If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us,
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble,
how loss activates
a latent double, how
we can feed as upon nectar
— Kay Ryan, “Why We Must Struggle” in The Best of It
Lately I’ve been learning the shapes of things, of gains and losses. By feel. By chance. Stumbling through an unlit room, pressing a palm to the walls and bumping into the stairs. Then waking in a vineyard. A lucky one, when I’m lucky.
I didn’t tell many people how sick I was in October. I didn’t want to worry anyone, and I didn’t know what to say. But Oriana was with me in the airport on the way to the hospital in Bangkok. She wanted me to get in a wheelchair so that we could pass more quickly through customs. But I refused. I told her, straight-faced, that I didn’t want to get in the wheelchair because “these might be the last steps I ever take.”
Wrong again, Muscato. I am now totally fine. And I’m thankful that Oriana talked me into sitting in the wheelchair. We breezed through customs and got to the hospital that much faster. But I’ve appreciated my legs a lot more ever since. Now I lace up my sneakers and run sometimes.
I just got these fancy running shorts with a tiny zipper pocket in the waistband, perfect for a house key and an ID. I began to slip the house key from the ring and slide it into that itty bitty pocket. But then I stared at the salad of metallic shapes in my palm.
Silver keys and gold keys, with curved tops and square tops, and one of those fancy ones that can’t be copied — suddenly I realized: I didn’t need any of them. In fact, I didn’t even know what any of them were for. So I slid off each bright key until just one remained. Simple. Weird. Easy. Good. Then I locked the door behind me and started to run.
I’m both a journalist and a performer in theater. Very few people work inside the overlap of this particular Venn diagram of minimum-wage professions. So I have to comment on the news.
In the event that this post is found in a digital time capsule in 2097, an explanation: A writer and performer named Mike Daisey traveled to China, visited a factory where some very popular computer products were being made, returned home and wrote about it. The resulting play was performed live for many people, excerpted for an extraordinarily popular journalistic radio program, and then found to be factually untrue. There was an uproar.
Denizens of the future: Hopefully someone has recorded the meanings of China, factory, journalistic, computer and radio so that you can decipher the above.
I became an early fan of Daisey after seeing him give a thrilling and mostly improvised talk at a conference of arts administrators. He pegged us from the start. He knew we were artists too and wanted, more than anything, to be valued for our work. Our art, yes, but also for our labor to connect art with its viewer. He said it was our mission “to make art visible in our time”. He nailed our fears and insecurities so deftly that I found myself scribbling into a notebook dotted with tear stains.
Muffins had been served in the lobby but we were not allowed to bring them into the lecture room. He wove this tiny injustice into his speech on the spot, our desire for the muffins that were separated from us by red tape, a detail mirroring all the administrivia that so often sunk our spirits. I scribbled down quotes. “Sometimes you just think, ‘Fuck art.’ And it may not always make you happy. But the point is not to be happy, the point is to do the shit you’re called to do.” He said art is often a hard sell because this country was founded by Puritans — but we must keep at it; deep down, everyone still wants to make art. He said in his signature, dramatic throatiness, “It calls to them in the night.”
The man can reach an audience. And his story about Apple was perhaps his best work. But people don’t like their bitter pills mislabeled.
Writer Tim O’Brien posits in his famous and much-beloved essay, How to Tell a True War Story [pdf], that there are different kinds of truth. Factual truth — and story truth.
True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside. It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
Daisey made our stomachs believe. Bitter pills, mislabeled — for reasons I can only guess. But something strange happened during Daisey’s talk to us arts administrators. He’d been speaking about the muffins being denied us; saying the words with such passion you could taste them. And then, suddenly, we could taste them. One of the experimental theatre performers in the room had stood up, walked out the door and returned with these illicit muffins on a silver platter.
The artist passed them throughout the audience in a jolly manner. I was happy for the second chance at breakfast — but something in the air turned, a slight scratching of the needle on the record. Daisey didn’t chuckle with us or celebrate this turn of events. In fact he looked annoyed; so fond of the poetics metaphor surrounding our lack of muffins that he didn’t actually want us to have them at all. And I was so entranced by his performance that I almost didn’t want to eat.
… or so says UNESCO, so I’m chipping in. You should, too.
In Our Time of Great Speed
in our time of great speed
the sticky green leaves
opened in march
as the sun ticked us
closer to 90 degrees
though we dug out cars
in marches past
and under the ground
murmur in half-sleep;
“Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.” — Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams
If you can imagine becoming sentimental about a Canon copier.
I once wrote about being in charge of purchasing a new copy machine at my first-ever real job; and this past weekend I witnessed the copier’s last day. It was being replaced by a newer model, on the very afternoon that I visited my old co-workers.
I remember so clearly being the person who inhabited the skin that purchased the copier. More afraid, more alone, with tuning-fork bones and an ear infection. It was a bad season.
They took the copier away and replaced it with a new one, where you can fax from your desk and send cheese to the moon; and maybe even drink warm merlot from a spigot on the side. The guys who came to pick up the old machine said it was the longest they’d seen one in service.
If you can imagine becoming sentimental about a Canon copier.
But standing there; I remembered so clearly being that person with those tuning-fork bones. The precision and dread with which I spent $5,280 of my company’s money, at age 22. I could not have imagined my life in a decade, but here is all I have to say about it: I am so calm. I am so calm.
Tags: campbell mcgrath, spring comes to chicago
The other night at the Golden Angel pancake house with Jay and Megan, we ate grilled cheese with tomato and too many French fries; mine came with soup too but I gave it to Megan (cream of potato), and we talked about everything I missed last year, and I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of the booth. Vinyl is slippy. On our checks the waitress gave us each a sticker (every week she gets new stickers), and they were each different letters of the alphabet. Mine was an “L”. Pink and jolly, a bouncy font like it just sprung from a can, or a literate cherry blossom.
…but which I’ve come to see with perfect hindsight
was no less than the mighty strongman
joy himself bending bars of steel upon a tattooed
skull, so much nobler and more rapacious
than his country cousins, bliss, elation, glee,
a troupe of toothless, dipsomaniacal clowns,
multiform and variable as flurries from blizzards,
while Joy is singular, present tense, predatory, priapic,
paradoxically composed of sorrow and terror
as ice is made of water, dense and pure,
darkly bejewelled, music rather than poetry,
preliterate, lapidary, dumb as an ox, cruel as youth,
magnificent and remorseless as Chicago in winter.
(Right now I’m carrying around his new one.)
The other night; I got a call from an old friend. I was driving, and lost in an unfamiliar city, and nearly about to lose my mind because a cop car was tailing me. I was not driving my own car. Not stolen. But I hadn’t asked where the registration was, and I’d have little stamina to explain myself after wrestling with the prim voice of the frustrated GPS computer-lady. I pictured catastrophe. The flip side of creativity: a constant ability to picture catastrophe. So I pulled over into the parking lot of an apartment complex, and I answered my phone from there. The cop drove on.
My friend on the line was asking for advice — and lord knows I’ve asked for enough of it over recent years, collecting glints of wisdom from my army of smart and hilarious friends. (Recently I’ve even teamed up with a fellow writer for bi-weekly what-the-hell-do-we-do sessions.)
But I’ve also found wisdom somewhere else, lately. I saw an incredible play the other night, at the theater company where I now work, fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life by Chicago writer Sarah Gubbins. It’s about a young woman whose only lifeline in a small-town high school is writer Carson McCullers, long dead, but whose book eases her heart. Afterwards, writer Dan Savage talked about growing up gay in a small town, and how the It Gets Better project was intended to reach across the divide between young people and the adults who’ve successfully made their way.
The project, though it has its detractors, seems to me one of the most beautiful manifestations of why art matters to me. And technology has made it possible. (I am such a nerd for spreading goodness through digital media in new ways.) In both the play and Savage’s project, links from artist to viewer change lives. The messages are simple; the effect profound and real.
Find heroes. Listen.
Sometimes new, simple platitudes rise to the front of my consciousness, the way waves suck back the shoreline to reveal crabs and shells. Last year the phrase was, “Seize your heart around the kind and beautiful world.” Lately it’s been, “Hold hard to your heroes.” If you don’t see any recognizable help in your geographic area. If you are lost; if the GPS is guiding you astray. Find someone who can speak to you through a book, through a play, through a poem. It’s so simple. But as David Foster Wallace says below, “the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”.
Of course, as we closed the conversation, I also said, “Maybe don’t ask for too much advice. It’s possible to over-think things.” It’s always, always possible to forget why you got in the car, how you ended up here, by the side of the road. There was the cop car. There was the GPS. The phone rang.
Despite the warning. Here are a few words for the road that I’ve collected lately. (I just used this first snippet to kick off a talk I gave this week.)
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
— David Foster Wallace; commencement speech
Intention doesn’t sweeten./ It should be picked young/ and eaten. Sometimes only hours/ separate the cotyledon/ from the wooden plant./ Then if you want to eat it/ you can’t.
— Kay Ryan, “Intention”
A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to and what they really are.
— Tove Jansson, Moominsummer Madness
…if Bruce Springsteen’s story has a central issue, it’s whether dawning maturity is compatible with the rock-and-roll spirit.
— Dave Marsh, Born To Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story
Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
— Cheryl Strayed, “Tiny Beautiful Things”
This week, the blog turned 11. Eleven years old! A blog! How strange; how lovely to know that this site has sustained my writing, sculpted my voice and kept me sane (as sane as any human can be) for more than a decade. I’m grateful that I was born in the time of the internet.
So, here is why this blog was born. I really, really wanted to make a zine because all the kids who were older and cooler than me made zines. They were pressed in Xerox shops and distributed via the underground — somehow.
But I lived in the suburbs and didn’t have a car. There was no way on earth to get to the one Kinko’s in town on a regular basis, and even if I could have, where would I have distributed this mystical zine? The local Starbucks was really kicking up the coffee house scene, but beyond that, I was lost.
So I started this page, which later became a blog. And this week that blog turned 11.
I never thought I would make it past thirty years old. I really, really couldn’t picture it. And then I almost didn’t. On the eve of my birthday, I was in a hospital in Bangkok, and then suddenly the birth date on my hospital bracelet matched the day on the calendar. Cheating one’s own demise is pretty rad way to kick off the year. But more than anything, it taught me what matters. The people you think of in the worst moments, the ones who call and write and forgive and give, are the ones to keep for always. And when those people are busy, well, you also have the world. Which you are part of.
I’m a fan of poems; people send them to me and I appreciate that deeply. I’m not sure when I got this one or where, but it seems fitting for a birthday.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
It’s also my mother’s birthday today. The absolute best part of this fall in Buffalo was estate sale shopping, brunching, giggling and lounging with my mother. As a teenager, I left home shortly after my zine fetish, to go to college and study journalism and find my place in the family of things. But this year I found my place in the family of my family. Which, if you think about it, is the best outcome I could have asked for.
One winter morning I walked into work, all mittens and hot coffee and rosy cheeks, to find our lobby destroyed — full of smashed pianos.
We’d seen them, days earlier, as whole pianos. Dusty, vintage uprights — but whole pianos, still. Now they were in pieces — and judging by the tools laying around, they’d been hacked with saws and hammers, pounded with mallets, strings gutted, keys made kindling. Sawdust hung in the air.
This was, of course, one of the basic hazards of managing an experimental theater company. One of our shows had encouraged audience members to take some choice thwacks at a few old wooden pianos in the lobby — John Cage-style — and after closing night, they’d been finished off in celebration, hacked to pieces. But the company had a big event in 24 hours. The room needed to be full of 200 people laughing and having a good time, holding wine glasses.
I came across a quote from author Ben Marcus recently, about his writing process:
…”if I wanted to sound a note on a piano (in prose), I didn’t just have to purchase and install the piano, I had to build it. But before I built it I had to grow the trees whose wood would yield the piano, and probably I had to create the soil and landscape through which those trees would burst. Then there was the problem of the fucking seeds. Where did they come from? I had to source them. With such mania I was either onto something or I completely misunderstood what a fiction writer was supposed to do.”
What strikes me most about this statement is how I imagine that thought process unfurling. It starts with the breezy pragmatism of a weekend carpenter facing an empty Saturday and plotting a lazy trip to Home Depot; then builds to frantic despair, unfinished and unfinished still; persistence fueled by a mad scientist’s longing for the result.
I know a little something about seeds, as it happens.
For some extra pocket money in Phnom Penh, I talked my way into an occasional substitute teaching position at the fancy private school in town.
These kids, the children of wealthy expats, had EVERYTHING. Their library alone stocked magazines and books from all over the world that you couldn’t find anywhere else in town. Their science teacher had gotten bitten by some terrible insect in Northern Thailand and was in the hospital unexpectedly and indefinitely.
The school secretary handed me this one-sentence lesson plan right before the bell rang: “Have students check seed experiment.”
I walked in expecting a well-disciplined bunch. But as they darted around the room stealing each others’ pencils and whining at the top of their lungs, I realized my mistake. They were the children of bankers, NGO workers, investors and — to hear them talk — kings and queens. Luckily they were totally adorable — diminutive features and prim tea-time accents.
No sooner had I written my name on the white board than one loudmouth mop-headed adorable-face announced, “MISS! WE NEED TO GO CHECK OUR SEEDS!”
By the time I turned around the entire class had left the room.
I wondered if this would affect my job.
Seeds gathered in tall grass and stashed in apron pockets. Trees knelt over and watered. Then YOU. You chopped down a tree and made your OWN fucking piano! You planed the wrest plank. Strung the backframe. Sawed 88 keys. It took so long.
Sometimes, you wake up and all your work and your life appears to be just pieces and sawdust. A few notes sound, a few strings still ring. But still.
When I first docked in the U.S. this fall, things seemed really rubble-filled. Like I’ve said before, I’m bad at transitions. Really, really remedial. For a few weeks when I passed a lake or river or even a pond, I automatically noted the water level. How close were we to a flood? To repeat: This was not rainy season in Phnom Penh. It was winter in Western New York.
That afternoon at the fancy private school, my cherubic Euro divas bounded out of the science classroom with their clipboards. They were learning the life cycle of a plant by growing mung beans in various environments. Some chose the freezer. Some, the roof. Some, a well-trodden dirt foot path. Some, underneath the bushes of the lush tropical landscaping.
Half an hour later most returned, tormented. Their seeds had not grown. One girl came back and, wordlessly held her frozen petri dish up to me. (Her lab partner, overcome by the glorious train-wreck nature of things, shouted in ecstasy: NOTHING GREW!!!) The microwaved seeds fared no better. The ones on the roof had been seared. The footpath seeds had been trampled.
A dozen students busied themselves creating line graphs that were completely flat. I tried to assure them they were not failures.
Then I heard my name from the doorway. “MS. MUSCATO?!?!”
I poked my head out to find Anton and Xavier, two bouncy, chubby bookish types with saucer-sized eyes. “OURS GREW!” Xavier produced the plant from behind his back and there it was, a springy green stalk with one leaf at the top, shooting defiantly from the petri dish.
There is no greater embodiment of innocent hope than a happy child holding a springy green mung bean shoot.
I shouted, “OH MY GOSH!” and turned, about to shout to the class, when Anton shouted, “NO! STOP!”
And this is when I learned the difference between being in middle school and being a grown-up.
“Stop what?” I asked.
“PLEASE DON’T TELL THE OTHERS,” he whispered. His saucer eyes now telegraphed all-consuming panic.
“NONE OF THEIRS GREW.”
I quickly shut up. Duh: You can’t be publicly good at anything in middle school. In adult life, of course, it’s the reverse. That mung bean would be all over Facebook.
When I got back from Cambodia, I felt like all of those kids plucking their petri dishes from the freezer and the microwave. Plotting flat line graphs on standard-issue graph paper. I watched water levels in a reservoir in Rochester and wrote nothing that I didn’t redact. Everyone else’s mung beans looked so much more awesome. I wondered if I should go back to Asia, on the double. But one night I chatted with my friend Brechjte online. I first met her at a moonlit concert on a Cambodian beach. She’s in Amsterdam now, being a kickass human rights lawyer. And she said something that helped: There’s always the dilemma, of whether to stay a temporary expat or go back to “real life”. Specifically, a life with more roots, more consequences and more complex relationships. Her answer: Make real life everything you’ve always wanted. Whatever that means to you.
I remember so crisply the feelings of facing these two surprises. One brought the sinking weariness of destruction. The other brought the simple joy of a child holding a new plant. But certainly, through Marcus’s quote about painfully building one’s process to fit one’s own peculiar needs and vision, they interlace — and apply to how we write and how we live.
John Cage called his instruments “prepared pianos”. Usually they were prepared by the dings and knocks and beatings they’d endured. At a very basic level, his art is a knock at those who stay too precious, too perfect. Those who won’t butcher their darlings. And so, yes, I was bewildered and overwhelmed that morning at the theater. But something of the ecstatic recklessness of Cage’s original experiment was there too, even in the sawdust. As I stood there open-mouthed in snowboots, coffee in hand, the thrill of the butcher lingered. It’d be an improvised feat of wonderment to get everything down the stairs.
The challenge of course, when faced with a huge pile of piano pieces, is always to get everything down the stairs. And then return to the beginning to make a new piano. Find some new seeds. Sprout them in a place they might like to grow. One bright spring morning when your trees are ready, return to your saw and hammer. Maybe even the same saw and hammer that destroyed your last piano. Just like before, you’ll need 88 keys.