January 11, 2018

Project SSA: The Summer I Became a Ghost Hunter

It started with just four words.  

In August of 2017, at a restaurant not far from my house, my close friend, Rob, confided in me that he'd discovered a strange thing on the internet. 

It was an online classified ad that was only four words long.  Rob is an avid podcast fan, and one of his favorites is a fictional narrative series called Tanis, that styles itself in the tradition of investigative journalism. This podcast's lead "reporter" investigates a series of strange events occurring in the area around Seattle, Washington. The investigation seems to point to the existence of a paranormal gateway to a place called Tanis.  In the narrative, people who are aware of Tanis find each other through classified ads in print and on the web. The ads are always simple--always the same four words--the same words I was looking at now on Rob’s phone. On the Chattanooga, TN Craigslist someone had placed an ad which read simply:  SEEKING TANIS.  RUNNERS WANTED.

I didn't have to know the podcast as well as Rob to have the same questions he had. Who would place such an ad? Why in Chattanooga, so far from the podcast's origin?  Was this a game? A hoax? A scam?  And most importantly, should we respond?

After a discussion about the risks, we decided to answer the ad.  According to Rob, the appropriate response was simply "RUNNER AVAILABLE".  He typed the email on his phone and sent it off.  I headed to the restaurant bathroom and by the time I'd returned Rob was reading an email from the person who posted the ad.  

His name was George.  And his email address was ProjectSSA@mail.com 

Here's what he wrote:
Hello fans of Tanis and adventure seekers. 
I’m sorry to inform you that I do not know the location of Tanis.  I placed the ad to which you responded in hopes of finding people like me, who love a good mystery and who might be up for an adventure. You see, I believe there might be something “sinister and secretive” beneath the surface of my hometown, Chattanooga, TN.  
I have been doing a fair amount of online research and since I no longer live in Chatt.  It occurs to me I need some other people to help with the "leg work".  So, making this into a sort of “investigative” game seemed like a fun way to track down some answers.    Please understand that this is a voluntary experience.  Any risk is assumed entirely by you.  I will not ask for your personal details and it is totally free to participate.  Think of it as a guided Geocache hunt.  As you discover and deliver your findings to me, new assignments will be sent to you.  Depending on when you are able to get around to them, and what you find, it could take you between 4-8 weeks to complete. 
If you are interested in receiving your first assignment, please respond to this email by simply saying “I’m in!”   
No need to include your name or contact info, other than the email address you'd prefer I use for correspondence.  I recommend doing these assignments with a partner, to make you feel safer and because some assignments will be time sensitive. With two people, one of you will be more likely to be available if something must be done at a specific day and time. Please, sign all correspondence with some kind of alias or team name. That way I can keep track of who has accomplished each task. 
Sincerely,
George  
Project SSA 
Warning:  some of the story elements and locations may be frightening to small children.  Everyone exposes their children to different things at different times. But I'd call this a PG-13 experience.
This would be the point where some might pause to decide if they go forward or not. We did not pause.  Rob wrote back that night and signed the email: TEAM SPEAKEASY. 

(The next chapter of our adventure will be posted soon.) 






December 13, 2017

Spitting at the Tree with Dolly and Kenny





My earliest Christmas memories include cutting down our own Christmas tree in the woods near our home. The tree was usually so tall and heavy, that traditional tree stands were not up to supporting it.  So my dad, the engineer, would suspend the tree from the ceiling with high strength fishing line. This had the amusing side effect of making the tree rotateable, like a drug store comic book rack. 

It would be decorated to the sounds of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (who none of us listened to outside the season) with my three older brothers and sisters.  I remember that my oldest brother and sister were usually tasked with the tinsel because it only looked good when placed on one strand at a time and they were the only ones who had the patience.  At the bottom of the box of decorations was a string of blue plastic beads. My brother taught me how to bite off a bead and spit it at the tree trying to hit the metal ornaments, which would yield a rewarding ding if one’s aim was sure.  This activity was frowned upon by my parents, but it was hard for them to get too angry about it, since it was sort of funny and wrapped in years of nostalgic mischief.

These were purely happy days for me.  The season, our family rituals, and the senses connected to them are well guarded sources of warmth for me.  To this day, I only listen to Dolly and Kenny’s Christmas songs when I’m alone.  My relationship to these songs, and the high octane happy memories they inspire are private. I’m protecting them, but from what, I’m not sure.  It’s not that I’m worried about the ridicule from wife or kids (which would surely come). It’s something more sacred than that.  Those are holy days—tucked away in our upstate New York farmhouse, with snow falling outside the bay window.  If our family were a tv show today, it’d be labeled “normcore” by some clever critic.  There were miracles involving surprise gifts that we were told “we just couldn’t afford this year”. There were acts of kindness directed toward our family in hard times, and to other people by our family.   And there was mystery. 

I remember sitting on the couch staring deep into our enormous suspended tree imagining I was two inches tall and exploring it’s branches like a Christmas spelunker.  I dreamed of eating enormous popcorn pieces that were strung with cranberries around the tree and looking at my reflection in the silver ornaments, only slightly dented by plastic bead projectiles. 

Even now, as I recall these sugarplum fantasies, I’m a bit ashamed.  I know very few people had it this good. So there’s some guilt about enjoying such a lavishly rich happiness, when so many I’m close to were living hand-to-mouth when it came to happy moments.  

Perhaps it’s because I know that the memories are wrapped in sentimental selectivity.  That they don’t include my parents’ nearly constant worry about finances as my dad’s job seemed to always be gone or in jeopardy around the holidays.  They don’t include one of my sibling’s complex struggles with mental health and identity issues that none of us fully understood. 

Happiness guild and nostalgic white-washing aside, there’s a kernel of something real there.  The love in that home was good. It was done right.  And the flame of that love is at the heart of the dad and husband I try to be. It’s the driving image in the home I want to create for my family. 

And maybe that’s why I am ashamed.  Hard-earned wisdom and unsolicited world-weariness have left that flame a weak flicker.  It might just be easier to forget that place existed—to believe that the spinning tree and bay window were merely fantasies, fables. I’ve seen too much pain in my life and the lives of others to indulge in such childhood fantasies. I should know better. And so, I secretly delight in Dolly Parton’s country giggles and Kenny Roger’s bourbon-smooth crooning alone.  They are just for me.  Dolly sings:

I believe that everything in life is what it's meant to be
I believe there is a God somewhere although he's hard to see…
I believe in Santa Claus, and I believe in you.


When I hear these songs I feel like a child, far too old to believe in Santa, straining to hear sleigh bells.  Straining to believe.

July 28, 2016

Thrashing About in the Woods


A reflection on my journey into Psycho-Physical acting


In the woods of Western Massachusetts lies a retreat center committed to communal living, artistic exploration, and minimizing their environmental impact. It was in this setting that I attended a 12-day acting intensive based on the psycho-physical techniques of Jerzy Grotowski.  The class, entitled “Acrobatics of the Heart”, was directed by Steve Wangh, a professor emeritus at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing and the author of two outstanding books (Acrobat of the Heart and The Heart of Teaching).

A BOLD STEP 

My decision to attend was a bold one for a number of reasons.  First, I came to theatre through the word.  I love the literature, the language, and the story of this art form.  I’m a writer and a word nerd.  As a director, I’ve already worked to expand my focus into the visual.  But to dive into the body work of the actor was pretty far afoul of my usual artistic path.  All I knew of this technique and its iconic pioneer (Grotowski) came from theatre history classes and textbooks.  I wasn’t personally convinced that physical training had the capacity to connect me to the art in a meaningful way.

I had my share of anxiety as well.  I’m probably not the only theatre artist who would confess that a large part of my path toward theatre included a deliberate avoidance of middle school sports and the giants of the gym.  I found the stage because my intelligence and sense of humor were firm legs beneath me in this arena.  The idea that I might need to use my body to explore this art form I love transported me to the days of dodgeball, floor hockey, and musty locker rooms.  It felt like a violation to let P.E. on the stage. 

It’s also worth noting that this workshop took place at a retreat center that had an entirely vegetarian kitchen.  I am not a vegetarian.  That’s an understatement.  I’m sort of anti-vegetables.  I hate them.  More than I hate musicals or when people say “irregardless”.  So, I knew it was going to be a struggle.  I packed a few pouches of beef jerky like I was smuggling in contraband.

ARRIVAL

The retreat center was about what I imagined: beautiful setting, dormitory style living, and a lot of unfamiliar rules designed to keep us and our natural environment healthy.  The people were kind and enthusiastic about the workshop and their art in general.

At our first group session, we each introduced ourselves and said a few sentences about whatever we wanted.  The main instruction, was that we were to make sure we didn’t plan our comments in advance.  No thinking about how we’d impress the group while others were speaking.  We each said our name and had to wait fifteen seconds.  It was in those fifteen seconds that we could think of what we wanted to say.  That was a struggle already, but it was such a perfect introduction to kind of presence and in-the-momentness we’d be asked to practice for the next to weeks. 

When it was my turn I said “A friend took this intensive and told me it was transformational for him.  Transformation is a big word, and I’m honestly pretty scared. But I’m not sure if I’m more scared that it will be transformational or that it won’t be.”

MEETING THE WORK

In the experimental theatre scene of the 50s and 60s, Jerzy Grotowski was a hugely influential figure.  He called for a physically engaged stage artist and his work was known for its sinewy actors and acrobatic blocking.   That’s about all I knew before arriving at this workshop.

I was interested to see what all the fuss was about, but in those first days, I was what you might call a hopeful agnostic. I had never had a “personal encounter” with the kind of theatre that was being pursued by these teachers and students.  While I might have been one of the more experienced theatre artists at the camp, I was totally green when it came to this psycho-physical stuff. 

After a promising first night of personal connections and open-hearted sharing, the first days of workshops involved a lot of physical work.  My doubts about my own physical capacities were quickly confirmed.  I’m apparently a sub-par undulator.  Despite many assurances that being a perfect physical specimen was not the goal, I still felt like I was the kid who finishes the mile run last in gym class.  Two days of this kind of body-wrenching, unfamiliar work took its toll on my psyche.  It didn’t help that I was barely eating the various green goops that were being served over quinoa or cuscus. Also, sleep was elusive on the tiny dorm bed nestled between not one, not two, but three very loud snorers. 

I arrived on Sunday evening, and by Wednesday morning I had decided that if I had another bad 24 hours, I would leave.  I needed a carrot.  And not the kind they were serving instead of French fries; the motivational kind.  But I acknowledged that you have to move to get the carrot, so I decided to work harder than I ever have on what could be my last day as an acrobat of the heart. 

The physical training primarily consists of specific movements, stretches, and contortions of the body that are designed to be “provocateurs” and “containers” of emotion and imagery for the actor.   The idea is that the physical exertion and the stretching of the body can illicit (provoke) emotional responses within us, and that once those are there, we can use those same movements to embody (contain) the ideas that come to us.  For example, the undulation of one’s foot might elicit a memory of playing in the wet sand on the beach.  This might lead to joy or nostalgia that would inspire the actor, to begin using the hand motions to start playing in the sand, maybe building sand castles.  This may, in turn, lead to memories of a family member, which would lead to physical movements of gathering or embracing for those loved ones we’ve lost or who have become distant.  This can continue on for quite some time.  The physical provokes imagery or emotion, and then becomes a vessel for us to bear and experience whatever is being elicited.  

USE IT IN THE WORK 

One of the things I kept hearing the teachers say to their students was “use it in the work”.  When they were frustrated, tired, coughing, or confused, the teacher encouraged us to let those factors impact the way we were working.  This is an interesting aspect of the training because, in my experience it’s entirely unique.  The current dominant strategies for dealing with emotional baggage within the actor fall into two camps:  “Milk it” or “Ignore it”. 

“Milk it”
Many American acting teachers (especially in the late 20th century) encouraged the mining of emotional memory as source material for acting.  Some would even encourage reliving emotional moments on stage in order to produce a desired effect.  “If you need to cry, think of when your dad died.”  As one might imagine, this could lead to a sort of hysterical acting, and then eventually, an extinction of the emotions connected to the source memory.

“Ignore it”
This is the “professionalism model” that encourages actors who are dealing with emotion to “leave it at the stage door”.  It purports that an actor has a job to do, and that job is to pretend. Real emotion should not get in the way.  As you might imagine, this leads to controlled, polished, but often stale performance. 

This idea of provoking emotion and finding a container for it seems an exhilarating middle ground.  Paying attention to emotions provoked by physicality makes the work alive and present, but the capacity to place it in a container and “bear it” gives a healthy alternative to being flooded or emotionally dried up by the overuse of emotional source material.   

On that crucial Wednesday morning, I had my first brush with this phenomenon.  I worked harder physically than I ever had, throwing myself fully into the physical training we had learned.  Sweat was dripping off of me. I was exhausted.  Then, I caught eye contact with another actor in the room.  I was dealing with anger and frustration, thrashing and punching at the air to fight my foes, most of which were internal voices berating me for not being able to understand this work.  And when I caught her eye, I put them all in her face.  I personified my enemies in her and fought her with my learned movements. In response, she gave me a tremendous gift, she didn’t back down.  She fought back. For several minutes we fought our demons by “fighting” with each other.  I worked even harder, pushing my physical limits as my emotions demanded.  It was abstract, there wasn’t any clear imagery attached to what we were actually doing, but I was using my body to both provoke and contain emotion.  It was satisfying and a little thrilling.  What I didn’t know at the time, was  that I just getting started.

MY FIRST FULL ENCOUNTER

In our next session, the director of the workshop, Steve Wangh, led our class for the first time. And it was here that he opened two doors for me into the work.  First, he told us to create our own movements (which are generally referred to as “plastiques”) and secondly, he told us to imagine that we were not in control of what movements we were doing; that an outside force was manipulating us to do these actions. 

It was under these parameters that I had my first full encounter with this work.  Through a series of physical promptings I was led through a series of images that told anew a story I’ve been living for 20 years.  It was extremely moving and revelatory.  And even though it stirred up serious emotion, I found myself using physical “containers” to express what was causing the tears, and to even make new discoveries within the sadness.  I walked away from that session knowing that I had been changed, artistically, emotionally, and maybe more. 

WHERE ARE THE NUTJOBS? 

The interpersonal element of the workshop was a bit of a surprise to me.  To be totally honest, I expected to find a strange group of people with whom I’d have trouble connecting.  But I was very wrong.  There was not one person, in a group of 30+ students and 5 staff, with whom I didn’t feel a strong kinship by the end of the camp. 


I have thought more about this in the days since, and I’m pretty sure that what was strange about these people was that they (and I) jumped into this experience with open hearts.  As I learned more about each of them, there were things that I found unusual or very different from my own way of life, but I was already in love with them by that point.  We all shared such tremendous common ground that our differences didn’t matter. We were all artists, vulnerable, striving, and deeply flawed.  The first encounter I had with each person was to look into their eyes with no judgment.  Why did we not find each other strange or annoying?  Because we leaped into each other’s company with our humanity leading the way.  No political parties, religious affiliations, or other dividing labels mattered. We shared meals, living quarters, emotional experiences, doubts and fears, and late night campfires together.  These people tattooed themselves to me with laughter and tears. I can honestly say that this group of disparate folks from all over the continent, of various age ranges, sexual orientations, and world views are my people. It’s a connection like I’ve never experienced outside of my family.  I miss them dearly. 


PENTIMENTO

As a part of the training, we were each asked have a monologue to work on over the course of the workshop.  I selected a monologue from a play entitled Red, by John Logan.  It’s a biographical account of modern artist Mark Rothko.  His paintings are generally large portraits that employ various layers of color.  Rothko’s character describes his work this way in the monologue I selected:  “I use a lot of layers, like a glaze.  Slowly building the image, like Pentimento, until the luminescence emerges and it’s done.” 

One morning, before beginning our morning session, I did what I should’ve done much earlier and looked up the word “Pentimento”. When I read the definition, I began crying (dictionaries do not typically make me cry).  Here’s what I saw:



As I have been doing this work, I find images emerging and they largely have to do with personal experiences and the ways I have changed over the years.  I’ve been painting on this canvas for some time now. There are hints of choices I’ve made (good and bad) in the past, and there are places where I have changed my mind, or circumstances have forced me to choose new shapes and colors.  The definition made me realize that we have one canvas in this life.  We may have a lot of starts and stops, redos, and undos, but we don’t get to wash the canvas. At best, we wash the brushes.  So, I am this painting, with layers of color, and hints of earlier images.  And it’s beautiful.  The changes, the mistakes, all of it.

WHAT NOW? 

In the wake of this experience, heck even during it, I was mindful of what I’d bring home and how.  I have not become a vegetarian and will never eat mung beans.  Ever. But there were certainly some poignant takeaways.

Of course, I found a new way to think about acting.  In my classes, I’ll bring some of this work to my actors.  I’m certainly not qualified to teach the material with any sort of authority, but I’m hoping to give them a taste of this thing.  This way of acting that both provokes emotions and gives them an array of vessels to contain them.  To take what’s inside and place it outside so it might impact them and the work. 

Yet, it’s about much more than that.  “Use it in the work” is a metaphor for how to live fully in the moment.  As I go through my life, I hope to be keenly aware of my emotions and how to contain them.  And by contain, I don’t mean, “keep them boxed up.” I mean hold them, bear them.  This mindset is not about working through difficult emotions but to acknowledging them and letting them impact us. 

            For example:
A student wants to talk to me after class:
-       I want to impress him
-       I want him to do well in my class and in his art
-       I am hungry
-       I am behind on my planning for my next class and feeling rushed
-       I am feeling sort of beaten down about university politics
-       I know exactly what to tell this student and I know it will be helpful

“Using it in the work” means embodying all of these internal things honestly. It means leveling with the student and myself. It probably means, scheduling a time when I can make his question and our conversation a higher priority.  And, finally, it means recognizing that I probably need a little self-care to get back to a place of calm and my best self.

On a personal level, as I write this merely one week after our last day, I’m still a bit tender.  As I re-enter a culture that’s so full of political rancor and division, I find myself feeling like an alien in this world.  I have had dreams almost every night that I’m going to have to advocate for the voiceless in my world.  I’ve had dreams about using what I am thinking and feeling in my work with honesty and boldness.  And I’m a bit scared.  When I started this workshop I was afraid that I would be transformed and more afraid that I wouldn’t be.  In retrospect, I think it’s safe to say that transformation has occurred. Now I’m scared that my transformation may start to impact my world, and more scared that it won’t.


May 01, 2015

Top Ten Weird Buck Adventures

We have a rule in our house.  When someone says the word “adventure,” then someone else must repeat the word, but as a whisper.  This is the reverence with which we treat new and unusual experiences.  It can be as simple as turning down a road we’ve never been down or trying the strangest snowcone flavor on the menu. 

From nearly the moment we met, my wife and I have lived by the principle that new experiences, or “adventures” (::whispered:: “adventures”), are the stuff of joy. Nothing is too strange, too dumb, or too cheesy.  In fact, the dumber and/or weirder the experience, the better.   


Here's a video with some pics to give you an idea of what we're all about.  

Weird from Dan Buck on Vimeo.

And for some explanation of some of those... 

The 10 Weirdest Buck Adventures

Towing and Recovery Museum
10.  The Towing and Recovery Museum – This is a thing.  There is a place in Chattanooga that holds the towing industry in esteem usually reserved for policemen, firemen, and revolutionary war heroes. 
I always thought they were mostly the guys who make your car go away when you’re illegally parked, but after an hour in this tribute to the men and women of the towing and recovery industry, I see things differently. 

9. Epic Nerf Gun Battle – In our former home, when we were all packed up and ready to move out, we had nearly 3000 square feet and many boxes to use as bunkers. So we found four nerf guns and fought until we were exhausted. 

8. Terrible movies – Rachel Anne and I have tried to catalog some of the awful films we’ve seen together.  Some of the highlights include Invasion of the Bee Girls, Nazis at the Center of the Universe, and Two-Headed Shark Attack.  It’s not that unique of a thing to do, but our appreciation of the awful as an opportunity for fun probably holds the key to our enjoyment of life.

Our family chalkboard
7.  The chalkboard – When we moved into our new home, my wife repurposed a large decorative
mirror by painting it with chalkboard paint.  We quite organically began a tradition where we take turns adding to a collective masterpiece. As you might imagine with two boys ages 11-13, most of the drawings include a character who is farting.  And I pretend I don’t think it’s funny.  But it totally is.  Every time.

6. The world’s largest ten commandments – This was a road trip to “Field of the Woods” a religious retreat center about 45 minutes from us.  The highlight of the campus is a hillside recreation of the ten commandments created with white stone laid on a grassy slope.  Each letter is roughly 4-5 feet in height.  It’s a sight to behold.

5. Trivia as Blonde Prussian Siblings – Back when we were dating we got on a kick where we spoke in Russian-esque accents which we decided were “Prussian”. We found some blonde wigs (which my self-professed weird wife had in a closet) and we went to compete in bar trivia speaking only in our Prussian accents and referred to each other as Juergen and Ute.  Our team name was Mother Prussia. We came in third.

4. Supersized Ears of Corn – While travelling home from a raod trip to Michigan we used our favorite phone app called “Roadside America” to discover that we were close to a field full of ears of corn.  No, not a cornfield.  A field of six foot, concrete ears of corn.  We had to make a stop.




3. Styrofoam Cup Museum – In a town North of Atlanta, there’s a place called Car City, USA.  It’s a sprawling junk-yard/art exhibit that an eccentric but kindly man has created on his property.  Dozens of cars over miles of trails are arranged, painted and overgrown with trees and wildlife.  However, one of the best parts of the stop is in the large building at the front of the lot.  Car City is across the street from a tasty little eatery where all the drinks are served in white Styrofoam cups.  The owner of Car City started to eat there daily and making each cup a work of art, with a pen, or pencil etching elaborate patterns and landscapes. Apparently, he kept ALL of them and has them on display.  Thousands of cups.  All decorated, elaborately and skillfully.  It’s wonderfully weird. 

Noah's Ark Exhibit (St. Mary's, OH)
2.  Things Swallowed Museum (Noah’s Ark) – Another road trip diversion. This is an exhibit at a regional museum in St. Mary’s, OH.Apparently, there was a doctor who found he was often dislodging or retrieving odd items from townspeople who had swallowed the unswallowable.  For some strange reason, he kept those items.  And for an even stranger reason, they are now on display in this museum. 

Also in this museum is a mechanized, glass-encased moving diorama that tells the story of Noah with various taxidermized birds.  When it starts up, there is music and narration as a birds enter the ark, two-by-two. Truly bizarre and glorious. 

1. Valentine’s Day – I was quite shocked this last Valentine’s Day to receive from my beloved a large red teddy bear in a scarf with a heart pattern.  It was a disturbingly normal gift from my wife.  I looked at her confused, almost a little hurt.  Then, with wide eyes, she handed me the scalpel (Pen knife).  Flipping the bear face down, I saw a scar with rough stitching that would’ve made Dr. Frankenstein proud.  So, I cut into it.  Inside, was… another bear.  And inside that… another, and another, and another.  Finally, I got to a strange figurine of a ferret holding a loving message addressed to me.  It was perfect.  She found a gift that required an adventure to get to it.  Albeit, a morbid one. 


Dressed for Lady Gwendolyn's Bleeding Hearts Ball
My gift to her was equally strange.  I told her that we’d be leaving in two and a half hours to head to Lady Gwendolyn's Bleeding Heart Ball.  It was an event hosted by the “Dark Princess Theatre” company at which a traditional New Orleans Funeral Celebration would be held.  And guests were encouraged to wear their best Goth, Steampunk, or Victorian garb.  It was fun to dress up and to see what people turned up. The event itself was terrible.  The program was neither funny or interesting, but with our attitude toward life, it would have been a success if it were good or bad.  Just for the sake of the Adventure! (::whisper:: adventure)