A Happier Tale…of Two Cities

Woman with long blond hair in blue period gown from French Revolution holding an infant swaddled in a blanket being embraced by tall brown haired man also dressed in green period costume
Connor Pils and Elizabeth Routzahn in Prairie Ridge High School production of A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Most of us have read or heard those lines before–in a high school or college literature class, perhaps?

I can honestly say I didn’t remember anything about the story other than those lines. But last night I had the pleasure of experiencing the Dickens classic tale as a musical at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, IL. I was simply blown away by the quality production they put on.

By way of full disclosure, my nephew Connor Pils had one of the lead roles as Charles Darnay. Disclosure aside, this production was simply gorgeous. From spot on period costume to simple set design that allowed the music and characters to tell the story, if I wasn’t in a high school auditorium in the far reaches of suburbia I would’ve sworn I was in a theatre right in the middle of downtown Chicago.

For those of you who don’t remember the story, Darnay was the French aristocrat who denounces his evil uncle, the Marquis St. Evermonde, and all the family riches, takes his mother’s maiden name Darnay, and heads to London to be a tutor.

The Marquis vows revenge on his nephew, and plots to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the love story. Charles meets the lovely Lucie Manette, they fall in love, marry and have a daughter.

The plot twists and turns between France and London. Lucie’s father, falsely imprisoned in the Bastille for nearly two decades, was thought to be dead. Lucie gets her father back only to be on the verge of losing her husband to the same fate, only this time for real.

Enter Sydney Carton, the drunken, self-serving lawyer who represented Darnay the first time he was arrested. Carton ultimately finds redemption through Lucie’s kindness, and repays that kindness with the ultimate sacrifice in the end.

For a story filled with such darkness and despair, there are also moments of hope, and love, and the possibility that dreams can come true.

Yes, I adored seeing my nephew up on that stage, hearing those clear, beautiful notes coming from somewhere deep inside him and filling the theatre with glorious music. I appreciated the enormous talent of this young cast and crew, and the hard work and dedication they put in to making this a first-rate production. But what also struck me about it was how perfect a message it was for the times we are living in right now.

In A Tale of Two Cities, there’s darkness and hatred and fear, and division between the aristocracy and the peasant class, the oppressors and the oppressed. Yet there’s hope for a brighter future that takes shape in the form of Charles Darnay, who in spite of his birth into the aristocracy feels a strong sense of justice, morality, and right and wrong. He’s determined to do what he believes is right and good no matter what is going on in the world around him, and hopeful that good wins out in the end.

Similarly, in the world we’re inhabiting today, there’s a darkness that has overtaken many of us. A fear that life as we’ve known it is over. A growing divide between the haves and the have nots, the 1% and the 99. And yet, there remains a glimmer of hope, that if we are good, and kind and true, that we will prevail and all will be right in the world again.

That is the message that I took from last night’s production, from the soul searing chords sung by my nephew and the rest of the cast. Good will prevail. It has to. Doesn’t it?


A Tale of Two Taxi Drivers

A tale of two….taxi drivers? And here’s where the story begins. I land at O’Hare, get to baggage claim. A customer service rep from Delta helped me get my bags and walked with me to the taxi stand. And that’s where things got weird.

The taxi attendant asked me if I needed an accessible cab. I said no. He said ok, take the next one, and waved me down the line. Me and the Delta rep headed to the next taxi. I rolled up, pulled open the door and started getting ready to get in.

The driver jumped out and asked the guy from Delta, “Is that her wheelchair?” I responded, “Yes, it is my char.” He then responded, “You need a wheelchair van.” I replied, “No I don’t.” He said, “Yes you do.” I repeated, “No I don’t. I can get in any cab.”

He said, “I’m not taking the wheelchair.'” I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. I said, “What?”, thinking surely I must have misheard him.  He repeated it. No mistaking the words. The taxi stand attendant, the rep, and me look at him. Look at each other. The attendant says, “You have to take her. She said she doesn’t need a wheelchair cab, she can take any cab she wants.”

The driver again said he would not take me. “I will not put your chair in my car,” he said. “That’s why they have a wheelchair van.”

I said to him, “You know what you’re doing is illegal, right?” He said, “I don’t care.” Plain as day. “I don’t care.”

I said, “You know I’m going to file a complaint against you.” He said (wait for it), “Go ahead. I don’t care.”

It did not matter what any of us said to this guy. He did not budge. Even when security was called. Same answer. No. Flat. Out. No. Finally, the taxi attendant yelled at him, “You refused her. Get outta here! Now!”

I haven’t been this upset since I can’t remember when. I was so angry, I wanted to swear, to scream, to hit something. I did none of those things. Instead, I feared up. And I got in another cab.

And this guy could not have been more different than Mr. Jerk who refused to take me. He put my bags in the car. Put my chair in the car. Asked me what route I wanted him to take. He was friendly and polite and kind. He talked about his family, where he was from in India. How long he’d been here, how much he liked Chicago.  He got me to my house. He got my chair out. He got my bags out. He carried my bags to the door for me. He wished me a nice weekend, and was on his way home to enjoy his weekend with his family.

I am so grateful that second driver came along. He didn’t devalue me, or diminish me. He treated me with courtesy and kindness. And he made sure I got home safely. Doing his job. And doing it well.

Flying the Friendly Skies

One of my earliest memories of O’Hare Airport is going there at age 3 with my entire family to see my brother off to Vietnam. I don’t know that I knew he was going to Vietnam, but I knew he was going “at the war.” What does a 3 year old know about that?

I remember the smell of jet fuel. I remember it was night time and already dark. We were all dressed up. People used to dress up to fly, seems strange now when you see people in pajamas, yoga pants, sweats, jeans. And, you could go all the way to the gate even if you weren’t getting on a plane. I remember we stayed at the gate, watched my brother walk down the jet bridge and watched the plane until it took off.

That’s the thing. Every day, people get on and off planes. Going to work. Coming home. Going “at the war.” Truth is, we have no idea what the hundreds or thousands of people we pass on the way to our own flight are facing or dealing with on their journey. Sure, many people are taking fun trips, Disney with the kids, some Caribbean island or European jaunt for a honeymoon. But there are others whose journeys aren’t all sunshine and roses.

On my last trip, for example, I met a guy who was making his every-three-week flight between Chicago and his tiny Arkansas home town to get treatment for cancer. He was traveling alone. He said his wife came with him sometimes, but insurance wouldn’t pay for her to accompany him, and they had to pay for it themselves, and it got expensive. So he came alone. To have his body filled with chemicals that would kill the invaders inside him so he could go home for three more good weeks.

I loved talking to this guy. He was in good spirits. He was reading Grisham. We bonded over that, talking about our mutual love of his fine writing. We compared notes on which book we liked the best, and then about the movies that had been made, and which actors did justice to the characters in the books. We both agreed that Denzel and Julia did a pretty damn fine job in The Pelican Brief.

Then, the talk turned serious. We talked about his cancer. How he’d been going for these treatments for several months, and he had a few more to go. And we talked about how blessed he felt to have found a place to treat him and give him hope, after his first doctor had told him there was “nothing that could be done.” He was grateful to have found a place where they treated him like a human being, with compassion and grace, instead of as a set of symptoms to treat (or not). He got teary when he shared this part of his story. I got teary right along side him.

I don’t remember his name. But as I’m traveling through airports today, I’m thinking of him, and hoping his journey is going well.

Going Home

Going home. After thirty days away. Living in a hotel that’s comfortable and clean, with nice people working at the desk. But it isn’t my bed. My desk. My couch. In a city with rolling hills, warm temperatures, and people speaking in a soft drawl that reminds me. I’m not home. Every morning, getting behind the wheel of a 2017 model car with a nice stereo and great gas mileage. But that isn’t mine either. Getting dressed and going to work every morning in an office building that’s a 45 minute drive away from my hotel. I haven’t had a commute in ten years. But it is good work. Important work. Helping people put their lives back together. And I like it. And I like the people I work with. A lot. People who are willing to be away from home for a month, two, three, six, nine. To do the work that needs to be done. And come back time and again.

And tomorrow, I’m going home. Back to my bed. My couch. My kitchen. My family. My dog Lucy. My cat Luna. I get to go home to the routine of my life. Where my commute is to get up from the bedroom and head down the hall to the kitchen, otherwise known as my “office.” Where I spend most days on the computer, on the phone, writing, reading, researching. Yes, I leave the house some days. To go to court, to a board meeting, to meet a friend for lunch or dinner, to visit my family, to dance rehearsal. But when I stay in the house to work? My work clothes are usually yoga pants and a sweatshirt.

When I leave the house, I drive a ten year old car that gets me where I need to go, but I can’t say how much longer that will be true.

And there’s my dog Lucy and cat Luna. When I’ve been away for a long time and I get home, both of them compete to see who can get closer to me. I get in bed, Luna presses up against the left side, Lucy on the right or across my feet. Can’t even describe how good it feels to have their two warm furry bodies pressed against me.

It takes a while for my friends to realize I’m home again. They get so used to me being away. It takes time to get included in the social circle again, to be included in plans, to be invited out. But after a week, maybe two, I slide back into the old routines and it is as if I was never gone.

But I’m not the same me that I was. I’ve seen things. People’s lives changed, drastically, dramatically. Never to be the same. Everything they’ve worked for, saved for, hoped for, dreamed of, gone. Just like that. And we are there to maybe get them back a little of what they lost. To help them start over. And then I go home.

Shiny Pretty Things

Ever lock your keys in your car? I have. Many times. And just today, too. That feeling when you push the car door shut and just before it slams, you see the keys sitting there all nice and shiny on the seat of the car where you put them when you pulled them out of the ignition so you wouldn’t forget them when you got out? I had that feeling. Wanted to swear. Two people getting out of their cars right by me so I didn’t. They asked if I needed help, I said “thanks I think I got it.”

But I didn’t have a spare key. It was a rental car. I was in my hotel parking lot. The good news? I didn’t have to sit outside in the rain and wait. It was a rental car. I called the company. Fifteen minutes later? Help arrived in the form of two guys in a pick up with a slim Jim from a local company that provides tow and lockout service. Door opened. Keys safely in my hand.

What’s the point of my story? It isn’t really about keys at all. It’s about being distracted. By phone conversations. Thoughts. People stopping by our office for a chat. The ping of a text coming through our smartphone. Shiny pretty things that take our attention away from what we’re doing. Taking us out of the present moment and somewhere else entirely.

Even as I was writing this post, I stopped in the middle realizing I’d forgotten to book my dog’s bath appointment for Friday. Phone call made. Bath booked. Shiny pretty things.

How can we learn to focus again and improve our attention span to better than that of a six-week old puppy?

I don’t know that I have the answer. But I have an answer. Be present. Exactly where you are. Doing what you’re doing. One thing at a time. If you are having a conversation, give it your full attention. Have you ever spent thirty minutes on the phone, hung up and can’t recall a single thing that was said? That’s because we’ve all been operating under the delusion that we can multitask.

Sure, we are physically capable of doing two things at once. Talk on the phone, look at your computer. Drive, eat lunch,  Yet, I’ve learned that when I try to do more than one thing at once, both things usually suffer.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “But I like it when coworkers stop by, it gives me a chance to catch up.” And that’s true. But it also takes you fifteen minutes of mental energy just to get back to where you left off, no matter what shiny pretty thing Interrupted you..

I know it isn’t popular, but people who know more about this stuff than I do tell us we should turn off the alerts on our phones and emails. Turn down the ringer on the phone. Pay attention to the person in front of us, the document on the computer screen, the steering wheel in our hands. And if a shiny pretty thing grabs your eye? That’s ok. You’re human. Me too. But we keep trying.