Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Memoriam

As I begin to write this I’m sitting in Dallas/Ft. Worth airport waiting to board a flight to Chicago, and I’ve begun to feel contemplative. I began reflecting on events of the last week, the last year, and the last time I was here a year ago. As I walk down Destiny’s path I occasionally sneak a look back over my shoulder and see the milestones that marked the most memorable moments of the last year. Seeing old friends. A break up. Applying, auditioning, and acceptance into graduate school. Beginning a lasting exercise routine. Ending the longest job I’ve held since I left Dallas. Meeting new people. Making a few new friends. Living an academic dream. Constantly discovering and challenging my limitations. These were a host of experiences that were more original and dynamic than any I’ve previously had. In these ways and others, this was the year of Despair. It was the year of Determination. The year of Fear. The year of Anxiety. Of Accomplishment. Of Hope.

This was the year of Change.

This year was also the year of visitors in Chicago. Before this, the only people to visit me had been my parents. From June to October I saw everyone but my parents as I entertained both of my sisters, nephews, and brother-in-law. I saw the majority of my closest and dearest friends and tried to expose them all to the life I’ve come to experience, enjoy, and earn. I spent too short a time with each of them.

I came home to Dallas this year as a new man, much altered from the one who was here a year ago. Those who saw me last year validated how much weight I’ve lost since my last visit. I’ve discovered that the ripples of my absence are still being felt, sometimes quite strongly, among the customers, staff and management at Magic Time Machine. While I was here I got new glasses, new shoes, new bedding, and a new tattoo (I’m really getting used to those, this one was the easiest yet). I saw most of the people I haven’t seen since the summer of 2007 just before I moved, and I regret the ones I still managed to miss this trip. Even the visits I was able to make were far too brief, each leaving a footprint in my heart akin to one on a sandy beach. My friends left a hole in the shape of each of themselves, to be filled in only by my ache and salty tears upon my departure.

And on Christmas Day, I ended a fifteen year silence during a sixty-five second phone call.

It’s been a remarkable year. Sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible, always difficult, and never dull. You, Constant Reader, have heard me bemoan and whine my circumstances all the while. If you’re reading this now it’s because you either just picked up reading, or you knew one day I’d crawl out of it and start acting like a whole person again. For my fellow Dallas friends and family, I want you to know how crucial your influence over me has been in my recovery. Whether I saw you all week, the briefest of hours, or made a promise I wasn’t able to keep through text messages (you know who you are), you each lent me a rope I used to pull myself out of the mire. I couldn’t have done it without you, and I look to the new year with eyes that seek to repay your kindness.

And though we’re very, very close to the end, there’s still one more thing to happen this year that I’ve never done before – I have a blind date sometime this week. So if it goes well, I have something new and hopeful to transition me from the old year into the next (of course if it doesn’t go well, I suppose this will be the last you’ll read of it).

Mark Twain said,
“Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” I love the climate and atmosphere of Chicago; I adore the people and relationships I have in Dallas; yet n’er the twain shall meet. In this way I will always be unsatisfied. For this reason I will always be ill at ease. For all time I shall be wanting more. Yet it is precisely because of this that I will always feel an ache in my heart for the beauty of those fleeting, transitory moments of happiness and perfection that will never last. That is their tragedy, and that is their triumph.

“Touched by her fingers, the two surviving chocolate people copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

No Excuses

I can’t remember what prompted her to do so, but shortly after I met one of my classmates she asked, “Were you a fat kid?” I answered most honestly, “I’m a fat adult. Being fat isn’t just a physical state, but a mental one as well. Though I’m in decent shape these days, I still consider myself a fat person – just one who happens to be exercising a lot lately.

My whole life I’ve had a big belly. When I was a child my parents once tried to put me on a diet, which lasted about as long as a snowflake in a frying pan. Only one glass of milk at dinner? Bloody hell no thank you.

They encouraged sports instead; I played basketball (poorly) and baseball (horribly) for the YMCA throughout elementary school, and occasionally went for a run around the neighborhood with my dad. I remember sitting with him at the kitchen table at the end of one of these runs, some cookies my mother had just baked cooling on a rack in front of me. Legs shaking, weak and exhausted but feeling better about myself, I ate one. My father told me, “You just ate up that whole run.” I was shocked and discouraged by the fact that something as small and quick as a cookie completely counterbalanced the effort I had just put out.

Middle and high school were better. My sophomore year I was training three hours a day between football, wrestling, and track. I was the shape of my life (which is much easier to do at age 15 than it is at 30), pushed by the coaching staff. Every time we hit our limit, the coaches yelled and fought for us to try harder, accomplish more, do better. They motivated us and they terrified us, but our capacity for achievement was unparalleled. The boundaries of our limitations were constantly being stretched and redefined. Every day we could run farther and faster. We could lift more. We were conditioned to extend ourselves to the brink of our endurance – and that’s when they really put on the pressure. They expected the most from us, and they got it.

I quit sports at the start of my junior year, and the tubby tummy came back within about a month. The eating habits of an athlete have quite a different effect on one who spent no less than three hours a day playing video games and watching TV. The lack of self-discipline couldn’t get me to change those eating habits any more than I could exercise without the coaches, or without the group of 30 or so others trying to accomplish something together.

Over the years I’ve tried time and time again to discover how to recover the state of mind that would grant me the state of physicality I once was capable of attaining. I could do it for a few weeks at a time. I would track my progress on a calendar, marking the days I was able to push myself into the gym. I would weigh and measure myself, and glow at every little bit of progress. But I always contented myself that I had done enough far, far before I had met the ultimate goal I had set, and months would pass before I would make the decision to pick up and start again.

Half a lifetime later I’ve finally figured out how to hit a limit and break through it, maintaining the pattern for months at a time instead of mere weeks. This past week I stepped up my routine yet again, running six days a week instead of a mere three. Mother Nature is testing my dedication and resolve on a daily basis. On Tuesday it was 28 degrees, and the wind was pushing the sleet at me sideways. My face stung as needles of ice stabbed my face. My eyes were nearly shut to protect them from the pelting, so I couldn’t clearly see the nearly frozen puddles well enough to avoid them. My shoes were constantly being filled to the brim with icy slush, freezing the joints of my toes. Both of the thick, thermal layers of my clothes were drenched to the skin and must have weighed an extra ten pounds. The wind blowing off the lake was strong enough to push me sideways each time both feet were off the ground. I had to run at a slight diagonal to stay on the path – but still I ran.

On Wednesday it was 18 degrees when I got home late from a Christmas party. After eight hours of working followed by three hours of drinking and an hour home on the train I was still a little drunk, and more than a little tired. And still I ran.

On Thursday it was 7 degrees. My sweat turned to icicles formed in my beard, my brow, my chest, my hair. And still I ran.

On Friday I was wiped out. I came home and did some dishes, and laid in bed for a few minutes. One knee was in pain. The tendons in my opposite heel were so tight I could hardly flex my foot. For some reason my back was throbbing. I felt myself start to drift to sleep . . . but I got up, swallowed some ibuprofen, changed clothes, and still I ran.

I can’t say for certain why this kick has lasted as long as it has, compared to all the other times over the years this level of progress was unreachable. Something about me has changed, and not just in my exercise routine, but in all things. I try harder. I do better. I achieve more. When I was growing up I used to fantasize about what kind of adult I would turn out to be, and by the time I was in college I was starting to get frustrated that I wasn’t anywhere close. A few years out of college I got more and more disappointed that I couldn’t live up to the standard I had set for myself when I was a friendless fat kid. But I’m proud to say that here, today, finally, I’ve become someone I can be proud of. I have a measure of self-respect that I’ve never before attained. I finally feel like I’m no longer behind.

And that thought brings a level of contentment, of inner peace, more than anything in my life ever has.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Until I Bleed

The quarter is over, but I’ve found myself with the opportunity to stay as busy as I ever have been. The final hurdle for classes was borne of my own wait-until-the-last-minute attitude; I started writing my final thesis paper at 1:00 a.m. on the day it was due. I expunged my ideas onto the page through a mental shunt, expectorated through the assistance of coffee, cigarettes, peanuts, half a 10” Godiva chocolate cheesecake (thanks Mom & Dad), and a four hour nap on the couch. I could have expanded more on some of my ideas and made the paper a bit longer; but once they were all out of my brain, onto the screen, and deemed coherent by an old friend, a quick reformat to MLA style told me I had hit the minimum page requirement, and the light in my brain flickered out like a candle at the end of its wick. Two days, two liters of Irish, and twenty-two hours of sleep later, I re-read it to find I had done a pretty decent job. I finished the quarter with a 3.43 GPA, which doesn’t disappoint me because I know I could have tried harder and done better. Good thing I have eight more of those to prove this.

We’re technically on a break, but my days haven’t gotten any shorter since it began. I work my usual 9-5, Monday through Friday office job. My current task is to compile thirteen years worth of monthly newsletters (while still putting out new ones) and input the information into one big database. I’ve been at it for about a week, and I don’t expect I’ll be done before the end of next summer. It’s nice to have a guarantee that I’ll be able to work the maximum number of allowed hours to help get the gorilla of credit card debt off my back. Speaking of, only one payment remains on one card before it’s paid off, and transferring that payment to another card for January will pay it off, too. After those two are paid, I'll only have 2 cards, 1 loan, and 1 IRS back-payment to make each month. Until I graduate, and have to start paying back my FAFSA for grad school and the deferment ends for my undergrad loan…

I hope someday between now and then to own a television. I miss watching movies and TV on the couch instead of my desk chair.

I got to capitalize on my income (and my free time) this weekend by picking up a few shifts for a friend who does building security. For three nights I sat in the lobby of the building where Bugsy Moran once lived. It’s cool being in the lobby of history; above me is the penthouse where a prohibition era gangster escaped the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre ‘cause he didn’t get the message about the meeting, and below me are the deep, deep vaults where he hid his liquor.

Then on Sunday I was a child wrangler (yeehaw) for a table reading of A Raisin in the Sun before heading over to the home of an out-of-town friend to play with his kittens and his Nintendo. Turns out the new Punch Out is just as infuriating as an adult as the old one was twenty years ago.

Wow. I clearly remember stuff that happened twenty years ago. Never did that before.

And being out of extra-curricular tasks for the time being, I’m back to taking my exercise up another notch. I’m at the frustrating point of weight loss where the progress tapers off and becomes barely noticeable. So instead of getting discouraged, I’m working out for 30 minutes in the morning and an hour at night. It’s weird how expending more energy gives me so much more energy. I wake up just as easily as I fall asleep at night (which is to say very easily), and my morning coffee is all the caffeine I need all day. So far I’ve taken 5 ½ inches off my waist at about a loss of something like 30 pounds since the day after my birthday when I started this process. One of these days I’ll have to figure out how to get a shirtless picture of myself that doesn’t make me look like a douchebag.

Fun fact – one can indeed jog over snow and ice when it’s 28 degrees outside. More on this as it develops.

These last two years have been an abusive, torturous Hell of a rich and various nature as I paid for the mistakes of my 20’s. I have been wounded. I have bled. I have despaired. For a while there I was downright pissy (don’t take my word for it, just ask anybody). But I have risen each day seeking the paths of salvation no matter how arduous, faced every challenge that awaited me and those that came unbidden. I have stood victorious as often as I have failed, each win more significant than the last. And I will sleep each night secure in the knowledge that I am better prepared for tomorrow’s trials than I was yesterday. And I will stand and face each one in turn or several at once, and those I do not master today will fall before me as a curtain of ash falls before a windstorm.

Bring it on, motherfuckers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


It’s been three months now that I’ve lived in my current apartment, and Nuku and I have not been the only ones living in this 5 room vintage abode. Since before I moved in, the kitchen has been claimed by a hive of roaches that seem to be based somewhere behind the stove. I am not a fan.

I didn’t have my cooking gas turned on when I first moved in, so I mostly ate microwavables. I believed the lack of crumb collection and stain production for the first two weeks I lived here would put a damper on their ability to persist, but I was wrong. I still find them creeping around, and the regular cooking habits I’ve been employing have only served them further.

I’ve tried baits. I’ve tried poisonous sprays. I’ve tried seek-and-destroy operations involving a paper towel. I’ve considered napalm, propaganda flyers, converting them to Islam, signing them up for military service, and exorcism. Sometimes they go on hiatus for a week or two at a time, but they always return looking refreshed. Little bastards.

Really, they’re not hurting anything. But they’re supposed to be gross. I haven’t gotten sick or diseased. They only eat what I’m finished with; I’ve never seen them encounter food I hadn’t taken to first. Indeed, when I enter the kitchen, they scurry away immediately, polite as can be. They realize they aren’t wanted, but a bug’s gotta eat.

In truth, I don’t even know that they ARE roaches. They’re little critters who scurry when the lights turn on, and they’re interested in my leftovers and stove stains. They may even be what restaurant managers like to tell customers are water bugs, something to mollify the masses by claiming what crawls in the kitchen are cute little misunderstood Disney creatures that sing and dance when we’re not looking. Personally I don’t find them to be all that intrusive, but it’s not inconceivable that a Pretty Girl will be a welcome guest at some point in my (near?) future, and she may not have a similarly enlightened (slovenly?) attitude about the difference between true tragedies and a pesky nuisance.

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that I want them gone, and they won’t go. My personal characteristic of perseverance has been presented with a puzzle, just the sort of thing to focus and heighten my deep, inescapable need to solve it. This happens every time I’m faced with a challenge, a dilemma, or just about anything that needs to be corrected, fixed, or untangled. I achieve a state of Attention Surplus Disorder, virtually unable to move on to another task until the current one is accomplished. This focus typically persists to the exclusion of all other stimuli, such as eating, bathing, or being lit on fire. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and I have picked it up and embraced it. I’m going to chew up iron nails and spit out bullets and Hellfire until the only inhabitants not on my lease are the dust bunnies. And those fuckers are next.

Also, I have little to focus my attention upon for the next five weeks while I wait for the next quarter to start.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I used to get terrified about doing schoolwork. Anxiety attacks over doing the simplest assignments were crippling, and I had to drop out of college for a semester and deal with it. It was the thing that made me a bad student as an undergrad, it’s the thing that made me miss an opportunity to go to UCLA for grad school five years ago, and it’s the thing that made me terrified I would do horribly at DePaul.

But I guess it’s different when I’m spending my time and efforts doing only that which I want to be doing with my life. I’m not forced to get that well-rounded Bachelor’s degree, taking classes that have little to do with my interests; all the reading and studying I do is for the sole purpose of following my heart’s desire. I go to the theatre two or three times a week, notepad in hand, and I get to go as more of an active participant than a passive observer. Most of our reading materials were designed to entertain the masses, which makes the subject of my fifteen page thesis (due next week, better get started) more of a hobby than a chore. Once upon a time I had one of the secrets to happiness whispered into my ear – find what you love to do, then find how to make your living doing that. I can verify that this is absolutely true. I only wish I’d realized it wasn’t supposed to be easy, so I wouldn’t have been so discouraged by my many failures before I got here. Not that I wasn’t told. I just didn’t realize.

There’s something else I’ve heard many times, many ways; sometimes things go wrong in life so we can tell the difference, and appreciate it, when things go right. By the time I decided I needed to go back to school and get what I’d cheated myself out of the first time around, I had been out of college for longer than it took me to go through college. I had a debt equivalent to more than a year’s pay. I was still going to work wearing a unitard and a cape. I cringed every time a customer was certain I was really a professional actor just moonlighting as a waiter, because I knew the opposite was true. Fear and doubt held me stronger than any ropes or chains ever could.

Inspired by the words of two artists I admire, Stevie Ray Vaughan and J.D. Challenger, I knew if I spent one more day compromising my dreams I’d be doing it the rest of my life. The fire of my soul would have vanished with neither a bang nor a whimper, but rather I’d wake up one day wondering how long it had been since I’d remembered what it once had been like to dream that particular dream. I decided being a failure was far, far more appealing than being a quitter. At least then I could respect myself for having tried. But it turns out I’m not too shabby at this “acting” business. My time spent with MXAT verified this. After that it was just a matter of progressive choices, fortune, perseverance, and patience as the pages on the calendar fluttered away before I found myself landed in the right place at the right time.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I didn’t get started sooner, and I may even be grateful for it. I’ve seen the abysmal consequences of quitting without devoting myself fully to theatre, leaving my heart to suffocate under the oppressive weight of a discarded dream. I’ve come to learn exactly how passionately I love what I do. If I had pursued this path before I made these realizations, I may never have had the tenacity to make the most of the opportunity which now envelopes me like a warm blanket.

Failure is a tool. When used incorrectly, it’s nothing more than a dead albatross around a sailor’s neck. When used properly, it defines the edges of capability and provides a map for improvement. Follow the compass within your heart, keep your bearings, and keep propelling yourself, and soon you’ll discover you’re living in the land of your dreams during your waking hours instead of merely visiting while you sleep.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shaping Up

I hurt my back in the move. It wasn’t serious, and I honestly doubt I would have noticed if I still worked in an office chair all day without giving myself the opportunity to explore any possible damage I’d done to myself. But the movement intensive nature of an acting program means I’m moving all day in nearly every class; rolling on the floor, running and jumping around a classroom, climbing on and over objects (or my classmates), and that doesn’t even include the intensive movement-specific classes of yoga or Feldenkrais.

It kept hurting no matter what I tried, so I decided to try going for a run. I stopped exercising on my own when the quarter started (note – school here is done in three quarters instead of two semesters from early September to mid-June), partly under the assumption that school would give me all the exercise I needed, and partly because finding/making the time to get it done was nearly ridiculous. Running has been known to aggravate my lower back (which is the part I hurt in the move), but I was so sick and tired of hurting all the time, I felt like taking back some control. If I was going to hurt, I wanted it to be because of a specific action I’d taken, something to which I could point and say, “That’s it, that’s the reason.” I wanted to take ownership of and responsibility for my pain instead of simply being affected by it.

I wasn’t prepared for the result, however – the next day I quit hurting at all. No back pain whatsoever. I could twist, bend, flex, raise and lower myself in any direction for any duration. Having spent six weeks in mild to moderate agony, I felt like I had discovered superpowers. I was elated.

So elated, in fact, I found a place in the building of The Theatre School where I could put on my grappling gloves and shadow box again. Punching bags are annoying because they move too much. I have a half-hour routine of hitting something to the beat of the songs I’ve put into a playlist, and a variable, mobile surface doesn’t let me keep the pace I prefer. So I found a support beam in the room where we have yoga three days a week, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays before yoga class, I spend thirty minutes driving my (lightly) padded knuckles into the wall to the music of Korn, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, and Faith No More. The constantly scraped flesh and gently bruised bone serves as a perfect constant, daily reminder that I’m alive.

And every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening I spend 34 minutes pounding the pavement in attempt to get as far north as possible before time runs out, and then another 34 minutes coming back. The total distance I cover in this time is just over eight miles.

Between the heavily aerobic nature of these routines and three days a week of yoga, I’m looking pretty good in the mirror these days. I started losing weight almost six months ago, and with the exception of a six week hiatus when school started, I’ve kept it up through sheer discipline, determination, and motivation. I’ve finally lost enough fat that my musculature is showing through, and I’ve been surprising myself about once a week. Last night I even put on one of my favorite suits to go see a play; I haven’t fit into it properly in more than five years (if I ever did; I have no memory of not having to squeeze into it), but now it fits like it was tailored for me.

This is the first time in my life I’ve lost weight purely through self-direction. In the past it’s all been a part of financial circumstance, extreme depression, or a class I’m taking (BJJ or TKD). Admittedly I’m a poor grad student who can’t afford to go out to eat, I did suffer the most devastating breakup of my life earlier this year, and my acting class curriculum isn’t exactly lackadaisical. Nonetheless, these things combined with what I’m doing purely on my own are taking a wonderful toll on my physique, and I’m proud.

Now if I could only quit smoking…

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Critically Thinking

No real time to post something new lately, so here's a paper I wrote for a class instead.

People are people, making the same mistakes and suffering the same misfortunes time and again. History is to be studied because it reminds us of where we’ve been as something that transcends an individual culture or society, and unites us as a race of humans. Paths we have chosen that led to doom before are likely to do so again. We study, and we (hopefully) learn from our mistakes. But no study of cultural history can prepare us for the perilous choices of the heart’s desire, which always aches for what it wants like a petulant infant, independent from the influences of our intellect or our common sense. Lookingglass’ Fedra explores this point as plainly as I have ever seen, with the added element (excuse?) that the deepest desires of our heart can be completely out of our control; sometimes it is the will of the gods that shreds our rational selves, so thoroughly bent and driven by the act of acquiring the object of our affection that we would betray any individual or moral code.
Set in a modern, alternate-reality Haiti, Fedra does well at acclimating the staging of the ancient Greek performances in which the story’s origin lie. The set is simple, with a bank of doors along the rear wall that make a fan of Greek theatre nod appreciatively at their presence. Set changes were done with such a seamless fluidity as to not be distracting; worth mentioning due to the contrast with other productions I’ve seen this month. Particularly impressive was the attention to detail of the pillars at the downstage corners, disappearing after a few feet only to be continued and completed twenty feet higher. I kept an eye to see which of the actors would flub by breaking the plane of what was supposed to be there, and was greatly satisfied when the only character to do so was Afrodite, providing a directorial nod of acknowledgement of the supernatural power of the gods that puts the “b” in “subtle”.
The performances, unfortunately, were largely adequate at best. Particularly distracting was Hippolytus’ wince at the mention of his lady-love, Aricia, looking so mechanical that I winced myself. Theseus, however, gave me chills at the cursing of his son. He gave a look of contempt so convincing it could only have been delivered by someone who’d spoken to my own father about my teenage years. Afrodite brought a power and commanding presence that could only belong to a being above and beyond regality, aided by the direction and the other performers’ synchronicity, most notably (and obviously) Fedra. No other performer left an impression worth remembering, for good or for ill.
Putting a god into a 21st century setting is easy for a person of my background and tastes, but I suspect the author had a somewhat lower expectation of the typical audience member’s ability to fit that round peg into the square hole through which they view the world. For example, if the play had been set in modern day America with the presidential family as the center of the story, there would certainly have been a disproportionate number of people who wouldn’t be able to see the forest of plot for the view of that particular tree. But the added element of setting the play in a 21st century Haiti that operates as the seat of world superpowerdom operates like a mnemonic plot device. Changing a single yet powerful element of the world view strains credulity, but changing two or more of these elements cements the viewpoint into a more easily digestible package, allowing the audience to focus instead on the overall story instead of breaking down its inconsistencies with the world in which they each grew up.
This has the further effect of providing the ability to slip truth into fiction. One cannot see this play without seeing the parallels of the African-American experience made manifest under the universal guise of an ancient storyline. If the play were simply to have been billed as “The African-American Phaedra”, it’s certainly conceivable that it would lose some appeal to a non-black audience regardless of the play’s content or execution.

Sometimes eloquent, sometimes brutal, yet always honest, Fedra delivers a kick to the human psyche that tells us where we’ve been is exactly where we’re going. The heart does as the heart does – or as the gods will – and our choices are limited purely to how we interpret and react to the accidents of our circumstances.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Like Never Before

A month ago, everything changed. I handed my life over to The Theatre School at DePaul University, which demands every waking moment (and a few sleeping ones) to helping me accomplish my career goals. I’m taking eight classes (not my idea) consisting of Yoga, Feldenkrais, Acting, Makeup, Voice & Speech, Improv, Seminar, and Studio. I won’t go into what happens in each of those, but if I were to add it up, there’s scarcely a full hour in the day I’m not at least thinking about one assignment or another.

Not to mention work. I got a job editing/redesigning Theatre School News, a monthly newsletter that highlights (among other things) what the DePaul Theatre School alums are up to. At first my work hours were limited by when the school’s office was open (Monday through Friday, 9-5), but once I realized I had the capacity to work from home, that became my new base of operations since most of my 9-5 hours are taken up by my classes.

The next time vampire has had to do with moving into a new apartment. It took two and a half weeks before I could have my cooking gas turned on, and it took the cable company three visits over three weeks to install my internet. I finally got internet access last Saturday, and I’ve had my service shut off three times because my account is more than 60 days past due. I think they’re not going to rest until I’ve explained to everyone at that company that this is physically impossible.

Now for the good news, in reverse. My apartment is huge and comfy. All hardwood floors, five rooms, lots of sunlight, and it’s on the 3rd floor (technically 4th, since much of Chicago starts counting floors with the second) of a corner facing East and South, about 100 paces from the train. Nuku can’t go outside anymore, but she has a long hallway to run down, which seems to keep her mollified. It’s also the first place I’ve lived with direct sunlight, so she spends half the daylight hours finding a cozy windowsill in which to roast herself. Sooner or later I’m getting a large dining table, if only because I can’t figure out what the hell else I’m going to do with a dining room.

Working on the Theatre School Newsletter is amazing for the knowledge that DePaul graduates get work and support. Our graduates have gone on to be principal cast members in shows like X-Files, Weeds, and Castle, worked on and in major motion pictures, become screenwriters, playwrights, and opened theatre companies. I love knowing that once I graduate I’ll be connected to a network of working professionals who got their education as far back as 1947.

As for the classes, I couldn’t be happier or more challenged in them. Acting is a craft that uses the whole body as an instrument, and to that end I’m heightening the capabilities of my body, mind and voice to previously unchallenged levels. We’re barely three weeks in, and I’ve already brought two projects from conception to execution. One of my professors just
opened a show starring an Oscar nominee (which I’m going to see tomorrow), and another is the chief theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune. In short, I’ve never been in a time or place more suited to making my childhood dreams come true.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

One More Time

I imagine that everyone hates moving. I’m speaking of the physical process of packing up all your stuff, loading it and carting it over somewhere else. A new place to live, a new home to set up, speaks to the nature of new beginnings. It’s like celebrating New Year’s Eve, casting off the old for the promise of the new. And we don’t need any certainties, just the promise. It’s full of magic and hope.

That magic evaporated for me some years ago, the hope slain by the sheer number of times I’ve changed my address. To date, I have packed up everything I own and moved myself –

1 – May 2001, out of my parents’ house for the first time
2 – May 2002, my roommate and I found a better deal
3 – May 2003, my roommate and I found a 3rd person, needed a bigger place
4 – October 2003, moved to my parents’ as I was getting ready to move to Houston and get married
5 – November 2003, took all my stuff to Houston, had a panic attack, broke up with the girl, and moved back all in the same day. Possibly the longest day of my life.
6 – December 2003, found my own place to live
7 – December 2004, back with my parents’ thinking I may go to grad school soon. Didn’t.
8 – October 2005, moved in with a girlfriend
9 – December 2005, her lease ended, we got a bigger place
10 – December 2006, we broke up, found another place; February, new girlfriend moved in
11 – May 2007, sublet a friends’ place for the summer
12 – August 2007, moved to Chicago (first move outside the immediate Dallas area)
13 – February 2008, girlfriend and I split, got my own place
14 – August 2009, my building shut down for renovations, forced to find another place

Which brings us to today. My next apartment (keep your fingers crossed, I’m only just today filling out the application) is one quarter mile from my current place. And yet despite this closeness I have to rent a truck, pack everything into boxes, load it, drive it, unload it, return the truck, set up the new place . . . .

And this is after a week’s search. I found an adequate place, but kept looking. I found a wonderful place, but before I could say yes, I got sniped by the agent’s daughter-in-law’s mother. So I went to fill out the application at the adequate place, but they’d forgotten to tell me they don’t allow students. Then a friend gave me a lead in her building, and when I opened my mouth to say “I’d like to fill out the application,” I remembered to say, “Do you allow a cat?” They don’t.

Yesterday I saw, and decided I liked well enough, a new place. It’s big and it’s sunny. It’s on the top (3rd) floor on the corner facing south and east. I’ll have a dining room for the first time, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever use it except that for some reason the closet is in there instead of the bedroom. But then my closet is currently off the entry way nearer to the kitchen, so I guess I’m kinda used to that.

And I promise to love, love, love this place as long as I get to keep it until I can afford to pay somebody else to pack and move my stuff for me. But if it doesn’t work that way, and it probably won’t, I’ll just do what I always do. Shout at something, punch the wall, and grab some classifieds.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Decisions, My Mistakes, My Life – My Own

This is my life now.
There are many like it, but
This life is now mine.

Many years ago I made a series of mistakes that took me upwards of $40,000 in credit card debt. The minimum monthly payments were equivalent, if not a little higher, than the combined remainder of my cost of living. Today, I couldn’t even tell you what I spent that money on. I can tell you that thanks to interest, I’ve paid back far more than that trying to clear it out.

When I graduated college, it was this (still escalating) debt that kept me showing up to my job every day. Customers asked me how I managed to maintain my constant level of energy and enthusiasm while wearing tights and a cape, and I’d answer, “I just think of my Visa bill.” It was a joke, and they’d usually laugh. But it was also true.

I allowed my debt to feed my fear of pursuing an acting career. I was safe and comfortable taking no risks. Indeed, my entire life I’ve been shiftless, motivated to action only out of necessity, and then only when prodded. Uninspired. Unimpressive. Afraid. Until I was 26 I was never outside of Dallas for more than a week, scared and homesick and nearly desperate to return to familiar surroundings. I didn’t even bother to lie to myself and say I was happy at my dead end job, because if I ever did I would realize just how much I wanted to be doing something else. But to do something else would make me vulnerable. To admit what I really wanted and go for it was too frightening, because if I tried and I failed would be worse than never trying. But comfortable acquiescence wasn’t the same as fulfillment, and I grew more and more unhappy.

I remember the moment the scales tipped. I had fallen in love with a most ambitious woman with remarkably ambitious companions. I remember the way she talked about them, and I wanted her to think of me the way she thought of them. I began to consider where I was in my life, which was four years out of college with a resume of a fresh graduate. The parade of life kept going after I had stopped moving with it, and as I stood still a new world washed over me. First it was a cold, dark and empty place with no one to point me in a direction I was willing to go, and later it became the world I fit myself into instead of keeping up with the world I wanted to be in. I remembered the passion I had begun to develop for artistic creation and performance, and my heart began to bleed and radiate the need get back into that world. I needed to catch back up.

I began doing voice overs and loved it, but couldn’t get enough work to make me happy. I applied for grad school and was rejected. I got into a play, but the rehearsal schedule conflicted with my job, and the money I lost was five times the paltry sum they paid me. The half-summer I spent in Cambridge was the most influential. I spent weeks working with my contemporaries and old school Russian professionals, and I earned the deepest sense of confidence in myself thanks to the praise and respect I got from fellow students and teachers alike. I finally realized I had nothing to fear. I was good at this, and being good at what I love to do lit a fire under me. I would do whatever it took to make this my life. I would go anywhere, suffer any indignity in the pursuit of my dream. I was still afraid, but that fear was quieted by my desire.

I came to Chicago on a whim. I had high aspirations of what I would do and be able to accomplish, and fear wasn’t going to stop me. I had established the passion in my heart, and I had confirmation of my skill, and I was in the right place. The only thing I was missing was a resource of income, whereby I would be able to pay those minimum credit card payments of about $1,000 a month and still eat.

I needed a job, any job, and I was here for several weeks before I got one. I took out a sizeable loan, sold my truck (sniff), cashed in my entire 401k, and in spite of the blessed assistance Heather gave me, I burned through all that money before I got my first real paycheck. I took any source of income that came along, including two menial jobs that each paid half what I was expecting to make. Soon after, I took a third job and got a promotion at the second, and I started to catch up. A few months later and I actually started to get ahead.

Money was the first tangible hurdle to starting my theatrical career, and it was the last thing I started to clear out of my way. Being in debt has ruled my life since I was twenty years old. I have ached and screamed and raged and cried over it, most especially once I began to realize just how much it was stopping me from living the sort of life I really wanted. The last two years it ached and palled working sixty to eighty hours a week trying to make up for my mistakes, watching my life tick away while I did nothing that made me happy. I hated what it meant to be working these jobs, I hated not having any sort of hobby, and I hated not having the time or energy to go out and have a good time with the woman I loved. It was like running up a rockslide, the ground sliding out from under my feet with every leap forward, bloodying my knees and knuckles and toes, grasping for anything I could use to pull me ahead.

Finally, blessedly, I made to solid ground. Through all these hours of toil and misery, exhaustion and sacrifice, money is no longer a problem. I’ll have the student loan debts in a few years, but that will accrue during the pursuit of a lifelong dream. Every cent spent on education is money spent well and to good purpose, which is far more than I can say for the first round of debts I incurred. I’ll still be living in debt, but I’ll be working for, and on, and toward my heart’s true passion and desire. I can live with that, and happily.

I never would have made it through without the constant support of one other. She was my relief and my release and I relied on her daily to sustain my sanity. I was grateful for her in a way I was never able to articulate, and every effort to do so fell woefully short. It was just one of the reasons I fell so desperately in love with her. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to give to her the love and gratitude and passion I carry, to focus on her the way she always deserved. If I’m very lucky, she’ll want me to. And if I’m very lucky indeed, she’ll want me, too.

As for today, and tomorrow . . . they belong solely to me. All other problems and hurdles are out of my way. Every obligation I have coming, every choice that presents itself and every decision I make is directly related to living the dream. The approaching days are the ones that matter most, more than any single day that has come before.

Coming to Chicago was a reboot, and a confirmation of my worst fears about really getting started on doing something important with my life. I’ve never had so much standing in my way, so many challenges to overcome, so many hardships to endure; but I’ve also never taken so many risks, or tried to accomplish so much. And when I look back over the time I spent here, I’m proud to say that for everything I tried to do, I succeeded. Every obstacle I faced, I defeated. And there’s only one thing I really, really wanted and couldn’t get no matter how hard I tried.

Maybe I am human, after all.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I only have five days left at my temp job, and there's no one way to feel about it. It was originally intended to be a three month project. As those three months were wrapping up, I began to feel a bit empty. I had never before had an office job. I learned a new set of skills and abilities I didn't know I had. I developed a previously unparalleled work ethic and an obsessive attention to detail and accuracy. I was proud of what I had accomplished, and for it to end so soon after it began made me feel like I was missing out on a much grander part of who I was capable of becoming.

Then the job got extended and, nineteen months later, I'm the last one left. At the end of the first three months, a sixty person staff was cut to thirty. A year later, thirty people became seven. Of the seven, everyone but me has been hired on – or transferred to another project – by the company we’re temping for; so my last week on the job will be spent all by my lonesome. I was there on day one, October 10 2007, and now I'm Last Man Standing. It's an odd, lonely feeling.

I'm thrilled it lasted as long as it did. Compared to the service industry, it was such a low stress position it was virtually a dream. Creative problem solving was the order of nearly every day. The face and nature of the workload changed from one month to the next so I never felt locked into the same routine as I once had been, repeating monotonous patterns of drink specials and showcasing the salad bar and singing Happy Birthday a dozen times a day or more. I rose up a few ranks, worked lots and lots of overtime, and paid off FIVE credit cards. I became a manager, then a supervisor, and then the supervisor, all the while earning the trust and respect of the professionals who made this company their life's work. And this coming Friday, when I put my back to that building for the last time, I'll feel a well rounded sense of fulfillment and the swell of pride from a job well done, many times over.

But then what?

School is the next step. It was five years ago that I first made the decision to move on with my life, my dream, my career. After several rejections and a severe false start, it's finally happening. People keep asking me if I'm excited, but I don't know how to be, because I don't know what to expect. I know it will challenge me to a depth I've never experienced. I'm (most likely) getting a work study position that will utilize the skills and talents I acquired from my temp job. I'm going to be plunged into an environment I've not known in eight years with a group of people I've never met. I'm moving out of my home into a new one, most likely into a new neighborhood.

I don’t know what these classes are going to expect from me. I don't know these 10 other people to whom I'll be attached for the next three years, or if I'll have the opportunity to meet anyone else. I don't know where I'm going to live, and I don’t know what sort of lifestyle will be within my financial reach.

Yes, I’m excited. But I’m also terrified.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Eating Fried Worms

At some point during Elementary school we read a book called How to Eat Fried Worms. The main character bet his friends $50 he could eat a worm every day for fifteen days. Fearing they’re going to lose, his friends distract him – they take him out for a day, keep him busy, entertain him, and keep his mind off the bet. It almost works; but at the end of the day, lying in bed about to pass through the veil into the realm of dreams, his mind flashes back to his daily cross to bear, and he wastes no time engaging his energies toward eating his daily worm.

This is analogous to how I’ve felt lately. I’ve been eating a worm every day for months and more than months, feeding my ache and misery and giving me license to complain and feel sorry for myself. I’m delighted to say my friends have stepped up and are keeping me distracted. Sometimes with small notes and messages of support, and sometimes with long phone calls. Sometimes with activities – I’ve been hiking in Utica, went to the Brookfield Zoo, sat on a rooftop and pounded back beers for six hours, passed out on a friend’s couch after drinking a few bottles of wine discussing art and politics – and that was just in the last week.

On my own, I’ve been reading a lot. I finished four novels in the last two weeks, and today I bought four more. I’ve been exercising a lot – I recently mapped the exact distance of my jogging routes to discover I run 26 miles a week.
I’ve cinched my belt two notches, and out of curiosity I got out a ruler and measured the distance between them to discover I’ve lost 2½ inches off my waist. Including the punching & jump rope routines I do, I’m in better physical shape than I have been in years.

Then there’s the writing. I haven’t expressed this very often, but being a professional writer was my first passion. I tried to write fictional stories once upon a time, but realized I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say. It’s been said one must write from personal experiences, but I never felt I had done anything interesting enough to translate onto a page, whether it be writing pure truth or transposing true experiences to fiction. So I made the decision to lead the most interesting possible life; to take more risks, learn new skills, practice a variety of hobbies, hold a few different jobs. I’m studying acting now because I have a creative beast within that must be fed; but it’s just one more step in the process toward one day creating and telling stories that breed inspiration, education, encouragement, and entertainment.

I blog not because I’m certain people are interested in what I have to say or the stories I have to tell. Don’t get me wrong; I’m an artist who craves an audience, so if you appreciate what I put down, well that’s an extra little thrill. But the main reason I do it is that writing takes the full extent of my concentration, a nicely distracting hobby that takes my mind off the worst parts of my day. I put my best effort into deciding what I want to say and how to order and structure my ideas into a smoothly flowing story. I spend hours choosing which words and phrases will best communicate the emotional and intellectual response I’m aiming for while keeping it all entertaining. One day I’ll think of a story interesting enough to publish and (dare I say) sell. By then my skills will be sharpened by my years of posting here, and I’ll be able to knock that out the way a martial arts student one day finds himself attacked in a dark alley.

But these days it’s all about choosing which worm to eat, and which to be distracted from eating. In the continued spirit of good news/bad news balance, I got a piece of each this week. I found out my last day at the “temp” job is Friday, August 14th – that’s the good news. I finally get to know exactly how much longer I’ll be there, exactly how many dollars I’ll have to rely on between now and the beginning of school. It’s been a huge question whether I could financially survive the span between my last paycheck and my FAFSA refund, and I now know with certainty that I will – quite possibly without having to touch my savings account to do it.

The bad news this week was an email informing me that my student loan amount has been “revised”. And by revised they mean it got lowered by the amount of my scholarship. It’s a fair thing to do, and I know I’ll appreciate it in the long run when I have several thousand fewer dollars to pay back. But it would have been nice to have this information months ago; I was planning my future living expenses based on a budget $1,200 a month higher than I’m actually going to have. So in short, this week I learned the question of surviving August is now a certainty, but the certainty of surviving the next three years has been called into question. I’m relieved I’ve been stalling on finding a place to live, because I don’t know what I would have done if I’d already signed a lease for a place I cannot possibly afford.

It was at the end of June when I took a smoke break at work and was approached by a man from India, as evidenced by his ethnicity, his accent, and the fact that he told me he was from India. He told me I had a kind aura and that I clearly was the type of person who liked to handle problems on his own without asking for help or support. He guessed my favorite color and number between one and ten. He iterated that at some point during the months of July and/or August I would be very lucky. Then he held out his wallet, asked for a donation, and when I gave him two dollars he asked me if I couldn’t afford ten. I told him I couldn’t, and it was true.

Since then I’ve been pondering what he meant by telling me I would be lucky. Now that July is over the window of opportunity for luck to come into my life has half-closed. And what are the most significant events of July? I got my heart broken by the same woman for the third time since January, but I finally started to figure out how to get through the day without looking for a way to win her back, so in a way I guess that almost balances out. I got short-term financial relief but long term financial insecurity, so that’s a wash. Am I supposed to become lucky in that my circumstances change for the better, or because they fail to get worse? I’ve not won the lottery or fallen in love, but neither have I been hit by a bus or struck by lightning, so I can’t tell which it is.

Of course, he never specified that it would be good luck. I’m going to see if I can keep my fingers crossed for the whole month of August.

Now where’s that worm?

“Every day takes figurin’ out all over again how to fuckin’ live.”

Friday, July 31, 2009

Saturday, February 26, 2005

From time to time, I pick a martial art to study for a while. When I was a kid, it was Karate. When I was in college, it was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Later, it was Tae Kwon Do. And briefly, more recently, I’ve even dabbled in Tai Chi, Systema, and Aikido. Put them together, and I’ve spent more time studying martial arts & self-defense than most people with a post-graduate degree spent in college.

TKD was the only discipline I studied that offered the breaking of a board as a belt test requirement. This didn’t happen until the test for green belt. The belt level progression was white, orange, yellow, yellow-with-stripe, green (obviously there were many higher belts, but they don’t appear in this story). There were about six weeks in-between tests, and that’s only if you were taking as many classes as possible to hit the minimum number required for the next test. Which is what I had been doing.

The school sold plastic boards which break apart and reattach for practice purposes. I remembered my school days and the teachers who told us that the homework should be harder than the quizzes should be harder than the tests; in order to be fully prepared, you had to train harder than the challenge would require. With this in mind I bought the practice board with the highest possible strength, rated at 2¼ boards. Master Lee tried to discourage me from doing so. “What happens if you don’t break it?” he asked.

I could only think of one consequence, and it was acceptable. “It’ll hurt,” I said. Pain on my knuckles would heal, and the hands are far enough away from any major organ so I knew it wouldn’t ever risk my life. Of all the things I want to accomplish, only death would keep me from all of them. Because of this, I lose much of my fear for a thing if I’m convinced it’s not going to kill me.

Board breaks are tricky. Fear of pain can cause you to pull your punch so you don’t hit will full force. If you don’t go through the board, the energy you put toward it ricochets back into your hand. This hurts, and the harder you hit without breaking just makes it hurt more. But if you get all the way through, the energy transfers into the open space behind the board, and any pain is completely diminished by the flush of victory.

Now that I think about it, this is one of those transcendental truths that can be applied to any challenge.

By the time I was preparing for my green belt test, a new head instructor had been brought in to restructure things in order to maintain attendance and interest for the school. One of the changes he made was to introduce weapons, where I got to learn a little about how to use nunchaku and a katana. Totally sweet, but part of another story (I’ll tell that one later, it has a soundtrack and everything).

The day of my coveted green belt test was a little disappointing. Another major change Master Lee made to the school was that everyone, even the white belts, get to break a board. I had been training there for months, and yet my first board break wasn’t going to be any more special than those who had started just a few weeks before. Undaunted, I kept positive; this was still my first board break, and this test would still be important to me.

Part of the restructuring of the school also meant a streamlined test day. Previously the test days would take a few hours, but Master Lee brought that down to a total of about ninety minutes. Mostly the time was cut by allowing several students to perform their board break at the same time instead of one-by-one. I aided the process by holding the boards for other students, which is exciting in and of itself. When a nervous belt candidate is charging toward you to channel their effort and power and energy into destroying something you’re holding, it can be a challenge not to flinch. Even when you don’t, your fingertips occasionally get banged from a poorly aimed strike.

But when that board snaps, everyone in the room relaxes and swells with encouragement and pride. Holding the broken pieces, there’s a smell of sawdust which adds to the coolness factor. It’s a great feeling for everyone involved.

It was a particularly large number of people testing that day – more than forty. Even with four or five people doing their breaks at once, it still took some time to get through everyone. I kept moving around helping others, being one with enough physical strength and confidence to hold a board steady.

Finally it came to be my turn to break. I went to the stack of 12” squares of wood in the corner and chose one at random. I put faith that they were all pretty much the same, but Master Lee grabbed a different board and handed it to me. I was sure he thought I had made a bad choice, and I tried to ponder whether he was handing me what he thought would be an easier board to break, or a harder one. What he said was, “Do two.” Wha… woah.

I walked over to the instructors who would be holding the boards for me and saw several raised eyebrows. “You’ve never broken a board before, have you?” one of them asked.

“No Sir.”

“Then why do you have two boards?” I felt like a child with his hand in the cookie jar. He wasn’t being rude or cynical, but something about the demeanor of a high level black belt can turn “What are you doing?” into “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?!” I gaped a little, unable to think of anything to say. I turned to Master Lee, who waved his assent.

“He’s fine, he can do two,” he said, exhibiting as much confidence as if he’d been asked whether I could walk across the room without falling down. Ironically, at that moment, I’m not sure I could have.

Four men held the boards for me. I got into my stance and lined up the edge of my hand with the center of the board. I tried to concentrate, but my awareness was brought to exactly who was holding the boards; it was our four highest ranked instructors, aged men of 3rd to 5th degree black belts. Each man was giving me the Thousand Yard Stare. For a moment I wondered if they would remove my heart and place it on a scale opposite a feather…

…then I noticed the utter silence in the room. I was the only student left to test, and all eyes in the room were on me. Every instructor. Every student. Every student’s friend or family member who had come to share in the victories that day. There was I, about to do what no previous student had been allowed or expected to do on his first board break.

I quivered. I recovered. I focused. I took two practice swings for the purpose of aiming. I felt and noted the necessary motion in my arm, made certain I could duplicate the motion with the necessary force.

“Permission to break, Sir?”

“Permission granted.”

Something in my head shifted, and my world became gray. My emotions and intellect dissolved. I became a being whose Sole Purpose On Earth was to drive the edge of my hand downward and bring it back again. The presence of two planks of wood in the path of my hand was cursory. I took a breath. In the smallest fraction of time, my arm snapped forward and back like a whip. There was a loud crack, and the smell of sawdust.

I had broken both boards. First try. The room erupted in applause and cheers.

Later I was approached by Roger, the instructor I had worked with most closely. “I saw that look of surprise on your face when your hand when through those boards,” he said.

Flushed with victory, I let my usual respect and decorum slip a little. “Damn right you, did!” I told him. He smiled, and clapped a congratulatory hand on my shoulder. To this day, it’s one of the proudest moments of my life.

I still have those boards on a shelf at home. They sit flat with the edges facing outward, a jagged gap parting them down the middle like a dark lightening strike. For a time I considered writing the date on them to help me remember that day, but I never did.

And I’ve never needed to.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Culture Gap

It was four years ago I was in a summer school program with the Moscow Art Theatre School in Cambridge, MA. During my six weeks there I met some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life, including (but not limited to) a young man from England named Joel.

He was nineteen years old, and one of the most intelligent, culturally cognizant people I still have ever met. I only understand British culture from TV shows, movies, and the occasional author, which probably makes people cringe; as an American I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged solely by the standards of the more popular examples of American entertainment. I was continually impressed not only by the knowledge Joel had of American culture, but of those aspects of his own culture that American’s weren’t likely to understand. For example, when telling a story, he’d interrupt himself to explain a colloquialism he knew to mean something else (or nothing at all) on this side of the Atlantic. Considering how much younger he was than myself, I was constantly amazed at how few world wisdoms I had to teach him. He was, after all, more of a world traveler than I’d ever been, had done and seen things far beyond my own experiences.

It was mid-August, and our time with the Russians was nearly over. Lifelong friendships had been forged, experiences had, debaucheries exploited, and the biggest parties were yet to come. I had determined how much money I had left to spend, and further determined exactly how much of that money was for alcohol.

I never was much of a drinker, but it was long ago that I began to align my tastes and pick a few favorites. I tried beer and continued to hate it for many years; even now I consider it my cheap drink, a last option when I can’t afford what I want. Scotch was too rough, vodka was too oily, but good bourbon was like drinking liquid velvet. I’d settle on a favorite and stick with it until someone suggested something I had liked better. At this time my top pick was a Kentucky special called Knob Creek, still a top pick when I want to spend a little extra.

Joel and I were out on the lawn outside the dorm when Raph approached us. He was headed for a liquor store, and was taking requests. I asked for a bottle of Knob Creek, and noted the very odd expression that hit Joel’s face. I couldn’t tell what it was. The ensuing conversation was very short and took some reflection before I understood all the implications, but it clarified what I had seen on his face in that moment was a perfect shifting mixture of bemusement, confusion, and repulsion.

After a few moments he finally worked up to exactly what question he wanted to ask. What did you ask for?” he inquired.

“Knob Creek,” I said proudly. “It’s a bourbon.” For once I felt like I had the upper hand on him, but there was still a severe discontent to his features.

“Is it . . . actually called that?”

“Well, yes,” I said, still not understanding why he looked so confused and uncomfortable.

He took a moment to consider a few things. I never knew exactly what was going through his mind, but finally he came to an inescapable conclusion. “It shouldn’t be,” he said with conviction.

I’ve since come to understand that “knob” is a common British slang for “penis”. I had actually known that at the time, but taken out of context it didn’t occur to me in that particular moment. It had most certainly occurred to Joel, however. I never have discovered exactly how vulgar that word is in England, but no matter how lightly your intended use of the term, nobody will ever, ever ask for a glass of Penis Creek.

But if you ever do, do me a personal favor and make sure you say “on the rocks.”

Train Surfing

Over the last couple of months I’ve developed a new hobby. It’s free, it’s fun, and it takes absolutely no time out of my day.

I never leave work at 5:00. There’s nothing waiting for me at home that can’t wait an extra hour while the smashup of people clears out a bit. I used to wait so I could maybe find a place to sit right away since I have a longer ride home than most people. One day it occurred to me that I sit all damn day, and when I’m standing I spend too much time leaning on something.

When I was a teenager, I leaned on things in cool ways that made me look like a cross of James Dean and Marlon Brando. Or that’s what I had thought. When I finally saw myself in a mirror (or maybe it was a photograph), I discovered I looked like a tubby, lazy kid who thought he looked cool because he was leaning. Also there were pimples. More recently I’ve caught myself leaning on something when I wasn’t all that tired, and I realized I probably look like a tubby, lazy adult with more facial hair than acne.

Since those days, whenever I find something I can improve about myself, I do. Usually this translates to mannerisms or phrases too often repeated. Once I realize I’m saying or doing something with regularity, I make myself stop. Partly this is to minimize predictability (I love keeping people on their toes), and partly this is to keep from being annoying (I’ll be damned if I ever develop a personal catch phrase), and mostly it’s to keep sharp my imagination and creativity. Anytime I find an outright weakness, I work to eliminate it.

So instead of rushing to a seat on my ride home from work, now I find a place where I can stand undisturbed. Usually there’s a free handicapped area in the first car; if not, I stand in the doorway, well aware which side of the train the doors open at each stop so I have to shift as infrequently as possible. A firm grip on one of the many handrails can be beneficial, but not necessary 100% of the time. This fact fools many a tourist into complacency.

Mostly the trek between stops is smooth unless there’s too much speed on a particular bump. The regular riders know where these are and firm their grip on the safety rails with lightening reflexes. But no one can predict when an operator will see some emergency and yank the throttle backward. Say what you will about the capabilities of the CTA, but a fully loaded 8 car train can stop on the proverbial dime, and a suburbanite in a Cubs jersey suddenly gets a physics lesson.

But the longer I’ve lived here, the more I felt disquieted at never getting better at riding the train. Sailors get their sea legs, why shouldn’t a Chicago commuter get El legs? So I began to put this to the test. I loosened my grip on the rail, making a cursory loop without actually holding on. I began to shift my legs like a gyroscope, adjusting to the bounces of the train like a stuntman standing on the back of a galloping horse. My feet have to be placed far enough apart, but with one in front of the other to account for sideways lurches. My goal is to never actually move my feet once they’re set, but rather to shift my weight in counterbalance to the train’s motion.

After some practice, I’m delighted to report this works. I can now make the entire commute home (eighteen stops, forty-five minutes) and never once grab a handrail. I can even put one hand behind my back and hold a book with the other, dexterously turning pages with a thumb. Sometimes I just get into the music on my headphones, tapping out the rhythms on my bag which hangs at hip level. On particularly troublesome stretches of track I bend my knees to lower my center of gravity, bounce my lower half to match the train’s jumps and bumps while keeping my torso still and steady, and wish for a good Dick Dale tune.

My favorite part is watching people nervously watching such a large man seemingly do nothing to save himself from his peril or their own, for if I landed on another passenger my failure would be their misery. I delight in showing them that large is not the opposite of lithe. Time and again I’ve run into the conception that being a big person means being no more nimble than a pregnant yak. I like showing people that a seemingly obvious negative stereotype can be wickedly wrong.

Most especially if you apply that stereotype to me.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rough Week

I still haven’t sorted out how I feel about God, but this week surely hasn’t pushed me in any direction. I feel like my emotional endurance is being tested, run through a wringer. The very day I start to believe I can handle what’s been happening to me, some new element is introduced and things get harder again. Most recently this happened the evening of two Thursdays ago. Curiosity had got the better of me as I sought and discovered information I had previously hoped to avoid until I was ready. Turned out I wasn’t ready. I tried to react and deal with it on Saturday, but instead I learned a greater sense of the shape of things and everything got worse. Much worse.

I spent the next few days absorbing this new reality and getting back on my feet. My world had been spun and unraveled once more, and it was time to take new measures to rebuild myself as a solid and stable person. Sometimes you get sick and have to throw up before you can start feeling better, and I had a few rounds of this state both physically and emotionally in the intervening days. I was just starting to feel a reemergence of stability when a wholly unbidden event happened early Wednesday evening. It shook me, but I didn’t derail. Then it happened again Thursday morning, only longer. Then it happened again Friday morning, with a twist. After that, a word like “derail” can’t describe how I feel without the accompanying sounds and imagery of a train slipping off its track, flaming steel twisted and broken and mangled beyond recognition.

It’s as if someone is repeatedly dragging me to the limit of my tolerance and endurance and dancing all over it. I find myself wondering if I’m being tested, my actions and reactions being gauged and measured and weighed. I’ve been sized up to such a degree my auditor could fit me with a perfectly sized suit or coffin with equal aplomb. But to what purpose? How long does this test last? Am I being prepared for my future, or is this punishment for my past?

It’s a common human reaction to take for granted our fortunes, but we seek explanations for our tribulations. Selfishly we forget about previous days of our lives and start counting our karmic balance beginning only with the recent misfortunes, and we feel ourselves in disproportionate debt. We wonder why this happens and what we’re supposed to get from it and whether and when restitution will be paid. We feel owed, and why shouldn’t we? I’m not the only one who can speak to the experience that the worst days and events of my life in no way measure up to the best. There is no single happy memory that has impacted me in the way the sad ones have.

So I’ve come to a few conclusions. Primarily I’ve learned that happiness and sadness are cousins of creation and destruction. Happiness is built over a long period of time, made up of elements large and small. In a relationship happiness is built upon kisses and holding hands. It is built over dinner tables and glasses of wine. It’s kissing your loved one goodnight, and seeing that face first thing in the morning. It’s supporting and being supported through physical illness or emotional despair. It’s sharing experiences like a restaurant, a walk, a sit in a park, or a political debate. It’s all this and a thousand other elements that take months and years to build, and their slow progression makes it a simple matter to take it all for granted.

But taking happiness for granted can allow happiness to rot, and in the space of one conversation it can all come crashing down. All the building blocks crumble and can never again be used to rebuild. Nothing remains but a pile of ash and debris upon a cracked foundation. A relationship’s worth of broken experiences and charred memories that took two people to construct cannot be reconstituted with the efforts of just one.

Which leads me to my next conclusion.

There comes a point where “why” is irrelevant. Philosophical debates about the nature of existence no longer matter. If I’m being tested or not, I still have rent to pay and a cat to feed. Perhaps I’m being galvanized in preparation for some future hardship, but prepared or not it’s still happening and it doesn’t change my day-to-day routine. There may be a greater purpose, but if there is I can’t see it and if there’s none I’ll never know for sure and either way I still have to clean the laundry and the dishes and the floor. I still have to go to work tomorrow. I still have to find a new apartment and start school in September and if God has a plan or purpose for me it makes no damn bit of difference to these facts and realities and challenges I have to meet every day of my life. Only when the facts and realities and challenges are handled will I allow myself to lament over what I’ve lost, what I’m missing, and what I do not have.

I took our relationship for granted and it rotted and crumbled. I’m sad over it and I suffer for it every day. If I were wise enough to discover the words and deeds that would return me into her heart as solidly as she is still in mine, there would be no effort too strenuous or tedious or painful for me to attempt, nor a path too arduous or dangerous for me to traverse. The pain of losing her and living without her is far worse than any pains I may take in the process of getting her back.

I’m not that wise.

But I refuse to allow my pain and loss to negatively impact the rest of my life. I will not fail to live up to the accomplishments and dreams I’ve borne into reality. I will not lose more than I’ve already lost.

I’ll do what I have to do, and I’ll be proud. Just don’t ask me to be happy.