Thursday, September 26, 2013

sharing a table with strangers

A recent coffeeshop experience.
(or, call me Miss Lonelyhearts, apparently)

(click for larger + clearer)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

thoughts on bus proximity

When I ride the bus alone, I sometimes wonder whether I am especially neurotic, or whether we are all guilty of fast-talking, interior monologues.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

playing badly

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. I was probably around eight or ten. I don't remember much about them. I don't even remember why I wanted to take them in the first place. My parents were gentle and indulgent when it came to hobbies, and they encouraged my sister and me to try everything that we wanted to, as long as we liked it enough to take it seriously. I studied ballet, gymnastics, and horseback riding. I took lessons in drawing and writing. I read thick books filled with pictures of birds and commandeered my parents' bed as a base from which I could spend hours identifying various versions of the common sparrow.

I was not a musical child. My dad played the piano, so we always had a piano in the house, but he rarely touched it. We listened to music--classical music and oldies--and my mom would sometimes play the guitar and sing (my mom has a lovely voice), but my innate musical talent amounted to just about nothing. I took piano lessons for a little while, failed to become good at making music, failed to care enough to struggle through the discomfort of being bad at something, and stopped.

I used to dislike doing things I was bad at. They made me feel uncomfortable and stupid and conspicuously mortified, like a clown taking a pratfall with a whole neon world blinking in pity. I have always had a fear of looking stupid. It is one of my most annoying faults, the thing that will make me nod my head when I haven't the foggiest idea and sit glum on the sidelines while everyone else slides around in the mud.

I am bad at music. I have no talent or instinct for it. I have the dullest of ears and no sensitivity to the beautiful, mathematical landscapes of rhythm. Consciously remembering a melody is a struggle. I love music, am fascinated and moved and riled up by it, but I am, frankly, terrible at it.

In January, I started taking piano lessons. Once a week, I go to the Community Music Center in the Mission and am bad at playing the piano. It makes me incredibly happy. It is an enormous and alien pleasure to honestly take pleasure in the study of something I'm bad at. I have no real hope of becoming musical; my brain doesn't seem to be the right shape for it and my ideas don't speak music as a native language. When I want to say something, it never occurs to me to hum a tune. But, I love the way it feels to crawl toward minimal comprehension of a subject so enormously wonderful that it gets to stroll beloved through life. It reminds me of learning to read. Here, again, are the weird moments when a mark on a page becomes a recognizable object, then a symbol, then a block of symbols, then a magical, moveable strand of fluency. Here is a reminder that turning a page was once an awkward movement and not an invisible transition.

I get the dual thrills of struggling with the ideas and struggling with the fine motor control that underlie something that I adore, but have absolutely no stake in being good at. No one cares whether I become competent at making music or remain comically confused (except, maybe, my piano teacher, who is pure, delightful, Eastern European fanaticism). I am allowed the happiness of a slow motion plod toward small sparks of understanding, which somehow feel like little anvils falling on my head and bright little birds circling around, singing a stupidly cheerful tune.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

bass players

bass players, 5/22/13
Last night, I went to see the San Francisco Symphony play Elliott Carter, Maurice Ravel, and George Gershwin. Really, I went to hear the Ravel and Gershwin. Really, I went to see the clarinet player just about wriggle out of his tailcoat with the excitement of the first solo of Rhapsody in Blue.

I sat in the magical, $15 seats that put you right up behind the musicians. The percussion and the brass are extremely loud there, and you have an excellent view of the luxuriously full complement of basses. My sister and I shared the long, carpeted bench with elderly Russian couples who didn't seem to mind when we pulled out our notebooks and pencils.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me"

Whenever I see Neil Gaiman, he asks me whether I've been writing. Most of the time, I mumble something about how I'm working on this project or that project, slowly, oh so slowly, but--my god!--dance just eats up all the time in the world and how will a story ever finish itself?

The answer is that it won't. Sometimes, this makes me feel guilty.

Sometimes, I throw myself into a chair (or, more likely, across a bed) and fling words on paper until the story is finished.

It's hard though. And since dance really does eat up all the time in my world, it's embarrassingly rare.

When Neil asks if you have a story that might fit into a book he is putting together, the answer is obviously yes, even if you are typing this out in a state of tipsiness and are not entirely sure whether or not you have such a story. The answer is still yes, even if you discover that the story you thought might fit is actually in a state of sad disrepair, an untouched and confusing first draft on a pile of papers festering at the bottom of a cardboard box. The answer remains yes all through the night and next day as you strip, cannibalize, and restring the story and discover, after many hours of labor, to your great surprise and delight, that it works.

So, I am ridiculously thrilled to say that a story of mine is in a fat, gorgeous book edited by Neil and Maria Dahvana Headley. Unnatural Creatures is a collection of sixteen stories about unlikely and impossible beasts. The other authors are ones who I admire like crazy, ones whose stories have made me cry, or made me happy, or given me terrible nightmares for weeks (see: E. Nesbit.) Sales of the book benefit 826 DC. The 826 organizations are amazing and magical, a force of marvelous good.

You can read Neil's post about the book HERE. You can read Maria's post about the book HERE.

My story is called "The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me." Neil and Maria gave me this title. It makes me think of an old movie from the 1960s that doesn't exist and this makes me very happy.

Monday, April 22, 2013

the neighbors upstairs

I am convinced that sometimes the neighbors upstairs turn into rhinoceroses or elephants or some other pachyderms and practice line dancing up and down the hall.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

on love: definitions

Shan and I asked our dancers to bring in pieces of text that, to them, spoke about love. It's an easy thing to ask and a difficult thing to do, and I wasn't sure what the purpose of these texts would be, except that we felt the act of choosing them and sharing them might be important for the project in general, if not for the movement in particular.

I have a hazy idea that the pieces we chose are artifacts from the edifice we've each constructed to put under the word "love." There are some enormous things, a few great engines that drive our lives, that we can vaguely define in a universal way, but can only understand within the narratives we build for ourselves. And it's really weird to poke at the tangle of what I mean when I say "love," and to wonder what it is that causes me to adopt it, to come to it as a conclusion, to add up a certain assortment of reactions and desires and convictions and find the sum to be "love."

I half-remember reading something as a kid that said there was no way to know whether you and anyone else in the world really meant the same thing when you said the word "red." 
And now we can really understand what the meaning of music is. It's the way it makes you feel when you hear it. Finally, we've taken the last giant step, and we're there; we know what music means now. We don't have to know everything about sharps and flats and chords to understand music. If it tells us something--not a story or a picture, but a feeling--if it makes us change inside, then we are understanding it. That's all there is to it. Because those feelings belong to the music. They're not extra, like the stories and pictures we talked about before; they're not outside the music. They're what music is about.
And the most wonderful thing of all is that there's no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. Some of those feelings are so special they can't even be described in words. Sometimes we can name the things we feel, like joy or sadness or love or hate or peacefulness. But there are other feelings so deep and special that we have no words for them, and that's where music is especially marvelous. It names the feelings for us, only in notes instead of words.
It's all in the way music moves. We must never forget that music is movement, always going somewhere, shifting and changing and flowing from one note to another. That movement can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can. 
That's from Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message "He is dead."
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. 
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
It's really only the first two lines of the third stanza for me. It's "Funeral Blues" by W. H. Auden, but I always knew it as a moment from a movie that flew off the screen and hit me in the face. I can't remember anything else about Four Weddings and a Funeral.
I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires. Throw away your little bed socks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.
That's from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. I don't know Under Milk Wood at all. I've barely read anything by Dylan Thomas, except for a few poems slogged through when I was fourteen and impressionable and a friend gave me a book of Thomas and a book of Whitman because they were "the best poets in ever."

I'm not sure what these are in terms of my own bricks and mortar, but they do say "love" to me, beyond just the word.

Monday, February 18, 2013

tunes recently enjoyed no. 4

So Am I - George Gershwin

During the entire month of January, I was completely obsessed with Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls. I listened to it on repeat, incessantly and without any real analytical thought. I wanted it to be the background to everything, for some reason, so I put it on, over and over, until they were pleasantly engraved into my brain and I caught myself enjoying the creepy sensation of listening to the memory of a tune as clearly as if it were actually playing.

This is my favorite song from the album. It makes me think of a late night, happily tipsy dance--stately gliding upset by bobbing changes of pace and unexpected leaps in altitude. Dreamy.

Andante from Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor - J. S. Bach

My sister and I recently discovered that the San Francisco Symphony offers some surprisingly cheap seats and we are now getting into the habit of taking advantage of this fact. We went to see a program organized around the talents of Alexander Barantschik, principal violinist. It was a program of old chestnuts, pieces that I (and probably everyone else in the audience) have been inescapably exposed to. They're in movies, on commercials, in cafes, in bookstores, in the vast and general cultural air... and I was completely shocked to find myself tearing up over this particular piece, eyes welling out of control over something so familiar, but so weirdly live.

It's a sad and stately beauty, this slow and almost plodding base with the violin singing across the top of it. It's very lovely, but not a piece that I usually go crazy for, so the efficiency with which it dragged me to the point of tears was a bit of a shock.

(the video features Yehudi Menuhin)

Serenade in D major, Serenata notturna- Mozart

This was the last piece on the aforementioned program of old chestnuts. It feels very earnest, a sunny and forthright bit of virtuosic glee. Hearing it and seeing it played live is fun. We sat in the odd bleacher-like seats perched at the back of the stage where you can peer down at the musicians and see, up close, these fascinating, alien habits and tics that slide along under the performance of the music itself. Watching excellent music played live is possibly my favorite thing in the world right now. I can't get enough of it. There's the aural pleasure of sounds with texture and distance and breath, of course, but the visual realization that those sounds are coming from human beings is somehow enormously satisfying. I like seeing how the violinists slide their bows onto shelves under their music when they're required to pluck strings with their fingers. I like seeing the principal bassist (whose name is Scott Pingle and who is extraordinary) exchange glances with the percussionist before their respective solos. I like seeing this collection of people turn into a strange and beautiful beast that makes music. It's as if all the information that comes in from my eyeballs sets my curiosity on fire so I can listen better.

Partita No. 3 in E major - J. S. Bach

I love this piece. The "Loure" in particular just wrenches my heart out because it's such a stringent stunner. It's so inarguably, intelligently ravishing, and it seems like every violinist pours themselves into it, souls pressed right out of their bodies and into the air via that flimsy box of wood. An illusion, obviously, but an irresistible one.

Gil Shaham reminded me of Dick Van Dyke. Long and off-kilter and warmly silly. I never expected to see a violinist move an entire symphony hall into a fit of giggles, but he managed it with panache.

These Arms of Mine - Otis Redding

This song is one that I imagine I will love forever, no matter where or for what it is appropriated. The way the beat goes on and on underneath a voice that's almost embarrassingly, sentimentally full of want... it gets me every time.

Ina Rae, the singer who we're working with on our current Sharp & Fine project, sang us a version of this that started out in classical, opera voice and tumbled down into something looser. It was amazing, even unfinished. I'm really hoping that it will fit into the finished piece because I think the entire audience will be left in tears.

Tow Away Zone - Sam Ospovat

Sam Ospovat, an incredible drummer, recently asked me to help him create some movement for a live performance of this improv-based composition. I listened to it a lot beforehand, at first because I felt like I should (even though I knew it would sound completely different in the show) and then because I felt like it was this weird and magical room that transformed itself every time I opened the door on it.

I used to have an enormous prejudice again contemporary improvised music. I was afraid of it, in the same way that I'm still afraid of things labeled "performance art."Afraid of boredom, confusion, and unpleasantness that you can't escape because you are at a show and good manners dictate that you shouldn't just walk out because you don't "like" something. But, having heard and seen more music like this performed live, I find myself starting to enjoy some of it. It's so interesting, so obviously full of ideas and strictures, both followed and defied, even if I can't understand most of the language it's speaking in.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

the man with the pomeranian

1/31/13, a hat shop in North Beach, San Francisco


I assumed the man was speaking gibberish. The sound had come from behind me and I ignored it for a while in the hope that it might go away.


The gibberish became more insistent, with discernible repeated syllables, and I turned around because this was a music show and I can't bear the thought of a scene in an audience, even a very small scene in a small audience, in a hat shop half-filled by a very loud brass band.

"Aren't you Chinese?"

I had to explain to the man that I am not Chinese. He looked like Omar Sharif, if Omar Sharif was leached of all color and afflicted with a form of plastic surgery that tugged his eyebrows into points. He was carrying an enormous Pomeranian under one arm.

"Is that your boyfriend playing the trumpet?"

I had to explain to the man with the enormous Pomeranian that the fellow playing the trumpet was not my boyfriend. The man opened his eyes, very wide and very shiny, and everything in his face pulled up under his pointed eyebrows into a smile of delight.

"In that case," the man said, "I'd like you to meet Buddy. I think the two of you would get along fine."

The Pomeranian, which was much larger than I thought it possible for a Pomeranian to be, a giant slab of fluff beached on the length of the man's arm, extended a paw.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

why I believe in reading books on trains

One of my great pleasures while riding the train (and I speak of "the train" not as the grandly nostalgic epitome of mass-transit pleasure, but as the everyday, many person vehicle) is seeing the number of people who spend their time there, trapped shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-knee, with their faces in books. I sit on the abused, plastic-upholstered seat that is my own for the space of a ride, stare at all the pages being turned, and feel happiness. It's a genuine wash of that emotion too; I do not exaggerate by calling it "happiness." A blooming glow of satisfaction unfurls in my heart, camaraderie (manufactured falsely, no doubt), and the absurd sensation that here is one of those tiny signs that indicate that the world will be alright. That things are, at the bottom of it all, on the road to good.

At first I thought this ridiculous feeling was the result of being a bookish person. I love books. I love some of them dearly. I love them so much that I'm convinced I'll write one at some point in the not too far off future. I love them so much that I work in bookstores in my spare time and press them into the hands of other people, judging them, yes, but also feeling always a little bit like we are winking at each other. Of course my heart is warmed by the books on the train! The world keeps telling us that the book is faltering and we say, "No! I read them on the train."

And then I thought about it some more and realized that the damage goes deeper than that, that I'm a believer in a frenzy of belief. I was brought up on books, spoiled with books. I've read so many of them in my life that they're one of the great pillars that hold up my world. The way I understand living, the good and the bad and the things worth wanting, has been sifted down and tempered by the things I've read. The poles of my desires are tethered to the stories I've consumed. I can't point to specifics because they aren't specific. There's no particular novel or character that took my hand and led me on my way. But the shape of this thing that I consider me, any depth or conviction that I possess, has been partially cultivated by the books I've read. Books stuff me with lives I will never live. When I was a kid, they gave me the chance to try on things like passion, suffering, and heroism, all blown up beyond the scope of a shy girl with a happy family in a calmly wonderful swathe of suburbia.

I am not religious. But there are three things that I believe in with complete and utter fervency: art, the people I love, and books. Not books as objects. As much as I, personally, pine for my stacks of squared up paper, if I'm really honest, I don't give a fig about whether a book comes bound or on a screen. But, books as a translation of life between one person and another, books as a joy ride to figuring out what you think matters… that gives me the shivers. 

And that's why I believe in reading books on trains.