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The Order of Oddfish


Dengue Fever and other things…

July 14, 2008

Brilliant Pebbles played the Empty Bottle last Friday. We’d been anticipating this show for weeks. Cambodian pop revivalists Dengue Fever headlined and they sold the place out. They deserved it. They were mesmerizing. Here’s their singer, Chhom Nimol:

An incredible beard also occurred.

For our set, Monika and I planned that, between our second and third songs, while Philip kept drumming, we would run out into the crowd banging cowbells and shaking maracas to get people to dance. Nobody did dance, but we built up some goodwill. Or amused pity.


Philip had messed up his arm and shoulder in a bike accident a month ago. He was so badly injured we thought we might have to back out of our summer shows, but he gritted his teeth and drummed through the pain like a pro. I think he prepared himself with a fistful of ibuprofen.


Monika was in tip-top form, lunging, growling, screeching, trilling like a punk parakeet. At one point she dragged a big orange traffic cone onstage – I still don’t understand where it came from – and decided it was a hat.

My bass strap broke off at the end of the last song, I collapsed along with the guitar, and I ended up playing on my back. Before Brilliant Pebbles, the last time I’d really played bass was 1997. By contrast, Sam is a classically trained musician, and Philip has been drumming for about twenty years. One day, the rest of the band will come to realize what a novice I am, and quietly but firmly ask me to leave.

Saturday night Heather and I went to see the very talented Carol Enoch act in “The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins (*Who Kill Him)” at the Chopin Theatre. I had high expectations going in, and they were exceeded. The whole thing was ingenious. I wish it had run longer so I could tell more friends about it. I hope the Chopin revives it like they did with the also-brilliant “The Strangerer.” Carol offered to introduce me to the playwright, Emily Schwartz, but it seemed like all her family was there and I didn’t want to intrude.


On Sunday Heather and I went with Dark Yellow to see Cynthia do a fun bunraku performance in Millennium Park. A woman played “Pictures at an Exhibition” on the piano while some goblin puppets bothered a big man-child puppet. A butterfly and a little boy got killed, but then a wizard set everything right again. Wizards! Is there anything they can’t do? If there is, I don’t want to know about it.


My brother-in-law Max, along my niece Freya and nephew Theo, caught up with us at the end of the show and we took the trolley to Navy Pier. One of my friends from high school, Kathleen, is married to Jamie, the captain of The Pride of Baltimore II, a tall ship in the style of an early-1800s clipper that’s docked in Chicago for a week or so. Sam, Monika, and Becky met us at the pier, and Jamie showed us around the ship.

Jamie told us about how the ship was “dismasted” during a squall off the coast of France. That is, the bowsprit broke in two, causing both the fore and main mast to break and collapse. Luckily nobody was hurt – though the main mast smashed into starboard side, missing some of the crew by as little as six feet. The crew had to work continuously for five hours to salvage what was left and repair the ship enough to get it to port. You can read the incredible story here.


Just for perspective, when I’m talking about the main mast, I mean this:

I attended Jamie and Kathleen’s wedding back in 2003. They were married on his ship (at the time he was captain of a different schooner named Sultana). Kathleen waited on shore in an orange dress, and Jamie and his crew were assembled on the Sultana, wearing uniforms appropriate to 1800s sailors. Jamie bellowed out, “First mate, fetch me my bride!” and the first mate rowed to shore, helped Kathleen onto the rowboat, and rowed her out to the ship. Then Jamie and Kathleen were married on the Sultana’s deck. The reception was at the old-fashioned playhouse that Kathleen managed at the time. The maid of honor was the buffest maid of honor I’d ever seen: it turns out she held the record for the bench press in her weight class. One of the best weddings I’ve attended.


Later the same day, Heather and I took Jamie to see yet another play our friend Cynthia was in (a busy woman, Cynthia), called “War Garden.” Each weekend the Walkabout theater group puts on the play in a different community garden around Chicago; this weekend it was the garden around the corner from our house. It was a beautiful day for it.

The premise was about a women’s gardening club during World War I that butts heads over land use with Captain George Streeter, a real figure from Chicago history. (Captain Streeter had claimed the Chicago neighborhood now known as Streeterville as his own sovereign fiefdom.) The Captain was played with exuberant, scenery-chewing gusto by the playwright, Seth Bockley.

The ladies’ gardening club achieved a very amusing prissiness, but Captain Streeter stole every scene with his Barnum-by-way-of-Beetlejuice ranting, twitching, panting, and bellowing. The story culminated with a cabbage catapult used to great effect.

Later that day, Heather noticed that Jamie had new-looking stitches on his forehead. It turned out he and his crew were out carousing in Chicago when someone threw an orange traffic cone at him, slashing open his head! Jamie was going to stitch it up himself on their ship, or let someone in his crew do it, but he decided to go to the hospital.


The doctors stitched Jamie up and he returned to his ship. But later, while eating a late-night snack, he noticed something red on his sandwich. He didn’t remember putting ketchup on there; it turned out he was bleeding on his food. So he went back to the hospital and they added another stitch or two to close off the stray blood vessel. Perhaps he should’ve stitched himself in the first place.


It wasn’t until later that I realized that, during that weekend, orange traffic cones approached both me and Jamie in a mysterious, threatening way: ominously materializing onstage at the Empty Bottle, and flying through the air at Jamie’s head. Luckily I emerged unscathed, and Jamie had only a minor injury. But what did those traffic cones want from us?