Monday, March 18, 2019

a moment in the day: tiny mystery


As I step through the living room, something catches my eye through the big front window. It’s a young woman in cat eye sunglasses, with little mini Princess Leia buns in her dark hair, standing on my lawn. She’s grinning. She seems really intent on something, staring down. At her feet? At the grass? I can't see from my angle. Then she crouches, fast, disappearing from the window.

OK, this is kind of weird. What’s she doing out there? I don’t want to stare but, well, I want to stare.

I sidestep into the bedroom and peek through the curtains. I make the tiniest opening between the two curtains, just enough to fit my eye through.

There’s a big golden-haired dog lying on his back on the grass, paws up in the air, and the woman is petting him.

Oh. Well. That’s not as interesting as I thought it might be.

But now she straightens to standing again, and instead of moving off with her dog, she stays there facing my window, pulls a small sheath of papers from under her arm, holds it up, and starts reading.

The dog rolls around, happy, in the grass. The woman’s lips move.

A mystery in daylight, this woman with her eyes glued to her stack of pages, her pink sneakers on my lawn. Reading to the dog? Reciting an incantation? Singing to the dog?

Reading to herself the instructions she printed off the internet for teaching your dog to sit, stay, play dead?

But she doesn’t look like she’s just mouthing the words as she reads silently to herself. She looks posed, proper, her back straight, shoulders straight, head up, like she’s standing behind a podium.

A mystery is how she doesn’t seem at all concerned what anyone might think, standing on the lawn of someone she doesn’t know at two in the afternoon on a Sunday, orating to a dog.

A guy goes by on a bicycle, his eyes on the woman the whole time. I wonder if he can hear what she's saying.

She does seem to be directing it toward the dog, whatever she’s doing. Although I suppose she may be casting a spell on my rose bushes and the dog’s just along for the ride.

A mystery is how different twelve little inches mean to this scenario. How much less weird this would all feel if the woman were standing just a foot back, on the sidewalk. These invisible barriers we have, these unspoken rules. That is the sidewalk. This is my grass.

And she’s not hurting anything (unless she’s putting a hex on my rose bushes), but I do feel better when she’s stepped her shoes off my lawn and back onto the sidewalk.

Still, I’m a little sad to watch her head off and away, leaving just the mystery of it behind.

Off and away but then, just a few feet down the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s house, she stops. The dog makes a happy hop and flops into the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street. The woman sits herself down on the half wall that encloses my neighbor’s lawn, pulls out her pages, leans in toward the dog, and starts to read again.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

a moment in the day: leftovers


The leftover French fries didn't fare well. I thought they'd be okay if I put them in the toaster oven but that just made them tough and chewy. In the kitchen after the movie, I put the leftovers of my leftovers back in their container and back in the fridge.

"You're keeping them?" Stephen asks.

I bump my shoulders up and down at him, "I guess. Tomorrow I'll try just microwaving them. That usually makes them kind of floppy, so maybe floppy and tough will cancel each other out."

"You're right," he says. "The microwave will revivify them."

Revivify. That's the word he uses. Who uses the word revivify about French fries? Come to think about it, I don't know whether I've ever heard that word said out loud.

I throw my arms around him. He looks confused.

I explain, "I appreciate you."

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Tiny Beautiful Things at Portland Center Stage


Tiny Beautiful Things may be my favorite of Cheryl Strayed’s books: the way she transforms the vehicle of the advice column into a forum for deeply complex personal essays that not only fully address the questions posed by the advice-seekers but also tell her own story and, taken all together, get to the heart of what it is to be human.

When I heard this column that became a book was becoming a play I was equal parts excited and perplexed. How does someone turn a book like this into a play? How do you fashion a set around it? How do you take the question-and-answer structure of an advice column or the start-and-stop structure of a collection of essays and bend it into something with a single plot and a beginning-to-end story arc? Or do you?

Then I saw photographs of the production showing people sitting around a couch in a set that looked like someone's house—and that confused me, too. I didn't get how those pictures related to the Tiny Beautiful Things in my head.





The play opens with one of those four, a woman, alone in the house. She comes in with a laundry basket in her arms, passes through, goes into a laundry room, closes the door. Nothing for one beat, two. Then she re-emerges.

And I finally got it. This was Sugar. Or rather this was Cheryl Strayed, in her own home. Which is where all those pieces of advice, all those lovely essays came to life.

And that's what the play does. It brings those essays to life, as the advice-seekers, in the form of three actors, appear in her home, inhabiting different characters, beautifully anonymous (now he's a man, now he's a woman) hovering around her couch, her kitchen table, asking her their questions and letting her spin out her answers as the tiny beautiful essays they are.

I loved this approach. What an intimate thing, bringing these people into her personal space just as her intimate and generous responses to their questions must have brought her right to them in a personal way. Which is what the book does for the reader as well.



You might think this back-and-forth structure would get old, but it doesn't, because each issue brought up, each monologue performed, is so different and so heartfelt—at times funny, at times wrenching. An unexpected arc forms as the monologues start to piece together the story of Cheryl's life. And toward the end, something happens that takes the play to a place the book never could have gone, and it's surprising and wonderful.

Each of the players (Dana Green who plays Cheryl/Sugar, and Leif Norby, Lisa Renee Pitts, and Brian Michael Smith, who get to exercise their versatility chops playing all the advice-seekers) is fabulous. But the star is Cheryl's words and the masterful way they're shaped and arranged and brought to life on stage. Kudos for this have to go to adapter Nia Vardalos, co-creators Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail, and of course Cheryl Strayed herself, as well as director Rose Riordan.

A good example of this mastery is a moment during the sequence advanced by an advice-seeker who calls himself "Living Dead Dad." I remembered it from the book. It's shattering. In fact on impulse—just this second—I got out my book and read that piece again and it shattered me again. The issue brought up by "Living Dead Dad" is so difficult for him to express that he presents it in a list rather than the paragraphs of a letter. And Cheryl/Sugar responds in kind. In the middle of their interaction, Cheryl walks over to where "Living Dead Dad," played by Leif Norby, is sitting, and struggling, at her table, breaks a fourth wall we didn't know existed, and hands him a box of tissues. It's such a tiny thing, but this exchange, this intimacy, is exactly what the play is all about.



I knew this performance was going to touch me, but I was somehow not ready for how much. I was holding my breath to try to cry less, because we were in a public place, and the only thing that made me feel better was that I could hear Stephen, my date for the evening, crying just as much.

Artist Jeana Edelman, also in the audience, later said, "I’d never experienced an entire house crying at once before."

Stephen expressed it in a slightly different way. He said, "In the part where she hands him the box of tissues, all I kept thinking was, maybe they should pass them around."

*

The other thing Stephen said? He coveted the kitchen. The set is a lovely craftsman home, the perfect setting because of its openness and its beauty but also its hominess, with a dog bed at one corner, books and shoes under the couch, evidence of life lived. If you saw our kitchen, the one un-fixed-up room in our house, with its cracked, rust orange counter tops and old, chipped cabinets and dead appliances, you'd understand why Stephen loved the layout created by Scenic Designer Megan Wilkerson, all blue and white and tiled and fresh.



"Yeah," Stephen said as we were driving home after the show. "I want that kitchen."

*

Tiny Beautiful Things is playing now through March 31st on the main stage at Portland Center Stage. More information is here.

The book is available here.

Photos by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Poster art by Mikey Mann.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

a moment in the day: reincarnation


Driving home from work, I'm listening to music because NPR is having their membership drive, don't judge me. Simon and Garfunkel. I rarely listen to music these days and when I do the experience is filled with ghosts and memories.

They sing, "Prior to this lifetime, I surely was a tailor." The pace of the song slows and the tone quiets for a moment. There's a jingle like a shop door bell and a woman with an English accent asks, "Good morning, Mr. Leitch, have you had a busy day?"

Back when I was listening hard to Simon and Garfunkel in my late teens, I used to think Paul Simon really did believe he'd been reincarnated, and that he'd once been a tailor. In England. There's also that lyric in Kathy's Song: "I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets. To England, where my heart lies." I've since read that Paul Simon's grandfather had been a tailor, and that the  Kathy in Kathy's Song was a woman he'd met in England. But I liked imagining that the fabulous musician and poet Paul Simon had once been a tailor in a small English hamlet.

Back when I was listening hard to Simon and Garfunkel in my late teens... wow that time seems a lifetime ago. More than a lifetime. It feels "prior to this lifetime," as the lyric goes. Back then, I had a friend who was obsessed with Simon and Garfunkel. He'd come over with his guitar and play their songs and sing. He'd been my English teacher my Sophomore year in high school, and he'd hugely fostered my wish to be a writer. After that class ended, he'd pursued me as a friend. He'd call me up and talk for hours, read me his writing and complain that women didn't like to go out with short men.

I always had crushes on short guys, actually, but he'd been my teacher and he was one of the most self-absorbed people I knew.

He pursued me as a friend more than a person who just wants to be your friend does. And I knew that. But I didn't like to say no. I listened to his hours on the phone. I sang Simon and Garfunkel with him. I accompanied him to the mall where he bought books and discussed his love for Harlan Ellison.

Once he kissed me. I never told anyone. We were at my house, hanging out, and Mom and Dad and Edina and Frank weren't around. I don't remember what we were doing, listening to him sing or listening to him talk about his writing or listening to him talk about his collection of vintage guitars. In the middle of things, he just up and kissed me, pushed his head forward on his neck and put his mouth on mine with his eyes closed and his eyebrows tweaked together in an expression that to me looked like self-aware romantic zeal but might have been nervousness.

He opened his eyes and looked at me. I didn't know what to do.

I was too young or naive or uncomfortable to think to say, "Oh, hey, I'm sorry, but."

I picked up the conversation exactly where it had left off, said something silly, laughed. I don't remember what I said. Just that I somehow acted like what had just happened, hadn't.

A little while later, he did it again. We were walking from the kitchen (getting something to drink?) to the family room (for more guitar and Simon and Garfunkel?), and he put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me. And he made that same romance face and kissed me again.

And I ignored it again.

Um, so, what were you just saying about that vintage Martin guitar you want to buy?

Somehow not saying no felt like I was being nice. I didn't want to hurt his feelings.

I was too young or naive or selfish to understand that "being nice" can also hurt.

His romance face slid off and he looked pained for a second. Then he picked up the conversation just like I had, and we went into the family room, and he never tried it again.

That time does feel "prior to this lifetime" to me now. Driving down Burnside in Portland, listening to the milky harmony of Simon and Garfunkel's voices, I have this almost visceral sense of having had past lives but all contained within the almost fifty years I've grown through this body of mine. That my high school and early college days were one lifetime. My circus days, another lifetime. When I look back I do feel like, in many ways, I was a different person. If you've been reincarnated, can you be new? Can your old sins be washed away?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

a moment in the day: shower


I'm in the shower at eight in the evening and it feels like joy, because this morning, because of the high winds, the power went out at four a.m., and I lit candles and I made a sandwich for breakfast, and I went to work with dirty hair.

Where I work, they have showers you can use. They're like little offshoots of the restrooms. I don't know who uses them. This morning when I got to work, I thought okay, if the power stays off all day... and all night... and then tomorrow morning... maybe I'll have to bite the bullet and shower at work.

Would I need to take my bathrobe with me? Would it be weird to walk into work with this big red bathrobe? What if someone I worked with walked in on me in there naked?

When I was with the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers' Circus, we took communal showers every day. Well, not communal showers, but in the clown truck, where I lived, there was a shower room we all used. It was the last compartment. The rest of the truck was broken up into sleeper compartments, two clowns per compartment, and at the end of every working day, we took our makeup off in that last compartment, standing in front of two adjacent mirrors in front of two adjacent sinks. My stupid memory: I can picture those two mirrors and sinks, but I somehow can't picture the shower. What kind of curtain did it have? How many spigots? There were eight clowns in the truck; how did we arrange to take showers and not walk in on each other naked?

What I do remember vividly for some reason is one day early in the run when I walked past one of the open doors of the truck and found John there sitting on the end of his bunk with his head hanging down. When I asked what was wrong, he said that during the overnight jump, his laptop computer had fallen off the shelf and shattered on the floor. I never knew what to say to someone's unhappiness.

John was a new clown, just out of Ringling clown college, and unready for the rigors of the road. No one had said he might not want to leave a computer sitting on a shelf when the truck was making a jump to the next town. He was young and fresh-faced and sweet. He had this thing where he always shrugged but with his head, one little quick twitch of his head, like oh, my laptop smashed, but it's okay, everything's okay. He was the first person I felt comfortable around on Beatty-Cole - and I'll admit one of the few people that this shy, awkward girl felt completely comfortable with in my whole fifteen years in the circus.

He left before the season even ended, to go off to college.

Years later, I friended someone on Facebook with his name. It turned out this John was some other guy who lived in France. Soon after I friended him, he died. His feed was full of people's pictures of him superimposed with hearts and roses. People grieving openly, in English and in French. Sometimes I'd go on his page and read the remembrances of this man I didn't know. The most recent post, April of last year, says, "7 ans aujourd'hui .... 7 ans que tu as rejoinds les etoiles."

Seven years today. Seven years since you rejoined the stars.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

a moment in the day: bus dog


On the bus to work, my traveling companion—kind of—is a graphic of a dog on the window. It’s made out of a black grid of small holes and is pointed in the opposite direction of the bus, its head over my shoulder and its tail just to the left of me so that when I look out the window I’m seeing cars and houses and food carts through the semi-transparent shape of a happy tail.

I’ve been reading a good book, but periodically I have to look up and out the window because when you’re gifted with the shape of a dog in your window, you shouldn’t neglect to take advantage of it.

As we come toward the end of my ride, I put the old airline ticket in my book to mark the place and put the book in my bag. Sort of sad to leave my odd traveling companion. On impulse, I reach out and with one finger touch the glass at the tip of the tail.

I kind of want to pretend to pet the dog. Would that be weird?

Across the aisle from me, a woman has her eyes down, reading a book.

I look out the window again.

Don’t pet the dog. Don’t pet the dog.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

a random list of some of my favorite lines from city of weird


Well, the list isn't random. It's basically a favorite line (or two or three) from each story, in the order in which they appear in the book. But all put together, the list looks pretty random. But I was just thinking about some of my favorite passages, and feeling thankful, again, that these lovely writers gifted our book with them, and I thought I'd like to share. Some of my favorites are the landings to stories (for instance Kevin Meyer's last line to his story "Out of Order" is one of my favorite last lines of a short story ever), but in the interest of not popping spoilers, I'm not including those.


There was only the sound of wind, and then rain, and that curious sound sun makes, when it is speckling on the flowers.

I recognized her in the motion of her eight elegant arms, the way she plucked that kid from the ground and squeezed the life out of him with deliberate grace.

I wanted to go on Craigslist and search for a new housemate. While I waited for the happy face screen to pop up, it occurred to me it might look suspicious if I advertised before filing a missing person report.

She let go of life. Her body drifted from the sleeping pod across the moonlit water. Her daughters woke at sunrise, knowing. The echolocation of grief resounded on the rock walls.

“I wonder if this was a nice place,” Red said. “For the creatures we destroyed, I mean.”

     “Hey, boys,” he says to his Santa minions. “On Christmas day I give toys to all the good girls and boys. What do I do the other three hundred and sixty-four days a year?”
     “Raise hell, Santa,” they all start shouting. “Raise hell.”

She stole the blue right out of the sky on a rare Oregon clear day, the kind of midday that makes shopkeepers lean against doorways, mothers sit and linger on swings next to their children, and dogs stretch out on driveway sunspots.

Shit shit shit fuck shit this shouldn’t be a thing I hate this place I hate biospheres I hate huge mystery buildings I hate the stupid fucking City of stupid Roses and Aisha’s dead and fUUUUCKKKKKKK.


He’s excited to see me, and we run around in the back yard. I show him how dexterous I’ve gotten at fetching, rolling over, and playing dead. This brings him joy, happiness, w0+w1∑j=1tγt−jCRj+w2∑j=1tγt−jEVj+ w3∑j=1tγt−jRPEj, what the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran called “your sorrow unmasked.” I, in turn, feel its biomimetic equivalent.

The Yay-yay tilted her head and looked at me again with those same Christian eyes. Those eyes, he died for you. Those eyes, he gave you his one and only son. Those eyes, Yay-yay, she didn’t know nothing about all of that. The guilt and the guilty. The make believe. It all came from me.

And I especially didn’t want the dog once I started playing Polybius, the blackouts started, and the dog was dead set on chewing my face off.

I’m inhaling an atmosphere so thick with information that my lungs are full of whispers. I think I’m on the brink of becoming conscious of myself as text, as a transcribed dream, as something printed on pulp, exuding a cloud of dancing atoms that someone on one of the loftier levels might already be breathing.

I wondered, how would it feel to climb up onto the railing of that bridge at night, to look down into the darkness? How would it feel for that one brief instant to be released from any contact with the earth?

The colors veered around the walls. He wavered on his heels, waiting for his balance to return. Light and dark swapped places, then slowly swapped back.

Sometimes she can still feel the ghosts of the little butterfly flutters in her belly, the somersaults and loop-de-loops of another living thing sharing her body. Little fish swimming along, heartbeat under her heartbeat, until it wasn’t anymore. Just another lost thing.

Her face long like it was, no makeup but the orange lipstick she put on every day. The eyebrows she drew on with the little pencil. All my life she drew her eyebrows and wore the orange lipstick.

The door to the basement is slowly closing, but before it does, I think I catch a glimpse of drab muslin and maybe scales disappearing into the gloom. An appropriate supernatural rustling sound accompanies the creaking door.

Tiny black and brown Henri, a foxy mutt with huge, furry ears and round, brown eyes. When Henri became ill, his eyes filled with slate. Robert and Henri lay together most days, both sleeping their way toward God.

The vampire has a problem with his backside that he’d rather not discuss.

He’s uglier than sin on baby Jesus’s birthday.

The threat of crying kept cropping up inside of my nose the way disappointment does. Abject disappointment, if you wanted to get all SAT prep about it.

She likes the apartment, though the neighborhood itself, with its thousand porches, bothers her. Porches have hippies. Hippies have smells. Smells have water. Water has bugs. Bugs have eyes. Eyes have caps of flesh.

Alex squeezed his bottom lip, which escaped, worm-like.

At first I was like, “Oh, great, more yuppie chic from Uncle Thrak!” But I have to say, heating my mammoth rump with fire was life-changing. Intentionally burning your food (or “cooking,” as they call it) really unlocks the mammoth-flavor. I kept thinking how great it would be paired with a marionberry compote or live ants.

     “I’m a window,” he said. “Look at me like I’m a window.”
     I looked at the window.

My name is Melquiades, and I am, in that misleadingly innocuous phrase from your police procedures, the “person of interest” wanted for questioning in connection with the disappearance of some twenty thousand of your city’s residents. Before we take up the matter of those missing citizens, nearly all of whom are quite safe, I assure you, you must first understand with whom you are dealing.

Virginity melted down into the earth with the stegosaurus bones.

     “I found a jar of mayonnaise a few days ago,” Weisman said, chewing slowly, his eyes distant. 
     Martin perked up. “Really? What’d you do with it?” 
     “I left it. A man can’t just eat mayonnaise."

The irises of your eyes got all squishy after the X. Your black irises were a painting my vision could change. I could smear the paint job of your end-of-India eyes to match the world as I saw it. The weight of your forearm, heavy on my back, our two bodies fed into each other, skin was weight and energy and bodies and warm.

*

The authors, in order of their passages: Rene Denfeld, Brigitte Winter, Leslie What, Leigh Anne Kranz, Dan DeWeese, Brian Reid, Stefanie Freele, Jonah Barrett, Jonathan Hill, Andrew Stark, Bradley K. Rosen, Kevin Meyer, Jason Squamata, Susan DeFreitas, Karen Munro, Nicole Rosevear, Doug Chase, Linda Rand, Kirsten Larson, Justin Hocking, Sean Davis, Suzy Vitello, Leni Zumas, Art Edwards, Mark Russell, Kevin Sampsell, Stevan Allred, B. Frayn Masters, Jeff Johnson, Adam Strong