But is he a singer or a crooner?

Dad pondered this question many a time.
Dad could be pondering this question right now.

As I drove home in the snow yesterday, a review of Bob Dylan’s new album on NPR reminded me that every evaluation of everything is contextual, including my opinion of the review.

The road conditions were suddenly terrible, meaning I couldn’t make it to Russ’s house as planned, so maybe I was grumpy, making all kinds of right-turn detours just to get back to my neighborhood. I’ll admit my hackles went up for no apparent reason when the reviewer dismissed Rod Stewart as a “standards hack.” I don’t listen to Rod Stewart, whereas I do have some Dylan albums and just spent a bunch of money to hear him in concert. But I scoffed audibly when the reviewer claimed how because Dylan recorded live in-studio the old-fashioned way, in the same room with his musicians, his renditions were truer to the “smoke-filled rooms” where the songs were first heard. Was there smoke in the studio? And also, Rod Stewart’s voice sounds like he’s smoked a bunch, doesn’t he get any points for that?

Why does Dylan deserve the automatic assumption that there’s deep emotion to his voice just because he switches up the melody line in “What’ll I do”? Maybe if I listen to the song ten times, I’ll be able to tell for sure that it’s a deliberate interp and not just a casual evasion of the notes, but I don’t know that my ear could take it. A deep knowledge of the American Songbook doesn’t mean your singing is any more in tune.

It was like the reviewer needed to give us all this evidence of Dylan’s creds so we wouldn’t laugh when we heard the clips. But I laughed anyway, or would have had I not been gripping the steering wheel like a clamp, praying not to get rear-ended or rear-end someone else. I smiled and gave at least one “Oh my God” to Dylan’s voice wobbling and wavering its way through “Autumn Leaves.”

Dylan’s got great taste, I give him equal points to Rod Stewart’s cigarette nodes for that. Dad had a cassette with seventeen versions of “Autumn Leaves” on it. It is one of the most perfectly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Who wouldn’t want to sing it? I started singing it on my dog walk after safely thank God making it home and getting the dog around the block. And singing it made me think of my dad and his seventeen versions, and suddenly I wanted to call my brother and sob, “I miss Dad, I miss Dad,” but didn’t because I didn’t want him thinking I’m emotionally unstable due to childlessness or hormones.

Luckily I saw Lake and her owner coming up the sidewalk, and pulled it together in time to talk about the weather and our shoulders and the shoveling. And by the time they passed, the dad sadness was gone.

That’s a good thing about longterm grief. It’s just as intense when it hits, all images of Dad and his gentle smile and excellent taste and the longing to just be in a room with him, asking what he thinks of the new Dylan album, but it’s more polite than new grief. Dad and Uncle Ralph used to debate whether certain vocalists were singers or crooners. Singer meant a serious artist, whereas a crooner, like Dean Martin, was just someone who sold a song with style. I think they used to argue over which one Sinatra was.

I think Dylan must fall into the singer category, whereas someone like Stewart only gets to be a crooner. But also, and I’ll bet this never happened in Dad and Ralph’s day, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone get the singer tag just because I couldn’t bear listening to his music long enough to decide for sure.

Secrets of a Super Chill Thanksgiving

Culled from 3 or 4 stuffing recipes, including my old one.
Culled from 3 or 4 stuffing recipes, including my old one. What could go wrong?

Here’s what I used to do, back when I was stupid. Troll the web for the best and yet easiest recipes for things like stuffing, sweet potatoes, and this year green bean casserole though we’ve never had that at Thanksgiving before. Apparently it’s a big deal, green bean casserole. But this year it’s my idea for a good vegan dish. Anyway, I find all these recipes, multiple versions of each and also things like salads, desserts, apps, etc. Then I grocery-shop at like five stores, buying ingredients for vaguely-all-but-not-exactly-any of them, because I don’t know which I will actually make and I’m pretty sure I have some of this stuff at home but maybe not so I buy more of the stuff I always think I’m out of and not enough of the stuff I never realize I don’t have. (Oregano. Bread crumbs.)

Then Thanksgiving comes and I haven’t figured out the oven and cooking times, and the house is spotless but I am dithering, literally pacing back and forth with hands flapping, between many different possible recipes that I have almost all the ingredients for, and I realize none of that shit matters and why didn’t I just figure it out ahead of time and plan the oven time and ingredients and not end up with too much of what I don’t need, and everyone arrives and it’s loud and I’m panicking and cousin Liz says This is so great, and I say quietly though there’s no need to whisper everyone else is talking so loudly, No it is a disaster, I’ve never been this unprepared, and she says, Really? Everything looks so nice, and I say No you don’t understand half the stuff is not even cooked yet, and she says There’s no rush, everyone’s having fun, and I get angry that she doesn’t understand how disastrous this holiday is.

Then eventually we all eat, after Jimmy or Rick or Marty says grace, ironic about it only until the moment where they actually start, and we eat, and everything is great. And then we have dessert, and there is way too much of it, and it’s all delicious, I realize that all the dinner food didn’t matter that much, because it’s all kinda cold by the time people are eating it anyway, and it all tastes pretty much the same, I mean it’s all good but it’s not like going to change the world, you know? You don’t have to go to Whole Foods just for nutritional yeast for the vegan casserole, fuck it, it’s good with some cashews added. And then I vow to be way more relaxed next year and not worry about it.

SO. This year I am sitting here forcing myself to decide on one recipe for each thing. Which means I’m creating some new recipes that combine different things I think I’d probably combine if I were in the kitchen. Then I’ll look in the cupboards and fridge to actually see what I actually still need. For each thing I will do that. Then I will go to Harvestime for them. And later today, when we pick up the turducken and the turkey breast and have those actual cooking times, I will sit down and figure out exactly what will be made when, and cooked when, and cooked where — oven, crockpot, etc. There will be a chart. The chart will have times and instructions, and will account for the awesome stuff everyone else is bringing that has to be warmed up at the last minute.

And I might think this chart is ridiculous, way too planned-out for a meal that shouldn’t really be that big a deal, it’s not that different from other meals, but I won’t be swayed by that this year.  I will just look at my chart and do what it says to do next, and it will be the chillest Thanksgiving ever.

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.

Our kind of town

In this town, you never know what you're going to find.
Chicago is full of surprises.

Yesterday Gigi said both psychopathy or sociopathy constitute a way of being in the world. One may be more genetically-based, one more environmentally, but they result in the same way of interacting with others – namely, not letting anyone get in the way of what you want. I said, “What if someone is a psychopath but doesn’t really want anything?”

Gigi said, “Everyone wants something, even if it’s as basic as shelter or food.”

It was a weird house concert. Weird good, ultimately, but for a while things were shaky. The concert ringleader didn’t show up, leaving just the folksinger from New York, who’s house-sitting in the concert venue, and my brother Rolando, who doesn’t consider himself much of a singer, to perform. The only guests, other than Rolando’s wife Gigi and me and Dave, were a few confused friends of the ringleader’s.

The folksinger from New York had lighted dozens of tealight candles. Twenty or 30 were arranged at the top of the long flight of stairs up into the flat, for the house concert was technically an upstairs-flat concert, in an expansive Victorian-style flat, with wide views of Lakeview and original paintings and an un-Victorian modern kitchen and a chicken coop downstairs. Inside there were candles on tables and on the fireplace mantel and on window sills. In fact, just after we arrived a row of candles along the top sill of a window blazed up. I think the screen caught fire. Luckily Gigi noticed it and had Rolando put it out.

Other than tealight candles, the place was lit by many strings of Christmas lights, mostly the colored ones, strung around mirrors and table tops, and a fireplace, in which a picture perfect wood fire was burning. It went out just as Rolando and the folksinger from New York finally sat down on either side of it to play. “Aw man, you can’t stop now,” said the folksinger.

He clearly had put much effort into making everything festive. At the entrance to the two-flat, there was a sign that said something like, “Think of the password, and when you get to the top of the stairs, knock on the door and say the password.” Since we’d been talking at dinner about the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, we decided our password was sociopath. Or maybe it was psychopath. It didn’t matter because at the top of the stairs no one asked for it.

There were all kinds of treats arranged on a huge table – candies and nuts and crackers and spreads and an aged cheddar the folksinger had bought especially for the ringleader’s (Irish) daughters, and butter cookies for the ringleader’s granddaughter, should the parents decide she was old enough to have one. He had several kinds of beer and wine, and a fourth guest arrived with a bottle of organic vodka.

The fifth guest brought a six-pack, and then went out to find his girlfriend who wasn’t sure where the house was. She wore a plastic skirt and reclined on a chaise lounge for the music. Her boyfriend sat beside her in a rocking chair. The vodka bearer sat on a settee under the windows. Dave and I shared a large padded chair that I hoped wasn’t the cat’s hangout. I started to feel nasally halfway through but it was probably just my cold that won’t leave. Gigi sat next to us, wisely – for she too is allergic – in a plastic lawn chair.

I’d been counting on “Doors open at 7:30, music at 8:15” because then we’d leave by nine-thirty, be home in twenty minutes and I’d be asleep early enough to knock my cold absolutely away by morning. But because there was no one there at 8:30, things drifted. The others arrived one at a time, and it kept feeling like no one else was coming. When the fifth guy left to find his girlfriend, I thought the odds were 50/50 he’d be back. He too was here for the ringleader.

We stood around and drank and nibbled and talked, and the folksinger from New York passed around organic vodka to toast with. By the time the singing started, it felt kind of like, “This is what this is going to be, and we will probably never be gathered in this way again, so let’s get on with it.” The folksinger sang the first song, Rolando the next, and on they went, for maybe three or four rounds.

Each played on the other’s songs, mostly just filling in but sometimes taking a solo. It was suddenly beautiful. The folksinger sang deeply poetic songs, tunneling way inside an emotion or image, almost like a meditation. In contrast, I realized that Rolando’s songs are mostly in third person, even the serious ones. They tread lightly and step back, showing you a moment and letting you draw your own conclusions. It was kind of like watching Thornton Wilder jam with Sylvia Plath.

They stopped too soon, which in my opinion is the best way to end a concert. One encore, the only cover of the night, where Rolando played “God Bless the Child,” and the folksinger from New York stood up to sing it. We hung out for a while after, and some people went down to the see the chickens. The folksinger gave me a bag of eggs and a CD. He said he had enjoyed his visit to Chicago. “There’s an edge here,” he said. “People are really creating, music and theatre and art.” I felt kind of proud of us, working our jobs in the Midwest and creating enough on the side to make a New Yorker say we have an edge.

We got a ride home from Rolando and Gigi, and my eggs didn’t break in the car. As a nod to New York, I won’t complain about getting home after eleven-thirty instead of before ten. I let a house concert get in the way of what I thought I wanted – namely, to get rid of my cold – and was rewarded with satisfying music, good conversation, free-range eggs, and a ride home. Sociopaths could learn something from Chicago.

Analogy unfinished, analogy overexplained

It’s accidentally upside down.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t come back here, to a bar created by a friend but then sold to a stranger. No matter why or how it was sold, it just wouldn’t feel right. Disloyal. But my brother is playing guitar here, something he doesn’t often do, and family trumps friends, so here I am, sitting on one of the microsuede banquettes, so comfy, staring at this beautiful room.

Chandeliers dot the high ceiling. A magnificent blue oil painting is propped casually on the fireplace mantel. Originally he was going to put a mirror there, but when he found the painting it was just too perfect. Across from me, a huge blue built-in holds wine bottles and almost blends into the muted green of the walls, softening the urban feel, making it all French and luxey. It strikes me that the walls don’t care who painted them. They’re just here being beautiful.

Yesterday was mosaic class. Random people drifted in just before and just after 9am, new to each other, new to the space, new to the class. Where should I sit, at which of the many square, brown-paper-covered tables, who looks friendly, should I sit alone, is that only remaining stool too close to the next one?

I took the stool at the table closest to the cookies. Another woman sat next to me, after pulling one stool away so she could space out all the stools on our side a little farther apart. I watched her squeeze antibacterial gel onto her hands. Another woman sat down across from us. She cracked jokes about her Diet Coke addiction, getting lost on the way here, and how she was probably the only sucker to pay full price for this workshop. “I did, too,” I said, the only other non-Groupon.

Did you find the analogy? See, all these random-seeming human actions were like the random-seeming bits of glass we’d soon be cutting and arranging on our little training tiles. You watch someone placing a little green tile next to a yellow one, then removing it and trying an orange one, then going back to the yellow but snipping it in two, there that’s better…and it doesn’t seem to make sense. But when the whole piece is assembled, set in black or gray or white thinset, the pattern emerges.

By noon, we were all chatting away as if we’d known each other forever, each table of people like each tile on the table like each piece of glass on a tile, each with its own logic which is revealed in relation to the whole. The antibacterial woman works with “lots of sick people,” as she put it, so the gel makes perfect sense. After 25 years, the jokester quit smoking a few months ago, so she’s taking all kinds of classes “to keep my hands busy,” crochet and pottery and now mosaic, and the costs add up. I skipped breakfast because I have trouble being somewhere at 9am, so the cookies made me feel “safe.” Nothing random at all, except the last set of quotation marks.

Ernest Hemingway’s boots

We stayed at the Menger Hotel, across from the Alamo.

I found out tonight that Silas knew Ernest Hemingway. “I got a job…I went over to Sun Valley there in Idaho—”

No, I can’t be sure of how he worded it. It was late and my voice recorder wouldn’t work because my phone storage was maxed out. I should have fixed the problem earlier, at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, when the phone wouldn’t save a video of the duck who followed us, following its bath. But I was so excited to be in Texas, visiting Silas and cousin Bets at last, that I couldn’t bother with phone maintenance.

After the Botanical Gardens came the steak dinner, which was the opening social event of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars. Afterward, Dave and cousin Bets and I had sat in a little side lobby while Si had a color guard rehearsal. Bets told us about riding on a troop train from Chicago to Dallas in early 1945, when she was 12. Surrounded by soldiers, the only civilian, the only female, the only child. She sat on that train and didn’t eat or drink for 24 hours because she didn’t want to leave her seat to use the lav for 24 hours. “You might think that couldn’t be done,” she said with her soft Texas drawl, “but it can.”

At dinner Si had told me a story a Blackfoot Indian had told him, or maybe it was a Shoshone Indian whose nickname was Blackfoot, it was hard to hear in the Menger Hotel ballroom, steak dinners being consumed all around us except by me (don’t eat meat) and Si (doesn’t eat much of anything).

He told me this story the Indian had passed on to him: A couple settled in the wilderness somewhere in Texas. They built a simple home and she gave birth to a child. All went well until the husband took a long journey to the nearest town for supplies. The woman was outside, maybe gardening, maybe playing with the baby, when she was bitten by a rattlesnake. There was no one around for miles, nowhere to go for help. The woman knew she was dying and also knew she couldn’t feed the baby her poisoned milk. She took a shotgun and shot the baby, and then shot herself.

“I been waiting for someone to tell that to,” said Si. “I know if Ernest Hemingway heard it, he would have made a story of it.” What I didn’t know at the table was that Si wasn’t speaking in the abstract.

Silas joined us in the side lobby after his rehearsal. Dave pulled over another chair and we all sat for a while, before saying goodnight and goodbye, since we were flying back early in the morning. That’s when I learned that back in the 50s, after he returned from Korea, Si went up to Sun Valley to become a ski instructor. To augment his income he also tended bar at a place called Slaveys. And into this bar came Ernest Hemingway, many nights. Si knew Hemingway wrote stories, but “I didn’t know much about that,” he said. Mostly he knew Hemingway as a guy who came in and liked to talk. “He talked a lot,” Si said, “but he also listened a lot, if it interested him.”

They also skied together. In fact, when Si’s brother came to visit and didn’t have any ski gear, Si said, “That’s alright. You got the same shoe size as Ernest Hemingway, we can borrow his boots.” And they did, and Si’s brother couldn’t get over the fact that he was wearing Ernest Hemingway’s ski boots.

Si said he thought up a poem once, about depression. He told it to me and the sparse imagery was of a room, a very small room. He said he’d told it to Hemingway, and Hemingway said his depression was just like that.

I can see Hemingway confiding in cousin Silas. Si is patient and thoughtful, and seems to listen for what you mean instead of just what you say. I think he’d be a good friend to have at any point in your life, and I feel very lucky we got to make this trip to get to know him and Bets a little better. He gave me a pair of Texas state flag earrings, and now every time I wear them they will remind me of Ernest Hemingway’s boots.

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.

One good lie

blurry crowd
What’s not to believe?

I got an email inviting me to audition for a show filled with lies. For the audition, I have to tell a three-minute lie, as outrageous as I like. How hard can that be? So I accepted and figured something would come to me. But now the audition is just days away and I’m starting to panic.

I’ve come up with two so far, one about a friend’s strange restaurant behavior and one about accidentally killing my piano teacher. Both sound good in my head, but when I start telling them out loud, I trail off. I lose my sense of purpose, which at least tells me something about why I like true stories, even when they’re not outrageous. They’re true, so they reveal something about something, even if I don’t always know exactly what the something is. But what does lying reveal? So far, I’ve lied only to hide things. But then again, a lie is just a fictional story and I’ve written those, so this shouldn’t be any different. But it is. I’m thinking about cancelling my audition, but I don’t want to chicken out.

Last night my brother Rolando came over. His friends have opened a hardware store, Matty K’s, and we were going there for a sort of gardening pep rally. Rolando came early to bring us gifts of dog food. Their dear old family dog passed away last month, so they had boxes of treats and bags of food which I coveted. My plan was to pass it on to Zoe’s new owner, because the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park has also passed on, and Zoe was now living with one of the B’s.

There are two B’s, B-e and B-y. For months we’ve emailed each other to schedule Zoe’s walks. We’ve also tried to plan a dinner together, because the Hepburn sisters gave us checks to dine at Blackbird, as a Zoe thank you. We’ve tossed dates around and B-e even made reservations twice, but something always comes up. Yet when Miss Hepburn died, we found ourselves suddenly able to wrangle ourselves and husbands and bottles of beer and whisky for pizza at a local BYOB. It was soon enough after Miss Hepburn’s death that it didn’t feel real, and we had a boisterous time.

I planned to email B-e and tell her I had food to pass on for Zoe – it’s even her brand – but B-e had already emailed to say she’d brought Zoe back to live with Miss Hepburn’s sister. She convinced her that we didn’t mind continuing the walks, and Zoe is good company and good protection. So in a little while I’ll go over and pick her up for a walk. But first, I need my lie.

Last night, after Rolando parked the car and we had dinner, we walked over to Matty K’s. We passed a man dressed in a plumed page’s costume. He looked exactly like a royal chicken, with a plumed headpiece and puffy satin middle and tights. I wished I had my phone out, but he didn’t look like he would appreciate a picture. He was smoking a cigarette and adjusting his headpiece. We continued on to the store, where we had cookies and root beer and got fired up about gardening.

When we left, the royal chicken was still standing on Western, greeting people going into an event. If this were a lie, something outrageous would happen right here. But because it’s true, all I have is a blurry picture, because I grabbed my phone in time but didn’t stop to focus because I was afraid of getting yelled at. I don’t know if I’m cut out for lying, if I don’t even have the nerve to get a decent picture of an outrageous apparition placed right in my path like a golden egg.

Comes tomorrow we’re tomato soup

My favorite so far is the window.

“Stick shifts and safety belts
bucket seats have all got to go”
Too literal?

“If you respect me at all
please don’t call” Too pathetic?

I’m choosing a lyric for my weekly submission in Christina’s photography contest.

“You’ll never be what you’ll never be
But you can always be the one for me baby”

Maybe? On the page it looks cute and romantic, but the first time I heard it I had to stop my car, I was crying so hard. My uncle George had just died, and I could feel the family falling apart. Polite disagreements over who got which rosary and who deserved keys to his apartment and what it meant that this cousin came to town while that one only called.

A cell phone held to Uncle George’s ear as he lay dying, yes William Faulkner I’m sorry I didn’t pay better attention in American Lit, unconscious in the ICU bed. It’s awkward being the one holding the phone to his ear. My brother is saying his goodbye from Colorado. I’m not sure when to pull the phone away. Uncle George doesn’t respond, can’t respond. He lies still with his eyes closed, his normally lean and leathery face looking puffy and unfamiliar. After a few minutes I hold the phone up to my ear. “…softball games, and that time you came to visit with my dad, man Uncle George, every time I go to that ridge we hiked to…” I put the phone back to his ear.

“This is the way that life is supposed to be
And there’s a reason that you just can’t see
You’ll never be what you’ll never be,” but there never was the one for Uncle George. He was single all his life. My mom thought he might have gone on a date once.

“I went off in the cruel world
Like a gun in a crowded room.” Did I send that one last week? It’s hard to keep track.

I’ve been meaning to talk to Christina about that. I want a dumbed down version of the rules posted right on her page. I know you can send one lyric a week, but when does each week start and end? I know she takes pictures inspired by the lyrics. But either she decides, or visitors to the page vote…Somehow a winning photograph is chosen each month. And the submitter of the winning photo’s lyric gets a print. I want everyone to enter, because I love seeing the photos she’s come up with so far.

And I love the nostalgia factor, the callback to days when songs were front and center in my identity, when I posted lyrics on my dorm room door, to make a point. “You may ask yourself well, how did I get here?”

Another thing I like about running is the excuse to listen to music. Old random mixes on an iPod I’ve got hooked up to a speaker next to the treadmill. I haven’t synched it to iTunes since about 2009, so usually I just pick one of the on-the-go playlists I made years ago and just run to that. Yesterday it was a scramble of Cake and David Wilcox and Blossom Dearie that must have made sense at the time. In retrospect it’s too bad there wasn’t something from Etta James. She’d have done a great “Napoleon.”

Most aren’t fast enough to be workout songs, but also I like to sing as I run. I figure if I can sing, then I’ll be able to chat with a running partner when I start running outside. But also, singing makes my heart feel good. It makes me happy.

As I was running and singing along to “Jesus wrote a blank check” I thought about how singers, good singers, seem to give equal treatment to both intricately constructed lyrics and those that seem like just the easiest next rhyme.

“I don’t want to be number four
But I can hear a knock at the door.” Does number four mean something? Is number four the only one who hears the knock?I don’t want to be number four either. Or is it a joke? Great songs travel with the lyric as if it’s the only truth, the only world.

My mom used to worry about Uncle George driving home from the suburbs to his apartment in the city. “Wait ‘til rush hour’s over, George,” she would say when he came to visit.

“No Phyl, I’ll be fine.”

“But they’re crazy this time of day. They drive so fast.”

“That’s okay. I put my tapes in and turn up the sound. They can honk or pass me, I don’t care.”

My mom would fume after he left. “He’s the only one going 30 on the Eisenhower. Someone’s gonna rear-end him and then he’ll care.” But he always made it home okay. I like to think of him cruising down 290, singing along to whatever he listened to, probably Perry Como or Bing Crosby. I’m glad I was never behind him on the road, because I would have been swearing my head off. But in his world, singing along, he was content.

“Napoleon’s a pastry
Get this under your brow
What once used be a rooster
Is just a duster now”

Our lip is sealed

not my headshot
I’m definitely not using this shot.

I have too many secrets. My upper lip is disappearing. I can’t write about my funny adventure today because I can’t reveal a certain surprise for a certain person’s husband. I don’t know if he reads this but I can’t take any chances.

I would have used an exclamation point up there but due to a New Year’s resolution I can’t use exclamation points. I keep falling down on the thankses. ‘Thank you so much.’ looks bitchy, but ‘Thank you so much!’ I can believe. So to keep my resolution, I have to be much more specific in my language. “Thank you for taking your evening to download and fix our Photoshop brochure so I can get it to the printer you recommended. If we land a good distributor it will be due in part to your final Photoshop tweaks and your expertise about print shops, and in any case I truly appreciate the help.” That’s too much to say on my phone so Vandamm just got a “Thanks!!!”

Actually, it’s not a lot to say on my phone but it is a lot to type. I wouldn’t say it because Vandamm and I don’t talk on the phone. We talk in person. On the phone we text. That’s just how the tent poles were set in this particular friendship.

Tent poles are another thing I can’t talk about. I alluded to them with Sunflower when we met for brunch the other day. We hadn’t seen each other for years, and it was uncanny all the parallels we discovered—names, scarves, parents, interpersonal dramas—but I can’t talk about those because while I’m not particularly private about my personal life I don’t want to expose someone else’s. See? I can’t talk about anything.

Maybe it is okay to talk about tent poles. They were just a metaphor used by an improv teacher we had when we first met, and surely it’s okay to talk about improvisation. When you make your opening declaration in a scene, you’re setting your tent poles—that is, you’re defining the space of this scene, the world, the rules. You and your scene partners want to set the poles far enough apart so that there’s room to play.

Or maybe it’s that you need to make sure you don’t step out of the tent during the scene. Or was it that you need to make strong declarations that drive firmly into the turf, so the scene doesn’t fold in on itself? That teacher and I ended up getting involved, so maybe I didn’t listen well enough. Heck, maybe Sunflower got involved with him too. I never asked. But it’s probably somewhat the same whether you sleep with your teacher or not, if you’re passionate about the artform. Either way, they can deliver you or take you for granted or make you feel totally amazing, until you learn that only you can really make yourself feel totally amazing, but I can’t talk about that because it sounds like something I’m not even talking about.

One safe topic from my Sunflower lunch is that it is so weird that we both have the same scarf! I mean, that we both have the same scarf. Purchased separately, during the years where we never ran into each other once, from a store miles away from both of us. When I complimented Sunflower’s scarf and told her I had the same one she scoffed, “I got it at Marshalls!” (exclamation point hers)

“So did I,” I said, “unless it was TJ Maxx.” They’re both on the same stretch of 75th Street in the suburb where both our mothers lived, so Mom and I shopped at both interchangeably, until she got detained at the TJ Maxx.

It was a scandal, resulting in a stern letter from my father to the president of TJX, which incidentally is the parent company of both TJ’s and Marshalls. Dad reprimanded them for dragging a loyal customer into the tiny, scary security office and threatening her with police action, just because she was looking through purses for a price tag because there was no tag on the one she wanted to buy. Ultimately they apologized and eventually Mom started shopping there again, though she often cautioned me, “If you don’t see a price, ask a clerk. Don’t give them any excuses.” But I can’t talk about that because I promised I’d never tell.

About the only thing I feel safe talking about is how my upper lip is disappearing. Is it age? Has it always been mostly not here? I only noticed its absence when I looked at hundreds of headshot photos my friend Chris took the other day. In most of them, my upper lip appears to be missing. The only reason I can talk about this is that I’ll only use the half-dozen shots where it’s beautifully if tentatively in attendance. It’s a visual secret: I’ll tell, but I’ll never show.