What I share won't come from after dark but rather the quiet before the light, warm morning kisses, and the cold grip of the day.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

How High the Trees

Football and me.  Macramé and me.  Home repair and me.  Placing these activities with my own personal pronoun reminds me of a simple Christmas present long ago.  My mother, in my stocking, had given me a pair of small rectangular magnets, each with a plastic Scotty dog, one white, one black, glued on the top, no taller than a postage stamp.  I played with these for hours.  (I was a very little kid, OK?)  I couldn’t get enough of watching the magnets repel each other, as if the dogs were pushing, kicking one another away.  Those exertions I mention above, when placed in the magnetic field of “me,” should make the words spring apart right on the very page.

Football ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~   me

Home repair~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~   me
It hasn’t always been that way with football.  I loved watching the games with my family on our black and white TV.  I collected football playing cards.  Y. A. Tittle.  Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.  Paul Hornung.  Rosy Brown.  My older brother and I developed (well, it was really more him than me) a one-on-one game of football we could play in our oblong yard, by using the newly planted trees, not much taller than we were, as pass receivers.  You could make a forward pass to one of these trees, and as long as we agreed the ball hit squarely in the “strike” zone, it counted as a reception.  We played dozens and dozens of times.  When we first started playing football together, I was walking around with my shoulders hunched up, as if stuck at the top of a shrug.  My brother asked what I was doing.  I said I wanted to look like the football players on TV.  He cracked up and then explained they were wearing shoulder pads, not holding their shoulders up in the air.

One of my mother’s close friends from Berkeley came to visit us at our farm in Kansas.  She accompanied us outside to watch us throw the football around.  My brother had chased one of my bad passes down the driveway and I was standing there talking to Beverly, who I thought was very pretty.  My brother, figuring I was paying attention, launched a long ball to me.  Maybe he was showing off a bit.  But, I wasn’t paying attention.  He called out my name, I turned toward him, and because his aim was dead on accurate, the ball slapped me in the face.  I started to cry and Beverly held me and gave my brother hell for not being careful.  Double satisfaction.

My brother went off to college when I was still in grade school and I didn’t have anyone to toss around the ball.  So, I would kick it, punt it, and got pretty good.  I would go in the alfalfa field kick it one way, run after it, and kick it back the opposite direction.  This one kick lofted up and over the tops of these gigundo trees that lined our property.  I could never kick it that high or that far again, so I gave up.  I watch punters now and wish I’d have stuck to it.  When I was a freshman in high school I went out for the football team.  I was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed one hundred and five pounds.  I think my coach was afraid to put me in.  The one time he did, I dislocated my knee cap. The cap was sticking out from my knee, off to the side, like a drawer pulled out from a bureau.  As my team mates were carrying me off the field to the locker room, it popped back into place.  That felt good.  The asshole coach wanted me to jog around the field a few times.  To “shake it off.”  I protested, I can’t even stand on it let alone jog.  But, he made me do it anyway.  I hobbled off, more like hopping.  The only time I got to suit up is when one of our starting players fucked up, and was late for the team picture.  The coach was so mad.  He looked around and saw me and said, “You’re suiting up for Mike.”  I got to put on the game uniform and sit in the front row for the team photo.  Number 26.  Mike’s number.  That weekend I got to go with the team to a game in Kansas City, about an hour from our school, suit up, and stand on the side line.  The weather was rainy and cold.  We were losing something like 65 to 6 and the coach, after our touchdown, put me in on the kick off.  I ran down the field along the sideline.  When the whistle blew he called me back out.  My one play in my high school football career.  Maybe he wasn’t such an asshole.  Dean, our star quarterback and a really nice guy, got his collar bone broken during that game.  They had to cut his jersey off and tape him up.  It looked a lot more painful than my knee cap.

After the game and a hot shower, we got into our jackets and ties and onto the bus.  We were taken to a restaurant for dinner.  We could eat anything we wanted; as much as we could pack away.  That was great, as I didn’t go to restaurants that often.  I fell asleep on the way home.

Some years later, living in New York, I had come back to visit my mother in Topeka.  I called up my friend, Dan, and we went out for a beer.  He had been a half back on the team.  He was also in all the musicals because he had a wonderful tenor voice.  He told me Mike, number 26, had died of AIDS.  He and his twin, Steve, grew up in a hard life on a dairy farm.  They boasted about putting a crate behind cows in the barn.  I was sorry about Mike’s death.  He was always laughing, and he never got mad about my wearing his uniform for the picture and the game.  Not long after that visit, I got a call from Dan’s wife, Donna, a former cheerleader and Dan’s girlfriend in high school.  In college, she and I had been in a folk trio together with another friend.  Dan had been getting ready for work that morning.  He had a business maintaining apartment buildings.  He collapsed and died of an aneurism.  He was 43.

I have no idea what happened to those playing cards.  I wonder how high the trees have grown in the yard and if some kid is trying to punt a football over top.

Anon, James.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Taking to Bed

I made my bed and I lie in it.  (This could have a double meaning when sharing a bed with someone.  In this instance I refer to being supine.)  When I first moved west after spending 20 years in New York City, I felt as if I was free to explore my aptitudes, whimsies more like.  I’d been doing pretty much the same two or three things. As it happened, every 20 years I pick up and move and change my life.  It isn’t an agenda.  It just works out that way.  I don’t say to myself, “This makes 20 years and counting, so get out the map and the suit cases.”  Some kind of migratory itch happens to me.  I grew up in Kansas and when I was 20, I moved to New York City, where the etcetera of my 20’s and 30’s transpired.  When these migrations occur, there’s usually a surprise in store.  You will walk into a bakery, strike up a conversation, and viola!  I caution: if you think it will rectify what is wrong with your life, it won’t.  It may seem that way for the first year or two, because you’re busy setting up an abode, getting a job (which seems daunting these days) and exploring a new domain.  You may alter your day to day pattern and environment, but to really change what’s gone wrong is a different battle.  If you have problems they will follow you like a shadow.  There can be junkets within these double decade campaigns, where I shoot off in another direction.  When I was an actor in New York, it would be necessary to live elsewhere sometimes.  I might actually move to another city for a spate.  There’s always a correlation, though it may not be obvious.  The score is not only about time, but an entity of existence.  A lesser cycle happens in seven year periods: I get fit.  I’m due to get fit, and relocate.  Neither seems likely at this sitting, but who knows?  The shadow? 

Departing NYC, I yoyo around the country.  It felt good to ramble a bit.  I land in Santa Fe after false starts in San Francisco and Denver, and settle into a new routine.  I meet my Darling, etc.  I am not sure how the idea of making a bed came to me.  It was never an ambition of mine, the way some people make boats, or snow shoes, or take up painting. Occasionally, I visualize things.  I don’t mean supernatural occurrences.  I call it that when I see something in my imagination, complete and finished, like a cartoon character may see a new car in a bubble above her head.  I saw a bed frame and it was made from steel.  Now, I am not really handy with tools, and certainly don’t weld.  I grew up near a small country town where the last working blacksmith in the state had a shop.  It was in a small barn-like structure on a side street in Overbrook, Kansas.  If you looked straight at it from the sidewalk the building could have been a set in a Western movie complete with a forge and an anvil just inside the barn door sized entrance.  I always loved fire and sometimes wish I had the brains to apprentice with the old guy.  But, I was a kid and I doubt if my parents would have let me.  (I almost set our house on fire once when I was playing with matches.)  When my parents would go into town to do their errands, they’d drop me off and I’d wander around town on my own.  Sometimes, I’d stand at the doorway of the blacksmith shop and, no doubt, pester the old fart.  If he told me anything I don’t recall.  I have met two blacksmiths in my life and neither of them was exactly talkative, until you got them going on smithing.  I’d stand as near to the forge as he’d allow feeling the heat, see the embers, and watch him bang things.  His clothes and face were sooty like a chimney sweep.

The other blacksmith I found in the yellow pages.  He was out by the race track on the southern end of Santa Fe and his name was Leonard.  His set up was bigger than the fellow in Kansas, more of a ware house with racks of various kinds of pipes and bars along the walls.  But, the forge was there in the middle, and the anvil; as was the soot on his overalls.  He was in his 60’s.  I went up to him and said I wanted him to make a bed.  A what, he said?  I could tell he was thinking, oh, brother.  I took a sketch from my pocket, a diagram in decent perspective with the measurements drawn like a blueprint.  I had worked part time in college in a drafting office.  I had the lines drawn very professionally.


 All the specifications and details were there for the head and foot “boards” and the frame holding them together.  Leonard took the drawing and half looked.  What color do you want this, he asked.  No color, I said, just the color of the steel.  He paused a second, like his brain revved. Well, it may rust a bit, he said.  I don’t care, I said.  ‘Course, out here it’s so dry, it won’t discolor too much.  What’s this here, he said, pointing to four small disks I had drawn.  The basic shape of the foot and head board was an elongated “H” and I explained those disks would sit on the top of the posts to cap them off.

He began to study my sketch.  The four main vertical posts were to be steel pipe.  He said, What about using square piping for these?   He took me over to the racks along the wall and showed me a sample of tubing about an inch-and-a-half square.   I could make cuts at the top of the bar, he said, close that up and cope it.

As I tried to visualize that, he slowly traced where the cuts would be with his finger tip.  Rather than a flat end with a disk on top, he would soften the steel in the forge, crafting posts into the crown of an obelisk, like the top of the Washington monument.  I’d make a smooth seal, he said, it would look nice.

It surely did.

We’ve had that bed nearly 20 years.  As Kid prepares to go off to college, to go off period, I picture that bed in her apartment someday, on the top floor of a small building in a large city.  In the meantime, I’ve begun to visualize.

Anon, James

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Rational Enquirer

I met some wonderful new people at a New Year’s Day party.  Peeling away coincidences in conversation with a young woman (“Oh, really?  I lived in Topeka, too.”), only to discover I had been a groomsman some forty years earlier at her uncle’s wedding, in another state, before she was born.  There was more, but the details aren’t the issue.  The degrees of separation John Guare so brilliantly espoused in his play (the title of which became more renown than the writing itself), is not the point; it’s the connections.  When I go to a party, I tend to want find a corner, talk to my Darling, and avoid making the effort to speak to people I don’t know.  (Never doubting she is the most interesting person there.)  But, I force myself to go chat, even when I am clearly being given the cold shoulder after I’ve sidled up to a knot in the kitchen. (Bubble over guests head: “Crap. Who is that asshole? Is he really going to stand there with that stupid smile on his face nibbling the pate until I have to acknowledge him?”)  Yes, yes I am.  I may start out with something mundane, dip my toe in ribald, or highbrow, but I will spend enough time to find out if there is a genuine person in the circle.  After a few minutes, if you realize it is folly go back for another hunk of pate and target a different click.   Allow folks to talk about themselves, which is what everyone wants to do, until they feel so very good they’ll get around to asking you something, so you can talk about yourself, too.  Anyway, if the party is being given by someone you enjoy, the guests are probably cool.  Aren’t you?

I’m not suggesting we start chatting up everyone we stand next to in a queue, but in a social situation, get over yourself, your reluctances, make an effort to talk, or even better - listen.  Hard to do, listening.  Hard to stop preparing the next brilliant thing we intend to say as soon as the jackass opposite shuts up. The word “I” can be dead weight in a dialogue; an effective ear plug, so if sentences mostly begin with “I” someone isn’t listening, but launching. Improvisational conversation can be a kind of a jazz dialogue of several terrific conversations, feeding and building from what is offered around, but it can fall flat if not connected to what’s been played.  There is risk in stepping into the stream unless you’re in earnest, pay attention, and do it for the right reasons: to make music, rather than to blow your horn.  Listen with your eyes.  Are you seeing a polished performance by the person you are engaged with, have they given this “speech” too many times?  What are they doing while you’re speaking?  Are they looking around the room, is the light behind their eyes dimming, or do they focus in concentration? 

I worked with a famous acting coach and director, Robert (Bobby) Lewis, who no one knows now but theater historians and actors he taught, like Linda Hunt, Jeff Goldblum, Montgomery Clift, Maureen Stapleton, and the late Ron Silver.  He was a member of the Group Theater and one of the founders of the Actor’s Studio for starters, and therefore, a major influence on American theatre and its acceptance of Stanlislavski’s “Method” technique, now tossed around as a joke (like psychology) by the uninformed.  Here is the connection: this renowned method teacher, who you’d think would tell us to dig deeper into personal experiences, told us, repeatedly, to get out of “your own lousy psyche.”  In other words, imagine the life of this character, this person you are trying to play.  (My favorite line he used was, “If crying were acting my Aunt Minnie would be Duse.”)  

Even if you fail to make a connection, you’ll come out better for the leap.  Be patient, watch people like a birder and hear their call.  There lies benefit, be they wise or foolish.

Anon, James.