Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bus Stop In Chicago


This is in Chicago in the summer of 2008. It's me at the corner of Clark and Edgewater in Andersonville, a neighborhood on the far north side of the city. Andersonville got its name from all the Swedish and other Scandinavian immigrants who had settled there. These days Andersonville is home to one of the largest lesbian and gay communities in Chicago. It's funny that I'm standing at the bus stop looking up at the sign (and I don't know why, because my friend and I weren't using the buses that day) because only a few months after this I would be leaving Chicago and riding Greyhound buses all over the country for a month. I don't remember if I had already made those plans when this picture was taken. But I know I was making plans in general. This picture was taken by my friend Marco. I miss him.

Bolivian Road


This picture was taken in South America, in Bolivia, in August 2010. It was on the way to the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats. I was on a 3-day tour. We traveled from Oruro to the salt flats all the way down to Chile in a Land Cruiser. There were at least 8 of us crammed into the vehicle. We were supposed to go through Uyuni the city, but an internal political problem in the country (a quarrel over a silver mine between the departments of Potosi and Oruro) had caused blockades that spread from Potosi city to Uyuni and forced us to take a back-door route to the salt flats. We were stopped when this picture was taken because we encountered another vehicle that had broken down. There was nothing and no one else around to help. Though this road pictured was one of the more sophisticated roads in Bolivia. By the 2nd day of the tour (this pic is on day 1), we'd find ourselves in territory where a road was pretty much wherever you want it to be.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Grandfather Poem, Prairie Poem

A poem of mine is now live at Eunoia Review. Thanks to the editor of Eunoia Review, Ian Chung, for accepting it and publishing it. The poem is called "Transference (Middle West)" and it's about my maternal grandfather and the place in the world where we grew up, the American Midwest--which was once the American prairie.

My granddaddy re-visiting the schoolhouse he went to as a child in Iowa
Chicago skyscrapers, looking south from John Hancock Tower
My grandfather's name was William Collins but everyone called him Bernie after his middle name, Bernard. Bernard was also the name of the town (if you can even call it that) where he was born in Iowa in 1900. Where he was born and raised is west of the Mississippi River. He had 3 siblings who survived. He grew up on a farm but his own father lost his farm shortly before the Great Depression. My grandfather found work east of the Mississippi, in Illinois in Rockford, not long before marrying my grandmother, who came from Otter Creek in Iowa, in 1926. After marrying, my grandmother moved to Rockford with him but they didn't stay in Rockford long. My grandfather's boss was a Swedish man who would knock the Irish in back-handed compliments to my grandfather ("Are you sure you're Irish? I never knew any Irishman who worked hard like you.") and my grandfather couldn't tolerate that. So they moved to the south side of Chicago, near Visitation Parish, where it was all Irish, and my grandfather worked in a plastics factory. The stockyards were still around then. My mother says she can still remember the smell.

Railroad work in Iowa. My grandfather is among the 4 down on the tracks, second from right.
Hay making in Iowa
My grandma (second from left) with her parents and some of her siblings in Iowa. Cornfields in background.
In the city now. Chicago, Van Buren Street, southwest side. My grandparents (center) with two religious friends and my aunt Lois, about 1928.
Eventually my grandfather moved his family to the northwest side of the city (where I was born), which was mostly Polish at the time and closer to the city limits. Chicago was already mighty and lively in those days (the 30s and 40s) but it didn't yet have the skyscrapers and the great skyline along Lake Michigan that it's known for today. The skyscrapers would start to come in the 60s and 70s, in my lifetime. My grandparents had moved back to Iowa, to Dubuque, by the time I was born in 1972. We visited them at least twice a year. My grandfather kept a large garden in his backyard where he grew corn, tomatoes, and beans. He had raspberry bushes and a tiny vineyard--just a few grape vines, really--from which he made his own wine. Beer too. Their backyard also had a horse chestnut tree that attracted bats and lightning bugs in the evening. We all loved to stay out in the backyard until dusk when the bats came out.

Granddaddy in Chicago with his 3 daughters. My mother is on the left. My aunts Lois and Betty on the right. They were working class but the fashion and hairstyles were still very different from those of their country cousins back in Iowa.
Chicago skyline in 2013, view from boat on Lake Michigan
Granddaddy with my youngest brother, Eric, and sisters Arla and Bonnie, around 1970. In Iowa alongside a country road, with long prairie grasses still growing on the hillside.
My grandfather died in 1980 when I was 7 from prostate cancer. I admit that I have few real memories of him. I mainly remember him when he was dying, in the hospital and such. I was in the 3rd grade and my teacher made us kids write in journals every day for a half hour or so. When my grandfather was dying, I wrote in my journal about it and said I felt sorry for him. I didn't know what cancer was at that age so I wrote "I think he has the flu." I have some memories of his wake and funeral, the first I ever went to. At first I thought I'd write down some of those memories here but I've decided to keep them to myself, except for the memory of seeing one of my parents (my mother) cry for the first time in my life, during the funeral service, and how it worried me.

We had moved out of Chicago to the suburbs by the time he died. Years later, his wife, my grandmother, would come to live with us after a stroke. Chicago and its suburbs stretched forever by the 80s and stretch even farther today. We have no bats in our area of Chicagoland--but we have cardinal birds (the Illinois state bird) and lightning bugs. We have a horse chestnut in our backyard. 

Chicagoland, looking northwest from the Sears Tower
Prairie garden in Lincoln Park in Chicago
There were still some farms and open fields when we moved out here from the city, but they are long gone today. You have to drive longer now to reach the farms. The prairie is mostly gone except for some preserved sections here and there. The people who lived on the prairies before Europeans came are mostly gone too--either assimilated, killed by whites, or pushed north and west onto reservations. In Chicago, there are parks that have tried to revive some of the prairie grasses and flowers that once grew all over the Midwest. In Lincoln Park, for example, you can stand and cast a shadow over prairie flowers while the Hancock Tower stands and casts a shadow over the north side of the city. 

The John Hancock Tower downtown with Lincoln Park prairie in foreground
I wrote this poem months ago when I was looking forward to the coming of spring and summer after a very long and even-colder-than-usual winter. This year it seemed to be taking forever for winter to hand the reins over to spring. I suppose I wrote about my grandfather in this way because I don't have too many of my own memories to call upon. I am the youngest of all his grandchildren so there are only a few pictures I can find of me with him. I knew him the shortest amount of time. So I wrote a poem that draws out time in images of what's changed and hasn't changed in the part of the country where my grandfather and I come from. Here's the poem (the link is in the words).

Me sitting on my granddaddy's lap and my grandma, at their 50th wedding anniversary, 1976

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Every Picture Tells A Story

Posts on this blog have become few and far between. Life has slowed down considerably for me in the last year, and in the meantime it can take months before I hear back from a publication about something I submitted. I have a poem coming up this week at Eunoia Review, and I've also got a post in the works about another site where I'll be contributing from time to time. But to keep this blog from getting too dusty and dull I thought I'd start sharing a travel photo every few days on here. Some of the photos--maybe even most of them--will be ones I've already included in previous posts. But they may have been shared a few years ago, or with a bunch of pics at once, thereby getting lost in the shuffle. So I'll give each picture I share its own post and its own chance to tell a story. I'll give just a little information about each pic, where it was taken and such. You can supply the rest.

Here's the first:


This is on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. In the El Bierzo region, somewhere between Ponferrada and Cacabelos. I walked the Camino during the harvest season, in October 2011. I passed through many a vineyard in full bloom, so to speak. This was on a particularly dusty and empty road with vineyards stretching wide on either side. These buckets were left on the road with a few piles of grapes around them, and not a soul in sight, not even far off in the fields.

Monday, June 30, 2014

You Can Fail Here: Chicago And The Second City

Chicago's Second City...wall of fame
The Second City's facade (gray building on the right) began as the Schiller Theater, the home of the German Opera Company in Chicago, and was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in the 1890s. This portion was salvaged when the building was razed in 1960.
One of the best things I ever did for myself as an aspiring writer was take acting classes. It was also one of the best things I ever did for myself as a human being. I'll get to the why of that soon. First I want to fill you in on the where--as in where I took these magical, life-changing acting classes.

In Chicago there's no shortage of places to study acting. Theaters are to Chicago what pubs are to Dublin. "Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub," wrote James Joyce in Ulysses about his hometown. "Good puzzle would be cross Chicago without passing a theater (or a hot dog joint)," writes me, here, about my hometown. Some sources put the count of theaters in Chicago at over 200. Some also claim this makes Chicago the true theater capital of the U.S. I don't know enough about American theater to back up or challenge that claim. But I do know that Chicago's contribution to American theater--and world theater--is pretty significant.

Chicago is, after all, the Second City and the home of The Second City, the improvisational theater troupe that revolutionized comedy theater in the U.S. and beyond when it first opened its doors in 1959. The Second City is also where I took those magical acting classes, and where I recently joined up with a walking tour of Chicago's Old Town neighborhood on a brisk Sunday morning.

Balloon house architecture in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.
In Old Town.

Seen in a chocolate shop window in Old Town. Money, guns, and high cholesterol--the story of Chicago.
I was happy to be one of only 2 or 3 locals on the walking tour--happy because the number of out-of-towners on the tour (from L.A., Oakland, New Jersey, Texas, Mississippi, and Idaho) shows that Chicago's claim to comedy and theater fame isn't bunk. But it would be hard for the rest of the country not to know about Chicago's comedy reputation, considering the number of successful comedians and actors Chicago's improv scene has produced. The Second City's list of Mainstage alumni includes Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, John Belushi, Joan Rivers, Del Close, Alan Arkin, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Steve Carell, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Ed Asner, Nia Vardalos, George Wendt, Amy Sedaris, Rachel Dratch, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Long, Peter Boyle, Mike Myers, and John Candy.

Second City alumni John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Rosemary Radcliffe, Eugene Levy, and Gilda Radner, in 1974, pic on entranceway to The Second City theatre in Chicago.
And that's just from the Mainstage. Famous names who have taken classes at The Second City Training Center (without going on to perform on the Mainstage) include Amy Poehler, Halle Berry, and Jon Favreau. Other improv schools in Chicago, like iO and Annoyance Theatre, can boast of having taught Vince Vaughan, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers, and Jane Lynch (as well as a good few of the names already mentioned above) a thing or two at the start of their careers. After Chicago, many of these actors went on to join the cast or writing crew of "Saturday Night Live," the longest-running sketch comedy show in American television history. From "SNL" it was typically on to Hollywood. In other words, there's an excellent chance that if you've ever had a really good laugh some night watching TV or at the movies in the last 50 years, you've got Chicago to thank for it. (You're welcome, world.)




Considering Chicago improv's solid record of churning out future stars, it only makes sense that the most famous improv theater of all would milk its reputation for tourism purposes. The Second City has long promoted itself as a must-see attraction for visitors to Chicago, and its walking tours of the Old Town area are nothing new--there was a tour on offer by the theater going back at least 10 years ago. After a few years' hiatus of the original Second City tour, the current walking tour was created by Margaret Hicks, a Chicago tour guide, author, and improv performer. Hicks leads the tour twice a week--on Sunday mornings and Wednesday early evenings--from May through October. The tour lasts about an hour and a half to 2 hours and costs only $15 per person. (Hicks has her own tour company that offers a few other walking tours of different areas of Chicago, called Chicago Elevated. She didn't tell me this, as I turned shy and forgot to ask her a few basic questions about herself after the tour, but I stalked, er, Googled her later and found her Twitter account and FB page--I've provided links in case you'd like to stalk her too.)

Margaret Hicks in front of the Twin Anchors. I could not for the life of me get a picture of her with her eyes open this day.
Margaret Hicks shows us a Chicago home with a plaque on it, so naturally we had to stop and look at it.
Hicks's version of the tour offers a bit of general Chicago history (i.e., the Great Fire of 1871, neighborhood architecture, and, ahem, local corruption) along with stuff about the beginnings of The Second City, the rules and philosophy of improv, and gossip about some of The Second City's famous alumni. The gossip is the best part of course. Everyone wants to hear about John Belushi's wild days and genius, about Chris Farley's loyalty to Chicago (even after finding fame in New York and Hollywood) to the end of his life, about Gilda Radner's pure joy for performing and making people laugh, about Harold Ramis's Chicago-based inspiration for his blockbuster Ghostbusters (even though the film was set in New York), and about how Mike Myers and Joan Rivers actually kinda sucked at improv.

St. Michael's Church in Old Town. Part of the church survived the Chicago Fire of 1871. This is also where Second City alum Chris Farley went to mass regularly.
The Twin Anchors bar and restaurant in Old Town. Fans of the films Return to Me and The Dark Knight might recognize this place.
Just a few blocks from The Second City and Piper's Alley, the Twin Anchors was a favorite hangout of Frank Sinatra. By the way, that dude on the right is having his novel made into a movie by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.
But is the tour funny? That's the question. The answer is Yes...and. (Improv in-joke there.) Hicks manages to get a lot of mileage--and laughs--out of Chicago's history of violence, corruption, and general weirdness. She gets in a lot of jokes at the expense of New York too...maybe even too many. Like any true Chicagoan, I think New York City is inferior to Chicago, even something of a craphole to be honest. I will never understand why so many foreign visitors who travel to the U.S. consistently limit their sightseeing here to those 4 American hell zones known as New York, DisneyWorld, Las Vegas, and Hollywood, and completely bypass the country's actual gems, such as our national parks and wilderness areas and genuinely lovely and interesting cities like Austin, San Diego, New Orleans, Portland, and yes, Chicago. Saying that, I think too much ribbing or comparison to other places during a tour can wear itself out a bit. Comparing Chicago to New York over and over only tends to expose those infamous "second city" insecurities that earned us the nickname in the first place.

The Sears Tower as seen from an Old Town side street.
Up the street from The Second City,a bit of Old Town and old Chicago history.

In Old Town. Not a theater, this is a horse-and-carriage company and stables.
Comedy competition in Old Town. The difference between a club like Zanies and The Second City is that Zanies is strictly stand-up (i.e., scripted) while The Second City is improv and experimental.
More famous faces.
Speaking of which, Chicago's branding as "the Second City" by Mr. A-Hole J. Liebling back in the 1950s is covered by Hicks on the tour, as she explains how and why The Second City theater appropriated the nickname for itself. And in between the laughs, Hicks does a good job making clear how seriously Chicago takes improv. Before this tour, I never knew of improv's surprising beginnings as a tool invented by Viola Spolin for helping immigrant and inner-city children. Spolin's son, Paul Sills, a student and theater director in the 1950s at the University if Chicago, borrowed his mother's techniques to form the Compass Players, the first improvisational theater group in the United States, and later The Second City. Not content with just making audiences chuckle, the early players and improvisers of The Second City created comedy that satirized and commented on current social and political issues and set down rules for improv that encouraged players to perform as a team, stay in the moment, follow their instincts, keep the momentum of the scene going, and play up to the intelligence of their character and audience.

List of Second City alumni inside the theater building.
Find the famous name.
These rules aren't as easy to bring to the stage as some might think, especially night after night. If you don't believe it, try taking an improv class yourself and see how you fare at it. Along with improv rules, The Second City also created a full-fledged training program for aspiring improvisers, comedians, and actors. Hicks lays it all out on the tour, explaining that while anyone can take beginning improv classes at The Second City, getting to perform on the Mainstage takes several years' commitment and a little bit of good timing. Aspiring players must first take at least a year's worth of improv classes before auditioning for The Second City Conservatory, where they'll learn how to put together sketches for a revue and perform on the school's smaller stages such as Donny's Skybox. After two years with The Conservatory, students can audition for The Second City's touring company and gain a few more years' experience. The end goal of all this apprenticeship is to get hired as one of the resident actors on the Mainstage or with the e.t.c. cast. Getting to the Mainstage is far from a given for Second City alumni. Hicks explains that there are only 12 spots altogether between the Mainstage cast and the e.t.c. cast, and unlike The Conservatory and the touring company, there's no auditioning for the Mainstage. Cast members are instead chosen by a combination of luck, talent, and reputation--i.e., there's a spot open, the theater company knows who you are and has taken notice of your skills and development, and you haven't burned any bridges or stepped on too many toes (but have maybe held onto a few coattails--that's allowed) to get this far. If all these stars are aligned, you might get the tap on your shoulder by the company. Might. If not, I suppose there's always New York or L.A. (Who's the "second city" now, bi-coasters?)

There's another specific requirement on the way to The Second City Mainstage, one that's required even before auditioning for The Conservatory. Improv and comedy writing classes aren't enough. All aspiring Conservatory students must have completed an acting course before auditioning. And that's kinda where my own experience with The Second City comes in...

I've never auditioned for The Conservatory. And I'm not a former improv student. What I am is a woman who had wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, but never pursued it in any way. I was extremely shy for one thing...I still am. Plus it was made clear to me when I was young that such dreams weren't realistic. "You want a nice clean job," I remember my mother telling me when I was young and mentioned something about wanting to be an actress. What she meant was some position in an office or a school maybe, something stable. I didn't have the confidence back then to push ahead with my dreams anyway, but I didn't have the practicality in me to entirely forget them either. And there was the shyness problem anyway--really the biggest obstacle. (In defense of my mother and father, I came to understand that their point of view comes from being born into the Great Depression to uneducated parents and growing up during a world war in urban poverty--in my father's case--and working-class--in my mother's case--with little education of their own beyond high school. They didn't have much stability or financial security growing up. They wanted to be sure their own children did. And one of the last occupations that provides stability or security is acting.)

Outside the Mainstage entrance, by the box office.
Famous faces on the box office wall at Second City.
But in the winter of 2006-07 I made a decision to make some changes in my life. I was living on my own in Chicago with a full-time job and friends and my family living fairly nearby. But I was habitually bored and pretty lonely. A new year was approaching and I decided I'd try to shake things up a little in my life, maybe get out more, meet some people, make some new friends, volunteer somewhere. Some time in 2006 I'd picked up a flyer about acting classes being held at some studio in the city, and I thought 'Maybe you should finally give this a try.' A few months later I was watching an episode of "Cold Case" where a cab driver named Dennis goes after his dream of being an actor, lands a role in a community production of "Cabaret," but then gets rubbed off on opening night. "Dennis was brave," the lady detective taunts the production's musical director, who as it turned out murdered Dennis out of jealousy. 'I wanna be brave,' I remember thinking. So I decided then and there to go ahead and sign up for acting classes somewhere, even if it was sad and cheesy that my inspiration was an episode of "Cold Case."

On the box office wall. Stephen Colbert would be so proud of me turning a night vegging on the couch watching "Cold Case" into the beginning of a creative journey. ;-)
I chose acting classes at The Second City because of the theater's reputation. I didn't consider that such a reputation would probably just make my jitters worse by the time the first class session began. I was a nervous wreck the day I took the Brown Line to the Old Town neighborhood for the first class--and I was a nervous wreck pretty much every class session after. It never got easier for me--the jitters and the fear. I just got a little braver at living through it.

The acting program at The Second City Training Center at that time consisted of 3 levels (I believe they've since added on 1 or 2 more). In a nutshell, in the first level you worked on a monologue, in the second you got a partner and worked on a scene, and in the third you worked on scenes and monologues from a specific, more challenging playwright (in the case of my group, we worked on Tennessee Williams). All 3 levels were taught by Michael Pieper, a theater director from San Diego (by way of Nebraska) who created the acting program at The Second City. He'd probably be embarrassed for me to say it here, but I came to regard Michael as something of an angel. Though a big man with a fullback's physique, he was nothing like the scary and demanding "Master Thespian" type teacher I expected. He was never pretentious, never insulting or unfair. He had no interest in making a student feel inferior or unable or as if he or she had no right to be in his class. Michael taught us acting based on the Method technique, pioneered by Stanislavsky and later Lee Strasberg. We rarely did anything improvisational in class. We worked with scripts, we learned beat work, we memorized lines, we rehearsed, we learned how to audition. That isn't to say we never experimented--Michael in fact encouraged this. I remember one class in the first level where we all practiced our monologues over and over, out loud and at the same time, using different accents, different emotions, different postures and positions, no matter how seemingly inappropriate some of these accents or emotions or movements might be to the scene. The idea was that you never knew what such experimentation and play and creative open-mindedness would trigger in your interpretation of a character and scene, what complexities and nuances might develop. Don't worry about making a fool or failure out of yourself, Michael would tell us. Just play. Use your body. Get out of your head. Live in the moment.

Ordinary Chicago setting, a few blocks from The Second City.
Chicago home.
Our city in a garden. Under the el tracks in Old Town.
In the second level this experimentation and play was used more in service to specific senses and in calling up specific memories to help you emotionally develop the scene. We had exercises where we had to all walk around the room with our eyes closed while trying to identify our scene partner by the sound of her voice or by his smell. Trust was also a big focus in this level, and it was around this time when I began to be aware of how much these classes were helping me. I have a lot of problems with trusting people. And of course, it's had an effect on my relationships with other people. Until acting classes, my not getting to know and connect with other people easily was always something I'd blamed on my shyness. And despite being an emotional person, for years I'd been stuffing my emotions, shutting them down essentially, after a particularly difficult time in my life around 2001. That emotional repression definitely affected my attempts at acting in the first level--Michael summed up my final performance of my monologue (from The Widow's Blind Date by Israel Horowitz) by telling me, "You're holding back." Considering my monologue was of a woman who'd been gang-raped at 18 finally confronting and moving in for revenge on 2 of her attackers 20 years later, there was no place for holding back. (Sidenote: In case you were wondering if we worked on comic plays and scenes in class, what with this being The Second City and all, the preceding sentence should answer your question. No. No, we did not work on funny stuff in class. Not even close.) By then I had already signed up for the second level, and Michael singled me out of everyone else in the first level to tell me, "I'm going to push you. Just so you know. Be prepared."

He wasn't joking. He did push me, and everyone in the second level class. This was the level where you had to start trusting your classmates and scene partner (and really, the audience) by opening up with your emotions. This meant exercises like getting onstage and sharing memories of highly emotional experiences in your past with the entire class. It was scary as hell, but an essential part of moving forward with your creative (and I'd say personal) development. And it created a bond with your classmates that made performing (and for me, coming to class) easier and more natural.

Another thing about our second level classes was that they were held in the Mainstage theater. So every week we rehearsed onstage alongside the spirits of crazy John Belushi and young Stephen Colbert and in between the tables and chairs in the audience section. Looking back, I wish I'd thought to take some pictures during class, even once. But I was always so nervous before every class, it never occurred to me how fortunate and cool this experience was and that I might take a picture or something for memories' sake.

Piper's Alley marquee advertising Second City productions. Piper's Alley houses The Second City.
Self-explanatory.

Serious face on the facade of Second City's entrance. German novelist Fritz Reuter or Parks and Rec cast member Nick Offerman. You be the judge.
By the third level, our class size had dwindled considerably since the first (which had several sections). By this time, you were sticking with the program either because you were serious about acting or loving the experience of learning about acting...or maybe both. I stuck with it because I knew it was helping me to grow and face up to certain issues in my life. I would also see a change in my writing after these classes--more emotion, more vulnerability, a little more trust. Just play, I try and tell myself when I'm worrying too much about a piece of writing. Use your heart. Get out of your head. I have acting classes to thank for opening me up. And I loved the teacher and my classmates, some of whom I still count as good friends today. In all honesty, I never got over my stage fright or shyness enough to audition--and every time I had to give my final performance of a scene or monologue I struggled to keep my legs from shaking. But I also learned this is normal and typical for a great many actors and performers. One of my classmates was a young woman who studied improv at iO in Chicago who told me she felt like vomiting every night right before she had to go out on stage. You feel sick and nervous not because you're weak or not brave or not prepared, but because you're doing something that you care about, something that matters to you. You're basically presenting a piece of your creative self to an audience, offering them a gift, making yourself vulnerable, and taking a risk of failure as much as success.

Michael told us from the very first class to not be afraid of failure. Failure is just a part of life. It shouldn't stop you from taking risks. If anything, it should free you. If there's a chance you might fail, then you might as well go for it. Michael would say, "If you're gonna fail, at least fail big." And funny enough, Margaret Hicks, the tour guide of The Second City's walking tour, left us with a similar philosophy. The greatest thing about both The Second City and Chicago, she told us at the end of the tour, is that you can fail here. In New York everyone is looking to get ahead. In L.A. everyone is looking for the agent or producer in the audience who might hand them a great career. In Chicago? "In Chicago, no one is watching you," said Margaret. In other words, get over yourself. We're the Second City, the Third Coast, The City That Works...which means we're the city that gets on with it and keeps trying. In Chicago, life, success, failure, all of it is much like improv. Improv differs from other kinds of theater and from stand-up comedy in that it's unscripted. This means that if you're an improv performer and you have a bad night on the stage, you can at least just let it go and not worry about it again--it's gone. But it also means that if you have a great night onstage, you have to let it go and can't relive it again--it's gone. The glory is in the moment and in the risk. "If you fail, fail again and fail better," Margaret tells us at the end of the tour. The beauty is that you can fail here--in the Second City and at The Second City--Chicago won't hold it against you.

Improv was born in this town for a reason. Chicago says, 'We're all improvising, we're all working off script. We're all making it up as we go along. Win or lose, pass or fail, hit or miss, just embrace it. Live in the moment. Enjoy it." That's your Second City, baby--second to none.


Mozart looks out from the facade of The Second City theater. The genius liked a good laugh.
Can't stop, won't stop. Seen on a Chicago street corner.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Wayfarer In Her Natural Habitat, Part 7: Lake Michigan

Sunset over Lake Michigan
I trust a lake. Because the lakes I've known are tender places, maybe the tenderest spots on the skin of the earth. Lakes have been giving to me, and to everyone I share them with--not like their sisters the seas, so selfish and treacherous, so fickle and taking. Oceans are bitter, biting, killing--lakes are sweet. Sweet as breezes, sweet as sand softened by the night, sweet as cold, fresh water.

In the center of my country, there's no other kind of water--no bitter waters, no selfish seas. Instead there are as many freshwater sources as there are twists in a tornado's walk, as there are circles in a hawk's life of flight. In the central north of my country the lakes are more mighty than many. We call them great--the Great Lakes. We don't say it as a boast. We say it as respect. The Great Lakes give us inland people their water to drink, their fish to eat, their sunsets and sunrises to adore, their waves to watch, their coolness in the summer, their thick skins of ice to test in the deep freeze of winter. They give us horizons and views that coastal people claim to only know, that coastal people don't even know we inlanders possess. Which means they give us secrets too. They give us mystery that adds contours to the unending flatness of the surrounding lakeland, that adds magic to the bleakness of a forgotten flyover region. They give us refuge from the sense of emptiness and dullness that so many inland and Midwestern and flyover people are told is their hopeless affliction, a hopelessly bland and benign character the fault of their hopelessly bland and benign home landscape.

Sand sculpture on Lake Michigan beach
Milda's Lithuanian market, small-town scene in Michigan, USA
Sign in a closed storefront in a small town on Lake Michigan. It was May.
"Flyover-country complex" is no joke. I used to think I was deficient. Not just ordinary--but deficient. Bland. Naive. Too sweet. Too nice. Too Middle American. I used to go long distances to other places because I thought what I needed to know, to experience, to be, was absolutely lacking in the place where I came from. Other places had all the answers, all the necessary experiences. Other places had all that was worth giving and all that I needed to take to stop being so deficient. Mountains, oceans, canyons, culture, tradition, exoticism, authenticity, depth, meaning--everything I needed, everything that couldn't be found back home. One of those first other places was a place on the sea, surrounded by ocean, neighbor to mountains and cliffs, devoted spouse to tradition...and to isolation. Its abundance of everything I'd lacked, everything I was deficient in, shocked me and overwhelmed me. Hooked me too. I believed I had nothing to bring to the place--and it had everything to give me.

Me on beach in Union Pier, Michigan
Penny sunset, Lake Michigan
I had my first real encounter with the sea there, my first ocean swim. All my swims growing up had been in fresh water, if not in public pools. It's not that I didn't know seawater is salty--it's that I hadn't thought about it at all before entering the sea, that I hadn't prepared for a significant difference. I remember how the taste of the seawater choked me when I accidentally swallowed a bit. I gagged on the bitterness. The salt water stung my eyes and nostrils. I unthinkingly brought the back of my hand up to wipe away the salt flavor and stinging, like I would in a lake, and just dosed myself with more poison. Because that's what the sea felt like to me at first--like poison. (Recently I learned I'm not the only one from my part of the world to have this kind of reaction to the ocean. From Indiana man Kurt Vonnegut: "I am one of America's Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.")

There were other unusuals--the ways of tides confused me at first, I distrusted the depths of the swimming areas off the beach, there were jellyfish in the waters to contend with at times, and seaweed often clung to me fiercely and wrapped itself around me as I tried to swim, like lost children only recently re-acquainted with a long-estranged mother. And unlike the shorelines of Lake Michigan, I could see land across the waters from the beach of this otherwhere place--the mainland. The view from the shores of the Great Lakes are limitless--from the Atlantic though...well it seems it all depends where you stand.

Union Pier beach, Michigan
Warren Dunes, Michigan
I adjusted with time to saltwater swimming, just as one adjusts to the greater bitterness (and less sweetness) one experiences in life over time. Now, I no longer find seas so strange and foreign shores so foreign. I also no longer find my home landscape so lacking. Perhaps I'm even not so deficient, and never was to begin with. Perhaps it's oceanic people, seaside and saltwater people who need the broader point of view, who need to come to my part of the country and re-discover the reality and importance of freshness and sweetness, rather than people from my part of the country going off only to reckon with bitterness. Maybe the moral goes something like this:

Tell you something," the raven said. "I was flying over the Midwest once." He stopped abruptly, closed his eyes for a moment, opened them, and began again. "I was flying over the Midwest. Iowa or Illinois, or some place like that. And I saw this big damn seagull. Right in the middle of Iowa, a seagull. And he was flying around in big, wide circles, real sweeping circles, the way a seagull flies, flapping his wings just enough to keep on the updrafts. Every time he saw water he'd go flying down toward it, yelling, "I found it! I found it!" The poor sonofabitch was looking for the ocean. And every time he saw water, he thought that was the ocean. He didn't know anything about ponds or lakes or anything. All the water he ever saw was the ocean. He thought that was all the water there was.” -- Peter S. Beagle, from A Fine and Private Place

A backpacker traveling through the Midwest
Midwestern outdoor decor. Bíonn chuile dhuine lách go dtéann bó ina gharraí.
When I first started this blog, I infrequently would put up a post with the title "A Wayfarer In Her Natural Habitat" and then name the place I was posting about. I'd share pictures of me in this "wayfarer's habitat"--i.e., some place I'd traveled to, some place usually on the hit list for world wayfaring types: Australia, the salt flats of Bolivia, New York City, Paris. The idea was that for travel-lovers like me, the world is my habitat, the world's roads are where I feel most at home. Sort of a "citizen of the universe" meets "anywhere but here" philosophy. But then I stopped traveling so much, and I forgot about the "natural habitat" theme. And after seeing so many other parts of the world--and trying to judge them gently as a good traveler should--I think I started to see the parts of my own world more gently, more generously, with more sweetness.

This blog has noticeably been focusing more on places in the American Midwest--inland places, flyover places, freshwater country, sweetwater states. Mainly because these days that's all I can afford. Economically and emotionally. Bitterness has been a surprising running theme in my writings since this blog started (here and here, for example). I used to write of its necessity and naturalness in life and the landscape. I still stand by that point of view. Bitterness serves a purpose. But like everything else, bitterness has to make room for other tastes, other flavors, other sensations and spaces. Sweetness has its purpose and place too. Just as flyover folks have their own depth and authenticity, the Midwest has its own beauty and mystery, and lakes have their own limitless horizons. And me, supposedly deficient, naive, too sweet, too nice me...I even have my own depth and beauty and limitless views, my own sweet, perfect, whole, freshwater/flyover woman integrity.

This blog began as the record of a person going to see other places in the world. This blog now asks those other places to consider returning the favor. These writings are me asking other places to come and see me.

Round Barn Winery in Baroda, Michigan
Vineyards, towers, and flatlands
Sun bicep, Lake Michigan
Outside Nani's Cafe in Union Pier, Michigan
Amazing lemon rosemary muffin with pine nuts...and mason jar
Pink door, dandelion lawn, Midwestern home
My sisters and I at a winery in southwest Michigan
Sunset into dune grasses at Lake Michigan
Freshwater breeze and a thick book, Lake Michigan, USA