Sunday, May 6, 2012

Seeing Red

Was I born in the wrong generation? Just saw the play Red about the artist Mark Rothko. By today’s standards, the guy was a narcissistic, egotistic, self-absorbed, macho, arrogant bastard who talked at his assistant, bullied him, dismissed his ideas, shouted at him, threw paint at him and never once asked him about his personal life in their two years together.  He was a complete jerk—and I loved him! Well, not wholly, I mean, I wouldn’t want to work with him or call him up to go to the movies, but the ideas spoken and the passion with which they were delivered were invigorating. When the assistant finally stepped up and shouted back (instead of going to anger management classes together or reading the No-Bully guidelines), delivering verbal punches straight to the gut and head, Rothko said, “This is the first time you exist for me.”

That confrontation between the two was one of the most refreshing conversations I’ve heard in a long time. At no time did either claim to be “transparent,” “interested in moving forward,” “hearing where the other was coming from,” or careful to “only use I-statements.” I walked out of the play feeling more alive than usual, with my own passion and ferocity risen and affirmed. That red-hot clarity of thought that is constantly damped down by a culture of niceness and my own little boy desire to please others finally could hold its head high and say “Yeah!”

Lately at my school we’re beginning some meetings with a set of “norms.” We recite them like the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer, with about as much conviction as I remember feeling when I said those routine words in my elementary school. Things like:

• Assume good intentions.
• Monitor your tone of voice.
• Don’t make it personal or take it personally.
• Step up. Step down. Equal time for everyone.

I’m trying to imagine the great moments in religion, mythology, history, literature following the norms.

• Jesus on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?!!”
“Son, I’d appreciate it if you’d monitor your tone of voice.”

• God to Abraham. “I’m going to ask you to kill your son, but don’t take it personally.”

• Jesus to Judas, Casear to Brutus, women at the witch burnings: “Don’t worry.I know you have only the best intentions.”

• Fellow civil rights workers to Martin Luther King at the March on Washington.. “Ahem. Martin, your five minutes is up. Let someone else talk now.”

• Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire;  "stella."

And so on.

Well, we do need some social codes of etiquette and nicety and school staff meetings are hardly moments of great drama—or are they? The poet David Whyte was asked why bother to bring poetry into the mundane and humdrum corporate world and he said, “Are you kidding? Your typical corporate office is Shakespeare plus. There are mutinies gathering at the water cooler, midnight assassinations, trysts on the verandah during the office party.” And schools have the same thing, the little plotting and revenges and excommunications and betrayals, the jostling for power and alpha domination, the broken-hearted love affairs—and I’m just talking about the kids!! At our recent Spring concert, while I waxed poetic about the community-building and intricate harmonies that music brought to children, six girls were wrestling on stage with their feather boas directing their version of the patterned dance in full view of the 400 person audience, two boys were trying to play louder than each other on their xylophones, one girls slapped another in the face with her recorder case in the wings. And don’t even get me started on the teachers.

New Age crap aside, let’s stop kidding ourselves. Go into any gathering of human beings and under the surface of nicety is “Who do I need to suck up to? Who will I dominate? Who will help me on my way up? Who is trying to block me? Who wishes me dead? Who will I sleep with? “ And then there’s our struggle with life itself— earthquakes that don’t care about our personal development, diseases that randomly choose our bodies, histories of hatred and enmity that never quite go away. This requires ferocity, this requires passion. More red than light pastels. All of red, from blood to sunsets, the Devil to Santa Claus, from danger and stop signs to Chinese good fortune.

Go see Red. Of course, if you don’t like it, I completely respect your point of view and understand how it might not speak to you and I apologize in advance for taking up your valuable time.

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