Monday, December 10, 2012

tunes recently enjoyed no. 3

Arpeggione Sonata in A Minor by Franz Schubert - Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten

Lorin Benedict, who is a very fine singer of weird and wonderful songs, recommended this particular recording to me. It's intoxicating. There's such enormous sensitivity in it, like a conversation between two creatures in the dark whose skins are entirely covered with antennae tuned precisely to each other's frequency. I don't know enough about music to talk about it with any real intelligence. I'm trapped in the world of metaphors, in saying what things are sort of like, sort of remind me of, sort of, kind of, and not what they actually are. This is just... beautiful. Pleasant and interesting on my ear. Sounds, alternating anchors and wild kites, that pull me right up to them.

Symphony No. 3 by Charles Ives

I started listening to Charles Ives because of Leonard Bernstein, who I am completely obsessed with right now. (The Norton lectures that he gave at Harvard in 1973 are my current companions in the land of sleeplessness.) Ives's music makes me feel like I'm at the center of a collision between epic loveliness, creepy jocularity, and patiently endured, long suffered melancholy. He goes from something that makes me think of cathedrals and underground lakes to a maddening march with no remorse. It's interesting. And I can't get enough of interesting music right now. What does that limp word even mean? I don't know. I want music that makes me desire nothing so much as listening through to the end, that my ears want to puzzle over and my brain wants to think about. Not opaque stuff that abrades, but stuff with corners to peer around, sharp objects that stab you, layers to shuffle through.

This recording is, unsurprisingly, the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Vanishing Lady - Rickard Brothers

I'm a sucker for anything that references magic shows. This song is ridiculous, swooping, and full of these amazingly maddening repeats. It spends almost three and a half minutes telling you to watch closely for this moment of vanishing, cranking you up and up for some sort of happening that never actually happens. And then it completely betrays you with a fade out. But, I like it.

I've Just Seen a Face - The Beatles

I love these lyrics. You know that absurd joy of recognition? Oh, yes! That is exactly how I feel and how I've felt. I know this. I know this! It's silly; why is it so satisfying to spot fragments of your own life in someone else's infinitely more clever, more well-turned, more piercing song?

Aside from the lyrics, this song makes me feel like running. It keeps going and going and those beautiful guitar bits come in with all these short, clipped words flying at you, and it makes me wish I could be a person with crazy parkour skills so I could leap off buildings and skitter off walls.

Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl - The Kinks

This song is so pent-up and anxious and full of absurd angst. I imagine someone locking themselves in a closet and singing this. I like how the twangy, strong sounds pound away in the basement while the voice floats above it, high and fretting. I'm not sure why that makes me like it, but the space in between those two things feels somehow both silly and perfect.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

forcing the end

A few years ago, a friend of mine killed herself. She had moved away several years before that, so we weren't close at the time. And before that, we had been friends, but never the kind of friends that strip their conversations down to brass tacks. When I thought of her, I thought of a glorious girl, wild on one edge and sad on the other, but never so wild or so sad that I could suspect the depth of either. I guess I didn't know her well at all.

I was sad when I found out, very sad, but it faded because I didn't like to think about it and, as I've said, I discovered that I didn't know her well. I was unfamiliar with a world in which this could happen, and unfamiliar with the person who could make it so. The unfamiliarity and incomprehension didn't lessen the sadness, but they made me want to turn away from it as quickly as possible, to put it away in a box, to not examine or look at it because the alternative--the realization that the stock of memories that I already had of her was it, finite, closed off from any possibility of change or addition--was a horror that I wanted to refuse.

It's entirely possible that even if she were still alive I would never have seen her again, that I would have only run across postings on Facebook or vague mentions from mutual friends or old photographs of parties that would make me smile and then forget and go about my day.

But, I will definitely never see her again and she does not go about doing things, living things that I will never hear about. The thought has emerged, unexpectedly, several times this year. It bobs to the surface from whatever depth it normally lurks at. It feels like something seizing the inside of my skin.

A few days ago, someone I know was skittering around the subject of forcing the end. "If this happens," they said, "I will have no life. And if I have no life, I won't want it anyway." I don't think they were serious, even though their situation is honestly a long, almost inevitable corridor of hardship and unhappiness. I tried to say something to soothe and calm, but I could barely look them in the eye. I am a coward who shrivels before bleakness and desperation. The thought of coming across the end of hope is more than I can understand or even admit to the possibility of. It makes me incredibly sad.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

"the night we drank cold wine"

I recently did edits on a story that I hadn't looked at in a very long time.

In 2009, I wrote a story that was supposed to be about fairy balls, wine, and dancing. In 2010, I sold it to Electric Velocipede, where it sat comfortably and lazily while EV went through some changes in their publishing situation and I slowly forgot about it. In October 2012, I received an email full of editorial comments for a story that felt like a distant, time-travelling cousin.

When I wrote "The Night We Drank Cold Wine," I felt terrible for one of the characters. You poor, dear girl, I would say to her in my head, how unlucky and foolish can you possibly be? I could, as a writer, understand her choices. I could not, as a person, quite get the feel for them.

Three years later, I get it.

This probably says something about my powers of clairvoyance or the salutary qualities of either fiction or three years of living.

"The Night We Drank Cold Wine" is, at long last, out in Electric Velocipede #25. You can read it HERE. If you do, I'd love to hear what you think. I am astonishingly nervous. This is only my second ever published story and I'm still a-quiver with the novelty and terror of the experience.

It starts like this:

Being late, Rhodes says, is just a symptom of bad luck. It doesn't have anything to do with the person waiting.

He tells me this so I can imagine all the unlucky things that keep him from where he wants to be: misplaced keys, traffic jams, a stopped clock, bad directions. Sometimes, Rhodes leaves without thinking about how to get where he's going. He wanders from his door, takes the circuitous route, and ends up somewhere else, having never paused to check the time. When he's really late, he calls.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

the orange tree

The woman's life hadn't lived up to expectation. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disappointment. Every morning, she woke up, put on some clothes, and went to sit in the vacant lot that she could have seen just fine from her bedroom window. She sat next to the tree that grew in the center of the vacant lot and waited.

Her chair was one of those fold-out deals with a mesh seat designed to stay dry, stay clean, hold up under sun and rain and sagging posteriors, but it failed in all respects except the last, which it only accomplished with great resentment.

The woman sat in the chair and shifted, uncomfortably.

Every now and then, a young man or a young woman stumbled into the vacant lot, their faces sunburned and knees at the point of collapse. "Thank God," they would say. Or, "Holy smokes." Or, they wouldn't say anything at all and instead staggered forward as if they were, at last, arriving somewhere.

And the woman would say, "Please, take your pick." And the young man or young woman would step up to the tree, barely seeing the woman sitting in the chair beside it. They reached into the dark, glossy leaves and pulled down an orange, perfect every time. "Your heart's desire," the woman would say, "I hope you like it." The young people rarely heard. They were gone, the orange clutched to their chests, their feet kicking up high behind them. They never bothered to say a simple thank you, never offered the smallest gesture of gratitude, never thought that, maybe, the woman might appreciate something from the cheap coffee shop on the corner, that a hot cup of coffee, in a situation like this, goes a long way to making up for a lack of manners.

Skimp on the charity and you might as well call it low-grade misery.

One morning, the woman woke up. She put on some clothes and went to the vacant lot where the tree was waiting.

"Tree," she said, "don't you think enough is enough?"

The tree didn't answer. It was not that kind of tree. The woman wrapped her arms around its trunk and pulled. It was not a very large tree and, after struggling for some hours, the woman uprooted it. She lifted it onto her shoulders and began to walk. She walked out of the vacant lot. She walked past her house. She walked down the street and ignored the smell of burnt coffee coming from the shop on the corner. She walked until she got tired, and then she shifted the tree to her other shoulder and walked some more.

The woman walked out of the town, through a suburb, and on until she came to the beach. She put the tree down in the sand.

"Tree," she said, "this is your chance." She reached down into the tree's dark, glossy leaves and pulled out an orange. It was perfect: round and richly dimpled. The woman dug her fingers into the perfect flesh and pulled the orange apart.

A man tumbled out. He was small at first, having just emerged from an orange, and then he grew. He was handsome, he was naked, and he looked confused. "Where am I?" he asked.

"At the beach," the woman said.

"What is a beach?" The man was staring at her as if she were the only thing in the world. He couldn't be bothered, it seemed, to take in anything else, not the sand or the salted wind or the water stretching out to the sky.

"Are you serious?" the woman asked.

"I suppose so." The man was staring so hard that his eyes were beginning to water.

"Are you stupid?" the woman asked.

"I suppose I am."

The woman picked up the tree again. She dragged it to the ocean and pushed it in, slogging into the water until the waves started to pull the tree out instead of pushing it back to shore. The man watched her the entire time. It didn't occur to him to offer to help.

"Goodbye," the woman said.

"What does that mean?"

"It means you stay here and I go somewhere else." The woman walked back up the beach. There was water and sand in her shoes, but she ignored the discomfort. The man walked beside her for a little while, which was awkward since he was naked, and then behind her for a little more. Then he sat down on the side of the road. She hoped he would be alright. It was entirely possible that the tree had made a mistake, that he was someone else's heart's desire, someone who would find him on the side of the road and pick him up, despite the nakedness, in an act of good samaritan meeting hapless hitchhiker, a story to tell friends and children and grandchildren, solid evidence for the existence of luck or fate.

The woman thought about this as she walked back to the town where she lived, in a small house next to a vacant lot. There was a coffee shop on the corner, and when the woman put her hand in her pocket, she was pleased to discover a few bills, enough for a coffee and something sweet. She sincerely hoped she hadn't made a mistake.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

youth speaks

On Tuesday evening, I had the very great pleasure of joining Tristan and Mark (one of the most wonderful couples I know... think an excess of brains, beauty, and heart, multiplied by two) at a fundraiser for Youth Speaks. Youth Speaks is an organization that promotes the education and support of young people through spoken word, poetry, and writing. I had heard about them before, thought they sounded interesting, but never actually made the effort to investigate because I am both lazy and forgetful.

But, on Tuesday night... On Tuesday night, I saw these young people get up on a stage and perform poems to several hundred people. The poems were about their lives. Not poetic metaphors or images or strings of evocative rhythm set down in an attempt to make something readable, universal, or worthy of literary notice. These poems were raw communication, words and wishes and heart-wrenching feeling, laid out so bravely that they shocked me into remembering something about the importance of making art.

When you are lucky enough to do work as an artist, you are constantly thinking about what you are trying to say, what you are trying to make, how you are going to light the jet fuel of compassion, empathy, understanding, reaction... I think especially as a performing artist, you think about how you are going to reach that person on the other end, whether they are an actual audience member or some theoretical critical eye. You dig into your art and you are working on it, toiling over it, banging away with that ice axe on the frozen waters in people's souls.

And it's easy to forget how the making of art goes both ways. Just the act of trying to get something across, of boiling down the messiness inside you so someone else just might be able to understand, or enjoy, or be moved by what you have to say, is huge. It forces you to look hard at things and clarify. To say, this is what matters, this is what I feel, and this is what I believe.

Seeing those young people up on that stage made me remember that making art (poetry, music, stories, dance, whatever) is a chance to slam into the walls of your interior architecture, to figure out where they are and what they're made of, where you might find them splendid and where you might want to cut a door.

Tuesday was an inspiring night.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

tunes recently enjoyed no. 2

"Telephone/telephone/demon/telephone" - Beep!
Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D, Aria #2 - Hilary Hahn

I am terrible at making mix tapes. I've never had the knack of being able to figure out what makes one tune flow satisfyingly into another. The "shuffle" option makes me happy. As long as I have a grab bag of songs I like, the order I hear them in is of negligible importance... Except, sometimes, one song falls after another in such a fantastic way completely by accident that it makes me like both more.

"Telephone/telephone/demon/telephone" is a slightly unhinged wallop of noise. Lots of weird sounds enter in weird, but impeccably placed ways. My ears want to lean right into it to try to figure out what's going on and it somehow remains a happy exploration, a pleasant confusion instead of a resentful stumble... And then the Stravinsky piece comes in, alternating piercing stringency with these smooth, fatty folds of sound... And, for some reason, my brain thought this was the most splendid, most felicitous and delightful of combinations. I had to make a playlist just so I could keep hearing the two pieces one right after another.

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Benjamin Britten

I've always thought of Britten as being full of odd sounds, and odd distances between sounds, and while I've found most of his stuff that I've heard to be interesting and full of stuff to chew on, I never really liked it in a visceral way. There's a harshness and baldness that unsettled me, a sort of bleak earnestness that made me feel uncomfortable. But this opera is a pleasure. It's beautiful and funny, and it revels in its oddity and the satisfaction of making good noise; there are bits that make me think of someone jumping up and down in a spill of paint just to see the way it splashes. The whole thing is wonderful, but I love the "on the ground, sleep sound" bit (which also happens to be the easiest thing to find on YouTube, thanks to Wes Anderson).

"It Could Happen to You" - Lorin Benedict and Sam Ospovat

This is really strange. But, it's wonderful. Trust me. A combination of intensely bizarre scatting and wild, but delicious drums, the whole Passwords album is addictive. I never thought I would say that about something like this, but it's true.

This track is my favorite. It somehow manages to parade through both pure noise and song, unmooring meaning from speech and throwing explosives at my imagination. I start filling in dialogue, then drop that in favor of images, and drop that in favor of picturing the landscape of the sound. It's like having a really awesome, impressively compressed, completely insane version of "Fantasia" attacking your brain.

Beethoven symphonies nos. 1-9

I've become a Beethoven symphony junkie. They're so grand. Immensely gorgeous. Glorious and spectacular and epic, and honestly so. They're clear-hearted and unconfused, emotionally brash and absolute. Listening to them makes me feel like I need to push the edges of my own canvas out, but they also make me want to believe harder, feel more, go galloping around in neon.

I've been listening to the New York Philharmonic versions of these, directed by Leonard Bernstein, all conveniently streaming on Spotify.

Piano Concerto No. 2, Larghetto - Frederic Chopin

I've been listening to this compulsively over the past few days and every time I do, my eyes well up at about two minutes in, all harshness, all cynicism, all coolness and flippancy collapsing under the onslaught of those sweet falls of notes. I'm not actually sure what it is about it, but this piece jerks the tears right out of me. It conjures wholesome ache and longing, somewhere deep in my gut, and I find myself wishing for things like sunny days and landscapes that roll out in a carpet of green and love. I've been listening to a bunch of recordings, but this video is Arthur Rubinstein with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Friday, November 2, 2012


1. (last night)

We are sitting across from each other, playing a board game. The game is homemade. The board is a series of black-and-white shapes that irreducibly depict houses, sidewalks, trees. The names of the pieces are "Nancy" and "Sluggo." We have been playing the game for some time when it turns inside-out.

It's a very Escher-like event.

We find ourselves walking on a black-and-white sidewalk, towards a black-and-white house, in a black-and-white suburb. We are not Nancy. We are not Sluggo. We are foreigners and aliens, softly pliable messes dragging confusion behind us. The smallest disturbance will transform us completely, before we have the chance to protest.

2. (I don't remember)

I look up, and my aunt is looking back at me. Two perfect mushrooms have sprouted from her eyes, their round white stalks centered over her pupils.

3. (five years ago)

It is a windy day, but we are at the beach, stretched out across from each other on opposite sides of a blanket weighed down by bottles of wine. We are playing chess. We are a little bit drunk. We are also somehow flying kites.

I can't decide on which piece to move next. My remaining rook, for some reason, has grown a series of spikes from the flat edges of its parapets. I feel the need to examine these at close range. "It's nothing," I say. "Harmless." He doesn't say anything, which strikes me as rude. I consider that it might be funny to crack a bottle of wine over his head, but it seems that he has turned to sand. I reach across the board and brush a finger across his eyebrow and he collapses into the beach.

4. (approximately twenty years ago)

I am in bed and I have woken up because of the weight on my feet. I stare into the dark, and the more I stare, the more I see--slowly, slowly--the black mass that resolves itself into a head, shoulders, arms, a skinny torso and knees pulled up in an attentive crouch. Death stretches himself out on top of me and I can't breathe.

5. (approximately seventeen years ago)

I am driving a car, except I don't know how to drive, and it is imperative that I cut a hole in an anonymous chest with a piece of glass that can only be obtained at high speed.

6. (within the last five years)

The canopy is made out of white roses that smell like tuberose on steroids. I am standing under it, and all I can hear is the buzzing of bees, a whole colony of them. If I look up, I can see them, their crooked black legs moving through the petals. I am dressed all in white and I am marrying someone who is wearing a mask. I'm wearing a mask too. We hold each other's hands, but we're wearing gloves, so that doesn't give us a clue to our identities either.

7. (now and then, recurring)

I am being chased and the only avenue of escape is to jump off the roof of a building and fly. This is a possibility, but a difficult and exhausting one, and I know the building is too high. The alternative though is to be murdered in my sleep, so I jump. My muscles wear out quite close to the ground, but not close enough.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

dear austen keene

Dear Austen Keene (fine young fellow who I interviewed at the comic bookstore last Saturday),

I do believe that I saw you yesterday, waving at me from across the street and smiling the sort of broad, charming smile that only unabashedly clever, book-consuming, rather nice 15-year-olds can manage.

Please know that I'm often terrible at recognizing people's faces, especially when I run across them out of context or am surprised. I once ran into a boy I sat across from in English class for four entire years and couldn't place him, even after he told me his name. I once ran into the brother of a friend, had a conversation with him, and had no idea who he was until several hours after we parted. Funerals, weddings, and large parties are always a trial. I'm either faced with a familiar face that I can't attach to the story of a life, or, more embarrassingly, a face that pounces on me with recognition while I remain blank.

This is why I looked confused, turned away, and assumed you were waving at the only other young person in visual range, despite his obvious fascination with the phone clutched in his hands.

Please know that talking to you reminded me that there is a point to telling stories, beyond the pleasures of telling and consuming. Beyond craftsmanship and art and technique, there you are, the human being on the other end of the street, the one whose soul some lucky story will get to leave its fingerprints all over.
"I'd say that while I don't really have a book that's changed me, reading has sort of made up what I do, how I look at things. It puts ideas in my head. In the comic I'm reading now, the pure of heart are kind of, like, in both sides, so you're not really sure who's good and who's bad. So maybe the bad guys aren't the ones who are really doing the bad things, and things aren't really what they seem. And that really excites me. I could go on for hundreds and hundreds of books." -- Austen Keene
Oh, and if you see me again, just wave until recognition drills through my thick skull.

x. M

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

on having your mind unexpectedly blown, or, why I'm no longer afraid of Daniel Clowes, or, some thoughts on the educational aspects of romance

There are times when I feel like the top of my skull has been ripped off and the dim, crumbly interiors of my thoughts are being flayed by revelation. By a change of opinion, or a forcible departure from indifference.

This doesn't happen too often. It's probably fortunate. I imagine that if it did occur with too much frequency, I would have a curdled sense of moral and artistic direction, an inability to say whether I like something or dislike someone, an irritating tendency to say, "ah, well, you know" and not much more.

I love it when it happens though. God! It is the most miraculous sensation. Here I am, not caring about something very much and then, in the next instant (though it's never an instant... it just feels like one, being the shocking event at the end of an invisible avalanche that's been building over weeks or months or years), I care very much. I feel it to the bone. The switch goes from off to on and you can't imagine what the room looked like before, when it was in the dark, because you couldn't actually see it then; and now, even if it goes back into the dark, you will be forever unable to unsee.

It's both addictive and impossible to replicate on demand.

I recently read The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes. I had never read a Clowes book before. Something about the way he draws faces, from certain angles and at certain distances, had repelled me. It was the same breed of feeling that I get from R. Crumb's work, an irrational distrust and fear of the hairy line and bulbous shape that makes absolutely no sense but somehow shoots straight from eyeball to gut. My fear of Clowes wasn't as strong, but it was enough to make me pass over his books, despite their clean lines and immaculate covers, and put them in the category of things I assumed I didn't like. I could talk about Clowes in the shallow white lies that all skilled bookstore girls can wield when asked about books that they personally distrust, but have achieved a certain tipping point of importance (just ask me about Infinite Jest or The Catcher in the Rye or The Corrections or The Night Circus), but I had no intention of reading him and was, faintly, afraid.

But, The Death Ray... Holy smokes. It's a graceful, jaw-loosening display of storytelling pyrotechnics, one chilling and perfectly formed panel after another. I'm pretty much a stranger in the land of comics; before a few months ago I could literally count the number of comics I'd finished on one hand (Sandman, 1602, Mr. Punch, one volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Britten and Brulightly, a very strange and depressing story about a private investigator whose sidekick is a teabag that he keeps in his pocket). But even I can see the brilliance that rolls off The Death Ray's impeccably constructed pages. It's a story that I can't imagine in any other form. There's a wobbly, delicate permeability between interior feeling and exterior spectacle that goads you into misplacing your compassion, then crushes you with unhappy horror. You are inside the story and outside of it within the same page and these flickering shifts in the way you experience the story make you vulnerable to the crazy leaps in time that it makes, so that it can connect one thought to another in the most impressively manipulative (and I say "manipulative" with admiration) way and not be stuck on the road of chronological sense. Painful efficiency.

It's not a pleasant book. For me, it was deeply horrifying. But, it's so well done. I couldn't stop reading it, and now I'm infected with an enthusiasm for comics in general and Daniel Clowes in particular. I keep going to the comic bookstore and picking up things that hit me over the head with newness and freshness and surprise.

(Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes... it's like the author had a fishhook lodged in the current state of my heart back in 1990-something.)

It's like having a raging appetite for a taste that never previously thrilled me.

It's not inexplicable. This often happens to me as a side effect or aftermath of romance. I'm always curious about the enthusiasms of the people I'm close to. Their passions are my guided tours to territories either unappreciated or foreign. It is, for me, one of the most intoxicating aspects of making room for someone among the furnishings of your head. Sometimes the curiosity fades and sometimes it locks in its barbs and takes up permanent residence. I've grown an honest delight in popular science because of this, a passing obsession with biological taxonomy, a thankfully brief addiction to a podcast called "This Week in Virology." I've attempted to appreciate the space opera stripe of science fiction and to understand the fine points of competitive kayaking. I've discovered the delights of banjos and concertinas, of live music shows, jazz, and walking for long distances in cold rain. I've apparently lost my fear of Daniel Clowes.

I used to think this was possibly lame, trying on someone else's enthusiasms. But that forceful, pleasurable change in point of view is so rare and so thrilling that I've given up on that opinion. It's an education. Row after row of dominoes falling inside my head.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

brief encounters no. 2

1. I thought you were a graphic designer.
2. I love Asian women from America. It's like... the spice without the accent. If you know what I mean.
3. Girl! What you got there? You got something for me? I think you got something for me!
4. Hey-yah, hey-yah, why you walking so fast? I'm trying to enjoy the view!
5. You smell like my favorite drink.
6. Are you looking for a good time? I am such a good time, girl, you don't even know.
7. Do you mind if I sit here? No... no, I mean here. Yeah, right here.
8. Oh, I know. I dated an Asian girl once.
9. Walk those pretty little legs right over here, baby!
10. You don't want to know what I'm thinking about right now.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

tunes recently enjoyed

"Lazy Afternoon" - Susannah Young

This is a song from a 1954 musical by Jerome Moross and John LaTouche that apparently takes on both the Iliad and the Odyssey and transplants them to the state of Washington at the turn of the 20th century. The Wikipedia synopsis contains the following amazing bit: "... the small town of Angel's Roost is thrown into confusion when old Menelaus' fancy-free wife, Helen, runs off with a traveling salesman named Paris. He's in town to judge an apple pie bake-off." How badly do I want to see this musical? Very badly.

The song is humid and dreamy, all long, drawn-out lines of sound that periodically tumble over the edge into crumbling trills. This version makes me think of that gorgeous, gorgeous bit at the beginning of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (for which you should watch this video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony... Bernstein's face just makes me ache it has so much happiness in it) and is so much more satisfying and odd than, say, Barbra Streisand's.

Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor - Arthur Rubinstein

I love how the first half of this winds you up with a swaying, aching theme that makes measured, gentle transformations that somehow also have yawning gaps hidden between the notes that threaten to either make you fall or cut off the piece and leave you without relief. Tension, just ratcheting up so gorgeously until it feels like your chest will explode from it. And then it lets you fall and you can breathe again for a few minutes before it pushes you into a racing, insane little coda.

Listening to this absolutely flattens me. But, it's so, so good.

"Welcome to Our World" - DRMS

I went to a DRMS show a little while ago. It's one of the few shows I've gone to recently that made me feel like I had to dance. This song in particular has so many weird sounds going on in it--odd plinking, insistent beats, synth-y twanging, hiccuping pauses--all laid out under a rangy voice. It's an addictive and bizarre collage, sort of like staring up at a mobile that has spaceships dangling on one arm and prehistoric tools on the other.

"Bach Suite" - Beginners soundtrack

This just makes me want to cry. It's an arrangement of some Bach melodies for horns. I have no idea who plays it or who arranged it... the track just lists "Johann Sebastian Bach"for the artist... but, it's so earnest and so lonely; the sound seems to come up out of nowhere and bleeds off at the edges, like it's being played in a vast space with no objects or ears to absorb it.

"A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring" - Mike Preston

This song is weird. And kind of piteous. The lyrics are so heart-on-sleeve desperate that the song is almost embarrassing to listen to. But the guy's voice is smooth, simultaneously really attractive and disconcertingly controlled, with strange endings on certain words that make me imagine them evaporating up and out of his mouth. And the backup vocals are amazingly ridiculous.

"Good Thing" - Naytronix

This one makes me think of a processional, one that goes on and on and becomes progressively stranger as it goes. It's terrifically satisfying to listen to. The beat carries you along under a shifting canopy of bizarre noises that somehow also manage to be exactly the thing you need to hear at that moment. It's like walking through some abstracted animation of a jungle, all flattened out to suggestive shapes and pumped up with neon colors.

"These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" - Thelonious Monk

Wobbly, fuzzed around the edges, pounding and trilling... it's like a drunken high wire act. I like how much space there seems to be between the shambling, repetitive lower notes and the skittering higher ones. It's like having someone mumble and sing at you at the same time, which sounds horrible, but is somehow charming. I keep waiting for it to fall over the edge into pain, but it doesn't. Mostly it doesn't.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Grandma Megs

On Saturday, I spoke at my grandma's funeral. It was hard, very, very hard, to stand up at the front of the beautiful, tiny church, and try to say something that made sense and meant something other than being sad. There is a somewhat irrational fear of not doing justice to someone loved, though there's no justice to be done when you're speaking to a crowd of people who knew, intimately, the person you are trying so hard to talk about. There is nothing I can say to either burnish or blot an entire lifetime of generosity and mischief and goodness.

I've always disliked eulogies whose skeletons are a bare recitation of facts. I do not love someone, mourn them, miss them because they were born on such and such day, worked at such and such job, lived in such and such place from such and such date to such and such date. I love them because of the innumerable moments in their company that are now over and impossible to retrieve.

This is what I said:

Grandma Megs
Helen Hamamura is Tiny. She is Mom. She is Grandma Megs. She is so vivid in so many moments and days and years of my life that I can almost fool myself into believing that if we turned our heads fast enough, we would see her walking towards us, steadily and sturdily, her head bent over, just a little, and on her face, a small, persistent smile.

She would sit down, cross her hands in her lap, lean back in her chair… and she would know every single one of us. She would remember everyone's name. She would know, precisely, how everyone is related to everyone else. She could tell us a thousand stories, most of which we have probably forgotten. Saying "do you remember?" to Grandma Megs was like lighting the fuse on a memory and watching it bloom out, as fresh and pungent and colorful as if she could grab your hand and take you both traveling through time.

These are some of Grandma Megs's stories:

There was the time the telephone girls sent the firetruck out and the one fireman, the chubby one who was taking a break, came running past and she shouted the address as he went by. There were the times when the neighbor brought home sea turtles and she rode the empty shells around the yard. There was the time when Uncle Glen--just a waru bozu boy then--ran up a mountain, waved a flag for her, and ran back down again. There was the time when her mother was a little girl and she slept in a horse trough, waiting for her father to come home. "I love you so much," he said, "that if I put you in my eye, no tears would come out."


Grandma Megs loved hard and often and stubbornly. Her love was magnificently ordinary, offered up in meals cooked, cakes baked, pineapples stripped of their armored skins and turned into yellow cubes for breakfast. She made slippers and blankets. She cut out recipes from newspapers and mailed them across oceans. She did not care for the radio. She collected odd remedies for cramps of the legs. A bar of soap under the covers. A piece of string tied around a toe. An onion on the table. She taught her grandchildren to catch lizards with their hands, but she was the only one fast enough to catch a fly. She smuggled scraps of interesting plants in her pockets and stuck them in pots and somehow made single wilted leaves turn into wild things worthy of a jungle.

Grandma Megs made breakfast for Grandpa Megs every morning. Eggs, rice, and tea. I can't quite describe how enormous a portion of my understanding of how love should be has been defined by the act of eggs, rice, and tea every morning. 


The more we love, the tenderer and more vulnerable we become. So, I suppose, in the end, one of the goals of our allotment of days, one of the targets at which we must aim the arrows of our lives, is to have inside ourselves a bottomless lake of potential tears.

The lake inside Grandma Megs must have been so wide and so deep that you could throw an entire world in and it would fall forever. Her lake would be pleasant, but not flashy. It would be bright, all the way down to the bottom, and filled with stories in which everyone remembers everyone else's name, in which nobody is ever forgotten, in which things remain sharp and unfaded and well-loved forever.

These are the things, or at least the two most important things, that I learned from Grandma Megs: 

Love is an ordinary thing that is worth everything in the world.

And, if you remember the stories that make up your life, they exist for your own reckoning of forever and you never really have to say goodbye.

Monday, September 17, 2012

fact: me + hitchcock

A fact, just realized and of little interest to anyone aside from me:

I have never seen a Hitchcock movie by myself. This is odd. I enjoy seeing movies by myself. I like to go and sit anonymously among retirees at early matinees. I like crushing myself beneath piles of blankets and playing something on the magical computer box far into the night.

I remember with whom I've watched all the Hitchcock movies that I've seen. This is odd. I have a terrible memory for this kind of thing.

Rope: Eric
Notorious: Eric
The Trouble With Harry: Mike
The Lady Vanishes: Jesse
Vertigo: Shan

Each of these occasions claims an unusual brightness in my head, an indelible commitment to the fluttering slivers of personal feeling that are now stuck to the edges of the films themselves. Movies, for me, usually exist apart from the circumstances of their viewing. Even the ones that seem like they should be attached, by nostalgia or repetition, to certain people and places and times drift, for the most part, in the bubble of their own universe. I would expect The Ten Commandments--a movie I've found inexplicably enjoyable since childhood, a movie that appears in my life once a year to invade my family's secularized version of a religious holiday as a sort of springtime counterpart to It's a Wonderful Life--to trail memories behind it like drooping swathes of Easter ribbons. Nope. It's just The Ten Commandments: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, a burning bush, the Red Sea, roaring up and parted. There's not a scrap of personal experience thrown in among all the desert and idols and plagues.

It seems something about Hitchcock movies nails the memory of their viewing to the memory of the movie itself and makes me feel disinclined to watch them alone.

the Castro (Vertigo, September 2012)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

brief encounters

These lines are actual specimens. Tried in real life situations. Spectacularly unsuccessful when used on me, but, who knows? Maybe your mileage will vary.

1. Hey, baby, you're just my size.
2. You should let me take you home, darling, and make you a bubble bath.
3. Oh, honey, why you wearing all those clothes? You'd look better without them.
4. I like girls who like big books/complicated books/James Joyce/David Foster Wallace.
5. Are you looking for someone? Because I think I might be him.
6. I like girls who know their Beats. [seriously? have you noticed what decade we're in?]
7. You know what would be amazing? You. Plus, me.
8. I like that color you got on your lips. I think it'd look nice if you shared it with me.
9. What kind of Asian are you? 
10. Hot bunny! Look at your tail!

Most effective line in my experience?


Sunday, September 2, 2012

love songs

What's a love song? 

It's simple, isn't it? You're in love, and you sing a song. You're out of love, and you sing a song. It's a song about him. It's a song about her. It's song about you and the way you feel when confronted by a person who, for whatever reason, strikes a gong in your soul. It's sad. Wistful. Giddy. Obnoxious. It's the thing you play over and over when you're first in love because it makes you feel like you're drowning in something that's going to split your chest in two.

And you like it. You wish you could drown forever. You'd gulp down the ocean if it wasn't going to kill you.

It's the thing you play when your chest has split in two, over and over, because there's a wicked satisfaction in pricking a tender wound. A love song is a song about love, which is a tiny, terrifying word that, when turned inside out, explodes in every possible direction to become vast, a landscape with features both precise and smudged.

Maybe a love song can be identified like pornography. "I know it when I see it." (A handy little phrase when faced by the need to be both honest and vague... thank you, Justice Potter Stewart.)

Today, I asked friends to recommend their favorite love songs so I could build a playlist for our first rehearsal for a new Sharp & Fine project. It's a work in progress. Right now, it stands at 45 songs... Some expected, tasty old chestnuts, some ungainly oddballs. But, you know, all recognizable for what they are. 

So, I've been thinking about love songs all day, but I still haven't figured out which ones are my favorites. "Favorite" is such a dangerous word. Using it in public is like looking down the barrel of a gun. I am an indecisive chicken, and will only say that here are three love songs I like a lot:

When I was 15, I danced in a piece to this music... It blew my heart to smithereens. When I first heard it, I was beside myself, I couldn't figure out how one piece of music could make me feel so many things. I was 15 and I didn't even really know what love was, but I was convinced that, somewhere inside this piece of music,  was a large collection of evidence for how it should feel. When I was 19 and freshly away from home, I carried around a walkman with a disc of the recording featuring the Cleveland Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma. The version here is the Taneyev Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich. 

Listening to this song makes me feel like I should be out walking late at night, down a long, black road lined with infrequent lamps, toward a bright, golden room inhabited by the person I want to see most in the world. The tune is so simple... and then his voice spreads out over it, enormously tender, in some of the most sentimental lyrics in the world.

When my friend, Heather, and I went to see The Darjeeling Limited, we left the movie theater and went directly to a record store where we each bought a copy of the soundtrack. It's one of my least regretted music purchases ever. I love this song. I listened to it to excess to clean my ears and heart out after dating a fellow whose tastes ran to blurry, electronic indie pop. The heavy drumbeats are addictive. 

Evolving Spotify playlist HERE. Incomplete, due to my inability to find everything.

Recommendation thank yous go to Hallie Hunt, Dan Wool, Amis Maldonado, Stella Stastny, Amber Hsu, Ali Trotta, Clare Mallaney, Marc Jacobs, Penelope Barcelo, Neil Gaiman, LizAnne Roman, Sarah Miller, Lauren Naturale, Mari Aizawa, Arolyn Williams, Lauren Gallagher, Kelvin Vu, Kat Howard, Rebecca Howard, Noam Rosen, Gabrielle Zucker, Heather McCalden, and Shannon Leypoldt.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

a story ("the telescope")

It's funny. A terrible thing happens and I find myself twiddling my thumbs. There's so much waiting involved when someone you love dies and you are not there. We wait for conference calls to discuss autopsies and the catering of a funeral. We wait to hear from the church on whether the chosen day is taken by a wedding or a baptism. We wait to talk to an airline about whether a Christmas holiday, booked just last week, can be exchanged for a September funeral.

I wait for impact. It usually hits in the night. Days are long and guiltily empty. I read Anthony Lane's film reviews like they're breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Things strike me as inappropriately hilarious.

(The island of Kauai, my uncle tells me, does not have its own coroner. The coroner flies in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Otherwise, there's a part-time assistant coroner. I can't stop thinking about this hapless character. I imagine a weekly television comedy based on--his? her?--bumbled adventures, a sloppy procedural interrupted by the irresistibly irritating coroner proper, swooping in on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays.)

I dig in the boxes under my bed. I find old stories.

"The Telescope" is the only story of mine that my grandma ever read (apart from the books I used to make out of stapled-together pieces of paper with marker illustrations bleeding through all the pages and stories about talking animals in bland childhood scrawl). She told me that it was strange and that she was proud.

It was originally published in 2010 in Sybil's Garage. I ran across the file this morning while looking for things to delete and I thought it might be nice to put it up. So, I did. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

a goodbye

Yesterday afternoon, my grandma died.

She was the last of mine and I loved her. It happened so quickly, so out of the blue. We are characters in a cartoon and the earth has dropped out from under us, leaving us to whirl our little legs in frantic circles.

This is the second storm of my summer, and I'm tempted to say that, as of this afternoon, I have no more tears. I have used them up, squandered them on nighttime sobbing. I have run dry. These are untrue statements, lies as bald as an egg and as easy to break apart. Something could happen to someone I love tomorrow and the tears would be there, like those magic trick cups that are full again as soon as you think you've set them down, empty.

The more we love, the tenderer and more vulnerable we become. So, I suppose, in the end, that one of the goals of our allotment of days, one of the targets at which we must aim the arrows of our lives, is to have inside ourselves a bottomless lake of tears.

Grandma Megs loved hard and often and stubbornly. Her love was magnificently ordinary, offered up in meals cooked, cakes baked, pineapples stripped of their armor and turned into yellow cubes waiting in a plastic dish. She made slippers and blankets. She cut out recipes from newspapers and mailed them across oceans. She did not care for music. She liked dance, if she loved the people dancing. If she escaped drowsiness during a show, that show could be deemed excellent and entertaining, crowned with praise that claimed ignorance, but somehow flew straight for the black-and-white heart of the subject. She collected odd remedies for cramps of the legs (a bar of soap in a bed, an onion on a nightstand, a piece of string tied carefully around a toe). She taught her grandchildren to catch lizards with their hands. She was the only one fast enough to catch a fly. She smuggled scraps of exotic plants in her pockets and stuck them in pots and somehow made single wilted leaves turn into jungles that consumed tame yards for breakfast.

She remembered everyone's name. She remembered how everyone was related to everyone else. She had a thousand stories, all fresh and precise, drawn straight from the day they happened as clearly as if she had traveled in time. There was the time the telephone girls sent the firetruck out and the one fireman, the chubby one who had been taking a break (she told me his name; I can't remember it), came running past and she shouted the address as he went by. There was the time a boy drowned, clinging to a rock at the bottom of the water. There was the time when her mother was a little girl and she slept in a horse trough, waiting for her father to come home ("I love you so much," he said, "that if I put you in my eye, no tears would come out."). There was the time she went to lunch with her friend and her friend didn't know that bolognese sauce contained the same kind of meat that you find in a hamburger.

The lake inside my grandma must have been so wide and deep that you could throw an entire world in and it would fall forever. Her lake would be pleasant, but not flashy or picturesque. Bright, at any depth, and filled with fish that tell stories in which everyone remembers everyone's name, in which nobody is ever forgotten, in which things remain as sharp and unfaded as I wish all good things would.

Helen Hamamura (Grandma Megs) with Kylie Hamamura
California, summer 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

serial bingeing

I have fallen out of the habit of consuming television shows as they are meant to be consumed. Once a week, at that certain hour, a story broken up by cliffhangers (either large or small, elegant or crude) whose bite fades over the intervening days, only to be renewed at the end of the next episode. I love the idea of serialization, of that added layer of experience brought on by forced patience and delayed gratification of the piercing lust for what happens next.

But I don't watch real TV anymore. I've abandoned the schedule that grants certain nights of the week a glow of anticipation. I binge. I go for months without watching much of anything and then am struck with the raging desire to watch all 251 episodes of M*A*S*H, or every episode of Psych that the internet has to offer (79, according to Netflix. I know because I just ran up against the end of the 79th episode yesterday.).

It becomes less about what happens next when I watch episode after episode after episode. The importance of the story fades, and my consumption becomes more of an exercise in spending time in another world. I want to hang out. Drown reality. Murder time. Wallow in a place where I like the people and am fond of the scenery. My favorites seem to be the ones in which the citizens are reliable in their vividness. You know them as you would like to know real people, but so often don't. Real people, with their hidden switchbacks and closed doors and endless stretches of landscapes you can't possibly imagine, are mostly difficult to pin down to the constrains of believable character.

[an aside: fictional people can, I think, also be real. It's going the other way that gets dodgy.]

I like knowing that Hawkeye Pierce will always flirt, drink to excess, lie shamelessly, and have a heart of gold. I like dawdling in a universe where the Doctor will always save the world. I like watching an unlikely series of events plague a hotel and I like knowing that in a few seconds, more or less, I will hear Basil Fawlty scream.

Everything becomes predictable when you smash a long enough arc into a short enough time. It doesn't matter what small tragedy or shock the writers detonate in this or that storyline because I know that my heroes and heroines and their universe in general will still be recognizably the ones that made me watch in the first place.

It's sad, really. (the mild kind of sad, non-life changing and really nothing to be concerned about unless you're like me and have had an excess of free hours in recent history to think about shallow pleasures) The last time I remember the particular concern and anticipation and utter, but not unbelievable, surprise that comes along with good serialized fiction was when I picked up the second issue of Neil Gaiman's 1602 at an actual comic shop and I was in such a frenzy to know what happened next that I sat down on the curb and read the entire thing while the sun burnt the back of my neck.

Since then, it's all been bingeing.
This past week, I wrote a piece about music and music shows for Fantasy Matters. It's HERE.

Monday, July 23, 2012


It just occurred to me that "spectacles" and "spectacles" are a pleasing pair of homonyms. Things to look at, things to help you see what you're looking at. I could carry it further, go all metaphorical, talk about how some spectacles of the show or performance stripe might help us see the things we look at while we go about living life. Or, I could revel in word geekery and point out how "spectacles" and "spectacles" are inevitable, simple children of Latin's spectare, which means, of course, to look.

(I feel compelled to share the fact that my dictionary of word histories has, on the same page as "spectacle," four entries for the word "spell." Though, I've never used that word to refer to a splinter of wood, despite its apparently respectable lineage from Old Norse.)

(I have now destroyed any illusions of coolness that I may have possessed.)

Spectacle #1:

Shan and I went to a show that Amanda Palmer played at Public Works. We got to see the lovely Neil Gaiman, which is always a pleasure, and give him a hug, and ask him about a project that we want to do for Sharp & Fine. In the near-ish future, we're planning to do a dance adaptation of Neil's poem "Queen of Knives." I've wanted to do some version of this for several years, and it finally seems like the right thing to do next. Neil says we can do whatever we like, as long as we vanish a lady out of a box onstage. I'm thrilled.

Amanda's shows are astonishing. She walks onstage, in her silk kimono and crazy makeup, and the audience throws their arms into the air. They love her. Truly and absolutely. She sings, and they nod their heads and mouth the words and the whole room bends toward her. They don't watch passively. They feel. They link arms and shuffle-dance. Around the edges, there are those stoic people holding drinks in their hands and watching with their backs against the wall and expressions of tame amusement, but they're very few. Mostly, people are on fire with how much they're enjoying themselves and enjoying her. Their masks slide off their faces and it's a humbling pleasure to watch them watch her.

Spectacle #2:

On Thursday, very early in the morning, I drove over to Oakland to meet my friend, the fantastic Harry Bolles. We drove out to Clayton and spent an hour or so pretending to be a trapeze artist (me) and a ringmaster (Harry) for a short film called Emily and Billy. It's directed by the wonderful Ari Sigal and is about a girl who can't recognize faces and a boy who has no facial features. Harry and I were part of the circus that tries to recruit Billy for the sideshow. I wore sparkles and held my leg in the air and Harry did a magic trick. It was fun.

When I was a kid, I fantasized about (1) being an orca trainer at Sea World, (2) riding in steeplechase races, and (3) running away to join the circus.

Spectacle #3:

This afternoon, I saw a performance of Malinda LaVelle's Urge. I'm still chewing through the piece in my head, but I have to say that I admire, so very much, the honesty and humor with which Malinda and her dancers put awkward, uncomfortable, unsettling things on stage and make them both compelling to watch and completely true. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

comfort and ambition

I sometimes wonder how heartbreak feels to other people. Not in general, blunt terms because those are easy to guess. Terrible. Miserable. Astonishment that you, and you alone, have stripped down the walls that hold you and your world and let someone else in to play bandit with that so tender and elusive figurative organ that is your heart.

Heartbreak, to me, feels like I'm full, past brimming, past bursting, like every small part of me, down to the indivisible bits and pieces, has drifted apart to make room for something so large and achingly felt that if I move too quickly, my entire body will shudder and blow away. Time bends, grows hazy and staggers, drunk. I want everything and nothing at the same time.

It is, now that I think about it, exactly the way I feel when I'm first in love, only tipped on its head. I'm prone to fainting, it seems. To eating too little and feeling too much. My equilibrium is off and I cling to it as it swings from its course, threatening to capsize for one wild moment, and then, in minute increments, setting itself right again.

It makes me curious. Will the feeling that inspired all this, the right-side-up version with the goofy smile, survive the return to normal? I feel it so honestly and vividly. It makes sense. It seems true. But time heals everything, those platitudes and cliches all say, and they are so often correct, as sad as it makes me to think about a cure for love. Though they can't always be right. That would be so boring. Poorly written. Humorless and devoid of surprise.

I like my stories either funny or sad. I stay curious.

My sister gave me a card the other day. It says, "LET'S TAKE OVER THE WORLD, YOU AND ME." I think that might be our saving grace. Slightly mad, pure-hearted ambition. We want to be, as Shan puts it, pony-up cowboy champions. Not because we want the shine of it all, necessarily, or any glory, but because there are so many things we want so very badly to do. Our crazy schemes are all in service of making something we love either exist in the world or explode spectacularly on the way there.

Ambition keeps me sane. It gives those aforementioned, sloppily metaphorical boats of equilibrium something to navigate by.

Once, when I was a kid, I went to a Renaissance Fair(e) and watched a man give a lecture about the invention and use of the sextant. I was disappointed. In my storybook-addled brain, sailors of long ago just looked up at the sky and knew.

Maybe ambition is the wrong word. Ambition sounds like it could trample you in the dust. Like it might require a rodeo clown.

Enthusiasm to steer by? Pony up, cowboy.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Things discovered in notebooks while looking for something else:

From a letter, written for a birthday and left unfinished. Not mailed.

Once upon a time, there was a man who was walking along and singing. He had gone quite far, both on the road and in the song, before he realized that he had no idea what he was singing. The tune evaporated from his mouth as soon as he turned his thoughts on it. He stopped walking and his jaw twitched. His tongue hit the back of his teeth.

He tried a note, and then another one, and then he strung a bunch of sounds together and threw them at the air in the hope that he might recognize where they landed.

It had been a pleasant tune, something sweet and bold, and it had lifted his feet along as he walked, high and light and almost as if he were dancing. He tried this, marching back and forth across the road like a man whose joints had all been switched for springs.

The song continued to vanish.

It slipped from his ears and his head, fading from...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

the Kickstarter Project

My brain and time and ability to focus is being devoured, in great, rending gulps by the business of putting on a show. I am excited to the point of being unable to remember simple things like where I've left my tea cup five minutes ago. I am also slightly terrified. And I have two pages of text to memorize tonight.

This is my excuse for copying the following straight from the Sharp & Fine blog and putting it here, in case anyone who might still check this poorly neglected blog might feel like reading it.
Somewhere between last Friday night and Saturday morning, we launched a Kickstarter project for A Thousand Natural Shocks. By the end of Saturday, we had already raised over half of our goal. We are now 92% funded and have 64 backers.

Kat and I did an interview about the project for Fantasy Matters. And another one for Geekstarter.

We are astonished. Delighted, of course, but astonished. And very, very grateful. So many people have helped us spread the word. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to have not only friends, but also friends of friends of friends and even complete strangers stepping out from somewhere in the shimmery expanse of the internet and being excited about this project we have been working on for so long. It feels a little like the beginning of a gathering of people, friendly and varied and slightly raucous, who are going to accompany us as we trot off into the night in search of adventure.

It makes me hope that we can do brave and daring things to be worthy of our new companions.

Our Kickstarter video is below… We filmed excerpts from the piece in some picturesque places around San Francisco. Mostly, we danced around and looked like crazy people. It was fun.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

high wire act

Performing is a gamble. There's something deliciously high wire about it. You might be solid, solid, solid--totally sunk into the slim, fast channel of your work--but on every side is the great, yawning, empty space that comes with standing up in front of people and trying to tell them something right now, in this immediate place and time. You can rehearse until muscle memory leaps to attention at the sound of a familiar score; you can rehearse until you don't have to think of anything because it all happens automatically, a physical habit drilled into the body by the obscene number of hours it takes to prepare most dance pieces for the stage. But then you step out into that other world where you are dancing for other people and so much of that falls away. You are walking the finest of lines, racing along it way up high in the air, and because you are there, actually there, live and breathing and thinking, so are the people you're dancing for. In the best of worlds, it's like being pressed forehead to forehead and whispering all your most beautiful secrets, even if you're separated by a vast stage and an ocean of seats.

I love it. Can't get enough of it. I'm a sucker and a glutton for it.

The piece I'm performing in this weekend takes that feeling and cranks it up to neon, quivering brightness. The Water is Clear and Still is a new performance installation by Liss Fain Dance. Most of the dance installations that I see have a sort of casualness about them, a conscious desire to connect to the pedestrian and human. You go into a gallery or warehouse or some other space, and the dancers are people moving around you. They tend to contain themselves, or have some looseness and improvisational ease. I like that. I like the effort to take dance out of the proscenium and bring it closer to the experience of being a normal human being.

This piece is a bit different. When you say the word "installation," this might seem like a better fit. It takes a highly choreographed, visually complicated piece and unleashes it in a lavishly artificial environment that the audience gets to enter alongside the dancers. There's very little casualness about it. The set is an almost alien deconstruction of a grove of trees. Video projections spill across the floor. The score by Dan Wool is an enormous wash of sound spilling out of a battalion of speakers hidden way up with the lighting rig. The choreography is vigorous and absolutely set. The most human thing about the entire production is, I think, the wonderful Val Sinckler, who performs short stories by Jamaica Kincaid in such a warm, vivid way that you can't help but fall in love with them. (I wrote a piece for Fantasy Matters about dancing to Jamaica Kincaid's stories.)

But, somehow, the composed formality of the piece creates an almost forced intimacy with the audience. They enter the world of it with us, and the contrast between the piece and the unexpected closeness and volatility of an audience that can move around at will somehow administers a little shock of that delicious, high wire connection. It's a kind of magic.

Please come to the show if you can... We only have two more shows to go. Tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM.

The Water is Clear and Still
Liss Fain Dance
at Z Space
450 Florida Street, San Francisco, 94110

Tickets are $25 and available online through Brown Paper Tickets and in person at the box office.

Friday, February 17, 2012

technical desires

Sometimes I just like reading the specifics of things that I don't quite understand. It seems poetic in its impenetrability, somehow.
Single color Front light, 9 areas
Two color Back light, 4 areas
Single color High-sides, 6 areas
One (8') head-high and (2') shin Side lights, on four booms per side (16 circuits)
Three color top cyc strips
Nine center (Down light) specials, up-stage to downstage, (8 circuits)
9 extra circuits.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

sunday movie: Kissing (1900)

An article on Brainpickings sent me to this video. It makes me happy. It breaks down, in 37 seconds, the barrier that missives from the past must often shout through, the sense that those people in grainy black-and-white are not actually real.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

birthday parties

When I was a kid, I had epic birthday parties.

I think that word, in the context of birthday parties, has a whiff of terror about it now. The birthday parties that my sister and I had in childhood were not grossly extravagant or populated by hordes of schoolmates, but they were epic. Things I remember: decorating a table full of small white cakes with friends, each of us armed with colored frosting and plastic dinosaurs (I was in love with dinosaurs); a jungle themed carnival in the backyard, of which I distinctly remember a long sheet of paper painted to look like the Limpopo River; our panda bear puppet in a cowboy hat perched on a pile of straw bales; riding ponies with a (very) few of my friends across a scrubby California hill; drinking tea out of flowered cups while wearing a flowered dress and a flowered hat.

I'm sure that for our parents, the parties were stressful occasions, but for me (as far as I can remember), they were sheer pleasure.

On Tuesday, I had a birthday party that was just that. Pleasure all the way through. I went with some friends to the Verdi Club in San Francisco, where they have swing dancing and a live band every Tuesday night. The space is clean and large. The music is fantastic. The people, for the most part, are both polite and bracingly enthusiastic. They are there to dance (not to stand morose in corners or leer or wobble around in too high heels and too short skirts) and it doesn't strike them as odd that a group of young-ish people who don't know the proper steps, are nevertheless stomping and hopping and flinging themselves about however their fancy hits them. I got to hold hands with strangers, and look them in the eye, and dance with them. I got to hold hands with friends, and look them in the eye, and dance with them. We had conversations. We sat in corners and listened to music that called up all those magical, old movies where shadows and light feel more important because they're the only things there are. I felt very grown up. I felt very young. At no time did I find myself regarding a passing moment and thinking that it might be better.

It was wonderful.

Friday, January 13, 2012

quotes from a museum night

"What is she doing to that bird?"
"I think she's taking its skin off."
"Is it alive?"


"OH MY GOD, I love those purple puff things!"


"It's like Mars. In a fish."
"Are jellyfish fish?"


"This is so much time. It's so intense. I mean, I wasn't expecting it to be anything like this. I assumed it would be crazy--of course--but, this... This is something else. I mean, all these people... Can I have some of your water?"


"And it shoots water out of that hole there, so it moves backwards."
"And that thing, that part, is that shell or is that flesh?"
"That's flesh. But it hangs over the shell, there. And those are its eyes."


Sunday, January 8, 2012

sunday movie: "Arrow" by Bobbi Jene Smith

Bobbi Jene Smith is one of my favorite dancers in the world to watch. Seeing Bobbi perform is like seeing, apart from you and in the flesh, all these things that you both recognize and never knew about how it feels to be a human being.

Creators: Bobbi Jene Smith & Tom Weinberger
Performers: Bobbi Jene Smith & Christian Burns
Music: Efrim Manuel Menuck


Monday, January 2, 2012

making it up

A little while ago, two of my writer friends, Monica Byrne and Kat Howard, asked me for advice about making up dances. Monica was feeling inspired by a piece of music. Kat was staring down the conviction that Shan and I had latched onto, slowly and in pieces, that having Kat (who is a fencer, but not a dancer) give us the bones of some movement for our project would be interesting, refreshing, and important for the whole idea of collaboration.

I can't say that I have much expertise to offer.

This project that I am bumbling through (madly, happily, blindly) with Kat and Shan is the first thing I've seriously tried to choreograph. I've improvised before. I've had the opportunity to work with choreographers who offer the challenge and respect of both tempered freedom and actual collaboration. But I've never been in the position of generating movement and beating it into a coherent whole. I've never had to build all the pieces of a dance and line them up and see they fall against each other so that they not only ring the bell of idea and emotion, but also carry someone across the landscape of it.

And to have such opportunity and support and brilliant workmates on the first time out... If I look at it too closely, the responsibility of it all makes me feel like the floor will vanish at any moment and I'll be standing on black, empty space.

So, I don't have a vast and comforting history to draw on, but in the course of this first and wonderful project, I have made some movement up. And these are some of the things I thought about.

1. The physical awfulness of grief.
I wanted to make a phrase that contained the physical reaction to loss. A year ago, my grandpa died. My physical reaction to that was so particular and peculiar and vivid that, when I think about it now, there's the factual memory (or, as factual as memory can be) and then there's the other one, all blown-out sensation, strange, high-contrast images, and terrible dreams. The feeling that I'd held my breath too long. The dream where all my bones had turned to compressed dust and were merely awaiting the disturbance that would cause their shape to fall away. How stiff the tops of my shoulders and the sides of my ribcage were, as if my whole body were filled with balloons that had been blown to squealing capacity.

2. Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, terrible television commercials, and semaphore.
Neil Gaiman casually linked to this video and introduced me to the wonderful brilliance of Laurel and Hardy dance routines. Shan and I fell down the rabbit hole of YouTube, and watched videos of L&H, Chaplin, and Keaton to excess. Such finely executed, earnestly played physical comedy is a joy. It tells the audience something, compels attention, and elicits effortless emotional response. It's like a story in mute, shining miniature. And then we saw, I think, a terrible television commercial that showed one person helplessly wilting away from another, and somehow the two things seemed to go together in both of our heads and we wanted to make a duet that ran on shrinking violets, pratfalls, and slapstick. When we started putting it together, other things found their way in: stupid mermaids, crazed folkdancers, and semaphore.

3. Personal tics.
I became obsessed with one sentence in the piece of text that Kat originally sent us for the project. "The first thing you notice about being dead is that you can still see the stars." And it made me wonder. I think that the first thing a person notices about anything is an interesting tic of personality. I wanted to know the identity of  the first things whose absence would strike us. I asked everyone to write lists of small, very specific things that they like and dislike. "I like the feeling of stepping on the gas pedal when you speed." "I don't like the smears on public windows." "I like the way you can see a person's pupil dilate after they blink when you're close enough to notice." (that last is mine... sometimes I'm impressed with my own creepiness.) And then we literally just made up gestures to match the sentences. Two hands chopping down from either side of the head. Rubbing the underside of the throat from left to right on an imaginary pane of glass. Cupping one hand over an eye and drawing it up like a weird jellyfish creature before slapping it down again.

Carson's solo is actually her likes and dislikes, strung together and built up to a full, exaggerated extreme.

4. Movement.
All the images and ideas and shiny, compelling treasures are important to me. They're important in the same way that the collage of disparate images that sit in my head when I'm writing a story are. They're the keys to telling something that will hopefully be true, the little knives that slice inside the workaday statement like, "Oh, yes, it hurts when someone dies," so the skin can be flensed and turned tender side out. But they just sit there, dull and laden with quirk, if there isn't some momentum behind them. I think that the movement itself has to be trusted, to some extent. That you have to follow the impulse that starts up in you when you hear a piece of music, or catch yourself thinking about the way a New Orleans funeral band marches. It might start out as the saddest step-touch in the world, to a sousaphone dirge, but the... I don't think the right word is joy... maybe, pleasure? the pleasure of work and of something coming together... comes from chasing after the little desires and convictions. The way my heels come together makes me want to fall on my face, which makes me want to swing my legs around and slam them on the floor which makes me want to... what?

5. Revision. And do-overs. And many more drafts than one. Also, serendipity.
This has been one of my favorite things. We go in with the bones of an idea, and our dancers take them on. At first, they're relatively faithful. They execute the choreography. But then they fill out their own images, whether they're physical geometry or more fanciful, and things bend. They become completely unrecognizable. And we watch each other and see that it might work to have an explosion, like a magnesium flare, here. Or that this phrase needs to be less jumbled, more stripped. And sometimes really weird, great things happen. Like when we asked Sarah to make a bit of movement based on the idea of flip books. Just a tiny thing that would fill maybe eight counts. And she came up with this gorgeous, three-minute long solo that looks like a sequence of Muybridge photos brought to life.

face to face

Sunday, January 1, 2012

new year's wish

I've put this up elsewhere, but wanted to copy it down here:

Happy new year, dear world. You are quite lovable. Be brave. Be bold. Be foolish and kind. May some of your wishes come true. May you journey far and return home safe. May you fall on your face and trip the light fantastic. May you live another 365 days and remember more of them than you forget.

xoxo, M.