Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow

The past, present, and future of Steven Townshend, version 2014

Month: February, 2014

February 26th, 2014 (Fine Art)

Copper Celtic Queen
Copper Celtic Queen

YESTERDAY

From the embankment at the end of our street we watched through the fence as the kids ran up the hard icy dunes that perched between the lake and the beach like enormous waves, frozen the moment before their crashing. We made our way to this place following the shadow shape of a black cat—one of a family of strays that stood upon the top of a wooden shelter some kind soul had constructed to protect them from the elements. He cleaned his back paw as we approached and then turned to look at us with eyes like week-old limes. This little warrior, survivor of the bitter subzero cold, he lives a life of action, I thought, prowling through the alleys and along the beaches, catching and scavenging his own food, mating with the other strays that come his way, his life a desperate luxurious struggle of sex and death. How long it will be before the coyote comes, or the lean months scrape the inside of his stomach like the edge of a knife, or the van comes to collect him and sting him with the end of the needle of endless sleep, who can say. He is not a creature of the future, will never be known or forgotten or remembered except by me, this creature of the present, of the now–that in the mild chill of a Saturday in February, sits like a king before a lakeside vista of ultramarine and white, the tawny grass shivering in the wind around him.

TODAY

I dreamed last night that the board game Village existed as an iOS app, and that all the world participated in tournaments when they played, whether they liked it or not. Unwittingly, I ended up in one of the top 2 positions, and had somehow won all the other games in the tournament as well. At the end I was paired against my friend Eric Simon, and it was my turn to make a move—but life and work and other distractions kept me from returning to the game for a few hours, half a day perhaps, while the whole world waited to see who the next champion might be–where it was the topic of forums and news, though I was strangely remote from all of this and unaware of it. Later on I found the time to return to the game only to discover that it, and the tournament, were over; I hadn’t played fast enough, it seemed, and in a tiff, the judges had called the match. I checked the app and checked again to get some verification, but I could learn nothing. It ought to have bothered me more, this great loss, but I took it in stride as much as I was able, and went on with the way that things were. In the scheme of things, disappointing the world over a game wasn’t so important. Not in comparison with all the other things that remain undone, the art uncomposed, the stories unwritten.

TOMORROW

Creatively, these past 2 months have felt a little like staggering through a dark cave wondering which way leads to daylight and fresh air. I know the surface world exists and that it’s populated by lots of people who see clearly in the day and breathe deeply, and think little of the subterranean world beneath their feet. I used to live there. Down below, drafts sometimes whisper through the caverns, and rumblings from the world above; I keep tunneling, in hopes I’m getting closer to freedom.

WATCHING

This week it’s been theatre and more theatre. Saw an excellent new play, Miss Marx, at Strawdog Theatre Company, and saw A Tale of Two Cities at Lifeline. This week I’ll head over to see another new one, Rites and Sacrifices, at Idle Muse. Chicago is the best theatre city I’ve ever heard of–the art is prolific, it’s (relatively) inexpensive to produce in comparison with bigger cities, and so much of it is experimental. Theatre artists can afford to take risks here, and those that enjoy taking risks stick around and continue to refine their art. The people that stay here are committed to their work; they’re not here waiting to “be discovered.” They know this isn’t the right place for that. Many leave and find larger success elsewhere. The ones that stay live their lives creating incredible art. I’m proud to live here.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Yesterday my niece phoned to tell me that author Richard Peck selected her poem to read in front of the whole elementary school. She was chosen for the young author’s conference (and he confided to my sister that it was his favorite of the poems he read). I’m very proud of her.

When I was her age I had a similar experience at a young author’s conference with Gerda Weissmann Klein. Ms. Klein didn’t rave about my story, but my teachers did, and that encouragement and validation became the foundation upon which I learned to love writing. The story I wrote was called Steviana Lones’s Space Adventure, and you can pretty well see it for the Star Wars-Indy mashup that it was. I never understood why my teachers loved it; I knew when I wrote it that none of it was original. I’d obviously ripped off Han Solo and Indiana Jones, cast myself in the role, and my friend John Evans as my sidekick and companion. I stole heavily from everything else that inspired me in 1984–the Galaxian video game, Dungeons & Dragons, and television shows.

Then again… I’ve since learned that nothing I’ve ever written is original, whether or not I believe it to be, and most of my favorite works of art are simply older works rehashed. I knew more back when I knew nothing.

February 19th, 2014 (Valentines)

Big Tall City
Big Tall City

YESTERDAY

My first love was Star Wars. When I was four years old I didn’t know I hadn’t seen it. The images printed on the Topp’s Sugar Free Gum and trading cards and the Kenner action figures were enough to inspire my imagination to dream up stories, and the stories I imagined served well enough. I finally saw it on its second release at a drive-in movie theater around 1979 and became obsessed with its characters, and in my late teen years, its lore. It was the great myth of my generation, our Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz, and when the children of the ’70s and ’80s were growing up, it stood in our minds as a pure and beautiful thing.

TODAY

Elizabeth gave me a board game for my birthday–it’s called Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy, and it’s a game about space exploration, colonization, negotiation, and galactic warfare among various factions. Although I’ve actually only had the opportunity to play it once, the theme and feel of the game stirs that familiar sense of wonder, and as I sort through the components and flip through the rules, I feel the way I did when I was four or five years old, dreaming on the vast starry distances between alien worlds. Maybe one of the things I love about it is that the strange creatures and factions and past events are only briefly summarized, and the details are left to your imagination.

I remember a time when we didn’t know exactly what happened before the Star Wars films were set, but we each had our own idea of the glorious age before the Empire. When we learned all of those details we stopped imagining them, and I think that maybe we lost something for all that.

TOMORROW

The long freeze is over for now, it seems, and the massive snowfall is melting, forming ponds at crosswalks and intersections. With the warmth, scents are back in the air–downtown scents of gasoline and chocolate and cooking meat and curry. The sun is high and bright and the gloomy winter doesn’t seem so oppressive as it was. The glint of sunlight on melting snow is a glimpse of far off summer. The winter days still before us feel somehow bearable again.

WATCHING

I picked up Starz’s Spartacus series when it was on sale over Thanksgiving, and I recently I began watching the prequel series, Gods of the Arena. Gods of the Arena was a prequel miniseries made when the star of Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, was undergoing treatment for the cancer that tragically took his life. The sex and violence in the show is, I’m sure, Starz’s very deliberate effort to draw viewers to it–in the same way that the arena and the decadence of the ludus enthralls and captivates the Romans of the period. The actors are our gladiators, the television our arena. 

For all of that, the pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue is actually fantastic. The conflicts engaging. The stakes feel consistently high even though (having seen the first season of the show) we already know how all of this is going to play out. To me that means the show is doing an excellent job telling its story. I can only watch one a night, but that hour of drama is packed with important things happening. I’m hooked.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

After 16 years living here, I decided I wanted to see the top of the Hancock building on my birthday. I hadn’t ever felt compelled to go or to see it, but on that day we parked the car in a neighborhood where we could find parking and we took the train downtown. A young woman approached us and said, “Happy Valentines Day,” and she gave us small paper Valentines with lace snowflake designs on one side and in the center, a classical painting of Cupid. On the back, the Valentine was addressed “To: You, From: Me.” She didn’t ask us for anything. There weren’t political or religious messages written on one side or the other–just a simple Valentine given by a complete stranger, riding the train downtown. She had made a few hundred of them and she was passing them along for no other reason that we knew.

It was strange, I remarked later, to receive something completely unexpected and be asked for nothing in return. I couldn’t remember the last time it had happened.

February 11th, 2014 (Relentless)

Relentless
Relentless

YESTERDAY

In November I treated myself to the luxury of ScanCafe. I sent a box containing over 3,000 old film negatives to the scanning company, and last Thursday received the preview images of the work the company had done. While this wasn’t exactly cheap, it beat the time cost of doing it myself, and having all these old memories digitally accessible will be worth the price.

Over the past week I’ve been looking over the images I took with my first camera, a Canon SLR my grandfather gave my father for Christmas around 1972. Many of the later images suffered from shutter drag, so several prints are darkly shadowed at one side or another, and there are many images that I shot when I didn’t know what I was doing or how to frame a shot. Even so, when I reviewed the scans to tell the scanning company which ones to trash and which to keep, I had trouble letting go of my mistakes. The dark and blurry photos were my first dim view through the camera’s eye. I didn’t want to trash my mistakes, I want to always remember them; I’m fond of them in a way.

TODAY

It’s the first day in weeks that mountains of snow aren’t falling down around us or subzero temperatures aren’t drying our tongues, stiffening our nostrils, whiskers, skin, and hair. The sun is in the sky, the wind is tame, and there’s not a mote of snow in the air. After over a month of the former, a few days in the low ’20s are a blessed relief.

TOMORROW

Another Valentines Day approaches, another anniversary for me watching the Earth turn a full cycle around the sun; it’s introspective, as usual.

WATCHING

The show in our Netflix watch list has been the BBC series Monarchy, which tells the story of the kings and queens of England from the anglo-saxon period to the present. It’s interesting to see both how civilized and how barbaric the rulers were, especially when you consider that there’s nothing fundamentally different about these people, biologically speaking, than us today. We’re separated by a thousand years, only an eyeblink in the span of our species. It made me think how tenuous our grasp on civilized society–how one big disaster could throw us over the brink, back into barbarism, and we no different, really, no less brutal or barbaric (or civilized) than the people of the dark ages. 

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Posting old photos of friends has put us back in touch again. Years later, with families and children, most are still the people I knew from way back–more reserved, maybe, but still the same at their core–and as the photos circulate around the social networks, other friends from long ago reach out and we reconnect. If there’s a drug that keeps me going, reconnection is what it is.

February 5th, 2014 (Snowed Under)

Snowed Under by The Townshend
Snowed Under, a photo by The Townshend on Flickr.

YESTERDAY

Stumbled down the rabbit hole of a friend’s blog and I think I found some truth at the bottom of it. The thing about truth is that it’s slippery beast, hard to wrap your arms around it and embrace it. Even harder sometimes to wrap your mind around it. The truth I may have stumbled upon has to do with the way I’ve been writing stories, why they fail when they fail, why they succeed when they succeed. I’m still grappling with this beast, trying to get a good look at its face to make sure it’s truth I’ve actually grasped on not some poor innocent bystander. Will keep you posted.

TODAY

A little while ago I rewarded myself for staying disciplined for a year of putting words down every day. The reward I gave myself was to send a box of all my old film negatives to a scan service so that they would create digital versions of all 3,000+ photos I had taken before upgrading to digital around 2007. The preview pictures came today and I’ve been looking through them one by one, remembering the moments. Remembering my family when we were all younger. Family members and pets and past loves that have all passed out of my life. It was costly to have all those images scanned, but even having these tiny splinters of the past is worth it.

TOMORROW

I planned to get out of town this weekend, see friends I see only every now and then, stay up late playing games, having drinks, and making new memories… but every time I put in a hotel bid on one of the travel sites, I quietly hope it isn’t fulfilled. On some level I’d rather stay home while the snow continues to fall, look through all these old photographs, eat chocolate, drink coffee, and wine. It’s winter in February alright.

READING

I’ve lately become fascinated with small role-playing games. By “small” I mean anything under 100 pages. Preferably around 40 pages. When I used to do long-form improvisation, my teams would sometimes create new forms. An improv form is just a structure for improvisation that shapes the show so that it’s focused and not entirely random. For example, the most interesting form we did in that time was called “Slam Dunk,” which was created by our improv class under the direction of Del Close. The form was a poetry slam in which an emcee asked made up a poem based on a suggestion from the audience and our team improvised scenes derived from lines from the poem. At various points in the show, the emcee would come downstage center and call one of us out of the scene and to the mic. In the reality of the show, the characters in these scenes were stepping out of the scene and reciting their subtext–their actual feelings–as poems at a poetry slam.

That’s just one example of what an improv form can be.

Small role-playing games work like improv forms. There’s an excellent game called Ribbon Drive, by Joe McDaldno, which is an improvised road trip based around a music playlist, where the suggestions for scenes and characters come from the songs that are playing. That kind of thing.

This week, I’ve read De Profundis, by Michael Oracz, a game you play by writing in-character letters to your associates in a society that slowly learns about strange mysteries and unspeakable horrors that underlie the waking world.

I’ve read Becoming, by Brian Engard, a game in which a hero sets out to solve a problem, but every time the hero comes into conflict, the Fates make bargains with the hero to help him or her succeed, all the while stripping away everything the hero cares about.

I’ve read God-King, by Daniel Cruz-Chan, a game about explorers in a mythic Asia, who go on a quest to discover the cause for all the chaos in the world and (possibly) restore it to balance.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

According to legend, total snow accumulation in Chicago had been approximately 5 inches total for the winter.

This year, it’s 52 inches and very steadily climbing. That, and the coldest temperatures on record.
Sure is pretty though.