Wednesday, February 19, 2014

i be blowin'

Last week, on Valentine's Day, De La Soul gave away all their music for free on their website to anybody who wanted it. I first listened to them back in college, when Three Feet High and Rising burst into the world and blew everyone's minds, and for the next few years I jumped on every new recording. And so this Valentine's gift was a wonder. I'd lost most of their CDs, and I missed them, so I downloaded every last album greedily and went on a bender.  

It's like clockwork. You take a band that you soaked in for years, you leave them alone for a few more, you come back to them and press play, and whoosh, your memory net comes up so full. The music sticks to everything, pulls it all back up.

It's 1993. I'm in my apartment up on Capitol Hill, hanging with my friend Nellis. We've made some spaghetti and done some mushrooms, and now we're lounging on the oriental rug in the living room as the high kicks in. This song is wafting out of the CD player while everything slows down and softens up. 

Nellis is one of the safest people I know. Was. Maybe he still is, I don't know. I don't know how the afterlife works. He drank himself to death five years ago. Not all at once, but cumulatively. But when we were close, way back when, there was nobody so accepting, so safe, so relaxing as Nellis. 

For a lot of my life, I've been a nervous person. I got good at covering it up, but I almost always had something whirring in my chest that kept me vigilant. I had to read the room, scan the inhabitants, guess what bothered them and be sure not to do whatever I guessed it was. Nobody made me do this. I knew this was my job all by myself, because I was innately annoying and bad. I don't know how I knew that about myself, but that felt like a sure thing. I was a great mimic, though, and very pliable, so I could trick people into digging me by giving them what I guessed they wanted. I had it worked out. It was exhausting but it was a system, even if it felt like it was forever in danger of going to pieces.

I met Nellis in 1992. We were in a ragtag sketch comedy group that only lasted a couple of months, but Nellis was its heart. He was the best writer, and he just had something, he was something. I don't know how to get at him. Just think about your grandpa's shirt or something, how it might carry a little tobacco smell, something nice like pipe smoke. Comforting. Nellis was like that. Smoky, funny, bittersweet. A cloud of benevolence with a bright streak of acidity. He wore baggy shorts and old bowling shirts and fishing hats. He was an old guy without being old. Not a hipster old guy, not a phony, but a real old guy in a young man's body. He loved Dean Martin, he loved to smoke, he loved to drink and he loved his friends. 

Nellis lived in an old run-down house in Wallingford with a rotating bunch of dudes, and his door was always open. And so there was always something going on over there. Nothing splashy, but there was always a hospitable group of guys drinking beer, or one or two guys at least. I never called first. I knew I didn't have to. I could come over whenever I wanted and stay as long as I wanted. 

I remember one night sitting down in Nellis's room with him, drinking beer and hanging out and listening to Annie Lennox. We were singing along together to "Walking on Broken Glass", when Nellis suddenly stopped. I was still singing, and I looked at him to see what was going on, why he stopped. He was beaming at me. I stopped singing, and he urged me to go on, said I had a beautiful voice. He looked positively misty about it. He started the song again and ordered me to sing by myself so he could listen. And so I did. When I finished that song, he had me sing another, and another. I couldn't believe that he could be enjoying this as much as I was, because I was floating on a little cloud, let me tell you. To sing out, to be listened to, to be loved like I knew my friend loved me in this moment—we were sitting in a dim little nighttime room, but the place may as well have been fully sunlit. 

Bear with me while we detour back a little farther, and then we'll fast forward again to my living room rug and Nellis and the mushrooms. But we have to go back a second to 1988. Pre-Nellis. I'm in college, a theater major, doing a casual lunchtime production of Cowboy Mouth, a two-person play that was originally written and performed by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. I'm in the Patti Smith role, and there's some singing to do. I know I can sing. I know I can do it. But I won't let myself do it right, not when other people are listening. I won't let myself sing full out. It would be wrong. It would be conceited. If I let a beautiful sound come out of my mouth, it's going to make me ugly—spiritually ugly somehow—and so it's not worth the trade. And so I either set or discover a limit for myself; I can sing at 50% skill and 50% volume, and no more. That's my ceiling. My boyfriend comes to see our one performance. He's a musician, and I like him so much, and I'd love for him to hear what I can really do, but that half-assed, broken sound coming out of my mouth is all I'll allow myself. He's standing in the back, watching from the doorway. I sing badly, watching his silhouette. I wish I could be different. 

And now it's 1993 and Nellis and I are on my rug with our bowls of spaghetti next to us, and De La Soul is on the stereo, and the sound is so sweet and slow. We're not talking. We won't really be talking tonight. We're in our own worlds, companionably. This is the first time either of us has heard this song. We look at each other sometimes, as if to say, "Can you believe it?" It's just so beautiful. Maceo is truly blowing the soul out of that horn. And something wonderful is happening to my insides. I wonder what it is. I seem to be unraveling. Something I don't need is unraveling. I'm playing with a little purple Koosh ball, letting the music wash over me, and suddenly I have the most revolutionary thought I've ever had. This idea just blooms, and I can't believe it. Here it is, get ready:

I'm perfectly fine. 

That's it. 

I'm fine as I am, I'm perfectly good. 

I, me, Tina, am not some dumb, busted-up disappointment. Nope. I'm good. I can dare to be myself. I'm clean. For real. I'm good. 

The song is going and going, and I'm taking a bath in this new information. It's so warm.  I feel like I just got born. I look over at Nellis. He smiles at me, and I don't tell him what happened, what I just found out. But I know—I make the connection—that it wouldn't have happened if he wasn't in the room. I would never have known it. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Long, long ago, in the ragtime era of the nineteen hundred and nineties, computers were still fresh to most of us. They sat huge on our desks like Aztec temples, and there we went to worship our strange new god, the Internet. In 1995, I lived in a little apartment in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle with my then-husband, Thomas. Our desk-temple was at the end of our living room, with a big swiveling black leather captain's chair in front of it. For most of our short marriage, one or the other of us was on that chair, going into this modern kind of trance. 

There was a thing called America Online. Thomas got us started there. We'd have a joint account, and something called e-mail. Our screen name was Thomastina, which made us sound like a consumptive child from the Victorian era. I didn't like the name—not just because of the tubercular overtones, but because it felt weird to be diluted into a couple's identity. Felt confining and misleading, somehow. It didn't occur to me to suggest something different, though. I was too cowed by the wonders/dangers of flying this America Online thing to worry about what we were calling ourselves while we did it. Thomastina it was, until it wasn't. 

AOL. What was this place? I understood that we were "online", which was some kind of etheric agora where people could mentally teleport from their living rooms. There was a "home page", which seemed comforting to me. I knew if I got lost, I could click on the house, and be back in the center of the agora. I had no idea how far this online thing went. AOL seemed to be an entire world already, with all kinds of categories and message boards and chat rooms, all populated and buzzing with quilting aficionados, Star Trek lovers, Christians, Wiccans, baseball fans, everybody. It was like Noah's Ark in there. I couldn't figure out what else there could possibly be online. I saw there was a bar at the top of the page that had a picture of a globe next to it, and that the globe took you out on to the World Wide Web, but was that still online? Or was that even farther out, somehow? For many months, I avoided that globe. If I were a medieval explorer, that would have been the part of my map that was either blank or scrawled with HERE BE DRAGONS. How would you know where to go? Who knew how far out you could drift? How would you get home? Was there a house to click out there? It wasn't worth it. 

And I was electrified enough just to be online at all. I wandered into a chat room once, where I can't remember what was being discussed but I do remember a man inviting me into a private chat room to talk sexy to each other. Too interesting! I had to see what would happen. I had no idea who this man was who was trying to have chat sex with a consumptive, and I didn't care. He seemed okay. I wasn't interested in him, anyway; I just was amazed by the power of typing into this box and reaching real live humans. My words could do things to a stranger's pants! I barely had to say anything, either. Our conversation lasted five minutes. I think the mere fact of my participation was enough to knock him over the top. Americans online! 

To those of you who might be thinking did you cheat on your husband a little bit there?, my answer is maybe? No? I don't think so? A skosh? But the marriage ended a few months later because he discovered he wasn't happy in his gender, so I kind of feel like I got a retroactive get-out-of-jail-free card there. And really: there I was sweating a trip farther into the World Wide Web, while Thomas was quietly considering an escape from maleness itself. When a huge earthquake like that is brewing, small earthquakes around those shared plates aren't really a shocker.

Other than my minor chatsplosion, my presence on AOL was quiet. I lit up American Spirit after American Spirit, tapping my ashes into the black plastic ashtray next to the computer, and browsed the message boards. I didn't have a particular tribe I was looking for; I just wanted to see how it all worked. So I lurked for a few weeks, reading miscellany, watching how people spoke to each other. Who were these people? They seemed to know each other, like they had been living in these little message villages for years. 

One night I wandered onto the boards dedicated to actors and actresses, and found somebody praising Winona Ryder. This couldn't stand. My message board silence broke. I ranted for a couple of hundred words BLAH BLAH ACT HER WAY OUT OF A PAPER BAG BLAH BLAH WILLIAM SHATNER ACTING CIRCLES AROUND HER BLAH BLAH BLAH. The original poster shot back, and I shot back again to her. I was all het up and humming with excitement. I had picked a fight in the town square! First this sex type thing, then fighting! 

A day or so later, I got some kind of private message from a person who was calling herself "Bonho", which is either Portuguese for Bono or French for "good whore". (I love language!) Bonho told me she'd read my post about Winona Ryder and it was clear that I was a writer, and did I want to come be a part of this happenin' screenwriter's message board? I told her I wasn't a writer, and totally not a screenwriter, though technically this was a screen and I'd typed into it. She said it didn't matter, that it only mattered that I was smart, and she thought I'd fit in just fine there. 

And so it was that I found my way into a little alternate universe that obsessed me for a year. During the day I worked at a Children's Museum, and on most nights I was out doing fringe theater of some kind and going out to drinks with my fellow thespians, but I was always excited to come home, throw off my purse, hop into the captain's chair and snuggle up in front of the soap opera that was the AOL screenwriter's board. 

Yes, I came home more excited to see my computer than I was to see my husband. The marriage was already eroding before it went to pieces. Tom was a very funny, kind man but we got engaged after only six weeks of dating, and by the time we walked down the aisle a year later I already had a little pit in my stomach telling me we were making a mistake. He suffered from depression, and had a hell of a time trying to find medication that worked for him. I used to jump on him with glee when he came home from work, but I eventually stopped because it irritated and tired him. The atmosphere at home grew dull and tense, and the idea that we were going to sail on joyless into the future scared me. So I did my thing, and he did his thing, and we just didn't talk about it.

Why did I love that screenwriter's board so? It was like a smart little virtual bar, with salty, experienced types holding forth about writing and movies and life. There was Bad Cog, who was the king of the bar, belligerent and funny and brutal. There was MShark, a philosopher from Texas in that laid-back Zen-and-The-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance style, courtly and wise. There was Wryterguy, who seemed perpetually harrowed and grumpy, like a Doonesbury character. There was Type Rider, whom I'd have Naomi Watts play if I were casting that movie today, friendly and cool and hovering above the fray. Bonho was there, and I couldn't tell if she was a screenwriter herself, but she was the Rosalind Russell of the group, swinging in now and then with a snappy observation. There was Robomonkey, the young hothead with a heart of gold who I always pictured driving around on acid in a battered van. And then there was a rotating cast of temporary villains who would appear on the boards and fight with Bad Cog to the delight of us all. 

I'd check on the boards first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. The more unread posts had stacked up in my absence, the happier I was. I loved their voices, I loved the funny little dramas, I loved the clear-eyed debates and the occasional gem of real wisdom and insight one of these cats would drop. I wanted to be like these screenwriters, tough and funny and savvy and cool. I put on my best approximation of their voice when I posted, which was often enough to feel welcomed in, but I felt too green to dare to contribute more. But this was my little shadow group of compatriots that nobody in my real life knew about—screenwriter's group? what the hell are you doing in a screenwriter's group? -I don't know?—and I grew genuinely fond of all of them. 

One day I decided I was going to dye my hair platinum blonde. Thomas was wildly in support of this, and encouraged me with what I thought was an unusual fervor. I sat with the idea a while, and it eventually wilted. When a few days had passed and I hadn't dyed my hair, Thomas asked me about it. I told him I'd changed my mind. I didn't feel like it anymore. He got mad. I was startled. He accused me of chickening out, and lit into me for my cowardice. I was baffled and pissed; what did my hair color have to do with anything? Who gave a fuck if I dyed it or not? What the hell was going on here? 

The hell going on here was that a few weeks later, we speed-unraveled with his revelation that he wasn't happy in a man's body. Well, shit. In retrospect, I can see that the hair squabble was just projection. He was thrilled at the prospect of my making a major change to my appearance because it satisfied something vicarious in him, and he felt suffocated when I opted for the status quo. One night I came home from rehearsal and he was gone. He'd checked himself into a psychiatric unit because he was suicidally afraid of the discovery he made, and when he was released he moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill with his best friend. We were done, two weeks before my 27th birthday. 

I was gobsmacked. While I hadn't been happy in the marriage, this was still my partner, my friend, the guy I'd been entwined with for the last two years of my not-that-long life. I was dizzy with sudden freedom, and worried about him, and horribly sad. I slept in the living room and drank tequila out of mugs and smoked and smoked and smoked. I'd lost my appetite, and replaced meals with cigarettes. On my birthday I went out and bought myself a big bottle of strong perfume. Angel, it was called, by Thierry Mugler, and it was floral and chocolate-y and beautiful and obnoxious. Thomas had environmental allergies and we hadn't kept one scented thing in the house. And so fuck it. I was despairing but I was going to smell fantastic. Nobody could stop me. 

That night I went out for a drink with a beloved group of boys after rehearsal, and they made me laugh and cheered me up for a few hours. The next morning I changed my screen name, went onto the message boards, and told the screenwriters what had happened with my marriage. Everyone was kind and solicitous and great, but Bad Cog gave me a belated birthday present that I still use. He said that for a writer, this kind of thing—while it may be hell to go through at the time—is gold. I felt the ramifications of what he said, the heft and good fortune of it. I could practically feel it in my pocket like currency. I didn't tell him that I wasn't a writer, either, because I started to wonder if I was. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

beauty, mate

You're looking at the Blue Mountains up there, just west of Sydney in Australia. I was living there ten years ago with Dave. I flew out to be with him a couple of months after we met, and the first time he took me to this spot—the Three Sisters, an ancient rock formation near the town of Katoomba, which may be the grooviest mountain town in all the world—my mouth was sewn shut in the face of that stupendous beauty. It wasn't comment-able upon. That giant, quiet valley hummed...see, I'm screwed already because I need a new verb. Hummed isn't bass enough to describe the depth and force of that place and how it seeped into me, shutting me up, leaving me wordless, unable to praise. It's just as well, as you can see. I still don't have the words. The not-comment-able-upon ruling stands.

We lived in Katoomba for a while, as well as a couple of other towns in the Blue Mountains, but Katoomba was where it was at. We started out together in the town next door, Leura, which is a little more posh and a little more uptight, and everybody goes to sleep there at 4pm. But Katoomba is a happening hippie town and we lived right on the main drag, which is almost unfairly lined with fantastic restaurants and cafés. Bam, bam, bam, all crammed next door to each other. We were in heaven.

But the greatest thing about Katoomba for me was its style ethos, or its amazing lack of one. It's the most liberating place I've ever lived, sartorially. People dressed however they wanted. And I don't mean that they were all artsy, hip, creative dressers. No, I mean that people dressed like they had just emerged from burning houses in the middle of the night just that second before you saw them. Colors all doing any old damn thing. Tee shirts and floppy pants—and I can't express how much I don't mean cool ones. Do you remember Garanimals? If you were a kid in the seventies, you probably ran across Garanimals. They were animal-coded tops and bottoms so kids could dress themselves and have things go. Giraffe-tag top, giraffe-tag bottom, check. This'll work. Katoomba was an anti-Garanimal nuclear bomb going off on the hour. Getting dressed when I lived in there was the easiest thing conceivable. Does this match? was not a question. You didn't even have to sweat is this flattering? You were good once you'd covered is this on. 

I'm thinking fondly about Katoomba because I'm thinking about beauty—more specifically, beauty standards for women—and cultural expectations and smallness and bullshit. I was talking about this today with a teacher of mine. We were investigating just how mired I am in all of these messages, and the answer is pretty fucking mired, as so many women are and have been since they were little girls. (Men have a different dragon to slay, we discussed, which is the lie about how their worth is wrapped up in their ability to acquire resources. Good luck, fellas! Take that dragon out!) A nickel for every time my focus wanders to how I look instead of how I feel or what I think and I could take myself out for a swish dinner a couple of times a week. It's tiring.

You know how sometimes you don't notice the ambient noise in a room until it stops for some reason? While I was talking to my teacher, Jim, that cultural noise stopped in my head for a few minutes. I can move it aside in the abstract for a little while when I remember to do it, but this was different. The lie dropped away for a bit, the noise stopped, and the contrast was dramatic. The high-pitched beauty-standards buzz was missing, and what took its place was not so much quiet as space. Looseness. More room to be myself. Then what I can only describe as anger-laughter arose. What the fuck? What the actual fuck had I been bothering myself with all these years? What is that? What is this idea that if I don't look a certain way, or remain somehow young forever, I'm failing, I'm not here, I might as well go? What the living fuck is that about? And then I thought of all the magazines I have lying around my house, Vogue and Elle and the like, and how I'm feeding myself this diet of lies. And I recognized that this matters. Vogue sells us the notion that there's a Right Way to Go About It All, and even though I roll my eyes with every issue—and tell myself that's part of the fun of it, and that I'm just here for the design, the appealing colors and shapes and patterns—another fearful, conforming part of me salutes my commanding officers there. Feeding that scared little conformist is probably my worst vice, in an unglamorous group of contenders. 

From when I was twelve to when I was twenty I wore makeup every day. Eye makeup in particular. No exceptions. Fuck no, are you kidding? It was unthinkable. The sun rose and I traced a cat eye with eyeliner and ringed my lids with dark eyeshadow and blotted my mascara wand on a tissue to prevent clumping and lo, it was good, amen. A friend in high school offered that I might look prettier without so much eye makeup but ten other friends asked me to do their eye makeup so I ignored the first friend and blessed the ten friends with cat eyes of their own. And then one winter break morning when I was home from college, I looked at my bare face in the mirror, my untraced eyes, and—inexplicably—I looked okay. I stared at myself for a few minutes, and then I ran downstairs. "Mom! Mom! Look. I'm not wearing any eye makeup. I think I'm going to go out Christmas shopping like this. Don't you think I look okay? Like, this is a gentle beauty or something?" She laughed, bemused, and said I looked fine. I was disappointed, because I felt like I'd discovered electricity. 

Conversely, right before I went to Australia to be with Dave, I got a bad haircut. The stylist misunderstood what I was asking for and chopped the back very short. It wasn't horrible but I definitely did not feel beautiful.  I was mortified, furious, inconsolable for a couple of hours. Here I was, about to embark on the biggest romantic adventure of my life, and I felt like I'd been robbed. A few days later I went out to dinner with a couple of friends and bitched. My friend Robert, who was older and wiser, told me that my hair didn't make any difference. I had that glow from being in love, he said, and nothing imparted more beauty than that. I thanked him but I didn't really hear him. I still felt ruined. 

This is the problem. Here it is. If a genie were to appear in front of me right now and offer me two choices:

1. I would look beautiful as long as I live


2. I would never care any more, and I would be eternally free of the question

I would hesitate. I don't like it, but I would hesitate. And that's not who I want to be. That hesitation is not what I want to feed. I want something larger and more raw for myself out of this life. I want freedom, I do. And if I'm talking about beauty, I want to let actual beauty be what I mean, the thing that hums and rings out from inside an experience. I want to strip the word from all industry that would make women feel small, and keep it for myself to aim where it's so true, so present it stops my mouth.