Author: Jess

Oscars Roundup!!

You may recall a certain plan I made that set out to view most/all movies up for major awards at the upcoming Oscars.  I am happy to report that I have succeeded – AND MORE.  This was mostly made possible through actual movie passes and the wonder that is MoviePass – I mentioned it in our SyncSwim newsletter (you’re not signed up!? go to!) but it deserves a second shoutout because it is a #game #changer.  I am in fact not a wealthy goddess woman and cannot afford to see all these movies on the big screen at face value.  Imagine my joy when, lo, my pal told me about a magical piece of plastic that allows you to see unlimited movies for $10 a month and isn’t lying! (Apparently right now it’s for only $8 a month based on the link I just put in? How is that possible??? Where was this when I was 14???) Aka, what movie dreams are made of.  You can also quit whenever, so it is very much worth getting it for just one month and then making a mad dash to the nearest theater near you.  Ergo, thank you to both the Academy and MoviePass for sponsoring my journey into cinematic bliss (but not you, Harvey Weinstein.  You and your sliminess can kindly stay out of here).

That said, if you’re feeling disoriented on the road to the Oscars, or if you’re just looking for one or two to see to stay relevant, or if you don’t care at all, or if you care too much – here’s my take on how to prioritize, in the order I saw them, followed by the order I would recommend seeing them in if you’re pressed for time.  If you’re anywhere near Chicagoland, there will be ample opportunity to escape the rainy, snowy days ahead in the walls of your friendly neighborhood theater (unless you’re trying to see Black Panther.  Good luck getting a ticket.)  If you’re like me, you can movie hop while you’re there, and catch the second half of another flick (I’m looking at you, Greatest Showman) because why the heck not!

And so, without further ado,

ROLL CALL!

  1.  I, Tonya (3)

I remember reading about Tonya Harding in various People collectibles that detailed crimes that shocked America, and I always had questions about this one.  There was a lot of talk about Nancy Kerrigan being saintly and pretty, but not a ton about Tonya Harding the person.  No more!  The acting is excellent, but the best thing about this movie is how little it actually focuses on alleged crime and instead finally gives Tonya her due, making her sentencing way more heartbreaking.  She’s a badass beyond measure, and even with the beautiful skating taking place at the Winter Olympics this year, still holds her own as one of the very best in history.  Also, shoutout to the guy that plays the bodyguard, aka maybe my favorite supporting character ever.  Also also, listen to the Tonya Harding singles and read Sufjan’s cutie note about her for the full experience.  This movie rules.

2.  3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (1)

Let’s just get out of the way now that this was my very favorite of the bunch, and the one I think you should see if you’re going to just see one.  Okay! That’s done!  The writing is incredible, the story is unpredictable, there’s a lengthy feature of Abba, Frances McDormand is a punch to the face.  It’s not for the faint of heart – my roommate describes it as “emotionally violent” – but it’s the most original of the bunch while remaining very much on the nose about the typical.  Might just go see it again right now.  Wanna come?

Frances winning all of the awardsThe Post

3.  The Post (5)

I would not have seen this had my mother not asked me to accompany her, and I am oh so glad she did!  It is predictable in certain senses (due to the whole Stephen Spielberg-Meryl Streep-Tom Hanks thing), but it’s really riveting anyway.  Nothing against Queen Meryl, but it’s one of the few performances of hers in recent years that I think actually merits the nomination (obviously she’s the best but come on, give someone else a try!).  Nothing like a movie about journalism to cut right to the point, while simultaneously managing to make you long for a gold caftan and the lives of Washington’s elite.

4.  The Greatest Showman (6)

Haters, back off.  Think I’m exaggerating all you want, but I cried 3 times while watching this movie out of sheer joy, and I have snuck into it twice since seeing it to catch whatever left of it I can after my real movie is over.  I get why people are like “meh,” but I also don’t think that’s a fair response if you account for the fact that it’s just trying to be what it is – a joyful celebration of good entertainment done well.  And, it is.  Also, the acrobatic love ballad between Zac Efron and Zendaya is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever seen and they did all of it themselves!!! Which, arguably, should be the case if you are getting paid millions of dollars! But still!!  Acrobats! Of love!

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Love of My Life

At first I thought I was going to write a Laps, in keeping with tradition, to celebrate what has historically been my favorite holiday.  I had a sort of running list in my head, keeping track of thoughts and activities, as I tend to do automatically anyway, siphoning through noise to find feeling.

I love holidays (duh).  I love any calendar event that says, “Stop what you’re doing, and do this instead.”  An instruction to remember, to reflect collectively on a universal experience – holidays are a dream for 4’s on the Enneagram. I took up my particular penchant for Valentine’s Day probably my freshman year of college, perhaps in direct opposition to all the people who complained about it.  I’ve only had a boyfriend 2 of of my 24 Valentine’s (though the preschool years are harder to recollect, as sandbox love dies the hardest), so I’m quite good at celebrating whatever kind of love however I want to with a dose of however much #highdrama I want.  This culminated in a nearly perfect Valentine’s last year, replete with surprise visits, taking my time, Julia Roberts, and the perfect bath.  I love to celebrate love, running the gamut on any given day, but there is obviously something particular on Valentine’s Day about either celebrating the love you share with a romantic partner, or leaning into the unabashed, wild hope of obtaining it, should you so desire (or, perhaps, moping at the lack of it – no shame there either!).  There are poems to be read, conversations to replay, scenes from Atonement to watch.  It is the one day a year hopeless romantics can be indulgent without criticism, and I truly both enjoy and actively look forward to it, no matter how I find myself celebrating each year.

This year, I did not find myself in much of a holiday humor.  A couple of friends asked me what my plans were, as I am known to keep a strict Val’s agenda, and I realized I hadn’t made any.  Furthermore, I had consciously decided not to make any valentines, an activity I quite look forward to, with no better reason than I didn’t feel like it.  Let the record show: I am not particularly heartbroken.  There is not some romantic score to be settled at present, no moping, performative or otherwise.  For all intents and purposes, I feel quite all right at the moment across the board.  I just didn’t want to do it.  I had circled the date in my calendar, but there was nothing under the circle.  I rallied the night before, scheming with Amy and Emma various things we could do, landing on some predictably comfy choices to spend the day in.  As the day passed, though, I couldn’t help but think all day about the phrase “the love of my life.” I read it in a lot of Instagram captions, heard it echoed in all the songs on my playlist, had it reverberate through my brain from half-remembered conversations on those who claim to have found it.

What’s always surprising to me is how late in the game these alleged loves of our lives show up.  Twenty years, thirty years in, and they get the mantle of your whole life.  Or, on the opposite end, the loves of our lives are often the people who it didn’t work out with, the one that got away, the almost-but-not-quite, who’s sort of a phantom that sticks with you through the rest of it.  Either way, they’re never actually there for the whole life part.  There’s always a life before them, and often one after it.  Yesterday, I wasn’t entertaining thoughts of missed opportunities or will-it-or-won’t-it’s.  While I am more mindful every day that finding romantic love isn’t a given, nor even is it remotely required for an incredibly full life, it’s not a secret to me that I hope to find it in a lasting way.  But all day, between the dancing and the viewing of About Time and the requisite drenching in Tina Turner songs, I kept thinking about how the loves of my life are probably the women in it – my mother, my sisters, my aunts, my friends.

I’ve had a lot of romance in my life, probably more than my fair share.  I have had some truly magical moments with some unexpected boys that even I couldn’t dream up, and they were lovely, resplendent, full.  I’ve been in love more than once and stolen midnight kisses, written love letters and sung duets, been surprised and humbled when a guy knew me better than I thought he did.  Which is great.  But also, limited.  Because romance, itself, is inherently limited.  And I know that when most people speak of the loves of their lives, they are referring to love that lasts after romance, but I don’t know any lifelong love that didn’t begin staunchly in mutual wooing.  Romance is wonderful and mysterious and grand, but it doesn’t show up when it receives a frantic phone call or rub your back when you’ve got the flu.  Romance does not have the same conversation with you ten times while you try to make a decision, nor does it sit with you when you’ve ceased being particularly interesting for a moment and find you have nothing to say.  Love does that stuff.

I cannot count how many times my mother has just sat with me while I cried, more than once about literally nothing.  Crying just because I had to cry.  She deserves a whole paragraph, a whole volume, of how her love is the definition of transformative and true, and how it has singlehandedly made my life livable on more than one occasion.  I can’t count how many times my friend Ellie has shown up whether I asked her to or not, because she instinctively knew I needed her, or how many drives my friend Abby has taken with me either sitting in knowing silence or letting me talk about the same things over and over again.  I cannot fathom the observations and insights each of my sisters carry around with them about me, some so deeply known they are beyond articulation and therefore without need of it, and how consistently and freely they share their love with me.  These women, and so many more, have been with me my whole life, loving me through hideous identity-finding phases, doubt, and all the unattractive parts of myself on display.  And normally I try not to drop too many names on here for various reasons, but I want you to know their names! I want you to know they’re the loves of my life, because they’re world-class ladies who have only made my life better.  And there are so many more!  So much love and friendship that feels in itself like romance of the deeper kind, the long-lasting kind that I can’t get away from even if I try.

I know this isn’t groundbreaking stuff.  I don’t even watch Sex and the City in a real way but I still know that Carrie says something about her girlfriends probably being her soulmates, which is essentially how I feel.  I don’t say it at all as a man-bashing agenda – on the contrary, I am deeply grateful to the men who have become the loves of my various friends’ lives.  It would probably be a lie to say that I haven’t found men in my experience disappointing, but, when I’m with it, I can just as easily tell you how totally un-disappointing I know other ones to be, and as I said before, I’m not pretending I don’t want to find romantic partnership.  I do! I totally do! But so many other Valentine’s Days have been spent thinking about that, even amidst the other joy, and what a relief to spend the day thinking about the actual loves of my life, the ones who are already here and have been here all the while, the relationships that consist of commitment, trust, a narrative arc that stretches forward and back, a mutual asking of important questions.  These loves, my loves!

I love romance (duh).  I love the particular mystery that exists in romantic love.  I actually love, for the most part, thinking about relationships that have gone wrong, because I can just as easily tell you all the ways they went right.  I love the reality of hope, and that perhaps in my life I will meet a person that I’ll love for the rest of it.  But as far as the love of my life?  My life?  Thanks very much, that seat’s taken.

Healed

I’ve been trying to go to yoga in a regular way for about 3 months.  The love affair began at a studio a couple blocks away from my apartment, where I obtained a 2-week free trial that I blabbed about to anyone who would listen.  During my trial, I was treated like a goddess of health and flexibility, given towels and water bottles by the front desk to create and consequently soak up my goddess sweat.  The classes themselves were wonderful, varied in difficulty and focus, and the studios themselves are kept at such a temperature and light level that you literally feel like you are back in the womb.  But the very best thing of all – at the end of class, when you were slipping all over your mat and ready to curl up into a ball (which you got to do), the instructor surreptitiously left the room and returned bearing a tray of cool lemon-lavender washcloths.  She proceeded to make her way through the room, priestess-like, and gently place a cloth on each forehead, one at a time. You were then welcomed to stay as long as you liked on your mat, resting beneath your cool crown in the dark, in the warm.

My 2-week trial has since ended, so I am now left attending the one free community class that takes place on Wednesday nights.  So many people show up that there’s often hardly any room to lay your mat, much less receive a lavender towel seemingly from thin air, but I’m happy as a clam that I get to go at all. It’s nice to be in a room full of people breathing together.  The goddess glow has faded, and instead I am surrounded by people who are generally just trying their best and often laugh while doing so.  We have the same teacher each week, and she’ll call us out by name to tell us that our pose looks better this week, or that we’re clearly moving more deeply into our practices.  She speaks softly and laughs with us, taking our time to go from one thing to the next.  The lights are brighter so she can help us out, but the warmth remains.

This last week, the typical instructor was not there, and was replaced by someone who ran a slightly tighter ship.  I could tell you about the class, but what I want to talk about is the towels.  For whatever reason, at the end of this community class, she made the since-forgotten gentle announcement that she was leaving to fetch us lemon-lavender towels.  I’m pretty sure steam was actually radiating off of my body at this point, and that I may have even let out a little yelp of excitement at the prospect of a former luxury returned.  She slipped out, I curled up, breathed, and waited.

When she came back in, I heard her way making her way through the mats.  I tried to gauge based on sound reflection how close she was getting to my own mat, dead center in the middle of the room.  I thought I heard her nearby more than once, and felt my forehead involuntarily tilting ever so slightly to meet her. “Bless me! Bless me!” A full two minutes went by, and even though I hate to spoil surprises, I couldn’t resist opening my eyes to see where she was.  To my surprise, she was looking back at me, not with a towel in hand, but with her teeth clenched and a shrug mouthing, “Sorry.” She had run out of washcloths.  I looked around the room.  There were white cloths, impossible even in the dark to miss, sitting on everyone’s foreheads but mine.  Just one short of a full bag.

Outwardly, I instantly mouthed back, “It’s fine!” and made a similarly clenched expression to convey how silly the whole thing was.  “So crazy! One towel short! What are the odds! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Internally, the stages of swift and sudden crying began.  I waited for her to look away before I closed my eyes and let my mouth do the strange, blanched, trembling thing it does when I start crying without warning.  I kept it subdued until I left the studio, after which I cried in earnest, swift guttural gulps, on my walk home.  I didn’t want to figure out why so I just let myself cry until I got back home and eased back into whatever I had been doing before I left for the class.  I actually felt a little embarrassed, which almost never happens when I’m crying, because it seemed like a small thing to cry about, even to me.  Not small.  Childish, maybe.  Like I came to the ballgame with my glove and got sent home.  Either way, I felt silly, and just wanted to hurry up and get the crying over with so I could go back to being the bastion of strength that I am.

There’s a game I used to play in my days of college theater.  In the exercise, you simply lay down on your back on the ground and imagine that somewhere vaguely near your right hand is a warm washcloth.  Perhaps it smells like lemons, perhaps it’s just clean.  Slowly, slowly, you pick up the washcloth (which, of course, isn’t there) and you place it wherever it is you need to be healed.  That’s the whole game.  More often than not I placed it on my heart or my head, though on occasion I’d place it on my stomach or crossed hands or my feet on days when it felt like every part of me required any and all physic, that I myself was a sickness and required everyone else’s cloth, too.  I don’t think I ever cried doing that, perhaps because it is consistently difficult for me to imagine an object being some place it isn’t, but almost every time we played it I would hear someone nearby losing it, completely sobbing under the weight of their washcloth.  The object may have been imagined, but the reality of healing was almost too much to bear.

I don’t think these two washcloths are the same.  I think the reason I cried when I didn’t get a towel at yoga was perhaps more primal, a physical response to being the one have-not among the have’s, an unfiltered need to be comforted in physical distress.  But I’m happy it led me to the healing washcloth, because now all week I have been wondering what it looks like to walk through the world as healed.  That’s what we would do, after we got up from the ground and had used the washcloth.  We would walk around the room as healed.  I don’t know a better way to say it than that; I don’t mean to be vague or esoteric.  Perhaps it’s best left unadorned anyway.  Or perhaps it’s very simple: walking around as being rid of whatever afflicts you.

What does a body look like that says, “I have not been hurt. I am without blemish, spotless, made clean. I am well.”  Of course I won’t know this side of eternity, but I can’t shake the thought.  How does a body walk as healed?

Our frames carry so much of what has happened to us; our muscles literally carry memories in them, to the point where it requires great effort – conscious or otherwise – to be rid of them when we need to be.  This sounds obvious, almost commonplace when typed out, but it’s so difficult to put into practice in the day-to-day.  How can I walk through the grocery store as healed? Even when, especially when, I feel the total opposite?  How do I sit in my car, make my coffee, trudge through snow as healed?  Can I walk around as something other than who and what I am? It’s not even necessarily about being healed, but imagining that it could be so.  Imagining that it’s possible, that not everything must be with me always.  That whatever is keeping my shoulders clenched halfway up to my ears can be let go for a moment, that I can be otherwise.  I saw Call Me By Your Name earlier this week – an essay unto itself for a later time – and while it is chock full of many beautiful things, there is one line in particular that I can’t get out of my head: “Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once.”

Once.  Just once.  Is it the same one the whole time?  And if so, how much of its mantle must be carried every day?

I suppose there’s no real hope for healing, complete or otherwise, without a full embracing of the wound to begin with.  You can’t get through the gate to the pool at Bethesda unless you know you’re sick.  Even then, there’s no guarantee of getting into the water, I suppose.  And so many wounds are inflicted by someone who will never apologize, leaving us with more broken parts than we had to begin with.  But I just want the option.  The option of walking around as healed, the option of permission to start over at any given time, the option to be new.   My body, beaten up as it is and lugging around this particular mortal coil, is only given to me once.  Can it yet be new?

 

Youth

This past Monday while researching for one of my jobs, I came across the twitter account of a 17-year-old.  If you google said 17-year-old, you are directed to her Wikipedia page that describes her as a writer/comedian who began writing professionally at age 10 when Hello Giggles commissioned her to write a piece (though the reason why is somewhat harder to find) for their younger audiences.  She has since snagged a regular comedy gig at Upright Citizens Brigade, as well as published her first memoir at, you guessed it, the tender age of 17.

Quite frankly, this strikes me as ludicrous.  Maybe that’s because imagining my own 17-year-old self with a global platform produces a sort of vague dread; it could even be a sort of latent jealousy that someone 7 years younger has a more established career.  But I am more inclined to think it’s because of this peculiar age (phase?) we live in, in which those who achieve fame in youth are enviable, and those who achieve some form of success eventually are the suckers.

I think a sort of obvious reason why youth itself is praised is because it is when we are most beautiful.  Our skin, with its sundry so-called problems (combination! dry cheeks! the early signs of cellulite!), is glowing and fine.  We look better on magazine covers than older people, we fit better into clothes because they are designed for people the size of children.  Youth is powerful.  I think of this almost every time I bounce up a flight of stairs, because I do just that – bounce.  I spring up the stairs like a gazelle, with hip flexers so free I can hardly imagining ever having difficulty with such a task.  If my back hurts towards the end of the day, I simply go to bed and wake up better.  There is inherent power in the regeneration our bodies are doing all the time in our younger years, in the boundless energy we have to do pretty much anything we feel like doing (going skiing with absolutely no prior practice! heading to the ballet and then the midnight premiere of Star Wars after an 8 hour work day because the price is right! eating cheeseburgers three times a week!)  And yet, not completely powerful – I remember reading Looking for Alaska clandestinely in the reading nook at Borders (#RIP) on an afternoon in which I had my license, but not my mother’s permission to read said book.  There is a passage towards the end of the book in which the protagonist addresses the adult world in a sort of meta way, saying that youth really does equal impermeability, and that if you are young once, in a way you are young forever.  At age 16, I thought that was kind of dumb.  I liked being a teenager, but I didn’t want to be one forever, and I knew that despite everything I felt I was not in fact invincible.  I knew I had strong legs, but I knew that didn’t mean they could quite take me everywhere.

There’s a sort of glorious drama to being young, obviously.  I think of the middle daughter in Dan in Real Life, how the reason the joke works when she yells, “You are a murderer of love!” at her father after he sends her boyfriend away is because she means it with absolutely no irony.  Every feeling is not just worth experiencing, it’s worth sharing.  When an adult tells you, “The world doesn’t revolve around you, y’know,” when you’re 17, there is a tiny voice in your brain that says, “Wait, really?” We are the ultimate protagonists in youth, and we think everyone should be rooting for us.  At the same time, we are painfully self-aware in our youth and simultaneously unaware of the actual power we have to wield.  So many older people tell the young to revel in the power of their youth, but we are so busy trying to nail it down it often goes to waste.   Which is why it’s extra funny when young people become famous or achieve some sort of lauded success – they don’t quite know anything yet.  Young people genuinely don’t know how they got there because typically they didn’t get themselves there – their parents did or an agent who saw them on the street did (because, as we know, what happens when we get older is we become obsessed with helping younger people get there faster).  There’s a reason the words “young and dumb” are often thrown together; they really do go hand in hand.

Which brings me to the thing I’ve really been thinking about lately.  It seems the price we have to pay for real wisdom and know-how is our youth.  We have to siphon off our energy and beauty and glowing skin, Little Mermaid style, in exchange to get at all the stuff we spend our youths pining after.  This all came to a head while listening to a podcast Amy actually mentioned earlier this week, an interview with George Saunders on Dear Sugars.  In the podcast, George and the hosts discuss their own youths spent going into credit card debt and writing on the weekends and generally being in their respective artistic fields for the long game with not much noteworthy events in the interim.  George brought up how it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but our generation sort of as a group thinks that we should be paid for our art.  He talks about how, obviously, given the available employment in most artistic fields, that simply won’t be possible, and that the pursuit of art as a passion – not a paycheck – is bound to be a more fulfilling use of time.  I think we should and we shouldn’t.  I think work should be rewarded with compensation, that hours spent crafting or making something, be it a turn of phrase or a well made shoe, should be rewarded in kind.  But math and logic (and also, coincidentally, George) tell us that not everyone will be paid for their well-made shoes.  Which means we must be prepared for otherwise, lest we spend our whole lives in pursuit of something that is neither real nor necessarily deserved.  And, on the complete other end of the spectrum, when someone is successful when they’re young, they have much less places to go after they get paid because they spend the rest of their career being compared to the prodigy they once were.  It’s rigged.  You either spend your youth acquiring the skills and responsibilities and pathos necessary to be a really good artist, or you get snatched up for your raw talent by someone who knows what it looks like and spend your adult life attempting to have a real career.  Again, rigged.

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An Imaginary Conversation with Al Pacino at 4am

As seems to be happening increasingly often, I was awake between the hours of 4 and 5am this past Saturday night/Sunday morning.  I was sleeping on a bed with a slightly-too-small-fitted-sheet in a cabin in the middle of the woods.  My bunkmate, a pal from high school, was snoring loudly beside me, and even though I knew that wasn’t the reason I was awake, I persisted in periodically shaking the bed in the hopes that I could startle her into stopping (I couldn’t, God bless her).  I was burrowed in deep under 3 heavy blankets, tossing and turning in measured waves so as not to provoke the demise of the slightly-too-small sheet, and thus expose the surface of the mattress and its accompanying unknown past.  One foot out from under the covers.  Too cold.  Back in.

I began having an imaginary conversation with Al Pacino to pass the time.  A mentor of mine worked with him on a production of Julius Caesar in the 80’s.  He recently told me a story about a conversation they had, and an overactive imagination makes me feel like I had it, too.  Also, I watched The Godfather the previous weekend, and, quite frankly, I wish I could talk to him about it.  Maybe some day I will.  For now, this will do.

Fortunately, a transcription of our conversation survived the night.

I know his face is iconic in this picture but may I direct your eyeballs to his equally iconic ascot? (And, yes, the rumors are true, this is the background on my phone)

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Patron Saint: Stephen Sondheim

Way back when Synchronized Swim was just an idea in a notebook, one of the very first concepts Amy and I knew we wanted to write about was that of patron saints.  Amy followed through immediately and wrote about Madeleine L’Engle; I am just now getting around to it (in my defense, I’ve been dropping breadcrumbs toward him along the way).  I get generally irritated by the notion that anyone accomplishes anything alone – “hustle,” “self-made man,” etc.  Hard work and vision are irreplaceable, but they are always (often outside the photo frame) holding the hand of outside encouragement.  We are more often than not influenced more deeply by people we don’t know than the ones that we do, people who came before us and “successfully” did what we hope to.  I have been holding Stephen Sondheim’s hand since I was 10 years old, when my sister came home from school one afternoon and told me about the movie they’d watched in her literature class: West Side Story.  We have patron saints so that we can know for sure part of the good that lies ahead – someone one (or several) steps ahead of us in our practice, be it writing or acting or chess, and typically better at it, to tell us, “Hey! No one is alone.” (I couldn’t resist.)  Geniuses to look to that say for all you know, you might be a genius too, finding your way into the same family.

For those who don’t know, Stephen Sondheim is a lyricist and composer of musicals who is considered the best in his field, living and perhaps ever.  I’d seen West Side Story and Sweeney Todd during my childhood, but my first real encounter with him came my senior year of high school.  I was 18 years old, crying on the carpet of my voice teacher’s studio after finally making my way through Somewhere without her stopping me.  She told me that after graduation, I should do myself a favor and print out every lyric he ever wrote and put it in a binder.  “You’ll have a 6-month course in philosophy better than any school you end up attending in the fall,” she told me.

She was right.  Lucky for me, Sondheim did it himself and saved me the trouble.  There are two volumes of his collected works: Finishing the Hat, and Look, I Made A Hat.  I can’t even properly touch on half of my favorite songs for the purposes of this essay (Something’s Coming! Opening Doors! Green Finch and Linnet Bird!), and as far as I’m concerned, 6 years isn’t nearly long enough to melt into his lyrics.  The man is unparalleled.  Though of course his lyrics are best taken in when set to music as God and Steve intended, there is something very, very special about reading the words by themselves and just sitting with them, looking at his notes and seeing the reasoning behind choosing one word over another.  It makes sense that I care more about the words than the music because I understand one language better than the other, but if you’re a musician reading this I promise you he has the same effect across the board.  The titles of these tomes are drawn from his infamous (and perhaps most autobiographical) song from Sunday in the Park with George about the pioneer of pointillism, Georges Seurat.  My best friend used to make fun of me for singing the song all the time; I’ll admit, out of context it sounds a little silly.  It goes like this:

Finishing the hat – how you have to finish the hat

How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat

The song’s purpose is twofold: Georges is processing the dismantling of his relationship with Dot, the only woman he’s ever really loved and probably the only woman that could love him, while simultaneously getting caught up in the all-consuming creative process that made her leave him in the first place, which, in his case, expresses itself in painting canvases.  The song ends with the declaration, “Look I made a hat – where there never was a hat.” His joy in creating something that didn’t exist before coexists with his full understanding that it will always keep him slightly at a distance from everyone around him.  To be a genius, you must always be looking for a place where no one else can reach you, which means you must be alone.  I listened to an interview with Steve on my favorite podcast, Desert Island Discs, about a year ago.  It didn’t take much listening to hear that he is a man very much alone, surrounded by exquisite hats – but I couldn’t help thinking that they make for better company.  He sounds so unhappy, despite having come closer to perfect expression through song than anyone else in his field.  The price you pay, I guess, for being able to make a perfect hat.

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Secrets

“There’s no strangeness you can imagine that is more strange than the lives of apparently conventional people behind closed doors.”

I read that in an interview with Daniel Day-Lewis in the New York Times on New Years’ Eve while my family and I did the Sunday Times crossword, and it’s been lazily looping through my head since.  The idea of being private in public has been camped out in my brain for about 6 years now, ever since my first acting class in college where we did what’s called a BOE – basic object exercise.  I think the actual prompt for the exercise has something to do with at least 3 minutes interacting with 5 or more objects, but the real focus is being able to recreate a private moment in front of other people.  I’m pretty sure I only succeeded at it once in my four years in the program, but the notion stuck.  We are so very mysterious without intending to be.  Think about the first crush that truly made you swoon – didn’t you just want to know what they did in the time you didn’t see them? Completely ordinary things that may as well have been classified Pentagon files.  That’s the stuff BOE’s are made of – the moments spent sitting in your room thinking, or brewing a cup of coffee and bringing it to your desk as you write, spraying your perfume before you walk out the door.  The events that are only commonplace to you.

I don’t think that’s quite what Daniel was getting at, but it’s the intersection between the two ideas that I’m interested in – the idea that much of what we do when alone is generally not that different from what other people do, and the idea that much of what we do when alone is so different from what other people do that we don’t talk about it.  For instance, crying.  I have no problem crying in public, meaning I obviously don’t have a hard time crying in private.  I recently saw someone I have known nearly my entire life cry for the first time, and it was only because I heard it behind a closed door and opened it.  Oftentimes, even if you are a comfortable public cryer, the first thing you say to a person that catches you crying is, “I’m sorry,” despite it being a universal human experience that someone else just happened to catch you in the midst of.  I had a teacher in high school who was notoriously sensitive, almost always aglow with holy emotion.  He taught biology, but every class began with a devotional, and every devotional ended with him crying because he is easily moved, and every single time he started to cry he would dart his head down to the right with a flustered smile and say, “Sorry,” even though we had seen him do precisely this thing every day before.  

In my experience, most secrets are revealed in a similar way – involuntarily, followed by an apology, despite being a universal experience.  “I’m so lonely – God, I’m sorry, why did I say that.” “I’m not very good at this – I’m sorry, I’m not fishing for compliments.” “I’m still not over it – I’m sorry, I don’t know why I brought that up.” It’s these accidentally public sentiments that drive our private lives.  Anything that’s happening behind a closed door is bound to clumsily appear out in the open it’s the loudest thing you’re lugging around with you anyway.  TBuried Child is about a Big secret, a secret that could legitimately ruin every relationship of every character in the play.  That terrible Girl on the Train movie is about a guy with a Big secret.  Murder is a Big secret.  There are secrets that exist simply because it’s no one else’s business but yours.  There are secrets between former lovers and former friends, and neither should be divulged to anyone but the people they pertain to.  There are secrets that are just plain embarrassing.  There are secrets that need only be kept for a certain amount of time, and can be casually divulged past their expiration dates.  But I think the ones most people are keeping close to the chest are generally less precious than they appear.  “Objects in Mirror Are Less Precious Than They Appear.”  Strangeness is often cultivated by fear, not unshared experience.

In that same acting class in college, there was a quote from Frederick Buechner written on a white board in the periphery.  “I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are – even if we tell it only to ourselves – because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

I particularly love that bit about coming to view our own selves as the edited version.  Does anything sound more dangerous?

It’s not really tipping my hand to say that I think most secrets ought to be told.  For instance, love.  I think in general you ought to tell a person if you love them.  I think you ought to tell someone if you’re mad at them, and I think you ought to let someone know the bad thing that happened 8 years ago that you wish you were over but you just aren’t and yes, sorry, it’s still affecting you.  Here is a secret: I still sleep with my baby blanket.  Here’s another one: I’m self-conscious about my arms.  I have punished an innocent party for the behavior of a guilty one, and I have posted something on Instagram for the benefit of one person’s viewing it.  The pseudo-strangeness that goes on behind my closed door – but surely no stranger than yours.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

The month of January is typically reserved for post-holiday blues and sludge-trudging, but, truth be told, it is one of my favorite times of the year because it means I get to go to the movies about once a week and not feel bad about it because THE OSCAR RACE HAS OFFICIALLY COMMENCED.  All of the contenders come out to play around the same time, as though they’re collectively nervous that if they’d decided to release in March the Academy would forget about them (which, it seems, they do). I remember the January of my senior year of college, when I went to Birdman and Foxcatcher and Whiplash with various cohorts of pals in what felt like an endless barrage of really good movies after several years where there, like, weren’t any.  Though I tend to prefer seeing movies alone, I love nabbing whoever I can to share the screen with this month, to look over at each other dumbfounded or crying at the end of whatever the heck just happened.  When I have a semi-respectable space to do so (not presently), I love to host an Oscar party and print out ballots and shush all of my guests while watching all the pretty people thank their mothers and be told they’re extraordinary.

I love going to the movies; always have.  When I was in elementary school, the greatest treat was when my mother came and picked me up early from school to see a movie (particularly when that movie was The Lizzie McGuire one).  She had excellent taste, and gave me my very first viewing of Pride and Prejudice at age 11, a gift I can never repay.  Movie theaters are the hallowed halls of middle school group dates spent itching to hold hands, or solo voyages when you need a good cry in the dark.  They are perfect for rainy days, or when you’re living in Holland and going stir crazy in your host family’s house.  The best is when you luck out and get a theater all to yourself – objectively, it sounds like it should be spooky, but experientially it feels very luxurious.  I used to keep every movie stub I acquired in a pile by my bed, until it grew to a size that required containment.  There are still little boxes of stubs in my childhood bedroom and an ever-growing bouquet in my wallet because I can’t quite seem to kick the habit.

A great Oscar mystery, rooted in legend and the 90’s

Here’s what I’m tryna see this month in my first round at the theaters before February:

Phantom Thread – bonus appeal: final film performance of Daniel Day Lewis </3, king of my heart; deterrent: looks scary!

I, Tonya – bonus appeal: I tried figure skating for two weeks when I was 7 years old and I’m eager to learn how my life could have turned out!, coincides beautifully with Sufjan Steven’s Tonya Harding singles, so I’m already emotionally prepared

3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – I want Frances McDormand to win all accolades possible, including for her supporting role in Something’s Gotta Give

The Greatest Showman – because of who I am as a person

Here are the movies I saw throughout 2017 that I just have an opinion about and hope will at least get some vague nomination, i.e., Best Cinematography

Baby Driver – I don’t really know what it could be nominated for (best writing? Cutiest trust fund boy-turned-actor-boy? Idk) but it’s still my fave movie of 2017

Wonder Woman – mostly just to ensure national exposure of the first 20 minutes in which the Amazon women are generally kicking all of the asses

Get Out – unlike any movie you will see this year and also ever

The Shape of Water – I normally hate the phrase “grown-up fairytale,” but it absolutely applies to this one, and it’s beautiful

Lady Bird – I didn’t love it as much as everyone else but I love that Greta Gerwig directed it and would like there to be 5 women alive who have been nominated for Best Director so!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – well, duh!

Here are the movies I know I’m supposed to want to see but feel totally! ambivalent! about:

Call Me By Your Name – saw one other Luca Guiadagnino movie and am too scared to see another one (but will probably cave bc peer pressure and bc important)

Darkest Hour – love Gary Oldman, love Winston Churchill, the math just isn’t there! (but also if someone paid for my ticket I would more than likely rally)

How crazy is it that over a hundred movies get made every year and there are some that only a handful of people see when there are thousands of people (this blimp included!) trying to make them?  And every year someone has to win, even if it’s not as good as the winner from the previous year?  It makes no sense! Emma Stone should not have won for La La Land! There, I said it! Cat’s outta the bag and running towards 2018!

Please do let me know if there’s something missing from my list – I have 6 glorious weeks to add to it, and I #dontwannamissathing.

Green Light

I was desperate to find a church service on Christmas Eve because I was feeling sort of generally desperate, which is what propelled me to the stoplight on Keystone and 96th Street.  My sister was in the passenger seat next to me; we were listening to Hard Candy Christmas.  I was in the left turning lane along with 4 or 5 other cars waiting for the green arrow. The normal straight-driving green light turned once, and then twice, without the arrow popping up after it.  Green light, but no green arrow.  By the third time, two or three of the cars switched out of the turn lane and either decided to go home or figure something else out.  Those of us that remained waited for the fourth round of no green arrow, finally convinced it was never going to happen before we inched out into the intersection to simply wait, then yield.

In looking at my most played songs on Spotify this year, Green Light by Lorde is in the top ten.  I must have listened to it a hundred times, most frequently in the house I lived in for 3 months that was the result of a very humbling mistake.  I would loop it over and over and over again and dance, sometimes beautifully, sometimes in a sort of awkward anger, wishing there were other people to dance with or that Lorde herself would knock on my door and say, “Yes, that’s it exactly, Jessie.”  I listened to the rest of the album incessantly, too, but nothing matched the fevered pitch of dancing in my living room to the very first single. “I’m waiting for it – that green light, I want it.”

Personally, there were a lot of false starts this year.  A lot of very beautiful things that perhaps will remain that way in memory because they never got past the beginning.  Things that appeared to be one way and then very abruptly became another.  I find myself thinking (not uncharacteristically) of the infamous line from Rent – “How do you measure, measure a year?” That song is corny as hell if you want it to be, but when they start talking about daylights and sunsets and midnights and cups of coffee, and you start to think about the specific iterations your own year contained, it is actually an incredibly useful manual for measuring.  The cup of coffee I had in Portland at the very beginning of January, sitting across from my little sister who dragged me and my older sister there because she saw it on Instagram and wanted to go.  The countless cups of coffee brewed in the countless homes lived in, in the tiny machine my grandmother sent me when she found out I was moving into an apartment in college.  The free cup of coffee I had at a church that was so bad I couldn’t finish it.  Pourover made in Amy’s basement apartment.  Two cups on the morning of Kelsey’s wedding.  I could literally measure my whole years in cups of coffee, and I don’t even drink coffee that much.  Beginnings, endings.  It is so temping to align things by calendar in order to decide how best to proceed, so innate to want to find meaning in everything that happened.  To mind-palace your way back to January 1 of 2017 and retroactively realize all the things you didn’t know would happen.  To remember the exciting or very painful things; much harder to remember the days where nothing much happened.  A new year gives you a shot at reordering the old one.

I filled in the lyrics past cups of coffees and sunsets for myself.  For the last week or so, I have been trying to remember the books and conversations and geographical locations of travel and sorrow that occurred.  That’s all very good inventory for me, but perhaps the thing that you yourself can relate to is the overall feeling of my year.  I felt very, very stuck, as is clear by much of the writing on this website.  Stuck has slowly thawed into stalled during the last quarter of 2017, so it’s easy to want to camp out there and say that’s the truth, I didn’t really feel stuck, I just couldn’t see things clearly or some other sweep-away statement that keeps me from remembering things as they were.  But, meandering through January, February, right on through August, amidst a lot of some really exquisite happenings, the interior stuckness I felt cannot be ignored.  I know I’m not the only one, because of those conversations and books and geographical locations of travel and sorrow.  There is so much talent and vision and goodness that gets improperly channelled for a hundred different reasons, chief among them the feeling that any choice could be the wrong one.

It’s also very natural to look to the new year for new chances, resolutions and the like.  I’m all about that, improving and concrete progress and chomping on life, but I find myself thinking that perhaps the energy is better spent on trying to stay a particular way in the coming year in the wake of events of the year prior.  My only real resolution isn’t new; it’s resolve.  I have lists of goals and ideas and plans, but the only thing on my so-called resolutions list is to stay soft.  Plain and simple.  It takes a lot of work, and no one else is going to do it for me.  To be clear: when I say soft, I mean a braid of hopefulness, gentleness, and unabashed vulnerability in a personal and communal way.  “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”  A commitment to undoing things that have been done to you by forgiving what has not been apologized for, to staying a little longer in a moment that’s terrifying, or reconsidering what might be humbling to change.  Staying soft when everything suggests you should be a big blue meanie who is miserable and disillusioned and disappointed.  To borrow from The OA, keeping your invisible self alive and well and not invisible to your own self.  Every year there is less reason to remain soft, which, of course, means that every year you need to a little bit more.

Here is my wish for you: that 2018 is filled with green lights all in a row, the kind where one turns green and then the rest up ahead do too.  Green light after green light after green light.  The answer “yes” perhaps more often than even you think you need to hear it, bathed in the sweet green glow of permission.

Home

When I walked down the alley of my building the other night, the lamplight from an apartment caught my eye.  The mantle was decorated with stockings and tinsel, and the walls were artfully covered with photographs and fixtures and taste.  The lighting was warm and the furniture I could see suggested a cozy interior, with couches and chairs at angles towards one another for optimum space and comfort.

This looks nothing like my own apartment.  There are currently two refrigerators in my roommate and I’s kitchen, one broken and thus emanating a mysterious smell, the other swiped by the handyman from a vacant apartment to replace the first.  Our living room is haphazardly occupied by an admittedly beautiful Ethan Allen couch from a thrift store and a table that has a monopoly on most of the space.  The walls are bare, with the exception of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar my roommate bought for me last Christmas.  Our one truly decorative piece hangs in the bathroom: a shower curtain populated by various cats with the face of Nicolas Cage superimposed on their lumpy bodies, purchased with money we raised on a GoFundMe page in college.  There are no Christmas decorations, as neither one of us felt like buying one more thing we didn’t know where to put.

While at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the end of this summer, I was reading through the program and landed on a profile of the festival’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey.  She saw the story, as so many do, as the most basic human quest, in which there is “the longing for the journey, but the ultimate longing is to go home.”  When Odysseus comes home to Penelope after twenty years, it’s with a lot of sexy stories to tell marred by the shared awareness of 20 years spent apart.  The gratitude for coming home is always compounded by how long you’ve been away.

Her quote is clearly rife with metaphor, but let’s stick with the literal for a moment.  In terms of your first home, you don’t choose it.  In Meet Me in St. Louis, Tootie, a five year old, says, “How lucky am I that I was born in my favorite city!” I was born in Carmel, Indiana (which has since been voted, hilariously enough, the best place to grow up in America multiple times, despite its biggest attraction according to the Internet being a very long walk), and felt decidedly the opposite.  Even through the magic haze of the 90s and a relatively miraculous high school experience, I always wanted to live somewhere else later, which was more than a little influenced by the fact that I was raised by gypsies who met in California and spent years on the road as musician and manager.  I was born into forward momentum, at least geographically.  I grew up across from a cornfield that doubles as a soybean field in the appropriate harvest years.  I grew up learning about these crops in school, how it’s good for the soil to change crops during a certain rotation so that the nutrients are not entirely sapped from the soil by these respective plants.  I grew up learning about the peony, the state flag, and William Henry Harrison, but never Michael Jackson or James Dean except when I went in search of them.  I grew up in places John Green writes books about now, with people so funny I often double over in laughter by myself from a memory.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about musicians and other celebrities who, for all their successes, choose to keep their home base in their original hometowns.  Bon Iver (who I mostly actively dislike but cannot ignore) chooses to live in Eau Claire, WI, which is about the most boring place I’ve ever been.  The members of Sylvan Esso stay in Durham, North Carolina, and the members of The National in Cincinnati, Ohio (perhaps because the lead singer was in marketing up through his 30s).  Chance will never leave Chicago, and I don’t think anyone has ever been more enthusiastic about living somewhere than LeBron James has been about Cleveland.  I am fascinated by this, that people with so much momentum and opportunity choose to stay where they came from, or at least leave a leg in it.  That forward momentum and changing geography are not mutually exclusive.  I used to think the only place worth living in America, or the world for that matter, was New York.  Part of me still feels that way – who knows if it always will – but a growing part of me cannot ignore the pull of the homes we didn’t choose, the places where the deepest longings were cultivated and therefore either the most satisfied or the most disappointed.  It is the place where the comparison of all others begins, a decision that informs so many others made completely out of your hands.  Geography isn’t so much a place as a feeling.  I think this every year when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life and see George Bailey get thwarted again and again every time he tries to leave Bedford Falls.  I don’t know what it means that he never leaves, if we’re trying to come home to somewhere we’ve never left.

I grew up other places, too.  Philadelphia, Connecticut, Chicago, Holland.  I shouldn’t say grow up because it’s not limited to childhood.  Spent my childhood? Came of age?  These are the places I came from, come from.  I think what Mary Zimmerman is talking about is, of course, more the longing for the place we will feel safe, or the ultimate home of heaven.  There are plenty of people who genuinely hated where they grew up, and hated even more the people they grew up with.  I don’t think she’s talking about the tension between the actual geography of where you grew up – the literal streets and landscapes and buildings you spent your time in – and what you longed for it to be either.  We make our homes everywhere.  If I had my way, I would live out of my suitcase on the run, returning to the tiny homes I’ve made and building new ones.  I’d haul around the essentials, but I would also carry as cargo the conversations that have been homes, too.  I’d run and run until I remembered what a dining room table looked like and would maybe consider not running to set one of my own and then I would probably look at the moon and not do either thing.