My formative years preceded the advent of babysitting technologies like hand-held video games and endless television channels. So to get us out of her hair, my mom made hobbyists of her children and enrolled us in every form of lesson or club imaginable. I took to each with aggressive enthusiasm, certain I’d prove prodigious, despite all evidence to the contrary. My mental adolescent photo album bears snapshot witness to my total lack of natural ability. There I am facedown on the mat beneath the balance beam, worrisomely still, covered in blood. There I am sun burnt from head to toe, collecting my nineteenth place ribbon at the swim meet. There I am wielding a microphone in the rec room of a nursing home, belting out power ballads for an audience of elderly people now clearly beckoning death. Look to the right and notice an old lady easing a plastic bag over her head, look to the left and find an abandoned walker beneath an open window.
From grades nine through twelve I funneled all of my youthful vigor into high school theatre. Every last minute of free time was devoted to auditions, character studies and rehearsals. The winter musical was our moneymaker of the year and tended to be a lighter fare, but the fall and spring productions were for deep artistic exploration. The subject matter was incredibly adult and entirely beyond our emotional comprehension. Fathers were only on the hook for the Saturday night show, but our mothers came to every single performance. When I imagine what that must have been like for them, it amazes me we didn’t end up in foster care.
It was a lovely, irretrievable moment in time when it was still possible to believe that passion directly translated to talent. To love something enough implied an aptitude for it and, oh, we were buoyed by the weightlessness of our dreams. There were scene study seminars and play competitions, late night tech runs and early morning costume calls. All of our labors would culminate in a teary rush of “good shows!” before the final opening night ritual; an earnest group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, followed by our drama teacher imploring, “When is good not good enough?”
“When you dream of being great!” we cried in unison, bug-eyed and breathless from the majesty of it all.
This is just to say that we took the work very seriously. Drunk with pre-pubescent idiocy, we glossed over the most fundamental roadblock between ourselves and effective theatre: We were suburban teenagers from loving, two-parent homes. We possessed the psychological complexity of emoticons. And in a flash of pure smiley face simplicity, I decided to take my thespian pursuits to the university level.
To distill the difference between those two forms of arts education into a single statement: No one prays in college theatre.
From the day I left Texas and arrived in Chicago, I was terrified. The students were jaded, world-weary sorts and the professors were hard-nosed mercenaries who’d bartered their own aspirations in exchange for comprehensive dental. My first friend on campus was a girl from Alabama named Kathy Bailey. Kathy was equally naive and dreamt only of playing the beautiful but doomed character of Eponine in Les Mis. We spent a good deal of those early weeks locked in each other’s dorm rooms, singing along with Broadway cast recordings, and hiding from the drugs we felt certain leapt straight into your venous system, given the wrong company and half the chance.
It was the school’s belief that in order to convey a human experience, you needed to have one. This proved problematic since—in my previous life as an actor—you simply needed to memorize most of the lines and sketch wrinkles on your forehead with an eyeliner pencil. The bulk of my acting in acting school was an unconvincing portrayal of someone with depth. Mentally flipping through the pages of this particular album, more images arise. There I am wearing a sludge colored unitard, performing a role designated in the program as “member of swamp.” There I am in my dressing room, preparing for a dramatic rape scene by cat napping with hot rollers in my hair. There I am speed walking in full Shakespearean garb through the streets of downtown Chicago because I have a hankering for onion rings and twenty minutes until my next entrance.
While I was—and remain—far too much of a God-fearing-goody-goody to experiment with behavioral debauchery, I was more than willing to adopt the intellectual affectations of my peers. We were, first and foremost, people who suffered, people familiar with pain. A few students came from authentically unfortunate circumstances. For the rest of us, it was a matter of deconstructing our formerly well-adjusted childhoods into something more tragic sounding. The fact that I’d been well-cared-for was written on my skin, and viewing my glass as half empty required inventiveness. Ultimately, I decided to put my parents on trial for an upbringing that I took to slandering as “White!” “Sheltered!” “Republican!” The idea was to paint them as waspy and detached—far too busy analyzing their 401k statements to hug their children. But those are hard allegations to make stick when your mom and dad travel half way across the country to sit front row of every major production, applaud until their palms chafe, and then buy your roommates dinner.
Within hours of earning my diploma, I realized I had no desire to be an actress. Never went on a single audition, threw out every book concerning method or technique, shrugged those four years off like an inconsequential relationship. It wasn’t expressly stated, but quietly implied that I owed my father fifty thousand dollars, and my mother, hours of post-traumatic stress counseling over the terror she’d endured watching me act. I felt I was, rather, giving her the gift of never having to do so again, and believed that cancelled out the debt. If any voice of reason existed inside my head, it was completely drowned out by the call of my new muse, the poem.
In the mid ’90s spoken word poetry was all the rage in Chicago. Deep in the heart of the city sat a famous old jazz club named the Green Mill and several nights a week it hosted events called Poetry Slams. It was in that darkly lit speakeasy that I officially absolved my folks of all wrongdoing and took on my real adversary: the system.
The system, by way of definition, was a faceless entity that daily conspired to keep me—a middle class white kid with a college education—down. It was a way to use my substantial talents benevolently, in defense of an under-represented people. As well, if you prevailed over a Poetry Slam you won a hundred bucks cash. As generations of Kennedys can attest, there is no greater reward for caring about the disenfranchised than spiritual satisfaction and a great deal of personal wealth.
Right before taking on the system, I’d gotten the “Rachel” haircut from the television show Friends. I looked unspeakably adorable. But the timing was terrible because revolutions are never taken seriously when fought with well-proportioned layers and side swept bangs. So before getting into the tedious business of writing, I skipped two days of showers and popped around town looking for hats, finally settling on an atrophied knit number. Feeling better about the hair, I sat down to start rhyming against the man but realized that all of my jeans were intact and pressed to perfection. You simply cannot battle the establishment unless wearing clothes first worn by a total stranger, reeking to high heaven of moth. It was back to the shops. About forty-five minutes before my literary debut, I began to write.
As any actor knows, once you’ve got the costume down the character blossoms. Looking like something extracted from a drain, I slithered into the spotlight of the club’s small stage, assumed a melancholic slump, and read my manifesto with a complicated blend of outrage and apathy. It is the great blessing of my life that my days of personal expression were in the eleventh hour of anonymity—when camera phones with tiny video capacities were still in gestation, stray thoughts in an engineering major’s mind.
Inexplicably, I took first prize that night and walked home clutching a roll of twenties that—considering I’d earned them in three and a half minutes—amounted to exactly four million times what I was making at the Bagel Authority, feeding hung over frat boys on Saturday mornings. A few clicks on my calculator suggested I’d be in a troublesome tax bracket by autumn. It was perhaps the most optimistic hour of my life.
The next week I lost to an excessively hygienic woman who read a series of love themed haiku. Not one of her shallow syllabic creations addressed the plight of blacks or single moms. She didn’t even rhyme. Never did I expect to take grand prize every time, but to lose to such blatant support of the system was disheartening, to say the least. I wasn’t going to waste my angry genius on brainwashed lemmings, so I got a job washing hair at a local beauty salon. Then I moved to New York and took a position answering phones at a spa. Then I went to massage school. That’s where my story stops in mid-sentence, where the record begins to skip, where the scene unexpectedly fades to black.
A lot of youthful suicide attempts are averted by the adult choruses of how different things will eventually be; how much we all change. Upon extended evaluation of this time honored wisdom, I’m aware of only two significant differences between my present self and my past one. There has been a marked reversal in my metabolic rate, and where I was once touched by utter delusion, I am now plagued by near perfect self-awareness. I’m not altogether sure this a good thing.
The other night I was walking home from work, exhausted and anxious to eat. I usually try to avoid the avenues due to issues of human congestion, and stick to the side streets as much as possible. Twelfth Street is my favorite—rows of town houses sit atop steep stoops, amber sconces glow symmetrically from each side of their imposing front doors. Through the shaded windows I observe the silhouettes of people who made thoughtful educational choices. There they are adding fresh logs to the fireplace. There they are booking a first class seat to Paris.
This particular evening I found myself trapped behind a slow moving girl lugging a cello over her right shoulder. It had the approximate breadth and weight of a dead body. She was in no apparent hurry to get anywhere and her leisure was met with my increasing irritation. Because this went on for a number of minutes before a break in the sidewalk allowed me to pass, I took to silently reproaching her from behind, like a foul tempered shadow. It would only be a matter of time until I found that girl face down on my massage table, unable to turn her neck. You’re eventually going to have to get a real job, I internally lectured, do it now before you slip a disc—because those suckers don’t just realign themselves in the spine.
It would be days before I suddenly realized—in a moment of clarity so stunning I almost had to sit down—that she was not carrying a cello. She was carrying a dream in the shape of a cello. It was not the least bit heavy.