On Travel and the Northern Highlands of Vietnam

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Traveling the world is a funny thing.  It has the potential to unlock empathy for other cultures and an understanding of humanity as a whole (a very good thing), while simultaneously making the world traveler feel somehow more enlightened than those who have traveled less, or to less exotic locales, or with a more pampered experience (a very bad thing).  The truth, however (as it often does), lies somewhere between these polarized attitudes.  

Growing up in a smaller midwestern town and not having the chance to travel outside of the state (let alone the country) has given me an intense personal gratitude now having the opportunity to engage with unique topography, culture or history.  So the feelings which wash over me while taking pictures, writing or even talking about these experiences are complex.  So instead of going into detailed descriptions of something nearly impossible to describe, I can really only explain the paths within my own thoughts which I traveled swiftly during the experience:

The highlands of Vietnam are arguably one of the most beautiful land features on planet earth.  They are a smattering of locations, ethnic minorities and mountains smashed together on a fault line — creating impossible minerals, villages, rivers, foliage and ethereal fog (and I said I wouldn’t try to describe it).  It is an environment with the requisite peaks and valleys to make anyone who visits reevaluate who they are, the meaning of it all and why they even deserve to be absorbing such a undeniably spiritual site (or sight).  It is a place that anyone would love to share with everyone they know — as long as they listen to the little cartoon angel on their shoulder.  It is also a place that the same person (when listening to the forficated - tongued figure on the other) would want to keep to themselves like a delightful friend or perfect album.  It’s like a secret to the universe that, the moment you share it, might lose its luster.  And so pictures are taken, shared with pride and viewed with envy.  Satisfaction is brief, confusing and certainly nothing like the solitary experience of taking it all in for the first time.  I suppose we take those pictures in order to etch the memory in our synapses like a wedding photo or some other recorded ritual so that we can temporarily quell the fear of forgetfulness. 

One other thought fired across the wires in my brain whilst driving a motorbike through an expanse of mountains (an expanse which lays in six or more rows of viewable depth at three thousand miles of altitude). It was a fleeting impression concerning the spiritual practices in the Shangri-La that is the Hà Giang and Lào Cai provinces of Vietnam:

The hill tribes, by in large, practice a sort of ancestor worship as the basis of their spirituality.  And, upon learning that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism hadn’t found its way into these mountains (or taken hold when it was introduced throughout the many occupations of the country) made me wonder: is it, perhaps, because the utter majesty of the surrounding nature is spiritual comfort enough for the native peoples?  I refuse (for obvious reasons) to get into a religious or philosophical discussion about the presence and identity of a deity (as every devoted follower of every world religion will confidently argue they are the only ones which are “right” anyway), but I will say that the absence of such a defined figure seems to correspond with the overwhelming nature of the scenery.  It’s almost as if imagining something more awesome than one’s own back yard under their particular circumstances seems unnecessary.  Again, others will assuredly and adamantly argue that mountains have little to do with prophets and sacrifices, etc, etc. 

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Yet, in the moment of watching people farm the harsh but beautiful land in what seems a perfect communion with their environment, the fires of the mind are stoked if nothing else.  It is wildly and totally presumptuous to know how these hardened farmers and fishermen feel.  I admit that each one of them might trade places with me in a heartbeat if we could know each others’ perspectives fully.  And we never will.  But just the thought—the mere possibility—that these people which migrated thousands of years ago to their own Eden up in the mountains of Vietnam and decided that they didn’t need a deity or a book of rules or a complex religious hierarchy makes me feel a whole lot at once: secure and insecure, silly and serious, insignificant and impossibly important, knowledgable and ignorant, incredibly light and unbearably heavy.  And that meditative moment — that moment of not knowing anything which I felt staring across the valleys of Vietnam — that moment brings a fleeting smile to my face which I embrace and hope to keep next to me like a secret note in my pocket.

Video Games will Save NFL Football

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While there will be much discussion and fervent grandstanding about who’s to blame, the sport of American Football will be brought to the edge of irrelevance due to the chronic brain injuries of former players at all levels and the ambivalence in protecting those players.  The evidence, while impressive and incomplete now, will grow into an undeniable boulder from under which the NFL, NFLPA, NCAA and other major football organizations will be unable to crawl.  So then what?

Football fans that grew up loving the game because our fathers and mothers and grandparents and friends and congregations and colleagues and communities loved the game — we fans will be loathe to give up the culture in which we were raised.  The importance, the gravity of the culture in many American’s lives cannot be overstated.  So how do we handle the critical examination of something we love, knowing very well that it may be, at its core, a dangerous and life-altering choice for anyone that straps on a helmet?

That, of course, is going to be an individual and internal debate for many.  This much can be said, however: significant changes must be made to the sport, or the support of its fans and players unions will become complicit along with the football business owners in successive injuries to young men’s brains.  A comparison to the ancient Roman Colosseum seems appropriate if only for the celebrated brutality of a gladiator-driven, entertaining bloodsport.  Although many would say that a comparison to our brutal past is going too far.  They killed men, women and children — slaves.  Knowingly.  They cheered the violence.

Yet we cheer the violence.  There’s nothing like a ‘bit hit.’  But we don’t long to see them die, of course.  We don’t actually hope they become injured.  Perhaps a little, if a rival team loses a star player temporarily before they play your favorite team.  But not seriously injured.

And we’ve played the sport and loved it.  And missed it when it was no longer part of our autumn ritual to sit in the musty locker room and tape up our ankles and listen to loud, drum-driven music to get the adrenaline flowing before the first hit.  So we understand the player’s defense of something that is one of the only true thrills in so many’s lives.

And the NFL and other organizations are starting programs to make the sport safer — being pro-active and taking steps to fix the concussion ‘problem.’

And as long as we don’t have to actually see the every-day life of a player’s spouse and children during the months leading up to a surprising suicide by their father, their idol — the community’s idol, we can go on watching and playing fantasy football.

Simply put — despite how heavy it may sound — this national pastime is too dangerous to allow our children to play.  The signs are there early.  And it’s simply irresponsible to wait for the NFL or anyone else to say definitively ‘when’ it’s okay to play or ‘how’ one player becomes more susceptible than another to CTE (the chronic brain trauma disease found in a disturbing percentage of autopsied brains of ex-players).  So it must change or it must perish or we must be okay with the knowledge that every single player that puts on shoulder pads may end up living their last days with dementia and other horrific side effects from smashing those pads against another’s head and body

So it must change.  It may change into a sport that isn’t quite football.  Perhaps basketball with pads or something similar.  Lots of scoring, much less contact.  Or technology will protect us in armored or robotic ways — bringing us closer to avatars of players making contact, rather than the bodies themselves.  Whichever direction becomes most popular, there will still be a love for the game as it was.  As it is today.  Video games may be our best chance.  

The next generation of home gaming consoles will make their way this holiday season — and with it?  A new anniversary edition of the Madden video game franchise by EA Sports.  Madden 25 will most likely look and feel closer to an actual Sunday afternoon.  Watching the video game players play against one another could become truly engaging — much like those watching the international League of Legends video game tournament just this year.  While it may not be an ideal substitute for those that still have it in their blood, it might be our only recourse if we intend to do the right thing and stop supporting the sport that we love as it exists today.

A retreat. A residency. Part 1.

Process is an odd word — a strange thing.  It gets thrown around the performing arts with ease and, often, carelessness.  In any casual interview session a writer or director may be asked to explain his/her ‘process.’  And, as truly challenging as it is to functionally discover and hone one’s own, it seems even sillier to attempt to articulate a life pursuit in a conversation.   And this is where anecdotal evidence - a narrative - becomes absolutely essential.

When I decided to write again about my work in the theatre (attempting to flesh out this good-intentioned but poorly maintained blog), I thought the first thing I would discuss is my summer experience at Endstation Theatre Company and how it relates to my writing process.  However, seeing as I have yet to really synthesize much of what I absorbed at this point, it’s probably much more prudent to just tell a story or four.

When I arrived in Amherst, VA after an epic series of waiting, car rides and long flights from Los Angeles, I was a bit nervous.  Nervous about seeing old friends after 8 long years, nervous about having my writing read aloud and critiqued by strangers, nervous about being away from my home on the west coast for a month.  Now, those closest to me know I’m not the anxious type — but this was cause for some mild anxiety.  I was invited by the Artistic Director, Geoffrey Kershner (who was in my MFA Directing class at Florida State University) to join their Playwright’s Initiative as a visiting playwright.  It was an appreciated invitation.  

I longed intensely to work on my writing, which is a mode of expression into which I’ve only recently begun to delve.  Recently as in three years ago.  I’ve made much of my living as an actor, director and professor.  Writing was something that excited me and that I always genuinely respected, but never felt compelled to throw myself into head-first (which is only way I am able to really do anything with any success).  However, as aggressively as I’ve attempted to improve my skills in directing, acting and pedagogy — it was intimidating at age 30 to start building another related, but very different skill-set.  Here was an opportunity, now at age 33, to take what I had begun a few years earlier and focus on improving it in a virtual graduate-school setting - a residency in which I could lose myself a bit for the first time in quite a while.

Week 1 - Getting Acclimated to Porch-Sits and Whiskey Once Again

My time began with a campus tour of the beautiful Sweet Briar College campus, catching up with some old friends and watching an irreverent vaudevillian adaptation of Taming of the Shrew in the summer Virginia rain.  Endstation does a wonderful job with physical comedy and site-specific aesthetics, so it couldn’t have been a more appropriate way to wander into July at the foot of the Appalachians.  After the production, there were more introductions to the company while sitting on the old plantation porch of the dorm in which we were all housed.  Rocking chairs, Jameson’s and catching up in the sweet-smelling damp air with friends - old and new - kept me up longer than usual without regret.  And, while that night is crystal clear in my mind, the rest of the week is a bit of a blur in retrospect.  The following couple of days were filled with meeting the other visiting playwrights - two very young, very talented MFA students from Portland and D.C., respectively.  The time was also spent purchasing necessities for dorm living (something I am ashamed to say I was able to avoid all 4 years of undergrad -didn’t understand the requisite shower caddie, etc).  We also learned the details of the playwriting residency itself.  For those interested in applying for the future, I’ll recount the details as they currently stand as well as the contact information:  On Wednesday, we had our daily roundtable meeting which, in this case, was to talk about the reading series that would occur the following Monday.  This half of the residency was entitled the ‘Ad Hoc Series.’  The purpose is simple — we all brought pieces that were either finished, but needed refinement or were in mid-process — whatever we felt would be most useful to read aloud.  We would meet to read excerpts aloud at our daily roundtable meetings in order to refine and cast the readings until we were satisfied.  Again, a blur, but the weekend passed with some re-writing, some readings of the material, the reading of each other’s material to gauge our own potential amidst one another and, finally, more evenings spent conversing on the porch.  Time moved slow in comparison to freeways of LA, yet the following Monday would come faster than anyone anticipated.  And it was anticipated.  The Monday Ad Hoc Reading Series would ultimately tell us all a great deal about how each of us worked — and perhaps even a bit about our elusive personal process. 

PART II - COMING THIS WEEK

We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and success, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle