Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Serenity/Courage/Wisdom Mixtape

Here’s a short and fun interactive piece for your Friday afternoon, ready for the weekend state of mind.

You know that old chestnut: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”?

Well for a long time I have been trying to come up with a soundtrack to accompany this saying, a way to pump myself up with serenity, courage, and wisdom.

I had started a playlist once in a notebook that is now buried in the wilds of my storage unit, so I’ve had to start from scratch. It’s actually harder than I thought it would be, as there is some overlap with my “Redemption Songs” list, which you can read about here.

Here’s what I have so far:

Serenity:

Let it Be – The Beatles

This Too Shall Pass – Ok Go

Hang On – Dr. Dog

Nothing to Worry About – Peter, Bjorn and John

Let Go – Frou Frou

Float On – Modest Mouse

Hold On – Alabama Shakes

Courage:

Blackbird – the Beatles

Uprising – Muse

Zero – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Shake It Out – Florence + the Machine

I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty

There Goes the Fear – Doves

Make Light – Passion Pit

Wisdom:

Rain – Bishop Allen

Nothing But Change Part II – Harlem Shakes

Heart of the Matter – India.Arie

Troubles Will Be Gone – The Tallest Man on Earth

Little Talks – Of Monsters and Men

Learning to Fly – Tom Petty

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – the Rolling Stones

So what do you think? Good or bad? Do you have any ideas? It’s so hard to think of things when you’re actually trying to. But I would love more suggestions. Happy weekend!

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Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Taking Taxis in London

When I arrived at Heathrow in September, with eight-five hundred bags and no place to live, a guy at a counter booked me into a hotel, and got me a shuttle to boot, cheaper than the cab I assumed I would need. I don’t really remember what the shuttle driver looked like, but I have this vision of him as Hal Holbrook in the old English man uniform: golf cap, cardigan, baggy trousers. In my jet-lagged memory he is smoking a pipe, but of course he didn’t smoke a pipe with a dozen bleary-eyed passengers swaying behind him, did he?

This old gentleman loved driving his shuttle and talking to the tourists aboard, pointing out the sights. Driving from West London into the City, there aren’t really many sights: neutered motorway, exhausted, dark brick row-houses. It was raining, an appropriate baptism for my rebirth into British life, but there was even less to see as water streamed down the windows in defiance of the semiotics of “drop.” As we drove through Chiswick, our driver told us not to pronounce the “w.” He pointed out the Mercedes headquarters. We passed a pub as we honed in on the western edge of London proper (near the West Kensington Tube; I started my painful reckoning with London’s geography a week later when I returned to this intersection to look at a flat). The pub was called the Famous Three Kings. He made us guess which three it referred to, and told us one was Elvis. I don’t think that was true.

We drove through central London, dropping various passengers at various hotels. As we puttered along the northern border of Hyde Park, I knew we were close to my undergrad housing on Edgeware Road. Out the window artists sold their wares against the park fence, huddling under tarps, deflecting the blood-letting-ish streams of rain from their paintings. Finally Marble Arch rose to our right and the Odeon cinema on the left and I had such a strange feeling of familiar and unfamiliar rubbing elbows in a way that was bound to produce an Indian burn.

The driver mentioned to someone directly behind him that the “Arabs” had taken over Edgeware Road recently, and he didn’t seem too happy about it. Later, when it was just me and him, and he motioned me forward so he could chatter and entertain me the final few minutes to my hotel, I didn’t mention that when I lived on Edgeware Road a decade ago, it was already full of fluorescently-lit shwarma shacks with their spinning spits of meat, as well as more elegant Lebanese restaurants. The guys running the front desk of our student flat building, who always smiled at me as I passed, were certainly “Arab.” I told the driver why I was in London, to study, to travel, and he wished me well, helping me lug my eight-five hundred suitcases through the sepia puddles and up my hotel’s eleven unnecessary steps.

Several days later, admitting defeat in my magic plan to magically find a magical flat, I switched hotels for the duration of the search. Apparently I wasn’t going to avoid that monstrously expensive taxi ride after all. It wasn’t a proper black cab, either, not the quintessential London taxi experience, but just a car, a compact silver everyday car with a reasonably sized trunk.

My journey west to east across the city continued with those eight-five hundred weary bags, concluding at a small hotel in Walthamstow, all the at the end (or the beginning?) of the light blue Victoria Line in Zone 3 – but I had a private bathroom. This time my driver was a thirty-something Iranian dressed in business casual: white button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black pants. The same questions came up: why was I in London, what was I studying.

I asked him about himself; his English was excellent but not quite inflected with Britishness, despite the twelve years he had spent in the country. He had intended to stay for five, to study finance, but the economy had collapsed. He warned me to be careful or I’d find myself with a mortgage, as if mortgages were insidious grass-covered pits hidden throughout the city, something I might fall into unawares and find myself trapped for life.

He had friends who were doctors, and he claimed even they couldn’t save money in London. He drove the taxi part-time while also working at a gym; he wanted to become a personal trainer. We reinvent ourselves, then reinvent ourselves again.

As we continued east, far beyond the edges of everything I had ever seen of this urban sprawl, the Olympic Stadium loomed up on the right. It gave me a little thrill; Michael Phelps and the Fab Five still danced like sugar plums in my memory. But no, no, the stadium was a mistake too. My driver didn’t understand why “they” had built it here, in this part of East London, where no one comes. People don’t even go to all the casinos in East London; they prefer betting on dog fights.

I didn’t say that the gentrification “they” were hoping to attract around the stadium probably didn’t include him anyway.

He lived on Edgeware Road. He hated it there.

He dropped me off just around the corner from the hotel’s entrance, and helped me carry my eighty-five hundred bags to the door. I was once again hunched over against an implacable rain. My luggage begged me now to stay still, to unpack, to lighten their load. But not yet. For all our journeying, we still weren’t home.

I was hopeful that we would find one soon. A home. But my drivers had me wondering: the first, a native, cheerful, proud to show off his city. He was born here, he owned this town, he would never not have that deep sense of confidence inherent in belonging. The second, an immigrant, hoping for a better opportunity, a new life, a rebirth. Like me. After twelve years he still didn’t feel like he was home.

I wondered (I still wonder) if I ever would either. But still I dream. I burn myself to ashes and wait for something new to rise.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

On My Second Marriage

For twenty-five years, I was wed to theatre.

In second grade I saw Godspell in the high school auditorium attached to my grade school. My sister’s friends were in it, and I have a – probably incorrect – memory that they acknowledged me somehow as I sat in the audience. In any case, because I knew their real names, I felt somehow “in.” It’s an intoxicating feel, the giddiness of those who become intimately involved with the stage: the feeling that we belong somewhere. I developed a crush on theatre that day.

I saw Les Miserables on Broadway soon after that. Who knows why my parents let me go (I wasn’t even allowed to watch Doogie Howser). I guess they didn’t want me to feel left out, having missed so much family action because I was born much later than my teenage siblings. A need to belong permeates most of life, yes?

I didn’t understand half of Les Mis (French Revolution? Prostitutes?) But my god did I sob when it became clear Val Jean would die. I was hysterical for the last twenty minutes of the show, leaning into my sister and not even watching. Sitting close to the last row of the balcony, I had a visceral emotional experience such as I have only ever felt at live performance. I fell deeply, earth-shatteringly in love that day.

But last year, theatre and I broke up. The manic romance of the lifestyle was no longer enough.

Theatre is romantic: that determination of pluck and passion overriding limited resources. That group effort, a unity of direction and focus. That chance to touch a life, an audience member who feels the words and actions taking place in real time in a deeply resonant bone marrow place. That sense of belonging.

Nothing beats the high of these experiences.

On the other hand, theatre is like a bad relationship: it never pays the rent. At the end of every production, that manic high slides sharply into tears and soul-crushing emptiness. There is no stability; theatre is never satisfied with you. As you peddle yourself in one job interview after another, you get an overwhelming sense that you are never enough.

There is little opportunity to get ahead in theatre. Even after ten years of professional work, I had to fight like a newsboy to get paid fairly on one off-Broadway show. My experience mattered little in an industry that will cut corners by undervaluing people. While I loved my long-ish term part-time theatre gig in NYC, I was constantly looking for something else to survive. That job was a microcosm of a relationship you stay in too long: I loved it and appreciated it, but we were just meant to be friends. No matter how much of my heart I gave to it, I was just not the “one” for it. I would never be full-time.

Now I’m doing this other thing: narrative nonfiction. It’s why I’m in London, to study a craft I only became aware of a few years ago. Theatre is so obvious, it’s a crush on George Clooney. Any old seven year old can have an affair with theatre. Theatre is kind of a whore.

No seven year old wants to be the next Paul Theroux or David Foster Wallace. Complexity of thought and awareness of the wider world only come with age; you learn there are more career opportunities than doctor or ballerina or policeman.  Les Mis was broad enough that even my seven year old self could fall victim to its emotional manipulation. Narrative nonfiction is a personal, hard won discovery. It’s subdued, not flashy. It creates the same kind of life-transforming resonance, but in a private, eternal form: you can touch and carry a book. This writing is more satisfying: it suits my innate confessional need. I can write a story or essay or book and it will live fully on the page, a complete entity. When I wrote plays, I always needed a crowd of others to make my work live, and those crowds were hard to come by.

This is a typical second marriage. I’ve grown up and better understand what is important, what I want. I want a sense of gratification that is less dependent on others. This marriage involves sitting quietly alone in a room most of the time, and being content with being alone. How mature, right?

But I saw the Les Mis movie earlier this week…I mouthed every word to every song, stuck in the recesses of my memory from years of detailed soundtrack comparisons. My god did I cry.

I wish I could have been a part of that movie, to act as one small but necessary facet of group creation. I miss theatre. I ache for that sense of belonging, no matter how ephemeral and fabricated it may be.

My divorce was the right decision for my mental health. Theatre could never love me as much as I loved it. I love narrative nonfiction much less, and my smaller investment of emotion means there is less chance of getting hurt. There is a chance for a mutual and deeply satisfying, if reserved, relationship. Partners who sleep separately, I suppose, rather than having mind-blowing sex every night (a metaphor that is weird but appropriate).

But I guess I’m learning that clichés are annoyingly true. You never really get over your first love.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Celine Dion Almost Ruined My Friendship: A Tale of Traveling with Groups

Dear readers, perhaps you remember the days when I railed against the deficiencies of traveling alone. But then I traveled with other humans, and oh dear readers, is not the grass always greener?

Last year a friend from New York and I visited a third friend in South Africa. The third friend, though American, spent months on end in Durban; she is an honorary native, adopting South African slang and their laidback vibe. She rented us a car and mapped out a road trip route, hitting all the honest “can’t misses” of the tourist trek plus the off-the-beaten path “would misses” because we foreigners just wouldn’t know any better.

When you are on vacation and you’re visiting someone who is essentially at home, you have two different concepts of time. A local has errands and work and people to see. NY friend and I wanted to GO and SEE and DO. Our SA friend wanted to deal with her life. Understandably.

Once we got in the car and set sail out of Cape Town, I thought we’d all be on the same page: after all, it was just the three of us then, in a tiny white car. No real-life distractions.

Perhaps we were all on the same page. We were just reading different books (I happened to be immersed in Fifty Shades of Grey). In a tiny, tiny white car.

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After a few days of driving, I was unraveling. I was proud of myself for rising early each morning to take the first shower, allowing my traveling companions precious extra sleep, and ensuring we could leave by our daily target departure time. I was patting myself on the back because I am notoriously slow in the morning. I have been known to stay in hotel beds until my parents have showered and eaten breakfast and are ready to go.

To my friends, I was just using up all the hot water.

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I wanted to surf in Jeffrey’s Bay, a gorgeous beach town with some of the best (shark free) waves in South Africa. My NY friend had gone on some NY escapades with me, and I just assumed we were adventure-compatible kindred spirits. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. She just wasn’t interested, and I knew my SA friend couldn’t care less about surfing. They were all graciousness, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting our timetable several hours behind schedule for such a small fraction of the group consensus, and I didn’t want to go alone: what was the point?

I was stewing. Why had I ever wanted to travel with people? If I’d been alone, I could do whatever I wanted guilt-free. Backseat grumble grumble.

Not-Celine Dion threw me completely over the edge.

For some inexplicable reason, South African radio played ‘80s pop classic “The Power of Love” three times as we moved east across the country. It was not Celine Dion’s version, but my friends declared it was. I don’t know if I listened to the Titanic song on repeat for my entire seventeenth year or if I had to listen to Celine’s greatest hits multiple times with my mother, but I know the Skinny Quebecian’s nasal wail.

This was not Celine Dion.

I had no way to prove it, and who cares? Why was it bothering me so much that they didn’t believe that I was CLEARLY RIGHT? But by the third time we heard it, I looked at my friend across the dinner table as she leaned against the wall, staring into space away from me, and thought, “We’ll get through this. But when we get home, we won’t be friends anymore.”

Melodramatic? Yes. Road trips can lull you into a surreal out of body and time mental space, where you’d rather keep going than get anywhere, where pringles and coke and gas station pies are the only sustenance you need, and blurry pictures out the window become a metaphor for life.

But that only comes after you lose your mind from spending twenty-four hours a day with the same people, breathing the same air and compromising every decision into a collective brainspace. Roadtrips are a rebirth that arise only after the death of expectation.

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I think it was the first wart hog that brought me back to sanity.

We drove into Addo Elephant National Park and I was broody and pouty and generally unpleasant. I wanted aloneness.

But you just don’t expect to see a great big ugly-but-cute, tusked, snouted beastie staring at you placidly as you drive around a corner.

I couldn’t help but smile at this life-size Pumbaa, in need of a good shave and bath. Silly ugly beastie.

I took my camera out. What else could I do? It was time to give in.

It is a testament to my friends that they didn’t abandon me, at least emotionally, when I lost it. I gradually learned to take deep breaths and better share the limited air in that tiny white car. My NY friend had her own meltdown several days later for completely different reasons, because  we’re all individuals with complex and varied needs. I felt so zen by that point that I was willing to sleep on the floor with ants crawling in a superhighway crack a foot and a half from my face. My finally mellowed attitude meant I was able to accommodate and empathize with her feelings of travel stress.

I saw more on this trip than I would have had the courage to strike out and seek alone. Or that I could have possibly known about without a local’s perspective. I have pictures of myself that don’t have my freakishly elongated arm stretched out in the foreground. I have people to share stories with. That’s the best part.

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It would take more than Celine Dion to sunder these bonds of wanderlust friendship (especially because it wasn’t Celine Dion. I looked it up when I got home and the song was originally performed by Jennifer Rush in 1984. I don’t think I rubbed this fact in my friends’ faces. Or maybe I did. Or maybe I am right now…)

I hope these ladies know how grateful I am to them both for an amazing trip. And I hope we can do it again someday.

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Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

345 Books, But Still Counting…

Continuing my obsession with words, I watered the topic and it grew into books.

I love books. If you slathered frosting on a book, I would totally eat it.

As I mentioned recently, I’m caught in the trap of school, where I HAVE to read, which is totally cutting into my time for what I WANT to read. And with the Kindle Daily Deal offering books for $1.99, my owned-books collection has grown to 40. And that’s not counting the eBook collection a friend gave me that is multi-thousand titles long.

So I’m busy. My main problem with eBooks is that you can’t spread them over your bed and roll around in them like money or whip cream.

At 3am, lots of things seem like a good idea. And one night several weeks ago I decided, in my wakefulness, to start a spreadsheet of every book I’ve ever read. I don’t know why this became important to me, but I’m just really curious about the total amount of verbiage I’ve consumed in my lifetime. Reading is genetic with me.

As of right now, my list is only 345 books long. This is a bit disappointing, but I understand why. There have been gaps in my reading, periods where I was too distracted by life and theatre to read a book. I only read travel magazines for a year or two.

And also, I just can’t remember everything. Currently most of my books are in my storage unit, so I can’t jog my own memory with a book shelf. I can’t remember a lot of what I read in college, no matter how hard I try.

But the trying is revealing a lot of really interesting things to me. For example, I remember much more vividly the books I read when I was a child/teenager than anything I’ve read in my adult life. I remember the authors I love, and reading every single title I could find by them. I’m aided in this task by the most fabulous website ever, Goodreads.com. It’s Facebook for book nerds, and it’s so helpful to just type in an author and get their entire bibliography.

But why do I remember those books so much more viscerally than almost anything I read as an adult? I remember Cynthia Voigt and Ann Rinaldi. I remembered having such a strong reaction to Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart mysteries that I actually reread them over Christmas. I remember the Anastasia Krupnik books by Lois Lowry, and how she wanted a turret/tower bedroom when her family was moving. Patricia Beatty wrote a slew of Civil War historical fiction that I was in love with.

These books have stuck with me more than ninety percent of what I read in college. What does this say about adult literature? Or, I guess, about me, and my interest in being adult?

Here’s where things get hairy. I’m not sure what is considered a “book.” How many pages, or how small does the type have to be to be worthy of my list? At what point can something be considered not a “kid’s book”? Or do kid’s books have their own validity, even if they are short? Can I include all the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary? Do books you read in second grade “count” toward your lifetime reading tally? Can I count The Babysitters Club even though I probably skipped the first ten pages of every book?

Here’s another question: plays. Part of why my book reading is a bit lean in some years is that I was exclusively reading plays. Do these make it on the list? I tend to think no, they are not complete texts in and of themselves. They need a third dimension to live, so I can’t count them. But am I wrong?

Finally, the problem with college reading is I would frequently be forced to buy a book only to read a chapter or two. I’ve read a lot of Emerson and Thoreau, and Edgar Allan Poe short stories, but I don’t know that I’ve read a complete text by any of them. Do I/How do I incorporate these fragments?

If you have any opinions about these questions, I’d love to hear them. I’m at an impasse. I haven’t added Bridge to Terabithia or Summer of the Swans or There’s a Bat In Bunk Five yet because I’m just not sure. The fate of The Babysitters Club hangs in the balance. What do you think?

Ah, the metaphysics of books. I’m about ready to start throwing wads of paper in the air and dancing ecstatically in my book rain.

In any case, you might think it’s a crazy project, but I can’t even tell you how fascinating it is. Remembering one book will spark another title that has been buried in my subconscious for years. I’m remembering authors whom I’d like to revisit, books I’d like to give a second chance to see if my opinion is the same. It’s a lot of fun to look back and remember this facet of my life that has been so important to me for redemption, catharsis, escapism, education, growing up.

I dare you to try it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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