Monday, August 23, 2010
Thursday, August 19, 2010
When I was in the sixth grade I was Charlie Brown in the play You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. It was actually a musical but the cast was not required to sing. In a misunderstanding of my request to sing a part, I was given a song that was grossly higher than my range. Though nervous and lacking confidence I managed to get through my two (or three...hard to recall) performances and the adults were kind enough not to be honest with respect to my vocal prowess.
The experience was as memorable then as it is now. An old scrapbook maintains a picture of the cast and I have been grateful to have found some of them via Facebook.
If you have never experienced acting you are missing out on one of life's great rushes. That is if you can get beyond the thought of having people observe you with the high expectation of being entertained, which can be a monumental task. There is a nakedness about performing, which demands a denial of self. Surely you have heard actors speak of "knowing the character" and "becoming the character". The thought of displaying something which is not us can almost be unnatural.
This past school year my friend Josh asked me to be a guest speaker for the newly formed Philosophy Club at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. It had been a considerable amount of time since I had actually read, much less done, any "real" philosophy. With joy and anxiety I exposed Nietzsche and Philosophy of Mind to the students. What I didn't know that this would also serve as a gateway back to the stage.
Josh is an incredibly talented writer and we had gotten together the summer before the school year to hash out some ideas. He was wanting to write a play. Roughly 10 months later, and thanks to some of the discussions and topics in the Philosophy Club, Josh was asking me about a play focusing on self. "The Creationists", he would come to call it, would take place from a literary perspective, in which characters would have dialogue with their narrator and eventually would seek definition independent of the "other".
Heidegger. Kierkegaard. Sartre. Camus. My heart was beating considerably faster and would almost stop when Josh asked me to play the Narrator.
The remainder of the cast would be populated by students Josh knew from Douglas Anderson. It is at this point where the humility began to take hold. There have been many events in my life in which adults would assume a level of authority and knowledge over kids simply because they were adults, even when it was obvious the kids were more educated. That I felt inferior to my surroundings gave me a small sense of pride, a rare moment when you see good in yourself.
Time would pass, there would be script changes and more characters were eventually added. I would come to befriend these gifted teenagers and found myself observing their mannerisms and approach to craft. When we had our first staged reading I was but a voice from behind the stage. The others sat on bar stools, in front of the crowd...as it should be.
What was so compelling at that time was the number of people who came to Bollero's just to watch us read this play. Teachers, parents, friends and students, all in support of Josh and these young actors. I was experiencing the arts in real time. With real emotion. It wasn't a theory in a book or a review on the internet. It wasn't a crowded theater amongst the pretentious and the commoner. These were people who lived the idea that art matters and through participation the world is better.
After considering the comments given during the reading, Josh began to rewrite for an actual staged production. This would require us to actually act out the play while holding the script in hand.
I would like to point out two significant elements of the process which moved me. First, the way in which Josh opened himself up to the criticism was so admirable and new. It is something you must do to create and it is at this point I realized it takes a confident person to disrobe the way he did. The credit too goes to the audience in that all words were constructive and done out of love for Josh and the work itself.
Second was Josh's willingness to change. Once rewritten, the entire piece, though holding onto certain elements, had a newness about it. So much that upon reading the two drafts you might think they were distinct plays. It is a selflessness to entertain rather than demanding acceptance of the "me".
Put into uncomfortable or new situations I have a tendency to be vocal and joke, probably beyond what is acceptable. One could go as far as to say I can be offensive. This is one of those moments when you see the bad in yourself. To their credit, and maybe it is because I am at heart immature, the students embraced this 42 year old stranger.
Though being entertained and disruptive in opposition to Josh's want of order, I had quiet concern that my line delivery and stage awareness was making the actors and my writer question my participation.
When asked the replies were supportive but I felt lied to.
The day of the show I ran through my lines, trying to get a better feel for the character. If you have not picked up on it, I was now to be on stage. This meant knowing were to be and when to be there. That Saturday prior I had failed every time to nail my locations. However, by showtime, and after a quick run through, Josh complimented me on my progress and I could tell his faith was restored.
At Douglas Anderson they have this room called a black box. It is here where we would perform. The dimensions of the room seemed to be a perfect square. There were curtains on three of the four walls, with the back wall being the only one which you could actually move while behind the curtains. The last wall was fronted by a riser with roughly eight rows for which you could put 10 chairs per row.
I am guessing with these figures. What I can present as fact is that it was standing room only.
It is in this black box that they practice their acting. Anything more than that I cannot, with any true knowledge, convey. The box was foreign land. What I do know is the lights stay on and it is hot.
Being the first on stage and to speak found me lonely and failing as my first few lines were jagged and weak. But confidence came, both from within and from cast, and I left the stage floating. There was laughter and emotional silence. At the end the ovation was loud and we were all smiling. None more than Josh who had just observed those he entrusted with his creation, convey it in a manner which made him proud.
Four days later and I am still emotional just thinking about the positive reviews. But more than that were the moments shared with these teenagers and Josh. People dedicated to creating. How proud their parents must be of them. I watched as they hugged, laughed and ran about the room as if the award for best something had just been won.
The irony of the black box was not lost on me. This space, absent of natural light and dark as an empty universe was not lonely and limiting like a prison cell. It wasn't a space we went into so to hide from the world. It was the exact opposite: more like a birthing room where nothing but love and joy were allowed to reside. I literally felt changed. I felt baptized.
Monday, August 9, 2010
My recollection of this event from schooling is one of cold facts. Time. Date. Location.
What I learned this evening was varied and great. For the U.S. it ranged from graphic details of how hard the Japanese fought, to a willingness to underestimate loss of life for the sake of a battle plan. The other side depicted the arrogance of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, to the general ignorance of the common Japanese citizen with respect to what their rulers were doing.
(The latter is consistent with what my college German professor told me regarding the actions of the Nazis during WW2. She was a young child during Hitler's control and from her experience there was a lack of awareness as to how the Jews were being treated.)
The European Theater has always been more interesting to me due to my fascination with how Hitler achieved power. However, watching American soldiers speak of their horrors from battling the Japanese peaked my interest in the Pacific campaign. Stories telling of the need to kill prisoners, the smell of the dead rotting in the sun and the overwhelming causalities from Kamikaze pilots laid a foundation for Truman's eventual decision.
For many the question of whether it was needed will forever be debated. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the most part, did not want to invade Japan due to the high casualty count. Information they obtained painted Japan as a nation preparing civilians to defend the homeland, further complicating strategy and endangering American soldiers.
The Japanese civilian casualties, which included immediate and eventual death from the bomb, was estimated up to 170,000. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later would kill an estimated 80,000. Had the U.S. invaded, the expectation was that casualties on both sides could have totaled at a minimum 1,000,000 people.
War is not moral. One thing that stood out amongst all the information was the explanation surrounding why they could not take prisoners. Unlike being on a continent, the islands in the Pacific had limited storage and therefore you could not leave the enemy in a protected location. In turn you could not let them go as they would rejoin their troops.
The situation was kill or be killed and watching these old men speak of what had to be done to survive disclosed a duality of joy from surviving against regret for acts they had to perform. It further reminded me just how much easier it is to kill without seeing the face of your enemy.
George Berkin wrote an interesting article about his trip to Hiroshima, Japan during this anniversary some years back. In it he speaks of Japan's seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their level of culpability regarding why these bombs were dropped. An excerpt:
Even now, the museum reflects a continuing attitude of a denial toward Japan’s culpability in starting the war. In his Aug. 6 message last year, posted on the museum’s web site, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba avoids any mention that Japanese actions may have brought on the bombing of his city.
The mayor’s message this year continues that theme, saying the victims were attacked “without understanding why.” Perhaps those who perished were not aware of the full facts of the war, but today’s survivors (as well as the Japanese public at large) should be.
Japan continues to downplay or ignore its role in starting the war, and its invasions of China, Manchuria, Korea and many other Asian nations. More than 15 million people died as a result of Japanese aggression.
Japanese school textbooks continue to give an inaccurate portrayal of Japanese aggression during the war, including the Rape of Nanking. As a result of the nation’s refusal to deal forthrightly with its wartime actions, Japan’s neighbors remain wary and at odds with that nation.
He goes on to make the point that if 3,000,000 people could have died, the loss of life from the two bombs is justified. A difficult argument for many to swallow, but if the context is that there will be deaths regardless, surely minimizing the number would be the best course.
I think this debate is a distraction and unfortunately, as was noted in the documentary, "There are pictures to show the affect of the bomb on the Japanese. There are no pictures showing all those who survived."
History states that the U.S. dropped leaflets on the cities so their residents were aware something was coming. Still, the dropping of the bomb was itself without warning. Shouldn't the question center around whether sufficient actions were taken to ensure the civilian casualties would be minimized? With the wealth of information available surely I'm not the first to ask this question and I hope to find at least a debate as to the answer.
But even after hearing the stories and the justifications. Even after reading accounts by American and Japanese academics\laymen, I can't help but consider the accountability of the leaders above all other points.
For example, had General Douglas MacArthur gotten his way, the American's would have followed through his plan for a ground attack. The documentary noted that MacArthur's ego played too much of a role, thereby ignoring the potential catastrophic loss of life. On the other side you had the Japanese Emperor. So absorbed with the idea of Japan's power and prominence that he would basically offer his entire nation to die.
From being lead as a child by our parents we move through teachers, employers and even friends. Trust is such an elemental role in life and for anyone who has been in the military you know that trust is an inherent part of being a soldier. Your hope, either tacit or active, is that your leader is able to maintain a "philosopher king" mentality so to save you from unnecessary harm. I do not envy those who had to weigh the loss of life in deciding to drop these bombs. The U.S. soldiers can be grateful MacArthur didn't get his way. Japan was not so fortunate.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
The world assumes a different tilt when you look for the story behind every second that falls from the clock's face. My son has become a victim of this approach. He politely and patiently sits in the dark brown recliner while I share my thoughts on cause and effect, explaining that decisions we make directly or indirectly represent who we are. This leads into my excitement for his final three years of high school and the new experiences he (we) will encounter. With surgical comic precision he responds:"You do realize you aren't going back to school?".
The day has, thus far, consisted of My Boys, the end of American History X and now Jarhead. I am reminded of how much I enjoy the acting of Peter Saarsgard and Jake Gyllenhaal. Could it be something with the double letter last name connection? What I do know is Jarhead allows me to forgive Gyllenhaal for Prince of Persia.
While we know the hell that is our backyard awaits attention, and therefore the DVR will secure Jarhead for later consumption, there is difficulty moving from entertainment to responsibility. Evan, at least, has moved to the piano. I'd like to think my writing constitutes some form of progress.
Early on in the movie three things grabbed my attention. First, how happy would my wife be if I were as fit as Gyllenhaal? Hell, how happy would I be? Second, Saarsgaard's voice and stare manages to make the least significant dialogue seem fatally critical. Lastly, and more importantly, the significance of scene in which the soldiers depart the airplane after landing in Iraq.
The sequence begins with the soldiers watching a film on base. They are informed some will be shipping out to Iraq. We then see them sitting on a commercial airliner, in comfortable seats, being waited on by attractive flight attendants. As they disembark they pass by the flight attendants who tell them "Goodbye now. Good luck now."
In his book The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just War Theory, Daniel C. Maguire writes:
Adding to the dumbness here is the fact that in the Revolutionary War, the Americans took lessons from the Indians and adopted guerrilla tactics. As one New Englander wrote in 1677: "In our first war with the Indians, God pleased to show us the vanity of our military skill, in managing our arms, after the European mode. Now we are glad to learn the skulking way of war." The "skulking way of war" is precisely what we faced in Iraq and "the vanity of our military skill" is again revealed. We had forgotten the lessons learned in early America.How are we preparing our children? Too much entertainment permeates our days and the incidents of Saturday afternoon remind me of my guilt: my bloody hands. There are realities we try to mask and situations we hope will take care of themselves. From his comfortable chair my son wants a "good luck" from his father. He doesn't want to hear about battlefields that await him.
Why isn't arrogance listed as one of the top causes of death in America?
I am stupid because of my frustration as he casually dismisses me. That stupidity is compounded in my efforts to make these "lectures" more palatable. What lessons am I learning? With the wealth of information freely available I remain uneducated. With experiences presenting themselves daily I touch with the devil's hands. What I wouldn't give to "piss myself" from a challenging experience.
The lawnmower is now humming, first softly then louder, as Evan pushes it across the tall grass and weeds. I know it isn't his work ethic that has inspired his grooming of the landscape. He needs money for this evening's date.
Now the memory is stronger.
Weekends as a teenager spent in the blazing sun to earn money for prom. I went into it with a single purpose but eventually learned to take pride in my labor. For that I needed the experience, facilitated by a firm push from my parents.
Suddenly I am pushed. My wife, Kerry, asks how much longer Jarhead will be playing. I tell he it is almost over but that I am more focused on writing. She reminds me the day is slipping away from us and we have tasks needing attention. "I just need to get out of this hole." says a character from the television. Perfect timing.
Friday, August 6, 2010
The trip to Santa Cruz from San Francisco would go the route of Pacific Coast Highway. Being the only family member who had been out West, I had experienced this route but only in Southern California; from Oceanside to Huntington Beach. There was concern that my touting of the beauty would be lost on my wife and children considering my descriptiveness was not from direct experience. Once again my credibility was at risk.
Our lateness of arriving in Santa Cruz was a direct result of the many stops to photograph and experience this new landscape.
It is surely cliche to speak of the beauty painted by mountains and sea while driving the coast but coming upon Pacifica, CA you are struck by the majesty.
Coming over the hill you are welcomed by a small patch of beach which had a number of residents enjoying the surfers and sand.
My daughter and I took up residence on the wall separating sand from pavement, I coveting the skill of those in the water while she balanced, while my wife and son ventured into the oasis that was Taco Bell. Possibly the most architecturally beautiful Taco Bell I have ever seen, the aesthetics were overwhelmed by the pure function. Even a Florida resident knows how great is one's hunger after a day of physical, or less than physical, beach activities.
There seemed to be a great respect by those who would pass through its doors or address its pick-up window (for those with sandy feet) as both the inside and outside were very presentable. Though not photographed out of respect, on this day you could find a large Quaker family enjoying Bell eats on the deck overlooking the ocean. My son enjoyed his soft taco from a window seat inside.
My daughter would walk to water, experiencing the cold Pacific Ocean. We would talk about the varied cultural and economic backgrounds represented by wetsuit and board. Maybe I had put myself in a specific mood or maybe it was the atmosphere itself which prompted my state...I did not care. I lifted my daughter on my shoulders and allowed all senses to absorb what they may. "Could I live here?", I silently asked. Of those around me, I wondered who did. Leaving sure was hard.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
- Do you ever think about the music you hear while pumping gas? While in Santa Cruz I was graced with Robert Plant's Heaven Knows from his album "Now and Zen". A Zen moment indeed.
- When I got back in the car from fueling the classic radio station was broadcasting a show by Alice Cooper. He had just started playing U2's Gloria from "Boy". The Zen moment continued.
- I was told Santa Cruz (SC) was a hippie town. I knew going into the trip that San Francisco (SF) was a big homeless city so there was an expectation of folks begging for cash. It wasn't until we were boarding the BART on our last day that someone actually asked for money.
- An endless gripe I have is giving money to the homeless. I tell my children that institutions are in place that are paid for by tax dollars and other donations to ensure that they get help as opposed to getting direct money which may fuel their addiction(s). Furthermore, begging is not an occupation. That being said, in both SF and SC we saw many talented musicians trying to make a living on the streets. It was a great opportunity to give money to someone who at least was trying to "earn" it. They may still have used it on their addiction(s). I hope not.
- SC must be (and I'm guessing definitely is) a pedestrian friendly city. At no time did I ever see a car not yield for someone on foot or on a bike. Maybe there are strict laws requiring this. My direct experience was my long run for the week. I was on a four lane road and was at the cross walk...not in it. As I waited for traffic to thin, drivers who saw me standing on the sidewalk came to a complete stop so I could cross. Again, I WAS ON THE SIDEWALK. Not sure I'll ever see that in Jacksonville.
- I'm sure I am misquoting the bumper sticker but this is pretty close. "Be courteous. We are all trying to get somewhere." I think Josh McTiernan shared something close to this some time ago.
- The house we rented in SC was directly across from the beach and we were serenaded by crashing waves every evening. The house itself was roughly 1,300 sq ft and consisted of two separate buildings. It couldn't have been that much larger than the first place I lived with my wife down at Jacksonville Beach. Minimalism is a wonderful thing. Even my son commented that, though different, we could live like this.
- One night we spent at the SC Boardwalk which was a miniature amusement park (The Lost Boys was filmed there). Of the 5 hours we were there, and considering the cultural and economic mixture of attendees, there was not one altercation. More Zen moments.
- Widest bike paths I have ever seen in my life.