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18 March 2011 @ 05:47 pm
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True Story.
08 February 2010 @ 01:50 am
Yesterday was one of the oddest days I've had in a while.

It started out all right -- went to work bright and early at 9:00am and was the only cashier since a lot of people had been there late the previous night doing inventory. So I'm going along, checking customers out, when all of a sudden I start to feel a little dizzy. This has happened once or twice, I figured it was just because I was tired. But it wasn't. I made it to the end of the transaction whereupon my vision started going, so I waved the line over the register over to the cafe and promptly slid onto the floor.

I'm not entirely clear on the sequence of events here, but someone brought me orange juice and that seemed to get me well enough that I could make it to not in the middle of the store, but about half way there I started to go again. But then, it turned out that the fire department was there! They were just inspecting the building, but it worked out for me because they had oxygen with them, so I had that which helped quite a lot, but they took a look at me and decided I should probably go to the hospital. My blood pressure was apparently alarmingly low (I remember hearing a 50?) and I turned yellow. Yellow like a bruise.

So lucky me, I got to take a ride in an ambulance. This was actually rather embarrassing, because by the time they arrived I was mostly back to myself but the firemen were very adamant that I should get checked out. This may actually have been my favourite part, though, because I had a lovely Irish paramedic who kept calling me love and, most importantly was rather reassuring about the fact that they went all the way out to get me despite the fact that I was basically ok.

I spent a couple of hours in the hospital. Between the hospital, the firemen, and the ambulance, my blood pressure was taken about 7 times. I also had an EKG which felt like being experimented on what with all those points hooked up. After that it became pretty boring. They brought me a surprisingly decent lunch and my mother came to pick me up, which actually turned into waiting for a long time while they ran some tests.

They said everything was just fine, though, and sent me home. So that was the end of part one. I sat around for a while and took a nap, but I actually had really bad timing as far as days to almost pass out because I also had a ticket to a show. Because I have my priorities (probably not the right ones, mind you), I decided that I was ungroggy enough to go. I feel kind of bad about that in retrospect because, although I did not realize it at the time, my mother actually did a good bit of cooking and, to be honest, a quiet night at home would have been both very nice and probably better for me. That said, I am so glad I didn't miss the show.

It was a production by a British company called Punchdrunk at the American Repertory Theater called Sleep No More, although you'd be more likely to recognize its usual name, Macbeth. This was unlike any production of the Scottish play you've ever seen before, though. It was in an old school, and I don't mean it was set in a school. I mean the show took up an entire school building.

I think the best I can do is actually describe my own experience because otherwise it's too hard to explain.Collapse )
Current Music: BSG - Violence and Variations
True Story.
15 October 2009 @ 06:25 am
This is an essay I wrote which I am reposting because this is my journal and I can. This is pretty much what I do with my day besides researching the Gaza conflict (I went for that internship after all) and watching gobs of Battlestar Galactica (new goal in life: to be Starbuck). Originally posted elsewhere.

I was pondering all of this and how it fit with The Lord of the Rings (which, I must admit, I am far more familiar with than any of Tolkien’s other works) even though it is admittedly the most distanced. Tolkien said that of all the characters, he was most like Faramir which upon further reflection their war experiences are in some ways quite similar.

"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."

My impression from Garth is that, replace “Númenor” with England and you’ve got Tolkien speaking. In fact, it’s not far off from the poem which is ostensibly about Oxford. (I hope you know which one I’m talking about because I can’t find it.) They’re both scholars who ended up as soldiers – officers, no less - who profess a profound patriotism that is more than simple jingoism. But it’s more than that. Let’s start not with Faramir but with Denethor.

Denethor is the Steward, supposed to protect and defend Minas Tirith. He uses the Palantir to assist him in this as a method of gaining intelligence and makes military decisions based on what he sees. In fact, this seems to end up being the sole basis of some of his decisions – there is no first hand experience. This is exactly how WWI generals both acted and were perceived as acting. Their intelligence was unreliable due to unreliable communications, as Tolkien would have been directly aware of given his office as a signaler. Particularly during battle, messages could take hours to get from the commanding officer to the infantry actually enacting the order, by which point it was frequently irrelevant anyway. Denethor’s information isn’t irrelevant so much as it is inaccurate, but he is either unaware of or apathetic to this fact. This is shown brilliantly in the scene in the movie where, juxtaposed with the charge on Osgiliath, Denethor sits in comfort and eats good food while being sung to as his men gallop to their deaths, just as the generals sat comfortably well behind the lines with frequently no idea of or connection to the reality. In fact, this is probably coincidental, but one of the things Joffre was known for was his strictly kept meal times completely regardless of the situation. Denethor ends up being the quintessential “Old Man” of the First World War, particularly considering how the infantry perceived both the old generals and the civilians who tended to be viewed as profiteers in some way. It’s not so much age as it is the complete disconnect. The politicians and generals frequently had no idea of the reality of the front. Denethor tells Pippin that this is what good generals do – hang back until the fighting is over, then move in to claim victory, which again is exactly what happened in the First World War. According to Hynes, many of the soldiers ended up feeling somewhat disenfranchised – like all of the men who had hung back from the fighting had secured their positions and gained from the sacrifice of the fighting men who really gained nothing. The “Old Men” of England kept sending the men in to be killed with little reaction to the actual situation. The Somme was considered to be going fairly well that first day – the same day that 20,000 British died. They looked at the evidence and saw no possibility of defeat. They kept going, using the same methods despite the evidence that their tactics were, shall we say, not the most effective. Denethor, given similar odds, instead despaired completely, and we all know what Gandalf and Aragorn think of that.

I think we also know Tolkien’s opinion, given his treatment of Denethor in comparison to that of Théoden. Théoden also starts out as an Old Man, both in attitude and in fact. He, however, rallies to the cause and instead of hanging back behind the lines charges out well in front of his men. His actions are not unlike many front line officers, in fact, whose death rate (if I recall correctly) was twice as high as that of the other ranks because they tended to run out first to encourage their men and thus get shot first. (The Germans also liked to target the officers who were, before uniform changes, easy to spot.) Denethor dies an ignoble death, trying to drag down his almost dead son with him, like the Old Men sending their metaphorical sons off to die. Théoden also dies, but he dies leading his men and thus gloriously, with the honour and respect which Denethor lacks. Although Tolkien lacks much of the anger at the older generation that his contemporaries tend to espouse, I don’t think it’s completely far-fetched to view Denethor and Théoden in light of the huge generation gap that the war created.

Turning back now to Faramir, let’s leave aside the fact that his war is conducted on horseback. He is sent on a mission that has little hope of success by a general who has lost touch with reality. He agrees to go despite his chances for success – a quality even the Germans noted in the men of the British Expeditionary Force. Finally, they are forced to retreat, defeated and having lost one third of their men. This was a common statistic in the First World War, particularly in 1916 when Tolkien was at the front. In fact, Faramir fared better than many on the Western Front. Although Denethor’s decision to defend Osgiliath seems to make strategic sense, given the actual facts it seems at best a desperate mission which will accomplish little. Faramir points out that they cannot afford to lose even few while the enemy can afford to lose a host. Although this wasn’t true for anyone in WWI, it is true that the attacker frequently suffered more than the defender – Allied casualties tended to be far heavier than German (who had more men to call on in the first place). And so Faramir, the intelligent, well loved, only remaining heir sets out to sacrifice himself for an almost impossible goal. Faramir is not just Tolkien, he’s the TCBS and Tolkien’s generation of officers. The highest casualities were among the university and public school educated. They’re called the Lost Generation for a reason. Particularly after the war, England came to see the dead as best and brightest, their potential heightened by their deaths, such as in the case of Wilfred Owen. They could also be the lost generation, as in wandering – many of the soldier-writers never really found their way out of the war. The Black Breath is practically shellshock. All those who are blighted with it have suffered deeply traumatic events aside from their brushes with the Nazgul.

Faramir is also like Tolkien in that, unlike his friends, he survived and was invalided out of the rest of the war. In ]A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes separates the people immediately after the war into five groups, and as I read his thoughts on each generation’s distinguishing characteristics, none of them seemed to fit Tolkien. This is another commonality between Tolkien and Faramir – both are invalided out of the war before the last big battle. Tolkien missed Passchendaele and the German offensives of 1918 thanks to his illness. I wonder if this is what made Tolkien who he was in part. His appreciation of fairy stories was, as he says, quickened by war, but I think it was more than interest. Tolkien was in the war long enough to appreciate it and to feel the effects of the despair and desolation. But I think he was invalided out in time and was thus saved not just from the danger of the trenches but from the cynicism that marks the rest of his generation. So many from that time fell prey to this disillusionment with the war, but Tolkien in a way was reillusioned, finding new significance to old myths. Faramir too is scathed by his ordeal in a way both physical and mental, but he recovers to life and hope. Tolkien was in the war just long enough to experience the darkness that makes his writing more than mere fancy. I really wonder what would have happened, who he would have been, had he been in the war for longer.
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True Story.
08 December 2008 @ 04:37 am
The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch is an amazing and sometimes agonizing piece of theatre.  I don't know if I can call it a play, although that's what it is, but either way it's amazing.  Six men from the Black Watch just returned from Iraq at the end of the Black Watch and the beginning of the amalgamated Scottish Regiment are interview in a pub by a writer -- the author of the play, Gregory Burke.  The play is framed by these interviews -- which are real and actually happened -- but is far from limited by them.  They flash to scenes in the 'wagon', following the nine men who inhabit it as they arrive and wait wait and wait...  So there are scenes, normal scenes.  But then there are the regimental songs and sequences that can only be called choreography.  Three men, including the sergeant, are killed by an IED.  A tarp that had been functioning as a projection screen and a door falls as though ripped down and the three of them are there, covered, but covered, in blood and hanging in the air.  They drift down impossibly slowly to be detached by their mates as their numbers are read over radio.  

It's so hard to describe because it's so linear and non-linear all at once.  How can I describe it in any way that would get across the shear viscerality  of it all?  I can't.  I lack the words and I lack the skill.  They all receive letters from home, the stack of mail passing as one man searches out his letter only to have the stack grabbed by the next.  They read.  And then they drop their letters and start signing out the contents in sign language.  Simple?  Yes, and somehow so, so sad.  One man was standing right in front of me and I could see that he was actually crying.  The tracks of tears ran down his face.  It stood in stark contrast to the harsh vulgarity and jocularity that they portrayed for most of the play.  

The thing is, it doesn't tell you that these men are good or bad, brave or honest or cowardly or disloyal or heroic.  They just are.  They're just people who happen to have experienced something searing and almost unimaginable, but they're still just people none the less.  It doesn't tell you what to do or even that something should be done. It doesn't tell you what the answers are or even what the questions are.  It just presents itself and it presents these eight men and lets you make of them what you will.  Sometimes I wanted to be one of them and sometimes I couldn't believe what was coming out of their mouths.  I wish I could describe more.  Maybe I'll come back to this.  I'm sure I'll have more thoughts.

I think this is what theatre needs -- what it should be.  Because it's theatre, real honest to goodness theatre, but it's relevant in the best way.  It's exactly what I want and what this country needs -- art that is meaningful and on point and thought provoking and, yes, relevant.  It says something while saying nothing at all.  I wish that this is what people would go see.  I love Broadway, I do, but half of Broadway is just commercial and we have had too much commericialism and too little Black Watch.  


I do have more to say.  I was reading Ben Brantley's review in the NY Times and he put into words so much of what I felt about the show.  This bit in particular clarified so much for me about my reaction.  

"And then, without preamble, the red felt surface of the pool table tears, and a hand punches through, followed by the full body of a man in combat fatigues, who is followed by another. Abstract memories of the dead have become an undeniable physical reality. And you know that for these men, these bodies are always there, in the pub, in the pool table, in whatever place they happen to be."

And it's true.  In most of the pub scenes they're all in civilian clothing but in the final one, they're all still in full uniform and you can tell that just under the surface, they are all still soldiers and that that will never leave them.  He also talks about how the entire play is choreographed which is also something that I noticed without noticing.  There's a grace even in the rough violence.  In the pub especially everything they do is almost a formation.  The show is staged in a space that is by design reminiscent of a parade ground.  It is far longer than it is wide, bookended by steel structures that they climb all over.  The pub consists only of a pool table and a few stools and chairs, but how the soldiers move and break and come to together is fascinating.  In the face of a question they did not like they would automatically form up, even down to the way they held their pool cues.  It was astonishing.  I'm practically talking myself into going back as I write.  At times they do actually military exercises and formations, marching and dashing around the stage in a chaotically eloquent way. 

The play ends in a way that I cannot find an adjective for.  They form up at one end of the stage after said exercises, in strict formation.  One man comes with a bag pipe and as the rest stand at attention, he marches very, very slowly down the full length of the stage playing a march. It seems to take forever and no time at all.  And then they all march forward.  Men fall, dead?  And they reform, and march again, and salute, and march again, and men fall, dead?  And reform and march.