Beginner’s Mind

It’s beginner’s mind, late at night, or something like that, the hours keep shifting around, but you’re listening to an old playlist and planning out scenes, lining up shots, storyboarding, then there’s fiddling with the camera, adjusting ISO, f-stop, white balance. Wanting things to be natural while meticulously planning every detail. You haven’t shot anything in a while, and it makes you antsy just to think about it. It was long enough for you to have to get reacquainted with the practice of filmmaking, the grind of it, the absolute exhilaration and mind-numbing boredom.

It’s always the poles with making movies, you decide–the highs and lows. You think back to one of your therapy appointments from years ago, when they thought your mind was governed by two poles, but the “mania” they pegged you for was something more approaching heavy rumination, trauma thought, turning over and over the past, drinking to sleep sometimes, being gripped by the spasm of physical remembrance, trying to stay busy to distract from the shit-thought buzzing around in your head, in those days, as it came, which was often.

So you start with a script, now, not green enough to be unaware of the ways that it will change, and that’s something in itself, isn’t it? Change. When you were green–the way that any rewrites or changes felt like a slow knife into your gut, and now rewrites feel like brushing your teeth or taking out the trash.

You get paralyzed by the page, sometimes, still. That’s still a thing, and the way your mind goes to all the dark, spider-webbed cracks and crevices, the barren wastes where you thought your fears and doubts disappeared but where actually they just went to sleep for a while. The thing about mindfulness, about growth, is that you go in with the false belief that all the bad stuff will just Go Away. That there will be a great Buddhic a-ha moment where it will All Make Sense and you will be permanently and irrevocably okay. You can’t believe now that you were ever that green to believe that.

What it is–what it really is–is a series of moments: a stumble-fall-rising, the getting up to fall down to get back up again, always getting back up, seeing past the aches and pains, the tired mornings, the shit pages and shit footage, getting a brilliant moment and taking it in your hands. Of losing it, and then finding another moment. Of being okay with failing. Of seeing it, finally, as an inexorable and integral part of the process.

There’s another side effect of getting older, and that’s understanding the perspective of your parents. You are now as old as they were when they had you, and even though you don’t want kids and will never have them, you can appreciate the supreme difficulty. You can watch in memory as your father would sketch and draw–impeccably detailed work, in the spaces between job and home responsibilities, and then how the drawings started to fade, replaced by cans and bottles of beer, until your father was in a single, sustained buzz for most of your childhood.

Your mother’s half-remembered dreams to one day act, laughing them away at first, but later trailing off at the ends of sentences, of her eyes growing hard over the years. Even now, you write for the actor. You craft for their craft, trying to never step on toes or overwrite dialogue. Even if you wanted kids, you couldn’t see yourself giving up on what you want to do for them, you couldn’t see yourself giving in and succumbing to the years.

It’s not that you’re now okay with the drinking and the yelling and the fighting, the divorce and all the rest, it’s that you understand it a little bit more. And these are all things that will go in your film, you suppose. You will color these moments with sustained shots and candid close-ups and clever mise-en-scène, if you can remember what that’s supposed to be, the stilted picking-apart that is serious study, breaking down each shot, each movement, all of it motivated, all of it meaning something. You’ll get final cut on your memories, or at least the renderings you make of them.

The Things I’d Do

I used to try to track my dreams and force sleep paralysis. I’d do things like put on white noise through headphones and fasten halved ping pong balls over my eyes, to force sensory deprivation. When that did nothing, I’d keep myself awake for days at a time, blasting loud music and imbibing caffeine while making note of any aberrations in thought or mood.

I’d test my lung capacity and willpower by keeping my head underwater during baths, stopwatch ticking in my hand outside the tub. I’d go on fasts for days, taking in only water, not even tea, not even black coffee, dropping weight and going straight into starvation mode.

I’d bike for an entire day–twelve hours straight, then do the same thing but with walking. I’d spend whole days imagining life through the eyes of a city pigeon or a backyard squirrel. I would inflict self-pain in small doses (small at first), looking for the minimum effective dosage, journalling the process, always documenting, because if you’re documenting then it almost feels like you’re doing it all for a reason.

I’d spend entire nights outside, then days, at first trying to find out what the “homeless experience” was, but then of course discovering that there isn’t only one. Back at home, I’d do stuff like super glue my hand to the bathroom wall and see how long the adhesion would last. I’d put all my money save for five dollars in savings, then live off that five dollars for two weeks. I would sneak into a supermarket’s bathroom just before closing and see if I could go the whole night without being detected.

I’d rig an eye-opening device, like the one from that Kubrick horrorshow, and see how long I could go without blinking before my vision started to fade. I’d sit, and stare at a wall, and meditate for hours at a time, losing track of the passage of minutes, then hours, then days. I’d live in my closet for a week or so.

I had the idea that I was collecting these experiences for a book. It was fiction at first, but it became nonfiction eventually as time went on. Surprisingly, at least at first, the writing was undisciplined. There was no structure, no schedule, just word after word whenever they’d come. There was something about the truth, though, something lacking. You could spend an entire day looking at something and not really see it. For some of the experiences, I’d take them on for a month or more and have less than a paragraph to put down about them. Seeing is not reflecting. Feeling is not reporting.

I spend most of my days, now, eating when it feels appropriate, sleeping at night, and moving unrestricted during the day. I don’t write about this (I write about other things now), but I seem to get on okay. Sometimes, at night, images of experience will dance in front of my eyes as I try to sleep. I watch them pass as I breathe and breathe and breathe.

 

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Open Blue

They told me, years later, that the guy had an entire galaxy in his mind. It was populated by nebulae and stars, planets and moons, some of them harboring life, others barren and wasted. He spent essentially all of his life cataloging his inner galaxy, and for all intents and purposes he was catatonic. His family took him for a vegetable. They’d pack him into the car for family trips and do things like sit him in front of mountain views, dip his feet in flowing streams, anything to get him back to the world, back to them, none of them realizing that he already had a world, or rather several trillion of them, and that every ounce of brainpower he had in him had to be devoted to exploring this galaxy, or else he’d be lost and insensate for the rest of his life. He’d tried to blind himself to the galaxy before, to come out and into the world, but he’d seen nothing but unending, featureless black. Heard nothing but the howling of an infinite wind. So he went back to his inner planets.

I guess I met him in 2005 or thereabouts, back when I was a grad student complete with bright eyes and bushy tail. They’d never gotten him beyond the occasional blink of his eyes, over there, at the center he’d been moved to, when his family had had enough of the family trips and the visits with experts and the hope that something would change. I’d take a lot of notes at first, observe vitals, notate scans, but eventually I just started coming to visit.

A lot of the technology was still nascent, and I remember picturing to myself, there at the foot of his bed, what this room might’ve looked like under the same circumstances 10, 20, 50 years before. What help could be given him, if it’d even be given. The doctors now did these scans mostly to placate the family, to assuage the inevitable guilt they’d accumulated after placing him in a home and coming first to visit daily, then weekly, then monthly, then only on holidays. I took to coming in on my days off from class, reading to him first from Kafka, then Wallace, then Murakami.

At that geologic scale of minute fluctuations of the body and micromovements, you begin to assemble in your mind a mental timelapse of the hours you’ve spent with the person, translating every twitch into something meaningful, prophetic even.

Sometimes I’d come in with a cheap bottle of gut rot and tell him about my day, pretend that he was drinking with me and commiserating, all the while popping mints after a finished bottle and accepting coffee when the nurses would offer it, not really needing it but not wanting them to smell the alcohol on me, to realize just how pathetic I was to be drinking midday and not facing any of my problems.

I’d been in and out of school, never settling on one thing in particular. Married and divorced before age 30. Aimlessly wandering in general, while doing my best to convince myself that the answer was right there, around the corner, or maybe after the next drink.

I knew this guy couldn’t really hear me, that even if he could it’s not like he could relate, but I kept coming anyway. I’d get a good feel for the nurses and orderlies as they’d come and go over the years, which ones actually gave a shit and which would be a problem–the ones who’d put him at risk of bedsores or worse. It sounds stupid, maybe, but he became like a little brother to me. I didn’t have any siblings of my own and had cut off all contact with my parents, so I guess he was really the only family I had.

He retreated from the world, physically left it, by degrees, intentionally, so that he could live in the world of his mind. I mean that in the literal sense. He didn’t wither so much as disappear gradually, nearly imperceptibly, to the point where I can hardly describe it even now, all these years later. But he did, he left of his own accord, bit by bit, until one day I came in and he was gone. He’d faded to the world inside his mind, physically departed, unalterably escaped, and he’d left me a note. Not a physical one, mind you. A mental note. He told me to find him. He didn’t leave coordinates; he left activities. He said I could find him in a night walk just past the edge of town. He’d be in the tire track of a motorcycle ride under open blue sky. Clear and vivid in the otherwise fading remnants of a dream broken by daybreak.

 

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Plum Sky

Casting a line off the edge of a barge micronation somewhere off the Adriatic, plum sky undulating like some childhood experiment with oil and water, and all of a sudden that seems so long ago, that 1990s childhood spent tinkering with PC parts, putting together your first computer, and now here you are thirty years later, in unclaimed waters, undisclosed location, starting some religion, maybe a country, you haven’t gotten that far, it isn’t clear yet, but it’ll be something different, whatever it is, so you return to these old practices and prepare the precepts for the initiates who will be here next day, their boat is coming in then and will promptly be destroyed upon their arrival, because there will be no need for transportation when everything they could possibly need is right here on this constructed island, when all of their needs can be met by the Almighty Godhead and all that he provides, on this barge that’s been assembled from the repurposed garbage floating aimlessly through the ocean, you’ve gone to great expense to have it collected, and you’ve studied all the major religions to make sure that you’re not treading over tired territory, that you haven’t accidentally plagiarized Zarathustra or anything, and you haven’t, not that you can tell, so you will now establish this colony in the ocean, this empire everlasting with yourself as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent leader who will rule for now and all of time, for you have teachings prepared on the nature of time, you’ve presented them to the internet and have been brutally ridiculed, but that’s the measure of a great idea, isn’t it, the ridicule of small-minded people, and that’s what convinced you that you were doing the right thing, convincing others to worship you as a god on a barge of garbage floating out in the ocean, this is what you’ve been working toward all your life, the unadulterated adulation of others, the drowning in their praise, happiness everlasting, it is all yours to take as you prepare your vestments you’ve created, a robe also made of reconstructed refuse, it still stinks even, but that is the last stink of the world to be washed clean from you, you’ve prepared the sermon, you can visualize the rite even now, with you and the others dipping into the ocean to rid yourselves of the scent of the world, to replace it with something unsmelled and unknown heretofore, it will be a glorious birth of a new state, a new state of mind and of being, you’re sure of it, or else you wouldn’t have sunk all your savings into this construction, wouldn’t have sold all of your things and left everyone you’ve ever loved behind, so you need to make something of that sacrifice, now, and here, you’re sure it will be worth it, so you look once more over that plum, undulating sky, that dark mass that will be either your salvation or damnation, and you sit on this barge, and you wait for the coming day, and you hope beyond hope that they will come.

 

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Moving Pictures

Cigarette smoke filling in from out of frame, an ’80s filmic haze accentuated by a smoke break on a movie set, hair as big as her dreams as she reads her lines to her warped reflection in a pink-tiled wall, knowing that the plan is for her singing parts to be dubbed over in post but still hoping that the director will change his mind when he hears her sing, I mean really sing, not like she sang in the audition room, where her nerves messed with her pitch and she was too breathy but where she otherwise nailed the look, sound, and movement of the character. Up till now, they’d filmed a few of the final numbers, songs where her character was singing with much of the rest of the cast, where her vocals weren’t an issue anyway. But soon, just after this smoke break in fact, she was set to belt out her first solo. And the director told her to go for it when she asked if she could really sing it in the take. He didn’t exactly finish by saying that they’d just fix it in post, but the implication was there, that was certain.

The production has that New Wave feel that’s just now starting to come up, and she can almost see future shadowcasts playing her in sticky-floored auditoriums at midnight showings. Stranger things have happened, anyway. Everyone told her she’d fall flat after dropping her first agent, but that turned out to be just the push she needed to really put herself out there. Now she’s freezing her ass off in an on-set location with no heating in the middle of winter with next to nothing in the bank, but at least she’s living out her dream, right here, with tinny audio playback to get the timing right, wearing makeup and costumes she doesn’t think she’ll be able to afford even after she makes it big, which, let’s face it, if it isn’t this film that makes her a star then it’s just never going to happen, is it, and she has to push this thought away as she sings contralto in a corner, flipping script pages and letting the cherry of her cigarette burn perilously close to her fingers, holding the hand up, out, and canted on an angle like she saw in all those glamorous old pictures in the movie magazines as a little girl.

Her nerves are such that she has to periodically wipe her hands on something to keep them from soaking the script she’s holding, trying to remember not to wipe them on this expensive costume but more often than not forgetting, and so she’ll interrupt her own tiny-voice singing to swear at herself for ruining this totally bitching costume, sweating off her makeup and trying to convince herself that it’s fine, she’ll do a Nina Hagen thing, when in reality she knows she’s a mess, her nerves are shot, and it’s to the point where she needs a fifth of vodka every night just to get to sleep for the next day’s shoot.

She takes polaroids of her life on set and attaches them to postcards, sends them back to Kansas so Mother and Father can see just how big she’s made it, so there will be no doubt in their minds that their daughter has Made It and is Going Places. She’ll take these polaroids before going to the next party, her castmates treating every wrapped day like it’s a wrapped shoot, and she’ll take this powder she’s given at these parties, inhale this powder that she can only have at these parties because she couldn’t possibly afford to keep up a habit like that on her own, and she’ll catch her face in the mirror sometimes after one of these parties, try to avoid seeing it but sometimes do it anyway. She doesn’t like seeing her face most nights.

But here she is, turning the page, then putting the script down, getting the blocking right, seeing her movement in the frame before it happens, knowing every facial expression, every vocal flutter, all of it perfect, just as it’s scripted, a performance that’s apart from this long string of nights, that will transcend all of that, she can feel it, and her head is spinning from something, don’t know what but it is, and the mood in the room is shifting, the final preparations are being made, and she’s about to be summoned, will hit her mark and sing this song like she’s never sung it before, to the point where the director will have no choice but to keep her vocals in the film, she will so totally embody the performance that to segment it at all would ruin the whole thing.

She turns, and she walks, and she moves to a staccato beat in her head to where she needs to be, a true moving picture.

Inbound/Outbound

When I got the call and heard that my little brother had attempted suicide, there was that long, false, beautiful moment where my brain decided this was Not Real. This was an incredibly tasteless joke, or maybe it’d been a case of mistaken identity. I’d talked with him the week before, seen him in person last month when I’d flown back home, and he’d seemed fine. Stressed, maybe, but okay. A couple weeks later, he’d downed a bottle of pills and waited for an end that refused to come.

I know that discovery, that mix of shock and relief and disappointment. I’ve been in that position, been hospitalized for it, seen the looks on the faces of the people who matter most to me, and now I couldn’t help but make the same face. Couldn’t help but sort through the years, looking for any clues that this could possibly happen. Regressed mentally until I was a little kid myself, holding my little brother for the first time, just a baby, with no concept of the fact that what was just given to him could so easily be taken away.

When I got off the phone and reality finally caught up, I walked into the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet. My stomach heaved, mouth stayed open, but nothing came out. Like words left unsaid for years, gathering, with no outlet, no exit, mingled and mangled until they’re unrecognizable and you can no longer say what needs to be said.

I cried. I allowed myself that much.

Powerlessness is an old friend. I knew him well when I was younger, but I thought we’d parted ways for good. I was wrong. How much consoling and comforting can you do from 800 miles away? What can you say over a static-y line that could make all of this go away? To see that kid at knee-height again, tearing through the house and laughing as you pretend to be a monster and give chase? What words can you offer beyond the ones that everyone already says, the words I myself had heard in the hospital, from friends and family and staff?

When I was sure I wouldn’t throw up, I got the number for his facility and called. Hearing his voice was like hearing someone come back from the dead, with every nuance and vocal quality vivid and obvious. I’d never pinpointed the details before, always subconsciously assumed that he’d always be there for me to listen to. I’d taken those things for granted.

What is a person made of? Is it the tiny changes in inflection when they’re making a joke? The glint in their eye when they haven’t seen you in months? For my brother, it was being able to be sarcastic in any situation, including and especially when relaying the facts of a suicide attempt. It was asking about family members and hoping they were okay, as if what had just happened to him was insignificant. It was the way that every “I love you” that came out of his mouth was genuine. True. And always would be.

Later that night, lying in bed, I checked my phone. I didn’t want to call anyone–I had already called them all. So I scrolled down the list, down and down, so fast that I could no longer see the names, just inbound or outbound.

Move

It’s winter, and I’m ten years old. That puts us at 2000. Rodhi and I are out in our boots and coats and gloves and hats, wandering down Good Avenue, which can’t be distinguished between the grass or even the lake next to it because of the snow. Rodhi floats the idea of snatching a few of his dad’s tennis rackets and duct-taping them to our shoes to approximate what we’ve seen in shows about frozen tundras and intrepid explorers, but he chickens out at the last second. My winter gloves are secondhand, several seasons old, with tiny tears in the seams making them unsuitable for snowball fights. I’m stubborn, though, so I use them anyway. I just make every snowball count before my hands get too cold.

When we’re done with that, we take one of my action figures and find a good spot to throw him into the snow. We’ve done this for years, waiting for the thaw so that we can become archaeologists uncovering an ancient find. This year, I toss in my Wolverine action figure. The snow is soft powder, so he falls all the way through to the bottom. We make note of where he fell and take a picture of the spot with an old disposable I found lying around at home. We have so many disposables sitting there at home, some of them untouched for years, and who can say what pictures are already there when I snatch it.

Rodhi and I vow to save up lunch money and get the pictures developed when the time comes. The snow and the cold have been here for weeks, and they show no signs of letting up. This is a true Chicago winter. We leave our artifact behind and turn back for Bay Colony, for our apartment complex. Then we see LC and his crew. We both freeze, looking for an exit but not seeing one. We could turn around and run the other way, but it’d only be a matter of time before they caught us. And if they didn’t, LC knows where we live. They could just turn around and wait at our complex until they found us.

They fan out. Fernando moves to our left to block one end of the street, and Chaz goes to our right to block the other end. LC stands in front of us, facing the lake. The wind howls in our ears. Snow still falls from the sky. LC pulls out a knife, and the other two pick up sticks. They close in around us slowly, a smile growing on LC’s face.

We back up as far as we can, until we’re sure there’s no more ground behind us. LC swings his knife at the air in front of us and tells us to move. Rodhi and I stand there, neither of us doing anything.

Fernando hits Rodhi in the chest with his stick. I put my hands up and motion for Rodhi to follow me out onto the ice, and he does. LC keeps telling us to go out farther, farther. When we stop, he throws rocks at us and threatens to throw bigger rocks out onto the ice. So we keep going. I can hear the ice groaning beneath our feet, but I try not to let on, for Rodhi’s sake.

Then the ice breaks.

First Rodhi is there, then he isn’t. He disappears into a dark hole. The water is calm for a second, and then there’s splashing. And then there’s me slowly sliding over to where he fell in. And then there’s me getting down onto my belly as LC and his crew laugh behind us. And then there’s me reaching my hand in and finding Rodhi’s. There’s me pulling him out and using all my strength to slide him away from the hole in the ice, one of his shoes now missing.

The crew’s laughter recedes behind us as they all run back home, and Rodhi is already shivering by the time he’s flat on his back on the ice. I help him back up, and we get off of the ice and back onto ground as carefully as possible. I don’t know what else to do, so I take him to my Hideaway. My Hideaway is a tunnel underneath the city of Des Plaines, a tunnel you can access by a manhole that some teenager pried the bolts off of long ago. There’s something like a room down there, made out of hollowed-out concrete, and I write little stories by the light of the lightning bugs I keep in jars down there. That’s where I go when things get really bad at home.

I’ve never taken anyone else down here or even told anyone about it, but it seems like the right thing to do. I take off my jacket when we get down there and put it around Rodhi. I huddle up close to him and try to help him stay warm. He shivers for a while but eventually starts getting warmer and quiets down. Without the sound of his shivering, it’s silent down there, and the only thing you can see are the lightning bugs blinking in Morse code.

Neither of us says anything. Rodhi turns and looks at me. I don’t know what to say. He leans in and kisses me, and I kiss him back.

When it’s time to go, I walk him back to our complex. We never speak another word about this day.