"This is me breathing . . . "


says John Cusack's character, Martin Blank, as he prepares for his ten-year high school reunion by almost unconsciously loading a clip into his handgun and checking the chamber. I love Grosse Point Blank. It's an incredibly irresponsible movie with nothing but reverence for a by-gone era, some violence, and a whole lot of cynically glib dialogue. Love it, love it, love it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I'm constantly searching for open calls for the casting of GPBII: Son of Blank. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

Movie quotes play through my head with about the same frequency as songs do, so there's nothing unusual about having one take up residence there for a little while, and the more I enjoy a movie, the more I've seen it, and there you go. Still, I try to take notice when one seems particularly stubborn about hanging onto my hippocampus, and this is one that has done just that. I'm not saying that a quote is recalled just for the purpose of trying to communicate something to myself. Rather, I think that when I do recall a quote, or snatch of song, some part of brain is working tirelessly away on some worry or other and recognizes the meaning. The old gray matter can be like a room full of people, and one of them can recognize something in another and say, "Oh man, don't leave yet. So-and-so's just got to meet you." And so, on the three-hundredth and sixty-second internal repetition, a connection is made. This is me breathing . . .

I'm a nail-biter. I don't mean that as a colorful expression of my anxious personality. Rather, I am literally a nail-biter. I try to be better about it. I generally fail. It's called chronic onychophagia, by the way, and only about 10% of men past the age of 30 engage in it. It's a rather complicated little symptom/condition. Lots of theories surround it. It's often coupled with other supposed compulsive behaviors, such as hair removal, skin removal, excessive washing, etc., and so often associated with obsessive/compulsive disorders. But it can also be diagnosed as a simple ingrained behavioral response, or an addiction, or as a kind of sublimated grooming instinct. I don't know quite what to make of it, except to say that I do it when I'm bored and when I'm anxious, occasionally without conscious thought, and that I find it enormously gratifying for some reason. I'd also like to stop. This is me breathing . . .

I have many habits. I have a lot of trouble distinguishing between my habits and possible compulsive behaviors. I'm just not sure where one draws the line. My chronic onychophagia (it's just a fun way to say it) is probably the most physically destructive h/pcb I currently engage in, though my sincere and abiding love of good beer is obviously not a huge benefit to my person. I've had worser ones in the past -- such as smoking -- but really, most of these behaviors are a little more mental than demonstrative. They may occasionally creep out in behavior, like finger-tapping or object-arranging, but as I've matured (ahem: grown older at least in terms of years) these demonstrations have lessened, either by will or accident. Because the h/pcbs can be so inexplicably internal, I often wonder just how unique they are, how many others experience them in the ways I do? I know I'm not alone. I know that. But is it maybe everyone, in their own ways? Is there a norm after all? This is me breathing . . .

They sometimes say (They being rather fond of sweeping generalizations) that life happens in cycles, and not just the easily observable variety, such as birth-life-death, or spring-summer-fall-winter. Coincidence, in the purest meaning of the word, occurs over and over again. When a celebrity dies, we await the next two to follow. Read a book about little people and, though you'd swear it's never happened before, you'll notice nearly a dozen just going about your day. The cause-and-effect is difficult to track here, though plenty of people will chalk it up to simple mental association. The brain does have a habit of seeking out patterns, rhythms and symmetries. Yet I'm inclined to believe that the world outside our minds meets us halfway, more often than not. I'm not proposing anything particularly mystical here; linear logic simply doesn't explain everything. Take, for example, weddings. What is the explanation for my attending four weddings in the next four months, including my own, and the three others that friends of mine are attending during that same period? Incidences align, and it seems to me that attributing such alignments solely to human behavior is at best naive, at worst arrogant. It's just that we're a little obsessed with ourselves, and a little in love with answers. We're also a little in love with mystery, which I admit keeps me returning to a sense of wonder when I'm given the option. This is me breathing . . .

I've been using The Big Show to help motivate me in recent efforts to curb my chronic onychophagia, which is in one sense apt, and in another, ironic. The last time I was particularly successful in ceasing the mania was during rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie, way back in 2002. I was playing a guy bent on self-improvement, who cared a lot about the impression he made on others, and it helped. Wherefore, then, ironic? Because one thing I have figured out about this behavior is that it is provoked by anxiety. When I got my first job, with a moving company, they told us that the two most stressful occasions in a person's life are a moving day and wedding day. Well, I'm here to tell you that the days leading up to said day are no piece of cake, neither. Planning a wedding is rife with reasons to return to old, comforting cycles, from the politics of negotiation to the inner-searching of a person preparing to make the change of his and/or her li(f/v)e/s. God bless. It's enough to make a fella' return to smoking. This is me breathing . . .

Where experience and discovery meet, that's good acting. You want your performance to be informed by all you've seen and done, to be true to your understanding of the world, but also to embody the questions that live in a new, first-time moment. Acting in the theatre can satisfy both my compulsion for repetition and order, and my appetite for surprise and wonder. The ultimate balance between the two is an incredibly fragile thing: It only exists for half moments, most of the time, and most of the time such moments can't be savored, lest one risks destroying them. They must simply be, and then pass. As a younger actor, I became pretty obsessed with rehearsing a role to mechanical perfection, with making good choices and being able to reproduce them exactly. The majority of my adult craft has been a process of learning about the other side of that coin, about the incredible necessity for surprise and improvisation. Hell: You can't possibly see enough possibilities to be effective without inviting forces of chance to have their say. We're at the mercy of chance -- from found money to global financial market crises -- every moment of every day, so it is in some ways natural to value ritual, to seek cycles. This is me breathing . . .

We are not, however, our cycles. (Much as we may sometimes like to be.) We're not even our choices. (Although I imagine most of us would desperately insist that is exactly what we are.) No, we're something altogether else, a synthesis of choice and chance, a combination of forces creating . . . what, exactly? Well, us. I don't know how else to say it. With every inhale, and every exhale, forces are at work, within and without. It's a little frightening to think of things this way, but fear and excitement are a couple of those component forces. When I look at things this way, it seems apparent to me that my habits are in substance simply misdirected energy, force that could be applied to making more choices or, perhaps, appreciating more chances. Then again, maybe they're leading me toward their own chances and choices. The best one can do is to keep breathing, through whatever may come.
 
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