29 June 2012

Mrs Bridge

From a review in the Guardian by Joshua Ferris of a great and neglected novel: 
No doubt much of what oppresses Mrs Bridge is an unsustainable domestic condition. The generation of women after hers – that of her two daughters – would have more freedom, more opportunity, and more perspicacity. But as Connell pursues this "carbuncular presence", and as it becomes the great preoccupation of the book, deepening and expanding, like the exhalations of a crouching beast, we come to know it as something universal, harrowing, and irremediable: an existential fear, the sour taste of wasted life, the wild desire to rectify that waste. How does one prosper against the threat that one might be skimming over the years, ignorant of how life should have been lived, might be lived, must be lived? What shall I do? What shall I do?
There is no certain answer, and in this uncertainty, the ironic distance between Mrs Bridge and the reader is closed. We no longer see her as victim of one or another comical shock, an object of pity or ridicule, or a hopeless case of repression and neuroses. She is Meursault without the epiphany of atheism, Molloy without the solace of scatology, Dr Rieux without the nobility of resistance. She is a reflection of you and me, an exemplar of our shared humanity and all the terror and opportunity it so briefly provides – so necessary to seize, and so easy to squander. 

Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters

Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.
Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

27 June 2012



When I pulled my phone out from my bag, I had three messages from my daughter, calls just a few minutes apart. That's when I knew something was up. The thick arm of grey and brown smoke twisting over my neighborhood didn't seem as ominous as those three calls.

We'd been though a major wildfire only two years ago, and we were unscathed, unscorched and distant from the story. Smoke hung over everything then, too.  I rolled through the neighborhood, the light ocherous and pleasantly Satanic. A TV crew had set up in a parking lot of the local Montessori school. That also caught my attention, finally.

Through my daughter, I found out our neighborhood was on pre-evacuation status. This means you're supposed to be packed and ready to go on short notice. Perhaps very short notice. My mother also left a message, and my father called shortly afterwards. You forget the power of the TV news.

I like a crisis as much as the next man. Coincidentally, I'd just had a conversation with my daughter a few days ago about exactly this: what would you take with you from a burning house?

Easy: things you can't replace. Documents. And stuff you'd take on a short trip. But I didn't quite swing into action like a Roman general or a samurai or even a Scout Master. I looked west, in the direction of the fire. That told me nothing, but it didn't stop me or my neighbors from periodically peering through the smoke to see signs of danger or deliverance. A sudden hunger to go over to one of the people I'd never spoken with and start a conversation came over me. I regretted ignoring them, but then, I don't know how you break the ice these days in a place as self-conscious as mine. 

Still, as irrational as it was, I wanted some sort of social proof, a cue, even though I knew I could figure things out as well as they could. 

I went back into the house. The first wave was easy: negatives. Hard drives. Cameras and computers. My daughter asked that I grab her journals. My wife asked that I take her jewelry box and Hermès scarves. Passports, credit cards, bank and insurance information. Instruments. 

Truly irreplaceable items are few, when you get down to it. I'd like to have packed a few more things, but after all, you can buy nearly anything except your son's cartoons or your daughter's fifth-grade science project, or an early love poem  to the woman who's now your wife. (Did I write that? I guess I did.)

The house stank like the inside of a camp fire, but I found myself starting to dawdle.  Looking at the small pile of boxes and bags, I began to feel free. A large, silent part of me wanted to be shut of all the crap -- crap, I need to point out, that I bought, crap that I like pretty well and isn't too stupid, crap that isn't exactly crap -- CDs, books (too damn many books), DVDs.

But the utter simplicity of my pile. My kids' treasures. My wife's. My gun, my MacBook, my cameras. Two paris of pants, some shirts and socks. What else do you need?

Outside, I heard excited voices. People really dig a disaster. It happens during the winter, mostly, when we get a blizzard that wallops the town and suddenly -- everyone's cheerful, chatty, ready to go out of their way to help. We tasted a bit of drama, and it was sweet.

Now, of course, we need to keep the context here. Watching a fire shoot down the street and devour your house with its collectibles and mementos is not fun, and not an occasion for a smart ass like me to note how perversely we crave relief from our boring daily life. Exactly that is happening an hour and a half south of here. We're lucky, so far. We are only pre-evacuation, which sounds suspiciously anti-climatic and close to premature ejaculation.  It's odd to hope for a detour from a narrative closure. Weird how deeply those tropes are dug into the brain and imagination.

I have to resist some weird Romantic wish to see the whole place in flames and heroically build from that. I know that, instead, it would be months of calls to insurers, to contractors, to regulators, of depending on the kindness of family and friends -- a giant pain in the ass.

We still are on alert. We may be told to leave, but I've squirreled away most of my precious things. It rained a bit, a mixed blessing because with the water came lightening, and still more fires.

And I'm going to drink that fancy bottle of French wine. To the dregs.

21 June 2012

Auditions 1: judging by the results, theater education sucks.

If you get a B.A. or a B.F.A. in acting, you should be able to act. That's a high standard, I know, but it only seems fair that if you pay a ton of coin for a degree, they should teach you something back.

But, okay: acting . . . it's an art after all. It requires all kinds of tricky things that no one can teach, not really. (That's why the best acting schools are so selective. The teachers must, I think, know that the prospective students either have the knack or don't, and they'd better have it coming into the program or all the exercises and work and productions aren't going to work).

So, let's lower the standard. It seems like asking too much to create a theater artist out of four years of liberal arts school. Maybe that's just a stupid proposition to believe in. But if you do earn that theater degree, you should be able to control your voice and diction and know how to move your body expressively. These are craft elements. They require no special aptitude. You just have to receive instruction and put in the time. They're basic, too. If you can't be heard, no one will be able to appreciate your performance or the playwright's work. If you move awkwardly, it's distracting.

Basic, right?

I spent a few hours learning that this is too high a standard. Dozens of actors showed up with very nicely produced glossy head shots -- almost completely irrelevant to me, other than as a device to help remember who auditioned. And with resumes. Listing BAs and BFAs. Even a few MFAs. And most of them sucked. They were brave. They were bold, and they deserve credit for that and for the work they put into learning their pieces. But the acting was mediocre.

That's to be expected, I guess. But what shocked me is how few of them had any craft. They mumbled. They stood there like dead fishes propped up in a frozen food case. Or they'd make little penguin gestures with their arms. And whatever they'd listed as training didn't seem to matter. Four year programs, two year programs, random classes from a series of teachers -- none of it mattered. If they were good, they were good no matter where they went or studied. If they stank, they stank no matter where they'd picked up their stench. 

Okay, maybe I'm generalizing. We didn't see students from some of the better known schools; I guess they could be better, or at least offer some good diction. You know, the basic price of entry. Not necessarily emotional truth or charisma, or shattering insight into the human heart. Just get the words out.

For the record, I saw some fine actors.

But it makes me think that arts education, or at least theater education in this country is a fraud, and thus, a criminal enterprise. You can't teach art. You can, however, create a place where the craft elements can be learned. Apparently, a lot of schools are absolutely failing. 

They should refund their students' tuition.

Women's Life Drawing Class at the Chase School of Art

Except for the clothes and the tats, art school chix haven't changed much.

pick up


20 June 2012

McInerny on Gatsby

Fitzgerald conflates Jay Gatsby's act of self-invention with the promise of the new world, with the dream of a fresh start upon which the nation was founded: "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder. And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of the dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it." 

 To some, including many British readers over the years, this may seem like a lot of weight for the love story of a bootlegger and a southern belle to bear. But it seems to speak to a collective self-image dear to many American hearts – in spite of its unhappy ending. It's possible we Americans are not entirely rational about The Great Gatsby. Gatsby becomes fabulously wealthy, but he doesn't care about money in itself. He lives in a beautiful mansion and dresses beautifully, but everything he does is for love. He invents a hero called Jay Gatsby and then inhabits this creation, just as we hope to reinvent ourselves, some day, any day now, almost certainly starting tomorrow.


15 June 2012

I hate Facebook

Sure, everybody hates Facebook these days.

But here's the deal: I just saw one of those unposed, candid shots of a woman I used to know. One that she has not chosen, and one that will not earn the comments of a her girlfriends telling her how fierce she looks in that ensemble.

A few decades ago, she was pretty. She broke hearts. She ruined herself by involving herself with a ravening vampire twice her age.

And now: She simply looks like hell. There's no particular shame in that. Most people look less seductive after they hit 40. Women, sadly, -- or  justly -- age worse than men, perhaps because they were so beautiful to begin with.

I didn't need to know that this particular woman has deep lines that look as if they were cut into her face by a rake. I didn't need to see that time has ruined her and destroyed the perfect oval of her face and the cameo like beauty that was never destined to last, anyway.

We all know that time is a ravening, hungry bastard that destroys cities, murders manuscripts and eats small children for fun. We all learn that we're not immune; we learn it slowly.

But having the photographic evidence of this slow rot constantly in your poor face is just too much. It's as if some cool machine is laughing quietly, saying, yes, meat puppet, this is your destiny, and this is the destiny of everyone you ever slightly cared about. You, sad fellow, are ruled by decay.  By Shiva.

You can practice all the philosophical detachment you want to, but to see your friends slow destruction at the end of your fingertips is a particularly modern cruelty.

Thanks, Facebook. Thanks a lot.