Improv Again

2019-12-30

I’m young, on a bare stage with two chairs, a woman named Tina, and somebody in the darkness beyond the spotlight shouts out, “A monkey. A pirate’s treasure map. And a diamond!” And right then, that millisecond, is when Tina and I go to work creating—what others before us have described as “something wonderful right away.” At 25, I had no idea that enrolling in Jo Forsberg’s “Player’s Workshop of The Second City” meant I’d be standing in the shadows of giants. Like the guy Forsberg hired to play piano at a Children’s Theater Workshop, David Mamet. Or a really funny guy from the suburb of Wilmette, Bill Murray, who went on to do OK.

Improvisation for the theater is the only art form that was born and raised in Chicago. The history is deep and rich, traceable back to a people whose names you’d probably not remember: Viola Spolin, Neva Boyd. Julia Lathrop, and on through Paul Sills, Del Close, Charna Halpern, Jo Forsberg and many others. All building a discipline, a training curriculum, quality work, a business and legacy.

Looking back, Improv is the absolute best training I’ve ever had. Which is what makes it so enriching to be able to go back and do it again. With a sparkling cadre of players, a teacher who has the history at Second City, the wisdom of the streets and that rare gift of knowing how make learning come alive, I’ve completed five weekly sessions and will be starting up again soon.

Improv again after all these years makes me feel like the tin man. My creaking and squeaking improv energy put on the back shelf of my mind. The classes leave me drained. That good kind of drained. Stopping that reaching for something wonderful right away. And just letting it come.
Silly stuff that makes people laugh. Letting it come.

Scene!

A Raspberry Pi Christmas

2019-12-24

Gray foggy, damp and weirdly warm in Chicago this morning. Christmas coming. The rushing of lesser angels stops cold for a stolen moment and you start missing past times and people you can see, text, email or call up on the phone. Which makes me remember Raspberry Pi.

The idea behind Raspberry Pi is to put the power of computing into everyone’s hands. Literally everyone. In the whole world. This is more like a movement than a foundation and business. Look at their web pages and you’ll see stories and plans like “putting a computer in every school in England.” A proposition which, you figure, would mean that the computers would have to go for around $35 apiece. And they do.

The Raspberry Pi call to action is “teach, learn, make.” There is an old management development cliché that goes “think outside the box.” At Raspberry Pi the more relevant directive would be “Forget the box.”

What I know about Raspberry Pi, and I know relatively little, came from my Dad. And I have no doubt that he knew a lot. With a world class engineering analytical mind recognized at the highest levels of Wall Street, and a heart the size of Lake Michigan, my Dad probably knew as much about the ins and outs of Raspberry Pi than the folks who founded and ran the company. And in the talks with my Dad, just before he passed, he would share his excitement about this computing for everyone idea. Shared it so well that I still get excited thinking about it even though its been years since we talked.

Years since we talked. But it was only last week that I was taking the elevator up to the floor I work on – where a whole lot of engineering goes on. Looking at the advertisement, news and sports scores on the video screen above the elevator buttons. And it flashed for just one tiny golden moment. An ad for Raspberry Pi!

As if my Dad and I were still talking.

And he was saying, “Merry Christmas to All”

WHEN ROYKO MET TRUMP

2019-10-27

It was in a cold, gray October rain, late on a Saturday afternoon, that Trump slipped into Chicago. The eyes of the city aimed at college football games, cleaning the house, doing errands. Trump’s usual grand entrance to the city, civic trumpets blowing, military guards and closed expressways; all that would come later as he spit out all the dog whistles and hate speak to the loyalists, raked in the money and pounded out tweets. Now it was just Trump and the white hooded figure of a blood red eyed creature he would call “Stephan” who would lean down and whisper in Trump’s ear every few minutes as if giving instructions from very far away.

Their jet having landed in a private airfield north of the city amid gated communities bursting with heavily armed amateur security guards. Car and driver waiting, Trump and Stephan folding themselves into the back seat for the quick ride to the unnamed street corner tavern off of Montrose Ave on the north side of the city.  I’d tell you exactly where but you’d never find it. Like lots of taverns, it was bathed in a  perpetual twilight, even darker now from the rain. Empty except for a man in a gray raincoat sitting against the wall at the end of the bar, face hidden in the shadow of a faded blue Chicago Cubs cap, rhythmically tossing a 16-inch softball just above his head, catching it and tossing it up again. 

In the middle of the bar, hunched over a ginger ale, was my old great Uncle Lester “The Lip” Lapczynski. Wisps of white hair and a beat-up madras sport coat that broke every law of good taste. 

Trump pushes open the bar room door, motions for Stephan to go first—in case danger is lurking—sees Lester at the bar and says “Where’s this Royko guy I been hearing so much about?” To which Lester turns his back on Trump and Stephan—as if turning some distant cheek—and bellows with a force like a righteous wind, “What about the PLUMBERS, putz? The spray from Lester’s protruding lower lip drenching Trump’s face and beading up on his hairspray.

Trump looks at Stephan, who shrugs his shoulders as Trump turns back to Lester who screams it even louder and wetter this time. “The PLUMBERS numb nuts!  The PLUMBERS!”

“You are just like Stinky McGoohan from the old neighborhood!” Lester sprays. “Fact is you could take lessons from Stinky. You KNOW there is a Stinky in EVERY neighborhood.”

“I’m the President of the United States. Didn’t you see it on TV? I had more people at my inauguration than ANY President ever! And I won it fair and square. And what does this have to do with plumbers? I came here to see some hot shot named Royko. They say that if he was still writing, I’d be nothing more than American histories’ big “Ooops!” And so, I make this trip to Chicago with all your crime and everything and this Royko guy doesn’t even show up! What’s the matter,” Trump flashes an evil grin, “this Royko guy come down with a bad case of bone spurs?”  

Stephan clears his throat, motions Trump over with a crooked first finger and whispers in his ear and not skipping a beat, Trump says to Lester, “Bone spurs? I never said bone spurs. You sure that wasn’t the media or the deep state or Hillary talking? And what’s this all about the plumbers?”

‘That deal you made for the plumbing in your eye sore, building on the Chicago River?’

‘I’m a biness man! I make a lot of deals. So what?

Yeah so, I’ve heard Mister Business man,” said Lester, drenching Trump so thoroughly that his hair started to change color “You can explain later how you can loose money on casinos when you’re the house. What I’m talking about is how you somehow managed to make your deals with the plumbers, the unions and even the poor saps who spent millions for the condos go bad. The kind of deals where you can only when if the other guy loses. All those pipes bursting in your building and the water cascading down from floor to floor. Hedge fund guys and all those other biness men checking into the hotel across the street because the plumbing went bad in their 3 million-dollar condos. All because you wanted to stick it to some plumbers.” Lester was on a roll now. “See Junior, and I can call you Junior because you turned out just like the old man. Also, just like Stinky McGoohan. Always making sure the other guy lost first. That’s what really did it for you and Stinky and all the other Stinkys in all our neighborhoods, making sure the other guy lost first. You dressed it up with every kind of spin. But it was really just about making the other guy lose first.

“Yeah,” snarled Trump. “Well if you’re so sure you’re the good guys, if you’re so sure this ain’t a cut throat world, then how come your big hero, your Mister Royko didn’t show up? Hmm? What’s he? Not tough enough? Well I don’t have time for this. C’mon Stephan, lets leave these weak ass losers.” 

And with that, Trump and his white hooded companion turned, opened the tavern door and didn’t see the 16-inch softball come flying out from the end of the bar, zooming like a home run blast to the open skies far above the retreating deal maker and his pal.

They never saw the 16-inch softball ball fly off into the unknown distance. 

They never saw Royko look up from his end of the bar . . .

Nod his head. Tip his Cubs cap. And smile.

MOM AT 90

2019-03-29

MomRogerArizonaListen. Pete Seeger is singing a song for Mom’s Birthday that’s bigger than all of us. Starts out—“ Come and take a walk with me, thru this green and growing land”

Mom at any age is listening, She hears Seeger sing Phil Ochs’ lyrics,
“Here is a land full of power and glory”
Beauty that words cannot recall”

Mom at this moment resounding with the grace of sunlight
As the calls and texts and shouts of joy from friends, relatives, children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren (Hello Luna and James!) come rushing in from around the world.

And the song sets a course, “Walk through the meadows and the mountains and the sand.
Walk through the valleys and the rivers and the plains
Walk through the sun and walk through the rain.”

Then into memory. From radio station WFMT. Broadcasting from Chicago. Through an eternal News Years Eve. Staying up late with Mom and listening to “The Midnight Special.” Where the lyric goes,

“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor
Only as free as the padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand”

Mom all those years ago took her kids to all the different churches and temples, so each of us could find our own way.
Each of us finding something larger than ourselves.

From Mom across time
Comes a song of wisdom and a sunbeam of love.

“Here is a song full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall!”

A Song for Mom at 90!

Carole King is NOT 77!

2019-02-10

She’s somewhere in her twenties. Traipsing downtown from Brooklyn to the Brill Building in Manhattan where she plunks out tunes on a battered old piano, some kid calling himself Neil Diamond in the room next door, little Carol Joan Klein from the neighborhood thinking she can be some sort of songwriter or something. What’s with the Carole King name? She is little Carol Klein. She’s working as a secretary. Husband Gerry is in pharmacy school. Here is this Carole King person writing a melody, leaving the music on the piano at home with a note to Gerry scrawled “See if you can come up with some lyrics for this one.” Gerry listens, then sits down to write:

“Tonight you’re mine completely

 You give your love so sweetly.

 Tonight, the light, of love is in your eyes.

 But will you love me tomorrow?”

 Then the song actually gets sold to the Shirelles. There is actual money from the song writing now. There is a limousine ride when news of that sale comes through. The young couple hops inside that car and never looks back. She is Carole King now.

But she’s not seventy-seven. Can’t be? Because I’m still 21, right?  I’ve just come down from Wisconsin to live in Chicago. There were five of us renting the 2ndand 3rdfloor of the old building at Racine and Webster. I had a job. I was a teacher. Special Ed kids. They would make you crazy if you weren’t careful. Which is why it was good that we had rights to the roof of that building. Because sometimes in the summer, she and I would grab the sleeping bag and climb up through the glowing summer prayer of star lit city night. She and I, we’d go up on the roof. Dancing in the summer wind beneath the stars. Owning the world. Everything being possible.

We’d go “up on the roof.”

Like Carole King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World’s Best Actress

2019-01-04


WORLDS BEST ACTRESS? (Sorry Meryl. It was close.)

Years ago. Walking past the upscale Italian restaurant on Halsted Street in Chicago. Rain coming soon. And in the window of this place, sitting by herself at a table for one, was the most ferocious looking, raggedly dressed street woman I’d ever seen. Crossing Halsted I couldn’t help but stare hard. I could barely afford this place. How could she? Why was she in there? Shoveling pasta in her mouth. I kept looking and she could feel my stare. Till she looks up from her gravy and meatballs and gives me a look of such intensely withering, throat slicing hatred that I could barely breathe. Trying to shake off that stare, I continued south to the Steppenwolf Theater, where I had the season tickets. Stepping into the crowded lobby, looking for my friend for that evening, glancing at the posters of the company is where it came to me. The woman in the Italian place? It was Laurie Metcalf. In full costume and scary faced make-up.

Across the years at Steppenwolf, in movies, she never failed to dazzle. She got a TV series part as Roseanne Barr’s sister Jackie. Modeling her character after Don Knott’s Barney Fife.

But it wasn’t till tonight. Friday night late after a really long short week watching “The Connors”—that the power of Laurie Metcalf came back with even more intensity than that time she was in the window eating pasta. It was a scene building to a climax of the story This brilliant theatrical ensemble and world class writing team telling the story of a family trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one. They were in their kitchen. Laurie Metcalf started crying.

And she made me cry too.
Even after all these years.

The Welcome Tent

2018-12-31

Just west of Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Around the corner from Diner Grill. There is a tent that looks like it could have been Ulysses S. Grant’s battlefield headquarters. Or maybe someplace Hemingway would stay on a hunting trip to the green fields of Africa. Through the screens you can see what looks like another time. An ancient quilt on a musty bed. A nightstand with a picture of a soldier from World War One.

Most nights the flaps are open on all four sides. Perhaps a nod to Abraham, to an American ideal, or maybe whoever lives there just likes to sleep in the open air.

But tonight the flaps are closed. And if you stand for a moment you can hear the music rustling out and filling the night. You stand for a moment and sense that the place is filling up inside. Even though you’ve seen no one enter. Slowly you start to hear laughter. There is a party going on in there! The music becomes recognizable. Muddy Waters, Steve Goodman sings “In Real Life.” Prine gets up to sing “Angel From Montgomery’ and Bonnie Koloc answers with “I Got To Believe.” Street corner spirits crossing every boundary. That place where everybody sings and plays,

The tent flap opens, Bob Gibson, smiling with a big old 12 string around his neck, steps outside the tent and slaps a sign up side the tent flap. And the sign just says, WELCOME ALL!

Gibson motions you inside, still smiling, says “Listen to this one!”

The Homeless Soul Road

2018-11-03

 

I hear Jackson Browne sing, “The road is filled with homeless souls.”

How breathtakingly horrific it must be to grab your kids and just start walking. I think how their feet must hurt.

The choice is death or blisters on your feet.

The stunning loss of human dignity in the hopes of survival. I hear the Jackson Browne song as I’m getting ready to go do Saturday errands, “Now everyone must have some thought, that’s gonna pull them through somehow.” And that’s true. But they also need shoes. And food. These homeless souls on a trail of tears with blisters on their feet.

And I wonder if I’ve “left in for others, to be the one who cares?”

Jobs That Never Die

2018-08-30

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It’s just her now.

The two of them built the retail business together over 35 years. Now she counts the days since one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals could not help him and he died.

She counts the days since he’s been gone and when the store is empty she cries.

He was the spine of the business. Back of the house. What it takes to do retail and do it really, really well. That feel for the buying that makes the selling possible. She was front of the house. Those hearty, smiling, hand clapping welcomes, as every guest in the store became a friend of the family. No monotone “Can I help you” here. She instead would greet the stronger with a warm and all encompassing “I’m here for you.”

It’s just her now.

The air conditioning sputters out. Street folks wander in the front door that she always keeps open. One grabs a piece of merchandise out of a customer’s hands and runs. Four hours later the cops come by. I ask some cops on bikes to look in on her.

The retail hours are long. We help with talking through hiring. Maria brings cookies—her bakery ministry. The crushing summer heat eases up for a moment as she rings up a sale and there is just the trace of an autumn wind coming through the open door into the store.

And she keeps going. Terrified she won’t make it, but she keeps the hours, fends off the suppliers he used to control and pours out thanks for those who walk in the store with even the smallest act of kindness.

What makes a job that doesn’t die? First, it’s showing up. It’s carrying on. And she does that in a way that would have made him both proud and relieved.

Second, it’s “practicing stewardship.” Taking care of something larger than one’s self. This little store in the middle of the sprawling, hard and often scary city that always has an open door. Even when it’s closed, it’s open. So a man from some far away country comes in, and buys a soulful amber necklace. And after the sale is done, she says to him, she with the job that will never die, says, “May I give you a crystal?” The man’s face goes puzzled but he says “Sure.” And she unlocks the display and grabs a small handful of golden stones. “Here,” she says, “this is the one I can feel. This one is for you. And today I’m taking this other one for myself. These are Golden Healer quartz. They enhance joy and peace. Hold a Golden Healer to connect with the light of the universe. Golden Healers clear blockages and imbalances for multi-level healing. Its energy is both powerful and soothing.”

The man holds the gift. He’s never believed in this kind of thing. But he is still for a moment and he can feel something. Something different. Something peaceful. He smiles and says “Thank you.”

And in that thanks is the stewardship, the taking care of something larger than her.

In that “thank you” is a job that will never die.

Aretha at Buckingham Fountain

2018-08-16

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It was hot in Chicago on the day Aretha Franklin died. Probably hot in Detroit as well. And I wondered if maybe on her way to go sing for the angels, Aretha stopped to sit for a moment, and took a rest, at Buckingham Fountain. One of her favorite places in Chicago.

Sometimes she’d go by herself. Sometimes she’d take her grandkids to play by the fountain. Sometimes she’d take a security guard.

Buckingham Fountain. Cradled in the Chicago skyline, water shooting up swirling and soaring just like Aretha did when she sang, Blessed by the rhythms of the gospel, the heat of the blues, the cool tones of jazz, the complexity of opera—the woman could sing anything. I wondered if she sat by that fountain and knew that it was time to go share that singing with all the other voices of angels across all time.

Because when Aretha sang, you didn’t just hear it, you felt it. When Aretha sang, you could feel the gut searing pain and the iron will to overcome. The yearning and the hope and the command and the determination. She gave voice to everyone who listened. When Aretha sang, she told a story.

And when Aretha told a story it was true.

Photo Credit: a viewoncities.com