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?