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Extreme Bookstores

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”


-Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Talkstory Bookstore, the Westernmost Bookstore in the United States. Artwork by Kathy Kovala.

If you haven’t figured this out already, I love books. I love bookstores and libraries. I love printed books and I love my ereader. I have spent some of my happiest days trolling through independent bookstores, hoping to find some new treasure. I usually find more than I can carry.

So the bookstores at the edges of civilization are fascinating to me. How do they survive? What little faith I have in humanity grows just a bit when I think about the folks in these places and their bookstores.

A couple of years ago, I went to Kuaui and ran across TalkStory bookstore – which claims to be the Westernmost Bookstore in the US. It’s in Hanapepe Town, 159.588359 W longitude. I bought a lovely book on Shakespeare’s Flowers here. This, of course, made me wonder about other Independent Bookstores in other directions. I haven’t visited most of these, but if I’m ever in these areas, I’m going to check them out.

Chapman’s Bookery, Ferndale, California

The Westernmost in the contiguous US might be Chapman’s Bookery in Ferndale, CA.  124.264175 W Longitude. I may be stopping by here next month…will update if I get there. Update: I DID make it to Chapman’s Bookery, which is in the heart of lovely historic Ferndale. Seriously, if you are in this part of the world, take some time to pop over and check out the gorgeous Victorian houses and the adorable shops. Chapman’s Bookery is a small shop on the main strip and when I entered, I was greeted by an enthusiastic clerk who told me about the super-secret back room with $1 paperbacks. Since she told the next three people about the paperback room, I feel no concern divulging the secret here.  The shop has a nice assortment of popular books, a slight emphasis on Christian Literature, and a ton of fun gifties. (I have to confess I’m a total sucker for the literary-themed knickknacks that you find at Indie shops.)  I found a slim book on the town of Ferndale with great photography at this shop.  I was traveling with my parents when making this stop, and they had decided to wait in the car while I went in – thinking I would only be a minute.  I guess I was more than a minute.  I was deep in the stacks when I heard my mother’s voice in response to the clerk’s pitch about the paperback room, “Oh, I’m just looking for my daughter, I think she got swallowed up in here.”  Indeed. 

Kona Stories Bookstore, complete with bookstore kitty.

Southernmost in the US – this is tricky. I thought it was Kona Stories on Big Island of Hawaii at 19.570912 North Latitude. Kona Stories is a charming bookstore and well worth a look-see, if you can tear yourself away from the beautiful beaches. I bought some lovely locally made cards here, which I’m hoping to frame soon. Don’t forget to say hi to the kitties running about. But Kona Stories is not actually the Southernmost.

Sovereign Tea & Books, in Pahoa, doesn’t go big on advertising.

A recent visit to Big Island led me to discover a small book store even further south, in Pahoa on the Hilo side of the Island. Formerly “Pahoa Used Books and Video,” a recent change of ownership has renamed the shop Sovereign Tea & Books. Pahoa Village is a quirky little row of shops, and worth a visit if you are tired of malls and chain stores. Have lunch at Kaleo’s (my dad swears by the ribs). If you are lucky, one of the local museums might be open. The bookshop isn’t well marked–there was no sign other than a small sandwich sign on the sidewalk. Whatever they are calling themselves, they sell used books and videos and have a 12 seat screening room that can be rented out, and at 19.494247 North Latitude, they take the title for Southernmost. I found a copy of The Night Circus here, which I read on my ereader but loved so much I wanted the printed version.

The “Bookshop” at Cooper Center also serves as a community hub.

An honorable mention, though, has to go to “Bookshop” at the Cooper Center in Volcano, Big Island. Although they do sell books (and have a cute sign that says “Bookshop,”) this was more of a thrift shop situation, rather than a true Independent Bookstore. Still, at 19.443234 North Latitude, it’s the furthest south, and worth noting. I found a copy of Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, which was the first play I did in high school.

I haven’t visited the rest of these…yet.  Life goals. 

Southernmost in the Contiguous USBooks & Books at the Studios of Key West in Florida. 24.557723 North Latitude.

Easternmost in the US:  John Smith Bookstore Eastport, Maine.  66.985977   West Longitude.

Northernmost in the Contiguous US:   Northern Lights Book Store in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. 48.118492  North Lattitude.

Northernmost in all the US –another tricky one. Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks Alaska previously held the title, but it closed in the last year or so.  There’s a Barnes & Noble up there, but I’m disqualifying them since they aren’t an indie shop. I think this title goes to Alaskana Raven Books & Things at 64.843404 North Latitude.

Northernmost in the WORLD? This is my candidate:  Nordkyn Bok & papir AS, in Kjøllefjord, Norway. 70.949873 North Latitude.

Southernmost in the World? Librería Boutique del Libro, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego Province, Argentina at 54.808579 South Latitude.

I didn’t look at Eastern/Westernmost in the world yet, mostly because the idea that they could actually be right next to each other hurts my brain too much too contemplate.

I welcome any corrections on the above – and if you visit any of these stores, send me a picture & tell me about it.

Originally posted as part of an article about The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.

It’s the Journey

This March, in 2019, marks 20 years since I first stepped onto a dojo mat as a student.

My first thought upon making this realization is, “I really should be better at this by now.”  My second is, “Who the hell could’ve predicted that?”

To be fair to myself, I had a long way to go. Growing up I was one of the smallest kids in my class, never did any sports, and PE was pretty much a nightmare. I was terrified of the kickball. I never could serve a volleyball over the net and I still have physical scars from the basketball unit. After I hit the tennis ball over the fence and out of the court three times, my father gave up. Badminton was more my speed. I liked dance, but I didn’t have a dancer’s body nor the flexibility for dance or gymnastics, though I did learn to turn a mean cartwheel. Backbends were never going to happen for me.  Even my ‘movement for performance’ teacher in college didn’t think much of me as a mover.

But life takes us on strange and wonderful unexpected journeys when you stop worrying about what you are good at and just do what you like. I’ve studied three styles now and earned a black belt in each. I have stories I doubt I will repeat unless copious amounts of alcohol are involved. Each time I stopped training in a style, I swore I had no intention of starting again.  My current instructor told me once he recognized me right off the bat as a “Lifer,” so I’m pretty sure by now this is something I’m supposed to do, though to what end, I sometimes cannot fathom. I’ve never been, nor do I expect to be, any kind of national champion with a room full of trophies. I’ve known some of those folks and they are amazing martial artists, and I am nowhere in their league.

So, what have I learned in 20 years? I mean, aside from multiple ways to inflict bodily harm, what have I really learned?

I’ve learned to own my space. The space my body takes up, the space I need around me to feel safe. I’ve learned not to apologize for taking up space. To hold my space, advance and take my opponent’s space, control where I want my opponent to be to give me the greatest advantage. I’ve learned not to freeze when my space is invaded, how to turn that invasion to my advantage.

I’ve found my voice. Not just the one I always had, the one that can recite Shakespeare or sing a show tune, but my wild, ferocious voice. The one women aren’t supposed to use. The one that can initiate an attack like the roar of a lion or fortify my torso when taking a blow. The one that yodels out strange mysterious sounds as I practice, a cacophony of synchronized breath and movement, impromptu. Unplanned. Weird. Powerful.

I’ve learned to let go of perfection. Not the pursuit of it, but I’ve learned to let go of the crippling disappointment in myself when I can’t achieve it. Knowing I’m only in competition with the woman I was yesterday. Accepting the joy in improvement for improvement’s sake. Understanding it’s a journey, and every day is just an opportunity to get better.  

I’ve learned how to face fear – how to breathe through it, accept it, let it pass through me, let it become information, a passenger in the car but not the driver. Fear is a part of life, but like ambition, fear is a good servant but a bad master.

I’ve learned to take charge of my education, even if I have to annoy people to do that. I’ve learned to be ok with the possibility that I might be annoying. To ask people to show me things, not to assume they will get to it, eventually, one day.  To ask them to repeat it, until I can see it, understand, replicate. And I’ve learned how I learn, how I need movements to have names, how I need to write them down, how I need to organize my thoughts. And that my way of learning is unique to me, and others may learn differently.

I’ve discovered that a black belt is only as meaningful as the work you’ve put into it. There are so many differences between styles, schools, and the requirements for a black belt, that your black belt is really only truly meaningful to others within your martial arts community, as they are the ones who really understand what you put into it.

I’ve learned the highest ambition in martial arts isn’t really to be the best fighter (despite what Hollywood likes to tell us). If that were the case, we’d all have to be demoted after age 40 as Time does his wicked routine on our speed, strength, joints, and stamina. (Although, I have seen a diminutive 80-something-year-old grandmaster drop a young buck to the floor with a single touch – it’s creepy as all get out).  No, the highest goal in martial arts is to become a teacher, able to pass on what you’ve learned, help others making the same journey.

Which of course brings us to the question: what is the goal of the journey? What is it we pass on? The great masters knew, have always known. Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate, said:

“Through physical discipline, mental and spiritual discipline becomes the most important aspect of the martial arts.”  

Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate, said:

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

Spiritual discipline. Perfection of the character. That’s the true north.

And it’s only taken me 20 years to figure that out.

For the Love of Books – The Last Bookstore

Further Adventures in LA…

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

– Erasmus

This week I took a jaunt downtown to visit The Last Bookstore. California’s largest used book and record store, the Last Bookstore is a bibliophile’s dream. One could (and I did) get lost in there for hours.

Independent bookstores stand, it seems, as some of the last citadels of civilization in a country that increasingly mocks and devalues its intellectuals, like the high school cool crowd that rips you apart for not only completing the assigned reading but actually daring to enjoy it.  Threatened constantly by the corporatization of, well, everything, they eke out an existence by any clever means they can.

I remember when Barnes & Noble opened its first store in Berkeley. We were all terrified that our beloved bookshops, including Moe’s, Pegasus, Cody’s and Shakespeare and Co., would fold with the competition.  Moe’s and Pegasus are still going, But Cody’s, after trying a relocation, closed in 2008 and Shakespeare and Co. closed in 2015. The Other Change of Hobbit, a fantastic bookshop that specialized in sci-fi and fantasy, seems to be gone as well.  If you like, you can blame skyrocketing rents and declining sales.  How many other small shops disappeared or never started, we’ll never know.  Ironically, that particular Barnes & Noble on Shattuck that I remember has also closed.

I have to confess, when I walked into the new B&N back in the day, I was delighted with ALL THE BOOKS! Such a selection! And the trinkets for book lovers – book lights and bookmarks and fancy notebooks and knick knacks… I was entirely seduced.  I never lost my love of the Independents, though I did feel like I was two-timing them somehow.

The vast interior of The Last Bookstore.

Then the Juggernaut Amazon stepped onto the scene, and everything changed again. I resisted the lure of the Kindle for a while but eventually gave in. I can’t lie – I’m a fan.  But the digital world of books likely cost Borders their business and I don’t know how long B&N will manage. I suppose it’s the way of things…and though I love the convenience of my e-reader, and I love that authors have the means to reach readers now without a publisher if they choose, there is something I’ve missed…it’s not the just feel of the paper, but maybe, the space itself. Walking to a bookstore is a little like walking into a sacred space filled with fellow worshippers all seeking their next journey.

Stepping into The Last Bookstore reminded me of so much goodness — such a celebration of books and art. They have nightly cultural events if you’re in the area. It’s a little far for me for regular visits but…I pass by the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood on my way home from work.  Maybe I’ll just stop by next week…

 

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The info about extreme bookstores has moved here. 

 

 

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Writers also LOVE bookstores. They write about them. A lot.  Here’s a few books set in or about bookshops I’ve read, and a bunch more I haven’t. Get them at your favorite Independent Bookshop. Or on your Kindle, Nook (is that still a thing?), Library… wherever.  As long as you are reading, I am happy.

Books about Bookstores

The Bookshop on the Corner – Jenny Colgan

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

 

This is me, trying to convince myself I can’t take them all home.

Still on my to-read List:

How to find Love in a Bookshop – Veronica Henry

A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse

The Bookshop of Yesterdays – Amy Meyerson

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores – Jennifer Campbell

The Bookshop Book – Jen Campbell

The Bookstore –  Deborah Meyler

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap – Wendy Welch

The Last Bookstore in America – Amy Stewart

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History – Lewis Buzbee

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend -Katarina Bivald

Words in Deep Blue – Cath Crowley

The Bookshop at Water’s End – Patti Callahan Henry

The Little Bookshop Of Lonely Hearts – Annie Darling

84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff

The Bookshop Book – Carol Ann Duffy

A Very Special Year – Thomas Montasse

The Bookshop On Rosemary Lane – Ellen Berry

Shadow Of The Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Bookshops – Jorge Carrion

The famous “Book Tunnel.” Upstairs and halfway back.

 

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

– James Baldwin

Adventures in wonder-land: The Brewery Artwalk

Adventures exploring Los Angeles continued…

Saturday, October 13, I went to the Brewery Artwalk.  The Brewery is the largest live-work art colony in the world, located on a 16-acre-compound that was once the Edison Electric Steam power plant and then a Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery.  More than 350 artists live and/or work there, and during the Artwalk more than 100 of them open their homes to strangers to share their work. It’s really extraordinary. The last building I wandered through was a true labyrinth and I’ll probably have nightmares as my subconscious brain tries to map out where all those staircases went.

The view of downtown from a 3rd story catwalk.

The details:  If you do decide to go to a future one, I suggest getting there reasonably early, and stay until you feel full.  You really can’t see all the exhibitions in one day (and believe me, I REALLY tried). There are simply too many things to see. The crowds are not too bad, though they got bigger (and slightly more inebriated) as the day went on. Disability access is non-existent (these are residences and do not fall under the same ADA requirements as businesses).  Wear good shoes — you’ll walk a lot and there’s a lot of uneven ground. They have a “Beer garden” in the central area, which serves a bit of food as well as booze, and you’ll want to make sure you have a bit of cash with you.  The Artwalk is free, but the food/beer and other things may be cash only. You can park for free in the UPS lot across the street. If your kid is stroller bound, leave them at home (see nonexistent disability access above). This is not a sanitized-for-the-suburbs-kid-friendly type experience — nor do I think anybody in their right mind would advocate for that — so use your best judgement about bringing your young ones.  More details here: breweryartwalk.com.

Alright, now the details are out of the way, let’s talk about the art! I’ll be mulling over the things I saw for months.  I’ve included links where I can to share, but to be honest, it’s never the same as seeing things in real life.

My first stop was Dystopian Studios which is a funky post-apocalyptic space and artist Kevin Flint had steampunk coffee dispensers on display.

Mural by Andre Miripolsky

I wandered by Andre Miripolsky’s studio whose work is arresting and undeniably engaging.  I had one of those “OH I GET IT” moments looking at his work.  Randi Hokett creates pieces by growing minerals on canvas, and these I loved. I would hang these in my living room and adore them forever.  Todd Westover  has a floral series that are amazing and will probably wind up on scarves or handbags one day (if they aren’t there already.)  Burton Gray is worth looking into and reproductions of his work are also reasonably affordable. He has one series of sad robots:

“My Robots reflect the effect of social media on the psyche. The build-up of emotional experiences with no corresponding tactile memories (nothing linking to taste, smell, touch or sound to sight) leads, I believe, to a sense of alienation.

Check out the “Norm” piece.  I also particularly liked the Christmas Fantasia from his Fantasia Series.

Kinetic Sculpture by William Sandell

I almost missed it as it was down a corridor and out of the way, but William Sandell’s space was worth the detour. Very creepy and oddly familiar — a familiarity which may be explained by his art direction in films. His kinetic sculptures are both intriguing and disturbing.  

Other things of note for me:  Joyce Aysta’s popup laser-cut cards, Patrick Haemmerlein’s collages, Jill Sykes nature-inspired works. Two artists featured at wallspace:  Scott Froschauer with his “Word on the Street” series, which is on view in Glendale, and street artist Plastic Jesus (aka the LA Banksy).  Rob Silverman Photography featured a dramatic series featuring his Pez dispensers (which lined a shelf near the ceiling of his room) called “Pez on Earth.

Another favorite for me was Bruce Dean.  I particularly liked his paintings, and on display was a series of illustrations called “Presumptive Bestiary,” which featured mythological creatures, and which I hope will one day be available as a collection in a book (I imagine a beautifully designed leather covered volume featuring these lovelies).

There were so many other experiences  – ynot.dog who will make you custom doggie bandanas and t-shirts that fit you or your dog (so can match!). The room with the wall full of 1-foot square hearts, the space with dozens of tv monitors surrounding a lone tree. The laser cut wood designs from the artist whose name I couldn’t find anywhere. The room dedicated to creating “A Band of Voters,”  focused on getting young college-age people out to vote; the Human Being Society (which I am still unsure if this was art, or a cult, or something else entirely, but apparently I’m a lifetime member, I even got a card to prove it); the Hipcooks people who run social cooking classes; and the artist (I’m so sorry I didn’t get her name!) who had tangled up all sorts of cords into what looked like a piece of fabric and draped it over an ironing board (my visceral need to untangled those cords was intense).

I always find it difficult to describe my experience with art, because art taps into something beyond words, and when you do find some way to describe it, it seems to reduce the experience somehow.  If I had to attach a word to the day, it would be “wonder.” Wonder at the work, wonder at the people who create it in a country that is so ridiculously unappreciative of them, wonder at the generosity of opening one’s home and work to strangers, wonder that this exists at all, wonder that we can’t exist without it.

 

Treasures

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre Gide

As of this past August, I have lived 20 years in Los Angeles.  

That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, including the Bay Area, where I grew up.  I have no idea where the time went. Okay, that’s not strictly, true, I can account for what I’ve been up to these 20 years, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just arrived. 

The other day I came across some photos of my 22-year-old self while I was travelling.  I wonder what that girl would have thought of my life now? Probably she would be disappointed. That girl had high hopes and high expectations; she worked hard but hadn’t yet realized the world doesn’t reward adults for being good or talented, only for being useful or unscrupulous.  She had been sheltered and protected, and her new wings were weak from lack of use. She was full of judgement and a bit of arrogance in the way young people often are, sensitive and highly emotional, and had not yet learned to laugh at her foibles. Or how to forgive herself. (She was also very critical of herself, which hasn’t changed a bit.)

The year after I left college was a difficult one.  I had wanted to go on to graduate school, but hadn’t gotten accepted to any that I wanted to go to, so I decided to wait a year and apply and audition again. It was probably the first year of my life I didn’t have a plan for. I was substitute teaching, and living with my boyfriend at his father’s apartment to save money. While I remain grateful that I had these options, they weren’t exactly ideal. That was the year I discovered the delight of spending an entire day curled up in a chair reading a book. By the time summer rolled around, I had plans to go up to the Dell’Arte school in the fall. My boyfriend had a gotten into a summer stock theatre (at a company I wouldn’t get hired by for two more years). I decided to travel to Europe.

My family didn’t travel much when I was growing up – we were a large tribe and with my brother’s disabilities and all the young children it would have proved extremely difficult – but I had saved up for years to go. So, at 22, I grabbed my younger sister, my guidebook, and off we went.  

These were the days (gasp) just before cell phones and internet, and travelling to Europe cut you off almost completely. You could make some very expensive long distance calls, but otherwise, you were on your own.  My poor protective parents had a hard time with this. I loved every minute of it.

We travelled around for six weeks, staying in hostels and cheap hotels, spending the entire day going to museums, historical sites, plays. I had made a plan using my trusty guidebook, and sometimes we stuck to it and sometimes we didn’t.  We were careful of our safety, but bold in ways neither of us had been before (no, we didn’t go off with the drunken Welshmen we met on the ferry to Ireland, but we did go parasailing at Nice). Time and money were limited, so we saw everything we could, and didn’t waste a moment. 

I have lived in a few places in my life, and the one regret I always have is that I didn’t see more of what that place had to offer.  I was busy with school or rehearsal or work, and then I was exhausted, or I was short on cash or nobody wanted to go to something with me or a hundred other excuses and time passes and I leave that place with so many things undone. But seeing these things in your world changes you, and it’s not just limited to being in a foreign country (though that changes you in beautiful unique ways as well). You experience the rest of your everyday life differently.

I’ve made a list (there I go, planning again!) of things I’ve wanted to see and do in Los Angeles but just haven’t gotten around to yet.  I’m going to put on my travelling mindset and get to these places over the course of the next few years. I’m going to let myself be a tourist in my own town sometimes, and go on my own to the things when no one else wants to go with me.  

I had my first adventure this past Saturday.

I went down to Olvera Street’s  Dia de los Muertos Art Walk. Olvera Street, also known as El Pueblo Historical Monument, Calle Olvera, and La Placita Olvera, is one of the oldest sections of Los Angeles, a block or two of an historic “Mexican Marketplace” with adorable vendors, cafes and several historical sites (I walked through Avila Adobe,  billed as the “oldest house in Los Angeles” )  The Dios de las Muertos Art Walk made the place crazy crowded, but everyone was pleasant and having a good time, and there were so many interesting things to see. I caught the Aztec Dancers performing. I’d like to go back on a “regular” day – there are tours you can schedule and maybe I’ll do that. I love the Dia de los Muertos holiday, but as a non-Latina, find myself cautious about how to respectfully embrace a holiday not part of my own cultural traditions.  It was bit like travelling to a foreign country – everyone was speaking Spanish and many performers were not even bothering with English, which was fine–it made my brain wake up to try to figure out what was going on. Alas, my high school Spanish has never been terribly helpful though I do manage to catch a few things here and there.

Olvera Street is directly across from Union Station, and as I didn’t want to wrestle with driving and parking down there, I took the Red Line from North Hollywood.  It was my first time taking LA Metro (another adventure!) and my first time seeing Union Station. The LA Metro works like any other metro system in the world, is not complicated, and most other riders were super nice. There were the usual shady things going on, homeless folks sleeping in cars, some crazy folks talking to the air, but mostly just normal folks going about their business.

Union Station is pretty amazing – first, it’s HUGE. And historic and beautiful.  I got off and immediately exited the wrong way which put me on the opposite side of the station from where I needed to go, but getting lost meant I saw the East side of the station where there is a gorgeous fountain and glass ceiling – not just any ol’ glass ceiling – this glass ceiling is epic. A lovely security man laughed as he directed me and a couple of other women who took the same wrong turn through the underground passage towards the West side of the station. This was the historic side where there are chandeliers and wood panelling and you have the sense you are no longer in a city where things are built with cheap building materials and held together by spit, but in a city that actually built substantial structures for the public once upon a time. There are nice restaurants there as well. Free tours are offered the second Sunday of every month at 10:30 am. I’d actually like to do one of those – maybe the next adventure that takes me in that direction will give me a reason to get there on a Sunday Morning.

I’m no longer that 22-year-old girl who had the time to gad about for a summer. I’m older, wiser, a bit more careworn, and fully capable of protecting myself. I have more obligations, but my need to see and experience my world hasn’t changed. I’m still the girl who likes to hurtle her body through time and space, whether in the dojo, on a ballroom floor, or riding a roller coaster. I’m still the girl who likes to get lost and discover treasures as I navigate my way back to terra firma.    

 

 


 

The Other Door

Not too long ago, a yoga studio opened up next door to the martial arts studio where I train.  The two businesses share a parking lot in the back, and both have a rear entrance, along a narrow path about five feet below the level of the parking lot.  One day, I parked and headed in, dressed in gi pants and tank top, karate bag stuffed with sparring gear and weapons over my shoulder.  Another woman approximately my age was just ahead of me and as she got to the yoga door, she smiled and very courteously held it open for me.

She was also blocking my way.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m going in the other door.”

Going in the other door is not always easy, and you don’t usually like to let people know about them.

Those hard days can catch you by surprise.

You go in thinking, I’ve got this, just another class. You’re aware that others might look to you to be a role model, whether you want to be or not, because there are not many of you, so you feel you have to represent well for everyone else, but some days… some days class gets going and suddenly you feel too small, too weak, too unprepared, and you are bruised and dazed and trying to keep your head together and too much is coming at you too fast, and everyone means well and that almost makes it worse because you are struggling, and you’re mad because you are struggling, because you are not PERFECT, because you practiced and practiced but not enough, it’s never enough, and not the right way, and why didn’t you practice harder, and there are too many voices there trying to help and you can’t think, and now you are bruised again but don’t say anything, don’t let them see it might be too much because you want to keep up, you will keep up, you can’t let anyone know it hurts, everyone else takes it, and you can be tough too, so you bear down and take it, but your eyes are stinging and OH NO don’t let them see you cry, but you are not really crying it’s just your body responding, but they won’t know that and OH SHIT that was too fast, I wasn’t ready and FOCUS and now your face is even more flushed, and GOD why is this guy such a jerk, no, he’s only trying to help, but he isn’t helping, and does he think scaring me is going to help, and maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe I should be going in the yoga door, where people like me are supposed to be, where it’s all ‘you’re perfect just as you are’ and ‘be here now’ and ‘breathe’ and ‘namaste’ and I’m bored out of my skull but not this not falling apart, not this failure, and after class you stay in the dressing room by yourself, because of course there’s only you in there and you wait for your face to stop being so flushed and the tears to stop and you want to howl in frustration, but you are frustrated at yourself because what are you doing, what are you thinking, maybe you shouldn’t have spent so many childhood years playing fairy princess prancing about until the day in the bramble bush when you realized price charming wasn’t going to save you, wasn’t ever going to save you, and even if he did, do you really want that, do you really want to be saved, that’s so humiliating, so you start that day saving yourself, over and over you save yourself, and you go from fairy princess to warrior, but you still kind of suck at it because swords are heavy, and so you try to get stronger, you build your muscles and what comes easy to them has to be worked for by you, and you get up on the bar and you pull yourself a little higher each day, just a little bit, some days the improvement’s barely noticeable, but you still try because what else is there, and you try to remember the days when you felt like you were flying, when it all seems to flow… and back in the dressing room you finally feel your face is not longer flushed and your eyes aren’t red anymore and you pack up your bag and head out the door and make a new plan to practice harder, smarter, because you CHOSE the other door, you chose something hard and maybe it will take longer than you thought and maybe you won’t ever be as good as you want, but you know that even if this is not where you are expected to be, this is exactly where you are supposed to be.

And you come back next class, back through the other door, and do it all again.

__________

P.S. While I don’t practice yoga on a regular basis, I have tremendous respect for it, and for its practitioners. It’s just not the thing I need. 

 

 

Running in Parking Lots

Today I’m going to tell you about my brother.

I don’t often bring up my bro because it starts a longer conversation that is often off-topic to whatever point I’m trying to make at the time. And some days, I’m just not interested in having that particular conversation. But here goes.

My older brother Erik has cerebral palsy. We are now supposed to say that he is “Developmentally Delayed” (which seems a cruel joke to me, as though someday he will catch up). We used to say he is severely mentally retarded. Erik’s mental capacity is such that he doesn’t care how you refer to him, but I do, so be nice. He doesn’t speak and communicates basic needs through a limited collection of sign language.  He is also physically disabled; he does not walk and uses a wheelchair.

He was born two months premature, probably contracting a virus as a fetus (though we don’t know for sure, and will probably never know). He lived at home with us until he was in his early twenties and now lives in a community placement home with other adults with disabilities. He went to a special school, and now goes to a day program where he gets physical therapy and they continue to keep up his “life skills.”

The thing is, I can’t really tell you much about my brother until we get past these basic facts. Nothing else about him makes sense until you have this context. Not the funny things he did growing up, not his intrinsically sweet nature, not the mischief he got into, and not what we all learned from him.

I had a teacher in high school who once told me that I probably didn’t understand yet the impact my brother had on my life; that I would be unpacking that particular bit of my life for years to come. A prophetess, that woman.

I am a very verbal person. I love language, I love words, I have trouble remembering movements unless I name them, have trouble solidifying my thoughts until I speak or write them—so how do I process a whole relationship in my life that is essentially non-verbal?

Not too long ago, my parents sent me some old family videos they had recently had transferred to digital. There was one from when my brother and I must have been about 4 and 6. Erik is in leg braces, valiantly trying to walk using a homemade set of parallel bars. I know what the people in the video do not: it would be a fruitless endeavor. Erik would never walk, but that didn’t stop him from trying, putting every bit of effort into hauling himself along, attempting the impossible, because his parents asked him to, and in the video you can hear my parents cheering him, encouraging him.

And I’m there too, in the background, in a little pink dress, and I’m dancing away, leaping and twirling on my fully functional, if not particularly graceful, legs, trying to get my parents’ attention. And watching this as an adult, I realize I internalized then that nothing I do in my whole life will be as difficult nor as brave as my 6-year-old big brother trying to walk. Not if I became a prima ballerina or discovered the cure for cancer. It doesn’t mean I don’t put effort into everything I do—but though I am able to accomplish more, it comes easier for me. I recognize the grace I have been given to have a fully functional body and mind, and the humility to know that I have done nothing in particular to deserve them. I was lucky. The virus caught my brother, but not me.

And in a larger sense, there is the recognition that we are all only one virus, one car wreck, one skiing accident, one gunshot, one slip-in-the-shower away from disability. As a society, we have only in the last 40 years started to recognize that people with disabilities have a place in our society. When Erik was born, it was not uncommon for parents to leave severely disabled children in state institutions as a matter of course. That school Erik attended? We fought for the legislation to make sure he was educated, and we fought for its enforcement. For a bus that could take him there. For respite care, so my mom could do the shopping, go to school, and go back to work. Where he lives? Fought for that too.

I have heard some say that it seems a disproportionate amount of money to be spent on one group of people, particularly those who may never “give back” to the community. I hear people complain about having to spend extra money when renovating a business to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the crowning touch: able-bodied people complaining about not being able to use disabled parking spaces. But here’s the thing: people with disabilities are a part of our community. They are not some separate entity. And unless you are comfortable with the idea that they should be left on a mountainside at birth, or shot like a lame horse, (and if you are, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know you) then you do for people with disabilities what is required, the same as you do for everyone else. As you would want done for you, should you become disabled. If you are fortunate enough to have a body that works reasonable well, and a mind not hampered by injury, then you are not just “normal,” you are incredibly fortunate. And with that good fortune comes the responsibility to care for those not as fortunate as you.

When I have to park on the far side of a parking lot, and I walk back past the empty disabled slots, I know this is the moment when people scoff, frustrated, angry even, that they are inconvenienced. I know this is when people hatch plans to “work the system,” borrow their relative’s disabled placard, trick their doctor into authorizing one for them. There is an estimated 50% fraud rate in disabled placard use. To be fair, I never confront people because I am well aware some legitimate disabilities are not obvious at first glance. But I do think about our old van, and my father hauling Erik’s chair out of the back, wheeling it around the side, and helping him into it, and I’m glad the parking slot is available for another family. I know that is one less challenge they will have to face that day, in a sea of daily struggles. And I’m grateful for my legs that carry me across the parking lot. And those days I’m in a hurry, when I’m late?

I’m even more grateful I have legs that can run.

 

 

 

Comments are disabled (ha-ha, see what I did there?) because people on the internet are jerks, and I’m not giving them a platform on my own website.

The Irrationality of Love

It’s 3:00 pm on a Saturday and I’m sitting in a loft of a church that’s been converted into a theatre. The space holds seating for 27 audience members, and the seats I’m sitting in were installed in their current configuration by my husband (with the help of a crew of actors). It’s warm and since there is no air conditioning in the loft/theatre, the windows are open. We have to be mindful of the neighbors to the west; if we get too loud, we’ll have to shut those windows. It’s May in North Hollywood, so the temperature is only in the low 90s. We won’t be performing in this space this time—we’ll be taking this production to the Hollywood Fringe Festival  to a larger (88 seats!) theatre, with air conditioning. We’ll have one two-hour technical rehearsal in that space. The space we are rehearsing in is sublet from September through June from the theatre company downstairs, who rents from the church. They specialize in musicals, so when they leave their doors open, strains of Sondheim float up to us.

But they have AC, so their doors are shut. There will be no serenade this afternoon. I’m directing this time. We’re working on a new play. It’s based on Schnitzler’s La Ronde, and it’s called Sleeping Around, a name given to it by the current producing company (Theatre Unleashed) with the blessing of the playwright. The playwright is the best friend of one of the actresses cast in the show. There’s no “favors” at work here—the script (and the actress) are solid. The Artistic Director (also cast in the show) was thrilled to be able to get the script, the playwright was thrilled to get his work produced. Everybody is thrilled.

Before me are two actors in their twenties. I am not in my twenties. We’re working a scene that involves a break up—so we’re exploring betrayal, misunderstanding, the pain of losing the fairy tale, the pain of taking some one’s fairy tale, the irrationality of love. To help my actors grasp a particular moment, I describe something from my own past, something personal, private—and for a moment, I’m twenty-something again, confused and in anguish. Could I have imagined then that all these years later I would be sitting in a small theatre in Los Angeles exploiting my youthful heartache? I am caught in time—past and present exist simultaneously in my mind.

And then I’m back. Back in the small, hot theatre with two actors looking at me with the gracious impatience the young afford the nostalgia of their elders. (When exactly did I become an elder?)

But this is what we do. We theatre artists. We playwrights, directors, actors—we pick apart our past, mine it for the true things of our human experience, repackage those discoveries and tell new stories with the bric-a-brac we’ve collected. Sometimes we clothe our truths so they are unrecognizable as biography, and sometimes we toss them to the world almost naked.

This is why we keep coming back to classic plays like Romeo & Juliet. Almost everyone remembers the excitement, the passion of young love. While the text of Romeo & Juliet remains constant, I change my aspect to it every time I see it. As a teenager, Romeo & Juliet was romantic, as an adult, it is nostalgic. And maybe a bit silly. But I become a time traveler into my own past, remembering what it was to be so young and so certain of love. I know my experience, though uniquely mine, was also shared by a man who lived 400 years ago, and also shared by everyone else who has had the fortune to see his play. I am still unique, yet I am not alone.

The play I am working on now in no way resembles Romeo & Juliet. It is urban, contemporary, full of slang, at times crass, and uses current cultural signifiers to explore a range of relationships. (I suppose an argument could be made that when Romeo & Juliet was first produced, much of the above could have been said about it as well.) But, like all good plays, this new work sinks its teeth into human experiences we recognize.

A few days ago, I found out that the play I directed last year, Friends Like These, is getting published. This work was developed entirely in small spaces, and I am so proud to have been a part of its development. My own plays have been going through the development process with the assistance of the intimate theatres. Our stories might be modern, or they might be hundreds of years old, but all over Los Angeles, they are all created by the magic of the true things contributed by the artists that work on them.

At this time in the midst of the 99-Seat Waiver Wars many of us working in the intimate spaces in Los Angeles theatre search our souls to explain why it is so critical for us to keep going, to continue to create work when we can’t get paid, can’t possibly make a living. There are rational arguments in support of the LA small theatre scene, and better minds than mine have made them. You can read about them at the Ilove99.org website.

Like love though, the answer is sometimes irrational: We are theatre artists. We make theatre. This is what we do.

__________

Info for Sleeping Around:

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Claiming Space

“Unless I’m crying or bleeding, you don’t need to apologize.”

I found myself uttering this odd phrase the other day during Kenpo class when I was practicing techniques with a girl who was about 12 years old (and taller than me). Our dojo in Granada Hills is still small when it comes to adults, and often teens and adults practice together. It works out well: the adults challenge themselves to keep up with the teens physically, and the teens are challenged to behave more maturely.

After my young partner had said “I’m sorry” for the tenth time or so, I finally told her stop apologizing. The training philosophy at our school involves making contact with strikes and kicks while doing techniques, but withholding power—the thinking being that you can always add power, but targeting is difficult under duress. (I have been at other dojos where the philosophy was the exact opposite: full power but deliberately miss your target, because power is hard to develop, but targeting is easy. Go figure.)

At any rate, sometimes you hit harder than you intended, sometimes you hit a target you didn’t aim for—hence you some days come away with a few lumps and bumps, and some days you give a few bumps and lumps. This is to be expected, and unless someone has done something truly egregious (that back elbow right on the spine last month might count as egregious), constant apologies are not only unnecessary, they are detrimental to progress. Unfortunately, most young girls and even grown women have a lower threshold for what requires an apology than their male counterparts. We try to soften the requests we make of others, to be polite, to appear non-threatening, because we’ve learned that we don’t particularly like it when we are labelled rude, bitchy, or aggressive. We apologize when we disagree, when we have a question, when our job requires we interrupt our colleagues to give them timely information, when we ask for help (“Sorry, can you pass that piece of paper to me, I can’t reach”). This constant need to make sure the feelings of others aren’t ruffled if we do some daily thing we have every right to do—to apologize for existing—subconsciously puts us in a subservient position. This habitual submissiveness is not only a hindrance to improvement in our Martial Arts training, but in an actual physical confrontation, it can be life threatening.

The Kiai
Once of my favorite moments in watching a young martial artist develop is when they finally find their kiai. A “kiai” is the loud shout martial artists make when executing a strike or receiving a blow. I’ve seen several ways to translate it, but it basically means “Spirited Yell.” There are several practical purposes to a kiai: it regulates your breathing in such a way that your strikes are more powerful and tightens your stomach so when you receive a blow you are less likely to be injured; it can startle or frighten your opponent; and it can call attention to your confrontation so others can help you. Most beginners, children and adults, are timid with their kiai initially. Fear of embarrassment generally keeps them from belting out a solid yell. Then slowly, after enough nudging from their instructor, they start delivering a perfunctory kiai—not really impressive, but enough to keep the teacher off their back. Then one day, they get it, they embrace the kiai. No more the dutiful half-hearted shout, but a full, powerful gut-wrenching yell comes out of them. This is a turning point. Their skills are always different—better—after this. They have found their kiai.

It has been my observation that ‘finding their kiai’ can sometimes take longer for young girls, especially those who have been taught to be apologetic about being loud. These same girls struggle with sparring in particular, because sparring requires a kind of aggressiveness they have not yet embraced. When they find their kiai, they are entirely transformed—because it’s not just about the shouting. I can’t speak for others, but for me, the kiai is an unapologetic affirmation of my right to exist, unmolested; to take up physical, emotional, and intellectual space in the world; and to use my voice in any way—loud or soft—I deem fit. It lies outside the realm of apology; it is a repeated mantra of power. It makes the strikes I give stronger, it fortifies my body to allow me to survive attacks. Sparring is still a challenge for me, but I like to think of sparring as claiming not only my own space, but taking yours, because by claiming more space, I not only protect myself, I force you to respect my physical presence. I exist, I claim space, I kiai.

And I’m not apologizing.

Wins

Winning feels amazing. Speaking as someone who doesn’t win often, winning makes me want to do my happy dance and shout from the rooftops. American culture loves winners—we have no patience for second place. But there are all kinds of ‘wins’ in life that go unrecognized, and some winners who, frankly, aren’t really winners at all.

This past Saturday I competed at the Bryan Hawkins Kenpo Karate Invitational Tournament in Granada Hills. I won some, lost some, cheered my friends, explained the formalities to newbies, offered advice when requested, commiserated when things didn’t go our way, contributed to the fundraiser—about the only thing I didn’t do was chow down on the yummy hot dogs they were selling.

In short, I had a blast.

The tournament is about competition, but it is also about camaraderie, community and sportsmanship—something we see too infrequently in professional sports. I met some lovely people from other schools, often while we were competing against each other. One incident stuck out, however, mostly because it was such an anomaly.

As I was warming up, I overheard a young man, maybe 18 or 20, coaching a little 7-year-old student. The young man was a black belt from another school I was not familiar with. “You’re doing it wrong. Do it again. No, it’s still wrong. Again.” His tone was angry, harsh and full of contempt. The little boy executed an imperfect spinning kick, and was rewarded with, “That’s not good enough. Do it better.”

I moved away from this pair and looked around to see other black belts gently coaching their youngest students, smiling and nodding, giving firm but kind final advice. I saw teams of young people working together to make sure they were in sync. I saw mothers and fathers checking uniforms, tying belts and whispering encouragement.

Later, I saw the young black belt in competition. His kata was beautiful, his weapons form impressive. But I couldn’t forget his interaction with the young boy earlier. I’m certain the black belt placed well in competition. And though he performed flawlessly, he blew the most important moment of the day—beyond the trophies, beyond the amazing execution of physical skill, he failed his young student.

Rei

Karate beings and ends with rei. Rei means respect. It is one of the Seven Virtues of Bushido. It is why we bow at the start and end of every class, every sparring match and every round of competition. It permeates the culture of a healthy dojo. It is the antithesis to contempt. Respect is both given freely and is earned. Respect can only be two-way; students respect the knowledge and character of their teachers and good teachers respect the dignity and efforts of their students. When “respect” is demanded without being returned, all a student can give is fear.

The masters of many different martial arts know that the purpose of training was never simply to be the best fighter. Hollywood may try to convince us how cool it is to have to the best fighters, but the purpose of the martial arts has always been the improvement of one’s character—to be the best human being one can be. By challenging ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually, by learning to accept loss with dignity and victory with grace, by learning patience and trust, by forgiving others for their mistakes and by becoming part of a community of people on different legs of a similar journey—all this and more is part of the perfection of one’s character.

When competition makes us forget our purpose, the art is lost. We become part of a martial sport—much like the UFC—focused on winning first place and demolishing our opponents. I take no issue with martial sports for adults, but they hold only a limited interest for me, and have no place in the way we teach our children.

The culture of a dojo comes from the top. The character of the grandmaster, chief instructor or school owner shines like a beacon to their students. Every student, but especially black belts, is a reflection of the ethos set by their leader. When the ethos changes from becoming better people to winning at all costs, there is no winning to be had at all.

I saw plenty of true ‘wins’ at Saturday’s tournament that had nothing to do with trophies. I saw kids (and even a few adults) who fell on their butts jump up, dust themselves off and keep going. I saw moms and dads teaching their children who didn’t place how to accept defeat without letting it define their self-image. I saw first-time competitors pledging to come back next year, filled with new ideas about how to train. I saw young girls put on their pink (gah!) sparring gear and take on the boys—and the boys being totally ok with that. I saw an entire community rise to their feet to honor and applaud a martial artist, who, having given a lifetime to his students, was now facing medical difficulties. I saw my teacher turn part of the day’s profits to assistance for his colleague and friend.

Winning feels amazing.