Monthly Archives: July 2014

Ah, Those Summer Nights: Flashdance Edition




To help combat the recent heat wave, Z and I chose to stay in our shady, brick apartment building, wearing as few clothes as possible and watching the movies of our youth while eating popsicles. Like you do. The idea came about last week when we randomly started singing songs from Grease and then we discovered it was streaming on Netflix. From that, we quickly moved to the other music/dance movies that shaped our respective youths: Grease II, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and, finally, last night, Flashdance.


All I have to do is hear those opening bars of “Grease,” and I’m transported back to a adolescent summer when I got my first issue of ‘Teen magazine and thought I’d die if I didn’t get a pair of denim Dr. Scholl’s sandals and one of those aluminum foil mats upon which a person was meant to rotisserate herself until she was deeply tan and thus desirable. I was certain that ownership of those two things would magically transform me into an adult. By the end of the summer, I had the sandals, but my mother, thankfully, could see (as could anyone else who knew me) that my pasty Irish-American skin should spend peak tanning hours under an umbrella. Re-watching the movie this past week brought back many memories, including a mental list I kept of all the sexual innuendos that I didn’t yet know the meaning of, sensed were significant, and of which I hoped to have a legitimate definition before I went to junior high. (This was before, back when if you weren’t brave enough to ask some older family member or friend, you had to wait to find out why everyone was making that “oh my goodness!” face when “Greased Lightnin’” played.) The experience of watching all four of these movies was like opening up some scrapbook I forgot I’d kept, chock full of reminders of the way life used to be and all the ways I hoped life would turn out.


It was fun to share with Z something that had been significant to both of us back in the day, living on our separate continents, when we were imagining very different futures for ourselves. (I can’t speak for Z’s, but the future I imagined involved me actually being the pastel-sweater-wearing good-girl version of Olivia Newton-John). I sometimes lament that Z and I didn’t know each other in our youth, and I admit there is part of me that wonders if we’d met when we were 10 or 16 or even 20 if I still would have thought, “That’s the one for me!” or if I would have been unable to see his utter rightness simply because he was not a John Cusack, holding a boom box over his head and wearing me down with his love.


Dirty Dancing held up as well—better, really—than Grease. There are only two cringe-worthy lines in that film: the oft-used Nobody puts Baby in a corner, and the equally bad (and even more poorly delivered), Go back to your playpen, Baby. This is, however, perhaps the first time I’ve ever wondered why the writers thought it was a good idea to name the heroine Baby in the first place. Metaphorically, it’s just too obvious to be good, and literally, it’s just too…well, seriously, do you know anybody named Baby? On all other fronts, the movie still works, and no matter how many times I watch it, damned if I don’t cry when Baby is in the gazebo with her father telling him she’s sorry she disappointed him, but he’s disappointed her too.


For marital happiness, the least said about Grease II the better.


Footloose surprised me. A million years ago when I saw it for the first time, all of my girlfriends were going nuts for Kevin Bacon and his spikey hair and skinny tie, but I was too busy obsessing about the ridiculous premise to notice how nice he looked in his Sedgefield jeans. A college campus might outlaw dancing (I went to one of those), but a whole town? And why did it seem so Southern and some of the actors went in and out of southern accents, when those were clearly the Rocky Mountains in the distance? And were they seriously expecting us to believe that Kevin Bacon’s use of quotes from the Bible was anything but self-serving? It didn’t take a theology scholar to recognize a fallacy of false equivalence. I’d been to prom; that dancing had nothing to do with worship.


On this viewing, however, even with the extreme no-dancing-no-rock-music town ordinance still in place, the setting and the people felt real and familiar. That little church there in ArkanIowalarado felt a lot like the ones I grew up in, trying to figure out who I was while it seemed plenty of people who didn’t really know me were happy to tell me who I should be. In the scenes where the fire-and-brimstone John Lithgow is preaching, you can feel the misery of a humid Sunday service, when you wish the minister would maybe get to his point more quickly so you could escape to a place with a breeze. On this viewing, Kevin Bacon’s biblical argument didn’t seem quite as weak. John Lithgow seems more sympathetic regarding his reasons for wanting to ban music and dance (and he gains big points for compassionately stopping a book burning). Also, nobody was perfect looking like they would be in a movie now. Their teeth weren’t impossibly white and impossibly straight. They spoke like real people. They looked a little uncomfortable, and not at all like a bunch of teens who would be posting photos of themselves all over the interwebs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It surprised me how much Footloose felt like a real portrayal of what it was like to be a teenager in the 1980s, give or take a little gymnastical dance routine in the local feed mill.


And finally, there is Flashdance.


Oh, Flashdance, you break my heart. Weren’t you once good? Didn’t you have better dialogue? Didn’t you make more sense? Weren’t you plausible?


I saw Flashdance with my high school boyfriend, his little brother, and a friend of mine. I was enraptured the 95 minutes it was on the screen and felt like I was the only person in the movie theater. Alex, the heroine, a Pittsburgh “flashdancer” with the dream of being a ballerina is no Sandy from Grease. She is 18 and supports herself welding by day and dancing by night (though she isn’t a stripper—let’s be clear about that!). She lives in a warehouse with her pitbull and she seems not to care what anyone thinks of her. She is feisty. The night she sees her older boyfriend with another woman, she doesn’t go home and eat ice cream and weep passively and sing Hopelessly Devoted to You. No. She gets on her bike, peddles to his house in a tony neighborhood, and throws a rock through his window. But the real story is that with a little prodding by an ancient European fairy godmother figure and her string-pulling older boyfriend, she screws up her courage and tries out for the Pittsburgh ballet, which is her secret dream.


Watching Flashdance then, I knew the message of the movie—to be brave and go after your dreams—was one of the truest things I’d ever seen. When it was over, I was breathless (and anxious to get home to start ripping up sweatshirts and incorporating legwarmers more fully into my wardrobe, so I too could look like Alex while I painted and wrote). I said something to the boyfriend with awe in my voice about how good the movie was, and he said, “Eh. It was okay.” His movie tastes ran more along the lines of Conan the Barbarian and Caddyshack. I felt deflated. How could he not know this was possibly one of the best movies of all time? Were his broody silences not artistically driven after all? Were we ill matched?


It was very disappointing.


Yet here I was, thirty years later, sitting with the far more compatible and fabulous Z on our sofa and feeling very briefly annoyed with him for insinuating that Flashdance wasn’t a good movie. I think of him as a more enlightened creature, and so his lack of reverence for the film kind of hurt my heart. I felt wounded that he wasn’t even giving the movie a chance.


But then I started listening to the dialogue and making a list of all the implausibilities, starting with the existence of a club where women danced–with their clothes on–for men who were clearly not patrons of the arts. And yeah, maybe an 18-year-old woman could become a welder, but would anyone have hired her in the Rust Belt when jobs were scarce? I don’t think so. And also, remind me why none of us knew in 1983 that a body double was used to do all the dancing? The only thing I was in awe of this time during the dance scenes was that the body double’s curly wig did not come flying off.


Maybe Flashdance wasn’t a good a movie after all.


More disturbing to me than the possibility that the movie was not great (nor even good) was the realization that the message of the movie—one that I believed in fervently— was mixed. It purported to be about believing in yourself and your dreams, yet two of the three people who do just that (Richie leaves his fry cook job to move to LA to be a comedian and Jeanie enters an ice skating competition) fail miserably (Richie comes back to Pittsburgh after being booed out of LA and Jeanie falls during the competition and subsequently ends up working in a real strip bar until Alex drags her out). Plus, Alex already is a dancer—trying out for the ballet isn’t that far outside of her wheelhouse. So what exactly was the message of Flashdance? Go after your dreams only if you are the protagonist? Go after your dreams if you have a rich older boyfriend who has connections? There are magical powers in a ripped up sweatshirt, which will subsequently make your ludicrous dreams attainable? By the time it was over, I hadn’t a clue.


The moral of my story? There isn’t one. I’m just glad some of those teen fantasies of mine didn’t come true, otherwise I might have missed this perfect weekend of heat wave survival with Z. If the mercury rises again, I suspect there is a John Hughes marathon in our future.


P.S. This is not Jennifer Beals

P.S. This is not Jennifer Beals








Flashback Friday: Little Brownstone on the Prairie



[Oh, the irony of this post from eight years ago, particularly when bumped against the one from earlier this week.]

 15 July 2006

Last night I was feeling “troubled” about my silly life as I went to sleep, which is a fairly frequent occurrence. Usually the troubledness has to do with my age, my living situation, my marriage/partner/dating and motherhood status. Other things get factored in based on the latest magazine article I’ve read or Dateline exclusive I’ve watched. Last night, after messing with a picture shelf my mother and I were hanging above my desk and trying to figure out which of my 20 works of art I was going to hang on the little hunk of wall that is left in my room, I was feeling particularly freaky. I have friends who are bitter because their houses aren’t brand new and don’t have granite countertops or swimming pools or room for a home office, but all of them have managed to get more than four walls to hang things on.


This isn’t about some people being luckier or having more than me. I know if I wanted to make it a priority I could maybe get myself eight walls, so I’m not talking about jealousy here. If I wanted to give up the frequent flying and the handmade furniture and the Sundance catalog jewelry, I could buy a little house and hopefully have enough money left over to pay a boy (preferably a shirtless one) to come and do things for me like hang picture shelves. I could.

Anyhow, I woke up this morning, looked at all my stuffed-full bookshelves and realized, I’m living in a brownstone circa 1945. I always imagined living a writer’s life in a big city where I couldn’t afford anything but a bedsit so all of my worldly possessions would be in the one room, and for reasons that are unclear, I always imagined doing this in the post war era. And now I realize that’s what I’ve got. Only without the city, without radiators (thank you, Jesus), without loud neighbors, and without a book contract. I AM Helene Hanff. I am whatever the bookish sister’s name was in My Sister Eileen. I just can’t go walk my dog in Central Park (partly because I don’t have my own dog), and I still have not developed a taste for coffee and cigarettes, both of which figure prominently into my 1945 brownstone fantasy.

Also, in this fantasy, I have a throaty laugh and I know how to dance.

I really am amazed by people who figure out how to settle into a place. At almost 40, I’m still trying on locations for size. For instance, I now know I do not want to live in Aspen, even if I do become a billionaire. In fact, you can scratch ‘anywhere in Colorado’ and ‘the Rockies’ right off the list of possibilities. It’s gorgeous there. The quality of life is good. I understand the fervor of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, but it is not my place in this world. There is too much sun and too many people happy to be outdoors, risking their lives on guardrail-less roads, in treacherous rapids, and while battling wildfires.

While I was at Aspen Summer Words, my friend Heather drove me up Independence Pass so I could see the Continental Divide. On the way up I told her how beautiful the landscape was and she said, “I know. When I see these mountains my heart just opens right up.” My heart wasn’t opening–not for those mountains–but I liked the emotion with which she spoke. It’s how I feel about the West of Ireland, Chicago, East Tennessee, London. There are places you belong and places you don’t belong and I live in fear that I’ll accidentally end up in a place where I don’t belong, where my heart not only won’t open up but instead will seize because of the ugliness or inhospitably of the people or landscape. For instance, the two hours I was waiting for my return flight from Phoenix, I kept thinking, “This is a dead place. People aren’t supposed to live here.” Yet people do. And some people love it. My grandparents loved it. But they sure didn’t pass those genes down to me. (Nor the genes that would make camping seem like a good idea, for that matter. Nor the ones that would make me good with money or able to cook.)

When I figure out how to get myself to 1940s Manhattan, I’ll let you know.

Curmudgeons in the City

Not Treme. The French Quarter.

Not Treme. The French Quarter.

It got a little warm in Seattle this past week. There was virtually no humidity and were it in the 80s in Indiana with no humidity, it would be considered a nice summer’s day, but here, it is too hot. I believe you are familiar with my policy on summer and heat.


Few people here have air conditioning because it’s needed so rarely, and those who do don’t use it right, which leaves a girl clammy and gasping for breath. How we know it is hot in our place is if we have to open the bedroom window, which remains shut about eleven months out of the year because evenings here are generally cool. It’s been a week with the window open.


Our bedroom window is next to the intercom for the building. When Z moved in, the old intercom was loud and made horrible honking noises, so we were excited when they replaced it, but the new one is worse. For no good reason, it makes an electronic beep—like an alarm trying to wake you—as a guest scrolls through each name trying to find the person she knows. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. And then, finally, blessedly, the sound of a phone ringing and the longer beep that lets the person in. Most of the visitors seem to be friends with people whose last name begins with V and the names are sadly listed in alphabetical order, which means a whole lot of beeping. It’s a very inefficient system both for the buzzee and for the people trying to sleep next to the buzzer. In the winter, it’s just kind of a distant mosquito wing of a sound, but when the window is open, the intercom might as well be attached to a bullhorn.


The surprise of this summer when I opened the window for the first time to prop the fan in it was that our screen was missing. I have this idea that someone who wanted a screen performed some acrobatics to jerk it out of our crooked windowsill. Z has this idea— and probably the correct one because his world view is less dark and twisty than mine—that the screen became loose, fell out, and the maintenance woman removed it from where it fell. We have one of those accordion-style fans that sits in the window, so it’s sort of like having a screen, but I swear, it makes everything outside even louder because we’re down one layer of mesh between us and the noise of the city.


Z and I have been binging on Treme episodes this past week. We are late coming to the show, so there won’t be any spoilers here, wrecking anyone’s goodtime. While watching it, I’ve been feeling envious of the folks in the show, which is no mean feat because post-Katrina New Orleans where the series is set was no kind of place to be. But there is something about the uniqueness of New Orleans and all that place-specific culture that makes me extra envious. They have a parade, I feel envious. They eat a bowl of gumbo, I feel envious. They have a jazzy funeral procession, I feel envious. I didn’t eat gumbo when I was in New Orleans three years ago, I don’t particularly like jazz, and a funeral, no matter how festive, is still sad, so I’m not sure exactly what I’m envious of other than this very specific sense of belonging and culture that seems to come from the location. You’ve heard me whine about Indiana and how much I miss it, but a lot of the things I miss from there would be the same in Ohio or Northern Kentucky or Illinois. I can’t even get ten Hoosiers to agree with me that John Mellencamp is a better musician and lyricist than Bruce Springsteen. Z is used to having students who hear him and say, “I wish I had an accent” or who say, “I wish I had a culture” and he always laughs and points out to them that they do have accents, they do have a culture. At the risk of sounding like one of his students, when I watch Treme, I feel the same way. I wish I had a specific, discernible, place-specific culture.



For those of you who don’t know, much of Treme is set in a neighborhood of the same name that is musically and culturally rich. It’s a cacophonous place where you shouldn’t plan to find peace and quiet. There is music. There is hooting and hollering. There is life being lived, loudly. In one scene in the first episode, Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a New Orleanian musician-cum-dj, turns his speakers outward to blast his neighbors, a couple who have recently moved in to gentrify the neighborhood and whom, he believes, have called the cops on him. He gets in an argument with the couple about the justification of the noise, explaining everything he believes they don’t know about the neighborhood they’ve moved into. He says to them, “You’re living in the Treme. Gotta deal with that shit.” Because we like the character and we are suspicious of all the ways our own neighborhood has “gentrifically” changed in the eight years since Z moved in, we both felt a sort of righteous kinship with Davis and his speech. That’s right. The city is about tolerance of other people. Amen, Davis.


And then later that night, the people sitting on the stoop right outside our bedroom window showed no sign of moving their party indoors. It’s a favorite place for our young neighbors to hang out with friends, smoking the cigarettes they don’t want stinking up their apartments and talking animatedly as they sip on beer, stroking their own neck tattoos thoughtfully while they solve the world’s problems. It’s mildly annoying at 10 p.m., but at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night, it feels criminal. So Z pulls on his relaxi pants and stuffs his feet into his Crocs and shuffles out to the front door to tell them, very dad-like, that it’s time for their party to move indoors or quiet down. They apologize and start whispering, which was, frankly, not the scenario I was imagining after hearing Davis blast his neighbors for being uptight fuddy-duddies.I thought, perhaps, there would be vocal retaliation.


The next day, Z and I walked down to the waterfront. It was a gorgeous day, as most days in the summer are. Blue, clear skies. The Olympic Mountains showing themselves in ways they rarely do in winter. Everyone happy not to be under an umbrella, avoiding puddles. But it was hot. And there were so many tourists, gawping in the middle of the street, so we had to navigate around them as if it were an obstacle course. People were hacking and spitting and riding skateboards right in front of us. Everyone seemed dirty and sweaty and loud. I complain too much about Seattle, particularly to Z whose general dispensation is about ten clicks more content than mine, so I was determined not to whine about how much I hate the city in summer, how much I hate not having a car so we can escape it when we want, how much I think if I hear one more siren or horn honk or late-night howl from a drunk that I will lose my mind. So I sweated and huffed and puffed as we started our assent up the hill to home. A man we passed hawked a loogie on the pavement in front of us.


Z looked at me and said, “I’m not loving the city today. It occurs to me, that we would not be happy living in Treme.”


I’ll probably always get a thrill when I hear John Boutté’s Treme Song playing. I’ll always have this idea that if I lived in the Crescent City I’d embrace it and feel fully alive there (and those four years studying French would finally kind of pay off). But the truth is, I’m thinking we need to start buying more lottery tickets so we can have a small fuel-efficient car and an island house where we can spend quiet, peaceful weekends. Some place with screens and neighbors on our distant margins.




A Cure for the Simple Life




When we got engaged, we looked at two-bedroom rentals within walking distance of campus because we needed more space than Z’s little 1920s one-bedroom apartment offered. With his three pieces of Craig’s List furniture and five batik wall hangings from Zimbabwe, the place looked spacious, but I come with a certain amount of baggage. I wasn’t prepared to begin a new life in a new city without my precious things: Amish-built furniture, objet d’art, childhood sock monkey, a herd of bulky Irish sweaters (too hot to wear in Seattle, fyi, but I like having them available should the weather take a turn), and the cloud of paper that follows me wherever I go, like Pig Pen’s dust. If we had stuffed all of my things into his apartment, we would have instantly been candidates for Hoarders: Newlywed Edition.


I loved Z’s apartment. Loved the woodwork and the big bank of windows overlooking a shady tree, how it felt to live smack in the middle of things, but most importantly, I loved its oldness, its crookedness, its sense of history. I imagined a bevy of nurses living here in the 1930s, walking to work at one of the many hospitals here on First Hill. I imagined what it might have been like for them to look out our windows and down to Elliott Bay, a sight we can’t see now because of a high rise full of partying youth that sits between us and the ferry-laden waters. It seemed like a simpler time, and I liked being in Z’s apartment pretending we would be living a simpler life together.


Neither of us are that strong at math, but when the apartment across the hall from his became available, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was cheaper to rent an entire bonus apartment in an old building whose only modern conveniences are electricity and running water than it was to rent one of those new, two-bedroom places with leather furniture and cappuccino machines in the lobby, triple-paned glass, walk-in closets, dishwashers, and personal washer-dryers that aren’t shared by the building’s inhabitants in a basement that some days smells like Satan’s backside. We decided immediately that the apartment across the hall would be a writing studio for me, a place to keep our newly acquired Kitchen-Aid mixer for our “baking center” (a use that had “failure” written on it before I ever tried my first batch of cookies—I’m not that strong a measurer, and it turns out a ring on a finger does not instantly make a woman domestically inclined), and guest quarters should family or friends decide to trek across the globe to see us. My only concern was that should Immigration Services ever get wind of our two-apartment lifestyle, they might make assumptions about our marriage that are untrue. (Though if they stopped by for tea and saw how often the bonus apartment is used as a storage facility, then they would believe! It is often nearly uninhabitable because of picnic gear, off-season clothing, stacks of finished books waiting to find homes, half-finished craft projects, and the other detritus of our life together. Plus Hudge parks her bike there when she rides over for a visit.)


The problem with having two living spaces separated by two locked doors is that often I simply forget to go to the other space. The apartment where we live our lives is like a Nest of Inertia, and I often find it nearly impossible to lift myself off the sofa and walk across the hall to write at my desk, as if there are 100 lb. weights holding me down. I have this idea in mind that if those locks did not exist, I would wake up every morning and skip across the hall, plop down at my desk, and write for a giddy eight hours before skipping back “home” to greet Z when he returns at the end of the day. Instead, I think about going to the studio. I think about the light I love and how much I want to be there at the desk, and still, I sit under the weight of the identical apartment that feels more like home. It seems lonelier in the studio that has less of Z in it, which makes no sense. Both apartments are empty—Z is at work. What’s more, I LOVE my writing space. I feel like myself—my pre-married self, my childhood self, the self I was before I was born—when I am at this desk, yet too many days I deny myself the joy of being here and instead curl up in a ball on my corner in the Nest of Inertia and write. Or worse, I don’t write and instead just think about writing and hate myself a little. Or even worse still, I don’t write, don’t think about writing, and instead, invent things to do that have nothing to do with writing at all, like reorganizing the cutlery drawer.


There is no time I like my writing studio more than when we have a house guest who takes up residence in it and so being in it to write is no longer a viable option for me. My brain becomes electric with ideas. My fingers physically ache to be on a keyboard that is sitting on my desk. The books that surround the desk suddenly feel like all the books I should be reading right this minute. I’m very nearly jealous of our guests because they “get” to live in a space that I have access to  every other day of my life but too often ignore. Their presence, perhaps, frees it from being a lonely place where I am meant to face myself on the page every day and suddenly becomes a vacation getaway, where my ideas suddenly seem 100% more creative. The guests sit on the sofa, and I sit in my desk chair, spinning around while we talk, noticing things on which my eyes would not even land if this were one of my solitary writing days.


Last week Belle was here, and we spent time in my studio talking about her latest poetry manuscript and the pile of papers I’m trying to turn into a memoir if only the fog would clear in my brain. While we talked, I spun and scanned like a cheeky six year old sitting in Daddy’s Office Chair, feet off the floor, twirling. The chair would slow and I’d zero in on a particular book I felt a need to steal away from Belle’s domain and drag back to my lair across the hall. One such book was one I bought exactly 24 hours after declaring to Z that I would never, with God as my witness, buy another self-help book again. It is called Simple Steps, and promises on the cover that in ten simple weeks you can gain complete control over your life. It joins a host of other books that promise peace of mind to the Highly Sensitive INFP #4 Child of Divorce who is also an Anxiety-Ridden, Meditative, Mystic Disorganized Writer with big plans to start and maintain an illustrated journal. But this one—only TEN weeks to a healthy, more organized, thinner, stronger, de-cluttered, spiritual lifestyle?–who wouldn’t want that?


I remember when I bought the book three years ago, Z just shook his head in amusement. Not only was I already back-peddling on my no-more-self-help-books proclamation, but we’d just gotten married and while Z knows I’m not perfect, he really does not understand why I’m constantly trying to change these inherent parts of my personality. I’ll never be particularly tidy. I’m never going to be the housekeeper my mother is. I’m always going to nod off when I try to meditate. Why can’t I just accept myself the way he does?


Who knows. Each self-help book is like a little bundle of hope about the person I could become.


Had I been alone in the studio when I re-found this as yet un-read book, what would have happened is I would have started another journal with the plan of changing my life. I would have spent the first week following the authors’ simple steps (Week #1: drink 64 ounces of water a day, walk 20 minutes a day, save $2 a day, and clean out a drawer a week, preferably at a time of day when you are hungriest so you won’t eat anything). Before the day was out, I would have felt exhausted and defeated by this simple list, probably while I was drinking a Coke, and sitting amidst the contents of a half-decluttered drawer.


But because Belle was here as witness—and because Belle is wise and knew from the title that this was not a good book for me—it became, instead, a hoot. I skimmed each chapter and would shout out the requirements of each of the remaining nine weeks of the “simple” program, and we’d poke fun at the ideas and howl. Each week added on another list of behaviors and activities to include with the previous weeks’ activities: keep a food journal, do isometric exercises as well as your walk, add another 20 minutes to your walk, work on your posture, do yoga, fix everything broken in your house, redecorate your house with stenciling, quit eating carbs, stretch, clean out your pantry. And my favorite after all of these activities, as if I’d have the energy or inclination: daily serenity time. When I closed the back cover, it was clear that the amount of pharmaceutical assistance I would need to accomplish all of these activities would be toxic, and I’m not convinced I would have had any time left over to bathe daily despite the section on cleansing routine and dental hygiene.


Simple my ass.


But, it has made my life in this set of little 1920s apartments seem a lot less complicated. Belle has gone home, sadly, but the studio is mine again. Week One: skip across the hall, unlock the door, write.


And P.S., other ways I’ve simplified my life include putting Simple Steps on the pile of books heading to Goodwill next time we rent a car.