Archive | August 2007

The past Saturday

“How was your weekend?”

The instructors in our Instructor Training Course made it a point to ask how our prior day/weekend was at the start of every day of instruction.

‘Chatting up’ the students is one of the tricks you learn in effective teaching and it’s something I’d participated in as a student for years and not really noticed. Funny how subtlety works structure into conversation.

The question usually garnered an interesting story from one of my classmates about the weekend—seeing a new movie, attending a martial arts competition, selling a house, etc. I usually gave a stock response like “did homework,” which was a little cheeky on my part. While it was true that homework was a staple of my spare time, there usually were other aspects to the bachelor life roommate Adrian and I participated in. I guess I said it to pass the buck.

But this past weekend homework was a large part of my days. I had won a cold off of a nearby classmate, who, in a boast to the class, says he’s never been sick a day in his life. His constant coughing and sniffling makes me wonder. Still, perhaps he just denies ever being sick and is happy to spread discomfort to all around him. Eh.

Anyway, “homework” was my answer again, but then our instructors asked a second question.

“Did anybody get caught out in that storm?”

There had been a particularly fierce storm that rolled through on Saturday—around the time roommate Adrian and his girlfriend went out to see a movie, leaving me alone with the cat. I saw the clouds moving in and enjoyed the light show.

“Yeah I was without power for 24 hours,” said my always-healthy classmate, which got a few grimaces and sympathetic groans from the class remainder. Someone else talked about traffic and hail. Then there was a pause.

“I went out on my porch and watched it,” I pipped in. I talked about living on the 15th floor of this high apartment complex, amid the clouds and winds, and how I stood on my balcony, rain pelting my face, directing the lightning and wind like Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia.”

I threw in some hand gestures and furrowed brow movements, showing my intense concentration. That got some laughs and some more “you’re so crazy,” comments from my class.

It’s good to rack up some subtle funny points in groups. They can come at any time and require a more sophisticated humor. If you tell a joke or story that gets laughs, that’s too specific. There’s nothing more undermining to the goal of establishing a legacy of humor than to have someone say, “Hey! Tell that one story. It’s so funny.” You see, that locks you into that story. You tell it, it might work, it might not, regardless, you’re done. Say no more.

However, if you can make people laugh from simple stories like standing in the midst of a thunderstorm, evoking some recollection of a cartoon mouse; and you can do that multiple times, across the span of a conversation, then the laughs blend in to a general, hazy regard toward you as a procurer of the jovial. Then, instead of them asking you to tell that one funny story, they just want you around to be funny, which gives credence to anything you do as being funny in and of itself. After a time, your actions become self-perpetuating in maintaining your image of laughter.

Don’t know if you needed a lecture in that, but there it is. Begone!

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Two more weeks until a bedroom…

I can feel it. The cardboard boxes around me can feel it. The cat feels it. The cycling air conditioner feels it. My toothpaste can feel it. My dwindling supply of q-tips can feel it.

With every sigh and “whoops, excuse me” between roommates, I can feel it—the still, quiet voice sounding the coming of the move. Soon, there will be space for all. There will be racks for the towels. Shirts will reside in closets and on hangers. Boxes will give way to shelves and couches, lamps and cushions. There will be a dining room table. There will be a path through the rooms. The cat will frolic amid a purified Feng Shui. The tension between personal space will be resolved.

In two weeks we move! Down four floors to a larger space. Sure, there will be trips and loads to move; but it will be by the sweat of our brows that will bring us victory. Soon, I will change not among stoves and cutlery, but in the midst of my bed and closet. Soon, I will be a resident, a tenant, a man!

Dum dum duuuuum. Ba bub bub ba bub ba baaaaaaa. Dee de de deeee. Der der deeeeeer da da da deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer.

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Levels of intimacy

There are thresholds of intimacy that two people can experience.  These levels, if transcended, can lead to fantastic friendships, companionships, etc. It is imperative that you progress from one level to the next, without jumping too far up the ladder. To do so would shake the foundation of the relationship.

Something that exists on the first threshold to intimacy is assisting someone with a move. This is a great test of friendship. It may seem innocuous, but moving someone is a very traumatic experience for a free-willed individual. I mean there is this person, happy in his life, enjoying an upcoming weekend; but then, poof, there’s this request, “Will you help me move?” and the question hangs in the air like someone asking for donations to help cure cancer. Sure, someone could refuse, but what a jerk! So the free-willed individual has to think to himself, “Well, do I like this person enough to spend the weekend lifting heavy boxes into and out of a van?”

To say “yes” is to transcend the first level of intimacy. Afterwards, the mover and movee share a special bond, one that can be acknowledged silently over a beer years later. “Remember when it rained and you helped me move?” The question wouldn’t even need to be asked. A person’s eyes and a gentle nod of the head by the other would suffice.

Pooping in front of someone is about the sixth level, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When someone walks up to you and asks if you’d witness an inner talent—a piece of writing, a song, perhaps, or maybe a few lines from a play, that is definitely at least the second threshold of intimacy. This is especially true when the offer is unprompted by party A to party B. “Hey, I hear you’re a writer, here’s the first chapter of a novel I’m writing. Tell me what you think.” Yup, that’s indicative of a second-level threshold.

So if the offerer (party A) had been one of the two involved in the move discussed earlier, it would be fine, as they would simply be attempting to transcend yet another level of intimacy (although if the person who asked for help moving also offered a bit of fiction, the recipient of both requests might want to hit the brakes a bit and try to garner a favor or two for himself).

The reason why witnessing inner talent is such a big issue is because a person who creates takes on a holy and sacred charge. He or she is a created being wishing to create as does his or her creator. Thus, to ask someone to evaluate the said product of this creative energy is asking someone to actually pass judgment on how well a created being can mimic the work of creation, and thus the Almighty himself. It’s heavy.

And so when a gentleman in my Instructor Training Course put a copy of the first chapter of his novel on my desk asking for feedback, I was jarred a bit. I don’t think I know this guy or am well enough accomplished in the arena of writing to assign worth to something he feels so strongly about. This is what I mean about it being a second-level/threshold deal. We have no basis for intimate interaction. A wrong turn of phrase, delayed reaction or perceived lack of enthusiasm could shatter the guy.

So should I be honest? Jumping from zero to level two is risky. I’d rather of helped the guy move first before taking this on. That way, I’d know him a bit more—know his quirks or how well he responds to feedback. Then again, screw that! I hate moving people! I’ll just have a read and give my piece.

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The great performance

So today was our first graded lecture for this Instructor Training Course I’m attending while at the schoolhouse. Well, it wasn’t really graded, it was scored, but not recorded. You know, a way to see what they look for and all of that business?

We had the weekend to practice and prepare and everyone was properly freaked out. I tried to worry, but I don’t get nervous at these sorts of things. That’s not to say I thought I’d be perfect, by any means, it’s just that after so many years of performing in front of total strangers, I don’t fret about it much.

And I was dead last. I hate going last. I volunteered to go first, but we drew cards to keep things fair and, by chance, I picked the last card, slating me for the final spot.

Which meant I had to sit and dread it for the whole day while others did their piece. At the end of each session a look of peace washed over their faces and they joined the ever-growing clique of “already finished” in their scrutiny of the “yet to go” remainder. After a time, I was the only one left.

The chap before me had done a good job and in the closing moments of his presentation, when I realized my imminent appearance, I sunk down a little.

I always get that way, even on stage. I can almost see it, the ever-rising waters of impending expectation, covering my feet, legs, chest and finally overtaking me completely, where I’m at last forced into the light and onto stage.

Nervous? I don’t think so. I’m not shaking. I can form my words. I can even tweak the energy of things, if I had a mind to, but there I was, staring at seven sets of eyes that looked at me lovingly. I was all that stood between them and an evening’s freedom.

I began.

And I ended.

Completely boring.

I had my marks done out, I knew what parts to cover. I used several other key things to satisfactory effect. But it was dead. I knew it as some of my audience’s eyes began to droop.

“Where was your personality?” my evaluator asked. Normally I’m a riot, if I’m permitted to say. I don’t know. I guess I was off today.

“Don’t know, I’ll work on it.”

“You were a completely different person,” she continued. “If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were this crazy-serious guy. I’d like to see more of you.”

She was right. I wasn’t in the moment. I don’t know. I think I’ll get better with experience. All of my times in front of others have been with scripts. I could hide behind the role. This lesson/lecture had a script too, I suppose, but it wasn’t as meted out, nor did I have weeks and months to internalize it.

In the end, I was average, and a bit dry, to boot.

My mates were right, I would need to work on it. Our next lesson to teach is on Wednesday. I think I’ll do better with that one. I just need to learn to have more fun with it, that’s all.

I guess it’s reflective on how I am. In a new group, in a new situation, I’m terribly introverted, completely silent. It’s not until I get the vibe for whom I’m around that I begin to come to life. I like to think I try to adapt myself to other people, but it’s a very reactive process, which is not conducive to being an energetic speaker. I’ll have to learn to harness my later confidence in my initial trepidation.

So…Wednesday. I’ll give it another go.

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One thing I miss…

The theater.

Not that I was this huge actor-type, but I spent a few years acting in plays and musicals. I don’t get to talk about it very much—I suppose there’s not much interest in the stage outside of actors.

But I was there, in high school, community theater, college.

I’ve said, in the few instances where I’ve told a story or two, that being on stage was the hardest thing I’ve ever loved. Especially in community theater, where the actors also built the sets. It was great.

I’d go out and audition for these shows, and sometimes make it, sometimes not. When I scored a part, I’d have to begin rehearsal. The production’s complexity dictated how long it would take before the first show. There’d be mountains to do. Musicals had a whole other element—learning the music.

Which was interesting for me, not knowing how to read music. I have…well, had a good ear. I could pick out how a part went after a couple of times. And, mind you, that’s not just a jingle, but a full-on part to a song, with rests, key changes, emphases and lyrics that have to be woven into the ensemble.

I can’t tell you how many evenings I spent pining away in the large, echoing chambers of empty theaters. Learning blocking, taking it from page 32, visualizing the set parts not yet built, all of it.

And the friendships. Wow! I’d get pretty close to a lot of people. Sometimes there would be regulars that were in every show, sometimes not. Sometimes there’d be fights—well, a lot of times there’d be fights, but that’s part of the business, tiffs and all that.

I’d hammer, nail, paint, sand, move, yell, sing and dance for weeks and weeks, all leading up to the big night.

I tell you what. There’s nothing like the calm before a show, the anticipation is electric. Especially when you can see the dimly-lit faces of a packed house. The orchestra begins tuning and I would know it was close. There, in the darkness, off stage, we’d all be waiting. I’d stand in the wings, behind some ropes, with my eyes closed, trying to breathe in the energy.

We’d all be dead quiet, going over our lines and parts in our minds. I’d always get sleepy, for some reason. I guess it was how I reacted to the stress. There’s a lot of waiting before a show starts. Everybody would have to be in makeup and costume sometimes hours beforehand. Up until that point, we’d all be in the back rooms, trying not to get too rowdy to muss our garb. In the final moments, the tension would build and build.

And then it would begin. The curtain raises, the lights fire up and the first notes march along. With the lights, it’s easy to see across stage to the opposite wing and everybody who’s congregated there.

There’d be a lot of doubt. It’s difficult to convey all that goes through a man’s mind when in some manner of tights or fantastic costume, hair done up, mic pinned and on; as he’s about to come face to face with several hundred people. It was at once both terrifying and wonderful.

And there’d be this strange dance I would do with the energy of an audience. After a lot of shows, when it came for my line, I could tell when I had coaxed a laugh or fallen flat. There’s a whole art to leading a huge group of strangers to laugh or cry, clap or sigh. Sometimes I could feel it like a thickness to the air, as strange as that sounds.

And so, there I was, for a time. For all the incredible amount of work that it required, I miss it.

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Near discussion on art

I am currently in my instructor training. We have class all day and I learn about personality types, presentation techniques, lesson plans, etc—generally the skills needed to function as a teacher.

In our class is a smattering of personalities and ranks from throughout the building. Some are at the schoolhouse to teach officers, some with returning service members in advanced classes, and the rest, like myself, are to instruct new troops, fresh out of training.

Each hour of instruction has with it a 10-minute break. During one of those breaks, I almost had an interesting conversation about writing, books, what makes “good” art, and the state of modern communication.

The teacher of the hour that had just wrapped up was an Air Force NCO. She and I started talking about…well, I’ve forgotten it presently. Anyway, something was mentioned about the new Harry Potter book and its author, J.K. Rowling.

I mentioned my astonishment that the woman was now a billionaire—not that she didn’t deserve to be, but I can’t wrap my mind around money like $1,000,000,000. That’s a heaping lot of cash.

“She’s suuuch a good writer,” my teacher gushed.

“Well, that’s arguable,” I countered. She furrowed her brow, wondering, I think, if I was going to go on some sort of anti-Harry Potter diatribe. I continued. “Some point out that her prose is a little clumsy. You know—not anything along the lines of the quote, ‘great’ authors.”

She shrugged and nodded.

“But she connects with her audience,” I said. “And if an artist can connect with his or her audience, then there’s some greatness in that. But what makes a ‘good’ writer? Is it the work itself or how much it sells?”

“Well, she’s definitely a success! Look at how many copies she’s sold,” the lieutenant colonel interjected. He sat next to me and had returned to his seat, entering the conversation.

“But don’t you think there are those who defend the quality of the art?” I asked. “I mean, those who study it and appreciate it and can operate at a certain level; don’t you think they should have a say in what is or isn’t good art, rather than just sales receipts?”

He shrugged. “She sells a lot of books. That’s a good writer by my book.”

“But, anyway, it’s exciting to be in media these days,” I said. “We’re seeing a shift. It used to be that to be in media, you had to belong to a big newspaper or a big TV station. Now, though, things are shifting toward the end user. The user is creating his or her own content—bloggers, podcasters, people are creating their own stuff.”

“But they aren’t real journalists,” the light colonel said.

“They’re significant. They’re content creators. People read their stuff.”

“They’re small time. You have to have a certain set of standards in your writing. It’s what we teach. Are you saying they don’t need us anymore?”

“Well, sir, some bloggers are very influential. They’re being invited to press conferences and are involved in lots of political races. It’s the future.”

“I don’t believe that. You show me a blog that has circulation that’s larger than our base newspapers. Larger than the Fort Hood paper? C’mon.”

With that the break ended and we had to start class again.

Interesting contradictions.

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Cut-aways

There are scenes in movies—especially long, drawn out, introspective movies (i.e. “Thin Red Line”), where things will progress and then stop. The characters will suddenly have memories surface, and scenes from the past will replay, maybe from different angles or focusing on a different detail, or maybe from a silent moment in the midst of the memory—looking at a sunset, a tree line or a bird flying.

With my anniversary of returning home from Iraq approaching, I’ve had a few of those—cut-aways as they’re sometimes called, something to cut to instead of just the guy thinking. I let them wash in like those scenes from the movies. It’s sort of neat. From the distance, looking back, I don’t remember too much noise or dialog—just small moments.

I’ll be hunched over my desk at work, pouring through an email and I’ll flash to standing in the dim lights of the flight line, waiting for the rotor wash of a nearby Chinook to bathe us in hot dust.

Sometimes I’ll phase out of a meeting to a time when all of us in the humvee had a laugh from something on the radio. Whether it was a bad report from our lead vehicle, or just a bad sex joke from a gunner, we’d cackle and adjust our ear pieces as we sat sweating in the dark.

I remember after hour six or seven in that damn back seat how my legs would catch fire. The cramped space would make me a bit squirrelly and I’d fidget. I’d kick and lift up as much as possible, like I did back in the womb, I imagine, to let all that burning out of my knees and shins. In the cab, illuminated green from the truck commander’s monitor, I’d look left and right across the pile of ammo, food and water in the vehicle’s middle, scanning around. I’d mess with my camera bag at my side to make sure I was ready to take photos if a big blast happened.

Then I’ll snap out of it when somebody laughs, then start in again.

The smoke and sun bled bright bands of red and gray at the day’s close. I would have lit up a cigarette if I smoked, but sat, watching the burn barrel turn the day’s confidential papers into soot and ash. Plumes of white and black smoke ran out in all directions in the shifting winds of the desert evening. The evening call to prayer echoed and lilted, fading in and out, carried too in the winds.

The memories are all intentional, I’m not cursed with flashbacks. I bring up the fun and almost-fun situations, and it dulls the rest to a quiet murmur. Some milestone like an anniversary always brings back more occasions to remember than others.

And it helps to remember the more scenic moments.

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