Saturday, May 17, 2008

This One Only Has A Couple Funny Things In It

Right now I have one of those regrettable pimples which straddles the line between philtrum and lip. It could not possibly give more of an impression of herpes. My skin has been relatively clear since my sophomore year of high school, when a reaction to the antibiotic I was taking for my acne gave me 105 degree nightly fevers for two weeks, along with migratory arthritis pain and other lupus-like symptoms. I lost 20 pounds, and my own body heat apparently burned the puss-filled little nodules right off my face.

Before that, I think it's safe to say that my acne, and my baseline lack of awareness of how young people communicate with each other, were a continual death for me. The memories are thankfully dimming, but I was not a happy young person. The casual cruelties of adolescence were keenly felt, and the persona I've since cobbled together (ha ha, lookit me! jokesy jokes and articulation! get it, fuckers?) is doubtless a direct offshoot of this misery. I find people who remember childhood as an idyllic time intolerable. You cried more then, did you not? I cry much less now than I did back then. Case closed.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I act the way I do - in which I'm including, you know, acting - because I was really uncool and fairly unpleasant to look at as a kid. At least, I felt very unattractive, and when I first received indication that there might be pleasing things about my personality, I latched on to them like a lamprey. I guess everyone does this. I'm just letting you know, me too.

So, two things. One, I'm taking this weirdly intense acting class now. It's very explicitly and exclusively geared towards contemporary, high-emotion, Meisner-type naturalistic acting. The teacher, "Daryl," indicates clearly that the issues he'll be exploring do not relate to musicals, Shakespeare ("performed in a large space"), or anything performed in a 'style.' Surely he recognizes the problematic linguistic challenges such a view raises, but. Whatever. I guess we all know what he means. Acting like you're not acting, feeling stuff for realsies.
In this class, "Daryl" makes a case for maintaining a keen awareness of all the things that we as people throw up in front of ourselves in order to avoid confronting ourselves as we really are and the ubiquitous proximity of death. These distractions can include many tiny satisfactions or large compulsions, but boil down (in his view) to self-love. He asked us to take note of how many times during a week we finish an interaction with someone congratulating ourselves on what a good impression we left on that person, or reveling in how much the person loves us; how many times we go offstage feeling good because we 'nailed it,' though the character we played was in misery.
I'd like to state explicitly that I don't see anything "wrong" with these kinds of minor deceptions. We are all of us a pack of neuroses. There is no ideal "real me" under all my defense mechanisms and self-destructive patterns. What you see is what you get.
That said, the sense of satisfaction I get when I think I've said something perfectly and been heard and appreciated - yeah, that's something of which I can't get enough. And that may be one of the things that sucks about me. I guess it depends on how accurately I am able to judge my own wit.
The second thing - Jesus Christ, I do go on - is that I'm naked in the show I'm in right now, and I say very little. The reviews (which have been very positive, I really encourage you to see it),
when they mention me, mention only my body.

Physical attractiveness is not what I'm "going for," really. My face is fine, you know, nothing to make you compose a poem which you would then send to your mother. I'm not going to be an action movie star - or, fuck, any kind of movie star - and that's cool with me. (Be advised: yes, these are the constant considerations of the professionally observed.) But between the reviews, and my peachy girlfriend, I get a lot of praise for my physical loveliness. And I, really, I don't know what to do with it. Tell me I'm smart or funny and that goes right in my Ego Bank for repeated reflection at later dates, but tell me I'm good looking and, what, good, glad I've done a lot of pushups. It's nice, you know. Rather have praise than ridicule, surely, it's a step up since middle school, but it doesn't feed me in the way "Daryl" encourages us to be aware of.

I am a terrible man.



Friday, May 9, 2008


It has been an extremely exhausting couple weeks, gentle readers. Pray accept this missive softly and with delicate care into your eyeballs.

A friend died. A friend of long and emotional significance. His name, which I will not be changing out of respect, was James Karpinos. He was the youngest of three brothers. He and my sister were friends in preschool; his mother and mine became close friends then, and have remained so. I have spent every Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween with their family since I can remember. I was in perhaps the first acting role of my life with James Karpinos: a very silly Culbreth Middle School production in which we sat in a mime'd car and lip-synched to motown classics (he lead “Blueberry Hill,” I shimmied and snapped in the background). I can remember vividly jumping excitedly around his living room concocting our curtain speech, which we were allowed to write ourselves; feeling terribly clever for thanking the lighting guy “without whom we could not be seen;” fearing I was monopolizing the director's chair and getting nothing but supportive encouragement from James.

I remember he and his mother came over to my house when I was very young. I ran repeatedly to the top of the stairs, yelling that he was saying swears. I have no memory of the words he was using. His mother spoke to him very firmly about being rude in someone else's home; my mother, to me, about being a tattletail.

I remember when I was back from, I think, my first year of college. I still had many friends in high school and was at one of their houses, drinking and talking outside in the liminal new-growth forest/sprawling suburbia which comprises the setting for almost all of my memories of a maturation in North Carolina. We went upstairs and into my friend's room, where we found the closet closed and reeking. Opening the door, who should I find but James, on his way now towards being the towering figure of Appalachian strength at which he was arrested. His eyes, red from the anonymous herbs he'd been smoking, went wide and terrified at seeing me. I fell immediately into the social... thing, and didn't address the expression until later in the night. By then, I had smoked with him, and he felt at liberty to tell me that the sight of me, a figure he associated only with our mothers and pleasant family conversation, in that debauched closet nearly gave him a heart attack. After that, we always intended to get together and drop ourselves-as-family in favor of ourselves-as-friends. It never happened. Some relationships are one thing, and to twist them risks breaking.

We were friends, and family. It is worth stressing that I consider the concurrence of my sainted mother and his, in one town, finding each other, an event of such serendipity that it reaffirms my faith in some natural tendency of existence towards symmetry. More on that later perhaps.

The Karpinoses, despite a fondness for Duke Basketball which in my youth I confused for Republicanism (those representing the opposing sides in the two major divisions between humanity in my household) are the greatest family I know. They are, all, the nicest, kindest, most self-sacrificing and gifted human beings I have ever known well enough to judge. Their goodness outshines my mediocrity as the sun one of those keychain flashlights. An apt metaphor, as the good industry of the Karpinoses seems to come natural as breathing and mine has to be continually squeezed from me, like masses of coal grudgingly producing the occasional diamond. I love the Karpinoses; I strive to be like the Karpinoses.

James had, of late, become a strapping pillar of a young man. He fought forest fires. He climbed mountains and jumped off. He made, I imagine, girlfriends by lifting them off the ground. While out rock-sliding he slipped and fell into the river. His girlfriend didn't see him fall. She saw him come to the surface, once, but that was probably the caprice of the river. The search and rescue crews found him less than a day later – a small blessing in this, that no one had to wonder for long. He hadn't drowned. He died from head trauma.

So, I went home for 22 hours for his service. Their neighbor conducted the ceremony. It was beautiful. His brothers spoke, one with a few lovely, well-articulated memories of James, one with a passage from the Bible.

I am an atheist. I have faith only in the notion that there is a great deal which we do not know, and in the exceptional potential of human imagination. Though the architecture and fellowship of the church was inspiring, and the words of his older brothers held comfort, I got angry as I listened to the Christian language of remembering a life and dealing with a death. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” “There is balm in Gilead.” The Lord is good, the Lord is in all things, all things are good, and love, and sweet nectar cupped in His perfect hand. There was very little said about the value of companionship in these times, or the need for support, or the virtue of giving yourself over to the strength of a higher power. It was all speeches insisting that, since God is good, all things are good, and aren't we lucky. A boy just died for no reason. My friend, her son, his brother – no, not all things are good. This is not good. God does allow terrible things to happen. We will not make it otherwise through repetition.

Tonight is opening night of my show. It's called Durango, it's in downtown Chicago, the city where I live now.