On the seventh day, he rests his mouth

March 04, 1998|By Lynda Gorov | Lynda Gorov,BOSTON GLOBE

LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes James Otis wakes up on Sunday mornings, turns toward his girlfriend and blurts out, "Hi honey." Then comes the inevitable "Oops."

"And then," he says, "I shut right up."

For three years, Otis has retreated into silence on Sundays, not speaking when spoken to, barely even nodding acknowledgment anymore. Maybe he couldn't help laughing at his friends' jokes during a recent backyard picnic at his father's house. Perhaps he couldn't help taking in the conversation around him. But the 34-year-old documentary filmmaker and new father could and did refrain from adding his opinion.

As his girlfriend, movie producer Lisa Henson, puts it, "Jamie blends into a room so well on Sundays he doesn't make a dent in it."

For Otis, holding his tongue gets easier every week, more than 150 of them now. He has gone skydiving in silence, and recently planned a quiet day of car racing. Still, he was glad his and Henson's first child wasn't born on one of them. Julian's arrival on a weekday saved him from having to offer encouragement in the delivery room on his mouth's day off -- a concession he would happily have made. Otis' only inviolate rule is that his silence must be broken if it causes anyone anguish or an emergency arises.

Otis is not kidding about keeping quiet. Sounding somewhat sappy, and acknowledging that he does, he says that he has come to need the silence, that it slows him down and heightens his senses. Although the calm is starting to spill over into Monday, even Tuesday, he still makes most of his important decisions on Sundays.

"I need it now," he says.

The silence works to his advantage in other ways. Otis, who carries a card explaining that he doesn't speak on Sundays, has found that strangers who mistake him for a mute or spiritual practitioner can't resist offering extra assistance. Airline reservationists have handed over upgrades, hotel clerks have given better rooms at no charge, movie houses have let him in free.

Nowadays he doesn't even send e-mail, considering it a violation of his self-imposed silence. Plus, with all the nodding and gesturing and note writing, he found he was communicating more on some silent days than during the other six in a week. Still, his private Sundays have given way to some public ones, a blend of nature hikes and Hollywood get-togethers that force others to deal with his refusal to speak.

"It's strange, but I guess people feel sorry for you when they find out you don't talk," says Otis, a lanky former model. "I think they essentially look on it as a handicap. I could take advantage of the silence if I wanted to, I suppose. I try not to.

"But," he adds, "I've had all sorts of experiences, positive and negative. People talk about me in the third person. Or they talk to me like I'm a child."

The idea to remain quiet one day a week first struck him in Austin, Texas, where, during the course of his research for a college professor, he read some of Mahatma Gandhi's 110 journals. Otis, himself a peace activist who spent time in Nicaragua during the 1980s, learned that his hero did not speak or eat on Sundays. Around the same time, Otis' grandfather, a sometimes loud and angry man, died, and he was searching for a fitting tribute. A day of peace and quiet seemed to suit the situation.

"It's the opposite of not being part of the world," says Otis, who tends to wrap his friends in big hugs hello and goodbye. "It's being part of the world, just doing it quietly. I thought it would be an interesting way to live. It's more reflecting on society than staying apart from it."

Otis is so serious about his silence that he planned a yearlong trip to an ashram in India, where he hoped to perfect the practice. But a trip to promote one of his documentaries landed him in Los Angeles, and at a party at Henson's house. After barely saying a word to her all night, he asked her out for the next day. The only glitch: The next day was a Sunday.

"I mentioned that there was one small problem, that I don't speak on Sundays," says Otis, soft-spoken and tending toward the serious even on the days he does speak. "Before she said yes, she stopped and literally looked me over for five or six seconds. But we spent the most lovely few hours hiking through the mountains. She talked just enough, and I got in a couple of nods maybe."

A day of silence, Otis says, also offers a safety of sorts during the week. No matter the day, he now hangs back before speaking, understanding how fast an opinion can change when it is not offered instantaneously. Thoughts no longer pop into his head and out of his mouth. He wishes politicians would try a silent Sunday or two, saying "they talk so much and don't really hear themselves."

But Otis, whose documentary on covert CIA operations will be shown on cable TV in the fall and in theaters after that, doesn't push his politics or his silence. Not a single friend or family member has joined him in the practice, although strangers are always promising to give it a go.

"The medical uses of silence are becoming known, as people experience more with eastern religions as well as eastern philosophies," Otis says. "There's a definite time to talk and a definite time to ponder things. It's just one day a week but it makes all the difference. People don't get it, but I love my silence now."

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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