Midwestern Robot

Inside the Oval Powder Room

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Presidential illustration by Joe Fournier

–And here we have the Oval Powder Room.

–Skip that, skip it, let’s get to the good stuff.

–This is important. The Oval Powder Room is a secret refuge in times of difficult Oval Office meetings. It comes complete with a Keurig Brewing system, Laz-Z-Boy Recliner…

–The codes. Where’s the codes?

–If I can turn your attention to the built-in hair dryer, this was put in for Kennedy and it has stood the test of time.

–Screw tests, I got stuff to do. I’m very busy.

–Please align with our time-honored system for transferring the mantle of power.

–I don’t need a mantle, I got my mandate.

–Forty-six to forty-eight, I mean, hardly a mandate.

–You libeling me?

–I’m saying, if you consider the popular vote…

–‘Cause I’ll sue you right now. Don’t think I won’t. I’m a firecracker.

–Very well…

–I’m president, right? I get that code. It comes included.

–You are correct.

–That’s better.

–You are in the right.

–We’re gonna get along fine, you do what I say.

–Okay then. Do you have a pen?

–I’ll remember it. I have an excellent memory. Very smart.

–Very well. It’s m-y password.

–My password? That’s it?

–All lower-case.

–My password, my password, that’s easy, I got that memorized already.

–You are a marvel.

Midwestern Robot

Working in Houston

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Working, working, always working, Mami.

I just paid eight bucks for two coffees. The lady called me “Mami” and gave me a free banana. “How are you?” I asked.

“Working, working,” she said. “Always working.”

Back up in our room on the fifth floor of this hotel, there’s an impressive scene out the window. About 75 construction workers in yellow hard hats and orange vests are building a hospital or something big next door.

The scene is laid out before us like a presentation. We’re far up enough to see the whole site, and can guess what each area looks like, the parking garage part and the part that’s maybe the building…but close enough to watch the details of what they’re doing. One guy measures spacing between the rebar sticks, which Dave surmises will then be moved up as a uniform grid to form the next floor. Another carries one of a million yellow scaffolding pieces with two other guys, swinging it into place. Another drops his tool belt right where he’s standing when the break bell rings.

“They all did that,” Dave reports from the window. I’m now in bed drinking my coffee and eating half a banana. “Just unbuckled them and let them fall to the ground.” What a clear and simple way to mark your place as you head to the food truck parked at the curb or grab your prepackaged bag and thermos.

I might be making up the thermos part. But we’re close enough that Dave can marvel at how many hot dogs are being ordered at 9 AM. He describes the men leaning against a mammoth dumpster and sitting on the curb, eating or opening whatever they’ve brought along. I’m too lazy to get up and check on the thermoses… Fine, hold on.

Too late. In the time it took to scribble the above, they ate and drank and are already heading back to work. I see one guy shake hands with another. Then they hug and walk arm over shoulder back through the chain-link fence and into the area we’re calling the parking lot.

I watch another guy return to his tool belt. He stands above it and first wraps a bandanna around his head. Over that goes his hard hat. Then he grabs the belt and buckles it on. Dave is watching the building area. “Those guys can NOT get the concrete saw going,” he says. “I bet they flooded the engine.”

What’s also amazing to observe from up here is how they all seem to be moving at the same speed. No one’s in a hurry. They each seem to know what they’re doing, from the guy pushing a broom to the crane operator, who Dave says must have climbed 16 or 17 ladders to get up there—there’s no little car that carries you up on this one. They all know how to pace themselves in the Houston heat. “Now they’re tying together the rebar,” he reports. It will get raised up and another floor will be laid, and the monstrous building will “go up,” as we say, like it happens by machine.

The day after a reading is always a letdown. I was very happy with how the play sounded and the response to it after, but in the pause after one phase of work on a script feels done and I’m not sure what the next phase will be, I find myself unsure what to do with the day and overly sensitive to imagined slights like an empty coffee basket. The plan is to drive to Denton to see Dave’s home town, stopping in Tyler to visit cousin Lois. Yes. That’s a good plan and it will all start once I can get myself off the bed and into the shower.

“They finally got the concrete saw going,” Dave reports. “Phew.”

Midwestern Robot

Django

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Dog.
Natural highlights.

She was not a dog you told your troubles to. Confidences made her uncomfortable. Also tears, hugs, too much petting. We have no stories of, “hey I was crying and you’ll never guess what she did! Cuddled at my feet and looked up at me with gentle understanding! Or nuzzled me and got me to play with a ball to distract me! So cute!” It wasn’t her job to distract you. She was a dog and you were a human and she had her own issues to deal with.

She had the neighborhood to patrol. Skateboarders to hysterically lunge at, no matter how many training techniques we’d tried over the years. Positive reinforcement. Time outs. Being the alpha. “Try putting her on her back and reminding her you are in control.” “Try abandoning her immediately, so she realizes there are consequences.” “Try ignoring her—when they only get responses for good behavior they learn to practice only good behavior.” None of it worked. She went ballistic, even in her last days, when she was  shaky on her feet and the things her old eyes saw as skateboarders were actually bikers riding past. She never had anything against bikes. Only skateboards and scooters.

And certain dogs. Bill. Princess. Misty, until they made up with help from Kerry. She could sniff them out from a block away and her hackles would go up. She’d slow down, scanning the horizon and sniffing for their precise location. Even last week, when we walked up Sunnyside with Summer and Lake and Ever, Django trying to keep up with her newest favorite dog friends, maybe because they sort of looked like her, I saw Bill and his owner walking parallel to us across the street. He too was feeble, walking stiffly. I told Summer, “She used to hate that dog.” And Summer looked surprised that Django could dislike anyone. Dear sweet Django walking along, slowing down Summer’s dogs but they didn’t seem to mind. Then we reached the corner and suddenly a line rose on Django’s back like a Rhodesian ridge of backwards fur. She looked across the street, saw Bill, and let out a furious bark. “Rarrrrfff!”

Poor Bill seemed shocked. He was long over it, and anyway I don’t think he ever hated her as much as she did him. “Okay, Django, let it go,” I said, pulling her around the corner and away from Bill and his owner. Django reluctantly stopped barking and Summer said, “Wow, her hackles are up!”

“Yeah,” I said, a little proud of her fury. As Tashie would say, She still had the fire. It took half a block for the ridge to smooth back down.

There were many more dogs she loved, or at least loved seeing. Izzy and Lulu, Sullie, Tazzy and Toby, Ginger, Jack, Barney, once we weren’t fostering him anymore. Certain dogs she liked better as time went on. Buddy, Solo, Beau. Certain ones she always liked and seemed calm with. Maize, Charlie, Millie, Larry, Ernie, Chloe and Lucy.

There were the dogs from older generations who have passed. Nina, Audrey, Venus, Tiger, Bat, Cane, Riley, Moe, Jinx, Spoof, Poncho, Cinnamon, the rough-coated charcoal dog who looked a little like Mookie. Red used to take care of her and he and her owner were in a relationship for a while. He’d take Django sometimes when we travelled, and told me Django always slept with his mom in her bed. Those were the days of Roscoe, and Wrigley, whose owners moved into Dave’s apartment when he moved out, which reminds me of Windsor, who lived downstairs. And the one German Shepard she wasn’t terrified of, whose owner was Ann and had us over for a Christmas party once. So many dogs. And also Zoe and Teva and Barkley and Bramble and that dog who killed a squirrel, whose owner was a famous photographer. And Chase up at Watervale, and that dog she met last year in the cottage next to ours. So many dogs.

So many people, as Dave just said. People here and gone. Liz. Dan. My dad. My mom, who would throw bits of scrambled egg and toast at her instead of holding them out because she didn’t like dogs. Donna and Mark. Chuck and Kate. Lisa and John, who she only snapped at once, just a little John, because your hand was too close to her face and she didn’t know you were only reaching over her for a drink. Amy and Kristen when we all used to hang out together. Tom, who gave her the best nicknames. Heather who fed her way too much cheese and thus whose boundless affection was tolerated. Patrick who ignored her sufficiently to be trusted. Deanna and Tori, who technically I guess belongs in the dog category. Kelly who meditated in the living room, drawing Django to her with her calmness. Shannon and the other dog-obsessed herding people, and Shannon’s husband Bill, who would took Django out on his postal delivery rounds when she boarded with them. Shannon said Django would run to the barn where Bill was working, ready for action or just to watch while he did barn things. And Steven, who only met her once but said as he was leaving, “Good dog, Django, thank you for letting me live today.”

Summer and Shayna. Nina P. and John Byrne and Gayle and Other-Donna and Neighbor Dave and Ruth and Elaine and the Betty’s and their men. Amy and Tracy and the fun of being at their house in Madison. Michelle, the one groomer Django was truly happy to see. Bob the woodcarver. Aaron who she only bit a little that one time, because she was already stressed out by the party. A tall blond skateboarder at the park who used to slow down when she ran after him so he could give her treats. Once she got used to this, she stopped barking at him and trotted casually over instead. This had absolutely no effect on her behavior with other skateboarders, who remained objects of outrage.

There are a hundred people I’m forgetting and a million ways in which she was spoiled, treated, appreciated, laughed at, and wondered at. “She’s so beautiful,” people would say. One woman standing on a street corner smoking asked, “Did you have her highlighted or is it natural?”

Did she know what a good life she had? Or is that something for us to know? She knew joy. She knew fun. She and Nina wrestling on Liz’s deck when they were 2 or 3. Long before she began to be frail and I worried about her back. They would shove and gnash and twist each other onto their backs, and back up and jump at each other again, so happy and ferocious, but only if they could knock into me and Liz, intertwined right under our feet. Send them down to the yard where it was safer, with grass to land on and more room, and they’d stare blankly at each other and sniff around. Then they’d wander back upstairs and into our space, and Nina would nose Django, or Django would shoulder into Nina, and one would bat a paw at the other, and they’d start again.

There were random things she loved, like Abbie’s too-small dachshund bed, that she crammed into instead of the proper-sized beds we bought her. And walking slowly under plants to let them stroke her face and back. And her perch at the front window. And getting her butt scratched firmly and briefly. And sleeping by herself for the first few hours at night and then standing quietly over Dave at three in the morning, staring at him, until I woke up and nudged him and said, “She wants to come under.” Then he’d lift the covers and she’d crawl all the way in, a doughnut of fur with the tip of her nose poking out only when I couldn’t stand it, positive she would suffocate, and pulled the covers back a little. She didn’t like to be petted but she did like to curl up next to me with her rump pushing into my thigh or my shin. As long as I didn’t touch her too much or make much eye contact she was a great companion on the couch.

Django was a pretty good travel dog. I think she relished stopping at random gas stations along the highway. We’d trot over to unfamiliar ground while Dave filled the gas tank, and she’d do her business efficiently, and then come back and hop into the car. When we rode the ferry long ago, on the first trip Dave and I took together, Django jumped up onto the bench next to us and sat quiet and alert, looking at the water as we travelled from Washington Island to Rock Island, where no cars were allowed. She hiked with us around the seven-mile perimeter, staying close but reveling in the rocky shore and the smells and wading in the shallow water. It was all very idyllic until we walked back toward the dock to wait for the last ferry and Django suddenly saw a herd of deer and took off. Just disappeared over a hill. We ran after her but she was gone. We panicked. We wandered and called. We blamed ourselves for letting her off leash in unfamiliar territory. Dave hadn’t had a dog in 15 years and I knew he thought I was too lax with her. We waited and wondered if we could stay there overnight. We had no water or food. We wondered if the deer would kill her if she caught up with them.

About a half hour later she trotted back, ecstatic, bristling with energy. A happy dog.

Her passing frees me to remember all the years before she was unable to do so many of the things of vigor and action. Leaping into the car or up onto walls that seemed too high for a dog her size. Chasing a ball like fury, or circling other dogs who were trying to play and barking, shouldering, nipping, doing whatever she could to break them up. Because that was fun for her? Because that was her job as a herding dog? Because she simply disapproved of their chaotic silliness? We’ll never know. Or chasing Zoe to the garbage cans across the field in the parking lot. To bring her back? To join her? To simply be a follower in the pack?

Or running at a skunk and then running from a skunk down at Kenyon during a mime school barbecue, sprayed and confused but also seeming cheerful and curious about this new scent, trailing it into the open door of the dorm where we were staying. It only took one race up the stairs and then back down to stink up the whole building so bad that Kenyon decreed, next year at mime school, No Dogs.

During the years when Dave and I drove up to Wisconsin every Wednesday, so she could go herding at Shannon’s, she’d lie quietly in the back seat for the first 87 minutes. Then, as soon as we got to Genoa City and turned left at the pizza place she’d sit up. She’d sniff the window desperately and when we opened it she’d stick her nose out, pulling in the Wisconsin air. The road turned into country and farmland and she’d pace furiously between the open windows, seeming like she couldn’t get enough of the smells and the open vistas. Then we’d pull into Shannon’s farm and she’d jump out, vibrating with excitement to get at the dumb sheep and the more challenging goat mafia. Shannon could make her behave just with a look, and we’d tell ourselves again that we were bad owners, we must learn to do the things Shannon did to make her behave. Then one day she got side-butted by a goat and wasn’t so into herding, but we kept going because she loved to walk the field after herding lessons, running with Frodo and all of Shannon’s border collies and Snowball who didn’t really run and the beautiful, perfect herder owned by the woman who was a nurse in Milwaukee.

So many great memories, it makes my heart find places I forgot were there. The last few days, we’ve been overwhelmed with messages and flowers and cookies and chocolates and cards and poems and stories and healing stones and love and kindness from people who knew her, people who know the pain of losing an animal, or who maybe haven’t lost one yet and wonder a little bit how it is that other peoples’ dogs die when theirs surely won’t. Django, I miss you so much and love you so much. You were a good dog.

Midwestern Robot

Uber Carl

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The Escape was way nicer.
The Escape was way nicer.

Yesterday started rough. Lots of anger and frustration over a writing deadline with none of the joy or appetite for the challenge. Tried various things to shake it, starting with actually doing the writing (sometimes I forget that part), but also yard work, reading, walking, sleeping. Sleeping felt dangerously good.

I got up to go to a friend’s show, and my stormcloud of dark thoughts traveled along. I blame it for making me miss the Damen stop on the Brown Line. Silently raging, I got off at Montrose and walked back to Damen to wait for the next bus.

The show took me out of myself with a beautiful performance of a hard story. Three gifted performers telling one woman’s story of forgiveness through words, Butoh, and sound telling, which was a remarkable sort of emotional Foley art.

But the magic of the piece drifted away while I waited through the talkback. I decided I couldn’t wait for a ride from my friend, so I checked Uber. I’m always scared of Uber because what if I get a weirdo? But travelling under a cloud of despair has its perks: who cares if something goes horribly wrong. I was looking at how the closest one was four minutes away, my finger hovering above the Request button, when I walked outside the theatre and saw some people I knew. Conversation seemed impossible so I hit the button.

Four minutes later Carl in his Ford Escape showed up. I asked his thoughts on the Ford Escape (see How The Volkswagen Scandal Has Changed Me), and he kept me entertained all the way home. He talked mostly about his two girls, Jordan and I didn’t catch the other one’s name, one fearless and the other “scared of everything.”

The fearless one eats anything and travels everywhere. She was walking at six-and-a-half months, born May 22 and carrying her own presents upstairs by Christmas Day to play with them in her room as Carl napped. He’s been divorced 16 years now and lives back in the city, on the South Side while his girls are in Bucktown. The scared one is living with the fearless one at the moment.

“They’re always asking me to do silly things,” he said. “‘Come over and make us grilled-cheese sandwiches!’ I was always making grilled-cheese sandwiches when they were kids.” Last Thursday he went to Buckdown and did just that but he went a little fancier. It was always tomato soup he made to go with the sandwiches but this time, “Lobster bisque.”

Lobster bisque. He said it twice, relishing the memory or maybe just the sound of the words.

He waited until I was inside before he drove away. I slept for ten hours and woke up excited to write again. It was a nice ride.