Carmel-by-the-Sea

Pacific railingOnce, months ago, my family went on vacation. We drove up the coast, to the Best Western  BayView Plus Carmel, at the corner of Ocean and Sixth. This is a perfect place. The ice machine hums by the stairs, the breakfast room serves  sausages and eggs in a stainless steel warmer, and our room, our glorious room, came with a glassed-in fireplace and a balcony with a view of the Pacific. We had a door that closed between the bedroom and the living room, such that adults could put children to bed and stay up to open wine. For a few days, we were the one percent.

In the cool fog of a coastal morning, I went for a walk with the baby in her carrier, twenty pounds of sleeping child strapped to my stomach with canvas. I stopped in a shop and looked at fancy shoes. Something about their proportions made me think of candy and Paris. I fondled the shoes. I asked questions about them. I palmed their soft leather. The sales woman offered to let me try them on. I was on vacation, so I pretended that I was seriously considering buying them, that I would come back without the baby, that I wear candy and Paris on my feet all the time. But while the Bayview Plus could make me feel rich, it could not mark down those shoes.

Carmel is a tiny beach town full of very, very expensive things. I stopped next in one of its many galleries. One of the painters in this gallery had a biography, on a color printout, which read:

“Paris born artist and France’s most prominent living artistic asset…
From his first finished painting, he has been represented professionally. This rare talent is present but a few times in each generation. [His] paintings are in the most exclusive collections globally, including an NBA team.”

This copy  also appears on the ArtBrokerage website for the artist, where the asking price for one of his paintings, of a woman in a black cocktail dress striking a sassy pose on the beach, is $22,500.

In this artist’s work, the sinewy brushwork and elegant cafés are the anachronistic love child of Edgar Degas and Toulouse Lautrec. The paintings look, in fact, as if Toulouse had repainted one of Edgar’s café scenes, and then removed any details that might precisely locate the image in historical time–carefully suspended between modern French people at a costume ball, and nineteenth century people with really fashion-forward hats.

More copy claimed that the artist is the “first in generations to re-interpret Degas and Lautrec.” This “first” claim is brought into serious question by the other paintings that appear on the ArtBrokerage website, under the headings SIMILAR ARTISTS and LISTINGS YOU MAY LIKE.

In the gallery, I became intensely annoyed.  The  hyperbolic claims were harshing my mellow. Instead of bringing Paris closer, the copy reminded me of the distance between me and Lautrec’s bohemia. It made it hard for me to inhabit my vacation-daydream, full of Italian leather and cobblestones. I had the fleeting impulse to approach the actually-French tourists who were in the gallery with me, and say, “Bonjour, I used to live in Paris, and I’m just so sorry about that living asset business.” Or perhaps just, in my good French accent, “Bah, euh, les Americains!”

Another landscape painter in the gallery did poppies—very large, very red poppies. Some of the poppies were so red and so poppy they burst off the canvas into the third dimension. I actually quite liked those bursting poppies. But again, the curation: The artist was described as “today’s most Important Landscape painter” [capitalization in original], a woman who had been so deeply inspired by the seaside landscapes in Provence that she was the “first to paint them with real emotion.” She was now being imitated “by all.”

Something about the real estate prices in Carmel gave me a burning need to police these factual insults to the French and Art. How could anyone who had ever been to a museum or a college art class believe that these painters were the original, the only, to re-heat impressionistic Provençal landscapes? What do you mean the first person to paint Provence with feeling? It’s an insult to the language.

But who cares? Who goes on vacation and wanders into a gallery on a morning walk with coffee and a baby and becomes enraged by the relative aesthetic credibility of claims made in a beachside gallery? What is wrong with me?

Important Landscapes and Living Asset are undoubtedly good, kind humans, trying to make a living with art. But I couldn’t shake it. I walked and tried to imagine who was buying those paintings. Carmel is littered with real estate offices, all trying to lure you into  putting money down on the glory of the California central coast. It’s littered with staggeringly beautiful and wildly expensive homes. Were the people living in that $12 million glass-and-beam fantasy, built into an ancient grove of redwoods, were they buying Living Asset? I would bet no. I would bet they own five homes and two Lautrec originals. Artistic assets of a different class, not Important Landscape, grace the foyer of the gently undulating sculptural modern that hangs off a cliff on the Pacific side of Highway One.

In such moments, I try to breathe and imagine Pierre Bourdieu. What Would Bourdieu Do? He would chide me for my petit bourgeois commitment to Art, capital A. The rich have better structural luck. When that luck is dynastic, it often brings with it the social distinction known as taste. Meanwhile, the more nouveau riche get the rules wrong and buy French-ified beachside art. Maybe they buy it because it’s marked Very Important and maybe that’s a mistake, but if they can resell it for $25K, it’s not a serious mistake. I’m the mistake — me who failed to go work in finance, me who builds castles to intellectual and artistic truth in the sand. My own impulse to reproduce the dictates of good taste is a mechanism that itself perpetuates the class distinctions that enrage me.

WWBD? He would say, “Bah, euh, les Americains!”

But still… France’s most important living artistic asset? Come on!! It’s so absurd!!

I got to the shore, in Carmel, and walked a few steps out onto the sand. The baby was stirring, so I just stood looking out at the cypress and purple ice plants. Carmel is everything I wanted—sea, fog, air, tide pools, a balcony with $18 wine—and yet it cracked open an abyss of further wanting. Is it relaxing to spend time near the lovely fortresses of the mega-rich? Americans often find it declassé to talk about class out loud. It’s definitely crass to think about one’s wasted merits as a trophy wife. It’s vulgar, to think about how one would be so good at being rich, about how one would wear excellent shoes and choose excellent paintings. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake the urge to escape my life — the urge to escape the inside of my own skull and all my past mistakes — for the urge to buy fancy shoes. That failing is my own. Because I am already lucky, already rich. And so is that dude who paints lovely ladies at the beach in fancy hats, who gets to be an American artist.

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(in escrow)

(in escrow)

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Gin and Root Beer

Gin and Root BeerA poet, a friend of a friend on Facebook, is unemployed and living in his grandmother’s basement and writing The Unemployment Sonnets. For five dollars, you can commission a poem. My poem is entitled “Gin and Root Beer.” It is about striving and taste and ceiling fans. I lost the envelope already. All I have is a piece of binder paper covered in square cursive. The black pen looks almost like calligraphic marker. Calligraphy. Can you imagine?

I believe that Daniel Bailey didn’t even scroll through my Facebook profile, that the words postdoc and cocktails and “taste is not experience it is spoiling a surprise party” and “blanket our heads with lions” came to him from thinking about my name and looking at a broken electric blanket. While pop-up ads know to offer me green coffee and disco pants because of big data, the isolated poet goes on blind intuition.

I can’t remember the last time I opened an envelope addressed by hand to find careful, handwritten words, intended specifically for me. The mail is for Important Frequent Flier Information and automatic Amazon re-ups of toilet paper. A handwritten poem is a little bit breathtaking.

All broke ass writers should advertise commissioned sonnets. This is the real dream of modern technology. A PayPal-based artistic ggeh – the Korean word for the money pools that immigrant communities formed as they arrived in America. We all order up writing and pay for it while we have the means, and then one day, when we are in a particularly deep basement, our turn rolls around. The ggeh opens its trapdoors and showers us in funds and deadlines. We are kept in Gin and Root Beer. We are kept working.

When I was in college, one of the boys I fell in love with briefly spent the summer in San Francisco, near my home. I forgot to be cool and took him to the Japanese Tea Gardens, the places I loved when I was a child. We ate rice crackers and almond cookies in the tea pavilion. He left to travel in Europe and sent me a handwritten letter on a piece of binder paper. I remember he compared Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia to a castle made of dripping sand. I sat at the bottom of the stairs in my parents’ house, the front door still open to the Bay’s icy summer fog, while I read and re-read his letter and looked for clues.

The boy later told me bluntly that he felt nothing for me, mocked me for not knowing better than to take him to tourist attractions, and then later, he came out of the closet, and then later still, he became a successful writer. But the humiliation of it all was worth it to me for that letter. Somewhere in Barcelona he took the time to find the paper, the pen, the words, the envelope, the address, the stamp. I held in my hand his composition of me.

It’s almost a Luddite cliché: the technology  promises to keep us endlessly connected distracted frenzied liked, and at its most miraculous, we use it to send money and messages across the ether, and for what? To drum up a plain old sheet of paper with a hundred and fifty cursive words from a stranger. And this is what makes us feel connected, and still, and seen.

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Reading Katy Perry

At the dinner table, my four-year-old girl sings out: “There’s a stranger in my bed! There’s a pounding in my head! Last Friday night!” And I am so busted.

“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

 

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Marine Layer

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.Hollywood Blvd

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.

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Next To Me

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.http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lz3uq8r9VD1qdx96xo1_1328756072_cover.jpg

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.

Happy summer.

 

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The Princess Phase

The Royal Hall..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

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Earthquake weather

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.

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lucha robot

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Dance, dance, evolution.

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.

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