Monday, January 24, 2011

If Not Now, When?

That's the question I saw painted over the door when I walked in. I wondered if it was really there for all to see or if my nerves had steered me into hallucination. Still unsure, I proceeded inside, took a seat in the black room and began talking to whomever was seated nearest me. It's a rare level of nervousness which manifests as outgoing. Once we got started and everyone was introduced, the tension began to release. These were nice enough people and they were no less insecure on that Saturday than I was. Within an hour, I was staring into the eyes of a complete stranger, holding hands and on the verge of tears. This was my reintroduction to acting.

It had been a long time since the glory days of high school drama. My dad and stepmom say they have never seen me as high on life as when I came off the stage from performing in "Hello, Dolly." They're probably right. Being eighteen years old, I took that feeling for granted, or perhaps I just didn't fully understand how rare and precious that feeling becomes later in life. I managed to sneak a few acting classes into my college coursework over the years, but it was really just a keep-in-touch sort of thing, as much as I still enjoyed it. I had decided that I wanted to be behind the camera, so film school was the route I chose. Thinking back now, I'm not sure why I made the choice to put acting off to the side. I think part of it was cynicism about what a theatre degree would "mean" in the real world. Maybe film seemed at least a little more practical without totally selling out my dreams. There was probably an element of intimidation and fear in there as well. Big fish finds himself in a giant pond with thousands of fish skinnier, prettier, and more brash than he, that sort of thing. To some degree, I think I chickened out. I do remember actually thinking to myself that I would pursue writing and then wiggle my way into my own projects as an actor.

The joke, of course, was on me. There is no easy way, no fast track to finding true fulfillment. I was naive and, I'll say it, weak in giving up so easily. Five years after graduating college, I found myself working in the film and TV business, but as an accountant, of all things. Turns out, writing is pretty tough to break into as well. As I would sit in my office, lost, idly wondering what I could have done differently, what I could do now to recapture that feeling of purpose, of pride and passion. I would think about acting. I thought maybe I could find a community theatre production and go for that. I didn't want to go pro, I just wanted to taste the feeling of acting again. Despite my googling for theatre groups, classes, etc., I never found the right fit. This went on for years.

Thank God for Groupon*. There it was staring at me right in the inbox. A three-hour acting class, offered as a preview of the full class, for thirty bucks. I checked my calendar, but there were no excuses to be found. I let it marinate for a few hours, which is to say I gave myself time to talk myself out of it. Luckily, that little voice inside that always tries to keep things safe and easy could muster no argument more compelling than the simple truth that I was more likely to regret not doing this than to regret giving it a try. I booked it.

The class was taught by the founder of the school, and I was instantly impressed by him. Everything he said was hitting me like a spear to the heart. Opening yourself up to your partner (and the world) and letting go of your fear of what may happen when you do...Focusing on your partner, finding all your answers in them...Keenly observing what they are communicating to you with their energy, their body language, their eyes, regardless of their words...Learning to let go of your preconceived notions of how something should sound and just live it without thinking about it...Resisting the urge to make it about you, to put on a show, to "feel" what you interpret the "correct" feeling to be...Acting or no acting, these were ways to live life. I was in. Also, the shit worked. At the start of class, we were paired up and given scenes to read on stage, in front of the class and a video camera. Then we spent the next hour and a half going through exercises designed to aid us in truly connecting with our partner. Thus the hand-holding and almost-tears. At the conclusion of class, we did our scenes again and then they played back the two versions. It was night and day. Don't get me wrong, we weren't miraculously transformed into Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Meryl Streep. The latter scenes were not "good" per se in that you would pay to see them, but without fail, across the board, they were absolutely more real. In three hours, you could see definitive progress in both the experienced actors and the people who had never taken a class in their lives. When I walked out of that class and you might have expected me to kick my heels in the air I was so overjoyed. I felt overwhelmingly like....myself, if that makes sense. More so than I had in a long time, I realized.

I may have paused again, but there was little doubt I was going to sign up for the full 4-week, 5-nights-a-week class. It was the rare risk you actually look forward to taking. I couldn't get it off my brain for the month/month and a half before it started. And now that it has...Let me tell you, I am not a great writer, but I think I have my moments. At the very least, I feel like I can clearly express my feelings. Not this time. As I write these words, I feel like a second grader explaining the theory of relativity. I have found myself, my friends. My heart leaps. My soul sings. My spirit glows with a tireless nuclear pulse that cares nothing for rest and has an insatiable appetite for work. I have been keeping a journal to track what I have learned as well as my feelings about the experience. On my second entry, I see that I wrote "How could I stop doing this?" Five nights a week, I am driving through some of the worst, most debilitating traffic known to man and I haven't groaned or shuddered once. All I can see is what's on the other side of it. I am alive! I was trying to track down my copy of "Outliers" because I wanted to quote it, but I'll rather badly paraphrase that it described a person's dance-in-the-kitchen moment, that moment where something clicks and they suddenly realize what they are going to do with themselves. I feel like I am having that moment after class every single night. It's a shame that it's so late and Nicole is asleep because there are jigs to be danced.

I know what you're thinking. The answer is I don't know. As giddy and exuberant as I feel, I am not naive. While I certainly can fantasize about quitting my day job and doing this full time, I realize my chances of making a living out of this are one-in-a-million. I'm not eighteen anymore. I'm thirty-two with all the responsibilities that entails (sans children). The beauty of it is, I don't care. I don't expect that I will be making this my job, but I know that I have found my work. I will continue to study. I will continue to work, in classes, student films, community theatre, or wherever they will have me. I'll act for my cats on the stage of my living room if all else fails. The joy is in the doing, not in the having. It's an incredibly liberating feeling.

We're just coming to the end of Week 3 with one more to go. It's going to be sad when it's over. It will be nice to get more sleep, see my wife, be able to watch a movie or a game during the week and ween myself off my burgeoning caffeine dependency, but I will certainly miss the invigoration of heart and the freedom from the constraints of self-consciousness I have enjoyed each night. I know I will be itching to get back at it. I'll make the most out of a short break and then start the next class in March. Assuming they'll have me, which I think is likely, but not a certainty.

I feel like Jerry Maguire at the copymat, mission statement in hand.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

...And that's the big problem with Costco peanut butter.

The jars, while economical, are just too damn big. Even using your longest butter knife, when that jar runs low it's like staring down into an infinite abyss. I'm just trying to make a PBJ and you'd think I was carving a jack-o-lantern. I get back to my desk and I have peanut butter on my elbows. Come on guys, either shorten the depth or widen the mouth. The peanut butter public is begging you.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Art of Travel

I like to read as much as the next person. I've usually got a book by my bed side and another in my desk drawer at work, but I am far from what you might call "avid." As much I usually enjoy the books I read, it's not often that I encounter one that hits me in the gut, that speaks to my soul, that truly touches and enlightens me. I was lucky enough to finish one such book recently, The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

I love to travel, not simply for the destination, but for the process as well. I love the anticipation that hangs in the air at any airport, the empowering anonymity of flying alone, and the freshness and curiosity with which new places inspire to be viewed. The Art of Travel examines how and why we travel with the wit, charm, and insight to make you realize that, with the right mindset, a voyage around your own bedroom can be as fascinating as a trip around the world. Divided into five sections, "Departure," "Motives," "Landscape," "Art," and "Return," de Botton weaves and relates his own travel experiences with the experiences and writings of fellow travelers such as Vincent Van Gogh, William Wordsworth, and Edward Hopper. A big part of why I found this book so moving was de Botton's analysis of the work of Van Gogh and Hopper, two of my favorite artists.

"Hopper also took an interest in trains. He was drawn to the atmosphere inside half-empty carriages making their way across a landscape: the silence that reigns inside while the wheels beat in rhythm against the rails outside, the dreaminess fostered by the noise and the view from the windows--a dreaminess in which we seem to stand outside our normal selves and to have access to thoughts and memories that may not arise in more settled circumstances. The woman in Compartment C, Car 293 (1938) seems in such a frame of mind, reading her book and shifting her gaze between the carriage and the view."

Which gives way to de Botton expanded on the idea...

"Journeys are the midwives of though. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it's supposed to do; the task can be as paralysing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand. Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks--charged with listening to music, for example, or following a line of trees. The music or the view distracts for a time the nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness, and which runs scared of memories, longings, and introspective or original ideas, preferring instead the administrative and the impersonal."

Can I get an "Amen?" I was two drinks deep at thirty thousand feet and listening to jazz when I read that and my heart practically sprang out of my shirt. Those moments are so special when you truly connect to an artistic work, when you feel that it represents your own thoughts or experiences so absolutely perfectly and articulates real meaning from what may have been abstract feelings or intuitions. Aside from my wallet, my phone, and my ipod, the one thing I always make sure to have on my person when traveling is my little notebook, for the exact reason described my de Botton above. Now are these musings any more valuable to the world than "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy?" Maybe not, but isn't there great personal value in at least charming or provoking yourself?

Some other pearls pulled from the many pages I dog-eared in this book:

"If we find poetry in the service station and the motel, if we are drawn to the airport or the train carriage, it is perhaps because, despite their architectural compromises and discomforts, despite their garish colors and harsh lighting, we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world."

"I'm obsessed with inventing stories for people I come across. An overwhelming curiosity makes me ask myself what their lives might be like. I want to know what they do, where they're from, their names, what they're thinking about at that moment, what they regret, what they hope for, whom they've loved, what they dream of...and if they happen to be a woman (especially youngish ones), then the urge becomes intense."

"Decades later, the Alps would continue to live within (Wordsworth) and to strengthen his spirit whenever he evoked them. Their survival led him to argue that we may see in nature certain scenes that will stay with us throughout our lives and offer us, every time they enter our consciousness, both a contrast to and relief from present difficulties."

"There were bits of paper all over the car now. The standard of the word-painting was not far above that of my childlike drawing of an oak tree in the Langdale Valley. But quality was not the point. I had at least attempted to follow one strand of what Ruskin judged to be the twin purposes of art: to make send of pain and to fathom the sources of beauty."

I was about to quote one more when I realized it was the closing line of the entire book. There's nothing better than a great last line so, on the off chance you might read The Art of Travel for yourself, I don't want to deny you the satisfaction.

There are not many books that I read again and again over the years. This is certainly going to be one of them.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Future's So Bright, I guess

Greetings, friends. I've got a bigger, better post in me still, but I wanted to take a second to talk about sunglasses. They are a privelage, not a right. If it were up to me, anyone who's abusing 'em would be losin' 'em (I feel so Sarah Palin right now). Obviously, we're all familiar with the primary offense of wearing sunglasses at night or indoors. Unless your name is Jack Nicholson, Jay-Z, or Kanye West, it's just not acceptable. I'm not even willing to discuss this. Period, end of story. A secondary offense, however, is growing in popularity and, I feel, needs to be addressed. Yes, I'm talking about these people that wear their sunglasses indoors, but rest them on their head like a hair clip or a headband. If you just popped inside for a minute between beach volleyball games or some yard work, fine. But if you are sitting at your desk for 8 hours in a windowless building, there is simply no reasonable excuse for keeping your sunglasses on your head.