Category Archives: Thought

Guilty with an explanation, your honor

The gnawing pain of guilt is an essential if awful part of each person’s life.   We often say the phrase, “you shouldn’t feel guilty about that,” or its complement:  “Why don’t you / they feel guilty about that?”  There are aspects of guilt that everyone experiences that are rarely fully explored outside of novels, theater and other artistic creations.

But it is a fact that we, i.e. more or less everyone, feel guilty about some things we ”should not feel guilty for” and that we don’t feel as guilty as we “should” for some others. Our mechanisms for understanding ourselves are faulty. We condemn ourselves for things that we should stand up straight and acknowledge our responsibility without guilt, perhaps even with pride. And there are things we’ve thought or done that require our guilt, require us to feel remorse, require us to accept the pain of our more than fallibility, our complicity, our willing choice to do wrong to another or to ourselves.

Religion and law act as though the question of what we should feel guilt or, alternatively, should absolve ourselves are clearly delineated right or wrong, sacrament or sin, but psychologically its rarely simple. Unnecessary guilt hounds; necessary self-reckoning is evaded.

Randy Newman said it better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canine Music Appreciation

A friend of mine from work had us over to play music one afternoon.  He had a couple of young, big, strong, and, to me, scary lookin’ dogs. The kind of dogs people used to say “there’s only a problem if they sense your fear.”  Yeh, they sense my fear! I’m scared shitless, for chrissake. The dog knows this and therefore it’s going to eat me. So is this supposed to be able to stop being afraid? I know the dog isn’t going to buy any kind of “act” I put on to show I’m unafraid.  No, the animal surely can sense the fear seeping out of all my pores.

I said nothing.

So the man says to me that the dogs really wouldn’t bother anybody unless “like, to defend me.” Makes sense, but I wasn’t sure exactly where the dogs would draw that line.  He tells me the younger dog’s a rottweiler / pit bull mix, kind of like a “pit bull on steroids.” I decided it would be advisable not to get into any arguments with the host.

I ‘m sitting on a couch a starting to play the flute. The rottweiler-pit bull is coming over toward me. He was young but he was plenty big.

As I played he flute he came over right close to me and started to HOWL. I wan’t sure how he’d react if I stopped playing. Maybe that would get him really pissed off. I played and he howled. It was quite a concert.

But I survived.

Now I have a puppy. She’s a soft black and white furry thing. Very lovable.  But when I play my sax or flute, she goes completely bongos. 

I guess dogs are just very frank about what they think of my talents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple more quotes from songs…

These have been running through my head lately:

 

“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. “

 

“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive your crazy.”

 

 

“And I followed my footsteps…”

 

 

“Lately, it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been…”

 

 

“I’m trying to as far away from myself as I can…”

 

Others I’ve jotted down over time are here:

Confluence

René Magritte: The Empire of Light

René Magritte: The Empire of Light

 

Empire of LightI’ve always been thrilled by spots where waters merge:  streams to rivers, inlets, bays, fjords.   Confluence.   What emerges is new, different, often exciting.

In all the arts,  this is the moment:   When an ensemble joins as a group, be it jazz or dance or theater or video or any artistry, conceives of something that brings together disparate elements to create something new — something that opens the mind to possibility — what emerges is more than the sum of its parts.

Obviously not a goal that is easily achieved, but a worthy aim, all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trickle up!

Presumably, it’s obvious to almost everyone now that “trickle down” was nonsense.    But is it possible that good, clear ideas can trickle up?

The 99% / 1% was is a good example.   Even though the Occupy movement petered out, the idea that a tiny minority controls vastly disproportionate power and resources percolated throughout the culture.  It clarified things to a lot of people, even some who equate Karl Marx with the devil.

People of good faith and bright ideas need to find new ways to spread those ideas.    We see the degree to which traditional politics has reached the pinnacle of wealth translating into political power, making a mockery of popular democracy — now neatly stamped and sealed by the Supreme Court.

To try to fight on the plane of money is simultaneously necessary and futile.   An internet campaign that nets a million three-dollar contributions is offset in a few clicks on a one-percenter’s banking app.   We cannot win the battle of money — and money does indeed translate into votes and power — so we fight despite knowing how uneven the playing field really is.

But in the world of ideas, the playing field is perhaps more open than it has ever been.   Those of us who see the damage being done to this planet by its domination by individual and corporate wealth and power have the potential to spread ideas that may take root and grow.    In my most hopeful moments, I believe a few good ideas might be worth more than billions of dollars the wealthy  pour into political advertising and lobbying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hooker-Dunham Theater: A personal message

A benign madness?

With shakes of hands and the blessing of the building’s owner, I will be taking over management of the Hooker-Dunham Theater as of May 15.   (I don’t have control over the website yet, so the site out there is the current management’s site.)

I’m taking this on because I think the theater itself is a marvelous asset to the town of Brattleboro, one that can serve many people’s needs.   It’s done that for a long time by being open to be rented.  I will certainly continue this fundamental structure.

I am not taking this on as Artistic Director.   I am managing the space.   I am giving my time to this.  If a miracle happens and the theater earns more than it costs to run, I solemnly promise to put that money back into the theater.    The theater is not currently fully accessible.   Perhaps, if the right lights shine on this cavern of a theater , it will one day be safely accessible to all.  That is  a goal.

My wildest dreams?

That some combination of actor and directors will take root in the theater.

That video artists might find it an interesting space to work with.

That a group or groups of musicians might find it a nice place to play.

That people living around Brattleboro or coming into town will think:  I wonder what’s at the Hooker-Dunham tonight?

That it will be a place where performers of all kinds will feel they have the opportunity to stretch their legs and try their wings.

That a few New Wave or Jim Jarmusch or Film Noir or whatever film fanatics will find a comfortable home.

That we’ll have a kind of playground for myself and others who enjoy a stage — or a seat in audience — a space where we can explore whatever we’d like to explore…

…and see what we come up with.

 I won’t bore you with my fears.   You could probably imagine them easily enough.

I’ve committed myself for giving it a go for a year.

If you’ve never seen the Hooker-Dunham, there are pictures of it on its website.

For some additional thoughts about community theater, check out these essays:

On amateur creativity

On Community

 

 

 

Audiobook Recommendations

List of great audiobooks

I cannot recommend too highly listening to audio books, especially if you have any long drives in your life.   I have listened to books I’ve never dreamt of reading, and never would have, if it weren’t for books on tape, cd, or digitally downloadable.   The readers are not uniformly wonderful, but most of them are damn good.   They give life to the books without taking them over.   They are fine actors yet also subtly in the background of the authors of the amazing array of marvelous literature that’s out there.

 

Audiobook recommendations:

Most of what I’ve read has been entirely courtesy of the public library.    If your library is tiny and doesn’t have a big (or maybe any at all) collection you can download from the internet, you may have to resort to something like audible.com where you have to pay a monthly fee and can only download a  book or two per month.  (This might seam unimportant, but it’s nice to listen to a book for a while to see if you’re going to want to continue listening to it for hours to come.)  Public libraries are much better if you have one that’s accessible to you.

 

Right now I’m listening to Neil Gaiman reading his own book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”   I’m not in love with it, but I’ll hear it through.  It’s a fantasy through a child’s eyes.   Certainly well-done but not quite right for me.

 

This is a list of those books I’ve found absolutely amazing to listen to, hour after hour:

 

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

Brothers Karamazov  — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fury —  Salman Rushdie

Bleak House; The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club;  Charles Dickens

Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami

Tooth and Claw (short stories); Talk Talk —. T. Coraghessan Boyle

East of Eden — John Steinbeck

The House of Mirth — Edith Walton

I, Claudius — Robert Graves

Moby-Dick — Herman Melville

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain

Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

Lord Jim — Joseph Conrad

More audiobook recommendations:

An unusual detective novel:  Wife of the Gods

And a science fiction novel:  Ringworld  — Larry Niven

And also Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

 

 

Stranger in a Strange Land — Robert Heinlein

A Passage to India — E. M. Forster

Brave New World — Aldous Huxley

Saving Fish From Dying   Amy Tan

The Great Gatsby  F. Scott Fitzgerald

To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf

Our Kind of Traitor — John le Carré

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke

The Tragedy of Puddinhead Wilson — Mark Twain

Invisible Monsters — Chuck Palahniuk

 

Audiobooks that I found that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t quite get through.

 

 

The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao — Junot Diaz  (I got sick of this adolescent’s miserable experience after a while.)

 

Atonement  — Ian McEwan:  Foreshadowing upon foreshadowing;  way too much;  You can see everything coming from a mile away.

 

Freedom —Jonathan Franzen:   Never have I met so many unlikeable characters I don’t give a damn about,

 

The Women — T. Coraghessan Boyle:  I love his writing, but found this slow to the point of tears

 

Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton:  A good book, but nowhere near as powerful as House of Mirth

 

Beloved — Toni Morrison:  With Apologies to those who love this book,  I did make it through, but what a unutterably dreary and painful trek.

 

Repeat winners:

Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes tales  — the master

The detective novels of Andreas Camilleri — always amusing, I’ve found

(I couldn’t take the reader, by the way, for the “Wallander” series of detective novels, so that one didn’t work for me.)

A Contrarian’s Solution to Winter

A lot of people (and birds) like to go south for the winter.   I often prefer to head north.   My mind begins to view winter differently:  as an opportunity to see sometimes stark, sometimes specular beauty.   Warm clothes, warm hat, warm gloves, warm chair by the fire: “Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly!” as Eliza Doolittle might exclaim. 

Maybe it’s because I come from L.A., where a nearly uniform warm but smoggy haze enveloped the city more or less year round, but I love the dramatic beauty of winter.    Going north reminds me to enjoy winter’s beauty instead of bitterly complaining “when will spring ever come!”

 

 

 

 

 

It takes a nut

My most recent venture in community theater hits on a topic that has always been dear to my heart:  the overuse and vulnerability to abuse of psychiatric labeling and “psychotropic medication,” from tranquilizers to anti-depressants, from anti-psychotics to social anxiety alleviators.   

I was “trained as a psychologist,” meaning I got a doctorate in Clinical Psychology (NYU).   Back  then, ages ago,  when I was a graduate student, I lamented that so much of “therapy” devolved to the prescription of a psychoactive drug and a series of a few brief contacts with a “mental health professional” (psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker).   The situation is far more extreme today than it was then.

In my college and graduate years, the criticism of the “medical model” was on the ascendancy.   The logic seemed compelling:   critical elements of the terminology and structure of medical philosophy and practice simply did not apply or, worse, misled us when applied to human problems.   Was it every really possible to speak of “cure” in the medical sense that a seriously troubling personal problem could be effectively “treated” to the point that it became simply in the past, like a successfully removed appendix?  Did concepts like “prognosis” make much sense psychological problems?  Wasn’t medicine at best a rather inaccurate metaphor, a very weak fit, when transferred to talking about people’s problems in living?

Today, the medical model is more engrained than ever.   We have all been well-trained to believe that psychiatric diagnoses accurately define our psychological problems;  when we think of solutions, we immediately think of “medication,” — meaning a pharmacological concoction dreamed up by a megalithic drug company.   We even have images in our mind of how these drugs work in our brain, increasing or decreasing “serotonin uptake” or increase or decrease electrical activity is some part of our brains.   If the problem is personal, psychological, then the solution is chemical.

This is not to say that some drugs (no, I do not call them medicines;  they are no more “medicines” in the strict sense of having a specific effect on a specific disorder than the old patent medicines that used to be 75% alcohol!) don’t benefit some of the people some of the time, as Honest Abe might have said.   There’s no doubt that many people find themselves at least partially satisfied with how these pharmaceutical creations affect them.

But my experience is that, for all their fancy names and labels, theytend, in varying degrees, to either shut you down or speed you up.   Every one has side effects, some of which are pernicious, such as the agony many report in coming off a particular “medication.”  None have the kind of specificity that’s ascribed to them by their manufacturers.  None, that is to say, simply relieves specific symptoms and otherwise leave you well enough alone.  Tranquilizers slow you down and the “major tranquilizers” or “anti-psychotics” slow you down a whole lot more.  The uppers, whether to “help kids concentrate” or alleviate depression, zip you up.   The claims that this particular chemical composition has that particular psychological effect because of this particular thing that it does to the brain are largely pharmaceutical company hype.

So a psychiatrist will make a best guess about what’s most wrong with the patient and what pill is most likely to have a positive effect without creating some dramatically awful side-effect, counter-effect, or effect when the patient has to stop taking the pill for whatever reason.  And if the results are not good, then the doctor will prescribe something different and see if that seems to “work.”  Meanwhile, the patient isn’t talking to anyone about how to change their miserable relationships — or lack of them — let alone how their past miseries might be overcome at least to the extent that they stop screwing up their current life.

A lot of this comes out in the play we’re about to do (Nuts by Tom Topor). A person is accused of a crime.  She is convinced that she can demonstrate her innocence to a jury, but she is being held in a psychiatric hospital as crazy instead of being allowed to stand trial for the crime of which she is accused.   She is loaded with powerful anti-psychotics against her will.   She refuses to be forced to hide behind and be trapped behind being labeled “incapacitated,” nuts.

The play unveils the potential for abuse:  when small minded people are entrusted with power far disproportionate to their capacity for compassion and understanding of human nature, they can use the tools of psychiatric diagnosis and forceable treatment to impose their personal will on others for their own personal reasons, like their egos and or worse.

The point is not that every doctor who ever prescribes psychoactive drugs over the objection of the patient is an abusive, power-loving psychopath (Though who can forget Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the behavioral psychologist from A Clockwork Orange?).   Certainly their are some doctors who are legitimately and consistently compassionate;  there are some patients who definitively need something before they do some serious harm; but self-aggrandizing, self-righteous, mean-spirited, empathy-deficient mental health professionals do exist, and the danger of abuse is all too real.

Not all abuse is as dramatic as that depicted in film and theater, but the chronic overuse of attaching scientific-labels and calling them “diagnoses” is itself a form of abuse. Psychological problems, our difficulties-in-living our lives that limit our human potential, are too complex to be reduced to a set of “symptoms,”  a shopping list of behavioral symptoms that are very roughly connected to each other to form a modern diagnosis.    It becomes all to easy to call someone “a schizophrenic” as though this diagnosis defines who the person is.   It becomes all to easy to say that a person “is ADHD” or “has Attention Deficit Disorder” as though this were who the person is, as though this defines the person.

Labels are a double-edged sword.   On one level they are simply descriptive words, words that help us communicate about what’s wrong.   It is not that these words mean nothing:  the are often very evocative.   When we say that a person is clinically depressed, we are likely saying something real about the person.   But if we stop there, it is as though putting a label on a problem defines the problem.    

I have many times heard people, especially parents of troubled children, express how relieved they were to learn that their child was some specific diagnostic category, because it “now all made sense to me.”  Now the troubled person or the parent of the troubled person, has a word, a category, a definition, a name to call the problem. It is no longer a problem,  it is a  “condition.”

And with this “identification of the disorder,”  there ensues a terrible loss of responsibility. Terrible because people are nothing without responsibility for themselves.   It is responsibility that makes us human rather than automatons.   Whatever we do, whatever we feel, that is who we are.   If we deny our own responsibility for being who we are, then who are we?

 

For the record, I’m playing the abusive psychiatrist.   (Nuts by Tom ToporVermont Theater Company; Hooker-Dunham Theater, Brattleboro, VT;  January 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, and February 1 and 2; Fridays/Saturdays 7:30;  Sundays 3PM)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mis-governance

It is painful to me to see how badly our government functions.   On every level of governance, from the White House to the local school board, self-aggrandizement. posturing, and mean-spiritedness dominate the “process,” contaminate it.

 

The dreams of my youth, dreams of a society characterized by cooperation, by a mutual recognition of each other’s needs, seem oh, so terribly far away.

 

We have revolutions of technology, but so little of the mind, the heart and the soul.  So little progress in how we treat each other, how much respect we have for the other’s feelings.

 

Wigged out

Probably the most frequent question I got after playing Madame in VTC’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maid, was why I didn’t wear a wig.   The early publicity photos showed me with a frumpy blond wig that we ditched at a dress rehearsal, instead opting for my bald head in all its glory.

Whether we fully succeeded or not isn’t for me to say, but what we were going for was a Madame who clearly a male playing a woman, but not pretending to be a woman.   We thus presented three very different sexual images on stage:  Claire as an attractive female female, Solange as a male transformed into a female, and Madame as a male woman.

Madame, as I played her, is not a transvestite in the popular understanding of that word.   No one, not even for a moment, would wonder if I were really a man or a woman.   You wouldn’t need to look at my Adam’s apple.   Nor, again at least what we were trying for, would it be a wolf-in-grandma’s clothes or J. Edgar Hoover in a dress kind of fake.   It was just a direct man playing out this bizarre woman’s role.   She had to come through for herself.   And the man in Madame as himself.

Playing absurd theater — my personal favorite genre — means bringing forward extreme contrasts.   The audience is confronted repeatedly by jarring contradictions.  But it is these very contradictions that make absurd theater emotionally real, psychologically accurate.   Real life is full, for example, of words of hate spoken as though they were love.  Disgust and desire, hope and despair, fear and fearlessness do not exist in separate universes, but mingle and intertwine.   Our rage at ourselves turns outwards and our rage at others turns inwards.   Our desire to show ourselves honestly and our desire to hide everything beneath an impenetrable facade co-exist.

So I/we chose Madame to be strong and vulnerable, determined and utterly dependent, cruel master and, at the same time, victim of the same system that enslaves her maids.      Addicted to her clothes and to her domination, she has lost her humanity yet is all the more human, even if a rather despicable human.

Oh, what fun!  Fun, because Madame is also a laughable exaggeration of a “woman of society.”   I consider myself truly blessed to have a had a chance to stand on the “catwalk” the set designer built into the cave known as the Hooker-Dunham Theater and declare, gesturing wildly with my French manicured nails, how “Outrageously happy!” I was because my lover’s imprisonment had “only made me aware of my attachment to him.”   And equally happy that I managed to clomp my way off that platform without breaking my goddamn neck!

 

Madame and her faithful MaidsMy heart will beat with this terrible intensity

Howard Wagner’s real identity

In an odd and delightful twist of fate, I have gone from being Howard Wagner, the “business is business” boss who fires Willie Loman in Death of Salesman to playing  “Madame”in Jean Genet’s The Maids.

So I’ve gone from backstage at Next Stage/Apron Theater with “Charlie”, learning, for the first time in our lives how to tie a bow tie, to Madame, by far and wide the strangest role I have ever played in my life.

Charlie (Ray Mahoney) ties his bow tie

Charlie (Ray Mahoney) ties his bow tie

Put it down, I'll drink it presently

Madame

High Wire Act

Hire Wire Act

 

Playing Madame in our local southern Vermont production of Jean Genet’s The Maids is definitely, for me, a high wire act.   Start with wearing thin high heels and replacing my normal fingernails with a French manicure, something I never even knew existed until a couple of days ago.   Then put me on a platform about four feet wide that juts out into the cave that is the Hooker-Dunham theater.  I can see nothing but bright light shining at me and all blackness anywhere else while I’m uttering convoluted, absurdly histrionic lines with intense emotion and flamboyant gestures.

Not just for me, of course.   What Genet’s play asks of the young actors playing the two maids is most definitely a high wire act also.  Xoë and Tyler, who play the maids, both have to reach a frightening intensity to make their roles work and, IMHO, they do so magnificently.   All three of us are way out there on a long limb.   That’s part of the thrill.   For both the actors and the audience.

Genet’s play is challenging on so many levels:  The flowery language, the intense themes of desperation, murder, incest, and suicide.   The perverting of human nature by the master – servant relationship.   The absurdist exaggeration that makes every thing both unreal and hyper-real simultaneously. By having Tyler and myself playing women’s roles hopefully adds to this dimension of contradiction, of the uncanny.   In Tyler’s portrayal of Solange, the older sister maid, and in my own, the audience has to deal with two very different versions of a man playing a woman’s role.   With Tyler, it is possible to forget that he is not a woman;  with me, this is definitely impossible.   My “maleness” is as much a part of my character as my high heels and my beautiful French manicure.

 

“My most beautiful dress.  It was designed for me by Chanel, especially.”

Chanel oscar red dress heidi klum

Heidi Klum in her Chanel dress at the Oscars

But I do love my nails!

French Manicure

French manicure

Last four performances:  Thursday, Halloween night (October 31), Friday Nov. 1, Saturday, Nov. 2 (7:30 PM).  Sunday, Nov. 3  matinee at 2.  Vermont Theater Company.  Hooker-Dunham Theater.  Brattleboro, Vermont.

The show runs a little over an hour.