Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Thunder Thighs Moves into A Van Down By the Nowhere

A brief aside before I get to the meat:

Yesterday confirmed something I've long suspected: I am only happy while riding my bike. It's the only way I can commune with the weirdly phlegmatic city of Chicago and feel generally excited about being alive. I bike a good deal. Usually around 20 miles a day depending on what I'm up to, what errands I invent for myself. Yesterday's mission involved riding up the lakeshore to Montrose Beach. The pathway was so packed with pedestrians, cyclists and roller bladers, I found myself almost wistful for the dangers of car-traffic. Before I reached the shore, I had been barreling down North Avenue and experienced a peculiar sensation of air moving through my body. Being out in the sunshine, in motion through the world calms and blanches my mind.

At the beach Vic and I were joking about the bodily transformations a bicycling life-style effects on one's person. For some time I'd been laughing about getting thunder thighs but now, today, it's dawned on me, in a really corporeal way of knowing, that it's happened. My thighs are decidedly bigger. They make contact with one another when I walk and this is startling. Jesse assured me that since it's all muscle this is sexy. But what will become of it in the winter? How true it is that like the proverbial miser, the more jealously you possess something, the more fearfully obsessive you become about losing it. I've been blessed with at least a couple bits of luck in that in spite of all the abuse I've heaped on myself, I am pretty thin and youthful looking. I am positively terrified, however, about losing my looks. I think about aging all the time. I've become distrustful of my body, all bodies actually, as I enter a new phase in my life in which entropy begins to make itself known. People my age are beginning to gain weight, lose hair, and just look, in a way that's hard to describe, a little bit older in the face.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a direct correlation between my panicky fretting about aging and my near terminal inability to grow up. And here's where we get to what I really wanted to tell you:

I'm leaving town.
And I don't know when I'll be back.

1 year is my absolute cap. Since I was 17, I have never managed to stay put in one place longer than a year. And rarely a year. The true max is more like 10 months. I shan't bother to list all the countries, states and cities, (not to mention all the houses within those places) I've lived in the past 7 years but there have been quite a few. I attended three colleges and have already dropped out of my first graduate program. I spent two summers in a row homeless and aimless. I've road-tripped, hitchhiked, and hopped freight trains. I've slept on a lot of sofas, in vans, boxcars and under bridges. And I'm about to do it again. And I'll let you in on a little secret:

I hate moving. I hate traveling and above all else, I hate change.

And yet, I'm always up and going. Truly, I am a desperately sedentary creature who had the deep misfortune of ending up in the existence of a wanderlust. Every time I relocate it's with the hopes of finding love, peace and fulfillment and settling down. But that keeps not happening. And I get disappointed. A deep, sad sort of disappointment that unlaces things inside, pulls out shoddily basted stitches and then runs the threads across ticklish places. I get to thinking it's time to go, to seek fortune elsewhere.

When I was 19, preparing to move to Pittsburgh, my friend Allan, over cigarettes and a piece of apple pie, told me something I will never forget. "Abby" he said shaking his head "You're a real fool if you think you can move anywhere in this world and your problems won't follow you." I thought I had it. I was moving, after all, to escape the torturous ravages of my dissolving epic first love affair and figured if I could leave him in Michigan I could start all over. What I know now but didn't know then was that this heartbroken escapism would become a trope for me. All to often it strikes me as easier to move than simply move on. It's not that I have any trouble tackling my problems head-on. I tend to over tackle, really to cripple. I move so far through and beyond my targets I emerge on the other side and find there's nowhere to go. I'm so full of hope I become hopeless.

Whenever my most recent swell of schemes for stability is thwarted I react like a petulant child. Things aren't working out? I'm still alone, without a respectable salary, material possessions to speak of, well why bother trying? Instead, why not willfully place myself in the most unstable, transient scenario possible? Enter my plans for this summer, which will go into effect this Monday June 6th.

Devon and Sam graciously invited me to join their band for a cross-country tour as a sort of catchall girl. My involvement will be varied and minimal, some vocals and keyboard and depending on Sam's plans, perhaps some bass. Over the course of a month we're touring from California to New York and back. I've rented out my room, quit my job and am preparing to pack my stuff in storage, unsure when or if I'll ever return. I'm taking stock of my meager possessions and lending them out in a will-making sort of fashion:

Mattress and dresser- to Tyler
My busted old classical guitar, the one my father used to serenade my mother- to Emilio
My jambox- to Heather since she keeps it in her studio all the time anyways.

The computer will come with me as I have a lot of writing projects scheduled for the summer.

I love the boys and although we will certainly have some difficult moments, living in a van the 5 of us, I'm looking forward to playing music, visiting places I've never been like New Mexico and Texas, sleeping all rolled together like puppies.

One thing I'm going to miss desperately, however, is riding my bike.

That muscle might turn to mush long before the cold weather sets in. But then again, I'm leaving Chicago; maybe the cold weather will never set in again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I Don't Take Hints, But I'll Get a Frying Pan to the Face

There is something spectacular about being forced to witness, over the course of an evening, the object of your affections draw nearer to and fall deeper in conversation with another girl. It's a special kind of sucking humiliation. The kind reserved for things like farting around a very important person, or getting caught masturbating, except this situation calls for an extended inhabitation of that brief agonizing instant. yes, in this case, the torment lasted the entire duration of several bands and several beers. And the way home, and more embarassing still, into the morning.

Garnish on my misery: On his way out with her he taps me on the shoulder to say goodbye. I can't remember what words we exchanged since I'd long ago made the decision to get myself decently drunk in an effort to cope with the situation. It was distracting and kept itching annoyingly at the periphery of my vision, repeatedly drawing my attention to the wreckage off in a corner by the stage. There I was, Rubber necking at the scene of my own disaster. I had no choice but to become an outside observer of my life. In times of emotional duress such as this one I have a little mantra I use to calm myself: That wasn't me, It didn't happen, This isn't my life. I focus on those words until I manage to back away from a treacherous precipice. I would need those words later but at that moment, blessedly, I was still at a bar.

It was last call, I had to be up for work in 6 hours and not before an 8-mile bike ride home.

I ordered a whiskey.

At any given moment in time it's fair to say there is at least one boy I'm fretfully, heartbrokenly obsessing over. Sometimes the constellation of unrequited passion is more complicated: at present there seem to be two. As is usually the case, both have made it pretty clear they are not interested in me. Oddly, being jilted by one kind of sent me volleying back to the other, as though in the wake of fresh heartbreak, it somehow becomes acceptable, even comforting to return to the site of an previous catastrophe.

This boy from last night and I have a history. A particularly ugly one, in fact and to be perfectly honest, I realized recently that by now he really could have murdered my mother and I would have found some way to magnanimously make sense of it. Predictably, I tend to set my sights on the alcoholics, and the Mama's boys, the emotionally crippled and unavailable, the uncommunicative, the unappreciative, the plain old immature, broken, sad and akward. I'm a lot like everyone else also, in that, when it comes down to it, I really don't want anything to do with any of the nice young men who lavish me with attention, praise and affection. That's not a conscious decision of course, it just works out that way. It is precisely because these characters are so awful that I end up loving them, drinking heavily in honor of their abuse, suffering from troubled sleep that gives way to mornings steeped in feelings of utter uselessness, writing songs and filling reams with poetry about them: their eyes, their poesy, proclivities and problems.

If I didn't have to work so hard it wouldn't be very much fun now would it?

I did not cry on the bike ride home. In a miaculous way, the Birds of America CD I'd put on while unlocking my bike outside the bar ended just as I was turning the key in my front door. I believe in signs more than I like to admit. I tried to console myself with vague appeals to a pride I barely possess, attempting to conjure up some sort of Romantic mystique for the waters-running-deep mystery girl who always goes home alone.

Paltry, I know. But if any of them were to actually become mine I'd be too busy being content to get down any of the songs and poems. And I have to wonder if right now, somehow, that isn't what I want just as much.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Scabby Arms and the Mayor's Fleshy Hand

I wanted to write a story about a girl who for some time had been giddily awaiting attending a black tie-affair at the Chicago Hilton, at which she was going to meet, among other celebrities, Mayor Richard Daley. Rarely seen or smelled in anything fancier than a pair of bicycle grease-stained jeans and grubby cut-away T-shirts, she went to Family Thrift and invested in a tasteful and elegant evening dress and pretty shoes. She resolved to wear a strand of fake pearls, comb her hair and, most impressively, shave her legs for the first time in 7 years in honor of the event.

Then two weeks before the Fundraising dinner, owing to a terrible accident, The young woman manage to slice her arm up pretty badly, a mishap that left some rather creepy looking gashes and scabs no little black dress was going to cover. As the day of the event drew nearer the girl began to panic. Every night before going to sleep she supplicated herself in a moment of silent prayer to the regenerative powers of her epidermis. The girl was poor and worse, poorly connected. She never got to go to fancy dinners, rub shoulders with city society. She was very proud of the volunteer work she did for the museum and wanted to tell the mayor and other important people all about it in the vague hope of securing some sort of funding for her position. She wanted to look pretty in her dress. She did not want to scare the mayor or any other important people with arm lacerations. Every morning and on breaks at work she furtively examined her wounds. 'God helps those who help themselves' she was told as a young child in Jewish Day School. Prayers alone might not suffice. She might have to ideate some creative, albeit awkward solution. Elbow length silk gloves? A fur stole? A carpal tunnel-esque brace?

The big day arrived. The girl decided several things. One: with the scabs scrubbed off, the cuts had faded to a less-conspicuous mostly-inoffensive pink. Two: she would be surrounded by Vietnam War veterans, their families and supporters, all of whom, surely, had either seen or could sympathetically imagine things infinitely worse than a few abrasions. After a hectic afternoon of assembling and sorting place cards, she donned her pretty dress, her pretty shoes and her fake pearl necklace. She combed her hair, threw on her dingy blue puffy vest wishing it were made of fur, or at least not so ratty looking, and climbed into a cab like an elegant person, ready to go meet the Mayor.

That girl of course, is me.

My other job, the one that pays me nothing, is at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum I first visited this modest museum in Chicago's south loop on a class visit last fall. The course, Art, Activism and Response, was pretty terrible but if nothing else, I thank the professor for bringing me there. I spent most of the two hours in tears. Not only is the art profoundly moving (it's all created by men and women who served in the Vietnam War), but visits there begin with a talk from a volunteer Veteran. Rick Davis (a fine man, wonderful speaker and accomplished author) told us his story of how he enlisted as a young college student in the wake of his first major heartbreak. He went on to serve two tours working one of the most horrific wartime jobs I can imagine, Graves Registration. As he spoke, he passed around his photo albums, some of the snap shots, too terrible to look at. Also circulated was his wedding picture. When he came back he and the high school sweetheart who had prompted him to go to war in the first place were eventually married and remain so to this day. I cried and cried and cried.

I kept coming back to the museum and crying. I wrote a paper about the museum for another class. I told them about my background in museum education and that I wanted to help. At that time the "education department" was being run by one lovely woman who worked solely on a volunteer basis. They were grateful to have me. So now I assist the museum in designing educational materials. I research the collection, exhibitions and related topical information to create classroom and gallery activities. I am writing a tour of the permanent collection with the aim of building a docent program. I have dreams of starting a paper ephemera archive to include books, comics, propaganda and psychological operations pamphlet literature. I learn a lot. It makes me feel a little bit more whole. It still makes me cry.

In an effort to raise funds and build PR (have I mentioned how poor and grass roots this place is?), the museum just held its second annual Above and Beyond Memorial Dinner at which they present their "Patriot Award." Last year's recipient was Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan from Forest Gump), Chicago native and champion of VWV causes. This year the museum invited him back to present the award to Mayor Daley. Mayor Daley. What to say? Problematic, sketchy, imperfect? Certainly. A major patron of the arts, supporter of bicycling and green spaces? Yes that too. While his ulterior motives were clearly legacy building and family-city relations healing (the museum opened to the public on the almost exact anniversary of the infamous 1968 Chicago DNC anti-war riots that so grievously marred both the image of the city and his father, Mayor Daley the elder), the museum would not exist today without Daley's investment and support.

After assembling centerpieces and then running the registration table for a while, I was able to sneak into the packed auditorium for the second half of the awards presentation. Huddled in a corner I watched Barak Obama speak to us live via satellite. I listened to Gary Sinise and Mayor Daley. I stood awkwardly for the singing of "America the Beautiful" feeling like a traitor for joining in and a traitor for remaining mute. I got spooked during the ceremonial "Retiring of the colors" conducted by cadets with big guns.

I am anti-war. I'm a pretty flaming liberal. But I want you all to know that working with a veteran population has certain given me a richer, more complicated, nuanced appreciation for conflict. I'm still me, but more empathetic, sensitive and confused on these matters. Daley's remarks distressed me at points, like when he spoke beamingly about the young men and women from Chicago's most underperforming schools who were being accepted to top military academies and earning military scholarships for college. After all, no one asked me to risk my life for a college scholarship. It was just given to me outright.

But I wanted to meet him nonetheless. Celebrity mania. And Gary Sinise too. I spied my chance with the latter a few minutes before dinner on a trip down to the restroom. I saw him chatting with a few people in a little foyer and I prayed he'd still be there when I came back out.

Prayers answered and upgraded. Not only was he there but sitting alone too!
I'm not a shy person.

"Mr. Sinise, My name is Abby G________, it's an honor and a privilege." I piped up confidently extending my hand. Gary Sinise is short and handsome and very nice. I told him about my work at the museum and he thanked me warmly, and shook my hand again before a woman came down to tell him the Mayor was waiting for him in the ballroom. We walked upstairs together arm in arm.
"Are you flying back to New York tonight?" I asked politely
"Actually I live in California"
"Oh" I stammered, gravely embarrassed. "I thought since your TV show (CSI) was set in New York..."
"Oh, it's all fake New York! We film it all in L.A" he said with a laugh.
"My father is a huge fan of the show. Never misses an episode." I told him (which is true, what I didn't tell him was that every time I go home my dad badgers me to watch it with him though I'm not terribly interested in crime shows or TV in general)
"Why thank you!" Said Mr. Sinise, so genuinely warm and nice. "You tell your dad not to miss next week's episode. It's really good. I like it a lot."

And with another smile, he was gone.

One down, one to go. I enjoyed a free fancy dinner with courses, waiters serving salad dressing on my salad, wine and a live band. "this," I thought to myself "must be what expensive weddings are like."

Daley was rumored to only have been staying for half an hour but after dinner I saw him still mingling. I grabbed Claudia, another volunteer and informed her with determination, "Come on, we're going to meet the mayor." I planted myself right by his side and waited. I glanced over my shoulder at my coworkers and winked. Eventually I seized on a break in his conversation.
"Mr. Mayor, Abby G_________, A pleasure to meet you, I'm a volunteer at the museum." The Mayor, short, grizzled, portly and friendly, smiled warmly and put out his hand. His hand was soft and fleshy. A squishy handshake but not unpleasant. I wasn't done yet. "Could I trouble you for a picture?" I asked sweetly. In half a second’s time the mayor had one arm around me, one around Claudia and his personal photographer had captured us in time. In one deft, continuous movement, the photographer lowered his camera and reaching into his pocket, produced two little cards with instructions on how to claim our free pictures with the mayor. What a job. Personal Photographer to the Mayor of Chicago.

"What's that like?" I asked him (his name is Jim by the way).
"It's good. It's crazy. It's good." was his reply.

"Unbelievable." clucked David our volunteer conservator in his English accent "All day all she's been talking about was meeting the mayor and then she up and did it."

After dinner I stayed around to clean up and help Jerry and Mike (Two amazing artists and veterans) load up the truck and trek back to the museum. I'd never been in there at night and it was kind of creepy heading up the darkened offices to change out of my eveningwear.
"Boyfriend coming to pick you up?" Jerry teased.
"If by boyfriend you mean bike." I clipped back with a rueful smile.

The next day I had the pleasure of calling my dad to deliver Gary Sinise's message to him. He actually said "Well I'll be!" which made me laugh.

I'm thinking about writing to my new friend Gary and asking him for some money. I like what I do but shit if I wouldn't like to get paid.

I'm getting into some new research on Post-traumatic Stress disorder for our upcoming exhibition, entitled, cheerily, "Trauma and Metamorphosis". Trying to finish up a bunch of projects before I leave town for the summer.

Also, My arm is looking quite a bit better.

Finally, come visit the museum. It might make you cry but sometimes that's a good thing, or if not a good thing, at least an important thing.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Insomniac is Handed a Mid-Week Day of Rest

Freelancing is best on your own turf.

Owing to the fact that two of my friends in the security department at my museum happen to be rock stars and are both on tour at present, I was fortuitously solicited with the opportunity to pick up some extra hours by manning the desk in the rear of the current exhibit. Today has been miraculously slow, no school groups, little visitor traffic and I am greatful with every fiber of my exhausted being for this peaceful day of minimum wage rest. My day thus far:

9:30-9:45- Hang out with Emanuel, drink tea with real sugar in it (I'm getting over the equal), receive crash course on tallying visitors and taking cash. Talk about the artwork of Fred Wilson

9:45-10:00-ish- Flip through the front section of the paper Emanuel bought for me so I could have a crossword for the afternoon. Read about the Daley city trucking scandal, shake my head in disbelief for the hundred millionth time over how fucking young that Lyndie England is, and learn that the Prime minister of Vietnam will be visiting washington next month, the first visit from an official of the United Vietnam in the 30 years since the end of the war (the anniversary of which, BTW, we just celebrated on the 30th of April)

10-11:15- Time spent feverishly, at moments tearfully, filling some 8 pages of my journal, chronicalling the savage weekend I just barely managed to live through, excerpts of which I am tempted to include here but feel, however, it might be in poor taste to do so. We'll see.

11:15-12:45- Began reading Contempt by Alberto Moravia. I love this book. I've had a date with this book for over a year.

12:45-1:05- Begin work on a poem about how humiliating the interior world of a paper lunch bag can be for grade schoolers. My parents were poor and my lunches therefore akward and almost always unpalatable compared to other kids'. Why are kids forced to eat lunch together and thus reveal everything about their families?

1:05-present- Lunch. Warm my throat with some soup in a tupperwear container. Continue work on poem. Gaze out the window for a little while. Call housemate. Leave message. Come down to the library. Start blogging.

Estimated schedule for rest of the day:

2-2:45- Begin crossword. Work on crossword until frustrated, humiliated, ready to give up.
2:45-somewhere between 3 and 4, return to Contempt
Between 4 and 5- Come back to the crossword. Make some headway, but soon give up again, still feeling stymied and insuffciently literate, capapble of elegant problem solving skills.
5 pm-leave work. Bike up to the north side. Buy burritos for me and Shelley. Get to Shelley's, eat burrito, take a much anticipated nap in Shelley's bed while she goes to her accordian lesson.
8:30-whenever, hang out with Shelley. Play her my new songs, listen to hers, talk about boys, most likely consume some alcohol.

That's as far as I've planned, for now...

Given the way the last few days have been going, I'm sure sleep will hardly figure into the agenda.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A WWII Vet walks into a Judaica Shop and asks for a Tetragrammaton

Grizzled, eyes twinkling, wearing a faded baseball cap and battered green silk windbreaker festooned with with akwardly stitched combat patches, this peculiar figure approaches the counter.

I was just packaging up a tiny baby-size yarmulka for the woman next to him.
"Who in the gift shop will answer a query?" He intoned
Since everyone else was on lunch the obvious answer was me.
"I can try to answer a query."
"Alright" he says, leaning an elbow on the glass counter, flipping over his visitors sticker and handing me a pen. "The four letter hebrew name for God, the one we say like 'Yaweh' in English, can you write it for me in Hebrew?"


It was not unlike the moment I had on friday night, drunk as hell at a huge party in my living room, when I was approached by two young women bearing an Israeli Bazooka Joe comic from a piece of kosher gum. "Your housemate says you can translate this for us." said one.

"Try me when I'm sober." I snarked, pocketing the gum.

"Four letters" He says suspiciously eyeing my work. "What are they called?" Drawing fuzzy little arrows, I labeled each letter for him. "Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, we say it like 'Adonai'."
"No vowels?"
"Well Hebrew doesn't have a vowel system like English. instead of a set family of vowel letters-"
"Yeah I know, diacritic characters, it uses diacritic characters, I know all about this stuff. That's why Jehovah was wrong. Because the vowels were all messed up. How many names for god are there in Hebrew?"
I had to chuckle. "I don't know, but MANY."
"more than Arabic?"
That I really couldn't tell you." I said humbly.

I asked him if he was here to see the museum.
"Naw. What's in it?"
"It's a Jewish museum."
"That holocaust stuff gets oppressive."
"sure does."
"Will you answer another query?"
"Again, I can try."
"what could have been more sincere than the prayers of six million people in the throes of death? Why weren't they answered?"
"Why are those same prayers uttered every day all over the world in a million languages and never answered?"
"Now that's a good question."

This guy was an eccentric and a polyglot and visiting from Ohio. In the brief span of ten minutes he told me the name of his sailing boat in cambodian, grilled me about A dying generation of Chicago authors, told me why he hates washington D.C ("Ugly city full of syringes and used condoms. Black men there can't do anything but strip copper wire and that's not even beer money, and those diplomats just roll up their limo windows when they drive by...")and proposed his solution for peace in the middle east ("Love thy neighbor") formally inserting yet another query: "What is wrong with Sharon? What is wrong with that guy?"

Since I now work with closely with a small segment of the veteran population at my other job, I was curious about his time in the service.
"Cold war years. 67-78"
"What did you do?"
"Filled up the B-52's with as much gasoline as they needed to get to Russia and wished them on their way."
"Where were you stationed?"
"Upstate New York, California. When to Iran once. Teheran...say, one more query"
"I'm ready."
"Do you know how many people have come back from Iraq so far maimed and injured?"
"Tell me"
"80 Thousand. And that's not counting all the psychological trauma."
"What are we doing there?"
"making a mistake."

And we shared a brief, akward moment of silence.
"Well Listen, it was nice talking to you. I didn't mean to make you depressed. I mean this is just the gift shop, you're not the professor or anything..."
I assured him It was ok and I'd had a nice time wrestling with all his "queries."

Then, just like that, he wandered out of the building. Never got his name.

Upon reflection, the whole thing was truly, oddly messianic.