Friday, April 12, 2013

A Murmuration of Thanks - My Tribute to Rich and Judy Shereikis

I waited too long.  I almost called just a dozen days earlier on Easter but didn't.  He who hesitates may not always die, but I hesitated and in the meantime, the man who effectively served as my English-speaking childhood father died.

Rich Shereikis and my father supposedly met as roommates the night before their interviews at the then newly-built Sangamon State University in Springfield, IL.  I write "supposedly" because when my father doesn't want to talk, he won't talk.    The reasons are legion, but as an internationally known lecturer, he is versed in the lecture form.  Conversation, especially with the daughter of his first wife, has always been halting at best.

Both Rich and my father were hired, and thus our families became intertwined.  Rich and his ebullient wife Judy had three children, the youngest of whom was the same age my myself.  For me -- a verbose and fidgety girl -- the English-speaking Shereikis house was as good as an amusement park.  I recall an abundance of glue, cats, laughter, yarn, people, popsicle sticks, conversation, paint, ease ....

Granted, my adult self understands fully that laughter and conversation are frequent guests when actual human guests are in a house.  And just as the humans say their good-byes and drive away, Laughter and Conversation often take their leave as well.  Then Tension, like a sullen outdoor family cat, starts meowing on the landing.  I know perfectly well that the Shereikis family had their own familial battles.

But as a three-year-old child of an ESL father who had just buried his first wife ... as the young daughter of a man who had been clearly angry at his wife while she was alive and was now enraged that she unceremoniously abandoned him ... well, I slurped up all the coherent affection I received from Rich and Judy and brood.  Having already parented three kids, they understood noise and clamor and mess.  Looking back, however, the highlight was that this family could converse in non-academic preschool English.  They could actually understand me.

This family saw me through the hardest time in my life.  They watched my mother stumble through her leukemia.  They housed me on occasion through her ill health.  They most certainly came to the funeral where I recall being bored, kicking my chair and wishing the Korean pastor would follow the American pastor's lead and say something I could understand.

The Shereikis house would go on to provide a steady loving presence through what would become 18 months of rotating female-relations.  My Korean family members pitched in to help my father by sending in cousins and aunties to come stay with me.  Unfortunately, what no one predicted was that a three-year-old heart would break over and over again at every departure.  Believe me, I am just as infuriated at the little three-year-old psyche as my father was for not being more compliant.  But the heart trumps intellect every time, absolutely every stubborn time.

Then my father brought home a 90-pound non-English speaker as his new wife.  Judy valiantly stepped up as a tutor, introducing this timid waif to the ball-busting English language.  I hadn't met my new step-mother before the wedding, either, and I have often wondered what Judy thought of my father's collage of a family.  The glue to this construction was secrecy.  My father expressly forbade me from speaking of my mother or her passing.  The 21st century me is a bit disgusted -- seems like a girl should approve of her new mother and mourn the passing of her "real" mother -- but that's my modern brain talking.

Michael the youngest Shereikis and I attended all four years of high school together.  With his older sister Becky already at the Southeast Spartan helm, it felt like having pseudo-siblings at school.  For four refreshing years, I didn't have a secret.  It also helped that Michael and I shared quite a bit of the high school experience.  Being children of academics, we were really good at our academics.  We took all the high-track classes together, applied to Ivy League schools together and eventually both went East.  Our goals made sense, our focus made sense, and in Michael's presence, my life made sense.  Despite my father's prohibition, Michael knew, Judy knew, Rich knew, Becky knew ... and they never made me feel ashamed.

Decades passed, and the Shins lost touch with the Shereikis's.  However, a few years ago, I learned that Rich and Judy were close by in Evanston.  Although I desperately wanted to reach out, something held me back.  Rich and Judy held my most sought-after prize - precious memories of those years of my mother's illness and my childhood in English.  The language and cultural barriers in my household ensure that all conversations are riddled with bullet holes of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.  All through school, my parents would chant "Do well!  Do well!" to me before every test, every day of school, every event.  I would snap, "I know!" and they would retort, "What's your problem?"  About 10 years after I left the house, the subtitles to a Korean soap opera silently informed me that the idiomatic translation is "Good luck.  Good luck."  "Idiotic idioms," I muttered.

But these two exquisite people -- Rich and Judy -- would be able to tell me what happened in English through American eyes.  Because no matter my ethnicity or my fluency with Korean, all the intricacies and nuances of my Self and my experiences are decoded into English, filtered through this mind which was molded in America.

Yes, I've been to plenty of therapy, but sometimes all a person needs is a witness.  I didn't have the capacity to digest the events of 1973-5 with my childhood intellect, but I've never stopped thirsting for the details.  Once I knew where Rich and Judy lived, my parched heart felt greedy and restless.  So I waited for it to calm down.  Well, in this case, Rich's heart gave out first.

The Shereikis family gave this child a haven when she needed it most.   Shame on me for never turning around and saying thank you.  But thank you thank you thank you -- I offer up a murmuration of thank you's.  From the bottom of this stunted middle-aged heart, I say thank you for caring for a girl who wan't your own.  At an age when I couldn't even pray, you were nevertheless heaven sent.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Happiness Times 100, Multiplied By Zero

The headline said "Click this and feel 100 times happier."  Sounded great to me - I was already in a great mood.  Who the hell doesn't want to be 100 times happier?  Plus, the link was from a trusted friend who lives in an ashram and regularly posts uplifting quotes.  What could go wrong?

Well, two minutes later, my feelings were hurt.  Two hours later, I was openly pissed off from the video.  And by 7:30pm, I went to bed depressed, hoping to wipe my psychological slate clean.

What was in that video?

"Click this and feel 100 times happier."  The video started with a soothing sunny shot of smiling people holding balloons outdoors.  The voiceover promised me that this video was about True Love.  So far, so good.  Then a young man looks straight into the camera and says, "I know true love exists."

For a suspended second, I expected him to talk about his lover -- male, female, tranny, hermaphrodite, whatever.  Love was in the air à la Supreme Court Style, and I awaited a heart-warming quip.  Adding to the atmosphere was the copious April sunshine.  Ah, I was ready to be 100 times happier!

"I know true love exists.  I've seen in in the eyes of my parents since the day I was born."

This drilled right into the most susceptible part of my heart - a place I thought had healed long ago.

Now I know for a fact that I'm not the only one living on this earth who has never had a comprehensible gesture of love from their parents.  Usually, I pull this off fairly well.  I've learned oodles from therapy and self-help books.  Here are a few gems:

1.  On a "higher plane," my parents love me unconditionally.
2.  Some of us, before we incarnate this time, choose early emotional trauma so that we can delve into a deeper emotional experience at an earlier age.
3.  Lack of parental love or guidance makes me stronger.
4.  I'm who I am because of the experiences of my youth ...

... and on and on and on ....

Now what startled me the most was that I'm still sore about this.  In fact, I thought I was better than this.    Hadn't I outgrown my outrage at having been dealt my tough hand?  I shrieked silently at myself, "You're too old for this.  You're too old for this.  This is unbecoming.  You're too old for this."

Let me jump back here.  About ten years ago, I found myself sitting in a hotel bar past midnight.  Across from me was one of my former professors who was in town for a conference.  Suddenly he was admitting, "I've only had sex with one person."  Hmmm, I realized *this* is happening.  I was in the driver's seat, and I knew it.  Mulling this over in my mind, I purposefully kept the conversation on tender and intimate territory.

But he was an amateur at seduction, and it was not to be.  Feeling a tad too cozy, he spilled, " ... and I know it's because of my dad ... " and proceeded to elaborate on how his father's coldness and distance had hurt his boyhood feelings.

Within five minutes, I was out of the hotel and in a cab.  A man of nearly 50 still blaming his father for his current emotional state?  "Get over it," I thought.  It seemed undignified, unseemly and uncouth.  How could someone almost 50 still be moaning about his father?  "Get help, and get over it," I thought as I crawled into my own bed alone.

But here I am, ten years later, in bed alone (yet again) after a two-minute video bruises my childhood feelings.  Maybe my former professor wasn't as stunted as I'd imagined.  What haunts me the most is the possibility that my assignation of parents -- something I had no control over -- doomed me to isolation then and keeps me in this vice of isolation now.

Romantic partnership advertises itself as a salvation from past isolation.  Romantic partnership also seemingly has the benefit of the lottery -- anyone can step up and buy a ticket.  But maybe that isn't true.  Maybe some of us have been marked from day one -- from the day the doctor said, "It's a girl," and the parents said, "Oh," while the grandparents said, "Maybe next time."  But it wasn't just Day One.  There's also the day when I was 10 and they were disappointed in my IQ ... the day when I was five when they suggested I have plastic surgery ... etc.

Nevertheless, it feels uncouth, unseemly and undignified to still be affected at my age ... to still be mad ... to still even remember these petty details.  In this age of regeneration and mindfulness, don't we all accept that they did the best they could?  Can't I accept that they did the best they could?

Watching videos like the one today, I'm reminded that my green-eyed monster lives.  After all this time and thought and money, I still don't know how to wholly kill it or starve it or love it or annihilate it or incorporate it.  I guess it's time to take myself back to my proverbial psychological drawing board.  Shall I write "I will not be jealous of other people's loving parents" 100 times?  Or I could write "I promise to get over this crap" 100 times.  Or I could just write ... and trust ... and write .... and release ... and write ... and breathe ... and wait ... and keep writing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

10 Commandments for 21st Century American Theater - through the eyes of a yellow face

Imitation is the highest form of flattery ... so let's raise a glass to the Old Testament Big Guy.  I love telling people what to do, so here's my response to recent race discussions in the Chicago theatrical community.

1.  Thou shalt not use makeup, masks or prosthetics to suggest or obscure an actor's ethnicity.
This is akin to pulling back the corners of your eyes and then claiming that you're Chinese.  It's tasteless and puerile.

2.  Thou shalt not invoke "artistic license" when questioned about cultural choices made in your production.
If you're grown up enough to put up a production, you're grown up enough to justify and explain your decisions.

3.  Thou shalt not leave ethnic breakdowns out of casting notices.
By listing ethnicity or delineating "open ethnicity," you will increase the numbers of appropriate actors at your auditions.  I cannot logistically go to every audition for non-specified females.  Also, you don't get to leave out ethnicity from your audition notice for a culturally-specific play and then claim that not enough ethnic actors showed up.  

4.  Thou shalt not mount a culturally-specific play without cultural consultation.
This is does not have to fall on your dramaturg -- they are busy enough.  Get a Cultural Consultant like they did for Kite Runner or get a local Buddhist monk or a community member or your friend's immigrant mother ... get someone.

 5.  Thou shalt not ask ethnic actors to find other ethnic actors and call that your "minority casting call."
The ethnic acting communities are large enough that, believe it or not, we don't all know each other.  Also, new faces show up everyday.  Give everyone a fair shot at your play.


6.  Thou shalt not expand the acting opportunities of white actors in the name of "multi-cultural open color-blind casting."
No other occupation allows 20% minority inclusion and then starts taking away jobs from minorities in order to hire more white people.

7.  Thou shalt not dismantle new or unfamiliar culturally-specific work with "multi-cultural casting" and invoke Shakespeare.
The classics are part of the active literary consciousness.  If I put a collar on my cat and call him Macbeth, people will expect him to be a badass cat.  You can't put a white woman on stage, call her Mariko Matsumura and expect me to know what the hell you are trying to say.

8.  Thou shalt not give all the leads to white actors, cast minority actors in subordinate roles and be unaware of the message you are sending.
A production with a white king, a black servant and an Asian "dog" is not ok ... even if it is The Royal Shakespeare Company.

9.  Thou shalt not invoke white people's money as a justification for discriminatory practices and programming.
The white public can relate to stories containing minorities as evidenced by the aforementioned Kite Runner, August Wilson's plays and even Harold and Kumar.  And guess what? My money's green, too.

10.  Thou shalt remember that theater is capable of incisive exploration of the present human condition.
"I want to burn with the spirit of the times.  I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny.  I am disturbed at my comrades' failure to rise above narrow caste interests which are alien to the interests of society at large.  Yes, the theater can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence."  Vsevolod Meyerhold

... aaaaaaaaaand "Scene!"