So goes the lyric from the Bob Seger classic “Like a Rock,” but I post that lyric with tongue in cheek, because I do have a sense of where the time has gone. Three weeks from today will be the 20th anniversary of my move from Detroit to Chicago, and I have to say this: Most of the time, it does in fact feel like I’ve been here for 20 years. Only occasionally do the years suddenly compress and disorient me.
Quick one-liner — If you were forced to leave China, would you become dis-Oriented?
It’s been said that we make our own luck, and the circumstances of my move to Chicago constitute a perfect example. I was living just outside of Detroit and working downtown in 1992. I was acting steadily and had a lot of friends… but it wasn’t working for me, on a deep level. The problem was that I’d said goodbye to Detroit several years earlier, when CC and I had moved to East Lansing. Neither of us had any intention of coming back to Detroit when her time at Michigan State University was over. We thought we’d be in East Lansing for four years or so, after which we’d go somewhere else to be determined. But… unforeseen things happened. Life happened. Death happened. Boredom happened… and a year later, instead of digging into a life in East Lansing, we found ourselves heading back to Detroit in a move that… well, seemed to make sense at the time (the story is far too complex to lay out in detail in this forum).
So it was back into the Detroit theater whirl for me. As before, I had little trouble keeping busy, though the acting business was not nearly lucrative enough to keep me from having to hold a regular office job. For the next few years, we lived in a spacious rented house near Six Mile & Mound Road, before the wheel turned again. CC took a job in Nashville, Tennessee, and the two of us broke up as a couple. So there I was, living by myself in a city I’d already said goodbye to – and, by the way, I was in no small amount of debt. It was 1992 and I was looking for an alternative.
It came as the result of a pointed remark from an outside consultant, a remark I jumped on (this was the moment of “making my own luck”). I was working for Detroit Edison and one day, after looking over some of my work, the consultant said, “You know, you could work for us.” Oh really? He told me that his company had offices all over the country – all over the world in fact – and that he’d put in a good word for me if I applied there.
He was as good as his word, and a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Chicago for a job interview. The interview went well, a job offer was made, the offer was accepted, and a few weeks after that, I was driving my dad’s yellow station wagon to Chicago along with most of my possessions.
On the eve of my move to Chicago, I gave myself a little pep talk. The substance of it went something like this: “You are changed by everything you do, by everything and everyone you interact with. This move to Chicago will change you as well, probably more so than anything else you’ve ever done. You don’t know where you’re going to be living. You’re going to make new friends – a whole bunch of them with any luck – and right now, you can’t imagine who they’re going to be. But you know one thing about them – they’ll be different from anyone you know now. You will affect them and they will affect you. You’re going to be away from all the family, all the familiar places, all the familiar influences – for better and for worse. You will become a subtly different person. And you have no way of knowing in advance who that person will be. This is a leap of faith. You’re going in the direction you need to go, reaching for the things you instinctively need. So what you become will be something more than you were before. This is the next step towards becoming who you need to be; maybe the next step towards becoming who you truly are.”
Or something like that.
If I hadn’t left the Detroit area, maybe I wouldn’t feel now as if so much time had passed. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure. But so many changes have occurred, it seems only natural that many years have elapsed. My life and philosophies have evolved. I’ve cultivated a love for learning that I hope will never leave me. People have come… and gone… or stayed around for the long haul. I’ve entertained – or maybe just tickled the brains of – countless thousands of people, both as a performer and as a writer. And I’ve traveled; I can’t overstate the importance of that in my life. There’s a timeworn metaphor about life being like an onion, that you peel it a layer at a time, and sometimes you cry. Awww… isn’t that sweet? But for me, I feel more as if life has been a process not of peeling the onion, but of adding layers to it. Hmmm… I suppose the logical implication of this metaphor is that by the end, I’ll be a complete vegetable.
But truly, I have a sense that the many and varied people, places, emotions, left turns. U-turns, disappointments, deceptions, free lunches and assorted victories have continued to deepen my understanding of myself and the world through which I’m traveling.
Which, please note, is a far cry from actually claiming to possess any true wisdom or insight. But I’m trying to move in that direction.
A few frames from the kaleidoscope of the past 20 years:
- The night I came to Chicago. My friend KA agreed to let me sleep on her couch and fill her apartment with my stuff until I could find my own apartment. Her only stipulation: That instead of paying her in any way for the favor, I had to agree to pass it on to the next friend who came to Chicago looking for a place to stay. Class act, KA. The move-in was done by me solo, and I made countless trips up the back alley stairs carrying stuff up to her 3rd floor apartment. At one point, I came down to the alley to find that a large rat was lingering near my car. We wanted nothing to do with each other, but we repeatedly moved in the same direction as we tried to get around one another. This led to an extended slow dance between the two of us until we finally traded places and the rat took off. If anyone saw us out of their back windows, it probably looked like an outtake from a movie called Dances with Rats. So welcome to Chicago, Chuck. It was certainly not the last rat I’ve had to dance around.
- I live alone for two years… then I have a roommate for a year and a half… then I live alone for six months… then I have a roommate for 15 years… then I have a new roommate.
- I have no cat… then I have 1 cat… then I have 3 cats… then 2… then 1… then 2… then 3… and occasionally, I have 5 when CC visits with her 2 cats. I love them all, even the ungrateful pests. Oh right… that describes all of them. Somewhere, Donovan is singing, “First there is a kitty, then there is no kitty, then there is…”
- My presence in the theater world has been spotty since moving to Chicago, though at times intense. Early on, I appeared in two shows at the Circle Theater in Forest Park: Mill Fire and No Exit. Gratifyingly, both were surprise hits for Circle Theatre. This was particularly satisfying in the case of No Exit, since there were people who worked at the theater who were convinced that it was going to be a bomb. When word of mouth caused us to start selling out, those negative voices were sweetly silenced.
- Other memorable theatrical moments for me include my month in Greece in 2000 with the University of Detroit-Mercy Theater group headed by Dr. Arthur Beer. That just might have been the best month of my life to date. In the area of writing, I actually managed to write two complete one act plays and got to attend readings of them at the Theatre Building as part of a new play festival. And after a lifetime of writing song parodies and silly verse, I actually got paid to write a song for a show. It was a patter song about the history of time, and you’ll have to corner me sometime to hear the whole story – but deepest thanks go to FP for hiring me to write it!
- By far my biggest theatrical commitment since moving to Chicago was the 5+ years I spent in the Chicago company of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Long-time readers of this journal have seen many essays and photographs posted here about that remarkable time. It was a unique experience in myriad ways, from the extreme personalities involved in producing and directing the show, to the equally extreme personalities who were often cast in the show, to the nightly sizzle of performing a high-energy, partially improvised, audience-interactive show as many as six times a week. As a training vehicle, the impact of all this cannot be underestimated. TnT has also proven to be the gift that keeps on giving in another way: Even though I left the show five years ago, many of the people I met there continue to be a vibrant part of my life. TnT the show is long gone now, having closed after a 16 year run, but for hundreds of us, it’s the show that will never truly close.
Chicago is the city in which I have reached middle age. An inescapable fact about reaching middle age is that many of the people you’ve known in your life don’t make it this far. A couple of very close friends have passed away in recent years, as well as a much longer list of acquaintances and members of my extended family. Most notably, both of my parents are now gone. My mother died in 2005 and my father died in March of this year. While neither death could be called unexpected – we had months if not years of warning in both cases – such events drive a spike into the timeline of one’s life. We are now in the period called After The Parents Are Gone.
In entering this period, my place in the world has been redefined. Part of it is that I no longer have those familiar sounding boards with whom I might share the progress of my life. Even if you are of a religious nature and believe that they still hear you, you must allow that the nature of your relationship with them has been fundamentally altered. The advice they may now offer to you is more in the form of remembered conversations plus your own memories of the examples they set. For me, the two greatest comforts of this new order are: 1) Knowing that my parents, for the most part, lived the life they chose and had the life they wanted; and 2) The knowledge that outliving one’s parents is the outcome one should wish for. There is hardly anything sadder to contemplate that the notion of burying one’s child. My parents, despite having eight children, were spared this sorrow.
Another vital change in my life since moving to Chicago is the journal you’re reading now. For most of my life, there’s been a writer inside of me beating against those inner walls looking for a way out. While I’d written countless song parodies and brief comedic bits, trying to write anything requiring more than a two-minute attention span remained a frustrating and fruitless proposition, with only a few special-case exceptions.
In August 2005, my friend Cheryl L., a prolific and polished writer in many assorted fields of interest, casually suggested that I might be interested in starting my own blog through this site called LiveJournal. I took her advice and I’ve never looked back. If I were to take into account everything I’ve ever recreationally written in my life, I have no doubt that over 95% of it would be right here on this website. In fact, if you click on the word “Archive” near the top left corner of this screen, you can navigate to anything I’ve ever posted here. Proceed at your own risk.
The key, I think, to my ability to write here is that I’m writing for myself yet I’m writing publicly. Anyone with an internet connection could potentially wander over here. In fact, I’ve made a few online friends through precisely that process. Another important aid to my creative process is that there are no deadlines here. I often go weeks between posts – or I might post several essays in a week’s time.
The combination of my intermittent blog posting and my intermittent theater work has taught me something about myself – that I need to be engaged in a creative process in order to feel balanced and fulfilled. OK, I guess I already knew it, but now I’ve had that knowledge underlined, italicized and bolded!
I referred earlier to the pep talk I gave myself on the eve of my move to Chicago. All of those things I vaguely thought I foresaw have come to pass, only they’re no longer vague. Those theoretical friends and influences are names and personalities. Some of those influences aren’t people at all, but streets, restaurants, highways, islands, museums, neighborhoods, and office buildings. My life isn’t theoretical; it’s specific, and it’s populated by real people.
A very special thank you goes out to CC, who is the one person I regularly speak to who has hung around through all of this. We met in 1985, and a great deal of what has transpired in the past 20+ years couldn’t have occurred without her friendship and inspiration.
My best case scenario? That 20 years from now, I’ll be telling all of you about my first 40 years in Chicago. It will be a story filled with triumphs, tears, and no shortage of adventure. Until then, thank you for being a part of my journey, and I hope I may continue to be a part of yours.