7 Things About Prince

I’m not a human
I am a dove
I’m your conscious
I am love
All I really need is to know that
You believe


1) Seeing the movie Purple Rain, as a kid. The scene where he gets Apollonia to jump in the lake, I felt mad at him, and also funny inside, which was similar but not the same to how I felt about Little Red Corvette, a pocket full of horses, Trojans and some of them used…  I loved horses. Did I maybe know what a Trojan was? Lying on the living room floor, looking at the LP, with its flowery stripes down the side, I memorized them all.

2) Begging my parents to take me to see Billboards, the Joffrey Ballet to Prince’s music. I cried when they lifted a ballerina in a golden Pierrot costume, over and over, to the guitar riff at the end of Purple Rain.

3) Knowing that my taste is all wrong, in high school, but knowing that I still love Prince. I also still like musicals. Openly. I was not cool. I listened to the music I was told was cool, and I liked some of it OK, but none of it made me want to lie on the floor and memorize the lyrics or dance with my eyes closed like the pop that is my dirty secret soul. I missed the Diamonds & Pearls tour, just watched it go by, like I missed Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, because I didn’t have the courage of my pop convictions. I thought about spending but did not spend all my babysitting money on the thing I wanted, because I didn’t want to go to the concert and dance alone.


The Onion: Nation Too Sad To Fuck Even Though It’s What Prince Would Have Wanted

4) KISS at college dance parties with stale beer on the floor and and KISS in the dorms in stupid late night socks and yes, Julia Roberts singing KISS in the bathtub and kicking off heels to Raspberry Beret at countless weddings and begging the franchised party DJs to please, please play Darling Nicky, but they won’t. Somewhere, probably dancing to I just want your extra time…. in college, I decided not to miss any opportunities to see Prince, if they ever came around again, ever. This decision feels like coming out, like acceptance, like admitting that I also secretly promised myself that someday I’ll get myself invited to one of his house parties in Minneapolis. This never happened.

5) In the 90s, my first reporting job was for the kickass New Haven Advocate, writing for the incomparable Paul Bass and Carole Bass, and right out of the gate they let me go cover a Prince concert. It was at a stayed, velvet-seats theater in Wallingford. I tried to get the people around me to stand up — because dance, it’s Prince, mofos! — and only these two well-dressed African American couples in front of me would do it, and then they got tired, but at least they smiled at me. I stayed on my feet and danced with my butt in the guy behind me’s face the whole time. It was hard to see past the stage lights, but in my mind, Prince could see me, could see that I was the one who had always loved him, the one dancing by myself, in the 7th row press scrum, notebook in hand.

After the concert, I wrote a totally loony heartfelt rave about how Prince’s tiny purple screaming guitar god of freaky masculinity in heels rocked me to the core of the place I identified as the place of sex. And they published it! in the paper. I won a New England Paper Association award for that piece, I think because it was so raw and goofy. I can’t find a copy of it anywhere.

6) Vegas, New Year’s Eve, 1999, a bunch of us are in the New York New York casino, and I’m dancing. Bouncers come and tell us what we will have to pay if we want to stay on this dance floor past 10pm, and it’s too rich for our blood, but as we get ready to hit the strip for midnight, they play 1999. Prince’s party ballad is something he plays like he knows he’s just doing us a favor, but it made me so happy. There I was, grown up enough to almost get kicked out of Lance A Lot of Pasta and to win a round of shots on the one-arm bandits and to dance like it was 1999, facing away from the guy with the ear piece so that he’ll let me stay, stay until the song is over, and 1999 is here.

7) Inglewood, 2011, we get pretty good seats for the 21 Nite Stand. We almost lose the tickets in the car, and some poor teenager who’s working the makeshift parking lot shares my panic and shines a flashlight. We find them, and of course it starts late anyway, and there he is. Tiny and electric on a Symbol-shaped stage. He plays everything I want him to play, including I Would Die 4 U and 7 and Nothing Compares to You and his cover of Crimson & Clover and he even plays the first few chords of Darling Nikki to tease us, but he’s Jehovah godly now, and we know it. He likes to tease us. Purple Rain still makes me cry. We start walking out after the second encore. The lights are up. But just as we get out of the building, the music starts again. I panic. He’s playing more. I turn and try to drag my husband back inside.

I think it’s this: I spent so many years trying to change every impulse and tamp down every feeling, not trusting myself or my body enough to even stand up and defend Purple Rain. It took me so long to accept that I would always be the first one on my feet no matter where KISS played, and to accept that I didn’t care if people hated that song. I have been recorded dancing by myself in bridesmaids dresses on VHS tapes across America. Prince was the inner soundtrack, my sad happy happy sad music, the music that made me feel like maybe on the inside, I was both sad and OK, like maybe those were the same thing, like maybe just around the bend there was an awesome view of a lake. It is Prince who made me understand Nick Hornby’s question in High Fidelity: What came first—the music or the misery? I listened to my Prince LP and then tapes and then CDs so many times, so many times. How can that not leave you bruised somewhere?

Prince was not, as Bowie was for so many of my friends, the pop cultural icon around whom I rallied with my fellow misfits to a common purpose and style. I wanted to dress like Prince. I never had the guts. And when I finally decided — I’m not missing any more concerts — I had already missed so many. I started out missing it, not cool enough, off step. When I thought I was missing that encore, I felt, for a fleeting moment under the portico outside the Coliseum, like I was about to miss the party again, my party, the real party.

It turned out to just be a few chords. We stood there outside and listened. I don’t think P. understood my blind panic. He just wanted to make it out of the parking lot before the rush.

It was a great concert. It was time to go home.

Prince is one of the great musical artists of the last century, a purple flame of outsized talent, but he also had no editor. In this, his moment of apotheosis, I want to remind his newer fans that the fates of popular music are fickle. He was roundly mocked and taunted in the press for his battles with the record labels, for being the Artist Formerly Known As and writing SLAVE on his face. He was always stunning, but he always took some shit for his crazy tux jackets and heels. The same white rock dudes who now fuel the cottage industry of nostalgic 80s and 90s irony, they hated KISS like they hated Madonna like they hated girls who danced at weddings. They would turn away in disdain from anyone who admitted to weeping at the fucking Joffrey Rock Ballet. And now, some guy on the Internet has dubbed Purple Rain “the greatest track of the 1980s.”

Of course it is.

I tried listening to a lot of Prince’s music, over the years. I would take up an album and play it while I worked. I tried really hard to get into Chaos & Disorder. I liked the new stuff he played in Inglewood, but let’s face it, nothing was going to re-arrange me inside again like original Prince. His physical presence and musicianship always made me swoon, he was so purely, unabashedly weird sex and talent, but early Prince re-shaped me without making me cool, when I was at my most unhappy and tightly held. I listened to him in secret for years. Even when I wrote that piece, for The New Haven Advocate, it felt like a confession, like maybe some of the other people at that show were there to gawk at the funky imp, already past his prime, who could play music like a god. By then, I didn’t care. By then, I had found places besides weddings to dance by myself. But Prince did light a path to a place where the tiny funky purple ones could be sexy and powerful. All that beauty and talent. You feel like you know the icons, but of course you don’t, you won’t miss them like friends, but you do miss them. I will miss the next concerts he’ll never play like I missed the ones he did—with profound longing and regret.

You’re just a sinner I am told
Be your fire when you’re cold
Make you happy when you’re sad
Make you good when you are bad


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Jeanne Carr and John Muir

We spent a few days this winter in Yosemite. I hadn’t been there since I was a child. On the school trip there in 5th grade, I remember seeing a family of six quail walking beak to tail in descending order of size. I remember a Quonset hut. I remember heroic narratives about John Muir. I remember 5th grade romantic drama, holding hands in the backseat of a car. But mostly, I remember seeing waterfalls, ribbons of water falling from granite cliffs, cliffs that shifted something inside me and primed me for a later appreciation of Kant’s dangerous ideas about the sublime and for the proper despair about drought and climate change.

P drove up the treacherous switchbacks into the park and we tried to get our kids to look at the clouds trailing in the pine trees and they refused. They sang the same four-note song over and over and over. Then my 3-year old became frightened of the mountains. I felt despair. My Los Angeles children can not understand weather and are afraid of landscapes. But then the road crested and we dropped into the valley. I drove the switchbacks down into the snow and mist. When Half Dome and Yosemite Falls came into view, I pulled over and we all stepped out of the car into the sharp cold air.

Yosemite does not disappoint. A break in the clouds poured sun over it all, and it was sublime, Nature, awe, the Ice Age ghosts of the glaciers that the Park Service says “gouged yosemite-4and quarried” the valley “into a U-shaped trough” somewhere around a million years ago. Back then, the tip of Half Dome was only 900 feet above the ice. A bunch of cars were parked near us, drivers stopped in their tracks, snapping futile pictures. We were just one hybrid vehicle in a long line of Victorian pilgrimages by station wagon. 95% of visitors to the park never get off the beaten path, say the signs in the Yosemite shuttle. We are the 95%. But it’s a great path. I was almost moved to tears. This world, where had it been? I wanted to stay there staring until the sun left. But my kids were cold and one more turn to the hotel and also I realized I needed shoes.

I was up working until 3am the night before we left. I had packed in a fog. When I stepped out of the car to see the falls for the first time in decades, I was wearing socks and Saltwater sandals. That first evening, just after we saw the falls, we had to drive to the village store so I could buy some duck boots. My kids now know that it is not important to be prepared because the village store sells everything except decent bourbon.

The sublime and the ridiculous continued and merged. The next day an El Niño year storm dropped a foot and half of snow, we had sublime snowball fights. I taught H. to stockpile and aim and we made snow angels and P targeted the branches so the trees would dump snow on everyone at once. We walked out by the river and threw snow into the river and never wanted to leave. H named her snowmen Titu and Silver. On our last day, my three year-old stood up on skis.

At the base of the falls, at least two plaques commemorate John Muir’s tree house cabin, an idyllic place to live. The park service built a lodge next door, because location, location, location. Muir, when he lived there, was running a sawmill. Just after, Muir was a shepherd, which also sounds idyllic. But it turns out he wasn’t really the shepherd, he was hired to supervise the shepherd so that Muir would have more time for writing and botany. He called the sheep “hoofed locusts” because they ate the natural plants. He was among the first white tourists in Yosemite, who began to arrive only ten years after the southern Miwok were driven out.

Of course, the plaque near the falls lauds Muir as the father of the park, as if he discovered the place, as if he were one of a tiny handful of innocent loggers who stumbled into the plaqueonrockJohnMuircabinsiforest, with Muir the only one who happened to look up and see God. I don’t know enough Muir to know his complete relationship to the Native Americans. But like so many historical plaques in the U.S., this plaque uses a myth to look away from what came before, another small square of metal nailed over our bloody history.

Muir himself was both the bearded rugged and visionary individualist of his myths and also, he was a sensitive, gentle, and social soul who let somebody else deal with the sheep. He was almost blinded in a factory accident. He wrote sheafs of letters to Jeanne Carr, an amateur botanist and his “spiritual mother.” She shared his passion for nature and did the emotional labor of listening to John Muir complain. He was often lonely. She was married to a professor, herself an amateur naturalist, amateur because she was a 19th century wife primarily devoted to the care of other humans. Muir thought it was Jeanne who understood him and his love of Nature best. She and Muir planned her visit to Yosemite for months, but somehow got the date tangled. When she showed up at the Black Hotel, he was not there. She wrote a letter of muted disappointment that he was, instead, “entangled with sheep.”

While we were there, I couldn’t help but think about all of the people hidden behind the myth of Muir—the tragic violence against the Miwok that preceded him, but also Jeanne Carr and her love of ferns. The other loggers at the sawmill. Some poor shepherd suddenly being supervised by a dreamy half-blind botanist. By now, the fact of Thoreau’s mother doing his laundry in the background at Walden pond is a commonplace. Muir’s important mythic function, like so many other important myths in the U.S., relied on the people working, quietly, behind him.

Carr cared and listened, she did the woman’s work of putting her own botany last so that she could put other people first. But her own botany, her own work—without it, she would not have been the reader and the interlocutor who meant so much to John Muir. The Jeanne Ezra Carr (1)feminist answer to Carr’s role can’t be to criticize Muir for not doing his work truly alone. None of us does it alone, that’s a different myth, a neoliberal privatized myth. John Muir existed in a racist sexist morally compromised society much like ours. He wrote about places he loved and in doing so, he shaped a new audience with a slightly better compass for thinking about the natural world, a world that this still compromised society is slowly destroying. Myths are conceived, birthed, collectively raised. The shepherd kept track of the actual sheep so that John Muir could go on thinking profoundly about the lichens. They all, together, built a story. A representation. A thing called Yosemite National Park. Which by the way, the private hotel company that runs Yosemite Lodge has trademarked. While that company tries to profit off of the work done by others to protect a holy place, the National Park Service will go to court.

Hordes of visitors from around the world now use the myth of Muir to step into the romance of Yosemite. His identification with the park is a thumbnail sketch, a narrative blueprint, for how to engage with its super-human scale. He didn’t discover the Valley, nor did he throw his body down immediately on the loggers’ tracks. He ran that sawmill. He wasn’t an ascetic. He got super lonely when he was alone. He collected moss and liverwort and bracken and then swapped notes about them with Jeanne. He left a trace. His letters were not all masculine disquisitions of the dissolution of self into awe and majesty. Lots were quotidian talk, expressions of longing for companionship, questions about Jeanne’s kids, and nerdy comparisons of notes on ferns.

Muir was actually a family man who lived in Yosemite for only a brief period. He visited. He was a writer, a man of letters, who once took a thousand mile walk. I read Wild a few weeks before we came to Yosemite, a woman’s story of a thousand mile walk and an important entrée into the American romance with endurance off the grid. Wild is a paean to a different natural place, the Pacific Crest Trail. But even in Wild, which I loved, I thought about the friend who sent the author’s boxes of stuff to each ranger’s hut along the way. The friend who then showed up at the end, with a car, to take Cheryl Strayed back to Portland. This friend gets short shrift in the book. It’s as if she, like Jeanne Carr, is a bit of a threat to the heroic narrative. The sending of boxes and the doing of laundry and the tending of sheep and the planning of visits to the Black Hotel and the buying of proper shoes and mittens. This is women’s work, even in a woman’s heroic narrative.

I forget things, although usually not shoes. I somehow am always not doing enough and forgetting things—not enough laundry, not enough tending, not enough working, never enough writing. Like Jeanne, I show up, but I get the date wrong, and it must be my fault. I am sorry not to see the falls with the real John Muir. I saw Half Dome only from the window of the shuttle, this trip. But I was still glad to see it. It remains glorious. I will donate to the Sierra Club again, this year, while today’s ice melts. This is not enough, but it is better than nothing. I miss the glaciers I never knew.


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Are you free from sin?

Sitting in a café at the edge of downtown, I’m near the midpoint in my usual commute to work, at the edge of Los Angeles’s district of gentrified warehouses, the Arts District. A couple of generations of actual artists have lived around here. Some of them are now being edged out, by the successful marketing and sale of “artists’ lofts.” The café is a riff on postindustrial materials—concrete, steel and wood. The commodification of the aura of labor replaces actual factories. This, by now, is an old story.

It’s summer, so I can work at a café today. When I go in, I continue east on the 60, past the busted glass like missing teeth on the Pico Rivera High School scoreboard and the disconnected transmission tower and the old neon sign for Driving California School and Wendy’s and Paul’s Brakes and a billboard just as I merge onto the 605 dedicated to Jesus asking ARE YOU FREE FROM SIN?

I am not. And we use too much water. The world is ending, so all the post-apocalyptic settings on my screens… the genres that imagine a civilization in decay? Environmental catastrophe?  Stories at the world’s end? They look like home. They remind us the damage is done, the horrors we have wrought upon this lovely planet are unforgivable and irretrievable. Post-apocalyptic stylings bring us into focus, let us imagine what it will be like to survive ourselves, my grandkids are so screwed…

And yet. Here in the warehouse district, it’s post-industrial, postmodern pastiche and I know it’s gentrification and I know it’s probably a sign of civilization’s decadence and decay, part of the end of something I care about and… it’s so gorgeous. This café is the size of a city block. Outdoor: a polished cement floor on the patio, hedges in planters on the sidewalk. Indoors: tiny two-seaters along the banks of windows, three or four different areas, a long communal farmhouse wooden table, a shop selling candles and scarves. Stainless steel and unvarnished wood. Another patio with a fountain and olive trees and gravel. Behind that: A bar, full of cool air and shadows in the daytime, too tempting for just now.

Outside, a girl twenty years younger than I am has dyed her hair gray. Her roots are light brown, with a hint of purple. It looks beautiful on her, the gray against her flawless skin. This is a trend, young people dying their hair gray. Like the fading signs for Deal or No Deal Discount Clothing Show Rooms.com, this trend strikes me as a sign of the apocalypse, of something that has run its course. I do not believe that it’s a reclamation of aging for women, or that it will make natural gray hair suddenly meet the beauty standard by comparison. But it does look great on her.

Also, they’re fixing the Pico Rivera sign.

The olive trees and gravel, behind the girl with the gray hair, remind me of Paris. I wouldn’t trade that for this. I wouldn’t trade Europe’s beautiful imperial nostalgia for Los Angeles’s confused longing. I’d rather this strange city always in the future perfect. Speculative fiction is set in California because fiction about the end of the world is just realism now, the end has already begun. I’m ashamed and terrified. I’m going to buy a six-dollar cold-pressed juice and a coffee and think about it on the patio.

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I want to buy

I want to buy


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Future Spa

Future SPA

If I were skating and you were skating and other people were taking a shower in their own golden hair, with pulley systems, and six-pack abs, and splashing in the golden light of the future,  if everything were echo deco font and the sphinxlike spaceman  bodybuilder were being birthed from the back of a semi, if I had my winged gogo boots and my cut-out cleavage machine and my space punk Victorian collar in blue to match your Folsom Street harness in red, if we were running together under the awnings of tomorrow in the light of the blue planet, dreaming of tiny versions of ourselves who follow the golden jumprope… if all this, if Bally Future Spa were me, would you love me then?

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Lip gloss

If I’m being honest, I was upset starting last night, because of the silliest of professional slights. Silly, minor. Living this life means feeling invisible or attacked about half the time, and crazy the other half, and sometimes it is my fault. Sometimes I am being, as they say, too sensitive. So I decided to go to the mall.

Sometimes I am treated differently because just a girl not universal feminine unable to be neutral mixed race crazy just another mom. I know what it is to be punished for leaning in—which isn’t perceived as leaning in, but as entitled crazy demanding stepping out of line. I know, with absolute certainty, that sometimes, things happen because of race and gender. I also know with absolute certainty that most of the time I will never be quite sure, so I will feel crazy.  I know that the meritocratic myth is there, in part, to discipline my responses away from “this is systemic and wrong” and towards “I can do better” or “I can serve you better…” and I know that class often matters more than race and gender but that intersectionally speaking, these things recreate and reinforce each other.

I talk to my students about how being nonwhite and female in this world is complicated but also simple: it will sometimes boil down to feeling invisible and unheard and a little bit crazy. So I tell them, bring it to class and we will analyze it together. That is something we can do. But. Today. I’m unable to analyze my way out of it. I truly believe that my students and I, we mostly help each other. I tire quickly of grading but I almost always love seeing them, and I miss them today, because it is spring break. And I’m unable, just now, to teach myself not to feel crazy. So what do I do? I bring my work and I go to the mall. Why the mall? Because I feel invisible, and frustrated, and I want lip gloss.

At the mall,  I know sales people and only sales people will talk to me. I know they will be nice to me. I wear nice shoes and I carry a credit card. So they will be nice to me. In fact, the lovely young woman  of color in her black apron at the makeup counter is, at first, somewhat distant. She excuses herself to help a white woman holding a coupon and leaves me stranded near the Urban Decay for five minutes. But I am extra nice to her, in my nice shoes. I listen to her recommendations. I promise to buy the compact she brings me. And in the end, she is lovely. She mixes me a sample of primer and writes down extra information for me. Class privilege and affective labor, at the mall in America, trumps race. And the money spent will make me visible to myself. I may be invisible and without a voice but I can acquire this thing I need.  This lip gloss and eye shadow.

Boo hoo you feel sorry for yourself so you went to the mall. Dumb lady.

Sure. I am lucky to have this choice, to buy lip gloss on a bad day. But this is also about the options left open to me, when I feel silenced in the halls of true power. Makeup makes me feel stronger, that is its false promise. But makeup also feels no less optional to me than the pressures of the beauty standard itself.

I wear makeup every day to work. I don’t wear it just to drop my kid off at school, or to exercise, or even out to go out to dinner with my husband sometimes. I know he will have me without it. But I have never gotten up in front of a class, for more than ten years now, without makeup. It is part of the way I participate in the physical rhetoric of teaching on a college campus.  I am short. And conventionally feminine. And mixed race Asian. I don’t feel that I can stand among the towering young men in their cargo shorts and the young women in their yoga pants and their nicer shoes than mine without at least a couple of inches in heels and makeup.

I am automatically awarded less authority,  automatically judged on my appearance, too pretty to be serious, too serious to be pretty, laughable if ugly, dismissible if lovely, she’s a bitch/ he’s tough and there is no way around this bind. A colleague, my age and my build but ethnically white, was leaving her class the other day when an older white male professor said to her, apropos of basically nothing, “You’re so young and pretty I just assumed you were an adjunct.” He meant this as a compliment.

I dab on vanilla latte crème in the morning and wonder how makeup would be sold and understood if it were men who wore it as a first line of defense against the world. What if it were masculine to have smokey purple eyelids and a sharp black kohl hugging the lash line? Then there would be great, dark, smokey warehouses of makeup. Young men in black slacks and white shirts, perhaps with sleeve garters, would shuffle under mirrors hanging slanted from the ceiling reflecting male pattern baldness and five o’clock shadows from all angles. Men would sweep palettes of color out in front of other men like decks of cards. Bare mineral neutrals, today, sir? Or something more aggressive? A heather dusk? Women would be characterized as unable to understand color and line and not be allowed in. Perhaps they would pour a whiskey with your skin consultation. Clears the pores. Sawdust on the floor and a hushed silence, in the halls of paint and power, except for the clank of the trash cans receiving the used samplers.

I feel lost, and frustrated, so I bought war paint. In a few years, I won’t even be able to wear these colors. But you can say I treated myself if you want to. I got a Clinique Black Honey sampler.

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Sidewalk Art



Strategically spray-painted near things one might bump into.

Strategically spray-painted near things one might bump into.

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A Pandemonium of Parrots

The weather is angry, the heat comes down like a curtain within an hour of sunrise to suffocate the days, these storied Los Angeles days that put your teeth on edge. Los Angeles Is Burning goes through my head. Palm trees like candles in the murder wind. Except there’s no wind.

Yesterday, when I went outside to walk H. to school, the tree across the street was heavy with birds that I could not identify yelling at each other. The resonance and the range of their vocal registers had a furious, human quality. When they lifted off the branches, yelling and yelling, they made crosses in the air. Blue, or blue green. They didn’t caw, it was not a murder of crows.

From the Eastsider LA<br />http://www.theeastsiderla.com/2014/09/echo-park-and-silver-lake-squawking-about-parrots/

In my work life, this is also the season of rejection and abandonment and despair. Murder season all around. The birds seemed to be having a heated and terrible conference discussion.

H. has a picture book about collective nouns for magical beasts. A Dignity of Dragons. A Continent of Kraken. A Resurrection of Phoenix. I tried to think of the word I wanted to describe these birds. This is how I got stuck, in this morning, in this life. The blessing and the curse of my mind is its native tendency to disappear into a search for the right words. H. asked me what I was thinking about.

“A pandemonium of parrots,” I told her.

Later, I typed “parrots” and “Los Angeles” into the search box, and saw their picture online. I’m no naturalist, so I was so incredibly pleased that I had identified them correctly. They were described  as “feral.” Feral parrots. But that seems unfair. Parrots aren’t a domesticated species, they haven’t had their original angry voices and sizes and colors bred out of them by humans. They got free and are fighting it out, up there, about how to adapt to the haze and the murderous heat. They were born loud and wild. A blessing and a curse.

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Once upon a time, I sold everything I owned and moved to Brazil. This piece, over at Avidly at the LA Review of Books is mostly about that, and also, about soccer:

No one in Rio understood why I had come. I wasn’t married to an oil man. I didn’t have a Fulbright. A young woman alone, “freelance writing,” training capoeira—to most people, this signaled a pitiable and possibly dangerous solitude, making me a kind of charity case. The sister of a friend of a friend offered to take me to a movie as if she were offering to feed me a bowl of porridge. Before I could even order a pao de quejo at the local deli, I had been asked countless times: No really, who was the man you followed? What are you running from? Once people accepted that I was living in Rio just to live in Rio, then the next question was, so who’s your team? They didn’t really expect an answer, but these were the poles that defined the map: Love and futbol.



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