Monday, November 24, 2014

Am I The Monster or The Creator?

Have you ever read Frankenstein? Today’s current monster fascination has delved thoroughly into zombies, werewolves and vampires but left the lurking Creature revived using dead parts out of popular culture. I was thrilled to see the recent live broadcast of London’s 2011 National Theatre production which featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. It was anything but what I expected.

Mary Shelley was ahead of her time. Not only was she a woman writing about a man’s world but she dared to explore scientific concepts few women of her time would have even comprehended. She wrote passionately and asked questions as she examined the consequences when Man plays God.

The story, in its simplest terms, spotlights urgent concerns of scientific responsibility and partners them with issues of parental neglect, cognitive development and the nature of good and evil. All these themes embedded within a thrilling and deeply disturbing classic Gothic masterpiece.

In the recent National Theatre broadcast, two popular screen actors most widely known for their current day portrayals of Sherlock Holmes took on the Frankenstein challenge. And, to better understand both Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, the actors alternated roles for each performance.

Imagine the challenges to an actor … learning both roles and playing both roles during the run of a live theatrical production. One night to the next … Monster to Creator ... Creator to Monster.  It would give the actors a chance to acquire complete understanding of the motivation and emotional state of both characters. They could then learn from each other and incorporate that duality into their portrayals.

Childlike in his innocence but grotesque in form, Frankenstein’s bewildered Creature is literally born on stage in the National Theatre’s production. He is then cast out into a hostile world by his horror-struck (yet brilliant) master, the compelling, driven Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Meeting with cruelty wherever he goes, this friendless Creature – who due to treatment received becomes increasingly desperate and vengeful – determines to track down his creator and strike a terrifying deal.  And his Creator, already tormented by what he has dared to do, is faced with yet another opportunity to play God.

We do that daily … play God. We toy with science and essentially create “life.” And though I wonder at the choices we’ve made and are making, I find myself drawn to the Creature. After all, it is Man that makes him into a Monster.

Frankenstein’s Creature is as innocent as a babe from the womb. Though he appears horrifically ugly, his character and personality begin as a clean slate. But the cruelty and brutality inflicted upon him inevitably transform him into the terrible Monster that inspires fear. His Creator rejects him and hurls this fundamentally defenseless being into a harsh world. Is it any wonder he becomes what he becomes?

It is the World that makes him into the monster. It is fear of his grotesque appearance that inspires judgment and physical abuse – he is different and therefore dangerous. Only a blind man is able to “see” beyond external ugliness to honor the curious and fundamentally good being that exists on the inside. 

It is the World that turns the Creature into a malevolent force. Unkindness. Rejection. Silence. Physical Abuse. That was all the Creature encountered. There was no soft touch or kind word. It was not offered positive reinforcement or supportive encouragement. It was not embraced by its Father or the world into which it found itself. And when rejection and cruelty are the only elements to which one is exposed … how can the end result be different? The Creature had not developed the cognitive ability to reason … to process and overcome the impacts of harsh remarks and ugly behavior. And its personality and ultimate choices were made based solely on what it learned from others … on the treatment it received.

Do I do that? Do I reflect that? Do I absorb the negative elements of a bad day or unkindness from another? Do I pass that along with my behavior onto the people who surround me? Am I cruel to another as a result of cruelty I experience? When put to the test, am I really evolved enough to move beyond my own emotional triggers? Do I somehow reflect the desperation, cruelty, judgement, voyeurism, dismissiveness and brutality around me?

I like to think I can set aside those darker aspects of my nature and brush aside the impacts of negative experiences that try to touch me. But, I know that isn’t always the case. Sometimes these wounds assume a life of their own, infecting me and bubbling under the surface. And sometimes they find a way of getting out.

If someone is dismissive of me, do I then dismiss the innocently presented ideas of my kids? If someone is mean to me, do I set aside the effects of that unkindness before dealing with the next life challenge? Or, like the Creature, do I absorb that into my own being and allow it to infect my personality development and behavior?

Frankenstein’s Creature wanted Love and Acceptance from his Creator. Pretty simple stuff. He wanted someone to love him as he was. If he'd received it, I dare to suggest that he might have been very different. His childlike innocence believed this was possible. But the actions of Dr. Frankenstein did not reflect his hope. It condemned both of them to isolation.

The director’s placement of the actors into both roles was an act of sheer brilliance. They learned to see into the heart and mind of another and used that in their developments and performances. It gave them better appreciation for both characters and allowed them to reflect elements of each other on-stage.

We can't look into the soul of another -- not unless they open up and allow us a glimpse. We can't know what motivates or triggers their choices. But if someone opened up to us and we honored their spirit no matter what appeared on the surface, mankind would be truly evolved. If we could make a choice to love unconditionally and accept unconditionally, perhaps we would create fewer Monsters.

Few allow us a glimpse into their motivations and hopes, frustrations and passions, desires and reasoning because they fear what the world would do to them. We are quick to judge and reject. We look into others' lives and are quick to call the unknown -- be it idea or individual -- a "Monster."

Perhaps if we looked deeper and saw the impact our actions had on others we might not be so quick to reject the Creature. Perhaps we could find a way to look past the external ugliness and identify something beautiful inside. Perhaps we could truly learn to recognize an aspect of our own loneliness, desire, passion and hope inside its dark innocence and handle the encounter differently.

Am I the Monster or the Creator?

                                                                                                                               -- Jenni

Friday, November 7, 2014

Of Mice and Men: Classic & Timeless

Have you every read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men? Published in 1937, the novella/play was required reading for my high school English program and I fell in love with it then. I'm thrilled that it's required reading this year for my son. It is one of the most beautiful stories ever written with a theme that is relevant and stirring even today.

Did you realize that or did this classic work appear dull, dated, or unworthy of note? Did you know that Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for its vulgarity and what some even consider offensive and racist language? It's a story about some rough, real people so it doesn't sugar coat. Did you know it appears on American Library Association's list of Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century

Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck at his best, telling the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant ranch workers in California who move from place to place in search of job opportunities and a dream during the Great Depression. These two men maintain a unique though volatile friendship and face more than just the challenges of getting work and surviving during a desperate time in our history.

Lennie is mentally-challenged. He's sweet and simple and hopes for a day when he and George have their own place and he can tend the rabbits there. Sounds nice, huh? But it's Steinbeck so we know there will be a catch. Well, Lennie is also very strong and very big ... and this simple-minded man is drawn to soft things which he likes to touch.  He has no filters. This makes him very dangerous. In his past he's done bad things that he didn't mean to do. There have been consequences. But George has taken responsibility for him. And though George is harsh at times, he genuinely cares for Lennie.  

Enough of the plot. You'll have to read it to discover what happens.

Of Mice and Men takes its title from a Robert Burns poem To A Mouse, which read: "The best laid schemes o mice an' men / Gang aft agley."  In plain English: "The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry." 

Yes, yes they do.

See all the characters in this story share a similar longing and a similar dream. They do their best in non ideal circumstances and despite all odds to nurture hope. They struggle with the same things -- no matter how different they are physically, emotionally or personally.  The characters seek to connect ... something that in some amazingly unique way, George and Lennie have already achieved. Against all odds, George and Lennie have built a bond and connection that the other people in this story envy and are desperate to find.

Curley's Wife, the only woman in the play, simply wants someone to talk to. And someone to listen to her.

Curley, the boss' son, has an inferiority complex because he is small of stature. And he's always picking fights and running around the ranch looking for his wife.

Candy, the oldest character, has an old dog. His only friend. And when he loses that dog, he loses a part of his soul.

Slim, the main driver on the team, is a loner by nature. He recognizes and is fascinated by George and Lennie's genuine care for each other. The idea that they travel together is foreign to him. He envies their friendship.

Crooks is the black man on the ranch. Though allowed to play horse-shoes with the men 'til dark, he's banished to separate quarters and denied access to the bunk-house.

George and Lennie have a dream. They hope one day to settle down on their own piece of land. To live a simple life as they please on their terms. Together. Candy is drawn in to this dream. This dream gives him -- along with George, Lennie and even Crooks  -- hope. And it is hope and a longing for a connection to others that fundamentally drives these characters. It bonds them. They desperately long for a connection.

These characters are not all that different from you and me ... from people today. The characters dream of a place where they can be themselves. They dream of people who understand them and to whom they can connect. They hope. 

So do we. We hope. We seek genuine, authentic relationships. Oh we don't do it in a bunkhouse on a ranch. We use other methods and media. But the goal is the same. Genuine Connection. And that's why I love this play. It has meaning and it is relevant ... even 75 years after original publication.

Last night, I had the amazing opportunity to see the Broadway revival of the play staring James Franco and Chris O'Dowd. The final performance was filmed and aired for one performance only nationwide on November 6. My friend who joined me had never read the play or story. She was moved to tears.

The theme is not so complex. To hope for simple pleasures. To seek someone to talk to who will genuinely listen and care. To find someone who you truly connect with. And to honor that connection. 

That's Of Mice and Men. And yes, sadly Steinbeck was right. Those kind of simple plans often go awry. But there is always Hope. Steinbeck gives us that. 

                                                                                                                     -- Jenni

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Where Do The Children Play?

Think back to your childhood ... Where did you go after school until the family gathered around the table for dinner? Where and How did you "play?"

I am cursed with an abnormally good memory, so those days from the 1970's replay with a hazy clarity. When I departed Cooks Corners Elementary and that big yellow school bus delivered me to my childhood home at 304 PowderHorn Drive, my mom greeted me -- she was a Music Teacher and usually home when I arrived. We sat around the kitchen table with an after school snack and talked through my day. Then I went out to play.

I walked or rode my bike from PowderHorn onto Hemlock, abandoning it in the driveway of my best childhood friends Cathleen Bolde or Tammy Blasingame. Or, they rode their bikes to my house. Bedrooms and inside play was typically not permitted unless it was cold or rainy. At Cathleen's house there was a pop-up trailer in the backyard. Tammy and I had swing-sets and jungle gyms. If none of those pleased us, we got back on our bikes and rode to the school playground. We took bike rides around the area. Sometimes I played Tennis with one of my other friends. Whatever the case, outside was the place to be.

Cathleen, Tammy and I "hung out." We were friends at Cooks Corners, Thomas Jefferson Junior High and well into our days at Valparaiso High School. In junior high we went roller skating. In high school, we attended football and basketball games and carpooled (or in high school drove) to either Shakey's Pizza or the Dairy Queen. Our interests took us different ways eventually but we were friendly all the way through school. 

I don't remember exactly everything we did during those after school afternoons. But we played outdoors or in my basement with dolls, board games, record players and dress up clothes, Barbies and my doll house. Video games were non-existent and we didn't watch TV. Wait, I do remember a summer of General Hospital during the Anna, Robert, Duke drama. We'd watch an hour and then go back outside. 

And sometime before dinner, I made it home. 

I didn't have a Cell phone. I didn't have a GPS tracker on my bike. I wasn't "connected" to any device. If we changed houses, we always called our moms to let them know our locations altered. We made plans on the telephone or just stopped by.

I don't think my mom worried when I left the house. She knew I was out playing and that I'd be home at the designated hour for dinner. We had fun. I have lots of good childhood memories with Tammy and Cathleen.

Kids today play differently. I so looked forward to the days my kids would come home from school and sit at the kitchen table for snack, telling me about their day. But they don't. They tell me they need "down time" after school and turn on the TV or retreat to their rooms. They have electronics and 300 TV stations and Twitter and Facebook (tho' I'm told that's dead for teens) and Nintendos and computers and itunes/Spotify and thousands of exciting locations that can thrill them sitting alone at a desk staring at a computer screen. Heck thanks to Wifi, you can take that "connection" with you wherever you go. 

You don't need people. You don't need a Tammy or a Cathleen to play. You can just log-in to Temple Run or Candy Crush or Facebook or Twitter and stimulate a warm, fuzzy virtual connection.

Stimulate or simulate?

I'm sorry, but that isn't connected and it isn't playful. It's stressful. It's exhausting to manage all the apps to keep up to date on my daughter's behavior at school. Why is there an App for that? Am I the only person to find it annoying to receive "texts" about schedules and homework and meetings? Am I the only parent who doesn't check my phone all the time to play helicopter with their kids? When I was a kid, my parents didn't need text updates about my homework. Somehow I got it done without that reminder. For my activities there was a printed Rehearsal Calendar ... a printed Cast List ... a printed Team Roster with phone numbers and contact detail. Oh, I'm told that I'm more connected than ever with Skype, FaceTime, Twitter, School Texts and Facebook updates ... so why do I feel so disconnected to the people who truly matter?

Why do I find myself wondering if all this electronic communicating is actually not helping but stressing out our kids? Do our kids know how to "play" anymore? When we'd play, we'd use our imaginations. We'd shut out the world. We'd laugh and engage with others. 

In the olden days, I had a 20-minute phone limit with my friends. The phone was the only media available and it was attached by a cord so my parents were always in earshot. Strange that my son rarely uses his phone to talk, just to scroll, text and tweet. He's never without it. He admits he's addicted to it. But I worry that he doesn't know how to "connect" because of it.

I miss getting phone calls from friends. I miss writing and receiving letters in the mail. I miss sitting across from someone I care about and looking them in the eyes. I'm exhausted and stressed by electronic communications. I find I scan emails more often than truly read them and miss more information than I absorb.

Where do the children play today? On "SmartPhones." On X-box games. On Internet sites. On Apps. Inside? Parks are empty. Libraries are simply means to get wifi. Bookstores are closing as electronic media dominates.

I want to disconnect to connect. I want to unplug, delete my FB page and remove myself from "Social Media" since I don't really think it's very social and it's overwhelming my senses in its constant bursts.

But, then I think ... I'd be completely cut-off from my kids commitments if I didn't sign up for Text 101. I'd miss invites to birthday parties, weather updates from Ballet class and other events my kids hope to attend. If I didn't have Facebook, I wouldn't know that my friend had a baby or see any photos. If I didn't have the internet, I couldn't go to the RO Drama page and download the photos I need to get to the press to announce the upcoming musical. If I didn't check email, I'd miss the coupons from Pet Supplies Plus for my kitten's favorite food.

I remember knocking on Mrs. Bolde's door and asking "Can Cathleen come out and play?" I didn't text in advance. I didn't check her location on Facebook. I just knocked, made eye contact and posed the questions with words ... face to face ...

Where do our children play? How do our children play? When does Social mean what it used to once again? Is there any hope for a simpler way to be friends? Last night my daughter was playing with her dolls in her room and "imaginating" some contest with teams and prizes. I felt a burst of hope at that moment.

And is it a contradiction to admit that I found both Cathleen and Tammy on Facebook and that we "stay connected" with photos and IMing across the miles? 

Can we find a balance to connect and play? Can our children?
                                                                                                         -- Jenni

P.S. Incidentally, I wrote this blog on paper with a pen before typing it into Blogger ...