Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Where do you see people tearing about...?

David Allen, from Performing Chekhov (2000):

Chekhov was opposed to the falsehoods and exaggerations of acting he saw in most theaters of his day. In a letter, he wrote:

where -- in streets and houses -- do you see people tearing about, leaping up and down, and clutching their heads? Suffering should be expressed as it is expressed in life -- i.e. not with your arms and legs, but by a tone of voice, or a glance; not by gesticulating, but by grace. Subtle inner feelings, natural in educated people, must be subtly expressed in external form. You will say -- stage conditions. But no conditions justify lies.

How, exactly, should 'subtle inner feelings' be 'subtly expressed in an external form'? Chekhov offered this advice to Olga Knipper on how to approach playing Masha in Three Sisters: 'Don't pull a sad face in any of the acts. Angry, yes, but not sad. People who have long carried grief within themselves and have become used to it just whistle and are frequently lost in thought.'

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Beginner's mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
--Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi

At my first-ever Zen retreat last Saturday (Zen-lite, really), I was praised for my "beginner's mind." That's Zen for "you're an idiot." I'll take it as a compliment, though.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Do you care that the turtle is alive?

In her lecture "A Nascent Robotics Culture: New Complicities for Companionship," Sherry Turkle of MIT writes about visiting the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History with her daughter. Outside the exhibit area was a live Galapagos tortoise in a cage. Turkle's daughter said "they could have used a robot" instead, because the tortoise wasn't doing anything--so why bother with a live one?

I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children... The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, “Do you care that the turtle is alive?” is welcome diversion[.... ] A twelve-year-old girl opines: “For what the turtles do, you didn’t have to have the live ones.” Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: “But the point is that they are real, that’s the whole point.”

I find the children’s position strangely unsettling. For them, in this context, aliveness seems to have no intrinsic value. Rather, it is useful only if needed for a specific purpose. “If you put in a robot instead of the live turtle, do you think people should be told that the turtle is not alive?” I ask. Not really, say several of the children. Data on “aliveness” can be shared on a “need to know” basis, for a purpose. But what are the purposes of living things? When do we need to know if something is alive?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pilates and Pilate

I've just begun taking Pilates, and as I suspected, there is a connection between this form of exercise and crucifixion. According to Wikipedia, as a child in Germany Pilates suffered not only from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, but from the taunts of other children who called him "Killer of Christ." The rage and humiliation drove him to invent an exercise system called, originally, Contrology. It is from this that I now suffer twice a week. For many years I have evidently lived with two wooden boards strapped to my sides, making it impossible for me to do most of these "core" exercises. I hope this will help rather than ruin me.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

When selfishness became patriotic

Listening to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech to the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Union, the day before he was killed, I was struck by his explication of the Good Samaritan story. The Samaritan, King said, teaches us not to ask "what will happen to me if I intervene?," but "what will happen to the sanitation workers if I don't?" Seems simple enough. Contrast this with Ronald Reagan's speech exhorting Americans to demand a tax cut. He said something like, if you want to do something for your country right now, call your representative and say you want lower taxes! I don't have the exact language, but I heard an echo of Kennedy's "ask not" line, updated for a new and greedier decade. As a people we have always let our individualism bleed into selfishness (otherwise King's speech would not have been necessary). But it seems to me that Reagan enshrined selfishness as patriotism. In the wake of Jimmy Carter's presidency, where sacrifice was mentioned too frequently for many tastes, this appears quite deliberate: greed is not only good, not only patriotic, but a form of sacrifice. How can you give? Why, you can demand money.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The essence of fanaticism

"The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change. The common inclination to improve your neighbor, mend your spouse, engineer your child, or straighten up your brother, rather than let them be. The fanatic is a most unselfish creature. The fanatic is a great altruist. Often the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself. He wants to save your soul, he wants to redeem you, he wants to liberate you from sin, from error, from smoking, from your faith or from your faithlessness, he wants to improve your eating habits, or to cure you of your drinking or voting habits. The fanatic cares a great deal for you; he is always either falling on your neck because he truly loves you or else he is at your throat in case you prove to be unredeemable. And, in any case, topographically speaking, falling on your neck and being at your throat are almost the same gesture. One way or another, the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself, for the very simple reason that the fanatic has very little self or no self at all."

--Amos Oz, "How to Cure a Fanatic"

Thursday, January 11, 2007


I just learned a new word, "awfulize." I'm told it comes from John Bradshaw, author of Codependent No More and other works. I don't think I'll use this word, but it's kind of stopped my train of thought for at least an hour now.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chipped beef

When I was seven or eight, my mom and I took my grandmother to eat at a restaurant inside a department store. It must have been Christmas time, because that's when my grandmother used to visit, and the store must have been Higbee's or Halle's in the Westgate shopping mall in Fairview, Ohio--all now kaput, except Fairview, which is more or less OK. The mall in fact was razed last time I was home, but they are building a new outdoor one. Bear in mind this is Ohio we're talking about.

Anyway. Nana ordered the "chipped beef" which, if I recall correctly, is a pile of shredded beef in cream sauce on toast (so regional! so not possible to order anymore, probably not even in Ohio!). Memory and family legend perhaps distort the story, but the pile was huge. And Nana had a rule that you chewed each bite of food 32 times, or anyway far more times than anyone else ever chewed. I don't know how long it went on. As we finished our meals and the lights dimmed and all the other customers left, the employees gathered at the counter, waiting to close. Nana chewed. She was undaunted. She finished. My mom and I were mesmerised.

This episode is known in family lore as the Chipped Beef Episode, or Chipped Beef for short.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Duane Hanson

Every once in awhile I go over to the Cantor Art Center to see the sculpture by Duane Hanson called "Slab Man." This is a life-size, hyper-realistic workman, complete with real hair and exhausted mien. The first time I saw it I was with my parents. At first we all overlooked it, thinking it was a real worker in the gallery, except after awhile we noticed he wasn't moving. We then tried to sneak up on it, because we--or I, at least--decided it was performance art. It had to be a real person performing "statueness," and ready to leap at me when I got too close. It does seem to have movement; maybe it's one's own movement in standing still and staring at it. Also its posture suggests someone stopping to rest, and so breathing.

I'm excited because it turns out instructors at Stanford can arrange gallery talks on pieces of their choosing, so I'm going to have one for my spring quarter students on Slab Man, plus the Gordon Parks and Richard Avedon exhibits which will be up by spring. I keep reminding myself that my class is not just about character and characterization, but portraying life--aliveness.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Free will and fiction

There's an interesting article in today's NYT science section about free will. Basically, we don't have it, or not nearly to the extent we think we do. Thinking we have it is apparently inevitable, a result of our evolution, so knowing we don't really have it might not change our behavior. But our consciousness is, according to the article's illustration, a tiny, backward-facing monkey struggling to manage the roaring tiger of our subconscious. Usually we are doing something already before we "decide" to do it; more precisely, it seems we can "veto" at least some of these actions, but we can't really decide to initiate them.

The writer, Dennis Overbye, talks about how thinking tends to mess up certain processes, including fiction writing. He envies the "trance" that fiction writers say they go into when working, and suggests this state is the unconscious coming to the surface. The monkey is off its back, so to speak. It's a little alarming to think of it this way, but I suppose this is another way of talking about "being in the moment"--you stop pretending to have free will and let the tiger drive.