One-minute rehearsal

No problem.
No problem.

Yes I felt kind of silly, going to the rehearsal of a one-minute play I’d written. But the director had invited all the playwrights in my clump. And when I showed up, an hour late thanks to getting sucked back into work after a month away, I was indeed the only playwright there. But the director and actors welcomed me, and sat me down, and although I felt a little foolish, over-eager, definitely not the oh-so-busy-professional who doesn’t have time for such trifles, I was also happy not to be. Happy to remember I don’t need to be. Fine just as I am, etc. AND, I got to watch and be part of their rehearsal process. Which means I got another free lesson in acting and directing.

When it came to my piece and I pulled out my script which I had completely rewritten on the el ride over, oh I’m cringing now remembering this, she listened or at least looked like she was listening to my longwinded explanation of the changes which were probably longer than the play itself – “If it weren’t in a clump of other plays about weather it would be fine, but since everything’s about weather maybe it’s too on the nose and could be more about the relationship? And also I could cut a few lines? Or maybe it’s fine as it is? I’m sorry, I know it’s just a minute, do you want to just not look at these?”

Oh, she did not say, Thank God only one playwright showed up. She did not huff, Why are you cutting into my precious rehearsal time with your needy crazy talk? “Of course,” she said, “Why don’t we just read both versions?”

“Oh, that would be great!” She didn’t seem fazed by the fact that this might be impossible, since I had the only copy of the new version and it was illegible. This puzzled me, because I would not have been able to proceed without first solving this logistical problem. And because the solution would be a pain in the ass — have me tell everyone the changes and mess up their copies with changes that might not get made? — I would have been annoyed, and I would have had to show everyone how much effort it took to figure this out and what a good director I was for making it work.

Instead, she had the cast read the first version, and they were hilarious. The play worked just fine as it was. The director had already given them a concept based on the original script, and they ran with it, and it was all good. No changes needed. “I just want to change these two lines,” I said.

“Love it,” she said, “Actors, we have a couple of line changes.”

And later, when the piece was on its feet, we were able to cut the last line because the actors’ performances had made it irrelevant. I love watching talented people in action. It just makes me glad to be alive.

Not at all like a bird

roof of a shed
Note to self.

I have to eat slower. Last night I was shoving sweet potato fries into my mouth, four at a time. Swaddled in ketchup, smashed into brute taste force. Why? Today I can still taste the lettuce from my Greektown wrap. Probably because I didn’t chew that either. My dad ate very slowly. I used to eat very slowly. What happened? When did I get so impatient with the flavors I supposedly love?

There’s a cardinal outside the kitchen window, perched on the rusty shed in the next yard. He or maybe she – red mostly, but brownish wings – is eating a berry. It’s probably from the tree out front. The one I have to sweep up after every morning starting a month ago, or berries stick to the bottoms of shoes, and flies swarm, and the sickly sweet and rotten smell of ripe smashed fruit fills the front walk.

The bird keeps pecking into the berry, pulling back, twisting its head one way, twisting it the other, and then going back in for one more peck. All the time in the world for that one berry. I’m already thinking of my second cup of coffee. How much can I get done before rehearsal? Vacuum? Grocery store? Call Cuz to pick up where we left off yesterday, our phone call about one relative who has died, and another who probably will die today? I was on the el and it wasn’t the time or the place to mourn.

Stay in this thought. Don’t move on. I was impatient talking about things of the heart on a noisy el train. Feeling I was talking quietly enough, but everyone probably feels that way, when actually they are screaming, “So they turned off the respirator?” into the ear of someone trying to read a restaurant review in Red Eye.

The bird is gone when I return with my phone. He or she eats like a bird, and flies like a bird. I have to remind myself, that’s because he or she is a bird.

After we hung up, I sat and listened to a guy behind me eating some very oniony smelling fast food. The combination of crackling paper and smacking lips and onion smell was making me sick. I pretended I wanted to read the transit map and moved to the exit. I hope I don’t make that sound when I eat, though when I’m eating I don’t really care. I just want to get the fries in as quickly as possible, before I’m too full. That’s the problem with abundance. It can induce its own kind of panic, if you are not a bird.

Strangers on a train

Tropicana train
But not as strange as this train.

After 10 years of no contact, I’ve run into Crystal twice inside 10 days. The second time was this morning, on the train. She got on at Rockwell, dragging a big rolling backpack and a portfolio or something and a purse. I watched her, smiling at the sight of her settling herself and her stuff into a single seat. Once she was all settled, she looked up and saw me. She gathered all her gear and came over and sat beside me. “Not you again,” I believe she said.

The first time I’d run into her was at Harvestime. I was running in while Dave waited in the car outside. The parking lot was full and we only needed a couple of things. I saw her as I grabbed a cart. She was checking out. I watched as she rolled her cart full of shopping bags toward me, making sure it was her, taking her in—dressed in black, perhaps even more striking than she was 10 years ago, perfectly arched eyebrows, a bit of a smirk.

That first time, we caught up hurriedly (“Oh, dealing with elderly parents like everyone right now.” “Oh, mine are both dead.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, I’ve got it easy.”), showing pictures of cat and dog, with more parentheticals for pets gone by, the ones we’d had when we were friends.

No more than five minutes, and then “See you in the neighborhood.” I didn’t want to ask too many questions, appear too curious. It would be like trying to befriend a stranger, like picking someone at random in the produce section and saying, “Let’s exchange numbers.” But it felt good to see her and know a little of her life. “Dave’s waiting,” I said, not that she knew who Dave was, and we hugged and went our separate ways.

“Sorry I took so long. I ran into Crystal,” I said when I got back in the car.


“An old friend. My old best friend,” I said.

“Oh…” Dave was still racking his brain, or maybe already thinking about getting back to his painting job.

Then yesterday, on my way to a script meeting at The Perfect Cup, I was too lazy to get out my bike. It was too hot. I jumped on the el for three measly stops, and there she was again. We didn’t need to catch up this time. Instead, we joked about our teeth and the mildly disconcerting things dentists had said to us recently, and just like in the old days, my stop came up way too fast. “See you around,” I said and got off the train.

I was very happy as I walked to the coffee shop, feeling after all this time that we have a comfortable if insignificant place in each other’s lives. With some of my favorite people, that’s the best place to be.

The next Johnny Depp movie

Opening shot of hero in the ordinary world.

Last night on the train I saw a grown woman carrying a doll. She wore a black fedora with a few sparklies on it. She was reading Entertainment Weekly with Johnny Depp on the cover. Across her lap was what first looked like a kite but turned out to be a huge plastic tote bag. In the crook of her arm was a doll, blank eyes staring out. The woman didn’t look crazy or even overly emotional. If this were a Johnny Depp movie she’d be the hero. She sat calmly, reading.

Surreptitiously, feigning texting, I snapped a picture. I sent it to my friend Georgia, who wrote back that the picture reminded her of someone we used to work with, who’d been instructed by her therapist to carry a doll. “The doll came to work with her and spent the day in a crib under her desk.” This didn’t look like a therapy doll. It looked like a perfectly reasonable alternative to carrying a tiny dog or a baby. A comforting something in the crook of your arm, with no carbon footprint.

Counts for Easter

lamb cake
He is eaten.

Among my mom’s many mildly annoying sayings was “Well, this counts for eatin’.” I was never sure what it meant, whether she hadn’t really enjoyed the meal or she really had. Or maybe that she wasn’t hungry but felt obligated to eat. Or maybe it referred to something specific the first time and she enjoyed saying it so much she just kept doing it. If all the annoying habits of my family could be charted on a huge tree there’d be a dotted line running from “Well, this counts for eatin’” to her mother-in-law’s standby, “I wonder what the poor people are eatin’ tonight.” I believe that was meant to be a compliment to the cook.

Saturday night I saluted the end of Lent with a cold glass of sake at Katsu, where Dave and I went with Xeena and Buck. Usually we meet at our old standby, Midori, but we decided to try somewhere new because there are a million restaurants in Chicago, for Pete’s sake. We agreed that the quality of the sushi at Katsu may be superior, but we enjoy Midori more. Not just because it’s cheaper, though that helps, but we’ve gone there together enough that it feels like ours. I crave my favorite rolls there, and the margaritas, and the familiar faces.

At the table, Xeena said she misses ritual. “Holidays come and go,” she said. For Easter they were having her family over for barbequed fish tacos.

“I thought we were going to try going to church sometimes,” I reminded her. We had talked about it maybe a year ago, on a Sunday morning when we were all at Ann Sather, how we could check out churches of different denominations around town.

“We were,” Xeena agreed. She asked Dave and Buck, “You guys interested?” Buck stared blankly ahead, just as he did when she mentioned it at Ann Sather. She added quickly, “We could go to brunch afterward.”

Dave replied in the same words he used the first time, “Couldn’t we just go to brunch?”

Our Easter dinner was mostly traditional. Ham at my brother Rolando’s. They also served eggplant parmesan for the vegetarians, and many side dishes. I laughed more than I have in weeks, sitting with my brothers and their wives and their kids and Dave and cousin El, who’s more like a sister. El made two lamb cakes, just like last year, and this year both their heads stayed on. However, one lamb fell face forward into the green coconut grass, so it seemed to be sniffing the other lamb’s butt. Also, the upright lamb’s ear fell off so she re-attached it with a dental floss pick. She swore it was unused.

After just a few years of El bringing two cakes instead of one, I now expect two. The first time she was trying to make up for her ugly homemade one with a bakery one, which froze  and shrunk in the car so it actually looked worse than the homemade one. Last year she made two recipes, pound cake and chocolate zucchini. This year they were both pound cake, the difference being that the upright one with the dental floss pick ear had white frosting while the toppled-over one had white frosting plus a layer of coconut flakes. I’m not sure how many years it takes for a pattern to become a ritual, but there’s a little place in my heart now that longs for a pair of lamb cakes this day every year, ever striving for perfection, always failing in their own perfect way.


Storytellers hugging
It's effing golden.

It took me all day to record my voiceovers, which I always think of as an easy day, a fun day, but when it comes around it ends up being miserable. Me standing in a small room unable to believe how bad I sound. Every now and then it goes amazingly well and I have no mouth noise and I sound great even to me, and can tell I’ll have to do almost no cleanup and editing, but this wasn’t one of those times. And my ears got all clogged up, which  always makes me wonder whether I have high blood pressure or the headphones are just too loud.

Then I was late to meet S— for the StoryLab thing, where our fellow classmate was telling a story. Instead of showering and choosing a cute outfit and having a leisurely walk with Dave and Django to the train, I threw a sweater over my dirty tee-shirt and made us walk so fast Django couldn’t stop and sniff anything.

I hate it when we walk Dave to the train and he’s in a hurry. I want to say, “Just go ahead,” in a huff. When I’m in a hurry I keep waiting for him to do the same thing, but he doesn’t. Which is also stressful. It’s only a block away so I don’t know why it has to be such a production. But it’s what we do. The other problem is, the whole time we’re walking I keep waiting to hear the clang-clang of the bells and see the gates come down. I get really nervous about it, like a person with high blood pressure would do. I coach myself, “You’re not in a hurry. You’ll get there when you get there.” It’s almost not worth living near the train because I can see the gates as soon as I start walking, so I can imagine them lighting up and clang-clanging over and over again for the entire walk. Then I worry that by imagining it I will cause it to happen. This is all a good argument for checking the train times on my phone and starting early. But it never works out.

So I left late and texted an apology, and S— texted back a Zen-like reassurance. Then I got to the El and was waiting on the platform. Dave and Django suddenly re-appeared, walking up the alley on the other side of the tracks. It made me smile. I called to Django, who looked at me blankly for a moment, then resumed investigating the alley. I was across a fence and hence had ceased to matter.

The train came and I got to the pub. S— was sitting at a table. She always looks so calm. I’ve only met her a few times, in our writing group, but she seems to wear a mantle of contemplation. When she reads something she’s written, the sentences feel surrounded by space and yet full of meaning. It’s like she thought it all out and is just giving you the fruit of the experience, not the stems and leaves.

We went into the crowded back room of the pub for the event. Seven people each telling a true story. No special lights or mic or stage. Each story was better than the last, no matter what order I remember them in. They were about rebellion, friendship, a breakup, a crush, a botched medical procedure, a botched attempt to hook up through an online site, and the literal truth of a heavy metal song.

Afterwards I just kept hugging people I’d never met, saying over and over again, “I loved your story!” What made each one shine, beyond its individual merits of structure, word craft, or presentation, was the inseparable and unique relationship of story to teller. Some tellers were totally comfortable standing up and entertaining an audience. Some were less comfortable. One clung to the script and read it word for word, like instructions. But each person had lived through that story and now they were up there, passing it on. It sounds so obvious, but as Blago would say, it’s effing golden. It’s the whole point.

When I left, there was a mailing list by the door. When you fill it out, they ask you to circle your name if you’d like to tell a story some time. How could anyone there not circle their name? The whole thing is effing golden! I circled mine, and immediately started worrying that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a good enough story. I mean, some of these were staggering. They happened to people who make far bolder choices than I do. But let this be a reminder, half a year from now or whenever my name comes up, that the story is important because I lived it and I’m telling it. Everyone wouldn’t see it this way, but they also wouldn’t spend their weekday night in the back room of a pub for StoryLab, so it’s okay, it’s all self-selecting.

I was recently at another storytelling event where you could tell either truth or fiction. That was also amazing, for different reasons, but a friend said that it was fun because it wasn’t just like StoryCorps. But I guess I want everyone’s personal StoryCorps. I want every one of my friends and family to stand up and tell a story that they lived. It’s like a rite of passion – I mean, a rite of passage in being human.