I saw Oklahoma! a few months ago. First time. The Lyric Opera in Chicago had put up a critically-acclaimed production of it, so one rainy night in May I slapped on a raincoat and braved the downpour in the name of art. I was quite wet when I arrived. Could I have possibly cared less about my wet feet when the lights went down and the story began?
The critics were right to be acclaiming all over themselves. The Lyric’s production was lush and bright; it clipped right along but allowed space for the moments that needed it. Aside from one actor that I remember not caring for particularly (one I cannot even recall now, so it must not’ve been that bad) the casting was pitch perfect — for a musical, obviously, this is especially important. But what delighted me the most was the musical itself — the melodies, the lyrics, the heart of the thing. Indeed, that is the highest compliment one can pay a production: that the presentation allowed the work to be seen at its most honest, in its purest state. The show got out of the way of the show, if that makes sense.
Have you heard “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” lately? Allow me, please, to share a few lyrics. A surrey, by the way, is a horse-drawn two-seater carriage, and the circumstances here are simple: Curly is trying to woo Laurey into going to a dance with him, so he’s boasting about his tricked-out ride. Now, you tell me if this don’t melt your heart:
“All the world’ll fly in a flurry
When I take you out in the surrey,
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top!
When we hit that road, hell fer leather,
Cats and dogs’ll dance in the heather,
Birds and frogs’ll sing all together and the toads will hop!
The wind’ll whistle as we rattle along,
The cows’ll moo in the clover,
The river will ripple out a whispered song,
And whisper it over and over:”
You gotta be kiddin’ me. Cats and dogs dancing in the heather? Have you ever heard anything more darling in your entire life? Oh, right, you have. In the next line of the song when the birds and frogs start singing together and toads are hopping everywhere. And then the cows in the clover are mooing and lowing and everyone’s in love and good heavens! I was a goner, crying about the damned cats and dogs in the heather and then Rodgers & Hammerstein go and hit me with the last verse, all ritardando and legato and sotto voce :
“I can feel the day gettin’ older,
Feel a sleepy head near my shoulder,
Noddin’, droopin’ close to my shoulder, till it falls — kerplop!
The sun is swimmin’ on the rim of a hill;
The moon is takin’ a header,
And jist as I’m thinkin’ all the earth is still,
A lark’ll wake up in the medder.
Hush, you bird, my baby’s a-sleepin’!
Maybe got a dream worth a-keepin’
Whoa! you team, and jist keep a-creepin’ at a slow clip-clop.
Don’t you hurry…with the surrey…with the fringe on the top!
I’ll tell ya this much: if I ever find myself riding through a meadow, resting my head on my man’s shoulder and he starts telling birds to “hush” ’cause his baby might be having a nice dream, well, that man will get a big, fat, blue ribbon from me. He’ll get a big ol’ kiss, too. Why, he’ll get all kinds of nice things.
Thank you, Lyric Opera of Chicago. Thank you Messieurs Rodgers and Hammerstein. If you have a moment, I beseech you:
I’ve stepped to a few mics in my day. I suspect I’ll step to a few more. I consider myself a writer and performer working in the quilt industry. Today, I write plenty, but most of it is within the sphere of the American quilt industry. And I perform in the same industry, as well; being in front of the camera is performing, even as you try hard to just be natural.
But in Mary B.Q. (“Before Quilts”) I wrote scripts for media companies, education companies, syndicated content. I wrote marketing plans and white board papers. Those were less fun than the tons of book content I wrote for a publishing company that makes books on things like dog facts, the United States, and The Top Ten Haunted Houses in America. It was a decent gig; I learned an astonishing number of random facts that slipped into the slurry of factoids sloshing around in my head, likely never to be retrieved again. What do bloodhounds and poodles have in common? Ask someone else because I have no idea.
The performance part of my life before quilting took over involved slam poetry in the beginning and evolved into performance art eventually, mostly with the Neo-Futurists here in Chicago. The Neo-Futurists are an ensemble of rare creative types who are slightly weird and head-slappingly talented; if you know Chicago, you know of the Neos. I was extremely fortunate to win a place in the ensemble and perform and tour with the Neos for nearly six years. (I’ll tell you more about the Neos someday.) I have been grateful to be invited to share work at many “live lit” events in Chicago and that still happens with fair frequency. So yeah, I’m a performer.
Clearly, I’m still writing — and the ol’ PG is outside of the quilt world, even with a post here and there regarding quilt-related work. I write all the time on my own, too. But I don’t get to step to an actual microphone as often as I’d like. There’s nothing like a mic stand, a mic, and a sound system. So simple. Elegant. Just a stick and a prayer, you know? Sound waves and things. I love standing behind a mic and sometimes, when I’m giving a lecture at an actual lectern, with a podium that separates me from the audience with that big block of wood, I miss the other part of me that doesn’t need (or want) to have any barriers up there.
Maybe I should just buy one and keep it in my house.
One night, not so long ago and definitely in this galaxy, I had on red pants and a red shirt. That night, I made dinner, which necessitated me putting on oven mitts. They were also red. They still are!
I felt like a lobster. So I began to sing a little song, which I do when I’m happy. If I’m singing, you know I’m happy. My little song went like this:
Won’t you pinch meeeee…”
That was it.
I am reading Lo. Lee. Ta.
I read it my sophomore year in college, not for a class, but for — I was going to say “for fun,” but “fun” is not a word a person employs to describe a Lolita-ing. I read it because someone told me, not incorrectly, that Nabokov’s novel is the greatest of those written in the English language (usually in a dead heat with Ulysses) and undertaking it is non-negotiable for anyone wanting true human race citizenship. I cut through my foolishness (beer, flirting) long enough to get a copy, sit down, and be destroyed.
What is a masterpiece? For my money, I’d say a masterpiece happens because whomever we are and whenever we are, that masterwork of art affects us anew each time it presents itself. (Really, though, don’t we present ourselves to it?)
An example outside of literature: You see Water Lillies* when you are ten. You love Monet’s painting because it’s looks like so many pink dresses. You see Waterlilies at twenty-five and you hate it, because you’d much rather check out the Duchamp and the Dali, this being a dada and surreal time of life — your rejection is a choice; you have still been moved by the haunting painting. You see Waterlilies on a bad day after a hard rain in your thirties and you marvel at what those paintings did, how they were made, what it took, what it gave, etc. You buy a print when you are sixty. Your granddaughter loves it when you are long gone. She is eight, and it calms her down to look at it when she’s sad.
Two-bit, goofy cartoon characters don’t do this to people. Pulp romances don’t, either. This is the difference between art and everything else.
In the St. Louis airport yesterday, reading Lolita, I had a dim awareness of being an advertisement for the power of a great story. My surroundings disintegrated, washed out into the ether as the Haze house built up around me. Dolores ran past me on her colt legs and even I was in love with her, even I wanted to smell her “biscuity” smell. I physically shuddered when Humbert described himself as a spider; I audibly groaned twice, once when he unfurled a silky strand, again when he unfurled something else. I was in St. Louis, but I might have been in Kuala Lumpur for all the difference it made. The book is a spell.
I debated selecting a few sentences to share with you, a few rubies, but I can’t. Imagine sitting at a five-star restaurant and being placed with the best dish the house can make, some buttered, silky, foie-crunch-braised-foam fresh tower of artistry and then taking out a penknife to strip mine “a good part” for your dining companion.
Hell to the no. You’re just gonna have to read it, folks. You’re going to have to read Lolita, maybe again, maybe for the first time.
It’s been nice knowing you.
*Astonishingly, I selected this example at random, only to find when fact-checking that the series in Monet’s native French is entitled Nymphéas. The only truly Nabokovian stroke here and it was an accident. Great.
My stepdad is a retired commercial airline pilot. My sisters and I call him “The Cap’n.”
This man flew 747’s. He served in the military. He raised several children. He’s a grandfather. He knows how to play bridge, wallop my mom at Scrabble, read and comprehend an astonishing number of books in short order, and he recently reported that his golf game is “really getting there.” The Cap’n is clearly a capable person, which makes it all the funnier than he can’t seem to not lose his wallet, keys, cell phone, checkbook, etc., at least once a day. He’s done this for decades. I say it’s funny, but of course it’s not funny to him when he needs his checkbook, or to my mother, when she needs to turn on the car and go someplace.
This mostly harmless absentmindedness produced a big problem for my stepdad, however, with the arrival of the cell phone. (I understand that was awhile ago.) The Cap’n dutifully got a cell phone and over the ensuing years proceeded to lose it, replace it, forget about it entirely, get angry because it would ring at inopportune times and not ring when he needed it to, lose charge, get broken, become obsolete, etc., etc. When he eventually got an iPhone, he downloaded and printed the entire operator’s manual from the Internet so he could best use the new tool everyone was so nuts about. This is why I love him.
One fine day last week, The Cap’n took his iPhone out to the garage and smashed it with a hammer.
“I’m done with it,” he told my mother. “Done with the whole mess.”
He smashed his iPhone! With a hammer!
“What?!” I cried, when Mom told me. I was instantly mixed with feelings of shock and feelings of a deep, inexplicable happiness.
“He just hates having a cell phone,” Mom said. “He never liked having one. It really stressed him out. He’s much happier now.”
I spluttered, “But what about for travel, like when he’s in the car?” (Cell-phone manufacturers and mobile service providers surely have that question etched into the walls of their castles.)
“Oh, I suppose he’ll manage.”
Indeed, he will. We all will. We all did. Bravo, Cap’n. I am really proud of you. You took your happiness into your own hands. You fought the law and the law lost, big time. The whole Apple industrial complex was felled in one hammer blow and I adore you for it. You’ve got one less thing to lose, one less thing to manage, and you will never, ever have to turn your ringer on or off, ever again.