Letter to E, 8 August 2010

Dear E--

As you know, I, too, spend a great deal of time thinking about how not to waste my time. You mentioned (back in June) how you feel both young and fresh and jaded and cynical, an ambiguity to which I closely relate.

Particularly in the (weird, sad) world of dating. I've had enough relationships, enough experiences now that my List of Danger Signs to Watch Out For now practically encompasses every woman I've ever been attracted to who may themselves be attracted to me. Which is perplexing, to say the least. I like to think that, over time, I've explored and learned enough to be an emotionally competent, if not accomplished, partner (wow this letter got ridiculous pretty quickly). So in some ways, it's basically as though I've grown shy just as I'm beginning to get good at stuff... if that makes any sense. I suppose it's also true that I've always been, not shy, it's not quite the right word, but rather a deep distrust of masculine heterosexual norms, that makes me reticent to initiate things like flirtations and such. (My professional experience in mental health and addictions recovery communities only enhances these tendencies.)

Thus, the more I know and the more experienced I get, the higher my threshold for action becomes...

Lately, in [my professional world],I've gotten to know some new colleagues socially. It's surprised me how many people I consider my peers identify themselves as polyamorous, and how nuanced the meanings are within that label. Seen through the lens of my clinical world, at one level I can't even distinguish between 'polyamorous' as a healthy intimacy norm, on the one hand, and what could quickly be labeled impulsive emotional promiscuity, clinical classifications meant to be independent of moral judgment (though clearly pretending to be free of value judgments, in anything regarding sex and intimacy, is a tricky proposition at best).

It's not my place--nor is it really my function as a friend--to in any way evaluate or diagnose the emotional behavior of my friends and colleagues. Now, I can't help but frequently access, and positively benefit from what diagnostic skills I do possess. But in relying on that boundary--to not treat my friends as patients or clients--I'm given to seeing and understanding a great deal more.

A similarly ambiguous experience occurs whenever I get really drunk or high, or witness friends or partners so doing. Conversely, I've dated women in recovery, and experienced myself the awkwardness of being on the other side of a (in her case, much more stringent) boundary. In all of these instances, I'm as much an observer of my own interior tensions--between wanting to engage and enjoy myself, on the one hand, and awareness of my professional obligations the next day, on the other--so much so that the actual experience of drugs or alcohol becomes magnified by the act of self-observation, a heightened awareness--which, so I'm told, is frequently the point--that can be just as exhausting as a day at work.

In this context, I strongly relate to your stated need to scream and holler from time to time, particularly at the frustrations of an obstinately ignorant world. Where your indignation springs from righteously progressive feminism (and that substantiated in spite of so hostile an establishment as the Catholic University of Portland), mine is the brittle and corroded residue of the thousand little compromises of the working day world, compromises only ever made for the sake of the merest outliers of our identities. By which I mean, the petty situations, where we're asked to stay late to finish work properly belonging to others, where we're asked to tone down intrinsic differences for the sake of unity and workplace solidarity, where the priority of doing the right thing is abandoned for the sake of the convenient.

These are the ethical and moral characteristics, I think, behind questions as innocuous as, "what play should we do next, and why?" or, "should I apply for that position knowing I would have an uphill battle to deal with, knowing what I know?"

I do agree with your observation that theatre is a place where we can create ourselves, in the fullest sense. I guess in my experience, much as I love and am devoted, ultimately, to that ideal in theatre, I've experienced too many dissonant creations. Caught in the tremendous exhileration of self-creating, we too easily neglect to listen to one another.

It is the classic struggle between discipline and liberty. Focus dissipates in favour of giving ourselves, and to each other, free rein to establish our own individual presences. I worry at how strong work requires some version of this struggle, this tension, to in some way play out in just about every rehearsal process I've ever known. When I was less experienced, I felt this was a fair price to pay. Now, I'm not so sure.

Where your lovely letter needed swelling string music, mine, by contrast, needs some howling, plaintive Northern soul.

I hope your summer is going splendidly. Look to hear more soon--