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Monday
Jan052015

In Which I Chronicle My Bromance.

The year was 1990. The place: New York City. The scene: a movie theater just off Union Square, for a screening – it almost goes without saying – of Robocop 2.

I settled into my seat with my then-girlfriend-now-wife Hallie, and there was a commotion several rows back from us. Not a ruckus, exactly, but a sudden uptick in murmurs and the kind of excitation one might expect to hear if a moose walked onstage at the symphony – there was a giddy quality to the hubbub, a buzzing, expectant babble.

The large group of African American teens that occupied the last couple rows called out:

“Spike!”

“Hey, Spike!”

“Hey! Spike!”

"What up, Spike?"

Because Spike Lee had just walked in with his date.

The ringleader of the teens in back shut them down:

“Mr. LEE!”

By which he seemed to mean something like: “We have great respect for your work, AND we have no intention of interrupting your date with this radiantly attractive young woman, or compromising your enjoyment of Robocop 2.” Whatever his intention, this silenced all the other teens in his party – or at least contained them to urgent whispering.

Then, though – THEN: Spike Lee and his date sat RIGHT NEXT TO US.

Now. You gotta understand. This is New York City. And this is 1990 Spike Lee – the Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing, not the subsequent Spike Lee of Girl 6. So this is big. This is like coming across DeNiro lounging in a kiddie pool, or something – I mean, SPIKE LEE is RIGHT THERE. It goes me, Hallie, his date, him – if we wanted to, we could have held hands along the backs of the seats.

So we settle in to enjoy Robocop 2’s dystopian vision of New Detroit – which, given, its apparent population density and ready supply of private capital is a whole hell of a lot better than present day Detroit – and then comes the moment when Spike and I forge our connection.

You fans of cinema will recall that there is a grisly surgery scene in Robocop 2, a scene where the spinal column and brain of the psychopathic villain Kane are removed and inserted into a next generation robot intended to defeat officer Murphy, who has retained too much free will as Robocop to be of use to OCP’s ruthless bid to privatize law enforcement in New Detroit by deploying an all-robot police force. Naturally enough, Kane’s addiction to the narcotic Nuke – intended by the evil Dr. Faxx to be her means of controlling him – proves to be the undoing of the entire scheme, prompting the kind of ham-handed anti-corporate propaganda that you would never in a million years see in a Hollywood movie made today.

No reason to review any of this, obviously, as you are a fan of the cinema.

But the scene in question is admittedly quite gruesome. There’s a fair bit of slurping type sound effects, and the whine of a bone saw, and all the blood spatter and flaying one would expect from the removal of a spinal column and brain from out the back of a human body.

This. This was my moment of connection with Spike. And I don’t mind telling you:

It. Was. Electric.

Here’s how it went down: at an especially sickening moment of the surgery, BOTH Hallie and his date reflexively bowed down, covering their eyes and moaning softly in distress – as they did so, Spike met my gaze. We gave each other a knowing nod. We could take it. We could hang with whatever ghastly business Robocop 2 threw at us. Not like the women folk between us. We were made, said the gaze we shared, of sterner stuff.

Now, then. If this electric moment had been the end of things between Spike and me, then I would have just been relegated this to the litany of such serendipitous little episodes New York serves up with dizzying regularity. I could just toss it on the pile with the time I collided with Christopher Plummer as he came barreling out a revolving door on the Upper West Side, or the time I saw Matt Dillon at that bookshop on Spring Street. Or Hulk Hogan at MOMA.

But. It didn’t end there. Because as the credits were rolling, and we gathered our stuff to leave, Spike and I shared a little laugh about our moment, and he gave me his card. Then he locks eyes with me, peering over the rims of his round granny spectacles, and said – quietly but firmly: “You call me.”

I was still an actor back then. So I of course had visions of Spike launching my film career with a series of small but memorable roles where I play the dickish white guy. I have long since abandoned acting. Having settled into this single role. Of dickish white guy.

So, couple days later, with palms damp and mouth dry, I called Spike Lee’s office. I left a sort of garbled message with his assistant, over-explaining who I was and assuring her repeatedly that he had asked me to call.

A few days pass. Nothing.

Then I arrive home one night, pretty drunk, to a blinking light on my answering machine. Because land line.

“Yo, Ian. It’s Spike. I got tickets to the dog show in a couple weeks and wanted to know if you wanted to come. Call me.”

So as you can imagine, I am THRILLED. I don’t know if the Dog Show is a band, or a club, or what, but I am stoked to go hang out with my new pal Spike, so I call him back and we arrange to meet. HE SAYS HE’LL SEND A CAR FOR ME. Which, if you’re an artsy and desperately poor 20-something in New York City in 1990, is a form of luxury you can barely grasp.

So the day arrives, and I. Am. A wreck. I’ve cycled through like twenty-three outfits, none of which is satisfactory. And I STILL have like an hour and a half to wait. So I drink a pot of coffee and chain smoke. And I’m pretty wild-eyed when this town car slides up in front of my shitbox apartment. I casual-walk out of my building toward the car, so the driver won’t be able to tell how much my mind is blown.

“Where we headed?” I ask him.

He shoots me a look in the rearview, and shrugs, like “dumb ass.”

“Dog show,” he says.

Turns out, Dog Show is not a club. Or a band. Dog show is a fucking dog show.

As in, like, the American Kennel Club. Purebred. Dog show.

So I meet Spike in the lobby – he’s in a Knicks jersey and a sweet Kangol. And we go inside. To the fucking dog show. And he, apparently, is a HUGE FAN. Because he is storming around along the sidelines yelling at the judges the whole time, just like he does at Knicks games. In particular, he seemed totally rip-shit about how well this one Afghan was doing. And he is just SEETHING about how dogs shows have gotten too political, and how the Springer Spaniel should be taking this. I don’t remember much of what he’s yelling, but I do recall he kept referring to this Afghan as “that Barry Manilow-looking motherfucker.”

And as he’s stalking the sidelines, hurling abuse at these judges, he knows they’re not gonna eject him because he’s Spike Lee, and they will look super-racist.

Which turns out to have been my problem over the next seven weeks or so. Because I mean, when Spike Lee shows up in a track suit and takes you to the Russian Tea Room, or jingling the bell on a tandem bike, with – I shit you not – a basket filled with fresh-cut tulips. What are you supposed to do?

Because part of you is like “Man, I don’t really want to be doing this.” But you go along, cause you don’t wanna end up on Page Six of the Daily News as the racist who spurned Spike Lee’s offers of platonic and wholesome good times. And I gotta confess – I’m pretty taken with all this.

So we hang out. A lot. We log lots of time at cafés, and on roller blades.

It was like the montage in a Hugh Grant movie, you guys. Some say it was a bromance for the ages.

We confide in each other. I tell him my dad committed suicide near an Indian reservation, and Spike takes to calling me Johnny Wigwam. Or J-Wig. Or J-Dubs.

So anyhow, this one dazzling afternoon in May, as Spike and I are nibbling cucumber sandwiches by the duck pond in Central Park, I set down the crown of daisies I was braiding. The daisy crown’s not FOR him, you understand. But if he felt like putting it on, then OK, so be it.

I said: “Spike. What is this, man? What are we even doing?”

He puts down his glass of Prosecco, and stares for a long time at a swan turning lazy circles on the pond.

“Yeah, J-Wig,” he said, finally. “We kinda let this get away from us.”

We did some guy stuff a couple times after that. He took me to a couple Knicks games. We went to a steak house. Did some skeet shooting.

But it was never the same.

We could never recapture that dog show magic. We drifted apart. Lost touch.

You know those fruit bouquets from Edible Arrangements, though? Spike still has one of his people send me one on my birthday each year.

Which is nice. Makes a guy feel wistful, you know?

Wednesday
Dec312014

A Year Was Had

So here we find ourselves, tearing another page off the calendar.

Too goddamn many people and magazines and websites are compiling Best Of Lists and Stories That Mattered and that type of nonsense - another bid in the ongoing collective campaign to wrestle some sense out of the miasmic chaos that threatens to overtake us every damn day.

For me, it was a big year - I published my first book, which, no lie, is a dream come true. 

I wrangled more high profile gigs for WRITE CLUB - MCA, Poetry Foundation, etc.

I prevailed upon the generosity of people when I had need, and was humbled by the eager onrush of response.

I launched a cool new thing with Muscato - Pixiehammer Press, which has been fulfilling and creatively invigorating.

My son's baseball team, the Warren Park A's, snagged the league championship against all odds.

My boy has also been navigating with relative grace the clusterfuck pressure-cooker of selective enrollment high school applicaitons and testing and whatnot.

I got to see my daughter perform an original piece as part of the culminating show for the writing class she took at StoryStudio Chicago. Which was a dream come true that I'd not realized I'd had.

I continued teaching - at StoryStudio, and started at Second City. It continues to sharpen my eye and writerly voice, so I'm glad I'm doing it.

There have obviously been setbacks, as well. Medical stuff. Financial stuff. Nothing so severe that it warrants special mention, probably.

But if there was any SINGLE thing that I did this year that will stay with me more than any other, it is having marched in a protest with my wife and kids and some friends this fall. It was in the wake of the Michael Brown's shooting, and Eric Garner's video strangulation. It was a cold fall day - not the crazy, face-hurting cold of tonight - and a group of well-meaning people congregated on a corner in Andersonville. We marched down the middle of Clark St, chanting and singing. We added to our number, as passersby joined us. We hung a ragged left on Bryn Mawr, stopped in the intersection of Bryn Mawr and Ashland, stopping four lanes of traffic. The pastors nominally in the lead of this group recited a humanist prayer or two, we sang "We Shall Overcome," and proceeded south on Ashland to Foster, where we stopped to chant, pray, and sing before disbanding.

Will this experience stick with me because I believe this modest and quite orderly protest will lead to substantive change? Nope. Not even close. 

Will this comparatively puny act of civil disobedience remain in my mind because it does anything to resolve my unjust position of racial privilege, or assuage my misplaced guilt about it? Not a chance.

Will it stay with me because it makes me feel - wrongly - that I am a good person, and that others will have taken notice of my sacrificing a Saturday morning in some ennobling fashion? No.

But it WILL stick with me for the following reasons and in the following ways:

  • We brought our kids. The boy is 13, and the girl is 11. So they're just developing a sense that the world is not the just and forthright place we all hope it to be. And though their grasp of current events is slight, they have a highly developed sense of right and wrong. And when they learned of police officers killing citizens without justification, they were rightly baffled and pissed.
  • The preceding year-plus of news about official misconduct, ranging from larcenous public officials to these recent state-sanctioned street executions, was as disspiriting as it was distasteful, and the pull of disengagement and inertia - always potent - grew more seductive by the day.
  • We were doing. Something. On our feet. Out in the world. The hermetic world of the screen and the illusion of action provided by clicking and sharing and posting, with its (obvious and predictable) lack of effect, is a coagulant of the soul.
  • We were not alone. By the time we hit Foster, we were a couple hundred strong. Enough to dismantle a police state? No, obviously not. But heartening in the face of too much isolation, too long a litany of bleak news, and too great a sense of futility. We met a family of friends there, who'd also brought their kids. As we marched, passing motorists honked support.
  • We were accompanied by cops - several of whom visibly disagreed with our impulse to congregate in this fashion and create hassles for them, but all of whom showed restraint. Even the obese one with the Ditka-stache nestled in a lumpy face like blanched sausage, who looked like he was biting his tongue so hard it was bleeding.
  •  I can't sing for shit. I mostly think chanting is hokey. I'm not by nature a joiner. But I was nonetheless glad to be among a crowd containing people of every age and class, color and creed, lifting voices together, hokey though it may have been. 

My native impulse is to hug the wall, to hang back. And make fun of the ill-advised and shoddily executed parade. My default position is folded arms and shaking head, my face in repose is a decades-long eye roll. But beneath this is the conviction that we are failing each other in critical ways, that we are slaves to our fear and appetite and vanity, and that we have a vast capacity to do so, so much better. I believe - and perhaps because we have kids I must - that our ferocious ignorance is not an inevitability, that our catastrophic failures of imagination and compassion are not foregone conclusions, and that our too-frequent lapses in civility and too-fitful decency are not ironclad. I recognize that we are stupid and afraid. But I cannot succumb to the belief that this is irreversible. So, I hope to keep lacing up my boots, and, where necessary, marching against the prevailing flow of traffic.

I hope you'll do the same. 

 

Tuesday
Oct282014

WRITE CLUB Anthology Due in December!

Thursday
Oct092014

Consider the Liver Benefit

This is a thing I read at a fundraiser for friend Noelle's kid. It has, obviously, solved everything.

In a healthy adult male, the liver weighs about one thousand, five hundred grams.

And you’re probably like “GRAMS?!? What’m I? French?!? What’m I, some kind of soccer-jersey-wearing Frenchman? Fresh off his twelve months of paid paternity leave, though he is childless? And who’s just in his office to check his email before leaving on his six-week vacation. Whizzing around on a goddamn scooter with that smugly reusable mesh bag full of baguettes and those ostentatious carrots with the greens still on them?”

HEAR ME – though I speak to you in grams: I am an American.

So, listen up, Frenchy – you may have gorged your unlined face on baked cheese in some kind of cream sauce, and you retained your 31-inch waist because of some manner of fromage-based voodoo, but this is AMERICA, and we cannot countenance your socialized MERDE.

Look at me. This is an American waistline. These stress-bags under my eyes? I have EARNED these badges of depletion and diminishment by living the GREATEST COUNTRY ON THE FACE OF THE WORLD.

And, as Americans, we are CLEAR on the COST of greatness. As a matter of fact, in America, if a thing has not been assigned a dollar value, we have the good sense to find that thing suspect. And unwholesome. And unworthy. In America, we believe that the ONLY means of assessing value is to slap a price tag on it, and stick in a bin for purchase. AND WE ARE ONE THOUSAND PER CENT CORRECT. AND IF YOU QUESTION OUR METHODS – which we WILL know, because surveillance – WE WILL CALL IN THE DRONE STRIKES THAT WILL PULVERIZE YOUR CHATEAU TO POWDER.

Because listen up, Frenchy – with your B.O. and your thong underpants, your lack of riding mowers and concealed carry – we have done the math, and we have calculated the worth of everything – all of human experience, every bit of human know-how, and every cut of meat in the human body.

So while you and your misguided countrymen may feel that it’s some kind of human right to stride into a hospital and get treated, here in AMERICA, we do not have “HEALERS” who provide “CARE” for any unshod hobo who darkens their door, we have FLESH MERCHANTS who know to the penny the precise value ALL HUMAN LIFE. To call into question the judgments of the Flesh Merchant is to lack faith in the MARKET ECONOMY WHICH IS A VISTA OF LIMITLESS OPPORTUNITY THAT WOULD BE FLAWLESS WERE IT NOT FOR GOVERNMENT MEDDLING AND WEAK-WILLED HUMANS.

So, listen: when the Flesh Merchant names his price for the service he will provide you, that is the price you better be prepared to pay. And if you can’t pony up that full amount, you shut your complaint hole for a second, but the MARKET ECONOMY, IN ITS BOUNDLESS WISDOM, HAS DEVISED A SOLUTION.

The solution is that you pay some money every month BEFORE you get sick. This is called “having insurance,” and it SOLVES EVERYTHING, SO SHUT UP, WHINER-BABIES. But using it is like anything else: there’s rules – you gotta get sick within reasonable limits – ONLY GET AS SICK AS YOU CAN AFFORD, otherwise it’s “out of pocket.”

Which – shh, shh, shh – it’s just part of the Market Solution. No. No, no. Don’t examine it. Shh. The Market gets really, really mad if it feels like it’s being cross-examined. And BELIEVE me – if it feels threatened, it’ll come down on you like a two-ton sack of demon shit.

When you are crushed under this demon shit, it is called a market correction.

And listen, Frency, don’t HAND me that “the profit motive has no place in providing medical care” because then there is NO MOTIVE WHATSOEVER. And we’d be left with nothing but elective procedures – and while our lips would be full and our brows would be smooth and our asses would be taut, we would have the life expectancy of medieval peasants or unarmed black guys.

So without the MOTIVE to earn a profit, there can be no earthly reason for Flesh Merchants to employ their healing arts. This MOTIVE is understandable and natural, and any attempts to impede the march of this motive stands as an effort to impede human progress – because what will motivate a Customer – sometimes quaintly referred to as a “patient” – to become a fully vested participant in the Market Solution to the troubles they face than having to really dig deep when purchasing the services of the Flesh Merchant?

I mean, obviously, lesser motives such as “getting well” and “stopping the pain” are not sufficient – because if they were, would not the Customer have harnessed the power of their own Entrepreneurial Spirit to have relieved their symptoms by their own bootstraps. But they DIDN’T, did they? No. Because they BELIEVE in the POWER of a Market Solution, and they want to get every nickel of the Fair Market Price of their treatment to the Flesh Merchant, even if they gotta cook a little meth or rob a couple banks to do it.

That’s just the system working – everybody’s gotta grab a mitt and get in the game, a game with winners and losers, as God intended, not some weak-kneed game that can end in a tie. Such a game would be soccer, the dubious refuge of the French.

Monday
Sep082014

Formless Grief

If you're a current or former member of Chicago's theater clan (and, no, it isn't "theatre" with a fucking "re" because this isn't fucking Canada, so if you feel the colour rising in your face, take a walk for a few kilometers and wolf down some of that ham you call bacon), you must by now know of the series of gut-punches received by circumstance of late. In the space of a week, there have been a succession of mercilessly swift and unjust fatalities that have claimed the lives of several among us - Molly Glynn, whom I knew a little bit (though I will not inflate or exaggerate this acquaintance - I knew her to say "hi," we had many mutual friends, etc.), Bernie Yvon (whom I knew not at all - it will come as no shock, perhaps, to learn that I did not log lots of musical theater time), and Sati Word (whom I did not know, but who'd worked with a number of my good friends).

I have been struck by the social media outpouring - of money, of photos, of remembrances. Where once we might all have heeded the toll of the church bell to gather in a square, each of us squinting under a shared sun, boots shifting on shared dust, we now march ourselves to our devices and gather in cooler glow of our screens, tethered not by proximity and place, but by this electronic and disparate web of intention and sentiment not bound by any clock or map. And it is this farflung connectedness that has gotten me thinking. About the nature of this peculiar form of grieving. 

Mostly, as with the sort of vernacular monuments that spring up in the wake of the death of a cherished celebrity - lopsided piles of Beanie Babies and dollar store candles, wilting daisies and curling photos lining some patch of fence where the died, or outside the gates of their compound - these online observances and outpourings have a dashed-off or hastily scrawled feel. It can be - for a person such as myself who spends a great of his time, and squanders a great deal of his energy on the fool's errand of taming words - like trying to understand the experience of shopping through only the Sharpied signs posted on cash registers by merchants: it can give you some sense of the ideas lurking below them, but fails to capture or convey much of anything on their own. Because taken individually, in terms of communicative precision or potency, a no-caps "thinking of you" or "all the feels" succeeds in putting across about as much as "take a penny, leave a penny," or "no bills over $20". Taken indivdiually, such posts and shares and likes are as flatly inexpressive as a winky emoji or a traffic sign.

But, taken together, I think they achieve a new kind of resonance - akin to the way a single human voice can sound reedy and plaintive and lost, but when joined with hundreds of other in chorus can become thunderous and indomitable. So while I am no fan of the barely considered, the half-thought, the minimally expressed, I have come to recognize the sweep and majesty of such things when cumulative. In the same way that watching a single foot soldier wielding a halyard in close combat, only to fall bleeding into the mud, will seem squalid and pointless, wheras if you survey a valley filled with tens of thousands of such men unfurling below you, then each mud-spattered throat unleashes not a hoarse and frightened battle cry, but becomes the breath of a single pipe in a vast church organ with a voice like thunder; each footfall is not the doomed march of one spindly-legged life, but a drumbeat from within the earth-sundering roar of a human tsunami. 

Then, too, there is a capacity - one that for me is too goddamn finicky and stunted to beam to me a strong and steady signal - to forgive the frailty and limitation of my fellows. We are not all of us endowed with the abilty to bend words to our purpose - words are unruly and willful, and in the same way that were I to attempt calf-roping, yielding nothing but shame and broken bones - I must peer past the crude phrasing and wobbling cadence to look upon the intention that underlies it. I must set aside my epic capacity to be a snob and a dickface to gaze at the earnest good will that forms the unseen bedrock of good will that lies below the topsoil of inelegance, the flesh of solace-giving hidden by a poorly made mask. 

We are too easily gulled by the delusion of individual achievement, of solitary genius. Where these occur, there is cause to celebrate them, obviously. But if there is anything like real greatness in us, it finds its fullest expression when were are banded together; if there is anything enduring or worthy that has hope of outlasting the hasty little spell we're allotted here - squinting, baffled, in this dusty square - it is and can only be when we can recall the need to relinquish the self a bit, and voluntarily subjugate our small-scale schemes to the wisdom of the village, the aspiration of the tribe.