Saturday, March 28, 2009

Visiting The Visitor

Saturday is Yoga Day, which means that I take Jenifer's Sweet & Slow class and someone takes Hawk for a walk about Phoenixville. Last Saturday, however, no grandparents were present for the Hawk Walk, so I wrapped the wee bairn on my chest for a stroll around town, planned some shots for the documentary (more on that later), and then settled in at Artisans. Here, in ordering my non-decaffeinated tea (Rooibos!), I had the good fortune to strike up a good and lasting conversation with the fellow next to me in line. This elegant African-American man was taken aback, in a good way, by this "Euro male" using an indigenous technology to transport his son.

Within minutes our conversation had expanded to cover our travels, heritage, the borrowing of tribal face paint in a spring fashion collection from a designer on the Iberian Peninsula, and the Mythopoetic Men's Movement. At some point we veered into our respective work, and I mentioned that I was considering attending a talk by actor/writer/director Tom McCarthy at Penn the following week.

It so happens that my friend works at Penn, near the Kelly Writers House where the event would be staged, and we arranged to meet beforehand.

Part of the aforementioned "considering" involved the fact that I typically don't go into Philadelphia more than a few times a year, a training excursion last fall being a rare and notable exception. It's not that I don't like the city (though I confess to grumbling about its dreariness, which Jenifer claims is my invention) but that I don't particularly like driving in/into/out of it.

In any case, on Wednesday afternoon I begin my journey. Soon I am motoring along the Schuylkill Express, a narrow strip of tar betwixt river and rock. It helps to imagine yourself doing a trench run on the Death Star, because that would be more fun and less stressful. If ever there was need for a monorail (or flying cars!), this would be it.

A roadside accident ensures my late arrival, but soon enough I'm past the mess and looking for the South Street exit. A well-placed sign, however, tells me the exit is gone, not there, destroyed by the Empire. It appears the bridge is out.

I phone my friend. He picks up and advises me to take the 30th Street exit. I do this, or do it as much as I can while remaining a dozen stuck cars back from the sign. I continue and, per his advice, check in every so often to update him on my progress.

I ring him again and tell him I've reached 30th Street. "Good," he says, "here's what you're going to do." His next bit of advice staggers me: "Now you will stop the car and ask someone on the street for the directions." What?!

I disregard this advice, not out of macho pride (as I later relate to him), but out of something else, whatever the opposite of macho pride must be. There is nowhere to stop, and cars are behind me, and the pedestrians are scattered and likely to regard my panicked look as indicative of something other than idle bemusement. No, I will not stop the car on 30th Street.

(I should point out that this portion of the trip was improved considerably by its being next to the train station, a monumental monolith so mindblowingly massive it recalls Jim Burns's vision of the Temple of St. Alia-of-the-Knife in Frank Herbert's Eye. I didn't know modern-day earth people made buildings this large.)

The rest of the drive goes without incident, as I orient myself on the grid that is the city's layout (a big shout-out to Ben Franklin here) and arrive safely in the parking garage. Soon I am in my friend's office, where he shares with me a sampling of the inspiring community outreach work he conducts for the university, and then we are off to the event. As we walk across the quad, my friend tells me that someone using the pedestrian portion of the South Street bridge apparently had the misfortune of putting their foot through it, and thence was it deemed in need of repair.

My friend drops me off at the Kelly Writers House, a really cool cottage, and I find a seat way up front, as the room is packed with Penn students. Within minutes Tom McCarthy is introduced by Penn's Kathy DeMarco Van Cleve, writing instructor, novelist, and writing partner of John Leguizamo.

Like most of the industry folks I've met, Tom is humble and witty, and his talk is a fun account of his journey as a writer and director, and how his training as an actor informs his writing. He's probably best-known for writing and directing a pair of critically acclaimed indie hits, The Station Agent and last year's The Visitor, starring Richard Jensen. I do not admit to being behind in my Netflix queue, but I am able to follow along all the same, and especially appreciate the anecdotes about the hilarious notes he's received from development executives.

I ask Tom about his writing process and whether he actually has a discernible method. He describes it as something like this:

You're going along and you think maybe you've missed your exit. But you're not quite sure and so you put on some speed, looking for it, looking for it, and then you finally acknowledge that in fact you did miss your exit and you have to go all the way back to the beginning and start over.

Hmm. Perhaps that is as good a method as any: create a plan, set out when you feel the time is right, anticipate the inevitable roadside construction, and keep on trucking. And don't get out of the car.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

On Emptiness and Form: The New Blog Entry by Ryan Rasmussen

It is a time of moderation in every thing. Moderation of enthusiasm keeps you balanced. Moderation of despair deepens your understanding.

— From the I Ching, Hexagram Li/The Clinging, Fire; second changing line

I try to live a saintly life. Sure, some might call me stiff-necked, others insufferable, but in truth I aim to do good work, do right by others, and eat all my vegetables. Good, clean livin’. I have never believed in the myth of the suffering artist, but these days, with a plate filled to overflowing, I accept that adversity and limits are necessary if we are to truly realize ourselves.

And so. I allow that if there is a vice in the repertoire, it might be coffee. Lately, it seems that caffeine doesn’t agree with me. I think I have been clear on my fondness for the black gold. True, I am not one to guzzle a pot of truck-stop java; indeed, I scoff—scoff—at the day-old carafe lingering on the burner at Wawa, and at work I proudly avoid the company joe. But most days I enjoy a sizeable cup or two of my special extra-strength home brew.

I suspect that normally this intake would not pose a problem, as indeed it didn’t for many moons; but coupled with a number of other pressing matters, responsibilities, obligations, duties, challenges, projects, expeditions, and the odd bit of administrivia, the effects of 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine on my beloved adrenals have been unpleasantly pronounced.

And, so, being reasonable—and striving for saintliness—I give up the stuff. Just like that.

I know.

Now, I did have a cup of coffee last Sunday, and a little green tea on Tuesday, and then a bit more on Wednesday, but apart from that, I have been free of caffeine for going on three months. It just seemed best not to short out the ol’ nervous system.

In the subsequent study of non-caffeinated teas, I found one featuring kava, an herb native to Oceania and the South Pacific, suitable for relieving stress and claiming to “set your mind free.” I thought I might have found something, but my Anthroposophic doctor (this appellation being neither a critique nor a bid for acclaim, but rather added merely for color, as the sort of thing one might say at a cocktail party to the right company) insists that I desist from imbibing this particular beverage if I want to avoid damage to my liver. Heck, if I wanted that I’d take up alcohol in earnest. That would be the writerly thing to do.

In this way I was reduced one day last week to a morning ritual of Lipton decaf tea, the kind you get in a little packet trumpeting 105 mg of antioxidants. Doubts quickly surfaced, however: who knows what sorts of multinationalistic pesticides were also lurking within the teabag, or what poor broken-backed native had to schlep burlap sacks of this stuff up and down the jagged ridges of the Andes? Fair Trade, shade grown, and biodynamic this stuff was not. My mind was certainly not at ease.

It’s possible what I miss most about coffee is the elaborate ritual involved in preparing the ebon brew. How better to prepare for, or forestall, an evening writing session than to take the trouble (an interesting choice of words) to prepare 16 ounces of presspot coffee to the most exacting standards?

At last year’s Austin Film Festival, I consulted Lawrence Kasdan on the matter of burning the candle at both ends. After all, he had been a father, and in marketing, before he got the call from Spielberg. Lawrence recommended that I take a break from writing. A break! What could he possibly know of the writing life? I mean, really.

Later, however, I recalled the sabbatical Hesse took from writing Siddhartha (how does one write of enlightenment without having achieved it?), which doesn’t give much comfort if your goals are no less lofty and you aim to produce something greater and with a better title than The Anxious Viking. When at long last you discover, perhaps to your dismay, that your main character is you, then the heavy digging begins and you find your opening into a darker yet richer world, an unearthing of deep roots that have always been there but are not so easily won.

If all this comes off as complaint, I apologize. There are considerable bright spots to report, after all. My meditation practice is stronger than ever, the Kid I mentor in the gym has set new personal bests in both the bench press and leg press, and somehow I’m close to ripped these days.

Then there’s the glowing performance review at work, the documentary on which I’ve begun pre-production, and Jenifer’s blossoming yoga classes. Hawk, of course, continues to delight and amaze. In the past couple of weeks, he’s begun scooting; and just a few days ago he’s taken his already considerable trilling technique to the next level. (I have no doubt he will prove an apt pupil when the time comes for learning all the requisite sound effects for ray guns, dinosaurs, and alien cyborgs.) His bright, sunny nature is undeniable and wonderfully inescapable. When I am in his orbit I needn’t remember what it is to be so perfectly present, for he is blissfully unaware of time and cause and effect, and beautiful, and amazed at the gift of embodiment, and I remember to just breathe, just breathe, Ryan, and my heart is full once again.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Hawk at Six Months

Peekaboo Hawk.


From right: High, Just-as-High, and Third.

With Mimi and Opa.

Attack-Face Baby!

Baby Trumpet!

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