Friday, October 4, 2013

On our other sister.

When I was two, my mother had a baby who only lived for eight weeks. My sister Rachel Ann was born with congenital heart defects so complex that none of the doctors heard the irregularities in her tiny valves before it was  too late. Because I was two, I don’t remember anything about her. I don’t remember her being born, I don’t remember her dying, but I do remember her birthday parties. Every July 9th, we celebrated Rachel’s birthday with a special dinner and a birthday cake, but no presents because there was no guest of honor. The six of us sang “Happy Birthday” in the middle of summer to a little person I was told was my baby sister who died because she had a hole in her heart.
Rachel was present on other holidays as well. Each of us has a different color Christmas stocking hand sewn by my mother. Seven in total hang on the mantelpiece: two for my parents, four for the kids and one for Rachel. Hers is made of soft pink corduroy trimmed in ribbon embroidered with baby blue rocking horses. As the years went on, the contents of our stockings matured with us from Lipsmackers, to lipgloss, to lipstick, to liquor. But like the taste of my mother’s spinach quiche, the contents of Rachel’s stocking never changed. Every year on Christmas morning, her stocking was and is filled with a bouquet of pink carnations. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that because Rachel died in September, my mother must have made the stocking after she died. That’s why Rachel’s stocking has the baby ribbon on it. She knew that this particular pink stocking was for a baby who would never grow up. Until recently, I also didn’t think about my dad ordering those flowers every year for Christmas morning. A strange thing to do, order carnations on December 20th, as they are not exactly your standby holiday fauna.
To this day, when we decorate our Christmas tree each year, the last ornament we hang is a small golden tree with five leaves. One leaf has fallen away from the other leaves, off its branch and rests on the ground. As my mother quietly hangs that tiny golden tree, my father puts his arm around her as if to say, “Merry Christmas. It’s okay to still miss her.” After Rachel died, a number of my parents’ friends who lived on the Naval base in Philadelphia with us planted a tree in her memory. We call it the Rachel tree. We visited her tree and brought balloons to her grave during our yearly visits to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, my parents’ alma mater.
I wonder what rituals like this do to a kid, when ornaments and plants and graves and poorly attended birthday parties are all you can base your experience of someone on. And this is someone you’ve known your whole life, but you can’t remember. I don’t have any memories of my sister. All I have are memories of the ways in which we acknowledged the fact that she existed. I used to think we just did all of this for my mom, that it was something my mom needed because it must have been terrible for her, so terrible to lose something she grew. So terrible to only get two months with someone she held inside her warmth for nine. She must felt cheated and like she had failed and angry at the God which she so, so fervently believes in. I thought we were doing all of this for her because, honestly, I never really got much out of celebrating her birthday or looking at the few photos of her we had around the house or even visiting her grave. I didn’t know her so I didn’t miss her.
But then I went off to college and I missed the Rachel days. Her birthday came and went unnoticed. I haven’t seen her grave in years. She stopped feeling a part of my life.
A few years ago, during my third year of actor training, I had a dream. In the dream, I was in a Michael Chekhov class doing an exercise. I don’t know if you are familiar with Michael Chekhov exercises but they involve imagining a particular set of circumstances as you walk around the room, like imagine the floor is on fire, imagine you are at a cocktail party with the president, imagine your butt is a magnet, that sort of thing.
So in the dream, my acting teacher said, “Okay, walk around the room with your sisters.” And for some reason, dream Maura asked him, “With all our sisters or just the ones that are alive?”
“All your sisters.”
So the picture changed like a flash, because this was a dream, and all the sudden, I was walking around the room, milling and seething, with two other women. One is my younger sister Claire and the other is a woman, about 20 years old, who looks just like me and just like Claire, but different. And the three of us just walked, in silence, weaving in and out of each other, smiling in awareness of each other's presence. Then it was over.
That’s all I remember of the dream. But I swear, I know, it was Rachel. I’m sorry, I don’t believe that my brain could through random firing of neurons and chemical reactions create that vast an experience. I just don’t. I’m not saying it was a ghost or an angel or a vision or proof of the supernatural. I’m just saying it was amazing and eerie and I know it was my sister.
Shortly after the dream, I asked my mom about the decision to make Rachel such a part of the fabric of our lives. Many families experience a miscarriage or the death of a young child and do not discuss it openly or often as we do. She told me something I’ll never forget. She said, "I wanted you all to grow up knowing that bad things happen, for no reason, things you think you can't survive, but you can, you do. We did.” She said something else that struck me during that conversation, about how people sometimes say things like, “Well, you are a stronger person or a better mother because this happened.” She doesn’t think about it that way. Although she probably did grow in unexpected ways by knowing Rachel, my mother knows that the purpose of Rachel’s short life was not to teach her something about herself or the value and unconquerable fragility of life. The purpose of Rachel’s tiny life was to live, for as long as her little, imperfect heart would allow. It’s nothing but vanity to think otherwise.
I never knew how to answer people when they asked me how many siblings I have. To form the words “I’m one of four” has always felt a little wrong in my mouth. Since the dream, when people ask me how my siblings I have, I usually say I am one of five. In the first photograph of the four of us with the Rachel tree, it is a small sapling standing only a few inches taller than my five-year-old brother. We visited the Rachel tree a few years back. In the photo from that visit, the four of us are sitting in the tree a half a dozen or so feet off the ground. It’s funny, in the ornament she’s the fallen leaf, but in the photograph she is holding us all up the way we carried her when she was a baby. In a way, it’s the only picture of all my mother’s children: two girls, two boys and a tree with deep roots into the earth and lush, extending branches reaching towards the heavens.
Jeff, Claire, Stephen and Maura in Rachel's tree, 2001

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On my first summer doing indoor science

"Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress."
-Anton Chekhov
For the past few years, rehearsing outdoor Shakespeare has marked the official beginning of summer for me. However this summer is different. I have just successfully finished my first semester of what I will call indoor Science or "Maura Does Science" (MDs). I've been glued to my laptop for the past 8 weeks studying Biology and Algebra online at the American Public University as a pre-requisite for the Pre-Med Post Bacc I will begin at Northwestern in the fall. For someone who has spent ten years memorizing Shakespeare, you'd think my first foray into Biology might've been easier. It's definitely going to take some time before my brain wheels start to turn easily over scientific jargon and theories. I can't tell you how excited I was when I caught a line of Shakespeare in my biology textbook: "That is the rub" (see Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech). I'm sure that most of my classmates glazed over that phrase without a clue what it meant. I also like to think fondly of the guy or gal who wrote that section while moonlighting as a textbook author while pursuing an MFA in playwriting. 

But something was rotten in the state of the textbook. This photo below was my favorite bit of appalling racism in the textbook:
Subtext: Only straight, rich, white people live in more-developed countries. Those countries also look like Cape Cod or a Gap commercial. They are also much happier than people everywhere else.

Now that my semester is over, I can spend more time crafting with my dear knitting friends and adventuring with my handsome movie star boyfriend (who is currently shooting a big movie I can't say the name of on the internet playing alongside a woman who was in a movie about a big boat that sank because her necklace was so heavy.) I am working on a culinary post I am going to call m2f1 (make two, freeze one) about doubling recipes so I've been cooking a bit more than usual. I just made a stew of Israeli couscous and all of the vegetables in my fridge (small red and yellow peppers, celery, olives, tomatoes and onions). I served it (to myself) with a little bit of Greek yogurt and homemade iced coffee. Delish.

I suppose the biggest lesson from my first semester of MDs was that this endeavor will be very, very challenging. Even people who love science find medical school impossible and  frustrating and tear-inducing. Last week I went up to some girls wearing thick plastic glasses and sideways hats at Filter Coffee who were obviously studying for a med school final and asked them about their experience. They were really friendly and said they hated being med students, but loved people and practicing medicine. As I studied for my Biology final, I felt really comforted by the presence of these hipster doctors. It made me think there's a place for me too. The future of healthcare in this country is in our hands. In my hands. My trembling, passionate, knitter's hands.

I finished knitting the Mara Shawl out of MistiAlpaca Worsted and as I was binding off (finishing, for those of you non-knitters) I found 2 cosmetic, not structural mistakes in the knit 3 purl 2 ribbing on the border of the shawl. I asked the infallible Scot and my wise friend Kirstin whether I should rip out an hour of work to fix the tiny mistakes which no one else would ever notice. Both advised me to leave them as they were. I questioned, "But does that make me lazy because I'm not willing to take the time now to make the shawl perfect forever?" Scot said that maybe for other people it would indicate laziness, but for me it would indicate a release of control, of the need for perfection. Kirstin reminded me of a myth that Amish quilters would leave a purposeful mistake in their exquisite handiwork as a reminder of their own imperfections to keep them humble. And really, the shawl isn't going to ever be perfect. But it is perfectly human, stitch-by-stitch. I left the mistakes in. 

Maura's Mara
So be loving with yourself this summer. Look your mistakes in the face and don't be afraid or ashamed of them. They are uniquely yours. 

HOWEVER, I will say that putting an empty ice cube tray back in the freezer in the middle of summer is not a reminder of your own humility, it's just lazy. xo.

Monday, June 3, 2013

On my godmother.

The second to last time I saw Aunt Monica, I remember waking her up from a nap before dinner on that cold February day. She was very groggy and the gears of her mind took time to begin to pick up speed after being asleep. She blinked her eyes and looked at me quizzically. 

"Who are you?" she said sweetly.
 "I'm Maura," I responded, "Maybe you can't see me. I'll come closer."
As I leaned in, she nodded her head. "Oh, another one."
"The one and only!"
"No," she corrected me indignantly and not without the hint of a scold, "There's also Maura Clement."

At first, I felt saddened that she didn't recognize that, in fact, I was Maura Clement. But then I felt supremely flattered that she would so defiantly defend the real Maura Clement to this other strange imposter Maura.  You see, until the end of her life, even in her more difficult days, Monica was fiercely loyal to those she loved. She would have done anything for her daughters, her husband, and the rest of us who were lucky enough to be her family.

Monica passed away last night after a three year battle with a brain tumor at her home in Audubon, Pennsylvania surrounded by her husband and her three daughters. I don't think that any of my words can be as good a tribute to her as some of her own can. Here is an excerpt from an e-mail Monica sent me on September 14, 2009 when I was struggling with anxiety and living in London. It is a testament to her unfaltering faith and selfless love. May these words be a comfort to those of us who will miss her until we meet again.

"Trust in the Lord, Maura.  He will never let you down.  I have a recent example... I think you know that for over a year I've been working as the Accounting Manager for local programs at Special Olympics Pennsylvania.  This past weekend was our Leadership Conference for our volunteers who run our local programs all around the state.  I was to give a presentation and run a discussion group--things I haven't done in years!  I wanted to be professional and do a good job, making a good impression on all these folks I have only "met" via email and/or phone calls.  My boss and I have been working on this since April, and needless to say, as the day was approaching, I was becoming more and more anxious about the event.  I was praying the rosary each day, asking for a successful outcome, but was not really achieving the peace of mind I was hoping for.

By mid-week last week, I was becoming overly stressed, when I realized I had been praying for the wrong thing--rather than "success" I should have been praying "thy will be done."  I know I have learned this lesson before, but old habits die hard!  When I finally actually prayed the words I had been reciting all along, I felt a sense of calm--knowing that God was taking care of things, and no matter how they turned out, I could handle it.  It was a wonderful feeling.

Well, the day was a great success, and I am very happy with our efforts and our results.  I find that when I trust the Lord to put me where He wants me to be, I am ultimately where I want to be, as well.  It just takes time sometimes.

I hope you are finding a similar sense of satifaction with your situation.  Looking for the meaning of your being there is a wonderful treasure hunt!  I wish you luck in the journey, but more importantly, I pray the His will be done in your life.

Seek and you shall find, Maura!

Aunt Monica"
I guess we should have guessed this one was just on loan. She was too good for us.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On becoming a doctor because I like the costume, among other reasons.

On Saturday, my little brother Stephen married his best friend Hillary Walker. The weekend could not have been more perfect---clear skies, joyful fellowship, and Southern goodness. I loved how the wedding was traditional, but also so them. For the rehearsal at  the church, Hillary wore her Civil Engineering hard hat onto which we had fashioned a veil. She wore it all night at the rehearsal dinner at the West End Wine Bar and it served as a great way for people to locate her, being that she is so short. One of my favorite moments of the Mass in the incredible Duke Chapel was when Father Mike said, "This might be the first time I've seen Stephen without some sort of tool on him." Stephen's classic wiry smile spread across his face as he reached into the pocket of his tuxedo pants and pulled out a pocket knife. Everyone burst out laughing. It was clear to all of us that Stephen and Hillary have found a perfect match in each other. They seemed happy, but much more importantly, they seemed sure and content in their decision. No cold feet for them, just feet dancing the night away wearing sassy purple and red Chuck Taylors.

The (new) Clement's
Another exciting piece of news happened this weekend. I was formally accepted into Northwestern's Post-Baccalaureate Program in Pre-Medicine, a 15-21 month night school program to complete the requirements for applying to Med School.  I will begin in the fall. Wait, what? Maura, I thought you were an actress? Where did this come from? This decision has been brewing for almost a year now.  The simplest way to explain this change of direction is to share with you my personal statement which I wrote for my application to the program.

APRIL 2013
In the ten years I’ve been a member of the workforce, I have worked an amazing variety of jobs including knitting instructor, marketing director for a storefront theater, classical actor, Segway tour guide, horseback riding wrangler, Shakespeare teacher, burger bar waitress, and nanny. The one common thread through all my many livelihoods is that each one entailed working face-to-face, hands-on with people. I have a passion for people; for communicating with, investing in and caring for people.
When I moved to Chicago after graduation, I began acting as a standardized patient at Northwestern University and Kaplan Test Prep Center. Although I had a facility for math in high school and found my science coursework in college fascinating, I had never considered becoming a physician until I found myself in patient rooms with medical students. I learned firsthand the importance of a doctor’s peerless communication skills and empathetic demeanor because I sat on the other side of these medical encounters daily. One day last spring, while portraying a patient experiencing domestic abuse with a particularly oblivious and cold doctor at Kaplan, I found myself thinking, “I could do this.” Over the last year, “I could do this” has become “I want to do this. I was made to do this.”
My extroverted nature, my diverse skill set and specific career goals make me well suited for a vocation in medicine. I feel most engaged and curious when I am working with my hands. I have strong academic and analytic capabilities. I want the opportunity to affect public policy. Most importantly, I want to work where I am needed.  My father and mother both served in the U.S. Navy and raised me with a strong sense of national service. Although a career in the military was not the right fit for me, I have a deep desire to serve my country through my work. While I love performing and storytelling, I do not live and breathe by the fickle limelight. There is not a shortage of classically trained actors in this country. There is a shortage of primary care doctors especially in very urban or very rural locales. I believe in the power of art; but I doubt that making art professionally is the best use of my abilities and my best way to serve my country.  My background in the theater, adeptness with language and human emotion, and passion for healing will make me a powerful force in my patient’s lives as a doctor. I want to treat the physical ailment while fully considering the social, mental and spiritual realities of each individual.
My undergraduate Honors thesis was an interdisciplinary performance piece inspired by poetry, music and theater created during the intifadas, or uprisings, in Israel and Palestine. I am inspired by these political artists who enacted positive change through non-violent expression in extreme situations through person-to-person interactions. Their work embodies the type of doctor I want to be. I will strive to build fruitful relationships with families in a high-need area like Chicago or the Appalachian Mountains in my home state of North Carolina. Because freelance artists surround me, I know many people who do not have medical insurance. I passionately believe that all people should have access to affordable, quality care. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, our country’s need for primary care doctors will increase as the number of people with health insurance increases by the millions. I am excited about the prospect of being a healthcare professional during this time of policy change. I would be honored to provide healthcare for deserving people who have so long gone without.
Enrolling in Northwestern’s Post-Baccalaureate Program in Pre-Medicine will allow me to prepare for application to medical school in a structured and supportive environment with a rigorous course load. Because my recent coursework and experience is in the theater and not a technical field, I know that I need to revisit and build upon my math and science coursework¸ most of which I took in high school. Collaboration, teamwork and organizational skills are essential tools of any actor, and I believe they are a particular strength of mine. Those skills will enable me to make a unique contribution to Northwestern’s Post-Baccalaureate Program in Pre-Medicine community and I look forward to learning alongside the other ambitious professionals and scholars admitted by Northwestern to the program. From what I’ve seen while working in NU’s Clinical Skills department, I am certain that my success in the Northwestern University program will demonstrate to medical schools the seriousness of my desire and my readiness to meet the rigors of medical school.

This is a HUGE shift and a long road, I know. I have always known that my life's work is to serve where my service is most needed. I do not think a life as a theater professional is that place. I still love plays. I still want to do plays, good plays. But everyone I  know works other jobs to support their theater habit. Truly, I think what I love is going to the theater, even more than I like being in plays. I feel that if I could channel my artistic abilities (my voice, my agile hands, my heart) into a more objective, practical field, I could make more of an impact, because there are less people like me, a need for people like me... BUT I have to pass organic chemistry first. I dream of being a doctor who does a play every year. I dream of creating a family practice clinic with a corgi and baskets of yarn in the waiting room. I dream of having a weekly knitting group at the clinic for young women struggling with anxiety. I have this crazy dream of my mom managing the office and my sister being my nurse and my dad being our  lawyer. I dream of my daughter Clementine saying, "Yeah, my mom made me this sweater, but she's also a bad ass doctor lady. Want to see her in Steel Magnolias this weekend?" My dreams have always been big and  I know you can't have it all at the same time. But life is long and you can have different things at different times. I couldn't be dreaming this way if I didn't have a family who says "We'll help you do this" and a boyfriend who says, "Stop crying in Starbucks. You are smart enough to do this."

Also, as I said in the title of this post, I will look really cute in a lab coat saying things like, "Scapel." and "Wait, how did that cat attack you?"

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On getting attacked by a cat.

So as you may have heard, I got attacked by a cat last week. We were cat-sitting for neighbors of the family that I nanny for because we are always looking for ways to make money while watching Woody Allen movies. Scot and I were very excited for a four day stay-cation at their beautiful condo in Wicker Park. We had really exciting plans for the weekend, like washing our clothes and bathing in a shower which has anything resembling hot water and water pressure. All-in-all, our visit lasted a brief 12 hours. The apartment's wifi network is called "S____'s world" after their cat S_____. And indeed, it was S's world... and he wanted us to get the hell out. On Thursday night, he welcomed us with hisses and began to watch us rather creepily from behind counters and couches. Perhaps in retrospect we should have been more concerned about his mounting rage. But what would we have done about it anyway? Cats get mad. Cats pee on things. Cats don't usually try to eat you. Tigers try to eat you.

In middle of the night, the little tiger began to try to speak human outside our door making a bizarre braying sound which I have never heard a cat make before. In the morning, I gave him his constipation medicine (yes really). He took it well, but when I reached out to pet him, he bit my hand hard. Destructokitty then chased me around the kitchen, launching at me multiple times to bite and scratch my right arm and leg. It was like that scene in The Grinch where the cat from the garbage can clings to Jim Carrey's face.  Scot somehow got between us, sent me to safety in the hall and got the cat locked in the bedroom. I'm so grateful he was there, as my own defenses were simply to shake, cry and say "GET HIM OFF OF ME." All in all, I had about two dozen scratches and punctures.

My hand.

Scot took me to work at the hospital and they sent me to urgent care. In some bit of cruel irony, Immediate MD on Clybourne Avenue is next to Paws Chicago, a cat adoption storefront with about twenty cats in the window and cat posters the size of small cars. The folks at urgent care power-washed my punctures, bandaged me up, tetanus booster-ed me and sent me on my way with a prescription for antibiotics. I'm expected to fully recover. Most importantly, I was about to knit after only 3 days. The owners, of course, feel terrible and plan on taking the cat to a cat whisperer (yes really). Mom said, "Time for kitty to go night-night forever." Scot's concern was really sweet. One night shortly after the attack, he said, "I like animals better than people generally, but I really, really hate that cat." But I'm happy to take one for the team because fortunately, he attacked the one of us who has health insurance.

People's reaction to the attack have been the best part of it. The theater community is particularly good at spreading dramatic tales quickly. The other night at a reading an actor I know came up to me and said, "I heard what happened to you. Shelley was acting it out at work!" Now, I've not seen Shelley since this happened. Ed at Northwestern told Shelley about it and she ACTED IT OUT for my co-workers at Kaplan. I really really want to see her performance of what happened to me. It's the best game of telephone ever. At Northwestern, I just began working with a local actress whose work I particularly admire. The cat attack became the topic of our first conversation. Before work the other day she said to me, "I heard about what happened to you and I think about it all the time. I spent a long while last night staring at my cat and wondering if he wants to attack me." As Scot said, "It's a moment for all of us to pause and consider our feline relationships." Another SP I work with, but had never talked to, said to me, "You don't know me, but I was at dinner the other night at my friend's house and she said that a terrible thing had happened while they were on vacation. Their cat attacked the cat-sitter! And I thought, I KNOW THAT PERSON!" It's a small, small world.

In conclusion, maybe humans should let cats that can't poop without assistance move on to the big yarn basket in the sky. I'm never going to be the cat lady that my grandmother is (11 cats and counting) and I'm definitely a supporter of de-clawing now.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On my father and having enough.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. -Melody Beattie

My father said something really amazing to me when I was talking to him and Mom over Christmas about continuing my educational pursuits in a graduate degree program. We hadn’t even been talking about said future schooling for ten minutes when my dad offered to help me pay for it. My parents have already paid for an expensive undergraduate degree in Acting because they love me so. Since graduating, I’ve prided myself in being a financially independent artist (who is, I admit, very grateful to be on the family cell phone and health insurance plan). And so I responded that I did not expect any financial support, but hoped for their emotional and ideological support. Without the slightest hesitation, my dad replied plainly and confidently, “If I have the money, I’d rather spend it on that. I don’t need any more stuff.” I admire my parents for so many reasons, but something about this specific expression of generosity has stuck with me. I kept hearing that phrase in my head, “I don’t need any more...” 

I am blessed that I have parents who have enough to offer financial support to make my dreams into reality. When I was 19, I told them I wanted to be a professional actress and that I needed a BFA from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to do that. Six years later, I am working for a professional theater performing and teaching Shakespeare to 8th graders. I would not be here if they didn’t write a check to a school they had never seen in a state they had never visited for me to get a degree which made them nervous. 

I think my father’s wisdom is rooted in knowledge of himself, what he has and what he needs. How often do we say to someone, “Here, take this. I don’t need any more. I have enough."? Enough to be comfortable and content. Enough to share with others. Enough to give of ourselves. As my artistic collaborator Ron Clark pointed out, enough is not a word we hear a lot in this country these days. And indeed, many people don’t have enough. Enough to support their children through school. Enough to quit their second job. Enough to buy health insurance. Enough to take off work to see their kid in a play. Enough to take a vacation. Enough to retire. 

Yet, even if we don't have enough money, we usually have plenty of something else. We just might have enough time to call an ailing relative. Enough energy to volunteer on a Saturday. Enough clothes to donate to charity. Enough care to pick up the garbage in the alley. Enough books to pass along to a colleague. Enough passion to write something more than a Facebook status. Enough pasta to invite a friend over for dinner. Enough patience to play “Is this a hat?” for the thousandth time with the kid we nanny. Enough faith to say a prayer for peace. Enough perseverance to try again to reconcile with our estranged spouses. Enough love to do the dishes. Enough respect to put our phones down and listen to each other. Enough to share. Enough to give.

What do you have enough of? My 25th birthday is on Thursday. Instead of giving me anything (because I definitely have enough), give something you have enough of to someone who needs it. In the wake of bombings in Boston, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, it's just about all we can do. 

And after all, it’s hard to think about how little money you have when a toddler is excitedly putting random things on your head and you are repeatedly asking him if the object in question is indeed, a hat.

My dad and me when I was a toddler. I am a Super Baby and not wearing a hat.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

On losing The Game and quitting things in your mind.

A recent episode of Wiretap, one of my favorite podcasts, highlighted something called “The Game” which I’m sure I’ve heard about before, but can’t remember where. The aim of The Game is to forget you are playing The Game, ie, every time you remember you are playing The Game, you lose The Game. Thus because I am writing about The Game that means I am thinking about The Game and have therefore lost The Game. You, dear reader, now know about The Game and are currently thinking about The Game, so you too, have lost The Game. Are we having fun yet?

While on lunch break at work, a bunch of actors/standardized patients were sitting around a table wearing paper gowns talking about how hard it is to be actors. Someone offered that when one gets discouraged with the actor’s lot of failed callbacks and low-paying, sporadic work, the best thing to do is to quit acting in one’s mind. Don’t quit for real, just quit in your mind to take the edge off. If you’ve quit, you’ll seem less desperate, you’ll go out more, you’ll take a trip, you’ll read a book. Then when you come back from your hiatus which you told no one about, you’ll be better, happier, stronger, older and thus more likely to book the job, in theory.

I think I did something similar with my writing this winter. As a rule, I write in my journal or blog when I see something that inspires me or something interesting/funny/story-worthy happens. I write when I have something of value to contribute to this flooded cesspool of people's mindful and mindless musings. Phrases will come to me out of the stratosphere while riding my bike or knitting quietly. This winter, the phrases didn’t come and neither did the impulse to tap the keys of my undergraduate Mac with the smudged screen. I forgot I was a writer (well, a person who writes). If writing was The Game, I was winning.

I think there is a sweet spot to quitting something in your mind. You gotta know when to join back up; you must sense when you are full of things to write about or full of energy and ideas to act or create again. I missed my sweet spot. I forgot I was a writer for so long that I stopped asking the phrases to come, stopped looking for the stories, stopped observing the people around me. I’ve become more interior and self-critical, less generous and content. Certain stories are now past their time and cannot be written. Even writing this feels labored, clunky and a chore. But I writing it.* I’ve lost The Game because I remembered I am a person who writes. No qualifiers, I just write.
Scot in the greenhouse.
The bunnies on Easter morning after the egg hunt.
So what did happen during these last three months? We traveled to Iowa City to perform in The Exit Interview. Those two months proved very fruitful to us. Scot continued to write and refine his plays and cared for Kathy's greenhouse. I knitted and sewed a dress for Stephen’s wedding. We both read a lot (Scot’s favorite read was Building Stories by Chris Ware and mine was Like Life by Lorrie Moore). It’s hard to believe we met almost a year ago at the opening night of Timon of Athens at Chicago Shakespeare. We continue to inspire, delight and confuse each other every day. We saw Scot's daughter Emma dance wonderfully in a modern dance showcase and spoke to her drama class at Toledo School for the Performing Arts about being Chicago actors. I gave up Facebook for Lent. Quitting cold turkey was a great way to reevaluate how I use my time online and on social media. As I write this, I am happy to say that I don't have a Facebook tab open on my browser. Facebook is a sometime food. This past Easter weekend we celebrated with our friends here in Chicago by hosting the traditional brunch. I made a ham using Nina’s wonderful apricot and mustard glaze recipe. We selfishly hoped there would be leftovers for ham sandwiches, ham omelets and ham cookies. Ham is an anytime food. But alas, by the time everyone left Sunday evening, that ham bone was picked cleaned. We saved it for soup.
Beautiful Easter ham.
What has been on my mind the most (and perhaps why I’ve not written) is applying to school again. I’m not ready to go into all that right now, but soon. My blue and yellow sundress under a wool sweater harkens the arrival of spring in Chicago. We are sitting in the Map Room on Armitage Ave, which we thought was a coffee shop and is more a place where men day drink together. This post is a warm-up for a personal statement which I’m on a deadline to write. The blank Pages window beside this one shines white full of possibility and potential, just waiting for me to personally state something on it.

One thing is for sure, I better not tell them what a loser I am cause I think about The Game all the time.

*This is an typo from my first draft left intentionally because (1) it makes me laugh and (2) it shows the depths of depravity my writing has come to. I WRITING IT, DAMN IT!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

DIY: Bloomin' Bike Helmet

Me looking CRAZY at a bike rally in my original helmet. Do not do this outfit yourself.
Leading a Segway Tour on the Stone Arch Bridge
I made my bloomin' bike helmet when I was working as a Segway tour guide in Minneapolis. After graduation, I liberated it from the "Magical History Tour" and now wear it as I ride around my beloved Chicago streets. My favorite thing about this helmet is that encourages strangers to talk to me. Usually I am riding by or stopped at a stoplight and they shout at me, "Cool helmet! or "I love that!" I guess they figure I must be some sort of eccentric who probably wouldn't mind if they add one more voice to the ones in my head. Besides protecting my brain, a helmet like this leaves an impression. I remember one day during undergrad I arrived at class and set my bike helmet on the desk. The guy next to me gasped, "You're the Flower Helmet Girl!?! I see you all the time! Whoa... I feel like I just unmasked Spiderman."

Years have passed and my helmet is looking a little worse for wear, so I decided it was time to spruce it up and create some DIY instructions to boot. You too can be FHG!

You'll need:
A helmet, skater style works best/looks coolest.
Fabric flowers, be aware that scrap-booking ones will bleed if it rains.
Tacky Glue
Gorilla or Super Glue
  1. Wipe down the helmet with a damp rag to clean off any dirt.
  2. Pull flowers off stems and cut off any plastic centers in the petals.
  3. Glue fabric flowers onto helmet with Tacky Glue.
  4. Glue gems into centers of fabric flowers with Gorilla Glue. Hold for 20 seconds.
  5. Get on your bike and ride into the sunset. Beware of how much attention you will now be getting because of your newfound awesomeness.

And if you are lucky like me, you'll only superglue one rhinestone to your dining room table.  Happy Easter and many safe rides to you! And seriously, wear a helmet. Own your inner dork. Mine is flower flavored.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the people you see every day.

I prefer to imagine that my wife, a few friends, and occasionally my mom are the only ones who read what I do, though I realize that this is somewhat unrealistic.  -Chris Ware

Santa gave Scot Building Stories for Christmas. Santa said he had to share it with me.
On this rainy January day, I'm sitting in front of the window in Prairie Lights, an independent bookshop in Iowa City, caffeinating and attempting to finish a post I began last year which was supposed to be my homage to the people of Chicago before I left the city for two months to rehearse a play at the Riverside Theatre. Perhaps I am thinking about these abandoned people today because I am halfway through reading Chris Ware's imaginative and melancholic graphic novel, I should say experience, Building Stories which explores the lives and minds of half a dozen Chicagoans living in the same apartment building.

So more on Iowa and 2013 later, because there are some people I've wanted to introduce you to...

Last December, on my ride on the El to Dr. C's downtown office, my knitting was interrupted when an entire second grade class stormed through the sliding doors of the Blue line train. All the kids were yammering away loudly and bumping into each other playfully when the tallest kid in the class bellowed over the other seventeen squeaky voices, "HEY GUYS! This isn't play time. Hold onto something." I was touched by both his leadership and the genuine concern in his voice. Amazingly, the children obliged. I wish every teacher had a kid like that in their class, a kid the other kids respect or like or fear enough to do as he/she says. The best people to lead us are the people that are people just like us.

While I waited for the Doctor, his receptionist told me she was looking forward to Christmas but it was bittersweet for her because her father had died two years earlier on the day. She said to me, with tears and faith in her eyes, "My daddy loved Christmas so much and God decided to take him home on the day he loved the most." The calm faith of strangers often awakens and stirs my own questioning faith. Don't aggressively hand me a Bible on a street corner. Tell me how certain you are that God holds your father in the palm of His hand. That's inspiring.

Audrey Hepburn, photographed the year I was born.
As I waited for the train home, I swayed to the music of an accordion player in the Jackson Blue Line stop. I closed my eyes and pretended to be in Paris eating spaghetti at a candlelit cafe. It seems in my fantasies, I am eating Italian food in Paris and I'm also dressed like a mime minus the white face paint and the tear.  So basically I'm dressed like Audrey Hepburn in any movie ever and if I'm crying it's only because the food is so delicious.  After boarding the El, I saw an elderly woman across from me on the deafening train take out one of her ear plugs and silently insist that the man across the aisle use it. After an initial protestation, he too obliged. I hope they knew each other, or maybe not. That's sort of amazing too.

After arriving in Wicker Park, I saw a plump woman screaming at a jolly young hipster man in cupcake truck. Who knows why? I laughed. She stormed away angrily. He called her back and the altercation seemed to be settled when he gave her a free sweet potato cupcake for the road. A diabetes-inducing happy ending.

Earlier that week,  I was at the laundromat with a young mother and her two kids. No one wants to be at a Chicago laundromat on a Thursday night. I'm sure she was tired; she'd probably worked all day and she had about five loads of laundry. Yet she was still in a good mood and was helping her daughter with her homework and teaching her young son how to work the dryers. One dryer wouldn't stay closed, so she set up a chair in front of it and had him sit there by telling him it was his job to guard their clothes. Forget the firemen, this woman is one of Chicago's finest. The single women who have kids, no washing machines in their homes and still manage to have smiles on their faces at the end of the day. 
Even kitties can read picture books.

I asked Scot today why Ware writes such sad characters, characters who can't help but be cruel or thoughtless to each other. "Does he want us to read this and be better, kinder people? The characters seem so hopeless at times, does he think we can be better?" Scot, who has read much of Ware's work, answered, "I think it's about empathy, Ware wants us to understand that the people we see on the steps of our apartment buildings are all experiencing some sort of unique, real struggle." That seems to be a worthy goal for 2013. It seems easy to empathize with and care about the families of the victims of the Newtown shooting, but can we empathize with and care about our next-door neighbors whose names we didn't care to learn?