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© MECC (1994)

When I was growing up, in the greater neighborhood surrounding the cul-de-sac I lived on, there was a house at the top of a hill I often rode up on my bike, bookending the upper avenue. In the front yard, there was an old well.

It took me several passes by to even notice it, under the shade of a large tree, half-hidden by several overgrown bushes. Thinking back on it now, I can’t begin to imagine how it had come to be there — the housing development was younger than me, had grown up around me; when my parents bought our house, there was nothing around us but dirt, my future high school, and a gas station — or who might have dug it out. So high up on a hill like that, could it even reach any sort of aquifer? It must be just for show.

But no; I looked around to make sure no one was watching, poked my head in, threw a sizeable rock down, and could barely hear it hit the bottom. It was real. Empty and purposeless, but real.

I maintained a sort of detached obsession with it for some time, in the sense that I never actively thought of it unless I was riding or walking by, but would often insert an 8-bit avatar of it into the background of a page or two when playing around on one of my favorite computer games in the grade school library during recess: Storybook Weaver.

In hindsight, it would make perfect sense that the a program held such a fierce appeal to me, that I would return to fiddle around with it so regularly. It offered the illusion of crafting any story your imagination could dream up, but in reality was hemmed in by any of the familiar limitations of software programs of the late ’80s and early ’90s. There were limits to the objects and people you could choose from, there was a fixed number of scenic backgrounds in which to place them. You could change some of the colors, or the time of day in which they were set, but ultimately, before long, every page took on a fairly familiar cast. The challenge lay in creating something original from within those parameters.

How often have I wanted to believe I could craft any narrative I wanted from preexisting people, places, conditions? How often have I tried, yet come up against walls so similar to those written into that old code I was once enchanted by?

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I always saved. Even when I’d added little, rarely finished, and had no floppy disc of my own to write to — we wouldn’t have a computer in my home until relatively late, around 1998 — and knew in a rather mortifying way in the back of my mind that anyone else who logged on had the opportunity to go back and read whatever I’d made. I always saved. I saved everything.

I still save everything — in boxes, written into Word and Notepad documents — though what for, I know no better now than I did then.  So much of it only staying with me, so much only saved by me.

Six years is a long time, and yet eventually becomes no time at all. It passes, circumstances change, things are broken that can’t be repaired, are papered over by mere shadows of their former selves. Looking back provides better perspective, though not always for the better. The lone saver of things can be a lonely position to turn back from.

So much thrown down an empty well, up on that hill, never to be reflected back.

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An American Tail

Boy, did this one dredge up a lot of thoughts in me. A LOT.

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I hadn’t seen this film, in full, since I was a child. I know it always affected me strongly back in the day, even if it wasn’t my favorite of Bluth’s (that honor still probably belongs to Secret of NIMH), but I honestly can’t imagine a more affecting — or upsetting — time to be seeing it again than our current climate. And frankly, as the child of an immigrant (albeit a voluntary one) who got into trouble at school due to discomfort with the entire concept of being forced to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, my own relationship to — and discomfort with — America and patriotism has always been… complicated.

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It’s just… it’s so goddamn hopeful about America, it was painful to take in now. It’s a film about the plight of refugees so earnest and blatantly (and deservedly) sympathetic that I honestly can’t imagine it being made today. In one scene, Fievel is literally caged by the cats, and watching that as American border agents are caging living children was almost too much to bear. I found myself thinking back on Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece MAUS more than once — a parallel it’s tough not to draw (and apparently inspired some litigation at the time of the film’s release), given the presence of evil cats killing mice; in this case, the only difference, really, is that the cats aren’t literal Nazis — the mice are still (Russian) Jews. They arrive at the port immigration authority, and their family names are changed; they’re then confronted by opportunistic vultures lying in wait, taking advantage of the poor and desperate new arrivals wherever they can, to put them to work in America’s longest, most successful grift: cheap labor off the backs of its most hopeful dreamers. The set palette, between Russia and America, it’s worth noting (and I’m sure is no accident) does not change; New York is just as grimy, dangerous, crowded, and threatened by fire and death as the homeland they left.

Don Bluth is a filmmaker I’ve always had a complex relationship with. The films of his I love, I love deeply. (Hell, I even have a soft spot for the duds; Rock-a-Doodle is like a drug-addled fever dream from an Elvis fanatic on acid, but that didn’t keep me from watching it more than once, back in the day. Thumbelina is a mess, but it’s so beautiful to look at, I was charmed by it anyway.) I believe I saw NIMH first, at about age 4 or 5, and it blatantly traumatized me, I know — it gave me recurring, vivid, horrific nightmares — and yet I returned to it again and again.

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Animation is an art form I have always adored and revered, mostly due to my deepest childhood dream of being an animator. I discovered I lacked the discipline as an artist to ever achieve such a thing long ago, but animated films still hold a power over me that no other genre of film does, and I love film. In a way, it could be argued they’re film, as a storytelling medium, in its purest form. There are visuals and scenes in animated films that never fail to move me to tears, and have influenced me in so many unconscious ways. I’m fairly sure I’ve been dyeing my hair red for nearly half my life now mostly because I was more obsessed by Ariel than any other fictional character during my formative years; seeing this film again, I can’t help but wonder whether I ultimately picked out a blue newsboy cap recently because it’s the color Fievel wore.

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Bluth’s films include a darkness that no other animator really dared explore for audiences including such young children. He isn’t the greatest animator of my time, in my book — I would personally give that honor to Miyazaki — but when he succeeded, he produced the stuff of unmistakable brilliance. The widow Brisby holding literal fire in her hands, upon finding her real self and true courage in order to save her children, marked me as a young girl; Littlefoot’s mother’s death — and the entire theme of inescapable death in All Dogs Go to Heaven — articulated the inevitable end of life to me at my most impressionable in a more profound way than any other fictional tales I can recall. Hell, even Anastasia — handicapped though it may be by Bluth’s growing over-reliance on awkward Rotoscoping in his animation — is irresistible to me; I will belt the fuck out of “Journey to the Past” and feel like I could do just about anything while doing it (and part of me always wanted to steal Anya’s newsboy cap-wearing, cropped-reddish hairstyle, too).

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Bluth’s violence is direct in a deeply un-Disney way, and I often wonder how much he pushed himself toward that darkness after walking out of those studios (taking half of Disney’s animation staff with him, arguably the greatest coup he ever achieved). There is visible, stark blood in them, which you will find in almost no other works by his contemporaries. There are knives, daggers, swords, needles glinting in the dark, stabbing into lab rats, bones of cannibalized characters litter the ground; the terrors and pain he animates look real. (The huge robotic mouse they build to scare off the cats onto the ship? Holy shit, I had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is.)

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Bluth’s nightmares are the stuff of genuine nightmares, honest to god hellscapes — when they literally go through actual hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven (apparently a tamer version of the original cut, if you can even imagine what it might have otherwise been; I never dared to), it will fuck a child up. The water that washes Fievel off the boat to America, that floods the old New York streets and sewers is not blue; it’s dark and dirty and appears bottomless; it really does look like something you would drown in.

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This applies to the grief in them as well: Disney films are full of missing (typically presumed dead) mothers; The Land Before Time has you witness the mother’s actual death. And all of this, within animation, is as unique as it is visionary. Bluth did many things, not all of them great, but he certainly never shied away from confronting the children in his audience with true fear, darkness, or sadness.

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“Ah, America. What a place!” Fuck me, but this line made me want to cry (and it repeats later!). The most painterly, loving frames in the entire film appear in its closing, when the camera pans slowly, reverently around the freshly built Statue of Liberty, still resplendent in all her original, pre-oxodized copper glory, shining like a true beacon in the sunrise: “Isn’t she beautiful?” She was. She still is — even as a brave black woman, an immigrant herself from the Congo, scaled her feet just a week ago, in protest of our government literally stealing children from their parents and abandoning them in cages — even as the American dream continues to rot at its very core. This film’s title is no accident; there is no story more American than that of the immigrant and the refugee.

I’m nearly 32 years old, and Don Bluth can still fuck me the hell up. LACMA is running a full series of his works all month long. I’ll watch them all, and they’re all going to fuck me up.

How do I work this?

I had a thing, for a good portion of my years in school, all the way up through high school — likely influenced at least somewhat by my godfather, a highly sought after architect of, at that time, the richest homeowners in the country — about occasionally but obsessively designing my own imaginary house. Thinking back now, I’m not entirely sure where the desire to do so came from: I loved my childhood house. (And I do mean I loved it; I was fiercely devoted to it in a way I’ve never felt about any other place I’ve lived, observed and lived within it with deep affection and attachment for as long as I could remember, photographed it obsessively once I knew we’d be moving out after 17 years living there.)

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Doors (Carmel Valley, 19 April 2004). When I say I documented my childhood house obsessively, before we left (June 2004), I mean it sincerely. There was a light that lived in that house, which I did my best to capture — my father imparted to me the importance of the meaning of photography, which is “to paint with light” — but have never encountered anywhere else I’ve visited or lived. I’m always looking for it, but I have never found it again. I don’t imagine I ever will. The only place it still lives is in a few achingly earnest photographs I took when I was 17 and mourning.

Maybe it was just one more way of exercising my visual thinking acuity, or just another doodling outlet or outlet for my little Lego-loving ass… Maybe it was just a little girl who’d never known what it was like to have money trying to imagine a world where you get to create your own living space, the way they entice you to do in home style magazines and those early demo computers in hardware stores: the way rich people do. It definitely is to blame for my long-lasting and bizarrely fierce dedication to the use of graphing paper. To this day, any time I move, I still create a scale model of the room I’ll be moving into, complete with loose pieces representing every piece of furniture, and plot it all out before I actually lift any boxes or hammer any nails in.

This past weekend, the landlord has been (finally) doing some sorely needed renovations on the main bathroom in our apartment, which meant all three of us needed to find somewhere else to shower for a few days, while the paint and new caulking dried. Thanks to a very fortunate bit of timing, another tenant in the building, who’d lived in one of the upstairs units, to the east side of the building, just moved out at the end of January; we were able to wheedle the landlord’s permission to leave the back door to the place open for a few days, so we could make use of the shower up there, in the now vacant unit. I’ve lived in this building for over four years now, but I’d never once ventured upstairs, or even into another one of the six or seven other units, until now. (The fact that I’m honestly not sure — still! — whether there are six or seven besides ours probably makes that fairly embarrassingly clear.)

Walking into that apartment for the first time the other day, I was a bit floored, and suddenly wished, in a way I hadn’t done in many long years, that I could afford to live on my own. It reminded me of a game I once played with a childhood friend, where we’d run across the street from our neighborhood to the freshly built houses across the street — as San Diego expanded wildly in all directions and overbuilt itself into a sprawling suburban, traffic-ridden hell arguably worse than the bits of LA everyone bitches about the most — let ourselves into one of the three furnished model units the realtors always seemed to leave unlocked, and play dream house in them. But this, now, was somehow even better: this apartment here is, for the time being, blissfully empty. It’s a truly blank canvas.

It’s smaller overall, with fewer rooms — meant for one tenant (at most two), whereas we’re able to fit three into ours fairly well — and the bathroom itself, our point for having access to it now, is certainly smaller than ours. (No dedicated parking space either, so far as I know.) But… hardwood floors! Be still my heart. An A/C unit in the living room! Fewer rooms means they’re all at least somewhat larger, too, particularly the kitchen. Though the first thing I swooned at, even before the flooring, was the large picture windows facing out onto the main street. Sure, the bedroom is the closest to the street, but I sleep like the dead, so what do I care about road noise? Those windows are heavenly. There’s a ceiling fan in the bathroom, and their window isn’t painted shut! The air flow is divine. Then, of course, I turn to my right, and discover the walk-in closet, with its own window, and die a little inside. And, of course, fall a bit hopelessly in love with the whole thing.

It’s arguably a sillier fantasy now than it was when I was a little girl; pretending this great empty space is something I can furnish and arrange to my liking. At the rate I’m going, I’ll die never having had the luxury of living alone, let alone owning (or even renting) any property just for myself. Even considering it seems absurd. Still, for the first time since childhood, I know at least one little corner of my mind will be laying graphing paper gridding over those rooms in my mind, imagining what I could make of that fresh, open space, in that fantasy world that will never be, where it’s mine to do with whatever I want. Is it better or worse to be dreaming a little about a space that’s not only not entirely made up, for once, but that’s just a short trip up the stairs from where you already are? I’m honestly not sure.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…

 

via Daily Prompt: Permit

Anybody here like games?

“It’s too late. You’re my guests!”

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Being a dancer since the age of 4, I grew up a Michael Jackson fan, and will always be one. Over the past couple decades or so, I’ve read more about him than just about any other figure or hero of mine, and he fascinates me to this day. Not just for the seemingly untouchable power his voice and what he could do with his body had over millions of people — including myself — across the whole world, but for what a vastly complex human being he was, all while being at the center of what was perhaps contemporary American pop culture’s most relentlessly focused lens. America didn’t just put him under a microscope for nearly 5 decades; it stuck him under a magnifying glass in the sun, hoping to watch closely, with a dark sort of glee, while we burned him into the ground.

It bears repeating, no matter how many times I’ve said it, that the late, endlessly great, James Baldwin, all but predicted what would happen to Michael, as early as 1985, to the point of precision that Joe Vogel — one of the greatest chroniclers on record of Michael’s phenomenal and varied career — has dubbed it “The Baldwin Prophecy”:

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…

— “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Playboy Magazine, 1985

This is a remarkably uncanny observation, yet also entirely unsurprising, given how prophetic most of Baldwin’s works have come to be, which is why they have never lost their relevance, and perhaps (shamefully) never will.

Sitting here, listening to his music — thanks to MTV playing a block of his short films all night, in celebration of what would’ve been his 59th birthday — I find myself thinking about him and his complexities at a depth I haven’t in some time. (Even Michael’s relationship to MTV is complex; the network both helped break the visual arm of his career fully into the mainstream, and mocked him relentlessly, while also later playing host to the only appropriately fantastic tribute performed for him just after his death in 2009. And Madonna may be a messy as hell figure herself, but her words on that night carry a weight and appreciation that few others’ could.)

I think one of the greatest issues with the world’s view of him, versus the reality of his life, was that we attempted, at large, to simultaneously magnify and simplify him, which could only strip him of his humanity, ignoring that — like any other human being — he was deeply complex, and host to countless contradictions. This set impossible standards for him, and yet was the largest attempt of (white) America to condense him to something more palatable, more relatable, more laudable… And later, more villainous, more contemptible, more unforgivable. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not ever fit into boxes like these (which never stops us, culturally, from attempting to shove them in, then feeling somehow betrayed when bits spill out and force us to confront them), and artists, perhaps most of all, suffer the worst effects of such pitiful goals. We so easily forget: to simplify is also to diminish.

As obviously inspired as he was by Bob Fosse, I find it surprising how few parallels I’ve ever seen drawn between the similarities of their early lives. (The James Brown connections were both directly personal, and even more obvious, so there is less need to go there.) Fosse — and if you’re looking for a great examination of another legend, you can’t do much better than Sam Wasson’s 2014 opus, Fosse — was confronted as frighteningly prematurely by women, sex and sexuality, and darkness in show business as Michael was: Fosse backstage at burlesque shows before he entered puberty, Michael peering from behind similar curtains both before and during his factory production line-like Motown years, groupies crawling into his rooms shared with his older brothers, his abusive father borderline pimping them out as a family unit. There is so much barely-disguised pain in both of their works; both were relentless workaholics, rarely satisfied with their own art. Yet they inspired countless others in their wake, both in life and long past both their premature deaths.

People often plant stubbornly into one camp or another, when discussing Michael: they either feel he was a child trapped in a man’s body, or they feel he was a predator playing the long con. (There are, of course, many variations on these two camps, but they tend to, overall, fall onto one side or the other.) Neither was true, and the clearest reality to me seems to be, again, horrendous contradictions — horrendous in that I can’t possibly imagine trying to reconcile them within one person. That he did so through his art, and publicly, was extraordinary. To just scrape the surface…

(1) Michael was an unapologetic Black man. (How anyone can hear “They Don’t Care About Us” and somehow miss this is still beyond me. Or watch him literally morph into a black panther in one of his most popular videos! I mean… shit. This is not subtle, by any means, and yet…) Throughout his life he was vocal, political, and adamant about this. His primary and most iconic messaging being centered around love did not stop him from speaking truth to power. The fact that vitiligo — which he publicly acknowledged having (albeit likely too late) as far back as 1993 — is literally listed as a medical fact on his autopsy report has not stopped countless people from clinging to the idea that it was all a lie; that it is even humanly possible to turn white as almost translucent sheet paper through skin bleaching alone (spoiler alert: it is not). There are photographs of the heaps of stage makeup he once tried to hide it under sliding off his skin with his sweat, while performing, as early as the late ’70s, but it never mattered. No excuse would have been good enough, in America, for what appeared to be a black man attempting to somehow “turn himself white;” the ultimate crime in a place so steeped in — and founded on — racism.

(2) People had enough pearl-clutching issues, at the time, with Bowie’s androgyny, but Michael took it further: he did it while Not White. (Michael’s original desired cover for the Bad album can only be described as androgynous — it was directly inspired, after all, by the famous 1928 Edward Steichen portrait of Gloria Swanson behind a swatch of lace for Vanity Fair — and it is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, his record label hated, and ultimately rejected, it.) The fact that fans — a majority of them women, many of them white — would literally faint, by the hundreds*, at just about every show he performed, did not help his case, because if we know one thing about America, it is the level at which white men will panic over what they perceive as threats to their women. And though he always featured non-white objects of love (or lust) in his music videos, he married a white woman; not just any white woman, but the daughter of the King of white music (and theft of  black music), Elvis Presley. It was widely mocked as a sham marriage, and yet for over two years after their divorce, Lisa Marie would follow him all over the world, even after marrying her next husband. He was a notorious — among those he employed or spent time in his entourage — flirt and lover of women. (Lord, the video of him in the limo, talking about the “good fish,” or shamelessly hitting on the female fan at that Invincible signing… Y’all.)

[*An aside: That live cut of “Man in the Mirror” has the power to emotionally destroy me, so… I get it.]

(3) He was, absolutely and unmistakably, obsessed by childhood, having missed out almost entirely on his own (and this is why, as previously mentioned, Madonna was an appropriate choice to speak on the matter shortly after his death). This, most problematically, seemed to blind him to the bulk of his own contradictions, and to the potentially dangerous motivations of others. This is how one ends up too close to (a) a man who will drug his own son just hoping to get a screenplay produced by his famous friend, and (b) a literal family of grifters, further down the line, who will eventually take you to court and destroy your life. (The 2005 court case was going on while I was in college for forensic criminology, and happened to be enrolled in law classes myself. I followed and studied it for months. The real details of it are, frankly, incredible. I wish they were more publicly, widely known. But a witch hunt is what the public wanted, and it is assuredly what they got.) He had played with fire, in his own anger quite transparently baiting the DA who was obsessed, for years, with convicting him with anything he could come up with — even going on record suggesting he would falsify evidence in order to do so — and a literal circus of media and law enforcement was the price he paid for it. The public perception of Neverland itself also speaks to this: an unsettling image of a Peter Pan-obsessed creep pied pipering children in from all over to some freakish compound, when in reality, its owner was very often traveling or touring and not even present on the grounds; it was created primarily as a space to welcome sick and underprivileged children to experience things they never could have otherwise (if for different reasons from the lack of them in his own childhood), and thousands came and went without the added privilege of ever meeting or interacting with the man himself.

(4) He was deeply shy, yet most at home performing on stage. This is how you arrive at a man who both plants false news stories in the press in the hopes of stirring mystery (the “Elephant Man’s bones” and “sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber” stories did, in fact, originate from Michael’s own camp), yet cannot take it when the press turns on him, and runs with the vengeful fun of printing far more hurtful and damaging lies about a large and easy target. A man who loved to greet adoring crowds of his fans by the thousands, but still longed to walk the streets alone and unbothered, to the point that closing down grocery stores just so he could experience walking the aisles without harassment was considered a privilege. Was this willful blindness often incredibly misguided on his part? Absolutely. Plenty of other things were, too, to put it mildly. If the world was determined to make a spectacle of him, he wanted so badly to have control over just what sort of spectacle he would become, though this was, of course, impossible. This is what happens when one just can’t understand why you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. This did not stop him from trying, and seemed to be one lesson he stubbornly refused to learn. It does not help that he was taught very early on that lying in the pursuit of crafting a public image is part of the job: at Berry Gordy’s behest, Motown falsely claimed, when they debuted The Jackson 5, that Michael was 9 years old (he was in fact 11; as if a child completely snatching a blues song from an adult man so unequivocally was somehow less extraordinary at any age), the better to package him as a precocious child star. The image vs. the reality, as an inescapable conflict, pervades Michael’s entire career, and consequently, his life. All of this is part of what makes the Jackson family the true realization of the American dream; that so much ugliness came with it is only appropriate. It is — it must be — a nightmare, too.

Performing ultimately would, however, kill him. Frighteningly rigid professionalism had been hammered into him so hard by his father, from such a young age, that by the time a part of his own stage fell over 30 feet into an orchestra pit (with him on it), despite suffering an awful injury to his back, he still crawled back on stage and would not leave until the song was over, because he had been so deeply conditioned to never disappoint an audience. It was around this time that the drugs that would eventually take his life were introduced to him by rapacious doctors backstage, and though this may have taken over 10 years to destroy him… of course it did.

He was, yes, a genius. He could not read or write music, so when full songs would pop into his head — which he was characteristically averse to taking credit for — he would sing and beatbox each and every part to his musicians and engineers. He had a vocal range that made opera singers envious; its remarkable breadth was both lower and higher — and more powerful — than many realize. This alone should have been enough to cement the fact of his artistry, but his body was a singular instrument, too. In the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” during the instrumental bridge/dance break down, Michael and his backup dancers are shot in silhouette, but there is never, at any point, a shred of doubt as to which shadow is his. He employed many of the greatest performing professional dancers beside him, in videos and on his tours, and yet no matter how great they were, he still outpaced and outdanced them all. At 50, hovering at death’s door, and certainly not well, he still brings a bunch of 20-somethings to their knees in shrieking awe, merely by half-assing (if only by his own standards) his way through a new interpretation of “Billie Jean,” then waves it off shyly while everyone loses their minds: “At least we got a feel of it.” Oh, Mike. The voice and the body were both superhuman, and both existed, somehow, within the same man, to a degree that seemed impossible.

(5) His two longest works on film are also his most obviously personal, in that they vocally and visually attest to all these contradictions, which is what makes them such a unique combination of so incredibly entertaining, and so profoundly weird: Moonwalker (1988) and Ghosts (1997). (I also love them both fiercely; know this.) The former features an unbelievable hodgepodge of adult themes and performance (drug trafficking, kidnapping, the mob, the performance of “Dirty Diana” that closes the thing out) flowing in and out of chunks of genuine childlike wonder and simplicity (playing soccer at Neverland, the three kids who carry the bulk of what you can generously call the plot, morphing into a fucking car — and later a robot! — through seemingly straight-up magic, etc.)… it’s basically impossible to describe. It’s a chaotic collage, but one straight out of its megastar’s all-over-the-map psyche.

The latter work — originally penned by Stephen King — I could write an entire essay on alone, it carries so much of all I’ve touched on here within it in a mere 40 minutes. Though the overall storyline is much more straightforward than Moonwalker‘s, it is also far more revealing: Michael plays both the Maestro — a reclusive spirit playing magic tricks alone in a seemingly haunted mansion — and the Mayor — a stodgy (white! hiding under an incredible Stan Winston makeup job) man attempting to have the Maestro thrown out of town. (Again, the Mayor is a pretty obvious visual poke at DA Tom Sneddon; the town, hilariously, is called “Normal Valley.”) The Mayor is unhappy that apparently kids in the town have been hanging out in the mansion; the parents who follow him are concerned that the magic tricks are too scary for the children. The Maestro insists it’s all for fun, and he has no intention of harming anyone. Echoing the insights of Baldwin, unconsciously or otherwise, the Mayor continuously calls the Maestro “weird,” “strange,” and “a freak.” (Don’t forget: it is Michael voicing these words, to himself. If you’ve ever seen a more direct visualization of grappling so fiercely with self-hatred, let me know; I have not.) At first, the Maestro just plays more harmless tricks for silly scares, to the delight of the kids (and the consternation of the parents and Mayor). When he still isn’t getting the message across, and the Mayor continues to insist he leave town, he grows angry, and moves into a different territory: genuinely trying to scare them. (In the process, quite fittingly, we are treated to some of the fiercest, and best, dance choreography Michael ever put on film.) At one point, he literally jumps into the Mayor’s body, taking over his motions, transforming him into a good dancer, to the delight of the kids and the parents. He separates from him again, and takes a bow. But when the Mayor continues to berate him and insist he leave, the Maestro appears broken by the pain of this. He responds by literally smashing himself to dust on the floor, destroyed. The children and the parents are saddened by it. Ultimately, it’s yet another trick, and the Maestro finally scares the Mayor enough to send him running for the hills, and it ends on a happy note. The core message of this work is undeniable, and so pointedly Michael himself, I’m still in awe of it 20 years later. The contradictions in the man himself are all over the short film, too, and it invites a far greater understanding of his perspective on himself than, I think, any other piece he ever crafted. Michael himself loved practical jokes, childlike things, holding onto innocence all through adulthood, and pleasing his audience; the world turned on him for it, called him a freak, and the weight of all of it ultimately destroyed him. Unfortunately, in the real life version, the Maestro never returned from crumbling to dust; he stayed gone. Unlike Annie in Moonwalker, none of us could wish him back again.

“I had to tell ’em I ain’t second to none.” Somehow, this still has to be told. The point of this whole post? Respect and credit where it’s due. Don’t toss lazy criticism out there that’s so laughably simple of such a hugely complex artist. Engage with those complications when you want to talk about Michael and his legacy; otherwise you’re merely critiquing a tiny percentage of a very large picture, and you can go ahead and miss me with that weak shit.

I chose the image for this post for those reasons, too; it’s possibly the only piece of art, after his death, that I’ve ever seen capture the true dichotomy of the man himself (who happened to be, appropriately, a great fan of Rockwell, whose style it clearly emulates). He saw himself as both who he had always been, and who he believed himself to be — with all the inherent contradictions therein, as all human beings constantly struggle to do. The public saw otherwise, in large part because they insisted on it, but that didn’t make him wrong — it made him an artist.

I was 10, 11, 12 years old, approaching the tail end of elementary school. My friend I’ll call K, for her first initial, lived nearby; one of my parents always had to drive me to see her, San Diego being labyrinthine and sprawling, disconnected canyon valleys and their answering hilltops spilling over with housing developments, even then. Her family was perhaps the only one I knew, growing up, that had even less money than mine. Their house was situated at the bottom of a firetrap hill, graded so steeply fire trucks couldn’t physically reach the bottom; she and I would whisper about this excitedly at times, wondering what might happen if the valley bottom burned. The house was surrounded by acres of dry brush kindling, that fit in with no other development anywhere near it, as though it was one remaining piece of an old, forgotten thing to be cleared away. The nightmares of Southern California children are built upon foundations shaken apart by earthquakes, swept away by flames.

It was a round house, or appeared that way from the outside, though it was either hexagonal or decagonal in its true shape. You picked your way through low-hanging tree branches and bush to find the front door, which was around the far end from the driveway where the massive hill bottomed out. When we wanted to walk the few miles to the nearest — and only — group of shops, the only thing within miles that wasn’t another house or apartment, the climb up that hill had already stolen most of our energy by the time we reached the top, the grade was so steep, baking in the sun. We would play basketball in the dirt under the shade of the one tree large enough to provide any. I had never painted my nails before visiting her, but she loved to paint mine, my tangled mess of hair, waist-length and still never cut by this age, spilling over her lap, getting in the way. I was a gawky, coltish tomboy with strangely girlish hands, according to her. We would sit together in her stuffy, perpetually dark room, which smelled like a girl’s space in a way that was new to me. A giant, glittery plastic Kaboodle kit full of pre-teen makeup and nail polish was forever laid open on her dressing table. I’d never even had a mirror in my own room, spending all my time running around in the dirt with boys, getting everything I wore covered in grass stains; all of this felt exotic and impenetrable to me. She had a routinely angry older sister who flitted in and out of the house, making a lot of noise, whose name I don’t remember.

We made up a secret language comprised entirely of stamps only made by a single set of Crayola stamp markers. There were a very limited number of shapes they could produce, which meant the code worked much like Morse: multiple instances of the same shape appearing in differing configurations meant different things. I don’t recall what any of them said; the construction of them was so painstaking, it likely didn’t matter all that much in the end. We were two poor, awkward, young girls who went to schools sorely lacking in other children like us. She saw the faded, fraying plaid shirt I kept tied around my waist, and recognized what it meant; she crossed the upper grades’ outside playground area, her large feet crunching on woodchips, and sought me out like a beacon. She was so much bigger than I was then, in all ways, and though I usually flinched away from being touched, I would let her wrap me up in gargantuan, enveloping hugs, sometimes.

A single star, stamped in yellow, stood for “A.” The pale blue asterisk was an “E.” She signed every note with the single goldenrod smiling face. I turned 13, just after her, and entered junior high; my new school sat on a grassy hill above the sea, I filled sidewalk blocks with chalk mazes, and she dissolved away.

Neighbors

(Today’s WordPress prompt is slowly. I made my up this old street, through these memories, and through these photos, especially: slowly.)

I think back on these people now as the first and last neighbors I will ever have. I simply have no reason to anticipate ever inhabiting a neighborhood like the one I grew up in again. There will certainly never be a day when I own a house, and the neighborhood I was raised in was comprised entirely of them. The people who surrounded me as I grew, who I came to understand and recognize as my neighbors, were a part of that environment, and do not exist outside of it; they are only of that place and time. Since then, I’ve only resided in apartments, or my mother’s condo. She knows some of her neighbors now, but they are not mine. Even in the six long years I lived there with her, in much the same way I never made the room in that condo my own — never finished unpacking many of my possessions, never organized things in a more pleasing manner, never hung anything on the walls — those people were never my neighbors; they were hers.

eyes

I drove slowly up and around that cul-de-sac, and was overcome by the knowledge that there was no one there who would know me. The sole remaining family from the 20-odd ones I once knew was not at home; the garage and windows were closed, no cars parked out front, no signs of life within. Even if there had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have stopped my car, let alone gotten out, walked up to the door, and knocked. If the man who used to fondly call me “Nori” were there, or the woman whose young son used to do his homework under my watchful eye had been at home, I don’t expect either one would have recognized me. The last they had seen me, I was a fresh high school graduate; tall and still rather rail thin, with the only curves to my appearance still lingering around my face. My hair was long, blonde, and messy, down or habitually tied up, stuffed away at the nape of my neck. It was nearing half my lifetime ago, and I would have been a stranger. Nothing of me was left.

I drove a slow lap, marking each house as I passed it. Next door to us, one of the few single-story homes on the block, was Irene’s house. She had long since moved away — I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive, a realization that filled me with a mixture of guilt and dismay — but I could only think of the house as hers. Hers was the living room in which I had sat on the area rug, petting her old mutt whose name I had forgotten, but whose soft, matted fur I remembered still; hers was the kitchen sink in which I had washed out her watercolor paint brushes after watching her fill a canvas with a precision I would never have, longing to be a painter myself, knowing I never would be. Hers was always the first door I knocked on as a Girl Scout, knowing she would be delighted just to see me on her front step. Hers was the husband who died when I was only four; who I knew would die the day before, standing in our guest room — which would later become my mother’s, after my parents separated — looking out the window in the late afternoon light, seeing him standing in the driveway.  My parents hadn’t yet attempted to explain death to me, as much as you can ever explain it to a child, but standing in that room, looking down at him, without him seeing me, not even knowing he was sick, I knew he would not see him again.

The next door down had housed a family from Switzerland, so naturally my father had immediately befriended them, despite their having come from the German part of the country, and my father coming from the French; his nationalism never wavered in the face of any other factors. The father was odd, but he is the only one I remember, because I had worked for him for a summer, attempting to organize his extraordinary mess of a home office. Struggling to alphabetize his folders in their clunky filing cabinets, often having to guess at the first two or three letters of words, because his handwriting was all but illegible, and if I ever guessed incorrectly, he never told me. From one day to the next, he would change his mind about how he preferred his books to be arranged; one day by author, the following by title, other days by subject, and so on. He was paying me, and I have always loved books, so I didn’t mind moving them around all over again. I could sense I was glimpsing the remaining fragments of an unusual and perhaps extraordinary life, given the evidence in those drawers of the places he had been and the things he had done. I remember he was fond of me for being a reader, and for playing the guitar, which he had once taught himself. Apparently that was all it took, though I could never say I knew him, let alone the rest of his family, well. Of his wife’s face I have only a vague impression now, framed by her short brown hair.

The next house was the Day’s, and the aforementioned last standing of the original families, or so my mother had told me. Their older daughter Allison’s room was where I had once sat and listened to “Hummer” for the first time on her cassette, on one of the few occasions she ever acknowledged my presence in the house, before I was old enough to look after her younger brother Tyler. Thinking of him made me ache now; the last I’d heard of him was that he had fallen away from his family and into heavy drug use. I still could only think of him as the best behaved child I had ever babysat, and my favorite. I looked after him long enough that we established a routine; the same bus that I had once taken to the same grade school would stop at the end of the street, drop him off, he would walk up and let himself in the front door. I would be sitting in the living room, doing my homework, waiting for the sound of his key in the lock, and his endearingly, extremely low voice announcing “Hello,” to me and the house. He would make himself a bowl of Rice Krispie’s cereal, with a heaping spoonful of brown sugar on top, watch cartoons for a half hour on the floor between my feet, then go upstairs to his room to do his homework. He would bring it to me to check over when he was finished, and then ask my permission to go outside and play. The house was situated in such a way on the street that when he did, I could see him through the living room windows, and make sure he was safe. For a brief period his parents had attempted to use Ritalin to curb his attention deficit disorder, which apparently caused him to struggle in school, but all it did — and this hurt to remember, too — was turn him into a shell of a person, all personality, energy, and feeling removed. This experiment didn’t last long, thankfully, but I couldn’t help but think of it now, passing his old home, and wondering how that might have informed the place he found himself in now, and I had to turn away.

The next house had never had children attached to it, as far as I ever knew, and as a result, I never knew the inhabitants well. On a small street with 26 kids apart from me, it remained quiet and separate. The next belonged to my childhood best friend.

Josh had been born almost exactly a month before me, and his mother and mine were friends — and later, the church-going kind. Dawn often played Christian rock cassettes in her huge blue minivan when driving us to school some mornings, when one of us was too late to make the bus. They had us play together as babies while they talked in the evenings, and I do not remember a time, as a child, that I didn’t know him, his sisters, his parents, his backyard, his house. It all seemed to exist as simply a phantom extension of mine, as if the four houses between ours were not really there. His much older half-sister was a model, and a former Chargers cheerleader. His younger sister, Elisha, was a tremendous brat. His father was our baseball coach, when we were a little older. Dawn was the fiercest Tetris opponent I ever played, and I only ever managed to beat her once. Their garage never served as one for as long as I can remember; it had been carpeted, outfitted with a couch, shelving, and laundry room amenities, and the garage door was only ever closed at night, after the last member of the family had gone to bed; the rest of the day, kids in the neighborhood were free to wander in and out freely. The only video games I ever played as a child were played there, never having owned a gaming system myself. We played with his Batman figures and little green army men on the floor; we ran through the house playing extremely rough tag when left alone in the house, searched out junk food in the pantry, and watched crap on TV. We listened to comedy bits on cassette in his room, and climbed out his window to sit on the roof above the garage, which my mother never knew (and probably would have killed me for). We raced, bobsled and luge style, on his skateboards down the incline in the street, flying around the bend leading out to the bigger road, somehow not breaking anything or killing ourselves, ruining the soles of our sneakers, when we bothered to wear them at all.

His father had dragged out a regulation height basketball hoop to the head of the cul-de-sac — long gone now, of course — and we would play street hockey, HORSE, and small, short, half-court pickup games out in that communal circle outside his driveway. Without the hoop in the center, the street seemed lonely and empty, now. The yards were all different, too, and that in its own way felt like a loss. I had spent so many afternoons and nights, running back and forth between our houses, through the front yards, to my mother’s chagrin, so often, and so precisely, that I had worn with my long, athletic strides on my sure (usually bare) feet a perfect path between bushes, patches of dead grass, driveway, and front garden wall. I ran it so often I could have done it blind, but by now that was long since erased, too.

Next to Josh’s place was one that had housed a few families over the years, but I only really remembered Jaqueline, who I had tutored in reading when I was 12 and she was seven. Her parents ran a salsa company on the other side of the border, where they had moved from, and would often bring back baskets of the best green apples I have ever tasted. One year they were the house to host the block Christmas party, and, wanting me to learn something from her for a change, she taught me 16 standard Christmas carols on their piano. She seemed just as proud of me for playing them at the party that night as I was of her for all the progress she had made, though I would never play the piano again.

The most changed yard on the block, I noticed, was the one that had belonged to Chris’s family, another young boy I had looked after, and probably the next best behaved after Tyler. I had him to thank for becoming a fan of the Harry Potter books, as one night in the summer of ’99, he asked me to read the first chapter of the first book to him when he went to bed, and I stayed up to read the rest of the book before his parents came home. If I was looking after him on a Saturday night, I’d let him stay up late and we would watch SNICK. The best part of his house, however, was the humongous bush that had been planted in the front yard; a bush so huge, everyone had assumed for years it was a large tree with very low branches. On summer nights, after afternoons filled with water balloon fights and NERF gun wars, all the kids would drag various broken down cardboard boxes and pieces of old furniture into the darkness and play flashlight tag. The spotter would always climb up into that bush as high as they dared, armed with the high-powered camping flashlight, while the rest of us scrambled from one driveway at the crest of the street to the next, hunkering down together in bunches to avoid the light sweeping over us.

Most of the other houses on the opposite side of the upper half of the street I didn’t know well; the children who lived in them were younger, the parents not as close to mine. I’d recognize all of them during holiday block parties, but I don’t recall their names now.

Just across from ours, though, was Bill and Alice’s. It was the largest lot of property on the street, and Alice had taken full advantage of this, transforming the backyard into the finest garden I’ve ever seen, of the caliber that could’ve been — and was, at times — featured in a magazine. There were massive trees, rows upon rows of rose bushes, dozens of flowers whose names I never learned, patches of space dedicated to growing tomatoes, strawberries, and every type of herb; stone footpaths, even a couple of benches to sit on. She would let me come over whenever she was home, and I would often play around in the flowers, when I wasn’t sketching them. One afternoon I spent hours attempting a full picture of the entire garden, breaking all artistic rules of space and perspective to cram a sort of warped interpretation of a large place that seemed truly magical to me onto a single sheet of paper. She framed it and put it on the wall of their library, where Bill, a well-known local author, had put together a wonderful collection of books.

fluffy

Next to them was the house that my first cat had come from, where Kris the real estate agent had once lived, who spent her off time rescuing boxes of kittens from shelters, raising them until they were old enough to be given away to good homes. After she left, the Jones family moved in, who I often pet sat for when they would go out of town; happily looking after their big, dumb Labrador, their skittish, soft-as-a-cloud chinchilla, and their oldest son’s python.

A couple more childless houses I never saw the inside of much followed, then came Alex’s. As Josh and I grew older and grew apart, Alex moved to the street, and became my closest (female) friend in his place. Like me, she was a tomboy, though more brash and reckless. Though I didn’t come close to feeling anything like love until I was much older, I developed an embarrassing crush on her older brother, Dan, who had a garage band, and used to invite me to sing when they would play. I sang Fiona Apple songs when I was still a bit too young to appreciate their content, because I could mimic her closely, and wished I were older than I were; even then, wished someone might notice me. (He didn’t, of course. For much the same reasons why I’ve never been the recipient of flowers, jewelry, anonymous letters, or any gesture even mildly romantic — when I was younger, let alone now — I remained as much under his radar as that of anyone else, anywhere I went.) Fortunately, the crush didn’t have much potency to it, and didn’t last. Alex’s was the tiny back yard in which I first experimented with putting any effort into my appearance, attempted in any way to be girly. She would style my hair, put make-up on me, and we’d photograph each other as if we were models. We made silly short movies on her father’s camcorder, an activity that came to an abrupt end when, under her dramatic direction, I fell backwards out her bedroom window onto the roof of the garage, cracking three roof tiles with the force of my spine slamming into them. We would send each other “mail;” hand writing short, almost pointless letters in made up, pre-teen girl code, running up and down the street and stuffing them in one another’s mailboxes, giggling as one of us raised the red flags, so the other could look out her window and see there was something waiting.

wall

ground cover

There are more houses on the block, and one more down toward the corner, but none of them hold any lasting memory for me. It is just the right time of year to drive back through here; just before Halloween, when all the yard decorations have come out. Living on a cul-de-sac full of kids, within a much larger, circular street that housed even more, was prime territory for enjoying my favorite holiday. We all ran around in groups — my parents away on their anniversary dinner — knowing which houses were the best (particularly the woman at the end of the outer street who cleverly gave out cans of Hansen’s soda) for what sort of candy, which had haunted houses hiding in their garages, which yards we could tear through without being yelled at. I was strangely reassured to see that one patch of solid grass remained exactly where I remembered it, one I remembered running along with Alex for years, on our way to the housing development that was coming up across the main street, where we would sneak into the three furnished model homes when realtors weren’t around, coming up with elaborate fantasy lives that only existed then and there.

houseI circled back around and finally stopped at the place I’d saved for last: my old house. The front yard had been rendered nearly unrecognizable; a gangly, garish palm tree, of all things, now towered over it.

eucalyptus

All the grass had been torn out, and the beautiful eucalyptus trees that had been planted just before I was born, that I’d watched grow with me to tower and fill with murders of crows, had been torn out just after we’d sold it. The hillside looked bare and wrong without them, but the wall surrounding the backyard was exactly as I remembered it.

A five-and-a-half foot high wall of clay brick, I had stubbornly begun climbing it every chance I got, long before I was tall enough to see over the top, running along its narrow edge, terrifying my mother but never falling, sitting upon it and reading, blowing bubbles, watching the cars and people — the world — go by. I pictured the yard behind it, and could almost see it; the patchy grass my mother would drag our plastic kitchen chairs out onto to lay beach towels under and over to create a fort for me to hide out and read in, the budding ground cover my father had painstakingly planted once it became clear grass would never survive in the dry soil, the little rocks my cat loved to roll in when they were heated by the afternoon sun, the rose bush in the corner where my first dog was buried.

The morning he died was the first — and one of only three times to this day — I had ever seen my father cry. It was Easter Sunday morning, when I was six, and while I sat at the coffee table in the den, my knees curled up under the wood my father had crafted — a place I spent thousands of hours making art over the years, producing so much of it my parents affectionately nicknamed me “fire hazard” — several of our neighbors gave up their holiday morning church or party plans, left their own children to be watched by others, came over with shovels and a wheelbarrow and, without even being asked, helped us commit a small misdemeanor, and bury our dog. It was a wordless, selfless kindness the like of which, when I was that young, I had never before seen, and have seen very rarely since. When I think of what it means to call yourself someone’s neighbor, I think of that morning.

doorThe paint colors of the house itself — white and blue-gray — were unchanged, but one of the owners after us had painted over the distinctive red door. It had been a point of pride of my father’s, after he’d stubbornly fought the neighborhood council for months to get the color approved, and had always been used as a reference to anyone who came to visit: “It’s the blue and white house on the corner. Look for the red door.”

kitchen

kitchen2

I sat in my idling car, my eyes roving over every part of the façade, bombarded by memory. I saw my bedroom window, the window of my father’s home office, the living room window our Christmas tree’s lights once winked out of from between the curtains. The garage door behind which my father’s photo lab was built, where I’d learned to first use a camera, how to paint with light.

I thought back to my final weeks in the house, during which I photographed it obsessively; I was sure somehow I would forget everything about it once I stepped out the door, and wanted to record every detail. The living room carpet I’d built villages of Polly Pockets across, and rolled all over with my cat; the bar area that had never actually functioned as a bar, and ultimately filled with boxes of school and art papers and tracing paper animation studies; the kitchen counter my mother taught me to bake at; the sliver of parquet floor between the kitchen and den where I played elaborate games of marbles, as only a bizarre only child like me could have concocted, listening to my father’s records; the dust motes that would linger near the hallway banister upstairs as the sun set.

sunset3

sunset2

The bedroom that was mine; the room I did my beloved schoolwork in, the room I used our first home computer in and wrote horrendous fanfiction on as a teenager, the room I recovered from severe injury in, the room I looked out of in silence at the sky at sunset, my room, my room. My room. After leaving it, I never made a space mine again until over 10 years had passed.

Strangely, as I pulled away, my last thought was of the photo my father had taken of me, as I was going around attempting to preserve everything, not understanding that some part of me was trying to preserve the memories better, too; knowing my family and my home were splintering around me, in a way that would never be recovered. Things eventually would become better in other ways — my parents would get along better, my mother would be happier again, I would find a city to call mine — but I didn’t know this then. Maybe he also knew that, once we moved out, he and I would never have the sort of relationship as a family as we did under that roof; from this point on, we would exist in each other’s lives only as visitors. I would have no home in that city again.

17-4

He took the camera he had given me out of my hands at the top of the stairs, as the sun set, trying to catch the same perfect light I saw filtering through the windows behind the hanging lamp, and took the last photograph he ever took of me. I am tired out from weeks of packing up 17 years of a life, and my eyes are a little wet, though he cannot see this behind my glasses, nor would I ever have let him; my hair, uncharacteristically, is down in loose, messy waves around my shoulders; my smile is fleeting and sad. I know that when I take it back from him, I will walk down the stairs for the last time, and drive away, never to return. I look as if I might disappear from the picture if you look long enough. I look as though I am already gone.

A dear friend of mine is very fond of this piece, and when I came across the photos from the time period mentioned toward the end of it while organizing some files on one of my external hard drives, and though I’m no writer, I thought I might as well post it here, too, and include some of them. I realized, while browsing through them for the first time in many years, how closely my younger self had managed to capture the feel of my old house and life; I focused on small things I wanted to remember that might be less likely to remain than larger memories, details much to do with the way certain types of light during certain times of day came through which curtains, or struck which wall — the light in that house; it was so beautiful, especially during the golden hour. I even photographed myself a little, in a very specifically teenage-girl sort of way (bizarre, angled close-ups; it’s a common theme, when young women are attempting to figure out exactly what we really look like, coming of age in a society that objectifies and examines us so harshly and closely). Somehow, younger me knew exactly what sort of strangely personal images I’d want to revisit over a decade later, which I found oddly comforting to discover.

(Originally written December 2015, referencing an October 2015 visit to my hometown that included an impromptu solo drive through my childhood neighborhood. Personal photographs from April-June 2004.)

Inspiration, of a sort

I promised someone dear to me that I would continue to try to write more here, so, as it’s been a few weeks since I last did, I figured I’d give it another shot today.

A particular word has been lingering in my mind since yesterday evening, and part of me wondered whether the one in a million odds of WordPress’s daily word challenge corresponding with it might come into play, but of course they did not. However, the word that was assigned today ties in with it, at least slightly, or enough that I can excuse using one word to segue into another. So, I’ll count this one as a response to the daily prompt, because: why the hell not?

The word that’s been on my mind since last night is cherish.

Per dictionary.com, “cherish” means: (1) to hold or treat as dear; feel love for; (2) to care for tenderly; nurture; (3) to cling fondly or inveterately to. 

There was a plan in place for last night, and basically nothing went according to it, naturally. I didn’t leave work when I expected to (though that ended up being a good thing), I began feeling dizzy and unwell on the Metro, the bus didn’t stop where it should have, we ended up on the wrong side of the damn river. And yet, despite everything managing to sort of up and go to hell in a hand basket in less than an hour, my dear friend sat across from me on the bus on the ride back, put his hand warmly on my knee, and said, “I think you’re wonderful.” Clearly we were not meant to brave the headache of a bunch of strangers for some downtown theater performance piece; we were supposed to stay in and recharge each other’s batteries instead. As we did, and I drifted in and out of a doze, and watched his pulse jumping delicately in his throat while he dozed off, too, hearing it under my ear, that was how I felt: cherished. I think it may be one of the best feelings in the world that anyone can gift another. I would trade any hectic, headachey, roundabout bus ride — and a whole lot more — to earn it, and keep it.

What the hell does this have to do with the actual word of the day? As Fox Mulder might say of a suspected vampire’s untied shoelaces: I’m getting to it.

To cite dictionary.com again, epitome means: a person or thing that is typical of or possesses to a high degree the features of a whole class.

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of occasionally blogging about specific memories, after spending so much time sorting through old artwork and photographs. Something like a visual thought exercise; discovering as I go what certain images and memories might prompt me to write. (There are other photographs I would like to write about, such as a small, semi-successful, semi-disastrous, black and white street series I shot this past winter, though for the moment they feel too personal to broach. And while there is plenty of material I continue to store up in my head and squirrel away in my notes about a series I plan to shoot about people in the bizarre little worlds of their cars, and how that relates to California and growing up in and being inescapably a part of such a predominant car culture… I have to actually shoot those photos first. So.) One I could start with might be this one.

kite

Let’s go fly a kite…

This photo epitomizes the idea (ideal?) of a southern California childhood, I would think. I am four or five years old in it, very small and mousey, and very blonde and sun-kissed in appearance. I am standing on the beach, learning how to fly a kite, in a sundress. What you can’t see in the frame: my maternal grandfather is there with me. This is the last visit he will make to my hometown, along with my grandmother, that I have any memory of (the only other was just after I was born) before they will both die, less than a year later, before I turn six. Both my father’s parents already deceased before I was even born, this meant I grew up without much sense of what the typical extended family was. I only had my parents and myself. The kite, of course, has Ariel on it.

I remember my mother tying my hair into pigtails like this often. Apart from her occasionally snipping off a few split ends, I didn’t have it cut properly until I was 12, meaning it grew very long and wavy, eventually reaching my waist, and she was always trying to find ways to keep it out of my face. I remember the ties she would use; little elastic bands with big, round, multicolored plastic balls on the ends. Pinks, reds, blues, and yellows haloing my head. I remember her hands gently pulling the strands back from my face as she swept it up to twist between them, behind me, where I couldn’t see. I remember that cotton sundress, that it was one of my favorites. I remember which part of which beach we are on. The sand between my toes, almost too hot to stand on, my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder, teaching me just the right amount of slack to feed the kite so it would stay in the air, so it could climb higher. The kite flew so high that day that my father took a picture of it, and even with the lens fully zoomed in, it’s barely a speck in the sky.

And so… the photo: the epitome of a California childhood. The person I wrote this for, apart from myself: the epitome of someone I cherish, and who cherishes me. (I told you I’d get there eventually, didn’t I?)