FROM MY MOUTH TO YOUR EARS: An Occasional Newsletter
Welcome to the occasional newsletter FROM MY MOUTH TO YOUR EARS. I know we are supposed to be blogging, but who can find something intelligent to say every other day?
Within this communiqué are:
1. Notices of exciting stuff that’s happening soon.
-Searching For My True Voice: KR Glickman’s new story about growing up deaf in a hearing world
-Race Bridges - Sue O’Halloran’s project to promote racial dignity
2. Nothing Is Immutable
This is my story of working with 7th and 8th graders from ‘marginal communities’ in Salem, MA on A CDC project. We were commissioned to create theatrical pieces around the topics of bullying, nutrition and substance abuse. It put lots of gray on my head, but plenty of love and appreciation in the heart.
3. THANK-YOU NOTE: The best letter ever received from a second grader
4. Dance Partners: What happens when you beg friends to take a ball room dance classes with you
5. For The Birds
Quick Stuff: Check Out My Calendar for shows or workshops in your area. I teach two annual classes:
TELLING STORIES TO CHILDREN (last week in June) www.tellingstoriestochildren
MAKE STORIES FROM YOUR LIFE (first weekend in February) http://www.storiesalive.com/MakingStories.html
Elizabeth Ellis has just published a short, clear, pithy guide for creating story from experience. Buy it and be the happy recipient of over 40 years of intelligent story making experience: From Plot to Narrative by Elizabeth Ellis, Parkhurst Brothers, Publishers 2012
Looking for the storytelling journey of a life time? Join Eth No Tec and the Nu Wa delegation in 2013 as they go to Gengcun China. http://www.ethnohtec.org/ **********************************************************
1. KR Glickman is my friend.
She is married with Tony Toledo, storyteller, and for years has taught her language to others. She ‘speaks’ ASL. Her new theater piece is SEARCHING FOR MY TRUE VOICE:
One Deaf Woman's Story.
If you will be in the Boston North Shore area at the top of Sept., I hope you can attend. It's a tremendous piece that takes you from her home in which neither parent would learn ASL or even attempt communication with her, her many years at the Clark School which taught only lip reading and ‘voicing,’ and her growing discomfort with living her life like an imitation hearing person. When she finally breaks from the hearing world's model and determines to live within authentic deaf culture, you understand that she is reaching for a true home.
I have been working with KR for about a year on this piece and we are very excited about it. Starring in the piece is KR and her doll self, created by a remarkable artist, Dianne Jenkins.
Hope you can make it.
Race Bridges commitment is to telling original and personal stories about race relations, immigration and racial justice. These engaging and entertaining stories celebrate the challenge and beauty of diversity and the deeper human connection that can bridge differences. These stories speak of dignity, resilience, and hope.
*I’ll be on air for ‘live chat, Aug. 3, 4-5 PM.
2. Nothing Is Immutable
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as part of it’s HEALTH PEOPLE 2020 initiative was awarding grant money to fund pilot projects around the country that would utilize various modalities to instill healthier behaviors in Americans. Lord knows there is plenty of territory to roam beneath that umbrella. Our project partnered a small theater company with a community nonprofit that provides computer and learning experiences for under served populations.*
My task was to work with a group of teens, from this population base, creating theatrical pieces that dealt with bullying/violence, substance abuse, and nutrition that would affect their peers’ choices and behaviors, and present them to schools and the community. Piece of cake!
When we wrote the grant, we assumed that it did not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being funded. Actually, the more often you submit a grant application, the more ornate, idealistic, and impossible your project ideas become. The funding source is, after all, just going to turn you down. Then Peg, the Salem Theatre Company board member who had put the grant together, called and in an elated voice reported:
“We got the CDC grant!”
A little voice at back of my brain screamed ‘Oh sh*t!’ However, to Peg, I said: “Wonderful, when do we start?”
Having not been an authentic theater person for over 25 years at the time, the panic set in that ‘I don’t know how to do this anymore!’ Obviously this was not a panic I could share with my new professional allies, so I called a local director and begged him to come have lunch with me. My plan was to pump him for ideas. We ate; he laughed at me and lent his Dorothy Heathcote book. I read it, reviewed Viola Spolin, and panicked: ‘Now i just have to become an expert on bullying, substance abuse, and nutrition! Piece of cake!’
Getting kids to volunteer was not a piece of cake. No one with a drivers’ license, or with friends who had driver’s licenses wanted to spend hours in a dark theater, contemplating topics they were regularly bludgeoned with at school. The only ages that showed any interest in the program were seventh and eighth graders. In my humble opinion, seventh and eighth graders belong roaming nature like feral beasts, collecting knowledge through direct interaction. Alas, seventh and eighth graders where what I was going to have.
I planned copiously: how to establish a respectful environment, develop rituals that would create safety, and introduce them to theater arts. I also wanted to love them up. I would have only 3 immutable rules:
1. They had to attend every rehearsal.
2. No cell phones during the rehearsal period.
3. In this space we would listen to and be kind to one another.
Rule #1 bit the dust on the first day. Meeting time arrived, and 6 of the 14 were not there. Evidently, two had dropped out before they even showed up. When I tracked one of them down, he told me:
“My friend’s not doin’ it, so i’m not doin’ it.”
The other four, when we caught up with them, said they “didn’t know about the meeting.” Evidently, neither the notes given to them, nor the phone calls to their homes, nor the announcements over the school loudspeaker had gotten through to them. Was there a way to get families on board so they could provide some backup for attendance?
The next couple weeks answered that question. Here follows a series of phone calls made about non-attendance:
Phone Call 1:
Judith Black: “Hi, I was wondering if Lacoda was OK? She didn’t make it to rehearsal today.”
Lacoda’s Father: “I had a court date and she had to baby-sit the kids.” (Lacoda had 4 younger siblings.)
JB: “Could you ask her to call in when she can’t make it in the future?”
LF: “I had the only phone that works. Look, I’m real busy now,”
Note to self: No wonder she always looks tired! Thank Lacoda for getting here at all.
Phone Call 2:
JB: “Hello, I was wondering where Jose is? He’s supposed to be at a rehearsal now.”
Adult In Home: “Sorry, no English.”
Note to self: Have Scarlet call this family.
(Jose, the only 6th grader in the program, was like a ray of chubby sunshine. He was referred to the program by Cyber Space because his father had died 2 months before we started, and he needed some structure and positive energy.)
Phone Call 3:
Voice Recording: “This number is no longer in service.”
Note to self: OY!
Phone Call 4:
JB: “Hi! Do you know where Oscar is? He is supposed to be at a rehearsal now.”
Mother: “I need him go shopping.”
Note to self: We are the last priority.
Phone Call 5:
Voice Recording: “This number is no longer in service.” Note to self: OY!
Phone Call 6:
JB: “Hi, i’m looking for Faith.”
Faith’s Mother: “I’m her mother.”
JB: “Is this her cell number?”
FM: “Yeah, i’m usin’ it now.”
JB: “She missed today’s rehearsal, and I was wondering--”
FM (interrupting): “I don’t know nothin’ about it. I’m really sick.” (She was really sick every time I called for 2 months running)
Note to self: Faith’s only parent is probably a junkie. Be nice to her.
Phone Call 7:
JB: “Hi, this is Judith Black. I’m looking for Claudia. She had a rehearsal today.”
Claudia’s Father (screaming at child): “What did I tell you?! Am I talkin’ to myself?! You gotta do good at this stuff!! Do you want me to take a strap to your behind again?!” (A dish smashes)
JB (screaming into the phone): “It’s OK!! It’s all right, just ask her to come next time!!”
CF: “I am sick and tired of you not doin’ what you’re supposed to do!!” (A pan crashes to the floor)
JB: “Please, it’s OK. I’ll see her next week!”
Note to self: No wonder the kid never speaks above a whisper!
Phone Call 7:
JB: “Julia! You’re supposed to be here rehearsing...now!”
Julia: “Oh, I forgot, and I got no way to get there now. Sorry!”
Note to self: Do not underestimate the flakiness factor of this age.
These conversations taught me several things about the job I was undertaking:
1. Poor people often can’t pay their phone bills. Result: you can’t call them.
2. You’re not going to line up all the families as a support system.
3. Breathe, cause you’re not in Kansas anymore, and you’re never going to have them all at a rehearsal. Become fluid in your approach. (Wait...! Does this mean they’ll skip out on performances too!?)
At this point in time, I am beginning to understand what a privilege it is that I’ve had the same phone number for 35 years. You know where to find me; I know where to find me. I honor the kids that make it to our dark welcoming space.
I never had to call Michael or Randy or Merry. They were my most reliable participants. Randy was an ice hockey player who got good grades. On the short side, thin, and bespectacled, he was well supported in all things by his hard working single mother who dropped him off at and picked him up from every rehearsal. He decided to try his hand at acting, and turned out to be good at it. He had a real flair for comedy: during Cereal Wars, he started spinning around on the floor like a whirling dervish, screaming “YOU DON’T LOVE ME! YOU DON’T LOVE ME!!” at his ‘father,’ who wouldn’t buy him sugar laden cereal. No one in the room could keep a straight face.
Merry, a tall, pretty, self-assured young woman, simply did what she committed to. She was steady as a rock, and taught me all the rules for dealing with parents:
(A cell phone rings during rehearsal)
JB: “What did I say about those things!? You can call whoever it is back at break time!”
Merry: “Oh Judith, you don’t understand Dominican mothers! If I don’t pick up right now, it’s my head!” (The 12 seriously nodding heads allowed me to see the wisdom of this diagnosis.)
JB: “OK. Go take it in the lobby.”
Michael always showed up. Fourteen years old, he was soft spoken, composed, and almost as tall as the girls . He tended to ask a lot of questions: “Why are we doing that movement thing?”
“How can I make my character madder?”
“I know you told me to stamp my foot to get attention, but I think hitting my fist against my palm could work, too?”
Later in the process he started asking:
“How can I find out about auditions?”
“What’s the difference between being a movie actor and a stage actor?”
It took three sessions before we established a semi-consistent group, and there was finally some good news: they loved the theater work!
Improvisations, character building exercises, movement, responding to the issues, and scene building all engaged them simultaneously and fully.
...The bad news was that they had the attention span of fruit flies, and had to be engaged for every single second of rehearsal. The instant they were not creating, or working in character on stage, they would:
_ Have conversations
_ Crawl all over the theater’s sets, which were off limits
_ Cruise their cell phone for music and games
_ Text friends
_ Call friends
_ Bring food into the theater, where they were not allowed to have food
_ Chase each other
_ Grab my rhythm drum and play beats on it
The other bad news was that they almost never seemed to review anything between rehearsals, lost scripts religiously, slurred and mangled the spoken word with terrible diction, and were always hungry.
And so we worked religiously on tongue twisters at every rehearsal, and I brought in huge amounts of nutritious food. I even created a reminder barrier between the lobby and theater, but I could not get them to stop using their da*n cell phones! The most flagrant offender was Tiffany. A surly lass, who almost never made eye contact, she has a round face, lank, dirty blonde hair and carries about 25 extra pounds around her middle : JB: “Please, pretty please, pretty please with peanut butter on it--”
Tiffany (interrupting): “I don’t like peanut butter!”
JB: “How about cream cheese?”
Tiffany: “It’s OK...”
JB: “Please, pretty please, pretty please with cream cheese on it, turn off the phone and put it away!”
(Several minutes pass)
JB: “Tiffany, the cell phone!”
(Several more minutes)
JB: “I’m going to throw that thing in the toilet!!” (So much for my pledge of endless patience...)
Sometimes she actually inserted it into a pocket. More often she just palmed it. I wondered how she could take in even a single word when she was never fully present.
As rehearsals continued, I realized that I didn’t have to know endless amounts about the issues we were to address, because the kids already knew everything. We began with bullying and violence. These young people had masters degrees in the subject, and with each participant drawing from their own experience, we were able to create powerful scenes of bullying .
Two of the scenes, ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘The Chess Game’ ***are each played 5 times with different characters ‘changing it up.’ Beginning each scene the same way, each student has to devise a way that their character could change the negative behaviors without becoming the new target. In one alternative version of each scene, the bystanders have an opportunity to help the target out of the bullying zone. In another, the targets find ways to speak up for themselves and stop the aggression.
Michael volunteered for parts in each piece. He wanted to be the bully in Chess Game, and the target in Mean Girls. He volunteered to be the father in Cereal Wars (a piece centered on nutrition), and told a story in the substance abuse piece. You heard very little from him off stage, but on stage: “I really want to try a whole lot of different parts and see if i can do them.” It was his first attempt at theater, and it lit him up.
Tiffany asked for the alpha ‘bad girl,’ role.
In her world, she is an underdog: Except for her passionate relationship with her cell phone, she is completely non animated. She usually arrived at rehearsals early, ear buds in and carrying a large shake from Wendy’s. During rehearsals, she would sit alone and face the back wall when I was talking with the group. One day, before rehearsal began, she takes the ear buds out and asks me:
Tiffany: “D’you hear about the man killed three kids? And near here a kid was stolen, and there’s a flood in--”
JB: “Tiffany, you call this news?”
Tiffany: “Yeah, I heard it all on TV.”
She’s been eating all sorts of garbage for a long time. One day after the shake was gone, she lumbered into the theater and did full back bends into flips across the stage. I am speechless, but make a mental note to take her to a movement concert. Tiffany is good in her role as the type A meanie, and brings character nuances to rehearsals. She is one surprise after another. If only she’d turn off the cell phone!
Throughout this process, the students kept complaining:
“Why are doing the same scene over and over?” (I didn’t know exactly why, but felt it was the best possible approach.) I answered that it’s never the exact same scene, and that we humans learn slowly. How can any of us change up what looks like self-fulfilling misery? It’s a slow process. They doubt me and fear looking silly. I doubt me, and pray.
The substance abuse piece came 100% from their own experiences. The last thing these kids need are adults telling them not to drink, smoke, or do drugs. They hear this every day, and then watch the adults drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. Instead, I asked them to think about an experience that they, a family member, or friend had had that related to alcohol or drugs. Not one of them had a ‘drugs are fun’ tale. One story was about a boy’s uncle who had died from tainted drugs. Tiffany, she who was welded to her cell phone, offered this story:
“It was New Year’s eve. My mom went out and I was being baby-sat by my older sister and her friends. We were home with lots of booze. At 2 AM, I wanted to blast the music and go dance on the roof. It was snowing and real pretty. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I slipped and started slidin’ towards the edge of the roof, but crawled back somehow and got back in the house. I didn’t think much about it until the next morning. I’m lyin’ in bed and can hear snow falling off that same roof. Damn... that coulda been me!”
These stories were framed by a dance and chant: “liquor, wine, cigarettes, weed!” and a song that welcomed each teller back into the group: “Love my friend, don’t want no harm to come to her/Love my friend, don’t want no harm to come to him.”
Before going to work on the last piece, a couple kids inform me that one of the boys, Oscar, a sweet faced, skinny little guy, says this “isn’t fun no more. I’m dropping.” (They loved building the theatrical material, but hated refining it.) His family did not have a working phone at the time and when he missed the next rehearsal, I ran around and found someone to take his parts. When Alex, the new kid, came to us, began the session by passing the talking stick and suggested that each participant share something unusual about their family. Some of the participants talked about skin color and what a big range people in their family had. Some talked about who could and couldn’t dance. Two said that they were in a household with only a grandmother, and other relatives. When we got to Michael, in his quiet understated way he offered:
“My mother left me in a basket at the airport in the Dominican Republic when I was a baby. I didn’t meet her till this year. She was cryin’ and everything, but I didn’t feel nothin’ cause I didn’t know her.”
Right after this the sweet, skinny, Oscar shows up!
“I had to go see my stepbrother out of town.”
It seemed a natural flow: the families didn’t communicate plans to the children, and the children never communicated their plans to Scarlet** or myself. Oy Vay! I’d just given the kid’s parts away! We negotiated a compromise where everyone got to do something.
Tiffany doesn’t show up for our final rehearsal: a run through in front a small audience of neighborhood kids. I call her home:
Tiffany’s Mom: “She visiting with my sister out of town.”
JB: “She had a big rehearsal and run through that she missed.”
TM: “She didn’t tell me nothing about it!”
I explain that the entire cast is counting on her and that our first big performance for 100 eighth graders is on Monday. Her mother, who is under the weather again, is unclear about her plans and gives me a cell phone number where I can reach Tiffany.
JB: “Tiffany, honey, do you understand how important this is? We need you here! Look, I’ll come pick you up. You’re just an hour away.”
Tiffany: “Lemme talk to my aunt. If she can’t bring me, you can come in the morning.”
(The next morning)
JB: “Wake up Sunshine, I’m leaving now to come get you.”
Tiffany: “No, it’s OK, my aunt said she’d get me back.”
Me: “Call is at one o’clock, and the show is at two. You have to be at the school by one. Are you sure she can get you there?”
Tiffany: “Yeah!” (She hangs up)
One o’clock rolls around, and no Tiffany. Then it’s one forty-five, and still no Tiffany. The worst has happened; I’d have to play a 14 year old toughie! The show went on. When it was over, with a heavy heart, I asked who would like to take over her roles. One brave young woman stepped forward. I rehearsed the parts with her, and left a message telling Tiffany what I had done. At our last rehearsal before our second show, Tiffany appears. She wants her part back. I tell her that she is welcome to stay with the show and be in the ensemble numbers, but that the part of the number one toughie belongs to someone else now, someone we can be sure will show up.
Tiffany: “So I’m gettin’ punished ‘cause family is important to me.”
JB: “No, you made a choice when you stayed with your Aunt. You chose family over this project. Which is fine, but we need the people playing the major roles to show up.”
Tiffany: “It’s not fair!”
She is angry, but surprising us all, she stays. When the two high schoolers can’t get out of class for show number 4, Tiffany (still with no eye contact) says she knows everyone’s roles and can play their parts. She does it perfectly.
In the middle of our 2 week run Michael approaches me:
Michael: “Kids keep yelling my lines at me in the hall. Is that OK?”
Me: Michael, honey, you’re a rock star.
Before our last show, Andrea has to be sought out. She is in her gym class playing volleyball. This is the third time we have had to track her down before a performance. I look at her, volleyballs flying overhead, and ask if she had forgotten about today’s performance.
Andrea: “Yeah, I knew about it, but there’s something I need to do after school and the show will take too long.”
One hundred students await us. I look at Tiffany.
JB: “Do you know her part?”
JB: “Can you perform it in 20 minutes?”
And she did. Perfectly.
It’s not until we are performing before hundreds of their peers at schools throughout Salem that the students become convinced about the impact of their program. Theater that comes from kids’ lives speaks to other kids. Audiences understood that whole grains, though advertised, often don’t show up in cereals as real fiber, and that too many cereals are like ‘jolly ranchers in milk.’ They learned how to read nutrition labels and what to look for to promote good health.
They saw ways of dealing with bullying that they could understand and mirror. And all without a single word of warning, scolding, or long speech. No one walked out of these shows thinking that alcohol or drugs were safe to play with. I know this because I read over 400 evaluations made by the audience members, many of whom had been deeply moved by the production.
I learned that everything physical, from having a cell phone in the ‘on’ position, to making rehearsals is mutable. What was immutable was rule #3: In this space we would listen to and be kind to one another. It was this that made all the difference.
The students who participated bonded deeply and discovered new skills and passions. One day, toward the end of the project, Michael asks:
“So this is our last show. Does that mean we go back to the way it was before?”
“Michael, do feel like you did before we started?”
“Honey, you’re an actor now. You’ll never be the same.”
Note: I brought Tiffany to the Big Apple Circus to see what acrobats can aspire to. Despite wearing ear buds and singing the entire way in and out, when the show ended, she forgot herself, gave me a big hug and said “thank you.” Michael Rodriguez is apprenticing with the Marblehead Little Theater this summer.
* The Salem Theatre Company: http://www.salemtheatre.com/
Salem CyberSpace: http://www.salemcyberspace.org/
** Scarlet, my assistant, a freshman at Endicott College was a godsend. She came to us from Salem Cyberspace, spoke fluent Spanish, had a theater background, and a great deep soul. Two 10th graders from Salem High, Julliany, and JayCee were also huge helps.
*** A couple pieces of the show can be seen at:
Chess Game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ1UoPb9mJQ
Cereal Wars; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwWPcv6Pg88
Out of hundreds of funded programs, The Center for Disease Control will be featuring ours on their web site.
#3 If you have the privilege of performing for elementary audiences, you know the experience of receiving thick envelopes packed with homemade illustrations and thanks for your program. This one, from a second grader in Cambridge at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, knocked my socks off. All original spelling and punctuation has been retained.
Dear Ms. Black
Thak you for coming to our school and telling us your bodaciously awesome stories. I also enjoyed the stories you told us because of five superb reasons.
First, you put witty in stories. Second, you make everything sidesplitting.
Third, I idolize how you do nonsensical voices. Fourth, I admire how you tell kid stories with words and by actions. Fifth, you’re just so entertaining. Also are you related to Jack Black?
and Yours Truly,
I wrote back, thanking her for the thoughtful epistle, and suggesting that Jack go back to the classics, like Moliere and Shakespeare. Alas, I was not his auntie and exerted no real influence upon him. Am glowing though with the thought that I might have a tiny bit of influence on these young minds.
For The Birds
I want chickens. I want to hear them cackling away, picking at insects, happily taking dust baths and nibbling away the invasives that have made my backyard gardening paradise a purgatory. I yearn to create a sustainable cycle that nurtures living things, creates food, and uses their waste products. I’d have the best compost in town. Two dear friends of mine raise chickens and have only wonderful things to say about the endeavor.
So you get it. I really want chickens. Found the perfect spot in my yard (not too close to the neighbors), put a down payment on a starter chicken coop, and went happily to get a permit.
It turns out that in my town, you need the signature of every single abutter to your property in order to keep chickens. I have 4 and 5 unit condos on either side and to the rear a historic school, redone as town-owned apartments for elders and special needs citizens. They are good neighbors and I always greet them in passing and stop to talk with them when possible. I imagined that some of them might want to be partners in this project, since they must have come from homes that kept chickens when they were young.
How do you spell naiveté?
After meeting with the housing committee, a meeting was set up where anyone who lived on the rear side of the building (photo ) and had concerns could come and talk with me about it. I arrived in the meeting room, where there was an ever brewing pot of coffee and a mid-sized rectangular table with chairs all around. Everyone who would be in attendance had had the opportunity to read my proposal, which had been submitted months in advance. A handful of people, but still more than I expected, trickled into the room.
I knew my goose was cooked (no puns intended) when none of them would make eye contact with me.
Directly to my left was a woman of about 60-65 years old, young by senior housing standards, whose salt-and-pepper hair hung like a heavy curtain over her cheeks. When I looked into her eyes, there was no one there. Two beautifully dressed, petite, gray-haired women chose seats together, next to her and opposite me. On their left was Al. A sociable fellow, we had often spoken in passing as he sat in the front of the building. His emphysema had gotten worse and he now using a walker and an oxygen tank. Next to him sat a gnarled, ancient man with a long beaked nose who I did not know. He chose the chair farthest away, and positioned his body, not towards the center, but at a 45 degree angle to us, facing the door. In the remaining chair, sat a very sweet small woman with Down syndrome, who I know well from the neighborhood, and the housing director.
Copies of the proposal were passed around in case anyone hadn’t read it. Then we were off and running.
Al: They said to us there would be no odor or noise. Well, I lived with chickens when I was a boy, and i know that’s impossible! They are loud and they stink and they take over wherever they are.
JB: Sir, no one claimed those things, they listed as topics of concern. If a chicken house is well kept, it does not have to smell.
Al: I know chicken houses and they smell. Plus I’ve got my emphysema (this was illustrated with his wheezing and walker) and I don’t want any chicken feathers flying up and making it worse.
JB: I don’t know that the feathers could reach the fourth floor and beyond the parking area but I could check for you.
Al: I don’t believe you’ll take good care of the chickens. They’ll just stink and multiply.
I was dumbstruck.
Al: From my window I can see the ocean. I can Abbott Hall, and Marblehead rolling out, like I was at a 5 star hotel. Then I have to look at your yard. It’s an eyesore, an eyesore that I have to look at every day. In the summer at least it’s covered with vegetables and stuff, but in the winter an eye sore, and now you have that ugly plastic and open barrels everywhere. Are you starting a mosquito farm!
I adore my garden! To have this space that i have cared for so lovingly called an ‘eyesore’ is like having someone call your baby ‘ugly. I wondered if I should explain that the tubs were filled with compost that i didn’t want to be polluted by the two invasive species that I was fighting, and that the plastic was being used to drive them out? I already felt like the gardener’s Job, and now more slings and arrows from man!
The ‘eyesore’ was only the beginning: everyone except the comatose woman was ready to get in on the act. According to the two put-together women and Al, I am a bad cat owner since our cat sometimes has to wait to be let in. Also, they tell me, I am out of town much too often and the girls who take care of the cat when I’m away are inefficient and just leave the door open so the cat can get in and out. Al goes on about how he was forced to call the police once to have my door shut. (When was that, I wonder? Do I have a rap sheet because of him?) Then everyone, sans the comatose woman, started discussing daily life in my yard: the critters that eat out of the compost, the cat’s sparring partners, the failure of my blueberry bushes! Every so often the sweet Down syndrome woman would raise her hand and tell an unrelated story about a cat or chicken or turkey, and the grizzled man who it turned out couldn’t hear well would repeat a question that had been addressed six times already. I was getting the feeling that these folks weren’t just anti-chicken.
Then the conversation turned towards numbers and roosters.
Al: How many you gonna have?
JB: It was all in the proposal you received, 4 to 6, not more.
Hard of Hearing (HH): How many birds ya having?
JB: Probably 4, but no more than 6.
HH: HA! You’ll have 20!
JB: I just told you there would not be more than 6.
(I already had the little darlings named after relatives and old friends. This is why Jews don’t have baby naming parties until after the baby is safely delivered.)
HH (aggressively): Why should i believe you?!
JB (almost whining): Because I gave you my word.
Al (bringing himself back to center stage): And what about the noise? I told you, I grew up with chickens and they are loud and dirty. They stink!
JB: I have a number of friends with coops and they don’t have to smell if they are well designed and cleaned regularly.
(Great, I just called his chicken-having family dirty slobs.)
Al: Yeah, well i see how well you clean your yard. Those tubs all over the place are just breeding insects. And what about all the noise? We live just above where you want to put this (with disgust in his voice) ‘chicken house.’
JB: The girls will definitely chatter, but I’m not going to have a rooster, so you needn’t worry about early wake up calls.
Al shakes his head sadly. Not only am I a disgusting slob, a horrible pet owner, and a negligent yard keeper. It’s now clear to him that I don’t understand the facts of life.
Al: How the hell you gonna get eggs without a rooster?
(Either he was poorly educated or he couldn’t imagine that men are simply not required for a generative act.)
JB: Al, the chickens lay an egg every day or so. You only need a rooster if you want the eggs fertilized so that you can breed more chickens.
He looked at me suspiciously.
HH: Isn’t a rooster gonna be awfully noisy?
JB: I don’t plan to have a rooster.
HH: How you get eggs without a rooster?
(I should really look into the public school curriculum of the 40’s.)
JB: Every month, a woman produces an egg that travels from her ovary, through her fallopian tubes and then sits in her womb or uterus. If it is not fertilized by a man, it passes out of her body. Chickens produce eggs more frequently, but it’s the same idea. If not fertilized by a rooster it passes out of her body and is sterile and we can eat it.
They all stared at me as if i’d just read a well illustrated chapter out of the Kama Sutra. The lovely Down syndrome woman raised her hand and told a story about a wild turkey that used to live in town, and we were done. They voted overwhelmingly against my enterprise.
I am right at the edge of OLD. In just ten or fifteen years, I could be living in that building. Who knows how I’ll choose to wield the diminishing amounts of power that are still mine. So, I still wave when riding my bike past the front of the apartment building and have taken to waving every time I step from the back door. I know who’s watching. Everyone.
And now I'm wondering: Do you need a permit to raise rabbits?
Our story begins one day, as I am talking on the phone to a friend. My end of the conversation went something like this:
“You signed up at Fred Astair!? ...No, it’s just that I can’t believe we’ve all decided to take ballroom dance classes at the same time! It took me 10 years, 6 months, and 4 days to break Mike down and get him to agree... He wanted to do it! What a gift. Listen, where is the Fred Astair Studio...? You don’t have to drive all the way to Danvers, our class is beginner ballroom, and it’s down the block at the Y! Why don’t you cancel with old Fred and take it with us...?...... Tuesday nights from 7:15 - 8:45, and it’s cheap, cheap, cheap compared to a professional dance studio. Please! Please!? Please!?! My husband thinks that he’ll end up like a frog downstream of an industrial chicken farm... because the estrogen leaves them with out, uh, male characteristics... Oh, you will? Great! Thanks so much, it’ll be great fun.”
The first night of class, the parking lot was filled with excited wives and their husbands, imitating dogs on their way to the vet to be neutered.
This was our old YMCA, where the hard working, self sufficient, old school denizens of Marblehead swam and played racquetball, and brought their children for nursery school and camp. The plumbers, fisher folk, carpenters, electricians, shop owners - this was their place. The wealthy folk learned ballroom dancing at their Yacht clubs, not the YMCA.
As we approached, the effluvia of two centuries’ worth of mixed sweat and chlorine met our noses. We were directed to the basement gym, down dark dank hallways into a hole that had been lined with concrete, basketball court lines dulled by thousands of played games. The couples lingered in a crowded hallway. My eyes fell upon my friends, a palpable swath of charged air separating them from the other couples, their eyes resembling nothing more than those of two deer caught in the headlights.
I felt a wave of guilt roll over me: ‘What an absolute idiot I am! Of course, Fred Astair studios would have been a better choice for a male couple.’
I call out, much too merrily: “Hans, Peter, so glad you could do this.” Breaking through the tension, I hug them both. “Mike, see, they made it!” I call over to someone else I know, “Hey, Joanie! Come over and meet my friends, Peter and Hans.”
The female dance teacher sings out, “OK. everyone let’s STEP in!” In heels and a sharp slit in her skirt, her hair piled high atop her head, she looks every bit the dancer. She has a Chatty Cathie style. Do you remember those dolls? One pull on the string at the neck and they emit a single chirpy line. She gestures to the man standing next to her: “This is Mac, your guy teacher.”
Standing at about 5’11”, Mac was lean and mean, with an anchor tattoo on one prominent biceps and a pack of filterless cigarettes tucked in the tea shirt cuff on the other. Every husband exhaled, lifted his chest and sauntered proudly into the gym. As we took places around the room, we stood to the left of Hans and Peter, but no one stood to their right.
‘I am such an idiot! I’m sorry I did this to them!” I thought, wondering if a paid vacation to Provincetown could possibly compensate.
The first 60 minutes of class consisted of explanations and basics. The female instructor issued her first command: “OK, girls cross, then boys”
‘Hello, we have a boy and boy!’
They quickly decided that Peter, the slighter of the two, would play the female role. I was sure this would not have happened at Fred Astair’s. ‘I am such an idiot!’
We learned terminology: “The moving foot will be the boy’s left, girl’s right.”
‘Hello, we have a boy and boy!’
We moved in partners across the floor and then around it. “OK, boys to the right, girl to the left, and let’s begin.”
‘Hello, we have a boy and boy!’
And then: “OK, now we’re going to switch partners. Boys, stay where you are. Every two minutes, the girls will shift one partner to their right.”
The tension in the air was immediate and palpable. No one looked at him directly, but everyone in the room was watching as Peter rotated to his right. His first new partner was my husband, and except that they’re both execrable dancers, there was no problem. The next rotation right left Peter standing in front of a big, burly electrician. Over 6 feet tall, his 5 o’clock shadow came in at 1 o’clock, and his cleaned and pressed shirt was neatly tucked into his belt, slightly below his belly. The moment was frozen in time. Peter stood before him, unable to meet this man’s eyes , trembling slightly. So many stories passed in this silence, including mine: ‘Judith, you are such a bloody idiot! An idiot!’
Then, the 16 bars of music that preceded the dance began. Each ‘girl’ stepped into her partner’s embrace. In that vacuum of breath everyone half watched and waited. The big, burly man gave a ‘what the hell’ laugh and opened his arms, inviting Peter to dance. And they did. And so it was with the next and next and the one after that. He danced with every husband or boyfriend in that class.
As we walked from the classroom, I called out to the guys: “You’ll be back next week?”
Hans looked towards Peter, and Peter called out, “You bet!”
As we headed home that night, I said to my husband: “What a complete idiot I can be, that I don’t have more faith in humankind.”
note: 4 Points for the teacher! By the next week the dance instructor was using the terms partner 1 and 2.