Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: NAMI

The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) is a nationwide organization that provides informational and emotional support for the caregivers who work to keep people with mental illnesses on track and stable—or at the very least it lets the caregivers know they're not alone.

The organization has 1,000 state and local affiliates across all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. To keep it accessible to everyone who needs it, NAMI is funded through pharmaceutical company donations, individual donors, sponsorships and grants.
My parents found a lifeline in NAMI when I was diagnosed as bipolar over a decade ago. Now my mom—a retired teacher, so this is totally in her wheelhouse—has taught classes to help NAMI members better manage the situations they face and has undergone formal training to be a group meeting leader. I'm so thankful for everything my parents and my sister's family have done to support me in my bipolar adventures. NAMI has helped them help me manage my life with a considerable degree of success and relative normalcy.

If you’re interested in learning more or finding a NAMI group to attend, please visit nami.org.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: Tardive Dyskenesia

As if mental illness itself weren’t embarrassing and exhausting enough—and as if the spectrum of side effects from psych meds weren’t even more embarrassing and exhausting—along comes tardive dyskenesia. 

Aside from sounding like an antebellum flowering vine, tardive dyskenesia is also a range of involuntary, repetitive neuromuscular movements of the tongue, lips, face, torso and extremities that occur in people treated with long-term antipsychotics and other dopamine-receptor-blocking medications. If you’ve ever stood or sat near me for an extended period of time, you’ve no doubt seen the full compendium of symptoms: grimacing, lip chewing and pursing, heavy blinking, face touching (and I deserve seven gold medals for fighting back the compulsion to touch my face 75 times a minute in the Coronavirus Olympics), arm swinging, leg hitting, rocking, fidgeting, shaking, and—oddest of all—being on tiptoe whenever I’m sitting down. I continue to cringe every time I see video footage of me talking or singing with my lower jaw weirdly askew. My foot also pulses on the gas pedal when I drive, and a number of people have told me it almost makes them carsick when they ride with me.

I’m rather lucky in that my flailing and wiggling are more embarrassing than physically problematic, but about 20% of the population living with the disorder literally can’t function; it can prevent them from walking, eating and even breathing.

And as a point of clarification, these symptoms are the opposite of those from Parkinson’s Disease. People with Parkinson's have difficulty moving, whereas people with tardive dyskenesia have difficulty not moving.

Tardive dyskenesia symptoms can lessen, change or even go away over time after a person stops taking neuroleptic medications, though more often than not they’re permanent. My symptoms have noticeably changed over the last decade, but I’ve traded making alarming sucking sounds on my lips for making an entire room tremble from my violently shaking legs.

There are many medications that can be used to manage the symptoms to varying degrees. After five-plus years of needless misery, I successfully weaned myself off the anticonvulsant Gabapentin, which did or didn't work depending on the way the wind blew and the leg trembled. It also tended to make me drowsy and sometimes even confused, which makes me especially surprised that it’s used recreationally—under the totally lame street name Gabbies—for its supposed euphoric effects that I absolutely NEVER experienced.

One more thing: You may have seen the commercials for the prohibitively expensive tardive dyskenesia medications Ingrezza and Austedo … the commercials where they call tardive dyskenesia “TD” like it’s some cool brand of earphones or energy drink. Dear Ingrezza-makers Neurocrine Biosciences and Austedo-makers Teva Pharmaceuticals: I’ve had tardive dyskenesia for over a decade. I’ve been seeing psychiatrists and neurologists about it for over a decade. I’ve read everything I could read about it for over a decade. I’ve been on medications for it for over a decade. And NOBODY outside of medical publications and pharmacy websites calls it TD. STOP TRYING TO MAKE TD HAPPEN.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: Psychotropics

Aside from being an objectively cool band name for people with mental illnesses, psychotropics is an umbrella term for the classes of drugs used to treat mental disorders and control moods, behaviors, thoughts or perceptions.

There are five categories (and multiple subcategories) of psychotropic medications: antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers. And like many of my fellow mental-illness travelers, I’ve tried damn near all of them.

Here’s a brief rundown:

ANTIDEPRESSANTS, as you might surmise, are used to treat a range of depression symptoms. They include:
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which steadily increase the amount of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter that regulates things like mood, sleep, blood clotting and even bowel movements. (Aren’t you glad you know that last part?)
  • Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which gradually increase the amount of norepinephrine in your brain. Norepinephrine makes you feel awake and alert. After over a decade of trial and error, my doctor finally landed on the SNRI Fetzima as my magic bullet, and aside from a blackout-go-boom-get-concussion on the tile floor a few days after I started it, it’s been a complete game-changer for me.
  • Bupropion, which promotes important brain activity and can be used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or to help people quit smoking.
Antidepressants come with a range of frustrating side effects, including drowsiness, insomnia (how fun to have both!), constipation (more poop stuff!), weight gain, sexual issues, tremors and dry mouth.


ANTI-ANXIETY MEDICATIONS are used to treat panic attacks, phobias, generalized anxiety, and various anxiety-related symptoms.

This class of psychotropics includes beta blockers that help treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, including increased heartbeat, nausea, sweating and trembling.

Because they typically cause drowsiness, some tranquilizers and sleep medications are also used to treat anxiety and insomnia. These tend to be prescribed for only a short time to prevent dependency.

These drugs’ side effects can include nausea, blurry vision, headaches, confusion, fatigue and graphic nightmares. And oh, have I had some doozy graphic nightmares on my find-the-right-psychotropics journey.


STIMULANTS help manage unorganized behavior by improving concentration and providing a general sense of calm. They’re often prescribed for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Their most notable side effects include insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss.


ANTIPSYCHOTICS help manage psychosis, which separates people’s perceptions from reality and drowns them in delusions or hallucinations.

Antipsychotics can help people with psychosis think more clearly, feel calmer, sleep better and communicate more effectively. They’re also used to treat ADHD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders.

Their side effects are primarily drowsiness, upset stomach, increased appetite and weight gain.


MOOD STABILIZERS help regulate extreme emotions. They may rob you of feeling the extreme excitement or extreme sadness that everyone experiences—which is my case—but they help manage massive bipolar swings and extreme mood swings, which is a tradeoff I’m happy to live with.

I regularly experience all their usual side effects: drowsiness, weight gain, dizziness, tremors, blurry vision and occasional confusion. I’m especially unhappy with the weight gain, but thanks to an effective mood stabilizer (in my case, the relatively common drug Lamotrigine) I can consistently and reliably participate in everyday living. Even though I have to have a damn Santa tummy to do it.


THE SIDE EFFECTS OF THESE MEDICATIONS can be powerful and overwhelming. There’s one set of side effects that present when you’re ramping up a dosage, there’s another set of side effects that come with daily use of a drug, and there’s another (often excruciating) set of side effects that come with weaning off a drug. Which is why I’ll never understand the mindset that some people get where they decide they feel fine and they’re just gonna stop taking their meds.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: Mania

Mania (or being manic) is the opposite of depression in the up-and-down swings of bipolar disorder. It’s also the other half of the no-longer-used term manic depression, which was changed to bipolar disorder in the 1980 third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) in the interest of reducing stigmas related to the words manic and depression.

Bipolar disorder is subdivided into bipolar I (which has more extreme swings in each direction) and bipolar II (which manifests with lower levels of mania—clinically called hypomania—and deeper depressions). I’m bipolar II.

Like depression, mania can manifest itself over different lengths of time in any number or combination of symptoms, including these:
  • High, uncontrollable energy
  • Extreme, rapid talkativeness
  • Racing thoughts or flights of ideas
  • Feelings of elation or euphoria
  • Feelings of irritation or agitation
  • High distractibility and inability to focus
  • Decreased need for sleep while still feeling rested
  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  • Feeling full of great new ideas, important plans or exciting activities
  • Involvement in risky activities—like extravagant shopping, improbable commercial schemes, recreational drugs, hypersexuality—with a high likelihood of negative consequences
Some bipolar people claim they like or actually love their manic episodes. I can understand that sentiment from the perspective of having a little more energy or euphoria, but I find that anything more than that can be terrifying. And exhausting.

It’s terrifying because I know from experience I’m prone to do impulsive things with no consequences alarms going off in my head. After more than a decade on the bipolar coaster, I’m finally self-aware enough that I know I’m doing (or at least reminding myself not to do) those impulsive things and I need to summon the alarms myself because they won’t go off on their own. Thankfully my impulsive behaviors tend to be rather benign and fixable, like buying shoes and clothing online. But there’s always the possibility I might escalate, and who knows what my impulsive brain could be capable of.

It’s also terrifying because my manic episodes often plummet directly into the deepest of my depressive episodes. Again: I’m finally self-aware enough to know that the depressive episodes are coming and I can do what little I’m able to do to prepare for them, like canceling plans and setting out Tylenol PM to help me hopefully sleep through the worst of them.

Everyone experiences mania and depression differently—to different degrees, for different lengths of time, at different intervals and even in different environmental conditions. Neither is better or easier than the other, and both in their own way can control or disrupt your life.

You’ll probably never encounter me in a depressive state because I become immediately reclusive. But if I’m talking rapidly and visibly distracted by everything and more jittery than normal, please do your best to keep me away from the Nordstrom website.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: Depression

Everyone can feel occasionally sad, lonely or unmotivated as a result of anything from grief to just having an off day. But when these feelings become exponential and overwhelming and prevent you from functioning, you could be suffering from clinical depression.

And there isn’t a single kind of depression. It’s diagnosed when you present any long-term combination of symptoms including feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, trouble concentrating, insomnia, fatigue, loss of interest in pleasurable things, restlessness, suicidal ideation—and even physical symptoms including body aches, digestive problems and appetite loss. Depression symptoms also vary widely based on age, gender and personal circumstances.

There isn’t a single kind of treatment either; depression can be managed with any combination of psychotherapy, antidepressants, exercise, certain supplements (vitamin D and fish oil have noticeably increased the efficacy of my meds) and in extreme cases electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)—with focused attention paid to people expressing suicidal thoughts and reckless behaviors.

Depression can also present itself along with other clinical disorders including psychosis, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. In my case, I have both bipolar II disorder and major depressive disorder—which means my shutdowns are almost always epic: I collapse into a deep, deep hole of despondency, exhaustion, physical pain, dull panic, slurred speech, a metallic taste on my tongue, and a fog that feels like a hot, wet, suffocating blanket I can’t find a way out of. All I can do is sleep in a drenching sweat, lose all track of time and frequently wake up with the pain of an oncoming migraine that thankfully never fully manifests itself.

Plus I’m totally no fun at parties. :-)

On a personal note, I have serious issues with the word “depression” in itself. I know it’s impossible to find a word that succinctly encompasses all these symptoms, but colloquial English has appropriated depression to mean feeling kinda blah, and people also associate the word with low spots in the ground, dips in the road and economic slumps, so they tend to think that clinical depression is just sadness. And if we depressed people had a nickel for every time someone told us to cheer up or decide to be happy, we just might be rich enough to actually BE happy. I know people who say these things are often coming from a place of not understanding and of just trying to be helpful, but the word depression is exactly the reason they’re confused and ultimately unhelpful.

And on that note, if you know someone who’s depressed or struggling through a depressive episode and you want to help, just ask what you can do. Some of us want to be left alone, but some people may want you to sit quietly with them so they don’t feel alone … or bring them some ice water … or call 911 … or some people may genuinely want you to try to cheer them up.

This is way off-topic and completely unhelpful given most of what I’ve just said, but if the latter request is the case, I recommend you start with my all-time favorite joke:

What’s brown and sticky?

A stick.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: Bipolar Disorder

I’m starting my series of essays with something I know on a cellular level: I was diagnosed bipolar II over a decade ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to learn everything about the illness, how the medical community’s understanding of it is evolving, and how we all can work to manage it both day-to-day and long-term.

Bipolar disorder in general involves one- to two-week swings between two opposite poles of mood, energy, focus and function. The top pole is mania, which manifests itself with elation, irritability, energized behavior and lack of impulse control. People in manic episodes experience racing thoughts; an inability to focus or stay physically still; and delusions and hallucinations that can inspire irrational or risky behaviors including gambling, sexual activity and drug use without regard for what can be catastrophic consequences. The bottom pole is depression, which manifests itself with hopelessness, indifference and despondency. People in depressive episodes experience extreme sadness; suicidal ideation and attempts; and difficulty functioning, thinking or experiencing pleasure (which is called anhedonia).

There are three types of bipolar disorder. Bipolar I Disorder involves swings between both poles—sometimes both at once—that are so severe they can require hospitalization. Bipolar II Disorder—sometimes called bipolar depression—involves mild manic episodes (called hypomania) and often more profound depressive episodes. Cyclothymic Disorder, which isn’t as common, involves hypomanic and depressive episodes that last at least two years.

As I’ve said, I’m bipolar II, where my hypomanic episodes involve restlessness, fast (well, faster than normal) talking and thinking, and buying shoes online that I don’t need. I usually post these purchases on here to broadcast that 1) I bought awesome new shoes and 2) I’m currently hypomanic off my ass. My depressive episodes are soul-crushing in their extremity. I can’t think, I struggle to breathe, my vision is blurred, I feel like I’m wrapped in a wet wool blanket that I can’t kick my way out of, I sometimes have visual or aural hallucinations (including seeing people in black clothing lunging at me and hearing stupid, irritating circus music coming from another room), and I often contemplate suicide but I have no energy or initiative to carry it out … I generally feel like everything is completely hopeless and I just want to have never existed. And when I emerge from these episodes I’m exhausted to my core.

Bipolar disorders can be managed with psychotherapy (talking with a therapist), psychiatry (drug therapies) or a combination of both. I’ve never found much benefit from my visits with various psychologists, but I’m a HUGE believer in better living through chemistry. Psych meds (which are awesomely called psychotropics) affect me strongly, for better or worse. They involve a lot of trial and error, but I’ve been highly functional for the last five years after finally finding a magic cocktail of three psychotropics (there’s that cool word again).

I do want to stress, though, that what works for me is indicative only of what works for ME. If you’re living with a mental illness, don’t abandon a combination of therapies that might be working for you just because someone else is thriving on a different combination of therapies. And for God’s sake, ALWAYS TAKE YOUR MEDS.

Bipolar disorders were classified as manic depression through most of the 1900s. In 1980, the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (called DSM-III), officially changed the classification to bipolar disorder to reflect a wider range of nuance and understanding of the disease. This paragraph is a broad generalization of the naming history, but I wanted to explain that manic depression and bipolar disorder are essentially the same thing.

There is a lot more I could discuss here, but I want to keep these essays short(er than this one) and digestible for anyone who cares to read them. Feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested, and I hope to have another short(er than this one) essay posted soon. Stay healthy!

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as your designated Bipolar Friend Who Can’t Seem To Shut Up About It, I’ll be spending the month posting short essays on a broad range of mental-illness topics and issues that I hope—if you want to read them—will provide helpful information and insight to give you a more nuanced understanding of the world occupied by people living with mental illnesses and the sainted people who take care of us.

I was diagnosed bipolar over a decade ago, when a friend’s suicide made me suddenly aware that—instead of mourning the loss of him like everyone else around me—I was jealous that he actually killed himself … and I’d been living in a state of just-under-the-radar suicidal ideation for as far back as I could remember. When fantasizing about when and how to kill yourself is your everyday normal, it doesn’t raise any interior red flags until something jolts you into the objectivity you need to stand outside your head and realize that you have a problem. A very serious problem. So going on nothing more than the foggy, horrifying, embarrassing realization that I had this problem, I wandered into what would prove to be a long, frustrating, flying-blind journey to erase—or learn how to manage—the crashing malfunctions in my poorly wired head.

As with most people living with mental illnesses, I’ve been to hell and back many times trying to figure out the magic cocktail of therapists and therapies and medications I need to achieve some sense of normalcy. And since there’s no basic training on what to look for or how to find a competent, ethical, moral mental-health doctor—especially when you’re yet-undiagnosed mentally ill—I stumbled into some even deeper horrors before I finally found a doctor who knew what she was doing and who had my overall health and best interests at heart.

So here I am with my fancy green-and-white Mental Health Awareness Month graphic and my list of topics to cover, and if you’re interested I hope I can give you something useful and meaningful to know this month whether you’re living with a mental illness, caring for someone with a mental illness, or just looking to understand more about the roller coasters lurching in and out of Mental Illness Land.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: An Unquiet Mind

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison is a fearlessly, brutally honest 1995 memoir examining the exhilarating highs and soul-crushing lows of bipolar disorder (which was clinically called manic-depressive illness during the events of this book) from the perspective of a psychiatrist trapped in the disease. Her frank and intimately personal insights bring bipolar disorder’s cycles of terror, elation and crushing, abject despair into stark and sometimes heartbreaking clarity.

The book was recommended to me soon after I was diagnosed as bipolar in 2008, and it grabbed me on every level—from its smart writing to the recognizable, relatable, almost comforting details of its narrative—and I all but literally didn’t put the book down until I’d finished it.

I have an indelible memory of reading it on the Red Line EL train home from work one night in Chicago, and a man who’d clearly seen me reading it made sure we made eye contact as he stood up to leave and then he patted me reassuringly on the shoulder as he got off at the Sheridan stop. That encounter—a direct extension of this book—made me literally weep the rest of the way home as I was coming to grips with the label “mentally ill” and discovering the signs I’d never thought to notice until then that I wasn’t alone … and realizing that everywhere I go I’d never be alone.

If you are or love someone who is bipolar—or struggling with any mental illness—this book will make you weep, give you hope and quite possibly change your life.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Theater: Next to Normal

Next to Normal—a searing, brilliant, Pulitzer-winning rock opera examining the lives of a family whose mother is desperately struggling with bipolar depression—opened on Broadway 15 years ago today. The show beautifully captures the swings between the ridiculous highs and the soul-crushing lows the disease brings to those of us living in its fogs and terrors ... and to the selfless teams of people who care for us.

I’m fortunate enough to have seen the original production, very soon after I’d been diagnosed as bipolar and had found myself caught in a rather terrifying struggle to wrap my confused, exhausted brain around the fact that mental illness was no longer a mysterious entity in other people’s lives; it was MY life, and I had no idea how to manage it or what potential and very real horrors to expect from it.

The musical is rough to experience from any perspective, but seeing it for the first time tore me apart ... and then put me back together with its closing anthem, “Light,” which features an almost casually placed lyric that is at once devastating and hopeful and never fails to sneak up on me and emotionally gut me even though I know it’s coming: “The price of love is loss / but still we pay / we love anyway.”

Back when I saw the show on Broadway, selfies were new and weird and shameful—and for you young folks, it was the Middle Ages when our smartphones had cameras that faced only one way and didn’t let us see on our screens what our selfies would look like so we just had to hold our phones in the air and hope for the best—so I took this one-try selfie as quickly and discreetly as I could to ensure an entire city of complete strangers wouldn’t judge me. It turned out rather well, although I cut off the last letter of the sign. Which means as far as any of you know, I actually just saw a knockoff production called Next to Norma.
I've been invited to be the Bipolar Person in Residence and talk to the casts and audiences of Next to Normal productions at two local theaters over the last decade. And while I hope it was helpful for the actors as they rehearsed and found their characters' realities, it was extremely helpful for me to have an opportunity to articulate the swings and uncertainties and terrors of living with a mental illness—both so I could explain any weirdness I've personally exhibited and to help the actors help their audiences better understand these realities.

I also maintain a blog of my journey, struggles, triumphs, thoughts and research into bipolar disorder and mental illness in general at TMIpolar.blogspot.com

While every bipolar mind is different and therefore every moment of Next to Normal doesn't exactly mirror my experiences, every note and every word of the show is brilliant and hits brilliantly close to home. And that closing anthem—sung by the characters not to each other but to the audience and to the present and to the future—encapsulates the struggles and hopes I live with every day in astute prose and powerful, emotional, wall-of-sound vocals:

Day after day,
We'll find the will to find our way.
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done,
There will be light.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Dead ahead

The RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and started sinking 112 years ago today at 10:40 pm Central Time.
(This exact time is actually hotly debated; Titanic's constantly moving Ship's Time doesn't translate hour-for-hour/minute-for-minute with the fixed time zones on land, and there were conflicting timelines for the collision and sinking reported by the survivors. Also: Daylight Savings Time wasn't established in the US until 1918 [time zones themselves were established in 1883, just FYI], so whatever the exact Ship's Time was, it does translate to true Central Time here.)

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the tragedy—mostly from the perspective of wanting to know what it was like to be on such a grand ship ... and then to have it slowly, terrifyingly disappear under my feet. I’ve recorded the sinking as an annual event on my google calendar so I get a pop-up reminder every year to take a moment to think about the people who died and the horrors they and the survivors endured.
 
We’re 112 years later still in the murky waters of a seemingly endless Titanic metaphor: Things we’d taken for granted as unsinkable—from industries and economies to legal equalities and merely going out in public and hugging our friends—have sunk beneath dark waves that have lapped at our feet for years. Political wars, cultural wars and actual wars never stop rising to the sky and crashing down around us. Gun violence has gotten so commonplace that it’s become almost unremarkable. Class divisions and the desperation of the poor keep being more and more impossible not to see. People we personally know and love have succumbed to covid and drowned, literally in the fluid filling their lungs.
 
Those of us who are still safe and healthy know we’re extremely lucky to be so—and that covid, though largely under control, is not entirely behind us and our circumstances can change with something as innocent as having a short conversation. But it takes just one cough, one shooter, one extremist official with the power to vote away our equalities … and our own world can sink out from under us.
 
It’s terrifying, it’s sobering and it’s devastating—and I’ve found that living amid the social terror and existential exhaustion wrought by all of this has profoundly underscored whatever emotional connection I’ve given myself to the Titanic passengers and crew I technically know nothing about but still mourn.
 
Unlike those Titanic passengers and crew, we're lucky that we're able to keep solid ground reliably under our feet. And I urge you to consciously maximize the benefits of that advantage. Don’t wait for an annual reminder of a century-plus-old tragedy. Don’t wait for the next devastating blow of the current tragedy. Take a moment—take MANY moments—every day to be thankful for the people you love in your life while you can.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

It's Still Here

Happy 53rd anniversary to Follies, the glorious, epic, mold-breaking 1971 musical by Stephen Sondheim, James Goldman, Harold Prince and Michael Bennett that ended up being too lavish and probably too jarringly mold-breaking for its own good. The most expensive Broadway production to date when it opened, it drew a full spectrum of critical reviews but didn't get the musical-theater-pantheon foothold it deserved and closed after 500 performances without recouping any of its investments.

I was unfortunately three when it opened and I couldn't get tickets, but my heart and endless fascination and I were eventually—inevitably—pulled into its magical, inspiring, gorgeous, heartbreaking world when I saw the 1987 London revival, which gave Eartha Kitt a much-needed comeback when she replaced the broken-ankled Delores Gray (just like what happened to her in 42nd Street!) to belt the iconic "I'm Still Here"—which, as coincidences never cease, was the song in the 1971 production that brought Yvonne De Carlo back from the brink of terminal embarrassment after playing Lily Munster on TV.

Thankfully—inevitably—Follies has since then finally achieved the musical-theater-pantheon stature it deserves, and I've been fortunate enough to have seen more productions of it than I can count in New York, D.C., Chicago and beyond. I'm obviously overflowing with fanboy knowledge and trivia and opinions and lyrics (oh boy, am I overflowing with lyrics) about the show, but if I even want to come close to sharing everything about its brilliance that's waiting to burst out of me, I'll have to schedule a six-week subscription-series symposium at a local college to get it all Jakesplained to you. 

Fun fact: It opened at the Winter Garden Theater in NYC, which—again with the coincidences—is the theater where I just so happen to have seen my first-ever Broadway show (Cats, the fact of which I am hard-stop-sun-comes-up-coffee-cup not willing to discuss).

Sunday, March 31, 2024

We're here

For all the irrational hatred and the isolationist hypocrisy and the manipulative demagoguery the GQP and their vile, desperate, defiantly hypocritical sycophants use to tear this country apart morally, socially and intellectually ... for all the ignorance they've perpetuated and the lies they've parroted to shore up their base ... for all the ugliness and hostility and racism and sexism and phobias they've unleashed from the dungeons and the shadows and the basest instincts of humankind ... they've ironically and unintentionally and no doubt regrettably inspired something quite beautiful: a mass uprising of love and support for every person they vilify and every minority they oppress and every demographic they scapegoat in their bloodthirsty quest to dehumanize and destroy us all for their own gain.

And if you're a trans person—especially if you're a trans kid—we want you to know we're here.

There are legions of us who have been and who currently are and who will continue to be your friends and allies and champions with no judgments, no condemnations and no barriers. We may not have been as visible to you as we'd have liked in the past out of consideration for your privacy or lack of a forum to communicate to you or even out of concern that we might inadvertently say or do something awkward or uncomfortable or insensitive around you. But we're here. And it is now our moral and social and just simply human imperative to make sure you know who we are.

Whether you're just coming to terms with your need to transition, beginning to comprehend the emotional and physical and social journey ahead of you, taking the first tentative steps in changing your persona and your presentation and your name, or standing bravely and confidently and proudly at any point on the transition continuum ... our primary interest in your trans identity is that you are safe and healthy and happy.

We may never fully comprehend the extent of what your personal or collective journey has entailed—and we may ask a lot of questions both out of curiosity and a sincere need to better understand where you've been and where you're going.

But we're here. And we stand with you both in person and at the dawn of a new sense of community. And we want you to know we love and respect you just as you are. Or just as you need to be.

We're here.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Dramaturgy: Something Rotten!

In the interest of squeezing SOME value out of my B.A. in Renaissance literature, I appointed myself the unofficial dramaturg of Theatre Cedar Rapids' 2024 production of Something Rotten!, the narrative of which occurs toward the end of the English Renaissance. I posted occasional bits of historical/contextual information on our cast/crew Facebook page, but since I put all that damn work into researching and writing I decided it would be nice to have it all seen by more than 42 people. So I'm posting the entirety of my musings here. They often reference inside jokes and details from the script and score, so if anything here confuses you you’ll just have to get tickets to the nearest production of the brilliant Something Rotten! you can find. You won't be disappointed.


GOD, I LOVE CONTEXT!

To start off our adventures in learning, here’s a brief(ish) timeline of events and lives relevant to the Something Rotten! narrative:

500ish–1450ish: The Middle Ages in Europe (also called the Dark Ages or the Medieval period)

1347–1351: The first wave of the Black Death in Europe (also called the Plague, the Pestilence or the Great Mortality)

1360–1667: Many, many recurring (but far less destructive) waves of the Black Death in Europe

1436: Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press

1450ish–1650ish: The European Renaissance

1492: Christopher Columbus lands in what is now San Salvador in the Bahamas

1503–1566: The life of Nostradamus (born Michel de Nostredame)

1533–1630: The Puritan movement in England

1558–1603: The reign of Queen Elizabeth I

1564–1616: The life of William Shakespeare (born Gulielmus Shakspere)

1595: Nick Bottom writes Omelette

1599ish: William Shakespeare writes Hamlet

1925: Grant Wood (yes, that Grant Wood) produces a play called Cardboard Moon in his 5 Turner Alley studio in Cedar Rapids and launches what will eventually become Theatre Cedar Rapids

2015: Something Rotten! gets ten Tony nominations (and wins only one: Christian Borle [Shakespeare] for Best Featured Actor in a Musical)

2024: We put on some snazzy pants, do some jazzy hands and make a star-lit, won’t-quit, big hit musicaaaaaal!


THAT PESKY LITTLE PESTILENCE THAT’S KILLING HALF OF EUROPE

The Black Death (also called the Plague, the Pestilence or the Great Mortality) made its first recorded appearance in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Italian dockworkers entered the ships to begin unloading but were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus.

Their mysterious, terrifying disease spread through the local population at alarming speed and soon spread farther along trade routes that ran both inland and along the coasts. It also followed people to neighboring cities as they tried to escape but unknowingly brought the disease with them.

Modern epidemiologists have traced Black Death outbreaks to regions of China as far back as 600 BCE. The Medieval outbreak appears to have started in the same regions and traveled northwest across Asia to ports in Constantinople and then through the Mediterranean Sea to its first European appearance in Messina (which is right where the Italian boot makes contact with the Sicilian football, for those of you who visualize shapes in land masses). From there it spread roughly clockwise along the Mediterranean border and up the continental interior until it hit England in June 1348. (247 years later, Nick Bottom wrote a merry little Black Death showtune with a derivative medley and frankly it was TOO SOON.)

From England, the Black Death spread further north into Scandinavia, where it hit water, had nowhere else to go and finally died out in 1351, after a four-year European rampage that killed an estimated 25 million people—which was somewhere between 40% and 60% of the total European population.

Fun fact: Ports along the Mediterranean started making trade ships wait 40 days offshore before docking to help prevent the Black Death from reaching land. The Latin word for 40 is “quadraginta,” which eventually evolved to the modern word “quarantine.”

One more fun fact: The “Ring Around the Rosie” nursery rhyme may or may not (depending on your school of etymological thought) trace back to the details of the Black Death: Rosie rings represented bubonic lumps on the body, people carried posies and other flowers to mask the smell of rotting corpses, bodies were burned to ashes in an attempt to kill off the mysterious illness, and falling down was because people were really clumsy back then. Or they were dropping dead from the plague. It was probably the latter, but I wasn’t there and I hate to make assumptions.


WHAT’S THAT COMING UP THE SILK ROAD?

The Silk Road (a name that wasn’t coined until the 19th century) was a collection of trade routes linking Medieval China and the Mediterranean between the 3rd and 16th centuries. Named (obvs) for the transport of Chinese silks and other textiles, the Silk Road also saw the transport of spices, salt (which at the time was most importantly a preservative and often a form of currency), precious metals, gunpowder, cultural artifacts, ideas and education, missionaries of many religions, and—the least lucrative from an economics standpoint—the Black Death.

Look for it on a map. It was VERY LONG. And there were very few hotels with complimentary shampoos and continental breakfasts along the way. But there were plenty of bandits along its 4,000-mile route to help you lighten your load.

Did you catch that 4,000-mile part? People traveled the Silk Road in camelpower caravans, and a full-length one-way trip could last an entire year.

Trade and transportation along the Silk Road lasted until 1453—a full century after the first Black Death outbreak in Europe—when the Ottoman Empire (which at the height of its power and territorial control engulfed everything around the Mediterranean Sea except modern Italy and the northernmost coasts) boycotted trade with China and closed the route. (142 years later, Nick Bottom wrote a merry little Black Death showtune with a derivative medley and frankly it was TOO SOON.)

Remnants of the Silk Road survive today in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Xinjiang region of China. The Silk Road also survives as a metaphor for the exchange of sketchy goods and services on the Dark Web, which is something that hack Nostradamus clearly didn’t see in humanity’s economic future.


WELCOME TO THE RENAISSANCE!

Now that we have our Middle Ages backstory out of the way, let’s join the historical narrative of our merry little play. (And my advance apologies: I totally geeked out researching and writing this so it’s way longer than I intended. I promise to be less overwhelming in the future.)

Renaissance—as our opening number helpfully explains—means “rebirth.” The Black Death had killed roughly a third of the entire European population, which—among mega-many other consequences—gave serfs (the lower working class) bargaining power for their agricultural labor. It decimated the longstanding feudal system, caused a seismic redistribution of wealth, and spawned the rise of a middle-ish merchant class that had newfound money, leisure and upward mobility through commerce and education.

It was against this socioeconomic upheaval that a confluence of events across the continent stirred and boiled over into the aforementioned rebirth that underpins two full centuries of cultural development, artistic exploration, scientific discovery, social restructuring and political reform:

GEOPOLITICAL: The 1453 fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) (not Constantinople) (this is a joke for the They Might Be Giants fans among us) brought a brutal end to the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine scholars fled mostly to Italy with their collections of Greek and Roman books and manuscripts, which inspired a widespread revival in the studies of philosophy, science and art.

EDUCATION: These Classical Greek and Roman texts fostered a more rational, scientific approach to theology, the natural world and the arts. Human beings and nature became subjects worthy of study.

PHILOSOPHY: The texts also shifted the philosophical zeitgeist from the longstanding Medieval philosophy of scholasticism—which demanded a strict adherence to religious theology, doctrine and dogma—to a newfound exploration of humanism, a rational outlook that emphasized the potential value, goodness and morality of humans and looked for rational ways to solve human problems. This transition sent our very own Brother Jeremiah through paroxysms of existential crises, and Paroxysms of Existential Crises would make an objectively terrible band name. Which is exactly why we mock him.

SCIENCE: Humanism’s emphasis on rationality, empirical observations and mathematical knowledge challenged generally accepted scientific theories and led to what we now call the Scientific Revolution. In 1534, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which placed the sun—not the Earth—at the center of the solar system. It upended centuries of scientific thinking and inspired scientists across Europe to approach the natural world from a multitude of innovative perspectives. (Of course, that one guy on YouTube has since proven that the earth is flat, so we know today that all that Copernicus stuff is just silly.)

ART: Artists adopted the rational elements of Classical learning—such as anatomy and aerial perspective—and strove to achieve newfound levels of perfection in their representations of humans, animals and nature. (Once that perfection ideal had been achieved, however, artists had nowhere else upward to go and over the centuries started to deconstruct the content and representation in their work to eventually bring about movements like Abstraction, Impressionism, Cubism and the sad little stick figures I’m barely able to draw because I have zero artistic talent.)

PATRONAGE: Most of the Renaissance’s rich artistic achievements would not have been possible without the funding of wealthy patrons. Perhaps the most famous of these patrons were the Medicis, an art-loving family of bankers (and three popes) who commissioned enormous quantities of paintings, sculptures and architecture for their palaces and family tomb. Their most immediate legacy, of course, was the lofty ambitions of our very own dyspeptic Lord Clapham and awkwardly earnest Shylock as they struggled to usher Nick Bottom to the literary pantheon of fame and glory.

LITERATURE: The artistic achievements of the Renaissance also extended from the visual arts to the worlds of literature and theater (otherwise we wouldn’t be rehearsing all these songs and tap numbers). Inspired by humanism’s emphasis on emotions and morality, the literature of the Renaissance broke free from stringent religious dogma and began exploring the struggles and triumphs of human protagonists from history, folktales, Biblical narratives and other familiar sources. In addition to dramatic comedies like Omelette and dramatic tragedies like Hamlet, the Renaissance also saw a flourishing of the poetry that brings our very own star-crossed Nigel and Portia together in awkwardly adorkable love.

I think we can all agree, though, the the most important aftermath of this dramatic rebirth in literary thinking and writing was the day in the late 1980s that a befuddled Iowa college student realized he was NOT cut out for a career in engineering, biology, music, dance or journalism and finally declared his sixth major: English, with an emphasis on Renaissance literature—which he accomplished in three short but overwhelming semesters. And then he waited 33 damn years for this opportunity to use it. He deserves an omelette.


THIS BOTTOM’S GONNA BE TOPPED WITH A DONKEY HEAD

Many characters in our merry little play get their names from characters in Shakespeare’s plays.

Nick Bottom, for example, is a buffoon who alternates between being a character in and a narrator of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s a member of a mediocre acting troupe (sound familiar?) who, in the middle of rehearsing a play for the amusement of Oberon, the King of the Fairies, gets transformed by the mischievous Puck, a minion of Oberon, to have the head of a donkey. (Are you still with me?) But it gets weirder. (If you can believe it.) You see, the Fairy Queen Titania, wife of Oberon, gets put under a spell that makes her fall in love (and totally make out) with the donkey-headed Nick Bottom (as one does). Other stuff happens, and long story short Titania eventually gets unspelled and Nick Bottom gets his human head back and ends up thinking the whole thing has been a dream in the night in the middle of summer (hence the title).

But there’s more! The mediocre acting troupe eventually (and very poorly) performs for Oberon a rife-with-subtext play called Pyramus and Thisbe (which are objectively cool pet names), which ends with Nick Bottom performing a melodramatic death scene that’s cringier than the entirety of the Cats movie.

And, scene.

It’s worth noting that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream after the narrative of our merry little play, implying by our authors that he continued mocking his rival after poor Nick Bottom got exiled to America. Because Shakespeare is kind of a dick.


THE MAN WHO PUT THE "I AM" IN IAMBIC PENTAMETER!

The above lyric kinda flies by as Shakespeare gets introduced at the beginning of "Will Power." But it’s actually a pretty important and defining aspect of the way he wrote.

Iambic pentameter—for those of you who slept through British Lit as we nerds took fascinated and copious notes—is a type of metric line built on standardized syllables and patterns.

It’s broken into iambic feet of two syllables with the emphasis on the second syllable (“da DUM”) strung together in sets of five (“penta-”), like so:

Da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

And Shakespeare—being a total word nerd—almost exclusively followed this pattern for a whopping 884,647 words in 118,406 lines of plays and sonnets. No wonder the other kids kept beating him up on the playground and taking his lunch money.

But it ended up bringing a unifying lilt to everything he wrote:

But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINDow BREAKS?

If MUsic BE the FRUIT of LOVE, play ON.

Two HOUSEholds, BOTH aLIKE in DIGniTY.

Of course, Shakespeare—being the talentless, no-future hack that he was—didn’t always nail it. Some lines ended up with extra syllables:

To BE, or NOT to BE: that IS the QUES(tion)

And some ended up playing fast and loose with standard cadences and speech patterns:

Friends, ROmans, COUNtry MEN, lend ME your EARS.

But it’s the occasional fast-and-loose line that prevents his dialogue from getting sing-songy and that gives his actors room to breathe and bring natural inflections and interpretations to their lines.

For those of you looking to pad your trivia-night knowledge base, iambic pentameter is part of a wide and diverse meter family. Here are just a few of its siblings and their weird feet:

FEET:
Iambic: da DUM
Trochaic: DA dum
Anapestic: da da DUM

METERS:
Trimeter: three iambic/trochaic/etc feet
Tetrameter: four iambic/trochaic/etc feet
Pentameter: five iambic/trochaic/etc feet

Now pair them up any way you like and write poetry like a sixteenth-century badass. Or don’t. This won’t be on the test.


INTELLECTUAL ICONS IN PUFFY PANTS AND POINTY LEATHER BOOTS

Here are some CV basics about every local celebrity mentioned in our opening number, in the order their appear:

Francis Bacon (1561–1626): English philosopher, statesman (under the name Lord Verulam) and scientist. Considered the father of empiricism—a scientific philosophy that emphasizes sensory experience and evidence (often derived from experiments) over intuition, skepticism or rational thinking—he became a martyr to his own scientific method when he stuffed a dead chicken with snow to see if freezing temperatures could preserve the meat and in the process he developed fatal pneumonia from his prolonged exposure to the cold.

Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1552–1618): English statesman, soldier, writer and explorer. With Queen Elizabeth’s patronage, he commissioned and financed expeditions to what is now North America and helped establish the Roanoke colony that soon disappeared under mysterious—and still not definitively resolved—circumstances. Raleigh never personally set foot on the continent, but he did bring potatoes and tobacco to England from what is now South America. In 1617, Raleigh violated a Spanish peace treaty in his search for the mythical “City of Gold” riches of the mythical city of El Dorado in present-day Venezuela, for which he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded by King James.

Thomas Dekker (1572–1632): English writer, dramatist and pamphleteer. He was known primarily for the lively descriptions of English life he published in pamphlets, which were unbound booklets circulated to spread humor, op-ed commentary and political propaganda. While he was also a prolific playwright, he was not regarded as worthy of the pantheon of masters like Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlowe and Middleton. Heck—he wasn’t even regarded as worthy of getting a first name in our lyrics.

John Webster (c. 1578–c. 1632): English dramatist. While he collaborated with many leading playwrights, he is best known for his intricate, subtle, brooding tragedies. The two most famous of these tragedies—The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi—are still studied, revered and performed to this day.

Ben Johnson (1572–1637): English playwright, satirist and poet. Generally regarded as the second most important dramatist after William Shakespeare, he popularized the character-driven comedy-of-humors genre that directly combatted Shakespeare’s signature emotion-, adventure- and fate-driven romantic-comedy genre. Though intellectual rivals in writing style and worldview, Johnson and Shakespeare had great respect for each other and Johnson called Shakespeare the “Sweet Swan of Avon” in tribute of the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays seven years after his death.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593): Arguably the most famous of the Elizabethan playwrights and poets outside of Shakespeare. The first English author to receive critical fame using blank verse—unrhymed poetry written in a consistent meter and thought to more closely mimic natural human speech and inflections—Marlowe had a profound influence on Shakespeare, who quoted his work and referenced his existence in Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Macbeth and many other plays. Marlowe died relatively young (age 39) under mysterious circumstances variously attributed to a violent bar fight, blasphemous libel against the church, homosexual intrigue, betrayal by another playwright and assassination due to espionage.

Thomas Kyd (1558–1594): English playwright. His play The Spanish Tragedy (along with a Hamlet precursor often attributed to him) created the Elizabethan revenge-play genre. The genre established tropes like the vengeful ghost and the play-within-a-play used to trap a murderer, both of which drive narratives in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and some of his later works.

Thomas Middleton (1580–1627): English poet and one of the most successful and prolific playwrights of the Jacobean period, which immediately followed the Renaissance. Named for King James I and marked by intense conflicts and threats of civil wars between Protestant and Catholic states, the Jacobean era saw a literary focus on tragedy, revenge, cynicism, satire and human evil. Though Middleton was skilled in writing across all genres, he wrote something literally called The Revenger’s Tragedy and he may have collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens, Macbeth and All’s Well that Ends Well.

Thomas Moore (1478–1535): English author, lawyer, judge, philosopher, statesman and humanist. Eventually declared the patron saint of statesmen and politicians, his staunch Catholicism made him a vociferous opponent of the Protestant Reformation, the theology of Martin Luther and Henry VII’s separation from the church to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII—which was required of everyone taking public or church office—he was executed for treason.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616): Hack “writer” and total nobody who’s completely lost to the ages. If he even existed, he’d probably be one of those obsessive fans of Cats. It’s silly to even include him in this list. God, let’s hate him.


IT’S HARD TO BE THE BARD

But it’s easy to tell you what a bard is. Or was.

Outside of Shakespeare hogging the bardness title to himself for all eternity, a bard in the traditional Renaissance sense was one or any combination of the following:
  • A poet
  • Someone who recites poetry to an audience (poetry readings were a popular form of entertainment back in the days before Golden Girls reruns)
  • A writer, composer, singer or orator who recounts epic tales or impassioned narratives using lyrical, poetic language
“Bard” isn’t a formal title; it’s more of a descriptor for an avocation, like pianist or painter or gymnast or cat lady. It comes from a pre-Renaissance Celtic tradition where a wealthy patron would hire someone to tell stories, compose music and lyrics, act as an oral historian and genealogist, and generally shower the patron with praise for his sophistication and benevolence.

By the late English Renaissance, a bard did what Shakespeare and Nick and Nigel Bottom were doing: writing poetry and epic narratives about kings and supernatural beings and good-cholesterol breakfast comestibles.

But Shakespeare wasn’t called The Bard—at least not in a way that took in the public vernacular—until 150 years after his death. The designation is attributed to David Garrick, an English actor, playwright, poet and theater owner, in a 1769 poem he wrote about Shakespeare.

So when Nick Bottom complains about Shakespeare being called The Bard in our merry little play, it’s a bit of an anachronism—but thankfully it’s the only anachronistic cultural reference in our entire show.


A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

Many—but not all—characters in the Somethingrottenverse share names with characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Here’s some background (or not) on the more prominent folks:

Bea: A feisty, sharp-witted protofeminist (full name: Beatrice) in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice is tricked into falling in love with a soldier named Benedick, with whom she has a will-they-or-won’t-they “merry war.” (Spoiler alert: they do.)

Nigel: The only principal character in Something Rotten! not based on a character from a Shakespeare play. To add insult to injury, Nigel had a brilliant song called “I Suck” that was cut from the show before it got to Broadway.

Portia: A wealthy heiress in The Merchant of Venice. Written as a wise woman ostensibly modeled after Queen Elizabeth I, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer to circumvent the lottery her father established in his will to find her a husband.

Shylock: A greedy Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice. Characterized with rather appalling stereotypes from our modern perspective, he contractually establishes—and tries to literally collect—”a pound of flesh” as payment on a defaulted loan to a Christian. Even more appallingly, his “redemption” arc ends with his conversion to Christianity at the end of the play.

Lord Clapham: The only prominent supporting character in Something Rotten! not based on a character from a Shakespeare play. But he’s happy and he knows it, so clap your hams.

Toby Belch: The pseudonym Shakespeare uses when he infiltrates Nick Bottom’s acting troupe, Sir Toby Belch is originally ingénue Olivia’s boisterous drunk uncle in Twelfth Night. Though he mostly provides comic relief and a few insightful observations throughout the narrative of the play, he also exhibits a cruel streak toward some of the more vulnerable characters.


AWW, SHE’S BEDAZZLED!

Shakespeare isn’t kidding at his party when he brags about making up words. Of the 20,000 words in his plays and poems, he invented more than 1,700 that are still in use today. Here’s an alphabetical sample, except for a sample for X because Elon Musk hadn’t been invented yet:

Alligator: Romeo and Juliet, Act 5 Scene 1

Bedroom:  A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 2 Scene 2

Critic: Love's Labour's Lost, Act 3 Scene 1

Downstairs: Henry IV Part 1, Act 2 Scene 4

Eyeball: Henry VI Part 1, Act 4 Scene 7

Fashionable: Troilus and Cressida, Act 3 Scene 3

Gossip: The Comedy of Errors, Act 5 Scene 1

Hurry: The Comedy of Errors, Act 5 Scene 1

Inaudible: All's Well That Ends Well, Act 5 Scene 3

Jaded: Henry VI Part 2, Act 4 Scene 1

Kissing: Love's Labour's Lost, Act 5 Scene 2

Lonely: Coriolanus, Act 4 Scene 1

Manager: Love's Labour's Lost, Act 1 Scene 2

Nervy: Coriolanus, Act 2 Scene 1

Obscene: Love's Labour's Lost, Act 1 Scene 1

Puppy dog: King John, Act 2 Scene 1

Questioning: As You Like It, Act 5 Scene 4

Rant: Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 1

Skim milk: Henry IV Part 1, Act 2 Scene 3

Traditional: Richard III, Act 3 Scene 1

Undress: The Taming of the Shrew, Induction Scene 2

Varied: Titus Andronicus, Act 3 Scene 1

Worthless: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 4 Scene 2

Yelping: Henry VI Part 1, Act 4 Scene 2

Zany: Love's Labour's Lost, Act 5 Scene 2


THOMAS NOSTRADAMUS? I PROMISE!

Michel de Nostredame (1503–1566), usually Latinized as Nostradamus, was a French astrologer, apothecary and reputed soothsayer who is best known for his 1555 book Les Prophéties, a collection of 942 poetic quatrains—none of which involved the discussion of gyrating one’s ass—allegedly predicting future events.

Les Prophéties was by no definition a work of scholarly merit; it was filled with anagrams and references to mythology and astrology, and it very vaguely predicted (inevitable) natural disasters (Beware! It will rain someday in the future!). And Nostradamus wrote it in his own hybrid of French, Greek and Latin—most likely to stay vague enough to avoid being persecuted for heresy during the Holy Inquisition.

Soothsayers, seers and oracles—a list that is objectively more fun to say than “lions, tigers and bears”—were people (or sometimes just things) revered for their ability (?) not only to predict the future but to provide insight and counsel to everyone from royalty to lazy playwrights with giggly last names. Their powers (?) were said to come from both deities and the occult. And they were almost never named Greg.

You’ve probably already figured this out, but since the real Nostradamus died 29 years before the events of our merry little play, the Something Rotten! writers invented his ass-gyrating nephew Thomas to help drive our narrative. You might say they tapped him for the job. But please don’t. Nobody should ever say that.


THE MOST LAMENTABLE COMEDY

The men in Nick Bottom’s terrible acting troupe are named for the men in a terrible acting troupe made up of menial laborers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Midsummer, the troupe barely holds it together enough to very poorly perform a version of a Greek tragedy they call The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe at a wedding celebration. Here’s a bit about each of them:

Francis Flute: A young, over-excited actor and a bellows-mender by trade, Francis Flute is forced to play the female role of Thisbe, who talks to her lover Pyramus (played by Nick Bottom) through a gap in a wall.

Tom Snout: A tinker (a name for a tinsmith) by trade, Tom Snout plays the aforementioned wall, holding two fingers of one hand open to be the aforementioned gap. He even has two lines as The Wall.

Peter Quince: An amateur playwright, Peter Quince is the author of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. He and the troupe perform it at a wedding celebration for Theseus (the Duke of Athens) and Hyppolyta (the Queen of the Amazons).

Snug: A joiner who literally joins wood for a living, Snug plays a lion who indirectly causes the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe. Though The Lion was only supposed to roar, Snug was worried he’d forget his lines. In the end, Peter Quince gave The Lion a few lines explaining that he’s not a real lion so the audience shouldn’t be scared of him.

Robin Starveling: A tailor by trade, Robin Starveling plays the role of Moonshine in the play. He makes a fool of himself using a lantern to create moonlight, and he’s thoroughly derided by the audience for it.

BONUS CHARACTER!
Sir John Falstaff:
In our play, Shakespeare calls the Master of the Justice “Lord Falstaff.” It’s not a withering insult, but it’s not necessarily a compliment either. Falstaff was actually a recurring character in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Shakespeare eventually killed him off with casual mention in Henry V. (All four plays were written after the events of our narrative, so it could be said that Shakespeare invented the character in our courtroom.)

Falstaff was mostly a comic figure: a vain, boastful drinker who hung out with petty criminals and lived off of stolen money. While he certainly led people into trouble, he’s generally regarded as being a jolly, debauched figure, and he’s lived on in other works by Giuseppi Verdi, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Edward Elgar (whom you know for writing Pomp and Circumstance) and even Kenneth Branagh.


THE STUPIDEST THING THAT I HAVE EVER HEARD!

The characters in our merry little play break into song in two separate worlds: the one they live in and the one they create onstage.

And there’s a very cool—and rarely useful—word for the world-they-live-in singing: diegesis (say it: die a JEE sis)

Diegetic (say it: die a JET ik) songs are songs sung between characters who in the backs of their minds keep wondering WHY AREN’T THEY TALKING? The songs in almost all musicals are diegetic—or, more specifically, the songs that characters sing to each other are diegetic. The songs that characters sing to themselves or about themselves to the audience are diegetic-adjacent, which is objectively a terrible name for a puppy.

On the flip side, songs in a show that are sung as performances by the characters in the show are mimetic (say it: meh MET ik).

Memesis (say it: meh MEE sis) has a number of contextual meanings in theater—and a bunch more in the various disciplines of science—but for the sake of this already-too-long explanation, they’re play-within-a-play or stage-upon-a-stage songs performed for a scripted audience.

So in our merry little play, “God, I Hate Shakespeare” and “A Musical” are diegetic because the characters sing them to each other instead of talking like normal people. And “The Black Death” and “Omelette” are memetic because they’re being intentionally performed.

“Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top” and “Hard to Be the Bard” are the aforementioned diegetic-adjacent soliloquies that the characters sing to themselves or directly to the audience. And “To Thine Own Self be True” and “We See the Light” muddy the diegetic-adjacent waters even further because it’s not always 100% clear to whom they’re specifically being sung.

Finally: If your cholesterol’s high, you’re probably diegetic. Or not. In either case, you should definitely get it checked out.


NOTHING RHYMES WITH AMERICA!

What did the Bottom brothers and their merry band of misfits encounter when they reached the New World?

Our narrative takes place entirely in 1595 and the average transatlantic travel at the time took two months, so it’s safe to assume Nick et al. had arrived on the first ship to the New World by 1596.

But Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1601 and transatlantic travel wasn’t a terribly regular occurrence at the time, so let’s assume word of the play’s success wouldn’t have reached the New World until 1602.

Sir Walter Raleigh had founded the Roanoke Colony in what is now North Carolina in 1585. Virginia Dare, the first known English child born on the North American continent, was born in 1587. But the Roanoke Colony disappeared under mysterious and never yet fully resolved circumstances in 1590. So it’s safe to say there wasn’t much of an English-expat welcoming party—or even an audience—for the brothers and their epic tale of leaving Cornwall when they arrived.

Kinda-lost-to-history explorer and privateer Bartholomew Gosnold was the first Englishman to land on the New England coast—exploring and naming Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard—in 1602. But if he was the first person (and potential audience member) in the area, it’s unlikely that the Bottoms were in their dressing rooms waiting for anyone to call places as soon as their New England house was full.

Another Bartholomew—Bartholomew Gilbert—landed in the Chesapeake Bay in 1603, but he was killed by Native Americans as soon as he came ashore. And his season tickets were probably non-refundable, so his seats sat empty during any possible performances.

BUT! The American social landscape wasn’t completely barren. There were Native American settlements all along the Atlantic coast—though their insatiable hunger for ponderous, derivative musicals about British perseverance in the Renaissance was debatable.

BUT AGAIN! All was not lost. The Pilgrims arrived in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. An offshoot of the Puritans—their main difference involved the Pilgrims’ belief in some degree of separation between church and state—the Pilgrims’ hunger for bawdy musical theater was also dubious. But I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure.

A pilgrim is just a person who journeys—and the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived two decades after the Bottoms—so history is very unclear about who might have been on Shylock’s Pilgrim Productions Board of Directors.

In any case, our adventures at Theatre Cedar Rapids come to a close today, just as the Bottoms’ adventures in England eventually came to a close in 1595. And I’m gonna put a stake in the ground and say we had waaaay better—and more attractive—American audiences.

Land of opportunity indeed!

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Happy 133rd birthday, Grant Wood!

Grant Wood, best known for his iconic American Gothic, lived and worked most of his life in and around Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His legacy in the area—in addition to an exhaustive collection of his work in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art permanent collection—includes an annual art festival, a grade school (my alma mater!) and even the entire region’s public education agency—all in his name.

Of course, no Cedar Rapids student’s education is complete without thorough coverage of Wood’s stylized, iconoclastic, humorous and sometimes political oeuvre. And this Cedar Rapids student came away with a lifelong love of his work.

Grant Wood was a pioneer in a loosely coordinated artistic movement called Regionalism, which eschewed modernist, abstract trends like Impressionism and Cubism in favor of stylistic, romanticized views of everyday rural life in the 1930s. The Regionalists were less concerned with the trendy politics of 1930s Social Realists than with renouncing the hegemony of popular European art and culture and celebrating the honest work ethic and modest demeanor of the Midwest.

In 1928, Wood received a commission to create a giant stained-glass window for the American Legion in Cedar Rapids. In preparation, he traveled to Munich to study ancient stained-glass techniques under Germany’s famed master craftsmen. The window he created, featuring a 16-foot Lady of Peace standing over six life-size soldiers representing the Revolutionary War through World War I, was a masterpiece of technique, form and color. Though as far as Google and every search term I can think of are concerned, it never had a name. But you can see it in all its shimmery namelessness here:
Fun fact: The model for the Lady of Peace figure was his sister, Nan Wood Graham, who was also the model for the female figure in "American Gothic."

Despite the window's unmistakable American themes, it drew fire from misguided patriots who criticized Wood for studying with the Germans—the enemy!—so soon after the Great War. One of the most vocal groups was the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution.

Wood’s elegant response: Daughters of Revolution, a satirical painting showing three dour spinstresses standing self-righteously—one, pinky extended in haughty indignation, holding a teacup in my grandmother’s china pattern—in front of Emmanuel Leutz’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Wood’s point, lost completely on the knee-jerk reactionaries the painting so elegantly mocked, lies in the fact that Washington Crossing the Delaware—that beloved icon of American patriotism—was painted by a German.

I loved this painting before I even knew its story. The delightfully smug women drew me in because their spiritual progeny hung just a few branches over on my family tree. The Blue Willow teacup fascinated me because its cousins served as my grandmother’s everyday dishes. (Have you ever eaten green Jell-O from a blue plate? It looks very-not-deliciously brown.) And that shape—that relentless horizontalness—made the painting such a challenge to display in any setting ... like right here on my blog.

My relentlessly horizontal framed print of Daughters of Revolution—which has followed me through six houses, apartments and condos in Cedar Rapids and Chicago—now hangs in our relentlessly long front hallway, and one of my grandmother's Blue Willow teacups sits safely on a tastefully underlit shelf with a small collection of other blue-and-white ceramicware in my bedroom. They are quite literally among my favorite possessions. 

And I am proudly and dutifully as a Cedar Rapidian sharing these works and their stories here so you can enjoy their oft-overlooked brilliance and awesomeness in celebration of Grant Wood's birthday.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

ChicagoRound: 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire

Chicago emerged from its devastating Great Fire on October 10, 1871, after a two-day conflagration that destroyed 17,500 buildings over four square miles, left 90,000 of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants homeless and killed an impossible-to-quantify-accurately 200–300 people.

And the city immediately began rebuilding.

Thirty-two years and two months later, after rising both literally and proverbially from its ashes to reclaim its place as one of America’s most populous and vital cities, Chicago was devastated by another fire … this time in the month-old, state-of-the-art, “fireproof” Iroquois Theatre.
When it opened on November 23, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre was hailed as an architectural masterpiece and a jewel in the crown of Chicago’s theater scene. Designed in the highly ornate French baroque style, it featured grand staircases, gilded ornamentation, lush velvet curtains and a 6,300-square-foot domed auditorium with a dropped stage to improve the sightlines from every seat in the house. And though it was billed confidently as “absolutely fireproof,” the Iroquois contained almost no fire-safety features. No fire alarm. No backstage telephone. No labeled fire exits (most exits were hidden behind velvet curtains by theater managers who didn't want them to look ugly). Even its supposedly fireproof asbestos curtain was made of a highly flammable wood pulp. (Less than ten years later, the “unsinkable” Titanic would succumb to a similarly overconfident hubris.)
The theater’s opening production was a touring musical pastiche called Mr. Bluebeard, which featured a 400-person cast and starred popular Vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy. It had enjoyed critical and popular success for over a month when its December 30 audience filed in on a freezing Wednesday afternoon during the break between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since the theater’s opening had been delayed repeatedly, its owners were desperate to make up for lost revenue, so they habitually oversold the house, seating extra patrons up and down the aisles in the orchestra and balconies.

The fire started at the top of Act II when an overhead stage light shorted and sent sparks leaping to a nearby curtain. As the fire spread through the flylines and burning bits of scenery rained down on the stage, the actors continued soldiering through their performance, confident in their understanding that the theater was fireproof. A handful of people in the audience got nervous enough to leave, but many chose to stay in their seats (or aisles) until it became obvious the fire was not going to be contained.

And then panic set in.

The ensuing stampede up overcrowded aisles through an unfamiliar theater with hidden exits left trampled bodies everywhere. And since most of the Iroquois exit doors opened inward, the bodies piled up in front of the doors, leaving no hope of escape.

The actors, too, created their own stampede to find exits. And when they finally pried open the giant freight door on the north end of the stage, the arctic winter blast that blew into the building combined with the fiery gases above the stage to create a superheated fireball that exploded into the auditorium and incinerated everything in its path, including hundreds of people still in their seats.

Many of the people who did manage to get out of the building found themselves trapped high in the air on unfinished fire escapes. As these fire escapes got more and more crowded, people begin to fall (or jump) to their deaths in the alley below. By the time the fire was over, bodies were piled 10 deep in what is still called to this day Death Alley.
Though it was contained to one building and it burned less than an hour, the fire killed over 600 people (twice the number killed in the two-day Great Fire of 1871), shut down theaters around the world out of fire-safety concerns (leaving thousands of actors and theater employees unemployed), generated worldwide outpourings of sympathy, exposed yet another Chicago corruption scandal in the years of ensuing lawsuits, and ultimately brought about great changes in the way we respond to massive disasters and catalogue and identify disaster victims. It even inspired an Indianapolis hardware salesman named Carl Prinzler, who randomly had to miss the deadly performance, to invent what he called the Self Releasing Fire Exit Bolt once he learned that a disproportionate number of victims had died in desperate piles in front of the inward-opening exit doors with confusing European-style bascule locks. Known today as the “panic bar,” his invention—along with outward-opening exit doors—are perhaps the biggest public-safety legacy of the Iroquois disaster.
Today, the stunning Asian-baroque James M. Nederlander Theatre (built in 1926 as the Oriental Theatre until its name was changed in 2019) sits pretty much on the exact footprint of the Iroquois Theatre. A thriving part of the Broadway in Chicago theater collective, it features touring productions that play year-round to thousands upon thousands of theater patrons who largely have no idea that they’re sitting on a historic graveyard of sorts. To my knowledge there isn’t even a memorial on the property commemorating the fire.
There is a memorial about three blocks away, in Chicago’s classical-revival City Hall building. Designed by Chicago sculptor Laredo Taft, the bas-relief plaque currently sits above a glass column that houses a revolving door, so it’s both hard to see up close and hard to photograph, especially with an iPhone.
Thankfully, it’s accompanied by an eye-level plaque that explains it context and memorializes the 600 lives lost on December 30, 1903, in one of the worst theater disasters in history.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Inpatient

After a year of unemployment in Chicago where I half-assedly looked for jobs and shuffled back and forth from Cedar Rapids, I more or less officially moved home nine years ago this month.

My bipolar disorder was escalating and I was seeing what I now understand was a hack psychiatrist (because how can you know what to look for and who’s competent when you’re new at finding mental health professionals and you’re crippled by a mental illness?) who kept prescribing medication after medication (including the anticonvulsant Depakote that I had NO business being on due to its highly problematic interactions with my Lamictal mood stabilizer) without following up or even letting me know what catastrophic side effects to look for. And my unmanaged Depakote cocktail was a living nightmare of day-long blackouts, terrifying hallucinations, and sleepwalking through what was thankfully benign but could have been fatal odd behavior.

Every psychotropic drug gives you temporary—sometimes awful—side effects as you ramp up on a new prescription and wean off of it when you find out it doesn’t work. And thanks to this doctor’s random changes of drugs and cocktails, I was in a constant state of up-and-down side effects that left me miserable and confused and unable to function in a multitude of ways.

On top of all that, I was newly single and living alone for the first time in seven years, which meant I didn’t have an extra brain in the house to remind me to take that litany of changing meds on their prescribed schedules.

So by the time I decided I was moving home, I was a mess. A catastrophic, dissociative, emotional-train-crash mess.

And as Christmas drew nearer and nearer, I found myself more and more overcome with panic and dread about holding myself together through our family activities, worrying that I’d ruin them for everyone and inevitably escalating even more.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t comprehend.

I didn’t want to live.

So nine years ago today, my parents—my terrified, confused, helpless parents—and I together made the heart-wrenching decision that I needed to be hospitalized. Two days before Christmas.

The ensuing details are still hazy to me, but from what I can remember: I sobbed on our couch in Greek-tragedy emotional pain as I slowly wrapped my muddled brain around what I was about to do. Mom and Dad came with me to the emergency room. I was evaluated by a doctor. We were put in an empty holding room for four hours while they looked for an open bed, which they eventually—thankfully—found right there instead of in a hospital 200 miles away. We were taken to the mental ward where we first had to go through a room where Mom and Dad had to leave their coats and Mom had to leave her purse.

When we got in, I had to forfeit my coat and clothes and phone and basically everything but my glasses. I was given scrubs and hospital socks. I met privately with a doctor, who took me off every drug I was on and prescribed yet another new cocktail of drugs. Which meant more simultaneous ramping-up-and-down side effects.

And when I was finally done being triaged, I was given an opportunity to say goodbye to my parents and then I was escorted to my room.

I made one last look back as I was halfway down the hallway, and the looks on my parents’ faces—their anguish, fear and inconsolable sadness—will be forever seared in my memory.

And so will my feeling of complete, comforting relief from accepting the fact that all of this was bigger than I was, I could finally release the demons fighting inside me, and I was in the protective, hopefully healing care of people who could manage whatever it was that was tearing me apart.

Nine years ago today I launched into an unknown of what ended up being a full week in a locked mental ward in a hospital.

Nine years ago today I started yet another roller coaster of the disorienting, miserable side effects of changing medicines.

Nine years ago today I finally knew I was safe from myself, I was being cared for by experts, and for some reason what I found to be the most important: I wouldn’t ruin my family’s Christmas. I knew that not being there would be disruptive. But I also knew that being there would have been even worse.

Nine years ago today, I started what would still be a long, bumpy road to healing, but I knew I was at least on the road to healing. It was one of the worst things I’ve been through and one of the best things I’ve ever done.

If you’re struggling with the out-of-control pain and confusion of mental illness, please know there’s no shame in asking for help—even to the point of being hospitalized—and putting yourself in the focused care of others.

There most likely won’t be immediate healing. But there will be hope. For you, your family and your support network.

There will be calming, restorative, essential hope.

Mental Health Awareness Month: NAMI

The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) is a nationwide organization that provides informational and emotional support for the caregi...