Saturday, June 16, 2012

Open Mic Night and the Rebirth of the Spoken Word Performance

So, the Sasquatch and I have been attending open mic nights at Jerry's Music, a fab local music shop and rehearsal space in Rockville. It's a small group of people who get together every couple of weeks, with nice, talented folks performing largely blues, folk, and country music. The Sasquatch brings a totally different feel to the experience by playing classical works on his trumpet. I love it. I first heard him play about 27-ish years ago, and I love it every single time he gets up with a horn in his hand. The boy ain't too bad with the "expensive plumbing" (his term).

I had considered maybe singing at one of these someday, but I haven't sung in public in a long time. Other than in car, my singing has been limited to doing things like singing Russian lyrics into an MP3 recorder in the ladies room at work, so I could send them off to my friend Thomas Dolby for a project a couple of years ago. Singing solo in the toilet, I managed to go horribly sharp, a fact attested to by the track Thomas sent back to me, with him playing keyboards to accompany my howling. Despite the horror of my efforts, I absolutely treasure the fact that I have my very own custom Thomas Dolby track. That's pretty damn cool, no?

The Sasquatch has been encouraging me to get up at open mic night and not sing, but, rather, read one of my spoken word pieces -- resurrect my essay writing that I started when I did radio commentary here in DC (before the show for which I wrote these pieces was dramatically altered for a young hipster audience and the older commentary crowd, including me, was sent unceremoniously to the rest home). So, I pondered, the Sasquatch encouraged, and I printed out my piece about being attacked by a squirrel in the parking lot at the Wendy's on Nicholson Lane in North Bethesda. (Or is that Rockville? I seriously don't know.) I waffled a lot about this, got shy, and considered skipping it. After all, everyone else was a musician - talented folks - and would it be incongruous with the rest of the event? Also, with my back really messed up (now it's the sciatic nerve, and total numbness in my right leg), I was worried about even getting on the stage.

Turns out, getting on the stage was the hardest part. After the Sasquatch played a couple of numbers (very well-received by the audience of fellow performers and shakily recorded by me), he came back to escort me to do my thing. I felt like such an invalid, but the Sasquatch and Phil, the guy who hosts the open mic nights, helped Fat 'n' Gimpy up the stairs, and breathlessly I started talking. I gave an intro to the piece, explaining that I'd spent the last two days at the Explorers Symposium at National Geographic, spellbound and awed by the spirit of adventure and wonder personified in the assembled explorers, who shared amazing stories with us all.

We had the first woman to summit all 14 of the world's highest peaks without supplemental oxygen. We had James Cameron ("explorer and part-time filmmaker") fresh from his Mariana Trench dive and Don Walsh, who, with Jacques Piccard, made the first astounding journey to the bottom of the Mariana in the 1960s. There were mesmerizing talks by scientists and filmmakers and photographers (and generally just cool individuals) who shared stories of the rich and fragile biodiversity of the planet, our increasingly indelible connection to technology, and even an archaeologist studying Egyptian dig sites using satellites! (Side note: said archaeologist came by my office, and I think she was greatly amused to see both my autographed photo of Harrison Ford and a Sallah "Mighty Muggs" vinyl figure, complete with fez. At the time, I didn't know one of her areas of work and expertise is Tanis. As in "The Nazis have found Tanis?!?" As in the Map Room and the Well of Souls. Yeah, that Tanis. And yeah, I know there's no real Map Room or Well of Souls, but this woman must have realized she'd found a kindred, but totally goofball, I ♥ Egypt chick.)
So, there I was up on stage, talking about how amazing the past two days have been and how inspired I was by all the explorers. I took a deep breath and said, "And what has that inspiration led me to? Here's a story about being attacked by a squirrel."

I kinda sucked, I was a little out of breath, but I did it. And here is the story, which will be familiar to those who heard me back in the day on public radio:

Wild, Wildlife

I got attacked by a squirrel last week. Yes. A squirrel. I was being lazy, eating some buck-ninety-nine chili in my car, reading Entertainment Weekly in the parking lot of a Wendy's right off Rockville Pike. There I was, minding my own business, when suddenly I had a face full of chattering, manic rodent. I can only assume the critter in question had been hanging around the Wendy's lot so long it had developed an insatiable addiction to chili. All I know for sure is that it launched itself directly at me through my open window. I proceeded to scream like a little girl and thrash around, trying desperately to dislodge this little ball of fuzzy fury from my person.

The harder I fought, of course, the more entrenched the squirrel became in my shirt, which was now covered in both tufts of fur and hot chili. I had to pull my shirt almost all the way over my head to get the squirrel back out the window. Let me tell you, there's nothing quite like being half naked, hyperventilating, screaming, and covered in spicy beef and beans in a public place. Any passers-by who didn't spot the demented squirrel would have thought I was clearly insane. Chili was spattered on my dashboard, my face, my hands and I was swearing at an innocent-looking creature on the pavement.

Welcome to the whacked out wildlife of Montgomery County.

My neighborhood, despite being less than a mile from the Beltway–and even closer to a busy section of Rockville Pike–is crawling with critters, especially at night: deer, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes, owls, and a fox that likes to sit under the crabapple tree outside my bedroom window. Night after night, he plants himself there, yelping out what I assume is a lonely bachelor’s mating cry. From the frequency of his visits, I can only assume he’s not very successful with the ladies.

By the way, the wacky squirrel wasn’t my first experience with overly aggressive animals here. I've done repeated battle with a huge pileated woodpecker that likes to attack me on the way to my car in the morning.Once I even chased off a hormone-crazed buck that cornered a neighbor one evening during mating season. I'm still not sure if he wanted to mate with my neighbor or just challenge him to a head-butting contest.

Just the other night, I had a ten-minute stare-down with a coyote who kept me trapped in my car as he sized me up. He was a long-leggedy beastie, tall enough that he barely had to tilt his head up to give me the evil eye. I ended up spraying him with a bottle of raspberry seltzer water pulled from my groceries in the back seat. It worked, and he fled the scene. No harm done, I think, except, perhaps for some wounded coyote pride.

Now, a black bear has been spotted wandering around Potomac, Gaithersburg and right here in my little corner of Bethesda. Great. I’m usually quite fond of the critters that dot the landscape in my part of the county. But I walk with a cane, I’m slow and have only one fully functioning eye. To a hungry bear, I might as well have the words “tasty snack” tattooed on my forehead.

A couple of days after the first bear sighting, I saw a very large tree across the street from my building shaking and swaying – branches bent with the weight of something much larger than a bird or squirrel. That was the same day I stopped leaving my balcony door open at night.

I once had a dinner guest hop from the ground to my balcony in one fell silent swoop. If a slightly out-of-shape smoker could do that, I figured a bear could, too. I can handle the occasional mouse under my stove, but a bear lounging on my La-z-boy? Sorry, I’ll pass.
It's not just suburbia here with the abundance of wildlife. The District has plenty, too. Early in the morning, I've seen deer grazing on Mass Ave, right across from the British Embassy. Once I almost flattened a fox racing between cars at Dupont Circle. And just about every morning, there's this amazing Great Blue Heron that poses on a large stone in Rock Creek, as if for the benefit of the passing commuters.

Of course, there are those who might say the DC wildlife gets more aggressive and colorful the closer you get to Capitol Hill - sharks, barracuda, and the occasional weasel and rat... but those are all of the variety that walk on two feet.

All in all, I think I prefer my chili-crazed squirrels. They're less dangerous.