Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Belonging

Part of an ongoing series.

CAVEAT LECTOR: This story contains toxic levels of self-pity. Forewarned is forearmed.

" . . . the school would impose a discipline of speed and uniformity, and those individuals which would not or could not meet the school's requirements would be killed or lost or left behind. The overfast would be eliminated by the school as readily as the overslow, until a standard somewhere between fast and slow had been attained. Not intending a pun, we might note that our schools have to some extent the same tendency. A Harvard man, a Yale man, a Stanford man -- that is, the ideal -- is as easily recognized as a tuna, and he has, by a process of elimination, survived the tests against idiocy and brilliance. Even in physical matters the standard is maintained until it is impossible, from speech, clothing ,haircuts, posture, or state of mind, to tell one of these units of his school from another. In this connection it would be interesting to know whether the general collectivization of human society might not have the same effect. . . . The slow must be speeded up or eliminated, the fast slowed down. In a thoroughly collectivized state, mediocre efficiency might be very great, but only through the complete elimination of the swift, the clever, and the intelligent, as well as the incompetent. Truly collective man might in fact abandon his versatility."
John Steinbeck, "The Log from the Sea of Cortez"

"Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend." -- Wallace Stegner, "Angle of Repose"

Why does the very first memory have to be of exclusion, abandonment, scorn, and isolation? Just lucky, I guess.

I must have been four years old or so. I was playing on a wide, quiet, leafy street lined with big beautiful houses, stoops, wraparound porches. This would have been Monmouth, Illinois, where my family lived for a brief time. A bunch of neighborhood kids and I were playing hide and seek. I was nominated as it, first. They ran and hid. And stayed that way.

I finished counting. I searched and searched. They were gone, I never did find out where. Or why they left me. “Olly olly oxen free!” I called over and over and over, to no effect, until I was hoarse. No kids reappeared, no adults emerged to find out what was the matter. I don’t remember the aftermath. It was a scenario that would repeat itself throughout my life.

Now, looking at my account of this little incident a half-century later, it seems ludicrous. How could such a small thing have affected me so strongly? But hurt it did, the worst kind of hurt. It was a burning, palpable, shameful, lingering kind of agony, the kind that I internalized, roasting and crackling away inside me, a living perpetually stoked hell, one that kept me awake at night, wondering what kind of atonement, what fundamental change, what pretzel shape I would have to contort myself into in order to be accepted, to life the curse.

True, I did not have a lot going for me at the time. I was four, for fuck’s sake. I was puny, with no social skills, and little common sense. I was horribly near-sighted and didn’t realize it until two grades of agony and not being able to see what was going on around me had only augmented people’s idea that I was a congenital idiot. I had a hyperactive imagination and mouth, so that when I articulated whatever was going on inside me I was stared at like I was a little nutjob, or told to shut up. Whatever I was, the message I got was that it was not OK.

It extended to my extended family. I was one of a horde of male cousins, all of whom were outgoing, well-adjusted athletic types who all grew up and became shatteringly normal. I was a creepy little twerp.

I made friends here and there, usually fellow freaks. It seems that when a kid is an outsider, he or she is tagged with a radioactive signal that kids everywhere can pick up on immediately. I was soon the pariah of any neighborhood into which I moved. I pretty much learned to duck any group of two or more kids coming down the street toward me. At school, at camp, in church, on the playground, I stuck to myself.

I bonded much more easily with grown-ups, mainly teachers, but that had its obvious limitations. By the time I was mid-way through junior high school, I was thoroughly miserable, so tense that my head was permanently skewed to one side, pulling my hair out in patches, pretty much ready to be institutionalized.

Thank God for music, and theater. We didn’t have enough money to afford instrument lessons, but I could sing, which took me out of myself and allowed me to integrate my efforts, however briefly, with a larger group in the pursuit of beauty. For the first time I was literally and figuratively in harmony with others. I took to it immediately, hard. Also, I auditioned for the lead role in “The Music Man” and somehow nailed it. I could perform. I had integrity onstage, in the spotlight. I was suddenly somehow engaging, talented, entertaining. I was hooked.

This opened a treasure box for me. Humanity wanted something to do with me. My presence was needed. I told jokes that people got, I shared feelings that friends understood, I came up with ideas that people wanted to help make tangible. I could pitch in and be welcomed. It was great. With the crazy, dysfunctional home life I endured at the time, it kept me out of the house for long hours and probably saved me.

It didn’t last. I resumed my outsider status in college. I couldn’t take the super-serious business of becoming an actor . . . seriously. I couldn’t join a group, I couldn’t network, I couldn’t do the things I needed to do to advance myself. I wandered all over New York City when not in class, on my own, toting a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter so that I could spend the rest on theater, galleries, museums, films . . . learning much more than was probably good for me. God takes care of idiots, which explains how I was able to hang out in places such as the Bowery, Harlem, Old Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen, and Tompkins Square at all hours of the night and not gotten my throat slit.

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was suffering a kind of slow-motion nervous breakdown. My family at home blew up, our finances went south, and I quit school, coming home to catch-as-catch-can work in menial jobs and small roles in local theater. It took trying standup comedy to lift me out of myself again and put me in another brother- and sisterhood that I could hang with. With the help of plenty of booze and pot. Until, of course, the maximal limit of my talent was reached and I was slotted into the proper designation.

Of course, hand in hand with this were the repeated attempt to go straight, as it were. Time and again, I would latch onto “regular” jobs in various organizations, looking for a stable career path, a future, trying to fit in with the little cliques and kinship groups that are a part of every workplace. No matter how hard I worked to prove myself, how violently I suppressed my natural tendencies, how badly I ingratiated, it never worked out. How come?

It seems that every group has two conditional elements: a hierarchy, and a need to be taken seriously at some level. You pay proper obeisance to the hierarchy. You reinforce everyone’s sense of identity by obtaining a place in the given constellation of relationships and inhabiting it. If you stayed stuck at the bottom rung of acceptance, so be it. You were not meant to rise, or to alter the balance. When you have fully internalized the code of that particular subgroup, you may be allowed to enter the inner circle. Or not. It’s all dependent on the needs of the group, not the individual.

The behavior patterns, attitude, language, priorities, beliefs, of any given group are codified. These must be maintained as well, or the coherence of the group is threatened. Laughter is nooooot welcome. I was doomed from the start, if you think about it. With humor as my lifelong sword and shield, the tool of dissection of stupidity and cruelty, I couldn’t resist poking holes in the flimsy schemes and structures established to maintain group identity. The impulse to martyrize myself was minimal. I just couldn’t not tell the unjustly dominant to go fuck themselves. It wasn’t a perverse impulse to be a naysayer, a rebel, an antihero. Hey, I would still sell out, given half a chance! Cheaply! Give me a call!

The groups to which I will always belong are those you can’t get thrown out of – the belligerent, the disaffected, the exiled, the strange, the scorned, the discounted, the addicted, ruffians, no-goods, cranks, eccentrics, losers. The fraternities of the terminally insolent, such as comedians, journalists, recovering addicts, and others who well good and finally don’t really give a shit what anybody from the land of consensual reality thinks.

50 years later, this meditation is still ragged and incomplete. I can still feel the pull, the urge to communicate, reach out, make contact, belong, albeit from a safer distance, behind the keyboard. For decades I’ve had the image in my head of me standing outside, looking through the window at the party inside. Tapping, tapping, tapping. Olly olly oxen free.

But there’s no inside or outside, that’s all an illusion, although it is one that hypnotizes us all, the big game that you ignore at your peril, that will keep you marginalized, unemployed, and castigated. Rules that kill.

Life, however, unmitigated wonderful real life, is what is what it is. Irreducible, it can’t be denied you, and if you open up the channels dammed by self-contempt, the waters of life flow to you and through you. Then you bloom, then you feed the sky with your beauty. Then you generate thunderheads and pour down life on the other parched souls and give them hope. The circle of green widens, and the nasty little bastards who want things their way and their way only can only hang their over the fences they built to keep you all out and jaw impotently.

Maybe I had to go through what felt like death in order to know how to live. If you don’t like your society, create your own. I have. It has two rules: don’t be a jackass, and lighten the fuck up.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why should you go to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival?

Photo by Zachary Adams. I pulled it from Geoffrey Kent's Facebook page. Thanks guys!

Out here in the provinces, theater is an upper-middle-class affectation, or something you take your grandma to once a year -- at Christmastime. You can slag the hordes in only for some traveling Broadway fare, usually. There is a niche culture of dedicated theatergoers in the area, but anyone in the biz without a stellar and spectacularly overworked marketing department to lean on will tell you that it’s catch-as-catch-can out here. There are many quite talented practitioners here, in all departments, but for most of them it’s a hobby that has to remain its own reward.

Despite the crowings of anxious promoters, various local bureaucrats and Chamber-of-Commerce types, regional cultural mandarins, big-box cultural p.r. guys, and the like, the situation is, was, and always will be desperate. The mainstream critical/press apparatus that used to fuel interest in and dialogue about the arts has pretty much suffered the fate of the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Es ist ganz und gar todt!

In Boulder, you can begin to redeem this situation by going to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Now everyone groan, both the populists who think the fare is too highfalutin’ for today’s audiences – and all the inhabitants and supporters of smaller, edgier local companies such as the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, square product theatre, LOCAL Theater Company, and the ones I forgot, who may be sick and tired of the attention that does get lavished on this institutionally supported annual event.

However, there are seven reasons, two of them the same, why you should go.

1.      It’s Shakespeare. Can you do Shakespeare? No, you can’t. Few can. It’s HARD. I know, I tried. I could get through about two minutes tops before either I or the audience started laughing uncontrollably. During the big stabbing scene of “Julius Caesar.” These CSF guys can do Shakespeare, usually pretty well. It’s not community theater. It’s not dinner theater. It’s not musical comedy. It’s the not the reworkings of beloved American classics, or any other kind of crap that’s not even close to Shakespeare but that nervous admins think will put asses in the seats. It’s almost certainly going to be at least tangentially Shakespearian. The new kids running the show at CSF actually care deeply about Shakespeare and are going balls-out to do a great job. And that’s important. See #7.

2.      It’s classy. In theater, the audience is king. (OK, except in experimental theater.) Who doesn’t want to be treated like royalty? Both the indoor and outdoor venues at CSF are very nice. Yes, the seats at the Mary Ripon Outdoor Theatre are made of huge slabs of rock, BUT – they have these cute little seatbacks they hand out free, and they used to CHARGE for those. Isn’t that nice? Someone tears your ticket, they smile, they give you a program, they help you find your seat. Who does that anymore? And you can pack a picnic dinner, eat on the greensward or lawn or  in front of the theater before the show, pound some wine and beer . . . crawl into the shrubbery and burn one . . . I’m pretty sure you can pass out in the grass if you like. Just pay for your ticket first, they need the money.

3.      It’s fun. Be aware, they will not throw your Frisbee back. However, in Shakespeare actors are usually stopping every once in a while to confess their plans to you, or tell you how they feel. Sometimes they blow horns and such and run up and down the aisles. Theater is supposed to involve you. Only in the 19th century did the deadly tradition of sitting absolutely still and indicating your approval with APPLAUSE and APPLAUSE ONLY begin. Shakespeare is theater from the time when the audience and the players fed off each other. YOU CAN REACT. YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO ENJOY YOURSELVES.

4.      It’s violent. Hey, did you know that Shakespeare was the Tarentino of his time? “Titus Andronicus” makes Martin McDonagh look like Oscar Wilde. And one of the gang this year at CSF is Geoffrey Kent, aka The Fight Guy. He is the president of the Society of American Fight Directors, and he really know how to put on swordplay, mayhem, and the like, plenty of which litters “Henry IV,” which hits the CSF stage this summer. So you’ve got the whole “Game of Thrones” vibe going on. In fact, why didn’t the marketing department use that? “The original Game of Thrones.” Should be bloody . . . awesome. (To be fair, Part II, which they’ve only staging three times as opposed to eight for Part I, is a lot less bloody, more like: King Henry IV: “You’re not a good son.” Prince Hal: “Yes I am!” King Henry IV: “You want to steal my crown.” Prince Hal: “No I don’t, Dad.” King Henry IV: “Where’s my damn crown?” Prince Hal: “IT’S RIGHT HERE, DAD.” Meanwhile, Falstaff’s all like, “Ooo, I’m a cheeky bugger, I am. I’m a right old rogue!” King Henry: “You better shape up.” Prince Hal: “OK, I will.” Falstaff: “Crikey, dun’t look good for yours truly, do it?”)

5.      It’s educational. Did you know that the appreciation of Shakespeare has been ruined by more middle-school English teachers than any other factor, according to my unscientific conjecture? It’s true. The only way you are going to knock that resistance and misperception out of your head is to see the stuff, live, as God intended. In this world in which our collective cultural consciousness has shrunk to the size of a mouse’s foreskin on a subzero street corner, Shakespeare is the last bastion of something in the arts we can and should all hold as common coin. If you know something about him and his work, you mark yourself as an educated individual who cares more about the bottom line and what the score is. At the very least, it increases your chances of getting laid to a nominal degree.

6.      It’s important. You should know how to see a play. It’s the second-oldest form of entertainment. It’s the root of every other art. America will never have a repertory theater company on every block, or a symphony orchestra that has to turn down an endowment because it simply doesn’t know what to do with all that money. We will not as a nation, forego the Super Bowl to watch an especially riveting episode of “Masterpiece Theater.” Motels will never hang fascinating original paintings on the walls of their rooms (except for La Reve in Pasadena, you should really check it out). But you need to develop the capacity for taking art in and letting it make you feel and think. It takes discipline and effort. Some people think art is the pickle tray in the buffet of life. It’s not, it’s the entrĂ©e. It’s like water and air and food and shelter and warmth and love. Which leads to

7.      It’s Shakespeare. There’s a reason why he’s the Quesarito of English literature. He’s a four-tool player. He knows how to tell a story, or at least borrow some really good plots. He delineates character like no one else – you really feel like you can see clearly inside everyone on stage. Every character that’s not purely a walk-on functionary has dimension and depth, and, like real people, contains and expresses contradictions and unresolved ambiguities. He’s not afraid to go for the really big questions underneath any given issue – he’s dealing with life and death, sin, guilt, dishonor, love, loss, death, a constellation of the aspects of human existence, which means his subject matter is always relevant and never gets old. And the language, the language. There’s a reason why it seeps into everything we say and write. It’s so damn apt and compelling, so much so that it will still lift me out of myself, although I’ve heard it or read it a thousand times. It’s sheer beauty.

Every time you get a chance to experience Shakespeare done well, you get to experience the human soul in high gear. The gateway is right here in the midst of us, and we are lucky to have it. It’s called the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. You really should go.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Drugs

Part of an ongoing series. Next chapter: fitting in.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Drugs

“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” – Neil Gaiman

Ah, chemical indulgence and its aftermath. How many meetings have I sat in where fellow survivors retailed their horror stories, their brushes with death and dismemberment, with a perverse undercurrent of pride?

And it’s true that I share that survivor’s arrogance. Often we talk of only switching our addictions to an addiction to recovery, of the obnoxiousness and upstaging, overbearing nature of our self-righteousness, as though we were veterans of a war we waged against ourselves, memorializing like Henry V presages at Agincourt: “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars./And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’” But, like I’ve said before, I’d rather hear you pompously hold forth on your sobriety than keep your hair out of your face while you puke.

This discussion is fraught with perils. Me writing about this topic, or declaring my ever-recovering status, is seen by many as a violation of a key principle of anonymity in the recovery community, particularly if such writing is a play for public approval, or for the gain of influence, or for financial reward. I firmly reject any and all three of those possible outcomes, which are pretty damn unlikely anyway, based on my track record.

I hope to make amends as well, though – not just to the many individuals I have damaged, worried, alienated, or pissed off down the years. I hope to expiate my thoughtlessness, my bad behavior, to raise the pall of oblivion that hung over me for decades, to the universe at large. I can do it because I have a gift for expressing myself. I hope to convince you, if you ever feel tempted, not to start bad habits or to drop them, somehow, if you can. I can only tell my story.

Like most people, I had absolutely no intention of winding up here. There is a marked genetic predisposition for addiction in my family, passed down on both sides. My father drank himself to death, basically, and cigarettes accompanied my parents from morning ‘til night, including at the dinner table and on long car rides with the windows rolled up. I was steeped in booze and smoke from birth, like an indolent whiskey keg in some bar’s basement.

This is no attempt at an excuse. Any apology that is followed by a “but” is not an apology at all. Given the example that ground away at all of us every day growing up, I should perhaps have been more resistant to alcohol than I was. I know I swore I would never drink or smoke.

And, beyond isolated trials in high school, I did pretty well. My college roommate basically ran a major distribution point for marijuana on the Lower East Side from our dorm room, but I stuck to the straight and narrow.

It wasn’t until I finally entered the real world via massive nervous breakdown after college that I began to drink and do drugs. My unprepared soul’s collisions with reality, my nightly climbs onto the stage to feign outgoing sociability as a comic, my confrontation with absolute poverty and life a step from sleeping in the alley, all pushed me into the arms of Morpheus. Here’s a basic rundown of abuse, by category:

Tobacco: Disgusting, but tempting. The pain, inability to breathe, and periodic bronchitis didn’t stop me from this affectation for decades, until long after my father’s chain-smoking antics were curtailed by Mr. Death. There is something so assuring and sexy about the cigarette! Blame Bogie and other black-and-white film stars. Too bad it kills you. I smoked, in turn, a pipe, cigars, and cigs. Favorite brands: The tasty Balkan Sobranie, Camels, and a horrible discount, now-discontinued brand called Barclay. It was all about the look . . . and the way it kept me from swallowing my anger, snapping and lashing out at people.

Stimulants, club drugs, dissociative drugs: Nope. Never appealed to me. No painkillers, downers, uppers, anything. I took speed once while working an all-night shift at Yellow Cab. It worked fine until I came down, whence I fell into a fit of suicidal depression. Somehow I have saved my life to date by not taking anything that could kill me IMMEDIATELY.

Cocaine: Same thing. Tried it twice. Each time, I felt like Superman for 10 minutes, then nothing. It was so expensive at the time (the ‘80s) that I considered this is a swindle. Also, my penis shrank to an almost undetectable size (I mean even more than usual).

Inhalants: No, but I knew a lot of people who liked amyl nitrate. Tried it once. It was painful, a heart attack in a vial. Yikes. Nitrous oxide? Helium? Spray paint? Just weird.

Opioids: Fortunately, I numbered among my friends a few survivors of heroin, and their testimonies, along with my marked aversion to sticking anything into me, especially something pointy, kept me miles safely away from ever contemplating heroin, opium, etc.

Hallucinogens: Well. It took a long time for the doors of perception to open for me. When they did, I was fortunately in good company and under friendly supervision – although spending my first night on them atop a wind-swept microwave transmission tower overlooking the Front Range with no safety railing was probably not such a great idea. I always treated them as journeys unto themselves, not accompaniments to a night out or a social occasion. While not indulging too much in either acid or ‘shrooms, I think that the experiences did leave me with at least a marginal benefit, an ineluctable and lingering sense of the positive interconnectedness of all life, and an awareness of a larger universe, for which I am grateful. What they did NOT do, for me at least, was provide specific insights that had portability into non-altered life. Like so many other supposedly creative people, the reams of notes I would take while tripping would, on examination in the cold light of day, be either incoherent or banal. Plus the experience was awfully wearing on me. Psilocybins are mellow and gentle, lasting only a few hours; LSD, vastly more dangerous in my mind as it is manufactured by humans and therefore completely untrustworthy from batch to batch, is a hard-edged taskmaster that scoops you up and works you for a dozen hours at least. In both cases, you are trapped in the experience once you begin – no sobering up, no stepping off the moving vehicle. (I became the go-to babysitter for people who were having a bad trip or who were, God forbid, dosed as a prank, back when that was considered funny and not a crime.) Both kinds of trips were exhausting, and I ended up feeling like I lost something proportional to whatever it was I gained.

Weed: As, yes. My favorite. If there was anything designed to fit my neural receptors, it was marijuana. It relaxed me, it made me funnier, more spontaneous, social, outgoing, empathetic. I could live and work in the real world with calm and assurance. I thought. It was a part of our rebellious young culture growing up, a brotherhood, a common sacrament. It was cool. Did it save me? In some ways. Perhaps. For a time. In fact, it pushed my fear away but did not diminish it. It preached oblivion to me, lowered my resistance to other drugs, kept me stupid, froze me to change. I had my own foot on my own neck and didn’t realize it. For decades, it was a daily part of my life, all day long. (I found out later this is common for only about 2 percent of the population, and about half of all smokers nationwide). I was addicted. I was not OK without it. My life revolved around its acquisition and use. Now, of course, it is available everywhere – an irony not lost on me that makes my occasional craving for it all the more pathetic, and makes my arrogant little pride about not going there anyway more precious. When I finally stopped, all that fear reared up and bit me in the ass, and it took a great deal of time to get over that. However, I could remember my dreams again, in more ways than one.

Booze: The killer. I feel worse about this than any other, as I should have known better, based on family history. I learned that the human capacity for self-deception is boundless. I became a wino. I wound be being able to (or unable not to) drink a bottle in about 20 minutes; a magnum was a challenge not a deterrent. The brands got cheaper and cheaper, the drinking started earlier and earlier. A huge side effect was a zone of amnesia that would envelop the time before, during, and after drinking, to the extent that there are now huge empty patches of memory in my life. I have potentially almost killed myself, my companions, even my children; I will never know for sure. My apologies and amends continue to this day and stretch to the end of my foreseeable existence. This was by far the most difficult thing I ever accomplished (TO DATE: never ever ever say that you are cured or a former alcoholic; I have seen many many people prove the adage that you are only one drink away from being back in the shit again).

I don’t know how I did it. According to the 12-step program I have followed, I didn’t do it at all. My simply willing to stop never changed anything. It was only a surrender of a kind that made it happen. All I know is, I stopped feeling like a victim. I stopped figuring I deserve to get wasted, since life sucked so hard. I took responsibility for, not the choice I made to use, as having a choice implies that I was or am in control, but for forgiving myself for being stupid and scared. It was only when I got real about feeling worthless, incompetent, and unlovable that I realized that I was none of those things. It’s not all about me; it’s not about me at all. I got out of my own way.

Now I live one day at a time; under stressful circumstances, an hour at a time or five minutes at a time. I avoid the past like the plague. I am never interested in the hazy good old days. I stay out of bars and cocktail hours. I avoid crowds. I read, I write, I work in yard. I love my kids, my wife, my family, my friends. I feed my soul with art, music, baseball. I have the strength to take care of myself and make choices that won’t harm myself or others, to the best of my ability. I found a God that works for me, and I pray a lot. It makes some people uncomfortable. Tough shit. I am still only beginning to figure out who I am and making sense of my life. Tough shit! I laugh at myself, and go on.

And life is bearable. It still sucks sometimes. I am still an idiot. But when I think something, I remember it, and I am capable of transmitting to others. When I feel something, I am really feeling it. I can help other people now.

There is no shortcut to enlightenment. Maybe there is no enlightenment. But I am really here. Right now. I am part of life, and it’s all the more precious to me because I almost destroyed it. Cheers!

The NRR Project: Rachmaninoff and Stokowski

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff Performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano Philadelphia Symphony Orchestr...