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….