The Utility of Tragedy

This one’s gonna ramble a bit and talk about depressing stuff some, so consider yourself warned.

So Saturday night was my 29th birthday, and I was in a show, and afterwards I went out with a couple of friends and drank beer and — impassioned and tipsy — tried to get them to explain to me what the utility of tragedy is in the current world.

This question sprang up out of the intersection of a few different trains of thought. It’s October 2017, and a year ago I was hugely confident that by November 30th I would have finished first drafts of two plays and have a female president. Turned out I was extremely wrong about both of these things!

We’re well into the first year of USA’s 45th presidency. Ten months of nearly constant crisis mode and psychological battering. Ten months where I slowly realized that I’m living in a bizarre but very real informational war zone under an incompetent but very dangerous head of state installed by a foreign power. About ten months where I’ve had regular episodes of existential despair over the possibility of nuclear war. (And all this, of course, doesn’t even take into account my last few years of deepening my understanding of racial injustice in America, of refugee stories, and of gun violence, which provided a nice foundation of “boy howdy the world’s a shitshow” for this year’s panoply of awfulness.)

The other day I was binge-watching pop culture video essays, and found myself intrigued by The Nerdwriter mentioning that “passable movies” are ones that are “a far cry from great or noteworthy or something you’d like to see more than once.” That got me thinking about what stories I’ve come back to multiple times in 2017. I’ve seen plenty of movies and plays and read plenty of books this year, and enjoyed and liked plenty of them.

2017coolmovieswithemojis

Just a sample. It was a pretty good year for movies, all things considered.

But there weren’t many I went back to more than once, despite frequently exclaiming as I left the theater “I would totally go see that again!” Movie tickets are expensive and I am lazy. That doesn’t mean they weren’t amazing movies — Moonlight and Hidden Figures are unquestionably very well made movies that I only saw once, and while I know people are divided on Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman I thought they were both extremely well constructed. It just means I haven’t seen them twice. (But I did actually see Get Out twice in theaters.)

While I was thinking about that, I also watched the Nerdwriter’s take on Black Mirror.

I’ve only seen a couple episodes of Black Mirror, one of which was the notably uplifting (and yet slightly ambiguous??) “San Junipero,” and a big part of why is what Nerdwriter articulates in this video:

What Charlie Brooker, the intensely smart creator of Black Mirrorhas given us are tragedies that are often senseless — in other words, tragedies that withhold catharsis. The result, I think, is that we end up feeling much closer to these stories. The cathartic appreciation that’s meant to transform our pity and our fear never comes, and we’re just left with the pity, and the fear.

I remember once asking my mother if she wanted to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and she told me, essentially, “I’ve spent my whole life seeing people be awful to each other. I don’t need to pay money to go see two hours of it.” There’s a lot of dark/serious/tragic media that I feel similarly about, especially right now, in 2017, in this time and place. Just waking up in the morning and looking at Facebook or Twitter or the New York Times headlines in my inbox feels like adding a piece of glass to my shoes. Why would I feel the need to spend money and time consuming a story that reminds me how terrible people are and how insignificant our actions are in the great, tragic roll of the wheel of fortune?

And yet.

The stories that I probably spent the most time with this year, the ones I discovered for the first time and came back to over and over, were tragedies. Specifically, Hadestown

And Rogue One.

Animated gif of Cassian, Jyn, Bodhi, Baze, and Chirrut.

447px-aias_und_kassandra_28tischbein29

Ajax and Cassandra, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1806

I also spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year with the myth of Cassandra, working on my own storytelling and wrestling with the fact that Cassandra’s story is one of bad thing after bad thing happening for no good reason to a woman that culminates in her murder, and that I hate writing stories with downer endings. (I’m bad at writing endings in general, but that’s a slightly different personal writing problem.)

None of these stories ends well. Hadestown is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and ends, as it must, with Orpheus turning around and Eurydice being lost to him. Rogue One ends with every single one of the characters we’ve become invested in sacrificing themselves and dying. Cassandra is killed by Clytemnestra, alone and far from home. Sure, you could take any of these stories and follow the “how to listen to Into the Woods/Hamilton without crying” approach: just close the book or stop the movie or soundtrack halfway through, when everything is still hunky-dory. Where stories end, after all, is subjective — it all depends on how long you follow them.

But no. I like the endings of these stories, too. I don’t check out early. Partly, I think, because they’re cathartic, in the old-fashioned Aristotelean sense of the word. Belting along to a sad song or feeling my heart pound during a good action sequence feels good physically as well as emotionally. Each story is, to quote the Nerdwriter quoting Northrop Frye, “intelligible because its catastrophe is plausibly related to its situation.”

But I’ve also been coming back to a line from Hadestown, a sentiment that I echoed myself when trying to understand Cassandra and that runs through the end of Rogue One — and through many of my favorite horror movies. “It’s a love song / About someone who tries.”

Tragic heroes are traditionally heroes because they do everything in their power to do the right thing, the thing that will let them survive, the thing that defies fate — and they fail anyway. Hamlet tries to avenge his father and save Denmark — and fails. Oedipus tries to save his city and his family from destruction — and fails. The stories elicit pity, in that we feel the pain of the hero when they lose, and we fear for them as we watch them struggle, because we recognize what their great losses would mean to us if we experienced them.

I guess I find more pleasure in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome in spite of their best efforts, than I do in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome because they never had a chance. And it’s absolutely because I need to believe that trying, that striving for something, matters, even if the something is not achieved. I need to believe that because we beat health care repeal a few times, but the fight isn’t going away. And because the world’s getting hotter and the storms are getting worse and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and swathes of California are wrecked. And because I walk past a lot of homeless people in Seattle, and my friends are crowdfunding their medical care and their rent, and the world is just really hard to live in.

So I gotta believe trying makes a difference. That it bends the arc of the universe a little, or it saves that one seastar, or whatever.

Or maybe I just don’t like downer endings.

Recommended reading/watching/listening:

 

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What would be enough?

Just Enough, Patrik Nygren on Flickr

I searched for “enough” on Flickr and got this, which is nicely abstract for an abstract concept.

I worry a lot about not doing enough. I don’t floss enough. I don’t meditate enough. I don’t wear sunscreen often enough. I don’t work out enough. I don’t get politically involved enough. I don’t drink enough water. I don’t eat enough protein. I don’t give enough money. I don’t call enough. I don’t volunteer enough. I don’t write enough. I don’t cry enough. I don’t care enough.

(Enough is such a weird word. Why is English??)

This probably all ties back to my old friends, perfectionism and anxiety, and I have to work hard to remind myself that “enough” is a relative term. When my brain tells me something like “You don’t write enough,” what it’s actually saying is “You don’t write as much as [that person]” (usually Stephen King, because if you’re gonna hold yourself to unattainable standards, don’t just aim high, aim highest!). It’s not “You don’t work out enough,” it’s “you don’t work out as much as a professional athlete.” And those comparisons are, of course, silly.

Enough has to be a personal word for personal goals. It isn’t an objective standard. (Unless it’s flossing, in which case, you are right, self, you don’t floss enough.) This goes double for the immaterial and unquantifiable. How much writing is enough? How much political involvement?

And the other thing, of course, is that holding myself to the standard of enough means I don’t appreciate the any. Anything is better than nothing. Maybe I don’t drink two liters of water a day or whatever it is you’re supposed to drink to clear your skin, fix your anxiety, and flatten your stomach — but if I drink three glasses of water, that is better than no glasses of water. Maybe I was late to the social activism party, and there is this huge pile of toxic bullshit to deal with now, and I’m not dedicating every second of my waking days to trying to get rid of it — but if I take a couple of shovelfuls out of that pile, it is a couple shovelfuls smaller. Maybe I didn’t wear sunscreen for basically the entire six weeks we were walking El Camino de Santiago and the damage to my skin has already been done — but if I put some on today, that’s a little less more damage.

It is, to be hokey, the personal-goal version of that story about throwing seastars back into the sea. Can I save every seastar? Can I ever be enough of something? Maybe not. Probably not. But hey, I can make a difference to that one. And the journey of a thousand miles, and all that jazz.

This being said, it’s okay to push myself to do a little more than just anything. There is a balancing point, somewhere, between holding myself to the impossible standard of enough and letting myself off the hook entirely. That’s the trick I’m still working on — a little at a time.

 

Female protester holding a sign reading DO NOT FEAR THE DARKNESS.

I live in America.

Normally when I lie in bed at night trying to go to bed I am thinking about:

  1. An embarrassing moment from seventh grade
  2. A different embarrassing moment from seventh grade
  3. What time I have to be at work tomorrow
  4. A story

Sometimes it’s the play or NaNovel or whatever I’m working on at the time; just as often it’s some silly, self-indulgent daydream. It keeps me from thinking about that other embarrassing moment  from seventh grade and it helps me get to sleep.

Since Tuesday, when I lie in bed at night I write blog posts in my head.

I am paralyzed with how much I want to write. I feel like a shaken bottle of soda, tight as a drum and likely to explode. I feel like a thundercloud.

I want to explain why I am angry at third-party voters, in a way that is compassionate and clear; at the same time, I want to explain why I am angry at third-party voters in a way that does not make nice. On Tuesday night I had several hours of panic attacks and I have not gone a day since then without starting to cry at least once. I am not in a mood to be compassionate and empathetic to others when I can’t barely keep myself together, but I also believe that speaking in languages of anger and blame changes few minds.

I want to call people to action, or perhaps scream them to action like I’m the opening victim in Jaws.

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Pictured: Disabled people, immigrants, Latin@s, Muslims, LGBTQ people, Black people, people of color, women, Jewish people, and people reliant on the ACA, among others, feeling slightly unnerved by the prospect of a Trump administration.

I want to write about why I’m wearing a safety pin, and why I’m staying off Facebook, and the bizarre, slightly unrooted sense of nihilistic freedom I sometimes feel scrolling through Twitter. Like, I should get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for literal years! I should get a damn sleeve! I should go buy a keyboard! Why the hell not! Why put anything off anymore! Be your goddamn self, because if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do, and what I want to do is wear black jeans with a brown sweater and scream Green Day and Something Corporate and Indigo Girls lyrics out the car window! Whatever! Radical honesty is where it’s at, man!

 

I want to write about climate change, except even thinking about it scares me so much I can’t put words in a sentence.

I want to write a lot of poetry. I don’t think most of it will be very good poetry, I just don’t think carefully crafted argumentative essays are gonna get at my soda-pop feelings very well.

I want to yell about the electoral college and voter suppression and how none of this is actually a new problem because anti-immigrant sentiment has been strong in the USA since the Bush era and anti-Muslim sentiment has been strong in the USA since the Bush era and misogyny, misogyny, misogyny. I also want to yell about how it was not unreasonable for me to think that the country that elected Barack Obama twice could reject a man who courted white nationalists to win the presidency, was endorsed by the KKK, and just appointed an anti-Semitic alt-right zealot as his chief strategist. I don’t think it was unreasonable for me to think well of my fellow Americans. Given that Hillary Clinton appears to be winning the popular vote, as absentee ballots are counted, I don’t even think it was precisely overly optimistic.

I want to transcribe the tense, crawling feeling between my shoulderblades and the splintered mahogany weight behind my breastbone, but I don’t think the language to do so has been created yet.

I want to tell you that I love you, even in those cases where I’m mad right now.

Unless you voted for Trump. In which case I just want to know why you looked at me — a queer woman with several pre-existing health conditions — and my Latino friends, my lesbian friends, my gay friends, my trans friends, my immigrant friends, my Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my Black friends, my disabled friends, my Native friends, every one of my friends on the fringes — and you decided we were making America less great.

Justin Kirk as Prior Walter saying I want more life.

As angry and hurt  and scared as I am, I want to end on a Kushner note. He gets me. Source.

 

Senbazuru

I have this nervous tic where I fold cranes. Any suitable piece of paper — paper napkin rings, foil candy wrappers — I’ll trim and tear it down to a square and start folding. Corner to corner, corner to corner, flatten, open, mountain fold, valley fold. I think I got into the habit around high school, when I stage managed a show set in a circus: huge inch-and-a-half wide confetti pieces were scattered all over the set, and I’d sit backstage sweeping them up, fidgeting and folding.

Right now I’m stage managing again, assisting on Book-It’s The Brothers K. Any rehearsal process has a certain amount of hurry-up-and-wait to it, whether it’s waiting to finish table work or waiting for the next scene transition. And when I’m waiting I either fidget or I get distracted by something with a screen. So a few weeks ago, I dug out a pack of small origami paper my mother gave me a while back, and I started making cranes.

 

First I finished up that pack — a little less than half the paper had already been folded and the cranes probably given away to someone or other. It didn’t take me nearly as long as I might have hoped to get through all the paper, and then to string the finished cranes together. And since it had taken so little time, I decided hell, I may as well make a thousand.

A group of one thousand paper cranes is called a senbazuru. They’re considered good luck symbols, and according to some sources, if a person folds a thousand cranes in a year, they are granted one wish. Famously, a young survivor of Hiroshima named Sadako Sasaki folded a thousand cranes after she was diagnosed with radiation-induced leukemia. Sadako and her cranes have become a symbol of a global longing for peace. I used to walk past the statue of her in the University District on a regular basis. She’s always draped with strings of cranes of every size — paper wishes, bright in Seattle’s rain and mist.

I’m superstitious enough to feel like most wishes are best kept to the wisher’s self. But it does seem appropriate, while working on an anti-war play, to fold these cranes with an anti-war intention. Or, more positively, a peaceful intention.

The prismatic string on the left here, hanging on our callboard, that’s the leftover paper I started with — probably a hundred or a hundred and fifty cranes. The string on the right is 272 cranes, the first pack of paper I finished and strung yesterday.

Just 728 to go.IMG_20160402_141807

Now I am that funky soldier and I shall be free

(I love this Shawshank Redemption fanvid.)

I guess it’s time for a link round-up because I’m mad and sad and confused about a bunch of things and I don’t want to spam Facebook.

  1. To get it out of the way: 2016 has kicked off with some shitty, shitty losses.

    I’m just — sad. Death sucks. 69 feels very young. 69 feels like Rickman and Bowie still had decades of art to create. 69 feels unfinished.

    I take comfort in the fact that I got to share the world with artists like this, even if they died before our spheres had a chance to intersect. And I take them as inspiration. Alan Rickman especially. I often feel, at the ripe old age of 27 when tons of my friends are already walking red carpets and living their dreams as actors, that I’ve missed the boat, that it is now and always will be too late for me to get back into acting. If I haven’t made it by now, I’m never going to make it. And Alan Rickman’s acting success later in life gives me comfort. Meanwhile, David Bowie’s ability to do a little bit of everything reassures me that I can play around and experiment as an artist.

  2. David Bowie: Time to mourn or call out?, Aida Manduley
    Relatedly, this is a very good piece on grieving and yet not whitewashing a figure like David Bowie. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to figure out how to reconcile the fact that someone you know — personally or otherwise — can give you many good things and also cause harm, to you or to others. (I don’t think you can reconcile it, precisely, but you can learn to live with the cognitive dissonance.) Highly recommended reading.
  3. The white man pathology, Stephen Marche
    So this article has been making the rounds of some of my friends, and it seems to be resonating deeply with them. And I … confess myself confused, because I bounced off it. I’d like to hear what people think of it, and why. What’s resonating for you? Did parts of it surprise you or what?
  4. Why Are SO Many Millennials SO Uncool?, POWERevolution
    I’m so mad about this essay. SO MAD. I lost an hour and a half of sleep to being mad at this cooler-than-thou hipster nonsense.duty_callsSO MAD. So of course I’m going to link to it. Well done hitting my anger buttons, POWERevolution, and enjoy your hits.
  5. The Dark Tower Officially Casts Idris Elba as Roland Deschain

    pdc_idriselba5

    No, Idris! He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father!

    So at least there’s that.

emerge (v).

Here’s a thing I learned today! The verb “emerge” comes from the Latin emergere, from the roots “ex-,” meaning “out” and “mergere,” meaning “to dip or sink,” so the verb “emerge” creates an image of something coming up out of liquid. Snazzy.

This is relevant because next week I get to emerge onto Seattle stages as a writer, as part of the Intiman Emerging Artists Showcase — August 4-6 at the Center House in the Armory, 7:30 PM each night. (Admission is free! Just RSVP here.)

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Look at this attractive and talented group of artists! Damn, son, that is a fine looking group of artists.

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This is not a post about Batman.

I own three superhero shirts. Two have the Bat-logo, and one has a Captain America shield.

A while back, right after Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out, I saw a lot of people going on and on about how much Batman sucks, especially in contrast with Cap. (That debate may still be raging somewhere on Tumblr and I just don’t see it because I unfollowed people, because life’s too short to pit the characters I love against each other.) Blah blah grimdark blah blah rich asshole blah blah brooding blah blah etc.

But the way I see it, both Bruce Wayne — and the rest of the Batfamily — and Steve Rogers are the kind of people who, upon seeing an injustice, upon seeing people hurt, throw themselves into the fight fists swinging. Doesn’t matter if they havetheir suits and their weapons: they keep going until either the perpetrator is out of commission or they can’t fight themselves anymore. And even once they’re down and out, they try to get back up for one more blow.

Take away all of the Bat’s gadgets and money, take away Cap’s serum and shield, and what do you have left?

Well — someone with the same powers as me, plus the tenacity and the determination to help people be safe.

Erskine and Steve

“Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

Maybe that’s my power fantasy.

A while back my roommate and I intervened in a situation in which a woman was being harassed by a guy, who ended up getting physically intimidating. I remember it was an unthinking, snap decision to go help, and I got scared right in the middle of it because I was so not prepared for how aggressive he became, and I hope that I would do it again anyway, because there were people who saw this woman fighting with this guy and walked right past and Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers would never do that.

Poor Hawkguy.My favorite superheroes are not very super when you come right down to it. They have no advantages of super strength or invulnerability or psychic powers. Fundamentally, they’re just the kind of people who reject the bystander effect whether or not that’s the smart thing to do, because it’s the right thing to do. Clint Barton, Barbara Gordon, Clarice Starling, Peggy Carter, Frodo and Sam. I mean, clearly, that rejection of the bystander effect applies to pretty much every superhero you care to name (except maybe Guy Gardner? That guy’s kind of a jerk). That’s why they’re heroes. But I like best the ones who do it even when they’re at a disadvantage.

The show I’m working on right now, Little Bee, has a lot to say about being the person who steps forward when no one else will. There are times when asking a stranger if they’re okay seems as unthinkable as standing in front of a bullet for them — and just as heroic.

This show also has Batman in it. Not a coincidence, I think.

The difference between me and Steve Rogers is that I frequently fail to extend that hand, to call out of he injustices I see. Because damn, that stuff is hard. Because I’m running late. Because I’m uncertain. Because I’m embarrassed. Because I’m scared.

But that’s what superheroes do for us, right? They give us something to aim for.

And what Steve and Bruce tell me is that we don’t need utility belts. We don’t have to wait for an origin story to find us. We’ll be enough.

Bruce Wayne offering food to a street kid.

“On the other hand, the madness of being the first in the crowd to move.” —Little Bee