Something is wrong with this chair. Lately stories won’t come to it. Lately all I think about are plays. Plays I’m writing, plays I’m directing, plays I’m reading, plays I’ve been watching. How they work and why they don’t work and what to do to make them work better.
Outside the window, a man is walking past in a suit with a red tie. Is it that warm? Yesterday at this time I looked out at snow on the roof. I tried to think of a story that had happened the day before. I wrote about watching Beth’s show open to a standing ovation. Yes it was probably a lot of friends, but they didn’t have to stand. Or did they? I love watching standing ovations from the back of the theatre. Some people shoot up immediately. Others follow quickly, like “Yes, yes, me too.”
Next are people who seem to realize everyone else is standing and they ought to as well. Once on their feet, they become part of a fleeting community celebrating performer and audience and the show they’ve created by being together.
There’s a final group, my favorite people to watch. Their immobile backs clearly state that they’re not going to get up just because everyone else is. They wait for spouses and friends to come to their senses and realize that sitting and clapping is praise enough for anyone.
Of that sensible group, a few inevitably peel off and get to their feet. They become, inflation-wise, part of the problem. The lonely few remain, hanging to their original measure of praise. And somehow they look suddenly like people who didn’t enjoy the show very much.
This is a chair that many have stuck to, especially on hot summer days. It’s leather, allegedly, but not thick durable leather. It’s mostly cracked and flaking, especially at the top, where shoulder blades dig in, and whence a ripping sound issues when you peel yourself or your tee-shirt away. There are of course people who can’t stand, or people whose limbs require that they take a while to do so. It’s silly to over-generalize. But that’s the story from the back of the theatre. And lately, theatre is all I seem to think about.
Dave is talking to himself as he practices. “Oh, Dave.” Then he plays some more, then “No…no.” It sounds strangely detached, like he’s not surprised, just disappointed.
Django is in her bed. Her new portrait is on the mantel. We picked it up at the memorial service for Fern today, because the artist drove in from Indy for it, and she’d also finished the painting.
It’s lovely, especially around the muzzle. The body looks a little too brawny, like the woodcarving. But it’s a far cry from Marmaduke. And the eyes are very, very Django.
At the service, one of Fern’s neighbors told a story about how her dog had swatted a baby bunny in the back yard, and the woman called Fern crying, “What should I do?” Fern came right over, and held the bunny in her hands as it died. She talked to it quietly, saying “It’s all right.” The woman said Fern had the most beautiful hands, and I could see them as she spoke, just holding the bunny very calmly, like everything was happening just as it should.
Another neighbor said they had a feral cat and Fern was the only one who could get near it. Once she sat for an hour, combing it.
Dave seems a bit happier with his playing. He just said, “Hm.”
My big dilemma this morning is, do I go all self-righteous with the City of Chicago? Or keep it polite and concise?
“It’s bad enough that you SOLD the entire city’s metered parking rights to a private company that jacks up the prices every two weeks, but NOW you also force me to take precious TIME out of my busy day “contesting” a ticket that never should have been ISSUED in the first place. I don’t see why the onus should be on ME to prove what is apparently either incompetence or greed. But I guess that SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE. Cue Lincoln Park Pirates song here, did you even NOTICE that Steve Goodman’s mom died a few months ago?”
“The ticket was issued at 4:37 p.m., citing an expired meter. However, my parking permit did not expire until 4:39 p.m. Sincerely, etc.”
It feels good to rail at authority. I don’t worry too much about the fact that I really don’t know what went down with the metered parking sale. I suppose Daley did what he thought he had to do. I suppose whoever issued my ticket had a quota to meet. I suppose it’s fair for them to assume I would have been late getting back to my car. Although with meter rates as high as they are, believe me I was watching my—whoa, never mind. Where was I? Oh yes. But when I’m right about something, however small, I just feel so right, vehemently right, about EVERYTHING. Fiscal policy, party politics, the inner life of the modern meter officer.
This letter is my only chance today, maybe this week, maybe my WHOLE LIFE, to be absolutely in the right. I AM SO RIGHT. I want to use it for all its worth. But I must use my power wisely. This is Chicago. They could still screw me over if I piss somebody off.
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.
Last night, in the last three minutes of an episode of “Caprica,” where Dad is trying to get robot Zoe to shoot the dog in order to prove she’s not Zoe, Dave shut it off. “I’m done,” he said. He stood up. Then he sat down and set the Roku controller on the coffee table. Then he stood up again.
I stared at the suddenly-black screen. A second ago I’d been watching a border collie cocking his head, all confused, looking from the robot to Dad. Clearly he knew Zoe was inside the robot. He really wanted her to throw the ball so he could fetch it, but instead Dad had given the robot a gun and made her aim it at the border collie.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “I know it’s not real and all that, but it’s just.”
“Of course,” I said, “It’s no big deal.” And we spent the rest of evening reading or talking or something.
I still want to see the last three minutes. I bet the robot misses. If the robot doesn’t miss, I too am done with the show. Why am I done? I don’t know. Because the fake killing of a dog doesn’t seem fair. Why doesn’t it seem fair? Human characters have been killed right and left – the two Tauron guards, everyone on the commuter train. But when you bring a cute, wriggling border collie onto the set and ask us to pretend for him that he is the dog in the story, it’s different than when you bring humans on to the set and they pretend they are Tauron guards or commuters on a train, and all we have to do is decide whether they pretend well enough.
But a border collie is unsurpassed in being a border collie. When it delivers a red ball to the feet of a hunk of metal, I have to do the translation. And when Dad then forces robot Zoe to shoot the dog instead of throwing the ball, and I have to then untranslate that in my head to make it okay, because of course no one’s actually getting shot, I feel foolish. I feel like they misused my good will, my willingness to pretend. I feel silly.
The vibe last night was that we wouldn’t be watching “Caprica” ever again. It’s too bad, because despite lukewarm reviews from “Battlestar” friends I’d been loving the ways it explored how the Cylons came into being and why they were so gosh-darned upset at humans. In fact, this morning, when Dave was downstairs, I opened Netflix on my phone to secretly watch the last three minutes. I figured, if the robot missed, I could subtly work in an argument to keep the show in the queue.
The episode was still in the Continue Watching row, with three minutes left. I hit Play and kept my finger over the Pause icon, in case I heard Dave coming up. I turned the volume way down.
The little circle spun, the screen looked ready to display, but it stayed black. It was like there was a ghost in the machine, keeping me away. I hit Play a few more times, like that would help. I waited, looking from the door to the screen and back again. Dave stayed downstairs. The circle kept spinning and the screen stayed black.
Midwest sounded fab last night. Which is saying a lot given the incessant buzzing of the sound system. Which was forgivable given that the sound guy was also the bartender, and the place was packed. When I ordered a second whisky, he said “Can you bring your other glass back?” Which was understandable given that he was also the dishwasher.
I couldn’t believe Frank came. He just sort of appeared, in the dark of the club, as I was talking with Magdalena. Midwest was warming up. Nicolette was politely speaking to the bartender through the mic, “Could we have this up a little?” Customers were three-deep at the bar, but he ducked over to the sound board for a minute. I assume it was a sound board. I was too busy being shocked to see that yes, indeed, it was Frank. I hugged him tightly, wanting that to say all my words couldn’t. “You’re here,” I said.
“I’m here,” he said. We didn’t talk about Fern. Her memorial is in a few weeks. The fact that he got here, and was already joking about the bartender, seemed to say that he could function if he kept to the surface. And when the first song started, “Don’t go,” he didn’t have to joke around anymore. Except for the part where he said, “They’re really good,” like he was a little surprised, he could just listen.
Speaking of surprises, I’d already had one when Magdalena walked in. It was her husband who’d asked Dave about dates, who seemed more interested in music. But at nine I got a text that Magda was leaving her house, and at nine-thirty here she was, paying my tip to the bartender since I’d run out of cash. Her man is out of town, and with Dave on stage, still warming up, we both had time for a nonexistent affair with the rockabilly guy from the first band. Mine ended amicably, but Magda’s was messy, fraught with hurt feelings. We decided that the play will premiere soon.
Music makes me happy. Nicolette makes me want to show her my poetry. Her old boyfriend and also her new boyfriend were there. She felt bad because she’d kissed her new boyfriend in front of her old boyfriend. But it was before she knew her old boyfriend was there. An accidental moment can forever change the way we feel about ourselves and each other. Which is why we need songs. They make sense of coincidence and misfortune and things that can’t be explained, two minutes and forty-two perfect seconds at a time.
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.
Dave says he’ll take care of the Brigadoon reservation card, which arrived yesterday with some other mail I ignored because I’d gotten a package.
He carried it into the kitchen, where I was cutting open the box from Coastal.com — my free glasses, which turned out to be sort of horrible because the frames were way too wide for my face and not in a fun way, and the lenses seemed glarey, or maybe the new prescription was just throwing me off. Anyway, they were only 31 bucks—11 for shipping and 20 for the silver-level lens upgrade (maybe I should have gone for the gold) – so I guess the chance was worth it.
I was cutting through the packing tape when Dave brought in the blue envelope. “Coldest day of the year it comes,” he said. For a moment we looked at it, handwritten, postmarked in Arcadia, and we approximated the feeling of happiness we always have when the reservation card arrives. It’s an official reminder that summer is coming, but this year one of our number is ill. A friend we made in Brigadoon, who has become part of the place for us, and part of what summer means.
Dave opened it and we looked at the contents. As usual, a printed rate card and a handwritten reservation card in the manager’s flowing cursive, “Irish #48, Sept. 24 to Labor Day or ??” I wondered whether he was thinking about our friend. He said, “I’ll take care of the deposit” and then “I can’t tell if the prices have changed.”
“Nope, they look the same,” I said. We laughed at the question marks, which so perfectly capture Brigadoon’s manager, a husky-voiced former Detroit secretary and fight manager who runs Brigadoon less like a tight ship than an amateur fishing boat she can’t believe is still afloat. How could it be, with guests never quite sure when they’re checking out?
He set the envelope on the floor. That’s where he puts stuff he doesn’t want to forget. Bills, dry cleaning, a letter for the mail box. In the place where it shouldn’t be, so you know you need to do something about it. Though sometimes, there’s nothing to be done.
I went to my new writing group. It was much different than my other writing group. We didn’t spend most of the time reading the play out loud. Everyone had already read it thoroughly enough to quote lines and express highly specific opinions on small moments that drive the drama one way or another. They weren’t shy about asking the playwright questions that they expect an immediate answer to. “Did you want us to think she was angry on page 52, or that she really didn’t give a shit?”
In my other group, we follow the Chicago Dramatists model. “The playwright is not here to explain or defend. You can ask questions but the playwright is not here to answer them. You are here to reflect your experience of the play back to the playwright.” I like that approach, but this felt so free. It was only a tiny bit of a bloodbath and nobody seemed to mind. There were also some nice Ikea dressers that the host’s wife had just put together. They looked like solid pine, and I was sad that we hadn’t sucked up and bought one last time we were at Ikea, instead of having another peculiarly Ikea-style non-argument. Clothes are everywhere in here. On the ottoman in front of me, on the radiator beside me, on the small shelving unit we’re pretending is as good as a dresser.
Afterward, I dropped off one playwright at the el and drove another home. The first talked about his writing method, which is somewhat elliptical and seems to result in plays that are hundreds of pages long which will get cut later, when the arc emerges. The other was exhausted after an 8-hour rehearsal for a play of hers that’s being produced by her alma mater. They are so serious about their work, the writers in this group. I feel like a recovering dilettante.
After I dropped them off, I turned on the radio for the last minutes of my drive. A scientist on NPR was talking about the thrill of discovery. The interviewer made some reference to William Blake — how what the scientist was describing sounded more like poetry than hard science. The scientist said something about how art is the highest science, or the highest science is art. He said that while working at the bench is necessarily careful and precise and painstaking, the moments before and after can be as expansive and poetic as any artist’s process.
He referred to the Malcolm Gladwell book about 10,000 hours. You have to put in 10,000 hours in order to become truly great at anything, and once you do that, it’s all kind of the same, up in that echelon. These young writers in my new group seem to be cramming in their hours as fast as they can, while I am hoping mine have accumulated behind me like Pigpen’s dustcloud. Kind of like I hope that on today’s dog walk I encounter a splendid antique dresser in an alley that has been preparing itself for our bedroom, slowly and methodically, in someone else’s lab.
I stood outside Other-Syd’s building, scanning the buzzers for her name. I had her Pyrex plate and a container of turducken soup. Django hadn’t figured out why we’d stopped and was tugging to sniff something on the parkway. Before I could ring the bell, a white-haired man came halfway out the door and smiled at me. I smiled back, stepping aside to give him room to get out.
He remained in the doorway, holding the door open. The entryway was only large enough for one person, maybe two. Definitely not two people and a dog. Plus, I was pretty sure it was a no-dog building. “Oh, I’m just dropping this off for someone,” I said.
The man continued smiling, holding the door. Was he going in or coming out? I waited, but he didn’t move. I decided to ignore him and again scanned the list of names. The man leaned in slightly. “Other-Syd,” I told him, as I spotted it. He seemed to approve of my choice, if his eyebrows were any indication.
I rang the buzzer. Django had noticed the half-open door and was now trying to step past the man into the foyer. “No, Django, we’re not going in,” I said, pulling her away.
The man looked at the row of buzzers. Each bore the tenant’s full name, in shiny, white on black laminated labels. No scotch-taped slips of paper or masking-tape additions here. He seemed to be watching for the return buzz, but instead Other-Syd came down and opened the inside door. There wasn’t room for her to step into the foyer, so she stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “You brought me something!” she said.
I held out my bag and the man moved back slightly behind the door, to make room. “Your stuffing was so yummy, it inspired me to make turkey soup,” I said. “Actually it’s turducken soup.”
There was just enough room for Other-Syd to step forward and take the bag. “Thank you,” she said. “This is Ted, my landlord.” Ted’s broad smile and expressive eyebrows were joined by a nod.
“Hi, Ted,” I said. The three of us paused in a cozy moment of weirdness. I was extra glad I hadn’t let Django take even one step inside. “Well, we were just on our way to the park, so…” I turned to leave.
Ted stepped back around the door. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Ted,” I said.
“Thanks again,” called Other-Syd from the stairwell.
We continued on to the park. Presumably Other-Syd made it back upstairs, because I got a message later that she loved the soup. As for Ted? I have the feeling that if I walked past there right now, he’d be standing still, half-inside and half-outside his own doorway, flanked by his P-Touch handiwork, waiting.