Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THINK BIG AND BRAVE


The human system of perception and action that we call “thinking” is complex and often binary, though not in the way that computer code is.  I’m referring to the halves of the brain, the bilateral construction of the body (two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two nostril holes), and the reciprocal cycles of all the electrochemical and molecular signal systems (depletion, then renewal, then depletion).  

We are used to thinking of the nervous system in terms of action, meaning operation of the stiff coral-like bones by opposed muscle systems that use a variety of hinge styles (ball and socket, lever).  The nervous system also gives us access to the world outside our skins through cells that are up against the stimulus and cells that carry the code back to the brain.  But there is a whole second system:  the autonomic nervous system which reports to the brain in a yes/no manner (sympathetic/parasympathetic) that is not controlled by the “other” nerves but that monitors emotion by registering internal organ states and operations.   

Then there are fluid systems, the blood but also the lymph/mucus/plasma that fill the skin-sack and engulf all cells in chemical neurotransmitter reporting and operational code.  We can easily interfere with it by ingesting substances.  But these fluid systems interact with the long strands of sensory and internal signals, so that movement and even ideas can change molecular content and blood pressure.  Since the marrow of the bones are the origin of body fluids, stresses on hinge and structure can change thought, and thought in electrochemical terms can change bone function.

Now developing is a whole theory of operations: how these systems work together and against each other, reconfiguring through experience to create and maintain a “hallucination” that is your identity, your conviction of reality.  This linked video — an hour-long class lecture — explains how the consciousness and its immediate but UNconscious substrate work.  George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuUnMCq-ARQ

In the shortest account, embodiment of thought works by connecting neurons in the cerebral cortex, which responds to repetition, pre-existing connections, and editing out of what is considered irrelevant.  The basic mode of thought is metaphor.  This justifies “religion” as an art form, visual or literary, and encourages humanities as the substrate of thought as much or more than logic and math, which can also be seen as metaphor.

Even newer than this is a body of thought developing called “extended cognition,” which plays “the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.”  That is, the manipulation of objects that are also mental concepts interacting.  When one plays chess, are the movements of the figures on the board external or internal?  To read more, http://consc.net/papers/extended.html 
and 
http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/extended-embodied-cognition/542808  This explains why different cultures from different ecologies see the world quite differently.  The physical world they have internalized is quite different and even leads to different conclusions, different strategies.

There are two more steps.  One is “theory of mind” which is one’s idea of what those other beings’ behaviors mean about their thinking.  In a small town people are always trying to understand their neighbors' goals and strategies, but they must figure them out in terms of what they already know.  (See above.)  Yet those neighbors may have had experiences and come to conclusions markedly different or even invisible to the observer, who may not know that the evidence even exists, that a world different than that of the observer is possible.  Here is where nations run into problems — how does a Somali understand the Inuit?

The other is "empathy" which is more than a feeling about someone else's circumstances, but instead a direct sharing of that other person's state of mind through eye contact and/or posture.  Many feel this is where evolution is happening now.

There are yet more forces, including the reptile brain and the mammal brain that are the foundation of the human metaphorical mind and even the rational consciousness that is what we assume is “thinking”.  The instincts (oh, yes! -- concepts so deep and elemental that they have been encoded in DNA ) and survival responses of all the aeons of development can burst up through everything evolved since, like the movie Alien’s spawn bursting up out of the soft viscera of the space men, with results just as disastrous.  In fact, the alien story is essentially a metaphor for that earthbound experience of the primordial erupting through whatever culture we have made from our environment.  

So now turn your attention to a new streaming series called “Mindhunter”, about an FBI team trying to understand and predict serial killers, each case an illustration of the above (ALL of the above) in terms of how this alien spawn was implanted in them by a culture that stigmatizes and tries to destroy what it doesn’t like because it’s not understood and maybe interferes with other agendas.  The humanness of the serial killer morphs into a metaphor system that drives him (usually “him”) obsessively to perform deeply antisocial acts.  

The “hook” of the series is that the investigators as they work bring to life their own internal primal structures, which are not necessarily benign and can lead to madness.  But the FBI is an excellent example of an order-keeping body that keeps its sanity and legitimacy by denying the humanity of the criminals, which means they never figure them or their motives out.  This persisting inscrutability of crime — easy to demonize but probably at the core simply dissonant — has the advantage of preserving the employment of FBI agents.  I’ll be very interested in where the second season goes.

In the meantime, we read Dostoyevsky and puzzle over his “Notes from the Underground.”  We struggle to make iconoclasts, immigrants, and children conform to our version of reality and wonder at both violence against others and suicide when someone’s reality has become so painful that death bursts out of the flesh.

Or maybe it’s just a mistake in thinking, a lack of proper information about the dangers of drugs, an environment that won’t support a culture of alternatives, child-raising practices that deform their very bones by not supplying what they need for healthy growth.  Standing apart to depict and analyze a culture or a person or a category of society is a risky business not usually economically supported, even if the emotion and thought of an individual want to take it on. 


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A GENESIS STORY


“My grandson is taking a class as a sophomore, can't remember the name of it, in it he learned that we are all stardust..All living things are now considered to be formed from the core that forms a star!”   This report comes from my early playmate, a Catholic girl who passed on her catechism lessons to me.  We worried about babies in limbo.

This is my current understanding of a genesis story that begins with a star.  There must have been something before that, but it is inconceivable to the human mind.  Some think it started with a whimper or wrinkle but guys like the idea that it began with a bang.  (As big as possible.)

The simplest elements, hookups of atoms, formed in that moment and continued to form.  When they had gotten to the stage of dust, they swirled and made patterns out of the code of proton/neutron/electron that responded to things like gravity and electricity while creating it.  Some of this stuff became the furnaces of atomic fusion that we call stars and some of it became planets gyring round the stars and some of it made moons around the planets.

Volcanoes, storms of atmosphere, formation of water and seas, all was drama until things settled down enough for microscopic things to happen in the mud and clay: bubbles that became one-celled animals through the coding node of the nucleus, a double helix.  These had the ability to respond to the environment by going towards food and going away from danger, like bigger meaner one-celled animals who considered them food.  The environment was not inert but kept on doing its own thing.  

The one-cells divided between those who stayed in one place and those who were active, moving.  The stay-in-place ones turned green when their nuclei began to code for “eating” sunlight.  The move-around ones developed red blood as a way of carrying oxygen while they ate plants.  And other animals.  Some nuclei shucked their cells so then they were viruses and invaded other cells, corrupting the DNA codes in those nuclei.  Or sometimes it was the RNA, which was the template for DNA.

All this interaction and opportunism — as often partnerships as predation — complexified codes of all kinds and gave rise to many kinds of emergence and redaction, all pushing for space and seeping into the business of each other.  This mostly happened in water, and then it got onto the land and into the air, which gave life of every kind new opportunities to mutate and exploit.  Of course, much also was snuffed or abandoned.

But all the creatures enclosed in skins soon were colonized by teeny parasites in their guts, under their skins, in the follicles of their eyelashes.  Some made contributions and some under-mined the creature’s system.

The tree of evolution has now been abandoned in favor of a wheel of life pattern, because there is no steady and inevitable progression to complexity, elegance, and some fine goal.  The code reverses, jumps, merges, rearranges parts.  Things go along seemingly haphazardly until one day there are backbones and amphibians (egg-layers who don’t care about their babies) and creatures with wings and songs who lay eggs but care deeply about their babies.  

Many kinds of apes develop into different kinds of hominins, many Adams and many Eves, and many fossils that are not quite like each other because of the differences in the environment which settle into ecologies.  There are a lot of bugs and the wild codes of viruses persist and adapt to whatever cells there are, carrying code infection whereever they go.  One thing emerges from another until one day what emerges is a “virtual” code, only in the minds the mammals, and then it evolves into a “culture”, a new kind of nuclear code that hallucinates the environment inside the brain, makes a map of sensory information: where the food is, what the signs of predators are.  The apes learn to sing and make nests but never do learn to fly until much later when they have machines and parasails.  Maybe at the early point they begin to watch birds and WANT to fly.  Desire is being born.

One kind of hominin becomes dominant and maybe kills all the other kinds out of competition and jealousy, or maybe they just die out for no overwhelming reason, maybe they are just rough drafts.  Maybe the viruses eat them.  By this time behavior is a major factor and any creature that doesn’t take care of the babies long enough for them to reach maturity and seed the next generation just can’t persist.

In broad areas there will be disasters of earthquake, volcano, drought, hurricane, that wipe out great numbers of hominins.  Those that are not killed, esp. the ones who have learned how to survive in extremes (far north, deep tropics and bare deserts) by making and doing compensatory things, watch and learn even more about how to prepare, survive, and even help others.  Now there is compassion and justice.  Compassion lives in baby protecting parts — arms and heart; justice lives in the pre-frontal cortex.

So now modern humans are reptiles wrapped in mammals wrapped in apes wrapped in hominins of various potentials who were subsumed over millennia.  The eastern coast of Eurasia, which we call China, was one place modern life suddenly bloomed: agriculture, villages, money, weapons, domestic animals.  The western coast of Eurasia, esp. the internal womb-like sea we call the Mediterranean, was another center: the same sequence.  Coasts allow ships, sea-faring brings cultural options.  There is always food where there is water.

When the last glaciers withdrew  from Eurasia (which is NOT two continents), the humans followed the melt-line north, but the vast inner spaces of the continents were herd-grazing spaces.  Herding was a human option, but a different path of development, more like the hunting-gathering origins of humans.  This is true of North America as well.

The Mediterranean forms of culture, esp the Roman/Hebraic form of empire, marched up the western coasts and valleys of what we call “Europe” and created what we call the Western World or the Developed World or the First World, though in Canada that suggests the early peoples of that continent who have developed in another slightly different way.

The key to Western Civilization was a monotheistic insistence coming out of the three Abrahamic descendants: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Big Cheese Brothers who have never stopped trying to replace the Tribal Chieftain with their own selves.  Until we give up that pattern, which many of us have, we will be locked in combat one way or another.

This story is “scientific” which is another Roman/Hebraic tradition which steps aside from the tribe in search of the universal, not necessarily human.  This method depends on evidence (and more is always appearing) and on the humility of knowing that it all might be wrong, which has always been a sub-theme of human thought everywhere, usually in response to the suffering of others.

Only humans know they will die.  Only some humans look forward to it.  Then they will go back to being stardust.

Monday, October 16, 2017

PAUL SESEEQUASIS RE-POST FROM CBC

I redacted the photos so you'll need to use links to get them.  There are Blackfeet/Blackfoot photos, but not in this story.  You could go to Google Images to get a lot of examples.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/twitter-project-taught-this-cree-author-about-indigenous-strength-and-humour-1.4016288?autoplay=true


Paul Seesequasis, writer and editor, is optimistic that perceptions of indigenous peoples are changing. 
Sharing archival photos of Indigenous life on Twitter has not only taught author Paul Seesequasis about the strength and humour of his mother's generation — but it also netted him a book deal.

The Saskatchewan Plains Cree writer and journalist started posting the images two years ago, while the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's inquiry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were dominating the headlines.
Inspired by a comment from his residential school survivor mother that "we don't hear enough positive stories about Indigenous life during that time," he started digging up old images in public archives of Aboriginal Peoples across Canada from the 1940s to the 1970s.


"And from there I started posting them up on Twitter and later on Facebook, and just started to receive a very positive response and that kind of gave me the momentum to keep going," Seesequasis told As It Happens.

Penguin Random House took notice and will be collecting the images in a book called Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun, due to hit shelves in the fall of 2018. 
Seesequasis spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about the photos. Here is a part of their conversation.

SB: Were you looking for just images that depicted positive scenes of Indigenous life?

PS: I was looking for images that captured the resilience and the integrity of communities across Canada during that time. So, in that essence, yes, positive.
But I was also looking for photos that captured the sense of personality of people, as well as people going about their day-to-day lives, as opposed to posed photographs.

SB:  Are there a couple that really stand out for you as meeting your objectives?

PS: One would be by Richard Harrington, who was up in Nunavut, or what is now Nunavut, in the late '40s and early '50s, and he took one called "Foot Race." 
It's just a marvelous photo. It captures humour and joy and day-to-day life, and I think that one stands out.

As does a photo by Rosemary Eaton of a Dene boy in Saskatchewan, and he's dressed in a very beautiful beaded jacket and he has this lead dog bedside him and the dog is sort of snuggling against his leg, and there's just something very warm in that photo that when its posted, people have responded to.

View image on Twitter


To me, it's photos like that, they just speak to something in our hearts or in how we view them that captures a moment as much as a photograph can, and captures the integrity of the subjects themselves. 

SB: Tell me about some of the responses you've been getting.
PS: I'm getting responses from people saying, 'Oh, that's my late father' or 'That's my auntie, that's my uncle,' or 'Oh my god, that's me and I was 16 with my dog and I've never seen this photo before.'

View image on Twitter


I think sometimes it is the process of reclamation, of people being able to reclaim their families or how their ancestors lived with the land, as well as culture and traditions.

SB: What have you personally learned about Indigenous identity through curating these photos? 

PS: The first thing I've learned is respect for the hardships that people went through ... particularly in instances when there's starvation, near starvation, residential schools — all that process that attempted to shatter the sense of community within different regions.

View image on Twitter

But at the same time how, despite that, people were able to hold it together. And without their resilience and without their determination, you know, our languages would not be here, the culture would not be here in the way it is. And I think we're seeing now a new generation coming up that is really reaping the benefits of what the previous generations were able to do.

And then there's the humour and the tall stories that also come out with the photos, and that's also part of oral history and a very rewarding thing to be a small part of.

SB: Tell me one of those humorous stories. I understand there's one about a boy and a cigarette.
PS: Oh yeah, there's one where Jacob Partridge, who is Kuujjuaq, and Rosemary Eaton, who is one of the pioneering photojournalists ... just happened to be there this day he had his first cigarette. And I think he was probably having it, as he said, to show off to her, 'cause he was 16 at the time.

View image on Twitter

You can sort of see that he's kind of playing with the camera a bit and feeling quite proud of himself. Now, you know, 50 years later, he's laughing about that.

SB: So, I've got to ask you what your mom thinks of all this?

PS: I think she thinks it keeps me out of trouble. Maybe she thinks I spend too much time on the computer, I'm not sure. We'll know when the book comes out how she feels about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Paul Seesequasis.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST UNIVERSITY

My Mother's retirement gift was this old school bell.
At her funeral my Marine veteran brother used it to ring the maritime code.

Because I attended college twice at widely separated intervals, enrolling in institutions physically separated by the City of Chicago:   Northwestern University (1957-61) on the North Side and U of Chicago on the South Side (1978-82), I should be able to do a “compare and contrast” essay.  But I am not.  They aren't enough alike.

In the first place, the two episodes — my 4 year sojourns in each place — were both atypical.  I did not take a standard curriculum at NU, based on conventions reaching back centuries, but rather joined an atypical cadre of actors with a focused intention of understanding human beings as expressed onstage.  At the U of Chicago I entered from the beginning as an atypical member (I was forty) of a minority (UU) separated seminary, with privileged access to an almost austere circle of prestigious scholars, predominantly at the U of Chicago Div School but also a cluster of denominational seminaries.  

Strangely, they complemented each other for my purposes, but it’s hard to explain how or why, particularly since I didn’t “embed” but wasn’t quite iconoclastic.  (The watching cat.)  Part of the reason I give so much attention to these two academic experiences is that I wrestle with how they are relevant to what I think today.  And partly, I see them to be as shadowy as American Indian tribes — almost secret and impossible to define —nothing like the state universities portrayed in the media with all their craziness and xenophobia.

And yet my testimony is unreliable in the present.  Once I had driven off from Hyde Park in the smallest U-Haul truck possible, navigating the June Midwest torrential rains with a stuffed panda bear bouncing alongside for a co-pilot, I never went back.  Never wanted to go back.  Well, maybe recently a tiny bit to see what the renewal of the Meadville building and the new Seminary Co-op Bookstore look like.  The scholars I needed while I was there — but didn’t know about — all moved to California.  I do not go to California.

While I attended the U of Chicago, I did revisit NU a few times, but it was so changed that I couldn't even find Annie May Swift Hall.  They say Eagles Mere Theatre, where the summer repertory was housed has collapsed.

To my friends and relatives from early years of my life, even the Sixties in Browning, I’ve become inscrutable and possibly self-destructive.  For them, life is a matter of keeping calm and carrying on, responding to the needs of loved ones.  Isolation is the worst fate.  Fame is an unmitigated good, but fortune is even better.  None of that matches what I have learned.  But I wonder if I can communicate with those people now.  It seems dubious, mostly because they are sure of what THEY know.  It worked for them.

Standard mainstream NU today, as represented online and in alumni magazines, makes me shudder.  In the thrall of corporations, nevertheless, in pockets, it indulges in post-colonial rhetoric and technological expertise, almost as a disguise — certainly as justification.  People with money still attend there, justifying their own lives since they are not quite Ivy League.  I don’t have any evidence for how theatre is taught in the splendid new buildings.  But I’ve tried to show that in Annie May Swift Hall there were indestructible seeds of what I still understand to be the path to meaning.  I’m glad it was recently renovated instead of being torn down.

Some of the same factors come to bear on the U of Chicago.  Their biggest challenge is the necessity of surrendering some of the entitlement based on a rigidly precedented sequence of philosophers.  It will be decades before they give up the philosophy “Modern Thinkers”.  (We used to call them “Modern Stinkers”, since they were the subject of one of the qualifying exams.)  The new understanding of how brains and bodies work in the most basic molecular interactions challenges the cult of the young brainy and handsome male who sees the universe in his navel.

Lifelong, apart from these two giant universities, I attended a slew of random classes as part of teacher recertification or just a practical way to get certain knowledge.  A course in producing art in Cheney, WA, was useful.  A summer seminar for white people teaching reservation kindergarten was amazing.  Some Portland State University classes required for a degree in clinical psychology were both boring and revealing: more stuff about white rats and a self-serving prof who offered psychotherapy in her private practice.  At least I learned enough about statistics to recognize a standard deviation on a bell curve and how arbitrary it is.  

These random courses in different places for different reasons do not provide a concentrated focus that any big university can offer:  the formation of a lifelong cohort and possibly formal family alliances through marriage.  Particularly in seminary it is important to establish ties among each other that can be called on through the future.  This is also true of preparation for careers in small towns where people are widely separated by highway time but have common interests.  Various boards, committees, NGO’s, and other selected gatherings can offer both support and inspiration, even intervention when things go badly wrong.  But they require loyalty and cooperation — they can be enforcers.  

As far as education goes, by which I mean personal acquisition of knowledge and skills, I see autodidacts who do better.  Apprenticeships.  On-line courses.  But they have no cohort of familiars.  And none of the accesses to expensive labs and libraries that the wealthy endowed institutions can support.  So it’s always a tradeoff.  As well, these connections established when people are young are generally gender-sorted.  Guys help guys and gals . . . some play the game and others don’t.  Some pair off.

My mother and a scholarship paid for my NU degree, which my mother interpreted as a guarantee of prosperity and safety that she never had.  To her, a returning student to Portland State alongside Korean veterans, her diploma opened the door to one job, teaching elementary school in one school, Columbia, which got its name from being almost on the levee along the Columbia River, with a low-income student body partly from house boats.  She was there until retirement.  It was her world.  Not mine.

My oldest friend says that she always thought I was brave about following my heart and ideals.  But in the Sixties, starting out, I had no idea what they were.  A more recent deep friendship taught me that I was not the only one whose community identified them as future stars and loaded them with expectations that couldn’t be fulfilled.  We escaped to worlds unknown, sometimes secret, occasionally riding behind stereotypes that were stigmas, and with absolutely no relationship to prosperity or safety.  That friend grew up next to a university.  I grew through but away from universities.  

The PSU shrink/prof I went to for counselling said that in her own life she had thought it would be wonderful to have all the people she knew and valued come together in one place for a party.  But finally she realized it would kick off an enormous fight, a donnybrook something like the political battle that is consuming many of us now.  It was one of her most useful stories.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"SPEECH EDUCATION" AT NU


“What should I do if a student pulls a knife in class?”

“Get a new job at a better school!”

That was the 1961 exchange between me and my NU teaching methods professor who had been giving us tips about stuff like kids who chew gum or won’t take their hats off.  I wanted him to get real.  He wanted to entertain the class, which was mostly jocks, either as camouflage for being on Bobcat teams or with the vague intention of becoming coaches.  When the prof himself was in high school, he had probably been the kid in charge of towels and keeping the stats.  Though — quietly — such a kid would always get more prestige out of keeping secrets and carrying messages — in those days probably substances not so much.

My student teaching was at Evanston Township High where my supervising teacher, Wallace Smith, who had a fabulous deep voice, answered the phone by announcing,  “This is God.  What can I do for you?”  Unless they knew him, there would be a long pause.  He did not have this voice because he was Black, because this was one of the best high schools in the country and they did not have Black faculty.  There was a beautiful Black female student whom Mr. Smith told sadly that though she was a better actress than any white girl in the school, she could NOT expect to have a career.  Luckily, it turned out he was not God after all.

If Mr. Smith came to any color of girl turning the corner in the hall, he would demand, “When are you going to start losing weight?”  Even the skinny ones would stammer out some excuse.  He loved throwing people off balance.  He said to me, “Well, you know, once you start to talk you seem a lot smarter than you look.”  

Used to my mother’s family’s idea of humor, I took it in stride.  Anyway, it seemed true.  I don’t know what challenge he issued to Laird Williamson, who was the other student dramatics teacher along with me.  Laird went on to be a pillar of the Ashland Shakespearean Festival.  I don’t know whether he ever really taught high school.  Since I taught on the Blackfeet Reservation, almost everything I learned was pretty irrelevant.  Except the acting courses — it’s impossible to be irrelevant to acting.

Anyway, it’s beyond ironic that when I googled “Wallace Smith” I brought up a successful black actor (male).  I have no idea where the white high school teacher ended up.

Karl Robinson was in charge of the Speech Ed department.  He was a slightly geeky, conscientious, earnest sort of man who worried about me wanting to take so many religion courses — or acting courses, either.  (Maybe they were signs that I was unstable?)  If there is still an NU course of study for teaching high school dramatics or “speech” in the present Communication Arts curriculum, I couldn’t find it online.  But I was pleased to see that in the department devoted to speech and audiology pathologies, there are associated studies of learning disabilities.

There’s also a thing called “Rhetoric + Public Culture” which may be remnants of what was once a dominant emphasis on debate and public speaking.  In general the whole "School of Speech" territory is not just divvied up in different ways, but also spread out — you might say “globalized” since much seems to include post-colonial French-Algerian thought.  

In my day Dean Barnlund’s “Language and Thought” class upset all the rational, logical, either/or guys by introducing S.I. Hayakawa’s semantics.

“The original version of this book, Language in Action,[later "Language in Thought and Action”] published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler's success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer's conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language—his own as well as that of others—both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.” 

Hayakawa was a Republican senator from California between 1977 and 1983.  He was the nephew-in-law of Joseph Stalin, in that his wife Margedant's brother William Wesley Peters was married to Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, so he could probably mediate with Russians.  He was a definitively inclusive guy, which may have come from being a Japanese Canadian by birth.  Rather like Obama, he depended on calm, honor, and hanging out with ordinary folks in South Side Chicago blues bars.  Here he is, speaking.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYeCIaVGM9E  At that point he was President of San Francisco State College.

Powerful liberal forces in politics have somehow been diminished, but the thought has continued, as progressive (emergent) thought has always persisted down through the centuries.  Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  Journalists did not take “Language and Thought,” so therefore they don’t see one large sector of America.

My education at Northwestern was right on the cusp of a major shift in the United States, one that went along after WWII for decades with bumps and set-backs, until now when aged retro Republicans are making one last heave-ho, hoping the past will return — along with their youth.  Ironically, while they try to resurrect the past economic patterns of coal and Hollywood, the big picture is shifting quickly, and when they get what they want, like a grandpa with a teenaged bride, it will be useless.  Coal is replaced; Hollywood is obsolete.

The first classes I taught in Browning did include a student who pulled a knife on me.  He threw it at a desktop, intending it to stick in a twanging message of danger.  Instead, the formica desktop just bounced it off and it slid into a corner.  I went to get it, folded it (it was a pocket knife, but long and wicked enough to be illegal most places) and shoved it into his jeans pocket.  (Jeans weren’t as tight then as they are now.)  “Now sit down and get to work.”  He did.  Later he worked with us in the foundry and we got along fine.  He’s dead now.  So many of them have died.

“Professor, what should I do about students who are murdered, hooked on drugs, drive drunk, die young of preventable disease?”  The honest answer is that we don’t know.  The even more honest answer is that not many people care.

In the meantime, the students of both Browning HS and Blackfeet Community College have somehow shifted from shyness to eloquence.  I’m dazzled by their plays and speeches.  I used to say to kids who complained that their teachers hated them, “If you can’t learn because of them, you must learn in spite of them.”  They did.  Both.  Me, too.  Enough to get out of teaching.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

PERSONIFICATION -- INTENDED OR NOT


The unintended consequence of acting training is the consciousness of personification: that is, if you can find something in your “self” that can portray a tree or a panda — which are the kinds of exercises you might be asked to do — you can also see that abstract forces and real political goals are also personified all around us.  If it’s a “thing,” it can be represented as a person, like the Statue of Liberty. 

Many college sophomores pride themselves on realizing that “God” is not a person with a long white beard sitting on a throne.  But maybe they don’t realize that both Trump and Obama are also personifications, fronts for corporations, mafias, race relations, and greed — as well as all the qualities that resist.  Hilary Clinton is not Mother Courage.  The impotence of the new Hollywood is personified by a repulsive old man who may have to take Viagra in order to jerk off in front of a starlet.

The best acting training preserves a determined and idealistic core in actors that is supported by local repertory companies rather than Broadway productions owned by corporations and treating theatre seats like political fund-raising dinners, a thousand dollars a pop.

AK (Alvina Krause) used to say that both the reward and punishment of teaching is that one never knows how the student will turn out.  But there is not just one consequence when a student actor becomes a fully aware human being.  And that idealistic core of an actor is not necessarily done by taking on a role.  There are peripherals.  They have nothing to do with fucking unless it's in the script.

B43 people were required to attend a daily session with a red-headed and relentless coach named “Larry” who surely had a leprechaun somewhere in his genealogy.  He was there to teach us survival in the “real” world of Broadway theatre.  “What’s your price?” he asked.  "What will make you give up and quit?"   We had to read the theatre pages of the New York Times, even find how many times Hirschfield worked his daughter’s name (“Nina”) into his cartoon.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Hirschfeld  

In those days the Arts Section was our Internet.  (It was the real secret of how Bob Scriver went from being a local cowboy artist into a respected member of the National Sculpture Society.)  These sessions were meant to be a means of survival, to address character, make us more effective in backstage life.  We were becoming persons who could inhabit any person and maybe inanimate objects.  It was a step towards Lakoff, et al, identifying metaphor as the key to human thought and meaning.

It also empowered gays, feminists, renegades and anyone else who could “perform” in the broadest sense.  We would invent little vignettes to act out on the elevated railway — maybe someone who pretended to be blind and picked a fight with his escort.  The Sixties and Seventies were just around the corner.

Eaglesmere Summer Repertory was the most intense example of creating a cooperative of actors, who were as much infrastructure as actors.  (We did the lighting, the sets, the handbills, the programs, etc.)  We were like the small groups of independent actors who traveled in gypsy wagons in the Middle Ages, the ones in Bergman’s “Seventh Seal,” who had an ultimate message about good and evil.  We didn’t do “group” as much as autopsies of falling short, but back at NU there WAS a class that was "group," a kind of Gestalt therapy.  It was listed in the catalog as D-something, when it was listed.  Invitation only.  I wasn't in it and it took me a while to find someone who would admit that it existed.  When actors get real, there are real consequences.  I know of two "nervous breakdowns."

What spun off from all this exploration was repertory companies and academically supported programs across the continent.  The most directly connected remains Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, now celebrating its fortieth season
http://www.bte.org/season40/  “In 1980, BTE purchased the Columbia movie theatre in downtown Bloomsburg and reopened it in 1983 as the Alvina Krause Theatre, named in honor of the legendary acting teacher who was the Ensemble’s founding inspiration.”  This is not trivial ego-driven theatre, but serious inquiry into what it means to be human.

When I began to round up my AK-related materials to send to the NU archives, I also googled everyone relevant whose name I could find who was prominent in theatre from Shakespearean companies to experimental pop-ups to academic eminences grise.  They weren’t all men.  They weren’t even all favored by AK, who was capable of holding grudges and freezing people out.  

In fact, my high school dramatics teacher, Melba Day Sparks, took classes from AK and found her a hard and judgmental person.  Of course, Melba’s inability to confront risk and leave family meant that she stayed at the high school Thespian level — not that that was a bad thing and I’m grateful.  She created little families for adolescents.  In a way, that was also a contribution by AK.  In a way, my life — from ministry to dog-catching — was due to AK.  It would be hard to think up a better way to learn about people than through their cohabiting animals.

At NU we sort of split out between Broadway and Hollywood.  The summer I was at Eaglemere was esp. difficult because the plays had been planned around Paula Ragusa, who was just transforming into Paula Prentiss without much warning, and went off to shoot “Where the Boys Are” that summer.  Luckily, the network of AK-trained actors was wide and the plays were quickly recast, which is the point of repertory.  

Many of the Broadway people had come to NU from professional theatre families.  The Hollywood people sometimes drew on actors through New York connections like Woody Allen.  Other students were specifically interested in film — TV was too new to be a factor.  Truffaut, Bergman, and others who ended up in the Criterion Collection of classics were just coming into view.  AK had nothing to contribute in terms of movie acting.  Yet “Method” acting — which was her core message — was ideal for film, at least the kind that depends on the most subtle shifts of the actor’s face and body, direct reflection of the mind and heart inside.

There are blogs about AK.  I created two:  “thesilvercomb.blogspot.com” which is material about AK, and “krausenotes.blogspot.com “ a compilation of all her writing that I had saved.  There is more material out there, a formal bio waiting to be written.  David Press’ doctoral thesis and AK’s own master’s thesis for instance.  My cohort, which was late in her career, is almost too old to take on projects — some are dead — but others are old enough to tell the truth without destroying their careers.

This kind of education, which doesn’t depend upon assumptions but rather on the inhabitation of personas in order to understand what they symbolize -- for instance, pretending to be God or his Son -- can have a strong political dimension and it’s time to energize that.  Trump as a weak parasitical man — the tool of giant corporations, some of them actually nations — could be a post-colonial Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” unhampered by the taboos of Ibsen’s time.  There are new taboos to break.  But after all, my cohort of actors is about the same age as today’s Congress.  What we need is young playwrights.  Below is an excellent plot starter.

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/10/13/donald-trump-positive-thinking-215704