Sunday, October 21, 2012

Another Face of Love: A Case for My Asian Brothers in Theater


There is a habit being perpetuated in theater around the world.  Asian males are not being allowed to play Asian male Leads.  Sometimes they get to play donkeys or dogs.  Often times, they are a side character: grocer, editor, doctor, etc.  But when the Lead calls for an Asian male, my Asian brothers are not being cast.

The tragedy in this race-bending casting is not readily seen by the wider world.  The illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company and the La Jolla Playhouse are as blind to their racism as are many non-Equity Chicago theaters.  I have spoken and written about this topic in reference to Lifeline Theatre’s upcoming production of “Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was” by Barry Hughart.  My words have not always been pleasant, but I ask for leeway since there is pain on all sides.  Here I wish to share my vision and the reasoning behind my words, posts, outrage and tears.

The Lead in “Bridge of Birds” is Chinese scholar Master Li Kao who unfailingly introduces himself as a man with “a slight flaw in my character.”  For almost 300 pages, the humble Master Li and his side-kick Number Ten Ox traipse through China in hopes of finding the Great Root of Power.  The children of the village have fallen comatose, and the Root is their only cure.  From page to page, Master Li’s ingenuity, humor and lucidity pull them through predicament after predicament.

Toward the beginning of the book, they cross paths with Miser Shen, one of the greediest men alive.  He has spent his life foreclosing peasants and squeezing money from the poorest of the poor.  However, along the way, Miser Shen has a conversion experience, sees the error of his ways and joins forces with Master Li and Number Ten Ox.  Unfortunately, one of their adventures proves deadly, and Miser Shen is fatally wounded.  On his deathbed, Master Li reassures the dying man that the Yama Kings will surely reincarnate him as a tree and “... for miles around the poor peasants will know you as Old Generosity.” 

The Hero of a play is the person with the greatest heart.  Consequently, it is there that the audience rests their hearts.  For an actor, how thrilling it is to embody the vessel of integrity and bravura!  It is the chance to display and amplify their nobility, no matter the banalities of their “real life.”  Playing the Lead calls upon the best in an actor, and for two hours (or so) a night, that actor gets to distill themselves into their brightest essence.

The Lead, however, is also of paramount importance to the audience.  Played appropriately, we grow to trust them.   Our emotions follow them.  As the action builds, we look to the Lead to shepherd us through this ritual of theater.  We, the audience, get to fall in love anew.

When Master Li assures the dying Miser Shen of his arboreal legacy, the audience is reminded of the refreshment in forgiveness.  As Master Li designs a flying bamboo basket, we get to float aloft on the currents of ingenuity.  We live through the Lead.  We feel relief through the Lead.  An audience of strangers binds their hearts together through the Lead.

The beauty of theater is its ability to enchant disparate audiences through Leads of varying facades.  “Jitney” at Court Theatre is an example.   I’m not African-American.  I’m not from Philadelphia.  I have no experience in driving a cab.  Yet I loved them all for the span of the play. 

I wish so passionately for my Asian brothers to be able to play the Lead because they deserve to have audiences love them, too.  They are worthy of the opportunity to display high-minded versions of themselves.  Also, we, the general public, subconsciously thirst for the chance to surrender and be lead by one of them.  How do I know this?  Because we all want to know the many faces of love. 

My heart can attach to the Lead whether they be homosexual or Jew, female or deaf, colored or amputated.  Increasing the types and shapes of Leads in our plays, reiterates the foundational Truth that by simply being human, we are each capable of being Heroic.  And isn’t that the light we wish to bring to the world through our craft called Theater?

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Healthy Glow of Pride

"This stops today," I wrote my friend yesterday.  "I've been subtle before, but you never seemed to take the hint.  So today I'm being blunt - from now don't ever disparage or mock Koreans in my presence."

Somewhere along the line, I grew accustomed to people mocking me.  Not only did I allow it, I joined in the laughter, oftentimes encouraging it with another quip or insight into being Korean.  I suspect this started back in Springfield when I was the only Asian for miles, growing up at a time when many children and adults had never been in the presence of an "Oriental" -- that was the term back then.

Well, it's time to grow up.

Lately, I've been pondering over the African-American culture and their method of presenting themselves to America.  Why?  Because the greater American public treats them better than they treat Asians.  There's a pervasive sense of "what would blacks think?"  NBC aired a commercial featuring a monkey doing gymnastics right after Gabby Douglas won the All-Around gold.  Immediately, members of the public voiced disapproval.  There were implications to the timing of the commercial which the public knew to be offensive.  By and large, we know when we're being disrespectful to the African-American community.  Why?

Because they have put in the sweat equity to educate the rest of us.

It's time for Asian, who have dominated book-based education, to start educating the nation.  It seems, however, that we need to start educating ourselves.

So many of us have grown up as a silent minority that we don't know how to draw our own boundaries.  My friend who I confronted yesterday -- for the sake of clarity, I'll call him Henry -- he and I have known each other and worked together for almost a decade.  As Asian actors, we have been cast together many times before, and we know a whole group of Asian actors.  Fortunately, the affection and intellectual acuity between us is strong enough that Henry and I were able to move to a place of higher understanding.

But he and I have often joked about the stereotypes of Koreans and Japanese and Chinese and Filipinos and Thai in both strictly Asian and mixed company.  But today I reflect and wonder if this jocularity simply gives whites and blacks and everyone else the impression that we don't take ourselves seriously.  That, in turn, can give them the idea that they don't have to take us seriously.

When Bill Crosby began bemoaning the state of black youth today, there was an African-American outcry.  "Don't give the general public a negative foothold into our culture," is what I heard.  That might be something more Asians want to consider.

Because the more poignant problem is this:  underneath the silence lies much confusion.  How much can I speak?  How much trouble am I causing?  How are people perceiving me?  And all that confusion simply corrodes pride.  It's time of Asians to be proud.  It's time to present ourselves well.  It's time for s to expect to be treated well.

It's time for us to dust ourselves off and find our own self-respect.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Unmitigated, Unadulterated, Unfettered Me

One thing leads to another … which is how I ended up getting an email from a world-class photographer asking me to pose for him.  Of course, I said yes … and, in keeping with my current lifestyle, this will be a nude shoot.

Some of you are scandalized while others are calmly weighing the issue and thinking, "Would I?  Ummm … naw."  The subject of nudity disturbs many, and in truth, I hesitated to even write about this.  But people's response to nudity intrigues me so much that I had to raise the issue.

First of all, let's set sex aside.  Nudity does not equate with pornography.  Both happen to use the human body, but the intention of pornography is distinct from artistic expression.  Those of you who know me are well of aware of my lack of innate seduction.  I am and always have been seen as the smart and sensible gal.  As we all know, neither of those adjectives applies to pornography … even to "librarian porn."

In fact, one could argue that "smart and sensible" do not apply to artistic expression at all.  To an extent, that would be true.  That line of thought equates the idea of "smart and sensible" with conformity.  However, one could also posit that artistic expression of one's life is the only smart and sensible solution to the question of "Why are we here?"  Perhaps the thinking person could consider that the glory of our Unique Selves is the foundation of artistic expression.  Putting ourselves forth into this world could be the most enlightened form of living, and therefore, it could be the smart and sensible thing to do.

In that vein, nude work makes sense to me.  On the Dust-to-Dust physical plane, I am circumscribed by my skin.  Those cells delineate my spatial limits.  Thus, when I stand in front of the camera in my spatially confined form, I can only express my Self.  No clothing, no set pieces, no accoutrements.  Without crutches of outside expectation, I am distilled down to Me.  Me and my imagination.  Me and the light.  Me and the air.  Me and life.  For the duration of the session, Me encounters Pure Me.

It's such a rush because it doesn't happen often enough.  Due to culture or gender or the simple desire to have friends, I accomodate outside life on a regular basis. Without question, I am more accustomed to fulfilling an outside expectation than I am to living by my inner guidance.  Also, this is partly due to necessity.  One must choose clothes.  One must have a modicum of manners.  However, do the gold drop earrings amplify Me or am I attempting to join a group represented by the gold drop earrings?  It's the quintessential question of civilization.

It always takes me a few minutes to warm up when posing nude.  I have to shed all pretense of what a naked woman is supposed to look like.  I can't suck in my stomach because it just looks like I'm sucking in my stomach.  Eventually, I get used to standing there truly alone.  It's just me breathing, standing and being ... and believe me, it's tasty.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Discernment of Heart

In three months, I've been cast in the same play twice.  With those stats, I figure I'm supposed to be in this play.  Granted, this second time around, I have a teensy part, but nevertheless … this play will take me somewhere I need to go.

The play is Marvin's Room by Scott McPherson.  For those unfamiliar with it, it's about a woman who is diagnosed with leukemia and has to reconnect with estranged family members in the hope of finding a bone marrow donor match.  For those unfamiliar with my life, my mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and in her last months, a variety of estranged family members passed through our doors.  Death causes people to connect in ways that life won't.

For this production, I'm playing the psychiatrist of Hank, a teenage boy caught in a psychological maelstrom with his mother.  She's looking for love the only way she knows how -- through hard drinking parolees who drive Pintos.  Hank is old enough to know that crying won't garner his mother's attention.  Unfortunately for him, though, burning down houses only brings the wrong kind.

So many of us are imperfect lovers.  By getting caught up in the details, we lose sight of loving.  True, the theoretical construct of unconditional love and the actual demonstration of it are light years apart.  Consequently, a pithy directive about "letting go of details" never helped two people love each other better.  But maybe if we could always remember that on a higher plane we do love each other -- despite the snarky accusations, the impenetrable differences of opinion, the perceived and real betrayals … maybe if we could mutter to ourselves, "No matter what this looks like, I do love them …."  Well, maybe that could loosen the air a bit.

My little scene ends with my character saying to Hank, "Good session."  It's an absurd scene.  It's a scene filled with defense mechanisms and denial.  Mother and son trade barbs, and at one point she resorts to psychobabble.  The playwright chose well here because as a result, the scene is true to life.  If we're to look for victories, we need the discernment to perceive them in their true forms, not as our imaginary scripted dialogue would have them be.  For the first time, I play the person championing an albeit small, yet True Victory.  Now if I could just let that skill bleed into real life.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Crossing Borders, Coming Home

Love takes a person places that they can't go otherwise, I'm finding.  It's like a passport of sorts.  Without it, the soul doesn't have access to distant emotional lands.  Let me explain.

The other night at rehearsal, I was involved in a bit of drama.  It involved fight choreography going bad -- specifically, an uncontrolled fall backward and an inadvertent kick to the face -- and some loud "discussion."  Fortunately, this is a mature enough group that feelings were assuaged and communication was restored by the time we started our preview.

I woke up the next morning, however, consumed by the events.  Having the analytical mind that I do, I spent much of the day pondering my "lessons."  What had gone wrong?  Had anything really gone wrong?  What could I possibly do to prevent another occurrence in the future?  After a couple of cogent and enlightening discussions with friends, I felt better -- better about myself, the people involved and the whole darn process.

Looming on the horizon, however, was a meeting with one of the company members who is not involved in the production.  I knew that said actor would ask me how rehearsals were going.  What would I say?  I wanted to be able to have an honest discussion without being cagey.  Upon reflection, however, I realized that my emotional approach to the whole situation had been different than in conflicts past.  I was breathing deeper and releasing faster than ever before.  That's when my answer occurred to me.

I would respond that theater is making me better person.

You see, I care about my work in a wholly new way.  My heart is fully engaged, and consequently, open.  I now approach work with a softness, and wouldn't you know it, vulnerability transforms everything.  I used to have an ever-present shield around me, tossing off annoying colleagues and perceived incompetence with an eye roll or verbal barb.  (Dear Reader, please remember that the hospital adjoins Death, and therefore is rife with defense mechanisms.  So, don't judge me too harshly.) If an incident arose, I could think my way out of remorse.

But now, my inner landscape has shifted to a new clime.  I care more.  More of me is present, and my heart feels settled, ready to set roots.  As a result, I'm capable of taking it all in -- the rain, the sun, the mud, the fruit.  No need to duck and hide.  No need to act unperturbed.  I can be perturbed here, and it's ok.  I'm in my heart, and there are no costumes here.  Just a blanket of love -- for myself, for my mistakes, for my embarrassments and my victories.  And most importantly, for all of you, as well.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Legacy of a Happy Life - a letter to my mother

It's Mother's Day.  In my closet sits a diary.  It contains letters written to me from my mother in the last few months of her life.  She addresses me by my Korean name, starting each entry with "My beloved Sueme," or something close to that.  Or at least I think they start like that.  You see, I've never read them.

Peculiar, right?  One would think that a daughter would have memorized the written words of her dying mother.  But that diary has been in my closet for several years, maybe even ten.  And I have yet to read it.

First off, someone would have to read it to me.  It's hand-written in Korean, a language I can barely read.  Also, I have little experience with Korean hand-writing, so it's even more of a challenge.  I could have my aunt read it to me, and we've even talked about it.  But I must have a block somewhere.

Where's this block?  I'm terrified of something, clearly.


I'm now of the age where more and more of my friends and acquaintances have lost their mothers.  Several posts today on Facebook caption a smiling picture with, "I miss you Mom."  Since my mother passed when I was so young, I don't think I ever grieved properly for her.  A 4 year-old isn't capable of processing anger, bargaining, denial, depression or acceptance.  Actually, I take that back.  I remember a couple of those, in hazy forms.

I remember throwing tantrums and telling Dad that I missed Mommy.  At some point, I knew I could use the phrase, "I miss my mom."  Did I ever over use it?  Possibly, but doubtful since it was always true.  There's a poignant journal entry from my father.  I called him at the office one day to tell him that Mommy didn't like it up in heaven and wanted to come back.  How does a 34 year-old widower respond to that?  I don't think I ever gave my dad enough credit for dealing with that segment of his life.  I also have a drawing of mine which one of my relatives captioned.  In it, I have wings, and my mother has wings.  The young me explained that it was a picture of me turning into an angel and visiting my mother in heaven.  So there is evidence of my bouts of anger and bargaining.  Although I don't have specific stories, I can definitely tell you that I experienced depression.  So, that's three out of five stages of grief.

Perhaps I'm not reading that diary because of denial.

To be honest, I wish this wasn't a part of me.  It's such a burden to miss your mother.  It's a downer.  Although I've gone through plenty of therapy, this grief raises its ugly head every now and then and yanks me into a headlock.  You would think after all these years, I'd be over it.

Strangely enough, as other people's mothers die, I find some comfort.  I don't feel so alone.  In fact, when people ask if I remember my mother, I often respond that my most piercing memories are of feeling so lonely, a  cavernous loneliness as dark as a barren womb … a soul can get swallowed up by the dark.

So maybe I don't read that diary because I don't want to go there again.  Maybe someday I'll have better footing, and reading it won't seem so daunting.  It may even turn out to be no big deal.  I'll read it, cry a little, feel refreshed and think, "Pshaw.  Why ever did I wait so long?"

But the passing of your mother is an event of monumental proportions.  So, I'm just going to be patient with myself and trust that I'll read it on cosmic timing, when my inner cosmos is ready to accept words from that pivotal time in my personal history.  In the meantime, I'll keep filling my days with as much joy and courage, fun and vulnerability, daring and fulfillment as I can … because I know that somewhere, on a higher plane, she's reading the pages of my diary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

America the Beautiful

Like all actors, I have imagined my Oscar acceptance speech.  Upon announcement of my name, I throw my hands up in the air, kiss my husband -- like I said, this is all imaginary -- then walk up the stairs in my custom Alexander Wang dress and Louboutin heels.  After words of sincere yet obligatory thanks to my production company, director, agent and cast, I close with words to the 40 millions TV viewers.  Clutching Oscar by his legs, I say straight to camera, "Nowhere in the world can children of immigrants rise so far, so fast.  Thank you, America."

I was born in Los Angeles to two South Korean immigrants, both of whom graduated from the highest-ranking high school in the nation.  My father came for his Master's degree.  My mother, due to family finances, came as a high school graduate hoping to eventually attend college in the US.  She fell into the familiar rut of marriage and motherhood, never furthering her schooling before her death.  As many of us know, education is not a path to happiness.  Happiness is the only path to happiness, but that is a topic for another post and another day.

When I was in sixth grade, my family relocated to Seoul for a year.  After college, I taught middle school science for a year in Switzerland.  I also grew up in Springfield, Illinois at a time when Asians were few and far between.  In a graduating class of approximately 400, I was the only Asian.  In the entire high school there were 3 Asians.  I never introduced myself to the Chinese-American girl who was a couple of years below me.  In retrospect, I wish I had said hello.  But I was too busy keeping my own head above water, trying to fit in with the white crowd, to expend any energy on racial relations. 

Although I've been in the racial minority in my birth country, I've been in the minority abroad -- both as an American and as an Asian.  In Korea, even with my mouth shut, I'm clearly American.  I walk like an American and observe like an American.  I am not "one of them."  Sort of like the Irish-Americans showing up in Dublin proclaiming that they're Irish.  The nationals think it's quaint, but to them, an American is first and foremost an American.  As the ex-fiancee of an Irish national, I write from experience.

On the ski slopes in Switzerland, however, I experienced racism of the playground strain from adults.  Here I was, a college graduate, and grown men pulled back their eyelids and mocked me with "Asian sounds" in front of laughing Swiss children.  I also had similar encounters in Italy.  In countries which have been homoethnic for centuries, the idea of an "outsider" is backed by millenia.  We were easy targets.  When I asked my Japanese middle school students if they had ever been mocked, they remarked off-handedly, "Oh, Ms. Shin, it happens everytime we go down to town."  Theoretically Europe seemed romantic, but my Asian face brought out a puerile reality.

America has grown out of publicly mocking me.  We know too much.  We have Asian faces on billboards now, too.  Racism now is not the racism of 30 years ago, and it is a fact that social injustice will always evolve as society evolves.  But I believe we have made strides, immense and crucial.  In fact, I believe that America is the one of the most evolved nations on the racial front.  We are at the leading edge of an integrative society.  No where else is there such a history of immigration.  Also, no where else is innovation so supported, and the stroke of inventive genius does not discriminate by color.  I may not have always been recognized as being American by some Americans, but I have been backed my by millions of other Americans who support my identity as an American.  I have a right to live here and thrive here.  This country, even with all its racial injustices and social conflicts, is the only place on earth that will welcome me as its daughter.  And despite its turmoils of diversification, it is the only place that I could ever feel a sense of belonging.  Truly, from sea to shining sea, this is my beautiful home.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Heavenly Readings - a tribute to my grandmother

In my pursuit of a Brooklyn accent for my next play, a twisted set of leads brought me to the TV show "Long Island Medium."  I am hooked.  Not only do I watch episode after episode on You Tube, but I outright cry at least twice per show.  For those who aren't familiar with Theresa Caputo, spirits of the dead talk to her, and she passes messages on to the living.  Be skeptical, call me and her crazy … but I routinely pursue the "out of the ordinary," so your opinion doesn't faze me.  I love this show.

I've got two people out there who need my number.  One, of course, is my mother who passed when I was just shy of my fourth birthday.  That meeting would be a straightforward "Hello, Mom.  I've never forgotten you" type of meeting.  The other encounter would be tougher.  I need to right a wrong which has been eating at me for a while.  If I could meet with my grandmother and get her forgiveness ... maybe absolution is a better word … well, I feel like my heart could dance a little lighter.

In short, I didn't help my grandmother learn how to read.  I can still hear her voice sounding out syllables of the Bible, interrupting my all-important TV shows.  As a teenager, she represented everything I disdained.  She was old, wrinkled and hunched, as any farm laborer would be at 78.  She was uncultured and unmannered, belching and slurping.  Even her speech was embarrassing.  Her country accent was thick and indelible, routinely garnering chuckles from fellow Koreans.  Adding smell to the offensive sights and sounds, she wore Korean back pain patches which perfumed her with a blend of menthol, ginseng and adhesive.  My teenage self was aspiring to conform to my All-American classmates, and she couldn't conform at all.

My paternal grandmother was born in the back country of Korea in 1907 when it was still the unified country it had been for centuries.  This was still an age of outhouses, shamans and polygamy, albeit the end of the age.   By the time she was 7, her marriage had been arranged, and when she was 14, she was married off to my then 12 year-old grandfather.  Education wasn't wasted on all boys, and educating girls was out of the question.  Hers was a seaside village in a mountainous country, capable of isolation from modern ideas.  Not 200 miles away, my maternal grandmother was busy completing high school and would eventually graduate from university.  The chasm between old and new was never so wide as in their generation.

Let me illustrate illiteracy.  Of course, a person can't read signs or write directions.  But you also can't tell time or dial a phone.  When my grandmother went to market, she would cup all her money in outstretched palms and trust the merchants to take the proper amount.  Needless to say, not all were honest.  In an environment of scarcity, pinching change from an old illiterate lady must be so tempting.  Remember, this was a post-war era.  Orphans were plentiful, hope scarce and people routinely died of the mundane disease called Hunger.

It's easy to blame her illiteracy on the timing of her birth.  But can't I be blamed, too?  Why didn't I teach her how to read?  She was in my daily life for almost 15 years.  Of course, chaotic family dynamics were in play.  Also, I knew her as illiterate, so it never occurred to me to change that.  The irony is that entire time we lived together, I was furiously learning and memorizing and studying.

Of course, I can't go back and change that.  But I wonder at my capacity for insensitivity.  How often do I turn a blind eye to those closest to me?  It almost seems to cruel to get annoyed at an old lady trying to learn how to read.  Do I still do that -- waft my frustration at those who are bettering themselves?  Since I'm regularly frustrated, it's certainly possible.

I have no answers today, dear Reader.  Strangely, though, I feel better just having written her story down.  She lives with me contantly, my grandmother.  As I walk past a pyramid of glossy bell peppers in Whole Food I think, "Halmuni would have been stunned by this."  She and I were born hardly apart -- a statistically insignificant number of years.  But in that span, the world hurled over colossal changes.  Look at me:  I read, write, tell time … own property … live alone … in her eyes, I must live like an empress.  So maybe I'll carry that with me from now on and see my life in all its majesty.  I certainly can't go back and teach her how to read, but perhaps my grandmother can still tutor me on how to live.  To see the world through the eyes of an illiterate back-country village girl.  To live in a steady state of appreciation and amazement.  Because my ability to read or multiply or tell time does not dim the fact that these are truly amazing times.  Thank you, Halmuni … and I'm gonna bet that out there, you're able to read this.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My Steady Pulse - the pull of acceptance

Rehearsals for "The Jammer" have started, and in keeping with a show about roller derby, we are moving at a fast and furious pace.  Just the words "roller derby" are enough to widen people's eyes and elicit a smile.  So far, we're all laughing and bonding and having a chummy ol' time.

Underneath the brashness and the elbows, however, beats a steadfast theme.  Vince, our director, remarked yesterday, "I read this play again and realized that it's about acceptance."  Sure enough, the play is peppered with outcasts -- institutionalized outcasts, ethnic outcasts, masquerading outcasts, just to name a few -- which, although super fun to play, are people nonetheless.  His next questions were mindful and grounded.  "On the journey to acceptance, what mistakes did your character make?  How far would you go to preserve this acceptance?"

Behind my closed eyelids, in the dim room, I couldn't help but think about all these actors scattered and lying quietly on the floor.  This is the group my parents never told me about.  These are the people who think for themselves.  We are the ones who live in the margins and like it.  It's a far cry from the steady life of an academic or a 9-to-5'er.  It takes some gumption to get there and another dose to stay.

Our desire for acceptance sometimes mutes our free-thinking tendencies, but I dare say that's a universal journey.  No one escapes the nagging feeling of rejection, I think. Even now, I occasionally feel the sting of being "left out of the club."  We're all looking for a safe place to commune, to open up, to engage.  But why?  As Vince pointed out, we all make mistakes along the path to acceptance.  Some of mine have been mundane, others catastrophic.  All have been painful to varying degrees.  So why bother?

I can only give my answer, and like it or not, there are aspects of myself that I'll never touch or discover on my own.  I need other people to extract fresh attributes from my crusty ideas of who I am.  Our best versions of ourselves only come courtesy of the company we keep.  The corollary to that, however, is that our worst selves are also spawned by our interactions.

Therein lies the dance of Intimacy and Independence.  When is it too close or too much?  And when is it too thin, too little?  When should we open ourselves up for exploration?  And when should we distance ourselves to stave off disappointment?  To boot, the buzz of vulnerability often makes us stumble like drunkards, thus adding humiliation to the mix.  So, is this search for acceptance worth it?

I say yes.  Yes, because a life devoid of intimate kindnesses could only be insipid and colorless.  Life bereft of subtle acts of love would be the shadow of a life.  Unfortunately, those qualities only blossom under the shelter of acceptance, the air thick with vulnerability.  I contend that the vibrancy of risk sharpens our feelings and heightens our days.

That, dear Reader, is what has impelled me to perpetually search for my "tribe."  We find our "tribe," I believe, one by one … often disguised to our eyes, though not to our souls.  We recognize them with our hearts, beat by beat, one pulse matching another's.  And once we settle in, we get a taste of heaven, a glimpse of the ultimate coming home.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Almost in Love - my heart and medicine

"I call them the 80%," Sarah said.  "They are 80% right for you, and they are the hardest to leave.  But you still have to leave."  She's now happily married with two children, one of whom used to gleefully jump from my doormat to the floor, the height of two inches representing a massive plunge to the toddler. I also have the privilege of reading her "happy anniversary" posts on Facebook, so I can confidently say that she found her "100%."

"100%" is awesome.  Technically, it's "perfect."  But "80%" doesn't seem so bad, either.  In fact, "80%" feels like a LOT.  Like a huge bunch.  If 80% of the world's debt were erased, that would be cause for rejoicing.  If 80% of the time my auditions resulted in bookings, that would be heavenly.  So, why doesn't the "80% guy" leave me rejoicing in heavenly strains?

As the daughter of a professor, I must point out that 80% is a B-.  Actually, it's a C+/B- which in my Korean household is, effectively, unacceptable.  I'm not buying the C+/B- tomatoes.  I'm not paying to watch the C+/B- movie.  And I've learned over time, that the C+/B- man is, as with my homework, effectively unacceptable.

So, why am I writing this?  Clearly, the lovely Sarah has conclusively taught me to toss off the "80% guy."  Three cheers for Sarah!  Eliza is home free.  But I write this because so many people ask me why I left medicine, and I'm beginning to think that medicine was my "80% life." 

Someone remarked remarked about my time as a doctor, "… you always seemed happy …. I guess it must be internal …."  Believe me, "80% satisfied" is fairly satisfied.  But to quote the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, "Marriage is a long business."  A life is a long time.  A career is a long time.  And to be doubtful of my choice … or rather, to be tenaciously and tirelessly enticed by another possible choice 20% of the time … well, over the years, that adds up.

Even as a medical student, I could always spot the people at peace -- and it came in various flavors.  There was Malcolm, the surgical resident who never wavered in his steadiness and was outwardly friendly, despite days of sleep deprivation.  On the other hand, there was also, I'll call her, Jane who wouldn't stop complaining and bemoaning the state of the schedule, or the color of the walls or the odor in the hallway.  But if you took the time to feel her energy, she was in love.  She was clearly in love with her job, her department and her responsibilities.  She just had a saltier way of expressing it.

I remember pointing to Malcolm once saying, "I want to be like him when I grow up."  He had something I didn't, and I wanted it … and it had nothing to do with the specifics of his career choice or marital status.  He was in his right place.

The right place is not the "80% place."  Be that as it may, the "100% place" doesn't have a sign on it.  A person must feel it out, on their own.  After much blind groping, I can say that I'm there.  It isn't always pretty.  I eat a lot of peanut butter.  I'm often speeding from one venue to the other - the plight of the permanent part-timer.  I also job hunt all the time, continually auditioning.  But I'm there -- home.

Here, I get to throw all of my Self -- my loud, my tortured, my classless, my musical selves -- into my career.  I get to be relaxed about my tastes and opinions.  I'm no longer trying to be someone.  I live a sloppier existence.  I can now, "go with the flow."  Also, I'm no longer jealous of other people's happiness.  The pining acid envy that used to corrode my soul has gone.  Instead, I devour the hours ... all the while, wholly in love.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Star Material - a blessed kindness

 Originally published in JAMA, Feb 10, 1999

Dan's fears were confirmed.  Despite three months of daily anxiety, the bottom line again read, "Pass."  Dan's hands clutched yet another lukewarm evaluation to add to his ever-growing pile.

"According to your evaluations, you need to speak up more, Dan."

Dan glanced up at the attending in charge of the medicine rotation with a blank look that belied his jumbled thoughts.  Since July, the clinical segment of medical school had overwhelmed him.  Numbed and intimidated, Dan had gradually receded into silence, the worst possible position for a third-year medical student.  Too disheartened to respond, Dan simply shook the attending's hand and returned to his team.

"Hey, Dan.  How was your evaluation?" asked his intern in an uninterested tone.  She did not consider Dan "star material" and was relatively certain she wasn't alone in her opinion.

"Fine,"he shrugged in response.  He noticed a paucity of students.  Most had been released from clinical duties after their evaluations.  After a pause, he asked, "Is there anything I can do?"

"We've had two admissions," she replied, "and I've started working one up.  The other is just a stable transfer from on outside hospital awaiting nursing home placement.  Somewhere along the line, they discovered he was a veteran and shipped him here.  If you could write him up before you go, that would be great."

Dan hid an internal sigh.  On any other night, he would gladly have stayed late: two months ago, Dan's wife had abruptly moved out, leaving behind a painfully empty apartment.  Having recently failed to distinguish himself as a potential doctor, however, he would have preferred to spend this evening at home, away from the hospital.

At the threshold of the new patient's room, Dan paused.  Clearing his thoughts, he walked in with a cheery greeting.  The patient's expression of subdued desperation stopped Dan in mid-sentence.  Something was amiss.  Digging through the transfer notes and old charts, Dan pieced together the patient's story.

Approximately two months ago, the patient had had a massive stroke that left him without control of his arms and legs.  Unfortunately, the patient had also undergone tracheostomy tube placement several months prior to his stroke.  Speech had been possible with a tracheotomy speaking valve, but the valve was now missing.  Thus, he was effectively mute.  To exacerbate matters, the patient had no known living relatives.

Catching up to his intern, Dan explained the situation and asked, "How do we get a tracheotomy speaking valve?"

"Write an order for a speech pathology consult."

"Yeah, but ..."  On a Friday evening, a speech pathology consult order would require follow-up telephone calls.  Each phone call spawned more phone calls, but Dan was determined not to allow this patient to sit through a mute weekend.  Eventually, Dan located a speech pathologist, and the two of them found a speaking valve in a far-off storage room.

Returning to the patient, Dan carefully fit the valve onto the patient's breathing tube.  Looking straight at Dan, the patient croaked out his first words since his transfer, "I want my last rites."

Startled, Dan bolted out the door in search of the hospital priest.  With his busy weekend schedule, however, the priest had already left the hospital and would not return until Monday morning.  Another priest was available on an on-call basis, but the patient's doctor had to designate the situation an emergency.  The intern's response was firm.

"No.  This man is stable.  He'll make it through the weekend."

"You don't understand," Dan replied.  "This man knows he's going to die."  Dan tried his best to retain his composure, but being at the end of professional relationship that appreciated neither the urgency of the situation nor the Herculean efforts required on the part of a student to obtain equipment and religious counsel, he did not care how agitated she appeared.

"Look.  It's getting late.  You're free to leave.  Oh, and ... youdidagreatjobthanksforyourhelpandgoodluckonyournextrotation."  The intern's voice faded as she raced off.

Resolutely fixed on the task of helping this man obtain his last rites, Dan ignored her annoyance.  Instead, he found a telephone book and marched to man's bedside.  Unfortunately, the patient couldn't recall the name of his parish.  He hadn't been to mass in years.  Undeterred, Dan patiently waited as dusty memories were teased awake.  An hour later, Dan telephoned a parish, located on a street that rhymed with "flower."

A sympathetic voice from the outside voice answered the phone, and this kind soul located the patient's name on the parish roster.  With the Friday traffic, the priest would be delayed an hour and a half.  Could the parishioner wait that long?  As the man nodded a weary yes, Dan felt a surge of relief.  He said good-bye to the patient and, without a word to anyone else, made his way home in the chill March night.

Saturday afternoon, Dan's telephone rang.  It was his "ex"-intern.

"Dan?" she asked softly.  "The priest stopped by last night.  ...  I wanted to tell you ... that is, to thank you ....  You see, your patient passed away early this morning."

This was based on my friend and classmate Dan (not his real name) who never felt the need to publicize his story.  I still thank him for allowing me to share it. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Perpetual Pursuit of My A-Game

I love my friend Beth.  I also love baseball.  I also love Katelyn.  "What's the theme?" you ask. Ambition and depth.

People often mistake my curiosity for defiance and deviance, but it's curiosity laced with ambition and depth ... drive and specificity ... hunger and magnitude.  Humber threw a perfect game yesterday, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Katelyn and Beth would eagerly listen to my patchwork-quilt understanding of a perfect game.  Why?  They both get a kick out of the A-game and what it takes.

The discerning Reader will ask, "Eliza, what's chewing you up?"  A push is always a response to a shove, and yes, I've been shoved.  The shove came last year.  A more seasoned actor, one who has enjoyed and is currently enjoying public success, dismissively remarked, "Eliza, you take this too far."  I had questioned him about this and that and the other … the specifics aren't important because the end result is that I annoyed him.  Maybe he felt like he was being pushed.  So maybe that's why he responded with, "Eliza, you take this too far."

So, maybe the real subject is not ambition and depth.  Maybe the real subject is "letting go."  Maybe the real topic is, "bring dismissed and being ok with it."  Another possible topic is "leaving your fellow actors alone."  Before you chide me, dear Reader, I am gradually learning that third item is true -- and I'm working on it … but for the time being, this is my blog and I want to write about taking it far!

If you're hungry, isn't that what you do -- take it far?  As far you can?  A far as your abilities will let you in the moment?  Don't you want to train for the majors?  Katelyn breaks her characters down into animal essences.  Beth doesn't believe in jobs -- she only thinks in terms of careers.  And the Majors … well, the Majors tell a story with every pitch and every game.  Every baseball stat has a story behind it -- a glorious story full of sweat and heart and focus.  Beth and Katelyn have sweat and heart and focus, too.

Forget it -- this is my blog, and I get to reveal what I want to reveal … and today's revelation to cyberspace is this:  I love playing my A-Game … all the time … every chance I get.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shepherd Me, O God, Beyond My Wants

My dear friend will die any day now.  We weren't sure he'd make it to Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then Easter … and now, by refusing a feeding tube and respirator, we all know that it is imminent.  He shall not be here long.

But in truth, he hasn't been around for a while.  His position was on rotation, so he's was effectively out of my life a couple of years before his diagnosis and demise.  Why, then, the pangs?  Why didn't his absence pull at my heart the way news of his death will?

It is, of course, partially due to the finality of it all.  It will be certain that I won't sit with him again.  But there is more.  It isn't just the absence of him that brings tears to my eyes.  It is the idea that I won't love in that vein again -- so purely and openly, without resentment or disappointment.

Loving people is so complicated, hence the multi-million dollar pet industry.  They have their preferences and expectations and needs.  Consequently, this man of the collar who is facing his mortal end stands together with only one other person in my life in the type of love they bring to mind.  The love I feel for them relaxes my shoulders and tastes like spring water.  I am whole in their presence.

The other person is my dead mother.  Since she passed when I was three, we never sullied our relationship with dispute or rancor.  We never conversed.  We never negotiated.  We never had to make up.  I just woke up one day and was told I was a "big girl now."

Although I'm often jealous of friends with mothers, I know that I am who I am because of that loss.  Since the age of three, I have been certain that I would die someday … and that childhood knowledge has marked me.

And in truth, there is something wondrous about retaining a memory of pure love.  It is virtually irreplicable beyond those tender childhood years … which is why Father Pat's passing stirs up my childhood grief.  At his funeral, I will likely cry for him and cry for my mother.  A child has no ability to mark and honor the passing of a life, much less their mother's.  With his passing, I will be able to release decades of pent up loss.  But I will also be able to know that I am fortunate in the scope of the Universe.  I am a starred child of the heavens to have known two figures of pure love in my life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Crafty Serving of Love

As I pulled my baby carrots out of the refrigerator, I recalled my wonderful Craft Services Lady from Sunday's shoot.  In addition to the requisite beef jerky, bananas and gum, she also had single-serving packs of organic baby carrots and celery slices … and, surprisingly, a sunny attitude toward the background talent.  She actually sauntered over to us with her weighty tray of sundries.  "Hey, everybody," she sang out, a basket of mini-Snickers hanging from her left arm.  We had our fill and then some.  And our delight was hers.

This is to be contrasted with my usual Craft Services Lady, who shall remain nameless.  In her presence, without fail, I am treated like a cockroach -- a dirty creature eyeing her wares.  Unfortunately for her, food consumption and boredom are directly correlated, and background extras often have the most boring job on set.  We stand when told to stand, we walk when told to walk; kindergarteners have more stimulating days.  But we're background, and we're proud of it.

My Indignatory Self was aroused on Sunday.  "Why can't Wicked Witch of the West be more like Little Miss Sunshine?" I wondered.  Why is one offended when we approach her wares and the other welcoming?  And then my mental chatter was off and running -- why can't people be nicer, isn't it her job, etc, etc, etc and so on and so forth … and eventually, even I was annoyed at my own thoughts.

This, of course, was exacerbated by other events in my life.  I had been swimming in the pond of rejection lately, shunned by colleagues.  At my size, I was often left lingering against the wall as teams were picked in grade school.  And I was in the middle of such an episode.

But today, I came back to my senses.  Wicked Witch of the West was actually serving up something greater.  She was showing me that I'm capable of far more than I was crediting myself.  I'm here to find all the paths to love, peace, relaxation … fill in the blank.  I'm here to learn to love in new ways everyday, and they're here to show me how to do it with flair.  I'm here to know my worthiness despite my surroundings, and events are here to teach me all the secret nooks and crannies of that knowledge.  I don't need friendly and loving people around me all the time.  I just need to have my friendliness and love in my back pocket at all times.

So, Wicked Witch of the West and Distancing Colleagues, I'm ready.  Bring the torrent and torment.  I'm shall steadfastly steer myself toward peace every chance I get … maybe not always gracefully, maybe without pouting every now and then … but it takes resistance to build a muscle … and what is the heart but a bundle of muscle?

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Grubby Fullness of You Breathing Life into Me

I'm still mad about a show.  Funny, isn't it, how some memories can hurl you straight to the emotional core of a chronologically stale event.  That is the case with this show -- just mention it ... whisper it, and I'm back on my high horse with my right index finger in danger of poking out an eye.

Many things we view as scabs or splinters to picked at and reviled, however, can lead us to discoveries.  Although I could wax metaphorical about this grain of sand turning into a pearl, I'm still too mad at this show to endow it with such grace.  Instead, I'll just admit from my high horse that today, this show -- this grubby and misshapen outgrowth of my life -- actually led me to a discovery of worth.

To begin, I hated the show because I believed it lampooned its central characters.  The direction called for caricatures, not people.  It encouraged cartoonish-ness, not authenticity.

Who the hell am I to make such statements, though?  Where lies the boundary between Mickey Mouse and Marlon Brando?  Isn't it invisible?  Isn't anyone's opinion correct?

Well, no ... and here is where I glimpse the line in the sand: a central character in a story should always have a perceptible gap between their internal and external worlds.  I say "central" because often stories need foils and side characters for the sake of efficient narration.  But if a character comprises a hefty portion of the narrative drive, then you better show me your conflict.  You better round yourself out with some aspirations, desires or incongruities.

Why?  Because then I can feel for you.  Why again?  Because I, too, as long as I can remember, have carried my own conflicts and gaps and incongruities.

We see this in stories time and time again -- the hooker with the heart of gold, behemothic Citizen Kanes yearning for childhood sleds of wood, and (to quote one of my more colorful friends) ballerinas who like to take it up the ass.  The audience can relate to these juxtapositions of light & dark, leather & lace and grace & wrath simply because we perpetually live out those longings.

I believe our human condition inherently leaves us with gaps between our internal longings and our outward actions.  If I always acted out a coherent version of my internal world, then perhaps I would taste immaculate happiness and feel completed.  But it's the disparity between my internal self and my external self, my aspirations and my abilities, my moral chaos and my rule-abiding alacrity which makes me relatable ... and urges me on to live another day, to again attempt redemption.  Without the conflict, I am simply a flat line-drawing of qualities to be colored in ... and a two-dimensional structure does not breathe.

I argue that as an actor, it is my responsibility to find that conflict within the text to make my character a real person -- an embodiment of both our pathos and relief.  I want to see a father yearning for recognition but trapped in self-defacing habits.  I want to see the mother feverishly chasing after all-that-glitters because she's unable to locate the nidus of her personal worth.  And I want to see the woman who brusquely and nonchalantly brushes off her past precisely because it haunts her in every blade of grass, every meal and every shadow.  Show me the people who have yet to find their unified self, and I'll sit, stay and listen as patiently as the most devoted lover.  Because then I will be sitting with my self ... my full self ... and in doing so, I will encounter a measure of peace and satisfaction ... and more importantly, I will be reminded that I am not once and not ever alone.

Exposure Time - more headshots and head-thoughts

Tomorrow morning, yet another photographer will take a "shot" at my "head" ... and my tension is already rising.  I guess that will simply guarantee another tense looking close-up photo of my face.  So, Reader, I have come to you with the purpose of dispelling such invisible nonsense.

To start, I believe the most compelling headshots are the ones in which you see the person in all their uninhibited and uncensored glory.  Everyone their specific essence, but it isn't often we see it.  Truly and practically, though, the hours of the day are a summation of transactions, and one needs to live by the rules of engagement most of the time.  I often think, "That's nice, little missy, but I just need you to keep walking so I can turn left, thank you."

A headshot session, however, is a chance for me to let my guard down, to expose myself, to just relax into my aura.  The wish, always, is to end up with a photo which "captures" a part of me ... which, in turn, is hopefully, a commercially viable photo.  For tomorrow's session, though, I have a few things polluting my auric tide.  First, I feel like the photographer, who has photographed some of the world's most beautiful women, is doing me a favor.  Secondly, this man is internationally renowned while I'm barely known in a single zip code.

So what's a gal to do?  The pervasive talk of the time is to think myself into a better feeling place.  But I chafe at that for a process as exposed as photography.  Instead, I feek an urge to twist that into something more personal.  

Ah ... perhaps, as one of the casting directors jokes, it's time to "pull out my Meisners."

Instead of trying to feel something different, maybe I'll just show up -- intimidated, bewildered and all.  Maybe I'll just give into my fears but this time display them long enough to be photographed.  Maybe I'll stop trying to work the session for a product and this time work it for the process.  Maybe I'll let myself feel what I feel in the moment, no matter what ... if it's fear, then let it be ... if it's intimidation, then let it be ... whatever it is, tomorrow, I'll let it be.

Even as I write those words, I feel relief wash over me.  Trying to feel fierce, trying to feel beautiful, trying to feel anything just feels like trying to hold fistfuls of jello -- feelings and effort just leak out between my fingers, and how does one grasp inherently formless matter?

Instead, perhaps I'll just go with the vibe at hand.  Just pull from what's there.  Just let myself be intimidated and overwhelmed and overcome by this man's art and reputation and presence.  And in doing so, I just might be on the right track.  The real me will meet the perceived him ... and thus the Real Me will show up.  And, hey, that's all I want to see in those photos, anyway.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

And So Eliza Begets Her Cosmos ...

Welcome to my words.  Welcome to my heart.  There is an electric freedom in this ersatz solitude of the internet.  Whoever you are, dear Reader, you now have an access to me that is not allowed to any physical body.  Here, I shall endow you with qualities unclaimed by you ... although, it's possible that you do, in fact, blindly harbor them like the log in your eye.  I will whisper to you my most private discoveries, the sort of musings that lovers yearn for.  On these pages, you will also feel my punishment for thoughts you never had and actions you hadn't conceived.  Words carry force ... and whimsy ... and release.

Welcome, Reader.  Enter this, my landscape, and you shall be loved fully because it is through my words that I expose myself fully.  A person cannot be more naked than their thoughts.  Welcome to all who stay.  And Godspeed to those travel on.

This is the first entry in Eliza Shin's first blog.