Tuesday, April 28, 2009

ode to sallie mae

to the 18 year old
Me on the edge of her seat
I don’t blame ya kid, there’s so much
for you in NYC.
to the 3 years
Spent out of hallowed halls
The wasting and the trying
And too many dead-end jobs
To the 19 year old
On the other end of the line
Scoffing at my money owed
And me running out of time
Are you kidding?
To the wide world
That gives and takes so hard
Come on
to the heart now
You can still beat blood.

Friday, April 24, 2009

My hair looks awesome today.

There is one thing left to think when you don’t want to think about how you were just caught making out with your boyfriend’s best friend, and it is not: I wasn’t that into it. That is in fact the last thing you want to think when you get caught breaking the man you love’s heart, in the most trite, trashy-TV re-run sort of way.

And if you aren’t going to think about all the ways the man you love moved slowly away from you, withdrew into band practices for shows he would never play or studying for classes he would never finish or simply just smoking up with friends that flew in from exotic locales like Bowling Green, Ohio and Poughkeepsie, NY just to smoke in the living room of the apartment you have both lived in for the past nine months; you definitely shouldn’t think about the way you used to be, back when you met in that hip-hop dance class he took on a dare from a colleague and you took because you wanted to be able to move like Beyonce, or at least like one of her far-back-stage backup dancers.

Because back in that class when you were both looking as stupid as possible in front of each other and the very fit, very pretty, very Beyonce-jointed instructor who probably had more important things to do than watch a bunch of stiff white people try to move with some rhythm for three hours every week for six weeks, you fell in real love. The kind of love it takes lifetimes to access and build, because there is so much fear and stiffness to work out before two people can show their true colors with confidence. Failing to pop and lock and booty bump bonded you both in ways no one else could understand, least of all the jerks he worked with at Ernst and Young who spent their time drinking and making money for other people to buy them off with. Or the artists you tried to befriend while working as a receptionist in the Medical District and the coffeeshop and the writing center and the experimental theater/screenprinting studio. Unless those people were ever in real love, they just weren’t going to get it.

And since you can’t dwell on how much momentum you two built up, and how it lasted months after class ended, and brightened your heart in the dark days of the day-job grind and gave him hope that he could maybe do other cool stuff in his life that didn’t involve sucking up to someone all the time, and maybe you could actually make and keep friends that were not another carbon copy of a carbon copy of an idea of a successful art kid in the city. The talking, the kissing, the hanging out and laughing and spending all night playing board games or planning road trips...all that has to be put right out of your mind.

And since you can’t bear to think of how he slowly gave up on anything but giving in, or how gave up on getting through to him and didn’t know how to end things gracefully or if you even should because what would it mean if you let this person go, who is supposed to be the proof in the pudding that people are people are people no matter what mold they try to form themselves to, and people need people, and people like him could be with people like you and people like you could be with people like him and people all over the world could lay their guard down at each others’ feet and be happy...

You shouldn’t think of how you just got too drunk and his friend made a move and you took it, and you ran with it. How you kissed all the rhythm in your body into a slack face that probably felt like he was scoring. How it felt wrong, but not sexy wrong or really liking a dumb R&B pop song wrong but empty, stupid, pointless, heartless, desperate, inevitable, too little too late.

So you stand where you stand in the bedroom, and he stands very still between the bed and the door. And the face says “Man, I’m sorry.”

And all you can think is:
My hair looks really good.

Monday, April 20, 2009

sugar bowl

In the corner of everyone's mind sits Shirley Jackson, quietly tidying a desk and speaking plainly your deepest fears and keenest observations in a calm voice, like water running or the sound of cabinets opening and closing, chairs being pulled out across a hardwood floor, footsteps falling softly overhead when you thought you were home alone.

She's a beaut.

Friday, April 17, 2009

freaks & geeks

Throughout history, teenagers have been known for a couple key things. They're emotional. They're jerks. And they eat their own alive.

Part of the whole eating-alive-of-own usually means the development of a social hierarchy that puts a premium on a physical ideal, mainstream interests and achievements, and ridiculing anyone who falls out of step or willfully strides alongside, rocking a kool-aid dyed mohawk.

But guess what. There is a paradigm shift going on in the culture of teenage America, and it is sewn into the fabric of every cutesy emo-stripe shirt they sell at Target.

When my parents' parents were in high school...they were making Latvian sausage and Italian mob deals. When my parents were in high school, beatniks (later, hippies) were to be avoided at all costs- as was any view or activity that brought attention to the fact that you weren't a member of the better-off, beautiful class. You wanted to be respectable. You wanted to keep your head down. You wanted to get out of this two-bit town...or live in it comfortably. Forever.

When I was in high school, a scruffy blue-collar affair in a tiny southwest suburb of Chicago, you were a freak if you liked Weezer. "Weezer" was a nickname gifted to me by Bob, Bremen High School's American Eagle-clad Class Clown and bastion of the blue-collar teen values of the day: drinking beer, hating teachers, and loving Dave Mathews Band.

My kind - drama kids and band nerds and writer types and artists who eked out wall-size sketches of cannabis leaves and generous reimaginings of Edgar Allen Poe and Edward Scissorhands, kids who really thought a literary magazine would work if more people just submitted, kids who played terrible punk shows at the VFW to sad, grey-eyed vets and chubby girls in legwarmers and short plaid skirts while aspiring to Fireside Bowl headlining glory, did video projects in place of papers and were on Quiz Bowl, who hunted for used cds because we didn't know any better than to hunt for records, kids who shopped at thrift stores- we disgusted Bob's kind.

The ruling class at my high school - and every high school, I thought up until recently - were the kids with mirthless laughs and dismally bland wardrobes, who drank a lot at each others' houses, all had sex with each other and nicknames and did sports, who scoffed at any sign of genuine interest in anything outside of the aforementioned activities and got good grades because their parents were best friends with the teachers because they had all been classmates together back in the godforsaken old days.

Thank Napoleon Dynamite or Juno or Death Cab for Cutie, but the script has definitely been flipped. Through twists of fate and choice, almost everything in my working life is related to teenagers, and recently I had the opportunity to ask a bunch of teens IN A NOT CREEPY WAY what their favorite "sexy" music was. I don't know what I was expecting in reply, but it certainly wasn't Andrew Bird. Pavement! Came another reply. My Bloody Valentine! Spoon, Sloan, Kings of Leon. I was dumbfounded. "But you're not supposed to know that yet," I thought to myself. "Those bands are for college."

I teach a creative writing class at a high school on Chicago's far northwest side. It is a thing of teen movie beauty, a modern megalithic knowledge and culture big box store, with ESTABLISHED 1999 carved into a stone tablet just outside the main entrance.Speakers blast The National during passing periods. They have Anime Club. And Pickleball Tourneys. Every student in my class looks like they are really interested in who's playing Pitchfork this year. The popular cheerleader wears brightly-colored patterened hoodies with clashing stripes and violet nail polish on not-game days. The most irritatingly intelligent class outcast- who quoted the 1960s "The Prisoner" as his favorite TV Show- has the flyest Nike dunks I've seen outside of St. Alberts. Everyone else is some amalgamation of awesome, not a student without a "thing" they're brazenly into, not an assymetrical hair out of place.

And while I can feel the old hierarchies beneath the surface, the dividing lines that felt hard enough for me to bristle at Bob's witty comments ("Nice glasses, Weezer. Hey Weezer, you hear that Weezer put out a new album? Called Weezer?")and take deepest pleasure in ruffling the feathers of The Fucking Man - have now seemingly gone soft. Is this great, I wonder, as I watch them do their in-class writing assignment in quiet, stoic fury- thirty-five hands pumping away in earnest to describe what they feel right now in this airy, sunny room, chunky plastic bracelets clattering, black rubberbands rubbing against the skin of their wrists and the desks stacked with well-stocked iPods and New Yorkers and essay reviews of Spitited Away.

I think of all the teenagers I have met or spoken to since graduating college and how they all seem at least slightly more put together than me, and how most have known the names of more Smiths songs. How slipping past the double doors of this high school that bears hardly any similiarities to my own plunges me into a dreamworld whipped up by junior executives at MTV and The N: a place culturally fed by the freaks who inherited in the earth and loaded movie soundtracks with obscure indie favorites, dressed leading man-children and women in what they wished they'd worn in high school. How even kids at the considerably rougher alternative high school I taught at last year were obsessed with underground hip-hop, candy colors, and slam poetry in ways that betrayed zero insecurity with showing their enthusiasm. And all these bands and books and movies could just be status symbols, but could be unifiers as well- tying together the lives of people who I used to think were built to want to split apart, or at least stand apart, or even dress down anyone around them they could. It was then I felt like I didn't know anything anymore, not about the people I was sharing this room with. I felt a little sad, a little outmoded, and a little unsure.

Then when class let out, their real teacher and I chatted on our way to the doubledoors. She told me the kids had really enjoyed my classes, except may have turned on me since the last one. We were reading their short plays out loud, and one was a Bret Easton Ellis/Neil Labute wet dream, only written extra badly- and apparently, by the class favorite. I commended the writer on being so bold with his choices, but recommended he either commit to the blatant misogyny of the play so it got even funnier, or ask himself why he was making those choices and how they affected the story. I even recommended he read/see Neil LaBute (gag), and apparently the criticism was grounds enough for him to start hating me, because I "didn't like his play."

I felt irritated and a little slighted at first, but then a smile it up my face. Teenagers still hated their teachers when we didn't "get" them.

As I ambled towards the entrance, trying to suppress my warm fuzzies and put on a straight face, I ran into a girl from my Monday class as she was exiting the library. "Have you ever read this?" she asked, and held up a thick, pocket-sized paperback novel, her finger stuck in the middle of the book to save her place. Her eyes were the giddy kind of wild you get when you realize you are reading something amazing, written almost just for you, by someone you will never physically know but do know and millions know because their book is in your school library, for chrissakes, but it was still meant just for you.

"Yeah, I have." I said. And she smiled.

"It's amazing." She said. Shaking her head, ever slightly, like she couldn't even believe it.

She put The Fountainhead in her bag, and said a quick goodbye.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Important Information Regarding Your Student Loan

I get a lot of calls from student loan officers. I'd say they keep turning up like a bad penny, but bad pennies don't call your second cousins at 6 in the morning on a Sunday.

Most people I know also in this predicament make an honest, modest effort to pay them. I simply duck calls and fantasize about Sallie Mae sending out their most hardened rookie officer to bring me in. Of course I give chase and somewhere in all the running from the heavy hand of financial failure for life, odd jobs, and paychecks lost to rent, improv class, and local shows we see each other for who we really are: just two people getting the screws put to us by the fatcat invisible man.

Then there are explosions and car chases and me almost falling off the top of the Sears Tower but my student loan officer catches me by the wrist and could just let me drop because he hates my guts so much for making his life such a living hell and he could really do it, really, but I look in his eyes and say:

"If you let me fall who will pay the interest?"

And for a second he'll look at me with squinty seafoam eyes. Then he'll say "You're crazy, Zageris. Goddam crazy." Help me up, return my roguish smile, and watch me vanish into the night like a girl drowning distantly at sea.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Words Can Never Make Up for What You Do

When I was a kid I was good with words like others were good with basketball or trombone or getting people to kiss them. I had a way with words, and words had a way with me. We still have our way with each other, on a regular and mostly satisfactory basis. While I don’t think language is the province of the fancy and the few, I believe there is something to be said for being good with words (and it takes words to say that something.) Still, sometimes there really just are no words.

Certain emotions and sensations end up expressing themselves as best they can: through a series of shrugs or mix tapes, longing looks, little laughs tucked into the corner of your mouth, crying jags, the flex of a hand, the tap of a foot, the way you shake your hair out of a ponytail or smooth your shirt or inexplicably touch a wall, how you touch someone’s back or arm at the precise moment and pressure they need you to, the measure of your laugh, the intensity with which you look something up for someone on the internet, do a favor, keep your mouth shut, come out fighting, reach or someone, pour a drink, steal a kiss, sneer, sigh, shudder, hold your breath, a door, a thought.

Not to get all grad school phenomenology class on you, but all that’s language. Each smile we burn, pain we show, tremor we swallow: all words in their way.

And we all have some sort of way with them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Glee friend Cory Norris drew this badass thing for a Blue Ribbon Glee Club temporary tattoo. The tat might be temporary, but the awesome is forever.

The Slump.

For any thing that goes well today, ten things won’t.
Of the ten things that won’t go well, there will be millions of things that won’t go at all.
People unmet and friendships unmade and love too, all of it, will run just parallel to you. Maybe even walk slowly behind you, to make sure it doesn’t match your pace.
And when it feels like you will never catch it or meet it or harness it; and you’re lost in the maybes you might never touch, the chances you might never take and the mouths you might never kiss, the heights you may never reach and the comfort you may never feel with yourself, your friends, your station,

Maybe you will ride into battle one day on the back of a unicorn. Write the song that turns a pop star into a musician. Save the world, quietly or with flash. Maybe you will have the greatest kiss of your life tomorrow. Maybe you will be somebody’s mom. Somebody’s hero. Somebody’s favorite.

Maybe one day you will just be in the right place at the right time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

city on the edge of forever

My sister got us matching little wishbone charm necklaces this weekend, and they look not unlike the Starfleet Insignia.

Two birds, one wishbone.