Wednesday, October 29, 2014

the land of the remembered

This post is for my ancestors. The Day of The Dead is coming up, and Finn and I just saw/fell in love with The Book of Life, the animated film out now that Guillermo del Toro produced. (See it. It's so pretty to look at, and it's a charming story, too.) The main character makes a trip somewhere called The Land of The Remembered, where all his ancestors live, and it gave me a straight case of ancestor envy. I want mine all assembled and accessible and kickass, playing on my team like his were. I'm jealous of a cartoon.  

My knowledge of my ancestors is sketchy. On my dad’s side there was a seven-foot-tall guy, who blew all the height for the rest of us, apparently. We had some name brand members of the team here and there. There were some Habsburgs. A Chinese princess, descended from Confucius. I had a great-great-aunt, Tanta Bette, who was a gorgeous, 1/4 Chinese lesbian who dressed in spiffy men’s suits all her life. (What a baller! She’s my favorite ancestor.) There was the line of clairvoyant women, too, leading up to my great-grandmother and grandmother. And on my mom’s side, I have no idea. They didn’t keep a record, and my mom’s dad left when she was a baby and walked for all intents and purposes off the face of the earth, so it’s just a big Finnish fog all the way back. Sorry, mom. I wish I could romanticize them all but I don't have anything to work with. 

I love the idea of some ethereal council of people going back through time who are invested in what I'm doing down here, who are rooting for me, their representative on the field of the living. I like to imagine my team of ancestors floating around, whispering strategy and encouragement in my ear, cheering and high-fiving each other when I nail something important. 

And it both delights me and creeps me out to think of everything I have running around in my DNA. There are probably some gems in there, but there's also surely some dark/weak/pitiful stuff in the mix, too.

Mixed feelings are what I have when I  think about my actual, own ancestors. I have conflicted feelings about family, considering the abuse in my past, so a part of me wants to flip the bird all the way through the centuries and up the family line, right to whatever motherfucker originated this shitty abuse heirloom we’ve been passing down, and to everybody who perpetuated it along the way. In some ways I'd prefer to cut all ties and start over. Independent line. I’m Eve, Dave’s Adam, and that’s that. 

But I crave team and tribe, too. I crave the connection, the sureness of a blood tie. It’s hard down here on the planet. It gets kind of lonely, even for a person who lives in a house with five other people like I do. I like the idea of a lot of people who are required to gather around the fire with me. I kind of want my ancestors on board. 

Then again, would I like them? Would they like me? And why am I talking about them like they're one immoveable mass instead of a bunch of individuals? 

I'm going to zero in on one of them. I have a transcript of a recording made nearly fifty years ago of my great-grandmother, Melanie, telling my then-infant brother David about her life growing up in the Dutch East Indies, and I'm going to reprint some chunks of it here. 

By all accounts, Oma—that's what everybody called her, the Dutch version of Nana—was a peach, ten times sweeter and softer than her daughter, my grandmother, whom I've bitched about here enough already. I feel sorry I missed out on her. Apparently her sweetness was literal, too; the lady put sugar on everything she consumed. Pizza, french fries. Something like six teaspoons in every cup of tea or coffee. She grew up on a sugar plantation, which looks like it sank in. 

So here we go. I'm going to put Oma on the line. Get the scratchy hum of old audiotape going in your head, and imagine the softest, pudding-i-est, thickest Dutch accent you can muster, treble and sweet as all that sugar. I wish you could hear her voice, but you'll just have to enjoy her adorable English in print. Some of it won't make sense, language-wise, and some of it is a little shocking to modern sensibilities—she talks about growing up with servants, who were the descendants of slaves, and that just feels upsetting and creepy. But there it was. On the whole I'm charmed senseless by Oma in this transcript, and I want you to meet her. 


Here, she's talking about the estate where she grew up. Oh, also, warning: I'm going to interject sometimes. 

[press play]

The estate, called Nanggoeng, was a house with twenty bedrooms. The whole floor was from marble and the whole house was made of stone. It was an old house belonging -- I know my great-grandmother had lived there. So it was three generations later that I lived there with my parents. 

I remember as a small girl I was often afraid because I thought it was a spooky house. I couldn’t explain why in that time, but I was always afraid to go into the right wing. The right wing was so funny-feeling that I always thought about spooks. And especially a very small bathroom. We all of us got the creeps if we went there or had to take a bath there. And the lavatories were in the same place. It was very gruesome to go there. In the night, with a light, we never went alone. We took a maid with us. So afraid we were.  Even if I was a bigger girl, I would never go there alone. The maid had to sit outside because I was sure I was seeing things in there.

[I had a dream about this house once when I was on a bunch of Vicodin after a surgery, and it was creeeeepy as fuuuck. Vicodin dreams are the worst. Okay, Oma, go on.]

My sisters and I saw a man with a very big pick. [A very big PICK. PICK.] And we thought it was a real man and he ran after my sister and all the time he was running nearer. And then, then he went down the stairs and the man disappeared in that small bathroom. There was no – nothing there – there was only one door and a very small window. But he disappeared there. And we looked at each other, not understanding where he had gone to. Such things often happened there.  

So it was a very old house.

As children, we loved it. We had lots of servants. And these servants were children of night children of slaves. So they loved us very much. [Sure, that follows.] And we were trusted to them because they would not hurt a hair of our head. And we had lots of maids too who looked over us and who looked after the rooms. We had roommates and we had all of us as children, several maids who looked after us. I slept in a room with John Paul, as my children called her. Pau Chu. She was a lovely one and we looked at her just—I looked at her just as my mother.

In these early years I remember simple things. We’re all walking in the forest, walking on the street. We had every day to take a walk. And we liked it. Everyone was greeting us and everyone was always talking to us because my family was so long in these countries that they knew everyone, some, at least - everyone was - the older people.

And so we had a grandfather, my father’s father who was an old gentleman. Very huge; 6 foot 6 he was. [Oh, maybe my seven foot ancestor was actually this 6 foot 6 guy. Pardon the tall tale. I DID NOT MEAN THAT AS A PUN.] He was tall, clean-shaven with a mustache.  And he was very – to us he was a very nice man. When he came there in Djamboe -- that was the next estate-- he always played with us cards.  And he gave – he let us win and he paid us for every winning – one guilder. If you can imagine that when -- when we were ready to go we would at least gathered 20 guilders. And that was our present.

He came there at least 3 or 4 times a year. Then on the fifth gathering the whole family was there, about 40 or 50 van Motmans. And we all sat at the big table.

And then what I always disliked very much, he killed the cow of a - a young cow.  And that was always hanged before the bathroom and I always hated the sight of that. But, we had to eat it. I didn’t like meat and we had to -- because that was our duty to eat meat. To eat meat and drink wine every night. The wine especially I disliked because I thought it was a sour taste.  But we had to.  It was sad but very good for the health.

I was a very bad people [I WAS A VERY BAD PEOPLE. Oh, my heart] and so I had to sit at the table at our house just opposite my father so that he could see what I am.  [So he could see that you were a very bad people? This doesn't sound good.] And certain times I had tears in my eyes because I couldn’t eat the food they gave me. Especially if you saw the chickens being killed. In such a place you saw everything because they; the servants didn’t care what we saw. And then we went everywhere and sometime I saw the chickens being killed. And then I didn’t want to eat the chickens but we had to. So that was very – The bad thing; I never liked meat – never.  

But otherwise all our lives, when we were older, at least I was older; I was eight, nine, ten years – it was different. We went -- everyday it was a free life and my father always taught that we had to learn to be independent. So when we went to the hills – on our own estate it was 13,000 bowls big [13,000 bowls big, you say. Mixing bowls? Finger bowls? We need more information] and we had -- in the hills we had tea; a tea plantation. And we went there and there we go I and my sisters walked alone in a very huge forest with big trees. And one of the servants who was a good shot went with us. That was an exciting -- because there were rhinoceros; I don’t know if I pronounced that word very well [IT WAS ADORABLE, TRUST ME] -- and wild cows and they were very big.

Once I remember that the servants said “Here and not farther”. And my other sister Bette wanted to go much farther.  But we said, “No, here and not farther” because here are fresh prints of a whole bunch of cows and if we met them that would be the end of us because we couldn’t; I couldn’t shoot altogether.  So we went back. 

So this rhinoceros – we saw a fresh print of rhinoceros; we went on. [Cow? Rhinoceros? What's happening?] And then we gave all the stories to them if ever we met one. [What???] Well we never met one. But still it was a dangerous business to go on. But my sister Bette wanted always to go to the limit. [Tanta Bette!] And then we turned back. And sometimes we heard the noise of the rhinoceros roaming about the forest. The forest was very dark because the trees were huge and very thick so not much sunlight came in. And we went home then, very satisfied that we had so many adventures every time we went in that forest. But my father thought it was very good experience.

Even we went for a long walk.  [Even we went for a...? Never mind, go on.] And then sometimes there was no servant who could shoot. And if it was about six—no, 4:00 in the afternoon [4:00's better, totally.]—we sometimes saw a panther far below us. And then we’d get very quiet looking at the panther -- but very careful he didn’t see us. And then we had that – that we saw a panther in the garden. And we went back, not very afraid.

It was always in that house in the hills; it was all from planks; made of planks. We were always very happy the panthers were under the house in the night looking for our dogs. [Why? Why was this good? I'm confused.] And there was -- The lavatory was outside and before the lavatory was a huge amount of good root. And there behind the curtain there were the panthers at 8:00.  [First it was 4:00, then it was 6:00, now it's 8:00. Once and for all, what time was Panther Time?] They’d always be there watching for our dogs. We had 13 tenders [?] and they were not afraid for them [The tenders weren't afraid? The panthers weren't afraid of the tenders? Or *for* them? Are tenders puppies?] and they heard them bark. So they were always there to see if perhaps they couldn’t get one dog out.

And we had to go to the lavatory with a lantern. And I can tell you how we shivered to go there. Every night at 8:00 before going to bed, we went to the lavatory with our maid. And she was as afraid as we. And some time we saw the eyes glowing in the dark. But we learned not to be afraid. That was one thing we learned, never to be afraid.

I remember one time I was older; we went all with a bunch of visitors and my father and my mother to the forest. And then all the dogs were barking and barking like mad. And then we heard a rhinoceros making all the noise he could at the dogs. And my father said, “Let me go on.” And he went on and saw how he uprooted a big tree and was sleeping there when the dogs awoke him and he was loose in the forest.  And then you know the ladies who were there were very frightened. And instead of praying hymns, they sang the national anthem, several of them. And that made me as a child wonder why did they sing the anthem instead of praying?

So we went away all singing all the time too until we were far enough that we didn’t hear much noise of the rhino. But -- when we came home the rhino was near on the end of the forest still making that noise. And our dogs were nowhere to be found; they still were in the forest. They came later on home, unhurt; that was a good thing. But that is a piece of attitude I never forget. [That is a piece of attitude I will never forget, either.]

Let me just say that it's a whole bunch more panther and leopard and rhino stories coming up here. The animals come nearby and everyone is on alert and pulls out their guns but then nothing gets shot and everything's okay. I'm going to skip the rest of the character-building close calls with wild animals and then I'm not going to interrupt any more. Respect. In this last stretch, we hear about herbal remedies, batik-making and the benefits of clairvoyance. Oma, you have the floor until the end. 

My ancestor, everybody, a real one, talking. 

[fast forward]

In that house, the panthers were always in the night under the house.  And we were living – not in the had building of the house. The house was all one with bamboo floors. But we were living a little bit in apart building. So if we had to go in the house it was impossible because there were always panthers there. That was where I grew up as a child. It was all wonderful experience because you never forget it. And you are not afraid now. That was the great thing.

It was a lovely life. It was a life; we had -- full of adventures, full of real things. Living in the forest, in the big forest, near the big forest; going there all alone in nature. It was such a silence in that wood. So full of silence that sometimes you wonder that you were alone there.  Even with other people, it was very, very lonely. All the trees close up together and without, nearly without the path. So that was my life in this time.

We were a family that hung together as a clan. Then we all, when my grandfather died, before that even, we split out. Everyone was going his own life. But that was my early youth till I was 16 years old; we lived in a family clan with all the other families together. We were very close.

My mother was interested in the people and she knew all herbs. And she often cured the people; they came to her and she cured the people from all kinds of illnesses. We were very far from a doctor and so she had to cure the people. Us too; when we were ill she cured the people. She had to when we were ill. She knew all these herbs and she worked very much with herbs. She learned; Even she worked very much with the doctor in agriculture and showed him all the -- what kind of herbs to use for several illnesses. It was very clever in that.
And so she cured lots of people and she learned to batik, make batik work. And she learned weaving, weaving. Is it word? And she made her own beautiful weavings: woven things from gold work, from cotton. She even learned to color them; color the cottons that she used that she got to her dreams. She had -- from bark, from bark of trees, from herbs, from plants, from trees that she could. She always made her own coloring; all kinds of coloring. Fast colors – they never discolored. She learned to – She had a very busy life.  She loved to learn. She learned the people to weave and she was all in it. She could make everything from gold, silver to ordinary cotton; old patterns; old patterns of the country; She all teached them. So she was very useful in her life – especially in herbs. She knew poisons anti-poison. 

David, I know you know you are very small baby. But maybe when you are older, you can hear my voice when I am not long here. You know, we, my, we are from a very funny family, let me say. My father’s family came from Belgium – Dutch --was then Dutch. Austria; he was from then Austria, yes, it is true. But they were so quite different. They were very strong willed person; with a strong will and strong characters, all of them. They could do things that other people thought was too self-willed.
My father for instance, when he had cancer, he could master the pain to some extent through his will and all people admired him. Only when he couldn’t stand it longer he asked for an injection to kill the pain. But so long as he could stand it, he had the will-power always to seem peaceful. He couldn’t talk more but he wrote everything down.
And as we van Motmans could - we knew our death coming for the family. My father wrote me a letter that he was dying on Wednesday or Thursday. When I got that letter, by accident late, on Tuesday I went straight and I had to travel two days. And on Wednesday, on Thursday night I came just in time to his bedside and he waited for me. And then that same night, he died. He knew he was dying a week before. He asked my mother, which would the better be – Wednesday or Thursday? And my mother said, “Both days.” And so he chose.  Because I couldn’t be there on Wednesday, he chose Thursday to die. Thursday night he died.
My uncle -- my brother – It was a very queer thing. My mother -- my brother said in the office, “That is my last time I go to the office,” ten days before he died, “so I’m going to take -- all my papers must be in order. I have flu and I will die. I will not live.” And he went -- I didn’t know but the man told me later, when I was there several times, he said to me, I am not dying now. I will go to the hospital when I think it is right. Then on Thursday night he said, “Bring me tomorrow to the hospital.” And he went to the hospital and he said, “Friday I will go.” And he went on Friday.
My uncle said to my father, “Don’t come now. Friday a week I will die” and on Friday a week, he died.
My grandfather said, “At 5:00, not earlier.” And the clock was 5 and he died.
And my sister said when she died, here in Ojai, she said, “The angels will come for me tomorrow. Tomorrow morning they will come for me.” And she died between 3 and 4. So they knew before. It was a special thing of the family; they knew before they died.
My mother’s family; she came from a very old Dutch family with occult powers. She was clairvoyant and her whole family, David, was clairvoyant. Not one – her whole family- all of them were clairvoyant– not one of them was not. I was astonished even from people.
It was my cousin, she is my cousin. I didn’t know that she had the ability of clairvoyance. But she told me how -- that in the present generation even she knew how to manage her business because her father told her in her dreams what to do. And so she saved her money through the war because she acted as he wanted in her dreams. And she had funny things – she knew. The whole family from that side of my mother and my mother, all were in a way clairvoyant.
My mother was very clairvoyant. My grandmother was real – she knew what she was doing in occult things. I know that. But I will not go into it. And uh, then my children; my sisters were sensitive. And my brother was also very sensitive. We all were. Dora, your grandmother is clairvoyant. And so it goes down. Not all of them in this generation knows; or are clever, but some are very clairvoyant still and have the ability to become it, what is more.
I hope David, that in later years, you too will see, because it is so important to be able to see another world. It makes you so different, David, very different in your point of view of life; of seeing things, of knowing things. You can understand other people much better so as your grandmother did and we all do. It is so much more clear to know, not only the other world but to get a point of view detached of others, of other points of view -- the ordinary one.  Because you know more, you see more, you understand more. And you love other people more because you don’t see other people in the habits that they form. But that -- what comes through -- through the ego. That counts, what comes through, not the thoughts of people but that -- what comes through – that is you; that is he; that is she. And that is the most important.
So you can help people because you know them. And they are – not this little personality; that doesn’t count. They are only shells. But the real person is That, his spiritual way of looking at life, of thinking, of feeling. That is the real person and that counts. Our loving doesn’t matter much but that is the real person. That person who lives and everybody has that more or less.
Is that okay? [End of tape] 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

it's the moon, stupid

I've been reading the book 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children and Theater, by the playwright Sarah Ruhl, which is tormenting and delighting me in equal doses. (Get it and read it.) They're teeny but powerful, these essaylets, and it's a brilliant conceit. Pop it out there. Whatever you have is enough, particularly when you're Sarah Ruhl. That's the heart of an essay, anyway, a raised question. The question doesn't have to get answered. You just try for a while.

So Ruhl's essays are primarily about theater but not at all only about theater. They're about life and art and children and yeah, mostly about theater. They're like all these surprising bites arranged on a tasting spoon by a master chef, and you pop one in and it's wonderful but then it's gone and you're left with the question running around in your system and it's only just started to get explored, and so your brain takes over chewing on it—which would be fine if it were one, or three, or five. But there are a hundred of them, so easy to gobble, and even though you can swallow them all very quickly you can't digest them quickly, so you get—I get, I got, I have—this hot kind of indigestion of the brain now.

The first time I ate a whole steak (I was raised as a vegetarian, and even after I began eating meat, I couldn't handle a whole whopping unadulterated hunk of it, so I didn't try for years) I sat on the floor afterwards watching a movie, and my body was very subtly bouncing up and down, bouncing, because my digestive system was going berserk trying to work out how to break it down.

I feel that way now. I feel bouncy, because her essays make me excited, and they make me want to do something, though I'm not sure what. And I feel agitated because a good essay, and maybe all art, drags you over to the ineffable and sticks your head in it for a while, like getting a reverse swirly* where your head is shoved up into the cosmos and it all spins around and you can't quite breathe or catch everything, and also, unlike a regular swirly, you're up somewhere wonderful where you'd like to stay.

*It's been brought to my attention that not everyone knows what a swirly is. It's when somebody sticks your head in a toilet and flushes it. Voila. 

The ineffable has something we need, an oxygen we don't get when we're treading where we can understand everything and talk about it in words.

Dizzy, nourished, excited, impotent: that's how I'm feeling. Sarah Ruhl has me thinking so hard I can't think straight.

Back when I was an actor, I took a clown class, and our teacher taught us about something called the bid (pronounced "bead"), which was an ineffable little motherfucker you'd be searching for on stage as you improvised. It was something like a thread, a rope, the thing you'd find that the rest of the improvisation could follow home. It was a premise, a direction, an action, something solid and good and worth improvising about. Something funny, also, too, because clown class. And if you found it, you were golden. You couldn't fail. You just had to do the great thing you were doing and let it lead you to a conclusion.

I'm looking for the bid here, what Sarah Ruhl's book is making me want to tell you.

I'm going to hit you with three excerpts in a row from the book now.

From “Wabi-sabi”:

Sometimes it seems to me that the whole world is becoming an airport, with more and more glass, with fewer smells to distinguish one place from another, and with nowhere quiet to sit in the dark, or sleep. And yet, of course, the theater is one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.

From “People in plays”:

The first choice any playwright must make is whether to people the play with people, as opposed to puppets, gods, voices, or inanimate objects—teacups, eggs, spoons. Mostly, this all-important choice goes unremarked on, as it is by and large assumed that plays will have people. I suppose the choice goes unwrestled with because actors will be in our plays and we assume that actors would prefer to play people rather than stones or snails. But this is not always the case.


And so it might be worth going back to the first principles once in a while and wondering, sitting before the blank page, if one wants to people one’s play with people…or with devils, fairies, furies and stones.

From “Dogs and children on stage”:

Recently, my daughter Hope was asking who works. “Do grandmas work? Do grandpas work?” “Sometimes,” I said. Then I asked her, “Do little kids work?” “No,” she said, “they play.”  Then she laughed and said, “Do dogs work, Mama?” “No,” I said, “dogs don’t work.”

And it got me thinking about that old adage: never put dogs or children on a stage. A dog can’t act like a dog; a dog is a dog. Children can’t act like children; they are children. And therefore unpredictable. A dog doesn’t work; a dog plays.

Is the mimetic function, then, always a form of work? Is that why I find it refreshing to see dogs and horses and small children on stage? Because they are what they are and they are automatically in a state of play rather than in a state of work?

I love these.

I love a dark place where we gather together, awake. Nighttime, dreamtime, but we get to be together and remember all of it. A communal, lucid dream. Dreaming doesn't have to be so lonely after all!

And while we're dreaming, yes, why does it always have to be people? This thrills me because we forget how much agency we have across the board. We fall asleep, run on autopilot. We have a billion more choices each day than we begin to remember. Eggs! Stones*! Furies!

*I got to be in a reading of Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice at The Seattle Rep many years ago, and I played a character called Big Stone. And I got to meet her and have a beer with her, and now I'm retroactively more excited about that than ever.

And then the thing about children and animals, and work and play, that lit something in me. That quicksilver something on the loose—life force itself, maybe, before we've stiffened and clumsied it up, frozen it, ruined it—I can feel it when she describes it, hot and lively, and I feel sorry for myself that it doesn't drive my every move without interference. It would feel so good.

There's something at work play here that Sarah Ruhl is pointing to, something that wants to save us from ourselves, something revolutionary, I think. 

It made me think, for one thing, about corporate attire, and how funny it is that clothing that's shaped in these specific ways is meant to announce a certain type of human inside, powerful and serious. We all use clothing to signify something, but the rules of attire for business folk (and politicians) are so strict. There's something crazy about this. I wish I could say what made me laugh so much about it, but the arbitrariness of the sartorial rules and the self-importance of some of the people carrying them out and the planet-destroying lunacy of the decisions these crisply dressed motherfuckers make got to me. Here's a big man in a big suit! Big suit man. Where you going, big suit man? 

And it made me think about art, and artists, and the work of artists, which we don't think is serious. Look at these flibbertigibbets in their little berets, noodling around! But it's very serious. It keeps us awake, and if we don't stay awake, we'll almost certainly crash the planet into a ditch.  

That's the bid. That's the seed I was looking for, what aroused me in Ruhl's work. I was feeling wistful when I read her essays because I don't participate in the making of theater any more. I wanted to play! But then I thought about Zen teachers hitting their students with sticks at the right moment to bring them to satori, and I thought about what the Buddha said about how his teachings weren't the moon but just the finger pointing to the moon, and I felt better. Theater isn't the moon. Theater is a finger. 
Look! Look! We're alive! No, more alive! No, more than that! 

I don't have to make theater to ride this train. Thank goodness. The revolution that she's circling around—that unleashing of life force and awakeness—that's everybody's business. Thank god. Now I can stop trying to talk about it. Trying to talk about the ineffable is the goddamn worst. This was close enough. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Every morning when I drive Finn and Fred to their school, there’s a turn we take down into the valley that houses it where we get a great view of the Cascade Mountains. (The mountains aren’t there every morning. Sometimes clouds hide them. Or maybe they just leave.) Seven mornings out of ten, I’m going to say, it’s a thrill to see the mountain/sun/cloud layout of that particular day. Sometimes there’s no haze and the mountains are dark and ultra crisp at the edges. Some mornings there’s a bright veil of clouds and the range goes pale blue on us. If they’re visible, they always give off some kind of epic vibe, like they’re a stop on the road to Mordor or Valhalla, and if you could zoom in close you’d find a dragon walking along a ridge, or a wizard/hermit and a knight emerging from a cave together deep in conversation. Whatever story I subconsciously attach to the view feels personal, like someday I’m going to make it over there and be part of it all myself. 

When Dave was studying Social Ecology back at his university in Australia, he was taught that a child starts developing a real sense of place at around nine years of age. I find this entertaining since we moved from Port Chester, New York to Seattle just before I turned nine (we drove across country with a couple of cars and a moving van) and we landed in Seattle smack on my ninth birthday. Way to be on the nose, place.

We arrived in Seattle on a cloudy day, which is not hard to do here. Even though there had been plenty of overcast days in Port Chester, they didn’t seem as heavy as this one. The blanket of clouds was denser and darker than I was familiar with. I can’t say I was on board immediately, especially on my birthday. This was depressing. We were also moving to a neighborhood in Seattle called Lake City, which is depressing for real. Coming from the manicured, shipshape land of Westchester County, this mess of a place with its straggly lawns and chain link fences seemed like a long step down. My mom sighed and pursed her lips in the front seat as we got closer to our house, confirming it. But the merits of the place starting giving themselves up soon enough. 

Right on top of the list is the topography. Seattle’s all hills and water and mountains everywhere  around. The city nestles into the landscape, the landscape allows for nestling. I am a fan of nestling, let me say right away. I love to nestle. Maybe this comes from some ingrained sense of danger/mistrust in the world, but I like me a cozy nook, a place from which to hide and peer out, and Seattle hooks a sister up. There’s something so loving about a landscape that rises up around you. It seems less impassive than a flat place. It’s like being on a gigantic mommy’s lap. 

I google-imaged the Great Plains when I was thinking about this, just to confirm my feelings. Hot fucking dog, no way. All that flat, all that wide open, all that exposure. It gives me agoraphobia to contemplate it. I understand that you get open skies in trade, and hey, sky, sure. But surely we can agree that you’re far more vulnerable to stampeding hordes of invaders when you’re hanging out in plain view on a prairie. You’re fucked. They can see you from 500 miles away. There’s nowhere to hide. Also, all that sameness of topography makes me go insane from boredom. LOOK, LOOK AGAIN, WHAT DO YOU SEE, CORRECT, NOTHING, NOTHING AGAIN, NOTHING OVER HERE, OR OVER HERE, OR OVER HERE, FOREVER EVERYWHERE NEVER ANYTHING UNTIL THE GRAVE THE END GOODNIGHT. 

Back to Seattle. I love the complex, in-between-y light here. You get the mild brightness of a barely overcast day in spring or summer, like the sun’s wearing a little negligee. An optimistic light. And then you can get hot slashes of orange sunset underneath storm clouds in autumn or winter, which, bear with me, reminds me of a scene with Patricia Arquette in the movie True Romance. I don’t remember the scene perfectly but there’s a part where Patricia Arquette’s character is being terrorized by a bad guy in maybe a hotel room or an apartment or something. He’s relentless, and she’s bloodied up, but she’s a lionheart, a baller, and she keeps getting up and fighting back with this crazy ferocity. Like I say, I only saw it once, but her fierceness made me sob with the triumph of it all. Anyway, we get sky like that. I might be projecting a little, but whatever.  

So this is my place, which I’ll finish making out with a little later on in the post. But there are other places I’ve collected, and I want to give them shout-outs.

I’m thinking about Jasper National Park, up in the Canadian Rockies. It’s mine. (It belongs to lots of other people, too, and also of course to nobody, obviously.) I discovered it was mine when I was on tour with my old sketch comedy group, traveling from fringe festival to fringe festival. We stopped for lunch one day in a field with a few picnic benches, and I went off by myself for a while. I’d been going through a weird, sensitive time, and I was jumpy and frazzled on a regular basis. But this field was the exact medicine for my exact ailment. The Rockies loomed on all sides like big, jagged, black-and-white Orca whales, and the field was edged by wild rose bushes with intensely fragrant, deep pink blossoms. I lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky, which was blue-lavender with huge clouds easing across it, and the place hummed its deep bass cleanness right into my bones. Canada was so clean, and this felt like the cleanest bit. No doctor could have done better, no psychiatrist, no medicine man, nobody. This was all I needed.

Dave gave up his place to come and be with me here in my place, a sacrifice I never forget. (We settled here because I wanted my people near me while I was having babies, which he respected. He’s all right, that guy.) He hadn’t ever planned to leave Australia, he loved it so much, but whoops. Before we settled here, I went to be with Dave over there. I lived there with him for nine months, all told. 

For a sensitive lighting princess, the shock of Australia was something else. It’s so bright down there it might as well be a whole planet closer to the sun. We lived in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, which were also nothing like mountains I knew. They were flat, like tabletops. Our first shared house was in a little town called Leura, and it sounded like Jurassic Park every afternoon at five when the cockatoos got off work and took off shrieking through the valley, and the holy-fuck-where-am-I feeling peaked. 

 The bird life was berserk. Tiny parrots called rosellas wheeled through the neighborhood like red and green and blue painted airplanes. There were magpies, too, which are like crows in tuxedoes, whose flutelike morning warble broke down into plain old crow-squawk over the course of the day. And then there were the galahs. A galah is a hot pink and gray cockatoo, absurd and flamboyant like a Maira Kalman drawing, and spotting one was like running into a movie star. 

Then the insects. Omnipresent flies. You walk down the street and they land on you relentlessly. Everybody in Australia walks and flicks their arms in the same rhythm, shooing the flies away. And the spiders. The spiders. Dave warned me before I came about the white-tailed spider. If it bites you, the bite doesn’t heal but just keeps melting your flesh away forever. We had one in our house one night and Dave sent me into the bedroom while he faced off with the intruder in the living room. It felt like a tiny action movie. 

I loved Australia and being with Dave in his beloved place, but it never became mine, except for one little corner. Balmoral Beach in Sydney is mine. Dave’s dad was a landscape artist, and he let me pick a painting of his for Christmas when I met him. I chose a painting of Balmoral Beach,  not knowing at the time that my own grandparents had met a block away. Later, Dave proposed to me there. But it wasn’t just the sentimental value of the place that made it mine; it was just mine, like that field in Jasper. The beach there is small and tranquil, set into Sydney Harbor, and it has a very Seattle-ish cozy nook feeling. You can look out from there and see the entrance to the harbor from the Pacific Ocean, too, between two perfect-looking matching gateways of land mass. Cozy but also strategic. You can see invading ships the minute they enter the harbor. 

What else? Where else?

I’ve always wanted New York to be mine—the city, I mean—but it just isn’t. As much as I love it, I’m not built to withstand it. The overwhelming manmade-ness of the place sucks the life out of me, even if I’m crazy about what got made. I pee myself with happiness when I get to visit, spend as much time as I can there in literature and film, but overall I have to leave it to the New Yorkers. 

Culturally speaking, as well, I’m glad we got to Seattle in time for nine, for my sense of place to start digging in. In Westchester, everything was very pretty and just-so, a very suburban Mad Men kind of setting. Country club feelings. There was a whiff of social climbing in the air, a kind of covetousness and competitiveness. The right schools, the right religions, the right grades, the right clothes: so many marks to hit, none of which hit the real mark. Being different there was palpable. We were vegetarians, we were Theosophists—what was up with us? At best we were curiosities. I felt it as a kid, and as a teenager it would have squeezed me even harder. I was misdirected enough as a teenager in that self-imposed way, selling myself down the river to fit in. I didn’t need any more external cues to pile on. 

Better to come of age in the cloudy land of introverts and tinkerers and angst-y musicians, where nobody gives a shit what you’re doing because they’re busy doing their own thing. Lucky to land in a place where the natural world dominates the conversation. The greenery, the mountains every which way, it’s all instructive. You get reminded that you can aspire to something more real than climbing social and economic ladders. You can go to a literal mountain and climb up it, or you can go inward and see what you feel like doing with your own mind, see what comes naturally, fuck what the neighbors are doing.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

the mighty bouche

Bodies, damn it, are so loud and weird. Mine is popping off like fireworks all the time these days, and this raggedy self-portrait is trying to show you what's going on in and around my mouth and throat. You see the mouth sewn shut up there. This is a sensation I'm getting, say, half of every waking hour. Like my mouth is vacuumed, suctioned shut. (It's fucking annoying, in case you're wondering.)  (I went with stitches in this drawing because I couldn't figure out how to visually represent the glued-shut, suction feeling.) Apparently there are some things that a part of me would prefer I didn't say. That's my best guess about this phenomenon. Anyway, mouth, suction, THING, you have my attention. Now please find a way to explicitly get across what your problem is. 

Meanwhile, mouth. Mine, yours, ours, the. That's where we'll go today. 


Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.

So sayeth Mike Tyson.


It's the night of February 13th, 1984, and I've just let myself into the dark house. My parents are asleep. I leave the lights off and go straight to the dining room mirror. I have been kissing a boy, and now I must look at my mouth. Is it fuller? Does it look kissed? I'm forgetting that I've kissed at least four girls on the mouth at length as an experimental child, and that was only for starters. None of that counted, it would appear. The boy kiss is the first one, in my heart. There's nothing to see but I could stand here all night anyway. I say "bee-stung" in my mind repeatedly. I don't even take my coat off. 

Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables. His is the first and possibly the only on-screen mouth I was ever stirred by. Cruel, sensual mouth. He looks like he's always just bitten or is just about to bite someone. I think it would be satisfying to be bitten by Billy Drago, like having a knot massaged out that can't be got at any other way. Like he could bite right through some old unfinished business, chew it, swallow it, relieve me of it. 

Listen! Clam up your mouth and be silent like an oyster shell, for that tongue of yours is the enemy of the soul, my friend. 

-My main man, Jalaluddin Rumi

A friend of mine went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. Nobody talked, everybody just smiled and nodded and worked around each other. Then, one morning towards the end of the retreat, my friend went to pick up a couple of pieces of toast that were sitting next to the toaster. A guy came up behind him and broke the silence. "That's my toast."

When I was twelve, I got braces. Five years I had the fucking things. They stretched a metal bridge across my palate to stretch my jaw; we had to stick a tiny key in there every few days and crank it three times all the way around, which felt about as good as you might think it would. For my first year with braces, I unconsciously covered my mouth every time I laughed. My friends pointed it out to me, and I was amazed every time. I had no idea I was doing it.

MOUTH n. trap, chops, kisser, bazoo, mush, yap, 
beak, box, gob, clam, clam shells, clam trap, fish trap, fly 
trap, potato trap, kissing trap, talk trap, satchel mouth, 
funnel, dipper, gab, gap, jap, gash, gills, hatch, head, 
mug, box of dominoes

From the Random House Thesaurus of Twentieth Century Slang, 1988

I'm looking at mouth after mouth on the web. Mouths made of clay and stone and porcelain, mouths in paintings, photographs of mouths. Bare mouths, elaborately painted ones. Lord, what the mouth does. Lord, the responsibilities. Speech, nourishment. Eyes and ears and noses and hands, they're almost precious compared to the hot, corporeal gash of the mouth. Biting, chewing, sucking, yelling: you're in a body now, motherfucker. No way around it. I haven't forgotten the soft work of the mouth, by the way, all that sweet stuff: murmuring, singing, kissing, etc. But I'm more interested in the mouth at maximum today. 

There's a medieval painting of the mouth of hell. I mean, there you go. It's not a door, or an ear. The guy on the left is showing us an alternate route, right where his shorts aren't. 

In tenth grade, my friend Jennifer (this is a solid, identity-hiding code name for the 1980s) told me about a date she'd gone on with a senior. He convinced her to give him head in his car at the end of the date, and this was her first time. I was impressed with her bravery. A senior, in my eyes, was a grown man, and to orally grapple with the beast in a grown man's pants was inviting all hell to break loose—not morally, mind you, but physically, practically. Who knew what the fuck mayhem was going to land in your lap if you pulled that lever? 

That's still, for me, the ultimate exchange. Nothing is more up close—and potentially fraught—than that. Miraculous at best, degrading at worst. I'd love to go back in time and swoop the younger Tina out of a few situations, rescind that gift. That's an honor I'd like to retroactively set aside for the most truly deserving. Some of those fuckers got too lucky. I didn't know yet that my mouth is a temple. 

Even as I type this, there's a ruckus in my mouth, the thing I described up top. Pulling, thrumming, suction, tension. It's the epicenter of something, but what? Can't I get a printout explaining it all? Right out of my mouth, that'd be the ticket. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Paper unfurling down my chin. Dear Tina. This is what I'm trying to tell you. Whatever it is, I want to get it over with. Drop the knowledge on me, mouth. Or if you're trying to turn me inside out, which is how it feel sometimes, just fucking do it already. Enough with the suspense. Open sesame. 

P.S. I know I swore a lot in this post. Too bad. I have a mouth on me, and that's that. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

time capsule

Up there you see a twenty-one year old wallet. Why? Why do you see that up there?

What's happening is that we're in Week Two of the can't-talks. I mean, I can talk, I'm going about my business, I'm okay, but what I mean is that I can't write, at least not in my normal way. Like I posted last week, my body is doing some deep processing of some difficult material, and there's too much pressure in my head and around my heart and just all up and down everywhere in this old vessel for me to be able to write a real thing. So, once again, we're doing something a little different, and eventually I'll tell you what sparked this.

What we're doing is going through my old wallet. 

Know that I have spared you from many things. This is a highly curated selection. And also, there are no pictures of me because I gave them to Dave, who has them now in his wallet, and it would be cheating to go get them. Which is sad. I had a tiny little proof of a cute old headshot which I would have liked to show you. But rules are rules.

Let's begin.

Phillip J. Griffin, Violinist Extraordinaire. I have absolutely no idea, which is why I like it so much I'm leading off with it.

Ancient business cards of friends who are still friends, which pleases me.

Twenty years ago tomorrow I went on a date with my then-fiancé to go see the Bulgarian Women's Choir in concert, which is somehing everyone should do. (See the choir, that is. You don't all have to go with Thomas. I mean, you can. You can work that out for yourselves.)

There's Thomas now, my first husband, in his old driver's license. I thought that would pair well with the appointment card for the fitting of that wedding dress. 11:00 am sharp on 5. 

Diane Ladd's business card, as you can see. (IMDB, for those who might not know/remember the great Ms. Ladd.) Thomas and I took a weekend acting workshop from her. I did a scene from The Children's Hour and she said that there was nothing she could teach me emotionally that I didn't already know, which I've been savoring for 19 years now. Nailed it! 

"You are always welcome in any gathering." Maybe I looked at this old fortune before parties. 

I might also have been welcome because I could do CPR. 

Or because everyone knew I was always good for a grain or two of Equal. Yes, I've kept an empty packet of Equal for twenty years. 

Missed opportunity.  :(

500 Belgian francs, which tells me we're getting closer to the impetus for this wallet raid. In the winter of 1992/1993, I traveled to London for a month with a friend, and then to Luxembourg for a couple of weeks to visit cousins. 

This is my cousin-by-marriage, Anu, who showed me around Luxembourg.

We possibly went here, to the I.S.T. Bal, mat den Challengers. 

We most definitely ate at the Quick hamburger restaurant.

Okay, pause. 

A few nights ago, I googled an old boyfriend. I don't remember why he came to mind but he did, my unlikeliest old boyfriend, whom I met on this particular trip. After Luxembourg, I went to Italy for three months, and there, towards the end, I met Terence, who was a half-British, half-Sicilian mercenary in the British army. (There's the bit that made him so unlikely for soft, unworldly young me.) We had a brief and sweet little romance which I resisted at first because we were so different, but when I gave over we fell in something very love-like. 

The saint up there, as you might guess, is from him. She, like he, was from Syracuse. 

The back of the saint's flier. 

I met Terence at a hostel in Florence. He won me over when I watched him interact with a group of Japanese tourists, drawing maps for them and joking with them, making them giggle. He charmed us all simultaneously. Then a day or so later, on an afternoon bus trip outside the city, we kissed.

We only spent a week together, but we got somewhere in that week. He told me at one point, with...what will I call it, a sad happiness? A happy sadness? The beginnings of regret, maybe...that I had lit something in him. It's hard to describe. Whether he had wanted whatever it was lit seemed like an open question. 

Here are some poems he gave me. In my memory, he had written them for me. But I remember looking at his signature that he wrote them three years before he met me, so they weren't love poems for me, personally. They were still a genuine offering, a little something from his soft side. 

When I left Italy, he was waiting to be shipped off to Bosnia. He gave me his dog tags and a button-up shirt that I wore for a while, and we phoned each other for a few months. He planned to come to America, and we were going to live together, which seemed to me like a worse and worse idea over time, and I eventually stopped calling him, which made me feel guilty. I wondered whether he had lived or died.

He did both. 

He didn't die in Bosnia, like I'd feared. He lived and went on, Google told me, to become a very successful and well-loved special effects and makeup artist for the movies. He died, instead, a couple of years ago, in December of 2012, while I was very sick and scooting closer than I'd ever been to death myself. I don't know how he died. Google didn't say. 

I was going to make this whole entry about and for Terence, but I couldn't do it. I didn't have the emotional and physical werewithal. I had to go sideways into it. But he was real, and we were briefly real, and although he was already so long ago and far away that he might as well have been in the underworld, now he's genuinely gone, which paradoxically brings him closer. This is something I like about death. It's like a lit match next to the memory banks, blazing them up, giving us a translucent, Technicolor show. But it's more than that. Whoever was yours once becomes yours again with time and space out of the way. Cleaned off, refreshed, reclaimed. That's what it feels like. Not central, maybe, but lightly, surely connected.