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Category — Life

#NotMe

Well, yes, of course, my ass has been goosed by strangers on the IRT. (Whose hasn’t?) And I once worked with a guy (now a big-shot lawyer, then neither) who made eye contact only with my chest when we talked. (I countered by staring only at his crotch. This made him uncomfortable. Our conversations became infrequent.) But in all my years of working in mostly male-dominated workplaces with (except for three years) male bosses, I have never been sexually harassed. I have never been groped, pawed or touched anywhere questionable. It has never been suggested that I perform any acts other than the ones I was hired to perform.

As I read about all the women (and girls) out there who have experienced sexual harassment in its various awful and disturbing forms, I’ve had these reactions.

ONE: Jesusfuckingchristohmighty, isn’t life tough enough without going out of your way to be an asshole? Are there really these many men who lack basic decency, civility and respect? Are there really these many men who believe they are entitled to manipulate, belittle, demean, harass and violate women?

TWO: What would their mothers say? Or their sisters? (I’m not including “wives” because I don’t want to imagine that these men, after doing what they do, after saying what they say, actually come home and show their faces to a female human. Or a male human. Or their dog.

THREE: Wow am I ever lucky! I rejoice that I have had the great good fortune to have worked with non-harassers. As if this is “good fortune” rather than what should be normal, everyday life. As if simply not being a victim is a reason to rejoice. Yay! I went out into the world today, and no one masturbated in front of me or pressured me to carry their baby in my womb! Life is sweet.

And, I am so very sorry about this one, FOUR: The full weight of the sexist culture crashes down on me and I actually think, if only for a moment: What, I wasn’t pretty, sexy, alluring enough to attract this repulsive behavior? What’s wrong with me? Unbelievable, right? The flipside of I was raped because my skirt was too short.

So I guess, after all #metoo.

December 13, 2017   1 Comment

Becoming inVISIBLE

A few nights ago I suffered through one of those seemingly interminable, low-level stress dreams that sometimes afflict me. This one was about losing my purse. I was standing at a counter picking up tickets for a performance of (you guessed it!) The Nutcracker. I placed my purse on the counter and momentarily forgot about it while involved in the ticket transaction. When I looked over, it was gone. Thus ensued a long, boring, stressful search for purse. After watching me hunt high and low, an employee told me he removed the purse from the counter and put it under a desk. Great, I said. Thanks.

But the employee did not want to give me back my purse until I “proved” it was mine. I had to detail for him, quite precisely, various items in the purse. I would tell him one thing—my key chain—and he’d then ask for another. My Snap Fitness entry card. My packet of g.u.m soft-piks. My ear buds (What brand? he asked. I didn’t know. He frowned.) My Swiss Army knife. What else? What else? This went on for a long time. Finally he let me have my purse. End of dream.

I thought about the dream a lot during the day. It could be just a generic stress dream. But the more I thought about how it felt to have to prove that what was mine was mine, the less generic and more meaningful the dream became.

The meaning? Here goes:

It seems to me that I am now at a point in my life when I shouldn’t be required (or forced) to “prove” my identity, or prove my own worth to others (like the guy in the dream). I have grown into who I am. I have spent a number of decades growing and learning and doing what I do. When I was younger, a bright young penny who knew so little, who understood so little, I was noticed, and the light shone down upon me. Now, knowing so much more, having done and lived and learned so much more, I join the ranks of the Invisible and the Overlooked, the ones — we “older” women — who have to prove we still have it. About whom it is assumed that we have settled into complacency, that we do not burn with creativity and passion, that we are not ignited by new ideas, that we are no longer vital and vibrant and alive.

Guess what, you overlookers, you nay-sayers who put up barriers, you sexist ageist assholes (and especially those who pretend they aren’t)? You couldn’t be more wrong.

And also: FUCK YOU.

December 6, 2017   4 Comments

Tell me a (Nutcracker) story

(American Ballet Theatre/ Brooklyn Academy of Music)
No sooner do I settle myself in when a big guy, burly, bald and beer-bellied, starts to squeeze by to take the seat next to me. I get up to move. “Naw,” he says, dripping Brooklynese. “Doan move. I ain’t as trim as I usedta be, but I’ll get by.” And he does. Then, after catching his breath, he engages me in conversation as if we’re old friends. In the less than five minutes before curtain time, I learn the following: His name is Victor LaRossa and, except for two years in Vietnam in the late 1960s and nine months in upstate New York when he tried to “find myself aftah my first marriage,” he has lived all his life in Brooklyn. He’s never seen the Nutcracker or any ballet. His wife – “hey, Joanie, meet this nice lady,” he brays to the woman on the other side of him – got the tickets from a woman whose kid the wife takes care. “But cultcha, ya know. It can’t hurt,” he says. I love this guy. This guy is why The Nutcracker is the most popular ballet in America.

(New York City Ballet/ Lincoln Center)
At intermission, the elegant lady sitting behind me asks, in a southern drawl, whether I am reviewing the ballet for a newspaper. She has observed me scribbling notes during the performance. She’s just in from South Carolina to take her daughter, an NYU film student, to see the performance. They’ve been “nutcrackering” together, as she puts it, for twenty years, including four years when the daughter was a mouse in the local production. “I worked back stage,” the mother tells me. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. The daughter leans into her mother, gives her a little shoulder bump.

(JFK-SFO)
The next morning, hoping to beat the worst of a snow storm that seems to have followed me since Chicago, I am on the plane out of JFK headed for San Francisco. Sitting next to me is a handsome, strapping guy wearing worn, top-quality cowboy boots. It turns out he is a national rodeo clown. Who’s seen the Nutcracker. (Of course, I ask.) His mother took him to a performance by the Tulsa Ballet Company (he grew up on a ranch outside of town) when he was twelve. There’s more. He took his first girlfriend on date to the Tulsa Nutcracker. “I bet that impressed her,” I say. “Well,” he says, in that laconic way cowboys have, “it was kind of a goodbye present. I broke up with her the next week.” I’m thinking: If a rodeo clown sitting next to you on a plane has a Nutcracker story – actually two — Does that mean everyone has a Nutcracker story?

excerpted from Chapter 1: The Binge
Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Mid-Life Quest to Dance The Nutcracker. Now in paperback!!

 

November 29, 2017   No Comments

We are not the worse of us.
We are the best of us.

Amid the rancor and fear, the bitterness and contempt, the unleashed anger and ginned-up anxieties, the harassment, the hate speech, the disrespect, the deplorable choices and dishonorable actions, the violence, the amorality, I want — I need — to remind you, to remind me, there is goodness and generosity in us. There is compassion and good will. There is understanding and empathy. There is kindness.

For the past two and a half years, I have been facilitating a writing group in prison. The writers are all serving life sentences. They all did terrible things. In writing about their lives, their experiences, what they have learned, how they have changed, what they hope for, they tell me, almost with one voice: I do not want to be known only for the worst thing I ever did.

And that’s how I feel about my country right now. I do not want us to be known only for this hate-filled moment, for this resurgence of bigotry, for this mockery of values, for this worst thing.

I want us — you and me, our communities, the millions of our compatriots — to be known for our best instincts and our best intentions, for the everyday lives of inclusion and kindness we live, the rich, diverse, multicultural communities we foster and inhabit, for what we teach our children, for those actions that speak louder than words: the shelters and clinics and food banks we support, the legislation we fight for, the way we stand up for who we are, the rights and reforms we dedicate ourselves to, the deep and enduring connections we forge with each other, with The Other.

The most well meaning of us have done wrong. We have said yes when we should have said no. We have said no when we should have said yes. We have remained silent when we should have spoken. We have self-medicated rather than face our own shit. And worse. There are those who do not mean well at all, and the damage they have inflicted and continue to inflict to individuals, to families, to communities, to our country is so scary, so painful, so disheartening that it is easy to give up hope. But we are not the worst of us. We are the best of us. This is what I am giving thanks for on Thanksgiving 2018.

November 22, 2017   2 Comments

Let The Nutcracker season begin!

The Troyanoff Ballet Academy is a single-studio dance school, a storefront wedged between a dry cleaner and a pizza joint in a Long Island strip mall. My mother drives me there, twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday after school to take classes with Professor Troyanoff and his seriously arthritic wife, Madame Troyanoff.   They were Russian dancers of little renown who left the Motherland between the two world wars. My mother calls them “white Russians” to distinguish them from the Reds, this being the Cold War.

The distinction is lost on me. The inelegance of the Academy is lost on me. I am six, seven, eight, nine, and what matters is pulling on pale pink tights and a black three-quarter-sleeve leotard in the tiny dressing room no bigger than a closet, sitting on the bench on the side of the studio and carefully slipping my feet into soft leather slippers. What matters to me is standing at the barre: first position, demi-plié, plié, relevé, second position, third, fourth, fifth; tendus, battements, rond de jambs, arabesques; and later, in the center of the room, glissades, the thrill of the grand jété. What matters is dancing.

The Professor is a kindly middle-aged man with a handsome fleshy face and a luxuriant head of silver hair who wears snug t-shirts, billowing trousers and black leather ballet slippers. While he instructs, his accent so thick one or another of us has to ask him to repeat, again and again, his wife, stern and crabby, stalks the studio leaning on a cane. When one of us gets sloppy, when our grand pliés are not grand enough or our turn-outs are not turned out enough, she raps the back of our legs with the cane. It doesn’t hurt as much as the idea of it hurts. I learn much later that her ballet career in the old country crippled her before she turned forty.

The Professor loves to choreograph. He puts together bits and pieces of what my mother tells me are the classics, each little dance ending in dramatic grand tableaux with all sixteen or eighteen or twenty of us young dancers striking and holding poses. The Academy presents two parent-pleasing recitals a year held in whatever elementary school the Professor manages to persuade to host us. I love the music. I love learning the steps. I love the costumes, the lavender tutu edged in silver with matching silver-sprayed ballet slippers…

from the introduction to my book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Mid-Life Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, to mark the publication of the PAPERBACK edition and the start of yet another Nutcracker season.

November 15, 2017   No Comments

Living with disasters, Iceland style

On the narrow, two-lane “highway” that skirts the southern coast of Iceland there are big, illuminated signs that track and report wind velocity. As Jón Ágúst, a quintessentially unflappable native Icelander explains, when the wind blows at a certain speed (the measurement is in meters per second so I’m not even going to bother to give you the stats), it is difficult to keep a car on the road.

When the wind is somewhat stronger, it is “not advisable,” he says, to be on the road. Even stronger wind can whip up gravel, pebbles, even rocks from the surrounding lava fields, creating a geological hailstorm that dents the bodies and breaks the windshields of cars whose owners chose to ignore the illuminated signs (or were Americans who could not do the meters to miles/ seconds to hour conversions). Jón Ágúst points out a new patch of asphalt on the road. It is, he says, a repair job after an “especially strong wind” sent chunks of asphalt flying, ripping up an entire section of the road.

Now the highway is paralleling a bridge, a very long bridge. “That’s the longest bridge in Iceland,” Jón Ágúst says. The bridge is not in use nor, as far as I can tell, does it bridge anything. “There used to a river there,” he explains. The river was formed during one of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs. Then, during another of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs, the river changed course. “But who knows,” says Jón Ágúst. He offers a hint of a smile. “We might need that bridge again some day.”

Why do I recount this for you? Because it speaks to the Icelandic attitude toward the vicissitudes of life—and boy do these people have vicissitudes—which stands in direct opposition to our Disaster! Catastrophe! Crisis! mentality. These people experience volcanic eruptions, lava flows, glacier runs, geological hailstorms, raging rivers, killer winds, deep freezes, financial exigencies, the fall of their government—which occurred with barely a ripple when I was there—and they make it through. They take care of business. Which is to say they don’t panic. They don’t cry “disaster.” They batten down the hatches; they look after their neighbors; they watch for sneaker waves; they stay off the road. They respect the volatility of their environment. They know how to survive. They know how to care for those who don’t.

October 4, 2017   1 Comment

Ignite. Or be gone.

At Burning Man, I was a virgin, as first-timers are called. Two weeks later, at the 19th gathering of the shamans in Iceland, I was the only uninitiated. And so, for close to a month, in two places on earth that could not be more geologically different, and at two gatherings that could not be more culturally and energetically dissimilar, I have been mulling the meaning of being the outsider and the insider, of the value of both, and of the surprisingly porous membrane between the two.

I began as an outsider to both experiences, I was an empty vessel, a sponge. Everything was new, mysterious, confusing – and that was both exciting and uncomfortable. It was like walking into an ongoing, animated conversation you very much wanted to understand and be part of but couldn’t. I asked the questions– to others, to myself – that a child asks: What is that? What are you doing? What does that mean?

Curiosity is a wondrous thing, and being an outsider is an stimulating place to be. But it is also a lonely place. An outsider is, alas, outside, outside the circle of friendship, the heat of the fire. An outsider is outside collective history, outside collective memory.

And then, a few days in, things begin to change. The experience of yesterday becomes a memory, the memory a story, the story shared. The days together accumulate, the stories accumulate. And one day you wake up and you realize there is a place for you, a place that is held being for you, and you slowly inhabit it. The circle expands to let you in.

Knowing that you can travel afar/
But that everywhere is home.

September 27, 2017   3 Comments

Disaster! Catastrophe! Armageddon!

News you can use.

For those in the path of hurricanes, for those threatened by wild fires, daily, hourly – minute-by-minute — reports and updates are a necessity and a blessing. The media providing these reports offer important, sometimes life-saving information. Thank you for your service.

For the rest of us, deluged not by tropical storms but by a tsunami of hyperbolic media coverage, the purpose of this incessant attention to natural disasters is problematic.* This ginned-up, brave-reporters-holding-onto-poles-in-100-miles-an-hour-wind journalism is overwrought. Of course I care (both in the abstract and because I have family in Florida and Georgia) about people in harm’s way. But, as there is nothing we can do while whatever unfolds unfolds, as we are not ourselves threatened, it seems to me that our position as spectators is uncomfortably like that of drivers slowing down to gawk at a accident by the side of the road. Also, as some media explicitly packaged Harvey, Irma and the forest fires in the west as “Armageddon,” we feel even more besieged, more vulnerable, more victimized by forces beyond our control than we have during the past six months sinking in the quicksand of Trumpism. Now there is a unnatural disaster for you.

For the media, these back-to-back-to-back “catastrophes” are gold. The storms are stories that come neatly pre-packaged in three acts: Act I: The Anticipation, Act II: The Event, Act II: The Aftermath. There’s video, oh so much video. There’s drama you don’t have to look for because it literally slaps you upside the head. No deep reporting necessary. Point the camera at trees whipping in the wind. Stick a mic in the face of a person who made it to a temporary storm shelter. How bad was it? How much did you lose? Insert yourself (and camera) into the ongoing challenges of a first responder. It may be momentarily dangerous for the intrepid reporter, but it is easy peasy. No pesky FOIA requests, no scouring documents, no spending weeks, months trying to understand communities and cultures. And the clicks! Oh Lordy, the clicks. So much traffic to the site. So many eyeballs. What a boon a good disaster is for the media!

And what a disaster for us, as we settle deeply into our lives of spectatorship (football, anyone?), as we are hammered by messages of our victimization, as we embrace what psychologists call Learned Helplessness, as we avoid the deep issues and challenges that don’t just zip across the landscape, dump on us for a few days, lose their force and move on.

*Early on, there was minor attention to the idea that the hurricanes were tied to human-caused climate change. There appeared to be little scientific evidence to support this.

September 13, 2017   No Comments

Burning Man

 Burning Man asks the question: What would a contingent of privileged 21st century people do if they could do anything, if they were given a blank slate – the vast, stark, featureless playa – to create an instant community? The answer, as I observed as a Virgin Burner last week, is complicated. They–we–create beauty and ugliness, generosity and self-indulgence, Eden and dystopia and live for a week in a world of breathtaking sunsets and choking dust storms. Burners wash your dusty feet, take drugs, practice yoga at dawn, party all night, give away hot dogs and gin and tonics, make noise, dress in utility kilts or bootie shorts or tutus or nothing at all. They make art, big, bright, hard-edged art. They make music. They dance. They mist your scorched skin with precious water when you ride by on your bicycle. They tinker. They invent. They create something where nothing was. They make life in a dead place.

But they do not live lightly on this stretch of alkali flats. They use enormous resources to create this city of 70,000: thousands and thousands of gallons of potable water delivered by trucks, thousands of gallons of gray water spirited away, thousands of gallons of gas to power the blazing Art Cars that traverse the playa every night, thousands and thousands of gallons of propane to power the generators that support each camp. Hundreds of porta potties serviced every day. This is a resource-gobbling, tech-heavy vision of the future.

And mostly, despite the hugs everyone gives everyone and the gift economy (no money changes hands on the playa) and the many small kindnesses you encounter–and those you perform yourself–it is a harsh vision of the future. A post-apocalytpic vision of industrial grunge and consensual hedonism, with hulking trucks and laser beams scanning the night sky and blaring noise and too-bright lights, a Disneyland meets Las Vegas meets Mad Max world where strangers wash your naked body and you can spend an hour in the Orgasmatron on your way to watching fights in the Thunderdome.

On my last morning in Black Rock City, I was riding my playa-caked Hammer & Cyclery fat-tire bike on Lustrate, the farthest from the center street, a long, dusty several mile horseshoe of a ride. I was watching the dawn clouds dissipate in the already blistering heat. On one side of me was the city, on the other, the open playa. On the playa side, there was a grizzled man riding a squeaky bike pulling a trailer with a vintage boombox bungee-ed to the frame. As he came closer, I could hear the music. It was Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” The innocence of that music, its softness, its almost silly simplicity, the gentleness of it. I stood there, straddling my bike, and I cried.

September 6, 2017   5 Comments

Getting UNcomfortable

I like making myself uncomfortable, placing myself somewhere I do not belong, where I am the new kid, confused, awkward, unsure — and thus alert, deeply curious, open to seeing, open to learning. I realize the privilege of this. I know many people live their entire lives feeling uncomfortable in their bodies, their families, their communities, our society. It’s not that I don’t have those feelings, all of those feelings, from time to time. But the fact is, I am safe. And so I have the privilege of purposely pushing myself into new situations that throw me off balance, the purpose being to understand people different than myself, to keep myself as humble as I can (that is, a learner, always a learner) and to test my own resilience.

I did this when I spent 18 months immersed in middle school to write about tween/teen girl culture. I did it when I joined a ballet company to see if I could reclaim an old dancing dream. And I am doing it now, and have been for the past two years, when I go up to Oregon State Penitentiary to spend time with a group of prison writers.

And tomorrow… for something completely different. Frivolous, yes, but also deeply deeply uncomfortable. Tomorrow I leave with a group of ten others to go to Burning Man. We are the Eugene contingent helping to staff a venerable bicycle rental and repair camp. Of course I have known about Burning Man for years, but I’ve never been in the least tempted to go. It seemed, well, male – it is Burning MAN – and insistently Millennial. And self-consciously arty. And suffused with all those drugs I didn’t need to do any more because, as Huxley said, once you open the doors of perception, you don’t have to keep opening them. Plus, in my dotage, I am more careful with my neurons.

But I’m going. I am going because I want the experience of helping to create a city of 70,000 people where nothing, and I mean nothing, exists, in a stark, ridiculously inhospitable environment in the middle of nowhere (well, actually, in northwestern Nevada). That, alone, terrifies me. And then there’s this: The tattoo on my back is older than most of the people I’m traveling and will be camping with.

I’ll report back. Don’t look for a post next Wednesday. I’ll be, as they say, “on playa.”

(One of THREE bins packed for The Burn, pictured above, includes nothing I’ve ever packed for a trip before: el-wire, dust masks, goggles, ear plugs, shemagh, Snow White halloween costume, combat boots.)

August 23, 2017   7 Comments