What’s cold and flat and white all over? Fargo, don’tcha know.

“So how was Fargo?”

“Cold. Flat. White.”

“Yeah, they were still getting snow, weren’t they?”

“No- I mean, yes, but- I mean… white.

There are times in your life when you are in tech in Fargo, North Dakota when, a week before that moment, you had expected to be in neither tech nor Fargo, North Dakota. I’d been sitting in a stage manager friend’s work apartment in New Haven, getting ready to finish up my overnight couch-crashing expedition with some of that mashed potato pizza at Bar and a visit to my old grad school office, when the email came in, asking me if I was by any chance available to leave in three days for a week-long work trip to Fargo because their stage manager had a medical emergency that might preclude them from traveling.

My brain immediately slammed on the brakes, because I’d had plans for the next week. Granted those plans had been for a second week of “unpaid vacation” – the only kind of vacation that you get when you do gig work is unemployment between jobs – but writing regularly, playing the piano, doing my own personal exercise bootcamp, catching up on watching a series that my friends were on my case about, and generally spring cleaning my life was something that I’d been kind of looking forward to, particularly given that I have a busy summer (#grateful) ahead of me. And most importantly, I’d had plans, and I’m not sure about you, but my brain is naturally pretty reflexively resistant to course changes, even when for the better.

But the fact was that I was available for that week, if just barely – I’d need to go straight from the final performance to the airport so that I could be in rehearsal the next afternoon – and I’m a goddamn sucker for playing hero. The doctor had not yet given final word, but I agreed to be on deck for them.

“Sorry, I take back what I said last night,” I re-commented to a friend’s post. “Probably can’t make it to Smorgasburg on Sunday because I’ll be in Fargo.”

At this point, my brain had shifted to accepting this as a win-win situation. If the doctor cleared their stage manager, I got to enjoy my originally planned Spring Cleaning Week and watch Mob Psycho 100. If the doctor nixed it and I was called into action, then I received money, adventure, and glory.

So much in life comes down to having the power to say “yes” and “no.”

Not two weeks before that, it had been the day before St. Patrick’s Day. The fact that St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday meant that my plans were to have my own traditional corned beef and cabbage at home and not leave the neighborhood all day, and so hopefully avoid the unruly drunken throngs. Just as I was about to go to bed on Friday, I did one last check of my Facebook feed… and saw a friend’s post with a ticket available to see Sleep No More the next night. Despite close friends having been pushing me to see the show for something like two years, scheduling and finances had created a higher barrier of entry than my interest level could top. But for there to be a ticket opportunity presented to me? There was a minute or two of hemming and hawing as I considered the motivations underlying my original plans and imagined the horrors of the St. Patrick’s Day evenng crowd downtown, but my answer really could be nothing but: yes.

I had a great time – and I was able to see a friend perform.

Not sixteen hours before that, my stage manager friend and I were getting good food and terribly slow service in a restaurant in New Haven. At that rate, we were going to be late for the show playing at Yale Rep, for which my friend had complimentary tickets due to being a guest artist. Noting the time, my friend commented that the last of the student Shakespeare series was having its final dress rehearsal that night, and it didn’t begin until 8:15pm. A professional play at Yale Repertory Theatre or a rehearsal for a student show in a blackbox… I’d already mentioned my plans to attend the former, but I knew which one I’d rather see.

It was a pleasure to get another chance to consider A Winter’s Tale, and to say hello to faculty who were present in the audience.

So by the time the initial inquiry had had the chance to settle in for a couple hours, I had shifted again into the Land of Yes.

(And what would you know, but not 48 hours after that, I received a text from another stage manager friend telling me that I absolutely had to – had to – come see the workshop at the Public that they were working that night because my life would be significantly better for it. I had about 18 hours until I would be boarding a plane at LaGuardia, and I’d planned to have a leisurely evening of finishing packing and prepping for the show and getting to bed early but…

Get your tickets to Ain’t No Mo by whenever and wherever it ends up having its world premiere, is what I’ll say to that.)

I landed in Fargo near the end of April Fool’s Day, when the live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar was just wrapping up. At the baggage claim, I opened up my suitcase and took out the winter coat that I’d been about to pack away for the season a few days ago. After bundling up, I headed out into the 40-degree temperature drop from when I’d left New York.

So yes, it was cold. And the landscape was, indeed, very flat. Heck, even the topography of the grocery store was flat – the aisle shelves were short enough that I could stand at the entrance and see across the expense of the entire store, from wall to wall.

And then there was how the only Asian people I saw the entire week were the violinist that was part of our New York production team and the sexy beast that I saw in the mirror each morning.

If you’d given me a pop quiz about the demographics of Fargo prior to my going there, I probably would have been able to give you some pretty good guesses. Something like my hometown, maybe, where “The racial makeup of the town was 97.66% White, 0.45% African American, 0.29% Native American, 0.28% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.28% from other races, and 1.02% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.81% of the population.” I was still caught off-guard by the feeling, though. My hometown has the advantage of familiarity, of course. But also, my hometown is a literal single-traffic-light tiny hamlet in the middle of the woods. This was the largest metropolitan in the state, where we were working at the state university.

Also, there were my multiple encounters with still-current use of the word “oriental,” which dropped on my brain like a record scratch each time.

“I think that I’m single-handedly shifting the vocabulary of the racial discourse in Fargo, ND,” I texted my director at one point.

These people were kind and generous and did not have bad intentions.

That didn’t really matter.

If I go for a drive and accidentally run somebody over, as far as that person’s medical condition is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether or not I intended to hit them with a car. Sure, it matters in determining whether or not I’m a psychopath who should be charged with murder, but in regards to the well-being of the person underneath my car, there are so many things that were more direct contributors to that moment than whether I was literally thinking “I’m going to hit a motherfucker today because I want to cause harm”: how well I knew the traffic flow and road conditions where I was driving, if I was paying attention to my surroundings, if I was driving too fast.

Again, none of this changes the medical condition of the person underneath my car.

And yes, I will judge a person if they speak of certain things in certain ways, even if it’s just a matter of education or the lack thereof. It’s not a condemnation but a judgment made for my own well-being. Things like “oriental” tell me how much I can trust a person – which is a different thing from judging the trustworthiness of their character. There are many good, upstanding, trustworthy people whom I wouldn’t trust to, say, take me skydiving. If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, I’m not going to trust you to push me safely out of an airplane. Likewise, if you haven’t bothered to learn not to call a person like me “oriental,” I’m not going to fully trust you with my well-being in this world. If you’re still running Windows ME and haven’t even installed any patches for the past decade, I don’t know if I’m compatible with your system or what malware you might have been susceptible to. The OS that I observe throws up red flags for how you might be processing me.

And I understand that you might not have an out-of-town Asian guest to be your personal tutor and gently hold your hand through these changing times. But there are books. There are movies. There’s the internet. There’s literally the entire world. It’s within your power to stop being comfortable and passively consuming only what has been hand-fed to you within your own bubble.

As a person belonging to various non-dominant demographics within U.S. society, I grew up being trained in empathy for those unlike me for my entire life.  I’m overjoyed by all the little straight white boys who are now being presented with more growth opportunities than were easily available merely ten years ago: Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Love Simon. These things aren’t “niche” and irrelevant to straight white boys any more than Indiana Jones was niche and irrelevant to me and my taste in hats. Embrace these growth opportunities being presented to you. And if it feels a little uncomfortable – well, maybe that’s just growing pains.

Meanwhile, I’m back home. And by “home,” I no longer mean my hometown, although I still call that “home,” too. I’m back in NYC, where it’s warm, crowded, and I’m often out of place but only need one ride on the subway to feel that everyone is at least a little bit out of place and a little bit connected in this big, tiny, crazy world.

(Post-Script: I do have to give special shout-outs to the amazing Drekker Brewing Company and Proof Distillers, as well as the Toasted Frog in downtown. Highly recommend all if you end up in the area.)

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“Is it anything and everything you hoped for?” Black Panther, PyeongChang, and me.

Last week, Thursday was a major holiday in my world. The atmosphere was already high from the Olympics running in PyeongChang. And it was the Lunar New Year (i.e., “Chinese” New Year, which is a fine name for it if you’re actually Chinese, but pro-tip: maybe don’t repeatedly ask an Asian what they’re doing for Chinese New Year if they’re not, you know, Chinese). And on top of that, it was opening night for Black Panther. (Thank you to the marketing folks who realized that old people with early bedtimes get very excited about movies, too.) And not only was Black Panther just, you know, Black fucking Panther, but two schoolmates from graduate school had major roles in it, one of which was their first movie role ever.

Basically, Thursday night was the night of Turn The Fuck Up.

As you might have heard by now, this was a movie event where the hype did not match the reality – because what was expected was a movie that brought a black heroic narrative into the mainstream and didn’t fuck it up, and what was delivered was many steps above that.

(And here’s where I say: if you haven’t seen Black Panther, stop reading this and go see Black Panther because spoilers and also treat yourself.)

There are plenty of people with insights and opinions about Black Panther who know a lot more about the subject matter and/or film in general than I do. Here are a few of them:

My thoughts about Black Panther don’t really matter, to be honest. But what Black Panther means to me does matter, if only to provide just one more example to illustrate how wide-reaching the effect of this movie is.

I’m not sure how many other people who were little non-black POC girls in the early 1990s had this experience, but I remember poring over the American Girl catalog and trying to decide between Revolutionary War era Felicity, the settler immigrant Kirstin, bougie Victorian Samantha, and spunky WWII Molly. The Revolutionary War was already my jam, but immigrant stories touched me in a certain way and also Samantha had the best clothes. So I hemmed and hawed as I tried to decide which American Girl would be the one that went in my letter to Santa.

Then, Addy was released. And I went full Issa Rae:

black

I did, indeed, become an Addy girl and proceeded to be a Civil War history nerd for a good five years or so, which is a lot of time when you’re in elementary school. And not just within the American Girl oeuvre, either – I’m talking As Seen On TV boxes of historical flashcards, family trips to Gettysburg, hats. I eventually shifted over to the French Revolution, but for me, growing up in a white family in an overwhelmingly white community, Addy had started my connection to black history. This didn’t make me woke by any means but, in hindsight, it raised my awareness and investment above the sadly low mainstream level.

Now, let me pause right here and emphasize that I have no claim to either the historical trauma of black people in the United States of America or the present-day injustices still endured. I may feel drawn to increase my awareness and knowledge not just because I believe being an educated citizen is a moral duty but also due to finding a personal resonance, but it’s just that: resonance, not identification. Is there a black culture equivalent of “weeaboo” that’s public-use-acceptable by non-black people? I just barely dodged the former during the anime phase my adolescence, so I hope to hell that I would not be foolish enough to pull those tricks as an adult.

The relationship between Black American culture and Asian culture, both American and abroad, has long been interesting to me. While Asian-held anti-black sentiments are far too common and I can guarantee that you’ll pretty much always peep one East Asian motherfucker at any given white supremacist rally, Eddie Huang (of restaurant and Fresh Off the Boat fame) is a current publicly-identifiable face of a notable affinity and exchange that has been going strong for decades. Korean hip-hop artists are coming to more prominence now (the artistic and moral integrity of the commercial music industry is another topic) and, well, the Wu-Tang Clan exists. Samurai Champloo. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

But curious to me in my specific experience, I think back to lunchtime during my freshman year of high school. My elementary school was so overwhelmingly white (at its most diverse point, the 500-student population had six non-white kids, myself included) that there really was no choice when it came to demographics, and my middle school was so small that my entire class fit at only two lunch tables (boys and girls, which I still regret in hindsight). But looking back at the start of my high school career, when I came in not knowing anyone to a class of 70-odd young women who mostly also didn’t know each other, I can’t help but wonder what led me to end up at, to put it bluntly, the black lunch table.

It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. But when you’re the odd one out, you often gravitate toward other odd ones out. And in many parts of the U.S., there is that little voice inside of you screaming to get out of that sea of whiteness.

(Jordan Peele was, in fact, correct about Get Out being a documentary.)

There was a lot that was conscious decisions and deliberate awareness in my anticipatory lead-up to Black Panther. It was a fact that the team was good and could be counted on to do good work. It was the fact that this movie was placing black culture to the forefront in an unprecedented way. It was a fact that the teaser trailer had more women in it than the whole of the MCU. It was the fact that I had gone to graduate school with two members of the principal cast, one of whom was actually a year-mate with whom I’d worked on a number of shows. All of this meant that I signed up for ticket sales alerts months ahead of time and bought my opening night tickets for my second-choice showing as soon as I got home from work on the ticket release day in January because my first-choice showing was effectively sold-out after only four hours. I wanted to see a good movie, and I wanted to give my financial support to it.

I think that there are things that goes further back and deeper down for me, though. Continue reading ““Is it anything and everything you hoped for?” Black Panther, PyeongChang, and me.”

Nothing holds all of me

Today is my thirty-second arrival day – i.e., on this day thirty-two years ago, I arrived in the United States from my birth country of South Korea and began my new life. I know other families with adopted kids have their own terms for it – “gotcha day” is a very common one. While I respect the personal, positive meaning that it may hold for some, I’m very uncomfortable that phrasing (and I’m not the only one). It frames the event in terms of the acquiring entity, which strikes me as diminishing of the experience of the actual adoptee and, quite frankly, kind of creepy. (“For Karen Moline, a Parents For Ethical Adoption board member, the word “Gotcha” is deeply insulting, especially in light of unethical international adoption agencies. No matter how pure your dreams of being a parent are, Moline reminds people, “a child just isn’t something to be gotten like a car or a computer.””) I don’t know what led my parents to choose the “arrival” terminology, but I’m very glad that they did.

Arrival day. I traveled from Point A to Point B. On that day, I arrived. Them’s the facts.

I’ve talked about Hamilton before, including how I accidentally saw it for the first time back in previews Off-Broadway when a friend’s travel plans went awry and they graciously offered me their ticket. (Being a freelance stage manager without a set work schedule, I couldn’t buy a ticket as far in advance as the initial availability ended up requiring.) So the tickets to this brand new show, which hadn’t even opened let alone had any sort of cast recording, fell on my head from out of the blue with one day’s notice, and my other friend and I slipped into our seats just as the lights went down and the show started.

To steal words from the show’s mouth: I was blown away. Not only by the amazing writing, the astounding performers, and the unbelievable direction and choreography (I’m still not over how they actually put a war onstage in a breathtakingly effective manner) – but by the claiming of the U.S. mythology.

Just the power of seeing those bodies and faces onstage – it was only comparable to when I was 11 years old and turned on PBS and saw this thing that I subsequently learned was the tenth anniversary concert of this show called Les Miserables. Seeing Lea Salonga as Eponine shook up this Broadway nerd’s world, and for the first time I envisioned myself as doing something other than aging up through the cast of The King & I. Even though I obviously switched to backstage years ago, the change in consciousness was something that extended into all aspects of my life.

Then in ways that I did not expect at all, Hamilton was, on an incredibly personal level, both so relatable and so inspiring to me. And cathartic.

I’ve never seen myself as an orphan – I really won the familial lottery. But biologically and historically, maybe I am or maybe I’m not. That’s what happens when you were adopted from a foreign country when you were too young to know where you physically came from.

And sitting in the Newman Theater, the proverbial light bulb went off over my head, as I witnessed this immigrant’s story. In hindsight, it seems so clear. (I went through a huge Ellis Island phase as a kid, for one thing.) But what it means to always be looking forward because there’s nothing to look back to. To be searching for how to put your roots down. To have something to prove. To have come from somewhere else. To be an immigrant.

It’s not a betrayal of what and whom I’ve found here to acknowledge that I came from another place. It’s a source of strength, not suspicion. Anyone who wants to take it otherwise can fight me, but I don’t need to be fighting myself.

In additional to the national holiday of my arrival to this country, there is also a State of the Union speech happening. The most affecting commentary I’ve seen lately on the state of our union, however, was from a man who has been dead for thirty years: James Baldwin, via the recent documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. PBS had it streaming from mid-January through today, and I watched it last week to take advantage of that availability. While I’m certainly no scholar, I also wasn’t a stranger to Baldwin’s work, so it wasn’t like I was making some huge discovery. But something about the skilled way in which the documentary brought his words to life and set them within such a strong contextual frame reduced me to weeping more than once at that towering intellect, eloquence, and humanity standing in such contrast to the shameful abyss of hatred that he was forced to confront by not just the brute reality of America but also by his own integrity. (It is he, of course, who is the source of the words “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”) I would put this movie on my list of things that I believe should be required reading/watching for Americans. And while the PBS streaming ends today, it is still available to anyone with a New York Public Library card via Kanopy.

Today, on that subject, is also momentous for me because this afternoon, I went out and got my library card. I’ve been living in New York City for nearly four-and-a-half years now, and I’d still yet to have gotten my NYPL card, despite having about a dozen of their fundraising magnets decorating my refrigerator. (If you live in NYC, you know.) But being in between jobs right now, I had absolutely zero excuse to not walk the half-mile to my nearest branch.

It was the first time that I had set foot inside a public library as a patron in approximately a decade.

While that might actually be exceptionally strange for an average citizen of 2010’s American social disconnect, if one guessed that I had been the sort of bookish, nerdy child to grow up among the stacks, one would be correct. I got yelled at for not stopping reading, even when it was mealtime or bedtime. Belle was 100% my favorite, most #relatable Disney princess (aside from the whole “prince” business). But the last time that I had walked out of a public library was such a negative experience for me that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to return.

My hometown library was nothing to write home about. While my memories are faint, it was approximately the size of two small living rooms. And even that was a 15-minute drive away. Sure, I absolutely won the book-reading contest there every summer, but while my consumption rate was impressive, the competition wasn’t exactly stiff. My mother was clearly well aware of the limited resources there and how it would not take much longer for me to begin running up against said limits, so when I got my own library card, it wasn’t to there. Instead, we used my grandparents’ suburban address to make me a member of their library.

Even in its first iteration, it was actually possible to lose a person in there. And it wasn’t long into my childhood that they moved into a new building, even bigger and shinier, one with different rooms for things like music performances and lectures and the like. It wasn’t just a place where I read but where I learned cat’s cradle and studied storytelling, where I borrowed Broadway cast album CDs and discovered new shows.

Going away to college had me out of the area for most of the year, of course, so my use dwindled drastically. Following graduation, I got a local job and was living at home, so I went back to get some books and music. For some reason, though, the self-check-out machine wasn’t reading my card, so I lined up to check out at the desk.

The library scanned my card and handed it back to me. “You can’t check things out,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled and annoyed.

“You’re not in the system.”

What followed was several rounds of back-and-forth between me, holding my library card and nearly twenty years of memories, and the librarian telling me to my face that I had never been there. But what about the children’s story hours that I’d attended, I wanted to say. But what about the garden out in that patio dedicated to my high school best friend’s dead mother, the ceremony for which I’d attended just last year, I wanted to scream.

Instead, I just left the books and CDs sitting on the counter, went out to my car, and broke down in tears.

I had never been there. That was the kicker. At no point did the librarian say that my card was expired or that my address was ineligible. Her words were that I had never been there.

The emotional impact was doubtlessly compounded by the point in my life when it was hitting. Just out of school and in near-disablingly poor health and without a firm idea of where my future was heading, I was feeling the uncertainty of modern American adulthood. If there were to be any sign that childhood was over, having someone tell me that it had literally never existed was rather the hammer to the head.

And so maybe it’s fitting that I claimed this library card on my Arrival Day. A day of being here.

And to everyone else out there: you, too, have been here. You, too, are here, whether “here” is Point A or Point B or Point M or halfway between Point Q and Point K. We’re all still in transit, each one of us. And yet, we’ve also all still arrived… to somewhere.

Let’s just be good to our fellow travelers and respect the journeys.

And we need a little snappy happy ever after

Heading north on an Amtrak on Christmas day and watching the wintery Hudson River, dark water contrasting with the bright snow-covered land, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas was the perfect soundtrack. There is, granted, a root of personal preference to this judgment, as I generally consider John Denver to be not necessarily perfect but, at the very least, reliably excellent. But I maintain that while the mountains in the background were no craggy-topped Rockies, what they lacked in grandeur, they retained in solemn immovability and their invitation to disappear, and the soundtrack felt fitting.

It wasn’t disappearing that I had in mind, however, unlike the tempting fantasies that whisper in my ear when I sit behind the wheel of a car. Sitting on that train, I switched to my shuffled holiday playlist when the album finished and gave myself a surprise when Dar Williams’ upbeat “Christians and the Pagans” brought tears to my eyes with the words “Amber’s uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father. / He thought about his brother, how they hadn’t spoken in a year, / He thought he’d call him up and say, ‘It’s Christmas, and your daughter’s here.'”

2017 was quite a year. As life on a national level continued to unravel, my affairs on a personal and professional level, conversely, came together in astounding ways. Not magnificent ways – didn’t save any lives, still not rich and famous – but in ways that still astounded me by how much the odds seemed to be tilted in my favor. Even the parts of it that were frightening or saddening still had an almost storied quality to them, not because the events themselves were so amazing but because it’s just difficult to believe that such things would really happen to little ol’ me.

That seems like a funny thing to experience, given that I’ve never been a person with any sort of self-esteem deficit. But just because I think that I’m charming and witty and, not least of all, irresistibly attractive doesn’t mean that I’d ever pictured the hot piece that is me dancing in an East Village Bar at one in the morning with an avant-garde director whom I’d read about in my college textbooks or hanging with my cool friends in a downtown music studio as we jammed out for hours (fun fact about playing keys versus playing piano: you generally only need one hand for the former, which leaves your other hand free to hold a drink) or nearly getting into a barfight with a room full of white supremacists or taking a selfie with the director of the world premiere of the Thai film that I had just seen at the Busan International Film Festival near the end of my solo trip to South Korea.

I haven’t written any of the books that would contain those stories yet, but I’ve been living a lot of the things that I’d thought I’d write about.

And as all of those things fill me up, become part of me, I feel just a little further away each time that I return home. Not because I’m “above it” in any way, but it’s like I was a slightly floppy and empty, and each life experience pumps just a little more air into me, causing me to stand just a little straighter on my own and just a little more apart from the things that I leaned on for so long – or, in another phrasing, that had supported me for so long.

I don’t play the piano very much when I visit home now. It’s loud and disturbing to other people in the house. There are some out of tune notes in the upper register. And now that I have an electric piano of my own in my apartment, being able to play on a full-size weighted keyboard isn’t an opportunity that I have to seize while I have the chance. But I did flip through the Christmas music on a couple of the days that I visited home, picking out a few of my seasonal favorites – including one with which I have a long history.

Back when I was in kindergarten, we were asked if we wanted to get up and sing a song in from of the class. It was pretty much what you’d expect: Row Row Row Your Boat, Pop Goes the Weasel, probably a smattering of TV theme songs lost to the early 90s. Being the cool kid that I am, I pulled out the obvious and appropriate selection of “We Need A Little Christmas” from Mame. Because really, who could better interpret the lines “For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder/ Grown a little sadder, grown a little older/ And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder” than an actual five-year-old?

I certainly don’t recall those words bringing tears to my eyes back then, but once again, I found myself welling up. Was there something about Christmas that was making me emotional this year?  Even if the latter of the songs making me verklempt was at least equal part showtune — full disclosure that I wasn’t that very much Different From The Other Kids, as I’d picked up the song from The Muppet Family Christmas (and found the rest of the lyrics in a Broadway songbook we had lying around) rather than from being a precocious Jerry Herman devotee – the multiple instances pointed to a common denominator.

I started pecking away at these thoughts on Christmas Day, and by some accounts, today is when the Wise Men would have found Jesus, at least in the geographical sense. One of the reasons that my swellings of emotion from Christmas tunes stems from how holidays in general have tended to mean less to me as I’ve gotten older, and not just for reasons of religion (or the lack thereof). While that undoubtedly contributes to the lessened significance of some occasions, even the non-religious holidays have felt less like occasions and more like routine.

The marking of the New Year, however, is one that has stayed with me. Not necessarily the celebration of the turning of the clock, as these days, I’m more likely to rejoice when I don’t have to stay up until midnight. But I do appreciate an accounting of things, and these markers of time, as arbitrary as they may be, can be put to good use. Often it seems that I’m in the middle of some project that doesn’t allow for lifestyle overhauls when the calendar turns to January – case in point, I’m currently at the last of a string of 10:00am-11:00pm tech days (with an hour-long commute on each side), which aren’t particularly conducive to accomplishing anything outside of going to/being at/coming from work and maybe, just maybe, taking a shower – but if I make my plans at the solar New Year, then I’m generally in good shape by the time that the lunar New Year hits.

New Year’s resolutions aren’t particularly my jam, but I’ve stolen an idea that I overheard while eating at a noodle joint in New Haven where I give each year a theme. The bro who gave me the inspiration had given the example of having a theme of “connection,” where he made making time for friends, staying in touch with family, and reaching out to people he’d lost touch with a conscious priority. I haven’t always  been so poetic – one year, my theme was “shit or get off the pot” – but it’s still be a useful practice for me.

And so, with a drum roll, I present this year’s theme: putting out.

Even as the world burned down around so many, I received so much good fortune this past year. Things seemed to just come together for me. And so, having taken in so much, I want to focus on what I can put back out into the world. While I’m no moneybags, I want to take stock of where my charitable giving stands in order to both maximize and optimize it. My schedule of availability is not likely to become any more cooperative for group events, but I want to give more time and energy to taking productive action on behalf of causes that are important to me. And most of all, I want to really bear down on my creative output.

To that end, while trying to keep to a weekly blogging schedule was a wonderful exercise during 2017, I’ll be cutting back here in 2018 in favor of some larger projects that I’ve had on the backburner. Please, don’t start crying yet – I plan to still write a couple of posts per month, just to keep me honest. But Boss Me is going to start demanding that Employee Me starts to put in some real hours on that creative work, which always seems to find a way to slip down the priority list. It can be difficult to build a routine when my life has no set schedule as far as my actual employment is concerned, but I’ve hatched upon a plan where I keep a cumulative 54-hour workweek. Any hours that aren’t used by my actual job are owed to creative work. And that way, I hopefully also won’t get that discouraging feeling of having fallen off of the wagon when heavy weeks at work take over my life.

2018: it’s time to put out. Because sometimes when we need a little music, we need to hang the tinsel up ourselves.

Listen to the tune that keeps sounding in the distance

This is the dream I dreamt…

I was carrying on with my own business in a small local town. There was a sense of impending threat. There was some sort of war going on, a factional one, and our community was at risk. We told ourselves that

But as we were walking through the forest, I looked up and saw a dark object in the sky, tiny and far away. From it came hurtling a bright spot that rapidly grew larger enough to discern as a fireball. It struck what probably was the next neighborhood over. I just knew that there was another one coming, so I began to run, keeping my eye on the sky – and sure enough, before I even had the chance to get much of anywhere, another fireball appeared, aiming straight toward us.

We all ran.

I was in a traditional-feeling, wood-and-paper-constructed shop of some sort with others, and we knew that after those bombings, the actual invaders couldn’t be far behind. There was a loud tumult outside, and I ducked into the bathroom just in time to see the ruling faction march in and begin rounding up my friends the shop people. I stayed tucked in the bathroom for a while.

When I peeked back out, my shop friends were being paraded back into the main shop area as prisoners and the invaders were being installed s the new bosses. I slipped outside and began walking briskly down the street. A white woman with a high quality camera was passing by, so I latched onto her and began asking her technical questions so that I would hopefully be less noticeable.

It wasn’t until after I woke up that I consciously realized that one of the strange things about the dream was how the people populating it were mostly Asian. And that spurred the realization of how that stood in contrast to what was apparently usually the case.

I thought about that dream as the airplane carried me from Osaka to Seoul, and I found that my personal anxieties (of not fitting in, of facing hostility) had disappeared when faced with the more mundane bigger picture. This was a people. This was how life went on in the face of nuclear geopolitics.

Descending below the clouds to finally see the bridges stretching across the Han River, a swell of emotion reminded me of my first international flight (that I could actually remember), when I was 20 years old and went to England to do research for an academic project. Back then, I’d been caught off guard by a fierce gut reaction to seeing the lights of Newark International Airport shrinking below me. I felt a strain on that binding tie that resists disloyalty, like I was abandoning someone and needed to articulate, if only to myself, that this was not goodbye, that I would be back. Now, I again felt something on a very physical level, a relationship between body and land, only this time, it was the surreal experience of making the return to somewhere I had never known.

I thought of the dream again a couple nights later. After spending the day swanning about in hanbok at Gyeongbokgung Palace, I’d found some maduguk for dinner (#goals) and was going to hop onto a bus back to the boarding house where I was staying for this leg of my journey. But when I got to the bus stop, I changed my mind, remembering that there had been an impressive statue in the large boulevard leading toward the palace.

And so I kept walking.

As I continued into the city, I heard music, amplified but live. It was a mesmerizing blend of traditional and wild, the spirit of jazz flowing through a drum and solo instrumental voice that would not allow itself to be called a melody. It was not far at all, still well within the sight of the palace where the wide boulevard was lined by art museums, that I discovered an outdoor concert, where the musicians onstage were powering a calligrapher wielding a giant brush who was painting hangul writ large. Indeed, I recalled, it was Hangul Day, the holiday celebrating Korea’s literacy of its own creation. I concluded that this must be some sort of public concert held in celebration.

I joined the crowd, standing on the plaza off to the side yet also right up front, because how great was that, stumbling onto a free concert? But as I stood there looking at all of the people, my dream returned to me, and all I could think of was watching those balls of fire in the sky, so tiny at first but growing larger and larger and larger as they approached their inevitable targets.

This is how I’m going to die, I thought.

As it turns out, I did not die at a hangul concert in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace. And after that night, my dream drifted back into the realm of curiosity rather than looming as prophecy. How much of that really, I wonder, was actual Korean nuclear anxiety and how much was it an American import of the Las Vegas massacre that had occurred just days before? (Oh, the irony of my grandparents’ fears for my safety traveling abroad, I had thought, when the real terror lived at home.) Was it, like me, just some neurotic blend of the two?

A couple weeks ago, I had myself a two-show week at the Public Theatre. First, I was fortunate enough to see my friend Ceci Fernandez playing the lead role in Tiny Beautiful Things, regularly played by Nia Vardalos. While I wouldn’t call the play a life-changing work of dramatic writing, it was a wonderful, heart-expanding communal experience, like a church service comprised solely of homilies.

But what was unsurprisingly disturbing and yet, more prominently, unexpectedly affirming for me was Julia Cho’s’ Office Hour in the tiny Martinson Theater a few days later. This energizingly theatrical work explored the story of a college professor trying to get through to a student in her writing class whom her colleagues have warned her has all of the signs of a school shooter. Notably in this extremely American story, both the professor and the student are Asian.

On my way out of the theater following the play, two older white ladies walking in front of me were discussing the show between themselves and one commented about how she felt that all of the guns were confusing and distracted from “the cultural issues.”

Reminder: this was a play about a potential school shooter.

But I could only guess that the faces that woman was seeing could only belong one story, that of the “culture clash.” Indeed, in one conversation, the professor discusses how her parents didn’t want her to become a writer – ah, yes, of course, the strict and traditional Asian parent! Clearly this was what explained these two lives in crisis that we were watching. Whence could the rage – the rage that was so shocking to see depicted on stage but the existence of which was so viscerally, familiarly real – come but from that? Those people and their culture issues!

I left those people behind me but kept the story with me as I walked out of the theatre.

(You still have a little time left to catch both shows – Office Hour runs through December 3 and Tiny Beautiful Things through December 10. And while I highly recommend Office Hour, please do heed the production’s warnings about gunshots and gun violence.)

I miss the mountains

On the night before Halloween, my last night visiting my family at my childhood home before finally, after more than a month, returning to my own apartment in New York City for long enough to justify unpacking my suitcase, I had a lot to get done. And so I picked up a folder of paperwork to sort through and spent about a half-hour sitting on my bedroom floor and staring at the wall in blank despair. Realizing that this was accomplishing nothing, I very deliberately flopped flat onto my face and fell asleep drooling onto the carpet.

I suppose you could say that the process of returning to regular life has had its challenges.

I’d thought that I’d pushed through the worst of during the prior week, when I’d spent a twenty-four hour period maniacally re-obsessing over the entertainment of my college days in a self-aware but completely unironic attempt to find comfort in the familiar, winding myself up into an increasing tizzy until my brain at last rocketed into outer space, passing beyond the realm of reality’s grounding pull to that weightless expanse with no secure anchor. That evening was a memorial service that, as unhappy as I was that it was necessary, I had been grateful that my schedule would allow me to attend.  From my friends on the internet, I crowdsourced a chorus of echoes that yes, I should go to the memorial service. My lovely friends encouraged me and assured me that I would feel better for having attended, which then made me feel bad for having led people to assume that it was the person’s untimely death that was giving me so much angst and not just my own solipsistic doubts about the objective existence of reality.

(Side note: this is called anxiety. Specifically, anxiety manifested as depersonalization and derealization episodes. If you feel yourself experiencing this, it is a condition, not you, and it can be addressed.)

The memorial service did make me feel better, if not for the expected reasons. It was a service for a theatre man, largely for the theatre community. As such, the service was naturally followed by a reception with a lot of, for lack of a less gauche term, schmoozing. And I am, if anything, a natural schmoozer. With a cup of red wine in one hand and some brie on multi-grain bread in the other, I felt myself coming back to life as I cruised the room – not on auto-pilot, no, but able to fall back on habit, able to do something that came easy to me.

Honestly, “schmooze” makes it sound a lot tackier than the reality of the situation. In the theatre industry, unless you are one of the rare birds that works as part of a resident company, much of one’s life consists of forming close professional and personal relationships with people over the course of a month to maybe, for those on one of those few long-running shows, a year and then being uprooted to start a new project in a different place – maybe across town, maybe across the country. Staying in touch with people you like as an adult can be difficult enough to fit in around everyday responsibilities even when everyone is working on a relatively similar 40-hours-per-week schedule. When you regularly work 54-hour, six-day weeks and don’t necessarily have the same day off (and also live in New York City, where public transportation means that it can take you over an hour to go to a friend’s apartment 10 miles away — if the MTA happens not to be breaking down), socializing beyond those with whom you’re currently working in the same physical location can become quite the arduous task.

(Which isn’t to say “boo hoo, boo hoo.” It’s a trade-off, of course. But just because a negative trade-off is accepted doesn’t magically make it be not negative.)

As a result, when there’s an occasion for a mass gathering – whether it be an opening or a rally or, you know, a memorial service – one takes advantage of being present with others and being able to reconnect. Sure, that might mean “please remember that I exist so that I come to mind when there’s an appropriate job opening,” but even that desire to pay for rent and groceries has some element of “I want us to be in the same room together.” Or at least “I wouldn’t mind being in the same room together.”

Trust me, after a certain volume of experience, one encounters those who don’t meet that standard.

But it also didn’t feel inappropriate for the celebration of Michael Friedman’s life and the shared grief at his death to have a post-show reception. “Even after,” I remarked to a colleague whom I hadn’t seen in a while, “he’s still bringing people together.”

That was something that struck me about the service. While naturally there were performances of his songs and mourning for all of his music that we would never hear, what people talked of most was how he made them feel. Not with his artistic creations. Just with himself: watching him, talking with him, being with him. It was inspiring to hear people articulate how they could be so deeply moved by simply knowing a person.

Something that I’d been struggling with since returning from my travels was the end of the freedom of accountability from anyone. The last week of my trip had been completely solo, and for an intensely introverted person such as myself, the experience of being accountable only to myself and my own time – and in a foreign country, no less, where I didn’t know the language, so no one could speak to me, even if they wanted to  — was a beautiful thing. In the words of every “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”  description, being alone “recharged” me. But despite the energizing implications of the word “recharge,” it also calmed me. The muscle underneath my right shoulderblade that had been twitching for nearly a year loosened up, and I’m pretty sure that the overall height of my shoulders dropped by about half an inch due to lost tension. Maybe the “What careers should you consider?” computer quiz that we took in my junior year of high school was on the right track when it recommended that I should look into working at a funeral home.

Hearing about Michel’s impact on people, however, was aspirational. Imagine, being a person like that! To have such a positive effect on people’s existences! And while of course Michael was an extremely singular individual, what he did as a friend and brother did not require being an athlete or a genius or some other characteristic determined in the lottery of birth. To be good, to be loving, to lift people up in your interactions with them – those were things that could be developed and were within reach.

Of course, as evidenced by the first paragraph, this didn’t solve everything for me.

Even now, I can’t tell if the experience of that memorial service tempered, albeit briefly, or further inflamed the rabid bite that had attacked me suddenly in my travels and been festering since: the conviction that all art is bullshit.

(This thing is a problem when you: 1) work in the arts, and 2) aren’t paid enough money, 3) for something that you don’t have to be doing.)

I mean, I’ve long been of the conviction that art is not inherently worth taking so seriously. This is, I should qualify, different from the capital-t “The”” capital-a “Arts,” in my mind. The Arts are, of course, an important cultural means for developing good humans, which as a result contributes to having a good society. And I’m not talking about didactic art teaching proper lessons (though art is an effective teaching tool), but of the practice of art, as creator or consumer, being a method of developing self-honesty, empathy, critical thinking, and communication. To say nothing of the value of bringing delight and beauty into people’s lives. Hell, I’m even a supporter of bad art, in the same way that I’m a supporter of “useless” research: sometimes you need the space to have the misses in order to be able to have the hits.

At the same time, if you don’t get a scene just right, the fact is that nobody is going to die. I mean, unless you’re working for Cirque de Soleil and being off by an inch actually does mean that someone might literally die. But I’m talking about not having the money to get the prop that is precisely the correct era, not having a lighting cue land with exactly the right timing, not having a transition run perfectly seamlessly. Of course one wants to respect both the artists and the audience by doing the best work possible. At the moment, however, that humanity begins to be the price paid – when the body-harming sleep deprivation starts, when the anger and abuse boil over, when the spirits of those involved are diminished – it seems proper to remember that what is being performed is not open-heart surgery with someone’s life directly and immediately in our hands.

It turns out that too much hiking solo up mountains and lurking around Buddhist temples wormed something into my brain. I’ve long been what one might call a positive nihilist (i.e., nothing inherently means anything existentially speaking, so it is both our power and responsibility to give and determine meaning), so maybe it was where I’ve been heading all along. As I wandered down stone pathways accompanied only by the sounds of the wind and distant chanting, I found myself feeling wearied at the thought of spending so much time and worldly money on… what? What were we pretending to understand or presuming to try to understand? Doing this, doing that, adding on, adding on, adding on… It all seemed so unnecessary.

I was able to largely put this to the side when my life consisted of solitary exploring, but this increasingly troubled me as I returned to Real Life, the life that revolves around the art that people do.

Granted, it is normal for me that the approach of a first rehearsal brings with it the anxiety of the unknown, even after all these years. In a normal state, however, that manifests itself as merely a hyper-energetic neuroticism, like that first day is an approaching freight train that I’m driven to climbing up the walls in an effort to avoid being crushed. Normal, too, is a certain measure of avoidance. (Note to reader: just answer those emails even if it’s been “too long,” you’ll feel a lot better and you know it.) But this time, it was as if the walls were gone, and rather than being successfully avoided, the push just sent me tumbling into a void.

And that was how I, a thirty-something professional, ended up face-down on the floor, inhaling the pink synthetic fibers of the rug that had been picked out for me when I didn’t even know the words for colors.

First rehearsals come; first rehearsals go. The immediate crisis is over. Like with the memorial service, upon finding myself actually in the situation, familiarity bred competence. And having some sort of sure footing allowed me to feel more human, rather than merely a well-dressed fleshbag full of screaming. The present situation is not one that I can merely deal with, but one that I’m grateful for and honestly, one that I am sure that I will enjoy. I know where I’m going with this. I just can’t say that I know where my path will take me once my current itinerary runs out. Maybe I’ll just continue in the same direction, and maybe it will be with purpose or maybe it will be out of ease of habit.

Or maybe I’ll finally succumb to that voice that has for years whispered into my ear: run away, run away, run away.

I’m not sure from what. I certainly don’t know towards where.

I went away, and I’m not sure if I returned with something more or if I left something behind.

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.

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:

without

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.