“Oh, we don’t listen to that song anymore…” I say, sheepishly. My husband is not convinced.
My daughter adores Katy Perry…
this.blue.angel at Trop Mag
“Oh, we don’t listen to that song anymore…” I say, sheepishly. My husband is not convinced.
My daughter adores Katy Perry…
this.blue.angel at Trop Mag
Underneath a heavy June gloom, on a cross street off Sunset Blvd, the sidewalk is pockmarked with the black remains of chewing gum. Is it that people on near-derelict blocks are more likely to spit out their gum? Or is it that such blocks are cleaned so infrequently human waste builds up, a film of spilled soda and urine and soot that just also happens to include the odd wad of gum?
A building in an intermediate state of abandonment spills torn cushions, rebar, insulation foam and chunks of fiberglass into its inner courtyard. A chain link fence is covered with a modest black gauze. The screen doesn’t hide the disrepair. It just keeps it in shadow.
I’m fleeing the Customer Service Representative at Toyota of Hollywood, who, when asked whether they regularly check the alignment, said in a tone dripping with condescension: “No, there’s a special machine for checking alignment.” As if repairing my micro-chipped car doesn’t require endless special machines. As if only a woman would ask such a basic question. They should check the alignment. My alignment is out of whack.
They speak down to me at the dealership in part because I’m a woman, in part because I always wear jeans to drop off my car and in part because I walk off the premises instead of using their near-useless shuttle service. I would rather walk through Hollywood. What I’m trying to say is that part of loving a city is looking at it very carefully. I look at the gum on the sidewalk, and the guy sitting in a suit outside Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, and the newly whitewashed Siren Studios building, and the faded, drooping canvas signs for twelve dollar noodle specials. I look at the Denny’s. I have come to believe that there is a special sub-culture of Denny’s-goers in Los Angeles. Denny’s is always crowded. I have never gone in.
As I walk by Denny’s, I smell the unmistakable scent of the ocean. I’m fifteen miles from the sea. It’s like one of those parabolic imperfections in the domes of cathedrals that lift a sound and drop it, unmolested and crystal clear, into the ear of a listener on the other side. An imperfection in the marine layer lifted a gulp of kelp and salt and fish and dropped it onto the wood siding outside Denny’s in Hollywood. I live by the ocean, but I don’t see it very often.
I should go inside, I should go see why so many people eat at Denny’s, but I’m sure it would break the spell. So I just walk around the fake-Wild-West strip mall for a little bit and then walk back to pick up my car.
Emeli Sandé is singing to herself. To her own talent, to be more exact. We watch from above as she walks into a warehouse. The man next to her — as she sings her song — drums. He keeps the beat. The paint on the floor is worn through. In a palette of blacks and greys, she wears a brick-colored trench coat.
This is a zombie apocalypse love song. The end has come. Everyone has lost their heads around us. We have spoilt the land and dried up all the sea. Flood lights snap off. A wash of red. It’s just us two and this piano and drum kit and who knows what’s outside those warehouse walls. The rising pressure makes it hard to breathe. But still, the chorus insists, this is romantic. He’s still here. Next to me. Drumming.
It’s summer anthem time. This year, it’s not a steamy, maybe-this-summer song. It’s not a let me show you the wild side like we’re gonna die young kind of song. These latter are usually what I want in a summer anthem. Something to let loose to. But it has been a big, hard-driving kind of year. Last summer seems a world away. This year’s song is not about joyful release, or not just about that. Class may be out, but Emeli Sandé and I are taking stock. What the hell just happened? Who’s still standing?
Sometimes pop songs are best when they rub against themselves, bubblegum and misery all at once. The lyrics of Next To Me describe a man’s enduring heterosexual monogamous fidelity. He doesn’t gamble or drink or cheat or leave. He’s downright square. And yet the song seems not about settling down but about busting out. Emeli and her drummer take off their jackets and throw them on the ground. Let’s do this thing. This is a song about the freedom that comes of drilling deeper.
When the money’s spent and all my friends have vanished
and I can’t seem to find no help or love for free
I know there’s no need for me to panic
cause I’ll find him, I’ll find him next to me
Emeli Sandé recently told young artists not to subject themselves to televised talent shows. Why let cruel celebrities decide your fate, for the sake of spectacle, why offer your neck up for that knife? Nothing is free. Screw Simon Cowell. Work hard. Keep faith with yourself. Persevere.
I think that’s what this song is about. You can chase the devil, gamble, cheat and drink yourself under the table. You can go where the rest go. You can try a game show. And then maybe try another cocktail. But when the chips are down and everything is crumbling and you can’t breathe, go back to that lonely warehouse where it’s just you and some flood lights and this here hard-driving beat. If you go there, and stick with it, it will still rock.
..And yet, when I introduce my girl to the actresses in full Ariel and Cinderella finery, and I see her little eyes light up… I can’t help it. I love the princesses for being so real to her. She is just at the cusp of losing this ability to believe in make-believe. She knows they’re “not real.” But when she sees them in the Royal Hall… Just before she walks away, she turns back and asks, “What’s it like being a princess?” Cinderella tells her it’s wonderful. Says the prince takes her dancing every weekend. Oh, Cindy…
thisblueangel at Avidly.org
They say earthquake weather is a myth, but lots of Los Angeles writers have used it as a metaphor for that feeling that maybe the hot wind is trying to tell you something or that the earth, at a particular moment, feels shifty. I think it’s nothing to do with tectonic plates. Just an electricity in the air and a longing, on behalf of more people than usual, to live inside someone else’s skin. Shake things up. A generalized sense of being keyed up and vulnerable. Or maybe that’s just me. But there was a four point four in Yorba Linda last night, and we felt it rattle in our walls.
On 2nd and Alameda, city worker are winding a steel cord around a wheel. The cord stretches down into the ground. The wheel winds and winds. They watch it in poses of studied ease, but when I look closely, I can see that the tension in their shoulders mirrors the tension in the cord. I half expect a great thrashing leviathan, covered in mud, to get pulled up out of the ground. I would like to work for the city winding steel cords.
A man carrying a bag full of empty cans and bottles fishes a clear plastic cup out of a trash can on the corner. He holds the dregs of someone else’s iced coffee up to the light and squints. Will he drink it? Will he empty it out into the gutter?
He looks out at the stopped cars at the traffic light. With great care, he shakes the cup, once, in the direction of each motionless driver. I think he was blessing us. I would like to be blessed.
An unmarked white van—unmarked, but decorated, on the front grill, with a dirty, plush moustache covered in the stars and stripes. I would like to be a man, at least for a day, with a man’s body parts and body hairs, and so that I could know more about testosterone.
A pristine white Prius with a single bumper sticker: Don’t Abandon Your Baby. I would like to save an abandoned baby.
The man in front of me at the coffee shop has a black vest with strategic sections ripped out. His hair is longer and wilder and blacker and thicker than mine. He wears a black cap that reminds me of Che. His tattoos are intricate line drawings in black and white and I can’t stop looking at them, but I’m behind him, so he can’t see me staring and writing about him. The large type on his screen reads “Your Work As A Witness” until he logs onto Facebook. I would like to know about his work as a witness, and then I would like for him to give me one of those tattoos, on my left forearm.
I would like to be the kind of person in a coffee shop who is never distracted by the inside of her own eyelids and who never stops working to try on other people’s tattoos. I would like to be a vision of efficiency, without desire, without longing, pure. No, that’s a lie. Fascination nation. Earthquake weather. Whatever small things I have witnessed. That’s all I got.
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
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…