I don’t understand a word they’re saying

“Excuse me? Excuse me??” an older man kept repeating in English at the bottom of the steps leading into Ueno Park. I hesitated. Responding to strange older men is generally not the best life strategy, but given that we were in Tokyo, there was a decent chance that he was simply a lost foreigner who needed help, so I turned back.

“Yes?” I asked.

“You speak English!” he exclaimed with a hope that made the color drain from my deceptively Asian face. He pointed to a nearby booth while brandishing his cell phone. “Can you help me with the phone? I can’t make it work, and when I called the information service, I couldn’t understand…”

“…..sorry, can’t help you, buddy, I’m from New York City.”

Yup, that’s me. You might be wondering how I got here. It all started a few days ago, when a flood of verbs began happening…


Got to the airport Saturday afternoon before the baggage counter opened, waited as the fourth person in line, and watched the staff all line up in front of the counter and bow when they played the service opening announcement.

Brought yoga pants to change into on the airplane because I’m pragmatic but also not a barbarian.

Started off my plane ride with a beer, because why the hell not.

Watched The King, which I enjoyed greatly and would recommend to anyone who likes political thrillers that use humor more than grimness, the 1980s and 1990s, friendships that end in tragedy, and okay maybe don’t like that it’s a sausage party but the women that do appear are awesome (one isn’t even connected to any of the main characters except as a professional!) and definitely should have had bigger roles. Also watched a rakugo performance and a bunch of Japanese sketch comedy, all without subtitles, and understood maybe 5% of the words being said but frantic screaming tends to translate itself.

Didn’t sleep a wink of the 16-hourr flight as part of my master plan to get myself onto Japan time as quickly as possible.

Touched down in Tokyo on Sunday night, and my phone was really, really convinced that I was in Beijing. I think my phone is a racist.

Collapsed asleep in my hotel bed after having been awake for nearly 24 hours – but not before a shower and a sheet mask because post-flight skincare is serious business.

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Woke up before my alarm and ate at the complimentary breakfast buffet. Consumed natto for the first time. Did not have my Asian card revoked.

Walked to Akihabara the next morning to pick up a prepaid sim card n Bic Camera. Picked up some more sheet masks, but ones with samurai mask designs. Went through quite an ordeal trying to find body lotion in that store with aisles and aisles of face creams and body cleansers and hair treatments. Am pretty sure there were more varieties of vaginal cleansers than body lotions. Grabbed some onigiri from Family Mart and returned to the hotel to get my things for work.

Entered the performance venue, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, for the first time that afternoon. Was blown away by how ridiculously good the staff is, as they rushed to flawlessly execute scene pre-sets that they’d only observed us working out once before and I was left not having to lift a finger, and the beautiful acoustics of the Recital Hall, which worked absolute magic on music that had already sounded good in the NYC venue.

Wandered the streets for dinner, where I felt a little intimidated by my inability to read the menus and ended up in a little Japanese table bbq joint that had an English menu available. Put some pork cheek and chicken giblets and mixed vegetables over hot coals and didn’t give myself food poisoning.

Another day at the office today, this one with an early start. Went to the Ueno Zoo over lunch break with the production manager (and her affianced), where we saw many animals but especially a monkey, whom we dubbed the Tech Monkey.

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It was 100% Done.

Bought a ticket from a vending machine and put it on the counter for dinner at a tiny tanmen restaurant. Started tech proper onstage after dinner break.

Climbed down the stairs into a basement bar after work that night. Pointed to items on a menu I couldn’t read. Drank a three-herb mojito that had smoke (likely a freezing agent, actually) poured into it from a giant metal canister and something that I still don’t know what the fuck it was. Watched my friend receive a rose mojito featuring rose smoke that was sucked from a vape pen and injected into the glass with a giant syringe.

Decided this morning to go for a run around Ueno Park after breakfast…


But mostly, I’ve been lurking around the inside of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. And there’s nothing to bring out the mundane in being halfway across the globe as spending most of your waking hours working in a dark theater.

Which isn’t to say that it hasn’t been fun so far. I imagine that things will pick up over the next few days, though, as the show reaches completion. Not only pick up, but also slow down, with my brain being able to truly absorb the reality of where I am and what I’m doing. I had a small taste of that this morning, as I wandered through the streets to a shrine near the hotel. I had just enough time to not have to rush, but I was on my way to work, so it wasn’t a big tourist expedition.

It was just being somewhere completely new. And I’m looking forward to more.

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But one day, I’m walkin’ to JFK and I’m gonna fly

Once upon a time, chances were good that you’d probably die before your first birthday. If you managed to stay alive for one full trip around the sun, people were ready to party. (Not such a bad thing to remember when you’re feeling down about what you haven’t yet done – on a historic scale, if you’re reading this right now, you’re kind of a rock star.) Nowadays, we’ve overall improved our infant mortality rates, but it’s still pretty rad when kids stay alive. In Korean culture, the celebration of a child’s first birthday is called doljanchi, or “dol” for short. There’s family and feasting, but most notably, there’s fortune-telling: the doljabi.

For the doljabi, the kid is placed in front of a table with various symbolic items – a book for being intelligent, long thread for long life, money for wealth, etc – and the parents encourage the kid to pick an item with varying levels of leading and interference. What the child grabs is what their future will hold in store.

A friend of mine’s daughter just had her dol, and she apparently did a noodle fake-out before grabbing the bowl of rice. (Seems to me like homegirl was hungry, which is #real.)  Between that and my own approaching birthday, when my mom came to visit me this past weekend, I asked her what I’d picked in my doljabi. She couldn’t remember about the items on the table… but she did remember me grabbing something else. My paternal grandmother, a well-heeled women of the rural business class, was there and wearing a long string of pearls. I had eyes for nothing else. In fact, the main photo of me from my dol is me in my hanbok, pearl necklace in hand.

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Alyssa K. Howard: snatching the pearls from rich white ladies’ necks since 1986.

So I guess that my future was going to be fabulous and a little off the set path. And you know, I can’t say that that was wrong.

In less than a week, I’ll be in Japan. We had our final New York performance this past Saturday. Since then, I’ve been doubling down on trying to make myself awesome.

A couple years ago, I actually won one of those giveaway things that you enter on the internet that signs you up for a dozen mailing lists. It was a pretty sweet prize, and it included some classes/treatments at Exhale, a super posh spa and fitness center. Scheduling my appointments and classes got me entered into their system as a customer, so even though I never go back unless they’re having some sort of special event of free-ness/cheap-ness, as far as the computers are concerned, I’m a person who can actually afford This Lifestyle.

As a result, the other week, I got an email with a birthday offer of 40% off of one of their spa treatments, which would bring the price down to my splurge level. So I was like, heck, sure, it’s my birthday and I’m about to have my big trip and want to look hella fine. And so, I booked myself a facial.

Now, I feel like facials are in that category of things like dental cleanings and haircuts, where it’s like, okay so you’re going to help me here, but you’re also going to examine me and ask me about my daily routines and judge me. But the esthetician, a lovely blond woman with a marked Eastern European accent, might have actually left me glowing as much from the compliments as the actual skin work. She asked me when the last time I’d had a facial was, and I honestly cannot fucking remember and said as much but also that I do a simple weekly DIY facial at home. And she just seemed… very proud of me. Which, in turn, made me feel incredibly proud of myself.

I know how to do the skins!!

After the skin examination, she again expressed approval, noting that I had very good elasticity along with a little bit of clogging around the t-zone area, but really I should just keep doing whatever I’m doing. And near the end, she did extractions, which if you’ve never had that done, is really just point of acute pinching pain. Before she started, she was very clear that I shouldn’t try to be a hero and needed to let her know if it was too much, etc., etc.. Naturally, my response to that was to endure the entire process in even more stoic silence than usual. Afterwards: more praise.

However, I did not receive A’s across the board during this experience. One of the final steps was having a mask sit on my face for a while, during which she gave me an amazing shoulder and neck massage. But as she was working me over, she kind of laughed and said, “You need a massage more than you need a facial!”

All that I could say in response was: “…would you believe that I had a massage yesterday afternoon?”

“WHAT. YOU ARE LIKE A ROCK.”

As a matter of fact, my massage therapist, whom I at this point am actually referring to as “my massage therapist” because I have become that person who has gotten to a first-name basis due to regularity of appointments, gave me a hug as I was leaving the other day and told me to have a good trip and come to see her again when I returned.

(Actually, it only took two visits, months apart, for her to become “my massage therapist.” I’d very much appreciated her work during my first appointment, booked at random, so when I found myself in need again months later, I returned to the same midtown chain and specifically made my appointment with her. She greeted me when I arrived, and when she was taking me to the therapy room, she asked me if it was my first time there. No, I told her, I’d been once before, but months ago.

The massage started, her hands lighted upon my shoulders, and she gasped: “Oh, I remember you.”)

The self tune-up continued today as I got a haircut, that great cliché of life changes and new beginnings. And I am about to go and put myself under the razor.

Because sometimes you’re a female-bodied person who decided that No-Shave November would be a worthwhile exercise in personal development and then just never stopped. (Or re-started, I suppose.) I have nothing against the grooming practice as a preference, but I vividly remember the moment of adolescent indirect bodyshaming that led me to begin shaving (“I wouldn’t even want to be next to a girl who didn’t shave her legs!” my twelve-year-old classmate declared, as I prayed that no one could tell that I had ignorantly violated this terrible taboo of which I was just now learning), as well as now having the perspective that it is neither universal nor timeless. I would have liked to have done a full year… but I guess that also gives me the opportunity to practice not being tied to arbitrary amounts of time for their own sake!

It’s just about time to do the thing.

I’m thirty-two now. And the next time I appear here, I’ll be on the other side of the world.

You gotta grab something, grab something

And so then Michael Friedman died.

I didn’t know him very well. He probably wouldn’t know me from a hole in the ground, and not due to any inattention on his part. I was a production assistant on the stage management team for the Off-Broadway production of The Fortress of Solitude, an adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel, with a book by Itamar Moses and songs by Michael. I’d also been the assistant stage manager on a workshop of the show that past summer. There had been a previous production in Dallas, but it very much was still a new show with constant development and re-writes, all the way until opening. As such, the writers were there almost constantly. It was a show of moderate size, with the stage management team alone having five people, and I was just one of the many new people on board at this new stage of the journey, whereas most of the core creative team and cast had been attached to the project for years.

I was, however, the person on the stage management team in charge of script maintenance and printing, meaning that I kept the constantly changing document both up-to-date but also properly archived as well as being the person who made sure that everyone got the correct new pages. While the music team took care of the score updates in the files themselves, I was still the person who would do all of the physical printing and distribution. So despite Michael and I not interacting directly, I’m finding that I’d developed a perhaps outsized feeling of connection from having his work pass through me before even making it to the performers.

Michael, I killed so many trees for you.

Even besides all that, he was an undeniable sort of person. He wouldn’t so much enter a room as vibrate into it. You could feel the energy radiating from the source, affecting everything in its path.

And then there’s just that sense that you’ve lost someone in the family, even if you didn’t know them well personally. The theatre community forms densely branching networks by virtue of how employment happens. For the most part, you work very intensely with a group of people for a while. Then that project ends, and you do the same with another group of people. Rinse, repeat. As a result, you get to know so many people, and on at a more personal level than many workplace environments demand. Eventually, you almost always know someone who knows someone. Or know someone who knew someone.

And then there’s the art.

For better or for worse, we find something there. Artists create and articulate things that connect us to ourselves and others. These people somehow reach inside of us and touch us in such close places – even though we often have never even met them, we get to know them and they somehow magically seem to know us. It becomes such a personal relationship, even if you wouldn’t recognize each other if you passed on the street.

Granted, not much time had passed, but I found myself thinking of him again when I got off the phone with my grandparents Sunday evening. I had called to wish them a happy Grandparents Day, and I’m pretty sure I left them feeling worse than before because I had refused to promise them that I wouldn’t drink anything that didn’t come in a sealed bottle manufactured by Coca-Cola while I was traveling abroad. Now, I am one-hundred percent prepared to not get asked and to not tell, or even to gracefully elide certain happenings. But being asked point-blank to make an unreasonable promise that I knew that I wouldn’t keep was beyond what I was willing to do. Especially given the underlying xenophobia (only trust U.S. corporations!) and racism (I hadn’t been asked to make a similar promise when I was going abroad in Europe), no matter how well-intentioned it was.

But also, I couldn’t stop thinking “But the world doesn’t give you nothing for free and life can quickly pass you by…”

Our time is so limited – how could I countenance having opportunities that others are never afforded right in front of me and refusing to reach for them because I was keeping my hands and feet inside of the vehicle at all times? Of course there’s going to be risk. But to have your house swept up in the twister and land in Oz, only to refuse to set foot outside of your door – you may never meet the witch, but you’ll never see the wonders.

It also happened that when I opened up my secondary browser that day, the newsfeed popped up that Troy Gentry of the country band Montgomery Gentry had been killed in a helicopter crash. There’s something particularly sad about the death of an eponymous duo to me (see: Siskel and Ebert). I’ve also mentioned before that I’m a country music fan, and, as much as I reject some life actions by the people involved, a couple of Montgomery Gentry’s songs are among my personal favorites.

Like most mainstream country music, the sort of life that’s usually prescribed (or simply assumed as a given) is definitely neither mine nor something that I want. But the spirit of taking pride in living a life of purposeful integrity, no matter what other voices may tell you…

…that’s something that has always called to me loudly. And while I try to make it a continuous, conscious practice, I can’t help but be pointedly confronted with the imperative at instances like these.

Goddamn, but Michael had a life he could hang his hat on.

 

You learn to live without

There was an outline prepared for this past Monday.

Sometimes the structure falls apart.

Earlier last week, I’d been reading an article in The Atlantic entitled “How Friends Become Closer,” but it also could have been called “Why Adult Friending Feels Really Hard” (and not in any euphemistic sense of “adult friend”). It was mostly common sense but articulated in a way that I hadn’t read before and found useful:

But even if someone wants to make friends a high priority in their life, unlike with romantic relationships, for friendships there are fewer cultural scripts to follow to do the work of befriending someone, or making a friendship closer.

“The opportunities for friendship come with how people’s lives are organized,” Rawlins says. “When I talk to students, I say ‘Pay close attention to the habits you’re forming, because before you know it, you have organized your life in a way that doesn’t allow for the kind of friends that you would like to have.’”

Intentionally or not, we all build structures to each of our lives, constructing based on what we have known or around what we encounter or in anticipation of what we expect. And though every structure is unique to that individual, some blueprints are more common than others. Some materials are more readily available. Our respective societies and cultures provide us with different grounds on which to lay our foundations. The community housing association might come after you if they find your structure to be particularly egregious.

Sometimes, by choice or by force, you have to move elsewhere.

Sometimes you stay but someone else stops living there.

Sometimes everything is washed away.

One day back n grad school, we were taking a management class that was focusing on leadership. The instructor gave us markers and those giant post-it notes that you stick to the walls, and they told us to distill into a single phrase our motivating mantra and to draw a picture inspired by it.

Here’s an MS Paint recreation of what I came up with:

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The hand-drawn version wasn’t particularly more skilled, although I think that the flames looked less like bananas. The visual arts aren’t my forte. But the general message of “Everything will end in fire and ashes” seemed to make its way across.

It’s a powerful motivator. And to me, a positive one.

I know that the way that I’ve structured my life is heavily informed by my innate personality and the events in my life. My default state is being alone, and I like it that way. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so even as a kid, there was no such thing as time with friends just happening – even just going to play was a coordinated event. When I was three, my family went to Disney World, and our house burned to the ground while we were away. (Extended vacation!) My family has always loved and supported me. My first grandparent died when I was five. My father died when I was seventeen.

Good things are real, and they can happen to you, whether by luck or effort. You just can’t keep them.

This isn’t to present myself as someone who has reached some sort of enlightened nirvana of non-attachment. But although the structure of my life isn’t one of the more standard blueprints, rather than it being some sort of radical choice, it simply follows pretty logically from all of these combined factors.

I’m not romantically oriented, so there is perhaps a more egalitarian approach to professional work, non-professional work, family, and friends. I don’t “hang out,” but relative to my non-user-friendly job schedule, I’m pretty often coordinating events with friends. I had a couple of my friends who were in that very same aforementioned class session over to the apartment last night for a mini dinner party. You don’t know when you’ll next have a chance to treat your friends well.

And this all has been on my mind more pointedly than usual right now because of all of the loss that I’ve seen lately. There is, of course, loss every second somewhere in this world, but the proximity and scale that one experiences varies over time. Lately, there have been some hits close to home. Not only was Hurricane Harvey huge, but I have several friends in and near the affected regions. I have friends going through significant life changes, where the structures of their lives were built for circumstances that no longer apply. And just a few days ago, a friend from high school was living a normal life with her husband and two young children – then the next day, her husband was found not breathing – then the next day, he was gone.

That was when I started to cry.

How to endure even merely seeing someone else have everything fall apart without the least bit of warning?

And there was something particularly hard-hitting about seeing it happen to someone to whom I was admittedly not exceptionally close, but whose life had intersected with mine during those tumultuous teenage years and who had been among the people who had supported me so well in my own loss. Fifteen years later, I can say that that loss doesn’t go away, but neither does the memory of the busload of uniformed girls flooding into the funeral service so far away from our shared school or of being dragged to the opening night of that year’s Harry Potter movie in one of the many unhesitating instances of making it easy for me to not be engulfed by the rebuilding around the newly empty space in my life.

Is there an optimal way to build our lives? Is it about leaning into whatever the current circumstances are? Is it about being able to rebuild completely as things change? Is it about building something that is easily adaptable from the get-go? Something with space for all things without being completely supported by any single one of them?

The answer, I’m sure, is that it depends on the individual person and situation. But maybe that is the crux of it: recognizing the conditional nature of what we can take for granted as being just how things are.

It depends. We depend.

Everything is happening so much, as they say. But should you be in a place to give some support to others, this collection of ways to help those affected Hurricane Harvey includes a number organizations that are locally-focused and not as commonly suggested, and this donation page supports my classmate.

I build myself a home

They say that you should surround yourself with those you aspire toward. Not only does that potentially create connections in a professional context, but in life in general, being exposed to something or someone great can aspire you to work to get to their level.

There’s also the good ol’ fashioned shame factor.

I’ve never been much of a decorator. Whether out of innate minimalism or just laziness, ornamenting my space has never really appealed to me. When I moved into my first apartment for grad school, my mom very thoughtfully packed me some holiday decorations from home. I don’t think they ever saw the outside of the cabinet that I stored them in. After all, they would just sit out there to take up space and do nothing useful until I put them away again – what was the sense? As for putting things up on the walls, I have never seen empty wall space as something with any need to be filled. It’s a wall, it’s doing its job, just leave it be.

But my new roommate (who is actually an old friend) is a former scenic designer and props person who now works for a theatrical lighting company. They have art deco posters. They have copper lighting fixtures. They have furniture that isn’t made out of plastic.

I’ve maybe gone on a home improvement binge over the past few weeks.

To be fair, it isn’t 100% shame. Another thing that I’ve heard said is that every story is about someone either arriving to or leaving town. It shakes things up. I’ve experienced the sense of a fresh start every time that I’ve moved into a new living space myself.  Having someone new moving in has felt similar, even though I haven’t gone anywhere. Largely, each time has been a combination of cleaning out what I don’t need and improving the state of what I do have, whether it be via upgrading or adding a new element or mere re-arranging.

(Let me tell you, few things have made me feel more civilized than getting a cheap-ass bedskirt. It almost makes me feel like as much of a Real Adult as rotating/flipping my mattress on schedule does.)

I’ve not lived a life anywhere near as transient as many others, who have been much more uprooted whether by choice or circumstance. But after having spent my high school years bouncing back and forth between my separated parents, and my undergraduate years split between school-year dorms (which changed every year) and summertime home, and the following years chasing internships up and down the East coast, I was not feeling very settled by the time I hit graduate school.

But during the summer between my second and third years, I stayed in New Haven, making it the first time that I have lived in one place for the course of a full year in a decade. Not only that, but it was the first time that I’d ever lived in a place that was my own (as much as a rental can be), not something set up for me by someone else, not a room in someone else’s house where I used things that someone else had bought.

And for the first time in my life, I nested.

I re-organized my kitchen. I bought myself a nice set of dishes, the kind that I’d always wanted to get “someday.” Granted, it would take me another four years until I finally hosted guests for dinner and used the dang things, but it was the thought that counted. Now, if I wanted to, I could.

When I moved into my apartment in New York, all of the stories I’d heard (and schedule conflicts that I’d accommodated) told of frequent apartment searches and moving. Even when I jumped straight into a two-year lease, I think that I didn’t trust it. Any furniture I had was intended to be easily carried up and down stairs. Hell, for the first year, I was still sleeping on the inflatable mattress that I’d used for my entire time in grad school. (It was only supposed to be a temporary measure back then, but after moving everything else up a five-floor walk-up, you look at your graduation date and think, “You know what? I can deal.”) Not a single item hung on the walls.

But eventually, I began to settle in. It started slowly, mainly with the bed when my back couldn’t take it anymore. But it really picked up over the past year. And even though I still have a lot of plastic furniture because I’m intimidated by both spending money and the effort of getting large items off of ye olde list of Craig, I feel like I’ve finally started to claim this place as my own, rather than simply being a person who live inside of it. It’s home, and it’s mine.

As of the beginning of last weekend, that would have been basically all that I had to say on the subject. By the time I reached the end of last weekend, I had a lot more to say and have been trying to work through it since then.

Last week, a comedian did a skit that some people loved and some people hated. Most (though not all) of the people who found it incredibly funny were of a certain demographic. Most (though not all) of the people who found it hurtful and counter-productive were of another demographic – and they spoke up about it. Yes, it was Tina Fey, and I don’t feel that I have anything additional to contribute to the discussion of the skit itself. But what I did observe and feel worth noting was how much I appreciated white friends who had loved the skit discussing how they had listened to the pain and objections expressed by others and how they were actively trying to be mindful of a perspective that was not their own, that had not even occurred to them before someone had spoken up. That did not mean that their experience was invalidated; they were merely being conscious of the fact that their experience did not take precedence.

Having thoughtful and conscientious friends can put one in a bit of a bubble.

Because of course, as the night doth follow the day, so be the backlash followed by the backlash to the backlash.

But here was the thing: the people who gathered in a post to gleefully mock those who had objected to the speech? Accusing them of being divisive and destructive? Even speculating, with who knows what level of jest, that the outrage was some sort of alt-right false flag operation? They were all people whom I’d guess would call themselves liberals. Not only that, but they were either theatre-associated or associated with theatre people. And to a one, they were all white.

It was almost a parody of itself, and yet no one seemed to see it. A very small, very limited group of people were talking big words about how “those people” were dividing “us.” When I dared to ask one person who was engaging with me who exactly “us” referred to, the answer I received was “Oh my god. The left.” Over and over, it was lamented how terrible it was that people were “attacking” an “ally.”

And that was at the crux of it, really. Not the fact that they’d had a different reaction to a performance than many people (including me) did. As a friend of mine has so aptly stated it, we all arrive to view things shaped by our own circumstances, both external and internal, which can lead even the most intelligent and sensitive of people to experience the same thing in vastly different ways. It was that when confronted with a different view, the reaction had been not just to dismiss it with mean-spiritedness from a more privileged position, but to claim ownership of an entire movement/ideology. In that view, someone expressing a critique was to blame for “dividing” the group – rather than the divider being one who refused to listen and pushed away the one presenting the critique.

What was being said was that someone on “the left” who felt a certain way was merely living in someone else’s home. Or, alternately, there was the presumption that everyone was receiving shelter while the reality was that some were being shut out, rendering those “others” invisible.

What was being said, quite explicitly, was that someone who had been brought to their current place by pain, and dared to speak that pain, was merely an interloper whose grievances were less important than the comfort of a so-called ally.

With friends like these…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not viewing folks like this as Enemy. As an obstacle? Certainly. I’m not even one of the people in most immediate danger, by whatever combination of their selves and their circumstances, and I still have had the urgency shoved into my face.

It was early this year as I was working on a show in Hell’s Kitchen that I went to meet the rest of my work friends for a drink after a long day of tech. Being stage management, I showed up at the agreed-upon bar after the others – it was a new Western-themed place where some of us had caught dinner earlier that week.

When I walked in, you could feel the negative charge to the atmosphere. My friends were clustered together very tightly at their table. The place was extremely crowded, mostly by preppily-dressed white men who were all clearly there as a group.

Yes, the bar in Hell’s Kitchen near the theatre district was full of those who would be considered part of the so-called “alt-right” – i.e., a bunch of MRA white supremacists.

And the thought rose in protest: “Not in my house!”

We ended up leaving, although not before overhearing multitudinous offensive statements about women and/or foreigners, loudly singing a round of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” out of spite (though we doubt that we were heard, let along appreciated), being threatened for looking at them funny, and having a large man get into one of my friend’s face and demand to know if he was “a Democrat, a Republican, or an American.” (And for me, not before spotting the inevitable East Asian guy hanging out with them. Disinvited from the BBQ table forever, dude.) The last thing I remember happening in there was feeling someone grab my arm and drag me outside with the rest of my friends. Which was a good thing, because I was starting to go to the headspace where I just see red, and in hindsight, that was probably the closest I’ve ever been to getting into a bar fight.

We took refuge in a gay bar nearby for the rest of the night. Later that week, I put on my cowboy boots and went back to the bar seeking answers. Management wasn’t in at the time, but the bartender on duty took my information and seemed genuinely upset on my behalf. The manager called me later that day, and we bonded over our shared upstate roots as he asserted that his bar in no way supported such movements and should not have allowed such a hostile atmosphere to develop. He wondered if people were taking the bar’s aesthetic theme as an endorsement of a specific political alignment – and if the result of the presidential election was a driver behind people thinking that that might be the case.

In his words, I could hear his thoughts: how could this happen in my house?

It’s been said that a house divided cannot stand. But the idea of “division” is something that may require greater compassion and critical thought, as well as less self-centering.  For those of us who have had the privilege of being able to choose to ignore the damage done to others, it may seem all too easy to have our eyes on a so-called “higher goal.” But who has determined what that goal is? What right is there to demand silence and submission from others in the name of “unity”?  Is the real source of division those who are suffering or those who then declare such suffering to be a “distraction”? When a parent – i.e., the individual with more power – kicks a child out of the house for being gay, which is the person who has broken up the home?

And then there are those who should be kicked out. Nazis, for example, can go right to the curb, down into the gutter. And anyone who feels like apologizing for or excusing them can go right along with them. For they are those who would demand (or allow) the submission and degradation and extinction of others in the house – that is division.

All of this I’ve written at various points while in my newly redecorated living room, on my bed by the light of the pink salt lamp that I finally for a bulb for after buying it while on tour in Boston a year and a half ago, and riding the subway that contains one of the broadest spectra of humanity that I am blessed to experience on a near daily basis.

Right now, I’m feeling grateful to be home.

At the light at the light at the light at the light

What’s happening isn’t about me.

What’s happening isn’t not about me.

I’m neither in the crosshairs nor holding the gun, but I’d be naïve to consider myself safe and irresponsible to consider myself uninvolved. Everyone shows up to each moment from their own particular position, and this is mine: as a queer, femme, POC first-generation-by-birth/fourth-generation-and-further-by-family citizen of the United States who has both had racial harassment hurled at them personally since the age of six and benefited greatly from this country’s foundation of white supremacy.

I’ve seen the declarations of “This isn’t us” and “This is us.” I agree. This isn’t what we should be, but it is what we have been. We can’t reject this is some sort of foreign aberration without flat-out denying both history and present-day reality. To want things to “return to normal” is simply to want to return when other people were suffering out of our sight and, thus, remain untroubled by their pain and our own complicit inaction.

We see again the bland calls for moderation and “everyone” and “all sides.” As someone who does have many people to both the right and left of me among my friends and family, it burns me to see “moderation” used as a word for “passive neutrality,” where everything is thrown into one pot and melted together until it becomes a flavorless muddy sludge. Perhaps a better word to use would be “balanced,” despite how that word, too, has been co-opted to mean “false equivalency.” To the contrary: being balanced requires recognizing the different weight of things. You can’t balance a scale with a feather on one side and a bowling ball on the other. A balanced meal isn’t equal serving sizes of vegetables, meat, candy, and poison.

It does mean something to say “This is wrong.” It doesn’t mean that you get brownie points toward being a Good Person. But as much as in the past I’ve scoffed at #PerformativeOutrage and commemorative Facebook filters and other trends to display how woke you are without actually taking any action, I was surprised by my own emotions as the white terrorists roiled Charlottesville, Virginia. The volume of people denouncing the Nazis and white nationalists brought me comfort. And the silence of others, rather than coming off as dignified, stung.

I partially worked through this for myself in a friend’s Facebook post, where someone was asking if all of these general, should-be-a-given disavowals of Nazism by white people meant anything to those who were more likely to be the targets of these home-grown terrorists. Again, I could only speak for myself, but I realized that there was a power in letting people know “Yes, you have been seen.” After all, even worse than heatedly disagreeing with someone about something passionately important to you is when the other person doesn’t even care. At least if they hate you, your life means something to them. If the response to something that you feel threatens your very life is “it’s not that big of a deal” or “there’s nothing to be done,” particularly from someone whom you consider to be a friend or family – well, that can make a person feel mighty small.

Although the subject matter is very different in both nature and scope, I keep thinking of the lyric from the song “Telephone Wire” from Fun Home: “This is where it has to happen! There must be some other chances! There’s a moment I’m forgetting, where you tell me you see me… Say something! Talk to me! Say something! Anything!”

While it isn’t everything, to say “I’m with you” is not nothing.

Of course, context and relationships matter. No one is obligated to make some sort of official statement. And what someone says or doesn’t say can have a different impact on a person depending on how close you are to them or what your history with them is. There are those who simply aren’t very active on social media. There are those who you know have your back with action, even if they are sparing with their words.

But I find myself remembering when my dad died. It’s difficult to feel like you have the right words to say to someone when they’ve lost a loved one, right? But you still at least say “I’m sorry.” You still show up for the damn funeral. Even better, you drop off a fucking casserole at their house. And you aren’t the edgy asshole who puts yourself above such expressions because you’re too busy sniping about how others are fake – even if they goddamn are. Because for the person who has suffered the loss, it can feel like they’ve been dealt a life-changing blow but the world keeps marching on as though nothing has changed, like no one can see what has happened to them. And it means something for other people to acknowledge the cause of their grief and that, despite how the world may seem to go on without them, what happened is not nothing.

And of course, backing up talk with action is important

This document, which has been being passed around on Facebook, contains a helpful compilation of immediate in-person actions to show up for, Charlottesville-related donation drives, long-term actions to practice, and further reading.

There are a few more donation links here that are focused specifically on local efforts that support the residents of Charlottesville.

It has also been suggested that one thing that really helped in Ferguson was supporting their library. The Charlottesville Jefferson-Madison library has a wishlist for books they’d like donated to the collection, including a lot on race relations: they can be supported here.

Bring the fucking casserole.

Sweetest tune I know is

I’m almost near the end of my string of quick switches. After finishing up my show in New Hope, I landed back in my apartment for a whopping 30 hours – enough time to repack my suitcase, go on a Caribbean dance party cruise on the East River (highly recommended), and sleep once in my own bed – before heading upstate to visit family for two weeks. After that, I arrived back home on a Sunday evening ahead of starting rehearsals for a two-week workshop on Tuesday morning. Right now, I’m starting the second week, which ends on Sunday – and then have rehearsals for my next show starting on Monday.

This is hardly a complaint. Maximizing time with family and having jobs booked back-to-back is pretty much the ideal. But it can be a little hectic, and specifically, it didn’t give me a chance to really unload about my time back upstate.

I’ve made my professional career in theatre, and I love it. I’ve made my home in New York City, and I love it. But what made me into who I am was the local theatre scene where I grew up.

The first professional show that I ever saw was the national tour of Meet Me In St. Louis at Proctor’s. I have no fucking clue why we went to see Meet Me In St. Louis. Probably because I was finally old enough to attend a Real Show, it was there, and it was age-appropriate. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it, but, judging by the results, it was a positive experience. For living as literally in the middle of the woods as we did – they still don’t offer cable to our area, there’s not enough people – it is amazing to think that we have a huge national touring house just a 25-minute drive away. As a kid, I had no idea how lucky I was to have Proctor’s. I do now. I was able to see so many professional productions of current theatre. I was able to see the touring casts of shows that I had seen on Broadway. I was able to talk to people who did “the real thing” at the stage door, see that they were just other people.

(In a “small world, isn’t it” moment, I once struck up a conversation with a man I met while I was running through the park near my apartment. We’d come together in common cause when we’d both spotted another man lying unresponsive on the path in an ambiguous context and been concerned, and he hadn’t had his phone on him, so I called 911. He recognized the theatre logo on my this-was-somewhere-I-worked t-shirt, and we, of course, discovered mutual acquaintances via becoming Facebook friends. And in hindsight, I am pretty dang sure that I saw him as Javert at Proctor’s when I was a kid.)

It wasn’t just the big professional shows, though. After having been hooked by my grandmother’s vinyl cast recordings and my mom’s Premiere Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection on CD (which could only be played on the high-tech stereo system in the house), my favorite time each year would be mid-spring: high school musical season. My grandmother would save the listings in the newspaper for me, and I’d plan out our viewing itinerary. And that was how I got to know so much of the musical canon. I saw Grease when I was way too young and really didn’t understand why I was told not to sing “Greased Lightning” in public or to call somebody a hooker, but I wasn’t really a rebel, so I just went with it. I saw too many productions of The King & I that never should have happened the way that they did. (You know why.) I saw Annie Get Your Gun with a cast of upwards of 50 people, all under the age of 18, because everyone who auditioned was given a role. I saw The Goodbye Girl. Who sees The Goodbye Girl?!

There was also life outside of high school. I accompanied a friend’s highly inappropriate audition for a local production of Blood Brothers. It was inappropriate merely due to the fact that both of us were no more than ten years old, but they were very impressed that she brought her own accompanist. That audition was for the Schenectady Light Opera Company, which was another vital part of my childhood arts exposure, ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to Follies to The Robber Bridegroom. I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of the productions that I saw there – there are a few wisps of memory floating around, but the moments are too insubstantial, more impressions than images, to be described to another in words – but the proof is in the peas pudding and saveloys.

As I got older and finally reached the fifth grade, I began participating in shows myself. My summers were filled with NYSTI theatre camp and performing with the Timothy Murphy Playhouse in the incipient years of its revival. (Shout-out to mom for driving me back and forth between the absolute opposite ends of the capitol region within the same day.) It’s no small or coincidental thing, I think, that a number of us who were doing community theatre out in the central New York farmland, with the five-minute set changes and completely illegal script changes, are now in the field professionally, in New York City and all across the country. One might view that as basis for saying “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up in the theatre.” But for whatever challenges the shapes of our lives might bring us, just from superficial observation, I’d say that we’ve all managed to end up pretty darn happy and fulfilled, and via bringing happiness and fulfillment to others.

If you don’t mind negotiating the poverty line, it’s not such a bad deal.

I saw two local shows while I was home this July, both of them free productions presented outdoors in a park, one of them an 100% amateur Fiddler on the Roof by the Not So Common Players and the other non-union/semi-professional Ragtime by Park Playhouse.

Continue reading “Sweetest tune I know is”

By Monday I’ll be floating in the Hudson with the other garbage

Wednesday – is it really Wednesday? There’s a reason that I have post-it notes with the days on the week stuck to the wall above my desk in my bedroom with a smaller post-it that I move to mark which day of the week that it is. When you not only aren’t on the standard Monday-through-Friday that is reinforced as the temporal norm but also do scheduling as a large part of your job (meaning that your brain is often working on a day other than the one that you’re in), there’s a non-negligible risk of losing your place, so to speak.

My current disorientation, and tardiness, however, is due to a more specific occasion: starting a new show.

A stage manager is generally involved in the rehearsals and performances for a show. The week of lead-up to the first rehearsal is quite the busy one, as one might expect for the launch of a new project. The last couple days before starting (and the morning of), in particular, tend to be very full, as in an ever-evolving work, you want information to be as up-to-date as possible (which means that front-loading or evenly distributing the workload isn’t always best), and oftentimes the physical rehearsal site is not yours until the day before (or even the day of), so all preparation of the space must happen then.

And, of course, I need to have my standard miniature nervous breakdown the day before.

I am a professional stage manager. I have a terminal degree in my field. I’ve accumulated, if I do say so myself, a respectable resume. And yet in most instances as I approach the first day of rehearsal for a project, I am seized with the panic that I have forgotten how to stage manage.

Having discussed the feeling with a couple other friends (a director and a translator), I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not an uncommon aspect of the freelance experience. Although I’ve been fortunate enough not to have many gaps in between projects, when it comes to theatre, the job changes dramatically depending where you are in the process. The job that I’m doing at the start of a rehearsal process is very different form the job that I’m doing at the end of a run of performances. And if it’s a long-ish run, with maybe a small break afterward, it could have been a couple months since I was last in rehearsal. Not only that, but the nature of the work can vary greatly from project to project. (Is it a physically-challenging large classic musical, with almost everything set and mostly a lot of people wrangling? Is it an experimental art piece with a lot of non-traditional problem solving? Is it a straight play with a small cast but a very intense emotional toll?) And going from employer to employer, the organizational environments can differ greatly as well. (What is the budget like? What is the scale of expectations?) Given all of these variables, even though the position may technically be the same, it actually is not dissimilar to starting a new job… every couple months.

Being the professional that I am, I generally go absolutely neurotic for the 36 hours preceding the first rehearsal, frantically switching back and forth between being obsessively focused on my job and obsessively focused on anything but my job.

My kitchen looks amazing right now. And the writing that I planned on finishing one day late is now instead two days late, due to my collapsing into uselessness on Tuesday night, after two days of insufficient sleep.

For all of this rigmarole, the job that I started yesterday is lighter than many for me, as it’s just a two-week workshop for the writers – there isn’t any performance, and thus no production elements (props, lights, etc.) to manage. However, it was an instance where we did not have our own office space (so printing had to be done via Staples and picked up the morning of) and got our rehearsal room only two hours before starting for both all of the room set-up and all of the assembly of the aforementioned printing. Did I mention that this is a music theatre piece? There was music printing. Those who have been there know what I’m talking about.

None of this was unreasonable on the part of the producers. The theatre is based outside of the city, and for a short development workshop, you want to work in a central location to most of the team rather than shipping everyone out somewhere. And real estate in NYC is not cheap, so it would have been nonsense for them to have rented the rehearsal hall, which is now completely ours straight through to the end of our workshop, starting any earlier. But it was simply a set of circumstances to be tackled. Were the results a textbook-perfect example of stage managing? Hell, no! Especially since I hecked up understanding our printing capabilities within the room and, as a result, small-batch printing didn’t get done until after rehearsal actually started. But was it a disaster? Did the world end?

No. No, it did not. The planet spins, and the world goes ’round and ’round.

The needs of and expectations for this project are vastly different from what has become my usual. But I still have the foundational skills. And most of all, I still care about things being done correctly and well. I still value people being treated with courtesy and compassion. I still believe in the importance of creating good art.

I don’t know many people, and especially not many stage managers, who enjoy making mistakes. But I’ve said before that I feel like knowing how to make mistakes is one of the most important skills for a stage manager to develop. Because no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes. Knowing how to recover, how to make things right, how to learn, and how to move on are invaluable. Like when you’re at the piano and giving a concert, the worst thing you can do is get hung up on a mistake. Of course don’t fucking make it again. Life isn’t going to stop moving forward because you made a mistake, though. So you have to let it go and just be better. You don’t win points by punishing yourself. Anyone for whom punishing yourself earns points isn’t someone worth earning points for.

I heard that it rained today. As lovely as our rehearsal space is, there isn’t any window access, so the stories of weather happening and time passing seemed strangely distant.  (“It’s raining,” one person commented. “Where?” another asked. “Outside,” the first replied.) After rehearsal, I tried to get part of my work to-do list done tonight, but the person ahead of me in line at Staples turned out to be buying about 20 gift cards and I had a dinner reservation with friends. So I moved it to my to-do list for the morning, and I left. I had a delicious meal with a couple of friends (one of whom I was meeting in person for the first time – the excitement of internet-based hobbies!) at The Eddy And on my way home, with two cocktails charming me (the Sherry O’Cherry and the Honey Badger, both highly recommended), I encountered three darling friends playing as a portion of The Good Morning Nags in the 2nd Avenue F train station.

There are times when “I’ll do it tomorrow” is procrastinating. And there are times when “I do it tomorrow” is absolutely the right answer.

Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. But all the more reason to take the time to enjoy a song tonight.

Work up a new appetite

We live in such an interconnected world now. Progress speeds forward at a dizzying rate. It’s wondrous, but sometimes we must ask ourselves: have we pushed the boundaries too far? Have the wheels of change spun out of control, unraveling the threads of civilization? Do we sit here dumbly as Rome burns to the ground around us?

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I picked those up at the grocery store the other day. I haven’t tried them yet because I’m actually not that big of a snacker, but I simply couldn’t let them pass without judgment. Truth be told, it was also a moment of pause for me as I can’t not think about how things have changed. There these were in just a regular old display with all of the Normal Stuff, while it was just a few years ago that grocery stores in this area still had an “Oriental” shelf, which is where you’d need to grab your small bottles of sesame oil and soy sauce.

Times used to be that you’d need to head to Kim’s grocery for anything much beyond that. Fortunately, Kim’s did exist as I was growing up, even if it was the only option and did require a special trip that was a half-hour drive into the city. While I believe that it did close at one point, it has now reopened. That’s more than could be said of the rare Korean restaurants in the area. I can recall a total of two existing during the first two decades of my life, and neither lasted more than a handful of years.

But change has been reaching even the most average city in the U.S.. Over the past few years, Korean restaurants have been popping up and actually not shuttering immediately. I’m already looking forward to lunch tomorrow, where I’ll be meeting a friend at Sunhee’s Farm & Kitchen in Troy, a hip fast-casual Korean place that’s about positive food culture and immigrant empowerment and all that jazz. I’ve been mostly trying to avoid eating Japanese and Korean food in anticipation of eating all of the things during my trip, but it was suggested to me when we were making plans and I’m only human.

This will be my second time eating there, as the restaurant had recently opened the last time that I was visiting home near the end of 2016, so we went there to try it out for my mom’s birthday —and ended up with an embarrassing white people story.

We’d had a rather sizable order and had to wait a bit for our food, so I wandered around to check out the place’s hipster decor. There was a second room, which had their not-yet-open bar, and I went in there and poked around like the nosy person that I am. As I loitered under the archway connecting the two spaces, a white couple headed out and the man, spotting me standing around, waved to me and said, “Thank you!”

Well, my grandmother was sitting right across from me and had a front row view of the whole thing, and she started cracking up while I stood there frozen with a zombie smile of awkward politeness. The others at the table began asking what was happening and my grandmother was so openly entertained that I figured the couple had left at that point, so I pushed out a strangled, “I don’t work here.”

…as it turned out, the couple hadn’t left yet and they heard me, so they hurriedly turned back, with the man exclaiming that this was their first time here, they had just been so excited to try it, and they proceeded to talk to my family about how good the food they’d had was, presumably to prove that they were really nice people, while my grandmother continued to choke herself with laughter and I just kept on standing there in the archway with a twitching eye and no way to extricate myself.

So yeah, you decide whether “embarrassing” is an adjective or verb up there.

I’ve gotten somewhat spoiled now that I live in NYC, where I can easily shop at an actual H Mart and pick up pre-made Korean dinners if I’m feeling lazy and have to choose which Korean BBQ restaurant we should go to. But even if I now live a life where my refrigerator is constantly stocked with kimchi and gochujang, that doesn’t dim my amazement at the changes I see growing back in the land of my childhood. Even if, clearly, not everything has changed.

…and maybe some things shouldn’t change, but you’ve still just got to give those Korean Barbeque potato chips a try.

Oh god my mouth has no idea what’s happening to it.

How it got here, I haven’t a clue

As a kid, I was never a morning person. I have vague memories of my mother dragging my bodily out of bed and dumping me onto the floor to get me to go to school in the morning. And that wasn’t about an aversion to school – I’d also need to be dragged out of bed on Christmas morning. (I mean, it wasn’t like the presents were going anywhere.) But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more enamored of getting an early start. There’s just so much that I want to do, and my focus wears down as the day progresses, creating diminishing returns time-wise as it gets later. Of course, this naturally has developed as I’ve now entered a profession that often has me working nights, where getting home from work past midnight is not unusual.

And that’s how I’ve become the person who is going “I’m between jobs and don’t have to go to work? Score! I’m going to get up at 6:00am and nobody can stop me!!”

It certainly was an asset these past couple of days, which have been a minor whirlwind without really feeling like one, thanks to always having ample time to get things done. On Saturday, we closed the show that I’d been running for the past few weeks, and I left Pennsylvania early Sunday morning. It was important that I was back at my apartment before noon, you see, because I had a high-priority event that afternoon. Namely, I had a ticket to a Caribbean dance party cruise on the East River, and wasn’t nothing going to keep me from that serious business.

(I have concluded that all clubbing should take place on a multi-level boat with an open top deck sailing around the Statue of Liberty on a beautiful summer afternoon.)

And then I was up this morning early enough to squeeze in one run in Fort Tryon Park before, just barely more than twenty-four hours after getting back to my apartment, heading down to Penn Station to hop on an upstate-bound Amtrak to visit family.

There has been a slightly surreal quality to the past couple days. One month is enough time to start to get a bit lived-in at a place, particularly in a small town. I’m generally too antisocial to become a “regular” anywhere, but on my last day in New Hope, the front desk at the gym greeted me by name. (Obnoxious or the most obnoxious of me?) And then just like that, away I go, and while I hope that I made a good enough impression to be hired back, there’s a non-zero chance that I may never return to that place again.

New Hope did hold one last mystery for me. Back when I first arrived, I was so struck by the perplexing statue of a beast of unknown identity that I included a photo of it within my rant about the overall bemusing nature of the town that was to be my temporary home. When I was running along the Delaware Canal towpath weeks later, I took the opportunity to have a closer look at the thing. While I doubt that what I saw will shock you, it certainly shocked me.

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I still don’t have a clue what the hell that creature is supposed to be, but apparently its name is Boomer.

Which just so happens to have been my late father’s nickname.

Reading the statue’s placard, I flashed back to my freshman year of undergrad. Our windows featured a sort of decorative balcony – far too small to actually accommodate a person but well beyond what would be necessary for a simple window grate. At some point, some months into the school year, something drove me to actually stick my head out the window and peer around.

Wedged in between the metal bars was a small plush NY Giants football.

The NY Giants, which just so happen to have been my father’s favorite team. The one for which was trained to yell “Go, Giants!” before I understood how to tie my shoes, let alone football.

For that one, the cut was deeper and fresher – the last time that I’d seen my father had been about a year prior, when he had dropped me off at school with the check for my application fee for the only college to which I’d end up applying, as him dying ended up being a bit of a distraction from the admissions rat race.

It’s so easy to see the signs.

It’s so easy to want to see the signs.

The instances of apparent significance stand out… but those are really just an absolutely minuscule number of instances compared to all of the other moments when some symbolic gesture failed to appear. Cherry-picking the notable incidents can create a confirmation bias where surely it must mean something for these items of personal meaning to appear. However, with all of the objects that one encounters in all of the moments, probability would logically lead one to eventually end up with something of “meaning.”

And yet… why not construct narratives from the objects and incidents that our lives encounter? Aren’t our lives themselves merely stories?

I’m reminded of the tarot readings given by a friend of mine. (She offers them through her Etsy site.) I’d never really understood tarot and how people would say things like that the cards were talking or that they liked to use different decks. But she explained to me how her approach to tarot is one of storytelling, where the cards provide the plot points to a story that is then fit to the life of the person receiving the reading and different decks have different narrative voices.

So in the end, does it mean anything that the giant pointy-tailed hellbeast guarding the entrance to the town shared my father’s nickname? Well, it meant something that it struck me. It meant something that it made me think of him. It meant something to be reminded that one of the reasons that the gym knew me by name after a few weeks was that he died of his third heart attack, likely due to the strain on his body caused by climbing the stairs to his new apartment, and the controllable factors of health are never very far from my mind.

And now it’s the end of the day. I’m back in my childhood bedroom. It feels a little like I’ve never left, which is maybe a little bit true.

Except that there’s still so much to do. And I can’t wait to get up and do as much of it as I can.