Monday, November 11, 2019

Stories I Inherited

Children playing in the rubble, Hamburg, Germany, WWII

For most of my life, there was only one time I can remember my Opa speak about World War II. We were watching television, some program on the Discovery Channel, and from the silence, he said in his thick German accent, “I have seen a plane wing falling from the sky in Bavaria.” I turned and looked at him. He lifted his hand and let it drift, floating towards his knee, demonstrating the path the wing he saw followed.

“When was that?” I asked.

“I was a boy,” is all the detail he gave.

Opa’s father lost his arm during World War I. Ferdinand Wolff. When Hitler called men up to march, I’m told that Ferdinand sat behind a desk. Oma’s father, he was a soldier, too. Friedrich Flack’s military records no longer exist, but I know that I am descended from men who wore swastikas on their arms. Oma was ten when World War II ended, twelve when her father returned from a Russian prison camp, 90 pounds, tuberculosis-ridden. It’s difficult to untangle the war from the Holocaust. They aren’t exactly the same thing.

I know my great grandfathers weren’t tried at Nuremburg. Neither of them were not Goethe, or Hoesse, or Himmler, or Mengele. I’ve heard other stories, the thoughts of the men and women who knew their ancestors were the architects of the “final solution.” Monika Goethe, whose father ran the work camp Plaszow. Rainer Hoess, whose grandfather was in charge of Auschwitz. His grandmother used to tell the children to be sure and wash the strawberries they brought in from the garden; they always “tasted of ashes.” Niklas Frank, who executes his father anew every time he speaks at a school or a community center.

The Nazis I come from do not have stories that are published and dramatized and studied. I do not have that weight to carry. I have the weight of an ordinary man. A man from Hamburg, father of four, who smoked a pipe and got tuberculosis during his stay in a Russian prison camp, and returned years later to the ivy-covered house a few blocks from the harbor. I have the weight of a man whose son and daughter were sent to live in the country for protection, while he sat behind a desk and went home to a freezing house.

Over the years, I’ve heard excuses made for the SS. They were just doing what they were told, Stanley Milgram-style obedience. They didn’t know what Hitler was really doing. They were poor and starving and just trying to survive. And I’ve heard that every single German is culpable for the millions of lives lost in those dark years. My grandparents have stories of homes being destroyed, of eating turnips fried in coffee grounds, of winters so cold and no coal for heat. And I carry the stories of the people who hid, who were taken, who were murdered.

I do not want my feelings about World War II to be complicated. Hitler was wrong, and those who supported him were wrong, too. But I love my Oma and Opa. I love the stories of their fathers, and their families. My compassion for my family feels like betrayal. I am not a Nazi sympathizer. But I sympathize for my family.

There are white supremacists and Neo-Nazis among us still. Skinheads who run poorly designed websites about the “white genocide.” (Which, for the record, is not a thing that is happening.) For years, I thought they were too isolated to do much more than talk, but the last few years have shown me how many have been in the shadows. A tire iron swung behind a bar. An arm raised in an SS style salute. Hiel Hitler. Men with rifles and tattoos, who walk in parades, glowering. Women who cook meals for them and bear them blonde children.

These men, and Hitler, propped an entire movement up on a belief that the worst of humanity must be “bred out.” In 1922, Hitler said to a friend: “We must try to bring to the surface the valuable traits of the people… to cultivate and to develop them, and we must find ways and means to prevent the propagation of all the bad, inferior, criminal and decadent tendencies and all the congenital diseases so damaging to the Volk.”

When I first learned about World War II, there was a part of me that ached. I felt guilt for my family’s part in the story. I feared what I had within me. I feared there was an evil in my heritage. I was born of the “bad guys.” I’ve dealt with this fear in different ways over the years—making jokes, ignoring it, playing devil’s advocate. Writing about it.

But perhaps this fear of what I carry is the very fear at the heart of Nazi thought. I fear “the bad, inferior, criminal tendencies” that may have somehow made their way into my blood. But no doubt all of us carry darkness in our family trees. And if I’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that fear should not rule us. Fear can lead us to betray ourselves and each other.

So if I have darkness in my blood, I will carry it. But it’s not all I will carry. I will carry with me the story of Oma and Opa meeting at a dance hall and spending all night in one another’s arms before they knew each other’s names. I will carry the story of Oma’s mother pulling down the picket fence to burn, rail by rail, to keep her children warm. I will carry Ur-Opa’s pipe and Ur-Tante Maren’s red socks mended with white yarn and Ur-Onkel’s car-tracks in the backyard. And I will give these things to my own children someday. Every story—the aching ones and the shining ones—and they can carry those, too.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Gray Areas


“I think I like the term 'post-Mormon' because it has the feeling of having moved past something. ‘Ex-Mormon’ sounds so…angry,” Sarah said. “Like, a big X. Something crossed out. Or like…an axe.”

Eden crossed her legs as she scribbled in her therapist notebook. “Do you feel angry?”

Sarah studied the art on the wall behind Eden for a moment. “I don’t…know. Sometimes.” Sarah was quiet for a moment. Eden waited.

This must be something they teach you in therapy school or whatever, Sarah thought. How to just be quiet. It used to make her nervous. Like there was a right answer that Eden was waiting for. It felt like the same tactic some teachers use. “I’ll wait until you’re ready.” Like a punishment. The silent treatment. It took Sarah months to believe that Eden wasn’t waiting for Sarah to read her mind.

“I do feel angry sometimes. But I don’t want to be a bitter, angry, ExMo. ‘Ex-Mormon’ sounds like it crosses it all out,” Sarah finally said. “And I don’t want to cross it all out. There was so much good, for so long. It brought me so much light, and so much goodness, and so much love. But I feel like…it’s like I’ve outgrown it.”

“Have you outgrown all of it?” Eden asked.

Sarah thought of the things about the Church that she still loved. The things she missed. The sense of community. The communing. The moments when everyone’s hearts were pointed in the same direction. The times when words came into her head, so clearly, messages from on high. Still and lovely moments when God told her it was okay…the car would start, she would find the right job, that bill would be paid. There were times when it felt like the universe was humming with love, and she was a part of it—she belonged to it.

“I think I’ve outgrown it as an organization,” Sarah said. “And the longer I’m away from it, the more problematic things I can see.”

Eden nodded slowly, her lips pursed like she had a lot more she could say, but didn’t, for ethical reasons.

“There’s so much misogyny woven into so much in the Church,” Sarah continued. “And racism. And homophobia. And just…there’s so much that doesn’t fit anymore.”

Eden waited.

Sarah threw her hands in the air. “But it did fit! It used to fit! And I can’t make it retroactively not fit!”

Eden smiled. “Okay,” she said, leaning forward. “So it sounds like there are things that you still love about this organization, and things that don’t align with your values anymore.”

“Exactly,” Sarah said. God, this therapist was good.

“Okay.” Eden set her notepad down and held out both hands, as if she was holding something in each. “So, can you think of the things that are still true for you” (she lifted one hand), “despite the other things that you now see as problematic” (she lifted the other hand). “What are the things that you learned that are still true?”

Sarah looked down at her feet for a moment. “I’ve learned…well, I have to keep re-learning this one, but I’ve learned the power of letting go. That there’s peace to be found in not needing to control everything.”

“Good,” Eden said. “Anything else?”

Sarah thought. “To trust that all will be well eventually.” Sarah had spent so many hours on this couch over the past two years. She had memorized the shape of the knobs on the cabinets, the titles of the books on the shelves, the art on the walls. She glanced around the room as she thought about her time at school, her time in Young Women’s, her time in the pews. “I learned to be humble. Not in the like, self-hatred way, but in the being-teachable way. Being open to the possibilities, open to being wrong.”

“Those,” Eden said, “are all really valuable and beautiful things to have learned.”

“Exactly!” Sarah said. “So I can’t just cross them out! Even if they came from the Church! The same organization that said Black people couldn’t hold the priesthood or go to the temple is also the one that helped me learn humility and I don’t know what to doooooo!”

“I want you to think of a black and white photograph,” Eden said.

“Okay?” Sarah replied.

“In a really great black and white photograph,” Eden continued, “there is very rarely a lot of black, or a lot of white. It’s really mostly gray.”

Sarah sat back. “Yeah,” she said. She paused, then looked up. “YEAH,” she said again.

“So,” Eden said, “just like with a black and white photograph, can you think of the Church not as something black and white, but rather as something with a lot of gray?”

“Yeah,” Sarah said, “maybe I could do that.”

“And there can be parts of it that are white. And parts of it that are black. But you personally don’t have to decide how much of each there is. That doesn’t have to be your job. Because you can hold both. The good you see doesn’t invalidate the bad. And the bad doesn’t negate the good.”

“Maybe that’s true of a lot of things,” Sarah said. “Religions and organizations and…families and relationships.

“Exactly,” Eden said, smiling. Sarah smiled back, then glanced at the clock.

“See you in two weeks?” she said, standing up from the couch.

“See you in two weeks,” Eden replied.

Monday, October 14, 2019

What Are You Afraid Of?


I am not afraid of heights, flying, or going to the dentist. But otherwise, the standard list applies. I am afraid of spiders crawling on me with their many legs. Being trapped in an underwater cave. Being untethered from a space craft.

I am afraid of raccoons. You laugh, but when I was in sixth grade, my girl scout camp got SHUT DOWN because there were so many raccoons. They chittered and screeched throughout the entire night, they tore open our tents, they ran over us screaming in our sleeping bags. My resulting childhood phobia has settled into a general dislike, but I still don’t like them. With their weird bodies and their human-like hands.

I am also afraid of feral children. Jungle Book may seem like a cute story, but it really happens. It’s extremely rare, but there are a few documented cases of humans being raised by animals. If they are young enough (around age 2) when they leave human contact, they are never rehabilitated to humanity, never acquiring language or other human behaviors, and in some cases, they escape back into the wild. Google it. WHAT THE HELL.

But to be honest, most of my fears are not Halloween-type fears. They’re different and deeper.

I am afraid that the earth will not recover. I am afraid that we will not be able to create the technology to sustain our species in time. I am afraid of the (continued) casualties as sea levels rise, as temperatures rise, as forests burn. I am afraid of my own feelings of powerlessness.

I am afraid of no one showing up for the party. I’m afraid that if I ever threw one for myself, people would be too busy, and that everyone would opt out and not come and not realize how much it meant to me.

I’m afraid anytime someone says “We need to talk.” I’m afraid of difficult conversations. Even though it’s always better to have them.

I am afraid of making the wrong choice. I am afraid of making choices out of fear instead of love. I’m afraid that I will somehow, strangely, end up in a life I didn’t actually choose for myself, because of a whole bunch of smaller non-choices that I made because I was afraid to do the things I wanted to do. If I am a wife and mother someday, I’m afraid I’ll wish I wasn’t. And if I’m not, I’m afraid I’ll wish I was.

I’m afraid of having each tender branch and twig and blossom of my soul chopped off, or singed, or stepped on. I’m afraid that I will never be resilient enough to survive the roughness that will shake each new growth. That I will never be strong enough to speak on behalf of the parts of myself that long to reach for sunlight. Or that I will become so strong and so resilient that no new beautiful things grow.

I am afraid that as I heal and heal and heal that I will still be hurt. And that any and every hurt is a rejection of who I am as a person. That my personhood will be abandoned and that I will be alone. That I will be told that I am too sensitive, when I don’t want to be any other way. I am afraid that my dreamy poem flower of a soul will be too much for another person, that no other person will have the patience to step carefully enough to honor who I am.

I am afraid that I will lose who I am in my desperation to be loved. Which won’t be sustainable and it will eventually shatter all the love I gained in not being myself.

But dammit I’ve learned to live with fears before. Dammit I’ve overcome them. I used to be afraid of dogs until I wasn’t anymore. I don’t even remember how or why that changed. I used to be afraid of swallowing pills, sure I’d choke. As a young teenager, I practiced swallowing tiny broken off pieces of gummy bears until my mouth and throat knew it was safe. For so many years, I was afraid of “going crazy” and ending up in a mental hospital somewhere. And then I spent three days in a mental hospital. And I survived. I was afraid of a spouse leaving the Church, and I survived that, too. I was afraid of divorce, and I survived that.

So maybe I’ll survive if no one shows up to the party. Maybe I’ll survive every wrong choice I ever make. Maybe I’ll survive hurt and rejection and roughness and difficult conversations.

I’ve survived everything I've experienced so far.

Monday, September 30, 2019

A love letter to the International House of Pancakes


“Just you?”

The waiter at IHOP gathers silverware and a menu after I nod.

“Nothing wrong with that,” he says as he leads me to a booth. “I’ve said that to at least one person every shift. Ain’t no shame in taking yourself out to eat.”

I doubt he knows that I’ve been to IHOP on my own more often that I’ve been here with other people. I do some of my best writing in IHOPs. And I’ve got a 750-word blog entry due by 11:59 tonight, so to IHOP I came.

There’s this small, mature voice inside of me that whispers irritating things about sugar consumption and the fact that I haven’t had a green vegetable in probably a week. I’ve got everything from frozen lasagna to steamed broccoli at home, which would have been both cheaper and healthier, but the atmosphere of home isn’t as ideal for writing.

Another waiter seats a couple a few booths away from me. I listen to the man order for the woman he’s with and I’m filled with feminist irritation.

“Yeah, she wants a Belgian waffle, and two scrambled eggs. And she also wants a hot chocolate, but could you not do the whipped cream on that?”

Oh really, Rob? Are you counting calories for her, too? What a controlling asshole. Look man, I know your type. Narcissistic, manipulative, misogynist punk.

When I see movement, I look up. The woman is returning from the bathroom, and takes a seat across from the man she came in with.

Oh. Never mind. He was ordering for her because she asked him to. Call off the feminism troops. It’s okay. Apparently, I’m a little easily triggered when it comes to gender relations.

I’m sitting underneath a speaker, listening to it blast music that reminds me of being a freshman in college. Not that it’s playing music from 2004, but it’s playing the kind of music that I was listening to in 2004. Jet and Bowie and The Cranberries and Weezer.

The waiter brings my food. My usual—Swedish crepes and a side of ham. I branch out sometimes…pancakes or French toast or a waffle. But there’s something pleasant about the ritual. The sharpness of the lingonberries and the sweet umami of the ham. Enough taste to be enjoyable, but not so much that I’m distracted from whatever I’m writing.

I suppose this is my version of a room of one’s own. This is my own gateway to “Cheyenne, Wyoming,” or whatever you want to call the place in your head where you go during deeply focused creativity. A room that’s different from the room in which I sleep, or the one in which I sit and watch TV, or make dinner.

All day today I had planned to go to a coffee shop to write. Sugar House Coffee or Greenhouse Effect. But when it came time to leave, I didn’t want the cozy artistry of a coffee shop, with hip young people chatting and vaping. I wanted call center employees and middle class retirees chatting in slightly sticky booths. I didn’t want the inspiring. I wanted the pedestrian.

Even if “the pedestrian” means a waiter stopping by the booth every four minutes to ask if “everything still tastes all right.” Yes. Thank you. I don’t look up from my screen as I answer.

I think of all the other items on my “to write” list at the moment. Scripts and poems and marketing emails and social media posts and text responses. I think of the rest of my “to do” list for tonight, for the week, for the month. There are a hundred other things I could be doing tonight. But there’s something really satisfying about just sitting in this IHOP, two empty plates next to me, my FitBit off my wrist so that I can type.

I wrote at least half of my Master’s thesis in IHOPs. I’ve written rubbish scripts and good poems and a couple of really good essays. One journalism piece. And a good handful of blog entries. And now a handful plus one.

This might be one of those pieces of writing that’s more process than product. Something I can treat as an exercise, rather than a finished work. Consider this your peek behind the curtain. It’s really just an ode to a lower middle-class breakfast restaurant chain, to the outdated music and wise-cracking waiters and lingonberry crepes. But I hear that David Sedaris spent a lot of his time in IHOPs in his twenties, so I feel I’m in good company.


Monday, September 16, 2019

Hope for the Hopeless (And/Or Those Who Feel Overwhelmed By Society's Seeming Downward Spiral)


The Amazon is being burned. People with PhD’s are being paid poverty wages. Brett Kavanaugh is still a Supreme Court Justice. And I don’t know about you, but I continue to have a visceral negative reaction at any mention of the current President.

The world feels terrible and like nothing is ever going to be okay and it’s effing EXHAUSTING.

And sometimes I need to write about it or talk about it or post about it. But today I’m going to share the things that give me hope when I feel like there isn’t much to be had.

I heard once that the people who fight against justice and progress, who keep trying to prevent society from moving forward to equity, are like toddlers in the backseat of a car that’s being driven to Disneyland. There are times when they are screaming and kicking the back of your seat, even though you keep trying to tell them that you’re going to DISNEYLAND and it will be AWESOME.

And sometimes the screaming and the kicking gets to be too much. It’s exhausting and sometimes even painful. But the thing is that the car’s still f*cking going to Disneyland. Toddlers can be loud and obnoxious but they’re still toddlers who are basically powerless against adults. And adults are the ones driving the car.

So how do you be the adult who’s moving the car moving forward, even when the toddlers are screaming?

I have no definitive answers, but here’s what helps me. All of them are feel-good-y and partly stolen from various self-help books/tumblr posts/Brene Brown/Mr Rogers, and I strongly and shamelessly believe in them.

1. “Physician, heal thyself.”

A lot of the time, my reactions to the screaming toddlers have less to do with the screaming toddlers and more to do with my own un-healed trauma. Because APPARENTLY, almost all of us have experienced trauma. It seems like that’s just part of being human. Ain’t no shame in it. (About a year ago, my therapist asked “Could it be that your parents’ divorce actually had a significant effect on you?” and I replied “NO. Because I’m not a CLICHÉ.” But it turns out I am a cliché and it also turns out that’s actually fine because now I can heal.)

It doesn’t matter if you were physically abused or sexually assaulted or teased a lot as a child. The result is the same. [EDIT: A friend pointed out that it would be good to clarify that being sexually assaulted is not the same as being teased a lot. She used the metaphor of different rooms on a boat. In her words, "Some people get first class trauma like teasing or minor emotional neglect. Others get boiler room trauma where their life is literally hell. But it is all the same trauma boat. We all sailing on the same ship." Which is a way more accurate way to say what I was trying to say. That we all experience trauma in varying levels, and that all of us experience the consequences of trauma.] Your needs weren’t met in some way and your brain decided you were in danger and now it goes overboard in trying to protect you from future danger.

So even though it sounds dumb and counter-intuitive and woo-woo and kumbaya, I actually really believe that healing your own trauma is an enormous empowering step to making the world a better place. It will improve your relationships with yourself and with others, and strengthen your ability to make choices that benefit everyone.

Healing your own trauma won’t stop the toddlers from screaming. But it will help you deal with it. It will help you feel not so helpless. If you can develop coping skills that allow you to acknowledge your needs and fears and also allow you to feel self-worth and self-compassion, you can keep driving that car.

2. Do what you can, and not what you can’t.

I do not have the emotional bandwidth or the financial means to storm ICE detention centers, to picket the capital every day, to never use plastic ever, or to send feminine hygiene supplies to every woman in need. I sometimes feel this need to do ALL THE THINGS.

But I can’t. So instead, I do what I can. I have the emotional bandwidth and financial means to call my representatives now and then, to support Planned Parenthood, and to use public transportation now and then.

And I can create art that teaches empathy. I can write and act and paint and cross stitch the things I believe will bring healing and joy and goodness. Even if it’s just some improv comedy on a Friday night that allows people to take a break from their own emotional exhaustion and trauma.

I’m a big believer that all of us have unique gifts that can make the world better. So figure out what yours are, and do those things.

3. Support those who do what you can’t.

I can’t reform immigration laws or help those in ICE detention centers. But organizations like the ACLU and RAICES can. I can post about them and donate to them. For every problem I see in the world around me, there’s an organization working to solve it. There are people out there doing work that they are passionate about and good at. They don’t need you to do that work, too. They just need your support while THEY do it. Don’t feel the need to do something you are not qualified to do.

4. Remember that things are actually getting better. Objectively.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Human beings are healthier and less violent than we ever have been in recorded history. Our life expectancy keeps getting higher. Child mortality rates are lower. More people have access to education, and literacy rates are higher. Despite the efforts of some well-intentioned but ill-informed parents in the U.S., more kids are getting vaccinated throughout the world. Fewer and fewer people live in extreme poverty. (For more awesome and hopeful statistics, go here.)

I don’t say all these things to minimize the very real struggles and challenges that face our species. There’s a lot we’ve got to work on. But in moments of discouragement, it’s helpful for me to remember that despite the occasional dip into terrible-ness, humans have done some incredible things.

So while we may experience those dips, and while we may mourn the casualties we fight to avoid, the metaphorical car is actually getting closer and closer to metaphorical Disneyland.

We just gotta keep driving it.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Of lake and parks and creeks


When I was very small, I thought Lake Elizabeth was named after me. It’s a man-made lake in Fremont, a city to the southeast of San Francisco Bay, where I grew up. It’s surrounded by a large park, several playgrounds, and a couple of community buildings. 450 acres, and a lake that’s around 80 acres and maybe 8 feet deep. I sat in my grandparents’ sailboat on Lake Elizabeth’s waters. We rented paddleboats and bought ice cream cones. I fed ducks on its shores. A few times, we went swimming in the roped off area that demanded payment for use. I remember once we found a tiny orange kitten in the reeds on the south side of the lake, his little eyes glued shut with sickness. We named him Moses and took him to the nearby animal shelter.

There was one summer when my sister and I went to a day camp there. My sister and I were separated and the teenagers working there never gave us the color of marker we requested. If I could have figured out how to wander off, I would have. Maybe I did. As a child, I much preferred the company of nature to the company of my peers.

So many of my memories of Lake Elizabeth are of the small creek that meandered from the lake, through the playground, and into a wilderness refuge. To a dreamy girl like me, it was paradise. I was a small peasant girl, fetching water from the river to bring back to my family in our hut. I was a witch, gathering herbs and performing spells in the grass on the edges of the water. I was a pioneer, lifting my petticoats to ford a river on my way across the Oregon Trail.

There are strange, unspoken rules among children in public spaces. There are two ways to stake a claim on a particular area: be the first, or be the loudest. I was rarely the loudest, so I usually tried to be first. If I wasn’t, I had to settle for some other, smaller patch of shore to call my own.

I moved back home to Fremont for one semester during college. In the afternoons before my closing shift at the bookstore, I would take my grandmother’s old bike and ride out to Lake Elizabeth. As a twenty-two-year-old, the walk around Lake Elizabeth was short and manageable, an easy two miles. I would bring a book, or my journal, or a picnic lunch. Sometimes all of the above. I would watch as kids played by the same unspoken rules of territory by the creek. The grass was kept short (and often soiled) by flocks of Canadian geese.

There was less imagination in my use of the park as an adult. I went there for a change of scenery while doing the things I would be doing at home—reading, writing, walking, eating. But I could still feel the green of the park seep into my spine. It made me feel calm and quiet in the same way that it did when I was a child. Like a fish returning to water. Or more like breathing when you’ve been underwater.

I still visit Lake Elizabeth now and then. Everything at the lake is a little smaller to me now. The creek that was a wilderness to 6-year-old me doesn’t have the same untamed nature that it did then. I’ve embraced the fact that it was not, in fact, named after me, but rather after Fremont’s sister city, Elizabeth, South Australia. There’s a tunnel for BART, the public train, that runs right under the lake now. There’s a tree there planted for my late uncle, who died when I was too little to understand what that meant.

We adults still follow the same unspoken rules about territory—whoever’s first or loudest claims a spot. We’re more civilized about our claims, but we make them nonetheless. A picnic blanket here marks the border between my space and yours. Stay away from my picnic table, strangers. I didn’t come here to connect with people. I came to connect with the trees.

I wonder how long Lake Elizabeth will remain. If I’ll wheel a stroller with my own daughter around its perimeter. If I’ll watch her wade in the creek. If she’ll have a daughter that will do the same. I wonder if Lake Elizabeth will be a precious sanctuary to them, as it was to me. I hope it is. I believe it will be.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Life, Reviewed

Trip to Leigh Lake
4.5 stars
The view is so ridiculously majestic that my brain keeps trying to tell me that it’s not real. This is a backdrop, painted or projected. My heart hums with campfires and clear starry skies alternated with thunderstorms and sunny afternoons. I am filled with good conversations, naps, and reading in hammocks. Had to come home early because of sickness, which was terrible, but not Leigh Lake’s fault.

Dog-sitting for Penny
3.5 stars so far
Penny is excitable for about 45 seconds when you first meet her, and her claws are dangerously strong and sharp. But once you are sufficiently greeted, she settles down and is one of the sweetest puppies ever. Powerful jumping skills, including the ability to leap unassisted from the floor onto the kitchen counter or dining room table. Leaps joyously in the grass when you let her into the backyard, with celebratory bays and barks. Stubborn about eating on her schedule. The house is pleasant and just the right size, and all of the furniture is somewhere between mid-century modern and industrial chic, and it would be perfect if there was any art on the walls anywhere. A good selection of books scattered throughout the home. I only feel bad for not being home with Penny as often as she would probably like.

Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival
4 stars so far
I love Fringe so much. I love summer and theatre and Fringe and people creating brave art and people supporting each other, and Fringe is all of that and more. I tech 2 shows, then catch others, and occasionally run home to feed and take care of Penny. I wish I didn’t have to do that. My social anxiety sometimes causes me to become auto-pilot Liz, and she’s real awkward, so I spend my time between shows being happy to see so many people I love and admire and feeling like a goober for my awkwardness. (Thank you for being patient with me, fellow Fringers.)

The gas mileage on my 2002 Toyota Sienna minivan
1 star
Between dog-sitting and rehearsing and working and Fringe-ing, the 15 miles per gallon I get on this thing is painful. I take public transportation when I can, although I’ve been having trouble with my U of U card, so fingers crossed that works out. Because I can’t afford to fill this car up more than once a week.

Laryngitis
1 star
The fact that it was short-lived is cause for celebration. I spent one day not being able to talk at all and my brain just decided that this was forever. I resigned myself to the fact that I was now mute for the rest of my life. I mouthed things, I wrote things out, I mimed, I used a text-to-speech app. The next day, I was almost completely fine. I’m still a little scratchy, but you never realize how grateful you are for your voice until it’s taken away.

Air Conditioning
3.5 stars
When it’s very very hot, all I want is air conditioning. I want swamp coolers blasting, I want window units whirring, I want central air whooshing through the vents. They are not always energy-efficient, and I am aware of the resources being used unnecessarily or to excess. And about 1/3 of the time, room temperature is way too cold, having been set arbitrarily by middle-aged men wearing business suits. I shiver in the crisp indoor air at my desk job. But by goddess, I love walking into a pleasantly cool room in the middle of summer.

“The Post-Birthday World” by Lionel Shriver
3.5 stars
Dense and poetic writing, and a brilliant exploration of desire and choices and the paths we take. A British novel born of literarily Russian parents, it took me a while to get through, because it was so dense, but I loved it.

“Three Women” by Lisa Taddeo
4.5 stars so far
I started this the day before yesterday and I’m more than halfway through, because I cannot put it down. I’m borrowing it from one of my roommates and she’s underlined all of the same things I would. I listened to her gasp and exclaim as she read (she reads books the same way other people watch scary movies), and I find myself doing the same thing.

Blogging Every Two Weeks
4 stars
I am tired and overwhelmed and have a lot to do and today’s entry feels trite and somewhat uninspired. But I’m really grateful for something that forces me to maintain a writing habit. Even the things you love can get set aside for longer than you intend. In the hurly burly of groceries and laundry and commuting and maintaining and Etsy shop and theater, I have this small goal every 14 days that pushes me just enough to keep the embers burning.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Rockaway Beach, Oregon


We stayed in a small apartment, decorated predictably with a “seaside retreat” theme. Jars of shells. Paintings of ocean waves. Disturbing and brightly colored salt and pepper shakers in the shape of fish, their lips puckered obscenely. There’s even a framed copy of “Footprints in the Sand.”

When I was young, I had a bookmark with the familiar allegory printed on it. I remember being fourteen, a poet at heart already, and astounded by the unexpected beauty of the last line. “It was then that I carried you.” Standing in a Hallmark gift shop, I showed it to my father in awe, and used it to mark my place in my scriptures for years.

Now it feels cloying. Trite to the point of absurdity. There’s a Gideon’s Bible in one of the drawers here, alongside playing cards and a selection of puzzles. Hints that maybe we’ll all get saved on this trip.

Beckah and I share a pullout sofa bed that somehow gets absurdly smaller every night we sleep in it. I have no physical explanation for this phenomenon and conclude that it must be either metaphysical or metaphorical. A symbol of having outgrown something, maybe.

That week, I spend every morning walking on the beach. A brief 15-minute communion with my first love. The Pacific Ocean is creator and destroyer, nourishing and violent. It is genderless and powerful and bigger than I can fathom. My love for it feels the same way.

I felt quiet on the last morning, sitting in the car as we drove away from Rockaway Beach. That morning was an efficient flurry of packing and cleaning, carrying things down the stairs. Quiet cooperation. We drove through forests of dense pine and ferns and I listened to my parents talk in the front seat. I’m sad to be leaving my family behind here. I’m going to miss them.

The melancholy of already missing them feels like my heart has been dipped in warm honey. I’ve spent the last few months digging through all of my miniature childhood traumas, stumbling over anger and hurt from the past like driftwood after a storm. We’d all been broken at some point, for some reason or another, and there were times when our home was a hospital with no doctors or nurses. We were all doing the best we could with what we had. All of our volatile hearts reading abandonment in every choice everyone else made. I remember times when we were all of us so hurt and angry with each other that the air seethed with it.

But it all feels so long ago now. Not something to ignore, but something that doesn’t really matter anymore.

There are still hints of what was, in small moments, spread apart. There are moments when we are impatient with each other. When wounds barely healed break open at the slightest word. Some olive branches are dropped into the sand. There are table settings that are empty. And yet look at us, all these years later, passing marshmallows around the campfire. Talking about whether or not the morality of the artist affects the art as we drive to a restaurant in Manzanita. Smiling, sharing frozen yogurt samples. Taking turns at the dishes, at taking out and putting away bedding. Walking through brambles and weeds on that hill in Tillamook, where in five or six years, there will be a garden and a porch and a house with a giant kitchen.

It may sound trite, but it feels like the ocean no longer dashes us against the rocks. Sometimes a rogue wave knocks us off balance. Or the water rises above our knees with the kind of freezing shock that paralyzes us for a moment. But the ebb and flow of the tide doesn’t threaten to drown us anymore. Our heads are above water now.

We’re laying a foundation above the tsunami zone, at the very least.





photo credit: Dad Whittaker

Monday, July 8, 2019

Lessons In Luxury


I spent the last 10 days dog/apartment-sitting at a “luxury apartment complex” in north Salt Lake. And while this blog entry will probably be an insufferable examination of privilege, I learned some things about living luxuriously that I want to share.

The hallways smell like Disneyland
Or like a combination of Disneyland and a new car and a house that a realtor is showing. I can’t quite describe the smell. Maybe there’s some vanilla in there? Some kind of citrus? It’s bright and clean and sort of cloying. Even when I knew to expect it, it surprised me every time I walked in.

Everyone is really friendly
Smiling inquiries about your day are common in the elevator. There’s a casual “Hey how’s it going” every time you pass someone in the hallway, or out on the sidewalk outside. I attribute the phenomenon to people not really having much to worry about? I KNOW that there are plenty of things to worry about, regardless of income or address, but everyone I met seemed either really okay with their circumstances, or they were really good actors.

Everyone is really attractive
And not because it’s a requirement on the lease. But because if you can afford to pay thousands of dollars per month to live in an apartment with a rooftop pool, a gym, a private dog park, a spa, and a private sports club with 16 screens, you can also probably afford to pay for braces. And tanning. And Proactiv. And high-end face creams. And regular salon trips. And you also probably have time for regular exercise, cooking with fresh produce, and regular sleep.

Food delivery is complicated in what’s basically a gated community
Every evening, there was usually a crowd of five to ten people standing outside, waiting for Dominos and GrubHub and Jimmy John’s. Because you need a key to get into the building, and to use the elevator, and the lobby closed at 5, so it was impossible to get anything delivered to your door.

All the grass is watered at night
I know this should seem obvious. But I haven’t lived in a place with professionally watered lawns for…actually maybe never? I discovered this one night when I took the dog I was sitting to the private dog park to run around at a time when it wasn’t crowded or 150 degrees. I threw the frisbee exactly one time and then took two steps forward and fell right into a huge mud puddle. My sandals, my knees, and my right hand were caked in slimy wet dog park mud. (I have decided that it was mud and only mud and there were no other substances in that mud.)

A rooftop pool is where I’m supposed to spend my afternoons
Technically, I also had access to the gym, but why would I spend time in a gym on a hot summer afternoon, when I could be cooling off IN A POOL? A pool with a view of the Capitol building and Temple Square to the east, and a valley stretching out to the west. A pool with “wet deck seating” (AKA lounge chairs all along one shallow end of the pool) and fountains and private cabanas and very soft fake grass? ON THE ROOF? The first day here, I took a book and a towel up and spent a blissful two hours basking in my new, albeit temporary, life. It also provided a helluva view for fireworks. I’m a big fan of living small, but if I could have a rooftop pool for the rest of my life, that would be acceptable.

My standard of living IMMEDIATELY adjusted, regardless of the fact that my income stayed basically the same
I spent maybe three hours at the apartment before being like, “Yeah, I WILL order an extra side from Noodles and Company!” “I’ll get premium gasoline!” “This toilet paper isn’t soft enough!” That didn’t last long, because even though I did get paid for this dog/house-sitting gig, it was not enough to cover the costs of extra sides, premium gasoline, AND top-notch toilet paper.

I had to check my racist assumptions at the door
At the beginning of this experience, I rolled my eyes at the indulgence of what was sure to be a rich, white kid playground. It’s Salt Lake City, Utah. And they’re luxury apartments. How much whiter can you get?
And then I got there and realized that there was actually a lot of diversity and I should give Salt Lake and the people who live there some credit. I was coming from this liberal “class is a racial issue!” perspective, and while I do still think that class and race are deeply entwined in this country, seeing the diversity at the apartment complex was a good reminder to me to check my own racism. Because I realized that I was assuming that only white people could be rich in conservative Salt Lake City. Yikes. YIKES, RIGHT?! It’s like I was trying to be SO AWARE of my WHITE PRIVILEGE that it didn’t immediately occur to me that I might be making some hasty generalizations.

East, west, home is best
While a rooftop pool is heavenly, and lightly scented hallways are pleasant, and it’s nice to exchange pleasantries with attractive people in the elevator, I don’t think I’d be happy living in a luxury apartment. I love sitting on a slightly cluttered porch with a book and a popsicle. I love a backyard and a big living room and nerdy feminist roommates and doorknobs that are almost 100 years old. There’s something sort of beautiful and comforting in things that are imperfect.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Being Background


A few years ago, I wrote a posted a big blog entry about how to get involved in acting in Utah. You can check it out here, but I've had a few people ask me lately about doing background/extra work and/or getting more involved in film. So I thought I'd share a few more details!

Speaking Roles:
In order to audition for speaking roles in Utah, you need to have an agent. The 2 most reputable agencies in Utah are TMG (Talent Management Group) and McCarty. TMG only takes referrals, and McCarty has an open call every fall...keep an eye on their website and Facebook page for exact dates. I've also heard of Stars Talent Studio, Urban Talent Management, and Elevate Talent Agency, but I can’t vouch for them.

But the best and easiest way to get involved (especially if you don't have much experience) is by doing Background/Extra work! It's usually pretty fun, not too challenging, and it's a perfect way to learn how film sets work.

Background/Extra work: What It Is/How It Works
In every film/TV show/commercial, sometimes you need people to create a crowd…in a restaurant, at a high school assembly, on a busy street. The people who do this are actors called extras, or background.

If a film/TV show/commercial needs extras, they’ll send out an “extras call.” If you fit the description of what they need, you can send them your info—usually a current photo and maybe clothing sizes. If you fit what they’re looking for, they’ll contact you and tell you where and when to show up, what to wear, and anything else you need to know.

Usually this is on a day-by-day basis, and you’ll spend that day on set, then go home and relax.

Background/Extra work: What To Expect
PAY: Standard pay for background work is $101.50 per “day.” (In film, a “day” means anything under 12 hours. Most of the time, if you’re there for longer, they have to pay you extra.) Sometimes pay is more or less, depending on the project.

MEALS: Depending on when in the day the shoot is, many sets will provide lunch. There are also often snacks/water, but be sure to bring your own just in case.

HOURS: Background/extra work is usually an all-day commitment. But it varies hugely from project to project. I’ve been background where I showed up at 6 am and was done by 9 am. And I’ve also been background where I was on set from 6 am to midnight. And you just gotta kinda be prepared for either scenario.

NOTES ON THE DAY OF: Here’s how your day as an extra/background actor will typically work, as well as some on set jargon it’s good to know.

You’ll show up “on set” (the location where filming is happening) by “call time” (the time you have been asked to arrive). You’ll find a “PA” (production assistant) and tell them you’re an extra. If you’re not sure who the PA is, you can just walk up to anyone who looks like they’re involved in filming and they can point you in the right direction.

The PA will usually have you fill out some paperwork and then send you to “wardrobe” and/or “hair/makeup.” These are the folks who choose what you’ll be wearing and make sure you look good on camera. Most projects will have extras bring their own clothes, so it’s usually easiest to just bring a suitcase with options—they’ll tell you beforehand what kinds of things to bring.

Then you’ll probably hang out in “holding” (an area set aside for background actors to hang out until they’re needed). And you will probably hang out here for hours. So bring a book, your phone charger, an iPad, other work, etc. Grab some snacks from “craft services” (food provided by the film/TV show/commercial makers) and prepare to wait forever.

When it’s time to actually get to work, a PA will tell you where to go. Then someone, (the “1st AD”/assistant director, another PA, or the background “wrangler”) will tell you what to do. For example, “Start by this table, then walk down towards the bathroom.”

Here’s a typical run down of a shot. Various people will call out these things, and here’s what each of them mean.
1. “Rehearsal!” = Practice. Do exactly what you were told to do as if it was the real deal.
2. “Picture’s Up!” = Rehearsal is done and we’re ready to shoot!
3. “Last looks!” = Make sure everything’s ready—hair, makeup, props, etc.
4. “Slate!” = Someone will hold a slate up to the camera so the editors know what scene it is.
5. “Camera!” = Is the camera recording?
6. “Camera speeding!” = Yes, the camera is recording.
7. “Sound!” = Is sound recording?
8. “Sound speeding!” = Yes, sound is recording.
9. “Background!” = Background/extra actors begin their work.
10. “Action!” = Main actors in the scene begin their work.
11. “Cut!” = Stop, both the acting and the cameras and sound.
12. “Hold!” = Pause, but don’t stop recording.
13. “Back to one!” = Return to the first place you were at the beginning of the shot. (If your job was to start at the table and walk towards the bathroom, go back to the table.)
14. Repeat.

In between shots, you may be told to go back to holding, or you may just stand around while they move cameras/lights/other equipment.

At the end of the day, you’ll return any wardrobe items that aren’t yours and have a PA sign you out. You’ll get your check in the mail a few weeks later!

RULES/EXPECTATIONS: Be professional. Be quiet. Follow directions. Don’t ask for autographs or photos with any of the other actors. (You will not be asked back if you do.) Filming costs tens of thousands of dollars BY THE MINUTE, so don’t waste anyone’s time.

Anything else, you’ll learn as you go! It’s usually pretty fun to make friends with the other background actors, talk shop, and hang out.

Background/Extra work: Where to Find Background Calls
There are 2 main sources for getting info about background work in Utah. Signing up for emails is the best way to get notified about extras calls.

G&G Casting
These guys are almost always working on something. Gayle and Gumby have worked everything from High School Musicals I, II, and III to "127 Hours." You can join their email list on their website and follow their Facebook page.

Utah Actors NING
This page is maintained by Jeff Johnson, who is Utah's main casting director. You'll need to register to use this page, but it's definitely worth it. Once you've registered, go to the settings tab, and then click "Email" on the left side. Make sure you're set up to receive emails from Utah ACTORS. Calls for background/extras happen almost every day during busy times.

Good luck, and happy filming! 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Hiatus


Beckah is in Europe on a choir tour. I'm not, but I'm extending the terms of her blogging hiatus so that it also applies to me.

We do HAVE to write regularly because otherwise what is the point, but choir tour in Europe is a valid excuse to be excused.

See ya in two weeks, lovers.