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.
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.
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.
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.