Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reflecting Back

As I come close to departing for Ghana, I am, as I should be, thinking a lot about what I'm doing. Teaching theater, as a Western theater practicioner, in a West African country, what the hell is that? Why should I be teaching art? I've gone back to a journal entry I wrote a year ago September, an edited version of which I want to have up here.

I just finished Six Feet Under. Yes, all of it. There are about twenty-eight gazillion things I have learned and loved and gained from it, but the one that’s sticking to my ribs at the moment is, Art can do that.

Art has done that. I have cried my eyes out over this show in the last two weeks, I have felt real pain over it, but it’s worth it, beyond worth it. Augusto Boal is wrong, or at least he’s deeply limited. Sometimes we do need catharsis. Sometimes catharsis is not releasing as in letting go and forgetting about something forever, sometimes it is releasing as in opening floodgates, bursting a dam, storming a fortress. Art can do that.

I can do that. I think I have done it, a few times in my life, and I can, and I want to, and I need to. The question is not why, and whatever my political agonizing I think I have always known that. I know why. It would be awesome to be able to explain it someday, but I know it. The question is how, and that is my work, discovering and honing and really using the way or ways in which I can best do that.

I don’t fucking care what “that” is. Again, it would be great if I could explain it one day, but I know it, and people who have been present when good art changed the air in a room, however many others were or were not present (and whether or not it was actually a room), know it. I’m not dismissing the things you can deepen from defining shit you know, but you have got to GOT to fucking know it and know you know it. When I say I need to know what my work is, I need to know it in every sense of the word “work.”

I have exploded out of my chest. We live with mortality, we live in it. Yes, and? Mortals, as a species, as individuals, we have built a world, we are always building it, even when the world we’re building is a damaged one. We still fucking well inhabit it. I’m not sure art is a basic need, not sure it is really your path in the darkness, but it is certainly light.

I am okay with light. I can provide light. If my students teach me anything, it is that no matter what, if you’re still around, you find a path. I want to provide light.

I can provide light. Not revolution, but Six Feet Under isn’t revolution, it’s just fucking good. And there are qualities, but there is also quality. Some things are just fucking good. It happened to move me, as it might not move everyone, but it is good. And it doesn’t turn your world over, it turns into your world, structural ambiguity entirely intended. I can do that. I can’t do it alone, but obviously no one person on that show did it alone either. I want to do that.

God, I want to rip the screen and the sky and go through, and I could. There will be a million steps along the way that will weaken me, but that happens, and right now I want to go to sleep but I could do anything, and I know the things I have chosen to do, and I know why. And I have lived in and shared a fictional world, with fictional people and fictional relationships that just shook down my universe.

And on that note, I am going on hiatus. There may occasionally be a Friday Poetry up here when I feel like it, just to keep you on your toes, but for the most part Third Rail Themes will be down until June, when we will reevaluate its presence and purposes and all that. I'll miss you!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Friday Poetry: Kenneth Koch

Happy New Year! In a week I'm going on hiatus when I go to Ghana, though I'll try to get a few notes in in the meantime. But here's a poem I like!

Kenneth Koch

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up and created the Sentence.

Each Sentence says one thing—for example, "Although it was a dark rainy day when the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure and sweet expression on her face until the day I perish from the green, effective earth."
Or, "Will you please close the window, Andrew?"
Or, for example, "Thank you, the pink pot of flowers on the windowsill has changed color recently to a light yellow due to the heat from the boiler factory which exists nearby."

In the sprintime the Sentences and the Nouns lay quietly on the grass.
A lonely Conjunction here and there would call, "And! But!"
But the Adjective did not emerge.

As the Adjective is lost in the sentence,
So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose and throat—
You have enchanted me with a single kiss
Which can never be undone
Until the destruction of language.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Interlude of Awesome

As we hurtle towards hiatus, eight days from today, I wanted to take a moment to note that my friend is awesome.

Read the profile, and you'll agree!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Poetry: Linda Gregg

Merry belated Christmas! Chappy continuing Chanukkah! Happy continuing holidays! I'm in Miami now, but have some poetry.

Linda Gregg
Winter Love

I would like to decorate this silence,
but my house grows only cleaner
and more plain. The glass chimes I hung
over the register ring a little
when the heat goes on.
I waited too long to drink my tea.
It was not hot. It was only warm.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

City Sidewalks to Tropical Christmas

I'm going to Miami today to see my entire extended family (and I very nearly mean my *entire* extended family, though not quite). I'll be there until Monday. I scheduled a Friday Poetry 'cause I'm magic, but other than that there will be no postings, not even about the craziness that is Bernard Madoff.

Happy Holidays, everybody!!!!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wherein We're Slightly Less Wary

Hmmm. Melissa Etheridge made friends with Rick Warren.


I guess this snap judgement problem is just going to be omnipresent right now. I'm going to remain skeptical of Rick Warren, because I still don't have enough information. But apparently I didn't have enough information the first time I assessed him, either.

Curiouser and curiouser.

(Read the post. Seriously. It intrigues me.)

In Competence We Trust

The last year of my life has gotten me thinking about competence, in particular the relationships between competence and talent.

I grew up talented. By that, I mean that I was recognized from a very early age as being very good at something I also loved to do, namely writing. Because I loved both the activity and the praise I inevitably received, I continued my work, and turned out to be unusually disciplined in it—I have no idea how that came about, though I'm sure growing up among theater artists must have had something to do with it—which made me interested in learning more about craft, interested in improving. Because I attended a small school where we all knew more about one another than we might necessarily have cared to, my reputation as a writer preceded me, and even when I was an unpopular, devastatingly socially anxious adolescent much more involved in writing the story of her life than living the reality of it, I didn't have the depths of social rejection that some of my friends managed. Of course, I wasn't exactly aware of that at the time, but I wasn't entirely unaware of it either. In a period of my life where I was questioning everything else (okay, that period never actually ended), I never had occasion to question my talent.

I am learning, slowly, about what talent can and cannot do, for myself as well as for others.

We are accustomed, I think, to the notion that talent clusters—in Hollywood, or in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, or the Iowa Writer's Workshop, or wherever the current (and sometimes local) romantic imagination has placed it. To myself I have finally had to admit that hipster neighborhoods like Wicker Park or the East Village of ten years ago, in spite of my voiced and partially felt contempt, still hold a magical allure for me, and it has to do with exactly this over-advertised, romanticized, somewhat obnoxious notion: talented people go here and do this; going here and doing this is how I prove my talent and how I best use it. To be fair, it is kind of true: it is often useful to talented people to be around other talented people. And yet, there are many talented people who do not cluster in these enclaves. And the talented people who do cluster are not necessarily displaying their talents to the best of their abilities, and that is sometimes due to the cluster, to the allure of its social comfort. There are other factors there too, though.

An incredible number of people are talented; there is far more talent than we ever see. This lack of opportunity to see the talent is often due to a lack of competence on the part of the talented.

This is something I have seen over and over, within and without my family. Talent has nothing to do with whether you can live off of your talent (or off of anything else); talent has nothing to do with whether you are capable of sharing your talent with the world in a productive way, or even at all; it has nothing to do with any actions that don't relate to the actual art or science or work at which you are talented.

I am willing to accept the notion that talent clusters to a certain degree, though I also posit that in romanticized artsy neighborhoods the number of poseurs at least equals the number of actual talented people.

What is talent? I guess that's an important question here. And I am not positive I can provide more than a Potter Stewart answer. But the closest I can come in considering it is that talent is what extends beyond the everyday. Talent is what you put into the world with the expectation that it will last beyond yourself in some way; competence is what takes you from day today as yourself (I'm assuming your immediate dependents/loved ones as part of "yourself" here).

There exists, for that matter, a talent at competence, when you can bring that kind of solid ability to bear on the world, which not everybody competent can.

And there exists much more pretense to talent, even as talent sometimes clusters, than actual talent.

Then again, it's rare for us to see competence either. But that's because most of the time it's tremendously difficult to notice.

What does all this mean? I've been working on this post for months and I really haven't found a thesis, beyond the somewhat obvious things I've mentioned above. I don't trust talented people to be anything but talented; perhaps I over time have come to trust the competent more than I trust the talented. But the allure of talent—other people's, never mind my own—isn't gone for me. Which may be why talented idiots, as a matter of general principle, get away with so much.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Parable of Contrition

About a year and a half ago, visiting family, I met a woman around my age who was dating a wealthy man twenty-five years her senior. She looked to me as if she had a fake tan, she worked as a pharmaceuticals representative, she wore very low-cut and tight clothes and made a lot of margaritas. Though she came across as a nice person, my snap judgment was negative and dismissive. Her values seemed far from mine, and easy to belittle, and I didn't see much else to recommend.

But I got to know this woman over the next year, at first because it was necessary, then because I enjoyed my time with her and wanted to. Before she worked for the pharmaceuticals industry, she got a master's degree in epidemiology, which involved travelling to Thailand, and worked in publicity for a women's health organization, requiring travel all over the country. She is a skilled and financially stable businesswoman in her own right, left the Big Pharma job to start a completely different company of her own soon after we met, and aside from all the practical stuff that clearly demonstrates my brand of snobbiness, she is straightforward, generous, thoughtful, and a really terrific conversationalist.

And the fake tan? Yeah, her father is black.

That's my parable. The wonderful thing about parables is they apply in any number of situations. For example, this one applies in the story I am about to relate.

I recently wrote a post about a conversation I had in April. It was a conversation whose content I was unhappy about, and I was very harsh towards my partner in that conversation. A few days ago she read my blog.

Such is the internet. But she was kind enough to send me a really thoughtful message, saying she agreed with the content of the post if not the tone, all the more so because she's now studying arts education in grad school and developing an ever-clearer sense of what she wants to do, what's important to her. The content of the program I lambasted, along with its description, was given to her by its coordinators with neither guidance nor real freedom, and she was far more frustrated by her circumstances there than I could ever have been by one twenty-minute conversation.

After I responded to her message, hoping to show as much rationality and thoughtfulness as she had, we chatted about arts education and grad school on facebook for a couple of hours, and it became one of the more compelling conversations I've had in the last six months. The kind I hope I can continue having over time.

All this goes to say, I should calm the fuck down on my snap judgements. Not on judgements in general, mind you; I'm still all in favor of those. But I'm in favor of them being rational and considered and, well, right. My judgements should be right, at least. To make them right, I have to have an appropriate amount of information to assess them. And that takes time, and it takes thoroughness. (Something else a good legal system knows that I still hadn't quite figgered out.)

So, in other words, I was wrong. Not in content, but in form. Without knowing the full story, there was no reason to make my attack on the ideas as personal as I made it.

Retracted, and plans for improvement noted here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Poetry: Elizabeth Alexander

Speaking of the inauguration, she'll be there too. This is the part I like.

Elizabeth Alexander

We pull off
to a road shack
in Massachusetts
to watch men walk

on the moon. We did
the same thing
for three two one
blast off, and now

we watch the same men
bounce in and out
of craters. I want
a Coke and a hamburger.

Because the men
are walking on the moon
which is now irrefutably
not green, not cheese,

not a shiny dime floating
in a cold blue,
the way I'd thought,
the road shack people don't

notice we are a black
family not from there,
the way it mostly goes.
This talking through

static, bounces in space-
boots, tethered
to cords is much
stranger, stranger

even than we are.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wherein We're Wary of Warren

Rick Warren will offer a prayer at Obama's inauguration.

This is not okay.

We may have just hit upon the first move by the Obama administration that I really, vociferously object to. To the point that I believe it immoral. I have questions about some of his Cabinet appointments (I'm cautious about Hillary Clinton in a position of power over foreign policy, not necessarily her strong point; I'm not always wild about Arne Duncan's educational choices), but I can write those off to, well, Obama's more of a centrist than I am, I always knew that. And I do understand that he cannot bring Jeremiah Wright to the plate again.

Plus, my friend makes a compelling argument that we should trust Obama to do the whole reaching-out thing that has made him such a unifying figure. It's that style that got an actual intellectual elected to office, after all. (Say that last sentence ten times fast, please.)

But I can't condone, or trust, this choice.

In the wake of the Prop. 8 travesty, after a campaign in which Obama and Biden at least claimed they supported equal partnership rights for same-sex couples even as they waffled on the use of the term "marriage," this is unacceptable. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether there should *be* "religious leadership in the White House," the first act of religious leadership in the Obama White House will be conducted by a man who believes the formal, legal recognition of consensual, loving relationships between same-sex couples is equivalent to the formal, legal recognition incest or pedophilia.

Not okay. Not okay at all.