How to become the Weird People

Bumper sticker on a pickup I passed the other day
Everything has consequences.

In the play we’re doing for the Citizen’s Play Festival, there’s a cage, a dog crate large enough for an actor playing a 12-year-old boy. At first I assumed we wouldn’t use a real cage. After all, it’s just a staged reading. Even in a full production, a real cage would probably be too literal. The designer would come up with something better.

But as the director pointed out, with a 10-minute segment in a fest you need to communicate basic story elements quickly. The kid lives in a cage, it would be good to have a cage. One of the actors had one in his garage, so yesterday morning I drove over  to pick it up.

When I returned, I parked out front and carried first the metal base into the house. Dave was busy practicing, but Django came over and sniffed the base when I set it on the living room rug. I went back for the cage part and she followed me out. Down the block, a neighbor was playing ball with his kids. The cage was heavy and unwieldy. I set it down a few times on my way to the front door. Django laid down in the grass, far from the cage, watching my progress.

When I got to the front door, Dave came out and carried in the cage. I turned to call Django and saw the neighbor girl from down the block. “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I replied. “Come on, Django.” Django remained on the lawn, watching the crate move into the house.

“Is that a dog cage?” asked the girl.

“Yep.”

“What’s it for?”

“It’s just a prop for a play we’re rehearsing here.”

“Cool!”

This was the longest conversation we’d ever had. I added, “I think Django thinks it’s for her.”

The little girl and I looked at Django, who was now looking away from the front door. “That’s what my dad thought, too.”

“Come on, Django,” I called. “It’s gone now. It’s not for you.” Django came inside and the girl went back to her dad. I imagined her telling him, “It’s not for the dog, it’s for a play they’re practicing in their living room.” And I imagined one more weird thing about the weird couple being added to the rolls.

Night riding

two dogs playing
Equal status.

Yesterday I did the first night ride of the year on my bike. I battled my fear almost the whole time. Every time I heard a car coming up behind me I would briefly turn my head back, hoping that would help them notice me. I would hope the driver was the type of person who considered hitting me enough of a mistake or sin or inconvenience that they’d pass carefully by.

Faith had come over in the morning so Otto could play with Izzy. We watched the two dogs wrestle and I fed Django treats so she wouldn’t keep going over and breaking them up, which was amusing to me but not desirable when you’re trying to help your dog (Otto) recover from the loss of his pack leader so you set up play dates with dogs who actually play (Izzy, who’d been dropped off by Kismet on her way to work). Faith told me she  rides her bike everywhere from Spring through Fall. She gave me advice on good bike streets – Damen, Wilson, Leland – and said night riding is her favorite. “Especially in the Fall, when the streets are quiet and the leaves above you are turning color…” It sounds poetic, but then there are the cars.

It’s not that I think the car wants to hurt me, it’s just that it can. It’s about status. A bike object is low status because it can be so easily hurt by a car object . But I can’t think like that. I have to remember that both are controlled by humans, who are equal status. So I rode my bike to the first rehearsal for Boy Small. The director, Emmi Hilger, let me stow my bike on her inside back porch so I didn’t even need to use my lock.

At rehearsal, Emmi had the actors read the script once, then she led a discussion of it. She has an uncanny sense for knowing what to ask and when to say nothing and how to gently guide people into speaking freely. Then she had them read the script again, with all they’d learned or confirmed or discovered. It was humbling. Because I’m already working with Emmi and one of the actors (the amazing Chris Popio) on the WTA piece, I was comfortable speaking just as myself, not trying to be what I think a playwright is supposed to be (silent and enigmatic). By telling what I am seeing in my head, I can learn how much is on the page. And I can learn what else is there that I haven’t even seen, which helps me go forward. I feel like I’ve lucked out in both these pieces, to have actors who are both powerful and nuanced performers and so insightful and articulate about character and all the little moments that connect into a play.

Faith has given me a worksheet she uses in developing a play. It forces you to state things like conflict and premise. Things I often avoid or resent because I want to work in the dark. I don’t want to commit to definites because I’m afraid either I won’t fulfill them or in fulfilling them I’ll miss an opportunity for something better. But the questions stay with me. What is the question the play is asking? How does the central character change? If I can be clear on these they will free me to ride. My power is that if this play fails I can just write another one. Try again, fail again, fail better, as Beckett said.

After rehearsal I rode home. Ainslie is another good street at night. Lots of speed bumps but not many cars. I rode over the bridge at Lawrence behind a guy on his bike, carrying a grocery bag. The only time I actually felt scared was when I realized that I’d just spent the last few moments enjoying the quiet dark and cool air so much that I’d forgotten to worry about speed bumps and cars and ambushes. I tried to make up for it by worrying harder in the moments ahead.

Smelling the dog

Othello text
Don't peek.

“Come smell the dog,” I said to Dave tonight, and he knew just what I meant. I didn’t even know quite what I meant.

He wasn’t far away, just sitting on the other end of the couch. The dog was curled up between us. We’d been talking about the story I was going to read for Essay Fiesta (this Monday). I’d decided it wasn’t quite the right piece and Dave was explaining why it was. Who else on earth would do this? He went up and printed it out, then brought it down and read it while I skimmed episode summaries of the first four episodes of Man Men Season 5. Dave had spent most of the evening at his Othello class, which came after a scene rehearsal, so it was a long evening for him, but still he read each line carefully enough that he could explain in detail what he liked about it.

He also suggested a rehearsal strategy: “Print each paragraph on a separate sheet, so you stay fully in each world.” He got it from a Shakespeare book he’s reading for his class. The author says to cover a page of Shakespeare text with a sheet of paper and reveal only a line at a time. “It’s amazing,” said Dave, “Everything becomes crystal clear when you can’t see what’s ahead.”

The dog’s legs were all crisscrossed over each other. I had one of those sudden panicked realizations that I can’t imagine life without her. She’s been in our relationship as long as we have. “In just a couple of years, I said, “she’s going to kindergarten.”

“Um, Mar, she’s eleven and a half,” said Dave.

“Ssh,” I motioned, like Malcolm the toddler did earlier tonight when he tried to sneak upstairs to visit the dog, who was locked in a bedroom.

Ever since my brother Joey told us about his hairstylist calling her parents’ dog “the baby,” we’ve been calling the dog “the baby.” It’s so wrong and creepy that we can’t stop doing it. “The baby.” The more I know someone will think I’m weird for doing it, the more I want to. “The baby.” It would be less funny if she had a happy dog face. But the more wretchedly she stares ahead when I bury my face in her fur, waiting for the moment she can spring out of my grasp, the more I want to annoy her.

Tonight, for some reason, she wasn’t annoyed. She tolerated me like she does once a month or so. She smelled like clean fur and corn chips. Faintly like canola oil. I tried to save the smell of her in my memory for when she’s gone, like that would help. “You know we’ll have to clone her,” said Dave. “You do realize that, don’t you?”

“Clone baby,” I said, and we laughed hysterically.

Miraculously, for she doesn’t tolerate loud noises, she remained on the couch. It was time to turn off the lights and go to bed. Dave picked up his glass and sighed. “Come smell the dog,” I said. He put down his glass and leaned in to smell the dog.

It’s like this

Like boots.

I went to pick up Zoe. I put Django’s boots on first, because of the salt. We walked over there. It was cold. We went up and Marianne was just coming in from shoveling. Her face was rosy, like a storybook child’s. Katharine Hepburn and her sister were at the kitchen table. I said hi and Marianne leashed up Zoe. Elaine said, “Look at Django’s boots. They’re so cute!” “You should see her with her coat on,” I boasted extra loudly, like an intrusive home help lady from a British mystery novel.

Back outside, I felt bullied by the cold. I walked the dogs up north, aiming for a mailbox so I could mail my letter. But my hands were starting to ache, like the last gasp of water in the tray before it freezes into ice. I was so cold I started to whimper, so quietly that passersby didn’t notice, so quietly that even the dogs didn’t turn around. I decided to stop home and warm up.

My hands were so numb I could barely unlock the back door. The dogs bounded in. Django stopped on the rug and waited for me to take her boots off. Zoe jumped up on a counter, looking for snacks. I whimpered more loudly now, “Ow. Ow. Ow,” as I pulled off Django’s disposable balloon boots.

I rubbed my hands together briskly, like a Buddhism teacher on Lawrence Avenue once taught, reminding them what circulation feels like. As they thawed, Dave came in the back door from rehearsal. He offered to walk Zoe back with me, noting that Django didn’t need to go out again.

He was right, and certainly I didn’t want to wrestle Django’s boots back on, but when she followed us to the back door I said, “I think she wants to come.”

“No, she just doesn’t want to be left behind.” Dave opened the back door and both dogs pushed out past us. “See?” I said, “She wants to come.”

At the bottom of the stairs, Django immediately ran back up and inside, but I ignored that. “Let’s just take her.”

“She’ll get cold,” said Dave.

“It’s only three blocks,” I said. I figured we wouldn’t have to carry her until we were on the way back.

Dave leashed her up and we started walking. When we got to the first salty stretch of sidewalk, I tried to walk fast, like that kid from the Bazooka cartoon who paints the fence quickly because he’s running out of paint.

Django stopped and held up a paw. “Come on, Django,” I said annoyed, “There’s hardly any salt.” Zoe and I were already at the end of it. But Django held up two paws, switching among them to keep herself upright. “Django, come on!” She started shivering, like an old lady.

Dave picked her up and shook his head without shaking his head, like a statue of a person who is about to shake his head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Go on back. I’ll be home in a minute.” I continued on with Zoe, who plowed happily through snow, salt and ice like a draught horse. When I got to Katharine Hepburn’s, the kitchen was as dark as night. I let Zoe in and wondered if it would be rude to just leave. Then Miss Hepburn’s sister came in from the hall. “My boots are snowy so I won’t come in,” I explained from the back door.

Miss Hepburn’s sister told me briefly about Miss Hepburn’s upcoming surgery and effusively complimented Marianne’s shoveling and asked politely about Dave’s playing and my projects. She is the most civilized person I have ever known, like Maggie Smith in Tea with Mussolini. She gives me hope for 92, or 93, or whatever she may be.

I walked home without whimpering, just like a person with their hands in their pockets.

 

Deep Pace Mine

Let’s not waste this fine Spring day.

Django is waiting. I know I know. But I had to go for a run with Syd first. Yep, I’m a runner. Kind of. Syd went on her real run early in the morning, and then when she finished she ran here so we could go for a lap around the park. I was almost ready when she got here. I’d gotten up quietly when my alarm went off, hoping that the dog, like Dave, would keep sleeping.

In the bathroom I changed into the clothes I’d set there the night before – leggings and two tee shirts and a warm-up jacket. Then I tiptoed into my office and did some yoga to un-creak a little, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what if Syd came early and tried to come in the back door, which I’d said I’d leave open? I didn’t want the doorbell to wake up the dog, who would immediately want to be fed and walked. Dave, I wasn’t as worried about. He’s been staying up way too late watching Deep Space Nine, so too bad.

I decided to do yoga downstairs instead. I went down and unlocked the door, but Django must have heard me turn off the alarm, because when I headed in to the living room she trotted in, wagging her tail. Okay, yoga in a minute. I let her out, fed her, and leashed her up for a quick walk around the block.

But just outside we ran into another lady and her dog. Pino? Pina? He too didn’t like being held back on his leash so he barked at Django, who was quiet and docile until he leaned in to sniff her mouth. Then she let him have it. “Sorry, sorry,” I pulled Django away.
“No, it’s okay, he does the same thing.” Pino or Pina looked up at me pitifully. I squatted down to pet him. Django sniffed the parkway, her work done. The lady and I talked about how cute our respective dogs were, and what breeds they might be, and how unpredictable they can be on leash. Luckily Dave wasn’t there to add, as he always does, “She’s unpredictable off leash, too.” He’s been staying up way too late watching Deep Space Nine, so whatever.

Django eventually came over to be patted by the lady and to be sniffed, more politely, by Pino or Pina. Then we continued on our walk. Soon as we got home, Syd arrived. So much for yoga. We went for our run and I felt just like those people I see running at the park. Really cool. I was wearing proper running clothes and I had a running partner and we were even talking like other runners do, in short casual bursts. At first I tried to smile at the dog walkers, because I always feel like runners are looking at me angrily for having my dog at the park. But I realized today that they’re probably just concentrating. After my first smile or two I didn’t have time to worry about those losers. I had to focus on keeping pace with Syd. She kept asking, “Want to slow down?”

“No, I don’t want to slow down now because I want to reserve the right to walk later.”

“We can take whatever pace feels right. It’s up to you.”

“Uh-huh.” She didn’t realize that if I started walking it would mean that we’d stopped running, so it wouldn’t count as running so I wouldn’t feel like a runner so I wouldn’t feel cooler than shit. When we got home, Django was sitting in the window, staring at us like she couldn’t believe we’d go to the park without her. “I guess Dave didn’t walk you,” I said when I got inside. He was still sleeping because he’s been staying up way too late watching Deep Space Nine, so I had to go upstairs and say it louder.

Now I’ve had my shower and some breakfast, and we’re heading back to the park for a dog lap. Dave is joining us. He should probably stay home and work, but I notice that if I just ask how Deep Space Nine is going, he will pretty much do anything I ask.

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.

All you have is your joy

treadmill
My new novel.

I was down most of yesterday because I didn’t wake up to write. I set my alarm for six – no, I had Dave set his alarm. At six I said, “six-thirty.” He reset it and we fell back to sleep. At six-thirty I turned on my light, reached for my notebook, and wrote half a page of drivel, about how I don’t want to write and I’m so sleepy and I have nothing to say. I was waiting for the magic moment, the spark into a surprise revelation or train of thought that makes the process worthwhile, but all that happened was I fell back asleep. When I woke again at eight-thirty I was clutching my notebook like a teddy bear.

Why is it so important to me? What am I trying to prove? I have another half-finished story that’s lost steam and I think I can fool my subconscious brain into telling me the rest of it before the editor wakes up.

At nine o’clock I opened the notebook again, this time at the dining room table, and wrote some more drivel. “I dreamed I was packing up the car but had to walk Django first but somehow she had to climb out of a basket of salad greens. She did it!” Then I wrote a scene for the story which I won’t use. There’s no need to use everything you write. That would be like a concert pianist performing a rehearsal for the audience. I know that. But it’s scary when the spark doesn’t come.

I popped into Facebook and watched a Thich Naht Hanh video recommended by Susy. It was about how the left hand doesn’t punish the right when it makes a mistake, like accidentally pounding the left thumb with a hammer. The left and right understand that they are each other. Susy said she watched the video three times and was calmed.

Leave it to the gods, Elizabeth Gilbert said in her TED talk, which I also watched. Maybe it was on the same YouTube page? Leave it to the gods but show up at the page, because Sinclair Lewis wrote 5,000 words A DAY. I read that yesterday in Wikipedia.

At nine-thirty I got on with real work and spent the rest of the day writing video scripts. When Dave came back from his run I said for the millionth time, “I wish I could do that.” Then somehow it was eight p.m. and we were still working, which isn’t surprising when you don’t start til halfway through the morning.

Instead of having dinner, I suited up for the treadmill. I’d been thinking about doing that since Dave brought it home a year ago. But I’m not a runner, and I’ve never used a treadmill. I’ve been busy saying, “If only it was a cross-trainer.” “If only I had an idea of the plot.” “If only I weren’t so sleepy at six a.m.” “My shoes are caked with mud.” “I have nothing to wear.” I put on some yoga clothes and knocked my shoes around over the garbage and Dave showed me how to start with your feet on the sides.

He went back to work and I put my earplugs in and turned on Pandora to Eagles radio. As a runner I’m pretty wobbly. I walked and ran and watched myself wobble in the mirror Dave propped against the wall to check his form (perfect, the lady at Fleet Feet said).

After 32 minutes I realized I need shorts, a sports bra, and some shoes that don’t pinch my toes. I also realized that I was happy. It felt good to sweat and try not to wobble while singing along with American Pie and Beast of Burden and Penny Lane and other songs that share musical qualities with the artist The Eagles. I didn’t write but I did something else I’ve been wanting to do. All I have is what I feel, and right now I feel the joy of wobbling. It’s pretty much what I expected to feel at six a.m. this morning, but instead it’s ten at night, I’m fresh from the shower, and my biggest struggle is between a toasted D’Amatos mini-focacchia and the last of the sweet potatoes.

Diary of a jib

It’s like I’m not even here.

Today They brought me to a house. I won’t say He. To me, He no longer counts as a He. He—that is, They—carried my parts as if I were so much equipment. Throughout my assemblage, They blabbed to the AD. Nothing about how easily I went together, just silly chatter about the weather (“So much rain!”) and the neighborhood (“What do they call this area?”) and the AD’s vertigo (“No kidding?”). I’m sure the universe is the wiser, thanks to those insights.

I held myself apart, daring Him – I mean, Them – to fit my base into the spider dolly, defying the twist of the lug bolt. Not long ago, at times like this, all the chatter would be of me. Of the gift of my perfect balance after all those years with What’s-it’s-name. The gift of my compactness – you’d never guess, when you saw me in pieces, that I could span 20 feet. The gift of me. Now those days are deader than an XL1.

When I was fully formed, They left, trailing his witty repartee like a docked tail. “See ya.” I spent the evening alone. A spotted dog appeared briefly. It stepped over my feet to get to a bed tucked in the corner. Surely I’m the tallest, widest span of metal and steel ever to grace the inside of this shack, but the dog gave not a backward glance.

Two theys came in and sat on the couch. They watched an episode of Friday Night Lights, which doesn’t even use one of me. Yawn. One they left and the other read by a dim light. It’s very strange, the lights they use for living.

I will try to rest, and hope tomorrow will be better. Not to expect, for I’ve learned something about expectations in these last few months. But hope, surely, is free to anyone fool enough – and long enough – to reach for it.

Home

dog sleeping under quilt
The place you call the place if you call places places.

Django is lying at the foot of the bed, wrapped in the vintage quilt I bought on vacation. I think it’s called a Grandmother’s Flower Garden, though that seemed to be what they all were called. I’ve been lying awake, thinking about the sink we bought and how even if you’re lucky enough to get to custom-order your sink cabinet it can still end up being too narrow for the only sink shallow enough to fit back to front. And how even if we return this sink and find a place to custom-make a sink, there could well be another way in which it won’t fit quite right. This is why people hire kitchen designers.

Re-entry from Michigan was slightly softened tonight by running into friends on the dog walk and getting ourselves invited over for dinner. Django was still hopped up from her vacation, so she was exceptionally bossy. There are eight or nine border collies at the herding farm where she stays when we go away, so I imagine her the visiting omega, sullenly following orders from even the two-year-old who made her herding debut over the weekend, and dreaming of all the alpha moves she’ll use on the clueless neighbor dogs when she gets home.

When we picked her up yesterday, she ran in circles, ducking in to get petted but not able to stand being touched, so squirming off again. We were trying to talk to Shannon about how the week went and how her herding demos went, but Django kept circling and not-exactly-barking, more articulated whining that changes itself into a yawn and back. She’d circle and whine-yawn, then run partway to the car, doors standing open, and then run back and start again.

Finally I stamped my foot and said, “Just get in the car,” and it was like that’s all she’d been waiting for, though I’d never said it to her before. She raced down the long, winding drive and jumped into the driver’s seat, where she sat calmly until we finished talking, paid Shannon, hugged goodbye, gave her dogs a final pat, and set the food in the trunk and the dog bed in the back seat. Then she climbed into her bed and lay down.

I wonder what dogs think when we put them in the car, and then let them out in a different location. Do they think, “First I was there, and now I’m here,” or do they think, “Sitting, sitting, sniffing window, sitting,” or perhaps “I wonder what humans think when they see beautiful flowers and don’t pee on them?”

I need to get some sleep, but my mind won’t stop thinking about the sink. I finished my book yesterday and I don’t have another one within reach. The bookmark lies on my nightstand, homeless. It’s from a friend’s mom’s memorial service. The mom had volunteered at a library and loved books, so the family had laminated bookmarks made with her name and dates and the Irish blessing. The first date is “Born” and the second one is “Went home.” Born. Born into time. Died. Passed on. Went home. Born into eternity. All our words to assert different positions on the meaning of the first date and the second.

Our neighbor who made us dinner was talking about how lately she’s begun longing for the town where she grew up. She left when she was 11 and has lived many other places since, but it’s the place she thinks of as home. She wonders if it’s the physical place, which has almost none of the features she looks for in a place to live (except great weather), or the people, none of whom she would necessarily want to live next door to, or something else that makes it feel in her mind like home. She hasn’t even visited, and doesn’t have plans to.

I get the feeling she’s afraid to go back, because she doesn’t want to be disappointed. It’s like a reverse kind of faith, where you preserve your sense of home by avoiding direct contact. Unless of course you think of faith in the opposite way, in which case your sense of home is all the contact you need.

Leaving California

sign for California, Unncorporated
Population unknown.

The ones who leave always stay in my mind. At a writing festival I went to, the famous writer who introduced the show left at intermission with her suitcase. She was flying in from or out to somewhere important. When I hosted a short film festival, the noted keynote speaker cut out after three films, with her entourage and a bag of popcorn. Today, as we walked through an Amish community with our cabinet designer, she talked about a deaf Amish child who’s being schooled with the English. Now that he’s learned to sign, he’s become much happier and better behaved. She wonders whether he’ll stay in the community after school. His parents have learned a bit of sign language, but not much, and they’re the only ones. Even if he learns to lip-read, they mostly speak Swiss German, except to outsiders. Maybe he’ll find he agrees with their principles and believes their religion, but would I want to stay somewhere people didn’t even try to speak my language?

This second trip to California, Michigan has been anti-climactic. We arrived an hour early, trying to anticipate the time change our designer had already compensated for when she told us what time to show up with the truck. Instead of being finished with lunch and prayers, the Amish family is just sitting down. Good thing we came to the designer’s farm first and didn’t barge up the dirt path to the family’s. “Hey, we’re here for our beautiful cabinets we’ll never cook with, is that God you’re talking to? Thank him for the money and credit cards and stuff, what’s for lunch?”

The designer takes us on a walk around the community, since there are no stores close enough to drive to. She points out houses and farms, and I’m able to ask a few of my million stupid questions about the Amish – “Does their religion make them uniformly virtuous?” “Duh, what do you think?” – and it’s all interesting, but it’s hard to beat singing for the Amish. More accurately, watching Dave sing for the Amish. Back in January, standing in their barn, bundled in my puffy Michelin Man jacket, smiling at the line of women and children who smiled back but did not speak. They’d allowed us to bring Django into the barn too, though their dogs stayed outside, and as she nosed around I hoped she wouldn’t see the dirt floor as an invitation to do anything inappropriate.

Dave examined a set of cabinets they were building for another customer, and praised things I didn’t understand at the time – inset doors and some kind of hinges and some kind of joins. The father and his sons seemed not to hear the praise. They’d wait til Dave was done speaking and then explain the next thing they wanted him to know. Where the wood came from, how the stiles were designed. Then the designer told them Dave was a musician.

“We don’t have instruments here,” said the father, “but we sing. Do you sing?”

“I studied German lieder in college,” said Dave.

“We would like to hear you sing.”

Dave laughed. “Well, when we come back for our cabinets I’ll have to…uh…prepare something.”

The father waited.

Dave laughed again. “You mean, right now?”

“Yes,” said the father, “we would like to hear you sing.”

The sons waited. The wives and children waited. I looked hard at Dave, willing him not to freeze up like I would. But he opened his mouth and out came 16 bars of some beautiful German art song. He abruptly stopped. “That’s all I remember.”

The family smiled. The father continued to wait. “Uh, there’s a Russian folk song,” said Dave. And he sang a melancholy song he’d learned when he played Andrei in Three Sisters. When he finished, the father nodded. He didn’t say, “very good” or “very nice,” but he seemed to be satisfied. When we left, one of the women said, “’Bye,” and I said, “Goodbye, thank you!” I felt like we’d established ourselves somehow. I wondered what to bring back as a gift when we came for our cabinets.

But now that we’re here, I’m glad I couldn’t think of anything. The father and sons carefully pack each beautiful cabinet and load it onto the truck. They are genial, but the father doesn’t ask Dave for any more songs. A few of the women come out and I extol over how perfectly they’ve finished each piece with Deft oil. They smile absently, but like all the praise that falls so effusively from our lips, it seems to be just stuff people like me say to people like them. It’s Cottonwood fluff. They quietly ask the designer for the check, so they can get to the bank before it closes.

My friendly overtures are irrelevant. Our one reason to be here is as customers, and with that transaction complete we become a benign interruption. When we pull away in our truck, we allow them to resume their world. If that boy leaves the community when he’s old enough, will he stay in anyone’s mind? Will they wonder how he’s doing in a world that doesn’t seem to count for them? When he comes back to visit, will he be a star or an interruption? Or are these concepts that don’t even have meaning to them?

As we drive back to Chicago, I munch on peanut butter pretzels from World Market and figure I’ve learned exactly one thing: my million questions about the Amish may not be exactly stupid, but they’ll probably never be answered in a language I can understand.