities. Joanne, however, aimed her work at who we were expected to become. Namely, self-directed performers responsible for our own growth on stage and, more, our meaningful communion with others. She wasn't about fun, and we were all terrified of her because of it. Learning from her felt like work. She generated within each of us something akin to the trying relationship that a reptile might feel for its body as it sheds dry, clinging, catching skin.
Part of the resistance surely was that her activities felt obscure; minimally connected to playing a character. What I know now is that she was encouraging us to engage something far more complicated than a fictional being. Joanne was getting each of us to grapple with a self: the deep core and wellspring beneath truly purposeful acting. She was trying to show us how to pose useful questions, and to creatively provoke our hearts and minds.
So there we all stood one warm afternoon, in a circle in a darkened classroom. The chair-desks used as a matter of course for conventional classes during the school year now all shoved and stacked at the margins. The only light coming from the sun, but filtered through a canopy of leaves and then diminished by tinted windows before reaching our strange ceremony. We were supposed to keep our eyes shut. Nobody was doing that very well, thanks to equal parts defiance and boredom. Whalesong echoed as clearly as it could from two meager speakers attached to a boom-box at the periphery. Besides not peeking, our objective was to join the haunting echolocation with the hum of our own voices. We weren't charged with anything as complicated as matching pitch or following rhythm. “Just sing with them.”
I don't know how I slipped from trying to conform to my peers' mockery of the moment, to keeping my eyes persistently shut. I'm not sure in what second my jaw dropped and allowed breath to carry my voice unhindered into the space. But at some moment I joined, and the floor and the walls and buildings around the walls and the few young years that accident upon accidental happening brought me to this place and nothing short of time itself…it all bent and then gave way. And maybe I breathed for the first time since I'd stopped breathing, as humans do when they acquire language. Now I had breath and a language both. I took the one in deeply and let the other out readily, without suppressing – without forcing – either direction.
As my heart rose up, my body stumbled with wooziness. I puzzled at my clammy palms and humid brow; my arteries pumping forcefully into my ears. Yet my eyes remained dark and my voice available up above, until the moment that my legs began to crumple down below. Destined for the cool floor. But I didn't hit the floor. Joanne, who in my recollection could have been doing nothing other than anticipating my collapse, caught me. She pressed a bottle of water into my hand and, whispering so as not to contradict the whalesong, instructed me to sit and drink.
Thereafter, when my teenage cohorts complained about the worthlessness of Joanne's time with us, I said nothing. Skip charmed me with his endless passion. But Joanne earned my respect with her conviction. Although I think of the former first when thinking about my life with in theatre, in truth they are together my first teacher.
Little doubt that I am under siege. Yes. There can be no doubt about it at all. Several small ants are wandering around on my front step just outside the door. Not dozens. Definitely not hundreds. There is no line back to some dark and miniature cavern. Just a few black, segmented bodies crawling in random directions. Making ostensibly unmotivated turns, like spies when their target catches a glimpse of them on the street. Bursting briefly with just a little too much artificial effort. Trying for a split second to blend back into the world that they set themselves apart from while waiting. But these ants are not spies. They are scouts.
When I am in my kitchen, thirty feet away but behind two walls and the door, these scouts know it and set up their bulbous physiques like homing beacons. In the kitchen, not that far away, I cook. Sometimes I bake, which inevitably calls for sugar. To make zucchini bread, say. Or basil lime cookies. It is possible to make some of these delicacies without sugar, I suppose. But then I would probably let them sit on the counter, waiting for the first signs of mold so that I could discard them in the garbage. So. Sugar.
Working with sugar never goes as well as one hopes it will. That is to say: perfectly. The transfer from the sugar container to the measuring cup – level, mind you, since baking is a more exact science than cooking generally – and into the mixing bowl is fraught with all manner of obstacles. During the mixing, too, it is probable that the electric mixer or the wooden spoon will throw particles away from the bowl. More! Once absorbed into the milk or egg matter or butter, the sugar becomes undetectable as a discreet substance. And when the inescapable happens…when fate takes hold of the pouring or blending process…when gravity and momentum and trajectories all conspire against the well-intentioned amateur chef…at that moment sugar, solid or liquified, lands on a surface which it was never intended to be on. At that moment – and it cannot be doubted – little black scouts thirty or so feet away all recalibrate their bodies so as to line up facing a common endpoint. I’m fairly certain they raise their posterior thirds up to help.
As quickly as I can in those moments, I swipe up the sugar with a wet sponge and thoroughly dry the area (the sponge must be rinsed and the paper towel placed in a lidded receptacle if the contamination is to be contained and the residual sweetness fully removed from the air). So far I have been swift enough. The scouts don’t seem to have made much headway. But I suspect they are learning, and that eventually this siege will become a full-blown attack. Perhaps I would do better to reckon with the mold.
I really do love to cook. It has long been one of my favorite activities. From designing a set of complementary recipes to selecting ingredients from the grocery store shelves…from breaking down the parts with cutlery to assembling new wholes with heat…from sipping wine while cooking to sitting down for the first bite. Cooking welcomes contemporary innovation while leaning on ancient wisdom. It does more than forgive accidents. Sometimes it embraces them as the next delicious idea. It calms anxiety. It exhilarates the senses. It dares the imagination and sometimes it tests the belly. Cooking is everyday magic.
For a while now I have thought that the greatest thing someone could invent would be an olfactory camera. Imagine being able to capture aromas as easily as we capture images and send them off to a loved one. I have been at pains to explain to my mother over the phone the splendid and complex smells escaping from a pan full of curry-spiced apples and lamb shanks, which have been simmering long enough to have the meat loosening from the bone. Or, simply, the invisible waves of ambrosia yeast and flour as they recombine in a 475-degree oven. How wonderful it would be to vacuum up a capsule-full of those scents and ship them off to tempt other noses.
Despite this passion, each afternoon – I’d say right around 3:00pm – I find myself longing for happy hour food. Yesterday it was artichoke dip and pita chips from Gold Dust Meridian. Today it’s a ridiculously oversized pile of nachos from Matador. Tomorrow it might be a build-your-own-burger from Club 21. (I shall not link to the respective sites, so as to preserve one more hurdle between you and your own downfall into happy hour gluttony.) These lures are salty, fatty, and all too easy at the end of an exhausting day. And most of them are accompanied by your choice of discounted alcohol, which makes most people expert at rationalizing poor choices.
So tonight, in the presence of Beulahland’s full bar, as plate of sliders flies casually by destined for a nearby table, and an assortment of pies stares out at me from a refrigerated case…tonight I shall resist. I’m going to spin up a batch of pesto, add it to some penne pasta, and toss in a few sautéed scallops. Some crudités with white bean dip beforehand. Hand-buttered garlic bread alongside. A glass of Chardonnay that I pour myself. Maybe two. And tomorrow I’ll wage mental war on tater tot night.
I saw a middle-aged man today pressing down hard with his elbow on the edge of his car’s hood. He was wearing a brown shirt decorated with patches, like a boy scout, but too old for that. The car was long and angular and black. He probably bought it when he was in his thirties. Maybe that’s when he got the shirt, too. As my bike approached and then passed him and his car, I could see what he was trying to do. The hood had been somehow compressed, so that it buckled and pulled away from the frame. He was trying to straighten it out with his weight. It wasn’t working, and he gave up. I thought to stop and say, “I saw how that happened to your car.” But I didn’t. I never tell any fun lies like that anymore.
It’s not inconceivable that I eat too much mayonnaise. Especially when nobody is looking.
I don’t smoke. But once, in the middle of a run, I stopped and asked a smoker on a corner if I could bum a cigarette. He lit me up. I ran off down the street sucking on the cigarette and hacking. I was wearing tight red shorts with a yellow stripe down the side. Just like a Chinese Olympian.
People who hate their jobs should stay up much later at night than they do to read and watch movies and distill gin. They should write poetry in small apartment chambers, pretending that they are Emily Dickinson. They should think about how Edgar Allan Poe died, and imagine him coughing violently with his head next to the curb. They should work with tattoo artists to paint their walls as well as their bodies, despite the landlord’s prohibitions. They should rouse their sleeping friends, who do like their jobs, on the phone. And in person if it comes to that. Then give their worst energy to the daytime hours just to see if the American Dream comes true anyway.
If you have plantar warts, an x-acto blade is the way to go.