The Reason Strings Never Break

I have been thinking a lot lately about one of my favorite plays, Six Degrees of Separation.  Written by John Guare, it examines the existential idea that everyone in the world is linked to everyone else in the world by six people, that ultimately we are all someone’s “friend of a friend of a friend”. It was first staged in 1990 and won lots of good awards, and was adapted into a movie (for which Stockard Channing received an Oscar nomination).  The play’s story explores what happens when a young con man worms his way into the lives of comfortably wealthy Upper East siders. Flan and Ouisa Kittredge are targeted by Paul, who gains the couple’s sympathy and access to their home by claiming he attends school with their college-aged son. Once Paul’s criminal intentions get him kicked out by the Kittredges, he finds a new victim and starts another con. As his life spirals into destruction, Paul returns to the Kittredges for help yet again. The play’s emotional weight rests on how Ouisa and Flan wrestle with whether or not they should save Paul.  What makes a stranger familiar? How much do we rely on the currency of who-knows-who to determine who we let into our lives? Can we recognize the humanity in those who have wronged us? It’s an amazing play, one of my favorites, and I love the concept of the connection by six degrees.

The other thing on my mind right now is Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. It’s a party game that marries the idea of six degrees of separation – that everyone is linked by six or fewer acquaintances – with Kevin Bacon’s ubiquitous movie career. To play, name any actor, and try to link that actor back to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer connections. It elevated Kevin Bacon from famous actor to pop culture icon and created a whole generation of people who committed the cast lists from every one of his movies to memory. There are whole websites dedicated to this game, you can get an app for it, and Kevin Bacon designed his non-profit foundation around it.

It’s at the intersection of Separation and Kevin Bacon where my friend John and I dwell. John and I have been friends for a long time. When I met John, we were at one degree of separation, by way of our mutual friend Todd. Todd was my hair stylist, and he and John started working at the same salon. Our introduction was unremarkable; Todd said to me, “That’s John”, and then Todd and I spent the duration of my appointment talking nonstop and playing Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. Other than saying “Nice to meet you”, I didn’t talk with John that day; he was with a client, and it’s hard to get a word in when Todd and I get ramped up.  I was, therefore, a little startled when back at the salon six weeks later, I walked in to John greeting me by hollering “JIM GARNER!” across the room at me. Just “JIM GARNER!” No “Hello, nice to see you again”, just eye contact and “JIM GARNER!” It took me a second to tie the threads together: this was John, I’d met him last time I was in the salon when I’d played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and apparently he was now was throwing a Bacon number gauntlet.

And so, in the ways that our connections to each other make new connections, I had a new friend. That first Six Degrees conversation sums up our dynamic: his agile mind is always one or two or ten steps ahead, and I enjoy playing catch-up the best I can. His intelligence is one of the things I love most about him. It manifests in his wicked sense of humor, in his business instincts, but most of all it shines through in his self-awareness. He knows who he is, and he knows what will work for him, and he stays true to himself.

The stark honesty of Six Degrees of Separation and the silliness of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – these embody John for me. They are weighing on me now because just a few days back, John revealed that he has been battling invasive cancer for the past year and that there are no longer any effective treatment options. He’s made the decision to move back to his childhood hometown while he still can and to go into hospice there, the place where his beautiful mother and adoring sisters live. It’s all such a shock, and yet it isn’t because it’s exactly how I would expect John to handle these momentous things. Straightforwardly. Matter-of-factly. Uncompromisingly.

Of all of John’s finer qualities, the one that presents consistently is loyalty. His circle is tight, devoted, and deep.  It suits John, being attached, which is why he has gone home to be with the ones to whom he is most attached. He has left because he is leaving, ending where he began. In the production notes for Six Degrees Of Separation, John Guare says he structured the play so that the lines of dialogue flow rapidly, to mimic the feeling of time rushing by. That contradiction, of slowing down to read a play about time slipping away, feels accurate. Minutes can drag, but when something is over, all we can think about is how quickly it passed. I have known John for years. I haven’t known him long enough.

Six Degrees Of Separation concludes as Ouisa Kittredge sheds her sophisticated isolation and embraces Paul’s humanity. She recognizes her own vulnerability. It is humbling. Is finding salvation in a flawed package any less a gift? By degrees, we are bound, and by degrees, we let go. Like hand-strung pearls, tightly and expertly nestled, we are forever together and forever distinct from the people in our lives. If we are lucky, we realize that we can bask in the luster of the pearls that surround us. By degrees, our strings grow, and by degrees, they contract. Eventually, our separations are measured by a different distance.

Japanese akoya cultured pearls are pictured at Ohata pearl industry in Ise, western Japan



Photo credit Reuters

The Reason I’m Sleepy

A couple of nights back, I had a dream about Thornton Wilder. (NO, you pervert. It was not an erotic dream. It was a respectful dream. Literarily respectful). This was a first for me. Not just dreaming about Thornton Wilder, but dreaming about any author. My dreams are generally unremarkable-the usual fare entailing talking animals, having the ability to fly, or showing up naked for a math test. I’m nothing if not Freud’s most boring case study. (Sometimes, a math test is just a math test.) As much time as I spend reading, you’d think my dream life would be heavily populated with literature, but it’s not. It’s perhaps notable that I don’t dream about books, but I’ve never expected have dreams about authors. You know what would be amazing? Character dreams. For instance, could Jay Gatsby please show up in a dream and make out with me? Yes, he could. JAY: THE DOOR IS OPEN. Instead, Thornton Wilder showed up and hung around while I ran around doing dream stuff.

For those of you who have not been visited recently by Dream Thornton Wilder, let me catch you up. Son of the Midwest and global citizen, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) had a gift for taking appallingly complex philosophical, moral, and historical topics and presenting them in works both approachable and relatable. A novelist and a dramatist, he is probably most known today for the play Our Town, the deceptively simple story of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Our Town scored the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. In his spare, non-Pulitzer-winning time, Wilder wrote novels, and his 1927 book The Bridge Of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. OOOPS. I made a mistake there. I meant in YOUR spare non-Pulitzer-winning time. Then, because everyone needs a hobby and his two other Pulitzers were lonely, Wilder picked up a third one in 1942 for the play The Skin Of Our Teeth. All of which leads me to wonder if Thornton Wilder ever dreamed about showing up naked for the Pulitzer Prize ceremony.

It’s sad, but even three Pulitzer prizes cannot keep an author on the top of the best-seller lists indefinitely. Now is a good time to confess that the only Thornton Wilder I have ever read is Our Town, and I have not read it in a long, long loooong time. However, since Our Town has ascended to Required Reading immortality, it feels like I read it every other year when I was in school. I’ve also seen it produced a few times. (Because the set for the play is a minimalist masterpiece consisting of a ladder and a couple of side chairs, Our Town is incredibly cheap to stage, meaning you can probably go see it at a high school near you right now.) Our Town tells the story of the intertwined lives of the Gibbs and Webb families in tiny Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The geography is interesting but ultimately irrelevant-Grover’s Corners could be any small town in any part of rural America in the years between the World Wars. In the traditional arc of events in a traditional life-graduations, marriage, parenthood-Wilder examines our relationship with our mortality and what is means to be resilient, not just in the face of personal tragedy, but in finding the strength to thrive in the banality of everyday life. It’s heady stuff, but Thornton Wilder sneaks past everyone’s Serious Drama Alarm System with the folksy, wry Stage Manager character. The Stage Manager guides the audience through the play, observing and commenting on the unfolding events in Grover’s Corners. He serves as the viewer’s advocate and representative on stage, right in the middle of that small town action. It’s a devastatingly effective way to involve an audience, and no matter how many times I have seen Our Town, it never fails to move me.

Our Town is a breezy read, and I really liked it every time I read it, but it hadn’t crossed my mind in a long time. I don’t even own a copy, which I discovered the morning after the Ghost of Thornton Wilder Past crashed my dream. I was a little embarrassed, and I hoped that Thornton Wilder would not show up again so I wouldn’t have to explain to him that he’d visited someone who didn’t even own ONE of his THREE Pulitzer Prize-winning works. (Seriously, y’all, Thornton Wilder will take every opportunity to bring up those Pulitzers. BRAGGY.) Off I went to the bookstore to remedy this glaring oversight. After hunting all over, I finally had to ask for assistance. A quick online search revealed that the only Thornton Wilder inventory in the store was one copy of Our Town in the Required Reading section.  It would seem that Thornton Wilder has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Clearly, the time is ripe for a whole Our Town branding reboot. Why not? Jane Austen’s well-manned Georgia era young ladies now genteely kill zombies. Abraham Lincoln is ridding frontier America of a vampire scourge. Isn’t it time for the citizens of Grover’s Corners to operate a training academy for international spies? Maybe it can be the location of a secret laboratory for the CDC where they research and cure all the urgent diseases and train international medical spies? Or perhaps the whole town collectively owns a maple syrup factory, which serves as a front for a safe house for international spies. I think you see where I am going with this.


Picked up some souvenirs from the Columbia University bookstore.

I’m not sure what possessed Dream Thornton Wilder to show up in my head, but clearly, he was slumming. If he’s looking to stage a comeback, he is doing it all wrong. I mean, I appreciate the consideration, but this Tiny Book Blog isn’t exactly going to deliver a splashy re-entry. I know he’s dead, but I think even dead Thornton Wilder could score a seat on James Corden’s couch or the cover of People magazine.


Action Items
Thornton Wilder wrote the screenplay for one of the best Alfred Hitchcock movies, Shadow of a Doubt. Netflix and chill with that.