Dance of the Cactus

“It’s a cactus ballet,” I explained, when questioned about my evening plans to take in what New York has to offer. Apparently, it wasn’t a good enough answer. So, I tried again.

“It’s titled Opus Cactus. So it probably has a cactus, or cacti. And it’s definitely a ballet. The New York Times said so.”

My questioner mulled it over, and tried to clarify; “So it’s people dressed as cacti?”

“Maybe?” I offered.

“So, it’s people dressed as cacti just sitting with the sun on them?” was the prompt follow up.

“Entirely possible,” I confirmed.

“I’m afraid you might be disappointed,” they offered, gently.

“That’s why I only paid enough to get the cheap seats,” I agreed.

In the end, it didn’t matter what I paid – I didn’t see anything from my cheap seats. When the usher checked my ticket, he told me to find an empty seat and enjoy the show from there. And so I did.

Momix’s Opus Cactus starts off as tumbleweed enactment, or so I assume given the glowing green balls that tumble across the otherwise dark stage. Presumably, the tumbleweeds’ perfect tumbles, spins, and bounces are being performed by the ballerinas and ballerinos whose work is seen through the rest of the evening’s performances. But that opacity – the questions of what and who is on the stage – is repeated throughout the night. The dancers portray gila monsters, an ostrich, and snakes. The impersonations are uncanny, but even if they weren’t, those are the names of individual pieces. Despite some more ambiguous names, I believe I also saw birds fly, the sun and moon, and a cactus bloom. Throughout it all, the dancers were powerful in their grace. The thrumming music would fit a nature documentary. Dances are modern, a mix of traditional ballet movement and gravity-defying gymnastics. It’s weird and magnetic, not unlike the desert.

Let Them Drink Coffee

My dad has a theory that free coffee at work – good free coffee – is a sign that the end is nigh for your employer. Based on this theory, the government will outlast us all. At my public sector job, there is no coffee. We do have a kitchen with a sink, which is a pretty sweet deal. At least, it feels that way on the days when we have paper towels. Compared to my friends whose employers set out fresh fruit, stock pantries, or offer Tea Time Tuesdays, I’ve felt like an underprivileged government employee. Little did I know how good I had it.

My agency stopped stocking plastic cutlery.

I embraced the change as a call to environmental arms. I brought in my own utensils, and felt, daily, that I was saving landfill space – and thereby the world. In felt righteous every time I washed my cutlery in the rust-spotted kitchen sink, then shook them in the air to dry because there were no paper towels. Then, one dark and gloomy day, my cutlery broke. Of course, it was the day I brought in soup for lunch. With no alternative, I took to the streets to look for plastic cutlery to get me through one meal.

The reasonable thing may have been to purchase a set of plastic cutlery. A few blocks from my office there are some great discount stores, stocked with party goods. But I already own two packages of plastic spoons, they were just both located in my apartment. But I was unwilling to commit to contributing even more to landfills. So, I went looking for a free spoon. Well, not free. I wasn’t willing to stoop to stealing a spoon, but I was willing to take one in exchange for my continued customer loyalty. My first stop was the Dunkin Donuts next door where I pick up a treat from time to time. But Dunkin Donuts is wise to my kind, and they don’t have spoons. Or, if they do, I couldn’t find them and the cashiers looked harassed enough without hunting down spoons for me.

So I walked the streets looking for a shop with a stack of spoons in the window. It took me 20 minutes, a woman who tried to get me to spend $2.75 on a yogurt, one cup of coffee, and $1.46, but I walked back into the office with several plastic spoons – plus a stack of napkins – for my troubles.

Chicago Charms

“Chicago has two season: winter and construction,” I was warned. What no one gave me was advice on what to do once I got there. So, like a Chicagoan shoveling out the snow, I made my own way – in both seasons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boat tour: Lovely views of the city and surrounding traffic without having to be in any of it. Plus, there are some boat rides that provide architectural tours. Or ones that take you to an unfamiliar neighborhood for free and leave you there, like the kind I took. It seemed like the unfolding plot of a horror film where you get kidnapped and wind up enslaved to a drug cartel. So I used the unexpected docking as an opportunity to find a post office so my family could know my last location. Turns out that it’s easy to find a post office, and get an elevated train out from wherever the boat may drop you.

img_20140818_155444668

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Chicago anymore

img_20140818_171514848

But the zip code says we are

The El: Public transportation that works for most of the public. Unless you want to
gamble
.
img_20160131_162601649_hdr

Art Institute of Chicago: It’s got Monet’s lilies for the old-schoolers and edgy modern art for the new. For those who don’t care, it’s also where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off filmed a few scenes. So if you prefer, skip the museum and watch that instead.

img_20140820_153435436

Museum of Science and Industry: They let you watch baby chicks hatch and form your own tornado. Take the family, spend the day.

img_20140819_170343478.jpg
Howard Washington Library:
 There are cannons. A 3D printer. Seven floors of books. Librarians who allow people to hide in the stacks till closing. The place is so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it also fit a few coffee shops and maybe an airport hanger. There’s basically everything you’d need to run a small city except people who live there full-time; I’m happy to volunteer myself to make Chicago the first city to have a self-sustaining community living in its library.

 

img_20140819_141303839-1

WBEZ: Chicago’s NPR station is on a pier. If that was intended to deter sightseers, it doesn’t work. Requests for a tour of active recording studios and a place of business were met with incredible goodwill and cheer. That friendliness that held strong even when I showed up on the wrong date for my tour. Their programming is awesome, they let me hang out with a statue of Studs Terkel, and someone even gave us the inside scoop on the Chicago news-agency softball league. Ask them about it, but don’t mention me.

img_20170305_231241.jpgBusy Beaver Button Museum: Yet another place of business that will let you in to disturb the hardworking men and women of Chicago, turning serious professionals into amateur tour guides. It’s a working button business with an immense collection of slogan buttons. They couldn’t be more gracious about visitors unless they worked at WBEZ. You can see Abraham Lincoln’s campaign button and about a thousand others. Remember the Reading Radicals! button from your childhood? It’s there. Along with the sorts of pithy phrases, pathos, and poetry you didn’t think could fit onto a button.

Chicago Federal Reserve: There are armed men everywhere, so it’s best if you take the opportunities provided to learn about the millions of dollars surrounding you rather than trying to steal them. Also, it’s free – so basically you make bank by just showing up.

Lake Michigan: It comes with a small beach and there’s probably boating somewhere. Sometimes its toxic, but the city puts up helpful signs. No signs? No toxicity!

img_20140818_124452029-1

They told me there was a Bean. Instead, I found a garden. Next trip, someone bring a map.

Masters in Machiavelli

My graduate school teachers say group projects are where we learn to work with others in a collaborative, innovative environment. In actuality, group projects are where Machiavelli learned to conquer weaker-willed foes. The Prince is gone, the CEO lives – and he’s got all sorts of ticks up his sleeve. Here are the ones I’ve witnessed:

Hard ball: To play hardball you have to hold all the cards. If you’re holding all the cards, why are playing a game? Name your price and get on with it.

Charm: Sure, it’s important to know your audience in order to charm them into complacency. But more important: your silence. Silent enthusiastic agreement is a bridge builder. Say too much and you can set someone off. Silent? You might be thought wiser than you are. May that be the worst thing to happen to you.

Phantom: People don’t like you? Not a problem. Have someone they like talk to them. Even better, explain that a number of people have been suggesting – not you of course, you’d never think to question them – and you want to know how we, as a group, can best incorporate those suggestions. Best to try this one on a day when the sole beloved member of your group is absent.

Planting the seed: The people don’t hate you, yet. Play on their good graces, and make them think your idea was dreamed up by them. Phrase your idea as a question, and when they repeat it, jump on it as though you’d never thought of it. To seal the deal: praise their insight.

Prompt: Skip the planting and go straight to harvesting. Start the conversation by saying that you want to follow up on the group’s earlier idea. Who is going to deny having an idea once you’ve professed how its brilliance won you over – and would they be able to weight in on how you think it could maybe be expanded?

No alternatives: If you can all agree there’s a problem, you’re halfway there. Tell them there are a finite number of solutions, and propose truly horrendous ideas with no redeeming value. Remember, zero redeeming value, because people will fall on a weak idea like it’s a saving grace. Then, make the last option the only palatable one.

Booster club: If there’s a group project and you need a certain number of votes to go your way, cheer the influencers in inconsequential things. “Your hair looks amazing!” “Where did you get that coat? It’s divine.” “You led the last meeting with such a sense of command and insight, could you do so again?” When it’s go time, you’ve already made it clear that the two, or more, of  you are on the same team. You’re halfway there before you start. All that remains is to present your idea as building on something they’ve implicitly agreed to.

Scored earth: Tear down everyone else’s plans by any means necessary. It’s messy and potentially bridge burning. Do so only if the alternative is French occupation of invaded Russia.

Everyone but Me

Everyone is graduating. Except those people who already graduated. Oh, and me: still slogging through school.

My mind knows that there are other people still in school, I just find it hard to believe. There must be toddlers just starting on their academic career, high schoolers eager for college and even more for their senior year, and people I pass in my school’s hallways who have years to go before they earn their degree.

But I’m in my senior seminar. In the fall, every other person in that room will head out to work in the morning and home at night. They will not stop at school on their back. Instead, they’ll leave the office, go straight home, put on pjs, and fall asleep. Or maybe they’ll cook themselves a hot dinner. Or – possibly only the craziest among us – will leave their offices, drop their worries, and go out on the town. They’ll see a show! Get dinner with friends! Run through a sprinkler!

Meanwhile, come fall, I’ll go to work and will leave only to head back to school. I’ll have another semester of cold dinners – the kind that I cook on Sunday and hope aren’t rotten by Thursday. I’ll do all my errands on the way too, from, or at, work. Weekends, and any free nights, will be dedicated to homework and projects, and on those few precious weeks when I don’t have something due, grocery shopping.

One day, with god’s help, I’ll have those things again. Till then, run through a sprinkler for me.*

 

*I’m not actually a sprinkler-runner, but I’m happy to encourage fancy-free behavior if that’s your thing.

 

Keep Ya Head Up: Choices

My first performance evaluation came as a surprise. I’d been gainfully employed for years before I had one, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be the most positive version of a conversation I’ve had many times since.

“You come off as somewhat…” my boss paused before completing his thought. The rest of my performance review had exceeded my expectations, but he had said that there were some additional notes he wanted to share as well. “…somewhat aggressive.”

I blinked. He gave examples. I nodded.

“Ok,” I said, digesting this news. “How do we solve it?”

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good. I know that I can give you an assignment and trust that you’ll get it done. You won’t drop it just because other people aren’t interested in working on it.”

I waited.

“But I want to make sure you’re aware. It can be helpful, but it isn’t always necessary. So you should decide when to be, and when not to be, quite so forceful.”

The Battle for the WPA is Won

Technically, my browbeating USPS workers started with the Great Depression. To battle the Great Depression, the government flooded the economy by any means necessary. That included paying artists to make everything from cookbooks to vacation posters. What a legacy.

When I found out that USPS was releasing a set of WPA stamps, I had to have them. I saw the sign before the release, and demanded, politely, the release date from my postal worker. I went to the post officer a week later to make sure they hadn’t been released early. They hadn’t.

Between one thing and another, it took me two months to get back. When I did, my cashier claimed that he didn’t have any WPA stamps. I calmly suggested he check, and watched while he hunted down his supervisor. He returned to inform me that his office didn’t have any. In a small and sad I voice, I asked if he could check every cashier’s window, just in case. He did.* Then he had to tell me that there was not a single WPA stamp in his post office. I thanked him, accepting that I’d lost the battle. But I did not believe I had lost the war.

I held my head high and went to another post office. The same sad, sad scene repeated itself. The cashier suggested I just accept that there were no more WPA stamps, but I could buy the nice new flower bouquets or slap-happy cinco del mayo ones. Thanks, but no thanks. She thought I walked away in defeat. But I had one more trick up my sleeve.

“Excuse me?” I inquired back at her window a moment later.

She raised her eyebrows at me.

“There’s a set in the display case. Of WPA stamps. I’ll take them,” I said sincerely, as though she’d suggested it herself.

She raised her eyebrows again, and told me I’d need to get an employee to open the case for me. The employee I dragooned into helping me asked for a ruler, since the small opening in the display case was as far from the stamps as could be. I gave him a newspaper. He gave me a look, and with some considerable effort, got out the stamps. Pretty pleased, he stood with me as I made my purchase, telling me about the WPA murals on the walls surrounding us. We agreed they were good, and I told him it was probably because the artist was from Pittsburgh. I pointed him to the plaque which explained the art’s history, which he appreciated. Sadly though, I couldn’t tell him if the artists’s family was still in the Steel City.

Thus, with perseverance and persuasion, did the WPA thrive. Also, that’s how I got my stamps.

IMG_20170509_181956244_HDR

 

*USPS workers fall over themselves for pleasant customers. Their days are hell, so if you don’t yell at them – and give something resembling a smile – they’ll spend the entire day helping you.

Brownie Fail, or: Cake

Objectively speaking, I cannot make brownies. It doesn’t matter which recipe I use or steps I take, they all come out somewhat awful. Until now, I thought I was alone – but I am not. A friend has fallen into the same problem. Her solution though, isn’t to stay away from brownies. It’s to remake them in her own image.

Here is the original and for those who can’t make brownies:

double the water

double the baking soda

and, from the ashes of failed brownies, you have a cake that was waiting to be born.