In a similar spirit to yesterday's post, I'm writing today about oral tradition. (Where is my mind? Oh yeah, there it is: in the gutter again. Besmirched.) Yesterday I wrote about how important it was to continue our habits of learning from people directly, sans email or books or carrier/passenger pigeons. One of the ways to maintain this kind of good habit is to make as much conversation as possible. This, I recognize, is a tricky proposition. New Yorkers may think it's particularly dangerous for them, what with all the hurried, irate and/or insane types we have smunched (is SO a word) together. I would argue, however, that there's a trade-off there. New Yorkers are more accustomed to having regular contact with strangers and psychos than some, and we learn stronger coping methods for dealing with them. Plus the psychos are generally easier to spot here, I think. Not that a psycho can't look average, but here you can at least rule out a certain segment of aluminum-foil-hat-wearing sorts as being perhaps not the most coherent conversationalists.
Friend Chris once suggested to me that wherever I go, I should talk to people about what they do. Post office, elevator, subway, etc., every day we come in contact with professionals, and most of them are pretty eager to talk about something they can be an authority on. Get in the habit of talking with them, and you both benefit -- a report is established, greasing the wheels for any other transaction, and you may learn something to boot. I try to remember to do this. It often backfires. I don't have the most unimpregnable ego in the world, and when I get a negative response from someone I don't know, I'm more inclined to let the talk drop than pursue it. The thing I have to keep reminding myself is that a negative response is often a stock response, and can be wispy-thin. Get past it, and there's every possibility that you'll find something interesting or moving on the other side.
I also find that everyone -- everyone -- is sending out invitations, all the time. There's so much information coming off of people that it's amazing. Even without eye contact with someone, you can start to form an impression of what they most want in terms of communication, be it sympathy, enthusiasm, agreement or something wholly unique. (And with eye contact: forget about it.) The tricky part for me has always been balancing what others want with what I want. When I was younger I had this problem a great deal more often, but it still happens to me now and again. Now its not so much that I blindly subserve to everyone (is SO an expression). When I was younger, I would often get into this conversation with my friends:
"Whatcha doin', Jeff?"
"Building a canal out of a single cinder block."
"Oh. How's it going."
"Well, it's okay. It's kind of hard, though. And slow going. And I'm not sure what purpose it will serve. And I was supposed to go play Dungeons&Dragons(TM) with some other pubescents today, but I guess I can't now."
"Oh. And why are you doing that?"
"Because someone I only just now met wanted it done."
Now it's more a matter of not quite getting across (to myself as much as anyone else) just how important the really important things are to me. So I do a lot less painful self-sacrificing, but every now and again I'll get to a point in something at which I'll suddenly explode. "Why am I not getting what I want?! Why are your wants automatically more important than mine?! Why are you doing this to me?! Oh! I never told you what I want?! I ... I didn't, did I? Oh, ah ... whoops. My bad. Sorry for spitting on you just then. Um. I can't do anything for you, can I? Build you a canal, perhaps?"
It's taken me a long time to learn, and it's a continuous "practice" for me ("practice," in this usage, as in the yoga sense, in which "practice" is a nice way of saying "something I can't do at all yet, but just keep trying, anyway") to remember, that everyone's a little bit psycho, in their own way. We all occupy worlds inside our individual heads that have nothing to do with the rest of the world, try as we might to deny it. And it's scary, the possibility of tripping upon someone's inner world. It may be less a fantastical trip to Oz, and more a nightmare ride down the rabbit hole. There's just no knowing.
The thing is: The more you risk that, the more you're living and learning. Be it Oz or somewhere really weird, at least you're going somewhere. No one wants to go nowhere; not if they really pause to consider what that would mean. Having the courage to really talk and really listen is supposed to be what actors are all about. Lord knows, I'm not the best at it. A few months ago I was sitting around with a cast at NYU, waiting in their luxurious lobby on the seventh floor for our director to show up. Two of my fellow cast members struck up a conversation. It started out a little irritating -- "Who do you know?" "You don't know him? How can you not know him?" -- but they eventually got to matters un-network-y, and began talking about the city. One of them, a rather young woman, said, "I don't understand how people can just walk around all day, plugged in to their earphones. That's just stupid. They're missing so much." I discreetly attempted to shove my iPod deeper into my coat pocket. "I know. Why would you live here, and shut all of it out?" So I'm trying to engage more with my fellow man. It's good practice.
But dang it, on the subway I'm keeping my earphones on. It's not that I prefer The Mars Volta to my fellow man, but . . . well yeah. It kind of is. Practice, practice, practice!