Tools of Refinement

            I have lunch with Thomas Keller every day.  I watch him working in his cool stone kitchen.  I learn to confit eggplant, I learn the difference between glazed and carmelized, I contemplate pureeing artichokes.

He is in a thirteen inch computer on my breakfast room table.  I close the blinds behind him so that he is not in the glare.  The blinds are plain and squared and seem a perfect backdrop for his assured presentation.

He soothes me. 

I eat my Trader Joe’s fried rice with a fresh fried egg on top and I can pretend that the world is not in the midst of stopping on its axis, that I don’t need to analyze the disease and death counts in my city today, that I don’t need to have a recoiling reaction to the thought of going to the grocery store. 

Look at how carefully he chooses the angle for cutting those carrots.

I am not a cook.  Yes, I know how to cook but that role is taken over in my household by a much more enthused and reliable family member.  But I am an able eater and a steady student of restaurant culture.  I have never been to a Thomas Keller restaurant.  A parade of small dishes which will almost assuredly contain ingredients I don’t like is off-putting.  And who has the budget. 

            After lunch I wash the dishes and make tea which we will each take to our separate desks.  We are mirroring the habits of our true office, where our entire team has tea and treats after lunch.  When we hire someone new we ask them if they prefer Earl Grey or firm black Indian tea.

            There is a line of writing burning in my mind.  I am eager to get to the dining room table and write it down.  I know how those things can just evaporate.  But I’m asked to help make starter for focaccia that we will have tomorrow.  It takes three risings which explains why it’s been years since we’ve made it.  But now we can monitor risings and basting and all of the other things that seemed like something only our mothers and grandmothers did.

            Our street is turning into an updated agri-mercantile experience.  We trade yeast for a container of Sunday sauce, pumpkin bread for a serving of beef stew from the Belgian restaurant we are trying to keep in business.  I am familiar with every new bud on the grapevine and I worry we are going through the thyme in the front garden at too quick a pace.  Our own sustainability experience. 

            Tomorrow I will start to learn about leadership from Anna Wintour.  Just in case I ever have people to lead or cajole ever again.  But now I’m ferreting around in the cupboards to see if there is something we can put on top of the fresh focaccia tomorrow. 

The Arenberg Forest

It was my plan to visit the cobblestones of Northern France today — to visit the iconic pavé that forms the route of the Paris-Roubaix bike race, which would have taken place tomorrow. It would have been my second visit. My first was in 2014 (Niki Terpstra won). Since that visit, I’ve written a novel titled “The Arenberg Forest.” Here is a snippet. Maybe I’ll be there next year.

The next morning she was up with the grey dawn. A plan had formed complete in her sleep and she had woken with purpose, almost in disbelief at her full night of rest.

She downed two enormous bitter cups of coffee – American in size but Belgian in quality.  She highlighted the route on the map and set off.  The roads were empty in the wet morning.  She put on the seat heater and opened the sunroof, hoping to have drops of mist engulf her.

She drove on the route she had only seen in photos and video clips. The gritty farms and clusters of brick pubs and shops.  Empty today, no police, no barriers to keep back crowds, no dust in the air, no drunk teenagers.

She came to the forested area, an iconic stretch that seemed out of a fairy tale when she first heard of it – mythic and dark where dreams, were made or destroyed in the blink of an eye.  She pulled the car to the side of the road and got out to walk past the barrier blocking the road from traffic.

The rain was starting in earnest now, spattering on her shoulders.  She pulled her hood close over her nose and took off – planting each foot as if she were barefoot, wanting to get her full share of the energy of these stones.  Maybe later in the spring she would get to be here for the race – invent some reason she could be of service or just schedule the time here, disappearing into the crowd and drinking beer for breakfast.

A car swished behind her in the dim light, the yellow light bouncing ahead of her on the trestle that crossed the path.

When it was well past she looked around, to make sure she was truly alone.  Slowly she knelt on the pavement, letting the damp soak up through first one and then the other knee, placing her palms flat on the grey stones.  Stones that she imagined had seen wars and tanks and troops but also miners and cows and wooden wheels.  Now so treasured and spoken of only in hushed tones or braying boast.

She pressed her nose down, tipping forward so her toes lifted up behind her off the ground.  The sense of moist rich earth, of hard, unforgiving steeliness flooded her.  A smell she had only imagined until now – a glimmer of it from her summers on the east coast with her grandmother but pushed back and replaced by the fruity, fresh wheaten smell of California for so many years.

She belonged here.  She knew it as she had known few things before.  It made no sense.  She was so lightly tethered here – part-time work, difficulty with the language, living in borrowed, half-heated apartments like someone on the run, in full avoidance.

But just as she knew people in California who said they could never live away from the sea, she now knew that she could no longer live away from the stones, no farther than a half day’s drive from where she could plant her nose and hands into the unforgiving hardness whenever she needed to remind herself of who she really was.

A Little Too Good

I’m a little too good at this.

Tea in the morning. French grammar, needlework, a stub nib pen with jade green ink; a walk in the garden in sturdy shoes.

I could be Jane Austen’s neighbor.

Lunch will be lentils and chicken soup. Later maybe some Chopin preludes.

And more tea. Maybe a cookie. I should probably call it a biscuit.

At bedtime – silver silence out the window. No traffic, no parties, no wayward laughter from a conversation somewhere nearby. Not even coyotes right now. I will sleep deep and well.

Yes, I’ll stay inside. And enrich myself.

It’s all a little too easy.

Neat Little Bows

A short piece about Lucia Chase for International Women’s Day

            My professional women’s networking group is meeting this afternoon.  Forty or so women will gather in a hotel restaurant at the end of the business day to have a glass of wine and a few bites of protein.  We will arrange ourselves at tables of eight to ten and focus on the discussion topic for the day.  This is the end of women’s history month so our topic is themed to that – name two women who have had an influence on you:  one you know personally and one you don’t, from history or contemporary times.

            The first one is easy for me.  That would be my Aunt Maureen.  She was my father’s only sister.  She was a “career woman” before that term even meant anything.  She was a computer programmer starting in the late 1940’s and when I was a little girl she wore gorgeous cashmere twin sets and drove a white two-seater Mercedes convertible.  She was a girl who was good at math, as was I.  When I was a freshman at Stanford she was in the last few years of her working life at Pacific Bell in San Francisco.  She would come and take me to lunch on weekends, picking her way down my dormitory hallway in the same cashmere sweaters.  We would go to a lovely lunch and she would give me a check toward my expenses. 

            The woman you don’t know what a harder one.  My husband suggested Joni Mitchell.  I had used her recently in our Italian class when we had to discuss a public figure we admired.  “Lei e un’artista profunda e pura,” I had said, in my barely intermediate Italian (you don’t get as far when you are an adult and the homework seems optional) – she is a profound and pure artist.  True – but not necessarily what you want to say to a room full of lawyers and consultants.

            Then, it came to me in a flash.  Lucia Chase, the founder of American Ballet Theatre. 

            When I was a teenager in New York, I had the great, good fortune to attend ballet class at American Ballet Theatre school.  They had open classes, meaning anyone could take class at whatever level you thought you could handle.  I was a serious, if imperfect dancer.  I loved ballet with a passion that still burns within me.  But even at age sixteen it was clear I was going to be relying on my logic and writing skills to make a living, rather than my ability to pirouette and emote.  I was not built for ballet, but my hard work and my musicality allowed me to keep coming back, day after day, week after week. 

            It was a heyday period for ABT.  Baryshnikov was there, as was Makarova and Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland.  Jerome Robbins was there sometimes for rehearsal and one time I took morning class next to Anthony Dowell from the Royal Ballet.  It was a heady, amazing place and I spent every moment I could there when I wasn’t studying calculus or physics.  I watched rehearsals, I listened to ballet scores at home, I learned to appreciate if not love Stravinsky. 

            As students we brushed elbows with all the people associated with the company.  There were no express rules about how to interact with luminaries.  I suppose if someone did something awkward like ask for an autograph they might be asked to leave the school, but nothing like that ever happened. 

            In my senior year of high school, Baryshnikov was staging a new version of Don Quixote.  The air was filled with the Minkus score and our teachers even had us do Spanish reminiscent variations in class.  I watched rehearsals almost every day.  It seemed to me that Baryshnikov was having trouble with the big group scenes in the first act.  Maybe his English wasn’t quite good enough to direct a room of eighty people, maybe he didn’t know what he wanted.  I wasn’t sure.

            One day as I was leaving, Baryshnikov stood talking to a woman in the lobby.  They were standing in the doorway of a room I had never noticed before.  Inside was a small office with a desk lamp throwing a soft yellow over the room.  The woman was just about Baryshnikov’s height and wore a navy knit skirt and sweater and precise little shoes with grosgrain bows near the rounded toes.  I had never seen shoes like that before.  I looked up to see what kind of woman would wear such wonderful shoes, caught her china blue gaze and quickly looked away.  It was Lucia Chase, the woman who ran ABT.  I recognized her from the portrait that was in the front of the commemorative program I’d bought.  I had never seen her at the school before and I had often wondered where she actually worked.  The girls in the school were afraid of her.  She was the one who decided whether or not someone would be accepted into the company, who told a dancer if she needed to have surgery to fix a too prominent nose or a weak chin, who told someone when it was time to think about taking that coaching job in Houston. 

            On that day she stood with her arms crossed with just about a foot between her and Baryshnikov.  Their tone was too low to catch, but Baryshnikov was gesticulating to the sides as he explained something to her.  I couldn’t even tell what language they were speaking.  His eyes were enormous and fatigued, with what looked like a bruise on either side of his narrow nose.  He stood with his weight on one foot, the other turned outward to the side.  His tights ended at the ankle and the exposed skin of his feet showed ropy veins above dirty white slippers.  Not the portrait the newspapers and magazines painted.  I had a sudden sense of seeing something I wasn’t supposed to witness.  Lucia Chase took Barshnikov’s elbow and guided him into the little office as I waited for the elevator. 

            In an instant, I had a different vision for my future.  I would never be a Baryshnikov or even someone that Baryshnikov directed.  But someone like Lucia Chase?  Someone who formed a company out of sheer desire and determination and brought great art to the world?  Someone who got to wear Ferragamo shoes to work?  Someone who needed to be listened to, whose opinion was very important?  Now, that was something I could strive for.

            Well, that hasn’t happened either.  But I do have the shoes.


A short story

            The guard waved and opened the gate for her.  Christina smiled and raised one hand in recognition as she swung around the delivery truck waiting to be signed in.  She knew it was a violation of the rules.  Every visitor was to be given a guest pass and the address to be visited duly noted in some log to be studied later if necessary.  But the guard must have remembered her from all those afternoons she came to the Humphries to pick up Ethan after school.  She felt a little chagrined, sneaking into one of the leafy, old money developments in Newport Beach, a little worried that the guard might get in trouble if his lapse were discovered.  But she pushed the thought away.  None of that would happen.  They had nothing to fear from her; just another toned, chipper woman in her forties, tooling around in an oversized vehicle wearing jeans designed to be worn by a 14-year-old.  She pursed her lips and smiled at the self image formed in her mind.

            She moved slowly along the main road, bracing herself for the speedbumps.  She counted the streets she passed, still unable to remember or distinguish any of the individual street names even after years of visits.  The names seemed to be plucked randomly from a French dictionary, with no connection to the actual physical location they labeled.  After five streets she made a right into the circular street.  She pulled to the curb, one house down and across the street from her target.  She cracked the window against the October heat and turned off the ignition.  The house was quiet in the late afternoon.  Halloween decorations were already up.  Cutouts of skinny, stylized black cats skittered across the windows.  Amused ghosts peered out from behind the bushes.  The black front door looked freshly painted, nestled into the front alcove, against the mossy green of the rest of the house.  It all was so fresh, so new, warm and welcoming.  She remembered flipping through the book of allowed paint combinations with Shelley last spring, paying detailed attention to almost imperceptible variations of green and taupe.  It looked like Shelley had finally gone with her initial selection and had ignored Christina’s input.  Not a surprise.  More fallout from a friendship gone inexplicably awry.

            Christina looked down at her hands in her lap, congratulating herself for not biting her cuticles in several days.  Before even the first tear rose over the edge of her eye, she had the car in gear, making a sweeping U-turn, on her way home before Shelley or anyone else saw her on their way home from late afternoon sports practices.

            On Saturday morning, after a long, thoughtful session awake in her bed and then in a verbena bath, she drove into Shady Canyon.  She still had a transponder that opened the heavy wooden gates.  In the confusion of the property settlement no one had thought to demand that she return it.  First she drove to the street where they had all lived together.  Even though it had only been three months since she’d been here the street was almost unrecognizable.  More of the houses had completed landscaping and dozens of spindly trees competed for space along the side of the road.  Two little boys in purple soccer uniforms raced out into the street from a driveway and swarmed back up onto the lawn of the house next door.  The house, her house as she still thought of it, had a for sale sign in front.  There were a few others down the long block.  It was an abysmal time to sell.  The sign was enough of an announcement of failure to eliminate any need for discussion with neighbors.  Only the financially or maritally fallen needed to face the market right now.  She wondered if anyone was really looking after the house, making sure that the blinds were closed at the right angle to keep the chestnut colored floors from fading, making sure the pittosforum in the rear garden looked properly lacy and inviting.  It really still was her business to know the status of the house.  She would call Carl and ask him about it. 

She knew she should want the house to sell.  Until it was disposed of, she was tied to Carl, and tied only financially, the least of the ways she could fathom remaining linked to him.  But she felt an inexplicable lift every week the house remained uncommitted.  Until then, she would stay in her rental, getting quieter every week as the summer crowds at the beach continued to diminish.  And that morning, as she felt the first grey wisps of winter fog trail across her in bed through the open windows, she thought it wouldn’t be too distasteful to be in the apartment all winter, to be able to experience all those Pacific storms firsthand, one of the diehard people on the beach waiting for the gusts to reach land. 

            The garage at the house next door started to open and Christina quickly drove to the end of the street and hovered in the cul de sac until the neighbor’s car was out of sight.  She drove to the other end of the development, the area with yet another coded gate, where the view lots and eight figure pricetags clustered together.  She knew the gate code here from a school fundraiser she’d been invited to last year.  She’d noted it in her phone and scrolled now to the family’s name to find the code.  Ah, yes.  1A.  Perhaps the most predictable two character combination that could be imagined.  It was strange that the people in this inner most sanctum of privilege and privacy had allowed such a mundane code to be used. 

            She punched it in and felt a click of satisfaction as the gate started its lurch open.  She drove up the hill, past the houses that had been built first, now with mature fruit trees and full driveways, up past the side streets where the houses were under construction or just stakes outlined on the ground.  She made a left and climbed up higher, past a taco truck with a dozen workers clustered around it.  There were fewer cars now.  A red hawk wheeled to her left, dancing on a current right at the edge of the canyon.  Carl’s new house was near the top, almost the only house built up here.  She pulled up higher on the hill and turned around so she could get a full view of the property.  She felt an odd calm of appreciation as she studied the cool grey-blue stone that she had suggested, the elongated curve of the windows, the beginnings of the grove of olive and lemon trees that she had envisioned.  She opened the window and heard the tink, tink, tink of a worker chipping apart pieces of slate, fitting them into the walkway from the house to the grove.  The hawk glided over the man’s head.  She wondered if she could go walk through the house, see what Carl had decided to keep of her ideas and which had been erased.  She hesitated, forming the conversation she would have with the workman with the chisel, and then let the idea float away.  It was too much, too invasive.  She didn’t want to think of herself that way.

            Later that night she thought about Ethan’s friend, Matthew.  His parents had divorced in kindergarten and all the time Ethan and Matthew had been friends he had lived with his mother and two little sisters in a narrow house not far from the school.  She remembered wondering how they all fit in the house, even though she knew there were three bedrooms, and speculating how Matthew’s father had ended up with the big spread of a house in south county while the mother and the children compromised here.  At first she hadn’t been excited about Ethan’s friendship with Matthew and had looked for signs of instability or poor parenting in Matthew.  But he was a sunny, bright boy with an even temperament and a bubbly sense of humor.  He always bounded happily out of the car when she dropped him home and when she saw his mother at school events she too had an aura of calm about her that both invited and dispelled comment. 

She wondered where Matthew was now.  In the haze of last spring she had paid little attention to the diaspora of graduating eighth graders.  Her frozen horror at finally agreeing, after months of Carl’s insistence, that Ethan could, indeed should, go away to school this year had robbed her of any ability to find any joy or sadness in the achievements of the other kids. 

On Tuesday, she went to the grocery store near Ethan’s old school to get the Italian truffle cheese that she loved.  She would put a tablespoon in an omelette for dinner and would feel on top of the world when the richness filled her mouth.  As she left, unbidden, she drove to Matthew’s neighborhood.  She remembered the gate code here too.  1492#.  She smiled as she pulled up to the keypad and tried to guess who the unrelenting Christopher Columbus fan was who had been in a position to select the code. 

She pulled through the gates and made the series of turns to Matthew’s house.  A leering six foot transparent pumpkin was on the lawn and two toddler girls tumbled on the grass in front.  They weren’t Matthew’s little sisters.  A new Land Rover sat in the driveway.  She couldn’t picture Matthew’s precise, self-contained mother driving that.  They must have moved.  She should ask Ethan when she next spoke to him.

Her phone rang.  It was the cleaning service for her apartment needing to arrange a different day.  When the call ended she sat with her phone heavy in her hand.  In a rush, she thought of all the little boys Ethan had been friends with in his nine years at the school.  She saw a parade of blond, freckled boys in navy sweatshirts with the sailboat logo over their embroidered names.  Now, only four months after they left the school, they were spread to the winds, her own son and Matthew among them.  She scrolled through her address book, looking for one after another of Ethan’s friends, as if the listing of a mother’s name or a phone number would lend them permanence.  In each entry she had included some information to help her keep everyone straight.  Siblings’ names, father’s occupation, address of stepparents for weekend playdates.  But in most entries one consistent entry.  The gate code. 

As she studied them, one after another, she started to laugh.  She had never noticed before but now she understood why she had rarely had to look them up.  Each neighborhood was linked in her mind with some fact of history triggered by the gate code.  1066 – the code for St. Michel, peopled in her mind by tall, Norman-featured men; 1865 – always expecting to find a Civil War battle reenactment underway; 1963 – imaging the narrow, booted figures of the Beatles getting ready to appear on the Ed Sullivan show; 1620 – the smell of turkey almost palpable in the air.  She put down the phone and pushed her head back hard against the seat.  She laughed as if it were a forgotten practice, experiencing the physical release as if for the first time. 

She wondered if there were one lucky person at some central management company in an office near the Irvine Spectrum whose job it was to select these numbers; something he had turned into a special perq as he created one more layer of artifice for all of the unsuspecting residents.  She wanted to meet the person and congratulate him on his work.  And to get his advice.  If she ever got her money from the house, she wanted to live in a place with a gate code to her liking.  Maybe she would even be able to talk him into letting her choose it.  Her mind flitted through possible dates, considering and rejecting the birth years of her favorite historical women – Elizabeth I, Coco Chanel, Katherine Hepburn.  All too precious, too predictable.  She wanted something removed from herself, in no way self-reflective, and yet also amusing, so that each time she gave it to a visitor she would smile.  Nothing came to her but she enjoyed the anticipation of coming up with the perfect combination.  Now she would go home, make her omelette and maybe have a glass of good Chablis from that case Carl had left with her.  She would have her dinner and continue thinking about her plan.  For tonight, she was set. 

© 2020 Kathleen O’Hanlon

A Well-Respected Man About Town

At the end of high school I was obsessed with the Kinks and, in particular, Ray Davies.  It was the late 1970’s and I was already quite familiar with the full oeuvre of early sixties’ rock and roll.  I was the youngest of four in a household led by a man who had been a working musician since the 1920’s.  There were eighteen guitars in our house (two of them were mine) and I knew the lyrics of the hits of the Zombies better than I knew Mother Goose. 

But I somehow waited until my mid-teens, when my elder siblings had all departed and there was finally some calm and quiet, for me to develop my own particular favorites.  I was emerging from my Joni Mitchell poet-girl with long hair stage and ready to launch myself into the toothpick thin arms of the overlooked genius of the British Invasion. 

I don’t know what got me started.  Perhaps “Victoria,” with its ironic ode to unquestioning devotion to class structure, or “Village Green Preservation Society.”  Who could resist an artist who put the line “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity” into a pop song?  And then “Lola,” when for the first time I started musing about ambiguous sexuality and gender roles. 

In any case, I found several albums left behind by my oldest brother Jack when he had moved out a year or so earlier and I made them my own.  I lay on my stomach on the wood floor in my room and listened and listened and listened, staring out at the clouds and the trees in our front yard. 

I loved how squashed up the mixing was on the songs, how the music was so primary and Ray’s vocals sounded like he was almost in a different room or pressed up against the ceiling as they were recorded.  His voice was light and delicate and didn’t seem to match the driving guitar, especially the barking dog lead guitar of his brother Ray Davies.  The records seemed like they were made in someone’s garage and distributed only to people in the know.  They felt like an enormous, beautiful secret.

I asked Jack about the Kinks the next time he came over.  He was eleven years older than me.  He had started college the same day I started kindergarten and always represented an unachievable level of taste and sophistication.  I needed to phrase the question just right.  I didn’t want him to make fun of me. 

            “Why don’t the Kinks ever come here?” is what I chose.

He still looked at me as if I was the stupidest person to ever exist.  He reeled off facts that it seemed everyone in the world knew but me – the brothers fought; they’d been banned from coming to the United States because of bad behavior on early tours in the mid 1960’s, Ray had a drinking problem and drank directly from champagne bottles on stage. 

I nodded and fell back into silence.  That made them even more intriguing.

            I poured over the lyrics to “Arthur” and “Muswell Hillbillies.”  I studied the cover art of “Muswell Hillbillies,” which was a photo in a pub, with two of the Kinks standing at the bar on the left hand side.  The rest of the bar is filled with what I imagined by be normal Londoners, all men, having a beer on a sunny afternoon.  When you opened the cover there were the other Kinks, including Ray, looking out at me, with his skinny red pants and a plaid shirt.  He looked as uncomfortable and unkempt as he did in every other photo I’d ever seen.  I liked him more for that. 

            I wanted to be there.  I wanted to live in Muswell Hill.  I knew enough about London to guess that it wasn’t a fashionable area.  I didn’t care.  I wanted to be there, in skinny jeans and high-heeled boots, to walk and be ironic and be a social critic. 

            Based on this, it would be reasonable to guess that I lived in a small town where I had no opportunity to express myself or observe people who lived different kinds of life.  But you would be wrong.  I lived in New York.  I went to Stuyvesant High School, an intense, math and science public school where I was well on my way to absorbing the physics and trigonometry and German that would get me into Stanford not too far in the future.  And when I wasn’t spread out on the floor contemplating London suburbs I was a student at American Ballet Theatre, throwing myself into a pre-professional classical ballet curriculum that I had no business attempting.  I see now that I’ve always sought particular passions with absurdly unlikely, unachievable goals.  But I didn’t see that then.

            At ballet school, I watched Baryshnikov and Makarova and Kirkland rehearse almost every day, I watched Jerome Robbins lead rehearsals, and with my eagle eye on the street, I saw Balanchine walking back from lunch or John and Yoko waiting in line for a movie. 

I haunted the stretch of Broadway from Columbus Center to 72nd Street.  I went to performances at the Met, I window shopped, I edged along the park and never dared actually going in unless I was with friends, I bought cups of tea and dried pineapple at delis to keep me going on my limited caloric and financial budget.  I bought nothing but leotards and tights, I read nineteenth century British novels, and I went home to listen to music, study, and get ready to do it all again the next day.  Sometimes I would stray down to the theater district to see a show. 

            I liked being a savvy city kid.  I liked taking the subway late at night and feeling impervious and unapproachable.  As insecure as I was, I felt like I knew what I liked and what I wanted and as long as I didn’t need to talk to anyone about it or express an enthusiasm that might not be reciprocated I was fine.

            But I guess my eyes were not as open and observant they should have been.  I turned down invitations from classmates to go see new bands like Blondie and the Ramones.  What could they possibly offer to me?  While I liked Springsteen’s music and had seen Patti Smith on the cover of “Horses,” I didn’t realize that if I looked harder as I walked to the Union Square subway station from school I would likely have seen them wandering around, let alone whoever might have been coming in and out of the Lee Strasberg Institute, that I passed twice every day.  No – all of my attention went to ballet and to the Kinks who waited for me at home. 

            Many years later I learned the true cost of my tunnel vision.  When I was in my forties I read an interview with Ray Davies.  He was visiting New York and he and the writer were walking through the neighborhood he had lived in in the late seventies, when the Kinks were not recording for a while.  I held my breath.  I read further.  Yes, he lived on the upper west side.  They walked along Broadway, down to the newly built Warner Center.  They stopped into a grocery store Ray used to go to. 

            I felt true pain.  I had missed him.  We had been wandering the same blocks at the same time for months and months and months.  And I had never noticed.  I didn’t think further to realize that if I had recognized him I most likely wouldn’t have done anything.  Just as I had never spoken to Balanchine or John and Yoko or done anything other than nod to Baryshnikov on the stairway.  I would have noted him walking to the end of the block and I would have hoped to see him again.

            I am still an enormous Kinks fan.  I listen to one or another song several times a week.  I’ve gone to see Ray when he’s been in Los Angeles in recent years and they have been among the best shows I’ve ever seen.  And in the past few years, as we’ve seen Bowie and Prince and even Dolores O’Riordan leave us before they were done, I know that it will be a very difficult day for me indeed when Ray Davies dies.  Because he doesn’t know it, but he’s been one of my best friends for over forty years. 

Auld Lang Syne

New Year’s morning always seemed a little cleaner and brighter than other mornings.  The air in my bedroom was thinner and even though I knew the tiled floor would be cold against my feet I catapulted from bed.  There wasn’t a sound in the house as I made my way down the short hall to the kitchen and I knew it was important to keep it that way. 

            There it was.  The table full of party finery – glittery ice blue hats, cone-shaped metallic horns with spaghetti-like paper streamers off the end, crank noise makers that would need to wait until later.  I found it hard to decide which one to pick up first, which color of tissue-paper decoration I liked best – the hot pink, the silver, the banana yellow.  And all on our pragmatic formica table in the middle of our square kitchen and just for me.  I scrunched my toes under and sat at my accustomed place at the table, surveying the kingdom of wonder in front of me. 

            My father was a musician.  He played the standing bass in a dance band.  He played most weekend nights at weddings, bar mitzvahs or other events.  I was accustomed to being home alone with my mother on Saturday nights.  We might go shopping or run errands with my father during the afternoon but we always needed to be home by five so that my father could change into one of his many black dinner jackets and make it to the hall in Brooklyn or New Jersey on time.  I often watched him angle the bass in its brown canvas cover up the basement steps from the back of our house and shift it into the back of our Ford station wagon.  I’d seen him do it so many times I felt sure I could properly place the instrument in the car by myself, even though it stood a good foot and a half taller than I was.  I knew exactly how it needed to nestle into the back of the car, leaving just enough room for me to curl my legs under myself and sit with it in the flattened backseat if I wanted.  Even as he left our warm house in the wintry air I knew, maybe from the set of his shoulders and the tune he was humming, maybe from other things an eight-year-old can pick up, that my father didn’t mind being away from us so many evenings.  In fact, I was pretty certain that he lived for these dates.  It didn’t bother me.  I didn’t think it was a sign of dissatisfaction with me.  My mother, perhaps.  But even for her, I think it was more of a turning to something he could never get enough of than a turning away from something he’d had for maybe too long. 

            There is a photo of my father and me when I was a baby.  My father is sitting in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen, the half wood paneled wall behind him with a narrow view of the contrasting Pennsylvania Dutch patterned wallpaper.  It’s late at night – he is still wearing his tux.  I am just a few months old, perched on his knee, alert and with a surprisingly erect back.  I am looking directly at the camera, unblinking, but my father is looking down at the top of my head, with a half smile.  Even though I obviously don’t remember it I can summon the smell of that moment.  The starch of his shirt, the residue of metal strings on his fingers, the yeasty beer smell. 

            On New Year’s Eve, my mother would buy something a little special for us to eat.  Maybe she would make pigs in a blanket in the toaster oven or we’d put squares of Jarlsberg cheese on crackers.  I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted and certainly past midnight.  We sat in the living room watching the television.  I don’t remember what was on before they would show the crowds in Times Square or Guy Lombardo at the Waldorf Astoria.  I sipped ginger ale from a cold can and thought about what I would wear if I went to a party like I saw on television.  I wanted to know what it felt like to be there when the confetti and streamers fell down from the ceiling.  Early in the evening my mother was talkative, telling me about New Year’s Eves in her youth, during the war, when she was a teenager and would go see Jimmy Dorsey at the Paramount.  I don’t remember her ever drinking anything on these evenings, even though she did have a private stash of Canadian whiskey in the linen closet.  We didn’t have a bar or liquor cabinet so I didn’t think that was weird.  In fact, it made sense to store the bottle of brown liquid between the extra sheets where it wouldn’t break. 

            As it got closer to midnight, we got quieter.  I sat with the cat in my lap watching the freezing people in Times Square, glad for my flannel nightgown, glad for the hissing radiator under the window.  My mother sat in the sofa, her legs tucked under her, her ashtray on the arm.  She picked at the cuticle on her thumb and watched TV. 

She would usually just make one comment.  “Don’t marry a musician.”  She never warned me against being a musician myself.

            At midnight, we didn’t move.  We sat, a tableau, and watched the ancient dance band perform its quavery, watery version of Auld Lang Syne.  We didn’t say anything, didn’t move to give each other a hug or a kiss.  I don’t remember even any heartfelt sighs from my mother.  When I got tired, around one in the morning, I went to bed, dreading how cold the sheets would feel for that first moment when I climbed in, hoping the cat would want to settle down near my feet.  But I knew that in the morning I would find the treat my father would bring in the middle of the night – his arms full of glittery nonsense as he made a second trip to his car, after securing his instrument, his livelihood, and getting on the road, perhaps the only driver on the road at three in the morning who’d had nothing more than one glass of beer through the long evening.  Doing what he was born to do.

The Old Russian Ladies Always Get the Best Spot at the Barre

When I was in ballet school I loved having the chance to attend the 10:00 a.m. class taught by Valentina Peryaslavic.  Because it was a mid-morning class I could only go during school vacations or the summer. 

I don’t know anything about her background but when I was 17, Madame “Perry” (as we called her) seemed ancient and wrinkled.  She wore industrial-looking blue suits and her hair was pulled straight back from her face into an alarming bun.  I was terrified of her but the first time I attended her class she complimented my hair, which I had arranged in an oddball array of braids that met on the top of my head.  Maybe I reminded her of a milkmaid on some Stalinist collective farm.  So I felt a little bit at home.

The reason to attend Madame Perry’s class was not really to get instruction.  Her English was very iffy and she barked out her directions in an odd fusion of French, Russian and English, so you had to figure out what she wanted you to do by looking at the other students.  I went to her class to see who else would show up.  If the Royal Ballet was in town from England perhaps Sir Anthony Dowell would be next to you doing his barre.  A slew of angel-haired boys from the Royal Danish Ballet attended one summer.  Often a haunted, wrung-out looking ballerina would sneak in when class had already started, find a spot at one of the barres in the middle of the floor and try to be anonymous.

It was very exciting to watch the stars, but in time I became more fascinated by the regulars – a group of three or four old (past 40?) women who spoke to Madame in French or Russian and who still had pretty good technique.  Their extension was sometimes as good as mine and their backs had not lost of bit of flexibility.  They were almost as scary as Madame – very dark hair, elaborate silk scarfs tied around their waists, and a way of holding their chins that made it clear they were not to be messed around with.  They came every day and always got the spaces at the barre along the back window.  In the winter it was sunny and warm and in the summer they got the first breath of breeze coming off Central Park.  Madame would sometimes walk over and chat with them before class.  They were always already there when I got to the studio, no matter how early I tried to be. 

I think of those ladies when I’m having a bad day.  I thought of them a lot as I read Twyla Tharp’s new book, “Keep It Moving,” which is all about the importance and power of keeping mobile and supple into old age. Now that I’m past the age of those Russian women I wish my back was still that flexible and that I had the courage to try to go to class even once a week, not five or six as they did.  But I am mostly glad that I have continued to hack away at the kinds of movement I like. I don’t do ballet class anymore but I do gyrotonic and pilates and at the gym I put my earbuds in and can pretend I am whatever I want and turn across the floor. I still do other things the Russian ladies did — – I am early, I take the best position in the room and act like I belong there, and I wear the now sadly discontinued Chanel Ballet Russe lipstick – even though it’s too startling a shade for me. And I do some port de bras and demi-pointe balances every day.

My Muse Wears Tap Shoes

My muse wears tap shoes.  And sateen pajamas. She has dark hair and a gleaming head.  She wisecracks, she jokes, she drinks too much gin at times.  But she floats across the floor on silent feet when she wants to and pulls up the chair right next to me.  

She was born on a farm and doesn’t look away when the guts of food are being prepared, laid out before her.  But she left, seeking other people who could look to the horizon and see something other than bad weather or a reason to be sad.  

She looks up, she looks around, she looks down and she sees things that others don’t.  She puzzles over the pattern of cracks in the sidewalk, the pattern of a spider web among the ferns, she looks always for the perfect orange and the perfect silver blue, which can never go together, but which are the most elusive, most delicious shades nature and the human hand can create.   

She brings me little gifts of things I don’t know what to do with.  Yet one more interesting secondary character who can take up days of my time dressing, educating, feeding, accessorizing.  She gives me entire plots – jolted into my brain like they are freeze-dried.  I’m not sure how to access them or in what order.  I feel the need to compress them, to make enough room for them and the others that will come, even though I don’t feel any rush.   

She gives me a little, shiny piece of music that squeezes my heart and makes me so unbearably glad I am alive – and sad for anyone who doesn’t get to feel like this at least once in a while.  What if I had been born in a time when I had to just try to imagine what Bach sounded like?   

She lets my eye be restful when it needs to be.  She lets me be soothed by color and taste and touch.  She makes my spine straighter and my foot surer.   

She brought me boys to practice upon.  Each with little shards of me in them, to file or sand as they decide.  I like to think I guide them.  But I don’t really think so.  I think I’ve just helped them keep watch for their own muse and made room at the table for her.   

She tucks me into the cushion in the corner of the couch.  She helps me understand who I can talk to and who I can’t and helps prevent me from being an over eager puppy when I find a fellow traveler.  She makes me untwirl the mystery of myself just a little bit more each time she visits and makes me feel like I have the tools to go out in the world without her one more time.    

Learning to Swan

This is an excerpt from my memoir Standing Room, which is about my experiences as a student at both American Ballet Theatre School and Stuyvesant High School in the 1970’s.

Late in the spring we heard wonderful news.  Gelsey Kirkland was going to doing her first Swan Lake.  There was a long article in the New York Times about her preparation for the debut, with a wonderful photo of Gelsey in a rehearsal tutu.  I just had to go. 

Greta and Susan were with me the first time I saw Gelsey perform.  She did a pas de deux with Ivan Nagy as part of a repertory evening.  I’d read so much about her but I had not yet seen her dance at the studio.  I would see her in the hallway sometimes in pale blue velour sweats with her brown hair escaping from a ponytail into her enormous blue eyes.  She didn’t seem to meet anyone’s eye and seemed lost in her own routine and internal dialogue.  She had a reputation for being overly emotional, subject to moods, but she had a perfect technique and she was rumored to be a great match for Baryshnikov, both on and off stage if the gossip was to be believed. 

She was also the ultimate icon for all the skinny dance students.  Gelsey was amazingly slim and childlike, appearing almost too frail to maintain her skeleton let alone perform as she did.  She was in her early twenties and had come to ABT from City Ballet, where she had been one of Balanchine’s favorites. 

            When she danced with Nagy I was taken as much by her soulful eyes, which were able to communicate way up to the back of the house, as by her amazing technique.  Her legs looked endless and the most supple I’d ever seen.  She seemed to have no muscle mass in her thighs, her legs were just rubber bands ending in a tutu.  She had the familiar Balanchine overbite, which on her made her appear vulnerable and poignant from hundreds of feet away.  She was just perfect. 

            I began to study Gelsey.  I scanned the rehearsal and performance schedules for her name.  I learned to pick out her slight frame in the group of company dancers in the big studio.  She often looked tired and drawn in rehearsal and she always wore an odd combination of over-sized clothing, some of which just looked like menswear pajamas she had picked up accidently off the floor.  It was like she was hiding out, not wanting to reveal herself until it was time.  The dance students imparted more information in bated breath.  Stories of Gelsey’s sacrifice to obtain and maintain her thin frame, her unbelievable extension, her depth of character.  She was otherworldly, she didn’t belong with the rest of us. 

            Late in the spring I saw Gelsey and Baryshnikov do the Don Quixote pas de deux.  This is a standard of the repertory and is something that every dancer who is the best dancer in their small town will show up in New York ready to perform.  It is a crowd pleaser complete with a Spanish fan as a prop, heart-stopping spins by the danseur, and the famous fouette turns by the woman, in which she performs 32 consecutive whipping turns and ideally does not travel one inch from the spot on the stage where she started.  It’s kitschy and cannot help bringing a smile to the face of anyone watching.  I’d seen this in rehearsal so many times that I knew all the steps and but for my indifferent technique could have certainly performed the first female variation. 

            With Gelsey and Baryshnikov it was like watching a gold medal performance in the Olympics.  With her hair in a central parted low bun and a stylized curl on one cheek, Gelsey looked engaged and almost ferocious with charm.  Baryshnikov looked boyish with puppy-dog energy.  I was seeing the transformation to being on stage, being ripe for the performance, as opposed to the work of the studio.  They each took every turn, every step to the ultimate, sneaking an extra turn, an overly long balance at every opportunity.  It was rebellious and a slap in the face to every indifferent dancer who had been required to perform these parts.  The audience was roaring by the end.  I was ready to declare my commitment.  Gelsey was my favorite dancer. 

            When her Swan Lake debut was announced, I checked the schedule.  I wanted to cry.  It was going to be Friday evening performance in early June.  Friday — a weekday.  No way to go standing room during the week, since the box office opened at ten in the morning.  I had all sorts of exams and projects to finish in June, including the dreaded Regents exam in chemistry.  Regular tickets were already sold out as word got out in the ballet community.  Hard to know what to do. 

            I began to scan the studio when I arrived for class, to try to find Gelsey rehearsing.  She was never there.  After a few days I realized she must be using one of the private outside teachers she famously frequented.  I was very disappointed.  But even though I didn’t see her, based on what I read in the article in the Times, I sensed her fragility and nervousness about the role.  It was vitally important for me to be at the performance, to lend her my support and strength across the rows of seats.  I had vigor and energy for both of us.

            I tried to get information on when the Regents exams were scheduled for and when I needed to sit for my regular Stuyvesant tests.  Nothing was scheduled for that Friday.  I hated chemistry and for the first time in my academic career I was afraid I would fail a class.  Our teacher, Mr. Kramer, had been our homeroom teacher for a few semesters and we all liked him a lot.  He looked like George Carlin and probably spent his evenings smoking pot.  I was amazed to find out what a terrible teacher he was when I was put in his class.  He taught a theoretical, hazy version of chemistry and said that it was up to all of us to learn the stuff we needed to pass the state-required Regents’ exam at the end of the year.  He scoffed when we protested.  And there was no option of getting out of it – chemistry was strictly required at Stuyvesant and everyone knew that you needed a full four years of science to be considered by any meaningful college.  With just a month to the Regent’s exam, I couldn’t see a way to getting a decent grade in the class.  I’d also just gotten my SAT scores.  620 verbal, 710 math.  Totally unacceptable.  The verbal needed to come up 100 points and the math needed to edge up a bit too. 

            But I pushed all of that from my mind.  I asked Greta and Susan if they thought their parents would let them skip school that Friday morning to get standing room tickets.  Their parents were fairly strict so I was doing this as a test.  They looked at each other, weighing what the reaction of the other one would be. 

            “I’ll ask,” Susan said, bravely. 

            The next day Susan said her parents had said it would be okay and Greta piped up that she had also checked with her mother.  Now it was up to me. 

            To my surprise my mother agreed right away.  She had been the one to point out the article in the Times to me and she was almost as fascinated with Gelsey as I was.  She had come with me to see her at a matinee in early May. 

            “I think it’s OK.  I’ll give you an excuse note.”  Her tone was conspiratorial.  It was the first time in all of my school years that my mother had agreed to bend a rule. 

            The Thursday night before the performance my mother wrote a note to Mr. Kramer in her clear, calming script that explained that I needed to miss the first few periods of school to attend to a family matter.  I folded the sheet in my notebook and set my alarm to get up even earlier than usual.

            We decided we needed to get to the Met before eight in the morning to have any chance to get tickets.  We met for the six thirty boat and for a treat ate donuts and milk from the Italian bakery in the terminal.  We were giggly and jumpy from fatigue.  When we got to Lincoln Center the line already snaked around the corner and had begun to turn around on itself at the back corner of the theater.  It didn’t look good for us.  Susan and I went to grab a spot at the end of the line, while Greta went to count how many people were ahead of us.  For this performance tickets were only going to be sold one to a person so the head count should give us an idea.  When Greta got to us she was grinning. 

            “We should be OK.  We’ll probably be in the balcony, but we’ll be there.” 

            When the line started to move at precisely ten o’clock it moved even more quickly than usual and we were all back at school with our tickets carefully guarded in our wallets by eleven o’clock.

            I met them at the Bagel Nosh after my afternoon class and we ate shrimp salad on egg bagels and kept looking at our watches.  When it was time to walk across the broad white plaza to the theater, there was a pink glow of excitement in the air.  I shivered in anticipation.  The crowd, which gently jostled to get into the theater, gave off a hum of laughter and high pitched tones.  This was going to be wonderful.

            Every seat in the opera house was occupied ten minutes before eight and every standing room space was taken.  We nodded at the couple who had been in front of us in the morning, who were standing right next to Susan.  I waited impatiently through the first act, which is mostly taken up with peasant dances and back story involving the prince and why he hasn’t yet married.  All I wanted to see was Gelsey.

            When the music for the long pas de deux in the second act started, I felt the hairs on my arm stand up.  The audience was hushed as the harp and viola started their simple interplay and Gelsey and Nagy began to dance.  She was so beautiful.  Her profile made her a perfect swan and as they danced I truly felt I was watching a couple making love.  I’d read over and over again how the pas de deux form was a shorthand for the characters expressing their love, but it had always seemed symbolic and theoretical to me, on a very high plain.  But that night it was tangible and intoxicating.  As the music picked up tempo I began to feel nervous, as if there was a slight chance Gelsey wasn’t going to have a perfect debut.  I was mentally pushing her on, waiting for each difficult turn or extension, hoping, hoping, watching her perfectly execute it, and then wishing I could have it back, to have it not yet be danced, to still be able to look forward to it.  I felt pulses of chills, unable to believe I was experiencing something so special.  When the final bars came, with a series of slow, controlled pirouettes on pointe supported by Nagy’s firm arm, I felt my heart pounding, so proud of Gelsey, so happy for her.  When she finished, the theater erupted not just with applause, but with loud shouts and thundering feet, things I’d never heard there before.  Susan, Greta and I alternatively clutched each other’s arms and clapped as loudly as we could, shouting with everyone else.  Even without speaking, we knew we had experienced something life-changing.