Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dance Little Sister

Most little girls want to be ballerinas, or at least wear a tutu and a tiara to school for a week. Not me. Every Saturday afternoon I was a whirling, polyester-panted dervish in the church of Helen and the Neils (Reddy, Sedaka and Diamond, respectively.),

OK, OK, I can't take credit for the musical selection. I was too young to have my own stereo and/or record collection, so I''d climb the pea soup green-carpeted stairs up to my sister's room and use hers, careful not to plunk the needle down too hard or drag it across the vinyl.

I'd then dance full out until I couldn't dance anymore. With my spinning and zooming and shouting (when I knew the words), a good 45 minutes was like a 5-mile tempo run. I was free and in the flow, yet within a clear structure: Each song was a number in my own variety show, a hindsightedly whacked-out mishmash inspired by things I'd seen on "The Partridge Family," "Donny and Marie" and, I'd be lying if I left this one out, the repellant-but-mandated "Lawrence Welk Show." And who can forget one of the greatest dance performances of all time (and the worst exits of all time, sigh), Snoopy in "A Charlie Brown Christmas?"

I had a few show stoppers of my own--"Love Child," featuring a tragic heroine whose provenance I didn't quite grok but imagined hanging tattered rags on a clothesline ("Tenement slum!"); "Bad Blood," about a terrible, malevolent being represented, for me, by a Bic pen and its inky see-thru vein of black sludge, and the finale, "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," equal parts desolate and doofus, musically mirroring my confusion about life because, yeah, I was one of those nervous nail biters even then. I'm joking now because…Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods?!--but this was serious play for me. I had to dance.

The perfect ending to this story is that every week I get to be the assistant in 2 children's jazz classes.  Until I hit grade school and heard about other girls taking dance classes, I didn't even know that there were such things. I thought dancing was something everyone knew how to do and did as regularly as I (and, well, the Lawrence Welk dancers) did. I am so happy that girls have so many options these days--ballet, tap, flamenco, swing, hula, African dance and, of course, jazz.

During the second-third of our class, they line up and, one by one, do various exercises across the floor. It's pretty standard, but for 9-year-olds taking dance for the first time, doing something all alone while everyone else watches is a big deal. And it's always amazing what happens when we ask them to do the most simple exercise of all--walking while rolling their shoulders to the beat. Some scramble to keep up with it, some get it right away but hold back, some hear its echo like a faraway pulse. And every once in awhile (3 times in the past 8 or so years I've been assisting), there'll be that girl who…I don't know…makes the music sound better.  It's not just sinking into the beat, it's almost like thinking in to the beat. That is, if the heart and head had feet…It's not about being the best dancer, either--not even all professionals can do it--but something beyond technique and grace and memorization and working hard. It's not that they're on the beat, it's that they're in it.

But you know what? Ultimately it doesn't matter if they, or you, have it or you don't. Maybe we can all find it sometime or another but, like movement, it flows and goes, leaves and comes back, fits and starts. All I know is there's something super fun and super special about leading a tiny but fierce tribe of 9-year-olds in a combination to "Men In Black." It reminds me of me. And yes, it's almost as ironic as an 11-year-old Most Holy Trinity school girl rocking out to "I Wanna Be Sedated" (I finally saved my allowance and started my own little record library)... but the difference is, I've got some company now.

I wrote this thinking of my mom. I hope she's gotten to dance again. : )

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How Sweet Hearts Can Be

I would have posted this sooner, but I couldn't come up with a good-enough title. I figured the only way I'd think of one was when I wasn't thinking, and there it was, whispered in my ear in the middle of a dream at 3 AM in the morning last week.

Those same bright stars in heaven above
Know now how sweet
sweethearts can be

Of course. One of my favorite lyrics ever, the ouch of the three "ows" softened by a double dose of turbinado… So simple, it takes lesser poets 5 more lines to say not even quite that. I fell right back into the most satisfied sleep, so, so thankful for those kinds of gifts from the universe…

That's probably one reason why I run, because running has lots of gifts to give. And running doesn't mind if you're me or Meb--you plan well, you put in the time and give up that last tiny bit of control your ego thought you had, and it'll take you where you need to be…wherever that is. It brought Meb to the Boston Marathon finish line before everyone else, and it brings me, even though I'm at the complete other end of the natural talent spectrum, to this…

Two weekends ago I was in Central Park, trying to find the calm in the dappled shade of the bridle path, the nothing-but-flatness of the reservoir loop…anything but the outer loop, which I had been on quite a bit in recent weeks. It's hilly, which I don't mind, but nasty hot in the bright sun, which i do. So I avoided the outer loop like the plague, until, of course, I stopped paying attention to how crappy I felt for a second and found my feet leading me there….

Who drew all those chalk hearts in the pedestrian symbols painted on the road that show which way we're supposed to be going? It doesn't really matter, and it doesn't even matter why they wrote "88" in each of the hearts on said pedestrian symbols from West 90th all the way to… wherever they ran out of chalk on the east side.

It matters to me because my mom was born in 1926, and because the last birthday she celebrated was her 88th on April 16. And just in case I didn't quite get the message that those who have left their bodies are always in our hearts, this one kept coming up in my iPod shuffle…

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stealing Home

This past winter, Derrick was attacked by a bulldog. It’s not quite accurate to say “attacked,” since I don’t think the bulldog wanted to harm him—it was more like the psycho canine version of Capture the Flag, with the flag being furry and flamepoint. In any case, the timing was terrible—Derrick and I were out in the hallway for his morning walk, and he displayed his nosey-neighbor habit of dashing into any apartment with an open door just as the guy with the youngish, etiquette-challenged bulldog was leaving. They rolled, they tumbled; the owner stumbled as he tried to grab Santino. I pretty much screamed the entire time but somehow managed to open the door so Derrick could get back to our apartment. Which he did…followed by the dog.

When Lorenzo saw them run past, he leaped on top of the air conditioner and went textbook Halloween Cat. Within what was probably just a few seconds, Santino’s owner finally grabbed him and they got outta there. Derrick was left with bloody back paw pads, at least 6 fewer claws and an hour-long case of Big Tail. Lorenzo hid on top of the kitchen cabinets and stayed there for half the day, big round frying-pan eyes like he didn’t know who he was, or we were. We were all in a daze.

D. was way too stressed for a vet visit until the next week, but I did call the animal communicator. Derrick, typically a cat of few words, said even less than usual--he was still trying to process what was going on.  Lorenzo shared what they were both feeling:

“Attacked in our own home! We never thought that could happen.”

That just about killed me. Both of my guys were dumped on the streets by their original owners, and I promised myself, and them, that they’d always be safe and protected. But that day, I screwed up royally. The encounter with Santino was like a feline September 11th.

For the next few weeks, the whole house felt…piloerect. And I began to think a lot about that tired, mired myth of home, sweet home. About things that have happened to past and present friends, people I’ve worked with, strangers whose faces give away their stories… a lot of bad shit happens in places that people call home. From whoppers like physical/mental abuse and addiction to different-sized things like lies and love that gets withheld and not allowing someone to be who they are…  And oh, the stories of children abused in their homes that hurt us all so deeply, instantaneously. Nixzmary Brown, the little 7-year-old from Brooklyn who was tortured, molested and killed by her stepfather… Myls Dobson, 4, found murdered earlier this year, emaciated and covered in bruises and burn marks, while in the care of a babysitter… What did home mean to them?

One night after the bulldog incident I awoke thinking of Lotus, Gaza and Memphis—3 uromastyx lizards I took care of years ago during my work with a herpetological society. They were seized at U.S. Customs, stolen from their home somewhere in the Middle East and shoved in a box with dozens of other lizards, shipped to America to be sold in the exotic pet trade. We were asked to take care of them while a court case was pending; they were weak, stressed and sick, so it was more like hospice care. We tried to be hopeful anyway. 

Apparently they were of a species that was least attractive to pet owners, but I marveled at their soft pebble-gray skin, dinosaur heads, spiky Sex Pistol tails, kind eyes… they spent a lot of time being very, very still, like old, otherworldly Romanesque cathedrals. Despite my best efforts, you can fill in what happened—first little Memphis, then Lotus passed away. Gaza was so, so thin but still hanging on, eating her alfalfa that I sprinkled with Bach remedies (I tried everything)… I asked the animal communicator to check in with her. She’d never spoken with a displaced uromastyx before, but Gaza told her she just wanted to go home. And she just couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to.

My heart fell. I knew she could never go back, and I knew deep down that a 75-gallon tank with full-spectrum lighting and a bunch of heat lamps in a New York City apartment was so, so wrong.  There was no home for her now, anywhere.  When she passed, I imagined her dreaming herself back to soft, silken sand near the hottest rocks she could find. A blinding sun shining down lizard love and life.

And so, for Derrick and Lorenzo and Gaza and Nixzmary and Myls and anyone else for whom home hasn’t always been home—I propose a change in definition. Maybe home is not a place, but a series of actions… Moves and moments we can take, no matter where we are, that show and let us know we are safe and supported and surrounded by everything we need.

For Derrick, that means Tiggering through the apartment and spinning out as he takes the corners… that slight uplift of his tail when you say his name… the way his paw pads open and spread like pink petals when I pet him… For Gaza, home is this little shimmy in the sand she’d do while sunbathing, belly-down…

For Lorenzo, aside from this…

…home is a very slight rearing up, a la My Little Pony, at the moment he knows a treat is forthcoming.

For me, home is doing most things for a longer period of time than most people do them for. Home is barefoot, home is blinking through raindrops while soaking wet, home is sitting on the floor, home is Bing perched on my knee or sighing into my side, home is leaping through hallways if there’s enough space…

And when you’re not limited by walls or a map, home may be something you never thought to look for… melting wax, chasing snowflakes, shaking a tambourine…

What’s your dance, homie?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

I Wanna Be Your Dog

When people talk about their spirit animals, I actually feel like rolling my eyes sometimes. Yes, me, the person who believes if I think hard enough I can forcefully will a hot-pink streak to start permanently growing from my head because well, it seems like I should have been born with one in the first place. What gets me is when people are so….limited about it.  The typical options for spirit animals are comparatively glamourous fauna like bears and wolves and snakes and dolphins and crows when, hey, what about identifying with a maggot, or one of those dung-eating birds?

OK, I'm digressing. What I really am meaning to write about--I'm pretty sure I was a scrappy dog (no, not Scrappy-Doo, he's a cartoon, silly!--and as such will live forever) in a past incarnation. It really hit me earlier this winter, when I'd see the neighborhood dogs in the snow and feel all familiar and nostalgic. I love the ones who just sort of dig a little hole, like a sunken livingroom, and hunker down and hang out until snow covers their eyelashes. And the back-scratching spine-wigglers who roll around on the ground, paws in the air and smiling, in the new-fallen snow. Just thinking about it makes me feel all funny in the tailbone area…OMG, it can't be just me! Does anyone else know what I mean?!

One Saturday morning in January, I was running along the East River as snow was falling, and I kept looking at the ground, that packed, perfect, glistening whiteness, and thinking about those dogs… I felt all twitchy like I had to stop and…do something. You know what's coming, right?

There weren't a lot of people out, but I still made sure no one could see when I laid down in the snow and yes, rolled on my back like a happy dog. I was sort of embarrassed, so I didn't stay down there too long, which sort of pisses me off in retrospect. If you're going to do something like that in the first place, better make it worth it, ya know? Anyway, the 20 or so seconds were still pretty satisfying, so I got up and continued on my way. If there'd been someone else with me, I guarantee you it wouldn't seem so weird--you know how that is? But, hell, when your inner canine calls…you heed that call. And then get some Scooby snacks.

Re: this next one--I gotta say, ain't nothing like the real thing, but if the Stooges wanna be your Neapolitan mastiff, these guys maybe just wanna be your beagle. Which is totally cool, too.

Belated Christmas wishes. And 'cause Snoopy's a lover, not a fighter:

P.S. The truck-drivin' dog in this old photo is none other than Boogie, whose friend and co-conspirator Bobby Faust passed away earlier this year. I bet they're rolling along, eating Moon Pies and howling at the moon together on the other side.