Monday, February 26, 2007
Yes, sex is so very VERY good... unless it isn't, in which case it's really hard to remember why one spends so much time and does so much work to make it to happen because DAMN, when it's bad, it's BAD, and you don't know why you bother, and maybe you'd be better off devoting all that energy and frustration into something constructive like building houses for the poor, or raising cockatiels, or collecting doilies or SOMETHING which will result in something to show for one's efforts, except for the fact that sublimation/redirection DOESN'T WORK, I don't care what anyone says, FREUD CAN 'SMOKE MY CIGAR' because when you want sex, you want sex, it's not like urges are just fuel that one can put any old place (shall I gas up the stove, the jalopy, or my wife?), that approach doesn't WORK. DOESN'T DOESN'T DOESN'T DOESN'T. Does not.
I'm sorry... what were we talking about? Someone needs to go run around Manhattan. In a cold shower.
What is salt peter, anyway? And where does one find it?
Sunday, February 25, 2007
This is the first, tiny, glacial step in addressing pain I've had since 1992. I suspect I may have given myself whiplash by playing a Pentecostal snake-handler who speaks in tongues and has seizures. Sixteen shows, with me flinging my head backward violently. Yeah, that seems likely. But the pain has been a slow, creeping deterioration, making it hard to pin down, diagnose, and fix in the past. Initially, since my teeth seemed to be the source of the trouble, I thought I might need another root canal (having suffered one the previous year), but while I was relieved to learn that wasn't the problem, it still left me with no real solution. Next I had a doctor examine me; he was perplexed, but suggested I try antihistamines, speculating maybe my sinuses might be involved. Then he sent me on my way as well. Over the years I tried other doctors, dentists, and for a while, a chiropractor. The latter was the first medical person in a while who seemed to take my concerns seriously. Unfortunately he didn't help; in fact he may have made things worse.
During all this time I was staying reasonably active; my performing has generally been quite physical, I was taking lots of dance and movement classes, then I eventually started dabbling in tumbling and acro-balance. The pain by this point had become much more decisive in its characteristics, and it had moved down my body, eventually including, well, basically everything on the right side of my body. Eye, sinus, jaw, back of head, neck, shoulder, right arm (tingling down to my three smallest fingers), lower back, buttock, down my leg to my outer toes. The pain has been some kind of presence in my life for the last fifteen years, and has covered half my body for at least the last ten.
I got used to ignoring it. I worked at ignoring it. No one seemed able to help, or particularly concerned about it. I'm wary enough of medical people and their habitats, so if no one seems to want me to come visit him/her, I'm only too happy to comply. The dentists were typically a bit more sympathetic seeming, but generally I was also paying them more. Most of my medical care has been provided by low income clinics, and while it's probably just paranoia, I can never shake the sensation that the people who work there are always a bit irritated by my presence. "We've got indigent folks dying of AIDS here, white boy, we don't really have time to listen to your whining." Being accused of whining is worse even than being accused of condescension in my book, frankly. Even the idea that someone might be thinking that about me sends me running for the door.
So I soldiered on. Then about two years ago the pain got still worse, and I found myself starting to limit my activity. While we're cataloguing weird shit that Patrick is secretly neurotic about, I'll mention another one. Periodically I've asked myself, if I were to lose a sense or an ability, what would be hardest for me to handle? Sight, yeah, I'd miss it, but I'd deal, so much of what I love in the world would still be available to me. Hearing, that one would be harder, I think, but I think I'd still cope... no, when you got right down to it, the biggest fear I had was of becoming paralyzed. The idea of losing my ability to move has always been my special vision of hell. Why do I bring this up? Because recently I found myself thinking "wow, I do everything I can to avoid moving these days." I'm certainly not paralyzed, THANK you Jesus, but it was startling and frightening to think I was no longer really connecting with the world physically. This threatened a core sense of myself, how I relate to the world, other people, and it scared me a lot.
That may have been the deciding factor that got me to try getting help again. That, and a lucky encounter with a very nice therapist who was a friend of a friend, and gave me a free consultation (THANK you Sue). My first meeting with Kelly (lovely new PT), I realized I was just grateful to have her listening to me, taking my concerns seriously, acting like my problem was legitimate, treatable, and most importantly, WORTH treating. No idea how much of a difference this treatment is going to make, but just having it legitimized by someone else has been surprisingly gratifying.
I've also found myself examining my attitude towards pain. As a pretty young kid I began priding myself on my ability to withstand pain. I'm not sure exactly how this got started, but I have some ideas. This may come as a grave shock those who know me, but I was an extremely effeminate kid, and I was terrible, TERRIBLE at sports. Since in grade school and Jr. High, sports ability was the way you differentiated boys from girls, this presented me with some identity problems. With athletic ability off the table, that left me with few options to show my male bona fides. Chasing girls was a possibility, and I actually did that with some enthusiasm, until puberty had other ideas. So, sports and girlfriends were out, what did that leave me? I began cultivating a certain kind of stoicism, where physical pain of any kind was not to be acknowledged. This of course was a tricky way to prove oneself. One can't draw attention to any suffering, because that immediately defeats the purpose of being stoic about it (I understood this early on). Responding with Vulcan-like emotionlessness to accidents and obvious injuries was one way. But I also took great pride in suffering in private. My ninth grade year, when these things were reaching a fever pitch, I ran cross country with a twisted ankle. Every practice, every meet, I retwisted it. I managed to come in second in the city-wide race though, and felt more than ever that this was a way to establish some kind of nascent machismo. I even tried using cross country as my very own aversion therapy. Running long distance (which I actually hated, and probably wasn't well suited for, being a much better sprinter), I would fantasize about guys. Showering in warm water, I fantasized about girls. Then to end, I'd turn the water to cold, and think about guys again. This didn't cure me of homosexuality, but it sure as hell ruined me for long distance running.
My stoicism had all sorts of repercussions. I find it extremely difficult to ask anyone for help most of the time, though I've gotten better over the years. I sympathize with other people's emotional pain reasonably well, but a person's (particularly a man's) physical suffering has got to be obviously dire for me not to feel secretly smug. My first boyfriend was one of those guys who wanted 24 hour nursing when he had the sniffles, and I was a grave disappointment to him. I never told him to suck it up, but I felt the temptation frequently.
Add into all this the fact that most of my professional life has been spent pursuing disciplines that cause pain, albeit usually the healthy, 'things are getting stronger' kind, and it's not surprising that I stayed in my just-ignore-it mode. My PT asks me questions about the qualities, intensity, persistence etc. of the pain/tingling, and I often find myself growing a bit impatient with her. I don't KNOW anything about it, I've been IGNORING IT for a decade, don't you understand? I think I'm also somewhat suspicious still, like I think all her questions are really just designed to catch me out, like a police detective, and eventually she's going to accuse me of making it all up. Poor Kelly, she's doing great and I'm mostly being cooperative so far.
I suspect most American males would recognize this behavior. Maybe Americans in general would, since we as a culture have started to act like ill-health is a sign of moral weakness, sin, even. Writing this entry is triggering my 'stop whining' impulse even still. But I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. Both PT's I've spoken to have been careful not to promise too much. But with any luck, over time I might be able to move and sleep better than I have since my twenties.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Those who know me well know that I avoid ever being pinned down to a single favorite anything, and certainly when it comes to books, choosing one would be like choosing a favorite song, or food. That said, if someone were to insist that I had to answer the question "what book has most influenced you" with only one title, I would, without much hesitation, answer Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo.
While devoted to improving as an artist, seeing it as a true religious calling, Niko initially feels it best to avoid politics. "Artists in politics are like the whore’s child at the wedding; we remember things out of season, and get the stick " (p.87) Plato and Dion, on the other hand are firmly committed to the political and philosophical (no difference in the terms really, in their day) goal of bringing about the good life. At their initial meeting Niko recounts,
...Dion had now started talking about plays; and I saw before long that here
was a man who could teach me something. Nothing, as a rule, is more tedious than
an amateur ignorant of technique and full of theories; and he was ignorant
enough. But what he talked about, he knew. Most of tragedy is concerned with
kingship, and the choices it compels men to; and what he said that evening has
been of use to me all my life. The theatre, after all, can only teach one how;
men as they live must show one why. (p. 68)
"... I have remembered who I am. I am a citizen of no rank; I don’t understand
philosophy; when you were studying, I was playing stand-ins and extras, picking
up my trade which you want to take away. But whatever I am, or you choose to
call me, one thing I know; I am a servant of the god, and though I honor you and
love you, I will obey the god, rather than you." (p 161)
Dion calms them both down, but then continues the debate;
"... What did you mean, Nikeratos, when you said you served the god? Not
just that you perform the sacrifices to Dionysus and Apollo, and respect their
precinct; but something more?"
‘Surely,’ I said, ‘you don’t need yourself to be an artist, to understand me. It means not setting oneself above one’s poet, nor being false to the truth one knows of men. When one can see that the audience wants the easy thing, or the thing just in fashion and even the judges can’t be trusted not to want it too, for whom does one stay honest? Only for the god.’
‘You hear him speak, and obey him. But could you have heard so clearly,
if you had not learned your art from boyhood?’
‘No, I think not. Or not so soon.’
‘Suppose you had been badly trained, and always heard bad worked
praised above good.’
‘A great misfortune. But if an artist is anything, sooner or later he thinks for himself.’ ‘But others not? Bad teaching spoils them past remedy?’
‘Yes, but they are men the theatre can do without.’
‘You mean they can take up some other calling. So they can. But,
Nikeratos, all men have to live, either well or badly, as they are taught. If
enough are taught badly, the bad will get rid of the good. And you, whether you
choose or not, are a teacher. Young boys, and simple men, don’t go to the
theatre to judge of verse; they go to see gods and kings and heroes, to enter the
world you make, to steep their minds and souls in it. Can you deny this?’
‘But,’ I said, ‘one plays for men of sense.’
‘You keep faith with your art... You will not offend the god with anything unworthy, even though men would reward you for it. But your power stops there. You cannot rewrite your play, though the poet may be doing the very thing you would scorn to
‘That is his business. I am an actor.’
‘But you both serve the god. Can his god say one thing, and yours another?’
‘I am an actor. He and I must each judge for ourselves.’
‘Truly? Yet you have to enter his mind. Have you
never once felt you were entering a false world, or an evil one?’
I could not lie to him, and replied, ‘Yes, once or twice. Even with Euripides, in his
Orestes. Orestes has been wronged, but nothing can excuse his wickedness. Yet
one is supposed to play him for sympathy.’
‘Did you do so?’
‘I was third actor then. I should have to try, I suppose, if I were drawn for
‘Because that is the law of the theatre?’
‘But, my dear
Nikeratos, that is why we want to change it.’
‘I understood ...that you wanted to destroy it.’
‘No, not so.’ He looked at me with kindness, as if I were a decent soldier he had beaten in war. ‘Plato believes, as I do, that an artist such as you, who can portray nobility, has his place in the good city. In some such way as this: that the parts of base, or passionate or unstable men should be related in narration, while only the good man, who is a fit example, or the gods speaking true doctrine, should be honored by the actor’s imitation. In such a way, nothing evil would strike deep into the hearers’ minds.’
I gazed at him, solemn as an owl. If, having begun to laugh, I could not stop,
which seemed likely, he would despise me for instability. I told myself this,
sober up. Not that I feared his displeasure now; as I had said, he was just a
man. But the man was dear to me.
‘You mean,’ I said, ‘that in the Hippolytos, for instance, where Phaedra reveals her guilty love, and where Theseus curses his son in ignorance, all that would be narrated? Only Hippolytos would speak?’
‘Yes, just so. And we could not admit evil being caused by Aphrodite,
who is a god, to a just man.’
‘No, I suppose not. And Achilles must not weep for Patroklos nor tear his clothes because that is a failure of self-command?’
‘But do you think,’ I asked at length, ‘that any of it would strike deep into the hearers’ minds? You don’t think it might be dull?
He looked at me, patient, not angry. ‘As wholesome food is, after those
Sicilian banquets that have made us the scorn of Hellas. Believe me, our
Syracusan cooks are artists too, in their way. Yet you would not lose your figure, health, and looks to please one of them, would you, even if he were a friend? And is not the soul worth more?’ ‘Of course it is. But...’ It was no use, I thought, against a trained wrestler of the Academy. I had learned my art by asking how, rather than why. (pp. 161-164)
There, in a nutshell, is an argument we’re still having every day, in relation to theatre, music, art, television and film. Is representing human behavior at its ugliest a dangerous action? Does it encourage others to emulate it? Are there good and bad ways of representing the worst of humanity? Is portraying violence, hatred, evil, bestial behavior the same as condoning it? Is it celebrating it? If these troublesome behaviors can be portrayed in ‘responsible’ ways, who decides what that is? And does ‘responsible’ or ‘moral’ art end up being anything other than didactic? Is it nothing more than illustrated sermons? Will it always just be plain boring?
I love both these men, and appreciate the depth of feeling they each bring to their points of view; I believe they both have the good of others at heart as they debate, though they disagree. I don’t think Niko challenges Dion’s argument very effectively, but my sympathies still lie more with his side. To some extent it may simply be an issue of free speech for me. I don’t think people always behave responsibly with their language or art, but I fear much more the slippery slope of a nanny state when it comes to public discourse. Once we start censoring, I don’t trust us to be able to stop. History is painfully clear that when we start with good intentions and ‘common sense’ regarding censorship, we pretty quickly devolve into the espousal of a single, unquestioned world view, and suppression, often brutal, of anything that doesn't fit that view.
The two men leave this confrontation feeling the personal rift between them is more or less patched, but each believes his view is unchanged. Later in the play however, Nikeratos finds himself needing to wrest control of a performance away from those who would abuse it for their own aims, their principle goal being to dishonor, ridicule and, they hope, destroy Dion. I couldn’t possibly sum up that scene, but it is brilliantly realized, and uses one of my favorite plays (Euripides The Bacchae) to do it. Niko honors the god, and his art, and in doing so manages to defeat the people who would have abused the play and Dion for their own ends. Though I don’t think he realizes it at the time, he manages to find the path that honors both his and Dion’s (and Plato’s) views.
It’s not until later that he discovers how Plato, Dion, and the Academy have affected his thinking. He is rehearsing a play in Syracuse with his friend Thettalos; after rehearsal one day he says to him,"my dear, I said nothing before the others; but what are you doing with
He met my eye in a way I knew, which mean he was going to try to
talk me round. ‘Don’t you think it would be new, and in the spirit of the times, to play him for sympathy?’
‘What times? The play is about the Trojan War.’
‘Well, but it’s true Achilles did kill Patroklos, or cause his death. In
Home, the first thing you hear of Thersites is that he stood up to Agamemnon when he was in the wrong. Who else did?’
‘Achilles. Diomedes, Chryses. Odyssesus.’
‘Well, Thersites spoke for the common people.’
‘No, my dear, just for the mean ones. He is the voice of envy, which hates great good worse than great evil. In this [the playwright] has followed Homer. Penthesilea is the part to play for sympathy; Thersites offers you contrast.’
‘It’s in the modern spirit,’ he said. ‘It’s anti-oligarchical. Let us show the common man rebelling; they can do with that in Syracuse.’
‘God help the Syracusans, if they recognize themselves in Thersites. They have forgotten greatness; all the more reason to remind them of it. Achilles’ anger lasted a few days of his life, but scarcely a dramatist has stepped outside them. It is quite bold of [the
playwright] to show him at his best; why be afraid of it?’
‘O Zeus!’ he said. ‘I believe you think I want to steal the scene. Do you think that?’
‘No indeed. I know you. You want to create what your mind has seen. I could do an Achilles to that Thersites; full of nothing but his own importance, indulging his own grief because it’s his, and killing Thersites just for showing him up. It’s not in the lines, but one could put it there. "Who knows? The audience might eat it.’
‘Well, then, why not?’
‘I suppose because men could be more than they are. Why show them only how to be less?’
‘One should show them true to life.’
‘How not? But whose? Truth is to reckon on Achilles as well as
Thersites... There is truth even in Patroklos, who couldn’t pass by a wounded man, and whom the slave-girls wept for because he never spoke them an unkind word. The world is not Thersites’, unless we give it him.
‘Dear Niko, I didn’t mean to put you out. Don’t think of it again. You are directing, and I promised to be good. I just thought it would freshen the theme a little.’
As he walked on, I wondered how much of what I’d said I had picked up from the men of the Academy, even while rejecting their views. (pp. 261-262)
Thettalos does keep his promise, and begins rehearsing the role as Niko sees it, though at first he seems to swing too far the other way, removing all humanity from the character. Niko knows this is not intentional on his part, and simply leaves it for Thettalos to ‘settle down’ in the role. Then Thettalos meets Plato for the first time, and sees him at his best, while surrounded by enemies, mostly the mercenary troops of Syracuse, determined to destroy him. Once he and Niko have gotten to safety, he says,‘Well, you have won, you monster. I will have to reconsider Thersites.’
He was a great success. Whether the troops would have recognized themselves I am not sure, but the audeince left them in no doubt. [The playwright], terribly putout, said it would have been as much as any judge’s life was worth to give the play a prize, and we thought I better to leave the city before dawn the next day. (p274)
The book puts a fictional character in historical events, and doing so may give weight to one side of the debate between Niko and Dion; thus it may be unfair of me to leave with the answer I do, but I usually end up finishing the book feeling like Niko’s world view, while no less idealistic (indeed I think he and Dion agree on more than they disagree), is somehow more resilient. Throughout the book Dion is present as strong, but unyielding, even to rigidity, and I think this is his undoing. Niko says himself that he will be forgotten long after Plato and Dion are still celebrated and he’s right... but I can’t escape the feeling that he somehow gets closer to the good life they all seek. At the very least I feel like his idealism is still intact by the end, having perhaps been built on a more solid foundation from the beginning. I realize this assertion is pretty vague, but that's in part because I don't want to give away too much of the book's ending. I'm still hoping to convince some of you to give it a look for yourselves.
The book is not without its flaws, of course. There is a casual sexism at times which, while quite true to the time period, may grate on some readers. Even this is not without its mitigation, however, though I won’t say more about that now. Niko is also more given to using ‘theatrical metaphors’ than I care for (you know, like those commercials where the speaker tells us she’s a teacher and says things like "I give Advil an A!"), but I also appreciate how he often uses them to deflate the pomposity of a situation. When it was first published, Renault (a classics scholar, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford), was credited with her remarkably detailed portrayal of 4th Century Greece; I know now that some scholars question her accuracy, but I feel her vivid portrayals of living people is still undimmed. I come back to this book pretty often, and always feel inspired when I do. If you've read this book, I'd love to know what you thought of it, it would be great to discuss it with someone. I'd also be curious to know of any books you find yourself returning to on a regular basis.