Shakespeare in the Park

For me, when done well, theatre conjures up all of the clichés that evoke transformative, life-affirming experiences. I laughed, I cried. I was moved. When not, theatre can be squirm-inducing, unintentionally funny, or worse, horrifically boring. As a kid, I was exposed to the classics that our community theatre at the time offered: Oliver!, Alice In Wonderland, Annie, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Carol. Almost every year we saw the San Jose or San Francisco version of The Nutcracker. We had a subscription to Scholar Opera (anyone remember Scholar Opera?) and saw tamed, kid-friendly versions of Carmen, La traviata, La bohème, and The Barber of Seville. I loved Scholar Opera so much because not only did they visit my school to perform a preview of the upcoming show, but after performances, the actors all stayed to shake hands with young audience members and sign our programs. I remember how special it felt to get a dazzling close-up of the actors’ costumes and make up. Heaven.

Even as an adult, theatre can still thrill me. Last Wednesday, Josh, VA, and I attended the opening night performance of The Winter’s Tale outdoors in Clark Park, which is a small, residential park located in University City. The funny thing about Clark Park is that there’s a lot going on that’s not going to stop, even when Shakespeare makes its yearly appearance. Kids swing and slide and squeal and giggle as actors emote onstage. Dogs bark at each other. I could see park goers tossing Frisbees back and forth. Just beyond the stage, there seemed to be a small group of hula hoopers gyrating off in the distance. As the sky darkened, I spied a few bats flying overhead. Surprisingly, all of these distractions totally added to my overall enjoyment of the show.

The best part about live theatre is sitting with a crowd to watch a specific performance. No matter if it’s opening night or the 500th performance, there’s something magical about that shared, finite experience. Last Wednesday, the audience crowded into the park and lounged on blankets spread out on the grass, balancing plates of dinner on our knees and drinking from plastic cups. Although in truth, we attended the play because VA had a couple of good buddies in the chorus, the production exceeded my expectations. The acting and direction made the difficult “comedy” easy to digest and enjoy. It’s easy to go with it when you can eat and watch a play at the same time. VA occasionally leaned in to ask what was going on, but she laughed at many of the jokes and loved seeing her friends up on stage. My favorite part was just watching a play on a warm summer night. I’m totally going back again next year, if the oracle allows.

Anywhere U.S.A.

I used to think I could live almost anywhere, but that field has narrowed significantly since I’ve gotten older and more rigid. When we travel someplace wonderful, I invariably gaze wistfully at the real estate listings in agents’ downtown windows on the way back to the hotel after dinner. In the car, I look up the addresses of a mansions overlooking bodies of water as we whiz by. Thank you Trulia. You feed me. I can’t help it. But it doesn’t mean I want to live there.

I’ve lived in some fantastic cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and now Philadelphia. Each come with their own unique set of problems. Let’s start with the city Tony Bennett left his heart in, San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 80s, and lived in San Francisco for a good part of the 90s. If anywhere should feel like home, it would be San Francisco. For all its inherent natural and unnatural beauty, great food, walkable streets, temperate weather, a Peet’s Coffee practically on every corner, I can’t live in San Francisco because I picked a career where I make less than seven figures per year. Yeah, San Francisco, and pretty much anywhere in the Bay Area, is completely unaffordable for this community college professor. It’s so unaffordable, I feel like it’s telling me to stay away. So you know what? You can go screw yourself, San Francisco. I’ll find somewhere else to live.

So how about it Los Angeles? You’re fun—you’ve got a great creative energy, Januarys that regularly hit 80 degrees, awesome Mexican food, Ben Affleck sightings, margaritas. What’s not to love? Uh, a lot. We can pretty much start and end with traffic, even though I complained about the horrific hot, dry, and smoggy summers for four months straight when I lived there. The traffic is everything you’ve heard of and more. When Virginia was just starting to play with her little friends, it didn’t matter if her friend lived across town or across two valleys, it took 40 minutes to drive each way. When we lived in West Hollywood and I was attending and then teaching at a college 11 miles away, traffic regularly would extend what should have been a 40 minute commute (which is already ridiculous) to as long as an hour and a half (stupid fucking ridiculous). There were days when I would spend more time in my VW Jetta than I did at home. Los Angeles? You’re a dick.  I hope you get a venereal disease. Let’s face it, you may already have one.

Chicago is awesome, but Chicago = Cold. Brrrrrrrr!!!!! Next.

We finally found asylum in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has a lot going for it. It’s steeped in U.S. history, and there’s tons to do, whether you’re a foodie, an artist, a theater fan, or sports junkie. It’s affordable. We found our dream house in an even dreamier neighborhood that’s walking distance to museums, shopping, restaurants, downtown, coffee, you name it. What’s not to love? Good grief, where do I start? Philadelphia is one of the dirtiest cities around. New York is dirtier, but Philadelphia is on a mission to close that gap. It seems filled with litter. It’s everywhere. I’ve seen people throw fast food trash—hamburger wrappers, French fry containers, empty soda cups—right out their car windows like it’s a normal thing. Like, hello? Seriously? It blows around on trash days. I think more litter ends up on the street than in the trash truck. You know what else really bugs? The public school system. It’s an underfunded hot mess and until recently, we had a governor who couldn’t have cared less. Our public schools don’t have librarians, enough counselors or nurses. Parents have to contribute pencils, pens, copy paper, Kleenex, and hand sanitizer regularly so teachers don’t have to reach into their own pockets quite as much as they already do, because the district can’t afford enough basic supplies. So when I hear of other public schools throwing a fund raiser so their kids can each have an iPad in their classes, it kind of makes me want to throw up. Refusing to adequately fund schools is shameful and immoral, but something Philadelphia parents and their kids endure year after year. It’s embarrassing. Up yours, Philadelphia. But you know what? I’m here. I may be a lifer. You don’t always have to like your family to love them. I feel the same way about Philadelphia.

It’s the End of the World as I Know It

After eight years of living in Philadelphia, I have a love-hate relationship with the 4th of July. Let’s get the negative out of our system. For one, there’s a ton of noise. You just can’t escape it. It’s hot and the kids are out of school and bored out of their minds, and they’re constantly letting off fireworks in the street. People flock from all over to the heart of the city to binge drink all day and let off fireworks in the street. And most of us have been granted the day off work, which gives us a whole day for letting off fireworks in the street. On top of that, there’s an all-day party and concert going on in front of the art museum, which is a stone’s throw away from my house. Street closures make it difficult and annoying to get around town. Grocery stores will run out of hotdogs and hamburgers by noon. For one, full day, Philly resembles what movies tell us the aftermath of the apocalypse looks like. Not immediately after the apocalypse, but maybe like three years later, with people roaming the streets, burning crude fires all day in trashcans in the middle of the street, and barbequing who-knows-what in beat-up grills they’ve rolled out just for the occasion.

For us, Independence Day is like Halloween in San Francisco or St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago—the 4th is huge for Philadelphia, and it comes with all the crowds and excitement that one would expect. A big part of me wants to pack up the car on July 3rd and head to someplace quiet with nothing going on, where we could relax in the quiet, maybe spend the afternoon at the local chili cook-off, and then wait for the evening’s modest fireworks display over picnic dinner on a blanket in a park. But we never do. We always stay.

We stay because of the noise and the excitement. We stay because of the fireworks and the day drinking. I can walk out my front door to an immediate and immersive spectacle, whether it’s a makeshift porch party or someone handing my daughter a sparkler. We can take a short walk to a huge party sponsored by Wawa and be treated to music and street food and face painting (and sooooo many people). My neighborhood puts on a barbeque with its own small-town feel that includes a pie contest, grilled hotdogs and hamburgers, potato sack races, a piñata, and bottomless vodka tonics. Later, we might peel off to our own parties or go to Drexel Park to listen to the concert at the art museum and wait for fireworks. Josh, VA, and I like to get home after dark, into the comfort of the air conditioning to cool off for a little bit. And when we hear the first explosions, we scramble up to our roof to watch the fireworks above the museum. It’s breath-taking and reason alone to stay in town on the 4th of July. So I guess I don’t have a love-hate relationship with the 4th of July—more like a hate-love. And I feel fine.