Monday, April 06, 2015

Really? We still capitalize the word "internet?"

This week's "Desert Sage" column hit the streets today, as well as the Deming Headlight's web page. (You can read it by clicking here.) While reading it over, I noticed that the editors had gone in and carefully capitalized the word "internet," which I had used as a common noun throughout.

Really? This is still a thing? When new technologies emerge, there has been a tendency to capitalize its name as if it were a god - for example, for a while the phonograph was the Phonograph. The picture above shows President Warren Harding recording a message into a Phonograph in 1923. Harding was quite the tech president, being the first president to have a Radio in the White House.

At some point, the technology becomes familiar enough that its name becomes less potent, its status downgraded from proper noun to common noun.

This is not a complaint, just -- cute. I suppose I assumed that by now most journals had gotten over the rush of mystical excitement about the internet and were using it was a common noun. Turns out, not so much. Usage varies. The internet is still young enough to get the proper noun treatment in a wide swath of publications and media.

So hail to thee, Internet.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ask A Trucker: Flashing Lights and Secret Codes?

Welcome to the second installment of "Ask A Trucker," in which my cousin Chris (a truck driver) answers your questions about sharing the road with trucks. I am really enjoying this and encourage readers to send their questions to me via nogate at gmail.

Okay, let's go to the mailbag. 

Jason from Greeley, Colorado writes in with a two-fer:
Do truckers appreciate when regular car or truck drivers flash their lights at them to tell them it's safe to change lanes? I used to drive interstates long distances and would notice truckers doing this for each other when they passed each other and i started doing it as well.  I almost always get a kind on/off of the running lights by the drivers but have always wondered if they really need me to do it or not.
Second question.  Is there a secret trucker code after passing a big rig accident?  I was stuck up in Wyoming once after a nasty storm and when the highway finally opened up again we passed a bad wreck involving a semi.  For the next 10 miles the truckers on the road refused to let anyone pass them.  They took up both lanes and drove really slow.  If a car tried to get cute and use the shoulder of the road to pass they would block that too.  We all stayed single file for miles until they finally let us pass.
And here's Chris...

Before I start, I'd like to apologize for the delay in my response.  It's been a crazy couple of weeks because with the weather finally breaking there have been several demolition jobs starting up in New England and we've been running around like chickens with our heads cut off.  We have two questions this time around so let's get to it.

The first question is from a reader asking if we truckers appreciate when a regular car flashes their lights to let us back over.

When driving down the highway at night, it gets harder to gauge distances.  As a result, a driver will dim his headlights when another trucker passes them to signal that it is safe to move back over.  In response the passing truck will flash his marker lights to say "thank you" to the truck that they passed.

We do appreciate when a car does this because it is harder to see a car in comparison with another big truck.  But I must STRONGLY recommend that if you do this that you do a quick flash because high beams in the mirror hurt...a lot!

Second question:  is there a secret code among truckers in regards to a big truck crash.

This question had me stumped for awhile and I had no idea of how to answer until I had a conversation with a 41 year veteran of the road.  I told her of this concept and she thought it was great, and when I told her about this particular question, she jumped all over it and to be honest I was kind of surprised by the answer.

When there is a crash involving a big truck, once the road is opened back up,the truck drivers would drive in a slow procession for approximately 10 to 15 miles to pay respect to the driver that was injured or killed. This practice dates back many years, back to when drivers would look out for one another and were always willing to help fellow motorists in need.

As always, I hope I have answered your questions and look forward to answering more.  Please everyone, stay safe and keep the rubber side down.  We'll catch ya on the flip.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Hothouse Report

L-R: David Salcido, Gorton Smith, board op Rebekah Riley, Nora Brown, costumer Autumn Gieb, me kneeling, Danny Wade, Mike Cook, Eric Brekke, stage manager Erica Krauel, Julian Alexander. Photo courtesy of David Salcido.

Here you see me with the cast and most of the production team of The Hothouse, as we performed it at the No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces during the month of March. We are on the wonderful set designed by Tiffini Reimann (who also designed the spectacular set for Terra Nova in 2013 -- images and reviews here).

My taste in plays runs rather more dark than that of Ceil Herman, the artistic director of NSTC. Out of a handful of plays I submitted, she opted for The Hothouse by Harold Pinter.

This is the play that languished in obscurity for twenty years, only for the playwright to re-evaluate it and produce it in 1980. The American premiere of this play was at the Trinity Repertory Company in 1982, directed by Adrian Hall and featuring an excellent ensemble that included George Martin, Amy Von Nostrand, Peter Gerety, and Richard Kavanaugh (to whom I had recently been introduced by my fifth grade schoolteacher) in the role of Gibbs. The production went to Broadway and Kavanaugh was nominated for a Tony in the role. The play made an enormous impression on me. Having read more of Pinter's works as an adult, I still rank this as among his best. It was seldom produced but in the 2000s saw some revival, including a very successful run on the West End in 2013 with Simon Russell Beale.

Mike Cook and Nora Brown. Photo by Erica Krauel.

After the harrowing (albeit successful, artistically) experience on Terra Nova, I hoped to add time to the preparations by casting early and, at the very least, providing the actors with scripts and materials to help practice plausible British dialects. Once again, I mostly hand-picked the cast, although I did hold an audition call (for which two people showed up). I was also a bit more careful to screen for personality traits, since interpersonal conflict had roiled the last production. Once the play had been cast, we got together in December for a first read, and the company was eager to begin rehearsals right away, and so we began.

Local filmmaker Julian Alexander, me directing, and Eric Brekke in rehearsal. Photo by Erica Krauel.

And happily, it turned out to be a wonderful ensemble of people who enjoyed the process and each other and who didn't get too pissed off at me. I'm not aware of a single cross word, bruised ego, or disappointment. Even actor Eric Brekke, who was a little more used to directorial blocking, adjusted to my approach (and my insistence that actors discover things for themselves) affably. He was, by the way, a tremendous success in the difficult role of Gibbs, transforming himself into a quietly layered, terrifying bureaucrat with ice cold ambitions.

We knew we would be in the rehearsal room for a very long time, allowing us to burrow into the complex scene work. I exhibited my usual distaste for blocking, preferring to let blocking emerge organically as the actors pursued their (often hidden) objectives. We did some breathing exercises and played a game in which dialogue was physicalized as a knife fight (using pool noodles cut to size). I held private sessions, as I had on Terra Nova. Later in the process, we did some focused line-throughs, the ensemble sitting and hearing the play together again for a sense of the whole. We did this several days a week in December, and through January and February, much longer than most of our local productions (since we cannot pay the actors to rehearse full days).

Nora Brown and Eric Brekke. Photo by Erica Krauel.

The hard work was in place by the time we moved into the theatre at last, near the end of February. The actors were confident enough in their scenes that adapting to the room and the set elements as they fell into place was smooth and confident. Was it really going this well?

Mike Cook and Danny Wade. Photo by Erica Krauel. 

The next task was creating the sounds that play an important part in the script. The setting is a sinister sort of mental institution, where the patients - who are never seen - are getting restless, and the staff members comprising the play's characters keep hearing "something going on." I was adamant that there be no recorded sound effects. Everything would be live, including the P.A. announcements and dialogue over a loudspeaker (performed with different microphones by actors in the booth). I asked the actors to explore the entire building other than the theatre itself - backstage, the lobby, the hallways, the costume storage area, etc., and experiment with various noises that might be heard in the theatre. From these experiments, we assembled a "score" of overlapping noises that the audience testified was surprising and effective. The final "insurrection" when the patients briefly take over the asylum was a minor riot taking place with the stage bare and a bustle of activity taking place unseen all over the building around the audience.

Mike Cook fully owning the role of Roote. Photo by Erica Krauel.

The play opened March 13 and closed on March 29. The one publication in Las Cruces that agreed to review the production was effusive. Patrons were also enthusiastic. Attendance was stronger for this than Terra Nova. Those who came praised the quality of the performances as well as the fascinating set design by Tiffini.

For Terra Nova, Tiffini had plunged the Black Box into an arctic landscape consisting entirely of ingenious, layered painting and a meticulously crafted foam sculpture that captured Peter Herman's lighting perfectly and radiated cold. This show called for a claustrophobic interior space; and, like the previous show, Tiffini and I were again designing a theatrical picture of a human mind, in this case the enclosed universe of a dictator.

We painted a bifurcated floor in layers to resemble aging linoleum, including a tiled pattern for Roote's office that gently suggested the form of a spider web, with the staff lounge clearly delineated to stage right by the different floor and two beat-up chairs. The office walls were bore some water damage, and some furniture tipped slightly as if the floor were buckling. A radiator (borrowed from a junk collector) skulked before a window that opened onto a brick wall, with light that was captured beautifully by window panes made of vellum and chicken wire. The picture was framed by a layer of cinderblock (quite realistic but crafted from foam) and, hanging above the scene, a chain link fence emphasizing the staff members' position inside the imprisoning walls. The soundproof room was indicated with a special light, and a microphone and bare light bulb that lowered into the space as the creepy "interview chair" was rolled in by Gibbs.

Julian Alexander as Lamb. Rehearsal photo, taken by me.

It was so gratifying to revisit a play that made such a large impression on me, and yet produce an entirely unique production with a different visual style and a dedicated ensemble of actors, three of whom had taken acting classes I taught, others I had seen and admired in local productions, with a range of experience. It was the happiest ensemble experience I have had since, oh, directing some Trinity alumni in An Ideal Husband back in Providence in 2000; and the actors themselves were effusively happy about their own time working on the project. It is also wonderful to work with a design team with Tiffini Reimann and Peter Herman; and the costumer, Autumn Gieb, was present for every performance to do any small repairs that needed doing.

Nora Brown, alumna from one of my scene workshops, as Miss Cutts.

It nourished my desire to offer high quality work, both for what it gives our audience (seeing this show for ten bucks or twelve bucks was a bargain) and for people to do some hard work and grow artistically. Maybe the sum of this is people getting excited about live theatre in the community, to see what else might be possible.

There are so many photographs from this production and rehearsal process! I am very grateful to David Salcido and Erica Krauel to share these photos here and on other social media. The theatre company's official set of production photographs - which show off the set and many more views of the actors and their wonderful costumes  - can be seen by clicking this link.  Those photos are by Peter Herman, the theatre's technical director and the production's lighting designer.

For now, we are taking off the director hat, but next season will be busy with two plays to direct.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Ask A Trucker: Are CBs Still A Thing?

Here we go with our first installment of "Ask A Trucker," in which my cousin Chris (a truck driver) answers your questions. Feel free to write in with anything you'd like to ask an actual truck driver, the address being nogate at gmail.

Longtime reader Kelly asks:

Do truckers still use CB radios?  I spent a fair amount of time on the Interstate highways in the late 70s and early 80s, during the heyday of CBs.  As a young woman traveling alone, I had a CB more for safety reasons than anything else, but it also provided a great deal of entertainment.

Chris responds:

That is a much better question than you might think.   A CB (citizen band) radio is a simple and easy way to communicate.  It is nothing more than a mobile transmitter/receiver used by truckers to quickly pass information to one another.  It has three basic parts: the antenna which sends and receives a radio signal, the transmitter/receiver which houses all the control functions such as channel selection and volume, and the microphone. The way they work is, one driver will speak into his microphone and all other drivers in close proximity will be able to hear and respond.  When tuned to the same channel, we can use them to warn other drivers of road hazards and weather conditions. And yes, we tell each other where the police are monitoring, so next time you're driving and you see a truck slow down it might be a good idea to do the same (it just might save you from getting a speeding ticket).

So the answer to this question is quite honestly: not enough of us still use the CB. Most owner operators (drivers who own their own truck) and "old school" company drivers use them but with the popularity of cell phones most newer drivers don't utilize this important tool, or they simply don't bother to install it.

I hope I have sufficiently answered your question and look forward to more.

Thanks, cousin! By the way, this is Chris:

"I would like to assure everyone that I will respond to all of your questions as quickly and as thoroughly as I can, and that the opinions given are solely mine based on my beliefs and experiences."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Introducing "Ask A Trucker"

Several weeks ago, I was walking in Deming a few blocks from where the I-10 cuts through town. Approaching Gold and Pine, I heard a sound like a cannon going off and jumped straight up in the air.

Moving to where I could look up and see the bridge where the interstate passed by downtown, I saw an 18-wheeler. It had blown a tire - that was the sound I heard - and come to rest with the guard rail deeply embedded in the truck - the guard rail that prevented the truck from falling onto Gold. A bad day for that driver but no one was hurt.

Soon I wondered, having never driven a vehicle that size, how difficult it was to keep control if a tire blew out. I drive on that interstate all the time, almost every day, sharing two lanes with a large number of trucks.

Happily, I had a resource. My baby cousin Chris, a war veteran who is now a truck driver. The conversation took place on Facebook and a couple of other people asked questions while Chris happily responded. And that's where we got the idea for this new feature: "Ask A Truck Driver."

My cousin is willing to respond to questions, and I'll post them here. If you've ever had a question or wondered something about trucks, ask my cousin. Send your questions to me at nogate at-symbol gmail dot com. (I'm typing it that way to reduce spam.)

I don't know how often or how quickly Chris can respond - remember, his working life is on the road - but this might be a fun venue for reader participation and maybe to spread some useful information among those of us who share the road with trucks.

[Image: That really is a sculpture made from two oil tankers. I know it's real because I saw it, watched a crew finish welding it, and I climbed the inside and outside of it. It was on exhibit at Burning Man in 2007. The piece was named "Big Rig Jig," designed by Mike Ross.]

Artistic Friends, Dharma Friends

Several chapters into Bobby Lewis's memoir, Slings and Arrows, I find myself pondering artistic friendships. In the current chapter, Lewis recalls the origins of the Actors Studio, which arose from the values and the community of the Group Theatre, including a coterie of theatre practitioners who had worked together for a long time: Lewis, Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and others.

One of the unique attributes of live theatre is that the experience is social.

The same appears to be true of artistic growth in theatre. An individual's growth is nourished in social groups: the community of an acting class, an ensemble company, colleagues, etc.

Even seemingly lone visionaries, like Richard Foreman, have had community or at least co-conspirators.

One of the strengths of the acting company at Trinity Rep is that the core company has been working together for decades. Being part of such an ensemble has been the most painful loss of my post-Trinity years (Oskar Eustis "let me go" in 2000, and I returned for one last Christmas Carol in 2005).

There has been some talk lately about the prominence of British actors in contemporary films, leading some to speculate about a "crisis" in American acting. The crisis isn't particularly new and the thesis is not remarkable. Acting is a craft, and a period of intensive training, followed by a commitment to continue to challenge oneself and learn for the rest of one's practice, positions one to develop their skills and master the craft of acting. This commitment to training in the fundamentals is more typical among British actors than American actors, and while there are certainly plenty of American actors who respect the craft, the commitment of time and money required for a good training program in the United States is economically out of many people's reach. The conservatory where I trained, also at Trinity Rep, was absorbed into the theatre program at Brown University. I could never have afforded grad school at Brown. Most people can't.

So what do people do? Some invest in acting classes, casting workshops, and focus on building up their professional tools and getting jobs wherever they can. The danger is that one might end up investing more time and money getting their portfolios in order without learning the craft first. Landing a job is great, and you can land acting jobs even without mastering the craft, but landing a job and artistic accomplishment are different achievements. (I say that with a healthy respect for those who are landing jobs, and with some humility, for as often as I have been praised for my artistry, and even praised for my film and television auditions, I rarely book.)

The social experience is part of the training. Your artistic community, your friends and comrades, see you while you learn and grow, and vice versa. If they are good friends, they can give you constructive feedback without knocking you down and making you lose faith. (Some people like "tough love" and harsh words from their teachers, as a way to weed out the weak, but I've never favored the social Darwinist approach to artistic exploration.) Artistic friends inspire one another, compete a little bit, impress each other, grow old and learn new things together. They need not even be "friends" in other contexts, they are like what we call "dharma friends" in our zen centers - you may never hang out socially and chat, but you when you sit a few silent retreats with someone you get to know them through a deep-rooted human solidarity. That solidarity has nothing to do with liking somebody or "bonding" with them over things like sports or movies or politics, the things we chatter about.

I miss my Trinity friends. During my travels I've made efforts at planting the seeds for such that kind of community. I was part of the Company of Angels in Los Angeles. We weren't angels, but there were some talented people there, but most of the people there had individual goals at the time and we didn't gel as an ensemble, although I found a couple of long-lasting friendships there, including Chris Nelson, who remains a personal friend and artistic friend.

Chris and I tried another venture with Theatre Dojo, with a core of artist-teachers doing workshops in hopes of finding an ensemble. It didn't last long before people went off, again, in individual directions. Lately I've been using the Theatre Dojo imprimatur again but ironically it's currently centered on my own individual projects. My recent collaborations with musician Randy Granger and outreach to other artists is, again, an attempt to forge artistic friendships and collaborations.

Recently there is talk of a new ensemble theatre in Las Cruces, committed to performing Shakespeare, and I was invited by three other people in the community - people who have M.F.A.s and are practicing theatre, some of us also as teachers - to be part of the core group. There have been flickers elsewhere, too, of a cohort of people practicing theatre, a desire to find some way to train and grow, if not for financial reward at least for the enriching experience of artistic growth; and the social benefits to a community where there is live theatre of some quality.

It would be nice to see this develop. Stay tuned.

[Image: Me playing Tybalt, center, in Florence, Italy in 2012. On the left is Elia Cittadini, who played Paris - someone I really enjoyed getting to know, especially for his sharp criticisms of certain restaurants in Florence. Not a customer to piss off. He lives in Berlin lately. The prince, on the right, is played by Stephanie Taylor. Our personalities chafed a bit during that summer but our rough edges wore down and to this day we talk about finding a way to work together again. But she's in New York and I'm in New Mexico. Who knows.]

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Princess" Goes to Cleveland

This picture was taken at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas, last April. We were on location filming a short movie entitled Princess.

Today the Burning House learned that the film has been accepted (among 180 out of thousands of submissions) to the Cleveland International Film Festival next month. This means it qualifies for an Academy Award, which is probably as close as I'll ever get to an Oscar, which is all right.

Mainly I am happy for the hardworking director of that film, a fellow by the name of Ross Marks, who discovered this screenplay written by one of his students at New Mexico State University and believed in his student's work enough that he produced a lovely little movie from it, assembling a good spirited crew of professionals and students training to be professionals.

Congratulations to them. And click here if you would like to see the film yourself

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Childhood Diseases" and Vaccination

Science education matters. It is, if you will, an inoculation against the spread of misinformation and fear. Such as the fear of inoculation itself. Vaccines.

Mistrust of authority figures is a different matter - and the mistrust is justified by the conditions under which we live. It is not, however, a reason to make bad medical decisions.

There is a measles outbreak in the United States, a disease declared eliminated in 2000. We had the disease under control due to a very effective vaccine. But the disease existed, fanned by travel and contact with unvaccinated people, as measles has a larger presence in some countries. In other words, by declaring it "eliminated" we were declaring the disease under control. Nonetheless, we now have an outbreak and as political leaders and would-be national candidates weigh in it is apparent that junk science has a great deal of currency. A United States Senator even claimed this week that vaccines lead to mental disorders, which he said on tape and yet tried, lamely, to deny that he said what he said.

A growing "anti-vax" movement is the major factor in the outbreak, but there is also this idea that these childhood diseases are minor, no big deal. Because these diseases have been kept under control for so long - thanks to vaccination - a lot of people forgot, or never learned, that these diseases can lead to complications with long-term damage, permanent damage, even death.

I learned this lesson when I got chicken pox at age 27.

My parents are positive that I had chicken pox as a child and in any case I had had the regular panel of vaccinations. I remember having mumps, as well, during my elementary school years. I don't understand how I could be re-infected, but there was no denying I had chicken pox. It was during my second year in graduate school. I fell ill and broke out, I went to a doctor and got the diagnosis, and he sternly told me to stay in bed. This was in part to contain my disease and also because the complications were extremely serious, including pneumonia and encephalitis. How long should I stay in? Until the pox had dried up and gone.

I was in bed for a month.

And I mean, in bed. I lived alone in an apartment on Candace Street in Providence. My girlfriend looked in on me but didn't stay long. It was easy to stay in because as my body fought this "childhood disease" I was drop-dead exhausted all the time. It kicked my ass. And itched. Oh, the itching. Nothing helped very much.

I did not get pneumonia or encephalitis, but I developed Bell's Palsy, which left half my face paralyzed for several weeks and to this day, 17 years later, my face still goes asymmetrical at times.

We think of childhood diseases as not a big deal. Kids get 'em, they beat 'em, they don't even remember having them. But these diseases are a big deal. Vaccinations don't literally eliminate these diseases. Elimination means "the absence of continuous disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area" according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The media seems to love the question of whether vaccinations should be legally mandatory. This is distinctly a different question than, "Should kids be vaccinated?" The latter is a no-brainer. (We will get to the common objections in a moment.) Yes, vaccinate your kids. Yes. That's an easy question with a correct answer. The answer is yes.

The question the media wants to explore because it makes for good debates on television and lights up the libertarian left and right is "should government require you to do this thing?" Another United States Senator (we are electing some prize turkeys lately) even called question to health codes requiring employees who serve food to wash their hands after using the toilet, completely ignoring what is known - commonly known, in fact - about Eschericia coli bacteria.

What no one has said yet is that making it a legal requirement would not be necessary if we could defeat the misinformation and help people understand that vaccination is, from a medical standpoint, a settled matter and the ethical equation rather simple. We shouldn't need state coercion any more than we need a state to require us to look both ways, and once back again, before crossing a street.

But there is a lot of misunderstanding and fear about vaccines, a lot of strongly prevalent rumors. For heavens sake, we have a prominent and popular television personality insisting absent any scientific evidence that vaccines are linked to autism. At the same time, there is also a lot of mistrust of government and the medical industry, the former being in service to corporations in the latter, and the latter having been willing to push medications and cut corners on safety in order to enhance its profits.

People worried or unconvinced about vaccines should of course be free to make their own decisions - GOOD decisions, sound decisions, decisions based on good information and sensible thought. We have this fallacy that everyone is entitled to hold whatever opinion they like. Some confuse this with freedom of speech. But there is nothing virtuous or helpful in defending the freedom to spread bad medical advice or other false information. True liberty comes when one is free to make good decisions and hold sensible opinions. You don't get there through coercion and you don't get there by calling people stupid.

People aren't stupid for mistrusting experts and corporations and government bodies in a system like ours. Besides human fallibility, and the nature of science (which can be wrong, which is why scientific research is never finished), it is perfectly sane to feel alienated from institutions and authority figures under capitalism. Under for-profit medicine, we are used to be lied to, denied care, and in some areas of medicine overdiagnosed and overmedicated due to profit-driven marketing. What I'm arguing here is that under capitalism, human needs do not come first, and the way we are treated by our medical industry demonstrates this.

Also true, we haven't done a good enough job of educating people about the science behind vaccination. (Or educating people generally about science, starting in elementary education.) For a great many adults, vaccination is as mysterious (and scary) as magic. People hear things about hormones and preservatives in the shots, about mercury this and autism that, and then someone who has been given a platform on television spouts rubbish, and then a pandering senator affirms that rubbish; and large numbers of Americans instinctively trust such figures, even when they are lying or crazy; and the whole fire of ignorance spreads faster with the internet and social media.

Every question about vaccinations, no matter how basic or silly from a scientist's perspective, deserves an answer. If your doctor can't give you a good and informative answer or is not trustworthy, your problem isn't with vaccines, it's with your doctor.

Every question about how vaccines work deserves answers, including questions about the appropriate panel. For example, a lot of parents who are fine with vaccinations still wonder why HPV vaccination is appropriate for their children. There are questions about vaccines, their use, and how they are marketd, that are legitimate and deserve direct answers.

And in a system where medicine and medical care don't have anything to do with profit, some of the experiences that lead to widespread distrust would disappear. It would be "eliminated," in the sense that the CDC uses the term: doctors won't be any more or less fallible, but the context in which we ask questions would be vastly improved.

If good information and reassurance become endemic, you'll see a spike in compliance with vaccination - without coercion.