Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Write Club is a monthly, literary bloodsport in which contenders face off against each other with 7-minute essays on competing topics. Below was my combatant essay based on the prompt “MARTIANS,” facing off against “SANTA.” This essay was performed on November 16, 2021, at The Hideout in Chicago, and was victorious in its bout.
In the auditorium at Downers Grove North High School there is a short set of seven steps, located past the proscenium arch downstage right, bending twice as it descends into the front seats of the house. Nestled into the crook of this staircase is a small, vintage pipe organ, covered with a wooden case perhaps eight feet tall, peeking over the height of the visible stage exit with a short horizontal shelf above a sharp downward incline and a four-foot vertical drop.
Now the purpose of the locked wooden case was to prevent irresponsible high school students from fucking around with the vintage pipe organ. Except it had been placed, as I said, right next to the edge of the stage, which meant the irresponsible high school students would fuck around with the organ case instead, tossing themselves down the slide rather than using the nearby stairs, saving themselves precious seconds in the fast-paced, cut-throat world of high school stage production while looking moderately cool in the process.
It is 1992 and I am working on the stage crew for Bye Bye Birdie. During one of the many lulls in the rehearsal, Dan Alwin turns to me, then looks past me at the organ case, and says:
“You know…I’ve always wanted to see somebody go down this thing head-first.”
And I am a 14 year-old freshman of awkward, fawn-legged social skills who is gradually discovering that he might be one of the capital-T capital-K Theatre Kids, which is Theatre with an R-E because part of the aesthetic is the pervasive Anglophilia. And I am looking over at the organ case as well, an organ case I have also slid down several times in the past few months, and whatever combination of adventurousness and desperate need for acceptance exists with the chemical cocktail of my adolescent brain prompts me to say “I’ll do it.”
I have slid halfway down the incline, looking directly into Dan Alwin’s face, when I stop myself by using the friction of my palms against the wood. It has occurred to me, at this moment, that a four-foot vertical drop looks very different from this angle and that this might not have been the smartest activity in which I’ve ever agreed to participate. I tell Dan I’ve changed my mind and begin pushing myself back up the organ case. Dan, clearly annoyed with my decision, grabs my left arm and gives it a hard yank. My hand lands flat against the thinly-carpeted, concrete floor, and: <snap>
The bones break just below the joint and at that moment I no longer have a left wrist, but a trigonometry problem. I have very little recollection of the pain itself or the volume of my screaming. I do have seared into my memory the expression on Jennifer Gram’s face as she stood above me. The horror in her eyes, her hands rushing to contain the gasp of shock from her lips before she turned away, as if looking upon my fractured limb had produced the sort of existential crisis and rush of madness that comes with encountering a Lovecraftian cryptid. It was a little bit like the look I saw on your face a moment ago.
This is beautiful. The wince, the gasp, the lingering phantom sensation within those of you who have also broken bones as I described the snap of my radius and ulna? Beautiful. Because it is important to recognize and to ruminate on a simple truth of ourselves, which is that each of us, all seven billion of us, is in part an intricate, interlocking sculpture of cartilage and calcium. Each of us will eventually revert back to our bones.
We do not know what the conversation was like between nature and chaos that first led to life on this planet. Entropy may at first have been insistent that the universe remain no more than an expanse of rocks, gas, and cold, empty vacuum, but had then relented, like a parent standing in the candy aisle of the Food-Mart after hour six of a nine-hour road trip, had thrown its cosmic arms upward, sighed mightily, and told a single galaxy: “Okay. Okay. You can have one.”
The universe allows a massive boulder to establish an orbit 90 million miles from a yellow dwarf star, places it in the path of numerous hurtling asteroids for billions of years, grants it the conditions to develop oxygen and hydrogen and agrees to let those elements enter a prolific creative partnership. And within the salty, soupy crucible of the oceans a myriad of organisms take shape, floating with little purpose beyond consumption and propagation.
Life could have been satisfied with this.
But life can be a greedy sumbitch when it wants.
As the poet said, “life, uh, finds a way.”
So life decides that if it wants to achieve any greater complexity it needs to come up with a structure capable of moving upright upon the land. Before it can ask itself if this might also eventually lead to something unpleasant or catastrophic like saw-scaled vipers or Mitch McConnell, the proteins begin collaborating on the notion of a skeleton. The beasts emerge, and evolve, and spread across the surface of the Earth, and we enter a new, accelerated phase of our development.
Margaret Mead once observed that the very first evidence of civilization was an archaeological discovery of a 15,000 year-old human femur that had been broken and healed. She pointed out that prior to such a circumstance, any creature in the wild that broke their leg was essentially doomed to die of exposure or the teeth and fangs of hungry predators. A bone that had healed told us that someone had made a choice to take care of the injured, to gamble even that our bodies had the capacity to repair themselves in the first place. Somebody had made an intuitive leap to the empathy that comes of understanding pain. So much of what we have accomplished since then, good or ill — religion, politics, economics, science, art, architecture, weaponry, medicine, space travel, artificial intelligence, live literature events — none of that happens without the revelation of bones.
It is the weight of that, the history of that, that makes your body react when you hear an otherwise inconsequential anecdote of a 14 year-old’s misadventure in a high school auditorium.
I don’t have to tell you where you feel that.
You know where it is you’re feeling it.