Tuesday, January 27, 2015

After the Ham's Gone

After the Ham’s Gone

You might not know on first meeting that Gregory was gay, but if you hung out with him over a weekend it would not be long before his wry sense of humor and ability to see the joke in anything would be a tip off.  Not that his gayness was an obstacle in his life, save for it barring him from the Lutheran ministry.

In some ways he found a better calling as a psychotherapist.  His hazel eyes and strawberry hair gave him a boyish look.  During the last year of his life he became focused on preparing a book titled “Reflections on the Ox Herding Pictures.” It was a commentary on the famous Zen paintings depicting a boy and an ox.  The sequence is a parable about the struggle with the self on the path to enlightenment.  Unable to actually tame the bull, the boy learns to coexist with the ego.  Realization comes from reflection on Reality, in particular understanding how much we are receiving and how little one typically gives back.

Late in the spring of 1993 Gregory Willms died of complications from the AIDS virus.  His soul slipped away as the morning star rose over the Santa Rosa hospital where his body lay.  So many of Gregory’s friends had been lost to this blind sighted and unforgiving disease.  He talked of the countless wakes and parties attempting to “make a celebration” out of the grim reality that scores of men had been snatched in their prime from lives of utility or artistry.

It was impossible to live in the Bay Area without being touched (often continually) by this plague.  Gregory once remarked that his whole life outside of his therapy practice seemed to revolve around attending funerals and tribute parties.  Everyone seemed to know what to do, what to say and what to bring to the party.  Wine, elegant booze, homemade lasagna or other rich casseroles were safe bets.  And the highly adaptable ham was always a good choice since it could be fried to pair with eggs, sliced to throw on a pumpernickel sandwich for lunch or julienned to add to a salad or macaroni casserole for dinner.  The good ole Honey Baked Ham (which would set you back around $50) showed a level of respect that would be noted.

But the thing was, according to Gregory, the true issue or problem for friends, and friends of friends of those lost and those left behind, was “what to do after the ham’s gone.”  One of these 12 lb puppies could easily last three to four weeks before the bone got tossed into a pea or lentil soup pot.  If you recycled the best of the leftovers into the soup this could sustain a body for nearly another week before all remnants of the pig’s carcass was anywhere to be found in the kitchen.  So, for the sake of poetry lets agree that “after the ham’s gone” is likely a month from the time of the “celebration” (so oddly named, it strikes me) until the ham bone hits the compost.

Now the question before us is:  “What does one do, or what should one do for the bereaved after the ham’s gone?”

Gregory pointed out that most people had forgotten about the loss by then.  Most of us have moved on.  But the former lover may not have.  What can you do to help?  Another ham?  No.

I think “After the ham’s gone” represents that opportunity we all have not to forget or lose track of someone who has gone through a trauma, shock or loss.  It may be that “after the ham’s gone” is precisely when you need support, friendship, ideas, and invitations.

Is there someone in your life who may be hanging out A. T. H. G.  right now?  Think about it.

El Granada, CA

First published on this blog June 28, 2010

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Vigil

  Reflections on “The Vigil”
Patricia Ryan Madson 

The year was 1980.  I was a young faculty member in Drama teaching acting at Stanford.  One day I saw an ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian which read something like this:   "Come join members of Jerzy Growtowski's Company for an event called "The Vigil".  This four hour workshop will take place on Haight Street in San Francisco in a Studio Space  (normally used for dance classes ) on Saturday. (date I can’t remember). The cost is $25 to attend and participate.  Please come wearing clothing you would wear for a dance or movement class and be prepared to do vigorous movement.   The fee will be taken at the door and instructions for the class given at that time. No experience is necessary. All levels of interest are welcome."

To the best of my memory this is all that was advertised.  I was drawn to whatever they were doing because The Polish Lab Theatre, led by Jerzy Growtowski was the hottest experimental theatre training happening in the world at the time.  Check out Growtowski's famous book, TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE, 1968, if you can find a copy or look for him on Wikipedia.

He was attempting to train actors in very fundamental ways and return to the primacy of the physical body.  Some of his early workshops, I understand, had actors literally running for hours. He believed in no props, no net, nothing but the human body and spirit at work.  It was raw, physical work that was the basis for his training.

I decided to show up in my leotard and tights on that Saturday morning and see what this workshop was all about.  Growtowski himself was not present, but I gather the leader of the day was a women who was a primary trainer of his.  A dozen or so strangers assembled on the sidewalk outside the dance studio, most of us looking excited and a bit apprehensive.  It was somewhere near Haight and Ashbury Streets. 

Our money was taken and the leader explained the “rules of the Vigil.” They were simple, but absolute, she declared.

1.      Maintain silence at all times.
2.      Keep your body moving continually.
3.      Be mindful of your safety and that of others.
4.      No “set movement routines”  (e. g. tai chi, yoga or drills)                                    

This was all we had to go on.  We knew also that the experience was to last for four hours.  We were not allowed to take anything personal into the space, so backpacks and jackets were left in a pile in the anteroom to the large dance space.  After various questions had been asked and answered the leader reached out a firm hand and extended it toward one of men standing closest to her.  She walked purposefully toward the door of the room holding hands and escorted the student into the space.  Moments later she came back to us and extended a hand looking directly at me.  I eagerly accepted her strong lead and the two of us walked into the empty space.  I think we got to the middle of the room and she stopped, looked at me directly, smiled briefly and then let go my hand.  She walked carefully back into the lobby to escort another student.  Her thoughtful lead continued until all of those registered were finally brought into the room. 

As soon as she left me standing in the center of the room I remembered the instruction: “Keep moving at all times.”  So, I began just walking around the space, observing.  The large room featured a well-polished wooden dance floor bereft of any chairs or equipment or decoration.  One of the walls had the obligatory full-length mirror prized by dancers.  I noticed that others in the room were also moving around randomly.   I suppose most of us were slightly nervous wondering what we were “supposed to be doing” and imagining that someone might lead us in something after a while.

But no “set pieces” ever happened . . . that is, the leader never did offer any instruction or lead.  What happened was an amazing, random, physical event.   I found myself alternately running and skipping, flailing around, sitting on the floor doing stretches and movements to loosen every part of my body.  I’m no dancer but at 38 I was reasonably healthy and fit and moving for a few hours was possible, albeit a stretch as the hours wore on.  Certainly I had never stayed “in motion” for four hours continually up until this moment.

I don’t have a lot of detailed memories of those four hours with the exception of one “riff” that is permanently etched in my mind.  It is about a relationship.  Sometime into the third hour or so I remember making a connection with another young women, she was young and appeared to be a dancer and very agile and graceful.  At some point we began a kind of pas de duex.  We started swaying together and doing a kind of “mirror exercise” which evolved into movement and response, coming together and then going apart.  Some kind of story seemed to be evolving at a subliminal level and we held hands and began moving in a soft, close way, like deep friends.  The word that has stuck with me after nearly forty years is “intimate.”    I still remember the feeling of being human together with her, of being two sweaty women, playfully having fun and being kind to each other.  We explored so many ways of relating physically, although there was never anything sexual, it was very personal.  I can even today remember the scent of her body.  Of course no words were ever spoken, and after the event ended I never saw her again, and have no idea what her name is.  But I do remember that I thought I learned something about human intimacy (or was it a form of love?) by the half hour of physical play we shared wordlessly. 

I don’t have much memory of what the other dozen plus participants were doing.  I can say that there was much in the four hours that was trance like.  After the first hour we got over the novelty of being on silence and in motion and simply began to explore what was possible.   It was a day rich with discovery . . . much of which can’t really be translated into words in an essay. 

In the years since that vigorous day of being a body alive I have adopted Growtowski’s “Vigil” idea and led students at Stanford in my Improvisation class for a two hour version of this event.  I have witnessed a wide range of things happening, and I’ve learned a few important things about setting up the event.  During one Vigil I had left blocks, tables and chairs stacked on the side of the room (normally used in acting classes).  Almost the first thing that happened during that Vigil was that the students began arranging and rearranging those pieces endlessly.  There wasn’t that much physical movement beyond the life sized “building blocks” game that evolved.  I didn’t want to prohibit expression so I didn’t stop this while it was happening.  But I learned clearly that anything, any item that can be moved, will be moved if it is in the space.  I began to understand the primacy of an empty space as a crucible for discovery.  Peter Brook understood this, and his famous book, The Empty Space is a testament to this point. We are all fond of playing with our toys whenever we have any.  The purpose of the Vigil is not to circumvent the restrictions by substituting activity for pure movement.  Also, some groups have begun to make noises or percussion as diversion.  When the first rule is given as “No talking” (instead of Silence) students have been known to begin lively gibberish interactions.  And while drumming and humming and gibberish-making are fine things themselves I’ve come to believe that they can be distractions to the initial prompt to “MOVE CONTINUALLY”.  I’m guessing that Growtowski wanted his actors to become fully exhausted and invigorated with what happens to the body during prolonged physical use.   Oh, yes, and one of the instructions given during the question period before the Vigil that I attended was:  “If you need to rest, do so only briefly, and even then, keep some part of your body moving.  Do not just lie down or stop moving altogether.  Even rest should be with the awareness of keeping moving, ” she said.

In a world where the biggest stretch most of us get daily is with our thumbs, texting, something like the Vigil is a rare opportunity. 

October 16, 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

You decide.


The name on her Deli Counter Employee badge said Linda.  I judged her to be right around my age  . . . just pushing into her 70’s.  There was a light in her eye as if she had just won the lottery.  “Having a good day?” she almost sang as I pushed my cart down a slender aisle near the Deli.  “I am,” I replied, “and it’s clear that you are too!” 

“Oh, well. It’s easy,” she beamed,  “You decide. You decide to be happy.  I mean, everybody’s got their junk, even the folks who seem to have it all. But you can decide to be happy, ya know.  That’s what I do.  And, her whole body virtually glowed with the truth of her simple idea. 

I’d been rereading Victor E. Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning again and Linda’s point has reinforced his proud comment:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It’s important to remember that we decide how we look at life.  We attribute meaning to the world.  It’s easy to forget this as we encounter life and notice all the things that make us unhappy.  Like a magnet the mind goes to the negative.  Linda reminds us to turn this bad habit around.  Decide.  

Notice the gifts.  Notice all that you are receiving.  Notice the ease most of us have.  And, even for those with life challenges, notice how much help there is. 

There’s a Buddhist saying:  “Every day is a good day.” 

You decide.

November, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Yoga Hour Interview

Living from the Inside Out: The Way of Improvisation
Patricia Ryan Madsonon The Yoga Hour Online Broadcast

A successful life involves both planning and improvising. Patricia Ryan Madson, author of Improv Wisdom joins guest host Dr. Laurel Trujillo for a look at how the maxims of improvisation provide us with an antidote to the overly scripted, planned life. The wisdom of improv provides a natural way to live skillfully and soulfully—and it has nothing to do with wit, glibness, or comic ability! The way of improv is about being awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back. Applied to your own life, the principles of improvisation can help you to
·         Experience life brimming with spontaneity, even in the context of a plan
·         Meet real-life challenges more skillfully and with a sense of humor
·         Shake loose rigid patterns of thinking and doing
·         Have fun living in harmony with yourself and others

Patricia Ryan Madson is the author of IMPROV WISDOM: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up and is professor Emerita at Stanford University where she served as the head of the Drama Department’s undergraduate acting division and developed the improvisation program. She founded and coached the Stanford Improvisors and taught courses in improvisation for undergraduates, as well as adults in Stanford's Continuing Studies Program.

Patricia received the Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Innovation in Undergraduate Education, and she founded the Creativity Initiative at Stanford, an interdisciplinary alliance of faculty who share the belief that creativity can be taught. Patricia is regularly on the faculty at the Esalen Institute, and has given workshops for many institutes of higher learning and corporate clients, including Google, Gap, The Lucille and David Packard Foundation, Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems Japan Division, and Apple Computers. Visit http://www.improvwisdom.com/ for more information.

URL for blogger or other sites that let you enter the web page address.

URL in html code. You can copy and paste this onto your web page.
<a href="http://www.csecenter.org/Rev-Ellen-Grace-OBrian/The-Yoga-Hour.aspx”>The Yoga Hour</a>

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The End of Absence

The Absence of the End of Absence

In Michael Harris’ well written and researched book, The End of Absence (Penguin, 2014) he explores the startlingly obvious truth that adults today over the age of 30 (roughly) are the last living witnesses to life both before and after the Internet and our current state of connectivity. We are the “straddle generation.”

 Anyone born now or in the last ten years can only know the wired world.  I’m 71, and I‘ve lived more than half of my life without any kind of computer or hand held device.  And, like the rest of us today I’m mired in all that owning a smart phone means. I am one of those 10 million scratching and clawing to be the first to purchase the newest IPhone. It’s a cliché to say that the world has changed in every way. 

Harris lays down a charge to those of us who know both worlds.  “Write about your experiences,” he prompts. We are the last who can so testify.  It’s not about comparing the “old ways with the new ways,” but it is about reflecting on the differences in ordinary lives.  “If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages.  We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.

A central hope in reading his book was to get to the last chapters in which I’d imagined he would give us some tips about how to manage this brave new world which has so little spaciousness or solitude in it.  He conducts an experiment to document his quest: he goes on a 30 day digital blackout, sharing daily notes of his experience during this “no email, no Internet time.”  Curiously (or perhaps predictably) there is hardly a line in this section during the unhooked days when he mentions anything other than his longing or anxiety with the desire to check his email or something.  His diary seems to be all about thoughts of this withdrawal. Oddly there is a total ABSENCE of ABSENCE experienced (or at least recorded in these diary entries.) 

What this points out is we don’t reclaim that spaciousness simply by turning off the gizmos when we allow our tech addiction anxiety to fill up the spaces now available.  What Harris misses illustrating in his month off the grid is what it might feel like to take advantage of the new found time.  What might it be like to dive into our ordinary daily experience (not just those mountain vista moments) and really live the moment.  I think that is what we have lost (if we ever had it) the capacity to engage and appreciate our lives.  Emily in Our Town got it right: “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”
Harris’ final lines:  “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job.  Your job is to notice.  First notice the difference.  And then, every time, choose.” (p. 206)  This, while an obvious injunction, is finally his only real advice. 
So, if we can’t bring back solitude or spaciousness as a fact of life, our single modicum of control is our attention.  We can notice how long we’ve been staring at a screen.   “ Then, every time, choose.” 
Then, . . . .every time . . . . choose. 
Then . . .every time. . . choose.
(I’m running out of ways to be emphatic!)
 This advice takes us back to Thoreau and his intention of deliberateness.   “I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.” 

I think there are two issues here.  One is deliberateness.  The other is mindfulness.
Once we have chosen to be in our skins and live the moment we are in currently we still need to discover how to relish the moment., how to live and appreciate the ordinary world we inhabit. 

I am reminded of a story from forty years ago.  I think it speaks to the second point.

The Penn State Walk
My second University teaching job was at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. As an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts I had a lot on my mind.  I remember one particularly stressful day in the fall of my second year of teaching in 1976.  It was just after a fast lunch in the school cafeteria and I was walking at a rapid clip across the campus, rushing to the Theatre Arts Building for my three o’clock class.  I was in high gear.  My mind was racing with a growing sense of panic.  The inner monologue was something like this: “And when I get to the office I’d better photocopy the class exercise sheets, and then after the Voice class I have to go to rehearsal until 9:00 PM, and then I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes, and then I have to drop off the books at the library, and then I have to be sure to remember to call Ellen about tomorrow’s lecture, and then I have to get gas, and then.  .  .”  My mind had become a “demon date book,” barking at me.  As my frustration mounted, I tripped slightly on the path, and suddenly I heard a voice somewhere inside my head, speaking quite calmly and clearly: “Patricia, PATRICIA, did you know that all you have to do right now is walk to the Theatre Arts building?    So, why not just do that?” 
Wow.  YES!  That’s true, I thought.  All I can do right now is walk to the building.  I can’t actually do the photocopying or any of the other tasks I was listing in my litany of “things I had to do.”  All I can do RIGHT NOW is walk.  Why not do that really well?  Just walk to class.
 It was as if I had woken up suddenly.  I slowed down and began looking around at the colorful fall maples lining the path.  What lovely trees! As I walked, I noticed the beauty of the campus; I felt the crisp fall air brush my cheeks, I noticed the other people on the path, all hurrying, too.  All at once I was simply living that walk.  I can still remember everything about the scene and this was forty years ago.   All I was doing at that moment was walking to my office and living the day.
The End of Absence message is a wake up call, not so much to simply putdown our digital toys, but to find a way to learn to cherish the life we have.  Remember Emily’s exclamation.  Can we learn how to live every minute?
Thank you, Michael Harris.  You wrote an important book. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bring back Layaway

 Bring Back Layaway (repost of a 2011 blogpost)

In a New York Times article today the pollsters tell us that the majority of Americans are not thinking realistically. We have become a culture of entitlements.  Everyone wants to keep full benefits for Medicare and Social Security at current levels and the the same everyone doesn't want higher taxes.  We want our cake and eat it too.  Or the article is telling us:  We have a budget deficit because people want everything and they don't want to pay for it.  I think that this view of "have it now and pay for it later" is one of the most insidious aspects of our national debate, if you can call it a debate.  Credit card debt is at an all time high, and the prospect of delaying gratification for something we want seems not to be an option.  I am fond of telling the story of "Lay Away" and its rewards.  Here is an article I wrote.

The coat was red wool with large, tortoise shell button.  The collar could be turned up for both style and to protect against the wind-chill that blew in the winter in Virginia.  I wanted that coat badly, and thought about it almost continually.  I’d seen it first in the window of Lerners, a retail clothing store for women and girls on Broad Street in Richmond.  The prices there were lower than those at Thalhimers or Miller & Rhodes and significantly lower than the coat prices at Montaldos, a swanky women’s salon.  My mother had sometimes modeled at each of these fashion centers in Richmond during the 1950’s and 60’s.  I can’t remember if she owned any clothing from Montaldos.  I don’t think she did, although she always appeared to be elegantly dressed.

Lerners wasn’t the kind of shop that had fashion shows.  But they did have layaway.  Layaway was the working girl’s friend.  Five dollars down and four dollars a week, if you could manage it.  At $35.99 it would take nine weeks to “get the coat out.”    This would  work out perfectly for me to wear the coat to church on Easter Sunday, that is, if I was faithful in making my payments every week.  When you brought the item up to the clerk, she would carefully wrap it in a “layaway package” and attach the paperwork to the package.  “February 10, 1958, Layaway for Patsy Ryan,  2812 Monument Avenue, Apt 3.  Red Wool three quarter coat, number 34771, $5 down. Customer agrees to pay $4 a week until the debt is paid off, at which time, the coat can be picked up by the customer.  If the payments are not made in the agreed upon time frame, interest in the amount of 9% a month will be added to the price of the purchase.”

In the fifties there were no global credit cards.  The wealthy and some of the middle class were beginning to own department store cards.  However, credit for the masses wasn’t even a glimmer in a banker’s eye yet.  This system built character, taught fiscal responsibility (hello, legislators where are you?) and created incentive to save.  Saving is what responsible folks did in those days.  Buying something you had no way of affording was inconceivable.  I grew up with this sensible way of handling the acquisition of “things.”   I would like to suggest that we bring back layaway

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Keith Johnstone papers

Viewing the Johnstone Archive
We were asked to wash our hands first.  No pens allowed or even any notebooks. Handbags and backpacks and any personal carrying items must be checked outside the room.  Absolutely no talking.   Each of us, Ted, Adam, Dan and I were given one white legal looking storage box, carefully labeled by the Stanford Archivist.  “The Keith Johnstone Papers” these cartons were designated by archival numbers.  I had box number 4.

We were curious.  What would we find in a half dozen cartons of memorabilia? The boxes contained items from the man who had had the most profound influence on our lives and careers as educators of improv.  Knowing that Johnstone is a one of a kind fellow we were anxious to see what was there.  Ted said:  “Feels like Christmas.” 

Each box had a series of numbered beige manila file folders.  4/1, 4/2, 4/25, 4/31, etc.  Box four, number 13 file folder.  “Letters Personal”  or “Letters Academic”  or “IMPRO Early draft”.  “Notes on Status” was one of the folders.  After checking out a few of the academic letters . . . a copy of a testimonial by Dr. Zimbardo to the tenure committee at U. of Calgary in the mid-nineteen eighties, for example, I jumped to look at the early draft of the book that had changed my professional career.  IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theater, first published in 1979.  This draft appeared to be from the mid 1970s. The pages were numbered by hand and each page was an amalgam of edited paragraphs cut and pasted onto the page.  Line edits and corrections abounded.  You could feel the old manual typewriter used to produce the text.

What stunned me was the first page.  While clearly Johnstone’s voice, there seemed to be a lot of stuff that he needed to write about and work through. Good writers do this I believe. Since we know where it is all going, it is illuminating to see where he began, and what would later be culled, refined, eliminated or centered for the reader.

 The first line of the published book I know by heart: “As I grew up everything started getting grey and dull.  . . .”   The early Johnstone manuscript that I was looking at begins with this:  “I’ve been asked if I’ll write about myself and the way I assembled my ideas.  When I was nine years old I bought a spiritualist magazine which was full of articles with titles like “Is Hitler a Black Magician. The magazine was important to me because it eventually led to my joining the Theosophical society.”

This first draft begins at the top of the page with a quote by William Blake
“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

Johnstone has always felt a strong connection with the ideas and imagery of Blake.  I imagine they are soul mates of sorts.

The personal lesson that came from these two hours of perusal of the early Johnstone papers is the importance of continuing to write.  The masterful IMPRO did not show up as a single inspired draft from a mega mind.  Even the brilliant Keith went through a process of discovery, self discovery in some measure as he found how to offer what became, “Notes On Myself.” Effective writing is nearly always reductive.