Following is yet another of the periodic mass e-mails I send to invite you, in a long, dilatory and discursively meandering fashion, to yet another play I'm performing. If you would rather not receive such things from me, please let me know. It's chock-full of strangely mixed metaphors, half-formed ideas, an insouciant and unbending impertinence, and foul-smelling bicycle grease. Honestly, I don't know why you let me do these things to you.
These days, I spend a lot of time facing down panic.
Disaster is familiar and careworn, having lost its shock-value. It's an old sweater lazily draped on an armchair. I see it, I recognize it, I know it so well that it hardly registers anymore. Catastrophe comes with the coffee and the cream. I crash through my day wrestling with my temper, with the intransigence of clocks and papers, with the paralyzing grip of melancholy. Sometimes I lose those wrestling bouts.
My bike now has an 80-watt Halogen headlight. It's a small motorcycle headlight with an 85 gram acid battery strapped to the frame, sheathed in secretive black insulation. Together with an ultrabright flashing LED, my forward lights are now the brightest and most conspicuous they've ever been (my rear light is still only a single red flashing LED, I'm looking towards acquiring another). Gearing up for a night ride, it looks like I've weaponized my Bianchi.
I view bicycle lights as expressions of impossible hopefulness. Here in Portland, a number of high profile cyclist deaths have underscored the tenuous vulnerability of human lives in a mechanized setting. No 80 watt headlight is going to deflect the conspicuous irresponsibility of a driver who can't be bothered to notice someone who doesn't look, think or act like themselves. I take my life into my own hands whenever I leave for work.
And at the end of the day, that's not necessarily entirely negative. It's useful. Awareness of fragility, of insubstantiality, is a cold but calming comfort. The details blur; only truthfulness and empathy distinguish me from the inanimate elements of road and sky and dust. Even that distinction is merely superficial--there is a dignity in gravity, a purposefulness in wind resistance, a mischievous turn in the glitter of broken glass on the road. "Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."
In that spirit, sailing down the dark road with my ridiculously bright lights, sixteen-wheel oil tankers mere hands' breadth from my face, my lungs singing with the rush of cold wind and my beard dripping with dewdrops condensed from my breath, the shared road can open an unsuspecting island of sanity, flush against the caustic strictures of insanity evidenced all around. There is a quality of firmness and self-possession in this most transitory and inconstant context.
And there, as in so many other unsuspecting places, I find myself touching the fabric of the theatre that I love, even while I'm negotiating a hairpin turn against the blind flank of a triple-trailer and an oncoming SUV. Because I got mad skillz like that.
I'm playing the Meiji Emperor of Japan for Profiles' "A Few Stout Individuals," opening tonight. The Meiji Emperor is one of those historical figures who elicits the entire range of passionate opinions at the mention of his name. He overthrew the archaic Tokugawa Shogunate, restoring the centralized power of the Emperor; he was largely responsible for the rapid modernization of Japan in the latter half of the 19th century, opening the island empire to commercial and cultural contacts with the Western world while successfully resisting Western attempts to subjugate Japan; and he's the spiritual, ideological and literal grandfather of the militant nationalism that brought on the Second World War in Asia. He stands at the tipping point between millennia-old traditions and perspectives on the one hand, and unknowable possibilities on the other, equal cause for reverence and disgust.
He is but one facet of a play that revolves around questions of memory and responsibility and identity, complicated themes that underscore my waking world the way traffic lanes underscore a street. It hasn't been an easy process; the problem with figures like the Emperor, is that it's too easy to settle for a caricature of the man, too easy to pass judgment on him and simply blow past the paradoxes--the tenderness and the harshness, the willful ignorance and the transcendent empathy. Every night I proudly step into a bewildering fog of lines that loop back upon themselves, intentions that muddy and shift with the changing stage-picture, and a rather dashing set of costumes that make me look like a tanned member of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band. Fun and back-breaking, as such things ought to be.
If I could have my way, my days would not be such regularly desperate, fighting affairs. My hands and legs wouldn't ache so much with fatigue, my temper wouldn't be so brittle, my countenance wouldn't be so 'grave', as one friend of mine recently put it. And I would be better about remembering friendships as I ought to, and returning calls quickly. For the time being, I must remember that all of these things lie within the confines of this shared road, and I must trust my lights and their ability to illuminate them.
"A Few Stout Individuals" runs every Thurs, Fri, and Sat at 8 and Sun at 2 pm, at Theatre Theater on Belmont and SE 34th, from now until 17 February. www.profiletheater.org Call me and I'll hook you up with tickets.
Don't stop believing,