This video isn’t much, but the video within the video is revelatory and could save some of us a dollar or two.
Haven’t looked to see if there’s an American precedent for making this legal yet, but I’d bet . . .
At the time of my last post I had just reached the end of an often joyful but prevailingly dark six months. The weeks since have been a flood of good luck, achievements, first times and beginnings. I landed a stage role. I got my first talent agent and was sent out for auditions without ever interviewing. I got a free ticket to a benefit for the Human Rights Campaign, where a voiceover agent approached me and offered to record a demo. In his studio he chanced to be on Skype with a former professor of mine, who mentioned the possibility of some work as a dialect coach. I got a free trip to Chicago. I had a great interview for a job with my alma mater, then withdrew my application because the hours were too strict, only to be contacted with an offer of a more specialized, less scheduled job that would send me traveling all over the country. And my feet are healing, to the point where I can walk for a good while, and I’ve even been able to dance a bit. I got chances for free classes in breakdance and capoeira (done the former, the latter on Monday).
I was prepared to work so hard for all of these successes, and a part of me was even a little disappointed that they came so easily. And part of me feels guilty for no good reason. But most of me is just bemused and encouraged that things don’t have to always be exhausting.
This mixed bag of reactions, in retrospect, is an anatomy of habits. I drew one of myself once. It was more or less a stick figure; I’m too impatient to draw well, and that wasn’t the point. Like an anatomical drawing it was covered in labels, but they identified behavior. At the collarbone: “caved shoulders– social disengagement– artificially low voice;” a physical habit followed by the social habits it reinforced.
My self-doubting and self-destructive fringe reactions to all this luck are like organs that evolution has rendered useless. “That was too easy”– a pinky toe, which might make the difference in keeping my balance someday, but in the meantime will get stepped on a lot. “Why should I have this when other people don’t?”– a nice soft pink spleen that fills with pain until it’s ready to burst and needs to be removed. I know a man who died of this, or so I’m told. “Gonna wake up any minute now”– a vestigial tail, less useful than the dream it suggests my life might be. “I don’t deserve this”– a cancer cell. I get frustrated that I’m still subject to these voices after such a long fight to put them aside; but then, they used to be louder, and I used to listen. They used to seem reasonable; now they seem knee-jerk and out of place, and maybe at this rate, in defiance of all anatomical precedent, they will blacken and fall off, ruining this metaphor for good.
To hasten the coming of that day, I stretch my feet and calves and shoulders every morning, push my limits, and plow ahead fast, but not too fast.
Among these voices, one asks a more complicated and completely legitimate question. Since high school I’ve been fighting to claim control of my time. For the last year the battle was particularly intense– I’d cut back on my work hours and trim some unproductive habits, then go out and audition for a role I wasn’t sure I wanted. My mind was a swirl of contradictions, “a tangle of loose ends;” I needed a good slap to the face, and I got it in the form of a car knocking me from my bike into the gutter, pushing my already injured feet to their limits. Even then I fought on, shambling like a zombie through work and rehearsals; after all, I had commitments to finish and a living to make. I survived on sympathy tips and gave a performance that was by turns neglected or overcharged with desperate energy. When the show closed, at a huge cost to my pride, I gave up; I turned down another role, quit my job, and dragged myself around my house on my hands for a couple weeks before relocating to my hometown to heal. I barely saw anyone out of embarrassment– the spry warrior cum cripple– I lost a lot of weight, and I realized I had complete control of my time. Since April, with a few exceptions, far fewer than most people, I do what I want, when I want.
The question: after a long fight for freedom, what do you do with it once you’ve got it?
I reread and wrote enough to let my head catch up with my feet; I worked out constantly and researched ways to do it better; I biked until my knees hurt, tuned my bike so it wouldn’t hurt my knees and biked some more; I wrote and recorded a song and worked on editing it; I read plays and selected monologues; I job-hunted and rewrote my resume and forced out cover letters; I called agents like clockwork until one of them called me back; I talked to people I hadn’t seen in years; I sang new, thunderous high notes; I planned meals, worked in the garden and spent time with my mother; and I did my foot stretches every day. I lightened my burdens by finally doing things I’d put off for too long. But there was almost no method or discipline, just the freedom for impulse, and a whirlwind of impulses.
When you get what you always wanted, you meet a whole new range of problems on the other side; they were with you all along, eclipsed by the thing you were focused on. At first I thought they were a glimpse of what I was to face a few more years down the line, when I achieved this freedom for good. And then the job offer: I’ll be setting my own hours, and this freedom is around to stay. Oh shit, I have to deal with this now. Gotta be a monk. One eye closed in meditation, the other spotting zombies to thrash. Yes, I have a skewed sense of our ecclesiastical history.
Last night as I tried to fall asleep, I was filled with ideas. This is typical, but usually they are ideas I want to write down, and I can easily turn on my lamp, do so, and roll over, relieved and peaceful. Last night was my first impulse to act a monologue. I saw a whole new take on it, one I really liked, really quick and spontaneous and just weird enough to charm the attention; but rather than getting up and doing it, which might have woken my roommates, I lay in place, mouthing it to myself and going halfway through the motions. One of those occasional occasions when I’m happy no one’s in my bed with me. A brand new impulse I’ve never felt before; no clearer sign of deep, fundamental change I can think of.
The impulse is there, the need is there, and the freedom is there. Just the execution remains. Not a new situation– if art is a two-part process of inquiry and synthesis, I’ve always erred on the side of too much inquiry. My days have been full of research, one more reread to make sure I’ve got it, structural planning . . . screw it. Synthesize. It seems like it should be hard but it isn’t, and in retrospect I’ll laugh cause it was even easier.
More on that soon; I’ve got doing to do.
As someone who wants to engage deeply with many passions, I’m interested in the idea of the Renaissance Man, or polymath (from the Greek poly “many” + mathis “learned”). I hope to find my way into a list of polymaths myself one day, with the parenthetical note (theater/biomechanics/etymology/historical linguistics/constructed languages/harmony/literature/theater history/friendship/bread/bon mots). Yet there are some who say such an achievement is not possible, such as Julius von Schlosser, who wrote that “an universal genius is not likely to attain to distinction and to eminence in any thing. To achieve her best results, and to produce her most matured fruit, Genius must bend all her energies in one direction; strive for one object; keep her brain and hand upon one desired purpose and aim.” However, for the moment I will console myself with the facts that Julius von Schlosser
a) is dead
b) isn’t even important enough to merit a Wikipedia article
and therefore hope that maybe I can defy his edict.
In my defense, the fact that the term even exists suggests that something once existed meriting the title. And Wikipedia’s citation-laden and therefore linkworthy lists of polymaths and Renaissance men are both long enough and full of household names to inspire hope that the polymath is not a mere superstition. It could be that von Schlosser didn’t believe because he hadn’t seen– in fact the very term Renaissance man highlights an interesting phenomenon: polymaths tend to appear in waves. Greece/Egypt/Italy in the late years BC, Western Europe during the Renaissance, Persia and the Ottoman Empire at large from the eighth to twelfth centuries AD and to a lesser degree the three centuries after. The reason is as obvious as that a spark begets fire. Great discoveries were made, great schools were founded, and groups came together to challenge and strengthen each other’s ideas. No doubt history has been fraught with countless potential geniuses, of one subject or many, who were not born into opportunity, and they died nameless or lived as local celebrities.
Now back to the present, and the struggle to become a polymath in our current circumstances. My friend Tyler, an up-and-coming Renaissance man (corporatology/linguistics/constructed languages/guest service/choreography/rhyme theory/incorporating tofu into any dish) if ever there was one, confided in me (don’t tell) that within the coming decade, the retail checkout with its familiar aisle, cash register and disgruntled or overenthusiastic attendant will disappear, replaced by an arch. As you pass through the arch with your purchases, a sensor scans a label on each item and within seconds gives you a receipt; your cell phone, which is also a credit card, instantly completes the transaction. A single worker, a trained guest service expert and arch technician, will supervise several arches at once. At least in retail chains large enough to afford this technology, the ancient profession of cashier– which in the past century has already made the transition from skilled to unskilled work as the cash register became more self-sufficient– will disappear, eliminating thousands and thousands of jobs across the country. A loss for the unskilled many and a gain for the specialized few (those who design, improve, maintain and supervise the new technology). Sound familiar?
As machines and (what an offensive pairing) immigrants replace unskilled and manual laborers, much skilled work is leaving the American market in favor of outsourcing– which is not just for manufacturing, programming and tech support anymore– check out https://yourmaninindia.com/ for one example of an outsourced personal assistant service– thanks to Tim Ferriss, a self-declared Renaissance man whose qualifications I will leave to his own words, and thanks also to Michael for referring me to him. Ten dollars an hour will buy a better quality of life, and hence better services, in India than it will in the United States. Simple profit-driven math.
As all of these trends carry forward, the job market for American citizens will increasingly be limited to higher-level skilled work, idea production/entrepreneurship, and food service. Hyper-specialization is the logical next step from here. The very existence of for-profit blogs is proof that we’re more or less already there. The interesting questions this brings up about the class divide in America are material for another time.
The trouble here is that to make a living on specialized work and therefore be able to focus all one’s time on it requires a higher level of expertise than one can often achieve in college. If I say so myself, I live in a very talented house. My five roommates and I are all talented and dedicated in our fields and yet graduated into the job market at a time when hiring was too big a risk to take. Therefore we work in food service, road construction, cell phone sales and repair, grocery, and retail management. Yet in our late night conversations, our gripes about the entitledness of the American customer inevitably leads to world politics, art and economy and sets off a chain of new ideas and new projects. It’s no Library of Alexandria, but it’s way better than nothing, and at the moment a fun music video is coming from it.
Though intuition tells me as much, scientific observation backs up the fact that expertise is based on experience, ergo memory. In observing the neural activity of experts at work, Chase and Simon noted that concerning knowledge of a particular field, experts access long-term memory nearly at the rate that novices access short-term memory. Ericsson and Staszewski tested memory in such experts as waiters and running enthusiasts; the running enthusiast could memorize 21-digit number sequences by relating sequences of digits to running-related distances, times, dates and age categories. Rudimentary proof that expertise in one field can roll over into another through metaphor. Check out some info on both studies.
Despite the necessity of putting my time into a day job, I still find hope for being a polymath, because I have chosen fields that overlap. Personal growth is artistic growth. Directing a show gives me a different perspective on acting and makes me a better actor, which makes me more articulate and therefore a better writer, and success in these areas bolsters my confidence, relaxes my body and helps me sing better and understand the changes that take place in the body during creative release. Essentially I acquire skills that cross the boundaries of any one field, and I observe change, which gives me a broader perspective. It may be that there will come a point when skills diverge from this shared life learning; if I have to make a choice to narrow my focus, it will be then.
So what do you think? Are we in a renaissance? Is there anyone you’d call a modern-day Renaissance person?
If I’m to write here on a regular basis, it has to be for a very present, compelling reason. I’m a Renaissance man wannabe; I’ve seriously considered careers as a novelist, playwright, actor, director, fitness trainer, singer, lyricist, composer, language scholar, language builder, teacher and massage therapist, and I’ll be sorely disappointed if on the banks of the Lethe, before I drink, I don’t get to turn over a memory of each of these things one last time before I let the river take them. Naturally having so many ambitions, I like to kill entire flocks of birds with one stone whenever possible, so if I’m going to invest my time, I had better be rewarded with a rain of feathers.
The common thread between all these things is that I like to knock down walls and untie knots, particularly in collaboration with another person. And whether that’s through the body– clearing away through exercise or touch or experience the pain and ignorance that may keep us from realizing our dreams– or through something on the inside, the result is hopefully the same.
So what does a blog do?
I’m faced with the same question about another, less enjoyable statement of purpose, or rather a whole flock of them. Namely they are the jobs I am applying for, and with any luck I can kill them all with one stone that I edit slightly for each. I hate, hate, hate applying for jobs, particularly when I already resent the job I don’t yet have because it will inevitably take away from free time that I could spend killing birds. (I love animals. I’m a vegetarian. When a bug is crawling on me I carefully pick it up and set it on a leaf. I get sad weeding the garden. No animals were harmed in the writing of this post.)
A good friend of mine has stated that he will not take a job if the work involved isn’t something he’d do for free. I adore this idea and hopefully will be living by it as soon as possible. In the meantime, a dayjob is a necessary evil, and employers make it worse by demanding that you state a “career objective”– namely, why this job lines up with your deeper desires. They know the virtue of having an employee that really loves their work, and they hope to get those people. They hope that their bullshit detectors will buzz when they read submissions from applicants who would rather be singing and dancing for a living, or testing video games, or being kept by a rich lawyer whose unspeakable desires they must occasionally fulfill. Specifically I’m applying for office jobs–come on, we’re over here now– I had to leave my last job because I injured my feet and couldn’t keep up the pace of walking all day anymore, so I have to get a sit-down type of work. I’m hoping that deep down, all office workers really want to be saxophonists like Mr. Kirby from the classic American play You Can’t Take It with You, and that I as an actor and writer, someone paid to generate truth on demand, will be better than them at finding a “career objective” that lands me points.
So what did I put down?
All the time I was working in a restaurant, I told myself, at least I’m picking up some social skills. Seriously, I am way less shy than a year and four months ago when I started working at Slim Goodies Diner, and even if I’m still a natural introvert, I am much less likely to dissolve into vowels mid-sentence.
So, marrying the things I might learn from an office job with the things I know an employer wants to hear, my “career objective” popped out as follows:
“To obtain a position that utilizes my skills in developing interpersonal relationships, written and spoken communication, planning, organization and creative problem solving as well as challenging them to develop further.”
I don’t know which is worse, knowing that I’m putting out this pathetic statement in the hopes of getting hired or knowing that I sort of mean it. If I’m to work a day job, I want to go home tempered, better equipped to do the things I really love. Or else I want a job that gives me lots of free time to work on my stuff, but I hear those don’t pay so well.
All this to say I always feel a little bit like I’m being watched whenever I try to articulate a purpose. It seems so PR-oriented. And an older me, or a younger me rather, would have said, “You don’t need to know my purpose! I don’t know my purpose! I’ll figure it out as I go!” And any time I try to state a purpose I end up thinking more about what the listener would like to hear instead of the truth, and a vigorous search for the truth has been the goal of the last few months of my life.
In the eight months since I studied with Anne Bogart at Columbia University, the buzzword of hers that has most stuck with me is “articulation.” As I understand it, a violent act of making a choice and in doing so killing all the choices one did not make. It is a sharp-edged action quite distinct from my blunt ideal of a single stone that accomplishes as many purposes as possible. And articulation of purpose is a particularly important way to start any enterprise– killing all the endless possibilities of what it could have been and creating a bound– and within its boundaries infinite– expression of direction.
Wandering is a noble purpose and one of my favorites; I have a notebook designated for it. I go there when I need to clarify my intentions or explore something I don’t quite understand. It is my sharpener. But I’ve determined to keep my wanderings to free evenings and the bounds of that notebook and to act with guided intention the rest of the time.
When I write here, I want to have a conversation about how we make our way in the world as artists. How we reclaim our time and energy, how we make our unrealistic dreams happen in a world that is not always friendly. I want to articulate my discoveries and pose questions. I want to embrace my flaw of loving too many things and discover a way to fit them all into my life. That is the impossible and endless mission at hand. No PR here but a vain effort to impress the crowd and I hope you will have ample cause to gasp at my acrobatics.
My “blog objective” is:
“to articulate, test and exchange ideas and discoveries about how to make one’s art the center of one’s life.”
What a dusty corner.
This entry is both the intent and the action of bringing this blog back to life. If only they always happened at the same time!
I started this blog with the idea of documenting my artistic (so far, directorial) endeavors. To keep the bridge short and the canyon narrow, after Bobrauschenbergamerica closed, I took some time off, worked as an actor a few times, started working too much, was hit by a car on my bike and messed up my feet, having to return to my childhood home to recover. It’s been a good reminder of my options– as guilty as I feel for having a safety net, it does no one any good for me not to use it when I need it. And it’s also been some good thinking time; I haven’t had free time per se in the last six years and it’s about time my head caught up with my feet.
So I’ll spend a little while here simplifying the revelations and affirmations that I have so easily achieved in my handicapped state, and from there, who knows what we’ll launch into? I have some projects in mind and some in hand– there’s plenty to say.
A scene-by-scene breakdown of sources for the dialogue of each scene of our play! I only list text that doesn’t come from the original play Bobrauschenbergamerica. Any texts, original or excerpted, may have been edited.
5 Prophecy – original text by Matthew Morris
6 Treehouse – transcript of Mondo Bizarro’s I-Witness Central City recording of Jeffrey Cook talking about his own treehouse
transcript of Mondo Bizarro’s I-Witness Central City recording of Alan Gerson talking about his family’s store
original text by Matthew Morris
10 The Bathing Beauty – original text by James Bartelle added to that of Charles Mee
11 The Meal – transcript of a private interview with Robbie Gilmore about his grandmother and her recipe for gris-gris bags
from Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory – excerpts about watermelon juice and people who hold up the sky
from Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle – excerpt about receiving stars and planets as gifts
from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – excerpt about sprinkling salt everywhere
original text by James Bartelle
from Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo – excerpts about creating what you need and an incantation
12 A Sane Person in a Mental Hospital – original text by Meredith Mullins
14 A Yard Sale – original text by Matthew Morris and Andrew Farrier
23 An Enjoyable Mess – excerpt from the poem Loup Garou Means Change Into by Ishmael Reed
28 Guy Talk – original text by James Bartelle paired with that of Charles Mee
32 Strangers – original text by Caroline Cottingham
35 Becker’s Second Creation – the poem When Death Comes by Mary Oliver
36 Bob – from Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory – excerpt about purpose of fingers
Here are some photos I’ve found and taken of Jeff’s work. Sometime they’re photos of photos, and some of the original photos were pretty bad. Apologies for the low quality. Names, dates and info below each image as available.
Song of Silence. Made for two friends shot in a drive by.
Another view, including Jeff himself:
Vanessa’s Secret, 1999-2001, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Clubhouse Rock, 1989, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
When I Dream, 2003, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Hung outside one of Jeff’s shows at Stella Jones Gallery, in a small tree.
A costume Jeff built, first intended for a Voodoo Macbeth production, then repurposed to his own performance in the opera 7 Days of Paradise, based on his experience of staying in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina.
The Storyteller, on display at Ashe Cultural Arts Center during Jeff’s memorial
Innocence (No More Pain, Pt.1)
Puberty (No More Pain, Pt.2)
Makin’ of a Melody, 2002, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (3rd floor– much better viewed in person and free for LA residents on Thursdays)
made for a friend’s grandson
My Yoke Is EZ, My Burden Lite
I Promise to Remember, 1998
In My Time, 1998
Built from possessions and furniture from Stella Jones’ grandfather’s house. The floor is that of Stella Jones Gallery, which visiting artists sign.
The Mourners, 1998
Images from around Central City and the CBD that for me invoked Jeff’s art.
I woke up this morning remembering dreams:
- I ate part of a hamburger or some other meat sandwich that I was preparing for a culinary contest. It was injected with orange juice?
- A woman who used to teach at my high school tried to seduce me during a church service where I was supposed to sing; I rejected her. As they began to rearrange the pews I went out in the rain to talk to a friend and soon found my bike rolling out toward me into traffic; I stopped it just in time. I also discovered a book of sheet music that belonged to me lying on the ground and saved it from the rain. It turned out that during my absence this woman had tried to hide and/or destroy my bike, my SUV (!), and my booksack, or, as she phrased it in a vengeful email, “the avocado that contains your possessions.” She had drowned my notebooks in a swimming pool; I was furious but insisted to myself that when I woke up my notebooks would still exist.
- I wandered through a maze of dark, dirty high school hallways and subterranean tunnels with a poorly organized library at its roots; I felt a need to escape the people around me, who were either socially awkward or, I suspected, the ghosts of Columbia University scholars.
Take this against my awakening yesterday at 4:45 a.m. after about four hours of sleep; I remembered no dreams, but the moment I awoke I thought, “That cello riff for song C could be simpler.” My mind continued in this analytical vein for the first few moments I walked around, rapidly listing the problems I was facing and the most expedient way to solve them– and doing a much better job than my daytime waking mind typically can.
All this to say my basic habits of thought are changing now and I never know how I’ll wake up.
I sat to eat breakfast this morning, a disordered list of things to do clacking in my head. If there was a top to the list, it was only because the papers for my work for the Forum for Equality were sitting right next to me. We had a meeting last night and I got my tasks for the week, including compiling a list of all my contacts for LGBT organizations at local universities. Seeing the need to get this over with, an old thought said, “What am I doing now?”
“I’m eating.” In a more theatrical mood, I might have meant “I’m being present to the experience of eating.”
“But what am I doing now that’s useful?”
“I’m eating. I need to do it to survive. And it’s fun.” I was eating plain yogurt with rolled oats, raw sunflower nuts and a few raisins and dark chocolate pieces, one of my favorite breakfasts. There’s a lot in that bowl to pay attention to.
Take this against the task I could be working on, this list of LGBT organization contacts. I’m eager to do it– to get it over with, really– and move on to other things. And I’m glad that my work will facilitate what FFE needs to do in the future. But it’s not fun and I don’t need to do it to survive. It fulfills a sense of “should,” this sense that I’m contributing to one of my communities, and I sometimes feel guilty without it. I’ve never thought of it this way, but I’d probably feel guilty about not eating after a while too. By the judgement of the me of today, eating wins. Unfortunately, this whole debate, then my decision to write about it, meant I actually didn’t pay much attention to my breakfast. This urge to multitask is really, really deep-rooted and I find I trick myself about it all the time.
From this experience I have created a scale of ranking for tasks that I feel merit a place in my life.
reorganizing contact information
At the top are things that are fun to do, necessary to do and satisfying to have done; at the bottom, things that are only satisfying to have done. Any less than that and I hope not to have to waste my time. Things at the bottom can be done in a hasty way to make time for things at the top. I eat every day, yes. But there are days when I remember eating with such attention and receiving such profound sensory detail from what I was doing that it set off a chain of memories, thoughts, stories and realizations that have stuck with me since. It’s awesome that a daily experience can do this, and can probably do it daily if one exercises that quality of attention. It’s a slow skill to learn, and the slowness frustrates me sometimes, but this change is an experience too, and I remember that at one time, even just a couple years ago, I lived by a scale opposite this one. Change does eventually come through.
On this scale, theater falls very close to eating. Much like eating, I’m never done with theater. It’s an extremely complex experience full of associations, and the need keeps coming back. It deserves time, and it deserves the slow, deeply observant kind of time that makes an experience stay with you.
An experience is valuable regardless of where it falls on this scale. I’m very glad to have volunteered for Forum for Equality and good things have come of it, including the knowledge that their sort of work is neither my forte nor my interest.
This is a resolution. As I exercise my attention and my instinct for truth, I will rigorously examine everything I do and, thanking the lower experiences for having happened, let them fall aside and make room for experiences that fill my life more completely.
This writing is an exercise toward this resolution. If this struggle is worth winning, it is worth spending time on, and so it’s worth writing about before I do the stuff I should do.