Forces That Would Overcome

Excerpted from You Are Reminded That Your Safety is Your Own Responsibility

Your descent marks your entry into a world in which planning and preparation, self-reliance, and good choices are crucial. Don’t hike alone. Know what your destination will be and how to get there. Know where water is available. Get the weather forecast. Don’t overestimate your capabilities. Hike intelligently. You are responsible for your own safety as well as that of everyone in your party.

—Hiking Tips, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-tips.htm

I’m traveling alone, renting a cabin at a normally tranquil spot—that’s called foreshadowing—on the western bank of the Big Laramie River at the edge of the Medicine Bow National Forest up in Wyoming.  You are not going to stumble upon Woods Landing on your way to someplace else, because that’s not where it is. And, you’ve never been there on purpose. We must rely upon my capacity to draw you into the setting using the magic of language and amateur photography:

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Imagine a vale of cottonwood, aspen, laurel and ash, surrounded by prairie foothills and pine-covered mountainsides. My cabin is a one-minute walk down a dirt road to a post office and a General Store with a couple of gas pumps out front. The store sells worms, Folger’s, batteries, Butterfinger bars and other worms.

Across the way, there’s a café/saloon/dance hall that was erected, according to the informative back cover of the laminated café menu, in the 1930s by a Norwegian named Hokum Lestrum, the logs all hand-cut and perfectly fitted to cleave together without nails, the floor supported by twenty-four boxcar springs. When the locals come here to dance, which apparently they still do on the weekends, they rebound quite a bit off that bouncy floor, which I would very much like to see.

Besides that, I am up here why? First of all, I don’t need a reason. I was born and grew up in Wyoming and they have to let me back in whenever I want. Second, I’m on a kind of self-styled writing retreat. My husband, Michael, and I just got home from a visit to Grand Canyon that was mind-blowing and life-changing. Soon as we got back to Denver, I turned around and said,

“Look, I have to go off again someplace on my own to think about eons and overwhelming forces and how insignificant I am. Don’t watch any Sandra Bullock movies without me. I love you. Good bye.”

I arrive and get checked in before noon. Unpack and install myself: t-shirts in the dresser, six pack in the mini-fridge. Ukulele on the sofa.[1] Bug spray on the counter. Beyond Good and Evil on the bedside table. Fishing pole by the door.  In my pack are the following essentials: Water, compass, gorp, and a First Aid kit (Neosporin, a Q-Tip and a Band Aid). What I lack in skill, I make up for in provisions and medical supplies.

I scoot a chair to where I can watch the river roll by as I porch-sit, write, and read Nietzsche, then I head up to the café for a bite to eat before I settle in for the week. So, why am I, by 3 p.m. on this—my first day in Nature—standing on the porch of my cabin totally re-packed, my Fiat 500, henceforth referred to as Vern, waiting at the ready?

Vern does not literally pant, but (as you can plainly see with your own eyes) if any car could, it would be he. She. Damn it.

IMG_1235When he was brand new and my friend, Cynthia Kolanowski, first laid eyes upon his sea-foam-green adorability, she cried out as if encountering an old friend, “Verne!”—a name spontaneously and honorably bestowed, but which, for some reason I saw, in my mind, as having a silent, feminine e at the end. It never occurred to me that Vern might not be the car’s name, and that does not occur to me now. But since the christening, there has ensued no small amount of auto gender confusion on my part. Problem is this: when I’m driving Vern, he’s a he. I can just tell. I know it on the inside.  But, when I introduce her— I’d like you to meet my car, Verne. Verne, Jeremy. Jeremy, Verne! —she’s a she. Yes, I do teach my undergraduates that gender identity is socially-constructed, fluid, and a performance. And, I am not saying I don’t want any trans in my car; I do—mission, portation—I just don’t want to be futzing around, looking for the right pronoun. So, while I am not going to run out and install a gun rack or a trailer hitch, my mind is made up: he is a he. He will be raised as a he, driven as a he, and when the inevitable day comes, sold as a he. A cute, little, effeminate, Italian he.

I digress.

Which, according to our resident philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is a sign of health, “everything unconditional belonging to pathology.” I am as about as conditional as a person can be. That is why I am standing here, dithering, on the front porch of my cabin—should I stay or should I go? —middle of the afternoon, scanning the sky with a look of consternation on my face.

Consternation is appropriate. The air is hazy. There are helicopters and small planes huzzin’ around overhead. An atmosphere of let us call it Emergency Preparedness has rapidly developed.  After lunch, I went over to the General Store to get me some dessert. While I was there, three Albany County Sheriff’s Department cars came racing into the parking area and skirched impressively to a halt, spraying gravel and raising a cloud of dirt, a development that—in the context of my having recently read the entire laminated café menu front to back for entertainment—was spectacularly exciting. I hung out to see what might happen next. Unwrapped my Butterfinger Bar. Took a bite, watching. Deputies were here with the urgent news that, rapidly approaching from just over the foothills across the road—quite visible from where I stood—was an impressive column of smoke.

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I did not have to be convinced of its significance. Although I have been quite deaf in my right ear since I had the mumps in second grade, I can see just fine, and I instinctively get the relationship between smoke and fire. Not to mention, a few regulars at the café, old-timers in feed caps, plaid shirts and muddy boots—quintessential tough guys upon whom the rest of us count to remain composed at all times (they lose an arm in a hay baler, they’re like, Helen! Bring me out a bucket of ice, a towel and the pickup keys. And grab your purse—I may need you to come along and work the gearshift!—those guys) mosied outside together when they saw the deputies where they stood, appraising the horizon with troubled expressions, going “Oh, no!”

 Oh, no is what I do not want to hear certain people say at certain times. My gynecologist in the middle of my pelvic exam. The pilot of the plane I’m on as we approach the landing strip. Anybody, right now, on the first day of my pre-paid, weeklong writing retreat.

Then the property caretaker, Brad—ponytail, pecan-shell teeth and a sizing-you-up squint—regaled our increasingly uneasy little knot of gathering onlookers with the germane tale of his own hair-singeing escape, not two years ago (when this exact same thing happened only from a different direction) when he barely got away, past blazing grama grass and exploding sagebrush, down the melting highway, using only his wits and a motorcycle. On that occasion, flames were stopped just right over there, where you can see the charred line of timber. Without straining, I am able to make out some darkened tree trunks that seem unnervingly closer than one might like. If this time is anything like that time, Brad concluded, we could be in trouble.

“Our boys protected us then!” chimed in the little General Store lady.

“Your boys?” I inquired.

“The local volunteer fire brigade—they’re all our sons out here.”  This gave me pause as I reflected that, since the dawn of time, it is the young men who are called upon to put their lives on the line on behalf of the rest of us. And, they do it because they’re all testosteroney but also, they can’t refuse, because they’d look like pussies, and nobody wants to look like a pussy. Which was of sociocultural interest only momentarily. I prefer worrying to just plain old thinking. I asked one of the deputies (who appeared to be trying hard even as we spoke to grow his first mustache) a simple question:

“Do we have to leave?” Hoping, more than you can ever know, that he would reply, Yes. You’re not gone time I count to ten, I’m ‘onna shoot ya!

That is unequivocal. No second-guessing involved. Right, Sir! Got it! Hands in the air, nodding, spinning on my heel, running to the cabin, throwing all my stuff willy-nilly into Vern and rapidly departing. Doing exactly what I’m told to do by an authority figure brandishing a gun. It is so comforting to believe that someone can see the Big Picture, know what’s best for us, and just take charge.

Instead, the deputy’s voice cracked a little as he replied, “That’s up to you, Ma’am.”

No!” I protested, my intensity fueled by irritation at the Ma’am part of his sentence, Ma’am being an ambiguous honorific that patronizes even as it purports to esteem; it is not at all the same as Sir, construing its object as a geriatric matron who must be humored.[2]

“Tell me what I should do!”

His eyes widened in surprise as he took a step backwards.

“Idunno!” He held up his hands in a defensive gesture, demonstrating that he wasn’t hiding any intelligence that might inform my decision.

I went back to my cabin. Gathered up my stuff, nonchalantly—didn’t want to overreact or worse, look like a pussy—and here I stand, bags packed. Sniffing the air, fondling my key fob and resenting the privilege that allowed me to get myself into this situation, which might not even turn out to be a situation at all, but until I know for sure, I am in it, and resentful.

About thirty minutes into this activity, Brad stops by and tells me the property’s now officially on alert.

“Oh,” I remark, “on alert. What does that mean?”

His response is earnest. “We can kick back and smoke a doobie, but we might have to take off like bats out of hell.” He lumbers off to deliver the news to the handful of other guests—a biker couple, a family, a bearded backpacker with a dog.

Dilemma, yo. I have already paid for my week. If I leave, and that fire goes tearing off in another direction or gets extinguished, have I forfeited my retreat for nothing? But, if I decide to stay here, is it going to be possible to concentrate, write and read Nietzsche, what with all smoke and uncertainty?

And understand Nietzsche? I have my doubts.  Oh, sure: I get that any morality that justifies weakness and fear is an inferior one—a slave morality. I also grasp Nietszche’s argument that a childish belief in a supreme deity limits our capacity to assume responsibility. Duh! Any Waldorf kindergartner can explain that much. But beyond that, I am too distracted to go deep, philosophically speaking. In part by the stupid fact that I chose to come to a remote location—favorable to creative introspection and rumination under ideal conditions, but inconducive to proliferative wireless signals. Which was brilliant, right up until the huge, scary fire started, when a woman needs to be able to get onto Wikipedia.  No—I do not mean Google.

Google is where our worst fears go to mutate. This is because only those of us who have had horrible experiences bother to share them, in graphic detail, on websites that appear when you search for, I don’t know, let’s say, centipedes in Hawaii.

Which you do because, a couple of years back, your cousin, Kimberly—who lives in the Aloha state, but doesn’t have room to play host, so you rent accommodations—came to hang out for the afternoon with you and Michael in your theretofore perfect vacation condo right on the beach in Haleiwa. The three of you are sitting around, sweet Pacific breezes blowing in through the sliding doors, mai tai flowing (is it as if your glass fills itself). Life is good. Until Kim wonders aloud if y’all have noticed any centipedes scuttling about.

“Ha ha! Pfff! Centipedes don’t exist!” you scoff, adding a noticeably less confident, “Do they?”

“Actually, we have ‘em all over Oahu.”  She holds her fingers three inches apart. “They’re about this long, and they move really fast.”

She discloses having recently hacked one to bits upon finding it skittering up the side of their entertainment center in their actual living room: “So, I grabbed a hatchet— “

Michael recapitulates: “You keep a hatchet near your television.”

Kim nods somberly, then gazes up, her big, brown eyes expertly searching the ceiling—at which unspoken implication, your hair starts to hurt. You are wishing that you had stayed in Colorado. In Colorado, you are familiar with the fauna (none of which have segmented bodies or more than a few legs) and their habits. But, what you should not do—after Kim leaves and you’re alone, in the condo, with just Michael and the internet—is you should not sneak out to the lanai with your handheld device and conduct a frantic Google Search for centipedes in Hawaii. You will regret it. Not just for the rest of your vacation. For the rest of your life.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, as any college student can tell you, is where we go to obtain knowledge. Once on it, I learn that wildfires move at a speed of up to 6.7 miles an hour in forests and 14 miles an hour in grasslands. Woods Landing, as I explained to you earlier, is in a grassy, high plains valley at the edge of a forested mountain. That’s what, 938 miles an hour.  Or not; I majored in theatre, not pyrodynamics. Anyway—if I can now get the precise coordinates and boundaries of the blaze, take into account the topographical features between it and me and ascertain the likelihood (and potential velocity) of wind, then armed with numbers—and mathematics—I can begin to calculate my chances. But, I keep losing the signal. For Pete’s sake, all I want to know is this:

Am I to be drinking an ice-cold Titan IPA, writing a lyric essay on Grand Canyon and finger-picking the one song I know on the ukulele? Or, am I to be panicking?

Provided with data, I am capable of responding appropriately (even with equanimity) to any number of scenarios. Keeping things in perspective is why I never go anywhere—including on this trip—without my copy of the 2012 edition of the National Safety Council’s popular Injury Facts.

Which invaluable publication, alas, has limited use at the moment. Oh, sure, I can look up Fire—can? Hell, I do look it up—under which subcategories such as Smoke Inhalation and Burns draw my attention to an array of possibilities. But, I want to be online is what I’m saying.

Only, the network, WoodsLandingGuest, is completely unresponsive, regardless of my exertions. I’m walking around the property with my phone, waving it as if trying to attract the attention of a passing spaceship: Come take me home! I read somewhere that, for more bars, you should swoop your phone around, above your head in a figure eight pattern. I don’t think it works. I do it anyway.

Zip, zilch, nada. Accordingly, it comes to pass that the aspect of my trip I most looked forward to—being out of touch, out of range and away from it all—leaves me reliant upon speculation, face-to-face interaction and word of mouth. The speculation is vague. The faces are unreadable. The word is Idunno!

Don’t get me wrong. I am surrounded by (im)perfectly decent fellow human beings: the aforementioned Brad. The General Store lady. The deputies, a bartender, and oh! this multi-talented 14-year-old who, up at the café, took my order, made and served me a delicious green chili burrito, cleared my table, rang me up and gave me correct change. These are the sort of competent professionals into whose capable hands surely I can entrust my wellbeing. Yet, when I say, to Young Green Chili Burrito-maker, “What I mainly need to know here is, will that fire come closer to us?” he goes, “Well, we all live out here and we have not been ordered evacuate.”

“Precisely!” I reply, then—as he subtly but defensively backs away from me—continue, gesticulating appropriately: “This is the center of your world, and I can see that y’all are setting up those big, yellow, FasTank emergency water reserves, running with hoses down to the river, which leads me believe the situation here, for you, is dire. I, on the other hand, am a stranger passing through, one who might avoid suffering any loss of life, limb or property. So, as regards the peril to me, personally, what would be your best guess?”

How desperately I want advice. But, what is this child going to tell me? I don’t know why I suddenly see myself through his eyes. I wish I had not. I already know what I am: entitled, passive aggressive and kind of annoying. So, to repair this fresh problem (which regards shame due to unwanted self-awareness) I volunteer.  “Might I assist in the fortification and defense of Woods Landing?”

This comes right out of my mouth before I can stop it, making me even a worse person, because I do not mean it. Now, I imagine myself missing my window of opportunity to get away,  trying to act all brave, opening up a fire hose, getting blasted backwards 30 feet—into the river—by the unexpected water pressure, striking my head on a rock and knocking myself out. I can see it clearly: me drowning, not even actually doing something useful but just pretending to do something useful. Then, they have to fish me out and resuscitate me. Meanwhile, Woods Landing burns down around us. That woman is the worst thing that has ever happened to us! laments the little General Store Lady—and that becomes my legacy. I am consequently relieved when Green Chili responds to my offer,  “No, there’s nothing you can do here. We got a whole training and procedure and everything. Just go back to your cabin. You’ll be okay.”

This last part—which I, as an adult, probably ought to be telling him by way of comfort and encouragement—is sweet, in spite of the fact that we both know he’s just trying to get rid of me. Back to my cabin I go, thinking, maybe this is an opportunity; if anybody ever needed to find peace with being on alert, it is I. Writing is a centering activity. I take out my Pocket Guide to the Grand Canyon, my notebook and a pen. Crack open an ice-cold Tital IPA. Sit down. Recall what brought me here. Begin to write. This, from my journal entry that day, page 23:

Grand Canyon’s nearly 280 miles long. In some places, it is deeper than a mile. Seventeen million years ago, the waters of a great river—established a course through what we now call the Colorado Plateau, as it was being uplifted by tectonic plate collisions. This effected erosion on a magnificent scale that continues even today, exposing nearly 2 billion years of the Earth’s geological history. The oldest human artifacts in the canyon are 11,500 years old. People migrated to the Western Hemisphere at least 4,000 years before that. Our remains have been found elsewhere that are estimated to be 195,000 years old.

Dinosaurs went extinct around 61 million years before humans appeared, having been in existence for something like ever. The Vishnu Basement rocks—that’s the layer at the very bottom of the canyon—could be 1.75 billion years old. Here is the thing: I’m 57. 57 is what percentage of 1,750,000,000? The answer is 0.0000325714285714. For a long time, I try to visualize this infinitesimally small number, imagining it first as the single flap of a bee’s wing, then as one bird chirp, or as the momentary glint of light on a ripple in the river.  Sometimes, when there’s nothing else to be known and nothing to be done, a little context goes a long way. When I finally remember to look up at the mountain, it is no longer smoking, though the fire has left a thick haze. The sun, beginning to set, casts a glow like nothing I have ever seen.

[1] I only know five notes and one song, but it’s a song I really like: You may suffer; you may cry; you may often feel afraid, and you will ache in the pain of confusion. But, you will eat peaches! —and it just gets better after that.

[2] Don’t argue with me about this, especially if you’re a man and there is no chance that anybody will ever call YOU Ma’am.

 

Grand Canyon by Henry Van Dyke

Grand Canyon picYou Are Reminded That Your Safety is Your Own Responsibility (2016) was inspired by a trip, with my husband, to Grand Canyon. My response to a blown mind was to spend the next year writing about the terror of feeling alone in the universe; alone in the natural world, subject to forces beyond our control that exceed our capacity to control them– and about the peace that comes, at Grand Canyon, from coming face to face with geological context. Henry Van Dyke had his own take:

DAYBREAK
What makes the lingering Night so cling to thee?
Thou vast, profound, primeval hiding-place
Of ancient secrets,–gray and ghostly gulf
Cleft in the green of this high forest land,
And crowded in the dark with giant forms!
Art thou a grave, a prison, or a shrine?

A stillness deeper than the dearth of sound
Broods over thee: a living silence breathes
Perpetual incense from thy dim abyss.
The morning-stars that sang above the bower
Of Eden, passing over thee, are dumb
With trembling bright amazement; and the Dawn
Steals through the glimmering pines with naked feet,
Her hand upon her lips, to look on thee!
She peers into thy depths with silent prayer
For light, more light, to part thy purple veil.
O Earth, swift-rolling Earth, reveal, reveal,–
Turn to the East, and show upon thy breast
The mightiest marvel in the realm of Time!

‘Tis done,–the morning miracle of light,–
The resurrection of the world of hues
That die with dark, and daily rise again
With every rising of the splendid Sun!

Be still, my heart! Now Nature holds her breath
To see the solar flood of radiance leap
Across the chasm, and crown the western rim
Of alabaster with a far-away
Rampart of pearl, and flowing down by walls
Of changeful opal, deepen into gold
Of topaz, rosy gold of tourmaline,
Crimson of garnet, green and gray of jade,
Purple of amethyst, and ruby red,
Beryl, and sard, and royal porphyry;
Until the cataract of colour breaks
Upon the blackness of the granite floor.

How far below! And all between is cleft
And carved into a hundred curving miles
Of unimagined architecture! Tombs,
Temples, and colonnades are neighboured there
By fortresses that Titans might defend,
And amphitheatres where Gods might strive.
Cathedrals, buttressed with unnumbered tiers
Of ruddy rock, lift to the sapphire sky
A single spire of marble pure as snow;
And huge aerial palaces arise
Like mountains built of unconsuming flame.
Along the weathered walls, or standing deep
In riven valleys where no foot may tread,
Are lonely pillars, and tall monuments
Of perished aeons and forgotten things.
My sight is baffled by the wide array
Of countless forms: my vision reels and swims
Above them, like a bird in whirling winds.
Yet no confusion fills the awful chasm;
But spacious order and a sense of peace
Brood over all. For every shape that looms
Majestic in the throng, is set apart
From all the others by its far-flung shade,
Blue, blue, as if a mountain-lake were there.

How still it is! Dear God, I hardly dare
To breathe, for fear the fathomless abyss
Will draw me down into eternal sleep.

What force has formed this masterpiece of awe?
What hands have wrought these wonders in the waste?
O river, gleaming in the narrow rift
Of gloom that cleaves the valley’s nether deep,–
Fierce Colorado, prisoned by thy toil,
And blindly toiling still to reach the sea,–
Thy waters, gathered from the snows and springs
Amid the Utah hills, have carved this road
Of glory to the Californian Gulf.
But now, O sunken stream, thy splendour lost,
‘Twixt iron walls thou rollest turbid waves,
Too far away to make their fury heard!

At sight of thee, thou sullen labouring slave
Of gravitation,–yellow torrent poured
From distant mountains by no will of thine,
Through thrice a hundred centuries of slow
Fallings and liftings of the crust of Earth,–
At sight of thee my spirit sinks and fails.
Art thou alone the Maker? Is the blind
Unconscious power that drew thee dumbly down
To cut this gash across the layered globe,
The sole creative cause of all I see?

I love the poem up until this point.

But, Van Dyke continues, despairing that the secret of the universe has been revealed, by the Canyon, to be time and physics, which he finds too awful to contemplate. Thus, he concludes that, in spite of what he now knows to be true, God must be the creator of all this wonder. 

Oh, well. Ha.
Are force and matter all? The rest a dream?

I Just Can’t Help Myself: 1988

I wrote the following story while generating potential material for You Are Reminded That Your Safety is Your Own Responsibility–but it didn’t make it into the final script (which ended up going in a different direction). It’s actually three stories: one, about the transformative time I spent at the National Shakespeare Conservatory; one, about the importance (in theatre, and in life) of understanding status… and one, about the relationship between perfectionism and anxiety.

Thing about the panic was, it happened when I least expected it, when everything was going great.

The first time, I was fast asleep after a day of stretching, sword-fighting, ports-de-bras and scene study at the National Shakespeare Conservatory. I woke up in the little studio apartment I sublet with my boyfriend, Greg, in the East Village, and I thought I was having a heart attack. A wee-hours trip to the ER at Beth Israel confirmed that nothing life-threatening was happening; it was “just anxiety.” I’d never had a problem with anxiety. The word “just” felt reassuring. By the time we got back home, around dawn, I felt fine- and I soon forgot all about it. Panic would come after me again in a few months, at the Conservatory’s summer retreat in the Catskills, when its appearance, duration and severity would be disabling.

Now— to provide a little context— I loved NSC. Loved my teachers; loved my new friends; loved the life Greg and I had made; loved being in a rehearsal studio all day long. Day after day. Discovering. Performing scenes. And having my work critiqued by a master.

Teacher: Good god. Why are you moving that way?

Me: I’m exploring my character.

Teacher: Well, STOP IT.

Or— a classic:

Teacher: What is it you think you’re doing up there?

Me: Acting. Acting?

Teacher: No— no, that’s not it.

And my all-time favorite,

Teacher: Your pussy’s not in the ring, Dear. THROW YOUR PUSSY IN THE RING.

Janna at NSCI tell people about this time in my life, and about how much it meant to me— to have teachers who had sufficient confidence in my robustness to shove me out of my comfort zone. Treat me not like a delicate peony—but, the way a coach treats a boxer who shows promise. I responded really well to that. “Rigor” was my favorite word. I took with endless curiosity and joy to the task of becoming a better and better performer.

I’m always surprised when non-theatre friends don’t get it— when I tell them about, for example, playing Miss Julie in a scene from the the eponymous play by Strindberg. And here, I must briefly digress. I’ll get back to the panic in a bit.

Miss Julie is the wretched, gender-misfit daughter of an aristocrat, who has an affair with her father’s household servant, John. At the climax, no pun intended— in a reversal of their usual relationship (which involves Julie demeaning John) now filled with shame, she now begs him to command her to commit suicide.

So—it was a scene study class; we were not doing the entire play. For simplicity’s sake, I will just refer to the actor playing John as “John” although that wasn’t his name. Julie and  John are in the kitchen alone together. This is near the end of the play. My line was: “Help me now! Give me orders and I’ll obey like a dog. Do me this last service! Save my honor— save my name! You know what I ought to will, but don’t will. Do you will it and order me to accomplish it.”

I was performing, you know, badly, my clueless, 20-something self, gamely attempting to take on language and ideas that were way beyond me— and my teacher, Casey Kizziah, was directing. The class was watching. Casey wanted me to put to use what we had been learning in his workshops. To wit: a the Conservatory, the approach to acting was behavioral— you don’t pretend to “feel” what the character’s supposedly feeling (because first of all, acting’s not about pretending, and second— we don’t even know what we’re feeling, most of the time) –but you do what the character does— physically and observably— to manage face and status and social roles in the context of the narrative.

If you do it well, then, from the outside in, you start to get an honest, raw sense of what the character might be experiencing and trying to effect. (By the way, every character worth watching is trying to effect something!) And, you also make visible— to the audience— all the strategic moves— what Stanislavski calls “actions”— that produce recognizable human behavior.

A few typical actions— things people do (and therefore that actors do, when enacting believable human behavior) in service to larger goals or schemes— are, for example, “to intrigue;” “to bewitch;” “to bait,” “to seduce,” or “to crush.” And, how the actor accomplishes intriguing, bewitching, baiting, seducing or crushing involves deploying various strategies and tactics. When she discovers which tactics achieve the desired response in the other actor/character— when she has changed them or changed herself— she has succeeded.

If you are an actor rehearsing or performing a scene, one basic strategy for getting what you want is to raise or lower your status vis a vis the other person. That works to demonstrate dominance, or to signal submission, or to maintain equality (and gives the other actor something to respond to besides just words). Basic tactics you use to…let’s say dominate… might be to stand up straight; speak too softly (to force the other to lean in to hear you) or speak loudly (to claim aural space). You might sustain eye contact; wear a blasé expression or hold your head still. Submissive tactics include lowering the eyes; biting the lip; picking at your ear or your fingernails; nodding, smiling and so on.

To play equal status, the actor matches the moves made by the other— not like copycatting, exactly, but— if I touch my face, then you touch yours. If you lean back in your chair and expand yourself physically, I do, too.

Okay? And this play—Miss Julie—takes on all these dynamics. Social roles, status, face, conscious and unconscious strategies we deploy to get what we want (even if what we want is really messed up) and the alternately thrilling, sexy, dangerous and destructive ways that we dominate and submit. So, it’s a good, challenging piece for young actors to work on when they’re learning craft.

“Give me orders, and I’ll obey like a dog.” That is one difficult moment to pull off believably, and I was nowhere near succeeding.

Casey, coaching the scene, wanted me (Miss Julie) to be simultaneously controlling yet abject and humiliated—and he just could not get me there.

“Lower your status,” he suggested.

I whined my line: “Give me orders and I’ll obey like a dog,” (This particular scene is like the kind of sex where you help the other person get it just right: “Okay, now slap my ass— hard! Harder!— OW! Don’t stop! Now, turn me upside down and call me Piggy! Louder!”) I was a naïve, Lutheran girl from Wyoming, and the subtle complexities of the human psyche— and all the pleasures of S&M— were alien; I didn’t even have a vague concept to work with. Plus, I just wasn’t a very good actor. Flummoxed, I tried whimpering.

And, Casey was like, “Oh, please.”

He was getting exasperated. He wanted me to elicit a real response from my acting partner. By which I mean that, if Janna/Miss Julie wants John/John to just roll his eyes, then she should whimper pathetically. But, if she wants John to make her kill herself— she’d better get him to feel so disgusted by her that he wants to kill her himself. And, the audience had also better feel that contempt— cause, if they don’t— well, they might get what the play’s about, on an intellectual level— but you’ve failed, as a theatre artist, to make it visceral.

I tried getting on my knees to beg. “Give me orders and I’ll obey like a dog. Do me this last service! Save my honor –“

“Like a dog.”

I got down on all fours (that is if knees count as feet). “Do you will it and order me to accomplish it— “

“Lower your status.”

I lay on my stomach.

This didn’t feel good. By enacting abasement, I started to be abased. Here I am, in front of the whole class, willingly responding to orders from my teacher that seem to require me to perform the next, degrading move. I (Janna) want to please Casey even more than I (Julie) want to get John to despise me.

So, I touch, and then caress, the boot of John, then, I rest my my head on the boot— which is gross, cause, it’s just this dude’s regular shoe in which he walks around New York everyday— the sidewalk, the street, the subway— and Casey goes: “Lower!”

I can’t get lower than the floor and it seems that bringing my face into contact with the boot is about as far as I can go—but I realize that I can feel even worse if I do this: I raise my ass and lower my chin annnd…I kiss the boot.

John’s foot squirms in revulsion. For sure he wants to kick me in the teeth and run out of the room. The class watches, no doubt repulsed. Now, I’ve got shoe taste in my mouth, along with some kind of schmutz—and I feel like I’ve still failed Casey—and, to my utter humiliation, I start sobbing.

Or, to be more exact, I don’t stop myself from sobbing, without reservation, in front of everybody. When I sob, I cling to John’s pantleg to support me, and without thinking press my face into his leg—there are real tears and snot—and now I’m shouting, crying, begging Casey as much as John, with Miss Julie’s line: “You know what I ought to will, but don’t will. Do you will it and order me to accomplish it.”

And surprise! There is some part of me, in my core, that’s going, “Oh my god, this is so cool! Hot damn!” I am aware of being enormously powerful even as I descend into a genuinely anguished heap. In my mind, John, Casey and my classmates must be gaping at the utter devastation of Miss Julie—though quite possibly, they were all just thinking, “Ew; she put her mouth on that boot.” At any rate, it was exhilarating and exhausting, and I unforgettably learned that day something about playing status and actions, about aligning with the character, about genuinely playing the scene.

So, as I said, everything was going great at the Conservatory. I was learning what it took to do well this thing I’d decided I wanted to do for a living—and, even though the peak moments were hard won, few and far between, it was deeply rewarding.

And then–that one night in the East Village– I woke up with the dread that something very bad was happening to me. The second I had that thought, it was like wind on a wildfire. Other analogies: a panic attack is as disorienting as gettin’ hit in the head with a snowball you didn’t see coming. It’s as self-alienating as sleepwalking, and unstoppable as a hurricane— or menopausal hot flashes.

The joke of it is, you (and I, and all of us) actually ARE going to die—just not at this particular moment or because of this sensation. For no reason, you’re suddenly “Wait- wait- what? What? NO! What’s happening? What’s happening! I can’t breathe even though I actually seem to be breathing perfectly fine!”

It starts with a kind of oxygen deprivation and a sense of weakness or tingling, and then your tongue geth numb and thick. That Pink Floyd song

“My hands felt just like two balloons!

Now, I’ve got that feeling once again,

I can’t explain, you would not understand,

This is not how I am!”

Well, it’s like that— and the scalp, and the encroaching, the impending, the– and I have to, have to, HAVE to walk, OR IT WILL CATCH UP. That, my friends—as many of you know— is a panic attack.

A few weeks after that first episode in the city, we were all— so, okay, NSC had a summer program up at Kerhonkson, in the Catskills, and the whole class had gone up there for the month of July. There were cottage dormitories, a bunkhouse, a dining hall, and a big open rehearsal space all on the site of a former borscht belt resort. It had this timeless, hot, wet, woodsy, grassy, campy feeling that was magical: the waterfalls; the tree frogs; the crickets; the wild turkey my friend, Sheila, and I named “Kerhonk.”

Every morning, we had a warm-up at I don’t know, 8:00? Went through with classes til 4 p.m. with some breaks to study lines, practice skills or cool off in the pool. Then, dinner, clean-up, sitting out under the stars, singing, bonfires… I cannot say how special it was to be there, or how much I had finally found my tribe and my avocation and my place: I wanted to never leave.

I was alive with happiness—so, it made NO SENSE when I had another panic attack, this time, in the middle of a— well, I don’t know how to describe what it was in the middle of. Give me a second.

It was Lilith, Betty and I. We were in the studio, exploring the connection between breathing, spines, movement, resistance provided by the floor and by contact with other bodies— and the production of vocal sound—including glossolalia, which for us had absolutely no mystical or religious connotations, only tonal and muscular— aw, screw it: I’ll just show you what we were doing. Okay, I can’t, not in writing: but think about the weirdest combination of screeching, ululating, groaning and singing possible, like an orgasm on opera.

Don’t judge me and please, don’t be alarmed. That’s fairly normal activity at an acting conservatory. And, we were having so much fun— improvising all the stuff we could do with our voices— not that any of us would ever have an occasion to put these newfound skills to much use, unless, I guess, we were cast in a musical comedy version of The Exorcist.

But, you don’t get to… to, just, lie on the floor making very loud, very weird noises for hours at a time— not in this life, not without freakin’ everybody out and gettin’ yourself committed— and so, doing it is therefore thrilling.

Gnghshaafine-TH!-manorjkasamadalynnotaaaaaaaa……

All of a sudden, I— just stood up and took off walking, away from the studio, very, very fast.

I could feel the weakness, and the shallow breathing and the tongue— all of it— and I don’t know, maybe felt like I could outrun it.

Betty— dear friend Betty, bless her good heart— at my insistence—followed me around the big lawn. I was going, “ Please, stay with me! Just walk with me! I don’t know what’s happening— !” –and, into the woods – “Stay with me, Betty— stay with me!” and she’s like, “Where are we going?” and I’m like, “I don’t know!”— and down a dirt road, and back to the lawn, and around the lawn again.

I knew that if I stopped moving forward, whatever “it” was— was gonna overtake me.

You’re like, “Yeah, right: I recognize a histrionic personality when I see one,” –but I’m not. Unless I’m literally onstage in the context of a performance that I’ve rehearsed, I frankly hate being the center of attention (which yes, makes acting an odd choice of career, but what can I say? I love being part of a professional ensemble, I love rehearsing, I love knowing that I know what I’m doing onstage). What I don’t like is looking weak, and I don’t want to be the source of anybody’s concern, ever; in fact, I have little patience with people who DO. So, I wasn’t “being dramatic.” I just wanted the feeling to stop and never happen again.

When Betty at last tackled me to the ground (Betty may remember this differently) and put her hand on my head— the pressure of that kind, human touch sent a wave of tingling and numbness from the point of contact down my neck, into my fingers, stomach and down my legs.

I couldn’t move. I don’t mean I was lazy or didn’t want to move: I felt locked like the rusted Tin Man. I rested in her lap for what felt like hours, and then— when I could stand— we went and told the program’s director, Albert, that I had to go to the emergency room. In Poughkeepsie.

Where they found nothing wrong, and where it was gently suggested to me that anxiety may have had something to do with the experience.

I rejected this explanation. It made no sense. I was NOT anxious! I was at the top of my game! I was having the time of my life! Never felt better! And— I explained this to the doctor very clearly— this didn’t feel at all like anxiety! It felt like something terrible was about to happen to me.

I had another “event” a few days later, after which I finally went to see a therapist in the nearby village. It was a one-off, by mutual agreement, because I was only upstate for another week or two.

And, there, in that unassuming little office talking to the nice lady, I found out— by hearing myself say it out loud— that I had—since I was a little kid—operated under the unexamined, unspoken premise that I wasn’t like everybody else: I was supposed to be special. I absolve my parents of any responsibility: they loved me unconditionally, and I did not grow up feeling pressured to be the best. This was something I had concocted all on my own: I was supposed to be exceptional.

When I said that and heard it, I was stunned— both by the audacity, and by the revelation that what I most feared was mediocrity.

Plain, old ordinariness— being just a human— was my abyss.

The therapist recommended Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth to help me get a handle my own perfectionism. I read it. Horney gave me insight and a whole, new vocabulary— but I continued to experience panic attacks for another year before I learned to stop them— always when I had forgotten all about them and had begun to feel, again, that everything was just going extraordinarily well.

Reminders: 1) To control and to relinquish all control is the tension between the impossible and the inevitable; between longing and acquiescence; between being and nothingness 2) That’s pretentious. 3) You’re pretentious. 9) No, you are.

FiveTwoEightO: Neighborhood stories, arts and dialogue

This 2008 project, which I co-created and facilitated with a friend, Denver mediator and story facilitator Daniel Horsey, was funded by a Case Foundation Make It Your Own grant and sponsored by the Institute on the Common Good at Regis University. It included the participation of numerous Regis students, community nonprofit organizations and community members… from homeowners to renters to one homeless couple. We did five events; each event featured two components (storytelling and artistic responses) and concluded with eight of the neighbors’ stories presented onstage and the artists’ (poets, painters, musicians, monologuists, choreographers’) work, followed by a dialogue circle (the “O”)