Stevens Passages: Breakthroughs

20130113_082905While Little A and I took a couple of weekends off for her face to heal and my entire left side to stop hurting, XX started her snowboard multi-week. She had a tough first class when the instructors, knowing her as a shredder on two sticks, started her out in a more advanced group and then had to move her down a level midday when she couldn’t keep up. This was an experience akin to me not winning the spelling bee in 4th grade – an event so counter to previous experience that it shot beyond humbling into full blown shame. By the time we all went up again, she had worked herself into a frenzy of snowboard dread.

On Sunday a friend rode up with us. He entertained the girls in the back seat, and an extra adult made lugging gear through the parking lot a ton easier – especially fortunate since Stevens had decided not to cut out a full size parking lot out of the snow bank. Two people couldn’t fit between the cars, and cars couldn’t pass down the aisle while someone was standing behind their car. It took almost half an hour to get the car unloaded while we tried to keep from getting hit by passing cars. Trying to walk that gauntlet with gear and kids was beyond sketchy – it was dangerous.  Big boo to Stevens management on the parking.

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My Saturday yoga class pushed past my limits. I was actually shaking when I left the studio. Warm-up runs on Daisy confirmed that my legs were shot before I even started. Instead of trying to pick lines, I was just trying to make the board turn. All my old fears and bad habits came roaring back. I spent almost an entire run on Hogsback heelside, unable to push myself into a toe side turn. When I did force it, I over-turned every time and ended pointed back up the mountain.

By the third run I was resigned to the fact that it was just not my day, so when we rode the lift up Hogsback with two little kids, I already knew I would fall getting off. I became genuinely concerned about them falling before we got to the top; the 8 year-old girl kept bending forward to brush snow off her boots, and her 10 year-old brother induced vertigo in me by looking down between his knees. Finally we made it to the top, where the kids rode right into me. By some miracle I didn’t fall or knock them down and after that lift ride, crashing didn’t seem so scary.

Hogsback lift

Hogsback lift

Crash I did, but nothing on the scale of the first day. My legs finally started to loosen up, and I started to feel a little more control. Heartened by my first decent run of the day, I headed straight back up Hogsback. The Daddy rode with me, and trying to watch what I was doing, he actually took a couple nasty falls.

But I had a perfect run. I could follow the lines I picked, my turns were smooth and happened when I wanted them to; I even hit a death cookie and rode it out. Riding switch for the last couple turns at the bottom of the hill, I slid to a stop right at the door to the ski school. There was time for another run before lunch, but I wanted to end on a high note. I remembered an interview with a ski jump coach who said you just keep launching kids off a ramp, and hope they make a good jump. Once they land a good a jump, they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture that feeling.

After a run like that, I understood him completely. That kind of euphoria is enough to keep a klutz slamming down a mountain year after year with hardly any progress on the off chance that the next run will come together like that again. I didn’t even make six runs that day, but for a little while, I owned that mountain.

Little A’s class had not done the magic carpet as expected, but her teacher said she was ready for it next time. She didn’t seem upset that the promised carpet ride had not yet materialized. But after lunch, instead of asking to play in the snow like usual, she wanted put her skis back on. While the guys got in a few more runs, I pulled Little A around by her ski pole. When she was used to being dragged across the snow, we took a magic carpet ride. With her pole for a handle, I walked her back down the hill in big S curves while she practiced leaning forward and pointing her skis for the turns.

When XX finally came tumbling down Daisy (hers was the last group to come back in) we could tell from dozens of yards away that it was a good day. She had done as many runs as I did, and once got off the lift without falling. Her fears and her “failure” from the previous week were forgotten. A little skier went out on a snowboard that morning, but a snowboarder rode back in.

When we got home, Little A refused to change into regular clothes. Energized from her nap in the car, she spent the whole evening running circles through the house, shouting, “I’m skiing! I’m skiing! Look how fast I am!” She slept in her base layer instead of her jammies that night. I am sure that she dreamed of riding pretty lines in the snow.

Today was a good day.

Today was a good day.

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The Devil’s in the Details

One of my favorite bloggers once asked, “Why do we feel compelled to confess the stupid things we do on the internet?”

Cleaning up computer files on a Sunday morning, I found this draft blog post that I wrote shortly after returning to work full-time (almost a year before I started this blog). I thought it was so funny that the unposted piece was about failing to keep my shit together that I had to confess about it on the internet.

Yesterday, as I realized that I had overlooked another detail – I already can’t remember what it was – in planning my day, it occurred to me that details were like confetti in my life these days.  Tiny pieces of colorful paper floating through the air, landing all around me, getting lost and caught in the cracks.  It’s an attractive image, until you remember that moms are always the ones who have to clean up.

Today I thought I had it all together.  Instead of frantically dashing out the door leaving a trail of forgotten items and winding my kids up with stress as we raced to beat the school bell, I had packed both girls a lunch, brushed everyone’s teeth and braided hair all around.  We were ready for school on time and left the house without leaving anything behind.  Everyone got a hug and a kiss and then I was off to the bus stop.  I practically walked right on to the bus, taking the last empty seat, and calmly began to enjoy my book.

detour

Unfortunately, I was on the wrong bus.  The first two stops were the same, and when I glanced up, I saw a detour sign at the end of the bridge, so I didn’t think anything was strange when we turned onto the wrong street.  I went back to my book, and when I looked up again I found myself on lower Queen Anne, instead of Pioneer Square.  I didn’t get to work until ten o’clock, and I was scattered and useless the rest of the day.

When I told the story to a coworker, she said, “It’s them or you!”  Sometimes it scares me how often that seems to be true.  Sometimes I wonder if I sweat the small stuff too much, if maybe paying less attention to detail would allow me to appreciate my bigger successes more.  But when I try to relax and back off, the details come back to bite me in the ass.  When I try to plan every last detail, I become overwhelmed by my failures.  Where is the right balance? I don’t know.  I have never gotten close enough to that happy medium to see what it looks like.  But I don’t think I let so much more slip by me than the average mom.

This afternoon I picked up a book at the library (while paying off library fees costing more than the lunch I didn’t have to buy because I actually packed one today) called Bluebird.  It is supposed to analyze the psychology of happiness, and I’m hoping that it will contain some insight on how to capture more of the confetti flying around my head, as well as how to enjoy the spectacle of those pieces that flutter to the ground.

Bluebird was a great book, and it spurred a bunch of reading about happiness. I still pick up happiness books more often than I actually have time to read them. In the nearly two years since I wrote this post, I have learned to enjoy the look of confetti strewn across the floor.

confettimessThanks to this lovely blogger for the use of her photo as a metaphor for my life.

Stevens Passages: It’s All Fun & Games Until Someone Gets Hurt

wateratsunsetA long time ago, in a lifetime far away, I began each year with a dip in Puget Sound. My friends and I would meet at Golden Gardens or Alki, suit up in keikogi, and warm up as if for class. Then, sometimes with a banzai, and sometimes in meditative silence, we would wade chest high into the frigid water, sometimes submerging completely, others conscientiously keeping head and hands dry. Then each of us, when we felt we had been in the water long enough to prove a point, would wade back to the beach where hot coffee and sake awaited.

What point did we prove? Ultimately it was about self-control, with a dash of self-determination thrown in. There is a tradition that if you do this misogi, this cleansing, at the beginning of the year, you won’t get sick all year. The idea is that when you feel a cold coming on, you can tell yourself, “Hey, I jumped in the ocean in the middle of winter and didn’t get sick. This one’s not going to get me,” and stay healthy by force of will. But the idea is expanded beyond health to all of the challenges in life. Whenever something tough comes along, you can remind yourself of the challenge that you faced at the start of the year. The memory of how you controlled the urge to shriek at the shock of cold when you stepped in the water; how you calmly forced yourself to go forward, deeper into the water, when your body demanded that you go back. The memory of past strength can summon strength for the present challenge. Or so the thinking goes.

But then, to borrow a phrase from Lupe Fiasco, shit got greasy. For several years everyday experience made winter misogi look like stupid human tricks and I didn’t need a single feather-weight challenge more than getting to the end of the day already posed. My New Year’s Eve tradition was reduced to a five second pause to look back and say, “Thank god that one’s over.”

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Well, thank god that’s over. This year we were ready for something more aspirational. So we decided to set the tone for 2013 with a day of snow play. Since it was the first day the whole family went up together, we set the bar low. We were just working out logistics.

Here were our goals:

The Daddy: Get the whole family up to the mountain and back in one piece, preferably all still on speaking terms.

Me: Don’t throw up. (I can’t remember if I mentioned that pain fear is a big issue for me. It kind of holds you back when you’re throwing yourself down a mountain.) If I only did three runs, and they were all on Daisy, so be it. The day would be a success.

XX: Ski with mom and dad together for the first time. Maybe make some jumps.

Little A: Go to ski school all by herself and play in the snow after lunch.

And we did it! I wasted a lot of time getting my boots set up right, and I took a fall of the type technically known as a “shitsplitter,” which validated my pain fear for the next week and a half. But I added two Hogsback runs to the three on Daisy, and by lunch I felt like I was where I left off at the end of last season. To XX’s tremendous delight, that was much slower than she was, and I spent the morning following lines she picked, except when she landed a couple tiny jumps in the new beginner terrain park that I rode past. A’s class marched uphill in their tiny skis, and when class got out at noon, the instructor said she was ready for the magic carpet.

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We all had lunch together at Bull’s Tooth and then the girls played in the snow outside the ski school while The Daddy got a few runs in by himself. Around 2 pm we headed back to the lodge where we stacked all our gear in a pile and took turns going in to the bathroom. Little A complained that she was cold, so I pulled her helmet from the pile and put it back on to keep her head warm. Just as The Daddy started to pick up sticks to head back to the car, Little A stepped on a patch of ice next to the bench wall on the patio. Her ski boot flew out behind her like a banana peel gag, and she landed flat on her face on the ice. We heard her helmet scrape against the rock wall.

For a second we froze, waiting to see if she popped up with a characteristic, “I’m okay.” But no, the delayed response was a high pitched wail. The Daddy picked her up. There was blood on the ice. Blood covered her chin and dripped onto her little Creamcicle-colored ski suit. Her lips were cut and already swollen. Blood filled the creases between her gums and her front three teeth.

Hello Wall

Hello Wall

As I held her in my arms in a cold panic, my mind a blank, I could see The Daddy’s lips moving but couldn’t hear the words. Eight year-old XX piped up in response to him, “I know where the clinic is. They showed us in ski school.”

She confidently led us around the building and down the hill to the ski patrol office and clinic, where they settled Little A on a bed with pictures of doggies on the sheets. The doctor handed The Daddy gauze to dab the blood. She started asking Little A questions. Like her parents, Little A responded to her calm, professional, yet serious demeanor. She stopped crying and answered the questions. Some of the questions were obviously medical, “Can you watch me move my finger over here?” while others were simply calming, “Can you tell me how old you are?” It was really quite impressive how she managed to treat the problem and the emotions at the same time. The calm competence of everyone in the clinic, the way they took our problem seriously and assured us it wasn’t serious at the same time, really impressed me. We’ve spent our share of time in hospitals these past few years, and they could take some notes from the folks at Steven’s Pass about bedside manner.

A glove filled with snow pressed against her face, two more filled with air to serve as balloons, we carried Little A to the car, which ski patrol had allowed The Daddy to drive right up to the clinic door. We loaded up gear (abandoned without a thought back at the patio), and by the time we were out of the parking lot, Little A was asleep. Her face was bruised and swollen, but she still cried a week later when The Daddy and XX went back to the mountain without her.

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We didn’t start this New Year with misogi. But we still managed to set the tone. When shit gets greasy this year, we’ll remember not to shriek and run backwards. We’ll even call it fun and go back for more.

Icelandic Romance 101

Last summer, I took another small step against prejudice and genre-ism by beginning to explore the romance genre. Results have been mixed. But now I have found my favorite romance so far, and in a most unexpected place.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone that I’ve begun studying Icelandic. People who know me are sure to remember what happened when I tried to learn Spanish, or Japanese, or Chinese, and roll their eyes. I keep thinking that a writer should be good with languages, but at least in my case, it seems that any facility with words I possess is specific to the English language.

But after interviewing Snæbjörn of Skálmöld about Icelandic poetry, I just had to try to gain some direct access to this literary tradition. So I dug around online and found out that the University of Iceland has a free online course in Icelandic.

I’ve done my share of Rosetta Stone-type studies, and I have to say that so far I’m impressed. Not only does this one seem to be more immediately practical, but it’s pulled me in with a romantic comedy.

meetcuteIn a short video in Lesson One, we have a meet-cute where two young people standing in line both reach for a dropped pen. While learning how to introduce oneself, we can’t help but wonder if the charmingly awkward Daniel’s Icelandic is simpler and slower than hers because he is newer to Iceland, or because he is speechless at the sight of her.byrj112(02)_ewa

byrj112(02)_daniel

We learn about cups and clocks for a couple of lessons, and when we start counting in Lesson 1.5, Daniel and Ewa meet again. As they chat, it becomes apparent that Daniel is newer to Iceland than Ewa. He studies Icelandic full-time, while Ewa, who speaks more fluently, holds down a part-time job. This time Daniel walks away with digits and you can bet he won’t be forgetting those numbers.

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In the next unit, Daniel goes shopping for a prepaid phone card, presumably so he can call Ewa, and then we don’t see them again until Daniel calls Ewa in Lesson 3.2. Their phone call reinforces some of the lessons so far.

We learn the names of some household tasks, and get to see Ewa at work. When she’s with Daniel, her Icelandic seems so natural; at the retirement home, her coworker Anna has to explain everything very simply – even what time to break for coffee and where to find the biscuits in the breakroom. Although as we can tell by looking, Ewa doesn’t eat cookies.

In Lesson 4.1 Daniel calls again, and this time he asks her out. Over the next few lessons, we learn with Ewa and Daniel about movie times and buying tickets. By the end of the date, we discover that Daniel is a little slicker than he seems. Otherwise, how would he have turned Ewa’s invitation to the library into a morning swim?

Hvar er klosettid?

Hvar er klosettid?

Ewa lives next to the pool, but of course Daniel gets lost and has to ask for directions. A regular at the pool, Ewa goes right in, but poor Daniel has to figure out how it works in Iceland – and ask the attendant where to find the toilet.

Look how close they stand now.

Look how close they stand now.

In Unit 5, Ewa gets sick. Looking better than most of us on a good day, she has to go to the doctor and finds out she has pneumonia. Once she gets her prescription filled at the pharmacy and starts feeling better, Daniel calls to check up. Stuttering with nerves, he asks if it’s okay to come over to her apartment – you know, to drop off some Vitamin C so she doesn’t get sick again. Laughing, Ewa invites him over.

I so wish I could embed Lesson 5.5, where Daniel, all nerves, presents himself at Ewa’s door with a bottle of Vitamin C in one hand and flowers behind his back. But all I can offer is the transcript, which you can paste into Google Translate (like I did – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing) if you can’t figure it out.

EWA   Hæ, Daniel.
DANIEL Gerðu svo vel. Ég er með C-vítamín handa þér.
EWA Takk fyrir!
DANIEL Og ég er með blóm handa þér.
EWA Handa mér! Þakka þér fyrir Daniel!

Now they’re on a roll, and once inside the apartment, Daniel is ready to go for it. He invites Ewa to go on a trip with him next week. Location undisclosed – irrelevant. Ewa is willing, but she has to move next week. A little too quickly, Daniel offers to help her move. He’s not to cool to look eager. Ewa is won over. They toast to their plans.

byrj552(01)_takeatrip

Where will the University of Iceland take this romance? Maybe they will take a trip to Geysir [pronounced geezer]. When I was there, the tour guide told us, “Geysir is retired, and rarely erupts anymore. But his little brother Strokkur goes up every few minutes. He is not so big as Geysir, but much more consistent.” He was totally straight-faced, and I was the only one who snickered. But I digress.

The course is designed for people living in Iceland. So the direction this romance takes will be a cultural education as well as a linguistic one. What do Icelanders think is most important? Will we learn how to say, “Was it good for you?” or will the course take the PG route and learn about road signs?

When I was in Iceland, I marveled at how well everyone spoke English. I’ve always wondered why learning a language seems to be so much harder in the U.S. than it is everywhere else. One thing is certain, Icelandic educators have figured out how to capture and keep students’ attention. I have to know – what happens with Daniel and Ewa? Will her Roman Catholic family in Poland accept a Palestinian son-in-law? Will they stay in Iceland together? I might have to learn Icelandic to find out.

Okay, I’ve got to go. I have some studying to do….

No Raffi in This Family

What is the female form of emasculating? I don’t think English has one. Why do we have a word for making a man less of a man, but no word for making a woman less of a woman? Is femininity so bullet proof? I think not. In practical terms, “maternity” will probably serve, despite being the most feminine status possible. Practical considerations like body changes, sleep deprivation, and the touched-out feeling that comes from days spent with toddlers all join forces to strip women of the very thing that made (most of us- adoptive moms represent!) mothers in the first place – our sexuality.

Adding insult to injury we have mom jeans and mom-friendly music. “Mom-approved” is code for “completely harmless.” “Mom” has become the standby term for “square.” Somehow, in the process of socializing our tiny primitive humans, we allow ourselves to be declawed. Women who could out-swear sailors (women who are sailors!) scold their kids for potty-talk and stop listening to music with “bad words.” We abandon edgy artwork in favor of “pro-social media.”

It’s not only societal pressure – the grinding daily reality of childcare has a lot to do with motherhood dulling the sharp edges that make women valid participants in the cultural dialogue. Regardless of whether the driving force is societal or circumstantial, cultural conservator is not a role that many of us would gladly assume if we were less busy wiping tiny butts and noses.

In the Icelandic sagas, three year-old Egil drinks beer after saddling and riding a horse to a distant farm unattended. Other children are aware of the “intimate” grounds for a notable divorce case, and use it as the basis for a game. Life to the Vikings was just life and it didn’t matter if you were three or thirty. I can’t agree that we should be quite so age-egalitarian today. I have no interest in finding out if my four year-old is as belligerent a drunk as Egil Skallagrimsson (especially because I suspect she is).

But I do think that our efforts to create a kid-friendly world – to completely segregate their experience from ours – is not only detrimental to them because it fails to prepare them for adult life, but it is efemulating to us.

I don’t want my girls to think that being a mom means they have to be uninteresting, so I have to model a less binary reality for them. That is why I don’t automatically drop the laptop when my kids call me. I try to get out to shows, and I took a vacation by myself last year (dad gets to go this year).

I don’t watch my language around my kids, or tell them not to copy my foul mouth – I do tell them what will happen if they swear at school or at friends’ houses. I send my eight year-old on errands up and down our street, and expect her to bus our tables at coffee shops. When she spends her allowance, she goes to the register alone. She does her own homework.

I try to answer questions about religion and death and sex and race and adoption with the truth rather than hedge or deflect, even when it sucks. And I show my kids real art. Our first whole-family concert was a daytime performance by THEESatisfaction, because I want my daughters to see lesbians of color take on the world on their own terms with grace and style, and because it’s good music. I am proud that my four year-old asks to hear Macklemore’s “Same Love” and that she pulls out a mean little death growl when I play death metal.

Many of the bands and most of the movies that I like best are too intense or scary for my kids, and I save those for after the little ones go to bed. I decide what’s appropriate based on how the kids react – not on what seems appropriate. Just because they aren’t ready for everything doesn’t mean I have to fill in with crap. The late nights and subtitles of opera may be years away, but we still don’t listen to Raffi in our family.

Raffi

PS: We also don’t do pole dances or drive Volvos in this family. Sorry.

In Which I Love Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Roméo et Juliette Immoderately

You kiss by the book(let)

You kiss by the book(let)

Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure…this one left them all behind.

This line from The Princess Bride kept running through my head during Roméo et Juliette at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Since I first saw ballet, there have been four instances that left the others behind.

  1. The Nutcracker, 1993. I had no idea what to expect, and I was completely transported. You never forget your first time.
  2. Mark Morris Dance Group at the Paramount. For at least a year afterword, everything I saw on the ballet stage seemed stiff and artificial.
  3. Mopey, 2005. The first season Peter Boal directed Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mopey redefined my idea of what ballet could be. To this day I can almost watch this dance like a video in my memory.
  4. Opening night at Roméo et Juliette. I am not a huge fan of story ballets, but this interpretation of Shakespeare’s bawdy tragedy took my breath away.

Local ballet fans will notice the last two have something in common – James Moore. In ballet, for better or worse, the male dancer’s role is generally to make the female look good. There aren’t very many ballets that showcase the male dancers. So when a male dancer shows up twice on your list, he’s something special.

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Confession: I never felt Romeo and Juliet before. I’ve read it, seen the plays, watched the movies, engaged in discussions that ranged from the academic to the penis jokes. I enjoyed all of it. Shakespeare was talking about adolescence, about those huge, tumultuous rollercoaster feelings when the fate of the world hinges on a word or a look. But it was all academic.

Until Act I at PNB, when the opening scene reminded me of hanging of hanging out with my friends, killing time and hating those other guys. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie was similarly successful in translating the adolescent emotion for the modern viewer, although it was so highly stylized that I couldn’t make a genuine connection with the characters. Christophe Maillot’s choreography debuted in the same year, so I don’t know who influenced whom, or if teenage passion was just in the ’96 zeitgeist, but there are marked similarities in the two productions.

In fact, Luhrmann and Maillot (as I experienced him through PNB) have a lot in common. Both used music I don’t love (80s Top 40 pop in Moulin Rouge and Prokofiev in Roméo et Juliette, respectively) to tell stories I adore. I would never listen to Prokofiev’s disjointed, abrasive, often dissonant, one might almost say hormonal score by itself, but Maillot created a ballet that so perfectly suited the music, I can’t imagine any other soundtrack (just as Elton John’s “How Wonderful Life Is” is always sung by Ewan McGregor in my mind). Both represent the relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt as… particularly close, something I don’t remember from before. And both are heavily referential. The ballet includes a shout-out to West Side Story, and the puppet show in Act II that foreshadows the remainder of plot is visually almost identical to that in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – which of course is drawn from the bard himself.

The characters in Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette are three dimensional. Romeo and his friends are crude and vulgar in the street scenes, but his first tentative stolen kiss with Juliet at the party is so sweet and indirect we are reminded that he is not so far removed from an age when kisses were for mommy; he plays at being a man but he’s still a boy.

The pas de deux in the garden has none of that gentleness. Chaotic and powerful, the pair is tossed on waves of emotion they don’t even try to control. Although nothing in my adolescence resembled the grace and beauty of their dance, it so perfectly recreates the tumultuous passions of first love that the scene left me breathless. Likewise, the death of Mercutio feels like yet another teen street fight – until it gets out of hand. Then everything moves in slow motion as it does when you’re in shock – in my memory, I see the scene with the same tunnel vision as my memories of car accidents. Although the program describes Romeo’s killing of Tybalt as an execution of duty, the performance contains nothing of ritual. Romeo chases Tybalt in a blind rage and murders him with his bare hands. It is ugly and visceral; more intense than anything I’ve seen in decades of avid action movie viewing. Romeo too, is horrified. When he comes to his senses he recoils from Tybalt’s corpse, shocked by what he has done. In Act III, when he runs to Juliet’s crypt, it is not the stylized stage-running of ballet, you can feel that he’s driven to see the truth for himself. When he does, his grief is palpable. I was once again reminded of Moulin Rouge, because the last time I saw stage-grief that credible was Ewan McGregor’s ragged sob over the body of Satine.

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Kaori Nakamura as Juliet was equally real. With her nurse and with Romeo, her motions were bold and decisive. The force of her feelings was apparent. When she first sees Romeo after he kills Tybalt, her anger reaches him before her body does. She strikes at him with the force of intent – there is nothing ineffectual in her blows. Before Romeo flees to Mantua, she drags him across the stage to her bed. She is determined and strong, but in the presence of authority – her mother, Paris, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence – she is dwarfed, a child among adults. Meant to be seen and not heard, her movements mirror her mother’s. The friar picks her up, and she looks like a doll in his arms.

And the friar. In contrast to the unfiltered humanity of the other characters, Friar Lawrence is a moving metaphor, trying to hold back walls that he set in motion, playing the puppetmaster behind the curtain. Karel Cruz, impossibly tall and thin, manipulates the action like a Jack Skellington. He looks and feels sinister and yet is clearly grieved by the outcome of his actions. Although he is a causal agent, he seems trapped by destiny as much as the young lovers themselves are – his tragedy is understanding his role in the greater scheme, but not being able to change it.

I’ve held season tickets to Pacific Northwest Ballet for more than half of the twenty years I’ve lived in Seattle, but I haven’t attended much lately. When PNB first performed Roméo et Juliette, I was a stay-at-home mom with no money for tickets or babysitters, so I didn’t see it. But at the end of this performance, I bought tickets to the rest of the season in the lobby before I left McCaw Hall. With ballets like Mopey and Roméo et Juliette in the repertory, I can’t afford to miss any more.

In Which a Review of American Gods Turns into a Writing Riff

I haven’t written fiction since middle school. (Except that one NaNo novel in 2008, but that was therapy.) Even so, I am subject to that universal writerly neurosis – I secretly think that deep inside me lies hidden the great American novel. At least I think it’s universal. Maybe other technical writers are perfectly happy with what they do. Maybe novelists secretly dream of writing that perfectly researched narrative nonfiction.

Anyway. When I got back from Airwaves, an idea for a story popped into my head; a few characters, some themes, a couple of scenes. This is nothing new in itself. I’ve walked around narrating stories in my head that I had no intention of ever writing down since – well, since I stopped writing them down in middle school. But these characters wouldn’t go away. Whatever else I was doing, a part of my brain was thinking about these broken characters and the shit they were going through. Since another good chunk of my brain has been following my kids around in this manner for the past five years, it left precious little attention for the tasks at hand, which has, unfortunately, been noted at the day job.

AmericanGods10th

Anyway. I started reading American Gods, which has been on my list for ages. And damn, if it wasn’t custom made for me – old gods, introverted first-person narrator (whose voice, coincidentally, sounds exactly the same in my head as the editor over at NCS), road trips, magical realism, Iceland – and death. There is always death. The book also includes several of the themes, and even some of the events, that were part of my idea. Being well-read, I am usually able to think of several examples fairly quickly of my idea having already been done, and by my betters.

But this time, the author who already broke the trail was Neil Gaiman – the man who became my patron saint when I watched this video:

His line, “Make good art,” has become my mantra. So for a change, instead of letting my inner editor say, “Honey, you’re no Neil Gaiman, go write yourself an annual report,” I thought, “Okay, take notes reading this book. You’re going to need them.”

Then, I read Nicholas Christopher’s Tiger Rag. It too was full of ideas that came weirdly close to my idea. There were many of my favorite story elements again – especially the integration of music and plot – but also some of the specifics from my Iceland Idea. I couldn’t help but read the story as an instruction – “Here is how you handle this element of your intended story.”

Reading Tiger Rag confirmed my feeling that it was time to take a stab at fiction. The universe had provided me with two enjoyable textbooks that addressed different aspects of the story I wanted to tell. The universe always provides.

Okay, that’s not really true. There are billions of people for whom the universe provides nothing at all. Every day, children die of hunger, villages are burned, people are murdered and there is no one there to help and no silver lining.

But for me (and yes I’ve done my time in rich white guilt; I agonized over the play “The Fever” in 1993, and unlike my morally superior friend who tossed privilege aside and dedicated his life to service through L’Arche, in the end I decided to accept my good fortune with gratitude) the universe always provides. It’s largely, but not entirely, a matter of being born white and middle class in one of the richest countries in the world, and receiving a good education as a matter of course. Maybe being born in the Year of the Tiger makes up the rest – it’s as good an explanation as any for the way that things always work out. But for me, they always do.

I realized this with certainty sitting on a Yamaha motorcycle in Tamil Nadu, India in 2002, wearing flip-flops and a skirt, but no helmet. I was riding bitch (for the Americans, pillion for everyone else) behind a former motocross racer, whose riding style was considered reckless even by the locals. Seconds after narrowly missing a small child, who ran out in the road in front of us, we overtook a bus on a nominally paved road that passes for a two lane highway. I looked to the right, and saw our friends riding two-up on an Enfield. My friend Laura covered her eyes behind her driver as we raced at breakneck speed up the East Coast Road. Ahead I saw a second bus approaching us, and a funeral procession on foot at the side of the road, body wrapped in white, borne on shoulders draped with marigolds.

Photo: M. Karunakaran in The Hindu Feb 2012 This road has been paved & widened since I was there.

Photo: M. Karunakaran in The Hindu Feb 2012   The ECR has been paved & widened since I was there.

Our friends veered right, to the outside of the oncoming bus. The bus we were passing moved closer to us to avoid the funeral procession. We rode the straight line down the center of the road. Just as the two buses passed each other, inches to either side of us, I looked to the left and saw the body of a chicken explode against the front of the first bus. And in that tunnel-visioned moment of silence, I knew it was all good. Like the boy in American Beauty with his plastic bag, I realized at that moment there was nothing to fear. I was one of the lucky people that the universe takes care of.

Not that I’ve never been afraid since. That’s not in my nature. When the universe decides to look out for you, you’d better appreciate it. I think the absence of fear would be akin to taking a gift for granted, just as pretending you haven’t received a gift is ungrateful.

But ever since that day on the East Coast Road, whenever I’ve followed the mountain (as the snowboarders say) the ride has been epic. Whenever I ignore the smoke signals and take the sketchy line, I catch an edge so hard my kids get bruised. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?)

This is all, as my mother would say, “going down around Nellie’s barn” to say that in 2013 I plan to write a story, thanks to Iceland, Neil Gaiman, and the universe.

Of course, “Make good art,” is only possible after making lots of bad art – at least for most of us, if we’re lucky, and if the universe approves. But you’ve got to start somewhere. If the result is anything like the embarrassingly bad snippets I’ve spit out so far, no eyes but mine will be the wiser. I think Macklemore & Ryan Lewis said it best.

By my calculations, and at current rates of productivity (which may be unsustainable, see “day job” above) it will take approximately 18 years before my writing about music and art is any good; as for fiction, I’ve got about 9,996 hours to go.

When I started to write this, I looked up the origin of the “10,000 Hour Rule.” Originally, I thought Malcolm Gladwell (whose book I haven’t read, obviously) got the idea from poetry, and googled it with “Rumi.” The first result was a website devoted to Japanese bondage techniques. Coincidentally, I had thought to use bondage as a metaphor in my story.

Anyway. Once upon a time….