“What Will People Think?”

Anthoula twitter

Anthoula Katsimatides – actor, writer, entrepreneur

I almost began this review of a one-woman show written and performed by Anthoula Katsimatides with a cliché, ‘last night I had the pleasure of…’, but it strikes me as more of a humbling experience I feel honored to have attended, and I would dishonor such a terrific show by starting with a hack line. Yet…

Her show has all the trappings of a complete production: laughter, music, memories, sadness and hope. Well-written and thoughtfully directed. It was indeed a pleasure.

Anthoula’s show follows her family from the poor volcanic island of Nisyros, where her parents were born, through her small family’s accomplished yet tragic history and finally to her reconciliation of old-world rules with the lion-hearted actress aching to be an individual.

Anthoula is a funny, scrappy and passionate Hellenic woman, who tells her story in a way that grabs you by the shirt and dares you to look away. In the classic comic/tragic manner, Anthoula brings you in closer by sharing a laugh about family rules, then punches you in the heart with chunk of reality that had more than a few people in the intimate setting of Theater Row reaching for tissues.

The audience seemed to be experiencing her pain together, maybe dissipating it a little for her—a sort of collective effort of support, an emergent behavior of the group, sharing in her charisma, the cursing, the tears and the unanswerable questions. This kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident. Anthoula made it so.

Rule Number One: Preserve, promote and perpetuate your Hellenic culture, because ‘what will people think’ if you don’t.

No worries, Anthoula—you did your family, and your culture, proud. Watching Anthoula perform her story, I felt as though I got to participate in rhetorical history. I found myself inching forward on my seat as if it would bring me closer to the energy. She often speaks in Greek during the show, but it is so perfectly in context that even the unwashed like me can get the jokes. If you’ve ever seen Eddie Izzard perform you know that’s no easy task.

The order of the other rules is immaterial, mostly because they are of equal value, and subordinate to a central question every good little Greek woman must ask about her actions, “What will people think?”

It’s a question that plagues more than a few ethnic cultures. It can prevent you from doing something stupid but can also be stifling. It prevents families from searching for help for the pregnant teen or the alcoholic son, because the family tries to keep the dark secret in-house. It inevitably destroys it like a parasite from the inside out. Anthoula worked for many years to sort through it all and it seems she’s finally figured out how to hang on to the goodness of culture and tradition while defying the corrosive parts with honesty and joy. She jokes that when she finally went on vacation alone for the first time it was like ‘being on parole’.

Technically speaking? Anthoula is a marvel of efficiency, giving us just enough of the important characters in her life to make us laugh or relate, but more than enough for us to recognize them in an instant. All Anthoula had to do was cross her arms, stretch her neck and thrust her chin just so and we knew ‘Baba’ (her dad) was about to speak. It was brilliant in its simplicity, giving us precisely what we needed to be entertained.

The show, which ran about 50 minutes, was peppered with music, videos, snippets of dance and sudden sadness. All of it perfectly timed to enhance the book, or portend the drama. When that telephone would ring…oh boy.

It was never good news. We relived her horror of learning of her brother Mikey’s suicide from her brother John’s call and an audio of what could only be described as a New York cop’s voice, reading from the report of the cause and manner of death. Direct, clinical, heartrending. You could feel the silence in the audience. Whenever she spoke of death, her father’s or Mikey’s or John’s (hang on), she donned her black veil and lit a candle. The room fell into darkness and we heard the most beautiful and haunting Greek lament, sung by a men’s choir. It played just long enough to make the point, give you chills and yes, well up. Hey, it’s family.

Within moments we were smiling again as Anthoula told us how her brother John pulled her from the crevasse of sorrow and made her, and us, appreciate life. We laughed, danced and tossed back a shot. “Life is friggin’ awesome, Anthoula.”

John Katsimatides worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the World trade Center and was killed on Nine-Eleven. Heart punch.

Anthoula worked for Governor George Pataki, who asked her to be a part of the healing for families of victims of the attack as Vice President for Family Relations of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Anthoula KatsimatidesHe must be an insightful man to know that only such a resilient and loving woman like Anthoula could struggle with her own grief while giving countless hours to helping others deal with their own. She pulled it off, of course, and through friends and chance, found herself expressing her acting genes. We’re lucky she did. I predict great things from her. It’s her time.

Anthoula is a naturally funny woman, with a deep, clear voice that holds your attention. I’ve met her before, here .

She had the audience in hysterics, but the laughter also served to counter her vulnerability, the woman who is one more sudden family loss from giving up. We pray she won’t have to.

In the HBO drama series, ‘True Detectives’, Matthew McConaughey’s character says, “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” It’s a simple truth .

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJXznk6cFk0

Here’s another. The world needs strong women. They make us work harder, force us to see the light and push us to be better than we were yesterday. They make us desire more while reminding us to be grateful for what we have. Some of them make us reach for our swords to follow her through the battle, to fight alongside her. To protect her.

Thanks for the honor, Anthoula.

 

 

Scattergun

joehefferon_3dOn October 10, 2014, I’ll be releasing a short piece of fiction on Smashwords.
Scattergun is a tale of violence, a glimpse at a fractured mind on the loose in the rural west in the war years of the 1940s.
It’s not a vision of hope in man’s inherent goodness, if that even exists. It’s a story based in the truth of depravity, the one we shut out. We call for justice, but what we really want is to feel safe. Despite our misgivings about dealing harshly with frightening acts committed at the impulses of unsound minds, sometimes it takes a violent man to confront violence, regardless of its absence of malice, if only to stop the menace so we can feel secure in our bunks.
Scattergun is raw but not gory, stark but stained with color.
It’s written in a voice I’m unaccustomed to writing in, an homage to the poetry of Trumbull Stickney, Cormac McCarthy and Sydney Lanier, an earthy yet thoughtful vernacular.
Scattergun—A Reckoning in Two Acts
I hope you enjoy it.

She Comes

Photo WFU MuseumInside this stone house of fragile mortar, one room, a cold stove and the razor winds finding me in the wool coat, worn thin in decades past and lingering still. Looking thru the slatted windows at the frozen flatlands, the particles, the mist, the silver dawn. The trees, scant and skeletal like Mexican brides in a Halloween parade but I can’t paint the color in, only umber grays, slumber grays, and streaks of wheat-colored sunlight from a morning yet unbidden, bones in agony, filtered by a thousand moaning souls cold and charred. The treetops are severed by the cracked boards in my line of sight and when I shift to find them I lose the ground like an aging, sightless bird in his final glorious flight remembering his predatory youth, but I see her flying over the snow-puddled prairies dropping icy pellets of crystal rain on my bare skin, while I pick the roots in forage, the smell of new-sawn wood for reasons I can’t explain, fills my head and softens the pain of the hard earth underfoot, under my raw kneecaps teetering on the small flat stones.
Move away from the window. I sit on my heels on the straw floor and wait for her as board by board the vortex pulls the roof to shreds exposing me to the noon-high sun, formless against a white sky and the wedding dance rattles empty bones in the fields about, hollow as quills, knocking like cheap souvenir chimes and it’s my time.
She comes to the doorway, flowers in her hair. My back is to her but I know it is her by the colors seeping over the room, bleeding into life, florid blues and flaming orange walls before me and it warms my body and I smile. She takes me.

One of my favorite poems:

Mnemosyne
Trumbull Stickney

It’s autumn in the country I remember

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

Lara Fabian

Lara_Fabian_34

Lara Fabian (photo unknown)

Little boys have dreams. For me they began in 1967 or ’68 or later; I can’t be sure. I tend to be bad at placing memories in the right time slots but when I think of my youth it helps in a perverse way if I try to determine if something happened before or after my father died, which was in July of 1968. This helps and hurts at the same time. It’s like explaining a right cross by punching yourself in the face. Whenever it was I remember running into my mother’s room to tell her about something that certainly must have been magic or divine. I noticed as I read my book about space travel I could picture what the narrative described in my mind. It was an awakening. It was my first taste of the heroin that books can be.
The next book I owned was “King Henry and His Knights of the Round Table” by Roger Lancelyn Green. I loved the story so much that I began to cherish the physical book as this echanted box that held a majestic world captive within the binding. To this day, some 45 years later, I am always careful not to crease the spines of my novels. I’ve never folded a corner to mark my place and notes well; they are for notebooks. I suppose I’ve marked up non-fiction works for study and reference but not my novels, not ever.
Books are precious. Books allowed me to visit places where my father wasn’t dead. He wouldn’t get the chance to die again in someone else’s story, unless I put him there, imagining him the vaquero, the astronaut, the guy who came home after work. So I read and read more, and at least for the time I could immerse myself in the story I did not have to feel sad and I did not have to be reminded that life isn’t fair, and sometimes, that it felt so awful I surely must feel worse than my brothers or my sister or even my mother. Determining which of us felt worse was as good an excuse as any to begin the lifelong skirmish between shared loss and sibling rivalry.
But from novels, the gallant knights pushed deep into the heroic center of my brain those unassailable virtues of chivalry, wisdom, bravery and the poetry of love’s spoken word. These virtues, which I regularly abandoned throughout my life, still haunt me, calling me from the great misty forests of Camelot to be the better man than the one I’ve chosen to be too many times, then slaying the dark knights in my head to win out over regret.
I can almost always find the better feelings listening to the future angel Lara Fabian sing in a language I don’t understand but love because of the way it makes me feel when a Lara or an Audrey Tautou or a black & white Catherine Deneuve speaks in lyrical or angry tones, or when one of them whispers in that way French women do that always, always, makes me want to run gasping to a departing train and find her there inside, warm, safe and perfectly pretty, looking up at me from under the sad brim of her hat.
Isabel Allende says, “We all feel younger than our real age because the spirit never ages.” When Lara sings, when Audrey smiles, when I find Catherine late at night in an unexpected movie—I am a boy again. I see Guinevere. I see why books are written about kings and armies and the men who fight them, if only for the chance to return to her, and promise never again to abandon her side as she pulls me close and says, “Si vous me laissez encore, je vais vous traquer et trancher la gorge.” Those French chicks are tough.

Whether to Wabi or Sabi

“You can’t really say what is beautiful about a place, but the image of the place will remain vividly with you.” – Tadao Ando

 Close-up of potter turning a pot on a potter's wheelWabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic philosophy. It revolves around three central thoughts: everything is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Wabi sabi celebrates simplicity, the profound elements of nature and natural causes. It is imperfect and asymmetrical like a tree, yet elegant and long-lasting. It’s the difference between a 300-year-old Japanese garden and a pre-fab Tiki bar. It’s the difference between the battered wooden bench in your grandma’s kitchen and stackable plastic chairs. It’s Grace Kelly vs. Kelly Kelly. Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed. It’s something you watch over, not something you stare at.

Some Japanese differ with the rather symbiotic western definition of wabi sabi, arguing that the terms are mushed together because they sound good as a pair, like zig-zag or Steve and Edie. Wabi and sabi are distinct terms. Wabi sabi is a composite of two concepts: wabi – which is a quietness attuned with nature in a simple despondence, an ascetic, monastic lifestyle; and sabi – which is the withered beauty that attends age, like a patina, chill and solitude. Both terms are better translated to describe feelings, rather than objects. To some, wabi and sabi together evoke a reverent austerity, wisdom, an appreciation for what is known to be good, rather than a longing for what is missing. A respect for authenticity and a shedding of accoutrements.

To a Japanese, wabi sabi is described as more of an inexplicable feeling than a physical trait. According to Tim Wong, Ph.D. and Akiko Hirano, PhD, “Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics – imperfection, crudeness, an aged and weathered look, etc. Although wabi sabi may encompass these qualities, these characteristics are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it.”

Martin Mull said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I think that quotation expresses the inexpressibleness of wabi sabi.

Wabi sabi is an understanding that life is not endless, that all of us and all that is around us will return to the dust from whence it came. In that regard, wrinkles, cracks, blemishes and other signs of weathering are symbolic of the life lived, the life enjoyed. It doesn’t mean that you don’t build with quality and don’t care for what you have; indeed that is what makes our home and furnishings last and become part of our memories. Rather it means if my son spills grape juice on my hand-made, Roy McMakin coffee table, I clean up the spill and then value it for reminding me of a relaxed afternoon having lunch with my boy. It’s a memory that may have blended into the others were it not for that purple stain. It’s caring for the good, solid stuff, without the need for ornamentation. It strips away gaudiness. It is an ability to make do with less, without sacrificing love, kindness, caring and purposeful work. Above all, wabi sabi is genuineness. It is an Andrew Wyeth farmhouse.

We have a natural yen for wabi sabi. You should pardon the pun. It explains our fixation with finding innovative ways to age things, such as, chemically enhanced patina, crackled paint, distressed furniture, barn-wood-look flooring, stone-washed jeans and other fake finishes. We want to feel the comfort of things that don’t just look weathered, but are weathered, that have been cared for and lasted, that hold songs and laughter in their energy and link us to the easier joys of youth. We want fulfillment, the satisfaction of mastery over endeavor. If we don’t have these feelings we try to create them thru artifice. But here’s the difference; being wabi sabi means you create real things, imperfect things – things that last, things you can’t count, things that matter.

My thoughts, my daydreams, my considerations, the way in which I think about the things that get me thinking, have been elevated by wonderful books. The better writers leave us wondering about the flawed people who live in their stories. They don’t reveal every last thought, they let us live alongside them and decide for ourselves. We root for them despite their defects, understand their misgivings and misguided enthusiasms. Sometimes we loathe them because we fill in their missing parts with our own frailties, the things we hate about ourselves that we project on the people we despise. Whether it is the characters or the narrative, the imperfections give the readers a place in the story, a chance to fall into the empty spaces the writers leave behind.

Now let it go. It’s impermanent. Wabi Sabi is not something to obsess over. It’s the place in your head where you put it and the thing that goes in that place.

The Ordinary Meridian

On my hand-made table

On my farmhouse table

Something about the American west has captivated me lately. It could have started while I was drinking a bottle of Masked Rider zinfandel; the label stirred a forgotten image I may have had in my youth of growing up to be the kind of man who can rid a town of varmints without unholstering, “Nothing like a good piece of hickory.” I don’t know where that fella went but he took along his hickory, his rifle, and my girl.
More likely my inclinations have been roused by the photography of Lisa Dearing, who has an uncommon ability to capture the alluring qualities of the west; the open skies, chapped hands, temerity and the numinous beauty of a cowgirl roping a wild mustang. If Miss Dearing’s photography doesn’t make you want to hop a west-bound freight train with nothing but a bedroll and a pack of smokes, it will at vespers make you pray no one else moves to places like Lance Creek Wyoming or the Dakotas, or the Snake River Canyon, places like Southern Idaho, places where the hard earth meets the black sky in a lightning storm on the devil’s edge of the plains. There are enough people there now, enough to smell a storm on the wind, enough to birth a foal, plenty to do what needs doing and just enough to wrangle my imagination. Should you ever find yourself smitten with the desire to conjure the weathered spirit of the American west, to rest your hand on stack of barn-wood or feel the power of a herd of Red Angus underfoot, you can tip your hat to Lisa Dearing.
Photography can provoke a man to thinking about the rites of human aspiration in the same way architecture can. Both manners of art hold us in the moment, in the essence of the space within which all those moments happen. Brad Cloepfil has a way of expressing his sentiments about architecture that is directly reflective of the underlying sentiment of what I hoped to achieve writing this. He says, “The primary responsibility of architecture and the primary possibility of architecture is to create awe; to establish a sense of wonder, to provide a kind of emotional range in the world that no other art can provide.”
Together we can design a way to live north of ordinary, to be unafraid to step across that meridian, a place where better things happen, where we create something that shines on the other side of possible.
We expect from architecture as we do from our fathers, two virtues: first, that they do what they should and second, that they do it with style.
My father died young. At just forty-one he was the first of seven siblings to pass. It was 1968 and I was eight years old. I remember him telling me (after I screwed up) that I wasn’t working to my full potential. Actually, it was more like, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Use the brains God gave you for Christ’s sake.” Ahhh, memories. My father was a rough-and-tumble kind of guy, not an eloquent speaker or an intellectual. He fought for the Navy in World War II, became a truck driver and eventually a police officer in the city of Newark, where he married my mother. Together they had four children. He died of heart failure. His life wasn’t extraordinary but he loved his kids and he wanted them to do what they were capable of. That’s not a bad sentiment to pass along. Try it for a while and you will be astonished at your capabilities. Do the amazing, and you’ll never look back.
We expect our dads to do the right thing, to yell at us when we mess up, to bring us to ball games, teach us to change a flat tire and be the toughest guy we’ll ever meet. We need heroes and dads fit the bill just fine.
But I also think we want our dads to have style. That doesn’t mean that they wax their eyebrows, shave their arms or wear silk under-shorts, but they should know enough to wear a pressed shirt and jacket to a wake. They should have a good haircut, but not dye it, and while we’re at it, unless you’re Willie Nelson – no pony tails. They should take their shoes off in your house and leave their shirts on at home. Having style means they shouldn’t take themselves so seriously and they should make us laugh. They should know when to wink, have a touch of swagger. They should dance terribly, but dance anyway. At family parties my father wore these red socks with embroidered foamy-head beer mugs. They were hideous, but I suppose they had a certain tavernesque style to them. Dads should be good citizens. They should know how to make pancakes and grilled cheese. They should talk to us. They should be curious about the world but know simple pleasures. Enjoy what they are and nothing more – feel the romance. Dads should always fall on the right side of a moral argument because character counts, because human kindness is essential.
General Norman Schwarzkopf said, “The truth is, you always know the right thing to do; the hard part is doing it.” So do the right thing, but have fun, have a little style. Get a new suit, and not from Sears. Stay healthy and vigorous. Break your routine. Eat a dragon fruit. Travel to Kenya. Celebrate the Holi. Get off the computer and get on a horse. Go to Chicago. Have a sense of tragedy. Read Joan Didion. Why Joan? This is what she wrote about getting yourself involved in the only life you’ll ever have, “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
My gosh – she’s good.
Listen, you don’t have to a save a cattle ranch outside Billings or design a self-sustaining skyscraper to have a gratifying life, unless those things are precisely what you must do – you only need to stand tall and look north of the ordinary meridian, then find a way to get there.