One of my primary concerns about American society is that we haven’t benefited sufficiently from the wisdom of Michael Caine. In the late 1980s, Caine made a workshop-style acting instruction documentary called Acting in Film. It’s a fascinating piece of work, full of genuine insights about movie acting. It’s also a masterpiece of accidental self-parody.
I’ve always held that Caine’s true intention with the video was to teach people about more than just acting. I like to imagine it’s his manual for everyday living and that he’s encouraging his audience to adopt the Caine lifestyle. In that spirit, I’ve selected a few key clips and included some of my personal notes about each. Watch the clips. Examine my notes. Live a better life.
Video #1 Notes:
Never change eyes.
Using a single eye, always look into just one of another person’s eyes at a time.
Blinking weakens you. Never blink.
All cameras will love you like a mistress or lover.
Theater actors don’t listen.
Video #2 Notes:
Oh! Calcutta! was a naked musical.
Never be nude because things will continue to move.
Always fight your tears.
Video #2 (in which Caine reflects on some of the lessons from his documentary)
Video #3 Notes:
Focus always ends immediately to the right of your face.
Always move backward and then walk slowly forward when you have something really important to say.
I don’t post a lot of haiku or even physically write it down, but I do compose it often in my head. It’s great practice at using language economically. Trying to say something resonant with very few words is a worthwhile endeavor — not just for writers. It’s meditative; it focuses thought and calms the mind. It’s ideal during long walks or in situations that require extended periods of waiting.
I typically write free verse, so haiku’s rigid structure edges me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to write poems through a separate lens. I’m reminded of learning to be a switch-hitter during my high school baseball days. After batting exclusively right-handed since Little League, I chose to try hitting left-handed. The result, following a steep learning curve that involved some embarrassing strike-outs, was that I achieved greater mental focus during my left-handed attempts. In baseball terms, “I saw the ball better” from this new side of the plate. By my senior year, my left-handed batting average was slightly higher than was my right, but what surprised me the most was how much batting left-handed improved my right-handed hitting. The switch-hitting process helped me identify and correct some longstanding bad habits. It’s amazing what stepping briefly into another set of shoes can teach you about returning to the old ones. Likewise, writing haiku has made me a better writer of free verse.
Here are two recent winter-themed examples:
first snow of winter
melted by the morning sun
change comes too slowly
an ice covered oak
emits a first faint crackle
I am emboldened
The limitlessness of expression to be discovered within three short lines of seventeen syllables can be awe-inspiring. If you’re interested in poetry, let’s follow each other on Instagram. I sometimes post short poems there.
I’ve been trying to take my writing a bit more seriously of late. This is not a very good example of that. That said, the one thing I’m not kidding about is wanting everything.
I want to
scan the horizon
for enemy scouts
storm the castle
and run with the bulls
I want to
go the extra mile
put the pedal to the metal
and go off on a tangent
out on a limb
I want to
drink like a fish
get high as a kite
and add fuel to the fire
at the drop of a hat
I want to
give up my day job
in the heat of the moment
and paint the town red
out of the blue
I want to
run the gauntlet
and get off scot-free
dance with the devil
and speak for the trees
I want to
bite off more
than I can chew
take the cake
and eat it too
I’ve had some level of interest in poetry for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, it has occupied a position of much greater significance in my life. As with any topic of deep interest, poetry inspires questions, not the least of which is why. Why poetry? Why does it mean so much to me, especially when so many other people just can’t be bothered?
Poems have the power to draw us deeply into unfamiliar contexts. Take the following poem for example, in which the author, a child of biracial parents, imagines a lighter-skinned version of herself.
Certainly it was possible — somewhere
in my parents’ genes the recessive traits
that might have given me a different look:
not attached earlobes or my father’s green eyes,
but another hair color — gentleman-preferred,
have-more-fun blond. And with my skin color,
like a good tan — an even mix of my parents’ —
I could have passed for white.
When on Christmas day I woke to find
a blond wig, a pink sequined tutu,
and a blond ballerina doll, nearly tall as me,
I didn’t know to ask, nor that it mattered,
if there’d been a brown version. This was years before
my grandmother nestled the dark baby
into our creche, years before I’d understand it
as primer for a Mississippi childhood.
Instead, I pranced around our living room
in a whirl of possibility, my parents looking on
at their suddenly strange child. In the photograph
my mother took, my father — almost
out of the frame — looks on as Joseph must have
at the miraculous birth: I’m in the foreground —
my blond wig a shining halo, a newborn likeness
to the child that chance, the long odds,
might have brought.
Few scenarios could lie further from my own experience, but the poem allows me into its private world with such immediacy that I imagine myself in the speaker’s place. I ponder the same questions she asks, and I begin to feel what she feels. The context is unique, but the emotions it inspires are universally human. In the space of one short poem, I’ve imagined life in someone else’s shoes – someone with a background far different from mine. Every new poem offers this possibility.
I would argue that there is nothing we need more as human beings than to connect regularly with this level of depth, particularly with people from unfamiliar backgrounds. Article after article will tell you that despite the best efforts of technology, we live in an age of ever-increasing social isolation. Developing a poetry habit can help to bridge this disconnect, and as with any learned behavior, lasting change requires repeated exposure. The ultimate promise of poetry, as Jane Hirshfield writes in her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, is that “by changing ourselves, one by one…,” we might also change “…the outer world that selves create and share.” It may be a cliche to suggest that poetry, or any art, has the power to change the world, but to my ear, it’s a cliche that rings true. Poems are powerful instruments of potential social change.