Monday, September 3, 2012

Going, Going, Gone

I’m getting a tattoo removed.  The painful, strange and sometimes disgusting process has been going on for about a year.  I thought when I started, I’d be all done by now, but it’s stubborn, and unfortunately made up of colors that are the hardest to remove, which is another note to self.  When people find out, they always ask why I want it off.  Does it have a bad memory, so scarring emotional echo that I’m trying to eradicate?  Nope, it’s kind of the opposite, actually.  It’s a tattoo with pretty good memories.  But it was ugly.  What had started out as a dainty butterfly just below my right big toe had become an amorphous blob, more dung beetle than colorful winged creature.

The little butterfly was my first tattoo.  I was twenty-years-old and on the proverbial verge of adulthood.  At least I thought so.  I wanted to mark the moment, commemorate what I saw as the spreading of my own wings.  I’ll say what you’re thinking.  It was a little cheesy.  I was twenty, and fancied myself poetic.  My little sister and one of my best childhood friends took me to get inked, on a hot summer night in Texas.  Somewhere in Deep Ellum, we found Tattoos by Lurch, though I think the artist’s name was Jeff or something equally banal.  Greg held my hand and my sister snapped photos as the needle staccato’d the simple black outline of a butterfly onto my foot. 

I should have kept it that way, but getting tattoos is, as they say, addicting.  Addicting enough that I have four, not so addicting that you can find them on me without me telling you where to look.  I already had another one, a little after my 21st birthday.  A year or so later, my sister was in LA for a visit.  She was eighteen and had decided it was her turn.  I watched the guy fill in three blue raindrops on this inside of her ankle and decided my little butterfly needed some color.  So I proffered up my toe for a consult and returned a few weeks later to get it filled in, which in hindsight was a bad idea.

If I have my way, and the removal process eventually wins its battle over the stubborn and unnecessarily significant amount of ink in my right foot, then both of my first two tattoos will no longer be visible.  The second one is already covered up by one that I love.  It was another one that didn’t evoke any bad memories, failed love affairs or other emotional traumas.  It was just bad.  It was applied to my skin by a man named Shock, in a tattoo parlor on Melrose, and it was not art.  Now that it’s been covered by something beautiful, drawn partly by a friend and partly by a tattoo artist who works in a place that keeps 9-5 hours and requires a pre-session consultation as well as several concept drawings by email, I have learned the difference between what I consider a tattoo artist and a tattoo technician.

It’s interesting to see something that’s been there since I was just shy of my twentieth birthday slowly fade from existence.  I don’t regret those first tattoos, despite the lack of proficiency with which they were emblazoned on my body.  They taught me an important lesson worth applying if you are considering permanent artwork.  And each experience made memories.  I’m not losing those precious moments spent with my sister every time the laser shatters more ink.  If anything, I remember them with more clarity, more detail.  As the Q-Switch has done its job, each session has actually made the tattoo brighter, brought back the old colors and sharpened the details of those memories.  And now, as the ink is slowly starting to fade and the dung beetle reverts to a butterfly and slowly, back to my skin, I know that the memories are not in the ink, but in me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Romance, A Writer's Conference & Snow White

On Saturday morning, I had a brief airport conversation, with a handsome not-quite stranger I know next to nothing about, on the subject of romance.  And then he disappeared onto a jet bridge.  The similarities between the scene and the topic were not lost on me.  We sat side by side for a moment, in the airport, surrounded mostly by travelers.  People we now knew so well they seemed like family, and people we said hi to in the hallways and people whose faces kind of maybe looked familiar.  Which is what happens when 250ish people leave the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference on the same day, and a sizable number of them descend on the tiny Burlington International Airport, which inexplicably claims itself as gateway to far flung destinations. 

It was only an unlikely airport conversation topic if those doing the talking weren’t two overly cerebral writers.  Don’t think that I’m conveying superiority here.  I mean to say that we both agreed that, potentially to our own detriment, we often think too much.  Or maybe we don’t, maybe it’s all the thinking that makes things interesting.  The ticket agent made an unintelligible announcement on the loudspeaker, and saying goodbye, the handsome not-quite-stranger took his leave. 

“See you sometime,” I said, and then waited.  For the next 8 or so hours.  Not for him, that would not be romantic, that would be a little weird.  I waited for the plane I had started to think might never come.  At two I bought another sandwich.  At six, I began to hoard my candy rations when the two kiosks closed, and then prayed for deliverance.  At least to D.C. where the airport would have restaurants inside security.  I had lost all hope of making a connecting flight.  The short of a very long story is that I got home Sunday, instead of Saturday, which I think is the reason I keep thinking today is Monday.  So when I sat down to write an essay many Monday’s overdue, realized it was Tuesday, and admitted that I was well and truly fried from ten days of intensity and proximity, to both my feelings and to people, I started writing from the first thought that popped into my head.

Wikipedia says the notion of romance is about love that emphasizes emotion over libido.  “I sat on the steps and watched the hookups as they happened,” he said, or something like that, just a bit before they announced boarding for his flight.  He was referring to the writers making the most of a final evening of drinking and communal living.  The ones eagerly reliving their college years.  Or last week.  Sometimes Bread Loaf is known as “Bed Loaf.”  Not without good reason, though it seems to me it takes some creativity to pull off a tryst with so many people in such close proximity.  Or maybe some latent exhibitionist tendencies.  I wouldn’t know. 

“I’m not sure I really get it,”  he said.  “I’m not sure I ever got that notion, truly.  I suppose maybe I’m more like a girl in that respect.”  But is that like a girl, really?  Or is it that romance is owned by those of us who spend as much time thinking about the world as we do living in it?  I don’t believe a propensity for romance is as much an indication of femininity as it is of thoughtfulness.  And as much as it seems like it’s a good thing, being a romantic can certainly be a detriment in a world where people most definitely do not “think” the same way.  Sitting at the airport, we both wondered whether or not it might be a good thing to be able to turn off the brain, just let go and let it happen. 

A guy I dated recently told me that he didn’t believe in romance.  He blamed the notion on Disney, said decades of princesses and happily ever after’s had ruined things for modern relationships.  Ever the romantic, there’s a limited edition vintage poster from Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs on my wall, I thought I might convince him otherwise.  But there’s that old adage about changing someone, and convincing is just a fancy word for the same thing.  Now I realize that he just didn’t think about love in the same way I do.  For him it wasn’t something to be explored in sprawling thoughts or ideas.  The physicality of it was enough of an expression for him.  And that’s not wrong, it’s just not my way.  For me it has to be cerebral – love, sex, a kiss in a dark corner – they all tell a story.  It’s never just a moment in time, there’s always a before and an after.  A why.  A why not.  Something leads up to those moments and something lingers after them – a compliment, a sidelong glance, a promise, a memory.  All of which have meaning, all of which convey emotion. 

Being a romantic isn’t easy.  We’re emotional, obviously.  Prone to big ideas and gestures.  We daydream a lot.  Which is maybe why I’m klutzy.  But it’s not about being masculine or feminine and I don’t think you can switch it on and off at will, though sometimes, I think it might be nice to try.  Given the option, however, to be one or the other, I think I’ll keep my head in the game of hearts.  It’s only painful to be a romantic if you can’t find another one.  But there are always other ones.  Besides, I’m okay with a little Disney in my life – far flung romance, grand gestures, long lost loves, mysterious encounters, soul mates and all. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Welcome to the Club

The words and tears tumbled out at the same time.  Her thoughts clearly jumbled and her sentences inarticulate and meandering.  Exactly how anyone would be, sitting in a room full of strangers forty-two days after their sibling died.  Patience, I told myself, remembering back almost twelve years.  She’s new to the club.  I looked around the room at the people I was spending an hour or so leading through a workshop on sibling loss.  Some I knew from eight years of workshops in hotel conference rooms around the country.  Some were new, either because it had taken them till now to find us, or because at about this time last summer, they were blissfully ignorant that there was such a thing as The Compassionate Friends.  They had yet to be initiated into the club nobody wants to join.  Their brothers and sisters were still alive.

It was a chilling thing this year, to wake up on a sunny morning in Costa Mesa to the news of the late night movie massacre.  As I heard the news while getting ready for the first full day of a conference to support bereaved parents and siblings, my first thought was some of them will be here next year.  It happened post-Columbine, just before I became a member, and post 9/11, after my sister died, but before I knew there was such a thing as TCF.  And so, a brother or sister of one of the slain would very likely be sitting in one of my workshops in Boston next July.  A parent who lost a child to a late night movie could be in the workshop where I sit on a panel along with other veteran siblings, helping to explain to them why their surviving child, that remaining brother or sister won’t talk, won’t share, turned to drugs, left school or just can’t stop being so angry at the world.  So much of the world is fascinated with the villain.  Many more are moved to make sure we remember that he is not important, that we should be focused on remembering the ones that he killed.  All I could think about, on that day of all days, as I walked through too-crowded halls of the hotel, was of the families left full of empty holes.  Families who would need this place.

I was a few years out from Wendy’s death when I found TCF.  Now I’m a veteran.  An expert at grief, qualified run workshops, sit on panels.  Experienced enough to share my story, to help someone else through the process.  Credentials claimed out of necessity to make some sense of my own loss, make a difference to someone else and hopefully make both of us feel just a tiny bit better in the process.  It’s not all tears and run-on sentences and harsh reality.  In many ways, the weekend is an escape, like summer camp for the bereaved.  Where you don’t have to explain a thing to your friends.  No one wonders why your eyes are red, you are never the only one doing the ugly cry, and someone’s always there to hand you a drink and know exactly why you need it. 

Don’t think we don’t have any fun.  My regular crew is a rebellious bunch.  We take over the nearest bar at night.  You can usually find a handful by the pool on a break, or maybe during a workshop session when it’s all just too much.  We sit in the back row at opening and closing ceremonies and act like we’re twelve, making fun of the guest choir who always performs awkward dance/sign language numbers to cheesy pre-recorded music that they don’t sing along to, while wearing strange, cult-like white outfits draped in long, colorful robes.  This year we joked that we should form a counter choir.  We would call ourselves Hand Jive International, only perform to gangsta rap, and sign all the wrong words.  Maybe we would wear lots of sequins and sparkly gloves.  We’re all adults and we could skip the performances, but where would be the fun in that?  So we’re also kind of joiners, because at the end of the day, if we have to be a part of the club, we might as well reap the benefits.  We’ve formed friendships that have lasted long past three days in a Hilton, connections that run deeper than others we have in our daily lives.  These strangers, from all over the country and all walks of life have become my brothers and sisters.  We have each other’s backs, have to come to each other’s rescue and are an integral part of each others lives. 

As hard as they are, I’m grateful for these three days.  I’m humbled by the gratitude of others and the strength of everyone in that hotel.  I am in awe of my fellow siblings.  You’re a family I did not want, but one that I’m glad I now have.  I’m a better person for the days that I spend in your company.

And to the brothers and sisters of Jessica Ghawi, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, John Larimer, Alexander Boik, Jesse Childress, Jonathan Blunk, Rebecca Ann Wingo, Alex Sullivan, Gordon Cowden, Micayla Medek and Alexander C. Teves, I think I can speak for all of my TCF crew when I say we wish we didn’t have to offer out our hands in solidarity and support, but there all extended.  We’ll be here if you need us. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

August in Vermont

In honor of the fact that I made it off the wait list and in to Bread Loaf this week, and in deference to the fact that I need to finish editing my workshop submission, I've got nothing exciting and/or revelatory for you this week.  In case you are dying for something to read, here's my Bread Loaf application essay.  If you don't know why I keep talking about a loaf of bread, add the words writer's conference after it and punch that into Google.  It's a little bit awesome.

Ten days of intense education.  New tools to put in my belt for when I need to figure out an ending to the next chapter.  New ideas to help coax the creative juices to flow on a dry day.  New eyes with which to observe and to read.  These are just a few of the things I hope to gain from attending the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference this coming summer.  Just over a year ago, I walked into my first writer’s conference, armed with a love of written words and the first pages of a memoir.  Something that began as a collection of jumbled accounts of the loss of my sister in a violent tragedy.  Just words, tumbled loosely onto the pages.  Over the past year, and three writer’s conferences, I’ve learned to craft story.  And I’ve begun to turn my own story into what I hope will ultimately be a compelling and honest account of sibling loss and discovery.  This past January, my conference submission, the opening of my memoir-in-progress, Me Without You, was awarded “Best Of” honors for the non-fiction division of Writer’s in Paradise, 2012. 

It is my understanding from conversations with other writers and faculty advisors, that a chance to attend Bread Loaf is the ultimate opportunity to learn about both the craft of writing and about myself as a writer in a conference setting.  In my previous conference experiences I’ve discovered the unquestionable value of spending time in the company of aspiring and accomplished writers.  I found that what I discovered through my undergraduate and graduate degrees still holds true – that I am a scholar at heart.  That learning is quite possibly one of my favorite things to do.  And I have much to learn.  Though writing is often a solitary activity, the lessons and critiques that come from workshops are the building blocks I’ve been able to take back into my quiet spaces to create something better than what came before.    

My goal is to have a draft of my memoir manuscript by the time Bread Loaf rolls around in late summer.  I expect it will need serious work.  And I will need some new tools.  I would love the opportunity to continue to work with Ann Hood, who has shepherded me through prior workshops with both brutal honesty and encouragement.  I welcome the chance to work with other faculty members and authors.  Every teacher brings a fresh perspective and sometimes that’s just what you need.  I would expect that during ten days in the Green Mountain National Forest, among the memories of noted authors past, the words of esteemed faculty and the ideas of a future generation of great writers, I would learn to be a better master of my pen.  I would forge friendships that will last a lifetime.  I would make mistakes.  I would experience triumph.  I would work hard and I would walk away changed.  Intense education, indeed.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer Hiatus

Sorry friends and readers for the lack of entries these last two weeks.  It's been a bit nuts around these parts so I'm taking a mini summer hiatus so I can catch up with the world around me.  Plus it's hot out and my brain is fried.  I'll be back next week, or at the very worst, the week after, with more essays and observations.  In the meantime, have a happy 4th of July!  Have a cocktail.  Wear some red, white and blue.  Say thank you to a soldier.  Try not to burn anyone with a sparkler. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

You Can Never Have too Much Lobster

My chemistry teacher from sophomore year of high school used to always say, “Too much of anything will kill you.”

We scoffed and challenged the way fifteen and sixteen year old girls who think they are smarter than they are thanks to a fancy school uniform are wont to do. 

“Not true,” one of us once replied with an all-knowing smirk.  “What about water? Too much water can’t kill you.”

“Yes it can,” he said.  “Look it up.”  I will date myself by saying this was pre-internet days, so none of us bothered to hunt down the proof otherwise.

But, as it turns out, he was right.  Thank you Google, I’m not actually sure how I got through high school and college without you.  According to Wikipedia, between 1995 and 2008, there were more than ten reported cases of death by water.  The official term is water intoxication or water poisoning, and is “a potentially fatal disturbance in brain functions that results when the normal balance of electrolytes in the body is pushed outside of safe limits (e.g., hyponatremia) by over hydration, i.e., over-consumption of water.” 

Last week, at a client dinner during a trade show in Vegas, as we started to slow down our attack on the mammoth cold seafood appetizer platter, in anticipation of forthcoming steaks and sides, one lone lobster tail sat untouched on a bed of ice.

“There’s a lobster tail left over here,” Renee pointed out.  “Anyone want it?”  Of course I wanted it, whether or not I had room for it and filet au poivre was another story.  I kept silent.  So did everyone else.  Until Kevin chided everyone for letting it go to waste.  “You can never have too much lobster,” he declared.  We all laughed and I’d had too much wine, so I honestly don’t remember if someone actually ate the thing.  But I do remember being challenged to write a blog with such a title, especially in light of my last entry, and I started to think about what Mr. Patrizi had said, all those years ago.

Clearly, we live in a world of excess these days, and not just at a restaurant.  We always want more of something, bigger of something, better of something.  More food, more money, bigger cars, bigger houses, a better partner, a better body.  Satisfaction is an ever-dwindling concept.  And Kevin is right.  The general mentality is that you can never have too much of a good thing.  That attitude is what makes people like him a success.  Deep down we all know too much lobster will at the very least, make you feel lousy, but the real message here is the motivation.  To avoid complacency adopt an attitude that you can and should have it all.  It works, all the time, all over the world.  And it gives you something the strive for.  Maybe you never hit the “too much” mark, but trying to get there puts you in a pretty great place. 

Or was Mr. Patrizi on to something all those years ago?  Are we right to keep in mind that too much can be just that, too much?  That as much as we should strive to enjoy life and perhaps not dwell too extensively on the dying part, we would all do well to remember that we have our limits.  There’s a statistic I found online (thank you again, Google) that says over 1,900 lottery winners have ended up broke.  Some have even been murdered by family members or committed suicide.  Again, depressing, but an interesting argument.

I think we all end up somewhere on a continuum  (thank you Star Trek) between the two.  I’d like to think I fall somewhere in the middle, that I can usually find a good balance between when it’s time to go for broke and when I should just enjoy the ride I’m on.  Which seems like a good thing, but who knows.  Maybe it’s better to live on the edge.  I might find out one of these days.  Until then, at least when it comes to lobster, I have some, please.  But just enough to enjoy it and leave some room for the filet.

Monday, June 11, 2012

There's Always Another Mexican Food Restaurant

Early last week, my friend Jimmy came to town from LA for a quick visit, not a brilliant measure on his part in terms of timing for good Dallas weather, but I am always happy to have him in my orbit for a little while.  So it was hot out, and we decided to go for a walk at the lake anyway.  As my running partner said to me last night, we were determined to “suck it up and deal.”  And funny enough, we didn’t really notice the heat that much because we were too busy chatting, and debating options for dinner, post walk.  Jimmy had been to Dallas once before, last spring, and we’d done the requisite dining tour of the city – Mexican, steak, barbeque.  So that evening was up for grabs and we tossed out a few ideas, a revisit to Mexican food being one of them. 

“Not El Fenix,” I said, because we went there last time.  “But you know, there’s always another Mexican food restaurant.”  Jimmy laughed.  “There is!  You can visit here seventeen times and we could go to a different one every time and still have more on the list.”

“You should write a blog titled that, “ he said.  “There’s always another Mexican food restaurant.  It doesn’t have to be about Mexican food.”

Okay, Jimmy.  Gotcha.

So I started thinking about the greater meaning of that phrase, outside the confines of Texas, or perhaps Mexico, and something kind of hit me.  And for some reason, I thought about my first real best friend. 

I met Aron Northington in the first grade.  She was in my homeroom class and she captivated me.  She was tall, with impossibly shiny, long blonde hair.  We couldn’t have been more opposite, visually, until I looked down that first day of class and saw we were wearing the same shoes.  Not a big stretch, because this was a uniform school, so we were also wearing the same outfit, and how many pairs of navy blue kid’s leather Mary Janes are really available at the mall at any given time.  But it was the intro a shy kid like me needed, and it opened the door.  By happy accident our names also rhymed.  From that day on, we were pretty much inseparable.  I even named my first pet, a kitten, after her little brother Ben, on the specific instructions that everyone pronounce it with the same Texas drawl that Aron did, so it sounded something like “Be-yun.”  I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not creepy when you’re seven.  I didn’t dye my hair blonde and drop the K off my name too, I just really dug the way she said that name with the accent that, thanks to two Yankee parents, I did not possess.  We had a good run for a few years before she moved and went to a different school.  But for that time, she was my best friend.  My only best friend.  I chose her and she chose me.  Sure there was always another friend to play with, but given the option, it was always her.

In some of the relationship we have – friends, lovers, boyfriends, girlfriends, maybe even husbands and wives, we always have a choice to make.  When we choose someone to have in our lives, or they choose us, then we have a responsibility to one another, and I mean that in a good way.  We should want to, and so should they.  That’s what being friends, life partners, what have you, is all about.  But because of that choice, the reality is that there’s always, always going to be someone in the next shopping center (metaphorically speaking, don’t actually stand around in a strip mall looking for someone at random) if the one you’re with at the moment isn’t to your liking, or isn’t treating you well.  We don’t have arranged marriages in this country, and arranged friendships usually stop at about kindergarten, maybe first grade.  And so it’s pretty true.  And Jimmy is clearly gifted at seeing the profound within the mundane, because he’s right.  There is always another Mexican food restaurant. 

But shouldn’t you have a favorite one?  I do (it's not El Fenix).  And hey, maybe you have two or three favorites, which works if the metaphor in question refers to friendships.  With significant others, or spouses, the reference gets a little murky, and I’m definitely not an advocate of polygamy.  That being said, if we’re talking restaurants, then pick and choose, try something new, visit your favorite one often.  If one day, the tacos are lousy, maybe you give them a second chance.  If the tacos stay lousy and then the enchiladas start to suck too, then maybe not.  Actually, that point translates.  Taco equals boyfriend, best friend, etc.  And now that we’re talking friends or loved ones, if you’ve got someone you care about, or a few someones, people that are generally awesome to you and treat you like you’re special, people you like to be around, then make the time for them.  Love them back, tell them you love them, cherish them.  Because they have the same choices that you do.  And there’s always another Mexican food restaurant for them too. 

And thanks Jimmy.  My friend, if I don’t tell you enough, let me make the point now to say you are, categorically, one of my favorites. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Storytelling Time

Just to change it up a little and keep things interesting, and because my day is a little crazy - here's a bit of short fiction I once wrote for a 24-hour short story contest.  I didn't win, and it could probably use some work, but I've been trying to work more fiction writing back into my schedule, so I'm hoping this acts as a little reminder to do just that.  Enjoy...

I marveled at the rain beginning to fall around me.  I yearned to stay standing outside, with my face turned up the cold drops coming down hard, faster with each passing second.  To feel them, wet against my cheeks.  There was no rain where I lived.  Not for the last hundred years, according to the history books at school.  But the cotton candy wrapped around the paper cone in my hand was rapidly transforming from a fluffy mound into sticky, pink syrup, and had started to run down my fingers.  Everyone around me was running for cover towards the colorful, striped tents that dotted the carnival.  I had learned long ago that the best thing to do was to blend in, so I shielded the remains of my precious treat and ducked into the nearest tent.

I was alone in the tiny enclave.  It belonged to the fortune-teller.  I could tell by the crystal ball and the deck of cards on the small table.  I took a seat in one of the two empty chairs and proceeded to wipe the goo off of my fingers, and tried to salvage the remains of my cotton candy.  It had taken me four trips to put together enough money for my day at the carnival, and I wasn’t about to waste any of it. 

I jumped at the sound of a voice behind me.

“Oh, sorry dear.  Didn’t mean to scare the life out of you.”

I turned as the old fortune teller came through the curtains at the back of the tent.  My gaze traveled up her colorful robes, to her gnarled hands covered in gold rings and finally to her face, run through with deep creases and encircled by a halo of brilliant red curls.  The sight of that face made me go cold all the way to my toes.  It was immediately apparent that the sight of mine had done the same to her. 

We both held our breath for a moment, equally unsure of how to proceed.  Time-travelers had, for the most part, been bred out of the population, thanks to some disturbing laws regarding procreation that had been issued back in 2310.  But there were still some of us.  Some were older people, who had been born before the new laws, and then there were kids like me, whose parents had somehow managed to cheat the system.  Usually by falsifying their family tree, which is what I assume my parents did in the name of true love, since I had never met any members of my extended family. 

It was highly illegal to be a time-traveler.  The first time I disappeared at the dinner table, and my parent’s realized I had inherited the ability from somewhere in their genetic makeup, they told me I must never do it again.  That if I did, and I got caught, someone would come and take me away forever.  I was four. 

By thirteen, I had been to hundreds of different places and times.  I couldn’t help it.  Life was just better in the past.  The smell of fresh air, the feel of rain, the taste of sugar.  I usually went from a hidden cabinet that had inexplicably been built behind the hanging bar in my closet.  It was just big enough for me to fit into. In all my trips, I had never met another traveler.  But here I was, in 2004, at least I think it was, staring into the eyes of my eighth form history teacher.

“Azalea.  What on earth are you doing here?”

I had always been terrified of Dr. Lexington.  She was a tyrant of a teacher, not to mention a stickler for detail.  And it suddenly occurred to me how she always seemed to know more about history than just what was in the books.  Now I was terrified for a whole different reason, despite the fact that she looked borderline ridiculous in her fortune-teller costume.

“I, uh…”  I had no words.

“Oh, for God’s sake, child.  Find your voice.  I’m not about to report your parents to the authorities for violating procreation laws.  Nor am I planning to turn you in, though you no longer have an excuse for your pitiful grade in my class.  Which means you can let go of that breath you are holding.  Now, how many trips have you been on?”

I exhaled, and then sucked in a breath of the moist air, unlike anything pumped through the vacuum sealed world that was my everyday life.

“Six hundred and thirty-six.”

“Impressive.”  I wasn’t sure, but I thought there might have been a hint of a smile playing at the corners of her lips.  She pulled up the other chair and sat down at the small table.  She absentmindedly picked up the deck of cards and shuffled them lightly before setting them down again, never taking her eyes off of me.  And then she did smile.

“Did you know,” she said lightly, as she reached out and smoothed her hand over my damp, fiery red ringlets, “that your mother’s maiden name is Lexington?”

In a sudden moment of clarity, I looked up into the twinkling eyes of my grandmother.

“Now,” she said, laughing at my wonderment.  She had always known who I was.  “My darling, granddaughter.  You must tell me how you’ve managed so many trips without detection.”

“There’s this cabinet in my closet,” I began.

“Oh, my.” she cut me off.  “I had forgotten all about that.”

“You know about it?”

“Of course.”  She smiled.  “How do you think it got there?”

In that tiny carnival tent, a history I had not known began to fall in place, drop by drop, like the rain coming down around us. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Memories

In the last two days, I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten my weight in homemade ice cream, cupcakes, hot dogs and ribs.  Two Memorial Day weekend parties in two days.  Evenings filled with poolside gatherings of friends and family.  Good times and good food I wouldn’t trade for the world, because it all reminds of just how much good stuff I’m surrounded with.  But as I sit here, trying to digest strawberry shortcake, I started thinking about what I did to celebrate Memorial Day last year.  Some of the same players were present, but the plan, just a little bit different.  And I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe it was the right way to celebrate, or perhaps the better word is commemorate, all along.

In 2011, an event came to Dallas.  It was called Carry the Load.  In early May, as I’d walk around White Rock, the lake down the street from family home, I kept seeing large signs for an event happening on Memorial Day.  Curious, I looked up the website.  It was a walk.  A 20 hour and 11 minute walk, starting at 4pm on Sunday and ending at 12:11pm on Memorial Day.  You could participate in the entire night, or as much as you could manage, in a continuous loop around the lake.  The idea was to give a community a way to share in honoring America’s military heroes and to carry the load of the men and women who gave America their last full measure of service.  You could walk a mile or 50, carry a weighted pack or not, go for an hour, or all night.  I was entranced by the idea of actually celebrating this important holiday appropriately, not with burgers and beer, but with an opportunity to stretch out of my comfort zone.  I’ve known more than a few members of every military branch, and I couldn’t do what they do, but I could do something.  I called my friend Alika.  Luckily, she’s as crazy as I am.  And as it turns out, so is her mom.  So we all signed up.  Even my parents jumped on board.

My idea was to walk for as long and as far as I thought I could go.  And then, when I had reached what seemed to be my limit, to go farther.  To walk longer.  A loop around White Rock Lake is a little over 9 miles.  Alika, her mom Ruth and I started at the Bath House, a building about a third of the way around from my home.  Base camp operations were set up there.  Aid stations around the lake had extra water, snacks, glow sticks and first aid.  Base camp had real food.  A wristband got us meals all night.  We started with the opening group.  You could jump on or off at any place in the course.  Our first 9ish mile loop brought us back to base camp in time for dinner.  It was definitely the longest walk I’d taken in a while, but the company made it ease by, despite the warm afternoon.  We met my folks there for a burger and a rest, and then started off again, loop two.  Mom made it about six miles, impressive with the amount of titanium and artificial joints in her body.  The going got a little harder for all of us.  I’ve never walked 19 miles in less than a 24 hour period, let alone in an evening.  A beautiful sunset helped.  So did denial.  We hobbled into base camp at around 11 or so.  We called in the rescue car and my dad came to get Ruth.  He had agreed to come out and pick any of us up whenever we were ready to quit. 

I was ready to quit.  So was Alika.  We nursed sore feet with other walkers and propped them up to drain get some of the blood to drain away from our swollen toes.  And then we knew this was the moment.  The limit we had to go beyond.  Because somewhere overseas, someone was beyond their limits.  And they were still walking, still fighting, still hanging in there.  So would we.  We hauled ourselves up and began a slightly delirious march away from the comforts of base camp.  Chairs.  More chairs.  The dark night rose up around us and the moon reflected off the lake, but not enough to shed the kind of light that might actually keep two exhausted girls on the right path.  We were maybe only a quarter mile out of the way when we realized we had to double back, but that’s a lot of distance when you can’t feel your toes and chafing is starting to happen in unpleasant places.  Not to mention the swelling in my hands from hanging them down.  I carried them over my head as much as I could during that last circle.  We planned to cut off when we reached my street and as we counted down the last mile, half mile, quarter mile, I concentrated on just putting one foot in front of the other.  It was sometime after one in the morning.  I’m pretty sure running 26 miles is actually easier than walking it.

The next day, some sensitive skin was raw.  Walking was a challenge.  My fingers had thankfully turned from sausages back into fingers, but every bit of me was exhausted.  My mom and I drove over to the closing ceremonies at noon.  There would be no more walking for me for a few days.  I saw the guy who put the whole thing together, the one we passed on our second loop.  He’d walked all night and all morning, carrying a thirty pound pack.  Then I saw the 76 year old woman who made the whole 20 hours and 11 minutes too.  I didn’t feel chagrined.  Maybe a little envious, but mostly just honored to be among them.  Among those who’d tried to remember what Memorial Day is really about.  This year, they moved the walk to the Katy Trail.  I didn’t relish walking up and down that dark, foresty stretch all night.  So I went back to hot dogs and ice cream, and a float in the pool.  And that’s perfectly okay too.  Because I spent time with good friends and remembered that the things we fight for are also things worth celebrating.  But my full stomach is making me wish I had a few miles to cover, and I’m thinking maybe next year, if the venue is right, and my friends are still crazy enough, we might just try to do both.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Thanks, Teach.

By learning you will teach;
by teaching you will understand.
Latin Proverb

This is not an essay about me.  Or about me as a teacher.  But it is about a teacher.  And teaching something for the first time is the thing that reminded me of him.  So here’s the back story.  On Saturday, I taught my first photography class.  It was a Composition in the Field class, and I shepherded five students in and around Deep Ellum to explore the world through our lenses, finding new and interesting ways to compose images, learning the rules and then learning how to break them.  I was humbled by the difference between using the tools and techniques that are so ingrained after eight years of shooting I take them for granted, and actually teaching them to someone else.  Teaching them in a way that makes sense.  It’s not easy.  I think I did a pretty okay job, at least as evidenced by the shots I glimpsed on the backs of their cameras during the day.  And they all seemed to get what I was saying.  No head scratching or funny looks, except maybe when I struck some strange poses to prove a point here and there.  At the end of three sweaty hours in the sun, I had an empty water bottle (or juice pack, as one student jokingly called my metallic water pouch) and a class with full camera cards. 

Last night, as I was falling asleep.  I thought about writing a blog about teaching for the first time.  And then I thought about my teachers.  And then I remembered him. 

The very best teacher I had during my school years was a man named John Killion.  He taught sophomore year high school English.  Taught it with the kind of exuberance and enthusiasm I’ve never seen since, outside of the fiction John Keating in the movie Dead Poet’s Society.  The odd similarity between their names is not lost on me.  The first day I sat in Mr. Killion’s class, amidst my female classmates, we didn’t know what to expect.  He was new to the school, we would be his first students at the all girls prep school I attended.  An overstuffed arm chair with hideous upholstery sat wedged up against the teacher’s desk.  This was something new.  And then in he strolled.  With a football in his hand.

“I’m going to throw this at you, when you catch it, say your name, then toss it back to me.”  We all looked a little aghast, I think.  Football?  Did he not see the room full of girls before him?  The ball was in the air before we had time to think, and in this way, we went around the room and introduced ourselves to this strange new teacher.  The methodology would continue throughout the school year – he would throw the ball at you when he wanted you to answer a question.  We learned a lot of English, not to mention we became pretty adept at catch.  Smarter and more athletic, all at once.  This guy knew what he was doing.

The arm chair, we would come to learn, was his favorite perch for lecturing.  He’d sit in sometimes, but would usually be up on an armrest or the back of the chair, his feet wedged into the seat cushion that could only be improved in appearance by some shoe scuffing.  When really excited about a subject, Mr. Killian was prone to standing on the chair, and he would practically vibrate with enthusiasm, rallying the class better than Tom Cruise on Oprah.  If you had something to say – an idea, an essay to present, you might get invited into the chair.  And in between classes, we all hung out there, because it was the coolest classroom in the whole upper school hallway. 

Mr. Killion had a pet pot-bellied pig.  His name was Bob B. Q.  He often came to class to visit us, dressed in a sweater striped in our school colors of green and white.  I think that was his attempt to pass Bob off as a student, despite his gender and lack of adherence to proper uniform code.  He’d sit in his cage and snort when he didn’t like your opinion of the latest short story. 

Mr. Killion’s class was electric.  You couldn’t help but want to learn, want to do well, want to say something interesting.  As students we wanted to be so inspiring that we made him jump onto that chair.  But one of the things I most remember is his quiet statement he made every test day.  Over the rustle of paper and we passed exams back down each line of desk and amidst the shuffle of skirts in seats as we got comfortable and settled in to the task at hand, he would stand still, hold out his hands as if holding something imaginary on them and smile.

“Ladies, I have a tray full of A’s for you.  Have one, on me.”

It was an invitation to do our very best.  It was an encouragement to try just a little harder that we thought we could.  It was an assurance that we had the tools we needed to succeed that day.  It was a reminder that this was just a test, something concrete, something simple.  It was not life, it was just one moment of one day.

Mr. Killion was haunted by personal demons.  And during my senior year, he took his own life.  But he never brought those demons into the classroom, he only brought light, humor, creativity and encouragement.  He taught us to be better students and I think, most importantly, he taught us that learning should be fun. 

Now I understand.  So thank you, Mr. Killion, wherever you are now, for inspiring me to always find joy in learning, to be the first person I think of when the word teacher comes to mind and I can only hope that your wisdom stays with me through any teaching opportunities that I may come across in the years ahead. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Read the Signs

Okay, I'm cheating this week. This is an advice essay I wrote for a dating blog a couple of years ago.  In lieu of enough time to write something new today, I thought I'd share this instead.  I don't claim to be an expert in body language by any means, but I did spend a lot of time, thankfully not anymore, in the nightclubs in Los Angeles.  Enough said.  

It’s Friday night.  You’re at the latest and greatest club with your buddies, ready to toss back a few drinks, groove to the beat, if you’re into that sort of thing, and most importantly, get a little face time with a pretty girl.  The odds look good – the female to male ratio is high, and you’ve already spotted an attractive blonde at the other end of the bar.  Hold on there, Tiger.  Before you head in for the kill, put down the Jack & Coke, take a step back and get a good look at her body language.  Say she gives you a quick glance, maybe even half a smile and then looks the other way.  If you have no idea what it means, think she’s just being coy, or are planning to ignore it altogether and make your move anyway, then it’s time to bone up on your foreign languages.  Or just one in particular.

We all use body language to convey unspoken messages to those around us.  I can’t speak to men’s expectations but I can tell you that as women, when we are out at a club, or a bar, or even a party – anywhere where we are meeting men – we expect you to be able to understand what we mean, and respond accordingly.  Failure to do so on your part could result in either a missed opportunity or an unfriendly rebuff, depending on the girl in question.  Neither of those sound like good options, so don’t let them happen!  Here are some basic pointers to get you through a night at the club without a stiletto through your shoe, and maybe even help you head home with some new digits in your phone.

The Approach
I will tell you right now, that one of the worst things you can do at bar/club/party is approach a girl who has attempted to give you a non-verbal signal that she does not want to talk to you.  When you see a girl you want to talk to, look at her.  Repeatedly.  Eventually, she’ll notice you looking at her, unless you’re way across the room or hiding behind a ball cap or something.  If, once she notices that you are noticing her, she looks away from you and does not make any further eye contact, she is telling you politely and silently, to please leave her alone.  I’m asking you, if that happens, to please leave her alone.  If you go over anyway, you do so at your own peril.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And don’t take it personally, there could be a million reasons why she doesn’t want to talk to you.  Move on, there are lots of pretty girls at the club, remember?  Go find one who wants to meet you.  You’ll know, because when you catch her eye, she’ll smile.  She might look away for a bit, but give it a minute.  Because if she’s interested, she’ll look back.  And possibly smile again.  Even if she doesn’t, you got the double look.  And that’s your clue.  Go say hi.  I can’t promise what’ll happen when you get there, but you should at least get a friendly greeting. 

The Conversation
So you got the smile, the nod, maybe even the wave, and now, after the introductions have been made, the small talk has started.  If, while you are talking, she is constantly looking away from you, or at her watch or at the bartender, she does not have a lazy eye.  She is just not interested in the conversation.  Same goes if she keeps turning her body away from you.  If that happens, tell her how nice it was to meet her and take your leave.  If, however, she keeps eye contact, leans in towards you, reaches out to touch you as she’s talking, well, then you’re golden.  Pat yourself on the back for your stellar conversation skills and your wicked ability to read women, and keep the banter going. 

The Dance Floor
Do not, and I repeat, do not EVER assume that because a woman is on the dance floor and is dancing next to you, that her body language means that she is dying to dance with you.  And do not, I repeat, do not EVER take that as an opportunity to sidle up next to her and get your freak on.  When that happens to me, I usually respond with unkind words, and will use any means necessary to shove or push the offending leech off of me.  If the girl of your dreams is next to you on the dance floor, smile, look her in eye and keep on dancing, at a respectable distance.  It might also be a good time to throw in your best moves.  If she likes what she sees, she’ll continue to face you while you’re dancing.  If she then starts to mirror your moves, or get closer to you, it’s an invite.  When in doubt, it is always acceptable to ask politely, just don’t give her a hard time if she says no.  Move to another part of the dance floor and test out that moonwalk on someone else.  And remember, as a general rule, if a girl is dancing with her back to you, unless she thrusts her booty into your pelvis and pulls your arm around her, she does NOT want to dance with you.

The Fail Safe
If you’re still having trouble figuring out what she’s trying to tell you with that shrug of her shoulder, or you can’t seem to catch her eye to give her a chance to smile or turn away, then you can always resort to a little trick that rarely backfires.  Ignore all body language, head straight towards your dream girl, tell her you think she is pretty/beautiful/has great eyes/is a smokin’ hot dancer/insert compliment of your choice here.  Then tell her you hope she has a great evening, and then, here’s the most important part, WALK AWAY.  If she’s interested, she’ll come and find you.  And if she’s not, she’ll still be flattered by the random compliment and you won’t have made an ass of yourself. 

Enough said.  Now pick up that Jack and Coke and go get ‘em Tiger.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

LA Love Affair

Sometimes I feel/Like my only friend/Is the city I live in/The city of Angels…I drive on her streets/'Cause she's my companion/I walk through her hills/'Cause she knows who I am…
-Red Hot Chili Peppers

For eighteen and a half years, I had a love affair with Los Angeles.  It started when I was young, just out of high school and headed to college at UCLA.  I was nervous.  This city was different from the one I was used to, bigger, more mature.  LA was sexy, mysterious, maybe even a little dangerous.  I was hooked on the idea of it, what it represented.  A world of promise and opportunity for a na├»ve eighteen year old with dreams of stardom, fantasies of a Hollywood career.  The first day of college, on my way to my very first class as a theater major, John Lithgow casually jogged by me as I crossed through the heart of campus.  Mine beat a little faster.  I was already mingling with talent.  This was a place where magic could happen.    

Over the next few years of college, and the couple of years after that, the honeymoon phase would continue.  With a car and an off-campus apartment, I would begin learn more about my beloved angel.  I would finally drive her windy streets.  I would discover her sandy beaches, her nightlife, her friends - neighboring cities like Santa Barbara and San Diego.  After college I would dive into a colorful approximation of the real world.  Days on television shows, nights on movie sets.  I was only an extra most of the time, or maybe a stand-in, but it didn’t matter.  Everything was a big adventure.  All of my friends were actors.  I was living the life. 

Until it couldn’t pay the bills and the necessity of a real job came rushing at me.  Honeymoon phase over.  So I tried to reinvent my relationship with LA.  I moved to the Valley.  I went to grad school.  A new direction was just what we needed to keep things fresh, interesting, moving forward.  I would still be in film and television, but this time I would produce, maybe do a little entertainment marketing.  The angels spread their wings as if to say, “We have so much more to offer.”  My sister came to LA.  I made new friends. 

In late fall of 2000, Los Angeles and I had our first real fight.  We almost broke up.  The angels had folded their wings over their closed eyes one night, and when their guard was down, my sister was taken.  I blamed the city, I blamed myself.  I even left for a little while.  But I came back.  I believed that my very survival resided in my ability to succeed in this relationship.  I needed to be in Los Angeles.  I needed to prove to myself that I could be there and be okay.  It was shaky for a while,  the emotional earthquakes deeper than any ground tremor I had ever weathered.  But I needed the familiarity, the place where my sister and I had spent the last two years together.  The streets, the restaurants, the beaches.  As I explored, I discovered, yet again, new places.  I found hiking, and wandered the canyons of the Hollywood Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains.  Sure there was traffic, and smog and crime.  But there was also so much nature, so much beauty.  I remembered why I’d fallen in love in the first place.

But it wouldn’t last.  The traffic, the smog, the high price tag on everything would take its toll.  The gilding would start to wear off.  Slowly at first, years in the making.  Towards the end, it picked up speed.  Good friends left the city for far away places, rent went up and business went down.  The economy crumbled.  I wasn’t happy in the relationship.  I wanted out. 

In 2010 I would decide it was over.  It was a slow breakup, a few months of planning and packing and arrangements.  In early 2011, I said my goodbyes and made my way towards a new life in Texas. 

I’ve been back several times over the past year.  And when I visit, it’s like seeing an old love.  This past week I spent several days back in the arms of the angels, and after a conversation last night about relationships, I realized that though I no longer live in LA, and the love affair is definitely over, there is something important that remains.  It is the friendship.  For eighteen and a half years, the City of Angels was my best friend.  I knew her streets almost as well as the lines on my own palm.  I knew her moods, sad and rainy in February, gloomy in June, angry with heat in late September.  I knew the things I loved, the hikes in the hills, the great sushi, the beach.  And I knew the things I hated, the traffic, the smog, the cost of gas.  In the end, we weren’t meant to be together.  But when I visit, like I did last week, I can remember the good times and I can celebrate what is still a lovely friendship.  And so I hiked my favorite canyon, took a cardio barre class.  I ate at my favorite restaurants and caught up with the people I love who still live there. 

When I left yesterday morning I was ready to go.  I had seen enough of the things that reminded me we didn’t belong together.  But I had also seen the good stuff, the things that make me happy the angels and I are still such good friends.  And as the wheels of the plane touched down on Texas soil and I realized I was home, I also realized that I was looking forward to a return visit sometime soon.