Thursday, January 15, 2009


Have you touched anyone today?

One of the things that infuriates me about modern mass-media and its relentless focus on celebrities' personal lives is the fact that actors are rarely asked anything at all about what they do on a daily basis -- namely, act. How do they do what they do? What choices do they make when preparing a character? Why this or that particular reading of a line? Instead, the reporters ask about the stars' personal lives, and the stars dutifully answer, instead of saying: "Next question." (Of course, if they actually said "next question", they wouldn't appear on the cover of the magazine, and their movie wouldn't be shoved down everybody's throat, and their per-picture salary would go down, and they wouldn't be stars anymore, so they give in and give up and decide to play the game and talk about this or that aspect of their friendship/courtship/marriage/divorce, and then have the audacity to be pissed off at all the media attention, when they've spent the last several years letting everybody know about their girlfriends/boyfriends/wives/daughters/sons/exes etc.)

But I digress.

Michael J.Fox, appearing on Inside The Actor's Studio, actually bucked the trend and mentioned an honest-to-god acting tip, one that I found startling in its simplicity, one that could be applied to all arts, and, indeed, all life, if one so chose.

One of his first gigs after moving down to the States from Canada was a TV movie he made with veteran actress Maureen Stapleton, and she advised him, in every scene, to touch someone. "Physically touch someone?" he asked, and she said no, no, it didn't have to be physically, although it could be. Just touch someone. With your words, voice, intent. Touch someone. It was advice he subsequently thought about in every scene he ever did from that point on.

Touch someone.

I kept thinking about that thought.

I had never been able to articulate what was bothering me about the internet in general, and blogs in particular, and life in even more particular, but that comment kind of crystallized a couple of things for me.

The internet is designed for such high-speed, quick-read access that it sometimes seems so impersonal and glossy and slick and superficial that any real focus, any real meaning is inevitably buried beneath a blizzard of blogs and links and websites and homepages, until the whole ungainly mess begins to appear, more and more, less as a source of information and inspiration and more as a repository for all our half-baked, ill-thought out thoughts and conceptions. Our venom, spite, sarcasm and self-embellishment.

Thinking about the stuff I read, the newspapers and websites, I realized that very few, if any of them, touched me.

Made me think, yes. Made me laugh, certainly.

But moved me?

Actually moved me?

Thinking about life, too.

How we wander day to day through our family and peers, co-workers and strangers. A joke, a wave, a sigh over here; a good-morning, what's up, not-too-much over there. Everybody looking like they're so contented and ready to face the day. Or else visibly pissed-off, barely holding on, suffocating with real or imagined stress. (Which ultimately are one and the same thing, I guess.)

One of the few spiritual gurus that I actually find a) insightful and b) practical is Eckhart Tolle, whose first book The Power of Now I kind of, sort of think is somewhat profound, especially in its focus on the present moment being the source of all power, hope, life. This moment is all we have, and since life is lived in an eternal present -- the past erased, the future never arriving -- the fluid continuum we inhabit becomes all the more precious.

Isn't it depressing that we have to describe athletes and writers as 'being in the moment'? As if it's a rare thing. As if living in 'the moment' can only be attained through monumental diligence, and enacted only under extreme situations of competition, concentration, or duress.

What if we focused on 'the moment' constantly? What if we were conscious of the who we are and what we're doing and who we're doing it to at all times?

It's something I try to do, more and more.

Be present.

Be aware.

Not become caught up in things that are gone, and things that may never be.

Focusing on what is before me, and not judging it, and not cursing it, and not blessing it, and simply allowing it to unfold.

The person serving you drinks at Starbucks. The boring wait-in-line at the immigration office. The mind-numbing traffic jam that inches along, inch by infuriating inch.

All of these receiving equal attention.

A little abstract, I know, but I find it can actually work, this focus on the present.

You start to become more and more aware of not the stuff of life -- the things and the roads and the people and the weather and the ground and the lights -- but the space in which all of these things exist.

And by being comfortable in that space, simply, I don't know, resting in it, you can be aware of how subtly you can manipulate it.

Mostly by touching someone.

Giving them their attention. Deflecting away from yourself. Smiling. Letting the ego descend within. Being conscious of the fact that you can actually alter a circumstance by your words, gestures, actions and comments. You can sometimes bring a miniscule amount of joy, or contemplation, or solace, or levity, merely by allowing others in.

Too often we trudge through life as if we're wearing snowshoes and the whole earth is thick with deeply packed snow. We carefully glide along the top, worrying about falling. Getting stuck. Careful not to press too hard against the ice, fearful of cracking its fragile surface.

Who shall I touch today? I sometimes think. A student? A friend? The person taking my pizza order? Will they notice? Will they even care?

Outside this internet cafe, on this crisp January morning, Session Road is humming along. I can see the KFC across the street, the endless array of white taxicabs slowly driving by, patiently scanning for passengers. A generic pop song floats through the air.

A minor life moment, it would seem.

And yet, I am, as you are, exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Waiting to touch, and be touched.