28 March 2010

An Emotional Response to the Physical

Not at all sure what the questionable-quality food items are all about...

This video got me thinking about how I enjoy things like the comedy of Buster Keaton, and Rube Goldberg machines, and then not but two weeks later, OK Go! released an Internet 'asploding music video featuring an incredibly elaborate machine (and well-directed video, I may add) comprised of everyday items:

If you haven't seen the above yet, you're welcome, and you are a jerk. Yes: a jerk, for your ignorance. Mental Floss also put together a bunch o' Rube for your viewing pleasure ovah heeyah.

So what is this attraction to inanimate objects? Particularly those engaged in some unintended use? I'll break down some ideas I have as to the appeal, both personal and (perhaps [in some cases]) universal. Breaking it down 'til the break of dawn:
  1. It makes us feel optimistic to think of objects as fulfilling purposes, instead of being merely lifeless tools. Purpose connotes design connotes meaning.
  2. It makes us feel optimistic to see supposed purposes up-ended, and still demonstrate some sort of function. Creativity connotes a larger purpose.
  3. When objects interact with forces, we ascribe behavior to them, which makes the world a bright-n-shiny adventure, filled with personality.
  4. There is a sense of wonder created by acts of metamorphosis.
  5. By manipulating objects, we gain a broader sense of control over ourselves and the world. Comfort in safety?
  6. Objects are SO NOT controllable, in that they're animated by the same myriad physical forces that manipulate us; of which there are so many, we can never guarantee that the dang ball will go through the dang hoop (much less that we won't, say, trip on a staircase today). Objects are, therefore, spontaneous. Excitement in danger?
  7. Wish-fulfillment and family-building. Our pattern-recognition is based in distinctly human forms and features. In other words, we are continually, subconsciously, "recognizing" the things around us -- we want our cars to have faces, and we need to think of that table bit as a leg, that lamp bit as an arm. Objects are, by extension (pun acknowledged and admired, I'm not ashamed to admit), our children. We made them.
Okay, whether that's all rubbish to you or gospel for some new, quasi-dystopian religious beliefs (Tom Robbins, I'm looking in your direction...) I'm sure you can name a thing or two that you feel an abnormal level of affection for. Objects, physical and inanimate, populate our world and play out scenes with us daily. It is natural to incorporate objects -- or "tools" if you prefer -- into ourselves and our passage in/through time. It's a blurrier line than we may imagine, too, the distinction between animate and inanimate. Certainly physics could make an argument that nothing in existence is or could be truly in-animate, but even on a simpler, perceptive level we have to distinguish between the life of a plant and the life of an animal, or even the life of a planet and the life of an atom. Are we objects? Sure we are, divine ones or no.

Emotions may be even more difficult to define than objects. My opinion is that emotions are by-and-large sublimated survival instincts. They evolved in response both to changing survival priorities and the development of our particular self-awareness and abstract thinking. If you accept that theory as I do, it makes emotions at once very pragmatic and rather mysterious. They can be played upon, manipulated, but they also play upon and manipulate us. They are internal, with tremendous external effects and implications. And of course, our emotions allow us to connect with one another beyond a purely mechanical way. This possibility alone may be the best distinction between ourselves and other "objects."

In other words, it seems completely natural to me that when a hat flips up to land perfectly on someone's head, I am applauding for the hat itself. Or, when I stumble over an errant bit of sidewalk, to curse the day it was born. But here I'm hitting on another reason we respond so emotionally to the physical world: Because all the world's a stage, and all of us players, and players in our own unique play, at that.

6/15/10 Update: Over at tor.com, Jason Henninger discusses similar questions as applied to robotics.

24 March 2010

Holding the Mirror Up

As you may have been alerted on The Facebooks, The Twitters and/or ma' brother 'blog, Loki's Apiary, I am performing this week in a short play called Princess. Jason Schafer is the writer of this play, Kay Long directs and Stacey Linnartz performs with me (or really: I with her), to drop a few names for The Googles. This is a tough one to write about midstream, as it were, because to reveal anything specific about the plot sort of jiggles the ride a bit too much. Suffice it to say that I play a young husband and father having a rather important conversation with my wife, about our son.

As you may also know from The Everythings, Wife Megan and I recently invited a new addition to our little family. Anton is not quite the same as having a son, but I have to admit that he has been full of more lessons and surprises -- not to mention, less sleep -- than I had imagined. A series of his more worrisome idiosyncrasies:
  • He's named Anton . . . and I didn't name him. That was his name when we adopted him, and as a theatre enthusiast I am required to honor it, and yet everyone we tell responds, "Anton...?" in, you know, that way.
  • Anton's got these stiff back legs, so not much of a jumper. He's not too old, but something's up there. Makes me wonder if he was a dog in a past life.
  • He doesn't like being held, and won't sit in laps. Very affectionate otherwise, though, so maybe it's got something to do with the legs.
  • When we go to bed, anywhere from ten minutes to an hour later he will meow from the other room . . . with question marks at the end. I AM NOT KIDDING. There is no other interpretation. Anton has somehow lost us between the two rooms of our apartment.
  • He's a bit of a biter (not hard), fairly neurotic (see above) and . . . a humper. He humps. Blankets and jackets, mostly. He's neutered, but there you have it. He is humpy.
The son of my character does not have any of these problems (insofar as the script has detailed) but the emotions remind me of our recent feline complications. You worry, at odd times, and you spend a lot of time blindly interpreting, too. Does the love of a cat compare to the love for a child? Certainly not, yet I am surprised by how affectionate I have become of Anton in such a short time, and it reminds me of that old idiom about fathers not really being fathers until they actually get to meet their child.

Worry not, Dear Reader: I am not sense-memory-ing my way through Princess using my cat as an analogue for a son. (I might've in college, though, I have to confess.) I'm just sort of fascinated by the ways in which what I'm making happen and what is happening to me tend to become harmonious when I'm working in the theatre. Neither am I suggesting anything mystical in this -- I tend to view these things from a humanist perspective, at most -- yet it may just say something about how intention and deliberate action can influence one's sense of unity in life. And why the theatre in particular? Well, that may particularly have to do with me, and how much I love it, but it may also have to do with how much more evident observations can become when one is living out loud (much less in front of an audience).

It was actually in college that I really started to notice it, though somehow I aspired to "noticing" it even in high school. It's this "Oh...huh...yes..." kind of moment that occurs in rehearsal, and also starts to occur a bit in life, assuming you're feeling a strong connection to the work. In rehearsal you spend all this concentrated energy saying, for example, the same five words over and over again, in different ways, until at some point you nail it: oh...huh...yes.... It's great. Doesn't happen nearly enough, in my opinion. The act of searching -- not being in a generic search mode, but actively searching -- heightens awarenesses both internal and external. It can feel like a kind of magic, and you want to share it with everyone, but of course not everyone is interested. So, if you're like me, you end up humming quietly to yourself and every so often accidentally effusing all over some hapless and innocent Internet troller such as yourself.

Egad, I <3 the Internet.

Even if you accept my half-formed theories about how this synchronicity comes about, there remain some chicken-and-egg-type questions. Do you perceive a connection because you want to, or because it's pointedly poking you in the deep recesses of your brain? Did your searching begin with rehearsal, or did it start with looking for a job? Are the connections a result of the searching, or vice versa? Am I a proud cat owner because I'm thinking more about parenthood, or am I thinking more about parenthood because I have this weirdo cat, or is it all because of Megan?

Oh; huh: yes. Well, that last one is pretty clear-cut. But the rest are still unanswerable!

17 March 2010


When I get very frustrated or scared by life, I tend to do something somewhat strange: I look for martial arts schools. Then, after a little searching, I realize why I'm not finding what I'm looking for. I'm not looking for a martial arts school, but a sensei (or sifu, or "teacher"). Oh sure: I'd like to be strong like that (head-crackin' strong) and learn stuffs related to inner peace and balance (and head-crackin') but, as with my early demands on directors, I'm actually seeking guidance. More specifically, I'm seeking someone I can respect and who can rearrange me into someone who makes sense. You know: someone like Pat Morita. Thank you for that, My Childhood. When you have a moment, I'd also like to discuss the long-term psychological effects of way over-prioritizing Thundercats time.

It appeals to me on many levels. Martial arts offer the masochistic side of me a delightful little playground of self-induced torture, which is ultimately always more relaxing to me than, say, relaxing on a beach in San Juan. (The distinction between relaxation and exhaustion has always been for me a rather tenuous one.) It's also plain ol' simple. Now, there is nothing simple about the actual martial arts, but there can be something basic about them in the sense in which they are often portrayed in film: montages of incredible repetition. If you just, keep, smacking, that, granite, post, it, will, break, with, a, tre, men, dous, sense of catharsis. And there is the head crackin', of course. I'm not too proud to confess the personal appeal of that brute mastery over the world's greatest prey. Yeah, okay: I have some issues.


Look, my desire is deep-rooted and sincere, in spite of what may come across in my "humor" here. I'm also aware, however, that I'm making an essentially juvenile error of perception. The movies tell us that the mentor in this sense will initially be inscrutable and/or terrorizing, then there will follow a sort of hazing by which one is broken down, only to rally at the last possible moment and prove him or her self to be worthy of the master's heretofore latent genius. Then this paradigm is relentlessly repeated, in smaller incidents, until it all culminates in one final, intense repetition of the story -- usually some ultimate competition or battle. The student is punished relentlessly through Herculean (albeit exceedingly brief) trials, barely surviving to see the end, whereupon s/he wins the day with some detail from the previous repetitions that makes the audience feel that thrill of a conflict between surprise and expectation. And then, somehow, the student does something to show us that s/he hasn't really changed at all -- s/he had it in her/him all the time/time.

I don't mean to say the hope depicted here is juvenile. Hope is great stuff. Then again, so is a realistic relationship to one's environment. We undervalue sanity in the movies, and that's all to the good. It makes it easier to agree amongst ourselves (read: appeal to a large audience). In the rest of life, hope -- like love -- needs a support. It is, of itself, not a true virtue. Both may be necessary (and I believe they are) but they aren't virtues. Hope is a thing with wings, but not a cargo jet. Get not me wrong: I love hope (and I hope love?). It's just that, we sweat and bleed and nothing is as simple as a montage would have us believe. Even with a continuous rock'n'roll soundtrack (sorry iPod [I may need to lay off the parenthetical statements {for a little while}]).

No, what's juvenile is putting one's hope into any one person, and I include oneself in that estimation. Even if we are the hidden master of Wushu, we're absolutely going to need support once in a while, and usually at the time we most revile the idea of asking for it. We need one another. It's in this sense that the allegory in a good ol' pulling-up-bootstraps film does indeed have relevance to one's life philosophy: We need teachers, and we need students, and we can never be certain which of these we are at a given moment. The mainstream movies are made for simplifying -- or distilling, if you prefer -- this kind of complexity into a nice, iconic story for the masses. So maybe it makes sense that on an individual level, this sensei paradigm doesn't work in the same way. It is too unique, too dynamic. Too valuable.

All I'm saying is, it feels better with a sensei, and if you have a single, universal sensei, then it's a whole lot less fuss. I mean, I'll still be smacking this granite post over here if you need me, but it would be a lot more fun if I could blame it on someone else. Let's commence to the head crackin' climactic battle already! Yes, sensei, may I have another?!