27 December 2007

Merry Such and Such!


Back in Chicago after a whirlwind tour of central New Mexico and south central Wisconsin. Highlights include green chile dip and chips in New Mexico (midwestern comfort food is not nearly as comforting) and Rapture Mints in Wisconsin (for those of us left behind!) as well as smooches from FOURTEEN different pooches in the last eight days. (Including -- but not limited to -- four month old puppies a former student was driving around in a truck; a rescue dog with the exact same personality as Boo Radley, but without the opposable thumb necessary to stab anyone in the leg with a scissors; and a naughty freight train of a dog who barreled into my arm so hard that the next day I had a wide blue armband of a bruise that looked just like a tattoo and made me wonder whether I'd gotten a tattoo the night before, and if so, just how much had I drunk?)

Of course I also saw many of my favorite people in the world, including the woman who took my place at my old school and who "is so much like you that we don't even miss you, Molly!" (Thanks, I guess...!) and my friend Lisa who turns into the Pet Psychic when she drinks, and Rory who laughed at me when I punched him in the arm because it was such a pathetic punch ("You got SOFT!"), and my seeeester who has officially survived six months of living in Portland and who now hates hipsters with the wrath of all hellfire, and of course the Best Baby in the World, Miss Elodie Bean, who now says a number of words, most of which mean something along the lines of "Have you noticed that I am clearly the greatest baby who ever lived?" And yes, Elodie, we have.

Tonight my other favorite person in the universe, my partner in crime for nearly ten years, my college roommate who even when she didn't technically live with me often stayed the night just so we didn't have to stop giggling, the co-pilot of so many of my misadventures, the divine Miss Ali Brown, arrives for a week of hijinks and hilarity. Turkeys of Wisconsin beware.

17 December 2007

Oh! The Crazies You'll Meet!

One thing that I really love about living in Chicago is the wide range of humanity with which I interact every day. Albuquerque was a car culture, so I only really dealt with strangers by screaming obscenities at them on the freeway. Sometimes I’d share a moment with a stranger at the Walgreens or the gas station, but generally I interacted with so few strangers that even the crazy dude on the corner who wrote novels on pieces of cardboard and then stood them against a tree (“Hemingway,” we called him) started to feel like family.

In Chicago, I get to interact with tons of strangers every day, on the streets, in the stores, on the CTA. (I especially love the man who stands at the corner of Daley Plaza with a giant sign that says “FBI STOP RAPING MY WIFE!”) Stranger watching has become a particular hobby of mine here, and nowhere is better for stranger watching than the morning bus ride.

This morning the bus was crowded and there were only three seats available. One, next to a giant sleeping dude who was taking up most of two seats, so really it was only like 1/8th of a seat. One was next to a snaggle-toothed old woman carrying two garbage bags full of cans. From experience, I know that she tends to be stinky. The third was next to a man reading. I chose him.

I made my way slowly down the aisle, settling myself carefully next to Reader Man, holding my purse on my lap.

Reader Man stared at me for two solid minutes.

I stared straight ahead, trying to pretend that I couldn’t feel his laser eyes on the side of my face. He stared, and I sighed and shifted my purse on my lap. “What a great morning!” I pretended to think. “Wow, I am so completely pleased with my life and comfortable with myself that I don’t even notice the dude staring at the side of my face!”

The light changed, the bus rumbled forward, and Reader Man finally stopped staring at me and went back to his book.

He read out loud.

At first, I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, under the noise of the bus and the high school kids sitting behind me punching each other and joking about Ben Bernanke and sub-prime mortgages and predatory lending practices (actually, they were just calling each other fags, but a girl can dream). After a moment, though, the ambient noise settled and Reader Man’s voice came through.

“She stepped onto the bus,” he read, “and walked down the aisle. There weren’t many seats, so she took the first one available and sat gingerly on the edge of the seat.”

UM, WHAT? Reader Man’s novel sounded suspiciously familiar. I stared straight ahead, pretending not to listen. Pretending to think about puppies and happiness! I’m not listening to your crazy narrate-the-story-of-my-life novel, Reader Man!

“She set her purse on her lap and held onto it tightly.”

All right. This was weird. This was not okay. I started to think about Sarah Aswell’s Campaign Against Creeps on public transportation. Maybe I should say something? Maybe I should confront him, like “HEY. IT IS NOT OKAY TO NARRATE THE EVENTS OF MY LIFE IN A CREEPY WAY, DUDE.” I could be assertive. I could go there.

But then I thought about the bus ride last week, where I spent like ten blocks worrying about the guy behind me who was poking me in the back – was he trying to bug me? Hurt me? Flirt with me? Did he have a back fetish? A wool-coat-hood fetish? Should I turn around and confront him? – until I finally figured out that it was a freaking umbrella sticking out of the side of someone’s briefcase.

I thought, okay, Backes, you maybe have the sliiiiiightest tendency to overreact. Reader Man’s probably just enjoying a quality piece of literature that coincidentally reflects exactly what’s happening in your life right now.

“She was nervous. She had never ridden on a bus before.”

“Yes I have!” I thought indignantly.

The bus stopped at another light, and Reader Man turned to stare at the side of my face again. I clutched my purse more tightly and tried to think about puppies. When he started reading again, his story was lost under the teenaged boys hilariously monologuing about the Greenspan years (“Fag!” “You are!”).

When I began to make out Reader Man’s narrative once more, the story seemed to have changed. “Michelle looked around the great marble hall. This should be no problem! But where were the triplets?”

See, I told myself, Reader Man isn’t telling the Story of Molly Backes Going To Work at all! He’s reading an actual book, with actual characters. Just like the umbrella thing. No problem.

“‘Michelle!’ said Stephanie, ‘Where did those triplets go?’”

Wait – Michelle? Stephanie? Now I was the one staring at Reader Man. Or rather, at his book. What the hell was he reading?

The bus went around a corner, and Reader Man shifted his book slightly, just enough for me to catch the title at the top of the page. Full House Sisters! Babysitters & Company.

Reader Man wasn't reading the story of my life, he was reading a novelized version of that cheesiest of sitcoms, Full House. I swear to god.

And that is why I love living in Chicago.

14 December 2007

On the Day of the Bank Robbery

It begins as any morning. You walk into the building grateful for the warmth against your frozen skin, get a cup of coffee and make desultory conversation with your sleepy co-workers. It’s Friday. Everyone’s slow to get going.

The bank opens and people stroll in, employees greeting you, customers focused on their own business. You stare out the windows, sleepy and daydreaming. A customer asks you for the daily rate sheets. You print one out, make small talk about the poor economy, smile. She leaves. You turn back to your desk, thinking about nothing much at all.

A moment later the security guard runs past you, swearing. He reaches for his gun, yelling back over his shoulder “Call the police!”

There is a long moment where nobody knows what has happened, and everything is silent. This moment is all you’ve heard it will be: the air seems thicker, somehow, charged, and the seconds pass like days.

Then the teller is crying, holding her hands up near her heart, palms out. “He robbed me,” she says. Her voice is barely more than a whisper, but everyone in the bank hears her.

Your body understands what’s happening before your mind does. The words mean nothing, but inside you, there is a great hollow rush of fear and shock. In one interminable second, you get flashes of other moments like this, all the times in your life you’ve felt violated and helpless and desperately vulnerable.

It is a terrible moment.

Someone springs into action, and time snaps back to normal. “Lock the doors! Write down everything you saw! Don’t talk to anyone!” Someone else makes a sign that says the bank is closed due to a power outage and hangs it on the door. Through the tall glass walls, you see a police officer run past the bank with a shining silver gun in his outstretched hands.

Someone else appears and ushers the teller away from her window, disappearing her into a back room. The doors are locked, the phones are turned off. The witnesses draw together in a hushed circle. The vice-president appears, breathless. “Don’t talk! Wait for the police!”

The tall windows collect flashing blue light as two squad cars fly past.

Another teller appears at the front door and someone lets her in. “What’s going on?” she asks. Everyone stares at her with wide eyes, unwilling to say the words. Finally someone mouths them to her. “Robbed,” say the lips.

People are posted at the doors and soon the building fills up with police. Some of them wear blue uniforms and heavy jackets. Some of them wear quilted plaid shirts and running shoes. All of them wear bullet-proof vests. You are grateful for their presence. They make you feel safe. You want more, you want a thousand officers in the room to protect you. You want the early morning’s distracted serenity back. You want to feel safe.

The security guard re-appears, panting. “He got away,” he huffs. “Goddamn him.” The police examine the security tapes, looking for a face. “Brown coat,” they tell each other. “Skull cap.” A man knocks on the front door. He has a friendly face. “I was in my car,” he says. “I saw him run past my car.” The police step out of the building and interview him.

The witnesses are separated, isolated, pulled to different rooms in the building. You are sent downstairs with the people who weren’t there, who were in the basement at the time, who hadn’t yet gotten to work. You gather around the table, whispering. Your co-workers listen to everything you can tell them. “I didn’t see anything,” you say.

An excitable old woman who works in the basement totters into the room. She wants to tell her story. “I didn’t even know!” she says. “What if someone had been hurt? What if someone had been shot?” She points at you. “You’re so pretty, he could have taken you hostage! You’re so lucky!” “Thanks,” you say. “That’s very comforting.” Everyone laughs uneasily.

You’re sent back upstairs while everyone else stays below. Alone at your desk, you watch a young police officer dust for prints on the revolving door. Another one roams the place with a giant camera, taking pictures of the scene, while a third talks on his cell phone behind you. Their numbers diminish slowly, but eventually you find yourself alone in the lobby of the bank with just one officer left guarding the door. The building is made of windows. You don’t feel safe.

Nobody can leave the bank, so they order pizza. Someone brings you a slice. You don’t know what happened to the teller. You ask if she was sent home for the day. “She’s gone,” someone says. They won’t say where.

The phone rings. You’re not allowed to say anything to anyone, so you let it ring.

People come to the front door and read the sign that says the bank is closed. They don’t understand. They bang on the glass until the police officer goes to the door and explains to them that the sign says the bank is closed because the bank is closed. They mutter and walk away. One woman asks, “Well, can I just come in for a minute?”

It is unclear how much money has been taken.

Finally, the last of the police presence leaves. The press begins to call, looking for an official statement. Your co-workers go back to their desks, and some of them try to work. The accounting department begins to count money. Nothing can come in or out of the bank until its holdings are accounted for, and so the bank stays closed, but they won’t let anyone leave.

The day drags on.

By mid-afternoon, everyone looks haggard. The excitement of the morning gives way to the aftermath of adrenaline and the weariness of confinement. The customers come to the door, read the sign, and bang on the door until someone goes to explain that the sign that says the bank is closed isn’t a joke or a lie. People call and ask if the bank was robbed, and you fumble for what to say. “No comment?” you offer. They know what you mean. It probably doesn’t matter, you think. The Sun-Times already knows.

The day drags on.

You wonder how the teller is doing. You see her hands again, held between her heart and the rest of the world. You wish you could tell her you saw her face in that moment, that you recognized the look of betrayal she wore. You want to tell her you were with her then, that she wasn’t alone.

You hope she’s okay, wherever she is.

13 December 2007

Christmas in Africa! and Other Songs

As I am lucky enough to work in a place that plays the Alvin & The Chipmunks Christmas Song at least once EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I think it's pretty understandable that I have come to loathe every song in the limited repertoire of popular holiday music. I especially hate "The Twelve Days of Christmas" because though we would never think of playing, say, "The Wheels on the Bus" or "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" or any other endlessly repetitive song in the workplace -- because it would KILL US -- we get to hear gleeful choruses belting out "FIVE GOOOOLDEN RINGS!!" several thousand times a day, and must still find a way to retain some facade of holiday cheer.

Knowing this, you will not take lightly my reccomendation of this video:

If somebody wanted to give me a really terrific, thoughtful, cheap present this year, they'd do similar arrangements of other 80s favorites, replacing key words with holiday vocabulary. "The Safety Dance," lends itself nicely to a song about reindeer: "We can fly if we want to / We can leave Santa behind..." Or how about Madonna: "Like a snowman / built for the very first time..."

I'm still working on my holiday version of "Thriller."

Seriously, anything's better than Alvin.

11 December 2007

Driving Us Crazy

At least once a week, I have this bus driver who likes to call out the streets as we approach them. “Halsted Halsted!” Sometimes he seems to be competing with the mechanical voice of the bus itself, which also calls out the streets as we approach them.

Bus Driver: ASH-land, Ash-land!!
Bus: Ashland. Transfer… to… Metra.

The bus driver’s voice is eager, persuasive: an old-timey circus vendor enticing you to pay the extra quarter to enter the tent of unimaginable wonders. He wants to sell you on each stop. The bus’s voice is stately and cool. The bus does not care where you get off.

Sometimes, in his eagerness to beat the bus at its own game, the bus driver actually calls out the name of the street a block or so away, just as we get to a stoplight. This morning, he got excited and started pimping Halsted when we were still two blocks away.

Driver: HAL-sted Halsted! Halsted Halsted!
Bus: Freemont.

The driver was far too intense for a sleepy, slushy Tuesday morning. Everyone else on the bus was fighting to stay awake. The bus driver seemed to be fighting for his life.

Bus: This. Is. Freemont.

Things were getting tense.

I started wondering if the bus driver was really trying to sell the big stops, or if he was actually just trying to mess with our minds. I imagined him getting farther and farther from reality:

Driver: Clark! Clark!
Bus: This is Lincoln.
Driver: CLARK!
Passenger: Um, isn’t this Lincoln?

The sad thing is that I know I would get confused. I’ve ridden this exact same route five times a week for five months, and yet if the bus driver started to yell out different streets as we approached my stop, I would start over-thinking it. Suddenly, it would be that moment on the SAT where you’re staring at a question that seems totally easy at first… but maybe that’s what they want you to think! Why would they put such an easy question on the SAT?....Unless it was to TRICK you? Is this the question that separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, mice from the motorcycles? Maybe only the truly discerning test-takers will see how completely easy this question is and realize it’s a TRICK and not be taken in by it!!

How far would my bus driver go? Even if we were clearly stopped at the exact spot on the sidewalk where I’ve stepped out of the bus nearly one hundred times, if the bus driver was yelling a different street name, I swear to god, I might not get off. I’d end up riding the bus up and down Armitage, on an endless lonely loop through the gray city.

Bus: Wolcott.
Bus Driver: Milwaukee, Milwaukee!
Passenger: Isn’t this Wol—
Bus Driver: Western and Damen!
Passenger: Sir, that was clearly Wolcott…
Other Passenger: Western and Damen run parallel to each other!
Bus: Damen…and… Armitage.
Bus Driver: Lake Shore Drive!
Passenger: All right….
Bus Driver: Sunset Boulevard! Champs d'Elysées!
Me: Oh my god… WHERE AM I??

Luckily, the driver usually seems to run out of steam as we approach my stop, and allows the bus to announce it for him. After four or five blocks of silence from him, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He’s not trying to mess with my mind, I told myself. He’s a good guy. He just really likes these streets! He wants his passengers to like them as much as he does! That’s why he’s trying to sell them so exuberantly. He’s just a friendly bus driver. He would never play mind games with his passengers just to further his own alternate reality.

Full of beneficence, I stepped to the front door at my stop.
“Have a nice day,” I said sincerely.
“You too!” said the bus driver. “HAVE A GREAT MONDAY!”

10 December 2007

The Highlight of My Weekend

Mark: (reading aloud) The most common English construction is the phrase "not to mention," as in "She is talented, not to mention rich." This construction is so common that it has lost much, if not all, of the device's rhetorical power. "Not to mention" no longer serves here as a device…

Me: (interrupting) It should say, ‘it has lost much of the device’s rhetorical power, not to mention its effectiveness.’

Mark: Should I change it?

Me: You can do that?

Mark: Communal knowledge, baby!

Me: (laughing) See, this is why I told my students not to use a wiki as a reference. You never know what asshole’s changing something just because it makes them laugh.

Mark: Okay, all done! ‘This construction is so common that it has lost much, if not all, of the device's rhetorical power, not to mention its effectiveness.’

All: Ha ha ha ha ha!!

We’re nerds.

07 December 2007

What Writing Can Learn From Improv

In my writing workshop, we spend a lot of time talking about some basic building blocks of fiction: setting, plot, character, conflict. Every single week during our discussion, at least once, I think, “Just like in improv!” It makes sense: long form improv, at its best, is just another form of storytelling, and the purpose of telling stories, in any format, is to tell the truth about what it means to be human.

Here are some of the things improv has taught me about writing fiction:

1. No talking heads.
One of the most common scenes you see in amateur improv involves a bunch of people standing on stage talking to one another. Turns out, this isn’t usually the most fascinating thing to watch (though of course there are exceptions: one of my favorite scenes of all time involved two women sitting in chairs, just talking – but you have to be very, very good to pull this kind of scene off), and when you’re just standing around, it’s easy to get stuck. In improv, the trick is to build your setting around you: instead of just standing and talking, start slicing that loaf of bread, or sanding the bottom of your canoe, or polishing your shoes, or flossing. Suddenly, you have a setting, which helps to develop character and further plot. Two guys standing around talking about their wives might be sort of interesting, but if they’re talking about their wives while they’re performing surgery, or while they’re robbing a bank, suddenly you have a whole new layer of insight into who these people are and what their relationship is with each other and with their wives. The same goes for writing. Often, when I find myself stuck in a scene, I think about where the character is and what she’s doing, and the setting helps me move the plot forward almost every time.

2. Don’t try to be funny, try to be true.
The best improvisers don’t spend too much time thinking about how to make a scene funny. Rather, they work to find the truth of the scene, knowing that telling the truth on stage is funnier than any shtick or joke. In writing (fiction, at least), if you set out to teach some moral or elicit some specific reaction from your audience, you’ll be apt come off as phony and contrived. If, however, you set out to tell the truth about a character, you’ll be much more likely to connect with and affect your reader.

3. Don’t talk about doing it… do it.
I really hate improv scenes where people stand around and talk about what they should do. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could rob a bank?” they ask each other. It’s improv! You CAN! You can do ANYTHING! It is far more interesting to watch people rob a bank than it is to watch them talk about doing it. This is why, in Ocean’s Eleven, the getting-ready-to-rob-a-bank part is a montage, and the robbing-a-bank part is scenes. I’m currently reading Madame Bovary, and it’s the same thing. Madame Bovary thinks about how she might cheat on her husband? BO-ring! Madame Bovary cheats on her husband? Fascinating.

4. Show us the day the shit hits the fan.
As an audience, we want to know why we’re seeing this particular scene. One of N’s teachers tells her class, “There are two kinds of scenes: ‘A Day in the Life of the Johnsons,’ and ‘The Day the Shit Hits the Fan at the Johnson’s.’ Guess which one is more interesting.” The day the shit hits the fan is the day that everyone’s characters will be tested, pushed, and will either rise to the challenge or crumble beneath the pressure. In improv, we want to see reactions, and growth. In a story, we want to see the character change in some way, even if it’s just a tiny, momentary epiphany. Ask yourself, “Why this day? Why tell this story now?” Even on the day the shit hits the fan, if your characters aren’t learning, growing, and changing – even if the change is a little teeny shift – your readers will be unsatisfied. Show us that moment of change.

5. Characters should have wants.
In every human interaction, each person wants something. Approval, acknowledgement, obedience, understanding, love, an admission of guilt, respect, revenge, sex…the list is endless. Often you have more than one want motivating you at any given time, and often you don’t fully realize all the petty and noble desires that drive you at any given time. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Onstage, knowing what your character wants can help you to react more honestly to everyone else on stage, and as we know, truth=funny. The same thing goes for writing. If your characters have strong wants and needs driving them, your scenes will be more complex and more interesting, especially when we get to see the ways your character reacts to the inevitable obstacles standing in his way.

We humans are endlessly fascinated by relationships. Bad improv – and bad writing – often makes the mistake of telling stories about stuff instead of about people. We don’t care about stuff, we care about human beings and how they relate to one another. Think about it: when people speculated on what would happen in the last Harry Potter book, they didn’t wonder what robes the Hogwarts kids would be wearing or what spells Harry would use against Voldemort, they wondered whether Ron and Hermione would get together and if Snape was really evil and how Harry would manage without Sirius and Dumbledore. In fiction, if you realize that you’re writing a scene without strong relationships… fix it. Strengthen the relationship by knowing what each of your characters wants. Remember, the best stories tell us some truth about what it means to be human, and we learn how to be human through our interactions with each other.

06 December 2007

Friendship Always Rings Twice

Yesterday I heard from two of my favorite people on this planet. (I have a lot of favorites, but these people are waaaayy up there. Even above Bobby McFerrin, but only because he never calls, he never writes….) Hearing from them both on the same day was a rare treat, and it made me think about friendship, and the way it changes over time, and what a gift it can be.

The first person I heard from yesterday is a freshman in high school, E. And she uses a lot of exclamation points! Because things are very exciting when you’re in 9th grade! She was a student of mine, and then she was my writing buddy, and I’m fairly certain she completely trounced me in Nano wordcount this year because she is awesome. Some people waste those precious years in high school when you’re old enough to be creative and do cool stuff, but young enough to have all your health insurance and pop-tarts funded by your parents (for instance, and this is completely hypothetical of course, but instead of doing something awesome and productive, you might use that rare window to, I don’t know, memorize every episode of Saved By the Bell… hypothetically). But! E and her friends aren’t wasting their window of health insurance and free breakfast pastries: they’re writing scripts! For a TV show! That they’ll post on youtube!

I love them.

This goes without saying (but that never stops me): the best part of teaching is the kids. Unfortunately, so much of the job is about anything but. Sometimes you feel incredibly lucky just to get ten minutes out of your day to actually talk with kids and listen to what they have to say. Last year, I was lucky enough to have E. in my room during my prep period, and in addition to helping me put up awesome bulletin boards and color “spirit signs” to liven up the hallways, I got to hear all about her life, which was nearly always far more interesting than my own. (Middle school = full of drama.) Also, I got to make her listen to my music, which is clearly why she now loves the Smashing Pumpkins. Little did she know that I was secretly infusing the deepest parts of her brain with a profound love for the wistful bands of the 1990s. (She loves the Cure as well, clear evidence of her enlightenedness.)

Have I mentioned that she’s a freshman in high school, and she’s already written three novels? AND now she writes poetry and song lyrics as well?

I was very excited to hear from her, because a) she is awesome, and b) she helps me remember what it’s like to be a teenager, which is very helpful when you’re writing YA novels but you’re sooooo old that when you were in high school, you made mix tapes! And nobody had cell phones but this one girl did have a car phone in her 1985 Buick and that was pretty neat even though it was the size of a shoebox. So clearly you need an infusion of modern teenagerity, so that you don’t sound like a grandma on the page.

E. and her friends remind me of all the great things about teenagers, all the ways they can be funny and smart and interesting and sweet and weird and fun. So, yay for keeping in touch with E! Double exclamation point!!

The second awesome person I heard from yesterday is someone I met when *I* was in high school, ten thousand years ago. (Actually, twelve.) I knew his brother when I was a freshman because he played Mister Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors, and I played a homeless person, but I didn’t meet N. until my sophomore year, when I sat behind him in Multicultural Lit and stared at the cuffs of his jeans, which draped perfectly over the backs of his shoes (unlike the cuffs of my boyfriend’s jeans, which always showed at least an inch of skin when he sat down… these things matter, when you’re fifteen).

For more than a decade, we’ve had the kind of friendship where we can go months without talking to one another and then pick up where we’ve left off as if it has been no time at all. Last night, I sat on the kitchen counter and gossiped with him like I was still fifteen. It was great.

I don’t actually remember how we became friends, but it came to pass that we walked from English to choir together most days, and after he graduated we started emailing one another. N. is a wonderful email writer. It’s a particular talent he has.

He’s also an incredibly talented musician and composer, which is what most people know about him. I remember long conversations about the ways talent and artistic drive could be both a gift and a burden, when we were both still teenagers. He understood me when I talked about writer’s block and artistic ambition, even at a time in our lives when everyone else just cared about getting out of high school.

I spent a lot of time with him and his band in my junior year of college; the band was playing a lot of shows around Grinnell and I made as many as I could. I would lose myself in the music, dance even if I was alone, drink gin with the bass drummer… but my favorite thing to do was watch N, both onstage and off. Onstage he was pure performance; offstage he was awkward and hilarious with the worshipful fans. The fans would gush and I would laugh to myself and N would look up at me over their heads and wink. Once, he came to visit me at Grinnell and we got stuck in an ice storm, right before xmas break. Stuck there an extra night, we lay in my narrow dorm bed and watched Air Bud on a TV that only played in color if you put something heavy on it.

He's made a life for himself as a musician, and currently plays with a group that is always on tour. He has perfect pitch and the ability to play anything he's ever heard on any of the various instruments he plays -- he uses this skill when his band goes to schools. ("Does anyone ever ask you to play Freebird?" I asked. "God. Yes." "It's probably, like, the teachers though, huh? The middle schoolers probably ask you to play 'My Humps.'" He laughed and agreed, then sang a little of 'My Humps' for me. "Next time someone asks you to play Freebird," I said, "think of me, because I still think that parents yelling 'Play Freebird' at a Wiggles concert is just about the funniest thing I've ever heard.")

Anyway, he's great. He's good and kind and makes me laugh. It’s such a gift to have a friend who’s known me since I was fifteen and likes me anyway. It’s great to chat with someone who knows you, for whom you need provide no backstory. After a while, those friends begin to feel like family.

Of course, E. and N. are just two out of the wide circle of people whose friendship graces and enriches my life. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re one as well. At this grey time of year, it’s especially important to remember that your circle of friends extends beyond the people you see every day, stretching to include people you’ve known since high school and people you just met this year. There are people out there thinking about you right now, hoping you're well, wishing they could be there with you if you're not. The web of your life is far more extensive than you think, and you've touched more people than you know. You are an important, cherished person, even when you feel like just the opposite.

Good friends will help you to remember this. Take care of them, and let them take care of you when you can’t do it all yourself.

04 December 2007

A Conversation with Chris Rathjen and Nick Wagner

This week at Bittersweet, I chat with Chicago filmmakers Chris Rathjen and Nick Wagner, who can tell you a thing or two about improv, radio, and the lessons to be found in a bottle of whiskey.

Chris and Nick, you currently have a short film, Sing, O Muse competing with films from twelve other cities for the title of "Best Film of the 2007 Racing Tour" as well as glorious cash and prizes. How did you get involved with this project, how do you feel about representing the City of Broad Shoulders at the national level, and how did you talk a bunch of dudes into singing songs while wearing togas?

Chris: We got involved when Grinnell celebrity Kate Herold saw an ad in the Chicago RedEye and sent it our way. As for the four of us singing in the horse (including co-filmmakers Jeremy Blodgett and Adam Schwartz), well you can just look at it film and see it's really the only legitimate ending, except for maybe a 45 minute action sequence depicting the sack of Troy. So, Art demanded it. As for the two Trojan guards, Mark & Scot, they actually showed up dressed like that. We were planning on giving them sheets, but there was no need.

I'm of course very pleased to be representing Chicago. I don't really know what to say on it though. Nick?

Nick: We are certainly the most Chicagoiest filmmakers I know, and thus are eminently qualified to represent this great city. The turnout from the Chicago filmrace was pretty interesting. I'd say that with an average filmmaker age of 26.2, we were among the oldest filmmakers there. It seems they did a lot of promotion over newer media, the "Myspaces" and the "Facepaper," which naturally attracted a younger crowd. Some of our competitors were even in high school, which I thought was really great, and I hope those kids keep making films.

You have gained recognition, praise, and the devotion of fans making short films that both pay homage to and cleverly subvert familiar genres. How did this trend begin, and where do you see it headed? Will you ever repeat genres – say, make another dystopia pic, or another war movie?

Chris: My first genre piece was (half of) 2 for 1, when I got to be a noir detective. Genre pieces are great for short films because so much of the work has already been done by decades of pop culture. The audience can be brought on board very quickly thinking they already know the story, which then leaves you free to mess with it. For 2 for 1 we watched and studied as much noir as time permitted, but pretty soon we figured out that doing a genre piece it’s actually better to just use what associations we already had, since thats a pretty good indicator of what associations the audience will have going in. I would certainly use any genre a second time if I felt it would best serve the story we wanted to tell.

Nick: Dressing up is fun. Also, I think we do shy away, at least a little bit, from repeating ourselves out of a desire for originality. But I do think there's much more to be explored in genre work, especially the largely untapped "brains on a table" genre.

Of the films you've made, both independently and together, does any one stand out as a personal favorite?

Chris: Independently, I'm pretty pleased with This is Titular Head, the mockumentary I made my senior year at Grinnell. I was over time and actually cut the ending short, but when I made the DVD that year I set it up so you can see the complete version if you hit enter during the tape-burning scene. So anyone with a copy of the 2002 DVD can check that little easter egg out. Also, make me a copy and send it my way, mine was immediately destroyed after I moved to Chicago. Group stuff: In The Sheets may be the most realized of our films, one of the few occasions where circumstances allowed us to make almost exactly the film we set out to, with all the beats, jokes and ending we wanted. But all of them have moments I'm fond of and ideas I'm still proud of.

Nick: Definitely "In the Sheets" stands out for the reasons Chris mentioned, and because it's a very original concept. Everything we've done has its own special place in my heart, of course. Even the ones I hate, which are in the dark part of my heart right next to the cholesterol deposits. Just kidding; I don't hate any of our work, and I really don't eat that much meat or dairy.

Not to sound too Tiger Beat, but what are the roots of the Myth of Chris and Nick? How did two young men from such diverse backgrounds come together in joint pursuit of the Noble Art of Funny?

Chris: In a word, Grinnell. I met Nick my sophomore year on Ritalin Test Squad. I'll admit that I'd been itching to get on the radio, but hadn't yet found anyone who I felt met my banter standards until Nick came along. Only at Grinnell could a nerdy, white, middle-class guy from a tiny, rural, midwestern town with a nurse mother and a farmer father, like myself, end up friends with a nerdy, white middle-class guy from a tiny, rural, midwestern town with a nurse mother and a professor father like Nick. Talk about an odd couple!

Nick: I had taken a semester off from college, and when I returned I found this new guy on the improv team. In fact, Chris was a bit intimidatingly hilarious at first. And so tall! But then we bonded over the fact that we both love talking about how awesome we are, and the rest is history. Of course, there are some things about Chris I'll never fully identify with. I mean his PBS station was in Iowa City! I could barely pull that in on my antenna! But we did watch the same Fox affiliate growing up, so really we're not so different after all.

You've both studied improv at iO, and now both perform with several teams in our fair city, the Hog Butcher to the World. How did improv find you, and how has it affected your lives? Can it truly be used to win friends and influence people, or is that just a rumor?

Nick: I've always been in love with acting, directing, theater, and movies. But I've also always been a very lazy man. So when I saw the tryout notice for my college's improv team, I thought, "Perfect!" I've found improv to be a very rewarding art form, and it really does kind of change your life. The central tenant of always adding to an idea, never knocking it down, has I believe made me a much more positive person than the snide, sarcastic little shit I was in high school. I'm still very, very lazy though.

Chris: Improv was first thrust upon me by a high school drama teacher, but I was in such a blissed-out haze upon arriving in Grinnell I didn't actually start reading any loggia posters for two weeks(seriously) and missed try-outs until the following year. Throughout college, improv served as a reminder of how much I love having performance and creative opportunities in my life, and with out it I may have ended up in law school or something equally terrifying. I've won a few friends through it, but its effect on my influence remains unknown.

Chris, didn't you once tell me that improv helped you to get a job?

Chris: That I did, good catch. One technique for setting up an improv scene is to mirror your partner's initiation. Matching their energy level, having the same goals as they do, and getting yourself in their mindset. When you do this several times a week, it becomes second nature, so I shouldn't have been surprised to catch myself doing just that the last time I was looking for a job. The interview went well and I was hired. In general the positivity and agreement improv relies on can be applied to personal interactions, allowing you to, yes, win friends and influence people.

As far as you can tell, what is the one book that every improviser should read?

Nick: Truth in Comedy really is the big one for me, because it basically outlines the tenants of group work that make spontaneous art generation possible. Without it, improv is a series of jokes that often come at the expense of genuine statements, or "Truth." That being said, Keith Johnstone's "Impro" is also quite good.

Chris: This is pretty embarrassing: I've never actually read Truth in Comedy. I know what you're thinking: its like a clergyman never having read the Bible, or a doctor never having watched Grey's Anatomy. That shameful secret finally out in the open, let me put in a word for Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. It has a specific chapter on improv but the general topic, subconscious thought & instinct, is relevant just so that you begin to understand what your brain, when properly trained, is capable of. Learning to trust your instincts is of course a huge part of improvisation, and the book is fascinating in general.

Do you remember how we met?

Nick: I honestly don't remember the precise circumstances of our very first meeting, but Molly Backes and I were in our freshman tutorial together, which means that we met before classes even started, under the watchful eye of Ellen Mease. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 AM, Molly made me secretly suspect that I wasn't smart enough to be in college, by knowing about Agamemnon and Orestes, and generally appearing to have done the readings. When she was awake, that is. That class was very formative for me, and I have loved Molly ever since.

Chris: I don't have the foggiest. The association "Molly Backes=Awesome Girl I Know" was in my head for much of my time at Grinnell, but if I'm looking for a specific memory I keep coming up with things from junior year, and I know that’s not right. Answering this, I'm terrified I'm going to offend you by forgetting some formative shared experience we had, like how we dated sophomore year.

We didn’t date.

Chris: I know.

But you wanted to.

Chris: Of course. I'm not a total fool.

Right. Then you heard about the "make me sandwiches for work" requirement, and you regretfully backed out.

Chris: Yeah, you've got high standards.

Thanks! Last question: what is the best advice you've ever gotten, and who gave it?

Nick: Hmm. I'm having trouble thinking of specific "advice," but there are several refrains that always seem to come back to me a certain times. My directing professor Chris Connelly liked to say, quoting Yogi Berra, "It gets late early out there." Which is always applicable to movie projects and to life in general. And my good friend Chris Rathjen knows that "The only way out is through." Which can apply to improv scenes, adverse filming conditions, or, preferably, a fifth of whiskey.

Chris: Most of my life lessons have come from people setting good examples, not from pithy advice. The amazing, wonderful people I've been lucky enough to know are kinda lame that way. That said my grandfather, upon dying, made the observation that while it would hopefully shake the rest of us up, his death wasn't going to bother him a bit, and I hope that's my attitude when I'm eventually devoured by wolves. For the record, my family name supposedly translates to Small Advisor/Small Clearer of Trees, so if you're looking for advice about the little things in life, or clearing trees, I'm your man. Also, Nick once said we should drink some water before finishing the whiskey, and while I argued at the time, I see now that he was right.

Awesome. Thanks, you guys!

See the films, live the dream:veryclever.org.

Last chance to vote for Sing, O Muse! - voting closes tomorrow.

03 December 2007

Chicago Attempts to Woo Me With Winter

This weekend, Chicago did its best to make me love winter here… and then it shot itself in the foot by being rainy and snowy and gray and cold. (“Wintery,” you might say.) Still, I must admit that – even though I’d rather not leave my apartment, you know, EVER – winter in Chicago does have certain advantages.

1. When it’s snowy and rainy and spitty and cold outside, you have the perfect excuse to crawl into bed and watch all 300 minutes of the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice (wonderful) and – if it’s still snowing – go on to watch the
2005 Joe Wright version starring Keira Knightley
(stupid). Next time it snows, we’re watching the Bollywood version -- if we can get a hold of it without leaving the apartment.

2. The CTA holiday train. Even though it came a half-hour later than the website said it would, it was worth it to see Santa riding on a flat car, if for no other reason than to feel even happier about going to Dan and Kelly’s extremely warm house for hot chocolate while poor Santa had to ride all the way to O’Hare. Also: free candy canes and a girl on the train who looked just like Ms. Kendra Young Harris. (Kendra, if that was you, sorry for assuming that a girl who looked just like you was not actually you.) (Also: nice to see you!)

3. Sometimes, the Chicago Tribune makes me laugh. For example: Baby Jesuses Reappear in Schaumburg.

4. The reemergence of George Wintson’s December, which has been my favorite snowy winter night album since high school. Somehow, it lost something in New Mexico (which lacks the Midwest’s snow, cold, bleak winter depression…), but back in the Midwest, I find that this album hasn’t lost its ability to transform my winter days from Ethan Frome to The Polar Express.

5. Something about the lack of sunlight triggers a deep, genetic need to bake. Yesterday I made oatmeal eggnog cookies (my own invention), and they were delicious. Luckily, I had the good folks at veryclever.org to help me eat them.

6. Holiday fun without leaving the house! The Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade went right under my front windows yesterday. Nothing says Christmas like Santa on a hog.

7. Dog coats! When it’s 25 degrees (as it is now), doggy sweaters and coats aren’t just fashion statements, they’re life savers. Luckily, my desk affords me a fantastic view of the doggy runway, as the fashionable dogs of Lincoln Park brave the chilly morning in their valiant efforts to bark at every squirrel and pee on every bench in the greater Chicago area.

8. Speaking of dog coats, how in the world did this escape my attention? Snoop Dogg’s New Clothing Line -- because what dog doesn’t need a “Dogg Father” sweater?

9. The George Drake Players, Chicago’s Grinnell Alumni improv team, have three shows at The Playground. If you can’t make it tonight, come out Monday the 10th or the 17th for the sort of highbrow improv comedy that only a bunch of real nerds can provide.

10. This morning on the way to work, I stared out the gray windows of the Armitage bus and thought about how much easier my life would be if I had magical powers. Specifically, how much easier parking would be. I could shrink my truck so it fit between two parked cars, a la the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. Or I could shrink the truck to the size of a matchbox truck, and then carry it around in my pocket until I needed it. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about alternate side parking, snow routes, getting plowed in, etc etc.

Then I thought, wait, if I had magical powers, I probably wouldn’t need a truck at all.

Then I spent the rest of my commute trying to raise my internal bar for magical powers. (My students used to tease me about my lame hypothetical uses of magic.) If I had magical powers, I wouldn’t need to be commuting to work at all! I’d make the phones stop ringing for the whole afternoon! Hog parades every day! Every train would be covered with lights, and the reindeer would all be wearing Dogg Father hoodies!

I’ve heard that Chicago can be quite magical during the holidays, and I am all ready for it. If it can amp up the cuteness in the coming weeks, it *might* just have a chance of winning my heart. Maybe. So bring on the magic, Chicago, holiday or otherwise. And while you’re at it, turn up the heat and bring back that big pretty yellow circle thing in the sky…. I seem to remember it was rather nice….

29 November 2007

Earworms! (The Meta Meme)

The delightful Miss Sarah Aswell of BROOD tagged me for her evil meme. According to Richard Dawkins (not to be confused with Richard Dawson -- researching memes, I wondered when the host of Family Feud had time to write books about culture and invent words between kissing so many women on The Feud), a meme is a transmittable unit of culture, such as a joke, rhyme, or jingle.

…Or formulaic blog entry. Dawkins didn’t know to include blog entires on his list of meme examples, because he made them up in 1976 and blogs didn’t show up on the scene until the 90s.

Ideas – culture bites – that spread from mind to mind like a virus? It’s all so Hundredth Monkey, isn’t it? (Camille, I must confess: I still have the copy of The Hundredth Monkey you lent me in 1997. As it turns out, those monkeys never psychically learned to wash sweet potatoes, and the human race will probably never psychically learn not to proliferate nuclear weapons, either.)

Anyway, thus tagged, I will meme, but I will not tag. The virus ends here!

Seven things:

1. I always have a song in my head. I almost always have music playing – in the car, on the computer, in the living room – for the sole purpose of setting my internal radio. Either the song in my head is whatever’s currently playing, or it’s some infernal piece of musical nonsense that’s gotten stuck in my head. There’s actually a term for this: it’s called an earworm. Apparently OCD or anxiety medication would help to quiet the jukebox in my head….

2. Which makes me think that it’s a problem. Constant music in my head never seemed like a problem until I read that people take meds to stop it. See how that works? I always thought that my constant internal jukebox made me SPECIAL, not CRAZY. And now I’m going to be chewing on this like Zeke with a yogurt container, until there’s no more yogurt and it’s full of tooth holes and I’ve ingested my fair share of plastic. (But I’m not crazy!)

3. Sometimes, the songs that get stuck in my head are completely embarrassing, and I have to be very careful not to start whistling or humming to myself lest someone recognize the tune and make fun of me. “Are you seriously singing ‘Bop to the Top’ from High School Musical??”

4. The only clear defense on that one is: “You recognized it.” (This closely follows the classic “You smelt it, you dealt it,” line of defense.)

5. A good thing about earworms is that I have the ability to change them, if I focus. This way, if the current song in my head is completely and utterly inappropriate to the situation at hand (“Baby Got Back” at a funeral, or NIN’s “Closer” – well, ever) I can consciously switch it to something less inappropriate. Songs I most frequently switch my brain to: Prince, “Purple Rain” (the first 18 bars or so are SO PRETTY! Seriously.); Martin Sexton, “Glory Bound;” and “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked -- again, those first 18 bars.

6. Predictably, the earworm in my brain after this weekend was – you guessed it -- You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant….

7. My current workplace charmingly plays piped music from some XM station or another. In the last four months, the station has changed four times: First we had a 60s station that played exactly 100 songs from 1960-1969, in the same order every day. This station nearly killed me. Second, a 90s station that played all manner of songs from my teenage years. Believe me, after a month of the exact same Beach Boys songs at the exact same time every day, just the idea of Four Non-Blondes made me want to weep with joy. Sadly, we only had a week of the 90s before someone got wise and switched the music to a 70s station. While the 70s was much better than the 60s, and as much as I enjoyed hearing “Free Bird,” “Castles Made of Sand,” and “Space Oddity” every single day, I would find myself humming, inevitably, Planet Earth is blue… and there’s nothing I can do-ooo…. when I was supposed to be listening to my coworkers. It was a mixed blessing, then, when someone finally changed the station to the “Crappy Lite Jazz” station, so now instead of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I get to hear even liter versions of James Taylor songs. Goody.

At least it’s not Christmas songs. Nothing gets in your brain like a Christmas song. And once there, it –

Oh, god.

Crappy Lite Version of “Little Drummer Boy.”

Maybe I do need anti-anxiety medication, after all.

28 November 2007

Escaping the Cultural Wasteland That is My Life, or: My Mother Makes Me Cool

As she is the person who brought me into this world, who began listening to what I had to say before I even had words to speak, who spent the early 80s feeding me applesauce and cheerios, my mother is generally predisposed to like me. We’ve been hanging out together since the Carter administration, and for the most part, my mother seems to think I’m pretty okay.


Every now and again, I manage to display my wanton ignorance and cultural illiteracy in such a way that so clearly pains her I start to wonder if she’s trying to figure out how to dump me.

This happened twice over Thanksgiving.

First: The Case of Alice’s Restaurant.
The setting: Thanksgiving morning, in the kitchen.

Mom: I got to hear the best Thanksgiving song on the radio this morning!
Me: What’s that?
Mom: “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Me: [blank look]
Nat: [blank look]
Mom: (hopefully) You know… ALICE’S RESTAURANT??
Me and Nat: [blank looks]
Mom: YOU GUYS! Ugh! You’re eating in the garage! I can’t believe you!!
Me: Um, I feel like I’ve heard of it… I think they mentioned it on XRT the other day….
Mom: Of course they did! God, you are so lame!! [She runs out of the room.]
Me: Um… guess we’re eating in the garage.

A minute later she reappeared, joyfully carrying a copy of Alice’s Restaurant on VINYL, probably from the album’s original 1967 release, probably handed to her by Arlo Guthrie himself, ten minutes after he first recorded it. “Do you even have a record player?” I asked doubtfully.

Of course she has a record player. She still has the blanket from my crib (the dog sleeps on it) and the baby scooter she scooted around in during the Truman years. Making the record player WORK was another story; she made me take it apart and fix it, which first required figuring out exactly how a record player works, then figuring out why this one wasn’t working, then trying to tape the broken belt thingy back together, and finally replacing the broken belt thingy with a giant rubber band, which actually did work. Kind of.

So then we all trooped into the living room and listened to about five minutes of the scratchiest, garbledliest nonsense you’ve ever heard, of which we weren’t able to make out more than the frequent repetition of the word “garbage.” Nat and I listened patiently but finally admitted we had no idea what was going on, and my mother gave up. We returned to the kitchen to peel some potatoes. Mom disappeared again, reappearing a moment later, triumphantly, with: Alice’s Restaurant! On CD! So we went BACK to the living room, where this time we got to hear a very understandable and charming version of Arlo Guthrie’s 20 minute long song/story/poem “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” And of course we were charmed, and we even laughed a few times, and at the end we asked my mother questions about the sixties and the draft and the crazy long-haired young folks back then and she gave a long, happy sigh and said, “It was a different time.”

I sense a tradition.

Second: The Case of Jane Austen
The Setting: After dinner, the same day.

Me: I’m reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time.
Mom: For the first time?
Me: Yes, I’ve never read Jane Austen.
Me: No, but I read Jane Eyre in three different classes….

The answer is: I’m not sure. I took a lot of weird, specific classes as an English major (Post-colonial feminist literature, Milton seminar, “Women/Writing/Nature” and so forth) and daydreamed through my required Brit lit survey courses (when I went to study for my “Traditions of English Literature” exam, I found pages and pages of notes with drawings of severed heads and doodles and ‘Matthew Arnold… Dover Something… I like puppies!’). But really, no one ever made me read Jane Austen, and I think I’m glad. I have a feeling that Pride and Prejudice is one of those books I would have been, well, prejudiced against if I’d been forced to read it as a teenager.

Instead, I got to read it this week and LOVED it. It looks boring, and it’s a little hard to get into, but Pride and Prejudice is the gushiest, girliest, OMG romantic book I’ve read in a long time. I read the last 100 pages at my desk between calls yesterday, feeling both indulgent and academic, because though it is a gushy girly smoochfest, it is also a Great Book and Classic Literature.

You’ve probably already read Pride and Prejudice (or seen the movie – even I have seen part of the Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy version), so I won’t say too much more about it. However, if, like me, you’ve been living in cultural sin and haven’t gotten around to reading it yet…. DO. It’s the perfect combination of edification and enchantment.

Thanks, Mom! Please don’t dump me yet.

26 November 2007

Thanks for Putting Me Straight, Rolling Stone!

Dear Rolling Stone Magazine,

As a second-generation reader (my mother has been a faithful subscriber lo these 40 years), I have grown up with you. I have used your pages in my collages and dioramas. I have learned about the sacred icons of my parents’ generation. I have been inculcated with the values of the aging hippie left. I have appreciated your frequent use of the word fuck.

Rolling Stone, you are the first thing I look for when I go home. How many times have we curled up together under the covers, or soaked together in the bath? We have traveled together, Rolling Stone, we have weathered countless flight delays and painfully long layovers. You took my hand and you taught me, Rolling Stone, not just about the musical tastes of the Baby Boomers, but about all the naughty things they did when they were my age. You helped me to love John Kerry as much as I love my own aging Vietnam veteran father. In my teen years, you encouraged me to seek out friends like Tim Leary and Ken Kesey, and taught me that if I ever wanted to have any music cred whatsoever, I’d better learn to love those Beatles and good old Bob Dylan. Even now, Rolling Stone, with your constant reminiscing and looking back, you help to remind me that I – and indeed, my entire generation! – will never be as cool as you and my parents were back in 1967. That was the year to be 27, wasn’t it? Being 27 in 2007 is totally for poseurs. Am I right, Rolling Stone?

Rolling Stone Magazine, I want to thank you for your recent 40th Anniversary Super Interview Issue, which, in your own words, “looks forward, not back, and it’s packed with interviews with the artists, leaders and thinkers who can best divine what our future holds.” See? You can look forward, Rolling Stone! You’re not always rehashing your glory days! You’re part of the Now, Rolling Stone! You still totally have your finger on the pulse of America!

Rolling Stone, thank you for reminding me that the people “who can best divine what our future holds” are white men. Of course they are!! Oh, Rolling Stone, you know me: I was raised by your readers! The very aging leftist hippies who supported you all these years. Of course they taught me that things were getting better for women in this country! Of course they taught me that racism is wrong. They’re hippies!

But you know better, Rolling Stone! You know that of the “twenty five artists, leaders, and thinkers who can best divine what our future holds”, only three of them are women! Silly women, what do we know about the future?? We can’t do anything! We could barely make it onto your list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. We can’t play guitar, we clearly can’t rock, so how could we possibly divine what the future holds as well as someone who rocks as hard as, say, Dave Matthews or Tom Hanks? Those dudes really rock!

Of course, Rolling Stone, the whole Civil Rights movement happened waaaaay before you came on the scene, and it’s a good thing, too, because you’ve had plenty of time to pay equal rights lip service while reminding us all that of the “twenty five artists, leaders, and thinkers” only three of them are black. And don’t even get me started on black women! They can’t make any of your lists, Rolling Stone! Why bother even trying for a token black woman? You wasted six precious interview slots on tokens already! Don’t even get me started on the fact that the future of America seems to lie with the Hispanic population who are slated to make up almost 20% of the overall US population by 2020. They’re not the future, are they Rolling Stone? Good thing you didn’t waste a single interview on a Hispanic – or any other cultural or ethnic group!

The problem with my parents, Rolling Stone, is that they spend SO much time looking back at the “good old days” of increased civil rights and the crazy “women’s lib” movement that they can’t see the future clearly. But you can! You know that the future holds nothing but white boys!

Thanks for keeping it real, Rolling Stone! Here’s to another 40 years – let’s hope your 80th Anniversary Issue is chock full of interviews to disillusion MY daughters and free them from their capricious liberal ideals!

M. Molly Backes

21 November 2007

Thanks for Nothing, WEATHER!

It’s 39 degrees and raining in Chicago today. According to the National Weather Service, it’s only 51 in ABQ right now – but it’s clear, and yesterday it was 71 degrees.

Let me recap: yesterday in Chicago, foggy and cold. Yesterday in Albuquerque, SEVENTY DEGREES.

I’m staring out the windows right now, watching the exhaust of the cars curl through the bouncing rain, consumed by thoughts of my imminent drive to Wisconsin. Will it snow? Should I wait until morning to avoid the [soul] crush of traffic leaving the city, outsmarting not only the residents of Chicago but also the weather gods and suicidal deer sure to throw themselves in front of my truck on the way home? Should I pack a shovel and boots to dig myself out of the inevitable ditch?

Did I mention that it was seventy degrees in Albuquerque yesterday?

What am I doing here??

Funny story, but there was actually a time when I *missed* the Midwest. I whined about the lack of pretty fall colors (not many trees in NM, and the ones that are there mostly turn yellow), the lack of bracing fall weather, the lack of snow. The lack of snow! Was I insane? Last year at Thanksgiving, I stood outside on the patio and threw the ball for the dogs while I waited for my casseroles to cook. In a tee shirt. And no shoes. This morning, by contrast, I put on a sweater over my sweater, and then a coat, and a scarf, and isotoner gloves, and then stood outside in the freezing cold with rain pinging at my face while my bus took ten years to mosey on down to my stop.

Four years in New Mexico turned me into a major winter baby. My first winter there, I hardly wore a coat; by year four, I was complaining when the temperature dipped below sixty. I’d come home to Wisconsin for Christmas and refuse to leave the house unless the temperature went above zero. “One degree? Is that too much to ask?” I’d say, and all the hardy Midwesterners would laugh pityingly. “You think that’s bad? Last week it was negative one million, and the cellular structures in my eyeballs froze! And that was NOTHING compared to the winters of my childhood!”

I was raised by these people. I used to be one of these people. When I was a child, we literally had days off school because it was too cold, and they didn’t want kids to freeze to death waiting for the bus. (I also used to spend as much of the winter in the bathtub because I couldn’t get warm any other way, and I used to curl up in a corner of the bathroom to read because it was the smallest, warmest room of the house, and I used to stand outside near the dryer vent because it was slightly warmer than the rest of outside – but these things you forget, these things you gloss over, when you’re bragging about what a hardy Midwesterner you are.)

I also used to be able to drive in snow, but four years in New Mexico bred a pathological fear of driving in weather. When it snows in New Mexico, they chug out their one snow plow and try to clear the highways a little by dumping bloodred sand all over them. Then they send reporters to the far borders of the metropolitan areas to report breathlessly on all the white stuff! Falling from the sky! The reporters interview this one old guy who owns the Citron in Cedar Crest, and he says he’s never seen it snow quite like this before. Then seventeen semitrucks fly off the highways because they don’t know how to drive in snow. Then they close the highways.

In the four years I lived in New Mexico, they closed I-40 at least ten times, sometimes all the way to the Texas border. Good news: every time it snowed, I had days – sometimes weeks – off school. Bad news: I came dangerously close to getting stuck in Moriarty a few times, at which point I would turn into Joan Crawford and demand that R. drive through the blizzard to rescue me. On the days they predicted snow, I would stare at the Sandias with dread, wondering just how much the heavy clouds were dumping on my commute. (Another thing I miss about NM: being able to see what the weather is like twenty miles away.) My puny truck could barely make it up the mountain when the road was dry; in the snow, it was a nightmare. Worse, people in the Southwest generally do not know how to drive in winter weather. In the Midwest, everyone has one day of amnesia where they have to re-learn how to drive in the snow. In the Southwest, snow-amnesia is every day. And the stakes are much higher: here if you go off the road, you land in a pillow-soft cornfield. There, you land in an ice canyon of death.

Of course, I didn’t move back to the Midwest because I missed the gray skies and gray streets and long sunless stretch between November and March. I didn’t miss the sub-zero temperatures or freezing rain or bitter winter wind. I was totally fine without the suicidal deer so tired of the Wisconsin weather they’d rather fling themselves into oncoming traffic than face another day in this bleak winter.

I moved back because my family is here, and for that reason, it’s unquestionably home.

This will be my first Thanksgiving with family in five years, and for that I’ll gladly fight snow and traffic and rampaging deer. I’ll face cold and gray and miserable. I won’t flinch when it starts snowing. I won’t even complain… too much.

I’ll hit the road early, because waiting at the end of it is my family. And for that, I am truly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

20 November 2007

For the Holidays, Do Something Good

Everyone says the holiday season is about giving. Unfortunately, too often that “giving” comes in the form of rampant consumerism and guilt-fueled trips to the mall to spend too much money on something that nobody needs just so you won’t look like a jerk. In her 1850 book “The First Christmas in New England,” Harriet Beecher Stowe had a character who complained that the true meaning of Christmas was being lost in a shopping spree. So… at least our helplessness in the face of holiday consumerism isn’t anything new.

For me, the only way to keep a hold of the “true meaning of Christmas” is to give – not socks and ugly ties, but time, money, caring – to those who really need help. In my ideal world, we’d sit around the tree on Christmas morning and share pictures and stories of the people (and animals!) we’ve helped in the names of our loved ones.

If you believe that the holiday season really is (or should be) about giving, please take a few minutes of your time to read the following letter from Posey Gruener, a friend of mine from college.

Dear friends,

My friend Ibby Caputo is fighting Leukemia. Three months ago, she got an infection that wouldn't go away. She went to the hospital, and she's been there ever since. She's been through chemo twice. She's 26 years old.

One week after Thanksgiving, Ibby will get a bone marrow transplant from an anonymous European donor. From now until the transplant date—November 29—I will be running a fundraiser to help pay for her recovery, and will match any donations, dollar-for-dollar, up to a total of $3,000.

If no one donates anything, I will (reluctantly) donate nothing. But if we work together, $1 will become $2, $35 will become $70, $80 will become $160—all the way up to $6,000. Together, we could raise enough to pay for the crucial first two months of recovery.

Please visit ibbycaputo.com to donate online or by check, use your credit or debit card to donate online, and email me at poseygruener@gmail.com letting me know you've done so. To learn more about Ibby and how your donation will be used, read on.

Thank you,


From Ibby:

"I'm back in the hospital again. Same floor, smaller room. I don't like it here. The last two rounds of chemo didn't put me into remission, so I'm back for something more heavy duty. It's going to hurt. Then comes the bone marrow transplant soon after. I signed the consent forms for that today.

The numbers are stacked against me. This strain of this disease is one that 60-year-old men usually get after having spent a lifetime working in a benzene factory. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey.

But. But! Somewhere in Europe there is a 39-year-old man who is my perfect donor match. We share 12 out of 12 chromosomes, only his aren't malfunctioning. On the day after Thanksgiving, I'm scheduled to start "conditioning" for the transplant. A week later, someone from this hospital is going to fly to Europe, pick up two bags of this man's stem cells, then travel back with them in an ice cooler underneath the seat of a commercial airline. The stem cell infusion date – my re-birthday - is set for November 29th.

The positive energy is stacked for me, though. This is why, the other night, my cousin and I wrote the cure rate percentages on a heart-shaped piece of paper, then took it into an alley and burned it. We decided those numbers are no longer applicable."

Posey again:

When all of this is over, the real fight begins.

After the transplant, the stem cells of this European man will work their way into Ibby's marrow and on to the rest of her. They will kill Ibby's leukemia cells. They will not (we hope) kill too many of Ibby's other cells. They will make themselves at home among Ibby's other organs. And, if all goes right, that will be it. She will be well.

If anything goes wrong—and that's likely—Ibby could develop infections, pneumonia, organ failure, or the awful, space-alien-sounding disease called Graft-Versus-Host.

To keep that from happening, Ibby has to lay low. Real low. For a year. She'll need to stay away from sources of stress or infection. She'll need to get lots of rest, and she'll need constant care. She'll need to pay for rent, and groceries, and a caretaker. And she won't be able to work.

This is where we come in. Because though we may not know how to treat Leukemia, though we may not even know Ibby, we've got what she needs most right now. By helping her pay for life's necessities, we can give her the ability to lay low, to avoid stress, to heal.

I'll be running a fundraising drive through Thanksgiving and up until November 29th—the day of Ibby's transplant—and I hope you'll find a minute or two to donate before then. I will match all donations dollar for dollar, up to $3,000. Together, we can provide for the crucial first two months of Ibby's recovery, and send her into the next phase knowing she'll be cared for.

To donate, just visit ibbycaputo.com, use your credit or debit card to donate online, and send me an email (poseygruener@gmail.com) letting me know you've done so. I'll be presenting my half of the pledge (which I hope will be a big half) on November 30th—the first day of Ibby's new existence as half-european, half-american, half-man, half-woman, and the first day (we hope, we hope) of the rest of her very long life.

Thank you,


Posey has nine days to raise $3,000. Her goal is to raise at least $315/day. She will match every dollar that we donate. Take a moment out of your day to check out Ibby’s website and help make a difference for someone who could really use a miracle this year.

And on Thursday, remember to give thanks for the things that truly matter: health, family, and friends like Posey Gruener.

19 November 2007

Anne Frank's Tree

On Wednesday, they’re going to cut down Anne Frank’s tree. The 160 year old chestnut, whose branches and leaves provided Anne Frank, her family, and the van Pels a tiny sliver of the outside world during the years they hid in the cramped Annex rooms, is diseased and can't be saved. For Anne, who believed that the beauty of nature could soften nearly every woe, the tree was a lifeline.

"Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy." – February 23, 1944

I first met Anne in the spring of 1997, when Louise Uphoff asked me if I’d consider directing The Diary of Anne Frank in my senior year of high school. That summer, I found myself in Amsterdam, where I visited the Anne Frank House Museum. I didn’t know much of the story yet, but still I felt as though I were in a church as I moved through the annex, trying to imagine the lives of the people who had lived there. Most of the people around us shared our hushed tones, our somber reverence.

Later, because what was to be our school’s auditorium was still a hole in the ground, we staged the play off campus, in a tiny mini-theater which was located, for some reason, inside a corporate facility. That the theater was so cramped, that we had to build our set in the day before we opened, that we were in high school in a little farm town and couldn’t wait to get out – everything conspired to make the production feel incredibly true. And even though it was just a bunch of kids, many of whom I’d known since pre-school, even though I’d sat through endless hours of rehearsals in the choir room with them and run lines with them and scolded them when they weren’t off book quickly enough or forgot the blocking or ad-libbed in historically incorrect ways (our Mrs. Van Daan, instead of worrying about the Green Police, worried about the cops) – even so, I cried every night.

In the spring of 2000, Heather Moore invited me to speak to her eighth graders about Anne Frank when they were reading the play in their English class. I showed them pictures of the Secret Annex, passed around the program and pictures of the cast from our play, and tried to help them imagine what it would feel like to be locked inside a small space for more than two years – with your family, who, because you are thirteen, are so annoying, but you can’t even speak to tell them to leave you alone.

Also, no TV, no video games, no internet. No contact with the outside world except the radio at night and the people who risk their lives to bring you food. It’s nearly impossible to imagine, today.

In the spring of 2006, I read The Diary of Anne Frank(the play version) with my own students, seventh and eighth graders. They would get so deeply engrossed in the reading that they would literally groan when the bell rang. This almost never happens, in middle school. “You finally found something that we actually like reading!” they’d say. “Who are you, and where are my real students?” I’d ask.

The Diary of Anne Frank led us to amazing discussions of tolerance and hatred, of compassion and hope against all odds. We talked about the Holocaust and Hitler and bullying in our own school. We talked about Christianity and Judaism in a homogenous Christian culture. In every class, after we read the last lines of the play, there was a long moment of silence. (Which, again, almost NEVER happens in middle school.) Anne Frank felt like someone we knew. She felt a friend. My students were uniformly angry at the unfairness of her death. “How could they do that to her?” they asked. “How could that happen??”

People always say that Anne Frank is important because she put a face on the tragedy of the Holocaust, and there is, of course, something in that. However, I would argue that she also put a face on humanity, in our infinite capacity to hope in the face of cruelty and unimaginable tribulation. A few weeks before the Franks were arrested by the Nazis, Anne wrote:

"It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. . . ."

On Wednesday, they’ll cut down the tree that helped Anne Frank keep hoping, but already the Anne Frank Museum has taken grafts from the tree with which to regrow it. Though no one will be able to replace the exact tree, a new one will grow in its place, stretching its leaves to the same sky under the same sun, and a new generation of visitors will look to its crown to feel what Anne felt, to reassure themselves that despite everything, people are really good at heart.

16 November 2007

Queen Geek, Princess Nerd, and the Duchess of Dork

Speaking of Wicked… today the Chicago Tribune declared Elphaba to be a “Geek Queen” (a nice assonant spondee – who’s Queen Geek now, Trib?). The article, You’ve come a long way, Geek Girl, rates various girls and women on their relative geekiness.

Questionability of rating women on any scale aside (even if it’s carefully subverting the paradigm by giving the most points to the geekiest girls, the ratings still mention relative hotness, though it’s hard to tell whether Tina Fey’s cuteness adds to or detracts from her overall Geek Quotient – anyway, this week’s Time Out Chicago did an unironic spread rating Keira Knightley’s hotness in a number of her movies, so the Trib gets some credit by comparison), I thought it was very interesting that the Tribune actually dared to define the word geek.

According to the Chicago Tribune, geekiness is characterized by “marked awkwardness plus narrow focus on an intellectual/creative pursuit.” (Sound familiar?)

Interesting, because The American Heritage Dictionary defines geek as:
• A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.
• A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
Or, of course:
• A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.

The Tribune’s audacity to define geekiness amazed me merely because the exact nature of the subtle differences in connotation between geek, nerd, and dork has been an ongoing discussion among my friends for years. This particular question of semantics is as important to us as the reclamation of words like ‘queer’ in the GLBT community. Geek pride… or is it nerd pride?

Is there a difference between geekiness and nerdiness? Dictionary.com says that a nerd is “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.” Doesn’t sound too different from “a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.” Right? The Tribune article seems to agree – at first. They seem to use “brainiac” and “art nerd” as synonyms for geek (or perhaps sub-sets of geekiness?). However, later in the “Geek or No Geek?” Quiz (ah, Chicago Tribune, you and your delightful frivolity!), Hillary Clinton is apparently NOT a geek because she “fails to exhibit the intense focus on a single intellectual/creative pursuit that we see in the classic geek” and apparently she’s also “a little too smooth” to be a geek. BUT she has “nerd qualities” of “diligence [and] intelligence.” So, diligent equals nerd, but single-minded diligence equals geek? Can’t Clinton be a politics geek? She does have intense focus on the single intellectual pursuit of becoming president, does she not? But no, she is a nerd, but not a geek. Similarly, Vanessa Hudgens in High School Musical is “more nerd than geek (see Hillary).” I’m sure they mean Hudgens’s character, not Hudgens herself, who lacks the “diligence and intelligence” to keep her naked self out of the public eye. Her character in HSM, however, is very good at math, but also good at singing and looking pretty. Is she, like Tina Fey, too hott to be Queen Geek? Or is her quest to win the adoration of Zac Efron not intensely focused enough to be considered geekiness?

Also “(see Hillary)”? Are we to understand that there is little difference between Vanessa Hudgens and Senator Clinton? And if so, should someone be offended?

Furthermore, how is it that Lisa Simpson scores a five on the “Geek-o-meter,” but Hermione Granger only scores a three? Seriously? Lisa scores Geek Queen status because she is “always the smartest person in the room” – how is Hermione any different? Because she’s a “goody-goody” and “know-it-all”? Does goody-goodyness preclude geekiness? Does true geekiness require breaking some rules? Do you have to be a little bad to be a geek? Hermione will go there. She is definitely bad enough to be a geek. She could take Lisa Simpson any day, and not just because Lisa can’t seem to move beyond the second grade. Maybe, like Tina Fey, she’s just too pretty to be a geek.

And where do the dorks fit in? Are they just the truly hopeless cases, the ones still wearing sweatpants to school past fifth grade, whose jeans never quite cover the tops of their socks, who breath through their mouths and use nasal sprays in plain sight? Will their time ever come?

Most importantly, which label should we be claiming for ourselves? Will we stand by Hillary Clinton and Vanessa Hudgens and proclaim our intelligence but lack of truly obsessive focus by calling ourselves Nerds? Ally ourselves with Elphaba and Lisa Simpson – intelligent, driven, and ugly?

Or maybe we should just bite the heads off chickens and answer the question for good. You go first, though. I’m too pretty.

15 November 2007

The Wonderful Witches of Oz

Last night was Chicago’s 1000th performance of Wicked, the musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Yesterday was also the date of the public sale for a new block of tickets from January 27 – April 27, 2008. Despite the fact that it has what may be the WORST advertising slogan ever (“The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait to see WICKED!” What the hell does that even mean?), Wicked is absolutely worth the (rather hefty) ticket price.

I was lucky enough to see the 888th performance (or so, it was back in August) of this show, and it was amazing. I looooooooooved it. I have been a musical theatre nerd ever since I saw the local high school’s production of My Fair Lady and thought to myself, I want to do that. How do I do that? The next Monday, I dropped a study hall and signed up for choir. I was twelve. My musical theatre nerd-dom spans a decade and a half, and involves performances in such high school standards as Little Shop of Horrors, Anything Goes, The Music Man etc etc. I even went to music camp and majored in musical theatre. Nerdy but true.

I’ve seen a ton of shows – in London, in New York, Toronto… um, Albuquerque – and Wicked was the best. The best. The musical is simpler and less political than the book, but I actually think I liked it better (I’m a sucker for a happy ending).

Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz, characters we all know from The Wizard of Oz: the Good Witch of the North, Glinda; the Wicked Witch of the East (in the movie, the one underneath the house); and of course, the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. It challenges the assumptions you’ve held about the mean witch and her flying monkeys; it calls into question labels and the simple dichotomy of good and evil.

What’s most wonderful about Wicked is that it is a story about two girls, and how their unlikely friendship changes each of them. “So much of me is made of what I learned from you… and now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine, by being my friend.” How many Broadway musicals are about friendship between girls? There are musicals about war (Les Mis, Miss Saigon), orphans (Annie, Once on This Island), buddies (The Producers), love (every musical ever), but girls? BFFs? I can’t think of any.

Of course, there’s a love story in Wicked, and part of the appeal is the clever re-telling of a familiar and beloved story (though I must say that I personally do not like The Wizard of Oz and never have – but I still love Wicked), primarily this is a story about two strong women and the friendship that binds them as they each try to follow their own paths and do what they believe is right. It’s about growing up, about finding your way in the world, about shifting beliefs and listening to your own voice when the rest of the world is telling you something else. It’s about destiny and truth and labels. It’s about popular girls and nerd girls. It’s about sisters and magic, power and politics and flying monkeys. It’s about BFFs.

You can never have too many stories about BFFs.

If you have the chance to see this show, DO. Stephen Schwartz’s music is complex and beautiful. He pays subtle tribute to the movie by using the iconic first seven notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as one of the musical’s dominant themes, though he disguises them by changing the rhythm. The costumes are strange and wonderful; the puppetry is awesome. And the BFF story might just make you cry.

You can’t deny it: the longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait to see Wicked. Let’s hope it’s not too long.