The last quarter of an inch

The morning of my first and last skydive, someone emailed me a quote: “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.” My instructor put it another way: “It doesn’t hurt ‘til that last quarter of an inch.”

It’ll be seven years this October since I jumped, but I can remember each second of it like a dream from which I have just awoken, and my heart pumps in helium fits to my head.

I’m reliving the jump now as I sit in a stranger’s apartment that I will call my home for three months. It is my fifth day of a new life in New York City, and the world – seriously, the whole world – teems outside my window, draining my bank account, taunting me with better writers and prettier apartments, bloodying my feet no matter which shoes I wear. But I showed up. I showed up like I did the morning of my 30th birthday and put my sneakers on the lip of the plane’s open hatch and grinned at the camera and jumped. I was jumping because I had done something terrifying and crazy and brave by breaking up with someone on whom I’d been deeply codependent for three years. I jumped because I needed something bigger than that to happen, even if it was going splat in a field in the middle of Texas.

I jumped because not jumping was unacceptable.

I won’t tell you if you should or shouldn’t skydive. Statistics (and a company’s solid credentials) will almost guarantee you have nothing to lose but a little bit of pee, and it does empower you. It helps you emerge from your murky fears and decide what to wash off and what to keep, it lets you draw the fears you have chosen in patterns on your skin, to make those fears belong to you rather than to belong to them.

Skydiving will teach you what it means to be brave, which looks a lot like being terrified. That’s because you cannot be brave unless you are terrified. It’s the going ahead with it that makes you brave. Bravery isn’t good posture and a placid expression, either. This is something I’m learning even years after the dive. I always thought handling a divorce, cancer, or a loss bravely would look like Katherine Hepburn as the ice queen Tracie Lord in “The Philadelphia Story”, all draping gowns and shoulder pads and set jaw.

But bravery can be clumsy and look like this: the morning of your appointment, you nervously jabber with friends, taking small comfort in the fact that, if someone else is doing it with you, it must not be that nuts of an idea. You wobble your way through the disclaimers and orientation, you try to think about other things while slipping on the jumpsuit, and laugh too loudly when the instructors try to calm you with jokes about duct tape. You flare your eyes at your friends in an expression of “what are we doing?” and your breathing gets faster and makes you light-headed. This is good. Light-headed people don’t make executive decisions like “turn this plane around”. Light-headed people get on the plane and hold their friends’ hands and make squealing noises and put on displays of bravado for the video camera.

If you skydive, make sure you pay extra for the video. You will want to relive this moment when you have become too timid in your life, and a camera makes you feign courage.

At about 10,000 feet, you may be above a few puffy, sheepy clouds. The sky around you is twelve shades of blue. The fields and farmlands below look like miniature models. These ridiculously clement conditions are perfect for imagining that perhaps, yes, gravity will not work this time and you will fly into a child’s tale or a dollhouse. You will reach a tipping point of light-headedness where you feel an impatience, a “let’s get on with this!” because you cannot go back now, could never live out your life knowing you turned back at that crucial moment, and besides, Wonderland may very well be out there, and has anyone lived to tell about this? oh of course they have, but you might be that statistic and this might be your last act in life but you’re crouched at the open door refusing to look over your toes and your cameraman flies off like he’s been shot out of a cannon with a wave and a grin and your instructor is strapped to your back shouting in your ear that he will tap you on the arm and that’s when you arch your back and do something else – what did he say? – god man just get on with it I’m ready to die, ready to see, ready for Wonderland, ready for anything, ready. Ready.

Rock back, rock forward, rock back, and you’re out.

This is what that moment looked like for me:

oh holy shit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note the mouth forming the “O” of “Holy shit”.

Your instructor, if he is good, will say Yeah! and Woo! and encourage you to do the same, and will grab your hands and stretch them out like you are Peter Pan, and in doing so will remind you: we are having fun. We are enjoying life.

Also, he has done this about 10,000 times, which makes your left brain feel just comfortable enough to get out of the way for a minute and trust whatever it is your stupid right brain has gotten you into this time.

But this is what I remember most. Fuck it.

That’s what my brain said as we fell at 120 miles per hour, which doesn’t feel like falling at all. It feels like a giant fan is blowing up from the ground and keeping you aloft, so enjoy the view: look out and not down. Looking down is giving in to what you have done and thinking about it. Too late. Fuck it. Look out over the tops of those clouds, to the horizons that you are stretching your hands out to, to the bowl of the sky as it goes from baby blue to deepest marine and back again, thinking to yourself that you are the only one seeing this right now, the only one inhabiting this space in which there is no room for fear or hope or questions or worst-case scenarios. Because you’ve done it and now you have to live with it and so you take your way you have chosen to live – or die – you take it up and you hold it like a proud chief holds a warhammer, chin up, defiant.

Remember the Skateway? Whatever your town called it, it was a dark rink with carpet-padded walls, a DJ booth perched above and a dizzying eddy of rushing skaters. And you, you were so small and uncertain; all knees and hands clutching at that nubby rug railing. Do you remember the moment you plunged into the fast and free center? The breath that you took and held and the way your skates carried you so wonderfully fast and how you coasted and leaned ever so slightly and rounded the corner like a champion and felt the pretzel and Icee-scented air in your hair and like you could do anything? That’s living. That’s what freefalling feels like.

After the chute opens, things slow to a meandering 1,000 ft./min. drop. You have about 5 minutes to feel the straps stressing with your weight, to understand how badly the ground wants you. You grip your instructor’s arms (which he said you could do) and you ask nervous, silly questions:

Have you ever hit a bird?
Has anyone ever peed on you?
How do you turn?
Okay, stop turning this is making me freak out.

But this isn’t the part that counts – not even the landing, although that is a miracle in its own way. The seconds that burn themselves into you happen during that freefall, when you have taken your brain, blood, eyes, mouth, dreams, fingernails, fears, loves, bones, guts, past, present, and future confidently in one direction at their combined maximum velocity.

You have more than blown your trumpet at the gates of dullness; you have announced your will to live.

The consequences? That’s all just the last quarter-inch.

holy mothereffing a!

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Eleven Days. Eleven Loves.

Oops, I skipped a few. Pretend it’s July 18. I’m doing it right now. Mmm, so 18thy.

Because I’m a native, or maybe because my theories are the electrifying sort that touch both madness and genius, people ask me why Southern Californians are “like that.” You know what I mean, and if you don’t, you might be Southern Californian, but I’ll get to that.

For the last three days (or since it’s July 18: “For the next three days…”) a weird thundershower has moseyed across the hot, sunny afternoon. You’ll be doing something — say trying to cull your magazine collection because you’ve just taped up your TWENTIETH box of books and your New York apartment won’t even hold that many, only you can’t bear to part with four years’ worth of Bust Magazines because you might one day send a letter to your friend Crystal with odd cut-out photos glued to the envelope, and Bust has the best. Anyway, you’ll be doing, say, THAT, and then you’ll hear this general leafy commotion and will open the back door and, lo, It’s perfectly sunny…and raining! In sheets.

In mid-July!

Only two years ago, it was the Summer of Our Discontent, over ninety days of triple-digit temps, no rain, and Rick Perry praying away the magical wildfires that DEFINITELY aren’t caused by his d-bag constituents tossing lit cigarettes out their car windows during a scorching drought. Freedom! Pewpewpew!

This summer has been just as crazysauce, but on the other end of the spectrum. Everything’s green and lush and happy and the cicadas just will not shut up about it. Everyone you meet comments on it, like they do when it’s extremely sucky — which it could be in another week. You never know. Last winter came and went so fast it didn’t freeze a single flea, but the winter before that it SNOWED. Remember that? For, like, an hour.

Which brings me to my eleventh love in Austin: the weather’s as crazy as a shithouse rat. It’s wild and unpredictable, and the small town churches have signs up saying “Pray for rain!” It beats us down, it humbles us, it makes us appreciate the auspiciousness of a good run, which can turn on its head like that. 

If Southern Californians seem arrogant, blissed out, and out of touch with the rest of the country — or human bone structure, for that matter — it’s because an eternity of 76-degree-and-sunny weather stretches out before them, indistinguishable day after indistinguishable day. Everyone becomes Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, running their morals off of cliffs and into oncoming traffic, hoping to find the outer limits of this bizarre infinity.

Without a force mightier than divorce attorneys and plastic surgeons to humble them, people lose the connection between cause and effect. In the absence of wrathful weather, to what does a whole population adapt, together, at such a mortal level?

Hear me out, Californicators:

August 2005. I’m brand new in Austin and I get a contract job trying to locate all the Keller Williams Realtors in the Gulf. It’s one day since Katrina hit. There are about 700 agents affected across 20+ offices. Every last one of them — team leader and receptionist alike — as soon as they heard I was from HQ, would just start crying. What do you need? I’d ask them. God, they’d tell me, I don’t even know how to answer that. Depending on whether it was Biloxi or Mandeville, NOLA, or Houma, they’d either lost everything —
say, all of the Escrow paperwork on a house that the buyer now probably no longer wanted (if it even stood) and which was to be the agent’s source of income — or were doing okay but their community was ripped to shreds. I remember a woman telling me this sometime in late November: There are no trees, Erin. Anywhere.

Can you imagine what that would be like? Dependable giants like Target and Wal-Mart are even closed and flooded, looted and unavailable. Hungry? Just go through the drive-thru…of what? It’s gone because it took in 3 feet of fetid water, half of its employees are actually missing, and how did you drive there anyway when the one working gas station in your area has a line down the street?

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How about a nice, hot McFML?

The company blazed through millions of its non-profit dollars and so we turned to our hundreds of offices nationwide to adopt specific agents (this was a brilliant idea, and should tell you what kind of fantastic, human-loving company Keller-Williams is to work for) and hold fundraisers for them. From Seattle to Charleston, the teams knew their adopted agent’s name, the state of their affairs, every member of their family and their clothing sizes. They were having holiday galas and auctions, and were sending boxes of clothes and gas cards, and were even offering them to come visit for a while….you name it. I was personally transformed by the care these people showed for strangers who just happened to work for the same company. (Again, I can’t kvell enough about the company’s culture, which was created and fiercely maintained by a lady from Norman, OK named Mo, of whom I do a pretty good impression.)

And then I called the office in my hometown, a lovely beach location where you can even grow tired of this sunset:

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Boooooooring.

And do you know what the team leader there said to me when I asked about how things were coming for the agent we’d assigned them?

“Oh, is that still going on?”

Because the weather there is perfection in perpetuity, a frictionless circumstance where people are free to orbit each other at safe distances (except on the 405). Like water and pressure eventually rolls sand into an unyielding pearl, extreme weather forms a solid community. It’s a beautiful thing — maybe as beautiful as that sunset, and just as easy to take for granted. All of us sweating and freezing our asses off together, talking in a common tongue about how we’re going to get by.

 

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Twelve Days. Twelve Loves.

You know what? MEXICANS.

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It makes me insane to hear the misinformed national “Austin’s hot right now!” media — and the lazy yo-yos here in town that are supplying them with the misinformation — supplicate themselves before the greasy, meh logos of Tacodeli and Torchy’s Tacos. I love it even more when people say “Well, they’re not supposed to be Mexican tacos but you have to love Tex-Mex.”

No, sorry, these are not Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex comes in a later post, by the way.

They’re nothing, from nowhere. A perfect algorithm for crowd-pleasing that might as well have been formulated in the test kitchen of a Sam’s Club. Add salt, fat, sugar, and a spicy salsa and Americans will love it!

They’re aregional. They’re an anchorman’s lack of accent. They’re Yanni. Worse, they’re Yanni covering Santana.

Why so much ire? Because these ladies:

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Photo courtesy of scrumptiouschef.com

These fine ladies, parked at 53rd and Airport, are serving sopes and tacos with masa and corn tortillas made to order. They’re delicious and half the price of Tacodeli’s nonsense. And you won’t have hungover UT students step on your feet.

Also these dudes:

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Photo courtesy of chickenfriedeverything.com

Are you kidding me? You live in a city with Taco More in it and you’re wasting everyone’s time talking about Torchy’s? Why do you hate food so much?

Taco More will sell you three of the best cabrito, al pastor (none of that chunky pineapple garbage), and carne asada tacos you’ve ever had, and for like $6. Or try the cabrito soup — it’s about $2.50 and it will instantly cure depression, anxiety, viral infections, and boredom. The original’s up on Rundberg but there’s also a newisher one conveniently located on Riverside near Emo’s.

Torchy’s. Are you kidding me with this. New Haven could make a Torchy’s. Norman, OK could make a Torchy’s.

And while New York has plenty of Puerto Ricans, dozens of Dominicans, and several Salvadorans, it’s harder to find good, authentic Mexican. Texas wins with Mexicans. Go make use of that.

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Thirteen Days. Thirteen Loves.

God in heaven, the Greenbelt! It runs 7.25 miles through the city, a rocky trail that’s smooth in places, surrounded by trees. Everyone runs, walks, and bikes on it. Sometimes it’s officially leash-free, sometimes it’s just leash-free by virtue of this is Texas so fuck your rules (and Austin dog etiquette is pretty solid — I never had a bad run-in with a loose dog, myself).

After a good rain, park at the entrance in Zilker and walk the comfortable mile or so to where the creek widens and rushes. There’s a flat rock in the middle where college girls sun themselves, hippie boys strum guitars — even the college guys don’t seem so douchey drinking their Lone Stars and throwing Frisbees — and urbanists, like Turtle (below) hang out and trade joints for stories.

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Yes, that’s Chloe. In our younger days, Chloe and I would go together. Turtle is the one who looks like Neptune, all gray curls and a torso like a leather saddle. He made roses out of river grass for the girls and told us he knows where to forage for wild foods and how to sharpen sticks to fight the wild dogs that will roam free when the apocalypse comes. When Austin cycles through its Turtles (and Lobsters and Leslies…that’s for another post) it will be minus a significant organ. Maybe its heart, I don’t know. I hope not.

I think I might head down there on Friday — we’ve had some good surprise rain this week — and say goodbye to the Greenbelt and its river people. Maybe I’ll find Turtle braiding grass bracelets and warning calamity. Maybe I won’t laugh so readily this time.

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(Apologies for the grainy pictures — taken on a clamshell phone circa 2006.)

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Fourteen Days. Fourteen Loves.

This guy.

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July 15, 2013 · 11:38 pm

Fifteen Days. Fifteen Loves.

I moved to Austin for its warm nights. Never mind the soul-crushing heat of the day that’s required to make this lovely balmy sundown – it’s worth it.

Humid air just carries sound differently. It gives it a sustaining note. And in the darkness, that sound takes on an even calmer, more sensual quality: A rattling cicada in a blinding afternoon sounds like a metallic air raid, a rising and falling clatter of ball bearings in a tin drum. But by night, it’s a Voodoo priestess feverishly shaking a ring of chicken bones and shells.

A warm Austin night has its own soundtrack. Listen for the sharp, crabby caw of a common nighthawk around dusk as it circles overhead. When you sit on our porch – a grand thing with rocking chairs and a hammock, and arguably our best feature as a couple – listen for the fluting of a screech owl. They live in our neighborhood. We sometimes run silently on the balls of our feet a block or two, trying to catch them out.

It was on a visit in April 2003 that I fell in love with Austin. The heat was not yet oppressive. An old friend had a party at her little house in Clarksville, at which many very people drank beer and painted paper lanterns. The way they glowed, the way that voices carried with the music on the swampy air, it was exactly the Tennessee Williams-like atmosphere a romantic California writer would dream of. Shawled in warmth and color and a fine sheen, you could do anything, be anyone, talk to anyone.

In August 2005, I finally left Orange County and moved into my own little rental house across the street from a small plot of pecans owned by the Elizabeth Ney museum. I took Chloe on a walk to investigate it around 10 or 11 at night. As we neared the creek, a gentle quarterflash appeared. And then another. And another. Sulfuric yellow, flaring up and disappearing like a lit cigar. My first fireflies! (Outside of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which is where all my ideas of a southern night came from.) They never get old for me, ever.

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Our porch, the hammock, the fireflies, the cranky crow, the cicadas, the chirruping frogs, and the sound of a party nearby.

I will miss warm Austin nights so much, and how they hold you.

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Twenty left. Twenty loves.

Twenty days left in Austin. Twenty things I will miss. One a day.

That Sky. You know the one.

The one that comes between thunderstorms, a phalanx of clouds marching across an endless blue.

Dat sky.

Dat sky.

And the shapes! So many shapes you almost can’t drive safely. One time, a dragon-fish thing followed me and Nat all the way to Kerrville.

texasdragoncloud

If the Pacific Ocean is what I dream of when I am too long between visits back home, the Texas sky will be what I’m thinking of when in New York I suddenly stare off into space. There is nothing so formidable, so inspiring, so unrelenting as this sky. California’s smog makes for the most showy sunsets, but the thunderstorms here inspire religion.

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I’d Incentivize You To Watch Your Language

Some colleagues were in a snit over the use of the word “incentivize” — namely the approach of augmenting a noun to make it a verb. Following is my response, because I’d love to discuss this like a  spittle-chinned nerd with any of you who are willing:

I know it’s tempting to reject new words, but all words were — at some point– new.

To say I’m surprised to hear myself say that is an understatement, since a literary background and penchant for vintage snobbery gave me this extremist, anti-modernist view of language. In other words: until recently I was convinced we were all in the handbasket to linguistic hell. But I’ve been following a lot of very compelling arguments that not only favor a more sympathetic approach to how language is changing, but offer this: what are you going to do about it anyway?

Language has always been changing, and the masses (and those who write for them, help us all) have been perhaps the single most influential in that. Once upon a time, Chaucer was lambasted by the intelligentsia for using a “vulgar” hybrid of filthy street lingo, Latin, and French to create Middle English. Which, by today’s standards, even highly intelligent, well-read people would find inscrutable. (I’m still not ready to apply this populist approach to letting the grammar slaughter so rampant on the internet inform grammar at large — we all have our limits.)

But to verb-ize a noun is hardly a new thing, nor one limited to business-speak. Ever “map” out a plan? That was once strictly a noun. “Friend” someone on Facebook? Try wrenching that from modern usage.

I think the real problem with “incentivize” is its ugliness, its lack of poetry, of imagery. If you want to elicit a response from your reader, you’ll need words with verve and gusto, with sound and color. I’d look past the laziness responsible for “incentivize” — that laziness is endemic to human speech, anyway (in a more forgiving mood, I call it “convenience”). Instead, I’d ask why we are so afraid of a human, emotional response in our corporate vernacular.

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Out on the tiles

Dear You,

 

I have to tell you something because it’s killing me. Which they tell you in school (and for the rest of your life when you are tuned to that frequency of receiving advice from the great writers of our planet) is the only reason for writing anything:

I’m on the kitchen floor, a wilted cliche in an apron. A Bourbon on my right and a roasting chicken on my left. I can’t stand up because I just can’t bear it. Not the act of it, but being that high off the ground. Do you know what I mean?

Here’s a story if you don’t:

I moved a pillow off my mother’s bed and found her arm hanging there. She was underneath it and I knew that without having to look and instead I yelled at it and then hordes of people were suddenly there, trying to do things to her and to me and I swatted them away and told them to do the sensible thing for chrissakes and call 911. Sensible: call 911 for a dead woman.

Anyway.

Once that piece of business was out of the way, it was safe to let go, so I went to the floor. My very well-meaning boyfriend put his elbows under my armpits and tried to lift me, a dumbwaiter to a deadweight. He grasped me and held me and I pummeled his arms and begged him to let me go. Let me go to the floor.

Many details have vaporized these last 8 years, a panic-inducing phenomenon that I spend a large chunk of my time fighting. Remind me to tell you about how I spent 2 very adrenaline-fueled days ordering the coroner’s report for this section of the memoir, only to receive it and realize what I held in my hands was something I had no right to inflict upon myself as a human being and daughter. What I wouldn’t do to have one of those conditions like Marilu Henner has, who can remember every day of her life; can recall it on command. (It’s true, it was on Oprah.)

But one of these details that occurs to me now as I sit here is that my actual words were: Let me fall. Let me fall, I begged him.

There’s a big difference. I’m on this floor right now because I cannot write. I cannot write and I cannot not write, so I’m going to sit here until my chicken is done and cry about it. And when I’m done crying, I’m going to face some very difficult truths about why I’m not writing.

I wish the answer were as simple as: it’s very difficult material. Life has been difficult, for as long as I can remember. It’s time to enjoy myself, after all. I have brilliant, generous friends, unconditional love from a good husband, a job writing things (nevermind what), and coworkers who crack me up.
 After all, why would I want to revisit that stuff instead of having a good time, for a change?

But that’s not it, sadly. I could manage it if it were. In fact, what it is is this: I have to tell this story in the best way anyone has ever seen, or there will be no redemption for dying. In lieu of heaven, I believe in art. In lieu of an afterlife, there is the legacy I will leave behind in a body of work. So if I don’t get it right, I will die and disappear forever. And so will she.

So I’m not writing. Because, fuck. The stakes.

 

That’s something else they drill into you in school: the stakes must be high. In every story, what are the stakes? Not high enough. Make them higher.

 

These stakes are high enough, fuckers. I wish I could get your voices out of my head. Maybe then I could get up off this floor.

 

Chicken’s done.

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A Funny Then Angry Then Funny Again, Hopefully Poignant and Stirring Essay About Being a Woman in America Right Now

In 1997 I was enrolled as a theater student in a small college’s somewhat prestigious program. The buildings were from the ’40s and so all had wonderful booming acoustics and peeling linoleum, and a slightly geriatric smell that lent our studies a proper academic gravity. It is this smell I recall now when I think back on this moment, a moment that has burned me up for close to 15 years. My anger—at the creep, at myself for not confronting him, at Teeth for allowing it to happen—double, double toils and troubles inside of me, bubbling over two more times in my life. I’ll get to them in a moment.

In the morning’s movement class, we learned stage combat from an accomplished pro, a guy with a square jaw and comically perfect teeth (Teeth) who worked weekends at Knott’s Berry Farm doing the stunt show, and still shows up every now and then in the fight scene of a movie I’m watching. But movement is about so much more than visual tricks—it’s about inhabiting a character, bringing it to life through skillful manipulation of your posture, your walk, your center of gravity. Richard III, of course, is crippled and perpetually in pain, his arm pulled in and a spine curved into a protective hump, giving him a cowardice and cruelty that will impart itself also in his voice. The class exercises looked like great fun to an outsider, but they were constructed to train us to view body and voice as one instrument—push one button and the noise is different.

We were in the smaller of two theaters, a homey structure across the street from the main campus. The exercise that day was “Sculpture,” where half the small class was cast as sculptors and the other half as silent, malleable clay. My partner was a fellow who’d joined the theater program just that semester, a mousy, slightly older guy whom we all thought of as creepy for the way he squinted from behind his glasses and had the rigid movements and speech of a scientist. We placed bets on why he was roving around a theater department full of 19-year-olds: pedophile trying to do better, idiot, bucket-lister with a terminal illness. He bragged about completing the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in L.A., which is like bragging that you went to Starbucks U. And given his skills, we mused that old Stella must be auditioning students solely on ability to pay.

That’s the other thing: this guy had money—compared with us young struggling actors, anyway. He was rumored to have been paid pretty handsomely to do some kind of consulting for TV shows like “ER.” He promised us all he’d arrange a trip to a real set, crow about how he knew Ron Howard, and would wear the ball cap from a movie he was supposedly involved with (“Bruce Willis is starring”). Even though he was creepy, he was assigned to be my sculptor for this exercise, and I was a Serious Actress. Wiping my mind clean, I let this man put his hands on me, trusting in the spirit of theater to bring nobility and decency to the world.

Seven of us were being formed by another seven sculptor classmates, under the watchful eye of Teeth, who crossed his arms and strolled between our pairs. At first, everything was fine: the creep gently pushed on my shoulders, indicating I should go down on my knees. I kept my face blank and my eyes closed, as ordered. Then he pushed on my back, pulling my arms out to support me so I was on all fours. I was concerned about where this was heading, but still trusting in the exercise, when he bent my elbows so I was now crouched on the stage floor with my ass high up in the air, my right cheek resting on the floor. The stance was active, not passive, meaning I was still supporting myself with my forearms. As everyone finished positioning their partners, Teeth said, “Sculptures, when you open your eyes, I want you to make a face that matches the position of your body.”

I was bamboozled! I’d been had! There was only one face I could make in this pose, and that asshole knew it. Both those assholes knew it. The only reasonable face to match this pose—this active, ass-in-air-face-on-ground pose—was to look like I was in the throes of sexual ecstasy, a humiliating cherry on an insulting cake. I didn’t see the theatrical merit in this position at all. In what play would you be seeing the actress’s rump thrust into the air like this, Uncle Bleeding Vanya? Does Lady MacBeth seduce her husband into committing murder most foul by jutting her arse to the rafters and commanding him wordlessly to have a go?

That’s not even the most outrageous part. This is: right before I was to open my eyes and freeze in my chosen face, with half the class watching (including my then-boyfriend), the creep—not the teacher, the creep!—made a big blowsy point of lecturing me, “Now remember, you’re acting, so you have to commit to this.”

I wanted to leap up and rip his throat out. You? Mr. Stella Fucking Adler, are going to lecture me about acting, you creepy slime, you name-dropper with halitosis and flat, embarrassing line deliveries? I was Nina in “The Seagull” on this very stage! I cried real tears during my final monologue!

The fact is, I would have done anything for theater. It was my Destiny. I wanted to be an actress since I was five. I clung to the dream through a tough childhood. I was showing a talent for it too, which committed me even further to the humble study of it—as humble as any 21-year-old actress can be. I obeyed every order from directors, executed each command with as much dedication and integrity as was possible. I wanted more than anything in the world to go from here to Yale, USD, Louisville, Juilliard. But it wasn’t even that the creep questioned my devotion to acting that enraged me most; it was the taunting way he acknowledged that he had put me in a sexually degrading position, and that I couldn’t do anything about it.

——

A few days ago, piggish radio clown Rush Limbaugh went down in infamy (again) by calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke  a “slut” for testifying before Congress against the Fortenberry, Rubio and Blunt legislation “that would allow even more employers and institutions to refuse contraception coverage, and then respond that the nonprofit clinics should step up to take care of the resulting medical crisis; particularly when so many legislators are attempting to defund those very same clinics.” That’s not all—he demanded she release sex tapes, compared covering women’s contraception to sharia law, and went on to slander her and her fellow female students over 53 times in three days. So here I am, quaking with this old familiar rage again. In November, the New Yorker published a piece about Planned Parenthood’s early plight, about how women associated with it were arrested, humiliated, beaten. About how a woman even daring to talk about contraception was outcast and scandalized. In 1916, people. That we are still having this conversation 100 years later, when 99% of American women are using contraception, is troubling enough, but the tacit complicity of America in the subjugation of women—the derailment by conservatives, both female and male, of any policy that establishes our sovereignty over our own bodies, including coining the term “feminazi” to describe any woman concerned with women’s rights and health matters—is appalling. Never mind that boner-inducing Viagra is defended by these same blokes as a “legitimate medical condition,” whereas the Pill, which can prevent ovarian cysts and treat PMDD, acne, and a slew of other debilitating symptoms of hormone imbalances, is derided as a sex aide. As the bumper sticker goes: If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention.

                              Sluts, 1916.

Exactly ten years after the Sculpture incident, I was studying writing at grad school in North Carolina. It was a low-residency program, meaning you could live anywhere and just needed to show up for one week twice a year. We were all—professors and students—in the hotel bar after a day of seminars, workshops, and readings. We were sharing the bar, it seemed, with a clutch of Midwestern salesmen on some corporate mission to bring stupidity and tackiness to whatever room they inhabited. An important note about my state: my mother had just been murdered about two years before, by her boyfriend. I was the one who found her body. As I sat in the hotel bar on this night, I was waiting to go to trial, which would involve leaving my home and job, boyfriend and dog for a month to go back to California. Each week I was told to pack and give notice at work, only to have it postponed at the last second. This happened off and on for about a year. I was having recurring nightmares about being trapped in that darkened bedroom alone with her blood, her spirit angry and unsettled in there with me. This was my state when a chubby middle-aged man in Dockers grabbed my ass.

He did it in front of his friends, like a show. My people didn’t see it—they were on the other side of the bar. What ensued has been better and more comprehensively discussed in an essay called “We Hit People,” published here by Prime Number Magazine. After the fight was over and he’d been sort of reluctantly ushered out of the bar, I crawled off to cry in the lap of a female novelist I was terribly intimidated by, but who would be fully aware of how terrible the world is for women. I let go. I  ranted through my tears that it wasn’t fair that men felt they could put their hands on us, bend us to their will, and kill us if we didn’t submit. I cried that I was taught to be proud of America and its freedom, but that the system is designed to make you feel ashamed if you don’t fall in line, that even my well-intentioned male friends patently accept the paradigm and sneer at me for not being satisfied with my “equality.” These are the same men who have said things like “affirmative action is reverse racism” and “I protect Rush’s right to free speech, no matter what he says.”

The ideology behind both sentiments may be pure (I prefer “precious,” like my college boyfriend’s stoned political posturings), but the sentiments themselves, bereft of context, are as irresponsible as they are useless. Free speech isn’t what’s at stake here—it’s society’s support of, through compensation and consumption, violent and hateful messages about women. About anyone: Jews, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants. As Sir Thomas More suggests in “A Man For All Seasons,” when we remove every barricade from our right to do and say as we please, who can stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

If that troubles you still, you could look to Howard Zinn’s trope that you can’t be neutral on a moving train. As for me, I walk with my keys positioned so I can jab them in the eyes of an attacker. 1 in 3 of us will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. That train’s not just moving; it’s hurtling down a mountain.

——-

The creep on the stage that morning had the right to do as he pleased with me—and he exercised it in a bit of a vicious, unkind way. He did not do it for the theater, or even to test my resolve or ability as an actress; his unnecessary, hectoring lecture made that clear. His intention was to prove he had power over me in that moment, that no matter what my feelings were, I had to obey, even though the only plausible face I could make to go with such a pose was a perverted mask, something beneath any actor, even one from Stella Adler.

My mind raced through the alternatives in the seconds before opening my eyes: I could feign a grotesque death, having dropped from my hanging rope with a broken neck; I could be listening with mild concern for an oncoming train. But his pious little lecture—Now remember—let me know that he fully expected me to endure an uncomfortable moment. Just take it. So when the moment came to freeze in position with our faces, I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue, my mouth open in a cartoonish grin. My classmates giggled and shook their heads. Teeth looked disappointed. Then, to really drive it home, I loudly moaned “Errrrrrr!” like I was severely retarded. He’d made a mockery of the exercise, of my commitment, and so I mocked him right back. “Errrrrr!” I continued, trying to work up some drool.

The creep wrung his hands and slunk back. I can see his distress now, possibly aggrandized by the selectivity of memory. But in my head, that’s how it goes: I refused to be bullied into being a good little girl. You can tell me to shush, to accept things as they are, to not fight back, to love unfettered free speech and to just endure what is being said about me and about women, no matter its effect on society or on the policies that affect women’s lives.

But I will simply reply: Errrrrr.

"Don't SCREW with me, Burt!"

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