When Dave was learning choreography for The Jewels, he started out being able to remember it all in his head. Then he wrote out notes for himself, and suddenly started forgetting things. “I shouldn’t have written it down,” he said at first. But after a few days, the movements were fully back. My theory was that the info started in his front mind, then moved to his back mind, and the brief uncertainty was when it was in transit. That’s how I feel about yesterday. It felt like my being at Ragdale transitioned from the front of my mind to the back.
I know that things happened but I’m not sure in what order. I know I wrote two new scenes, walked in the blackened prairie and into the woods, burst into tears over a character I don’t even like, laughed hysterically with Dave because I started calling him, hung up on the fourth ring, and then sent him one of those auto-response texts saying “Call you later” when he called back immediately. It reminded me of a college friend who said, “I just called to tell you I can’t talk right now. I’m extremely busy.”
I know that I went into town and bought a get-well card for a friend, and walked into and out of some stores without buying anything, and had a great dinner with friends I somehow didn’t know a month ago. I know the night ended with a bunch of us sitting in the living room, writing or reading or in one case shopping for a fridge. But the “at Ragdale” part, which was once front and center, has moved to a different part of my brain.
The other night, we tramped in a group from room to room, “nosing” as one writer put it. There wasn’t much to observe about the writers’ rooms beyond the space itself – “oh you got a private bath” or “I love that chair, desk, view.” In the composer’s studio we got to hear a tiny, tantalizing snippet of one piece. But in the artists’ studios, we could see whole bodies of work – or at least as whole as they are halfway into the month.
I got to see sets of painted surfaces and found objects by one artist, large canvases by another, and heavily textured and painted collages by another. And I thought, so this is their Ragdale. This is what they’ve been doing in the stillness of this place with the maybe not-so-pretentious-after-all “Quiet please, artists at work” sign out front.
That same night, or maybe a different night, I overheard a writer telling someone a favorite quote from Stephen Sondheim, something like “art is not about perfection, it’s about making choices.” In each studio I saw something that seemed to speak directly to me. I know everyone won’t feel that way. Some will love and some will hate and some will ignore them, but each is perfect in its expression of choices or maybe its choice of expressions. The world is more fully realized because they exist.
Yesterday I was finished with the play. I’d gotten to a point of hating it that felt complete. I sent it to a friend, thus making it her problem, and prepared myself for a new something.
First, I finished watching the Bergen DVD someone lent me. Then I took a scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it from an old project, and ceremoniously carried it to the huge bonfire pile behind the house. Next, I changed clothes several times, looking for the right thing to wear for a walk to Lake Michigan. What IS the right thing? Packed a notebook because I planned to find a place to start writing the new something.
I walked to the lake, a mile or two away, trying to think of the new something, and then thinking about why there should or shouldn’t be a new something. All along the way were huge houses of the rich, surrounded by lots of space and long driveways and immense lawns. The only sounds were made by landscapers and their leaf blowers, and barking dogs.
When I got to the road leading down to the lake, I was met by a sign. “No pedestrians allowed on road.” Temporary fencing surrounded the park and walking path that led to the bluff about the water. I stepped around it and walked to the edge. I sent Georgia a text message, “having existential crisis. You busy?”
I stepped over another, flattened fence to walk down a long flight of concrete steps to the beach. When I got to the bottom there was another sign. “Entrance at top is CLOSED. Stairs may be used for exercise, but at the top you must turn around and go back down.”
The water was almost turquoise, joyous-looking, drinking in sunshine. Huge boulders, smoother than the ones on Chicago beaches, formed a neat, rounded cove. Everything was ready and waiting for another twenty degrees.
I walked along the beach and then found another way back up to the bluff, a long set of wooden ramps that were also closed, according to the sign. When I got to the top, the fence wasn’t broken, but I climbed over it and made my way out of the park.
Georgia called back and reported on people from her workday. The 22-year-old co-worker who’s done it all, including lucid dreaming. “I’m an expert at that,” she sniffed when Georgia mentioned that her young son had just gotten a book on it. Another co-worker who dispensed her usual portion of unhelpful tips. A customer who came in as she always does, playing Words with Friends on her phone and commenting on each move as if Georgia knows her friends. Another customer with a consistently bad smell who came for his lunch. She advised me to try my hand at a mystery.
I got to the library, sat at a table, took out my notebook which is bound with an old book cover, The Beginning Writer’s Handbook, and prepared to try my hand at a mystery. However, I had forgotten to pack a pen, so I read the latest issue of Fra Noi instead.
On the way home, I stopped at Walgreens and purchased a Signo 207 – in blue instead of black, for a treat, then popped into the Jewel, where I purchased toothpaste and candy. At dinner (vegan moussaka, greek salad, turkey roasted with carrots and celery), people were beginning to feel like people instead of residents.
After dinner I sat in the living room with my new pen and my old notebook. I started thinking there might be a different way through the play, and started writing some new scenes.
Sometimes I look at people who listen to vinyl and I’m jealous. I roll my eyes when they brag about the preciousness of the pops and the balancing of the needle and quality of the sound, but I’m jealous. They have a machine that does just one thing, plays records.
Meanwhile, a friend is worried about her dog, who has become very clingy and affectionate after ten years of mellow reserve. He’s eating blinds while she’s gone. He’s sleeping on her socks.
Django is also clingier, though not any more affectionate.
She won’t willingly walk unless both Dave and I go. If it’s only one of us, she keeps trying to turn back.
When we leave the house, she won’t go first. “But isn’t that what they taught us at obedience school, humans go first?” I ask Dave. “Maybe those classes finally paid off.”
“No,” says Dave. “she just wants to make sure we’re all going.”
She follows us around the house wearily, like, “We just got comfy in the office, why the hell are we going down the basement?”
What I can’t figure out is why, with music so much more easily accessible–
on my computer
on my phone,
through the stereo if AppleTV or my Remote app is currently letting me access my iTunes library, which is about 50 percent of the time, averaging out the times it lets me in at first try,
lets me in after I turn on sharing AGAIN,
lets me in after I go up and open iTunes or just remind iTunes that it is indeed open,
and the times it works for a while, then cuts out in the middle of a song like it suddenly remembers it had a roast in the oven,
–I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. These days, if I want to listen to music that sounds good, I generally just turn on Pandora through Roku, because:
it will play through the house speakers.
I can listen to the sort of music I’m in the mood for
(Americana Radio, Rain Dogs Radio, Blossom Dearie Radio)
…though not a specific song or album. If I want a specific musical experience, and the song or album happens to be
in the subset of my iTunes library that’s currently on my phone
findable with a Web search that usually turns up at least a YouTube version
I’ll generally just play it there,
turning up the volume and reminding myself that it sounds not that bad for a phone speaker.
Maybe I could solve this with Spotify, which I would then connect to on the Roku, and thereby have infinite choice of artist or album or genre, which would be great, but it would also mean:
the screen of the TV has to be on so I can choose things
(and everyone knows the TV screen sends out hypnotic watch-me rays that fundamentally conflict with the auditory omnipresence of good audio)
the sheer abundance of choice at any given moment would result in buffet blindness
–which happens when I go out for brunch and end up with ketchup on my cantaloupe because I put too much stuff on my plate because it was all free, free! for the cost of brunch, so I don’t even know what I’m eating and the omelet is cold–
I’d be paying for a service instead of buying albums, so any fantastic music I discovered would become inaccessible as soon as I stopped paying for it.
(What was that band singer song called again? Oh, never mind.)
I thought I was alone in my vague sense of musical dissatisfaction until yesterday, when Dave said, “I miss music.” Then in the car with friends we were group-grocery shopping with because of the coming snow, Sam piped up from the backseat, “Me too! I used to listen to music all the time. And now…”
So now we’re looking at the way media is configured in our home and trying to figure out how to change it without:
sacrificing all the things that are great about remote access to music
buying another component
spending $2000 at Room and Board
Django doesn’t care about music, or cuddling, or laundry. She doesn’t nestle with my dirty socks. She just stands at the top of the basement stairs, waiting for me to finish folding clothes so she can get back to a room with a dog bed in it.
Dave and Chet both had their band debuts last night. Georgia just texted to say Chet’s was fab. Dave’s, I would call really good. They played great, each of them individually sounded fab, but the mics didn’t work, so the instruments were much louder than the voices, which, when you’re a band, is not totally fab. But they rolled with it, and people seemed to really love them. Next time, some amps.
We hung out with Kismet and Kyle and Billy and Joan beforehand. Had dinner at Crisp and then went to have a drink before the music. Every bar we walked into had a distinctive odor. As an Amazon review of a possible purse I once wanted to buy said, “All I know is this bag smells BAD.” One bar smelled like vomit, another like yeast but not yeasty bread baking. Kyle thought maybe chlorine, which would have been preferable. The third smelled like air freshener which ordinarily would set me off, but suddenly seemed like at least they were trying.
We had a drink and then headed to the theatre where Midwest was playing an after-the-show set in the lobby. For friends and any theatre patrons who wanted to stick around. I realized about halfway through that I can’t go to live performances anymore. I spend most of the time being angry at whoever is talking during the show. Fifty people squeezed into that room, 48 of them listening intently to catch the words and the harmonies that were tumbling out, beautiful but a little remote, and all I can hear are two people talking, I swear in fake British accents, about studying abroad.
Although I turned around, very pointedly in my opinion, several times, they just kept talking. Something about a theatre program in London. Maybe I should have done something more, but if they turned out to be friends of someone else in the band, it could be awkward later.
Like last week at City Winery, when a table-full of women next to us kept yakking it up like they were at an Applebee’s, all the way through the singer’s ballad. I waited until I caught the eye of one of them, and then I smiled, and then she smiled, and then I mimed turning down a stereo. Her eyebrows went up, and then I nodded at the stage, and then she said something to her friends, and they all stared at me. I smiled back and looked, again I would say pointedly, at the stage.
They quieted down, but later, at the break before the headliner came on, the woman came up to me in the women’s room. “I just wanted to say,” she said, “I didn’t know we were being so loud.”
I washed my hands and tried to laugh it off. “Oh, I’m terrible about things like that.”
Clearly she agreed because she said again, “We didn’t think we were being that loud.” She added, “My friend said you can order food here, so we can talk if we want.”
I couldn’t make sense of that, so I just said, “Enjoy the next act.”
“My friend’s daughter is one of the musicians,” is what she left me with.
“I hope that means you’ll keep your trap shut,” is what I didn’t spit back.
The weird thing about rehearsal every night and rewrites plus regular work every day is that when it’s over I feel like, What do I do now? Yesterday I woke up all headachy from celebrating the night before. The script is done. There are things that could be clearer, yes, but I don’t want to collapse the flower, press each petal under glass. I want some push and pull.
It’s like The Tell-Tale Heart, which Dave recites to me periodically as he memorizes it for a show. In a typical talkback, someone inevitably would ask Edgar Allan Poe, “Okay so is the old man his landlord? I assumed that, but I don’t know that I actually know that. Maybe he’s a relative, an uncle or something–”
“Okay, thanks for your comment–”
“Or if it’s the old man who is the lodger, and the narrator is actually the landlord, that would change the dynamic for me.” So, Edgar will have her pen and notebook on Monday. She will write down every comment. Then she will set it on the sideboard and forget it for a week or a month. Pick it up after Halloween and see what jumps out.
I’m already preparing myself for the let-down after the performances. It’s a double let-down. The event is past, and so there’s the classic post-vacation, post-party, post-partum funk. Then there’s also the disappointment I’ve felt before with the readings or the festivals I do, where I feel like I’ve written something good and the world was supposed to come knocking so they could produce it at Kennedy Center. When they don’t, I go through the typical artist’s hell, the flip-flopping between “I’m not good enough” and “how come nobody thinks I’m good enough,” a dog chasing its tail as these two meaningless extremes circle ‘round and ‘round.
But I’m prepared for that. Maybe I can sidestep it. And I have slightly different reasons for wanting this play out there. I’m angry about that boy. I know the play is not his story. I don’t know what his story was. But that just makes me angrier. At last, I feel the thing Fred Gaines talked about as his reason for writing plays. That it’s a social call. I still don’t exactly understand it or know if it will happen in that way again, but I wish Fred were still around so I could at least say, “I finally get it.”
Yesterday’s headache finally faded last night when we saw Chris Smither at Old Town. Fern and Frank called, last minute, to invite us. They had what is perhaps the best four-top at Old Town, table Z. It’s at the back, stage right, at the perfect sightline. The only one possibly better is right next to it—I meant to check but forgot. Perhaps it’s table Y? It has the advantage of being on the aisle, so there’s even more legroom.
Somehow I hadn’t appreciated Chris Smither before. I knew and liked a couple of his songs, but of course I’d never spent an evening with him. And to be sitting there with Fern, who is negotiating her sentence with such grace and wisdom and humor, it almost makes me jealous. No, it makes me feel I’ve got an example, a role model to follow if and when the C-bomb drops just when I’m planning a whole other set of adventures for myself and my best friend.
“What a kick in the teeth,” I remember her saying the first time we saw them after the diagnosis. I keep hearing that, as they navigate their choices and do things like treat friends to an evening of music. And now I have a whole new body of music to listen to and be inspired by.
Smither introduced one new song as “a classic blues progression that you’ve heard a thousand times. But I haven’t written one in a while, so…” That was the song that made me buy the album on iTunes this morning. There were easily a dozen that could have prompted the purchase, but this was the song I needed to hear again immediately.
It ain’t what I know that makes me blue
It’s what I thought I knew
After the concert, we waited for Fern and Frank to buy a CD and get it signed. I had on my new birthday boots and my new birthday coat and the felted wool fez I got in Dingle, back when we traveled instead of fixing up the house, and I felt the confidence of my matchiness. I saw Fern and Frank at the front of the line, talking to Smither, who had a big floppy grin on his face. What a great guy. I went up with my phone, a little late, as they started to move along for the next people in line. “Can I just get a picture?” I said, snapping away, secretly remembering the no-pictures announcement before the concert.
They all leaned in, and I got a nice shot to send my friends. “I love your hat,” said Smither. “It’s great, isn’t it?” I beamed, proud of myself for not blurting out, “I got it in Ireland!” My uncomfortable post-concert exchange with John Gorka a few months ago apparently taught me something. It’s so lovely to think that one is making progress.
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.
I came dangerously close to posting one of those cute husband and wife stories that make me sick when I have to read them. It would start in anger, and include a few adorable zingers. By the end, the couple would have reached a deeper understanding and appreciation of their bond. The final line would carry both a laugh and a universal truth. It would have involved my driving. Highlights:
“Are you driving extra carefully because of your new glasses?” “Do I seem like I’m driving extra carefully?” “You seem like you’re driving incredibly carefully.” His hands grip an imaginary wheel and he leans forward like Mr. Magoo.
I won’t continue. I don’t have to, because I just got an email from my friend Georgia. She doesn’t bother with blogs and stories. She just numbers everything and gets it off her desk. Like this:
See if you can use any of this. I was going to send all this to Tina Fey, but she prefers my weekend material.
1. My mom is having her bowling team friends over on Monday for lunch after they bowl. There have been multiple conversations about what she’d prepare—brunch food? Soup? Something else? The last I heard it was going to be a wild rice soup that she could prepare the night before and put in a crock pot, some warm bread, and apple bars. Simple. Delicious.
Tonight my sister told me about Mom’s new plan. It seems that Mom was at Steak ‘n Shake recently. It was busy, so she sat at the counter. While there, she admired the Mexican grill guy’s spatula skills. The waiter told her this guy’s a good cook—he doesn’t just make hamburgers. Well! Apparently that’s all the recommendation my mom needed. This grill guy is coming to her house on Monday to cater her luncheon. This woman who is starting to get creeped out by staying alone at night has invited a stranger to cook for her and her friends. Tacos.
2. My daughter is taking a career and college planning course. She apparently hates it. Doesn’t like the teacher. Thinks it is a waste of time. Her most recent assignment was to interview someone about his job. 10 questions were prepared in class. Then she was supposed to write a thanks-for-meeting-with-me sort of letter. Simple, yes? Especially since she chose to interview my husband. Well, here’s what she wrote:
Dear Dad, Thank you for answering my questions the other day. This is a follow up to the interview for my (stupid) career planning class; we are practicing thank-you letters. It is good you like your job. I did not know that you wanted to be a comedian and piano player. It is sort of amusing how you got an internship. Sincerely, Daughter(I think I lost several IQ points writing this. Seriously. I sound like a kindergartener. Or a robot. This is, very possibly, the worst thing I have ever written.)
Lucky for all of us, the teacher gave her an F, not detention.
3. Tomorrow I’m meeting with an acquaintance who wants to hire me as a bone marrow donor recruiter. $12/hour plus mileage. Sounds like I’d travel around the state, when it was convenient, and work at bone marrow drives. Since I am She Who Can’t Say No, I said Yes. I hope I don’t get an embroidered polo shirt to wear.
There’s more, but I think this did the trick. I’ve pulled away from my cute story, even the part where I make an excellent point about how people of a certain gender always seem to think people of another certain gender drive like crap. So Georgia, thanks for saving me and my loyal readers from a fate worse than death. Hope your week picks up.
Seeing Judy’s show last night reminded me of Fred’s ‘Fuck cancer’ tee-shirt. A few months before he died, he emailed a picture of himself wearing it. I remember the look in his eyes – that typical Fred look of combined amusement, affection, and a sense of having seen this all before, perhaps a hundred years ago. In the photo he had that same look but it was intensified. Perhaps a thousand years ago.
In Judy’s show, ‘Fuck cancer’ was on a hat. There were photos of hats and tee-shirts you can expect to receive if you get cancer. “Of course they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”
I went to her show after watching another show at Second City, a solo class showcase a friend was in. My friend did a hilarious monolog and song about the exquisite tortures of auditioning. Another guy did a piece about recovering from a stroke. His cane, which he’d been given at the nursing home, was feeling a bit unwanted now that he no longer leaned on it every day. His piano was also feeling left out. Occasionally he still played with his right hand, but he seemed to get too frustrated about his unworking left hand, so there were no more duets with the man’s wife, no more music making long into the night.
Most other pieces were about breakups. One guy’s girlfriend cheated. One woman’s husband strayed permanently. One guy’s boyfriend dumped him in a text. Illness and breakups, those were the themes last night. It was odd how the breakup stories seemed to begin and end with the fact of the breakup, how much it hurt, how sweet revenge could feel, how lonely it was. Whereas the illness stories began with the illness and went on to explore the new reality, new values, new discoveries. On the whole, illness seemed like a more useful experience than breaking up, though of course most of us would choose a breakup over cancer any day.
It’s easy to make fun of solo shows and people do it all the time, but standing on stage alone is an act of faith in more than yourself. It’s an act of faith in human experience, to believe that your slice of it is worthy of a stranger’s time. It’s a sign of faith in community, bringing together a group of people who will be changed simply by being together, facing the stage. When Judy said good night, a woman called out, “My teacher!” and some of us cheered. I thought of my teacher, Fred, and his tee-shirt, and his smile.
During Judy’s show I worried at first that my friends would think it was too depressing, too personal, too detailed. But I heard Johnnie and Paul laugh when Judy brought out her hated cancer socks, which they lived through when Paul had to wear stroke socks. Toots and I exchanged awed looks when Judy sang about the uncanny string of holidays that hosted every one of her cancer and recovery milestones. Afterward, we went out and celebrated our very first evening of all going out together. We made multiple toasts. We were giddy.
I was crossing Lawrence Avenue today and saw a pal. He was crossing not quite at the corner. I was not quite at the corner too, in fact even farther from it than he. Lawrence and Western is a difficult corner. The place where you should cross is far from any place you’d want to get to, especially if like me you want to get to Walgreens.
I recognized his hat first, and then the rest of him fell into place. He was picking his way through the stopped cars. If I hurried I could catch him on the other side and say hello. I passed behind one stopped car and stared at a slowing car until it stopped. I watched my friend’s hat as he reached the curb ahead of me.
I was almost close enough to call, but on Lawrence Avenue distances feel farther apart. This is not a friendly street. A friend who moved to LA and hated it used to explain his distaste by saying, “It feels like the corner of Lawrence and Kedzie in the middle of summer, every single day.” You’re always behind the wrong car and no one will let you change lanes.
I got across the street and my pal was looking around. He looked north up the block, and west across Western. I was about to call, but suddenly he looked like a complete stranger. Just a tall man in an odd hat, choosing his next move. To wait for the bus or hail a cab? To stop at the bank or make a detour for groceries?
This is the intersection where the pigeon man used to hang out. He’d sit on a fire hydrant and pigeons would roost on his shoulders, his knees, his head. Sometimes he’d hold his arms out wide and they’d perch all the way to his hands. I didn’t think much about him when he was there; he was just part of Lawrence Avenue, staunch and grimy. Then he was hit by a van and killed, and the pigeons lost their defender. I wonder what they thought the first day he didn’t come with bread and shoulders, and then the second and third day. Now they stay mostly under the el platform, half a block south.
My pal turned toward Western and paused. I suddenly didn’t want to call him. He might be in a hurry, and I only had a few minutes on my meter. I went into Walgreens to find toothpaste and toothbrushes and read through Valentines Day cards for the least worst one. I wondered if I’d have time to stop at The Chopping Block and find a new saucepan. When I came out my pal was gone—or I suppose he was. I had forgotten all about him, like I was never there.