Wind in the Willows Notes

Hello All,

Following is a short program note I wrote for "Wind in the Willows" at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, recently closed. I include it here for nostalgia's sake, and to shoehorn just one more Polyform entry through before yet another New Year. I do miss this show.


Kenneth Grahame began telling the story that eventually became The Wind in the Willows as a bedtime story to his son, publishing it in 1908, a time and place offering significant parallels to our own. Great Britain had just experienced the long and divisive Boer War, fought halfway across the globe at a strategic artery of her empire. The nation was confronted with the impossible task of disastrous and increasing military-imperial expenditures crippling the national economy. Figures and themes in his rambling book echo those of his day: the newly ascended King Edward VII was an indulgent, headstrong dandy famous and beloved for his whimsical devotion to fun. The elegiac English countryside had given way to industrial wastelands, abandoned mines and the desperately poor. But in many ways, the paternalist sensibilities of Badger and Ratty still prevailed, in political leaders like Lord Salisbury, thrice Prime Minister and the last to govern from the House of Lords, who was slow to rouse and decisive in action; and his brilliant nephew Arthur Balfour, who sparkled in society, drifted through life and was ever loyal to his friends (as Foreign Secretary, he crafted the Balfour Declaration, presaging the modern State of Israel). As Secretary at the Bank of England, Grahame experienced firsthand the noontime of Britain’s imperial career, and he could glimpse the fragile underpinnings soon to come catastrophically undone. Grahame’s work is an artifact from this lost but enduring world.




From the Lighthouse Suite

It's like a Stephen King novel. It's the Odyssey with fewer booty-hungry Greeks. I'm just trying to get back home, that's all.

I started off Tuesday afternoon with a full tank of gas, sunlight and ocean streaming across the horizon and a clear Rte. 1 leading north from Santa Cruz all the way up to Eureka. The highway is littered with gorgeous little coves and beaches looking out onto myriads of clashing rocks, breathtaking waves, precious little parking lots hedged in by rusting permanent barbecues, chained up picnic tables and precarious little goat-path trails, and then dunes that swell and dive as gracefully as frozen mirror-images of the waves lapping the cliffs. Pomponio and San Gregorio are my favorites.

But then I got snarled in San Francisco traffic, I missed the Rte. 1 turnoff from the Golden Gate Bridge and I ended up stranded in a logjam several hours long, from Novato all the way up to Santa Rosa. After three hours' crawling up the 101, I pulled over at a Motel 6 for the night. But I remained undaunted.

Wednesday I saddled up and rolled north again, finding my way across to the 1, weaving through redwoods and myrtlewoods. I bought coffee in Fort Bragg, ate pancakes, listened to NPR, rather enjoying myself. But shortly after the sun went down, my battery warning light started flashing. My headlights dimmed noticeably when I accelerated, and the battery gauge drained, too. But when I eased off the accelerator, or when I idled at full stop, gauges and lights returned to normal. Concerned, I called my Dad, discussed plausible causes (I thought it was the alternator, Dad thought the timing belt or corroded battery stems), then I pulled over at Rio Dell for the night.

I spent the night at Humboldt Gables Motel, which was where I spontaneously started muttering "RED RUM" to myself. I waited over an hour for a scrumptious and heavy little pizza. I spent some time staring sadly at my driver's belly. I was recommended to a parts store next door to a mechanic's shop, first thing in the morning.

Whereat I practically walked into an Andy Griffith episode. Of the seven or eight variously disheveled, heavyset or rail-thin John Deere trucker-capped gentlemen who unctuously opined on my scrappy little Ford Explorer's symptoms, I would guess only one of them actually worked at the parts shop. I nodded sagely, exchanged knowing gutteral utterances, laughed appreciatively at what I thought were jokes. Sometimes they laughed with me. Sometimes they didn't.

Mike the Mechanic ("you do theater, huh? I'm an investor in B-movies. Last month my wife and I both won stock car racing trophies, no kidding! God bless!") replaced my alternator in record time, and without swindling me, which was nice of him. I got back on the road, ever northwards bound. Satisfied that I was right and my father, in this case, wasn't, I took this for a good omen and continued north.

Throughout this saga, glowering snowy clouds gathered above the crashing, roiling water, and the trees shook and swayed over the thin ribbons of asphalt I clung to. By the time I'd purchased a new alternator, hail and snow showered in great driving drifts. Eureka and Crescent City were very wet. Harrowing switchbacks folded the road sharply into the wind. It was epic. In the late afternoon, I indulged a walk in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of Redwoods in the Redwood State and National Parks. (Towering, silent, hollowed out by fire and bereft of heartwood but still sprouting living burls that themselves grow to tower high overhead...)

But after I crossed the Oregon line, the weather grew steadily worse. And worse. I drove with only a meager stream of fellow travelers: semis gingerly creeping through fog and sheets of hail, and lonely little sedans that similarly hoped to avoid the mess on I-5, but lost beyond knowing in the soaring bridges and the blinding rain. A bowl of chowder and some coffee in Bandon, and then I stopped in Yachats for the night, even though I'd hoped to make it to Portland already.

In Yachats, I'm staying at the Dublin Motel. Which has. A Lighthouse Suite. The only available room, an ersatz lighthouse with bunkbeds. It's tall and narrow, like what you imagine a lighthouse to be, and the falling hail rattles resoundingly. This is the best roadtrip ever.


Letter to D., 25 Nov 2008

Dear D--

I just saw an extraordinary piece of theatre last night. Mary Zimmerman's "Arabian Nights" is running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre until 4 January, and belive me when I say it's worth its own trip to the Bay Area.

I used to read Hadawy's translation of the Arabian Nights back in high school. It's an intricate, fantastical, obsessive and chaotic compilation of endless stories, brought together by the framing motif of Scheherazade, a newlywed queen whose tyrannical husband kills his brides on their wedding nights after sleeping with them. But because he can only kill at night, Scheherazade contrives to tell him stories so compelling that every night, the king delays the killing until the next night, until the story properly ends. But Scheherazade nests stories within stories, weaving characters and ideas from one into the next, so deftly that the king loses track of the passage of time, loses himself in the endless stories, and gradually--howsoever improbably--the two genuinely fall in love with each other, over the course of 1,001 nights.

The performance I saw had an enormous cast, an ensemble of fifteen, with everyone playing at least three characters. Most were accomplished singers, Chicago actors from Zimmerman's Lookingglass Company who easily handle rhythm and movement and intelligence and voice, all as a matter of course. They literally tumbled through their stories and characters, catapulting each other into costumes, desires, sorrows, carpets. 22 different lamps and lanterns flew through the air (I counted at intermission). Pillows became turbans, prayerbeads became cowbells, a shabby rug and a low coffee table--hoisted on four shoulders--became a magical flying carpet. It was erotic, hilarious, cruel, cacophonous, and breathtakingly simple.

Seeing that show gave me hope--much needed--in theatre performance. It reset my default intake mode as a theatre-goer--a default that had repeatedly been compromised, bypassed and patched together since the last truly compelling work I saw; a default diminished by having been made to allow for budget constraints or lack of training or poor craftsmanship--in short, by having experienced so much bad theatre.

It's given me a new reason to continue in theatre: I now overwhelmingly desire to work in the same tradition as Zimmerman's company, if perhaps a bit less pretty, more juicy.

Thank you for holding down the fort back in PDX, and for keeping me in the Forgery loop. Strange to say, but having the Forgery simmering alongside this show I'm running has been really, really valuable to the process. The mechanics of "Wind in the Willows" lend themselves quite easily to a broad-minded, meta-conceptual exploration of ideas, images, and even the practical nuts-and-bolts of effective performance design.

The vantage point from within the very depths and fulness of 'Willows' is quite apt and far-reaching: it's like working on the construction site of a skyscraper, and being able to see all the way across the city, to that other (bigger! lovelier! more ambitious!) skyscraper we're working on.

The things I like about 'Willows' are not coincidentally the same things, or many of the same thigns I liked about 'Arabian Nights,' albeit with substantially less acumen. In 'Willows,' I'm enchanted by the little, simple, graceful gestures that effectively signify much more profound things: dyed silks that are held to be rivers and snowscapes; characters found in puppets, objects, thin air. The passage of time conveyed by the bare minimum of movements and beats (and some excellent light work).

It has also been useful to realize how all of this works only when in concert with some kind of destination, a cause or mission that drives these 'effortless' things--for the truth is that it is effortless only because you don't have time, or indeed anything at all to spare dwelling at a single moment. In that sense, all the great epics are essentially road movies: Odyssey, Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy, Grapes of Wrath, Batman Begins. All of these narratives have at their core a compulsion to arrive in some vision of a place, person, or state of being, and in each case the compulsion will ride roughshod (quite literally) across any obstacle in their path.

All of which is yet another facet of my ongoing preoccupation with the deeper nature of violence...

Of our three major sources, I'm not quite sure what that compulsion is in "Harold...," and "Rabbit..."'s is also murky, though no less evident in effort.

Aside from the thoroughly magical world of 'Willows,' I spend my time here in Santa Cruz reading, biking about, indulging insomnia at a 24-hr. diner, and eavesdropping, as it were, on the college existence all around. Grateful as I am, and fortunate, to be here, I much miss all things Portland. The wanderlust grabs hold of me from time to time, and I find myself looking for an excuse to drop into gear and drive, as when you were a mere six hours away. More and more I look to the sea.

Know that your lovely presence and friendship are much missed. More soon,




Letter to J., 17 Nov 2008

Dear J.--

I trust this finds you thriving in the Pacific. It's quite a thing to imagine; thousands upon thousands of miles of ocean, far beyond the horizons of anyone or anything, and then to suddenly find a cluster of volcanic islands up from the depths, utterly their own, unattached to any continent above the ocean floor. I imagine swaying palm trees and the soft touch of sand...

It's my day off after a long tech week, and my director and I are in Oakland, visiting old friends and recharging our batteries after a long and arduous Tech Week. I don't know how familiar you are with the conventions of theatre production; Tech Week is when all of the technical elements of a performance--lights, sound, costumes, sets, props--are plugged in, usually in the final two weeks of rehearsals. Ten hour days are the prevailing expectation.

For the most part, this has been a restful, deeply satisfying and healing experience, in welcome contrast to the project immediately preceding back in Portland. I'm playing Mr. Badger in an adaptation of "The Wind in the Willows," a lovely old Edwardian book that's a cross between Winnie-the-Pooh and the Hobbit. And Santa Cruz is, of course, breathtaking, if a little complacent. But it's hard not to feel a bit removed from the reality of the living world: this is performance for a privileged subsection of the community, and while this does have merit of its own, it's apparent that I am complicit in a perpetuation of exactly the kind of stale, sleepy theatre I used to rail against. Still rail against, come to think of it.

It is further apparent how incomplete my day-to-day life is, without an authentic, palpable engagement to the community in service, as opposed to privilege. I've begun trawling through Craigslist again, looking for a day job in the nonprofits to come forward to back in Portland. there are definitely fewer hirings going on these days, which is worrying, and I also know enough from much experience to be wary of these my chosen fields, where both halves--the Public Service piece of me vs. the Creative Performance--have a tendency to be all-consuming, and then I've my own bad habit where I blame the demands of the one for my shortcomings in the other, whereas in fact it is really my own failure of imagination, a simple deficit in wit and stamina, and nothing else.

Truthfully though, there is a deeper core of me that has achieved a kind of peace with all of this late-twenties-angsty-soul-searching-crap. I've come to trust that it's the striving for, the constant, honest attempting, which truly safeguards me from utter apathy and mediocrity. (There are times when I believe what I just wrote, and then there are times when I believe a little less.)

Santa Cruz has a haunting loveliness to it. Not so much surreal, as not-real, irreal, as it were. Antique rollercoasters wreathed in fog, sea-worn steps leading down from the cliff-edge straight into the water, bookstores and haberdashers wedged in among the palm trees and boutiques. It is a strange, ethereal place, curiously provincial even in its urbane trappings. The constant sunlight (unusual, I'm told, for this time of year) saturates surfaces, dulls the edges of things.

It is a place well suited for the kind of extended, meditative self-discovery it sounds like we're both engaged in, at the moment, albeit after our own fashions. This is a liminal place, to my eyes built of thresholds and almost nothing else. To move or travel in any way is to depart and arrive through entire transformations, a daily experience of epiphany that staggers me by the sheer volume.

I pick up a book, and the sea breeze rifles the pages. I say a line in the theatre, and the lights shift, and the world changes on cue. I sit to write this letter, and in the moment's pause when the words are slowly, barely falling onto paper, this letter is endless.

Please do keep me posted of your ongoing, evolving discoveries, as I hope to keep you posted of mine. Already I've much cause to be heartened by your friendship. Be well,

thunder and milkshakes,



The Golden State

In the last 48 hours, I've driven through most of California. I had fleeting opportunities to visit distant friends before they moved ever more distant, and this being California, I felt sufficiently (uncharacteristically) daring enough to saddle up and go visit them. The first leg took me north to Berkeley, the second south to Los Angeles.

Seeing my distant friends, even if only for an hour or so, seemed silly on the face of it, considering that I drove hours and hours so to do. But taken altogether, the experiences were startlingly profound and wondrous, from my end of things.

What is it about dropping into gear and going, just going...? The mind's eye tracing the long squirrelly lines on the dog-eared maps. Contour curves echoing in the real world so satisfylingly, just so. The wind blowing through the car window, the passing lights echoing the night sky, the reassuring glow of destination cities appearing right where they're supposed to.

I'm away from home. The context of safety and normalcy is removed from me. All bets are off, all things are possible, and the gesture of going to see someone I may not see again for some time, if only to see one another once more and nothing else, becomes a profound gesture, something almost cosmic, transcendental (this is California, after all). (No I haven't smoked anything.)

Barrelling down Highway 101 from Santa Cruz, the rich hills and ridges of coastal California now live behind my eyelids, I see them in the night, sunlit in my memory and past the stillness and sharpness of the meager moon. The faces of my distant friends are echoed in the breaking waves, their voices chatter in the clattering rocks, I catch the fleeting lilt of their voices and gestures in the friendly nods and half-shrugs of passing strangers. (I swear I haven't smoked anything.)

Distant myself, I've been sufficiently stirred by all this to re-connect with those I've been intentionally or unintentionally distant from. And it's strange; it is this season, perhaps pregnant with profound and long-awaited change (I hope I hope I hope); or it is the endless cohort of friends who all seem to have birthdays within days of each other right now; or it is simply me waking up after a long sleep, recovering from a wounding theatre experience into a light and delightful one...

My letters are coming out again. Daylight is breaking again. The road unspools upward again, for the first time in what feels like a long time.


paulmonster-road junkie


Southwards Bound

I'm heading south to Santa Cruz, performing in "Wind in the Willows" at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Quite stoked. Am playing Mr. Badger, which I find most apt.

I'm looking forward to a sojourn away from Stumptown--leaving something is the surest way to teach me how much I need it. Also, I'm about due for some serious California exposure.

I'm also looking forward to kick-starting my letter-writing habit once more, as typical of all my road adventures. And this time, thanks to my friend Jen, I have a digital camera to play with. With any luck, letters and blogging should pick up right quick.

Due to last-minute scheduling silliness, I had to forego my customary karaoke send-off, much to my disappointment. Still, know that I miss and love you all. Look for more soon.




Oceanside BART Station

I dreamt a troubling dream last night. In my dream, I was at my
father's beach house in Oceanside. The real beach house, at first
glance, seems to be a monumental affair, using the big arches and the
soaring, clean lines of the McMansions of the suburban gated
developments, but the reality is that it is a big, empty house, with
hardwood floors and deep plush carpets, but nevertheless an empty,
small-feeling house, of white surfaces, an unfinished feel, and
windows onto a larger world outside.

When I dream about it, my father's beach house is always a much larger
affair inside than out, with large-scale rooms, long corridors,
cluttered garages, inhabited. But from the outside, it seems compact,
pulled together, yet complete. There are unusual changes of level,
short staircases, skylights, paintings hung, none of which correspond
to the real place.

I dreamt that I was staying alone in the house overnight. I'd brought
my bike in my father's jeep. I had papers and my laptop in one room,
a sleeping bag in another. Slowly, my father's house became a public
place, like a gallery, in which theatre people were gathering for a
reading of a new play. Sam Gregory, maybe it was a new play of yours?
Because at this point, you showed up, at which I began to apologize
for missing your birthday gathering last weekend. Then the reading
began. Of the play being read, I have no memory.

At some point, I was supposed to be in the reading. Then, gradually,
it dawned on me that I was being gently told that I was no longer in
the reading. For no reason in the waking world that I can fathom, the
theatre hosting the reading (even though it was staged in my father's
beach house) became, at this point in the dream, Theatre Vertigo. At
first, it was a two-person play, but later, others stood to deliver
lines. (I do not recall who the other person was. But he had dark
hair, perhaps a goatee, glasses, and dark eyes.) Perhaps there were
other plays being read? It's a shame I have no memory of the plays,
because they were enthusiastically received.

Sometimes in my dreams my father's beach house at Oceanside morphs
into a vast, fantasy BART station in San Francisco that doesn't exist.
It's a big, sun-drenched, multi-story,
tunnelled-into-a-hillside affair, with scummy
cornices and trod-over gum on the concrete walks and pedestrian
overpasses, and a monorail platform. It's always commuter-crowded.
(To my knowledge, the waking world San Francisco Bay Area Rapid
Transit System does not include a monorail.) When this BART station
shows up in my dreams, I usually forget that I'm dreaming.
Remembering that I'm dreaming was a deeply important early skill I
learned when I was little, to help myself end nightmares in the midst
of them. (Lately, as this dream will go on to indicate, I've been
losing the ability to do that.)

I turned away from the gallery crowd, nursing a small and blossoming
regretful resentment, and into the concourses of the BART station,
looking for a newspaper. Going up the stairs, I entered the rest of
my father's house, and it was late at night in the house, even though
outside through the windows, I could see the sun setting, on a
coastline that I've never seen in the waking world but I've always
seen in my dreams. Somehow I realized that most of the guests at the
reading were sleeping in the house.

I decided to leave for Portland, to avoid the awkwardness I sensed
gathering around me like a smell. I had a load of laundry in the
washing machine in the cluttered garage, so as I'm loading up the jeep
with my disassembled bike, I put my laundry in the dryer. In the
garage, in a small anteroom where the washing machine is, there were
objects and possessions that once belonged to an ex-girlfriend, with
whom I had a bad breakup a long time ago, and the sight of these
objects, with her distinctive handwriting on them, deeply pained me.

At this point, Kerry Ryan popped her head into the garage,
sleepy-faced. "Oh, it's you," she said, and then left. Sam Kusnetz
then popped his sleepy-faced head in, blinked, and turned away.
Searching for a paper grocery bag for my clothes, I found one with
three sticks of half-melted butter, which I threw away. I then put my
dry clothes in the jeep and started the engine.

The radio came on, loud, Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind". With the
engine running, I realized I had forgotten something on the floor of
the open garage, perhaps a bag or something. Running back in to grab
it, a third man, whom I've never seen before, but looks a lot like the
actor who plays Al Sweringen on Deadwood but much thinner and gaunt,
pokes his head in the door and yells indistinctly at me for being so
loud. I apologize and rush away.

Driving the jeep through the beachfront roads, I glance at the clock
and it's much later than I'd expected, 6:17 am. I park in a parking
lot to nap before driving back to Portland. The nap is brief and
fitful, and guests of a nearby hotel were partying in a living room
suite that opened onto the parking lot near me. I remember slouching
down to avoid being seen by the smokers who lingered outside.

When I woke from the nap, morning had come on with fog and some
drizzle, and the green of the grass was sharp and clear in the grey
morning light. I got out of the car, and somehow you were with me,
Sarah Dyrhaug, and we went walking through what I thought was a hotel
complex, but in the morning light seemed to be some sort of new,
well-endowed private college campus or something. The architecture
was of hardwoods and concrete piers and big, beautiful,
well-engineered monumental doors. Inside, there were beautiful new
rehearsal halls and auditoriuii, filled with dancers and musicians and
students rehearsing purposefully and diligently. The seats were new
and comfortable, and filled with bags and things belonging to the
actors and dancers. Some floors were strewn with sawdust, evidence of
sets being built or construction still ongoing. The rooms were named
for donors and patrons of the school, and I remember speaking sadly
and angrily about how unhealthy that custom is.

Glancing into one of the halls, I caught the eye of a tall, lovely
brunette with full, red lips, dark blue eyes and a light summer dress
and striped socks, who smiled at me, and I flushed.

At one point, Sarah, you and I walked around a corner and into a lobby
that opened onto a courtyard, from which it was apparent that other
buildings housing yet more crowds of students and theatres clustered
around this one. People seemed friendly enough, of all ages, but as
we exited, a security guard came up behind us and told us that we were
on private state property (a contradiction in waking world terms but
of perfect sense when I dreamt it). But he then stammered and turned
away abruptly, as though suddenly thinking that we were maybe supposed
to be there after all. We decided to continue walking.

At this point, a third joined us who had been with us all along, but I
do not recognize who he is in the waking world, though we apparently
knew each other. He is short, heavyset, glasses, dark hair (perhaps
the scene partner from the reading?), wearing a black kanga hat and a
black shirt with a wide white stripe on the left side, running from
shoulder to hip. Yes, he's dressed like a cheesy jazz musician.

We walk into a larger central glass-domed structure, that seems to be
a museum or a memorial of some kind, with sculptures and explanatory
text and balconies within. This building and its contents explained
something crucial about the rest of the place, though I can't quite
say what that crucial thing was. But it was a startling and dreadful

The brunette came up to us, friendly, curious, chatting. We were just
beginning to explain to her what we'd realized when the security guard
returned with others, carrying headbands that were painful and
brainwashing (yes, this sounds silly and star trek-derived, but in the
dream I was furious and terrified). They put headbands on the
brunette and on jazz musician before I realized what was going on. I
knocked one out of the hands of the guard putting one on Sarah when
another succeeded in slipping one over my eyes. Knocking it out of my
face, I remember the feel of gripped fingers around my arm, spit on my
face, an elbow in my back. The guards were yelling, I was yelling,
and then I was fighting that terror you get when your consciousness is
awake but your body is asleep, and something terrible is happening
that you must stop before it's too late. The guards were screaming
that I couldn't fight it, and then it was just me, fighting to wake
up, fighting to realize that I was dreaming but dreading the
possibility that I wasn't.

There were long, lonely moments when I'd almost succeed but I couldn't
wake up, and I thought, I will never wake up. This has trapped me.
Something is happening.

Then I forced myself to wake up, and I did, and it took long, deep
breaths and serious blinking before I could reliably ascertain that I
was truly awake (can that ever be reliably ascertained?) and with
difficulty I constructed the factual basis of being awake, of having
dreamt the entirety of the preceding dreams, and the realization that
I had to tell you about it, though why each of you specifically I
can't quite say.

Throughout the dream, time felt real. Movement felt real. Though the
transitions and events seem disjointed in recollection, the experience
of the dream carried the certainty of actual things happening.

I actually feel guilty about not being able to prevent the headbands
from taking the brunette and the jazz guy, and probably you, too,
Sarah. I've just spent the last hour writing this down and listening
to Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind" on repeat, slowly feeling a
little bit better about it all.


On Violence

Lately I've been obsessed with violence.

I hasten to say that this is not the X-box fueled, consequence-less, mere vacuum-sealed brutishness prepackaged and mass distributed ad nauseum, although such things are, inevitably, related.

Somewhere--I can't remember where, exactly--I read a formulation of this thing I'm obsessing over, described as an encounter between 'an implacable object vs. an unstoppable force.' The Iliad is replete with this: opposing heroes, closely matched, practically identical, really, except for some one little thing, an entirely arbitrary distinction consisting merely of who happens to be at which end of a particular bronze-age weapon.

This is where Homer pulls out endless thumbnail sketches, five-second obituaries: Joey Hoplite born and raised in the tough streets of South Thebes, he loved his golden lab 'Argos', his Ma made his favorite spanikopita every day expecting her baby boy to come back from that strange war overseas, but Joey would never see his mean old neighborhood again, for black swirling death found him there on the sands by the Scaean Gates.

Precious as such bits are, there's something deeper going on. I think Homer is in the business of describing moments, in time and space, where incontrovertible pieces of reality directly confront one another, and then a fundamental transformation takes place. Reality shifts; that which was certain is changed, in a deep way, and nothing is as it was.

That moment, to me, is the truth of violence. This is independent of any gloss of judgment that can be imposed--these truthful moments occur equally in volcanic eruptions, murders, and car accidents, but also in quiet deaths, collapsing balloons, melting candles. Homer describes his violent deaths as though they captured qualities about each of those things all at once, suffusing his battle dead with the totality of their lives gracefully, fleetingly, but indelibly.

There is the cliche that time slows down during a car accident, or in any kind of traumatic event. To me, the effect extends in all directions: colors sharpen and heighten; pain or pleasure intensifies; tastes and smells lodge in the back of the palate and don't go away for days and days to come.

Thence the fact that, when it comes to these truthful moments of profound change--i.e., violence--everything that has happened before and everything that will happen after is and will be profoundly affected by that moment. Interpretations of past events resolve into completely different patterns of meaning; all events to come will be underscored by this which happens now.

I remember a pack of hip cycling pirates that passed me on the Marquam Bridge, wearing black and red tights and stripes and big red flags with skulls and crossbones spraypainted on, but the skulls were actually gearcranks and the crossbones wrenches. Laughter, and bantering. Moments later, descending the long decline on the Eastside of the bridge, I saw their flags waver and plummet, and a telltale diverging of cyclists around a space, like a current suddenly blocked, or magnets pulling filings away. Somehow I also incongruously thought of crop circles.

G is 6'4", maybe 220 lbs, mid-40s. He was about 5 minutes ahead of me on the bridge pedal, riding a souped-up mountain bike. I would surmise he was coasting at 30 mph on his bike, when a rider ahead of him dropped a water bottle. His bike tripped the way my foot trips on a curb. He went headfirst over his handlebars, cracking his helmet in three pieces.

When I got to him, two other cyclists and a volunteer with a walkie-talkie were diverting the rest of us and calling for an ambulance. G presented unconscious, fetal/recovery position on his left side, urinating, yellow mucus and blood at his nose and mouth, unresponsive dilated right eye and a closed left eye with a pronounced contusion, possibly prolapsed. In other words, he had suffered a major concussion, probable internal bleeding and hematoma, and he'd hit the ground so hard that I suspected he had popped his left eye out of its socket, though I couldn't be sure.

In this situation, all I or any of us could do (without a full ambulance rig and the training/credentials to use it) is ensure that he stays safe and relatively stable until the ambulance gets there, lights and sirens blazing. I did a quick check to see if anything else was broken, determined that I didn't want to move him out of the fetal position and kept a finger on his pulse to make sure he was still with us. He started snoring regularly, which is a sign that while his airway might have some problems, he's breathing well enough for the time being, enough that I didn't want to intervene.

Then we waited. We waited what felt like an unconscionably long amount of time, but it was probably only five minutes. A pair of bike-EMTs came by and took over, turning him on his back, repeating the checks I did, and starting PIC lines and saline for starters. G started coming to a bit, tried to get up and deny medical assistance--all good signs that at least he could still try to do those things--so we had to do some convincing and gentle coercion, to keep him still while the EMTs worked. Then we waited for the ambulance to get there.

Cyclists passed around us, slowing to gawk, some even dangerously stopping, causing all kinds of trouble and a lot of nervousness. A doctor ostentatiously asked us if we needed her, playing up her status the way someone does when they don't really want to help, but want to be noticed for offering. She didn't move to look at the guy, only those of us around him (all of us clearly occupied). When she recognized colleagues from her hospital, more full-throated bonhomie energy went to them than anywhere else. "Fancy seeing you here!" "Shouldn't you be offering to help?" "Nah, looks good but I'm off the clock."

Throughout which we were still waiting for an ambulance, cringing under the backslapping doctors, wondering about the nature of this place, where so many different realities seemed to be converging and mingling at once. For how can G, with seriously life-threatening injuries entirely beyond our scope, coexist in the same space as these disinterested doctors, or those crowds of silently shocked cyclists, or the frantic volunteer with the walkie-talkie, or me with the saline bag at chest level, or the sweating and nervous EMTs with their skimpy little kits... how could we all be on the same bridge at the same time? The sun was climbing, the river shimmered far beneath us, and G was lapsing in and out of consciousness while we hovered around him, bravely resolving our faces to somehow mask the panic.

The ambulance took an excruciatingly long time to get to us. By the time it arrived, G was conscious but disoriented, indistinct and contradictory in his responses, blanching in the heat. We strapped him onto a backboard and the paramedics took him away.




Excerpt, E-letter to C

The following is a response to an open question on a listserv I picked up on. C asked what the standard arrangements for non-union actor pay in Portland are. Lots of people responded on the tax end of things, and no one publicly responded more specifically, understandably. I didn't either; the following was sent directly to her, as I suspect others have done. (I doubt the wisdom of broadcasting what we're being paid, as it may engender bitterness/envy/revision to the detriment of us all.)

(I post here because A. it's useful in tracking the trending of my own thinking on the matter, as it has developed over recent years; B. this is my sandbox; and C. I much doubt how widely Polyform is read these days. Which suits me just fine.)


Dear C,

First, THANK YOU for teaching high-school theatre. You rock, you're deeply needed and deeply appreciated, the arts in the schools being what they are.

Taxes aside, I have yet to discern a working 'standard pay rate' in non-union theatre in this town. This is, incidentally, one of the strongest arguments for pursuing a union career.

The most I've ever been paid for a theatre gig in Portland is $3000, for a six week run and a four week rehearsal period. The least is, of course, nothing. Small-medium theatres are being generous if they can afford to pay $500 for a comparable time commitment. That covers everything from staged readings to full on performances, run crew to solo work. If your students want to work primarily in the Portland area, they should expect dependence on a day job at least for the time being, until they sort out whether to move elsewhere or pursue Equity or not.

I have my own reasons for not pursuing an Equity card, and it is by no means the correct choice for everyone. But not pursuing union status means very specific trade-offs: in what to expect in terms of pay, but also professionalism, artistic integrity, intentionality, relationships, family, etc., etc. Race and gender also inevitably play--and should play--very important roles in this, which is ultimately a personal decision.

For your students who are devoted to theatre as an avocation--that is, as something yet more meaningful than a day job, with higher standards and a deep commitment to growth and survival--I advocate as broad a meaning for that avocation as possible. That is, be as open and accepting of developing your art backstage as on-, and, at least initially, push your boundaries and your comfort zones as much as you can. Maybe that means you need to be the annoying emo kid with the two hour monologue show for awhile. With time, everyone learns what is beyond the pale, and what is absolutely unacceptable, and those are necessary lessons that can only be learned the hard way.

Then, once they do accrue that experience (which they may well already have), absolutely do not compromise on those learned lessons. For some people, that means getting paid a certain minimum, or never taking off their clothes onstage, or never commuting past the West Hills, etc., etc. These instincts are every bit as valuable and necessary as our onstage performance instincts. They keep us healthy and sane.

My last suggestion is to find and support a day job that is healthy and engaged and engaging with the rest of the world, whether theatre or non-theatre. Your identity as a citizen of the world can only be reinforced by as vibrant and sustaining a day-job as possible, to complement your position as a theatre artist. Now, clearly, oftentimes this ideal is impossible, but it's meant to be a moving target, a constant process to discover and perfect one's conscience and integrity in all respects, not just the onstage bits. The healthier the private person is, the heathier the artist will be. This can translate in multiple ways for every individual; for me, working at non-profits and government jobs in addictions recovery and emergency services has been my bag. For others, it's making comfortable wages in the service industry, or plugging through med school, or finding a sugar daddy, or whatever. There's no judgment in this that's relevant, other than your own.

I say all of this because it's an inherently co-dependent and unhealthy thing, to be committed as an actor and nothing else, and then to face the inevitable dry spell, when the work is scarce, or unfulfilling even if plentiful, and to find one's passions limited and constrained because nothing else in your daily world supports you in a meaningful way. In my experience, while the money is important, facing yourself with integrity is all the more so, and should be. But we should remember that, unless you choose to, you don't have to answer to anyone else for these personal choices. I say that for myself as much as anything.

So that went a bit beyond the terms of your question, but I do still think these are important and interrelated points to make.




Unsent Letters Digest

Lately my letters take longer to write, turn out to be far longer and more meandering than my letters used to be, and are far more likely to be abandoned, unsent, as time spools away. Encountering drafts of letters in my big letter-book is like encountering sadly fascinating shipwrecks half-buried in the beach.


Excerpt from my Letter to Jen, dated 23 June, unsent.

...I just moved to a rad new apartment, of my very own, in N Portland, where all the women are strong and so forth. My books fit, which is extraordinary. 8 or 9 cats live in the villa-esque courtyard; they strategically position themselves, like sniper teams, covering every approach, every exit, every gap in the hedges. Whenever I come home, they troop around me like a protective detail, distancing themselves to allow optimum range of motion against, say, marauding raccoon hordes, or rogue Russian secret agents, or Voldemort's dementors. Two always follow me in--one on post at the door, the other clearing each room in my apartment, faster than I can turn on the lights.

Only when they're satisfied that my place is secure do they allow me to pick them up and cradle them (they rotate every other shift or so), reluctantly purring in spite of their training. I imagine the cats assigned to my protection detail are the cat equivalent of retired Brooklyn cat detectives forced into retirement by budget cuts, injuries sustained in the line of duty and too many run-ins against the NY Cat Commissioner. They see this as a dangerous gig, the result of bad luck and worse friends at headquarters, and the need to protect their pensions until they can catch a better break. In other words, I very much doubt that gruff little ginger, or the chubby, clipped-ear longhair would either of them take a bullet for me. But I find them reassuring just the same...

...It's troubling to say as much; but for me, this is the optimal level of current and projected work to have... my days and weeks are woefully tight, entirely without any margin for error, much less expansion of committments to the workplace or school. Attempts to do so have gone very poorly t o date--cause for concern, not alarm, but troubling nonetheless. It seems I'm happiest--as you no doubt know by now--only when I've my back against a wall, actively disputing some expected path or another (cue me in a Cyrano nose: 'No' to headshots, 'No!' to the Equity card chase, 'Thank you No!' to the college capitulations, 'Again, No!' to "normal" hours), and every time I try to buck my own trend and give 'normal'-cy a try, things go from strained to breaking with entertaining alacrity.

Lately , a number of respectable theatre people--or at least, what passes for respectable in these parts--have been goading me to audition more, to seriously take up the Equity path, to get representation and so forth. Nothing I haven't already heard elsewhere, but deeply flattering all the same, and all the more so as each passing season sees that many more repetitions of this same conversation, against some seriously growing evidence that my Public Service world, long the bulwark of my day-to-day survival and the mainstay of my civic conscience, is rudderless and all but failing.

It's noticeable, now; it's been a very long time since my Public Service interests--the EMT work, the homeless advocacy and addictions recovery--have been seen to flourish the way my Theatre world does, albeit beyond the pale of a more conventional reading of that term, 'flourish.' My conviction that the two should be deeply interrelated, equally prized priorities in my life has repeatedly foundered on my lack of formal credentials, my firmly rooted insecurities and the absence of unified role models...


Excerpt from my letter to Robert, dated 9 July, unsent.

Only now that summer's more than halfway gone, does it feel as though Portland has well and truly left the last winter behind. As if to compensate, summer now seems to rather insistently assert itself across the city. Trees sway despondently in the sudden, swelling heat. Noses and shoulders redden like ripening fruit, peeling delicately. Dogs and cats take on perpetually martyred expressions.

Time passes strangely, fitfully. Details have clearly shifted, but the topography of the emotional space I inhabit has not substantially altered from that of one year ago, or even arguably of two years ago. I don't necessarily feel like I'm absolutely frozen--rather, it seems I'm fighting one long, drawn out struggle, a decision that's well over two years' in the deciding.

The true nature of this decision remains ultimately hidden, as it must, until well past the currency of these events and days. That is, I can't begin to say what it is I'll be arriving at; I only know, now, that much is shifting, and not always in directions I understand.

I find myself constantly revisiting employment and vocational decisions. Opportunities to perform or teach seem to conflict with increasing intractability against the occupational demands of my 'day jobs,' to the detriment of both worlds. There simply are not enough hours in the day, nor can I consume coffee quickly enough to devote the full measure of time and energy and diligence necessary to do good work. I belive the difficulty stems from the fact that, as time goes on, my own standards heighten; also, the obvious solutions, once tried, tend to no longer apply again.

A friend of mine likes to underscore the importance of paths of least resistance. He believes too much credibility and glamour goes to the difficult paths merely because they are difficult. He posits that there is purpose behind a rooted obstacle; ignoring its purpose invites further and more profound mistakes...

But I ultimately think this approach to be no more inherently advantageous than any other. 'Ease' is every bit as subjective a criteria as, say, 'Good,' or 'Happiness.' Because nearly any conceivable outcome can be framed within either an active or a passive interpretation of those terms, using those terms as means to determine correct action looks less and less reassuring over time.

As a function of the tenor of these deliberations, I've been thinking about taking up one of the martial arts, perhaps aikido, or fencing. The regular physical practice of an adversarial discipline might provide the kinds of insights unavailable to me from the comparatively sedentary practice I'm currently pursuing.

And as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps this is the point my friend is disputing; for me, the instinct to fight, fully and comprehensively, is both deeply expensive in all manner of ways, and deeply reqarding for me. The pieces of myself that carry my identity, that have survived and thrived over time, are the same pieces that have always forcefully insisted against prevailing expectations, conventional wisdoms, 'easy' choices. In an apt inversion of the applied rhetoric, it's comforting and even reassuring, for me, to have broadly defined and unstinting obstacles, against which I can easily describe myself in equally defined and unstinting terms. Thus, my desire to formally train in a physical discipline; I am addicted to the spoils of my own hopeless-case self-immolations, cannibalizing my own remains to feed the same habit.

This is a mode of thinking I blame on years of American war movies and the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Against which, as a surprising and unexpected new perspective, I've begun to consider the approach of the Quiche Mayans as recorded in their Popul Vuh, or "Council Book" (also called, "The Light that Came from Beside the Sea," and "Our Place in the Shadows," and "The Dawn of Life"). Among a great many other things, the Popol Vuh describes a way of looking at the world in diametrically opposed dualities are rather deeply interrelated and complementary conceptions: death, for example, doesn't necessarily mean the annihilation of life--beheaded heroes continue to advise their children and even impregnate their wives. The heads of patrilineal noble families are known by a title that translates literally as "Mother-Father." And the Quiche Mayan word for "world" translates literally as "earth-sky."

In the terminology of my own life, I've always hoped that, by braiding vastly disparate vocational disciplines, something stronger, better balanced and eminently capable would emerge. Perhaps the lesson of the Popol Vuh is to likewise embrace the overwhelming contradictions inherent in that intention as an element of weight and substance equally important, yet another strand in the braid...




I found a trunk of old stuff in my father's house, dating back to high school for me. Filled or almost-filled notebooks, stolen office supplies, crayons and oil pastels, blank tapes and cds, back issues of the NY Review of Books.

The notebooks describe a desperate and searching teenage dork, who thought rather much of himself but was too self-conscious to say as much, and rarely completed a full sentence. Said dork actually had a point sometimes, but usually failed to convey that meaningfully. Also had a lot of energy.

I took a lot of notes on random shit. I've got the entire Plantagenet lineage written down; important federal regulatory agencies formed since 1900; excerpts from the Tao Te Ching; an explanation of Griswold v. Connecticut; a breakdown of DNA construction theory... I was obsessed with as broad, as wide an angle lens as I could possibly hold. I think I still am, but in a less scattershot way, simply because I couldn't keep it all together. (I'm still fighting that battle.)

Regarding myself ten years ago is a strange experience. I think I had a sense that I'd take some hits through these years, but it clearly shows that I hadn't gotten knocked down yet. Now I feel more worn around the edges, a few scars to show for my troubles and all that. Not dejected, but certainly spent in some ways. I've narrowed some things down, but equally opened some things up... apparently, I still can't finish a sentence or clearly say what I mean.

I'm going to grab the trunk and haul it over to my apartment shortly. Context is important. Also, it's important to remember, and to see the evidence, that fountain pens were far too much trouble, and the resulting penmanship on my part is silly. Yes, I was one of those guys. Shut up.




A Very Fine Birthday Weekend

I began my birthday (which was this past Mother's Day, now 11 days ago) a bit on the tired side. I was behind on some readings for class on the Monday following, so I set down for a fine breakfast at Jam on Hawthorne, then relocated to Sound Grounds for coffee and Plutarch with my readings. Then began the adventures.

My friend D. happens to share the same birthday with me. So, after a couple of hours fortifying myself with caffeine and urban community monographs, I strolled over to Pine State Biscuits and purchased some of the finest and most extraordinary biscuits I've ever tasted, fresh from the oven, and brought them over to Laurelhurst Park for D., where D. and assorted other friends were slowly gathering.

The weather was very strange and inconstant, one moment brilliantly sunny, the next pounding with rain. We were tossing a football around, earnestly praising each others' feeble skill, as sports neophytes necessarily must, when some small children, wandering away from a larger Mother's Day picnic table uphill from us, absently joined in.

Now, I'm not one to do much of anything by half-measures. I can troop out legions of directors who will affirm my willingness to try practically anything at full tilt. Teachers and instructors who habitually shake their heads, disbelieving my audacious imprudence. Cousins and uncles who think I dine on danger, washed down with unhealthy quantities of hazard. When the rain started in, and some of the lesser souls trembled with cold, I stepped up my game.

Suffice to say that, while everyone got pretty wet, myself and the small children got spectacularly mud-splattered. Cassandra, who is 8, got in some trouble from a (dare I say) rather uptight and unforgiving parent, who was upset about tracking mud into their car. No doubt said parent eats kittens, looks like a potato and votes Republican, but who am I to judge? Mitchell, who is six, was less afflicted with offending uncleanliness, and so spared parental wrath. Poor Cassandra had to pitifully wash at a drinking fountain before allowed to reenter the ambit of familial acceptance. I commisserated as best I could, enduring the cold, disapproving glances of respectable grown-up types.

See, the thing is, if you're going to toss around a football, you mine as well mean it. You have to own your game, dominate the field, refuse to tolerate anything less than your own invincibility. Thus generations of American football movies. On my birthday, how can I model anything less for the little ones?

Fortunately, Cassandra seemed not to blame me, nor was she herself all that discouraged. Later, we played wiffleball, in which, for the first time in my entire recollection, I successfully connected bat with (wiffle)ball, not once but three or four times! You have to understand, I was the kid in grade school who was so abysmal with bat and glove (and yet so damn respected and trusted and secretly pitied) that I was consistently chosen for umpire. And yes, of course, of course I had to dive for the base a few times. I mean, my kit was already pretty well dirtied, what did I have to lose? You can't say you've played ball unless you truly mean it.

And then somehow the group fell to encouraging me to jump through hula hoops held vertically over the ground, so that, after much more tripping and mudslinging, I was even filthier. It was a glorious afternoon.

I then made my way up the hill to my father's house, where a grand convocation of the Susi clan was taking place. Every year, the forms and semblance of a corporate board meeting are invoked to go over the numbers and strategies of the Susi Ventures Corporation LLC, such as they are. Only my father and one or two of the aunts take these forms seriously; the rest of my aunts, uncles, cousins and my Grandma use the occasion to preen and politely jockey for position in the shifting mosaic of my family.

My Grandma gently chided me for being so scarce at family functions. My cousins laughed at my dirtiness. Extended-leaf dining tables groaned under the heaping, massy piles of squid, rice, pork, and other less readily identifiable, more dubiously edible dishes. Since my Grandma notoriously forged birth certificates at will, a single cake was used to celebrate my birthday as well as hers and my Aunt Marisol's, all three of us supposedly born all on the same day. As we only had so many candles, and to flatter my Grandma's vanity, I am officially 7, Grandma is 10, and poor Aunt Marisol is an advanced 14.

I use my rank as the eldest of the US-born cousins to benevolently arbitrate chess and checker games, rein in the hyperactive and encourage the reticent of my cousins. I vaguely remember being small, and surrounded by a seemingly endless crowd of loving big people, shielding and feeding and playing with me, so many kuyas. I was forcibly drawn apart from the family in my pre-teens, then re-introduced, as one returned from an enforced exile, in my late teens and early twenties through now. This conferred an additional, prodigal mystique, making me somehow more beloved and yet forever distant. Aunts and uncles regularly confide their insecurities, their confusions with our strange and overwhelming adoptive country and their apprehensions and hopes for the family. I am the consigliere of my family. Would that I could be better worthy of the rank.

But with my younger cousins, things are less complicated, and it pleases me to play a part in what must be, for them, a similarly endless crowd of loving big people shielding and feeding and playing with them. I cut them slices of the joint birthday cake, and they say, "Thank you, Kuya Paul," and I blink fiercely with happiness.

I wrapped up my birthday by biking home, showering and changing, and then biking down to the Ambassador Karaoke Lounge, where a whole crowd of fellow Portland theatre Taurii magically appeared, and we sang and drank and sang for quite some time. It was here that I learned, for the first time, that my birthday--11 May 1981--coincides with the death of Bob Marley. As if I weren't already hauling enough of a burden. Then I went home and slept.




A Letter to Portland's City Council

Dear Mayor Potter, Commissioner Adams, Commissioner Leonard and Commissioner Saltzman,

I write in response to the news that the city intends to cut funding for the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. For what it's worth, I honestly believe that this is an opportunity.

I was born and raised here in Portland. I'm the son of immigrants fleeing a third-world dictatorship. I'm as divorced from my native cultural heritage as I am detached from this cultural context. For most of my career here in Portland, my perspective as a performing artist has been that Portland as a civic establishment is not particularly well-disposed towards diversity in the arts.

There are some obvious circumstances in play, mitigating this perception: Portland's economy does not present sustainable opportunities for a broad-based arts community capable of self-sufficiency and long-term engagement with this city's civic fabric. The demographics, and the history of housing and employment discrimination, has had the added effect of minimizing and marginalizing what diversity is present in this city, particularly when it comes to diversity in the performing arts.

Of the established theatres, only Milagro Teatro/Miracle Theatre has succeeded in maintaining a commited vision supporting diversity in this artistic community; everyone else's efforts have been mere spring thaws at best, flashes of seasonal exuberance that quietly fold when the funding dries up, never lasting long enough to build real momentum or community roots. Most theatres rely on an inconsistent, fickle and demeaning funding process that inhibits growth, innovation and originality. 501c3 status; private donor patronage; seasonal ticket subscriptions--none of these conventional funding sources are in any way designed for serious, career-spanning explorations in diversity, integration, cultural discretion, gender roles, politics, violence, social justice, civic responsibility, etc., etc.--in short, none of the themes which live performance today is specifically tailored to meaningfully deal with. Authentic exploration of any of these themes is an inherently risky undertaking; neither donors nor earned income sources are reliably disposed towards shouldering that kind of risk. Even the laudable efforts of the Regional Arts and Culture Council produce shots in the dark, occasional windfalls that cannot be guaranteed for future support. We simply do not have a sustainable model for the performing arts.

The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center has often been the exception to these observations. For over 25 years, the stated mission of the IFCC has been to foster and promote diversity in the arts, in a multiplicity of disciplines and means. The IFCC has been a home to a broad range of artists, all committed and determined to further the cause of diversity in our arts community, and each success made possible only through the real and palpable advocacy of the IFCC. It's been one of the only real long-term establishments specifically supporting diversity in the arts in this city, and as such it's been an inspiration and an encouragement for me, an assurance that this city is neither blind nor insensitive to my peculiar position in this society, nor to those of my peers.

In our current straitened economic circumstances, there is ample precedent for unraveling what little established support there is for the arts in this city. This is an accepted tactic, for a public that's accustomed to shrill, deceptively simplistic zero-sum decision making, pitting the arts against similarly vulnerable public funding dimensions--parks, or emergency services, or social services, or the disabled, or education, etc., etc. Perpetuating these precedents is a demonstrably unhealthy approach to local governance. We mortgage our future growth for short-term, stop-gap fiscal band-aids. We divide and cripple potentially powerful coalitions of constituencies into petty, balkanized groups incapable of protecting their own interests alone, much less furthering a broader community agenda.

I write to suggest that there's another way. Make the IFCC the flagship of a renewed commitment to diversity and community engagement. Use a decision to turn around the destruction of its public funding into the beginning of a broader discussion on funding each of the aforementioned priorities sustainably. The diversity of this community, specifically diversity in the arts, can provide meaning and depth to this city, in ways that promote and complement the economic and civic priorities of this city. The arts in general--and the performing arts in particular--are the means by which we can refine, communicate, discover and develop our identities as individuals within a community, specific to ourselves and to this city as a whole, independent of corporate and commodified influence. By linking this priority, integrating this priority along with the rest of the historically vulnerable publicly-funded dimensions, you can make this debate not about which constituency to betray, but how we can all work together to collectively agree on fully funding all of our priorities, how we can all live together in the same city, and not a series of isolated, defensive and antagonistic cities.

Together, the city as a whole can explore alternative funding methods: tax breaks for high-profile, "guardian angel" donors, corporate or private, willing to step in and work with the city to protect our collective priorities. Or debt relief for specific organizations that would otherwise lose their public funding. A citywide subscription drive, allowing individuals and businesses to post an "Arts Supporter" or "Public Citizen" certificate in exchange for a monthly or an annual fee, revenues then dedicated to the Arts or to the General Fund. We can explore methods of structurally altering the urban climate to accomodate our priorities: city ownership of properties, or a public debt that specifically supports the arts, or education, etc.

The announced decision to withdraw public funding from the IFCC is absolutely an opportunity for you to collectively turn around and surprise voters and commentators with a completely different approach, overturn unfortunate and unimaginative precedents, demonstrate long-term political commitment and foresight and rally an untapped, underserved and unorganized broader constituency that doesn't even know we exist yet.

Better yet, we get to take credit for something that was already identified as a priority a generation ago--our predecessors already did the heavy lifting in getting the IFCC established in the first place. All we have to do is keep it open, and we can claim a triumph.

To reiterate: the problem is not that we have unsustainable priorities: the problem is how to make our priorities sustainable. It will take work, and sacrifice, and difficult decisions, absolutely: this is the essence of public service. But let's use the opportunities we have at hand to move forward protecting and nurturing our priorities, instead of destroying them. Together, we can cultivate a political climate in which, in even the most depressed of economic circumstances, priorities like the arts and diversity need not be vulnerable to the vagaries of ill-designed funding schemes. We simply need the political will to protect what we already know is worthwhile. Demonstrate to this community that you are indeed committed to diversity, if not in the past, then now more then ever.


paul j. susi


Saddle Up.

Today in my Politics of Poverty class, we discussed the poverty/gender/race axis underlying homeownership, aka the American Dream v. 2.5. During which I repeatedly and rather heatedly harangued against the rigged shell-game that is the homeownership chimera of middle-class virtue, relying on an old-fashioned, dignified, affordable, money-is-just-money approach to renting. Since neither my forseeable income nor my peripatetic lifestyle will ever conceivably support the demands of a mortgage, let alone my vulnerability to redlining, predatory lending practices, property-value-based xenophobia, etc., etc., why should I buy into that?

Ironically enough, later today I finally decided: I'm pulling up the stakes and boxing the books again. St. Johns, I love you, but I just can't afford the grueling bike commute, and the doubled-up rent, and the late night/late morning stumble-home. Oh, how I'll miss you...

You might say that this is the sort of thing home ownership is supposed to protect you against. I would argue that one is just as vulnerable in the one instance as the other--the primary difference being the illusion of ownership.

But nothing says adventure better than an apartment search. I'm already pursuing promising leads, and am confident to have this matter all straightened out right quick and smart-like. Come this time 30 days from now, I'll be a happy bunny.

I swear, it's these early morning hours that feed me something special. I know, I know, much of it is ragged endorphins and that exhausted giddy weariness thing that accompanies the caffeine-crash, but I tell you it's something mighty healing to get to feel the sky and the sun choose to lift themselves back up, again and again, just when it seems they could never ever get up not once more.



ps--did I mention I love Steinbeck novels? Happy May Day!


Excerpt from my letter to K, 22 April 2008

...Such as it is, simply determining to do better carries a great store of promise for me right now. Against all the obstacles in my path, all the evidence of my shortcomings, and the manifest feebleness of my available means, to choose to do better--to believe in a world where it's possible to do better--seems to me to provide an unassailable font of strength, impervious to these personal indictments, these self-inflictions, the hatefulness of self-awareness, the unbearable heaviness of being.

It makes heartache palatable. It's what I hope to breathe in, whenever I take those long, deep-filling sighs (as I langorously gaze pensively through the lace curtains in my stately manor-house overlooking the moor). And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.

Not that I enjoy many opportunities thus to languor, per se. From time to time I'll be lucky enough to look out a window at just the right moment, when the cloud cover thins, and then everything--leaves, windowpanes, faces, gutters, newspaper boxes--everything lights up as surely as if someone flipped a switch. But mostly I seem to be pretty well occupied with galloping apace like a fiery footed star to and from Phoebus' lodging. I'm lucky to know by now how important it is, purely for my own well-being, to spur myself to write to friends like you, from time to time...

...I want to pass on to you a haunting story I just read, from John McPhee's Pulitzer-winning "Annals of the Former World."

A Dutch colonist named Hendryk Van Allen landed in what is now New Jersey/Pennsylvania, roundabout 1650. The Dutch at that time believed the area was chock full of copper, and Van Allen was in charge of a prospecting and road building expedition, sent to exploit the Minisink Valley. The highway he built there was the first on this continent, supposedly largely intact to this day.

One day, Van Allen was hunting squirrels with his musket. Now, 17th-century musketry was an unwieldy, literally scattershot proposition, and hunting squirrels must have been about as easy and as necessary as whitewashing an igloo in a snowstorm. I have to think that Hendryk was particularly upset by this one squirrel, or that he was a particularly bull-headed colonial type, because he missed and reloaded his musket three times, crashing through the forest and making all kinds of noise, throwing away powder and shot he'd have to send to Rotterdam to replace.

At the third shot the squirrel dropped, but when Hendryk picked up the body, he found no trace of shot, but rather an arrow through its heart. He looked up to see Winona, daughter of Chief Wissinoming of the Lenape, smiling at him from a red canoe. They soon fell in love.

She told him, among other things, legends of their valley; how the entire vale was once an inland sea, and how the Great Spirit emptied the sea to make a home for the Lenape. At the Great Spirit's instance, the water rushed out through what is now known as the Delaware Water Gap.

Shortly thereafter, Peter Stuyvesant surrendered the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to the English, with scarcely a murmur of protest. Calling in all their chips, the Dutch government ordered Hendryk back to Holland, perhaps to answer for his anaemic copper returns.

We can imagine Hendryk thinking of low, swaying fields of tulips stirring beneath the windmills. He did not have the heart to endure the calumny and ostracism that a young Indian princess bride would entail. She leapt from the peak of the Delaware Water Gap before he could finish explaining himself. Sorrowing, he quickly followed.

Believe it or not, McPhee's book is about geology. That story, which I've embroidered a bit for effect, is why he won a Pulitzer for it, I would surmise. There's a novel or a play in that...

Look to hear more soon. Know that your friendship is missed, as ever.

Love and Tulips,

paulmonster-water gap


Love and Dustbunnies

Being in love is like getting run over. Sometimes it kills you and sometimes it don't. --Tony Earley, The Blue Star

S. is a thin, sharp-eyed young man with bright red hair. He wears Carhartts dungarees and dark baseball caps pulled low over his brow, a thin attempt at covering some of that bursting red. He steps inside slowly, affecting nonchalance, absently picking at pens and loose papers on the desk, staring at old calendars.

We get to talking about weather, news, cars, weather, coffee. There's an undertow of sounding-each-other-out, of gruff-good-humor, the kind of thing two kids wanting to look and sound like grownups will look and sound like. After a good piece of this, we're both satisfied that the other is true and means well. We kick up our feet, we lean back, we come clean. We're two kids in the early morning, talking things out, talking in circles and back again, likely as not just to hear the sound of another voice.

He recently completed the program, meeting a baseline of requirements set by the Oregon Youth Authority: a couple thousand in the bank, a place lined up to move into, a wage job that he's been holding down for a period of time, no parole violations, paperwork and education completions.

S. is twenty years old. He's worked hard, he's paid his debts, he's struggled and succeeded, he's corralled his legendary temper, he's gotten a fair job in a tough hiring sector. He moved into his place, and his girlfriend of six months moved in with him. She's nineteen years old.

After three weeks, his bank account was empty, his parole officer was unhappy with him, the girlfriend's parents were pissed, and he was being ordered by the program to have his girlfriend move out until she could get a job and save enough money to split expenses before moving in again. She moved out and went back to her parents yesterday.

There's no way around it, S. is heartbroken, lonely, misses her terribly. He'd be pissed with the program, except that he sees the sense of it, which is more than a great many men many times his age can say. He loves her the way a litter of puppies loves their mother. Without her, he's all tangled and floppy, hungry and panicky. If he smoked, he'd be burning up whole cartons. As it is, he's twirling capless pens in his fingers, he's thumbing the brim of his cap, he's laughing nervously and talking a lot.


My half-brother's girlfriend of four years left him about two months ago. My brother has four kids from a previous marriage; all four of them are less than 12 years old. The last four years have been important ones for each of them; she was a mother in all but name to them. That their relationship ended abruptly and sadly is tearing my brother apart. The fact that he still loves her isn't easy, either.

My half-brother is 34, pale, with bags under his eyes, a thin shadowy bristle of a beard, and a tired, forced smile that doesn't hide much.

Because I was dropping off his car that I'd borrowed, we met in a parking lot today, like mobsters avoiding tapped phones, keeping an eye out on whomever might be following us. Under a clear, cold blue sky we tilled over the same territory S. ploughed up the night before:

What is it with women?

Why are we so helpless with them?

How do I figure out how to survive this?

How can I make it better?


S. is a bright guy. He picks up on things quickly. He's affectionate, resourceful, he doesn't give up.

My brother is a good man. He's a loving, capable father. His kids love him to bits. In the broader story of my Family, my brother is ten times the son and grandson I can ever be, and that's not to denigrate my abilities.

Myself, I don't pretend to have any more answers than either of these two. Strange to say it, but, for different reasons, both came to me looking for guidance and comfort, whenas I have as much cause to seek as much. I've been asking those questions since high school, and look where it's got me.

The three of us are living very different lives, heading for very different places. But then again, S. dresses like me, my brother looks like my Dad, and I share a house with dustbunnies and drifts of junk mail. We had very different relationships; they're recovering from something immediate, while mine, I'm only now realizing, comes from awhile ago and isn't quite something I know how to articulate here. But all three of us can talk long, meandering circles around this thing, and feel better about it for now, but that doesn't change what it is. Wisdom comes only after much tiresome rambling, and more false starts than I care to remember, and even then, wisdom won't necessarily mend anything.

After a while, my brother and I sagely nodded to each other, to our shared loneliness, to the great blooming clouds overhead. S. drummed his fingers, yawned widely and turned for home. I waited for the sun to come up again. Then I saddled up my bike, wrote this blogpost, and went to bed.




Lists are our Friends

Roughly Annotated Ideas for Performances That I Need to Flesh Out.

  • The Odyssey, with Odysseus played by a human, and everyone and everything else as puppets. Perhaps a series.
    • The Illiad as a prologue to this. With a core of several humans. Puppets erupting from the Trojan Horse.
  • The Work Song Project, a perennial familiar.
  • The Vallodolid Debate. Spanish Dominican friar and bishop Bartolome de Las Casas, at the request of Emporer Charles V (in his capacity as King of Spain), debated the celebrated humanist Gines Sepulveda on the moral, theological and ethical injustice of the Spanish colonies in the New World. Sepulveda defended the infamous encomiendas, Las Casas introduced the revolutionary idea that the "Indians" were human beings worthy of respect and dignity. Forerunner of modern Liberation Theology.
  • Untitled. Five homeless men and women living in an abandoned train station are driven out by a flood. The station is alive. Puppies, empties, plywood shacks, glistening rails. Place vs. Space.
  • The Anabasis. Xenophon's account of a small, "elite" Western military force that got hoodwinked into invading Mesopotamia by monied interests, then betrayed and abandoned in-country, surrounded by hostile, armed populations that they don't understand. Survival through superior military force and dumb luck, and a long march up-country to the Black Sea. To be told as a story of loss, dressed in manufactured glory, desperate to obtain meaning.
Common Themes:

Animating Objects




College Cont'd

In typical polyform fashion, I unwittingly signed up for a 400-level and a 500-level course at PSU. Both classes--Politics of Poverty in Women's Studies and Urban and Community Health in Public Health, respectively--are small, challenging, intimate seminar settings filled with intelligent, articulate, accomplished people with alphabet soups' worth of degrees to their names. How did this happen? Well, the PSU computerized Quick Entry admissions process delightfully does not distinguish the lowly undergrad from the PhD candidate. I'm a little dismayed and a lot pleased by this egalitarian turn of things, which I highly doubt would have been possible a handful of years ago. However, compared to my classmates, I'm like a marsupial that somehow bounced into the jungle cats exhibit. "One of these things is not like the other." I'm a coconut in a basketful of avocados. I'm the dirty Cunningham in Scout's class in "To Kill A Mockingbird." Thankfully, the last 26 years of my existence lends some limited but relevant experience to this predicament.

I'm loving the work--scholarly journal articles and readings from expensive university publications, with weekly written reviews and some field work coming down the pike. But it is challenging, no mistake about it, humbling and exciting both at once. I suspect that, in the time to come, I'll come to appreciate the work it takes to get to this level of the game through more conventional paths. But I also know that I would not have had the patience, 8 years ago, to work through the cattle-call process, and I scarcely know that I have that patience even now, where my largest class is only 14 people.

Usually, I'm the guy in the room who says the first couple of starter responses after the prof asks us to talk about something and then an awkward pause ensues. Thanks to my theatre training, when I see a gap in the flow, I jump in with both feet and hope for the best, and resort to self-deprecation when I sense myself sounding silly, which is always. I think I've won some respect and affection for this, but it's tricky, because everyone else in the room has a formal mastery of established fields that I can at best only be conversant with.

To top it off, I was very surprised to see that I'm the only male in the Politics of Poverty class. Due respect to the Sisterhood: gentlemen, haven't we collectively learned by now that the loveliest, most provocative, most intelligent and captivating women are to be found in the Women's Studies dept? Dudes, systematically subverting an entire gender through outmoded power structures doesn't turn them on anymore.

Sigh. Someone has to collectively represent and apologize for his gender, and, as usual, I guess it's just my turn.




Excerpt from my Letter to Bob, 3 April 2008

...Look at this. Yet another long tale of months gone scurrying by. Time and events conspire very quickly to depose any sense of control I can ever begin to pretend. My letter-book is filled with half-started letters to you, every one laid waste by the phenomenal pace of things.

Fortunately, as forbidding as such obstacles are for me, it takes but one instance to break a self-imposed cycle of frustration. Begging your patience, this letter is largely going to be about achieving that instance for my own purposes.

I hope things go very well for you in the North Country. Recently I've been reading and re-reading some very moving and lovely books that have reminded me of you--specifically, your sense of character, your gentleness, a kind of hapless wisdom, that sort of thing. The books are: "Jim the Boy," by Tony Earley; "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson; "No Country for Old Men," by Cormac McCarthy; and "In Dubious Battle," by John Steinbeck.

On the face of it, these are all 'rural' books, taking as their settings primarily country settings and issues, but they are also all very heartelt books, in my opinion. Each of them carry characters who are etched with knowing or witnessing fatal things, and each of these characters cope with the fatality of the world by casting themselves as these clear, vast reflecting pools, in which they can turn inward to see the world reflected, remembered, almost re-ordered and rebuilt, and their parts in it reprised or redacted. They are creatures of memory, missionaries of slaughtered traditions, transmitting hoards of affection and responsibility along to the rest of their respective books.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but my sense is that there are parallels between the bits of yourself you've shared with me, and the knowing, introspective, beleaguered and loving qualities--set amidst a violently traumatic backdrop of other strange and beautiful people--all to be found in those titles.

I should point out, though, that it's also pretty clear to me how prone I am to seeing what I've just finished reading wherever I look next, as often with reason as not. "Julius Caesar?" --There goes Cassius walking right by me, lean and hungry. "Middlesex?" --Loose threads on my sleeve, floating in the wind, as from Smyrna. "The Odyssey?" --Oh look, that lovely woman is waiting for me, just like Penelope.

Further, it seems to me that the Natural World spurs these dubious connections: insight is whimsy made respectable, and there are few things I can think of so whimsical, and yet equally respectable, as when whole trees suddenly explode with cherry blossoms. The World demands to be seen anew, and when our eyes are willingly seeing what we could not see before, the insights do not end with the confines of the physical world. Sleep is even richer. Women are somehow lovelier. Coffee is sharper. Everything old is new again.

I open "Long Christmas Ride Home" on the 18th of this month, in which I'm puppeteering a variety of shadow and bunraku puppets, plus a cameo live appearance as Baby Jesus in a Nativity sequence. Which Is. Going to Be. Awesome....

Write as you can. Know that you're much missed. Look to hear more soon,



College (Gaaah!)

After years and years of threatening to do it, it's finally getting done.

I am now.


Attending University. (a little piece of me died just now.)

I'm a Quick Entry Student in the School of Community Health at Portland State University, dutifully plodding towards a bachelors' degree. My first class was today, Urban and Community Health, PH 543, populated mainly with grad students. I am one of maybe three people not currently seeking a graduate degree in a class of 14.

I'm clearly out of my element as far as credentials, but the class is designed rather nicely, has an engaging group at the table, all seem rather accepting of me (no one's laughed me out of the room. Yet). Everyone appreciatively ooh'd and aah'd when I cited my EMT experience and my various jobs in the field.

The assignments are going to be rather fun: tracking health issues in the media for a given urban community, constructing a public health profile of a Portland neighborhood, and writing a half dozen essays.

We meet in a beautiful sky-washed room on the fourth floor of the new Urban Studies Center, overlooking the streetcar and the skybridges to the other buildings. It's the glass-and-brick version of an ivory tower, high above the dross. Privilege incarnate.




Answering the River God

I will speak plainly.

Your heart is a reservoir, swollen and ugly. You aim your brow carelessly, rashly, wastefully.
Your warm hands are tender knots chopping at the distance between us. Your eyes and lips blaze all too righteously. The nape of your neck quivers with the firmness of your argument. It's ridiculous.

You're far more dangerous when you don't raise your voice, you know. It's strange, but that's your temper, cold, understated, irreversible. Your voice, with its ragged, curt serrations, tersely rushes under your breath, faster than either of us can think. And then you say

In those moments, I tell myself that I can see through the gap between your shoulderblades. Floating there in your bottomless reservoir, mingling with the bitter and the sweet, I tell myself that the face of my reflection is just a face, the image as far from the truth of me as the setting sun is distant from its rippled, shining, watery rain.

I tell myself to lave my hands in your water.
Slowly, slowly,
the biting chill eases, reconsidering, taking its sweet time, warming up to the idea of warmth.

And then, achingly slowly, my cold hands warm in your running cold water slowly warming, your reluctantly kindled smile slowly unfolding.

I know enough to know that this solves nothing, settles nothing, changes only your mood and mine. There is no enough.

There is only your bottomless reservoir, your warm hands, and the beautiful ruin of the setting sun running through my fingers.



Imaginary Friends

When I was little, I had not one, nor even a handful of imaginary friends. I had a world of them. I would walk down a street certain in my conviction that a crowd of beings accompanied me, swimming the air at my shoulder, or flying overhead, or galloping behind me. Centaurs, eagle-owls, that sort of thing. Some had names.

Some were so specific as to have entire identities, whole and complete--exiled or orphaned royal heirs disguised in the imaginary-friend realm to evade murderous step-parents. Explorers and warrior-monks sojourning in my company, hoping to convince me to accompany them on their latest impending expeditions. Last survivors of their tribes, nations, or species, painstakingly entrusting their culture's half-lost secrets to me before they died.

Some were so vague as to be merely the edges of shadows caught in the corner of the eye; you couldn't look at them, you couldn't see them directly, but they made their presence felt.

They trusted me with the secret of their collective existence. I trusted them for protection, foresight, advice. It was a neat arrangement.

Many, or perhaps even most of them survive in my books. They are now, as they always have been, at once both a venerable and a deeply disreputable population of talkative, jealous, plaintive, unapproachable, effusive and altogether astonishingly wise souls. My relationship with them has also matured; some can speak more insistently to me know, and others have commensurately lost their influence (those latter sulk in the corners, wailing from time to time, yet still, as often as not, their view will prevail just as before).

But I miss the innocent certainty I used to have about them. When I walk down the street, their brilliant, bristling company is now no more than a metaphor. I miss the truthfulness of their existence, something I earnestly believed in, and earnestly still want to believe in today. I miss their company a lot.



Things go rather poorly, I have to admit. I've painted myself into a corner where everything I see, in my day-to-day world, is yet another sullen pebble of disappointment to add to the heaping mountains of such pebbles, great silent cairns crowding my field of vision.

I've made some mistakes recently, oversights, evidences of my collapsing sense of discipline, my increasingly rudderless and listless disposition. I'm isolating and insulating myself, retreating to my books and my piles of laundry.

Giving the matter some thought, I have to admit that I'm deeply angry and humiliated with myself, for having made myself vulnerable (again) for the sake of a long-term relationship (what else?) that ended six weeks ago. It is deeply disappointing, and distressing, to admit that I needed someone, who could not be there for me as I needed her, and consequently I no doubt did not give her what she needed.

In all honesty, this relationship was already beginning to end many months ago. And things with her are fine and civil enough post break-up. I doubt we will stay close, which is of some sadness to me, but at this stage, I'm having difficulty keeping what friendships I do have, much less do I have the energy to cultivate a troubled one.

What decimates me is how conscientiously I tried, how hard I worked, at not letting myself get in my own way, being open to vulnerability, intimacy, all the authentic and true stuff--I called it as I could see it, I was by no means perfect, but I certainly did the best I knew how to do, and still my own neuroses and blind spots, my own muddled emotional confusion and those unwieldy, massive, looming structural complexes of shame and anger and guilt that I can't seem to untangle, all these things succeeded in bringing down what had been the healthiest relationship I'd had in a long time.

Of course, she'd had her side of this, too, none of us can ever claim to be utterly innocent anymore. But what I'm saying is that I can see how my own shit alone is more than enough to break my own back. And under that kind of baggage, how can I possibly retain the levelheadedness, the clarity of heart and mind necessary to be loving and good and generous and present, as seems to be all too necessary? I am perplexed. Cue: "Beast of Burden," The Rolling Stones.

At more than a few weddings (which I am, as you might expect, very loathe to attend) (it's the acres of forced emotions, the manufactured preciousness, the desperate, cloying, emotionally manipulative and manufactured tenor of strained and meaningless ritual, I know I sound pretentious but that's what it reads like to me), I've heard it mentioned as a throwaway cliche, that "these two are so lucky to've found each other." And while I applaud the sentiment, if I accept the premise, then I must accept that, by the very terms of the statement, the rest of us are more likely doomed not to find each other, whomever that other may be.

In this circumstance, I must accept that, whether I'm prepared to or not, these are the terms I've been given. Now, given how brutally expensive (emotionally, physically, financially) emotional intimacy is for me, is it reasonable to continue to make myself vulnerable, chasing the chimera of a fortunate, unlikely mutual discovery? This is not meant to be cynical. This is an honest question. Cue: "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?", cover by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Like any other human, of course I hunger for companionship. Sex. Solidarity. Perhaps a family. A true and authentic connection with a compeer. But in the course of evolution, the continuous accrual of experience and weak wisdom, it has been revealed to me (in my capacity as a mangy, half-mad, bitterly ascetic Hebrew prophet) that it might just be more than I have the ability to create, for myself and for someone else.

Here and now, it was proven that it is beyond my ability, in this moment, to stay healthy enough for myself in my inner life and for another in a relationship at the same time. It's the actual demonstration of this inability of mine that has me brooding and taciturn, wounded and scared and vaguely betrayed (again like a Hebrew prophet).

I can accept the possibility that this may change, at some point in the future. But to do so, I have to give voice to the possibility that it may not change, ever, and that all possibilities, ranged with every gradation in between, lay before me, desolate and gorgeous like the body of an absent lover.