No direction home

Django in park
No one has noted her resemblance to Dylan.

I saw the woodcarver at the park, walking with Mr. Wu and their dogs. They were so far away that when I waved and they didn’t wave back, I figured they just didn’t see me.

I walked a little further, then turned to call Django and leash her up. I noticed that the woodcarver seemed to be staring at me, which was silly because they were so far away. But there was something purposeful about his walk. And I had no reason to avoid them, I reasoned. I’d done my homework at last. So instead of leashing Django up I threw the ball in their direction, and she bounded for it.

As she neared the two dogs, Django lost interest in the ball. Her run drifted into a walk, and then she just stood, as if she had no idea what she was doing there.

“Get the ball, Django,” I called.

She looked at me blankly.

“The ball! The ball!”

She trotted away, in the general direction of the two dogs, while also managing to ignore them completely. I walked back to pick up the ball myself, just as the two men neared.

“Hi!” I called.

The woodcarver was still staring, a fierce smile on his face. “So you changed your mind.”

“My mind?”

“About the carving, you changed your mind.”

“No! I did it! I went to your site.”

“Did you?”

“I did. You wrote me back!”

“No, I don’t go near that. It must have been my son.”

“Well then, he wrote me, a profile shot and a closeup.”

“Yeah, well, I had a little time before.”

“Oh yeah, well, I guess I missed Christmas, ha ha.”

He wasn’t smiling anymore. Suddenly I realized that when I ran into him last week and asked about carvings of dogs, and also asked how long it takes, and come to think of it also asked if there was any chance of getting one by Christmas, and that’s right also said I’d go to his site, that, well, he took me seriously. Suddenly I felt like one of those flakes who do the sort of thing I’d just done.

Mr. Wu smiled at us, hands clasped behind his back. I said, “Sorry, I… the holidays… maybe I could shoot for a Valentines present?”

The woodcarver said, “After I make it, if you don’t like it you don’t have to buy it.”

“Oh.” I wanted to say, I’m sure I’ll like it, but somehow that felt like an insult to his process. I offered, “I have another friend who might want one.”

“Get yours first and if they like it they can get one.”

“But we’re going to do a photo shoot.”

“A shot just like that would be perfect.” Django was standing absolutely still, in profile. She and the woodcarver looked like they expected me to whip out a camera.

Mr. Wu said, “That dog has very unusual spots.” He said this like he’d never seen her before, though I’ve run into him at the park at least twice a week for the past six or seven years. At first I’d see him standing alone, dogless, east of the path, examining some detail of a tree. Hands clasped behind him, head slightly cocked, as if some leaf or bit of bark was refusing to be categorized. Then he got a dog and started walking with the woodcarver, or the guy with the unpredictable Golden.

Django stopped posing and wandered off to look for her ball, which was now back in my pocket. Mr. Wu added, “She looks like an African wild dog.”

“Does she?” I said, which I always say, although I’ve already compared her to photos of African wild dogs online and reached the same conclusion.

I said, “I’ll get you the pictures.” The woodcarver looked skeptical, which was understandable. He and Mr. Wu continued walking, and I decided to do another lap in the opposite direction.

Family soup

Grandma getting married
“If I didn’t marry him, it would have been someone else.”

Cousin Gina is in town. Yesterday she came for lunch and we talked a mile a minute like we always do, rushing to catch up before one of us has to leave. I was missing my dad enough to talk to him in the car the other night, and Gina is the answer to an awkwardly asked prayer. “Dad, I miss you. I just miss you. I want to see you. You know? Dad? Hey jerk, I got right of way! Merry effing Christmas to you too.”

Gina’s mother’s mother, Albina, and my father’s father, Jerry, were sister and brother. Whew. While Jerry was still in Italy working up the passage to get to Chicago, 15-year-old Albina met a girl on Taylor street named Mil, and they became best friends. When Albina’s big brother got to town, he liked Mil, too. “Everybody was after him, he was that good-looking,” Grandma would tell me, when I went to visit her and eat Salerno butter cookies. “For some reason he wanted me.”

“Oh Gram,” I was 10 and eager for all romantic details, “How did he ask you?”

“Ask? It was understood. After he decided, he would follow me around. He wouldn’t let me talk to nobody else.”

“What if you said no? Don’t you ever think about what might have happened?”

“If I didn’t marry him, so what? It would have been someone else.”

“Then you’re glad it was him?”

“Sure. He was Albina’s brother. He was good to me. So?”

Gina and I made a salad and had it with a soup I’d made a few days before. She kept calling me Martha Stewart, having no idea that I’ve always wanted to be someone who makes big batches of soup but have never managed it. I picture us eating soup all week, a quick meal that’s homemade. Finally, this week of all weeks, I made a pot only because I had beautiful leeks that needed using, and it’s been nothing but trouble. I worry about it constantly. Are we going to eat it all before it goes bad? When will it go bad? Three days? Two weeks? Should I warm up just a little each time, or the whole thing so I can boil out the bacteria each time? And what if I’m not in the mood for potato leek? Most of the time I’m in the mood for pad kee mao.

I don’t know what it is about Gina that brings my dad to me. Something in her eyes, and the way she can laugh even when she’s crying. And of course, because some of the same blood flows through our veins. We cried about our parents, just for a second, just when I cracked that my family is falling apart, and talked about bread, houses, Italy, work, writing, her kids, our dogs, aging, soup, figure skating, and I forget what else. Then she left to pick up her brother from the airport, and I went to get my hair cut, go Christmas shopping, and hustle to a Hanukkah party. 

There is never enough time to tell Gina everything and ask her everything from a year’s worth of living in different parts of the country, but I got my fix. Thanks Dad, or Santa, or maybe just Gina for making the drive to Chicago. And now she’s got me thinking about Grandma Mil, who knew when to spend six hours in the kitchen, and when to reach for a can of Campbell’s. 

Mil was a great cook, but she saved it for special occasions. Savoury fried smelt and garlicky olio uolio on Christmas eve, and other things I can’t spell but can hear her say in her high-pitched voice. She was one of ten kids. When she was four, her parents had their house moved from Taylor to Peoria Street. Mil’s mother wanted the kids to live in a better neighborhood, but also wanted to die in the family’s first American home. Mil always remembered the sight of her house rolling up the street and around the corner. “You don’t forget things like that,” she once told me. “It’s the little things you lose, like who was the youngest.”

A humidifier story

We are still married.

It’s the time of year to wax nostalgic about old times and old loves and dear ones gone by. Every song, every scent, every email seems to pull at the heartstrings. Like this one from Marcello: “What kind of humidifier you had running in the living room? I need to find a good humidifier.” And suddenly I’m back in 1998.

Bemis Tabletop model, you were my first grownup humidifier and I’ll never forget you. You made me realize what was missing in the cheap Walgreens models I bought and discarded, only to re-buy and re-discard. I immediately connected with the wicking system, and when I opened my first bottle of bacteriostatic treatment, suddenly everything made sense.

But Bemis, though you changed me, or maybe because you changed me, I outgrew you. The upside down water tank thingy, it started to grate. I’m not accusing you of spills, but the whole idea of it, the slightly squishy experience of picking up the tank, turning it over quickly to avoid excessive drips, and then filling it and having that sinking feeling when I had to turn it upside down again, it started to outweigh the humidification highs. And no, the top never came off. But just knowing that it might, Bemis, just knowing that it might.

A dalliance with an April Air whole house solution forced the transition. We were living in a place with forced air heating, and April promised we’d never need silly room humidifiers again. We wanted to believe, and we set Bemis up with a friend. I hope they worked out. She never talks about it and I don’t ask. I like to think of Bemis still humidifying, cleanly, with bacteriostatically treated water. As the HVAC guy predicted, April Air was “kinda lame, but it’s your call.” Whole house systems only care about you when the heat is blowing. But it was invisible, and maintenance-free, and whenever anyone asked I said, “Our air is great, couldn’t be healthier.”

Then we moved into a house with the driest heating system of all: hot water radiators. I couldn’t appreciate the irony of all that hot water being so near, but completely closed off, until my first bloody nose. I briefly wished for steam radiators, but after one night with Essick 4-Speed Mini Console I was like, Steam who?

This time it’s forever. To fill Mini Console, you don’t deal with any upside down water tanks. You don’t worry about drips and spills. You just take the top off and fill. You can even use a bucket (a clean, new, dedicated bucket is only like four bucks at Matty K’s), to transport the water so you don’t even have to pick up Mini C and move it into the bathtub. If you just fill it with a bucket a day it never becomes a big chore. And I find this model also sort of fades into the room. It’s actually less noticeable than the Tower model.

Tower, also an Essick, was a huge mistake, but I’m living with it. Big brother to Mini Console, Tower seemed like it would be less noticeable and would humidify better, but no. It’s got upside down tanks, two of them, which are even more prone to spills and drips than Bemis Tabletop. So you’re paying more for something bigger that doesn’t last longer and is more of a pain.

Last thing: Make sure you purchase the bacteria treatment, and put in about half a capful every time you fill the humidifier or the bucket. This is crucial. Really important. And new filters every year. You can get both of those at Matty K’s too.

Oh, don’t be fooled by the Venta Air Washer humidifier. My mom gave them whole years of her life and they only caused her heartache. And backaches.

Rejectness & Acception

Off Fellows picture
Buildings of the Odd Fellows’ Orphans’ Home, framed, submitted to alley, accepted by me.

I got my favorite rejection of the year in the mail the other day. As a writer, I’m supposed to be used to rejection, but I’m not. I never got rejected from this particular place for that particular piece before, so it’s always happening for the first time.

And as someone who’s done my share of rejecting, I should remember that not everyone’s performance or piece is right for whatever I’m casting or curating, so I should remember it’s not often so much about rejection as it is about incompatibility, but I don’t.

And as my job hunting friends tell me, I should be grateful even for rejections, because someone cared enough to say no, thanks. Apparently the trend in employment these days is, if you don’t hear from us, consider it a no. Thanks. Yeah, I guess, but it still stings. Except for the times when it doesn’t. Like this one.

It wasn’t one of those personalized “Your play is amazing but we don’t have the budget for your time machine set piece” or “The writing is so brilliant even we don’t understand it “ sorts of letters. There wasn’t even a scrawled postscript about how I should send in something else because they liked my voice. It was just a form letter on cheap paper telling me that my play, “Charlie,” wasn’t selected for their ten-minute musical project. Two things stopped me from feeling bad about it, maybe three.

First, the letter said that not only wasn’t “Charlie” selected, but no one’s play was selected. Which made me feel included instead of excluded. I like feeling included, which apparently is okay because that’s part of being human.

Also, the letter advised all us rejects to pay more attention to story, because plot was mostly where these pieces disappointed. It recommended more adaptations. I can take or leave the advice, but at least I have a sense of why they didn’t like my very small story with some big songs (composed by creative wonderbox Charlie – oh, btw, Charlie, we didn’t get in – Hopper).

There’s something lovely about a rejection that reveals just a little of what’s behind the no. It demystifies the whole process in a way that makes me feel less generally inadequate, and more specifically incompatible.

Rejections also feel better when tempered with acceptances. This morning, I got an email with a link to a tiny radio play I wrote, “Go,” which is presented as part of this week’s episode of Chicago Off Book. It’s a smart, fast, funny show that makes me want to go see more theatre. I hope you’ll listen to it—and not just to my 60 seconds of silliness. Arlene Malinowski also has a mini-play in this episode, and there are interviews with Michael Halberstam and Darrell Cox.

Ironically, when something of mine is accepted, I don’t feel a huge rush of artistic triumph. I just think, oh, good, for some reason that worked for them. It boosts my confidence enough to think about sending out more work, and more importantly, it’s the point of the whole endeavor – to share my work, my view, my experiences, with whoever might care to listen.

Like most things I write, both “Charlie” and “Go” are on actual events: one I overheard at a bookstore, and one I saw backstage at a theatre. The more I write, the more I discover specifically what kind of writer I am: an interpreter of the small and forgotten. And I’m proud of it. If you too are someone who auditions, submits, sells, offers yourself parsed out in words or images or knitted hoodies or carved dogs, I hope you’ll keep at it. Because there may be only a few people in this entire universe who really “get” your handmade astrology-themed earbud cozies, but wouldn’t it feel good to connect with them?

Could everything stop being a metaphor for just five minutes?

deflated snowmen
Exhibit 13-B.

Exhibit A. Clamshell packaging on cheap electronics.

Exhibit B. Filling the humidifier while it’s raining outside.

Exhibit C. Traffic on Elston.

Exhibit D. A messy house.

Exhibit F. The empty laundry basket that’s been sitting in the same spot for a week.

Exhibit I. The sky, right at this moment.

Exhibit K. That piece of fuzz on the blind. Its weightlessness. Its replicating powers. Its almost-lack of color or form. Its polite insistence. Its network of friends.

Exhibit Z. That dream last night. Specifically, the part with the ladder.

Exhibit 13-B. Inflatable snowmen, deflated.

Exhibit 7. Snowmen.

I’m not a mom: reason 43

sympathy card
I mean, there is a kid on the cover.

I thought I remembered everything on my shopping trip yesterday. After three years of missing my second cousin’s birthday party for his little girl, I’m determined to make today’s bash, so I added 4-year-old girl to my Christmas list and headed out. Instead of going straight to the small shops of Lincoln Square, where I’d find everything else on my list, I went to a mall, so the gift would be easy to return.

I stood in Carson’s and tried to find something that a four year-old girl I don’t really know would like but not already own. I found a make-your-own-necklace kit, for ages 4 and up. That’s creative and fun, right? Unfortunately, the beads and pendants were dull-colored—timid yellows and maroons and was that beige or tan? I couldn’t imagine a child wanting to wear the one long necklace, two short necklaces, or one short necklace and one bracelet that could be constructed from this box of sadness. But they could return it. The toy store in Lincoln Square surely would have a happier necklace set, but if she didn’t even like necklace sets, it would be a long drive.

On my way to the register I noticed a cute pink purse that said Peace in silver glitter. Little girls like purses, right? Only it didn’t cost enough. But on the same display were glittery newsboy caps, one size fits all. Next to them, the bead set looked positively funereal. I left the beads to scare the remaining glitter caps and took my new choices, holding them together to get the full effect. Happy and fun, but maybe too glittery? Are products like this the gateway drug to kiddie pageants and eye makeup? I’ve been watching Toddlers and Tiaras to prepare for a role in a friend’s upcoming short film, and I’m more suspicious of glitter than I used to be.

Then I saw a pink wool hat with yarn pigtails and heart appliques. It’s whimsical but not grown-up. And it’s got an appropriate return price. But what if it doesn’t fit? I saw a mom shopping nearby and wanted to ask, but she seemed like she was in a hurry. “What are nude tights?” asked her daughter.

“Oh, they’re tights that, you know, they’re tights that look, oh, they don’t even have them. Come on, let’s try the juniors department.”

Still holding my two options, I stood in line and looked for someone else to ask. A lady complaining about how Carson’s isn’t as good as it used to be stood in front of me. Too crabby. The woman behind me looked perfect, but as I smiled my preparatory smile a cashier opened a new register and called to me, “I can take you over here.”

When I got to the counter, still smiling, I said, “So for a four year-old girl, which do you think?”

She scratched her shellacked hair. “Oh, I don’t know…why don’t you ask someone else?”

“I was going to…”

Two Saturdays before Christmas, the line behind me was getting longer. “Oh, that one, I guess.” She pointed to the pink hat. “The other is…” she raised her thin, penciled eyebrows.

“I thought so, too!” I gushed, and bought the hat. I got a gift box, tissue paper, and a discount card for the next time I shop here, which will be never, but still it was a nice gesture.

I drove back to Lincoln Square and finished my shopping. Came home and unloaded everything and felt very pleased to be able to check everything off my list except Dave and a trip to the framing store. Then I realized, I don’t have a birthday card for a four year-old girl. Rats. I dug out my box of cards and found a few birthday cards, but nothing appropriate for a child.

“Take your birthday with a grain of salt, a squeeze of lime, and an ounce of Tequila.”

“Aging is inevitable. Maturing is optional.”

Also, a couple of Spanish-language sympathy cards that I’d bought for a film shoot a few years ago and kept, just in case. With anyone else, a sympathy card would be inappropriate, but I happen to remember that when I got married the first time, this cousin gave us a sympathy card instead of a wedding card. At the time, I assumed it was a joke and made some jokey reply in our thank-you card. But I wasn’t sure exactly whether the joke hinged on the idea that all marriages are fatal, or this one in particular.

Maybe that’s why I still remember it, 20 years later. A random omen, if omens can be random, or just another case of needing to bring a card and not wanting to stop at the store when you’ve already got something that sort of works? After all, it’s just something to put a check in, right?

My second cousin speaks Spanish, and his daughter probably doesn’t read yet, so maybe this would work. Four year-olds don’t care about cards, do they? Would my cousin remember the sympathy card from long ago? Or would he just think the weird, childless cousin whose husband didn’t even come to the birthday party is even weirder than he thought?

I could drop Dave at the theatre before his gig, but I think I’ll have to leave him to the el so I can go to CVS for a card. Children are exhausting. Then again, so are adults.

Endings and what comes before

sea lion
In the distance, a phone rings. Softly. Insistently. End of play.

Yesterday was my last class with Will Dunne, of the translations exercise I talked about back in October. Over the term, I’ve completed the second draft of my play, “St. George on the bus.” First draft, written earlier this year, was 79 pages and seven characters. Second draft is 33 pages and two characters. I can see things I need to develop more, or unpack as Arlene Malinowski says in my Saturday writing group, but I don’t think the next draft will be longer than 40 pages. Maybe it’s a one-act, maybe it’s a first act in a longer piece I don’t see yet. But I think I see where it needs to go to complete itself. I need to dig back in to push the characters into declaring their wants and needs a little more strongly, so they can fight a little harder, and be a little more of who they are, and make the story more of what it is.

I tend to write characters who are too ambiguous, a tendency that can make a writer feel like she is very deep. ‘Cause the characters are so “real.” And if you have a strong story—that is, a story that your characters are driving with strong wants and needs, then there’s room for ambiguity and yes, it’s super-deep. But if the story is somewhat tenuous, because your characters are half-moving and half-wanting in too many directions at once, it loses momentum. It becomes static.

A collage is not a story. The viewer can certainly make a story of it, but that’s not the same thing. If I order a chef salad I’m not asking for a head of lettuce and a block of cheese. Dressing on the side, sure, but don’t make me decide whether to slice or quarter the egg.

We went to a friend’s the other night and he screened the short film he’s making. It was beautiful, with sure pacing and compelling action and a tone that feels very specific. But then it just sort of stopped. Not ended, but stopped. Or at least that’s how I felt. Then Dave said the same thing, and our friend said he’s struggling with that too. The problem is, how to end it in a way that satisfies all major collaborators on the piece. Turns out each has slightly different thoughts about what front end means, so they’ve created an ending ambiguous enough that you can interpret as you wish. But because the ending didn’t feel like an ending, it made me question what I thought the whole thing was about. And not in a deep way.

Maybe my vision of story is too uptight. Maybe I take stories too seriously, because of my own struggles with middles and ends. I sort of want to add a phone ringing to the end of my St. George play, because as it ends right now, character 1 leaves character 2 behind. It’s kinda sad, because character 1 has made a choice that will propel her into a more honest and brave place in her life, and character 2 has retreated. And the connection they once had is gone. So character 2 is sitting alone at the end. Aw, it’s sad. And if the phone rings, and we can assume it’s character 3 calling, and it rings and rings but character 2 is too sad to pick it up, isn’t that even sadder? And the lights are slowly fading and the phone just rings and rings…are you getting teary-eyed? You’ve only seen that once or twice in plays or movies before, right? Or maybe six or seven times? Or 20? But the real point is, if it were happening in my head and I couldn’t deny it, I would know it was right. It would be an ending and not just an idea.

The other problem I’m struggling with is relevance. But I’ll save that for another day, because Django is bugging me for a walk, and I’ve just received an email from my godmother, telling me about a writing award my distant cousin David Holroyd just won in England, for his story, “Deliver Us From Bobby!” It’s a wonderful piece, incidentally with a perfect ending: “As for the aggressive miner, we never saw him again.”

Will you be my one good action?

foster dog
Come on, will ya?

I got to have my fake Friday night last night, like I asked for on Facebook. But now I have to admit that the pub I want to love just ain’t cracking up to it.

I wanted my neighborhood pub to be snug and delicious and sparkling with the soft light of friendship and a pretend fireplace. Instead it smelled bad and the food was partially inedible and the service—which normally I don’t even care about unless I’m in a hurry—was random. Three waters for four people, no plates for the deep-fried apps, which thank god killed the other smell – magic markers? mold? – I noticed when we came in.

Why didn’t I say something? Because I didn’t want it to smell bad. It was my idea after all, dragging my friends out on a Wednesday night, and we were having fun, coming in from a brisk walk, happy to get a good table by the window. The waitress was smiley. There was just this faint…magic marker? Yes, it must be magic marker…smell. Once we got our drinks I forgot all about it.

Then Xeena and Buck showed up, Xeena who is allergic to everything and can smell everything, even styrofoam – that’s what she gets for being open to the universe—and her first Coke with lime was flat, and the second one was also flat and also tasted of something that was neither Coke nor lime. And they didn’t get silverware so they couldn’t enjoy the apps before they congealed.

But as long as no one wakes up sick today – and I don’t see how Xeena can get sick when she didn’t eat two bites of her shepherd’s pie—I’d say it was a fun evening. Vandamm showed up for an after-dinner drink that seemed to taste okay. And as we were wrapping up the confusing bill, Starbeck showed up outside the window with a new foster dog. Very cute black and white pointer mix? Not quite right for a Django companion, but really sweet. We all walked back together and then watched foster dog play with Kismet and Kyle’s cartoon dog. It was fun until Django started flying into them and barking her shrill cattle dog bark, trying to break up the fun. Foster dog had already had a rough day, so we left.

I should do a Yelp review but I don’t trust Yelp lately. I keep hearing troubling things about their advertising programs. Plus, I still want the pub to thrive. Would a review kick their butts, or lead to fewer customers and a failed business just because maybe they had an off night? I don’t know what’s important in this world where everything seems to be falling apart. When news about the central banks sounds so hopeful until I hear the analysis that predicts there’s an even bigger disaster they’re trying to avert, and the water in the world keeps rising, and nonprofit agencies keep sinking, and the Occupy movement gets more marginalized, and the wars keep multiplying, and for each of these things there is a perfectly good reason, all organized into stories in my hand, but all at once, all right now and constant, and yet I can easily turn them off and dip into entirely different banks of news and entertainment. So I’m confused.

I don’t know what’s important. And I don’t want to sit here and remind myself about the importance of just one action. I already know that. What I really mean is, I’m looking for the one action and I’m annoyed that I can’t find it. Foster dog arrived in Chicago after a 16-hour ride in a cage on a church bus filled with other dogs from a shelter in the Southwest. He ended up homeless because his elderly owner moved into assisted living. He’s almost a year old, extremely good-natured, has soft fur and one blue eye. He needs a good home. Why don’t you adopt him?