Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Going, Going, Ready to be Still

The Cambodian on the bus offered me one of his crickets. It tasted briny, like bullion with a hint of lime. A leg got caught between my teeth and it rode there until we got to Phnom Penh. My feet itched from a sunburn I got at Mui Ne. My first day there, I slavered on insect repellent, thinking it was sun screen, walking the fine Vietnamese beach while jet ski boys buzzed past, offering rides. The AC in my room at Tien Dat Resort was out, so they upgraded me to a seaside bungalow. I felt almost embarrassed by the luxury of it, especially the following day when I joined a gaggle of international backpackers in a convoy of U.S. Army Jeeps for an all day sand dune tour. The dunes stretched far, and in the late afternoon a group of vacationing Asians invited me to sit at the rear of their laminate toboggan, and we slid down and I carried one of their children back up the dune on my back.

Another five hour bus ride back to Saigon, another night at the Asian Ruby 3 Hotel, then a six hour bus to Phnom Penh. Getting back onto the bus on the Cambodian side after showing customs my e-visa, the trip changed immediately: the highway became rutted, potholed, eventually unpaved. The Santana CD we’d been listening to was replaced by an American action pic dubbed in Cambodian: one voiceover, a high pitched staccato actress, for all of the characters, male and female. We passed dusty stilt houses wilting in the heat, the land low and flooded. If I’d woken up from a nap and looked out the window, I might have thought I was in The Florida Everglades. This being the start of the monsoon season, the unpaved road turned muddy. On the ride from the bus to my hotel, the tuk-tuk driver apologized for the rain splattering into my carriage, and then laughed at the fifth or sixth time his engine died. I laughed with him, and told him I wasn’t in any hurry.

The ATMs in Cambodia spit out US dollars. Everything is priced in dollars and riel. Now that most of the land mines have been cleared, tourism is booming. Clinging tightly to their number one industry, the Cambodian people are desperate to learn English. The Cambodian government, however, is one of the most corrupt in the world, which means the citizens work their asses off and see almost nothing for it. I’d read horror stories of the Cambodian sex and drug trade, and though I’ve been offered a vast array of drugs while here, the sex trade in Phnom Penh seems to pale compared to what I saw in Bangkok in the mid-nineties. Sure, there were hustlers out front of most of the bars I walked past, urging me to step inside, but nowhere did I see the signs for special shows or price lists for services. I did, however, see trucks parked outside of factories in the afternoons, being loaded with women of all ages as they got off work. Beggars abound, maimed adults and dusty kids, but they usually drift away with a firm, “No thank you.” The streets at night are dimly lit; while walking back to my hotel from dinner, I edged back out of one particularly dark street and sought out one with a bit more traffic. But the people here, like those in Bali, are ready with genuine smiles and kindness. They have suffered, as a quick study of Cambodian history or a trip to the genocide museum or the Killing Fields will testify. At the Killing Fields, the worn footpath exposed human bone, shined smooth by numerous tourist shoes.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, I paid Thean, a young tuk-tuk driver (vannthean1984@yahoo.com), $20 for an all-day tour of ancient temples, ending the day at Angkor Wat. The long day darkened with storm clouds, and as we raced back to the hotel, the sky let loose. Thean pulled over, threw on a raincoat, and then started to roll down the plastic walls of his tuk-tuk. I told him it wasn’t necessary, and, once back at the hotel, changed into my bathing suit and stood outside in the rain. The street now a river, old men on the other side cheered me on. The hotel staff just laughed. The electricity went out, and I did yoga in my room by candlelight before heading out to dinner: a mixed grill of ostrich, frog legs, python, kangaroo and crocodile. Afterwards, I got a $12 “four hand” massage: no monkey business, just languorous pressure in a dimly lit room, surrounded by gauzy white curtains.

The hard drive of my laptop died in Siem Reap. I’m now spending my third and final night in Sihanoukville, on the southern coast, before heading back on the five hour bus ride to Phnom Penh tomorrow. It’s been raining every afternoon, hard and steady. The hotel's swimming pool's a dark lily pad green. It’s after midnight, the damp air finally cooling, and I’ve loaded my photos onto the hotel lobby desktop and used their Word program to write this update. The hotel is a new and rather bland affair, just across the street from the beach shacks that sell $2 prawn and squid skewers, with marijuana milkshakes and cookies on their menus. Tomorrow night, I catch a nine hour flight to Seoul, wander through a nine hour layover there, then fly another nine hours to San Francisco. This has been a year I'll never forget. One of love and loss, hard lessons, adventure and discovery. I’m ready now to be still. I’m ready to come home.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lily and the Jack of Hearts

I was walking back to my hotel after visiting the Saigon River, thinking about the beggar lying on the sidewalk with sores and stick legs, and I began to sincerely pray to be guided to where I could do the most good. Suddenly a squat, middle-aged woman was beside me, asking where I was from. Thinking at first that she was just one of the many people trying to sell something—“Marijuana?” “Hotel?” “Step inside?”—I at first tried to ignore her. But she said she was a high school English teacher, and when I told her where I was from, Lily said that her sister would be moving to Florida next month. An older gentleman stepped forward. This was Lily's brother, and, if I was not too busy, perhaps I would be willing to come and talk with their sister? They lived not far, and said their sister needed help practicing English, and she was afraid of going someplace so far away, alone.

I wondered why we were climbing into a taxi. When I asked how far we were going, they repeated that it was close, “five minutes.” Lily sat beside me in the back seat, the afternoon river of motorbikes flowing around us, and she enunciated her questions with a hand on my arm or my knee, or poking me with a stubby finger. She said that she was 52, divorced, and that their mother was sick and in the hospital. She couldn’t understand why I would leave my job in the U.S. in order to go and study in New Zealand. She reminded me how hard it gets to find jobs as we get older. I squirmed against the far door, reminding myself that I had prayed for this.

After about twenty minutes, we got to their place, and they offered me a seat on a plastic sofa. Lily introduced me to her nephew, “Mel,” then disappeared into the kitchen. Her brother drifted upstairs, never to be seen again. Mel plopped down beside me, and, touching and prodding, asked if I liked gambling. He spoke without pausing, asked questions without waiting for answers, and explained that he was a croupier on board a cruise ship. Lily brought me a sandwich: white bread, a fried egg, stringy ham. I asked for hot sauce. Mel explained that because Lily's mother needed heart surgery, he had invited a rich European couple into their home the night before. He dealt cards all night, they spent thousands of dollars, but in the morning they had only tipped him less than five percent. He felt insulted, and said that he was ready to get revenge on their type. He asked what I knew about cards. I told him not much. He began to explain a “system” he’d worked out for blackjack, one that could make both of us rich. Lily suggested that he demonstrate what he was talking about.

We plodded upstairs, and Mel ushered us into a fluorescent room with a table set up, shiny cards and chips. I sat across from him, Lily sat beside me, and Mel drew diagrams and numbers, his rushing words like a radio ad for a monster truck pull. Lily, a bad actress, feigned interest. She held my elbow and stared at Mel’s sketch pad, nodding her head slowly, as though trying to work out what Mel was saying. He turned the sketch pad around and told me to explain it to Lily, just so he would know that I knew what he was talking about.

“Wait. I’m sorry, but what are we doing?”

They looked stunned, as if I’d just stood up and dropped my trousers.

“I am explaining to you how we can make a lot of money. Now if you just—”

“But I thought I came here to answer your sister’s questions about Florida, and so that she could practice her English. Where is she?”

“Oh. Yes. She had to go to the hospital. Our mother is very sick.”

“Yeah, you said that. But you also said you only lived five minutes away.”

It was now about 6:30pm. Dark outside. In the morning, I would take a five hour bus to the coastal town of Mui Ne. The ham and egg sandwich blended with the florescent light. The walls grew close. It felt like an emergency room.

“You have somewhere to be?”

Lily reluctantly agreed to drop me back off where she picked me up. In the backseat of the taxi, she tried to hold my hand. I gently pushed her away. When we stopped, she asked that I pay the fare. I told her I would not. She started to talk about her mother, and I opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. On the way back to my hotel, I couldn’t help but wonder if God had wanted me to learn how to work a con at the blackjack table so that I could help buy Lily’s mother another few years of life. Had I turned my back on the very opportunity I'd prayed for? Was fast-talking Mel an heavenly emissary? Could I have found happiness holding Lily's hand, learning to cheat the casino while eating white bread sandwiches beneath buzzing blue florescent?

I woke before dawn, and readied for the coast.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Goodbye, Wellington

The man reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a dead Canadian goose. He’d been out duck hunting that morning, stopped by just after we finished lunch, and had shown us sublime, otherworldly pictures and videos on his laptop of his ice skating adventures on the South Island. I’d ridden the train to Richard and Emily’s house in Masterton that morning. Emily was a student in my Beginning Adult Acting class. Richard, her partner, had worked in the Hollywood film industry and was now writing a historic novel about the American writer Zane Grey. The man held the goose by its neck, the patterned feathers soft against in his hands. He asked Richard if he knew what to do with it. A stranger walked past with a white boxer dog on a leash and stared. Emily stepped forward, took the goose by the neck, and said, “I do.”

During my last weeks in Wellington, I finally started to feel connected. I finished teaching my two acting classes, made new friends with some of the students, and acted in a low-budget action flick, Contract Killers, in which I play detective-gone-bad Pete Callaghan. I rode the train out to Featherston and had dinner at Walter and Marci’s great new house, went out to see live music, and watched some terrific films at the World Cinema Showcase, my favorites being And Everything is Going Fine, Waste Land, Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and especially, Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about the celebrated fashion photographer, who rides his bicycle all over the city, snapping candid shots for his weekly feature in The NY Times. At one point, Cunningham says, “If you look for beauty, you will find it.” Indeed. Life unspools like a movie being directed by all 12.5 billion of us, we’re creating this as we go, and it’s up to each of us to decide what we will focus on.

Once I knew I was leaving Wellington, I began seeing everything as if it might be the last time, cherishing conversations for the rare fleeting moments of communion they provided. Perhaps it’s the dry crumbs of British influence that make Kiwis more reticent than folks I’ve encountered in other, mostly warmer, parts of the world. Or maybe it was I who was slow to open, holding on too long to the pain and confusion I brought with me, only letting go and transforming during my last few months there. Though strangers on the street continued to avert their eyes when I wished them good morning, and though physical contact is at the opposite pole of say Cuba or Tanzania, people did began to invite me into their homes and into their lives.

And so it was with mixed feelings that I boarded a plane Tuesday morning, stopping briefly in Auckland, then settled in for the 11 hour journey to Singapore. I had turned over my apartment key on Monday, and spent the night with my friends Simin and Antony in their swell little house up in the Brooklyn hills. Saturday night, Simin, Antony, and the international postgrad group I’d met nearly one year ago, threw a goodbye dinner for me at Rebecca and Jared’s house in Petone. I love Petone, a little working class neighborhood by the sea, with its fishing pier, restaurant row, and small wooden cottages. My friends all pitched in and gave me a jadestone necklace as a parting gift. Just as it began to feel like home, I have left, trusting the bridges I’ve built will be strong enough to weather time and distance.

I am now at the Asian Ruby 3 Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by most of the locals. The streets here are rivers of motorbikes, and it’s a thrill to try and wade through them. The bony claws of communism still hold tightly here. Facebook is illegal. Red flags sporting the Soviet hammer and sickle still fly above congested narrow side streets. But the people, as in Singapore, are extremely warm and helpful. In the patch of park across the street, parents push strollers, grandparents practice chi gong, and men standing in large circles play what seems to be a mix of badminton and hacky-sack, passing the birdie with graceful, ridiculous kicks. And though I’m on the fifth floor of a concrete landscape, roosters woke me this morning, hours before sunrise. I’d thought of taking a half-day guided tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, 50 km outside of town, but I’ve been nursing a bad cold since I left Wellington, and have decided to rest instead. The deciding factor was when the young man at the hotel desk, describing the network of tunnels used during the war, exclaimed, “You go and shoot gun!”

I’m spending a brief two weeks in Southeast Asia before returning to the U.S., and landing in San Francisco June 15th. Though I’ve applied for a summer Fire Lookout job with the U.S. Forest Service, it’s looking like I’ll probably head back to Tampa on June 20th. Deakin University offered me a scholarship to transfer to Melbourne, Australia, and continue my PhD research, commencing in July. However, because I was feeling as though I needed a break to recalibrate, they have agreed to let me defer my start date until the first of their school year, March, 2012. I’ll be looking for work back in the U.S. If anyone knows of any writing, teaching, directing or acting opportunities, please let me know.

Singapore was like a sprawling Orlando, Florida, a monument to commerce, if Orlando went high rise and if its population was comprised of 8 million Asians. I stayed two nights in a glass tower, a converted office building as soulless as a stock option. During my one full day there, I took the spotless metro to Chinatown where I visited Hindu and Buddhist temples, and to Little India, where I was trapped by an afternoon monsoon in a florescent, multi-storied bazaar. It was there, at the second little shop where I could not find any chewing gum, when I remembered: Oh, right, Singapore! The country where chewing gum is illegal! They’ve also banned eating and drinking on the metro, which might explain some of its spotlessness.

The night before I left, I went out in search of orange juice. Passing the Singapore Futsing Association (!), I heard what sounded like a goose honking. The night was thick and liquid. The sound brought me to the edge of a soccer field. Across the field, men stood in a loose circle. Another goose honk, then a drum, and soon the sound of bagpipes filled the concrete valley, stopping people in their tracks. Just like that. Beauty, everywhere.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Last Days of Summer

Okay, so by far the coolest thing I've seen in Wellington: this afternoon I hit a snag on the screenplay I’m rewriting. It was a gorgeous Sunday, perhaps the last sunny day before winter blows in. And so I put on my bathing suit and walked to the little beach at Oriental Bay, just downtown. I'm strolling along the beach, and all of a sudden everybody starts running to the water's edge. I think, oh God, someone's drowning. Then I see a bunch of frightened teenagers huddled close together on a floating raft, and a Maori lifeguard running to the water with a longboard over his head. And then I see it: a pod of Orcas, swimming toward the teens. The pod splits, half on either side of the raft. I think of those videos where the killer whale swim up onto the beach, grabs a seal and shimmies back into the water. The whales idle at the raft, some turn on their sides, enormous fins high in the air. The lifeguard's now right out there with them. Some other guy starts swimming out toward the raft. Everyone on the beach is freaking out. But the whales just swim on, away.

I’m a day or two away from finishing a rewrite of a horror script I did back in 2002. Based on a true story, Los Diablos is about a carload of University of Texas students who road trip down to Nuevo Laredo and get caught up in a demonic cult. It’s been giving me the creeps writing it, and between that and all the earthquakes, I’ve been having some pretty strange dreams. A few nights ago, I dreamed that I was standing in a big empty room with Jeff Norton, and we were watching an eggplant the size of a sofa, floating in the air. He says to me, “Go on, touch it,” and I reach out this long elastic arm and I touch the eggplant and my hand comes away with a bright gold band around my wedding finger.

I’ve just walked to Oriental Bay and back so that I could get some pics of where the whales were, the same beach where I did my 9 a.m. swim on New Year’s morning. On the way home, I saw my friend Flora from the university library. Though Wellington has around 350,000 citizens, walking across town I usually recognize somebody I know. Soon, I will say goodbye to summer. Last year at this time, I was in sunny Curacao for Spring Break, one of the best trips ever: days spent snorkeling in soothing Gulf waters, lazy night strolls beneath a tropical moon. Now, late afternoon, mid-March, on the other side of the world, clouds move in, the temperature drops. Lights come on in surrounding apartments. From my very large window, the city looks immaculate, like a model railroad town, placed here by caring hands. If someone were looking at it from above, they would smile and say it’s the close of a very good day.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Road Traveled

Last night, the second earthquake in four days woke me, both about 20km north of here. I’m in my new studio apartment on Vivian Street, next door to a legal brothel, in the heart of downtown Wellington with afternoon sunbeams and views up the hill to the university. I arrived back from the U.S. on Monday, scrambled to find a new place to live, taught the first of a 12-week Practical Aesthetics acting class at Wellington Actor’s Studio Tuesday night, audited a Film History and Criticism class on Wednesday, taught the first of a 10-week Beginning Adult Acting class that same night, then woke up early Thursday and rode a bus out to Miramar where I did voiceover work for a Cirque du Soleil 3-D movie then audited a Film Analysis class in the afternoon.

I left Wellington February 3rd, flew to San Francisco, stayed in a little hotel downtown, had pancakes at dusty diner, reconnected with old friends in North Beach, savored Snow Crab legs with La Roja, then flew to Austin, where I hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock, strolled along Town Lake with mi amigo Hugo Perez, rode out to the Horse Boy ranch in Elgin, bar-hopped on the East Side, ate barbeque in Llano, then ventured onward to Florida. Every step along the journey home, I was reminded that I am not, as I have sometimes felt living on an island in the middle of the South Pacific, a scrap of windblown flannel caught on a barbed-wire fence, but rather I am grounded in love and buoyed by beauty. At the Florida State Fair, I ate a caramel apple, a corn dog, deep-fried Oreos and strawberry shortcake; I stumbled through funhouses, rode neon rides, petted barnyard animal, and gawked at the freak show. I toasted marshmallows in a backyard fire, swam in the Gulf of Mexico, kayaked round sunny mangroves, and paddled down the Hillsborough River at dawn. I staged a Return of the Red Hot Nutsack at Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City, watched movies and plays with friends, and went on the Don Cesar Ghost Tour.

Sometimes people say that they envy my adventures, and that I am living the life they wish they had. If you really want this life, pack your bags and walk out the door. It’s that easy. The harder and perhaps more fulfilling life is one of commitment to people and places and love. I am trying to have both. Last night, before the earth started shaking, I began reading Patti Smith’s book, Just Kids, a gift from a friend in Florida. In the introduction, she quotes a line from Puccini’s opera Tosca: “I have lived for love, I have lived for art.” I may not have learned much thus far, but I have learned this: life is short, and there is nothing more important than love. Everything else is just a story we create to pass the time. But oh, what sad and beautiful stories!

Monday, December 27, 2010

On the Road

At Hot Water Beach, on the Coromandel Peninsula, you dig about a foot down and hot water boils up. At low and high tides, dozens of people with shovels congregate between the onshore rock clusters and a small rocky island offshore, digging shallow pools with mud fortifications, then soak carefully in the mix of boiling thermal and sea waters. Such a place would never be open to the public in the states. There, you’d find people who would dig just deep enough to scald themselves, and then sue whoever they could for pain and suffering. But thankfully New Zealand still retains an independent spirit, and this was evident throughout my ten day road trip with my old friend and Veal Rifles band mate, Alan Price (check Youtube; Alan is on bass).

We rented an older-model Toyota from Ace, and on our first day out took our time along the five hour drive to Napier, the largest collection of art deco architecture in the world. In February 1931, a massive 7.9 earthquake struck the region, destroying the city center. From the rubble sprung an entire downtown of low-rise art deco buildings. We stayed in a five-storied former bank building, and the next morning, paid a visit to the eerie Opossum World. As I think I mentioned earlier, New Zealand has no native mammals, and because they have decimated the bird population, the lowly opossum has become NZ public enemy #1. But these furry marsupials look nothing like their fangy, rat-tailed brethren in the U.S. In an attempt to exterminate the egg-eaters, Kiwis have set out trapping, poisoning and committing vehicular homicide on the pests. Their soft fur is woven with sheep wool to create warms gloves, hats and scarves. Opossum World attempts to inculcate fear of these creatures. Step into the “museum,” and you’ll see taxidermied opossums on their hind legs in demonic attack poses, and at their “feet,” jars of fetuses, as though warning: “Destroy these zombie pests, afore they snatch your sweet unborn!” Only upon closer inspection do you see the fetuses are opossum, not human.

Leaving Napier, we meandered up around the East Cape, seeking out the small village where Whale Rider was filmed, the carved figure straddling a whale atop the Maori meeting house or Marae, stopped for macadamia ice cream at Macadamia World, and finally arrived at the small town of Tolaga Bay, where we camped at the beach. Alan has studied astronomy, and, sitting round the bonfire, he pointed out Southern Hemisphere constellations. Another bonfire glowed nearby, and at one point two teenage girls stepped out of the darkness and, seemingly on a dare, the drunkest of the two confessed to us her most embarrassing sex with a stranger moment. We nodded and told her thank you, while her mates down the beach howled with laughter.

From Tolaga Bay, we made our way to the beachside town of Ohope, where we stayed in a small roadside motel, and then inland toward Rotorua, where we visited a thermal Maori village nature walk of bubbling mud pools and geysers, stopped at a roadside maze made of wood planks that took over an hour to navigate, and that night joined a bunch of other tourists at a Maori feast, or hangi, where we were welcomed by tattooed warriors, entertained by songs and dances, and then feasted on meats and vegetables that had been cooked for hours in the ground.

At the turn off for Hot Water Beach is a small, hand painted sign reading “Auntie Dawn’s B&B (+Joe).” Forgoing the expansive downstairs apartment, we chose a backyard contraption that Dawn called “the backpackers,” a 1960s camper trailer and a storage shed with windows, joined together by a roof and wooden deck where that evening we sat and watched Jacque, the frisky Fox Terrier, hunt rabbits. If you ever find yourself at Hot Water Beach, seek this place out. A path leads from the yard to the beach, close enough that the sound of waves lulls you to sleep, and Joe told us about a nearby trail where that night we had our first glowworm encounter.

Found throughout New Zealand in any dark cave or bush where dark and dank conditions persist, the glowworm is a tiny fly larvae that attaches itself to overhangs and produces twenty to thirty mucus coated silk threads, a couple of inches long, and then lies in wait, attracting tiny gnats and such with its bioluminescent glow. It feeds like that for six to nine months, then morphs into a mouthless adult gnat when it lives a few days, seeking to breed before it starves to death or is eaten by other glowworm larvae. I’d been told about them before, and will, now summer has arrived, hike up to the Wellington Botanical Gardens some night soon and search them out, but nothing could compare to the glowworm experience at Waitomo Caves.

A few days after leaving Hot Water Beach, we joined a tour group and descended down into one of the gorgeous limestone caverns at Waitomo. Introduced to an English surveyor by Maori chief Tane Tinorau in 1887, the duo explored the caves together and opened them to the public soon after. Winding along illuminated, wet stalagmites and stalactites, down through echoing cathedrals, we came to an underground stream where we stepped into a boat and our Maori guide, great-granddaughter of Tane, turned out the lights and pulled us through the darkness by an overhead guide rope. Above our heads, glowworms like turquoise constellations hushed us to silence and I wiped at tears, reminded once again at the gifts this miraculous world offers.

Between the Coromandel and Waitomo, we spent a day snorkeling at Cathedral Cove, then zoomed through Auckland up into Northland, staying the night in Whangarei, then adventuring up to Ninety-Mile Beach, and the northernmost tip of New Zealand, the lighthouse at Cape Reinga. According to Maori legend, New Zealand’s north island, Aotearoa, is actually an enormous fish, and its tip, Te Rerenga Wairua, is “the leaping place of the spirits.” In order to move into the next world, every spirit must travel to this point where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. On the day we visited, our sunny weather had been socked in by a lumbering dense fog, and as we walked back from the lighthouse, visiting tourists stepped out from the mist, on their way to the tip, like spirits venturing into the beyond.

Leaving the cape, we stopped and rented boogie boards and went sledding down giant sand dunes before heading south again. After crossing the Hokianga Harbor on a vehicle ferry, we stopped at the seaside town of Omapere, where we spent an evening partying along a seawall with the local Maoris, listening to stories that stretched back generations. The next morning we snaked the car through the Waipoua Kauri Forest. The second largest tree in the world beside the giant sequoia, the kauri once covered the north part of the island, before it was felled for its building material. Under misting skies, we hiked along a short walkway and stood in awe in front of Tane Mahuta, “Lord of the Forest,” a 2000 year old majestic granddaddy.

And then to Raglan, where we rented surfboards and wetsuits, and I finally stood up and rode a couple of waves, in the light rain, with a friend I’ve known since we were teens, before heading to the glowworm caves and then back to Wellington. Alan left on the 20th. His visit reminded me of how much I miss my friends and family, how I long for home. On Christmas Eve, I went over to Kevin and Karine’s for a lovely international feast, after which I joined two German girls and an Iranian Muslim at a candlelit midnight Anglican Church service. Christmas Day, I rode a bus out to Houghton Bay, had a cookout with friends, dove into the cold rough waves, and came home sunburned and contented.

I’ve learned that my primary supervisor has taken a job teaching at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. My secondary supervisor is retiring in June. I’ve met with the head of the school, who apologized, suggesting that I can either change my dissertation or perhaps transfer to Deakin or elsewhere. I will explore my options. The past six months have been a roller coaster, and though I am grateful for these amazing opportunities, I long for a home, for family and stability. Happy holidays. I hope that this new year brings love and grace. To all of us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The first weekend of October, my friends Walter and Marci and their adopted greyhound Joey picked me up in their bread delivery truck and we headed up to Fielding for a dog show. Other than an afternoon trip to Scorching Bay, a tiny blue alcove with penguin crossing signs and a 125 year-old graffiti covered battlement built to watch for Russian attack ships, it was my first real adventure out of Wellington. Five minutes north, the countryside looks remarkably like Ireland: rolling green hills dotted with sheep, wide open skies, glimpses of the ocean. The highway swoops into small towns and drivers slow at crosswalks, a scenic way to travel, the only way unless you go off the highway and take even more time. We stopped in the seaside beach village of Paekakariki. Joey, all smiles, relieved himself on the sidewalk, the rest of us laughed and got coffee. We walked down to the beach and took pictures, the ocean wind making us shine. In a little wooden church, people sold used things, and I bought two shirts and a sweater (jumper in Kiwi) for ten bucks. The next stop was Otaki, where I picked up a fresh loaf of pumpernickel and a couple of apple tarts for all. Once in Fielding, we walked up to the exhibition hall where the dog show was being held. Behind the place was a raceway, and dragsters roared over the barking dogs. At the entrance, a group of people pointed at us and waved and said, “Look! It’s Joey!” Greyhound folks from the adoption agency, they recognized the retired racer, and greeted him and his new family. I used to show dogs when I was a kid. We raised Belgian Sheepdogs and some of my fondest memories are of arriving early morning, talking with people about their dogs, the excitement like a the dressing room on opening night. The thing about subcultures, whether they be dog shows, churches, rodeos, state fairs, racetracks or bowling alleys, most of the people there, the ones actively taking part, have found a place where they belong. In their element, they feel at home, and it feels like Thanksgiving dinner.

Today, I’m heading over to Nicole’s house. She’s another American postgrad student, one from our Saturday night dinner group, and I’ve volunteered to bring a green bean casserole, though in truth I’ve only fixed it once, and that was 20 plus years ago. Because I have no oven or casserole dish, I will go over early, take the ingredients that I bought last night, and mess it all around once I get there. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, the one with the least amount of pressure and the one that, to me at least, actually means something. A respite from the constant message of being told what we lack and how much better our lives would be if only we had a new this or that, Thanksgiving reminds me to take inventory and give thanks for such amazing friends and family; to live in these times when so much is possible; to have a healthy mind and body; the freedom to travel and the opportunities to reach out and try and make the world a more caring, loving and interesting place. .

It’s been a busy few months. A few weeks after the dog show, I took a road trip up the west coast to a town called Wanganui, then drove around Cape Egmont to New Plymouth. In Patea, I stood inside a whale bone sculpture, took a photo of a Maori memorial, and stopped at a garage where an old guy with bright blue eyes showed me some vintage cars he’s restored. Some of the new pics here are from that trip. Now, the first trimester is over. My students sent cards and emails thanking me for a great trimester, and I have applied to do so again starting in March. The film department’s closed during the “summer” months: December, January and February, but I’ve been trying to work seven hours a day on my first chapter, Louise Brooks and her Delsartean training; it’s due a week from tomorrow, and it’s coming along nicely. I’ve organized a play reading a week from Saturday, and I’ve also been taking an Advanced Improvisation class on Thursday nights. The teacher, Anton Van Heldon, is a great guy: patient, exuberant, and the group seems eager to try anything. Last week after class, Anton and I went to Café Ice, one of my favorite places in Wellington. We strolled down to the water eating ice cream, and as we neared the Te Papa museum, Anton asked if I wanted to see something cool. We went inside and up the escalator to the giant squid. Anton told me all about squid life, and how the one on display is shrinking because of the gelatinous pool it’s embedded in. However, that was not the cool thing. He used a swipe card to take us into a room behind the glass wall. Inside, the room was filled with stuffed sea lions and sea birds, whale skulls, whale skeletons, and a jaw bone longer than my apartment. Besides being a musician, clown, magician, teacher and improviser, Anton is a cetologist, someone who studies whales, and he told me how whales hunt and communicate, how some whales eat only krill and others eat anything they can, especially giant squid and seals. Best of all, I learned once again that each person is filled with treasures, and getting to know someone new is a grand adventure indeed.

I’ve also been given the opportunity to teach a four-week Meisner class at the Wellington Actor’s Studio. The studio’s founder, Barbara Woods, had invited me to observe some of her classes, and while there she asked if I wanted to jump in. I did, and they liked what they saw, and so for the past couple of weeks I’ve been teaching. I’m handing in my first chapter December 4th, my friend Alan Price comes for a visit on December 5th. The acting workshop ends December 7th. Alan and I will rent a car on the 8th and drive around the north island for 12 days. I’ve bought a tent, two air mattresses and two sleeping bags. Summer’s almost here, and it’s going to be a great trip. I will spend January doing a rewrite, and reading up on my next chapter, which will either focus on Maria Ouspenskaya and her training with the Moscow Arts Theatre, or Ethel Waters and Black Vaudeville. I’m spending the month of February in the states, flying into San Francisco, then Austin and Tampa. I miss my friends and family so much it hurts. In dreams, I see the people I miss most of all; we have conversations, and sometimes I wake up confused about where I am, wondering where someone it seems I was just talking with has gone.

The best news is that I’ve decided to make a long-held fantasy a reality. For years now, I’ve fantasized about building a five or six-storied movie screen atop a desolate mesa, located along I-40 or I-10, somewhere in West Texas, Arizona or New Mexico. Also atop the mesa will be a fortified projection booth and a solar or wind-powered projector which can be programmed remotely from a computer. At night upon the screen will be projected clips of old Westerns or restored documentaries. People driving cross-country in the middle of the night will look up and seeing Geronimo sitting astride an appaloosa, shimmering in the clouds, or Gary Cooper, striding across the empty west, black and white, immortal. I plan to have the mesa-top project up and running by Thanksgiving, 2015, five years from now. If you’re reading this and think of some way you would like to help, whether helping design a website, advising on equipment, raising cash, or calling your film buff grandpa with land in Arizona, please let me know.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Remember This

After the blessing, the Balinese healer prescribed that within three days I go to the beach and stand in the water at 9am, dip my face three times then submerge myself. And so, two days after a blessing of holy water and flower petals at the shrine of the God of the Sun near Ubud, and after a restful night spent in the east coast town of Sanur, I strolled down to the beach. A cluster of Balinese men knelt chest-deep in the water, chanting. I waded past them, giving thanks, said a prayer, dipped three times and dove into the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps it was the heat and humidity that felt like Florida, or the beautiful smiles and open sincere hearts of the Balinese people. Maybe it was the rooster wake-up at 4am each morning, the cold water shower beneath a handheld hose, the journal writing, unplugged from the internet, quiet walks through rice paddies, or the dozens of curious children, so eager to learn. Whatever the reasons, I felt at ease in Bali, and the world seemed bounteous again.

Things got off to a rocky start. Garuda Air informed me that my luggage had been left in Sydney and would arrive the next day. Plus, I had been told that I could pay for a visa with plastic upon landing, but that turned out to be as far-fetched as it sounded. And so I talked my way past the visa checkpoint, pulled 500,000 rupiah ($50USD) from an ATM, left my contact info with a Garuda representative, and then stepped out into the warm embrace of Denpasar.

First-born children in Bali are named Wayan. The second child is Made, the third Kadek. The Balinese often have many names, depending on your relationship, but these are the names they usually go by. Our driver, Wayan Sudirga, met me at the airport holding a hand-printed sign with my name on it, and drove me an hour and a half north to Ubud, past enormous statues of gods, along narrow traffic-filled but neatly kept roads. Wayan’s sister, Kadek, was one of our liaisons. Their father, Darsa, I learned, was a village healer.

Marianna had set us up in rooms at Santra Putra, a quiet place with outdoor bathtubs and mosquito netting, surrounded by rice paddies in the lush district of Penestanan, away from the tourist hustle but close enough to town. Ever since the popularity of Eat Pray Love, Ubud has swarmed with tourists seeking yoga, art, romance and enlightenment. We went out that night to see BALAM, a New York-based group that specializes in Balinese dance. Performed in what seemed to be one of many outdoor temples, as soon as the gamelon orchestra hit its first notes, the rain began falling and masked dancers representing earth-bound gods and demons strutted out and did their thing. Afterward, we met Carlos Fittante, the artistic director of BALAM, who agreed to come to one of our schools in Bangli District to lead an afternoon dance workshop.

Some miles north of Ubud, far away from tourists, the small village of Nyanlang lay smack in the heart of Bangli District. We stayed at the family compound of 27-year-old Puja Astawa, or, as we knew him, Made. Family is cherished in Bali, and each family has their own compound filled with grandparents, children, uncles, aunts, moms and dads. And though officially banned, cock fighting still flourishes in Bali: like the disturbing ritual in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, perhaps its darkness helps balance out the light. Sometimes, the roosters crowed at impossible hours, 1 or 2am; night rain usually kept them quiet, but by 4am it was a cock-a-doodle symphony. I would get up before dawn, use a handheld hose to take a cold water shower, then sit on the family platform area and write in my journal until 5:30 or so when Made’s mother would make coffee and then a dish of fried banana or boiled yucca roots in the open air kitchen. The compound’s courtyard bloomed with orchids. Chickens scratched past. Butterflies lingered. Sometimes, a lost duck showed up. While the others woke, I would walk through the village out to the rice fields, sometimes with Made, sometimes alone. Each morning, perched atop a temple wall, a white dog sat waiting the arrival of a man on a motorcycle. One morning, I met a guy with an air rifle who told me he was keeping monkeys out of the rice paddy.

When we asked our students how they were doing, they replied, “I am happy.” After breakfast and the day’s workshop planning, Marianna, Jeanette and I would hop on the backs of Made, Bento and Spiderman’s motorcycles. As we snaked the hills and villages, children waved and even the toughest looking characters would break into radiant smiles. The students in Bali wear uniforms, a different one for each school day. Each morning at SMAN1 Nigri High, we were obliged to say hello to the head master, who welcomed us through an interpreter, and let us know that he was hip to the changing world, the global community, and the need for English literacy. Willie and Nyoman, two English teachers, helped us translate. In similar workshops in Tanzania, our students volunteered long lists of discontents, including poverty, forced marriages, corruption, HIV/AIDS, orphans and female circumcision. Bali, however, seems freed from its colonial past, unbroken by war, disease and famine. The Balinese children practice music; flowers bloom on school grounds, their windows are not broken.

After a break for lunch, we would speed over to SMPN 1 Tembuku junior high, where we held a similar workshop which led up to a school-wide performance at the end of our visit. Later in the afternoon, a group of small children, seven and eight years old, would come running at the sound of our motorcycles and crowd Made’s family’s gate. I would sit with the kids on the family platform, and read to them grammar books, Where the Wild Things Are, and Anansi and the Talking Melon. After a dinner of rice, chicken and vegetables, I would help Made with his thesis paper, a daunting project which dealt with the use of conjunctions as found in an English-written Ubud tourist guide. Giant spotted geckos peeked out from beneath a painting on the wall, calling “Gecko! Gecko!” Frogs croaked. Rain fell.

One afternoon when my reading group failed to appear, Made asked if I would like to see his family’s rice field. In the golden afternoon light, we walked through the village, out to terraced fields. His family kept two cows in a small shed there, and Made explained to me that the cows were money in the bank, there for financial emergencies. Beside us, a coffee bush grew wild, perhaps leftover from another family’s farm. Made asked if I would like to see a “holy place,” and I told him to lead the way. Along a small canal, where farmers and children bathed, and then down slippery wet steps, we made our way to a small valley where three waterfalls converged. Made showed me three pipes jutting out from the hillside, spouting water. He said that I could drink and wash my face in the water, and I did. We then sat on steps and meditated, surrounded by splashing, tumbling water, a wet mist, the smell of ferns and damp earth. I told him I wanted to bathe in the water, and he said that’s what people do. While Made meditated, I took off my clothes and bathed in the water, then joined him again in silent meditation.

Because community is so important in Bali, it is unusual for anyone to ask children to express their thoughts. Our students performed with open hearts; they danced like skittish gods. They recited poems written about their dance workshop with Carlos, they sang thanks for the things they cherish, confessed their fears and expressed their dreams. Like students everywhere, they glowed in the halo of applause, and after hugs and gifts and handshakes, we packed our things and returned for one last night in Ubud.

Darja picked me up on his motorcycle. We rode out of town, past the terraced rice fields, the river bathers and kite flyers, down an unpaved road to a cluster of immaculate temples. We sat on a platform and drank afternoon tea. Darja smoked cigarettes and gazed into the distance. A shirtless man picked pebbles from the manicured lawn. “I am not a holy man,” volunteered Darja. “That man. He is holy.” A quiet descended. “Soon,” he told me, “I will lead you into the temple. There will be a shrine. You will sit in the chair opposite. I will be with you, in case anything happens.” In the still air of the darkening temple, I gave thanks for the people in my life, the places I’ve been, the opportunities I’ve been given. I made wishes for loved ones; I asked for courage, wisdom and guidance. The next morning, I boarded a bus to Sanur.

You find offerings everywhere in Bali: palm leaves woven around bits of food, left at the roadside or placed upon stones; flower petals arranged in patterns on sidewalks, bound sticks wedged above doorways, incense burning at the base of trees. Gamelon music and chants haunt the fragrant night air. Some days, entire villages wear their ceremonial headwear and sarongs. Wedding and cremation ceremonies spill onto highways and back up traffic for miles. It seems that each moment is marked by ritual; nothing goes unobserved. Rice crops take three months from planting to harvest. Individual sprigs are planted by hand, cared for daily, then pulled and shaken and set out on burlap or banana leaves in the sun to dry. On our way to way to the holy waterfalls, I asked Made why people are still willing to do such backbreaking work. Surely there must be easier ways? “It is our obligation,” he explained. “If we don’t do it, nobody else will.”

In some ways, the Balinese cremation ceremony resembles a county fair. Bodies that have been in the ground for as long as five years are dug up, sometimes dozens at a time, wrapped in cloth, and paraded through town. Families and friends of the dead build giant papier-mâché figures and people from the village gather. Vendors hawk cotton candy. Music plays, fires are lit, and the spirits of the dead are liberated to reincarnate into higher beings. My last night in Sanur, I lay in an air-conditioned bungalow, watching the movie Ghost Town on TV. It’s about a man who dies, but at first does not realize he’s dead. He soon discovers that the whole city is teeming with dead folk, waiting round for a bit of unfinished business to get resolved...

This is a poem written by one of our high school students, Dewi, after Carlos’ dance workshop:

You are like the morning dew on the surface of my skin
There is a new opening of my eyes.
I want you to keep this morning dew all my days
Though I know you will not be here
Come and dampen my self
Every morning.

Thank you, Bali, for helping me to remember.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Folding and Unfolding

Hello again. It’s been awhile. It seems a whole lifetime since last I wrote. One month ago, one of my dearest friends, Jeff Norton, was found murdered in his Florida home. I first met Jeff 33 years ago in Tampa, just after I graduated high school. He and Rosemary Orlando and a group of incredibly talented people had formed a theatre group called The Alice People, and for some crazy reason, they gave me a small role in The Comedy of Errors, directed by Arthur Lithgow, John’s father. Crazy, because I had no idea what I was doing, but they took me into their family and I felt loved and cared for. In those days, after the show, we’d all pile into someone’s car and head off on an adventure. Once we drove across the state to Sebastian Inlet and watched the Easter morning sunrise. Another time, we went to some little bar on the bay near Bradenton to see Bill Downe’s brother play music. We’d ingested some sort of mind-altering substance, and it kicked in just as we walked into the bar. I told Jeff I couldn't be inside, and so he accompanied me down to the beach. In the moonlight, I saw the sand breathing, and called Jeff over to share in the miracle. He saw it too, and as we inspected things, we saw small mountains of foam on the shore, and then hundreds upon hundreds of horseshoe crabs, piled atop one another, a full moon prehistoric mating spree. Not too long after that, Jeff, Richard Remington, Kenji Kenishi and I climbed to the top of Tampa’s Sulphur Springs water tower, a trip that took us into the dark middle of the tower’s shaft, where we scaled a rotting wooden ladder nailed onto the side with cement nails. We got to the top and flew a kite, and painted our names on tower walls. Fear was still a stranger then, the world a playground, and Jeff a guardian, a brother.

Years later, when I showed him the first play I wrote, Amy’s Pitiful Legs, Jeff read it and said, “Let’s do it!” I asked if he could play the accordion, and he said that he could damn well learn. When the play finished, Jeff, Marcy and I went to Costa Rica. We rented a beachside cabina on the southern Pacific coast, in a little town called Matapalo. Early one morning, Jeff woke us and said that we were going to put together the First Annual Matapalo International Art Festival. And for the next couple of weeks, we did just that. We involved the entire village, making banana leaf wings for the local kids, and percussion instruments out of dried beans and taped up soda cans. We covered ourselves in ashes, and played out a ritual stick fight, cartwheeling into the Pacific, then swimming down the beach and lighting a huge bonfire, burying ourselves, then “resurrecting.” For the rest of our stay in Matapalo, whenever we saw any of the local kids, they’d laugh and start doing cartwheels. Jeff was the most talented person I’ve ever known: a dancer, singer, actor, writer, painter, a man who could play any instrument he picked up, a dedicated teacher, expert stage combat master, and a friend to all. A few nights ago, I dreamed that I was in the woods with him and he was showing me an enormous tree house he’d built. It was made of scrap wood, all Seussical ramshackle angles. We climbed up inside of the thing, and he led me through tunneled hallways into a precarious room. “Go on in,” he said, and I told him that it looked like it might collapse. “It might,” he answered, and I looked back and saw that mischievous grin. “Hasn’t yet!” And then that barking laugh... This morning, I finally called Rosemary, and I told her that story. When I finished, there was a long pause on the other end. She then told me that a few days after Jeff was murdered, her daughter had a dream where she went deep into the woods, and Jeff was building something. When she asked what it was, Jeff answered, “A tree house.”

I’m going to Bali early Saturday morning. The same day of Jeff’s memorial in St. Petersburg, Florida. The ticket was bought last April through New York-based International Theatre and Literacy Project (ITLP), the same group I went to Tanzania with in the summer of 2007. The founder of ITLP, Marianna Houston, has invited me and my teaching partner from Tanzania, Jeanette Horn, to join her on this first Bali venture. I will fly two hours “across the ditch” (as they say in NZ) from Wellington to Sydney, change planes, then continue four and a half hours more to Denpasar. Bali is an animistic/Hindu island in the middle of Muslim Indonesia. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is "like no other destination in the world.” I’ve been told that there is no word for “art” in Bali, that because their lives are so woven with ritual, offerings, ceremony, song and dance, the Balinese make no distinction between art and life. Marianna and Jeanette will meet me at the airport, and a car will take us up into the mountains to Ubud, where we will spend the evening and watch the Balam Dance concert. On Sunday, we will continue on to the small town of Bangli, where we will stay and teach an 8-day acting workshop to a group of 20 kids age 10-13, culminating with them performing a play they’ve created through the workshop for their school and village.

My research at U Vic progresses, my tutorials rewarding. The students are enthusiastic, and I am slowly making friends. A group of postgrad students who met at orientation have formed a Saturday Night Dinner group. There are about 10 of us, and last Sunday Rebecca and Jared, the only Kiwis among us, had the group over to their house for a really fine brunch. Some of Rebecca’s friends from the School of Architecture showed up, and we were a party of 12 people, representing 9 different countries. Friends help. I have never felt so isolated and alone as I did following the news of Jeff’s murder. Last week, I turned 50. And though my dissertation research is quite interesting, and Wellington on sunny days quite beautiful, it is loss and love that is shifting my view of life, of what is really important. I will take pictures, and write about Bali and post it all here when I return. The village where we’re staying has no electricity or running water. Our contact person there has said that at night, we will have candles. And stars. Life unfolds so gently, it sometimes takes your breath away.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Flightless Birds

The New Zealand Film Festival began yesterday, with films showing at The Paramount, The Emassy, The Penthouse, Te Papa Museum, The Film Archive, and City Gallery . Last night, I attended the world premiere of a new Kiwi film directed by Jason Stutter called Predicament. It showed at The Embassy, a grand movie palace built in 1924 which seats 1,500 people. Mr. Sutter introduced the film, and helped kick off the festival. I’ve bought tickets for 12 movies: Winter’s Bone, Four Lions, Strange Powers, Howl, The Wind Journeys, Ajami, Strange Birds of Paradise, The Killer Inside Me, When You’re Strange, I Am Love, and tonight’s film, Animal Kingdom. The festival runs until August 1st.

This first week of school flew by. The university went from being a quiet, empty place to a boisterous multi-cultural learning center bursting with conversation, the sharing of ideas, and the celebration of progress. I split most of my time between my apartment and my office, with side jaunts to the gym. The film postgrads meet every Friday for dinner, and another group of newly arrived university-wide postgrads have a big group meal on Saturdays. I start tutoring Monday, and am preparing for my three sections of 101 now. My supervisors continue to send me theoretical essays dealing with film performance, and I’m already chest-deep into the ocean of Louise Brooks information. It’s been a week of good weather; today the rain came back, and so I plan on staying inside as much as possible this weekend, reading, jotting notes, writing.

I’ve moved from the first floor to the sixth. It’s colder in this room, but I’ve got views, and on sunny afternoons, I take off my clothes and lie on the sunlit floor and read. Last weekend, I hiked up to the Botanical Gardens which border campus. Footpaths snake forested hills, giant ferns tower, and a dormant rose garden promises a spectacular spring. After hiking about, I rode back downtown on the Wellington Cable Car. The cable car opened in 1902, and has gone through a number of renovations since then, but, like the Powell Street cable car in San Francisco, it’s a nostalgic bit of history rather than a quick way to get around.

Some facts: New Zealand is comprised of two islands, with the combined size of Colorado. Wellington, the capital, lies on the southern tip of the north island. A third of New Zealand land is parkland. 24% of families have only one parent. 22% of New Zealand’s population was born overseas. There is no tipping in restaurants or bars. 2.5 of the country’s 4 million people have cars, making it one of the world’s leading countries for car ownership. In order to become a New Zealand citizen, you must swear an oath of loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. New Zealand is part of the Pacific “ring of fire,” and is quite prone to earthquakes. The country generates about 10% of its electricity from volcanic heat. Another 55% of its electricity is generated from hydroelectic dams. Wind-power accounts for less than 5%, though this will increase significantly in the years ahead. By 2025, the plan is that 90% of NZ's electricity will come from renewable sources. The largest city in NZ, Auckland, with 1.5 million citizens, was recently named the world’s 10th most livable city by The Economist. New Zealand has no non-marine native mammals. No squirrels, but also no snakes. When the first settlers arrived, they wrote of hearing birds before they ever saw land. 78% of Kiwis are European descendants, 14% are native Maori, and 8% are Asian. 55% NZ citizens are Christian, 36% say they have no religion, 6% list themselves as “other.” The abundance of birds that once greeted the first settlers has been drastically reduced.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

It’s been a gorgeous weekend, blue skies, sunshine, a cool breeze. Friday afternoon, I bought tickets to twelve movies at the New Zealand Film Festival which opens in here on July 16th and runs until August 1st. Yesterday, I helped Walter prepare for a Power Rangers audition. He rented a space at a local arts center, and I read the parts of the Rangers, he the wise samurai. Afterwards, we walked down Cuba Street to the harbor. Later, I checked out the marina and inquired there if anybody ever rents out their boats as apartments.
The old salt behind the counter grinned and said, “It’s not that sort of place.” I nodded, but he knew I was lost. “Today is glorious,” he continued. “Calm seas, not a cloud. But tomorrow, the winds might come up from the south and be knocking the boats around and the wind horizontal. You wouldn’t want to be on one of them boats during that!”

Indeed I would not! I explored a bit more of Wellington, and found a Friends Meeting House, a Quaker Meeting, and made note of the meeting time. This morning, Sunday, I woke up at 8am, fixed breakfast, and walked across town to the Meeting House and sat in the circle with a couple of dozen other people, mostly in silence, giving thanks for what I have and letting go of what’s gone. In honor of Independence Day, I’ve resolved to break free from old habits, to say goodbye to poisonous thinking and to embrace that which nurtures and fulfills.

After the meeting, the group had tea, and I met a woman who has been doing volunteer work in Namibia and Cambodia, and whose daughter is a film producer in London. I mentioned briefly ITLP, and my upcoming trip to Bali to work with teens there, but we were interrupted and the day was calling, and so I finished my tea and started hiking up to the top of Mount Victoria, one of the highest points in Wellington. On the way, I discovered a swing that someone had tied to a high branch. The tree was on a steep hill, and so, sitting on the swing’s bench and walking backward then launching, I soared above the ground, swooping out over the city.

Leaving the swing, I continued hiking up the muddy path to the top of Mount Vic, breathing deeply the scent of pine and sea air. At one point, a black and white cat appeared, and walked beside me for awhile. As I wrote earlier, there are not many cats here, and so it was surprising to see such a friendly, well-groomed feline. We walked together for awhile, until she heard something in the brush and darted off toward the sound. Arriving at the summit of the Mt. Vic lookout, I was astounded by the views, unobstructed in every direction.

Last Wednesday, I met with the lecturer I’ll be tutoring for. She’s designed what looks to be a terrific class. For those of you in the states reading this who, like me, are new to the concept of tutoring, here’s how it will work: I’ll be tutoring three sections of Film 101. Beginning the week of July 12, I will sit in on classes every Tuesday and Friday, which will consist of 50 minutes of lecturing, then a film. On Mondays, I’ll meet with three groups of 20 students, and go over the readings and lectures. I will also be grading papers for the 60 students, all while working on my dissertation. It’s going to be a busy trimester.

It’s night now, and I’ve just returned from having a cup of coffee, a “flat white,” and a piece of pumpkin pie from a place on Cuba Street called Castro’s. Michael Shraa, a fellow film studies postgrad student, called and invited me out. It’s the end of a lovely weekend. I’ll drink a cup of tea now, climb into bed and get a few hours of reading done. I’ve learned I’ll have the New Zealand summer “off;” that is, the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media shuts down from the middle of November ‘til the end of February. I’ll have to continue with my research, but I may scout out someplace cheaper and take a trunk of books to Vietnam or Samoa and rent a place near a beach. Or, if today is any indication to what the Wellington summer may be like, this might not be such a bad place to spend a summer after all.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Away We Go

It's evening now, and I’m eating crisp seaweed rice crackers and drinking aloe juice. Outside, it’s cold and wet. Today at the gym, I heard on the radio that they’re expecting gale force winds tonight, coming up from Antarctica. I guess that’s how we roll here in Wellington.

Have I, in all my walking blues and worry, forget to mention how beautiful it is here? Monday morning, the sun came out, and I got up and walked down to the corner bagel shop and basked in the glorious light. By noon it was raining again, but it cleared up by evening. I went to another yoga class (pic at left), and after class, already dark at 6:30pm, I started walking back down the hill but stopped partway and looked up at the starlight, the quarter moon, and then out onto the lights of Wellington. It was so quiet, so stunningly serene. For the first time since I left The States, the chatter in my head ceased. The silence was like falling snow.

Later, I attended an Improvisation workshop that Walter told me about, a group called WIT (Wellington Improvisation Troupe), a talented bunch filled with creative spirit and smarts. Some of them do a weekly improvised staged soap opera called The Young and the Witless at The Fringe Bar on Cuba Street, a pedestrian mall full of restaurants and bars. Watching them, I was reminded of the old School of Night gang in Tampa from the mid-eighties, and of Red Hot Nutsack, the ongoing Friday night free form open mic muskrat-juggling fire spewing gig I started with Destiny Ramsey last January in Tampa.

Wednesday, I met with my two thesis supervisors, Sean and John, and we strolled from our offices on campus down a steep winding road into Aro Valley, a happening little neighborhood that reminds me of Portland. We ate lunch at the Aro Valley Café, a place that roasts its own coffee, and the smell reminded of Saturday mornings in Ybor City when I used to drive a truck for a thrift store and the coffee makers along 7th Avenue would be roasting their beans, filling the entire neighborhood with exotic vapors.
Since I’ll be writing about film actors and performance technique, Sean and John urged me to write with passion, and, at least for now, not to worry so much about theory. They remarked how my dissertation would make a good textbook, something I’ve been thinking since before I began my application. Hopefully, in three years, I’ll have a PhD and a textbook.

Wednesday night, I met Walter at Fringe Bar and was impressed by The Young and the Witless. Really good stuff. Later, we went to a joint called The Mighty Mighty, which is a long bar in one half, and a live music venue in the front. We hung out for a bit, I tried a ginger beer, and was impressed that they have Zubrovka vodka, which I’d only ever seen in Krakow, Poland and an Egyptian-themed pierogi café in Clearwater, Florida. We paid five bucks apiece to check out a guy named Stompy Nick (the opening act called himself Boss Christ), who sat behind a kick drum, one foot booming it, the other tapping out a stick on hinge above a snare, a guitar on his lap, a harmonica at his face. The guy was awesome. I especially liked The Cramps’ Human Fly intro segueing into These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. After Stompy Nick, a dj played a mix of all my favorites: The Stones, Bowie, Modern Lovers, Velvet Underground; I stayed and danced ‘til 2.

Yesterday, I finished writing the first draft of a bedtime story, The Stitch Fairy, about a young girl who falls down and cuts her leg. Since it’s supposed to rain all weekend, I bought groceries today, and will stay inside, drink a lot of coffee and get a bunch of reading done. Monday, I start work on the dissertation. Like Helen Keller said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." Away we go.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Popcorn, Ice Cream, Drinks and Lollis

First why I’m here. Four years ago, I went from being Visiting Faculty at USF’s Department of Theatre and Dance to being a Non-Tenured Professor. I love teaching and directing, and felt supported by my friends and colleagues. However, because of massive budget cuts, a lack of summer research funding, and a dwindling support for the arts, I made a five-year goal for myself: to be awarded a Fulbright, earn a PhD, and sell a screenplay. In 2008, I went to Romania as a Fulbright scholar and taught for nine months at the University of Craiova. While there, I applied to Victoria University Wellington (VUW) and was accepted as a PhD candidate. I hesitated to accept, feeling that my job at USF, though it had some drawbacks, was extremely rewarding. When VUW offered me a 3-year scholarship, it made the decision even harder. I have left the place, job and people that I love to be where I am now.

It’s been a busy week. Last Friday, I was delivered to my new digs, a six-storied apartment building for grad students in downtown Wellington. I’ve never lived in student housing before, and it was a bit of a shock after leaving my lovely apartment in Tampa to discover a tiny first-floor studio with kitchenette, twin bed and bathroom. It’s in the back of the building and so it’s quiet, except for at 5 a.m. each morning when a trash truck inverts the dumpster right outside my window and pounds it repeatedly, metal on metal, like the soundtrack to a summer action flick. My first three days here were spent looking for a new place, but Wellington’s expensive and the head of student housing has offered to move me up to the sixth floor on the other side of the building, and so I’ve agreed to honor my four-month contract.

The university sits high above a hill overlooking the city harbor. It’s winter here, cold, rainy and windy. Wellington looks a lot like a smaller San Francisco, and the weather changes constantly. Being on the first floor, surrounded by tall buildings, I cannot see the sky from my window, and so unless the wind is howling and rain is pelting, I’m never quite sure what it’s going to be like outside. It’s a 20 minute steep uphill walk from my place to the uni, and I spent the week signing and delivering papers, and setting up my campus office.

On Friday, I went to a noon yoga class at the campus rec center. The yoga room is a year old with blonde hardwood floors, a 50-foot ceiling, and an entire wall of windows that overlook the city. The instructor, a pale Kiwi named Angus, put in a CD, and a Sigur Ros melody took me back to one of the happiest times in my life: last fall at USF, directing a wonderful cast in the play 100 Saints You Should Know.

Tonight I went to see a recent New Zealand film called Boy. A comedy/drama set in Waihau Bay in 1984, it’s about an 11-year old Maori boy, his family, and a goat. See it if you can. Before the movie began, the screen filled with technicolor images of movie snacks and a voice beckoned us to the snack bar, promising “popcorn, ice cream, drinks and lollis.” Though considered the “cultural capital of New Zealand,” Wellington has a very small town feel. The downtown area closes up early. Internet service is billed for bandwidth used. The public library charges for DVD rentals, and the university library will not let students check out DVDs. It is, geographically, quite small, hilly, and, weather permitting, walkable. Oh, and for those of you on the East Coast reading this, it’s already tomorrow here.

Since it’s winter, and New Zealand is so close to Antarctica, it doesn’t really get light until around 7:30am. By 6pm, it’s dark. Food is expensive, in groceries and restaurants. There’s a heavy Asian influence, and Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants are everywhere. I’ve only seen one cat since being here. The natives are protective of their birds. I knew one person before arriving, Walter McGinnis, who I met at a summer acting workshop at The Atlantic Theatre in NYC in 2004. Walter’s involved in local theatre, his girlfriend Marci is a visual artist, and they’ve been really great at showing me around.

I’m still not sleeping well, kept up by the new time, season, and place. Big changes. I’m sleepy by 10, read myself to sleep, then wake sporadically all night long. Sometimes it feels like this has been one long dream, and that I’m going to wake up in my apartment in Tampa, cypress trees swaying out my window, Jody Cat beside me, my loved ones near. The decision to come here hits hard at 4am, and I often lie awake, forcing myself to give thanks for this opportunity, and to focus on what I have rather than what I want.

If this is a dream, then I will begin to dream big. My dissertation focuses on film acting, and how specific actors in specific movies from the past 80 years have, through their performances, reflected or influenced cultural, political and social changes. The first chapter deals with Louise Brooks and her Delsarte training exhibited in 1928’s William Wyler film Beggars of Life. The film has recently been restored, and I am applying to a Silent Cinema conference being held in Berkeley in February 2011, hopefully introducing the new print at a showing of Beggars of Life.

Tomorrow, I’m riding a bus across town to Island Bay with one of my fellow film students to see the John Lennon-as-a-teen biopic, Nowhere Boy. From there, I’ll head over to Walter’s place for a play reading. There’s a lot of theatre going on here, and I hope to have time to teach acting classes and to direct while researching my thesis. I’ll be traveling to Bali at the end of August to teach an acting workshop. But right now, August seems a long way off. It’s late, nearly midnight, and I haven’t done any reading. Hopefully, sleep will come, and the dreams won't hit too hard.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

And So It Begins

Every joy, every heartbreak, loss and triumph has led me to where I am at this very moment: sitting at a desk in a downtown San Francisco hotel room, foggy morning being burned away by the sun’s urging, buses and car horns five floors below.

I’ve accepted a three-year scholarship to pursue a PhD in Film Studies at Victoria University in Wellington, and will be flying out of San Francisco tonight, Wednesday, June 9th, 9 p.m., arriving in New Zealand at 5 a.m., Friday. After a 13-hour flight, I change planes in Auckland, and fly one hour south to Wellington. My supervisor, Sean Redmond, has said he will pick me up at the airport and take me to my new studio apartment at The Education House, a residence hall for post-grad students located on edge of the VUW campus.

I left Tampa a week ago, sad and relieved to finally pack up my things and go. Having resigned my teaching position at the University of South Florida, I sold my furniture, car, cds, most of my books and movies, packed the rest of my possessions into 8 boxes and two suitcases and took them and my cat, Jody, to live with my dear friend, Steve Powell. During my last days in Florida, friends who I hadn’t seen in years invited me out to dinner, movies, and beach strolls. I kayaked along spring-fed rivers and through moonlit mangrove tunnels, and swam with my brother in the lake where we grew up. The early summer days helped soothe my fears. I began to wonder why I was leaving and had to constantly remind myself that it was due mostly to a deal I’d made with myself so many years ago: that if a door opened, I would enter it bravely, having faith that all would be well. My students gave me a beautiful send off; my friends and family made me feel loved and cared for. They reminded me I had a home always waiting.

First stop was New York City. Not wanting to crowd friends’ apartments with 100 pounds of luggage, I stayed in a small hotel in Long Island City on the outskirts of Queens. And though it was a scrappy little neighborhood, it was two subway stops from Manhattan, and my room was large and cool. Lynn Marie Ruse threw a farewell party on her roof, and some of my very best transplanted friends from Tampa showed up to wish me a bon voyage. Lee Warren was visiting from San Francisco and had a cake made for me, and we sat around a large table, most of us having known one another for at least 20 years, surrounded by the New York skyline - laughing, loving and grateful.

Flying over lonely Nebraska, I once again begin to experience fears and doubts. What-if scenarios overwhelmed me, and I felt lonely and lost. However, all of that changed upon landing in San Francisco. The days here have been stunning: cool and blue, an endless sky. I’ve spent time with two of my favorite people in the world, Marcy Shaarda and Lee Warren, walked the city, eaten in diners, and watched fog roll in beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I rented a car and drove up the Sonoma valley to Jack London State Park, then soaked in hot mud baths in Calistoga.

A new door has opened. My friends say they admire my courage, and I am overwhelmed by their caring and support. I cannot know what tomorrow will bring, but have faith that all will be well. I will cherish the past and give thanks for this present. I plan to update this blog often, and post photos and observations and news. I invite you join me in this journey, and I hope your days are filled with wonder and adventure.