Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Everyone's Waiting."

Some weeks ago I watched just enough of the Emmy Awards to hear a notion iterated several times -- that we’re currently enjoying a new golden age of television. Maybe they say stuff like that every year, for all I know, but this time the phrase struck me as more than mere pro forma puffery.

It started years ago with the ascendancy of cable – and with cable’s savvy predilection for hiring playwrights to craft its narratives, mind you. First HBO got hot, which spurred Showtime and others to catch up, and at long last even broadcast got with it, albeit within the confines of its m├ętier.

I’ll never forget what a revelation it was when The Sopranos debuted in 1999, and how astonishing it was that HBO struck gold again two years later with Six Feet Under. Fodder for a different post is my conviction that neither series quite surpassed the miracles of their first years out, but never mind.

Both series also gave us conclusions that are still discussed, debated and admired today. I must have watched SFU’s final episode dozens of times now. And let me warn you right now, if you have not seen it, read no further if you don’t want to know what happens. In an act of awesome prestidigitation, the writers reversed the show’s very premise (or extended it): a saga that started every episode of the previous six years showing you someone’s death now extended that convention into the future, showing us the possible demise of each of the main characters.

At first viewing, I was puzzled. Why was the make-up so obviously overdone? Why the soft focus, and the nervous oscillation between the sentimental and the cavalier? But returning to the conclusion again made it clear that we were not seeing the characters’ “real” deaths at all. Instead we witnessed a projection of the story’s youngest protagon, Claire, as she broke ranks with the Fisher family to literally drive off into the vast desert that separated her past from her future.

All right. But why do those closing six minutes continue to affect me so much? My chest gets tight as I think about it even now. And what I think … is that the story of the Fishers ends at a defining moment, for Claire, that we have all experienced at least once (and some of us, several times): a moment when you know that the entire rest of your life in some sense spools out from that moment. So naturally Claire projects herself into the future. It all lies before her. Her life. And the endpoint that gives that life its poignancy, perhaps even its very meaning.

Not for nothing is this last chapter entitled “Everyone’s Waiting.” In the context of the episode, I think Keith says this to Claire, meaning that the family is waiting to see her off on her journey. But as so often with the show’s breathtaking writing, the phrase has multiple reverberations. Yes, everyone’s waiting to die. But also, some of us like to feel that those who have gone before us are waiting for us to catch up. In Claire’s final seconds of life, the camera scans the photographs on her wall to remind us of everyone we ever met through this story. Claire is the sole survivor, just about to join their ranks at last.


But wait, there's more. Something that stuns me about the series ending is that it speeds up as it goes along, giving you the vertiginous feeling you already know so well – that each year goes by faster than the one before, and that all too soon your hoard of days will be exhausted. Contributing powerfully to this sense of time overtaking you is the austerely opulent, understated and yet overpowering song that scores the sequence, “Breathe Me,” by Sia.

Here it is. Watch it again, and just try to resist the undertow. I wonder if television has ever had a better marriage of form and content.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Because a body can't kvetch all the time

Another interim post, while I attempt to recover from Portland’s last-gasp heat snap before autumn sets in for real (tomorrow, reportedly).

Here’s a fun little de-stresser, which comes to me via the redoubtable Isaac Butler of Parabasis fame: the iNudge. It's okay, don’t thank either one of us. It's satisfaction enough to know I've wasted your time....if you happen to be a raving Type A workaholic. Not that I know anybody like that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Have I lost the will to blog?

Let's hope this latest miasma is temporary. Because two posts in two weeks hardly cuts the ice. Cuts the mustard? Cuts the cheese.

To tide you over till I can nudge myself off the Couch of Desuetude and back to the Desk of Quiet Improvement, here is part two in a continuing series A Moment's Hesitation:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wordstock 2009 cometh

The shame! The ignominy! A semi-fortnight since my last post. The Social Mediation Committee will be recycling all my URLs.

Woke up worrying about this today, and checking my stats I discovered that yesterday I had a total of 25 visitors. Twenty-five. That’s a nose dive of 87.5% since this same time last week. And yes, that matters to me, because now that I work from the Home Office in Portland OR, my various blogglings are the Space Age equivalents of water coolers.

For you kids, 20th-century offices uses to provide free-standing obelisks filled with H2O, and when you padded over to get refreshment, fellow quaffers were great sources of gossip, bonhomie, and free-floating anxieties.)

As always, there are reasons aplenty for my dilatory behavior, and today I’m going to blame ... let's see ... yes, Wordstock. With only 18 days to go before the region’s largest book festival opens, things are heating up. I’ll spare you the administrative details – except to assure you that they are legion – and just direct you to the Festival’s blog, where posts are spreading out like spilt honey from some of the 120+ authors participating in the festivities this year.

Check it out for interviews, ruminations, and tantalizing peeks in the mysterious art and business of writing for a living. (And for answers to the always intriguing question of what I’m doing when I’m not blogging and schlogging.) Jacquelyn Mitchard’s lovely visage graces the Wordstock blog right now; coming soon, a drily droll entry by Victor Lodato.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fantastic Voyage

Sorry, this post is actually not about Raquel Welch and her pearlescent wetsuit, fun through the movie of the same title is. I hope you can adjust.

No, this is about my never-ending search for a drop of water to cool my burning tongue here in the vale of tears we call Planet Earth. Toward that end, I did something Thursday morning that I’ve wanted to do ever since I read about it as a youth: experience a session in a flotation tank.

Invented by John Lilly decades ago, the idea is simply that you submit yourself to a prolonged stretch of time in an environment where nearly all sensory input is “attenuated.” In fact the earliest tanks were known as “sensory deprivation” labs or “isolation chambers,” before some appalled marketing czar put a stop to that.

This adventure was a gift from playwright and adventurer par excellence Steve Patterson, who knows that I like to explore what consciousness will do under interesting conditions. And this was certainly one.

At The Deep Haven over on Hawthorne Street, I walked up the wooden steps of a classic PDX-style house – now an herb store, actually, the kind that stocks everything but eye of newt – where Christopher Messer then took me underground, to the basement and into the soundproof room where the tank awaited.

It was a sleek black box, gleaming and clean, but the scene’s a little like something from The Fearless Vampire Killers – not for the claustrophobic, anyway. But Christopher walked me through the whole process: I would be floating in ten inches of skin temperature water, salinated with 800 pounds of Epsom salts (!) so that I would have no choice but to float. Darkness would be utter. No sound would penetrate the chamber until faint music would cue me that 90 minutes had passed.

No problem, right? But once the novelty of the first few minutes passed, I didn’t think I could hack it. An hour and a half of just lying there? As I laid there buoyed up by the salt water, my mind raced through all I wanted to get done that day, including beating a looming deadline. Really, for the first 10 minutes I was sure that at any second I was going to get up, towel off and sneak out of the house like a thief.

But somehow, without even intending it, all that dissolved into the water. I began to scan my body mentally; stretch a little; experiment with the water’s incredible density. If I fell asleep, could I drown? No, as it turns out; even turning my head to one side was effortful, and would wake me up. The water cradled me like a warm blanket.

At some point it occurred to me that my auric field shouldn’t be dependent on an external light source. So I raised my hands in front of me, and – yes! There they were, the outlines of all 10 fingers faintly illuminated by a warm glow. Interestingly, tiny pinpricks of bright light, like sparks, twinkled all around the fingertips. And when I moved my hands, the impression of light remained where it started for a few seconds.

Following that I began to hear a soft, almost toneless sound emanating seemingly from within my head. This fascinated me, because at first I assumed my brain was inventing sounds just to amuse itself. But no, as the “music” gradually became more audible, I realize it was Christopher’s doing – my wake-up call. I was astonished. It felt like a half hour had passed at most.

I’ll be back to Deep Haven soon for a longer steep; it’s worth the soak just for the return trip to the world, which had a vividness reminiscent of Dorothy seeing Oz for the first time.

By the way, I went into the tank with a hateful headache that I’d had at that point for five damn days. And though it didn’t dissipate in the tank, a concomitant pain – aches in both shoulders – did melt away. Finally that evening the headache itself faded away and has stayed away.

Oh, yeah, I’ll be back.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Color me clueless, but ...

Are you as astonished as I am that a small percentage of people kept their kids out of school today rather than let them hear the President speak? I mean: what could they possibly have feared he would say that it was so vital their children be “protected” from on the first day of classes?

Likewise with the whole health care reform flap. Is it my imagination, or are the most vocal and demonstrative protesters the very people the reforms would assist most? For the life of me, I can’t understand why people are so resistant to a reform that would change their lives for the better.

Yes, I understand the counterarguments, especially the concern that it might be a hassle to get certain forms of highly specialized treatments under socialized medicine. But how is it that the nay-sayers don’t see that those treatments are beyond their means NOW?

It’s scary to me that a certain swath of Americans apparently accepts outright mendacity uncritically – like the death panel business, most conspicuously. Our legislators have tried endlessly to point out that no such provisions exist in the reform proposals, but it doesn’t seem to matter; some people have decided they trust certain sources more than the actual content those sources deliver. Astonishing.

The whole business has made me realize, as never before, how important media literacy is. And I’m very encouraged that Oregon Children’s Theatre is creating and then touring a stage piece that will encourage young people to bring a critical intelligence to input from all media sources, including TV, Facebook, etc. This is thanks to major financial and moral support from Kaiser Foundation. Props to them both.

Meanwhile … I suppose anything I place on this blog is preaching to the converted, but just in case anyone’s still wondering why health care reform is even necessary, here’s a pithy recap of the issues. Megan Kahrs, thanks for sharing this!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My new BFF: Victor Lodato

If you don’t know Victor Lodato’s writing from his startlingly imaginative works for the stage (The Bread of Winter and 3F, 4F, to name just a couple), perhaps you’ll remember that he was the unwitting center of controversy several years ago. The New York Times ran a feature about a phenomenon that many playwrights know all too well, and the article made Victor its poster child. The title: “Workshopped to Death.”

And it was true enough; Victor, long the darling of lit departments all over the national theater scene, rarely got to make the jump from readings and workshops to full production. By now enough critical mass has formed for Victor to survive the lethal syndrome; a recent follow-up article in The Washington Post notes that a critical mass has now formed around awareness of Victor’s body of work that is leading to full productions. "It's sort of like you're not somebody until the Times says you're nobody," Victor quips.

Fortunately, he didn’t spend the intervening years waiting for the approbation of artistic directors. Much of that time went into writing his first novel, Mathilda Savitch, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux releases for public consumption on September 15. The advance buzz is resounding, and for good reason; this book, written entirely in the voice of its eponymous heroine, surprised me on nearly every page.

It’s Mathilda’s distinct voice, paired with her zealot’s determination to impact her world, that makes her such a vivid 13-year-old. Here’s how she presents herself to us in the book’s first paragraph:

I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not? Dull is dull is dull is my life. Like now, it’s night, not yet time for bed but too late to be outside, and the two of them reading reading reading with their eyes moving like the lights inside a copy machine. When I was helping put the dishes in the washer tonight, I broke a plate. I said sorry Ma it slipped. But it didn’t slip, that’s how I am sometimes, and I want to be worse.

Not quite a coming of age story, this book – Victor’s first – examines a turning point in the life of a precocious virago whom circumstances have caused to grow up a little too quickly. Now on the verge of a premature adulthood, Mathilda is often laugh-out-loud funny, but just as often she’s maddening, disturbing, or unexpectedly poignant. She lurches between a brat’s chatty volubility and the perspicacity of a world-weary adult – the psychic equivalent of a boy’s voice cracking. Some readers may be distracted by this, but to me it was the author’s very point in delineating someone of this age and with these problems. She’s in a liminal space: too schooled in adult matters to be a kid, too young to bear adult disappointments.

In sort: this is an astonishing book – read it! And come hear Victor talk about it next month in Wordstock: October 10 at 1pm. Find out for yourself how he channeled this unforgettable character.

By the way, a bonus: the book's cover happens to be graced by one of my favorite collaborative art teams, Walter Martin and Pamela Munoz.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Get it while it's hot

T:BA:2009 opened this week to avid pandemonium. As always, the venerable time-based art festival offers an overwhelming international slate of performances. But naturally, you care only about what I’m getting to, don’t you. So here’s my itinerary so far, if you'd like to stalk me:

Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company (which is the actual name – how’s that for honesty in architecture) performs her play The Shipment this weekend at the Gerding, so hurry up before you miss it. YJL, who is indeed young as all get-out, has been the controversial darling of progressive playwriting in Nueva York of late; now you can see what the fuss is all about.

Thanks to the Festival, we now have a chance to see Spike Lee’s filming of Passing Strange, the smash hit rock coming-of-age story of Stew, he of The Negro Problem. Look carefully during the promo below and you'll spot the radiant Eisa Davis, last seen in Portland during JAW ... 2003, I think? That's when she brought her play Bulrusher, which was later nominated for a Pulitzer.

Coming up fast: the Winningstad Theatre (Portland’s cozy answer to London’s famed Cottesloe) hosts Pan Pan Theatre’s The Crumb Trail, a pomo retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story that encompasses such interrelated ideations as identity construction and internet predators. Not for kids, I’m guessing.

Dance and its descendants is especially strong at this year’s edition of T:BA, and among many thrilling offerings. my own personal cultural guru Tim DuRoche recommends catching Miguel Gutierrez’s Death Electric Eno Protest Aerobics aka DEEP Aerobics. Reportedly this combines “vigorous bouncing” with existential absurdity, so … what’s not to like?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tame yr brain

Guess I’m gonna have to tell em
That I got no cerebellum

--“Teenage Lobotomy,” The Ramones

Along with an increasing number of other unfortunates, I suffer from frequent and incapacitating headaches. Why why why?? Like all migraineurs, I put a lot of energy into possible sources, in the hopes they will lead to solutions. Here are my fave theories of the moment:

1. I’m a genius. Like Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, Sigmund Freud and Margaret Cho, my constant brainstorms are too much for the constraints of my skullbone.

2. I’m a delicate hothouse flower. Studies indicate that some people just don’t handles stresses to the system as well as others.

3. Stress itself. On the other hand, it’s long been believed that migraineurs are simply nervous nellies. In my case this was belied by a prescription of muscle relaxers that had no effect whatsoever.

4. “There’s something in the air besides the atmosphere.” Lene Lovich was right; barometric pressure’s a bitch.

5. Incipient insanity. Historically it was thought that migraineurs were just plain nuts, or well on their way to it. Frequent flyers like Vincent Van Gogh did not help to quash this convenient theory.

6. Mean genes. Migraines tend to run in families; mine is no exception.

7. Hit by a gamma ray. Well, it might have happened ...

8. The luck of the draw. In other words: whatev.

9. Jesus hates me. Evidently.