22 February 2013

Short Takes IV

22 April 2012

In a column in the New York Times, a reader wrote about fielding rude questions about her red hair.  It brought to mind something that happened to me when I was a junior in high school.  I, too, was a redhead back then. (I'm gray and thinning on top now.)  I was in English class, finishing something or other at the blackboard in front of the class when the teacher asked me, out of nowhere, “Do you dye your hair?”  Aside from the rudeness in and of itself, the fact that she asked me in front of my classmates was a combination of embarrassing and funny.  In a flash, I told the teacher, “Only my hairdresser knows for sure,” and returned to my seat.  (That TV commercial for Clairol hair coloring was running at the time.)  Of course, the class cracked up, and I came out the winner for the day.

That anecdote also makes me think of my aunt, also a redhead.  We each had a unique color of red; neither of us were carrot-tops, but neither of us ever met anyone with quite our shades of red.  Once when she was at the hair salon, a woman in a chair nearby was getting her hair colored.  The other woman couldn't decide on the shade of dye she wanted, and then she spotted my aunt.  “That's the color I want,” she told her stylist.  “I'm sorry, Ma’am,” the hairdresser replied.  “That color doesn't come in a bottle.”

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22 April 2012

When I was in grad school for my MFA in acting, I appeared in the thesis production of one of my MFA directing classmates.  I was playing the father in Jean Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette and in one scene, I withdrew to a side porch at stage right and sat smoking a cigar while the action went on center stage among the younger characters in the play.  All through rehearsals we did that scene with me in semi-darkness, sitting in a sort of lounge chair facing the right wing of the little studio theater, listening to music from a party at the big house up on the hill.  I didn’t do anything but listen and smoke.

After one of the first nights when we had an audience, the director came back to the dressing room with a note.  Several spectators, many of whom were other theater students whom we all knew in the undergrad or grad programs, had commented on how interesting I was being over on the porch, supposedly out of focus.  I started to apologize for stealing focus; I assured the director that I hadn’t done anything intentional to attract attention and couldn’t imagine what I’d been doing.  (I wasn’t doing anything fancy like blowing smoke rings or elaborately sniffing the cheroot or biting the end off.  I thought I was being as inactive and unobtrusive as possible.)  The director stopped me.  “It’s not your fault that you’re more interesting than the characters in the scene.  You’ve been doing just what I wanted.  They’re the ones who aren’t being interesting.  If they were fully engaged in what they were doing”—it was an argument—”you wouldn’t attract more attention.”

I don’t remember what he told the other actors to do to regain the focus in the scene; maybe I never heard.  But after another performance, I met one of my own acting students who’d come to see the play and he said something to me that may have been part of the explanation of what had happened.  My student said to me, “You looked so real—like you really knew how to smoke a cigar!”  Well, of course I did know—I’d been a cigar smoker and so had my father when I was growing up, so the procedure of cigar-smoking was natural to me, and since the cigar was real, it was really lit, and I was really smoking it, I was, in fact, actually smoking a cigar.  I wasn’t acting smoking a cigar.  I always think of this as a lesson in acting: a real action is always more interesting than a fake one, even if the real one is small and ordinary and the other one is noisy and big.  (Consider Uta Hagen’s advice about never appearing on stage with children or animals.)  That must have been what the director had meant—that I was really doing what I was directed to do, while my castmates were “acting.”  Even in the semi-darkness, I was more interesting than they were.

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4 January 2013

I had a fun little encounter a few days after Christmas 2012.  I was doing a little grocery shopping at the Food Emporium on 6th Avenue in my neighborhood, and as I went around the corner into the produce section, coming at me in the other direction was the actor F. Murray Abraham!  Now, I think he's one of the finest actors in the country these days, especially on the stage—I saw him do a rep of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant and Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in 2007 (he reprised the Shylock in 2011) which was terrific—and I told him so and asked, “May I shake your hand?”  “Well,” he said grinning, “I'm glad I got up this morning!”

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15 December 2005/17 January 2006

My family lived in West Germany from 1962, after my dad joined the Foreign Service, until 1967, and I joined them in ’63.  I knew at the time it was happening that I was having an adventure—though I never articulated this feeling until long afterwards.  I was old enough at 16 to understand while I was in it that this was a special experience.  Of course, everyone else I knew in Europe at the time was also having it—but I knew no one I left back home was.  I was very consciously getting as much out of the opportunity that I could.  I missed out on a few things in those years for one reason or another, but in general, I made a point of grabbing every opportunity I could, such as going shopping in Koblenz, the small city where we first lived; trying a new restaurant or dish; or going on a trip to some new place, whether far away, like Russia, or nearby, like the Rhine castles near our home.  I was like a gourmand at an elaborate party—I tried to get my fingers into every platter.  When I was about to graduate from high school in Geneva, I even tried to convince my parents to let me take a PG year there, but on the French side.  Not only did I want to improve my French, but I wanted to stay in Europe another year.  They didn’t buy it, though, so I came back and started college in in the States that fall. 

Years later, I was watching Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire on TV.  It’s about two angels who hang around Berlin and watch as the humans live their lives until one of them decides he wants to become human and experience life himself.  The movie was released in ’88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the Wall.  I'm not sure I can make this make sense—I've never articulated it before—but at one point, one of the angels crosses a street and passes in front of a row of buildings that all looked as if they dated from the immediate post-war period—’50s and ’60s or thereabouts.  It was only a few seconds of film, and it wasn't in the least significant to the movie, but it made an odd connection for me.  For those few seconds, the scene could have been anywhere in West Germany where those kinds of buildings were ubiquitous in the early days of my family’s time there—just like the house we had in Koblenz and the apartment buildings in the U.S. embassy compound in Bonn-Bad Godesberg where we moved in 1965.  The buildings in the movie were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and such; I don't even know what they were, but it could have been any street in any West German town where new buildings had been erected to replace older ones destroyed in World War II—they went up fast as Germany was recovering, and they all looked alike.  All of a sudden, and just for a second or two, I was right back there in ’63 in Koblenz in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks.  It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess. 

I re-experienced the feeling I remember having, but had never tried to describe or even, really, recognized until much, much later.  It was this absolutely certain sense that here I was, doing this extraordinary thing—living in a foreign country—that I knew was both unique and special and exciting.  Remember, I was just 16 and had never been anywhere off the east coast of the U.S. except one skiing trip to Quebec, and in Koblenz we were living not in an American enclave or a housing compound, but right among the Koblenzers, shopping in their stores—no PX or commissary—and so on.  And, this was 1963—how many American teenagers lived in Europe?  I never said this to myself in words before, but I knew I was on an adventure.  Now, I know I'd thought this before—especially when I went back to Germany in the Army, and most clearly when I went back to Koblenz ten years after I first arrived there—but I know I'd never tried to put this into words of any kind—not even in my head. 

As I said, I had this sense at the time, but it wasn't remotely verbal and I never recognized it except maybe subliminally until years later.  What 16-year-old is that introspective, I guess.  I'd be out in town for whatever reason—shopping, exploring, meeting Dad at his office, wandering with a friend—who more than likely would have been Marc Humilien, a French military brat I got to know there, which made it all the odder—and I'd take notice of the German shops with German signs, the German people on the streets, the German kids.  Everything was foreign—but fascinating.  And this feeling would come over me—I live here.  This is now my home.  I'm actually doing this.  None of those words occurred to me—I've put those in later—but the feeling was there.  This only happened in the first months or a year—after that I got very blasé about living in foreign parts, and later, when we moved to Bonn, we were in an embassy compound where all our neighbors were Americans and our surroundings were an approximation of an American suburb.  But those first months in Koblenz, the Germanness of it all, the newness, the strangeness, was actually palpable.  I was doing this really, really different thing—and I knew it.  All this came back to me in that brief piece of movie, just because the setting looked vaguely familiar.  (That feeling came back to me the first day I arrived in Berlin, as I said, and when I returned to Koblenz in 1972 when I was assigned to a German military school located in nearby Bad Ems.  Years later, when I took a vacation trip to Quebec City, I had a similar sense.  I hadn’t been in a French-speaking environment in decades by that time, and though I’d never been to Quebec City before, I instantly felt as if I’d returned to some place familiar—culturally familiar.  Many things I hadn’t thought about for years came back to me.)

*  *  *  *
15 December 2005

I was in ROTC in college and I started active duty at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, in December 1969.  I spent the next 18 months in one army school or another before being assigned to West Berlin.  I was a counterintel agent at Berlin Station, the Military Intelligence unit attached to the Berlin Brigade, from July 1971 to February 1974.  I had worked the system some to get sent to Germany (Berlin was a lagniappe) and at least delay being deployed to Vietnam.  (I wasn’t a supporter of the war, but I also didn’t want to shirk what I saw as my duty as a citizen.)  The one big question was what would happen after 18 months, which was the standard tour for an officer in Berlin when I arrived.  After that, it was home leave and shipment to Vietnam.  I was counting on making myself so indispensable in Berlin that they’d keep me there rather than waste me in Southeast Asia.  I never had to test that plan, though: the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973.  But if I hadn’t been in Berlin to begin with, I can bet on where I’d have ended up.

I firmly believe that my language studies and skills helped keep me out of combat in Southeast Asia.  First, language ability is one of the assets MI looked for, so it helped qualify me for my choice of branch assignment when I was commissioned.  Second, one of the electives I took because I had room in my college schedule—I’d gotten two years’ advanced placement on both German and French, my majors, eliminating a lot of prerequisites—was linguistics.  One of the things you learn in linguistics is how to piece together a language’s grammar from fragments of the spoken tongue.  We did this as exercises several times, and it was part of the mid-term and final exams.  When I got to Ft. Knox, one of the battery of tests we all had to take was the ALAT, the Army Language Aptitude Test.  Lo and behold, the test was exactly that: a language whose grammar we had to glean from sentences, phrases, and words provided.  I maxed the test—got the highest score possible.  That meant I could choose any language training I wanted (except French and German, since I already offered the army those) and I was assured of getting it.  But I had to select a language program.  If I hadn’t chosen one, the army, in its wisdom, was going to choose one for me.  (They weren’t going to ignore my test score!)  They would have put me in a Vietnamese course, and that led to only one assignment.  There was one slot available in a Russian course, and I grabbed it.  Near the end of the course, I took the language proficiency tests for German and French as well as Russian so they were all on my record.  

Now, the fact is that Russian language was an asset in Vietnam—particularly for an MI officer—because of the Soviet presence in the North.  And French was an asset because many older Vietnamese still spoke French as a second language rather than English because Indochina had been a French colony until 1954.  So German was the key.  There was only one obvious place where American troops were stationed where French, German, and Russian were all important skills: not just Germany, but Berlin.  Still under occupation from World War II, Berlin had troops from France in the West and Soviets in the East.  That was the third reason my language studies helped me: specifically my fluency in German.  Since I had also lived in Germany for several years in my teens and knew the culture as well as the language, the army wisely sent me to Berlin instead of Saigon (where the life expectancy of an MI lieutenant was estimated at five minutes after he gets off the plane).   I have no doubt that my acuity in French and German plus my study of Russian were the principal reasons I was in Berlin when the cease-fire went into effect.  (The common wisdom among GI’s was that 90% of all soldiers were malassigned.  Not me: I was just where I should have been!)

*  *  *  *
17 December 2005
While I was stationed in Berlin when I was in the army, I had been sent as one of two American guest-officers to the MAD-Schule, the Bundeswehr intelligence school, in the summer and fall of 1972.  (MAD was the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, the military counterintelligence service of the Bundeswehr, the German military forces.  It is now called the Amt für Sicherheit der Bundeswehr, the office for the security of the Bundeswehr.)  The course was a two-parter, and we went during the summer for the first stage.  We were there over Independence Day, so my American colleague and I decided that we had to throw a Fourth of July barbecue for our German classmates. 

Even by ’72, barbecuing the American way—over a grill outdoors then eating outside pretty much with your hands—was still un-German.  (My mom did a cook-out for her German friends when we lived in West Germany in the ’60s, and the ladies didn’t quite know what to make of it.  They ate hamburgers with knives and forks and then, because paper was still expensive in Europe, wanted to wash the paper plates.) 

Well, since my partner, who was married, went back to Munich for the weekends, I was tasked with doing the shopping.  I drove up to the commissaries in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden and stocked up on steaks, hot dogs, and burgers.  I got number-10 cans of baked beans and all the fixin’s for a traditional Independence Day cook-out.  We had a half day on Tuesday, the Fourth—a coincidence, as far as I know—and the morning was devoted to Sport.  We had done this before, and gone to a swimming pool for the afternoon, but this time we were going kegeling—German bowling.  (Wouldn’t you know it, most Kegelbahns were also bars!)  That morning was raining and gray, and it looked like the barbecue was going to be a wash-out.  But when we came out of the Kegelbahn, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining brightly.  One of the German officers cracked, “Is it Jesus Christ or the good Lord himself who loves America?”  (We weren’t universally hated yet.)  And off we went to our cook-out. 

The mess hall had come up with a grill somehow, and we set up everything outside—the Germans sprang for the beer—and the cook-out was a blazing success.  (All that beer didn’t hurt.)  What went over best, I was surprised to find, was the baked beans.  Man, those guys just loved that stuff.  I had over-bought a little, and they served the rest at mess until it ran out.  I think they even prevailed on me to get more from the commissary.  I fear I created a bunch of addicts!  But we paid those guys back for all their gemütlichkeit and stood America in good stead with a small group of Bundeswehr army and air force majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels, and navy lieutenant commanders, commanders, and captains. 

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8 February 2013

I had a thought one night recently that's occurred to me before.  I was watching an ordinary TV program and the plot seemed to have been wrapped up.  But I saw that it was still 15 minutes before the end of the hour, so I figured there was something yet to be revealed.  There was, and I even guessed what it was, but mostly because I knew there was a quarter of the program left to go.  In other words, I was getting clues not from the plot or the characters, but from the mechanics of TV—in this case the fact that TV shows have a definite schedule and time span and they have to fill out the time slot.

I've noticed this kind of thing before.  Another clue that comes from outside the script or the acting is from the casting. If a role is played by an actor I don't know from anywhere, I can figure the character isn't very important.  That may or may not end up being true, but if an apparently small part is played by an actor who does a lot of TV, may even be a second-tier star whose name I even know, I suspect the character is going to turn out to be more significant than we're supposed to think.  (This can happen in movies, too, unlike the timing thing, but it's less common.  I remember once watching an old Clint Eastwood movie on TV some years ago in which an apparently inconsequential character was played by an actor who usually played featured roles and even leads.)  

There's a variation on this casting clue syndrome when a character who we know is probably important is played by an actor commonly cast in a certain kind of role.  Even if the character's personality isn't revealed much in the early scenes, you can be pretty sure it'll turn out to be in line with the actor's usual role and you can make a pretty sure bet he'll be a villain or an innocent wrongly suspected or something like that.  (In films, directors and producers might fool you by casting an actor against her or his usual type—and sometimes habitual casting patterns change, sometimes suddenly.  Cuddly Ed Asner, discombobulated Walter Matthau, and comic Zero Mostel started out as "heavies."   So did dimwitted Leslie Nielsen—but no one seems to do that much on TV.)

All of these are clues that you wouldn't pick up except for the mechanics or business of TV—not the writing, acting, or directing.  They're non-artistic clues, external clues.  They seem to belong to TV more than any other form of story-telling, either because of the nature of TV as we do it here (the rigid TV schedule, which is not always followed in Europe, say) or because of the way the directors and producers practice their crafts (the casting thing).  They all keep something that might be a surprise, however small, from being as startling as it otherwise might be.

(There was another clue in that Eastwood film, Blood Work, that the character I noted was more significant than the script let on, but it was sort of from within the film.  The guy'd written his name—I think it might have been on a check, but that's irrelevant—and it was Jasper Noone.  Now, I used to teach writing, and a common spelling error I saw was writing “no one” as one word: noone.  Because of my writing-class experience, I guessed that in Blood Work, this might be a modern take on Ulysses calling himself Nemo—Latin for “nobody.”  It was too prominent—the camera came in close on the name—to be insignificant.  And that's another frequent clue: if the camera lingers on an object in a scene, you know it'll be important later.  It's setting up a McGuffin—but it's an internal clue, perhaps sloppily executed—by the director.)

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