On gifts

Been thinking about gifts a lot recently.

The book I’m trying to get published is partially inspired by the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Hyde’s book is something of a hit in artsy academic circles. In it, he studies the effects of commerce on art, then compares those effects with what happens when art is thought of, and exchanged as, a gift. I found it very compelling, even if it’s a bit dry sometimes. Much of my inner struggle with my life as an actor has had to do with my resistance to the way the “business” side of the career turns actors into commodities – essentially “types” of people to be bought and sold by producers/directors on the one side, and agents on the other. My on-going remedy for this state of affairs is to commit myself to a way of living which is more spiritual than material, and to regard what I do as a gift I receive from a power greater than myself, and which I then give away, to audiences, to students, to lovers, to other artists, to my children. To everyone. This is why I peek at the audience compulsively before performing. I need to see who I’m giving to. I need to make that relationship as personal as possible. I have recently been made aware of the Native American concept that “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” That captures it nicely. Thanks, Crazy Horse.

In The Deception of Surfaces, my new novel (as yet un-published), I explore Hyde’s idea taken to an extreme. Deception’s heroine is a beautiful young actress living ten years in the future. In 2020, anyone interested in working as an actor is given a category. Alice is a “B1”: she has a centerfold’s body and an unusual face. The other book informing Deception is Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people are divided into categories reflecting their social class and function. Alice desperately wants to be an “A1” so that she can be cast as the star of hit movies (think Angelina Jolie). But her face doesn’t have the “right bone structure” according to her acting teacher. So Alice pines for another way of life, while she obsessively memorizes Shakespeare (which no one will produce because it doesn’t make any money), and works at her day job, having sex in front of robotic cameras and being paid handsomely for it. One of my theses, developed from Hyde, is that the engine of commerce when applied to performing artists has sexual consequences. All one needs to do is think of the phrase “sex object” to see where I’m going.

Part of my inspiration for Alice is drawn from my early days as a recovering alcoholic. I would go to a certain meeting in New York City populated by a lot of young people (like me), including a sizable number of beautiful young women. Being a man of normal sexual appetites – meaning seven out of every ten seconds was spent thinking about sex – I was drawn to this meeting by these sirens, these gorgeous and tormented women, many of whom were actresses. But something curious would happen to me when they began speaking in meetings. The fantasy I might have been having in my head about them would disintegrate, replaced instead by my attention to the riveting things they were saying. Simply put, they transformed from being objects into being people. Even more extraordinary, they became people who were speaking about a heart-sickness and brokenness I shared. Then they might cry, and in their tears I saw my own pain. They were teaching me. And then I truly fell in love with them, the way you fall in love with someone you admire, whom you approach with deference, who you would go to battle with and defend.

In The Deception of Surfaces I go to battle with Alice Robbins, and I defend her.

Here’s the other reason I’m thinking about gifts. I’m writing this in motel room in Mitchell, South

Dakota. My two children are asleep in the bed next to me. We are coming from my mother’s home in Boulder, Colorado. We drove out from Philly to see her, accompanied by my wife, who had to fly home to earn a living. So now the kids and I are taking the scenic route home: north to the Black Hills, then east through the Badlands, and tomorrow on to Minneapolis to my beloved friend Pearce and his family. Then on to Toledo to my beloved friend Mohammad and his family. Then home. All this was made possible by a gift. My sister gave me her car: a gently used (very gently) 2007 Toyota Highlander hybrid.

We are a family of many facets, full of step-parents, half-siblings, divorces, children and grand-children. My own kids ask me frequently: how am I related to _________ ? In families such as these, the question of who or what is family ceases to be an abstraction. At a certain point, I think all of us end up moving towards one of two poles: we’re all family, or we’re not all family. It’s tricky and emotional. And it’s not that simple, which why I said moving towards one of two poles. Relationships of any kind live on a constantly changing continuum. The steadfast love is a myth. I might always love you, but some days I love you less than other days. But still the question lingers: how are we related? And by what? And what are the rights and responsibilities inherent in that relationship? It has been my experience that gifts play a role in these kinds of connections, and dis-connections.

Let me be clear: gifts are not love. Nor do they matter as much as that thing you do or say for someone which rises above the ordinary, which is selfless and heroic. They do not make one open and vulnerable the way one is when one lies bare, emotionally or otherwise, before another human being and says, here, take me. But gifts do serve as kinds of markers. They are full of symbolism. We constantly “read into” gifts: why did she send me this? What’s he trying to say to me with that? My experience has taught me that these flights of imagination, when I take them, say a lot more about me than the person giving the gift. They reveal my own insecurities and paranoia to myself. What does a gift say? Well, let’s take my sister (I used to call her my half-sister, after I called her my sister for a log time, so now it’s full circle). She said, essentially, I know you need a new car, so here, take mine, I’m getting a new one. Simple as that.

It is the simplicity itself which announces the symbol of the gift: we are connected. Gifts can be manipulative and complicated too. Another kind of sister might have given a car to a brother with a lot of strings attached (now you have no excuse not to come see me, etc.). This was not the case. In fact, as I contorted myself in thank yous, I could sense her desire for me to hear her saying “you’re welcome” and move on. I, in fact, have spent a great deal of time working myself into a lather, and bothering people I love, over the symbolism of gifts. And that said more about me and my baggage (valid baggage though it may have been), than it ever said about a gift.

One of Hyde’s observations is that within tribes, gift exchanges are commonplace and expected. It is how the tribe affirms its mutual inter-connection. It is the “no-big-dealness” of the gift exchange which bonds them. I don’t “owe” my sister anything, except my promise to be the brother she needs me to be for her. This is hard, because we live some distance from each other. But I could do a better job of checking up on her by phone. That is my commitment – to do a better job of that. Not because she gave me her car. But because her gift reminded me that we’re connected.

And look how the gift ripples outward (another of Hyde’s observations): it brought me together with my wife and kids for this journey. It brought me together with my mother (my sister’s mother, my stepmother, died of cancer while I was out west thirteen years ago). It brought me to Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the Corn Palace, which I last visited in 1982, accompanied by m

y ten year old sister who just gave me her car, and my littler brother and even littler sister, plus my Dad, and my stepmother, whose love for me was real and deep, and whose loss I still have not come to terms with. Tonight I stood in front of this eccentric fortress holding two little hands, but surrounded by memories of a family which no longer exists as it once did, but yet generates heat to this day.

Corn: something the native people gave as a gift.

The Corn Palace: strange and delightful symbol of my families. The ones snoring beside me now, born by my love for the woman I married; and the ones I have been traveling with for years, whose love splashes and swims like the tender fish I try to reel ever closer, not to eat, but to catch, release and catch again.

On Gifts, originally published  Wednesday, August 25, 2010