Sunday, June 16, 2019

a moment in the day: short story

I'm up before six, sitting at the computer. In a few minutes I'll have to run down to wake Stephen up and then in about forty-five minutes, we'll leave to pick my parents up at the hotel and take them to the airport after a glorious three-day birthday visit of eating and talking and eating and talking.

I'm reading a random short story in an online literary journal. This strikes me as strange, suddenly. That my mind is on something other than their impending departure. That I'm not sitting here pining in advance of the leaving.

I've been known to pine in advance to crazy degrees. Like for the weeks leading up to the visit. Every night, dreaming that I'm in California visiting them, or they're in Portland visiting me, and it's the last night, and tomorrow they'll be gone.

Sometimes I have the goodbye dream when no trip is even on the horizon. Sometimes night after night for a ridiculous number of nights. I get why I was so obsessed in my early adulthood, when I really didn't love my life on the road, and coming home to visit family was the big bright spot in my year, but it's weird to finally have a life I really like and still pine so hard for that other home.

This short story is organized into bite-sized pieces jumping forward and backward through time. The family is like mine: a mom, a dad, two sisters and a brother. Except that they fight all the time.

Weirdly, I didn't even have the dream last night, on the last night. Is that what being fifty is like? Have I finally, finally grown up?

I realize it's after six, so I run down quick to go into the bedroom and turn off the sound machine and stop Stephen's soft snoring. Forty-five minutes, and we'll leave to take them to the airport. I go back upstairs and sit back down in front of the computer. I finish the short story. I don't know why the ending makes me cry.

Friday, June 7, 2019

a moment in the day: crow

Dusk is falling, early June dusk, which means it's late, maybe nine o'clock. I'm taking Nicholas out for a walk.

He's eager to get going down the sidewalk, pulling against the leash, but just over my head a crow swoops, landing on the low electrical wire a few feet away. The crow cackles and cackles like an angry witch. Caw, caw, caw! What is she so upset about?

I follow her gaze, and there on the next-door driveway is Kittan, the incredibly friendly neighbor cat who likes to try to get in my car in the mornings and sneak into our house at night.

The cat is yelling back at the crow, her little mouth opening, closing, opening, closing so it looks like the insistent bursts of caw caw caw are coming out of the cat.

Another crow story is that last weekend, Stephen was at his mom's house where the neighbor had these three baby crows who had lost their nest when a tree was cut down. Stephen's mom's neighbor was taking care of the crows. At one point in the visit, pictures were being taken of Stephen with a lovely, docile juvenile crow perched right on his shoulder. I was very jealous.

Another crow story is that my mom has this hummingbird nest in her backyard, and a few weeks ago, two tiny baby hummingbirds were in that nest. And a crow landed in a tree not far away. My mom saw it through the window. She said she saw that crow assess the situation, get into position, dive at the nest, and in seconds, the babies were gone.

Another crow story is that years ago when I lived in Wisconsin, I was out taking a walk, and across the street, jetting through the air was this... duh, crow. But it was making the most uncrow sound I'd ever heard. A high pitched keening. Like when you pinch the blowy part of a balloon and let the air out. I didn't think a crow could make that sound. Maybe it wasn't the crow.

And I looked down and the crow was being chased, on the ground, by a rabbit.

And I looked up, and in one of the crow's claws, it had a small, squirming gray animal.

Logic started to piece itself together. The rabbit was chasing a crow that was carrying off her baby.

The baby was screaming.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do.

Animals need to hunt. Babies need to survive.

As the crow landed on a wire, the mother rabbit went running off. I didn't know how far away. I stood on one side of the street and the crow perched on the wire just on the other side, the baby bunny in one clawed foot.

The crow used the one foot to pin the bunny against the wire and lowered its beak down toward the bunny's neck.

I started walking across the street.

I couldn't think to yell or wave my arms. Just my legs were working.

I stepped toward the curb almost below the crow. The crow jerked its head down at me.

And dropped the bunny.

The little gray shape fell and landed in the grass, and the crow flew away.

They say you shouldn't move someone when they might be hurt, but on impulse, I bent and picked up the bunny, examining it. Silk in my hands, its little bunny ears. Its little bunny legs were already trying to hop out of my hands. It... he... she... wasn't hurt at all.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do. My then-husband would balk if I tried to take a bunny home. My then-dog would probably try to attack it. If I took it, the mother rabbit would never see it again.

When I think about it now, I believe I did wrong on every possible account. Yes, I left the bunny there. I hoped that, if I cleared out, the mom would come back and take the bunny home. But I'd picked it up - and sometimes I think about how animals will reject their young if they're touched too early by humans. I don't know if the rabbit came back. I don't know if the crow came back. The next day, I went out and walked and looked and didn't see the bunny.

And here's the thing. Crows gotta eat too.

Now, standing on the sidewalk in Portland, I look back and forth between the crow on the wire and Kittan, the cat in the driveway. The crow cackles and cackles like an angry witch. Caw, caw, caw! What is she so upset about?

I wonder if there's a crow nest somewhere close by, and the crow is cackling her head off in order to keep the cat away.

Mothers and babies.

But I'll never know. Because my baby, the impatient Chihuahua, Nicholas, is pulling against his leash. He doesn't care about the crow and he apparently hasn't noticed the cat. He wants to go and sniff and pee. And the mom thing in me lets go of my curiosity and allows him to lead me down the street.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

a moment in the day: cape

I'm driving to work on the late side, eightish rather than sevenish. The sweet thing about leaving late is that all up and down Stark Street children and parents are walking to school together, and kids stand sentinel with their flags at the crosswalks.

Out through my passenger side, a mom brings up the rear in a line of three. In front, running ahead in a burst of kid energy, is Superman. Red and yellow S insignia on his blue shirt, and red cape flying.

Behind him, probably not old enough for school, is a makeshift Batman with a purple mask that looks homemade, maybe out of paper, and a cape that’s a color somewhere between red and pink. Fuschia. She runs to catch up.

I drive past, using my secret Mxyzptlk fifth dimensional powers to draw just a little of their joy into me for my day at work.

Halfway down the sidewalk: she’s in a cape, too. But it isn’t a cape. It’s a ratty, old gray towel, tied around her neck and hanging down. The woman looks homeless. She doesn't have a bag or a shopping cart. All she seems to have is the cape on her back.

She's bent over, and I'm coming up behind her, so in my glance through the windshield I don't see the look on her face and wonder if she's doubled over in pain or sadness.

But as I pass, I take one more glance. In her hands is a bouquet. Fat, lovely flowers in Superman reds and fuschia pinks. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

a moment in the day: tea

I’m walking back from the break room at work, cup of freshly-reheated green tea in one hand, the little paper tag on the end of the tea bag fluttering. 

Now the air takes the paper tag and lifts it, flips it so that it lands on my hand in that place between my thumb and first finger. 

The tag, landing, feels, for a half second, like when my Chihuahua Nicholas is sitting on my lap at home, me at the computer, and he decides to rest his chin on my hand while I’m trying to type. 

Walking with my tea, I get the tiniest little happy that travels from my hand, up my arm, to my heart. 

It’s such an ordinary moment, the tea bag tag fluttering up and landing on my hand. And it happens all the time. 

And every time. Every time. I feel Nicholas’ chin.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Cover: This Particular Happiness

You know when you finish designing a book cover and the author loves it and the publisher loves it and people say lovely things and you're feeling so happy?

Well, this particular happiness doesn't always make it to production, and sometimes, even long after advance readers have been printed and images have gone up on websites and the book has started to gain an identity alongside the design, you find yourself back at ye olde drawing board.

Forest Avenue Press' upcoming book This Particular Happiness is a memoir about writer Jackie Shannon Hollis' experience navigating the decision not to have children. Our original cover was designed to reflect the beauty of Jackie's writing and the complexity of the decision she made—the love, the sacrifice, the loss. These are all things that make the book wonderfully compelling, but there are many ways to market a book, and for promotional purposes, our distributor, Publishers Group West, was interested in focusing on another aspect of her story: empowerment.

And for that, we knew we would need a cover with an entirely different tone.

It was late in the game when we decided to reimagine the design. Panic! How could I possibly totally reconceptualize and redesign at this late date—especially when coming up with the original took soooo long (It really did. I wrote about it here.)?

But then a bit of inspiration hit me, and in the course of two weekends, I had a completely finished idea.

The subtitle to Jackie's book is "a childless love story." In my brainstorming, I started thinking about how the book is a story of a partnership, not just one person's experience. I pictured a vista, lots of sky, sunrise or sunset colors, and in the foreground, two clasped hands (representing Jackie and her husband Bill) with the subtitle "a childless love story" written in a swoop right across their arms. Putting both childless and love story right there on their connected bodies, and letting that subtitle cradle the sky and the words of the title: This Particular Happiness. The lettering would be hand-done. The kind of lettering that is dynamic, alive.

I liked this. I started to make this.

Of course, nothing is as easy as you picture it in your head. And that's one of the things about me. As much as I'm obsessed with working with visual arts, I don't have a good visual mind. I don't see things. When I picture something, it's generally in the form of a concept, and I don't know what it will look like until I make it and can actually see it.

I couldn't make the thing with the arms work. It was the crux of my idea, and I couldn't make it work.

Arms were, it turned out, way thinner than they should be, at least for adequately writing on.

I wanted the arms/clasped hands to be a silhouette so that the words stood out, but then they just looked like a shape. A stretched out blob. I added a sleeve to make it more obvious. Some bracelets. Was Jackie a bracelet-wearing type of person? The words looked crowded.

I zoomed in a bit to give the lettering some room.

Now it looked even more like a blob.

I tried moving the lettering out from inside the clasped hands/arms and letting it lie in a swoop above. The hands were now an empty elongated blob.

I zoomed way out.

It was more obvious that these were two people holding hands, but by now I'd started to wonder whether the clasped hands were necessary at all.

For me, a lot of design work (mine, I mean) isn't so much creativity as discovery. I think about different types of artists: the painter, the sculptor, the print maker... There's also what's called a "found object" artist. Someone who finds objects and turns them into art. Discovering the art piece as they go. Sometimes I think of myself as a "found object" designer. Like in the sample above: taking the swoop of a childless love story and breaking it apart and on impulse layering the two halves sort of equally off balance—suddenly there was an element I hadn't had before. That off-kilter a childless love story felt like a discovery. And it felt so right that I realized the clasped hands below it were just in the way.

A couple of weekends of tinkering and discovering, pairing things down, and then a bit of follow-up time, consulting with publisher Laura Stanfill and writer Jackie Shannon Hollis on little things like the placement of the blurb, and we had our cover.

Interestingly, to me this new cover feels kind of effortless whereas the earlier cover felt... beautiful but full of effort, somehow. As if, looking at the design, you can see all the work it took to fashion that flower from words, how difficult it was to create matching petals out of words of such different sizes. Aunt. Counselor. Friend.

I learn something every time I design a book cover. (I probably learn some of the same things over and over, but that's my brain.) What I learned with This Particular Happiness is to remember you don't always have to be super literal. All those words, those bits of information I was squeezing into that flower. And the time I labored to get those clasped hands right. Sometimes, what you need is simply the right tone, the right mood. The right feel.

When I look at the early attempts at this current cover design, with the subtitle written across the arms (the only thing that came from my first bit of inspiration) I see a heaviness in the bottom half. The top half feels light, alive. Once I got out of my own way and let the piece feel right, I knew I'd done my job.

This Particular Happiness launches this fall. More info is here.

Here's a tiny taste:

She was in the kitchen and I burst out my news. Her eyes went big. She moved in toward me, already shaking her head. “Oh no,” she said. Her voice was fierce. “That’s not ladylike. Girls are supposed to let the boys win. Make them feel strong. Otherwise they won’t like you.” 

I’d always felt close to her when she taught us things about being a lady, how to sit with our ankles crossed and our hands folded in our laps, how to say please and thank you and always offer to help with the dishes when we were guests, how to squat, not bend, when wearing a dress. But this didn’t make any sense. To pretend would be a lie. Wasn’t being strong part of being a lady too?

The Breath of Life at Portland Center Stage

On Friday night, Stephen and I saw one of two previews for Portland Center Stage's production of The Breath of Life. The play, by David Hare, imagines two women who spend 24 hours together in a house on the Isle of Wight. The kicker is that they are the wife and mistress of one man, who has now left both for a younger woman.

The cast of two is Julia Brothers as Frances Beale, the wife, and Portland favorite Gretchen Corbett as Madeleine Palmer, the mistress—both really great actresses who deliver heart and humor in equal doses. There's an odd steadiness to Hare's play—plenty of tension throughout but it doesn't seem to rise and fall. But the dialogue snaps and the humor is wicked and witty. We laughed a lot.

Friday night was also a really interesting example of the old adage the show must go on. Just before the date of the play's original preview (only one week back), the actress originally set to play Frances had to drop out. I can't imagine what a crazy scramble it must have been to recast such an essential part at the very last minute.

It was so last minute that Brothers, the new Frances, had a script on stage with her during the show. Sometimes she just held it, sometimes she referred to it as she delivered her lines. You'd think this would be a distraction. Well, it was, but not an annoying distraction. On the contrary, it was fascinating. It felt like a privilege to get this behind-the-scenes-in-front-of-the-scenes glimpse of theater.

I wondered: how much did she really need that script? When she referred to it, was it mostly a bit of a safety net, or was she really in the process of still memorizing her lines? If she didn't have it, how much would she be able to recite? After the Friday night show (which was a preview night, for the press and maybe donors, etc.), would she be casting the script aside and performing the Saturday preview (her last before the regular run began) without a net?

It was hard to tell, because she was so darn good. She delivered her lines beautifully, moved across the stage, used plenty of body language, all of it seeming very, very real, while holding that script in her hand. At times she had to navigate props with it. Transfer the booklet to this hand while this other hand reached and poured the cup of tea. Little things like that kind of fascinated me. One object was inside the play, one object was not. It was like watching someone half in one dimension and half in another.

(Pictures sans script, of course.)

I kept thinking, how does an actor so fully inhabit a role, so beautifully become someone else in some made-up situation, how does she make that real while holding the script, the evidence of the fiction, in her hand? How does she keep from having that distract her from being completely immersed in the scene? And how does she come out on stage after a last minute change like this, not yet even having her lines completely committed to memory, and fit into the production so well?

My hat's off to Julia Brothers, and to Gretchen Corbett who had to switch gears to work with the timing, the delivery, the physical presence of a completely new costar. And to Portland Center Stage for deftly rolling with the punches and delivering yet another aspect of theater magic—the quick change—with finesse and expertise.

Loved the set. It was beautifully elaborate in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio.

The Breath of Life runs now through June 16. More info is here.

Photos by Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Poster art by Mikey Mann.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


When I was a kid, I had a baby doll. Her name was Lucy Barker.

She was named after my mom's first and middle names (from before Mom married Dad and got a maiden name to replace the middle).

I also had a second baby doll. She was smaller and had a beanbag body and a plastic head.

Her name was Little Lucy Barker.

I wish I could claim to have named both. As a kid, I remember I was proud to have two dolls named after my mother, who was, as you must know, the Very Best Human in the World.

It was my dad who suggested those names. He was also the biggest pet namer in the family. When we got two kittens he named them too:

Two-Lu and Tre-Lu.

I swear he didn't always name everything after my mom, but like with the dolls, I loved that the kitties were named after her. The way Dad named things, it felt like the perfect expression of love: simple and funny and joyful.

I never did have any kids to name anything, but I'd like to think if I were mulling names, my dad would say, hey, I've got a suggestion.

We kids, as young adults, used to laugh about how we often called my parents' home "Mom's house." Sometimes mothers get all the accolades. In 2001 I stayed there for Christmas, and I learned that my two-year-old then-nephew Maxx (now Amy) called it, "Lulu's house."

I said, "Maxx, where does Pops live?"

Expecting the answer to be Lulu's house.

"In the office."

Thursday, May 9, 2019

a moment in the day: o'donnell, stephen o'donnell

We're in the car, running errands after a wonderful lit event at the college, and our heads are full of appreciation for art and literature, and we're talking about... James Bond.

"Have I ever seen a James Bond movie?" I ask, though I know he doesn't know the answer. "Have you?"

He tells me about one time when he was a kid and his dad took him to see... oh, which one? (he looks up at the roof of the car, thinking)... oh, it was You Only Die Twice. He tries to sing me the theme song.

"I think maybe I did see a James Bond movie!" I say. "It was the one... Who was in it? Wait, maybe it was a Batman movie. They're always getting new Batmen like they're always getting new James Bonds. Yeah. I think it was a Batman movie."

"James Bond isn't my kind of thing," Stephen says. "And the men were never sexy. Although they were supposed to be."

I wonder if the same is true for Batmen.

"And the women," he says. "They're supposed to be sexy; that's really all they're supposed to be in those movies. I never found that kind of woman sexy."

"What kind of woman?" I ask.

"The sexy kind."

Saturday, April 20, 2019

a moment in the day: egg

I'm just up from bed on a Saturday morning, oversized t-shirt and pillow hair. We're in the dining room talking about the grocery store, how he's going to go. As he takes a step toward me, I'm taking a step or two away and saying, "I'll think if I need anything."

"Hey, I was just coming to hug you," he says.

I turn back, "You were?" And he comes over and folds me in warm.

I can't think of anything I said that was particularly wonderful. I say, "To what do I owe this?"

"Nothing," he says. "I like you. You're a good egg."

Tiny everyday moments like these are everything.

I rub my hand down his back. "You're an egg too."

"Just an egg?"

"A good one."

Friday, April 19, 2019

Book Cover: This Never Happened

When I was contracted by University of Hell Press to design the book cover for Liz Scott's memoir This Never Happened, I was equal parts thrilled and freaked out. As a member of Liz' writing group, I knew every essay intimately, and let me just admit: I'd been having a love affair with this book for years.

It is so good. It is so good.

I remember one evening in group when Liz got to the end of reading a piece and we were about to launch into the critique, and I tried to say, "Wait, can you read [such and such a passage] again," but mostly just burst into tears.

This Never Happened is heartbreaking but also darkly hilarious, a memoir in gorgeous little fragments—which is such a perfect structure as so much of the story of her (totally bananas) family/background is shrouded in mystery. When I went to her house to talk about the book cover, she brought out a very small hoard of old photographs and papers to look through. Peeking through these remnants was like reading through the fragments of her life in the book.

So I started by tinkering with a scatter of these fragments, seeing where I might lay out, in the middle of the chaos, the elements of title, author, "a memoir." Finding placement for the Hell Press logo that the publisher generally places on its book covers.

There were photos but also old papers: job applications, notes, strange letters-to-the-editor that gave so much insight into her father's fascinating character. A lot of which are reproduced in the book.

She had this sweet, little mini photo album that intrigued me so I altered it with her name and book title for a sample or two. I was kind of proud of that.

But as I worked, I started to zero in on one particular picture. The photo is of a baby Liz with her (complicated, narcissistic) mother and her (complicated, mostly-absent) father. In the middle, Liz looks... a little shell-shocked to be there. Maybe a little... what's the word I'm looking for? What's that expression that's a combo of wisdom and wtf?

To me, she looks like she's saying to you: honey, you don't even know.

That picture seemed so apropos of the tone and content of the book. So I started to focus on how I could use the portrait front and center. First, I photoshopped it so that it would look like one of those old colorized photos.

And in the end, when I sent a bunch of my tinkerings to Liz and the folks at U Hell, they chose the below. Baby Liz peeking up from the lower right corner and most of the faces of both parents hidden, speaking to the many unknowns in Liz' history and, to me, the personal distance and the longing that Liz endured through her very particular story.

What else comes from all that Liz endured? Well, in her case: a woman full of wit, intelligence, wisdom, integrity, and personal strength. And one hell of a book. I hope I've done it justice.

Here's a taste:

My mother says, “Now’s the time to ask. If you have any questions, now’s the time.” She waits till her deathbed to say this and it’s hard to find the right adjective to describe this feeling, how it might be possible finally, after all this time, to get some answers to the mysteries of my family. Thrilling, shocking, flabbergasting, mind-bending, Jesus-fucking-christ. It’s been years—decades really—worrying this puzzle, this frustrating, vexing, bring-me-to-my-knees puzzle. What I know: I have a mother and a father. I have a sister. But that’s hardly enough to construct even the outside border, let alone begin to fill in the picture.

Once when I was young I asked my mother if she had any brothers or sisters. “I don't remember.” That was her answer and somehow, in our family, that passes for an acceptable, reasonable answer. What must be going on in a family where you just leave it at that? And then to boot, when my sister and I are already well into our adulthood—surprise! You’re a Jew!

Now’s the time to ask questions? Okay, Who am I? Where did I come from? How did you both—mother and father—get to be such fucking whack jobs, bless your hearts, but really.

I’ve come to believe that all of this—the facts about your ancestors, the truth about your family story, the reliable connections—are what create ballast in a life. With little to anchor me to earth, I’ve been in one long free float trying to forge some mooring in various, ill-conceived ways with only modest success. Because really, before you clearly know what you’re after, it’s all mostly flailing. I’m fast approaching my eighth decade now and I imagine this is what happens when time starts to run out. The need to make sense gets stronger and more urgent. If there are answers out there, I want them. If there is sense to be made, let me make it. And while we are at it, do let me forgive.


You can buy This Never Happened in many places, but my favorite is here.

Liz' book launch will be this coming Tuesday, April 23rd at Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. More info on that is here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

a moment in the day: après l'école

Finished with his first French class of the quarter, Stephen quietly sings a song in French under his breath. He tells me about one of the other students, a guy who's married to a French woman.

"They're making plans to move to France."

"Ooh!" I say. But I don't say, la la.

"They're going to get there and just wander the countryside looking for the perfect place to settle down," he says.

"Must be nice," I say.

"I know," he tweaks his eyebrows at how unfair it all is. "Why couldn't you be French?" he asks.

"Technically I'm French," I say.

"Yeah," he says, "but not in a way that's useful."

Friday, April 12, 2019

a moment in the day: twenty-one

I'm driving home after work, start and stop traffic down Burnside street. On the news, they talk about some place in Alaska where, usually this time of year, they can drive across this road made of ice, but the globe is warming and the ice is melting earlier and people fall through the ice and die.

The whole day seemed to have gone by in two or three hours. That's what time does, now. It was just New Year's and already it's April. At work that means it's time to start planning for the holidays, and I spent a large portion of the day emailing people and setting up meetings about things like Christmas decorations.

A red light turns to green and my car moves forward. On the news they talk about rain and the river and where, in and around Portland, are the biggest chances for flooding. I try to remember little moments in the day. Email, email, email. I remember when a coworker said to another: ever since I moved to Portland, every time I bought an umbrella—every time!—I would leave it on the bus. I like to try to write down moments from the day. Sometimes I even turn them into little posts for my blog. Like if I could focus on every small moment, it could make life stop speeding away so fast.

When I was a kid, life was eternity. Waiting for Christmas lasted forever. In my thirties, I spent an inordinate amount of time playing the game that I could actually slow time if I paid better attention to it. I paid attention and paid attention, but then I was forty and then I was almost fifty.

I ease the car onto Burnside Bridge. Doing what I always do when I drive out onto this slab of concrete suspended over space: pretend not to think about earthquakes. Traffic stops, starts, stops again. Stops completely. I wait. Pay attention. Look down over the Willamette River, take my eyes across the shoreline, the tiny people walking along the edge, try to look for someone walking a dog.

The water is so high. On the news they talk about North Korea and say words like "missile."

When they do that, all I want to do is eat all the pizzas in the world. Eat pizza and cheese and noodles, eat it all before it's too late.

Traffic starts up again. Everything moves forward.

It's twenty-one years, today, since my grandfather left this world. Twenty-one years.

It's April, and it's already almost Christmas.

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/ 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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

a moment in the day: wheels

I pull up to the curb and sit a minute, listening. I rarely listen to music on my commute to work, but today I impulsively grabbed a John Lennon CD, and now I’m just sitting here listening to the wheels go round and round, and I don’t want to turn it off. But I got a late start and I should go in.

Listening to John Lennon makes me feel my childhood in a very visceral way. It makes my body feel weekend trips to the lake, feel myself lying in bed at night unable to go to sleep until I reach the end of the Beatles tape I’m listening to… that one vivid memory I have of riding to the dentist with Mom behind the wheel of the van, and Lennon singing, nobody told me there’d be days like these. Strange days, indeed. Most peculiar, Mama.

I have only a memory of a memory of a memory of the day he died. My mom on the phone crying. Talking to my aunt Kathy. I wasn’t even at my peak personal Beatlemania yet when that happened. With as obsessed as I was, as a kid, with all things John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I know that part of that obsession was my wanting to love everything my mom loved.

I turn off the car, grab my bags. Cross the street in a rain so fine it’s like walking through a memory of rain.

There's a heaviness under my ribcage.

My childhood is so far away.

It’s strange to think that I am so much older than he would ever be.

Open the door to the office and walk down the hall to the time clock. Punch my numbers in, in the tiny rhythm I always do.

Shave and a haircut. Two bits.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

a moment in the day: knife

I open the front door, dog in one arm, in time for Stephen, just home from work and the store, to head up the walk toward me with his grocery bag. As he reaches the steps to the porch, he glances down at the little pocket knife sitting on our top step.

That thing has been sitting there for two weeks. We came home one night after the theater and found it sitting there. It's kind of creepy to find a pocket knife on your step. You try to pretend a friend lost it or it belongs to your postman who keeps it on his key chain in case of mail emergencies, but it seems more likely that a thief tried to jimmy the lock and got scared off, leaving his tool of trade behind.

Two weeks, and neither Stephen nor I has moved the pocket knife. I don't know why. Part of it for me might be that it feels like a tiny, evil thing that I wouldn't want to touch. That thief's tool of trade. It's not like it's diseased. But I don't know what I'd do with it if I did pick it up. It's not like I'd want to use it since it's not mine. And I don't like throwing things away.

Part of it is that it feels fitting sitting there, this tiny, evil thing. After the tiny, evil start to our year, with Stephen's middle-of-the-night fall out of bed and then the ER and then Urgent Care and then my mammogram and my followup mammogram and my followup biopsy - just too many trips to the doctor and too many worries in too short a time for us both.

And part of it is that it's become familiar, this thing I always see. The other day I came up the steps and didn't see it. For a second, my brain felt disappointed and then I noticed it was still there, just off to the left a bit, lying perpendicular to the porch instead of slanty. I wondered how it got moved.  I felt possessive of it: Who moved my tiny, evil pocket knife?

Sometimes I wonder if Stephen just doesn't notice it. I mean, we both saw it that first night but maybe he's just forgotten about it and hasn't noticed it since. It's very small. But he notices everything. How can you not notice a knife sitting on your porch step? Maybe he notices it and leaves it there like me. But if so, why? It seems so unlike him, not to tidy something up.

Now, grocery bag on one arm, he clearly notices it. He takes a step up, toward it.

I'm afraid he'll pick it up and this will all be over.

With one foot, he gives a nudge to the pocket knife.

Just one nudge.

"It should be slanty," he tells me.

He hefts the grocery bag up the last step to the porch and follows me through the door.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

a moment in the day: the difference between us

Just about ready to leave for work, Stephen asks, "Do you have any fives? Can you make change for a twenty?"

I grab my bag and start hunting around. "I don't know. I know I gave Doug three fives on Thursday. Ooh!"

I pull one out.

I hunt some more. A one. A ten. A receipt.

Past the checkbook, past the folded up directions to somewhere I probably don't need to go again.


I pull one out.

A chapstick. Another chapstick.

A two dollar bill that I'll never spend because two dollar bills are cool.

Past my one set of sunglasses. Past my second set of sunglasses that looks exactly like the first set of sunglasses that I thought I'd lost once but hadn't.

"Oh, hey!"

I pull one out.

Past old, used theater tickets, an old, used airline ticket, doggy poop bags, another receipt, a gift card that might have some money on it, an old packaged tiny biscotti from an airplane that I just might need if I ever get trapped on an elevator.

A one.

A one.

A one.

A one.

And down at the very bottom:


I pull it out and add it to the pile.

Stephen grins and pulls out his wallet. "Excellent! OK, here. Wait." He leafs through bills in the wallet. Finds the twenty.

"It was filed in the wrong place," he says.

He hands me the bill. I take it. I feign distress. "It was filed in the wrong place?" I say.

I look into the bottomless pit of my bag and toss the twenty in.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Buyer and Cellar at Portland Center Stage

It's interesting, the things people choose when creating fantasy worlds in their basements. I mean people who have the money to create fantasy worlds in their basements. I mean Barbra Streisand.

I mean, if I had the money, I'd go for Rome circa 125 CE. Or Egypt circa 1345 BCE. Or, OH, OH - I'd make it the inside of a spaceship as seen through the eyes of the early twentieth century with thousands of blinking lights and one of those—

But anyway, I think the last thing I'd make is a shopping mall.

Still. The very true fact that Barbra Streisand has a life-sized replica of a mall in her basement makes for great theater. Buyer and Cellar, which we saw Friday night at Portland Center Stage, is the story of an out of work actor, not long from being summarily fired from his latest gig playing a character at... Disneyland, who receives the very strange offer of performing as the singular on-hand shopkeep of all the shops in Barbra Streisand's basement. He dusts her many collections displayed in the shops, serves frozen yogurt, even performs sales exchanges (complete with haggling) with the star over her own merchandise.

This show is totally weird, wildly inventive, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Full disclosure, Stephen and I are big Streisand fans. Stephen is hugely so (pre-1980s Barbra, specifically). As we sat in the theater before the play started, Streisand music piped in around us, he said, "If they'd play this louder, I could sing along, and if I sang along, I bet everyone would sing along."

I'd been worried Buyer and Cellar would be a musical. I can be quite a stickler where musicals are concerned, and I wasn't sure I could condone a guy giving us his life's story while crooning covers of "Evergreen" and "Papa, Can You Hear Me." But it isn't that at all. It's a charming and hilarious one-man show about ambition and the ways we create fantasies of our lives - with a sweet love story to boot.

The writing is fantastic, but what it takes to pull off this show is a really great actor. He has to stay "on" for a seventy-miles-an-hour one-hundred-minute ride with no intermission, playing four different parts (including narrator Alex, and of course Streisand, herself) (oh, and a quick cameo by Oprah, so five), has to play those parts with energy and subtlety, has to charm the pants off the audience and make them laugh for most of those one hundred minutes—and Nick Cearley did all that.

I can see this role being irritating if performed by a less experienced actor, but Cearley has beautiful timing and perfect nerdy lovability (I remember him as a great Seymour in PCS's production of Little Shop of Horrors a couple years back.). He has lots of energy but it's not over the top. As he spins his outrageous story, his face, and at times his whole body, comment on its ridiculousness with wonderful little asides. There's a great sequence where he dances while he tells his story, and every move is the elegant and perfect pairing for the words he speaks and the mood he wants to create. In dialogue, he's able to switch back and forth between characters beautifully. Conversations between Alex and his spirited boyfriend Barry in particular are absolutely seamless.

The framework for this play is a book Streisand wrote called My Passion for Design, all about the design of her home, the design and decorating of all the rooms, her gardens, her many collections. I was struck, watching the play, by the way design can mean more than just creating the look and feel of an object or a space. And by the way so many of us work so hard to design our own selves.

I was thinking, too, about the title Buyer and Cellar. How important is the idea of buying and selling to the big picture of the play? Did the author focus on this in the show's title solely for the pun on the word cellar? Or is it more? Interestingly, though the story is told from the point of view of Alex, he's not the buyer, he's the shopkeep, the seller. Barbra, haggling over price on an antique doll that's technically already hers, is the buyer. And the weird thing for me in the title is that this means Alex doesn't get mentioned at all. It's buyer (Barbra) and cellar (also implying Barbra). Or is he the buyer, too? What is he buying, with his time and his effort? A brush with celebrity? A brush with fantasy? A brush with the existential truth that we all, as humans—

Oh, sorry. I nerded out a little just now. But then again, why not? Buyer and Cellar celebrates the best of nerdiness, along with being deceptively smart, giving you lots of think about after you're done laughing your head off and go home to your apartment or your house with its very, very regular basement.


Buyer and Cellar is playing now through March 3rd in the lovely Ellyn Bye Studio (Hey, that's below ground, too! That's like having a theater in your theater's basement!) at Portland Center Stage. More information is here.

Photos by Patrick Weishampel/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Publicity poster art by Mikey Mann

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

random moments from my bus ride

A woman sits down next to me. She smells good. That's a weird thing to say, but more often than not, the smells on the bus are not good, so this makes me very happy. I think it’s the coffee she’s sipping. Something warm and sweet.

It's dark out. I read Amy Hempel. Every time the bus stops, the lights are white, and when it starts up driving again, they settle into a deep mauve on my pages.

I make a little wish that the woman with the coffee that smells good stays sitting next to me as long as possible. I wonder if people ever make friends on buses, like just start talking and the next thing you know, they’re friends forever. I don’t know what people would say to start conversations on buses. You can’t just say to another woman, “I’m glad you smell good.” 

The sun starts to come up. We drive over the bridge and everything is a shade of stonewashed denim.

When the bus empties out more, she moves across the aisle to the other side. I'm a little sad to lose the warm, sweet scent, but I'm sure she's happy to have the chance to sit by herself. Almost immediately, a man entering the bus goes and sits next to her.

A conversation behind me between a boy and probably his mother, boy first:

“Look at that sculpture of pigs!”

“I see!”

“Look at the baby one.”

“I was just noticing that.”

“They call a baby pig a piglet. That’s how they got the idea of Winnie-the-Pooh. They thought of a baby pig and made up Piglet.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“They started with an idea. Next they started by drawing. They made a lot of drawings. And then they made it into a movie. And next they promoted it. So people would want to go see it. And now we have that movie! Pigs sometimes give people ideas.”
“That’s true.”

“Not always, but sometimes they give people ideas.”

Another woman sits down next to me. Luckily, she doesn't smell bad either. Whatever it is reminds me of Irish Spring soap.

As we get close to my work, I start to look for any of the few coworkers who sometimes take this bus. The only one I really know is on vacation. There’s a woman who rides with a man who may be her husband, and he always walks with her to the door of our work and then turns around and leaves and I think he gets back on the bus going the other way. Today, I see him come from the back of the bus, by himself. As he steps down the aisle, I notice the woman sitting up in the very front of the bus, on one of those sideways benches. They don’t say anything to each other. She stands and joins him to wait for the bus to stop.

They get out in front and I get out in back. I forget to thank the bus driver and then when I come up to the open front door I think maybe I’ll shout thank you through it, but I chicken out.

In the gravel of the sidewalk just about at the intersection, a railroad crossing sign is lying face-up. Undoubtedly the sign is two-sided, so it's also lying face-down.

As I cross the street, a novelty car or boat horn plays the first twelve notes of the song "Dixie." The horn says, Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sense and Sensibility at Portland Center Stage

I'd just had a medical test and was awaiting results, expected Thursday. I also had theater tickets for Friday. I thought, if it's bad news, will I go to the theater? Will I throw a little carpe diem on my disappointment, force a little eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die? I thought, no, I'd probably rather stay home and cry.

Oh my god, I am so glad I don't have cancer because Portland Center Stage's Sense and Sensibility is
the most delightful thing I've seen in a very long time.

I feel a little at a loss, writing about this, because to give you a sense (oops, no pun intended) of why you need to go see this play right now, I'd need to spill some details that were just so lovely to be surprised by. Let me say that it's an evening of beautiful stage magic. Brilliant stage magic. You know that thing where the characters are sitting on chairs and miming being in a car and they sway their bodies to show the car careening here and there? It was that stuff but perfected to the fourth power and used so cleverly that I laughed with delight all the way through (a couple times loudly enough to embarrass myself) at how smart it all was.

Alright, just to give you a sense (oh, lord, I did it again): Chairs with people sitting in them are skated around on stage so that it's like you're watching a film and the camera is moving. Disconnected pieces of scenery are moved and rearranged to form different settings. At one point - but, no, no, I'm not going to say more. The details are so masterful that you just have to experience it in person.

Whose idea was all that stage magic? Was it Kate Hamill, who adapted Jane Austen's classic novel? Was it Eric Tucker, who directed? Who was responsible for the intricate coordination of all that magic, a coordination that was so perfectly executed it seemed like a dance? Certainly credit has to also go to lighting director Sarah Hughey, who further refined the magic, particularly in a couple dreamy sequences that, for me, were dramatic high points of the show.

And the cast did a beautiful job, playing their (often multifold) characters and being moving (often careening) parts in the execution of that stage magic. Stars Danea C. Osseni and Quinlan Fitzgerald were great as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two sisters navigating love and representing sense and sensibility respectively. I also particularly liked Lisa Birnbaum as their mother, Mrs. Dashwood. Longtime Portland favorite Darius Pierce was great in a handful of turns including a fabulously deadpan... horse.

And a big standout for me was Lauren Modica as the gossipy wishful matchmaker Mrs. Jennings, who had crack comic timing and brought down the house with one particular outrageous and funny monologue.

With this great cast and the smart, funny but reverent adaptation of Jane Austin's novel and the whirlwind of stage magic that did exactly what stage magic should do (including retreating when things got serious), and which beautifully underscored the artifice of civil society that Austin was so adept at putting on the page, Portland Center Stage's Sense and Sensibility was, for me, exactly the perfect thing to celebrate getting good news.

But if you got bad news? Seriously. Go see it anyway.

Spoiler/not spoiler: my very favorite moment, which you'll get if you go see this show, is the moment with the teacup.


Sense and Sensibility is playing now through February 10th at the Portland Center Stage Armory Theater. More information is here.

Photos by Patrick Weishampel/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

an incomplete list of the ways he made me feel better during the three days between the second (and way ouchier) mammogram and the biopsy

He suggested we watch a movie and I eat a whole pizza.

He insisted he go with me for the biopsy even though I'd made the appointment for eight in the morning and he's not a morning person.

He said I get to pick all the movies we watched that weekend even if I wanted to watch cheesy Eighties adventure films.

He told me he knew it would be okay.

He said, "If it makes you feel better, I loved you back when you didn't have any boobs at all."

He put pizza on the shopping list and circled it like it was really, really important.

[If you know me, you know pizza is really, really important.]

On the night before, he rubbed my head and ran his fingers through my hair until I fell asleep.

He went to the store and came back with three pizzas.

Friday, January 18, 2019

a moment in the day: bip

It's the night before the bipsy.

That's a typo. It's a biopsy.

Bipsy makes it feel so, so, so, so much funner.

It's the night before the biopsy, and I'm sitting at the computer working on some graphic design stuff.

I've been trying to make drops of water out of nothing. Out of pixels and vectors or whatever magical things make pictures on computers where there were no pictures before. I have all these layers on top of each other and they come together to form what looks like a drop of water. Kind of. A drop of water in extreme. A drop of water in relief. A drop of water that is just a little bit too much a drop of water, and therefore not enough a drop of water at all.

The issue's not the over-bright blue color. That's on purpose for the background I'm going to set it against. It's just that it's not finished yet. I start mulling next steps. Maybe I need to take it into Photoshop and put a bit of a blur on it in selective spots.

Maybe I need to lay a thin, transparent layer of blue on top. Or start washing in a color counterpoint, a dab of yellow or a bit of purple.

Maybe I need to do a little erasing to the pointy top of that drop of water that's just a little bit too much a drop of water.

And then I remember. It's the night before the bipsy, the so, so, so much funner bipsy, and I haven't been thinking about it for five full minutes.

And you know what's weird? There's part of me that feels uncomfortable about that. Like I should be thinking about it. Like, oh no!, I forgot to think about the very important thing!

That's what this day is like. That's what a lot of my life has been like, if I'm honest. I'm either worried or I'm worried about not having been worried about the very important thing. But what is actually a very important thing is that for five full minutes I've been thinking about a drop of water and nothing else at all.