Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brave Clothes

Mary Katherine recently told me about a great theater kid prank -- run  into a store, frantic, and ask the clerk, "What year is this?"  When they respond, scream -- "It worked!" and run out of the store, ecstatic.

I felt a little bit like that last night, like I'd gone back in time in an especially effective experiment. We went to see "Nice Work" at the Imperial Theater. Earth-changing, evocative drama? Hardly. But it was an absolute trip back to 1927 and the world of Mrs. Gershwin's little boys, George and Ira, and that can never be a bad thing in my book.  

Mary and I got to the theater crazy-early, partly to allow plenty of time for me to get off at the wrong subway stop (surprise, I didn't) and partly to give us a chance to breathe in the atmosphere. We walked around all the neighboring theaters, and saw an actor sitting on the fire escape of the Jacob, playing the ukelele and smoking a pipe before his half-hour call at "Once."  We admired the bourbon bottle on the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?" posters.

We went inside and swanned our way up to the ladies' room, with Mary Katherine stopping on her way to photograph big stack of Playbills. The audience came in two flavors -- people who remembered little Georgie when he still wore short pants, and people who took the first thing they saw at TKTS that wasn't  "Death of a Salesman." There were several walker-users in evidence, but there were also more than a few backwards baseball caps, which angered Mary Katherine.  This, after all, is church.

We got to our seats before the entrance of The Lady in Blue, but for all I know she'd been walking down the aisle to her spot in Row H since 6 p.m. -- she did not, as they say during Marathon commentaries, make good time. Here was geometry in motion; a human 90-degree angle who was bent just about as far an ancient spine would allow. On the plus side, I thought, she probably spots a lot of loose change on the sidewalk. She was with a younger (well, under age 60) woman, upon whom she was leaning, with further assistance of a gnarled black cane. Behind her was an elderly gentleman with a weary, husbandly air. He wore a jacket and tie. But her, she was truly rocking that theater-going look. Below her wispy grey hair and above her orthopedic shoes, there was a glittery blue blouse, all sequins and sass.

I got a good look at her finery while she lowered herself into her seat in front of me, because it took her several minutes to begin that slow, creaky descent. Her bony shoulders shot out from either side like additional geometry lessons, little pop quizzes on what happens when everything but your spirit shrivels up. She turned to say something to her husband, and I caught a noble profile, deep set blue eyes and all the indications of a bright and lively person hiding in there somewhere.

I wondered how old she had been the first time she'd heard a Gershwin song. I wondered if she'd appeared in a Gershwin show. Someone with that much snap might well have been a chorus girl.

I imagined how long it had taken her to get ready for the theater that evening. Given the pace at which she'd made it to her seat, I guessed that she'd gone to her closet about noon. And she'd said to herself, "Yes, I am an old woman. And yes, I walk at the angle of an Isosceles triangle, and as quickly as a very old tortoise. But, dammit, I am putting on my special blue sparkly shirt tonight, and I'm going to hold my husband's hand when Kelli O'Hara sings 'Someone to Watch Over Me,' and that's just all there is to that." I imagine that she might have thrown in another "dammit" for good measure.

Before last night, I had only thought of clothes as comfortable or itchy, in style or out of it. But sitting two rows behind that woman, I saw that clothes could also be brave. And as I applauded the actors at the finale, I applauded her, too. Brava, Lady in Blue. Godspeed.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Weird Science: Freelancer Pheromones

Check out this Nasonov gland. Oooh Baby.

I’m not exactly exposing my Nasonov gland to entice my fellow honeybees into an empty hive, but, these past couple weeks, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that I’ve got some sort of major pheromone thing going on. While the particulars are still mysterious to me, the cause is obvious – I’m planning a vacation.

Ask any freelancer you find on the streets (it won’t take long, the streets in Minneapolis are lousy with them) to tell you when they experience the biggest uptick in new business, when the most enormous projects get set in motion, and they will answer, to a (wo)man: Three weeks before I leave on vacation.

I’m planning to head to New York next week, and I can’t beat the customers away with a stick. I’ve had a least two phone calls lately that start with “Remember me?” People I haven’t worked for in years have developed sudden, urgent needs for my snappy, sparkling prose. Really? I want to say.  Where were you in the middle of January when I was considering taking on a side hustle as a barista, just to keep cat food on the table?

This must be some complicated kind of science ju-ju, I’ve found myself thinking, because not only does it seem to be attracting customers, but it convinces them to linger, sort of the opposite effect of that classical-music-in-the-convenience-store-to-deter-juvenile-loitering experiment. Because while I’ve noticed that my services are certainly being engaged with incredibly increasing frequency, I’ve also noticed that The Damn Projects are Never Done.  Quick-turn web copy gets a new client direction and requires an entire rewrite. A normally agreeable editor suddenly thinks that just a few more sources will do the trick. I’ve actually heard, for the first time since December (the last time I left town), that phrase that chills the blood of creatives everywhere:  What else have you got?

Many people become freelancers for the utterly stupid reason that they want to “be their own boss.” Sounds great in theory, but I’ve discovered that I’m probably the worst boss I’ve ever worked for – and after a lifetime of agency work, I’ve had some doozies. Nortie the cokehead, Frank the stapler-thrower and Brenda the walking ashtray have nothing on Julie Kendrick, Slavedriver. I am demanding and unforgiving and just a little bit sadistic. I schedule interviews with Canadians at 3 p.m. on a beautiful Friday afternoon. I make myself get up at five a.m. “just to polish the copy one more time before it goes to the client.” Plus, I never take me out to lunch, or tell me “good job,” or offer beneficently, “Take the afternoon off, honey.  You’ve been working too hard.” As if.

Worst of all, I never, ever say “no.” I can’t even turn down the pro bono stuff, even when I am convinced that my brain is going to explode all over the board meeting, necessitating a messy cleanup, but probably a very nice funeral. Trust me, I’ve tried. I form my lips into a little cat butt of “no,” and all that comes out is the chimp-grin of “yes.”

Of course, I love my clients, I’m happy for the work, and it will all get done, somehow, before that flight takes off next week. And there’s one thing that’s more certain than the pre-vacation pheromone attraction – I’ll probably spend all of July reorganizing my file drawers, because nothing is less appealing to a client than a freelancer who has just returned from vacation.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

How I Know it’s Summer (by a mother of teenagers)

The Brassiere That Was Left on the Chair in World Headquarters

When I see a crocus in the front yard, I know it’s spring. When I find mystery shoes strewn across the living room each morning, I know it’s summer.

Other people may find this to be a season of relaxation and renewal, a chance to slow down and savor life more fully. For me, summer is a season of wonder, as in: “I wonder who ate the four pounds of bananas I bought yesterday?” or “I wonder why the front door was left wide open all night?” or, on a recent Monday morning, “I wonder why a bright green brassiere is slung over the back of the chair in my home office?” I don’t think even Don Draper had to cope with that sort of thing at work, but at Kendrick Works World Headquarters, it’s just part of going with the summer flow.
 Let's see him explain the Eternal Mystery of the Milk Carton

As a journalist, I love those five Ws, but in summer, I use them much more at home than I do at work. I don’t really use them with the hope of eliciting information, but more as a general pre-senility sputter of exasperation, which often begins, “WHO in the world would ….” I keep asking the question, but I always know the answer. The answer is, not me. I continue to ask anyway, with the sort of cosmic curiosity that keeps me determined to understand why any rational human would return a carton of milk to the refrigerator with only one teaspoon of liquid remaining, and not write “milk” on the giant grocery list (pen attached!) that is hanging just inches away. It’s a mystery that would baffle a Talmudic scholar, at least after he stopped sputtering. It is written in the Torah that the sputter always comes before the question, right Rebbe?

Sometimes, I stop asking questions and take action. On that grim Monday morning in question, I put down my cup of coffee, got the tape dispenser, and marched down the hallway from World Headquarters to the perp’s bedroom. I taped the offending brassiere, dangling like a pre-burned effigy of teen sloth, in the offender’s doorway. (The cup size was my DNA-quality evidence of guilt in this particular case, sort of like an episode of CSI: Sputtering Mother Edition.) Was the brassiere slinger ashamed when she finally woke up and saw the evidence? We don’t do shame in this teen household, really – it’s either punishment or no punishment, and decide quick because I need the car keys.

  These people do not have teenage children.

As with every other aspect of mothering, I find that I survive summer better if I lower my standards and stay flexible. Besides, this sort of constant adjustment to new information is good for me, sort of like living every moment while balancing on a BOSU. I tell myself that it’s fun to have days that are high on variety, if low on personal satisfaction and basic hygiene. If I’m sitting in the living room at nine o’clock on a Friday night, enjoying a moment of respite, and ten theater kids show up at the front door, summoned through the silent teen antennae of texts? Oh well, and of course I’ll turn on the oven for pizzas. If I’m surprised by the New Guest Stars in my kitchen every morning, the ones who arrived to sleep-over after I went to bed?  There’s always room in the blender for another smoothie, right?

Of course, I write this in June, the month of summer hopefulness. By August, the twitch will be back.  Two years ago, in August, I ate a spider (Another story; another blog). By this August, I’ll probably be popping that brassiere into the blender, along with the rest of the smoothie ingredients. And I won’t even ask “Who?”

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Thanking Season (Nowhere, Nowhere)

Emma, just home from Beiing, tells me that the proper response to a thank-you in Chinese is, instead of words that translate to “you’re welcome,” a phrase that literally translates as “nowhere, nowhere.” The idea, she says, is a sort of general deflection, as if to refuse credit for the action entirely. I imagine a constant stream of heartfelt thank-yous bouncing off their intended recipients and perpetually ricocheting around the country. With an estimated current Chinese population of 1,352,701,483, that makes for a lot of homeless thank-yous.

This month kicks off the height of the height of our thanking season, when all those shower, wedding and graduation gifts will require a written expression of gratitude, at least according to the rules established by somebody’s mother and taken up as a cause by everyone else’s mom, through the ages.

A hefty portion of these missives have arrived in my mailbox over the years, and surprise, I’ve got some opinions on the matter. Like many other communications that aren’t a thumbs-only creation, and don’t allow for abbreviations and emoticons, the thank-you note seems to be a dying art. And at this point I hope I don’t sound like one of those cranky relatives writing in to Dear Abby, back when there was an Abby to write letters to, about how those gol-derned grandkids never send thank-you notes for all those itchy sweaters and instructional reading that’s been gifted to them over the years.

The best thanks-yous, of course, somehow have actual gratitude in their soul. Intended as a social nicety, a thank-you note can be twisted into a mean-spirited box to be checked off one’s social to-do list, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. The nicest monogrammed stationery and the absolute best penmanship can’t hide a bitter heart that’s never known a microsecond of true gratitude, and yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve seen more than a few of those soulless examples in my day.

But a written expression of appreciation can still be done beautifully, even in our illiterate and ungrateful times, as I have also witnessed. I still remember a thank-you from a high school graduate, delivered about five years ago. It arrived during one of those freak seasons when everyone I knew seemed to have a 17-year-old, and, since a high school graduation is usually the one (and only) time that Minnesotans will invite anyone into their home for a celebration, I’d been writing a lot of checks and eating a lot of cake that summer. This boy’s note was so refreshing that I still remember the lede. It began with a sentence that went something like, “First, can I just tell you that the most important thing was that you came to our house to celebrate with me and my family? It feels so great to be supported by friends like you as I start this next part of my life.” It was so sincere, and so fresh and so rare. He seemed to have understood why we drove all the way to St. Paul on a Saturday night, and he got to the heart of the matter, which had nothing to do with another check to add to his college fund.

It doesn’t always work so well. That was the very same summer when the thank-you communication from a very close family friend, a kid who had grown up alongside my kids, arrived in mid-August. It was a sheet that had been composed and printed from a computer, torn in half, and it read, entirely, “Thank you for the gift. I will use it at college.” The name was typed. I immediately predicted a bright corporate future for this young man, at least until the SEC hearings.

The intention of thanking, like so many other things, can be turned on its head and made into something else entirely. I still remember the wedding invitation from a couple who seemed involved in a power struggle of the sort that usually involves Third World countries, tanks and epaulets. About ten months after their wedding, a note arrived. Dispensing with the usual niceties, it launched directly into a screed about how the other half of the couple was supposed to write exactly fifty percent of the notes, per their agreement, and she hadn’t done it, and now he was shouldering this massive burden all by himself, which was why the note was so tardy. Oh, and thanks for the place setting of china.

We humans are so resourceful that we can drive each other crazy with anything, so I suppose thank-yous are no exception. Somehow the etiquette gods have decided that gratitude is best expressed in the form of a three-by-five-inch notecard, handwritten, black or blue ink, please. No space must feel more massive to a worn-out new mom, a depleted bridezilla or an antsy graduate than that vast emptiness. I usually deliver new baby gifts (a multi-pack of batteries, and don’t laugh until you’ve needed to refill that damn swing at 3 a.m. and have run out) with a “Free Pass,” telling the mom that she’s absolved from the need to write one more thank-you note during her daily five-minute allotment of free time. 

Perhaps, given the general misery surrounding this issue, it’s an idea that could be taken up by more givers, who could learn to embrace the little Zen koan of “nowhere, nowhere,” before the wrapping paper on their gift is even torn away, or before the check (this year, for $20.12, arriving this month in bank accounts all over America), is even cashed.