Thursday, March 13, 2008

My 2008 Primaries Gift to Senator John McCain

Not that the GOP smear machine has ever needed any help fabricating an issueless warpath to DNC shortcomings, but there is a blaringly obvious silver bullet in the news I’ve yet to see anyone capitalize upon. If I don’t talk about it I am going to burst and rarified Funk & Wagnalls colloquialisms are going to spill out over my hardwood floor. I hate mopping. So, Senator McCain, this is my gift to you.

As we forge ahead in veritable disgust that the outcome of an election might once again come down to a Florida court decision or its doppelganger chez Michigan, this time the decision as to who would indeed be the Democratic nominee, it is only natural to look back at 2000 and dream of sawing the whole peninsula off like Bugs Bunny. “South America, take it away!” My persistent migraine still swims with hanging chads, butterfly ballots, voter fraud, spoiled ballots, hot-ass Broward County, and a particularly disturbing image of Pat Buchanan looking accidentally sexy to voters. In that swarm of post-election answerlessness, the avalanche of particulars raised over weeks and over the year to follow was enough make me want to ride a Diebold machine over Niagara Falls…the Canadian side. Somehow, there were so many scraps of a demolished process to consider, no one sticks out in our minds as useful today. Or does one?

Am I the only one who remembers the embarrassment we were showing the world? How many times did they insert into the news broadcasts the opinions du jour from the common folk on the streets of Paris or expatriates working in the far Pacific rim? We were the laughing stock of the global political landscape. We knew it too. More than once the proceedings called for a more rapid decision making process, not only because the American people deserved it, but reportedly because we looked to the world like we had no idea what the hell we were doing. Him Big Chief Democracy, Broken Noggin. To this day I mildly suspect that Gore threw the extended fight so that his country might save face, and no other reason.

Well, for the Democratic Party, doesn’t a similar embarrassment apply now? Sure they were within their rights to punish state bodies when those states had broken party rules. Sure the candidates were reasonable to sign agreements regarding what would be zero seated delegates from those states. Now, barely a couple months later, months in which the race has proven too close to call, places like Florida and the campaigns themselves want to revisit the defunct primaries to hedge bets. It seems as if the Democratic Party doesn’t know how to run a primary in much the same way the U.S. seemed not to know how to count votes in an election. All party conventions should now hand out dunce caps.

All John McCain has to realize for an early and applicable snipe is that the Democrats as a group now look bad either way. If the candidates honor their signed agreements, as worthy as that might sound, they are in effect saying they hold with the idea of discounting people’s votes. If instead they keep with the belief that every vote should count, an ideal we hold dear, not only will they cost those states millions of dollars to rerun primaries, but they also look like hypocrites for going back on their signed, documented agreements. Hypocrite or anti-voter? Whom would you elect? Bracketed in this simple way, McCain could have his first one-two punch, still with additional room to portray Democrats as not knowing how to run their own primary. How can they run a country?

My personal solution to the disenfranchised Florida and Michigan Democratic Primaries lies in New Mexico. Remember when the 2000 election tally was still close and the media started running down the “what happens in the event of a tie” possibilities, state by state? Well, New Mexico’s contingency had something to do with five card stud, drawing straws, or a game of high card being the deciding factor. Seriously, that was the law. As history repeats itself, the news just yesterday ran the story about a game of stud poker in New Mexico that decided its elected Estancia Town Trustee. No wonder illegals want in!

Well, there’s our answer. The Florida and Michigan Democratic Primaries have to be declared ties. Surely each state has its own legislated tie-breaker, a legit’ one they should have already budgeted for or a silly one that involves something like monkeys ripping into cupcakes. Yes, we are not talking about tie votes, but there is more than one way to look at a tie. We could backwardly argue that zero delegates or zero outcome for each candidate in these states constitutes a tie. We could even go a more philosophical route and claim that despite the number of votes, New Mexico voters legally voted to play that hand of stud while despite the number of voters in Florida, Floridians essentially voted in hopes of effectuating some ridiculous tie-breaker when they were told votes wouldn’t count. In any case, I am positive that a documented election tie-breaker would save millions, eliminate fraud, and at least in that academically philosophical sense count votes toward an outcome.

Should the DNC take my advice, however, Senator John McCain is going to get a great soundbite. It’ll be speechifying akin to, “Do you want your President elected or decided by rock, paper scissors?”


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No Cuss, No Muss

Yep, while our backs were turned, feverishly reading my ever thought-provoking piece, Bar None, on the proposal to ban cussing in bars in St. Louis...South Pasadena, California snuck in like a cat burgling rapist and officially declared an annual "No Cussing Week."

AP Article via MSNBC

My conclusion, as before, Pasadena, California is now off of my tourism list. In fact, since the town went the step further to actually implement the idea, I may have to take a step further and march a million people to the Rose Bowl parade to scream out FUCK in unison every ten seconds, just for families and cameras.

Unlike the St. Louis idea, I don't read any criminality in Mayor Michael Cacciotti's move. The official week reads more like a Breast Cancer Awareness Day or a Great American Smoke Out. In a way, that might be considered endearing to have promoted civil discourse on an official level. However, it is again the subtractive phrasing of the observance that represents the slippery slope to free speech issues. "No Cussing Week" could have just as easily been called Professional Speech Day or Expansive Language Awareness Month, Pride in Our Civility Celebration or Champions of Maturity Week. With these titles you can build projects at school. Grammar assignments can turn into forensic debates, words-of-the-day contests can be implemented and involve speech games and communications fairs. The point is that recognizing the power of the English, verbal form in a positive light gives one something substantial with which to work. The possibilities, following a positive name, become as boundless as the imaginations of the program's willing participants. All a "No Cussing Week" offers is the restriction, "don't cuss."

I'm not splitting hairs here. To the reader, what the week is called might seem irrelevant. Few may care about the subtractive verses the proactive. Still, the subject at hand is one that deals with LANGUAGE, speech specifically, and therefore should have had consideration toward the language used to promote it. My complaint is a direct outgrowth of that content. The Mayor's people should have considered that the simple function of a negative phraseology on a speech driven initiative is a tool others use to try to undermine free speech. A "No Cussing Week" can easily lead to "no cussing laws," or "no cussing zones," or "no cussing in film." I mean, can we not see a correlation, extreme though it may be, between a "No Cussing Week" and a town-sanctioned book burning? Far fetched? One modern society did it. How are we immune from repeating those mistakes?

Don't take my alarmist word for it. Right in the MSNBC article it already goes beyond the intent of the official week and speaks of "no cussing" as one day becoming a "quality of life issue." That is so short-sighted. The Pasadena week just got approved and already the foul tool is working its dark function. I guarantee there is no family living in a slum with cracked windows, roaches, heat turned off in winter, hungry kids, and zero health coverage that would consider a cuss free environment an improvement on their day.

Not enough? The 14 year-old that started the club, perhaps even a grass roots movement, is quoted as saying, "I don't cuss...If you want to hang out with me, you don't cuss." It's a line in the sand. It's exclusionary. For instance, I don't drink alcohol, but I wouldn't ask others not to drink around me and I would never, ever imply that failure to refrain as I refrain carries with it some sort of punishment, even the simple penalty of depriving others my invited company. This is what happens when you let a 14 year old determine political policy. The kid had a great idea. He showed awesome initiative and objective. He displayed bravery and exemplified the gut American notion that one person, even a kid, can make a difference. I don't expect a 14 year old to grasp the nuances betwixt the subtractive and the proactive. I do, however, expect the full-grown, mature adults in any mayor's office to understand this and to act accordingly. Their mistake came in taking the idea of a 14 year old and implementing it unrevised, untempered with maturity or wisdom.

Inherently, days, weeks, and months made into official declarations of practice or awareness need to do so in the positive. Black History Month doesn't mean that you need to refrain from knowing other ethnically grouped accomplishments, or trickier, refrain from being a skin color. The Great American Smoke Out is called such for a reason. "Don't Smoke Week" might get some poor schmuck with a Marlboro stoned to death in line to see 10,000 B.C. Bring Your Daughter To Work Day would not work if it were called Ignore Children With Penises Day. I jest, but the philosophy persists into every facet of governing, including many far more important than Secretary's Day or Groundhog Day.

For instance, is it any wonder that of all amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the only one that "failed" or required correction was prohibition? Amendments are used to enforce rights, to acknowledge rights newly realized or admitted at the highest levels of leadership. Prohibition instead tried to take away, not to grant. It tried to limit, to control, to have people refrain from. At its heart, it failed because its attempt ran counter-directional to the purpose of a constitutional amendment. It's why I know that a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution preventing same sex marriage would never pass or last long. It too would run counter-directional to the purpose of ENFORCING rights or ACKNOWLEDING rights.

In short, LAWS are meant to prevent, to have folks refrain from well defined practices we as a society view as bad. They operate in the negative as counteragents to those who'd squelch life, liberty, happiness, and free market. That is the function of a law. Hence, nobody can open up an idea in the negative and sanction it officially without also opening the door to that notion one day becoming a law. The two practices are of the same grain. People who do so, even unintentionally, have their hand tipped. What they are saying may sound like a decent and feel-good proposition that everyone can agree upon. Yet, they are bluffing. If what they had at heart was in any way positive or feel-good, they shant have skewed negative in its expression. They shant have opened that dangerous, dangerous door. For what it's worth, with all our millions of laws on the books, chances are (barring new technological innovation) that everything that requires prevention already has a law against it. Logically then, pretty much anything that's existed for 200+ American years which does not have a law against it, most likely should not. It should remain in that grey area between controversy and blind acceptance that teaches us all how to get along and how to see alternate points of view. We are not just agreeing upon these measures as an existent society in 2008, but as a civic society in the broader sense that includes all American citizens from 1787 until now...possibly even into the future.

This was the vision of our founding fathers. They knew that the pursuit of people driven government and equality would rest upon a body of laws enacted by said people, specifically so that no one person with a myopic mindset could seek office to screw it up. They acknowledged that volumes and volumes of laws might be created in this pursuit and made room for that to be okay. Yet, at the same time, they created a structure and a list. No matter how many preventive laws might ever come to be in their future, every single one of them would be held accountable to, held subjective to this pervading structure and to this pervading list of acknowledged rights. The ability to prevent, to exclude from freedom, would forever be measured against this higher purpose, this documented inclusion or admission into American freedom. The negative would be governed by the positive.

“No Cussing Week” sounds pretty good. It’s not unlike a makeshift Lenten practice or a really good diet. I bet nobody ever explained to the youth that, phrased as such, it is also unconstitutional. Implemented officially, it is therefore a cause for concern. It means there is another upwardly mobile politician holding office in the U.S. who would forego the U.S. Constitution for either his own purposes or for lack of the two seconds of concentration it would take to change the name. His most likely accidental blight on our nation’s governing structure and on our rights masquerades under the guise of ceremony, holiday. If that’s to persist unchecked, why not KKK Appreciation Day? Open a present, burn a cross. Why not a Torturegiving holiday? Turkey, stuffing, and water boarding while we watch a parade.

Look, there are plenty of reasons not to cuss. Variant ethics aside, I like to refrain from cussing as often as possible because I think it means that much more when I do choose a cuss word in the craft of writing.

Refraining from cussing on the regular is also an exercise that elevates intelligence. One stretches the mind by always searching for alternative expressions to aptly describe anger or dismay, sort of the way an improvisational artist, while near boundless in presentation style, can keep a performance PG-13. It’s her/his boundaries that create the intellectual challenge until such time s/he would again artistically choose to reintroduce the blue language.

It almost goes without saying, even in a post-industrial, psychology-aware nation, that cussing in marriage is antithetical to what both people wish to achieve via marriage. Cussing interrupts real communication and thus partnership and slows the journey to common goals with innumerable, needless pauses to marital momentum.

Perhaps refraining from cussing can be used as a tool to set examples for young children, new comedians, etc. We all do it. Nobody would cuss in a job interview or a convent. We have no problem choosing alternative wording and tone when running for office, broadcasting news, or critiquing literature. There is a merit to practicing language in the subtractive from time to time, circumstance to circumstance. It’s a type of extra-sensory deprivation that achieves particularly coveted intellectual results.

However, theoretically that merit cannot be achieved if not for the greater prevalence of the explicative in common usage. A metaphor…the viceroy butterfly. The viceroy butterfly looks exactly like the more prevalent monarch butterfly and is named accordingly. The monarch butterfly is poisonous to birds. Birds have evolved to “recognize” monarch butterflies by sight alone and therefore steer far clear of them as food. The viceroy butterfly contains no such poison, but has instead evolved to look like the monarch butterfly as a form of defense against being eaten by birds. It’s an amazing interrelationship that deepens our understanding of the evolutionary process. Yet, as with all evolution, a delicate balance had to be struck and maintained for us to not yet see further changes in the viceroy. Meaning, the viceroy population must always remain in the minority to the monarch for the subterfuge to work. Once the viceroy might gain numbers over the monarch, the odds of a bird grabbing a poisonous insect go down. Without knowing an iota of math, birds would slowly begin partaking of the food again when fewer resources exist and fewer of their own kind die off in turn. In fact, to exist, the viceroy must always be limited in numbers as compared to a completely different species. Guess what, they don’t know math either.

The same holds true when we examine the relationship between the merits of not cussing and the pathology of cussing itself. The countless merits there are to be found, several of them enlightening in nature, cannot be achieved if there is nothing more common to refrain from. Challenging one’s self to use language empty of swearing would fail to be a challenge unless swearing itself not only existed, but existed to a far larger degree than the unique, individual choice to refrain from it. Cussing, like any other word or word group, MUST be far more commonplace in raw numbers than the personal choice to refrain from it in order for us to procure virtue in the attempt to subvert it. We can neither alleviate the need for the one nor the practice of the other without denying ourselves the rewards to be culled in the contrast. Picture it. How much more expansive would your vocabulary and your speech become if you honestly attempted to refrain from using the word “the” for a year. That would be quite the journey. “The” is throughout common usage in numbers too great to count. Your attempt to the contrary would be a grand challenge with who knows how many intellectual and disserting rewards? Now picture trying, instead, to refrain from using the word “otolaryngology” for a year. It would be far less of a challenge specifically because it is nowhere near as common in usage as “the.” Its raw numbers pale in comparison. Less of a challenge means less of a mental journey, less of an intellectual reward. In a Cartesian sense, we require vast platitudes in mere order to doubt them properly or advantageously.

Mr. Mayor, my fangs would retract if only you’d positively alter the name of your newfound, annual observance. Until then, in my mind, I have to question what you understand about this democratic Republic. Your intentions seem honorable, but your fitness to govern, suspect. It’s like when Katie Couric called freedom of speech a “privilege” or when former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer claimed people should “watch what they say” in response to Bill Maher’s firing from ABC. I’ll give you that cussing can be viewed as bad. However, to whatever degree it might be bad, your official “NO” week is far worse.


Monday, March 3, 2008

The play is the thing...

Today is the fourth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest men I have ever known. I would say that he knew me as well as only four other people on this earth, and my wife and father are two of them. I miss him.

In the winter of 1992, at the end of my first semester of college, I was preparing an audition for the plays being presented the next semester. I had no idea what I was doing and I was scared to death. It was luck that had brought me together that night with a few other students to the mainstage of the School of Theatre. Each of us had independently decided to work on our audition pieces in the space where we were to present them just a few days later. They were theatre students. I was not.

In the group that night were a woman who was to be my first real relationship (and give me my first really broken heart), the man with whom I would share most of the next 3 years as friends and roommates and a man who is still one of the weirdest, most soulful and most interesting people I've met before or since (and also has the distinction of being the only Irish Jew I've ever known). I was intimidated by these three and resisted performing in front of or criticizing them. They were theatre students and I was not.

A man came into the theatre, a man I had seen before but didn't know; a teacher. He was balding, squinting behind his glasses and had both a wheeze in his nose and a scent on his clothes that betrayed absolute eons of smoking. He sat down among us, threw some insults at the others and proceeded to critique us on our monologues. He made me get up onto that stage and perform the absolutely ridiculous piece I had chosen. I don't remember the name of the character or the name of the play. I remember that it was a gay man bitching about the origin and accuracy of stereotypes. Ah, the ridiculous rebellion of the young and stupid!

I finished the first time through and the teacher started to ask me questions. "What is your objective?" "What are your given circumstances?" And many more. I had to tell him that I had no idea what he was talking about. The terms he was using had no meaning to me. I fully expected laughter and derision, crude comments and an invitation to leave the stage to the others who had real work to do. Instead, he smiled, and asked, "Well, who are you talking to? And who is that? Where are you? Why are you there?" All the same questions he had asked before, but in words I understood. And he guided me through it again and told me what to work on and, more importantly, how to go about it. On the next few nights, we were joined by others here and there. The teacher was there every night that week.

I was cast that semester, on the Mainstage, something that rarely happened to freshmen and almost never to non-majors. All four of us who had been there that first night were cast - in the same show, no less. None were big parts, but we were freshmen on Mainstage! I was to find out later exactly how big a deal that was and how much notice and expectation it afforded us.

Christmas break was cut short because we were the first show of the semester and had to start rehearsal before school reopened. School closed = dorms closed. I was thrown into improvised living arrangements with people I barely knew or understood. Rehearsal every day and not much else but a lot of drinking and smoking and talking. It was a wonderful introduction to this new life, the first one I had ever specifically chosen for myself. I switched my major to theatre within a week of school reopening.

I had to audition again that semester for one of the few and hotly contested spots in the beginning acting class. One of the teachers in the show with me was one of my auditors and that put me at ease. That evening in the dressing room, he asked me if I was interested in being part of the BFA program, a smaller and more intense program within the SoT (though the relative talent of the participants was a very touchy subject, particularly among those who hadn't gotten accepted). I wouldn't have to audition again (at their regular "tryouts"), they would just let me in based on the strength of the audition that afternoon. I had no idea how weird this chain of events was and I wouldn't really understand that until the next year, when I was able to fully immerse myself in the program.

Success and success and success. I was as amazed as anyone. Four of the most wonderful years of my life, followed by a professional tour, then a move to New York City.

None of it would have happened had it not been for that one teacher who stopped by in the middle of the night. He gave me the tools and showed me the first few steps. I always knew where to find him, day or night, and would show up in his office when I was bored or happy or upset or just lonely. He was one of the first people to teach me that I was good by criticizing me so harshly I thought I might cry.

He wasn't even an acting teacher. He was an academic, a dramaturg, an historian. He had forgotten more about American theatre than most people will ever know, especially actors. He had an insight into the process not only of acting but of living in the theatre. As is often the case, I had no idea just how much he was teaching me until years later.

After I graduated I saw him often. Every time I was back in town I would seek him out. He would say I was ancient history and insult me in font of his new young admirers. (Was I ever really that young?) But when he came to New York he would call and we would go out for drinks at his favorite old-man bar (the Blarney Stone, ugh). It was always difficult to tell if he loved me or was just tolerating me but, as a general rule, the more annoyed he looked the happier he was.

And then he was just gone. He didn't even tell anybody he was sick. He taught every single day until he went into the hospital. He never came out. His grad students say that he was teaching even then, at his bedside, through his assistants, however he could. I will never forget that phone call. I collapsed to the floor. It was the first and only time something had truly hit me like a brick. I hadn't seen him at that point for about two years, but I always knew where to find him. He was always just around the corner.

Not anymore.

A teacher told us, once, that we should never try to use a personal traumatic experience to inform our performance until several years had gone by and we were able to assimilate and understand it. I have gradually learned the truth of that as more and more of my life becomes past-tense. It's been four years and this is the first I'm really expressing much about it. It's the first time I'm telling this story to anyone who didn't already know it, basically everyone but the other three who were with me that first night.

There was a memorial that spring, in 2004, and I went and had bittersweet reunions with teachers and old friends. I remember speaking and feeling foolish. Feeling not up to the task of expressing how much he meant to me.

I should have simply said:

John Degen gave me my life. He showed me the door, how to open it and where to go when I got through. By taking the time to teach a kid he didn't know, he changed everything. Without him, I would never have known the joy of the stage or the ecstasy of reaching that exact perfect place where you become one with words and the set and the players and art truly becomes LIFE. I wouldn't have learned that even stupid choices make us better, as actors and as people. I almost certainly wouldn't be as harsh a critic or as patient a listener. Most of all, without his guidance into that wonderful world I would never have met the woman who is now my wife. That alone is a gift for which I could never repay him.

He would probably argue to the contrary and advise me to retrieve my balls from her purse.

I love you, John. I miss you terribly.

You're gonna eat me just like the story says.

Fuck Art. Fuck Life.
Fuck Truth. Fuck Beauty.
play is the thing.
-John Degen, 1947-2004

To anyone who can read this, please forgive the google spam.
John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen Florida State School of Theatre FSU SoT John Degen John Degen John Degen John Degen John Degen