L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Monday, August 16, 2010

A sensual nature

Sensuality means different things to different people. Depends on what you enjoy, really. Most would define it as an indulgence of the senses. Any or all of them. A surrendering to them. Through food or physical touch, through visual or aural richesse. A revelatory dining experience, a perfect massage, the smell of a campfire in the desert. I think, most of the time, this stimulation of the senses is best enjoyed in a quiet, unhurried setting. In a state of pleasant lassitude. Something akin to the famous luxe, calme et volupté of Baudelaire's L'Invitation au voyage:

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

[There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.]

Of course many, if not most, people equate sensuality with sex. And little more. They're unable to separate the two. And certainly they go quite well together. But there is so much in the world, subtle and luscious. With smells and tastes that, by nature, are programmed for our delight. And I think we'd all be better off as humans, have more reverence for life and nature, if we strove to remember that an appreciation of the sensual might extend a little further than the urge to fill one orifice and empty another.

As an example of another sort of sensuality, from recent experience:

A ripe blackberry. Pulled from the cane, heated through with sun. The dark purple of its fragile skin, the soft rounds breaking with even the most careful touch, pooling shiny velvet-red on your fingertips. On your tongue, in one stroke, you crush it against the roof of your mouth. The sweet juice flooding over your tongue and the exquisite perfume ascending.

Is there anything in the world that could compare with this, could replicate this particular wondrous object, this beautiful and startling experience? Gigi and I got to share this ridiculously simple and profound thing last week; I'm so fortunate that I share my life with someone who searches for beauty and the sensual experience as I do.

Bessie Smith, still rattlin' 'round my brain....

...Oh, Cho-ol-ly
Make it si-ing
That slide tram-bone.

You'll e-e-ven
Make a ki-i-ing
Get down off his throne.

And h-e-e would break a
A-doin' the Charleston

Oh, Chol-ly Green
Play that thi-ing
I mean that slide tram-bone.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Long [really long] Day's Journey..."

Last night Gigi and I attended a performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night". Pulitzer Prize-winning, considered by most to be one of the greatest American plays of the twentieth century; many would say the greatest. Never afraid to think - and speak - for myself, to form opinions that run recklessly counter to the consensus opinion, I would strongly disagree. I don't really think this is a great play; I don't really think it's even terribly good.

I know that's fairly blasphemous to say but chacun à son goût, dammit! If you enjoy this sort of thing, then by all means go. We all have things that we enjoy greatly, and need make little effort to try and sync them up with those of others. But I certainly did not "enjoy greatly" Mr. O'Neill's celebrated play; honestly, I left the theatre feeling battered. And pointlessly so. I am quite willing to be tortured artistically if I get something out of it. An insight, some mesmeric image, a subtle wisdom. G and I talked for hours after getting home about what we were willing to endure for the sake of art. A lot, actually. And we're both very willing to accept a work in its own context, taking into account the world it was born into, and how the world has changed since then. And we're also always very careful to monitor our own limitations, what our expectations are, having been born into the world we know. And we're not afraid of "dark", either; G's favorite play is "Streetcar", for crissakes. So we'll always try and give a play a break. But, comparing this with a lot of the other great theatre we've seen, and with the writing of the playwrights we admire, we both felt this was rather awful.

Bloated and self indulgent. G liked a lot of the language, but there was no discernible structure; if I were to wax metaphorical, I'd say it was like taking all the materials for a building and dumping them into a heap at the construction site. You can't live there! It went on and on, repetitive in the extreme. I can see no reason for it to be as long as it was. I understand that, in a striving for naturalness, O'Neill has the characters repeat the same concerns and stories over and over again, because that's what people really do. But this is theatre, not real life. There is a job to do, in a (hopefully) fairly limited space of time. As I've said before, I believe art is always about some sort of communication. If, in the service of naturalism, the play runs on for an inordinate length of time, structureless, with the characters repeating the same not-very-interesting business in not-terribly-interesting language and, at the end, the audience really doesn't know anything more about these people than the clichés presented as their motivation, what have you got? What can you feel for these people besides some vague pity? What is the point? Andrew Upton, the director of this production, says, "Even though by the end of the play nothing has been resolved and their lives are difficult, there is real wisdom in it. There is humor and wisdom that leavens the darkness." I agree entirely - except that I find no wisdom here. Only "recording", no understanding or insight. And what humor might be written into the play, is flooded out by the physical and emotional discomfort the audience is forced to endure. There is, sadly, no useful/usable leavening.

I believe I'm fairly able to keep my opinion of the play and the performance separate, but the current production can't have helped the situation much. This was a co-production of the celebrated Sydney Theatre Company and Portland's own Artists Repertory Theatre. Being performed in both cities, this is a pretty high-profile endeavor, not the least part being that James Tyrone is played by William Hurt. So one would expect to find something that felt better worked-out, more polished. It doesn't seem casual as a "choice", it just seems half-baked. Visually, it manages to be both confounding and boring. The strangely flashy set, extremely pared down, all "Expressionistic" angles, seems meant for some other play. It doesn't relate to or service this one at all. And the costumes are as misunderstood and incomplete as what one might expect from a high school production - and they only had five actors to dress! The lighting was flat and used to no real effect. I will say that the final tableau was beautifully posed and lit. And all the more striking as, in comparison with the rest of the production, it seemed thoughtful.

Though I think some of the casting choices were not entirely wise, all five of the actors did admirable work. But none of them were in the same play; there was a jarring disunity of acting styles. And both Hurt and Luke Mullins, who played Edmund, were very frequently unintelligible. I have excellent hearing, but their diction (and, often, projection) was so poor that much of the text was lost. I thought both of them gave rich, interior performances, but if you can't understand what the actor is saying...? By contrast, local Todd Van Voris, as James Jr., and Emily Russell, as Cathleen, might have been playing in Vaudeville. Gesturing and mugging, you could "read" them out in the lobby. But, by God, you knew what they were saying. Robyn Nevin as Mary Tyrone gave probably the most subtle and comprehensible performance. And the most theatrically balanced; nuanced but still audible.

So why didn't the very lauded director pull this together better? Why couldn't he guide his very capable actors into a unified whole? It's fairly shocking, such negligence. And, whether I liked being subjected to this particular play or not, I feel bad for the actors. This is a long, strenuous, naked play; no actor would approach this lightly or without the utmost commitment. It takes great courage and trust to sign on for something this "big". I feel Upton let them down.

Which leads me back to Hurt, the "star-power" of the production. Obviously, a fine, respected actor. Awards, money in the bank, etc. And also obviously, not one who seems particularly interested in the "star" business; an actor, he wants to act. He wants to work. And I think he gave a very interesting performance last night. I don't think he was exactly right for the part, but he gave such an intelligent, particular interpretation. The odd way he made long, quick rolling passages, all his words run together, was fascinating. He's a very specifically interior actor. And in perhaps all of his roles you feel that coiled energy and intelligence. I can't think what occurred in rehearsal but, if his director had helped him, technically, to better get that interiority out to the audience - and made sure of a fully-functioning diction - I feel his might have been a great performance.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The new phone

I didn't know if I'd ever get around to it, but it has occurred: I now have a cell phone. I know nothing - beyond nothing - about how the buggers work. And through a small lapse in communication, I've been provided with an iphone - not the brandest-newest one, but the next-to-brandest-newest one - so the learning curve shall be steep. A "smart phone" for a dumb guy.

Having been so long on the other side of the shore, as it were - a non-cell phone carrying citizen - and having observed the often hair-raising behavior of those more modern than myself, I have had time to ready a few rules of conduct, to which I now vow my allegiance:

- I shall not stand at a corner - with or without a stop sign, crosswalk, what-have-you - facing into traffic, whilst motorists scratch their heads or otherwise gesticulate at the opacity of my intentions.

- I shall not walk down a sidewalk or aisle, talking or texting, at a pace significantly slower than my fellow pedestrians.

- I shall not walk, roll, drag (or merely ignore) my child or dog - should I accrue either of these things - whilst persistently texting or engaging in all-consuming phone conversations.

- I shall not stand, resolutely, in a doorway, in the middle of an aisle, at the top or bottom of a staircase, or any other area of egress, talking or texting, whilst everyone else is forced to negotiate a path around me.

- I shall not walk with my wife or other dear relation or friend whilst carrying on a full-blown phone conversation with another.

- I shall not use the phone in a check out line or whilst speaking with any sort of cashier or attendant.

- I shall not talk or text in public or in stores whilst moving in circles or less distinguishable patterns, thereby stopping, confusing, or otherwise annoying the general population.

- I shall not dine with friends or family at a restaurant and spend the meal texting those others currently unable to share the pleasure of our company.

- I shall not talk or text whilst driving, of course. (Oregon has a law against doing so but it appears that, unless an officer of the law also witnesses me simultaneously chugging vodka from the bottle and/or some part of my vehicle is aflame or becomes suddenly detached, I won't be stopped for breaking the law.)

If I am witnessed in violation of this oath, I welcome any and all public shaming. With the exception of spitting, please.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Happy \'hapē, -pi\ verb

As I stumble awkwardly through my own Middle Ages, I'm slowly coming to the realization that one needs to work - work pretty hard - to be happy. I guess I've always thought that happiness is just a natural state of being, the normal thing. The default setting. If you have the necessities of life, are in proximity to congenial people, and are blessed with a good digestion, you can expect to be happy. And if you have these things, and aren't happy, then it's your fault. You're unappreciative or lazy or just a rather unpleasant person. But I'm beginning to believe that isn't true.

I'm beginning to believe that most "happy people" - maybe all - have to work to be that way. It might come a lot easier to some. They might be more exercised, more flexible when it comes to the happiness game. It might seem like second nature to choose happy over grumpy or whiny, but I think they're still, however unconsciously, making a choice.

In the last months, I've been consciously choosing to "go toward happy". It's a sadly cheapened catchphrase, "fake it 'til you feel it", but it's a really practical thing: push yourself to model the behavior you would want to have. As I've "acted" cheerful, more and more, I think I'm becoming that more often. And I can begin to see the cost of running my old pattern of the grumpy, whiny guy; it's much more pleasant to be the cheerful guy. It feels better. And moving farther into this new territory, my choice in the matter is more and more evident. I have a choice to be happier. And I need to do the work to get there.

I've heard it said, in more than one context, that we should always try to see love as a verb rather than a noun. It isn't some thing you have, that you hold onto, that you have no control over. It's something you do. You work on it. You give it all your attention; you tend it like you would a garden. I completely agree with this. And I'm starting to see that personal happiness might just work the same way. It isn't just a gift or a natural state of being. It's something we might achieve with a whole lot of work. Happy: an action verb.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Always. Grateful.

I often have days that veer out of control. Sometimes they just get bent right at the beginning. Like when the morning is cloudy when it's supposed to be summer - bright and sunny - and when I barely made it through the winter. Or when I can't kowtow to my stupid food sensitivities another moment, and have a tiny piece of cheese or a scrap of bread or a potato, and I wake up the next morning feeling like crap. Other days, things might start out fine and then go off. I'll get that creeping dread knowing I'll have to go to work in a few hours. Or, later, stewing that I'm stuck at work. Or just dwelling on the fact that I don't have enough money to do what I want. Or that I can never produce enough artwork to get anywhere with it as a career. Just leaving the house and coming in contact with the crude, mindless world can be traumatic for silly and overly-sensitive me.

I can easily get overwhelmed by all this - honestly - trivial stuff. I lose any perspective or sense of proportion. To be fair to myself, I've been struggling with PTSD for some time; worse in the last few years but probably, to some degree, most of my life. And I understand now that one of the most common issues with this is a difficulty in retaining perspective or a sense of proportion. I know there are things I can do/need to do to help balance things out - breath work, exercise, eating right, going to bed at a reasonable hour, getting in enough painting each week - but when I get negatively over-stimulated - a stranger stands too close to me; Gigi is late coming home; a co-worker acts like a jerk to me; I'm stuck in a too-small, window-less waiting room - it can be very hard for me to stand back psychologically and see the "big picture", to discern what's important and what's not important. I panic. And when I panic, I go into warrior mode. Me against the world.

As I mentioned above, being at work can be especially hard. I want to be able to graduate from that place. And though a lot of my frustration is centered there, I can't move on just yet. I've made a huge amount of progress in the last several months making it a healthier, happier place for me to be. But it's only to be expected that some days won't be entirely my best.

So I want to thank the people who, at those times, help me out. Almost always they don't know they're even doing so. They just do or say something that takes me out of myself and helps me back into the world. Shakes me out like a wadded-up shirt, gently smoothing down the wrinkles. Coming up to me, telling me some good news. Joking or teasing me. Just acknowledging or interacting with me in some small way. Some small, mindless thing, but it helps me so much. And I want to say thank you for that. In those moments, there is never a way to say it, to express my gratitude. For the help you give me. For that light. I will always be grateful.