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My father drove me to ballet classes for years, at Mrs. Stamps’ Ballet Academy. I stopped right after I started to learn to go up on point, before I got my own toe shoes. This mean that my parents suffered through at least four productions of The Nutcracker. I think part of the reason I quit ballet was that nothing could live up to my first appearance on stage. I got a starring role my first Nutcracker, at age five. I was a palm-fan-waver for the Plum Prince. At age five, when I had just started ballet and was very, very pint-sized, they gave me custom ultra-mini harem pants and a sequined bandeau. I had to walk on stage, bow, and fan the Prince with a big frond. This simple routine, performed by the tiniest harem slave ever, brought down the house.
I know the dance parent I don’t want to be. Tall, blonde, too much work done, she shoulders her way past other grown-up students, and demands that the teacher debrief about her daughter’s performance. “How did she do? Can you please tell her again to stop lip syncing?” The daughter, who is standing right there, looks about eleven, with spiky shoulder blades and a forced, vacant smile.
With this cautionary vision in mind, I have started taking H. to dance class. After H. was born—a while after—I dropped down into a dark space where I couldn’t find my enthusiasm for anything. A regular regime of dance classes saved me. It makes me feel deeply goofy to admit this. But while I want to forever shield H. from all things mean and anorexic, I also want to share dance with her.
My relationship with dance class started again at The Edge Performing Arts Center. The Edge is a crowded set of studios on the fifth floor of a nondescript building in Hollywood. It smells of hair products and sweat and bleach. A bulletin board at the back drips with audition announcements. The teenagers behind the counter wear lots of eyeliner and can barely hear questions over the din of pop music and shouted greetings. The first hip hop class I took there, I sucked. Everyone else seemed so young and their sweatshirts were so perfectly ripped. But somehow, it became very important for me to go back. Every week. To try again.
As with any art, or craft, dance is only part talent, and talent was never really what was missing, for me. It was the ability to get back into the routine once I had missed even the smallest step. This is not a humble brag, because I’m not a dancer. Or rather, I’m in another galaxy from the girls that I watched every week at The Edge in the advanced classes, girls who swallowed the music whole and then perfected the styling. They have both talent and many years of practice channeling that talent. They have put in their ten thousand hours, and I could have stared at them forever. I once performed on the main stage at Pride in San Francisco as a backup dancer for a singer named Joti. But I harbor no illusions about my potential as a dancer.
This was about something in my past, where dance classes had buried a link in my psyche between the moment when I start to feel overwhelmed by the speed of the choreography and an overwhelming urge to give up. Sometime after H. was born, I realized I had to unearth that link. Learning to dance means learning technique—a barrel turn, a double pirouette, yes. But it also means memorizing sequences, and if every time you miss a step, you stop moving, you don’t learn very much. You can’t let a miffed pivot at four-and throw you into a paralyzing wave of despair about your entire existence. Rationally, I may always have known this. But in order to get out of a larger hole, a larger urge to give up on myself, I had to go back to wooden floors and long mirrors and figure this out in my body.
Dance has brought me many wonderful things, like, dance movies with girlfriends, and dancing at the weddings of people I love. Dance is an entire and separate vocabulary, as my friend S. so eloquently wrote about it here. Dance-floor dancing—at a club, at a party—is connection and euphoria and release. When I was a teenager, I thought that no guy would ever really like me—like like me—unless he saw me on the dance floor. I thought it was my best language. So I would start dance classes. And then I would give up—because my double pirouette sucked, because there were so many younger girls better than me, because I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for that long, because I got paralyzed. Again and again, I started and stopped. This whole mess was connected to a number of misconceptions about boys and sex and mirrors.
I remember Katie’s Dance Studio in El Cerrito where I took classes after I got my driver’s license. I didn’t like the dance teacher at my high school, I thought she didn’t like me. The girls at Katie’s were already professional dancers. They added extra training routines in the weeks leading up to important auditions, like at Marriott’s Great America. I was college-bound, with hours of problem sets every night for my prep school. The girls at Katie’s never seemed to leave. Katie’s daughter was going to be a dancer, no matter what. I remember her as mousy, unnoticeable when still and a liquid beauty when in motion. I wanted to be just like her. I worked very hard to get to the point where Katie would let me take the advanced class. And then, I froze. I stood at the back, every week, and felt ashamed. Katie never pushed me, she never berated me. When we put on a recital, an hour of sequined costumes and jazz hands, I had no solos. I stood at the back for every number. Katie assigned me the task of sashay-ing out on stage between songs to switch the placard, on an easel, at the front of the stage. I took this as a gesture of pity at the time. But looking back, Katie—with her severe ponytails and piercing eyes—strikes me as a calm and patient teacher. She was trying to throw me a line.
When H. was very small, I slowly began to figure out that one of my most important tasks as a mother was not give up on myself in front of her. And on days when the darkness was thick—days when I could barely move my limbs to get out of the car, to enter the house—I longed to dance. Not in a social way. In a way where I could turn myself over to someone else’s physical vocabulary. That release. I had to find it. I had to find the particular count of eight where I had screwed it up. And I had to get over it, I had to do it again. I had to, literally, find a way to keep dancing.
At first, I found a beginning hip hop class that seemed less threatening at The Edge. I told myself it was cheaper than Prozac, and convinced myself and my family that it was important for me to add this class to a tight schedule. Then I found another studio closer to my house. I took some cardio-dance classes. And then I found Joe.
All I know about Joe is that he married his partner on a beach in Malibu, he’s from the midwest, and he first learned to dance on the showroom floor of a Cadillac dealership. His teacher was married to the dealer. She used to move the cars to clear a space for class. Also, Joe is a brilliant dancer. He channels deep emotion and joy in a set of very compact muscles.
Joe’s class moved at the right pace. I was bored with the cardio classes, but in classes that moved too fast, I still shut down. I would screw up and then move to the back, feeling my own frustration like a curtain coming down, a numbness in my limbs. Joe’s routines are eclectic and expressive, from Fosse to Skrillex to underground Michael Jackson remixes. But he also went over basic technique. He was patient with questions.
Joe seemed to intuit that I needed my space. He doesn’t choose favorites. He lets line leaders volunteer. One class, there were a bunch of new people, and while none of the moves struck me as particularly hard, I couldn’t string them together. The curtain started to come down behind my eyes. I convinced myself that I had blown it, that I would never come back, that I was an embarrassment and a joke for dancing at my age, I would never learn anything, and also, I was worthless and stupid. I must have looked frustrated, I don’t think you can run an inner monologue that vicious without some outward sign. But Joe didn’t say anything. So I kept dancing. And then I found it again, the thread. I learned the damn routine. Joe smiled at me, gently, near the end of class, and said, “You just had to get the count, there.” I don’t think he had any idea of the inner drama this represented for me. I hope not. I want to go back without him thinking me psychotic.
Dance class became the anchor for my week. I noticed that if I missed it, the whole week went off, the floor was lower. And the days when it went well—not days when I felt like a fabulous talented dancer, but days when I kept dancing through the frustration, over the darkness—the euphoria lasted for hours and carried into other things.
Joe’s mother visited one week. “Your son’s class means a lot to me,” I told her. “Oh I can tell,” she said, with a hint of Minnesota in her voice. “You’re a wonderful dancer.” I could have cried.
Now, H. has been to a few dance classes. She runs around and does little leaps and makes “pizza feet” first position with her toes. After her first class, primarily what she wanted was a leotard and a tutu and ballet slippers. She was very, very frustrated by my insistence that she not wear the slippers out of the house as shoes. And she wore the tutu to Disneyland. But I think I recognize the look on her face in front of those long mirrors, on those wooden floors, when she beams up at her teacher, the intense wonder of learning that new language.
I want so badly for her to have that vocabulary, that euphoria. I know the pitfalls so well. But I’m also still realizing something: Yes, it may be hard to rival the palm frond tiny harem dance, but better to keep dancing then never to have palm-fronded at all. By which I mean, no one will deliver you your bliss. You have to keep counting and try again. I don’t really want H. to be a professional dancer, it’s such a hard path, but I also don’t imagine that I will get to decide such things. All I can do is take her to class, dance with her in front of the mirror, when she lets me, and try to keep hold of my own thread of joy.
I don’t usually miss me in my twenties. Blinkered, that girl tried so hard to kill what she felt, to be someone she wasn’t. She tried so hard to be brave. Who wants to hang out with her? My friends who know and love me now, I suspect we would roll our eyes at her. She would leave the party and we would sit and have another glass of wine and say, “God, it was hard being twenty four…”
Of course, part of me is just jealous. Sometimes I look at TV shows about twentysomethings and I think, what are the stakes, here? No choices about public school and no sick or aging parents and no ticking biological clock and no exhaustion beyond breaking but still having to get up to feed the baby? Heartbreak? Who has time? Your twenties are like your wedding. The details matter very much to you, and everyone gets that, but they seem pretty trivial to the rest of us.
I remember that time I sat on the floor, in the corridor near the payphones, at the offices of the weekly paper where I worked as a reporter. I sat on the blue pile and looked at the women’s restroom sign and hung onto the cord to the receiver like I was drowning. (Remember payphones?) All I had to do was go back inside the office and do my work. That was all. And it seemed so impossible.
He was gone, the boy who had broken my heart, and I had to write some article about something. My apartment could stay messy, I could smoke Nat Shermans and drink alone at the hotel bar on the square, I could go to New York and flirt with the wrong people, I could drag myself into work looking tired and pathetic, I could call my girls and they would give me mix CDs to ease the pain. No one needed me to be cheerful or patient or wise or even consistently awake. And yet all I felt I could do was sit on the floor.
I called L., who was staying in my living room at the time and with whom I would probably hang out later that evening, and said: “I can’t do it.” Do what? Why was it so searing? We hadn’t even dated for very long. Was most of it injured pride? L. said, “It gets better. It will get better.”
And of course, it did, but it took its time, and there were the sordid relapses and more dumb, mute pain after more dead-end conversations. How can two people who don’t understand themselves figure out how to be with each other? They can’t, of course. They’re in their twenties.
Another friend now asks, “Is he doing Landmark? That self-help cult, where they have to apologize to everyone they’ve ever hurt?”
My ex and I meet at the park with our kids. He looks the same. I don’t know how I look—my feet are swollen because I’m four and a half months along with my second child. Even H. is moving slowly in the heat. On the one hand, it’s still his face. I look at him and get a powerful reminder of those Nat Shermans, that one hotel bar, the feeling of air rushing out of my lungs, the feeling of everything slipping out from under me, the desperate conviction that if this isn’t it then heterosexual monogamy is a fiction and a farce. And at the very same time, now he’s just somebody that I used to know. We share interests, we know people in common from college. I ask about his siblings, his parents. I tell my husband later, he’s the kind of guy we call “our people,” dealing with similar shit, figuring it out.
On our way back towards the cars, he says, “I was kind of a jerk, back then” and I say, “Yeah, you were kind of a jerk.”
All that sturm und drang. It seems like a story in another life. The kids watch Shaun the Sheep on his phone and we talk about limiting screen time and parenting books and the heat in Austin vs. Los Angeles. I lean back on my hands and the grass makes deep imprints in my palms. H. and I get back into the car and she demands our song again and I can feel the summer slipping away already. How did I ever get this old? And what a relief.
I let my students out of their final and told them all, “Have a good summer.” I had to come down on them, this morning. There was a thing with grading, and grades, and whether they had to complete the last paper… (which yes, they did). On the one hand, it breaks my heart every time I’m hit with the reality that my students mostly read novels and write stuff because I make them. On the other hand, I understood. I wanted to let them go free and tell them I would miss their young energy and tell them that my advice was to get the hell done with this paper and then… Do nothing. Do as much nothing as possible. Spend time choosing popsicles. Turn around in circles on your stomach on the swing at the playground. Talk about what you like and don’t like. Preferably with friends, in 7-11 parking lots, possibly down by the marina, maybe with a boombox that only works if you tape it closed and hold it on your lap in the car, far from adults like me.
A student once asked me about summer internships in publishing. He wanted to write, and his dad was a cop and didn’t understand, and should he try to get an unpaid internship while he waited tables in New York? I encouraged him, instead, to try an Alaskan fishing boat. I suggested he try something that would give him material, something far from books and paper. Maybe this was naïve of me, in our business-major world. But he opted to work at a lumber yard. He was the only skinny white kid on the crew. He learned an entirely new vocabulary. He came back the next fall with a swagger. I guarantee the lumber yard stories got him more dates.
Here are three eighth graders who made a video of themselves goofing around to this summer’s perfect pop song by Carly Rae Jensen. They dedicated it to the “Girls We Like”:embedded by Embedded Video
YouTube teenagers with nothing to do and a good pop song
The original Call Me, Maybe video has provoked commentary because of its sweet and carefree take on gender politics, which have been echoed by its many imitators. It’s also an illustration of what grassroots YouTube buzz can do when combined with the promotional might of the Bieber.
M., who works in reality tv casting, talks about how the younger generations she interviews now are way, way ahead, when it comes to letting go of prejudice about same-sex love. For young girls today, the idea that a male crush might be gay is — as in lived experience — not so much a political issue as a bummer. And the Call Me, Maybe trend certainly supports that rosy view. Its gender politics are mostly goofy.
But Call Me, Maybe also just taps into my craving for…. endless summer. It’s the energy of Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles (because I am ancient), but also… Remember the video for Hit Me Baby, One More Time? As feminists, we talked about Britney’s crazy stage mother controlling her life and her pervy Catholic school girl outfits. But that video is about getting out of class and getting the straight-laced principal to loosen up and shake her ass.
Katy Perry’s entire persona seems framed around a bell ringing on her strict Christian upbringing. She’s perpetually thrilled that she gets to wear cupcake bras and say she kissed a girl — out loud!! — and she’s living her Teenage Dream. It’s about being young, or feeling young, but mostly it’s about that first moment when the top comes down on the convertible and you are free, free at last. Summer, summer, summer.
In France, everyone checks out for the entire month of August. In Rio, they used to knock off early at the office to go to the beach. But here, now, U.S. adult-style, summer is a figment. The hammer is coming down. I’m organizing a Breakfast of Accountability with friends who also have major writing deadlines. H. ran away from me in a driveway last night, right in front of a car turning into the lot, and I had nothing to give, I lost my temper and dragged her and she kicked me in the stomach and I tore her Cinderella dress wrestling her into her car seat and I hate the chokehold that Disney princess gear has on her imagination and I have so much to do this summer. Will H. ever have time to make stupid movies with her friends? Will I?
This morning, she asked for Katy Perry. “The Mustang song.” By which she meant, Make out in your Mustang, to Radiohead… She is not yet four. How many times has she even heard The One That Got Away? Or rather, how many times have I played it for her?
“Play it, mama,” she said. I rolled down the windows. The wipers scraped at the jacaranda on the windshield, the marine layer was just burning off in a hot L.A. wind. I thought I probably shouldn’t play her this song anymore. But hit me baby, one more time. I turned the volume up. I could see her lips moving in the rear view mirror. My little girl. Summer after high school, when we first met…
I started out high school wearing, most days, a black denim jacket embroidered with a white mask and the words “The Phantom of the Opera.” Yeah. This fact still makes me blush. I was aware that my love of musicals wasn’t cool. Somehow I liked that jacket more than I wanted to be cool.
If you admit that you’re a comics fan standing in line with friends for a Batman movie, that’s one thing. Whipping out a comic in full view of the jocks at the high school cafeteria, that’s something else. Or at least, in the days before ComicCon had quite so many velvet ropes, it used to be something else. It takes a different kind of—what, courage? perverse and willful personal commitment?— to fly in the face of social norms, to follow your bliss despite a certain knowledge that you will be scorned. You have to admire the Ren Faire crowd for its total dedication to bloomers.
Once I ditched the Phantom jacket, I kept a lot of enthusiasms to myself in high school. I spent long hours measuring the exact distance between me and Samantha Mathis in Pump Up The Volume, but I never really went there.
Sometime sophomore year, the “Advanced Vocal Ensemble” went to the Renaissance Faire. I don’t think we were being paid to sing, just officially tolerated. We were asked to dress like “wenches.”
In the parking lot, amidst a sea of unassuming sedans and station wagons, we waited for our choral director to figure out the parking brake on the van. Meanwhile, a couple stepped out of a hatchback nearby and began to change into their costumes. There, in the parking lot, they transformed from a couple in khakis and jeans into a Tudor queen and her consort. They stepped into royal blue velvet starred with silver. The queen had a bristling collar that made her neck spring like a stalk from a severe, toothy flower. I remember I found it odd that The Queen didn’t get a dedicated parking space.
But she wasn’t The Queen. She was just another noblewoman, one of many noble women who belonged to the many clans that paraded around the grounds in matching finery, announcing their arrival to the Rayban-wearers and the dust. She wasn’t staff. She was just an enthusiast.
That parking lot in Vallejo was my first encounter with a particular brand of DIY Bay Area nerdery and enthusiasm, a force that, in its most severe form, reshapes lives and sucks people into “alternative lifestyle” vortices of infighting, romantic obsession, kitchen-planning and artistic creation. I learned much more about this through Burning Man, years later.
The Advanced Vocal Ensemble assembled by a fountain where more authentic-looking wenches were washing clothes. With washboards. In muddy water. None of these people, mind you, was being paid. The clothes probably weren’t really getting washed, either, but note the dedication implicit in those washboards. We sang for a bit, and then we were turned loose upon the Faire. No one carded us at the mead stall. The enormous turkey drumsticks were cheap and plentiful. Everyone around us, it seemed, spoke in a pastiche of Monty Python jokes, Shakespearean English and Quaker pronouns. Thy ladyship, what wouldst thou have me do with this, thy spent and bloody paper plate?
A young man called out to me from a balcony. I can’t, for the life of me, remember our exchange. I snapped something back at him. He dropped to his knees and proposed. For all I know, he did that to every girl who walked by. But I was hooked. This remains half of the appeal of the Ren Faire, it seems: Heavy quipping with the inviting frankness and the protective equal opportunity approach of archaic gender norms.
Later, on a visit after the day of wenchy singing, I spent my entire allowance on a tarot card reading. The gypsy, in her orange-blossom scented clothes, may not have predicted my future but she read something in me with great precision. She invited me to sit behind her table. I reclined, cosseted, in heaven, while she talked crystals and energies with a small group of psychic friends. She gave me piece of pink quartz in a purple velvet sac that I could wear around my neck. I knew some of the cards, at the time. She offered to let me apprentice with her. I still have that piece of quartz. I couldn’t yet drive or really pay for more costumes or for repeated entries to the Faire, and I never saw her again. My Ren Faire affair was mostly long distance. But in my heart, I went back every weekend.
On our visit this week, I saw a woman in proto-vaudevillean make-up caressing the pectoral muscles of a teenager in an Ultimate Fighting t-shirt and baseball cap. Someone tried to pull her away. “Begone! I’ve found me a favorite!” she cried. A man selling leather pouches tried to provoke my husband by grabbing my hair and pulling me in for a kiss. It remains unsubtle, Ren Faire flirting.
This time around, I almost bought a handmade, bustled dress in oriental blue silk, with heavy pewter clips on the corset. It struck me as both exotic and pleasantly period-ambiguous. When I was fifteen I had no disposable income to speak of. I can’t remember how much of an outdoor mall it was back then. My general impression of the change in the Ren Faire was that now, there are more tribal cat-people, more Midde Eastern harem-style costumes, a bit more steampunk, and a LOT more Pirates of the Caribbean. It was like Johnny Depp had populated the Tudor Renaissance with his clones.
As a reporter, I used to spend a lot of time covering nerds: MIT computer whizzes who lived in a Star Trek themed house off campus, gender-bending contra dancers, a guy who had invented a three-D printer. Even the underground, fetish crowds that I wrote about—they were the enthusiasts of the alt-sex community. BDSM is, in it own way, super nerdy. My beat was unofficially called “freaks, geeks and universities.” All of this was a long time ago. I don’t know why it felt so freeing, at fifteen, to imagine spending my time cross-legged behind a table in a dusty fair, reading the cards, telling thy futures. But I’ve always felt comfortable among the nerds—among but not really of the enthusiasts.
As an adult, I am still sometimes uncomfortable in my own skin. I admit that I’m still drawn to Tarot cards, but also a little afraid of them. I still want to buy lots of costumes and I want to live in that blue silk corset dress, which I didn’t buy. But at the end of a day at the Ren Faire, I no longer feel willing to survive on mead alone. I no longer want to close my eyes and curl up behind the washer woman’s fountain and stay forever.
These days, at the end of the day at the Ren Faire, I am vaguely peeved that the place somehow convinced us to buy our three year-old a glass rose. Glass roses make terrible toys. Also, I want to clock the next person who says “thy.”
Metrolink, without warning, has cancelled the ten day train fare that made my commute to Irvine both affordable and compatible with my basic needs for sanity. One last ten pass would have covered my last five weeks teaching at Irvine. Instead, I’m going to go out kicking and screaming at the commuter rail. Why are they changing the fare? Because they can.
Watch out, Metrolink. You will soon receive impotent, angry letters and phone calls from the commuter in car 186A, in which she will inflate her personal influence on all possible future commuters from Los Angeles to UC Irvine and make you feel terrible, just terrible, for this injustice.
The graffiti along the tracks isn’t telling me much today. Mesa Huke? I ♥ pussy. Fast. There are the tent cities up against the flood channel. They have multiplied in the past few months.
Before Buena Park, the short squat stucco houses with picnic tables and red plastic slides seem asleep, their concrete patios hard up against the tracks. The Italianate development, beyond them, looks grumpy, with its tight balcony rails pasted to the front of long, high windows with no actual balconies. Venetian blinds closed tight against the train. A truck with white slats across its flatbed rolls slowly past open warehouses. Tac City and Alumet Supply. It breaks my heart.
Every minute inside my car on the 5 was lost — This American Life and RadioLab and The Lovely Bones audiobook and Planet Money (before Adam Davidson went all Chicago School) notwithstanding. Those were minutes lost to the rivers of Lethe. But not so, the train. The train cops may be needlessly arrogant and aggressive, and Metrolink has earned my everlasting rage with this rate hike. But on the train, my consciousness isn’t split in two. I can daydream about distant cities with some degree of focus.
At Fullerton, I imagine getting off and walking until I find a place to have breakfast. I have a credit card and my laptop and a snack bar in my bag. I could find a taxi and a ticket and a plane to Berlin. I would really like to be in Berlin by sundown. I want to eat falafel on a street corner I have never seen before and get a drink at a bar that is on a boat. I want to wander into Friedrichshain and sit on the floor in a warehouse to watch a slow-moving art film where people walk slowly through rooms filled with bloody feathers and no one speaks.
Part of the weight of being younger was always the yawning abyss of choices in front of me. It was like having to assess every stop the train made. What about here? Get off? Stay on? Having once sold everything I owned and moved to a foreign country, I knew what was possible. After I got back, it was always there. My year in Brazil. A year of memories reprimanding me for every directionless, same-as-rain day stateside.
Now, there’s a freedom in being locked down. I probably came pretty close to moving to Miami for the same, thin, whimsical reasons that moved me to Rio de Janeiro. Late night online research about apartments near the water used to be a dangerous proposition. Now, I can fantasize about Miami, or Berlin, endlessly, without worrying that I might really be able to go.
A friend brought me a t-shirt from Berlin. It says “Arm, Aber Sexy,” in German, which is evidently a quote from the popular young mayor, meaning that his city is poor but sexy. Lissie sings in my headphones, for the last four years of my life I’ve thought about you pretty much every fifteen seconds. I can’t go to Berlin. But distant obsession is not just a luxury of youth.
We were in Texas.
The taxi from the Waco airport pulled up into a summer night full of crickets—crickets hopping slowly outside baggage claim, crickets in the bushes, crickets in the air. The drive to our hotel felt like a different country. I could smell the Brazos river before I saw it. The day’s afterglow hovered at the edge of a long, flat horizon, past the floodlights on the empty picnic tables outside Papa Bear’s BBQ, past the lights on the pool tables inside Ash Cocktails.
My father and his brothers sat on a couch on a stage at Baylor University and talked about their lives. Our family history, my family history, their accomplishments, handed out on little photocopied squares of paper in party-favor plastic bags. A number two pencil and an index card, for questions. A Math Awareness rubber bracelet.
There is so much you can’t talk about at the front of an auditorium full of people. There is so much you can’t talk about on a page. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion wrote once. My uncles and my father told stories about the Japanese internment camps, and about their own college professors, about my grandfather who came to this country from rural Japan and sent his four kids to college. All three boys are now college professors. Their sister is a music teacher.
Ted told me later that at Minidoka, where my family was interned, they had guard towers and barbed wire around the perimeter, but unlike at Tule Lake or Hearth Mountain, the Minidoka towers stood empty. No guards.
Minidoka had a yearbook. Page-long photographs show all of the families, in front of their barracks, tiny black and white rows of Japanese faces. There are photographs of the clubs. A dance. The baseball team.
We tell ourselves stories means we shape the facts into an ordered narrative, choose one fact over the other. My father used to tell me a story about his bubbling childhood excitement when the Sears catalogue came in the mail. He left out the detail that this happened in the camps. Much later, my father clarified that the Sears catalogue was exciting, in part, because there were no stores in the camps. In order to cage the spiraling uncertainty of everything that could happen next, to understand the black boxes of the people all around us, all the little performances and evasions, we tell ourselves stories. Our own stories.
My father sat on stage next to his brothers. Ted played with the cord to his lapel mic. Paul, with his electric energy, could barely stay on the couch. They were three brothers, in a way I had never seen them before. It was new information for me just to watch them together, talking to each other, three Japanese men all above the age of 60, all surprisingly tan, the youngest, my uncle Paul, wearing a t-shirt silkscreened with a black cat. He always wears cat t-shirts. Whena piece of his had its premiere at Carnegie Hall, he came on stage to take a bow wearing a t-shirt with a Hello Kitty with red horns that said “Hell Kitty.”
My family spoke about their career choices, their success in three various different fields—philosophy, mathematics, music—and then everyone clapped. My dad introduced H., who was there, up past her bedtime, and she looked around the auditorium at the applause, wide-eyed, thrilled, surprised.
My grandfather arrived in Seattle with an eighth grade education and no English. He worked for a railroad magnate, Jesse Hill, as a cabin boy.
I look at my father and my daughter together. She demands that he tell her a fairy tale one more time. I think about how far my world is from my grandfather’s world, how unimaginable rural Japan at the turn of the century is, for me. Not unimaginable, of course, so much as impossibly distant, without any overlap in vocabulary.
My uncle Ted told me that the Brazos river figures in a lot of old Westerns. It’s the longest river in Texas. Ted watches a lot of old movies. My father told students at Baylor that someone in Texas, he couldn’t remember exactly who, but a Texan, had been the only person to read the entirety of Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica. They do things big, in Texas. While we were in Texas, my uncle Paul got one, or was it two, further commissions. He will write a ballet for a major city in China which none of us has ever heard of before. Millions upon millions of people live there.
Nothing is unimaginable, we tell ourselves. In order to live.
Three women just ahead of me were talking about a t-shirt. “Because my cousin asked everyone what their favorite food was and then before the party she gave us all t-shirts with the name of our food. So yeah. My favorite food is spicy kim chee.”
In front of the beauty salon – the one with the green wall of plants that haven’t quite grown together to cover the paper – two girls were sitting on the curb. One of them was crying. Her long blonde hair fell forward and covered her face, so that all I could see was her shoulders, shuddering, and her knees poking out from the curtain of hair, and the tips of her green suede penny loafers.
“But it’s you,” her friend said, while she patted her. “This is you.”
“I’ve never felt this bad before,” the girl said between sobs.
The new bar that replaced the Indian restaurant was almost empty, on a Friday night. The décor is Moroccan boudoir. The lights at the points of the arches are emerald green. I want to drink in a lonely Moroccan boudoir on a Friday night.
Smokers stood on the curb outside the bar. A strong, buff woman in black jeans with a black and red mohawk laughed. A woman in an electric blue blouse looked skeptically at the bouncer who was trying to talk to her. Two doors down, the sports bar had a row of televisions tuned to different channels. Men playing basketball flashed by images of men yelling at men playing basketball, flashed by bikes flipping over, all inaudible above the din of people drinking and eating and leaning over their tables to talk to each other. From outside, you could see six of the eight screens inside. There was blackened bubble gum on the ground between the tables on the sidewalk. The sports bar was packed.
The city has extended the little pocket park at Sunset and Griffith Park Boulevards by painting the ground electric green with pale green polka dots. Two people played night basketball on the polka dots outside the raw vegan restaurant. The children’s boutique had a crepe paper rainbow, lit from behind. The lamp hanging above the table in the apartment across the street was a too-perfect echo of the moon. I wanted them to turn it off. In the house across the street, a woman got up from the dining room table, full of people, and came back in with another bottle of wine.