Carrie & Lowell & Sufjan & Me

The 39-year-old boy, Sufjan Stevens, is bent over, his back almost to us. He is finding the keys and pushing them down, on a piano that looks like it came from an attic and it probably did. The band quietly assembles, accompanying him, but only in presence. The song, “Redford,”* is from an early album, Greetings from Michigan. We are in Wisconsin, which isn’t so far from Michigan, and yet, so very far.

I first listened to Michigan while I was in New York and unhappy, to which Hannah Warren would say, “nobody’s happy in New York, but they’re alive,”** although it’s unclear whether I was that, either. On streets, in head shots, through the casting office, I watched people who had sculpted and hardened and polished themselves into beauty. Inspired, I ransacked the internet for the right diet and died to it, denying myself food and repeatedly purging my system with “natural” cleansing protocols. Then I wondered why my body became a stick figure, my face a red acne bomb and my heart a lead balloon. I listened to track number 13 of Michigan, “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” over and over again, until I was crying, until I was crying and groaning, until the Spirit was groaning for me.

Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin

And so begins the next song, “Death with Dignity,” first on the album this tour is supporting, Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s parents, the former of which died three years ago. There are a series of separate panels behind him, like chapel windows, displaying home videos of a family that we know, and don’t: the mother, who battled addiction and mental illness and retreated from her family; the father, who moved to the front line of his children’s lives; the result, a crossbeam with only one support, upon which the children had to balance. But to balance you have to lean on something.

I leaned on my own understanding. After a crash landing back in Wisconsin, I was a survivor who didn’t want to survive. A mild depression dominated for a time and then was disgusted by me, so it departed. Sexual addiction arrived, committed to drug, impoverish and wreck me, ’til death do us part. I pronounce you man and man and man and man and man… you may kiss the lie.

In a bleached-white light, moving through the audience as though a search and interrogation is imminent, Sufjan’s T-shirt, branded with one word, can no longer be ignored: Hustler. His voice, an apparition of a whisper, sings “All of Me Wants All of You.”

Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used

Suddenly my eyes are memorial fountains, the water pumping from the past and splashing into the present. The teardrops are shadows on my pants. The pants are not mine. They are from a production of Oleanna in which I played Carol, a student of “doubtful sexuality” who “want[s] understanding.” I went on a gender bender shortly after birth and could not stop until a few years ago, although I had waited until legal drinking age to buy a dress at the thrift store. I packed it in a bag for a trip to Illinois to visit my friend. Upon arrival I asked her to wait in the living room so I could change into it and make an entrance. When I did, she smiled and said something no one else ever had, not even my parents: “I think the dress looks nice on you.” We drank vodka with her boyfriend and watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch and at the end he made a joke and she made a face at him and tried to make me mad at him with her and I said, “This isn’t a movie, this is my life.”

Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?

“The first funeral I attended was my great-grandmother’s,” Sufjan speaks, 45 minutes into the concert, for the first time. “She was all made up, like a homecoming queen, like Glinda the good witch of the north…I had this beautiful image of death, of my great-grandmother transcending with the angels…and so I’ve always thought of death as womanly. Maybe because, women sort of have to die to themselves to give birth.”***

Three days before, in group, I said, “I’d like to open my sharing by showing a picture of a polar bear. Isn’t this the saddest polar bear you’ve ever seen? I feel like this polar bear. I’m so sad. I’m so tired of being sad. Finally I understand why people want to end it. I’m not going to, I never could, I just mean, you get so tired of trying so hard. Of waiting so long. To be healed. But things are better, really. I’m not going on craigslist anymore, which is difficult, but good. But I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m recovering from.” Everyone was quiet. The leader nodded. He said, “keep coming back.”

Now the stage is empty, but we are standing, clapping, like schoolchildren trying to create the sound of rain; a rain dance performed by hands, to bring the reign of Sufjan back. Just as the possibility is about to become obsolete, he comes on.

The opening notes of “Chicago” have never sounded so entreating, but nevertheless Sufjan bursts into the beginning and blazes to the end. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he sings. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Behind him, the panels are hanging – still divided – but bearing images of light.


*The song inspired an entire album, Undun, by The Roots.

**From California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross.

***Thanks to Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a complete review and set list.

Dudebros

My role model for the evening was Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I was going to drink until I heard a “click in my head.” A really satisfying click, like the deadbolt on an old door. Brick, as you do not want to know, broke a leg – which is good if you’re an actor but bad if you’re a former track star – from drunkenly wandering back to his high school, 9 years after graduating, to jump hurdles and land on the ground again. “People like doing what they used to do,” he explains, “after they’ve stopped being able to do it.” Brick also explains – and explains – and explains – that his dead friend Skipper was just a friend. 

But let’s get the hell out of Tennessee and clarify the qualifications for a drink. It needs caffeine or alcohol – preferably both. Yes, there are studies on the dangers of combining both, and my friend with the master’s degree in clinical psychology reads every one of them and cannot keep the results to herself. But I am not opposed to being a result. It sounds rather productive. 

Anyway, the car seemed a very good place to start. It was an hour and a half drive from my house to the club. A large travel mug of refreshing mint vital energy tea of a brand called Yogi and it was batterrrrr up. A Nalgene of two glasses of wine and I was swinging. This drinking and driving may sound like a problem, and indeed it is. It’s a problem that clubs charge so much for drinks. 

By the time I finished the drive, my head felt like my grandparents’ pool when we were kids and would wade along the circumference for 5 minutes and then marvel at the current we had created. I was marveling. And parallel parking. And walking. I was all verbs. Even after entering the club and deciding on a spot and standing there, I still felt like I was moving.

The opening act opened like a stadium roof. Slow. Long. I resolved to amuse myself by profiling the audience. The indie bystanders in the balcony; young parents near the back by the bar; college students on the floor in front of the stage, and next to them, me, only because I have been using Aloe Vera on my face since age 25 and have all my hair and have a fast metabolism and have played the long thrift and have scored some fantastic outfits, one of which I was wearing. Otherwise I would have been shamed from the area. 
The opening act contains the most crucial moments in any concert experience; you must form a tribe with your surrounding concertgoers, so they will hold your place while you take calls from nature and assist you in resisting tardy interlopers with front of orchestra ambitions. This can be accomplished by a few strategically placed compliments, particularly to those who are tough and/or broad and/or tough broads. But avoid the dudebros. They are wild cards. You don’t want to play with them. Especially the college ones. Unless, of course, they play with you. Which is what happened about three songs into the main act. 

Yes, we had finally found our way through the opening to the main act, Sylvan Esso, a folktronica group that “fills an obvious void” according to Pitchfork, which is a misnomer since they prefer knives, or so it would appear from their carnivorous reviews; they want blood. Yet even they would have repented as we were reaching the point of every great concert when the band, audience, sound and light meld into one current of energy that could consume anything if it came close enough.

And the dudebro next to me was coming close. And dancing. Well, more of a German-beer-hall-pirate sort of drunken swaying, except he wasn’t that drunk and it wasn’t that crowded and yet he was bumping into me with a kind of casual intensity that was becoming constant. I reciprocated. So did he. Soon we were bumping with abandon in an adorable accidentally on purpose way. 

And Irene Cara, what a feeling. It was as though I’d found a can of blueberry pie filling without an expiration date in the pantry and was just opening and eating it on the spot. It was the most odd and normal thing in the world. Is this what it’s like to be 16 and in love? I wondered. Am I getting it 14 years late? I found myself singing Sylvan Esso’s lyrics louder than anyone: “All I want from you is a letter and to be your distant lover / that is all that I can offer at this time.” 

The band flirted with us through several encores before breaking it off for good. Everyone shuffled out; the dudebro and I did not look at each other or say anything. I walked away from the theater and looked back once. He was standing under the marquee lights. He seemed smaller.

Guest Lecture

Lori,

Thanks for asking me to be your guest. I cannot promise a singing candelabra, but hopefully it will be entertaining. The reference is backward but I trust you understand.

First, a confirmation of the date and time. Wednesday, January 28th from 1:10 PM to 2:20 PM CST (Collegiate Standard Time; because in college, time is an illusion – how much you have, how few demands are on it. But that is my privileged recollection. Many students work and study, which sounds horrible, like vegetables wrapped in lettuce. It’s a low carb, low fun diet. How do they do it? They have to. I had a tortilla and mayonnaise to hold my vegetables. They had healthy independence.* My sympathy is often presumptuous.)

Anyway, I’m suspicious of my ability to teach anyone anything, but the benefit of lecturing is that no one expects to learn, just to be talked at.**

If I were practical, the lecture would be a list of how-to’s; but I’m not practical – not even with jokes. I don’t want anyone to feel deceived and not be my friend, Lori. And my how-to’s would be too specific. Like how to respond when an actor says your characters don’t have “the light of the living Lord” in them. Or when an actor says their character “doesn’t matter.” Or when the actor playing the character you hoped to play is not you. Actually, a lot of play writing is responding to actors, real or hypothetical. The hypothetical ones are easier to work with.

Lori, if you will suffer an oxymoron gladly, I want this to be an interactive lecture. I want to enter singing “Writers on the Form”, my Weird Al version of the Doors classic. I want to shoot T-shirts at the class. I want to ask one of the students to hold my notes and then shout “Where are my notes!” All of that is supposed to be interactive and yet every sentence started with I. But interactive starts with an I, and it contains a ve, which is German for we. So somehow I and we both have to get in there.

Perhaps I should just revisit the writing and production of Work in Progress from my perspective, with frequent pauses for nonexistent questions and some exercises in which the students eventually but dispiritedly participate as I overcompensate with enthusiasm until we’re all embarrassed but too proud to surrender. If things go really badly we can play 20 questions, because no one plays it anymore,*** and how must that game feel? Also it’s fun to say “animal, vegetable or mineral?”

Here is the tentadon’tgive-too-much-thought-to-this-woops-too-late outline:

I. Introduction (Hi, my name is Ben, which I will write on the board. See? I’m a writer.)

II. Why do I write? (Because when you finish, it feels good, like taking out the recycling. You’re not just throwing your life away, it could be lived by someone else. If you don’t recycle, I don’t know what to say to you.)

III. Why did I write Work in Progress? (“So no one else would have to.” That’s how Gus Van Sant responded when someone asked why he was remaking Psycho. There is no connection here, other than Gus and I have first names with three letters. And we are both gay, which also has three letters.)

  1. Reading of scene
  2. Discussion of scene
  3. Watching of scene

And – scene. Lori, I really don’t like outlines. Would it be alright if I didn’t do one right now? I’m sure there’s an outline in my future. Hopefully not a chalk one. Oh! Will there be a chalkboard I can use? For writing my name. I just assumed there would be. But all the chalkboards are gone, aren’t they. Gone to the past, where they will be useful. I will bring a chalkboard. And an outline. And it. I will bring it. Unless it’s already been broughten. Tell me what to bring, Lori. A guest should never come empty-handed.

Ben

*”One of the most pernicious symptoms of the epidemic of social fear is our obsession with being independent,” writes David Truman at a website called Soul Progress, although that quote is out of context and may also be complete crap; I just wanted to feel better about my dependency on my parents during the college years.

**Does this count as a practical joke, since I didn’t immediately say it was a joke, or follow it with a smiley face, but waited until the footnote? That’s kind of committing to it, right?

***They all play it in Design for Living (1933), a progressive/transgressive little picture which showcases Gary Cooper’s silly run. He could have led the Ministry of Silly Runs.


Class,

Before you can be a writer you must be a drag queen. Or king. Or prince. Or princess. Some member of the royal drag family. The point is impersonation. I truly believe the way to find yourself is by trying to be someone else. Find a writer who strikes your fancy and then feast on them. Have a fancy feast. I mean, don’t eat cat food. But devour whatever that writer does and try to digest it and pass it as your own. Do an Ed Gein – rip off their skin and try it on. These are really graphic metaphors, but maybe you’ll remember them better.

I’ve had a Talented Mr. Ripley relationship with a lot of writers, only just imitating them, not killing them. In purposely imitating style, I’ve accidentally internalized a lot about structure, theme and character development. I tried to be funny like Woody Allen and realized the sadness of it. I tried to do beats like Harold Pinter and discovered that people say more with pauses than with words. I tried to be sophisticated like Phillip Barry and recognized the classism he was criticizing. I tried to speak the truth like G.K. Chesterton and understood love. Each of these writer relationships has taught me more of what I really want and who I really am. Maybe someday I will be myself, and be worthy of their love. In the meantime Jesus loves me.

Since we’re on the subject of Jesus: follow him. Until I started to do that I had no material. And my life had little meaning. Not that following Him was my doing. I had a breakdown. Maybe you’ll have a break up. However you’re broken, you’ll want to put it together, you’ll want control, and so you will write, because, to quote Hilton Als, “the root function of language is to control the world through describing it,” but more than that, to quote St. Paul, “our God is not a God of disorder” and we are made in His image.

“Life is…chaos…until Picasso looks at it. Then something happens. Order and design. A cathedral has it, sometimes. Great music, always. And storytelling, when it’s pure, but not when we start moralizing. We’re not supposed to steer the human race. Don’t police the party, just describe it. That book – I kept trying to Say Something. I forgot it’s all been said. The passion to be original. Good God, it’s like looking for a new way to screw. What’s wrong with the old way? Nothing, if it’s got love in it. And everything if it ain’t.”

-Gordon Kanin, Gift of Time

I agree, except the world was perfect and we fouled it up. But God’s desire for order is still in us, so we want it to be whole, even if it’s pretend. Love is everything in its place. Love is discipline. And with that, let’s turn to my first play, Work in Progress. It’s based on experiences I had while working at a nonprofit temp agency for ex-offenders in Milwaukee…

The Bachelor and the Baby Fox

12/19/14

So my sister had a baby – or, judging from the damage, a grenade. “There was more blood than Carrie,” she said over the phone just hours after the birth. “Why are you calling me?” I asked. “You just pushed an entire bowling alley through your vagina.” She laughed, more in agreement than amusement. “I wanted to call you,” she said, “because he has red hair like you.” “Are you sure?” I said. “Maybe that’s blood.”

12/25/14

“Are you looking forward to holding him?” My cousin asked. “I’m not going to hold him,” I replied. “Oh come on, of course you will,” she persisted. “You’re projecting a lot of humanity onto me right now,” I said. “This is not some cynical exoskeleton protecting a bleeding heart. That thing did some serious shit on the way out. It’s a Small Assassin. I am concerned for my sister.”

12/26/14

“I got the TDAP or CPAP or pap smear or whatever,” I said to a friend. “I was like, ‘but I’m not going to hold the baby,’ and they’re like, ‘but you still have to get the shot.’ So I got it. And a book: Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How To Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. That is as involved in their parenting as I’m ever going to be.”

12/27/14

“I wanted to tell you,” I started to tell my sister as my mother started to tell me about the baby room. “Come see it. You have to see it.” I smiled with a few too many teeth. “I was about to embark on a topic beyond the baby,” I raised an eyebrow, “which is a little scary, I know.” The joke sounded angrier than I’d intended.  Fleeing the scene I’d just created, I said, “let’s see it.” It was a four-walled forest with painted trees and little foxes, getting into trouble and looking cute doing it – a strategy which, I felt compelled to explain to them, will only work so long. My sister asked what I was going to tell her before. “Oh, just that I’m reading A Series of Unfortunate Events,” I said, “which really should be retitled A Series of Stupid Adults. They are so stupid. They keep doing the same stupid things.”

12/28/14

The iPhone illuminated my face like the light from an open refrigerator. “A Wisconsinite in Missouri: the sign says Deer Run. I thought it said Beer Run,” I texted to him, since he is from here. “How long will you be there,” he texted back. Our here and there would be the same place for a few days. We set a time to meet. Just for a drink, I thought, and it seemed to echo in my head, a mockingbird in a small cage. I strolled down the middle of the road, guided by Christmas lights. The front of one house was flooded with undulating rainbow flecks of light, broken candy floating in water. I stared into the houses and watched people live. It seemed like voyeurism but felt like intimacy; as a girl cares for her dolls and dollhouse, I cared for them. Instead of ear muffs I wore Bose noise canceling headphones and listened to Book of Love: “I want to be where the boys are / But I’m not allowed / I’m not a boy / I’m not a boy.”

12/30/14

Tossing the baby to our parents, we went Into The Woods. The lyrics and music carried us even as they made us walk. “Mother cannot guide you / Now you’re on your own / Only me beside you / Still you’re not alone / No one is alone, truly / No one is alone / Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood / Others may deceive you / You decide what’s good / You decide alone / But no one is alone” On the ride home, my brother-in-law said, “this musical means a lot more now.”

12/31/14

“The baby looks like you,” a mutual friend of my sister and I said. “Hopefully the resemblance is only physical,” I said. It was New Year’s Eve at Missy B’s, a place just as trashy as it sounds. The friend bound her breasts like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and shaved her head like Sinead O’Connor in everything and people thought we were a couple and we did not correct them. An adorable doofus found me on the dance floor around midnight and tried to kiss me. Our beards brushed as I shouted in his ear, “I’m not that kind of boy.” I should have added “anymore.”

1/1/15

“Apologies, but I must cancel. A good friend of the family has died so we are leaving early,” I texted the boy from here. Not a good friend of the family, really, only of my father, but it sounded better, and I felt better, like an animal caught in a trap and released into the wild again. I was even ready for the Anne Geddes photo shoot. The baby was naked and someone was aiming a hair dryer at his ass. It was a whole situation. My family had held steady for a week in their requests for me to hold him, so I did. Long enough to snap a few pictures, then I passed him back to the professionals. The red shirt I had been given for the occasion – World’s Greatest Uncle – could be taken off. I left it on.

Running with Questions

Ben,

Acacia Theatre Company has really interested me and impressed me, from what I found online. My name is Aubree Gevara,* I’m a homeschooled 18 years old and my passion is for excellence in Christian theater. I’m contacting you because I believe you exhibit aspiring characteristics and qualities. For my duel credit college final project in my Theater Appreciation Course I’m interviewing people involved with Christian theater. I would be extremely appreciative if you would take some time to answer a few questions below. Feel free to answer whatever you can even a few answers are helpful! God bless!

Aubree,

Thanks for contacting Acacia. You are correct in stating that I exhibit aspiring characteristics and qualities. My characteristics and qualities are wannabes and posers. Also you must invite me the next time your credits duel. Do they just throw their weight around? I can’t imagine them using weapons. How does either win? It all sounds very thrilling.

I am happy to answer your questions, but know that my opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Acacia Theatre Company. If that statement concerns you, remember it is also displayed before every episode of “The 700 Club.” Except for the “Acacia Theatre Company” part, of course. If Acacia owned “The 700 Club” it would have taken me longer to respond because we would be receiving donations all the time, like Goodwill, if Goodwill got boxes of money. And people would donate other things, too, like an advent calendar keyboard. Beneath each key would be a chocolate. It would have to be like a 3 month advent. And the keys would have to be labeled normally so you could still type. It’s not a good idea but it’s an idea that makes me feel good, probably because I’m typing and hungry and tired and Christmas is a comin’ and the egg is in the nog.**

What plays have you been involved with and in what role did you help? (director, actor, stage) Please state if they were Christian or secular.

Let’s get etymological. The word secular is from Latin – that virile patriarch who seems to have contributed DNA to every word born – specifically, the root saecularis, meaning “of a generation,” which our generation can learn from reading Wikipedia, as I did, although I am not in your generation, Aubree, since I am 30 and therefore dead by most accounts in youth culture.

Regardless, the essential purpose of the word secular is to describe activities removed from organized religion, from eating to bathing to working to playing in a Mariachi band. Yet these activities can still be, and often are, blessed by God. Applying this understanding to our lives makes everything so messy, and in our country, where 99.9% disinfecting hand sanitizer is ubiquitous, that’s upsetting, so I will try to answer as cleanly as possible.

I’ve spent a lot of time in theaters, beginning in 7th grade as Friedrich in The Sound of Music, to writing and producing my own play, Work in Progress, to assistant stage managing a show off-off-Broadway, to costarring in a controversial production of Oleanna. Most of my work has been in Christian schools or theatre companies, with some exceptions.

What is your background and training? Was it Christian or secular? What are your opinions about Christians training in secular theater? 

After giving Wisconsin Lutheran College the old college try for two years, I transferred to a secular film school – although its President was a Christian, just to stuff your noodle – where I graduated with an Associate’s Degree in film production, which basically qualifies you to get coffee for people. I did this for awhile, before being promoted to getting food for people, which I did for awhile, before being promoted to getting the phone for people, which I did for awhile, until I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Actually I had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t get up. I had to “get to gettin’,” to quote Nat King Cole, and God only knows how I got here.

As for Christians training in secular theatre, I sense that is a personal choice everyone must make. Personally, the secular theatre is a giant salt block and I am a deer – I can’t hold my licker and I’m still thirsty afterwards. Deers pant for water. I know that the plural for deer is the same as the single, Aubree, but it’s more fun to say deers. Even more fun if you were a jeweler to the animals, because then there is the possibility of one day saying, “I’ve got De Beers for the deers.”

To reference the Bible again, only with proper pluralization and context this time, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” There are so few workers with the requisite faith, talent and skill who will get down on the funny farm of secular theatre and harvest some lost souls!! I’m sorry, Aubree, that was a little Pentecostal. And metaphorical. God is the only one who can harvest souls. But he can use workers.

However one decides to be trained, what is certain to me is that you can’t follow God outside of a community of followers. You need the collective encouragement and discernment and smack upside the head – although maybe the collective shouldn’t administer the smack upside the head as that would be a lot of head trauma. The smacking upside the head should be delegated to an individual from the collective.

Have you personally ever compromised your convictions to participate or glean training in a secular forum? If so how has that affected you as you train your students or others?

To the first question, the answer must be yes, but I can’t think of a situation. Our memory is always protecting our self-image.

What is your advice to Christian college students as they pursue theater? What pitfalls could you warn students to avoid? 

I believe it was David Mamet who said something like, “if you want to do theatre, do theatre.” In my opinion, that’s the best advice. Don’t wait for a director or producer or company to discover you, go out and discover yourself. Write something, produce something, act in something. Do the Mickey Rooney Judy Garland thing and put on a show. It does help to know somebody with a barn.

Did your convictions change about what you felt you were able to participate in the more you advanced in Christian theater? 

No? Yes? It seems strange to classify it as a change in convictions; it’s more like an expanding perception. God is bigger than the Boogieman, or that mass of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific ocean, or politics, or culture. He is this really Big Love – no reference to polygamy intended, although we’re all supposed to be the bride of Christ so maybe the reference is unintentionally intended – that is constantly in pursuit of people. He is the way, the truth and the life. At the center of that is truth. All truth belongs to God. So if you look for truth, I believe you will find Him. From that place you can bear witness.

What is the biggest obstacle you face when coordinating or participating in Christian theater?

Engaging the beliefs of Christians without enraging them. Most of our subscribers are Christians and some were upset when we announced our intention to produce a play about Mother Teresa. One remembered reading an article, which they elevated to an article of faith, that Mother Teresa renounced God before her death. After reading some articles myself, I discovered a private letter from her to a spiritual director, describing a dark night of the soul so dark I suspect St. John of the Cross would refer to it as Mother Teresa’s Night of the Soul, out of respect. When someone is getting that much demonic attention, God must be living in them; such a system of measurement cannot be converted to the prosperity gospel, but it is nevertheless true.

Anyway, we met people’s opposition with our conviction that Mother Teresa was a woman of God – yes, a woman with struggles and faults and doubts – but a woman of God. Some declined to renew their season subscription because of that decision, but they still attended other shows. God has a way of bringing people together, even when they don’t believe the same things.

And I believe this answers all your questions. You’ll never have to ask one again. I hope it’s been helpful, or at the very least, entertaining. Blessings on the project, Aubree!

Ben

*Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t.

**This is from a Bing Crosby Christmas song. Listen to it here. What is with the speech bubble lyrics? Stop putting words in his mouth. Let the man rest in peace.

The Boys and Girls Next Door

The boys and girls next door come over for the first time on Friday night. They are from Chicago and the youngest girl informs us that it is better than Milwaukee. An older sibling glares at her and translates for us, “no it isn’t, we like Milwaukee,” as if we rule the city and will banish them for treason.

The middle brother admits he likes to draw and we bring out white paper. There is trash talking and telling us to bring more; it is now a game of Pictionary and each is determined to win. One doesn’t draw at all, but keeps writing our names in different fonts and sizes, as if to commit them to memory. Mine says “boy” on the left side, “Ben” in the middle and “man” on the right. I quite agree with the placement.

When the pizza is ready, we become like flight attendants, giving instructions that they don’t quite listen to. We say: there is pizza with meat; with just cheese; these have marinara sauce; this has white sauce. They don’t understand the white sauce. We try to explain it to them. They don’t eat it.

After they lose interest in drawing, we are left to our own devices – iPhones and iPads. A housemate finds music videos of Willow Smith, who whips her hair into a fireball, dressed like Janet and Michael and dancing like neither of them. “Whether it’s black stars or black cars,” Willow sings, “I’m feeling it.”

One of the girls asks to “use it,” and on the way to the bathroom, passes the monolith photo album that also functions as a refrigerator. She sees a snapshot of Meldon, our former housemate. Mel is the type of phenomenal woman that Maya Angelou wrote about: smart, soulful, mischievous, gorgeous. “Why y’all friends with dark-skinned people?” The girl asks. “Why wouldn’t we be?” I ask back. “I don’t know,” she says.

As we reenter the living room, everyone is riding the roulette wheel of childish whims and YouTube suggestions, somehow arriving at Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” We all sing like we always will. I remember the people who said she didn’t have soul, and my mom, who said that to sing like Whitney Houston was her idea of heaven. As I watch one of the girls lean into my housemate for a hug, I think this might be something like mine.

Interview

The John Numerin Show

Interview with Darnell Dannon

Aired September 26, 2014 – 21:00 ET

 

NUMERIN: Welcome back everybody. Darnell Dannon is my guest. He’s promoting “I am a camera, I’m a radio,” which comes out next week. So, Darnell, which are you, a camera or a radio?

DANNON: What are you wearing?

NUMERIN: Is this a new thing? Phone sex in person? It’ll require even more imagination.

DANNON: It’s a question.

NUMBERIN: What am I wearing?

DANNON: Yes.

NUMERIN: Alright. A suit.

DANNON: A mansuit?

NUMERIN: What?

DANNON: Why are you wearing that stupid mansuit?

NUMERIN: It’s comfortable.

DANNON: It doesn’t look comfortable.

NUMERIN: It didn’t cost me anything. That makes it comfortable.

DANNON: Whom did it cost?

NUMERIN: The network.

DANNON: Like a hook costs a fisherman.

NUMERIN: Is that contempt or pity?

DANNON: Would you like paper or plastic?

NUMERIN: What does that mean?

DANNON: Whatever you want. That’s what you do. And how do you do.

NUMERIN: Fine, thank you.

DANNON: Fine? That’s fine. Very fine. Fine China. You’ll shatter to pieces at any moment.

NUMERIN: You would know.

DANNON: If you’re referring to a recent breakdown, yes. And I highly recommend having one regularly. Like a colonoscopy.

NUMERIN: What do you think caused that?

DANNON: A procrastination of pain.

NUMERIN: Would you care to elaborate?

DANNON: No.

NUMERIN: Maybe later? We can keep it off the record.

DANNON: Which one are you, Woodward? Bernstein? Redford? Hoffman? Anyway, everything’s on the record. I’m a songwriter.

NUMERIN: Are your songs autobiographical?

DANNON: In the way footprints are autobiographical. In the way urine is autobiographical. In the way reading someone else’s biography is autobiographical. We don’t live in an Ayn Rand novel, you know? Nothing’s objective.

NUMERIN: Didn’t you know Ayn Rand?

DANNON: No.

NUMERIN: I’ve seen a picture of you together.

DANNON: I’ve got pictures with everyone. I’m like one of those New York Italian restaurant owners. But I don’t know anyone. And no one knows me.

NUMERIN: Do you not want to be known?

DANNON: When you know what something is you don’t see it anymore.

NUMERIN: You want to be seen?

DANNON: I want you to stop asking what I want.

NUMERIN: What should a talk show host ask?

DANNON: How are you.

NUMERIN: How are you?

DANNON: My parents met at a slipper hop. It was more hygienic than socks. And less slippery. But during the jitterbug, my mom slipped. And my dad caught her. He had a 1957 Pontiac Bonneville with a big backseat. That is how I am.

NUMERIN: Is that true?

DANNON: You just asked the buzzkill of interview questions.

NUMERIN: Maybe we should trade places.

DANNON: But I would still have to talk. I want that machine Stephen Hawking has where he types and it talks for him. Except not. I’d just want a screen with everything I typed on display for people to read.

NUMERIN: Why?

DANNON: Talking is just a jury foreman. It’s just “guilty or not guilty.” There’s no deliberation. That is only possible in thought, and, for the writer, in writing. It’s like Vera Pavlova says, “Heaven is not verbose…the more you talk, the more you lie.”

NUMERIN: So extroverts must be pathological liars.

DANNON: Yes. They should all be put in isolation. Then the rest of us would finally be able to read in peace, without them assuming that because we’re reading, we must be bored, and it is their noble responsibility to start a conversation.

NUMERIN: Has the American Library Association asked you to do a poster yet?

DANNON: I wish they would. That’s the only endorsement deal I’ve ever wanted. When I first moved to New York, I didn’t have a job, but I wasn’t unemployed. I applied myself to the NYPL. My 70s American Tourister bag was always full of books, music and movies, the sum of which, I was certain, would result in a new self. A new self so cool it wouldn’t talk to the old self. I was building an identity like a 1954 construction crew, with the union at its most powerful, believing that however long the job took was how long it took, breaks could be taken, there was always tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Until there wasn’t.

NUMERIN: When was that?

DANNON: My last birthday. I felt like Susan in Quality Street. “Why does 30 seem so much more than 29?” Because it is. The roaring ‘20’s are over, the stock market has crashed, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to eat. And your soul mate will not be at that party. Or that bar. Or that show. To quote Donald Miller, you have to stop worshipping at the altar of romantic completion.

NUMERIN: Have you?

DANNON: No, but I don’t bring sacrifices anymore. I just sit there, knowing it’s a false god and wanting to believe it.

NUMERIN: Wanting to believe in it even though it’s false? Or wanting to believe it’s false?

DANNON: Yes.

NUMERIN: Well, I can see why. You’ve been involved with some hot merchandise.

DANNON: So the newshawk wants to barber about me pitching woo with the daisies and dolls?

NUMERIN: …Yes?

DANNON: You’re the one who started with the Chandler phraseology.

NUMERIN: Alright, alright.

DANNON: It doesn’t matter. I don’t kiss and television.

NUMERIN: Then pray tell, why did you agree to this interview?

DANNON: I’m a verbal processor.

NUMERIN: Well, I don’t want to throw a monkey wrench in your processor –

DANNON: Don’t worry, my blades don’t dull.

NUMERIN: – but we’re out of time.

DANNON: You mean we’re in luck.

NUMERIN: That hurts, you know? I thought we were having a good time.

DANNON: Say good night, Gracie.

NUMERIN: Good night, Gracie. And good night, everyone else.

The Matchmaker

I have a theory that there were ferociously affectionate friends and family on the set of this film every day, just off-camera, sitting on the floor, or on folding chairs with a cushion for Grandma, or on a picnic blanket drinking from of a Thermos filled with coffee and John Jameson Irish Whiskey, watching and bewitched. If not, then there must have been a whale of an audience, because it’s as though each member of the cast is a barnacle, feeding off of some enormous attention; the characters come alive, as they almost never do.

A more credible explanation might be that it was directed by Joseph Anthony, who started on Broadway and made his most significant contributions there, besides a few brief interludes in Hollywood. One can only wish that those interludes had lasted a few more measures, because The Matchmaker is such a wonderful place between Theatre and Film, you wonder why more directors don’t try to make a home there.

Like I am a Camera or Auntie Mame, the genealogy of Matchmaker is nearly Biblical in length. Originally written for Broadway under the title The Merchant of Younkers, playwright Thornton Wilder revised, renamed and reopened it as The Matchmaker, after which it was adapted for film, adapted as a musical, and adapted for film again. The plot never changed, but for those who never followed it, here is a summary.

Dolly Levi (Shirley Booth) is a widow not in the black. She has a lot of business cards, but mostly for businesses in which she has no business. “Nature isn’t satisfactory, quite,” she declares, “and so it has to be corrected. So I put my hand in here and I put my hand in there.” At rise, Dolly’s hands are making a match, finding a find and catching a catch – for her, and for several other people, if convenient. Her prey is Mr. Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford), a wealthy storeowner who can keep Dolly in the manner after which she is lusting; unfortunately he is chasing a younger woman, Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine). It’s nearly enough to split the ends of Dolly’s wits, but she means to use two young men, Cornelius Hackl (Anthony Perkins) and Barnaby Tucker (Robert Morse) to accomplish her purpose. But before then, there will be hiding in closets, under tables and in drag.

It sounds like a harmless farce made for high school drama programs, and yet the film casts a rare spell, the kind Robertson Davies describes in A Mixture of Frailties: “…[a] state of excitement which follows a really satisfactory artistic achievement. Their excitement varied, of course. There were those who talked of the concert, and there were those who talked of politics and the stock market; but all their talk was a little more vivacious, or vehement, or pontifical because of what they had experienced; music had performed its ever-new magical trick of strengthening and displaying whatever happened to be the dominant trait in them.” If you are charming or witty or gay – and everybody is, in their own way – after this film you will be charwittay.

Thanks must be given to the adaptor, John Michael Hayes, who was known for his literary adaptations, but that phrase is contrarian to his purpose: instead of adapting a book for film, he adapted film for the book; or, in this case, the play. While 3 out of 4 screenwriters would recommend medicating the theatrical conditions, Hayes practiced a natural approach, keeping all the character asides and adding a few more for consistency, increasing the hysterical antics to a scale only achievable in film, and giving the entire cast an opportunity to thank us for coming to the show.

But don’t misinterpret that gesture: the star of the show is Shirley Booth. It’s obvious why she is among the elite performers who have won an Emmy, Tony and Oscar. What’s baffling is that she was replaced three times in film adaptations for roles she originated on the stage: by Ruth Bussey in Philadelphia Story, Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen and Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, all three of whom were nominated in her stead. Although each of those women gave a fine performance, it’s a rightfully big boo-hoo of should-have-beens. Yet Booth kept working, and what work there is, is remarkable. When she becomes a character, every thought and feeling is composed in her mind and heart, telegraphed to her face and translated with her mouth – simultaneously, amusingly, poignantly, and often contradictorily, though the message always comes out clear. She plays Dolly as the cat that ate the canary, except she hasn’t eaten it, she’s just holding it in the back of her throat, trying to scare it back to life.

And she is only just the brightest in a film full of stars, laying down squares to make a Hollywood walk upon which you almost float. Robert Morse redirects his energy from its typically manic expression to a touching uncertainty. Shirley MacLaine has a heady charm worth losing your head over. And, in one of the last lines, Anthony Perkins’ characteristically haltering speech has never been so endearing, and the sly grin so boyish, as he says, “I hope that in your lives you have just the right amount of sitting quietly at home and just the right amount of adventure.” After spending time with The Matchmaker, I always feel just the right amount of both.

You Can Do Magic

A trick has been performed. The tricksters union consisted of a magician, a Great Deceiver; an assistant, the willing accomplice; and volunteers, from the audience. But that was just for The Turn. What is meant by The Turn? Certainly not a rotation in dance, although if you are now compelled to visualize it as such, then a 180 degree rotation. The Turn is the moment when a pet raccoon becomes a wild animal. The Turn is always a wrong turn and it must be subtracted from your travel time. But to begin again, every great trick has The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige.

“The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal.”*

The Pledge: this boy is a child of God.

This boy was born into a Christian family. He went to Sunday School. He went to Church. He was praised for doing right and punished for doing wrong. His parents loved him and so he believed God loved him.

“The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”*

The Turn: this boy is a mistake.

This boy was called a girl in elementary school. He was called gay in middle school. He watched the other boys in high school. He watched porn in college. He went to clubs. He went on Craigslist. This boy thought that God had fallen asleep on the assembly line and didn’t give him the right parts. That he should be recalled, like the Easy Bake Oven, for burning other boys who dared to use him, for enabling them to have dessert before dinner. But this boy was not being honest. He did not want to be fixed. He wanted to be excused. To do whatever he wanted. It was a settlement for the injustice committed.

“Making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’”*

The Prestige: this boy is a child of God.

This boy was not excused. He was called to the Principal’s office. The Principal was God. God was not angry. This boy was angry. The Principal listened to this boy shout for a long time, until the words ran out and the tears ran down. The Principal did not cry. He walked around the desk, around the chair, and placed his hands on this boy’s shoulders, like a father.

And the voices which St. Augustine had described, the ones plucking at his garment of flesh, whispered, “are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever. From this moment on you will never again be allowed to do this thing or that.” The mutterings seemed to reach from behind, trying to make this boy turn his head when he wanted to go forward.**

This boy did not turn his head. He knew The Turn was finished and The Prestige had began. The trick had been performed, and this boy was not turning tricks anymore. Not today.

 

*From The Prestige by Christopher Priest.

**From Confessions by St. Augustine.

Me, Myself and iPhone

E-mail

Hey, man. That’s quite a tool you got. Can I see your face?

Liking what I see. Are you around tonight?

I’ll meet you there in an hour.

Voice Memos

It’s the time when you realize your problems are not interesting anymore. They are just problems, and they have the same, sad, sorry faces, looking to you, wondering if you’ll talk to them, wondering if you’ll let them in the door, and you do, because there’s nobody else at home, and it’s very lonely, and if nothing else, they occupy you – temporarily. But you do, you do want to kick them out, I mean you kick them out, but then they come back, they come back to you every time, and you – it’s – maybe if there was a doghouse, or a shed, or a greenhouse, something where you could put them, stow them, store them; and never, never, never take them out, do you understand. Sort of like a storage unit that someone forgets about until they die – well, I mean they don’t remember because they’re dead, but somebody else discovers it, in the family, and they go to the storage unit and “isn’t this interesting? Isn’t this interesting?” They say. And it is interesting because it’s not theirs, and um, so then it’s better. It’s better that way.

The train is going by, and it’s like a jointed wooden snake, only going in a straight line, an experience which I have not encountered – going in a straight line, that is. Or staying on the tracks. Neither one. It’s gone now. And cars are waiting. But I’m not waiting because I’m on foot. You never have to wait when you’re on foot; when you’re on a bike. There’s no waiting at intersections. There’s no waiting. You just keep going. You just keep going.

The grass has been cut down, and you can smell it – everywhere. You can smell it. Cut grass. Cut down. In its prime.

I am a monster. Not like a Lady Gaga monster – glamour and appetite and effervescence – no, just a monster, that devours everything, devours everything. And seems to be trying to commit suicide by gluttony. It will never be satiated. Just attacking and consuming.

Voice Mail

I know I’m in a bachelor time zone and you’re in parent time zone, but maybe we can synchronize, if only retroactively. I had to call you and apologize, because – I used you as a lie. I involved you in a lie. I made you an accomplice to a lie. I was in a lonely place – isn’t that a Humphrey Bogart film? That’s too romantic. I will not be romantic. I lied to my whole family. I said I was meeting you, when I was meeting a stranger through Craigslist. I’m joining a recovery group. I have a problem, and the problem has a pattern, and I’m not going to buy drapes to match it, I’m going to change the pattern. I’m sorry. Goodnight, friend.