Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ubi Sunt

We watched the movie, Rachel Getting Married, a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things that resonated most strongly with me was the family's house and the extended family of artists, musicians, and layabouts who seemed constantly to be on hand. 'That was supposed to be my house," I kept thinking. "The big, old house--the sane guy in the center of many concentric circles of eccentric people. Wasn't that supposed to be me?"

I've had a habit, even as far back as high school, of seeing myself (and therefore allowing myself to become) Nick Carraway to all the Gatsbys around me--the supportive friend, ready to listen--not the do-er, but the watcher and recorder--not the crazy one, but the crazy one's friend. Well, maybe it wasn't a habit or a choice after all. I've always been a writer by temperament, and that's what writers do.

When I left school and committed myself to making a life in theatre, that same dynamic held. There was always drama around me (real-life drama, above and beyond the stuff we were creating), but it was rarely my own. In fact, when it was my own, my friends seemed to resent the fact that I was stealing focus. It's like that old joke: "Enough about me. What do you think of me?" And that seemed to be true not only of the actors in my theatre company, but also of the other friends I had accumulated over the years--passionate, interesting, complicated people, all. I resented it, sometimes, but only sometimes. Other times, I envied their passion, their single-mindedness, even their ability to be selfish. It's hard to be successful in the world of art and entertainment if you're not feverishly single-minded and willing (and able) to sacrifice everything (or everyone) to your ultimate goal. But I don't think you can choose to be that kind of person. You either are or you aren't. And, as it turned out, I wasn't.

So things fall apart, and over time, people drifted away, in pursuit of other dreams--or the same dreams, but in different places and with different people. And for many of us, there was also, eventually, marriage, and children, and the cocooning and separating from others that inevitably happens.

For me, part of the marriage and children thing involved moving around--from Atlanta to Manhatten to Brooklyn, then from Brooklyn to a small town along the Hudson River, and then out to Arizona. And the center cannot hold when there is no center--when everyone is in motion, all the time. I have friends back in Atlanta, where I went to college, who have never left, and who still maintain a gravitational center that keeps relationships and people in orbit around them. I don't have that. Here in Arizona for two years, I'm only just now beginning to accumulate some friends. But they're different kinds of friends. They're the parents of my children's classmates. They're fellow congregants at our synagogue. They're good people, and nice people. But they have their own families, their own cocoons, their own centers of gravity. And there's nothing very strange about that--it's how most of us live, these days: four of us here; three of us there; two of us somewhere else. Lunch? We'd love to, but give us a call first--our schedules fill up so fast.

Sometimes, though, I wonder about that alternate reality--the pathway I imagined for myself, that never really materialized. I imagine the too-big, falling-down old house, somewhere with big trees and big lawns, and woods, where people drop by unannounced and stay for days; where there is always something wonderful cooking on the stove; where someone is always playing music, or practicing a scene or a dance; where you can always hear, from some room, a passionate argument about something; where a familiy's generations live together, instead of miles apart from each other. Life as a community, instead of life as an isolated pod.

And then I realize where I first got that image, and it's not from my old life in the theatre, it's from a life imagined in theatre: it's the house and the family in You Can't Take it With You--a play I first read in High School, probably thirty years ago, sitting in the school library--alone--during a free period.

So the movie two weeks ago makes me mourn for a world I first saw imagined in a play. And life is just life is just life is just life.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

I used to like democracy. Sounded cool, supported by lots of important people, blah blah blah. But I'm over it.

When I ran a theatre company, I tried to lead it democratically. Likewise when I managed a curriculum team. But there's a difference between "leading democratically" and "allowing chaos." A big difference. I am currently working in an "allowing chaos" place.

Actually, it's the worst of both worlds. On odd-numbered days, I am given tasks and told what to do, and usually am treated like a fool for not having anticipated the task before it was asked of me. As I said to someone recently, no one asks me to do anything; they ask me why I haven't already done it.

And then, on even-numbered days, I participate in endless, endless conference calls, where we hash and rehash ideas, watching the minutes and then hours dribble away while nobody takes the lead or says what they want, and opinions go around and around in circles, with bosses saying, "What do you think?" or "Is that fair?"

In my graduate courses, we read the same constructivist nonsense--about how leadership is a dirty word, and everything must be decided by everybody. But that's crap--nobody wants to be on the committee of the whole, with the entire universe as its agenda, forever. People want to be able to do their jobs. People want their colleagues and bosses to do their jobs.

I'm not saying we want to be automatons. Obviously, we don't. We want to own our work. We want the freedom and autonomy to make decisions. But OUR decisions--that affect OUR work--not every decision in the world.

A leader doesn't have to make every decision for the group--nor should she. But someone has to sketch out the larger vision of the organization, so that everyone else can feel like their working at a common purpose, and swimming in the same pond.