5/26/21: Three and a Break – On Tap, Physics, and Swing Dance

I originally wrote this essay on physics, tap, and swing in 2019, for a community writing class. I’m sharing it now in honor of May 25th, National Tap Dance Day and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday, and May 26th, World Lindy Hop Day and Frankie Manning’s birthday.

I would like to foreground that both tap dance and Lindy Hop are African American dance forms. As a dancer and creator engaging with both styles, I am immensely thankful for the Black inventors who made these dances what they are today, and I follow the lead of Black hoofers and swing dancers today. Follow and support groups like the American Tap Dance Foundation and the Frankie Manning Foundation.

There’s a hiccup that can happen when I listen to something new. A moment of disorientation when I’m trying to figure out what exactly it is I’m hearing. Sometimes I tilt so far towards an unknown sound, my body physically shudders.

In jazz-based dances like tap and Lindy Hop, there’s a musical structure called three and a break. You introduce a rhythmic shape in the first two bars, a full count of eight, then repeat it twice before “breaking” it. The break can tweak the pattern you’ve set or depart from it completely. When I tap, I tend towards the latter, playing with the density of my sounds and stretching out the space between them.

Before they were seen, black holes were heard. We heard two, actually: twin black holes approaching each other, spiraling rapidly before merging. In his work on relativity, Einstein predicted that co-orbiting black holes would fling off waves in spacetime, and after sensing these vibrational warps, physicists translated them into an audio clip. One write-up on the astronomical sound described it as a kind of chirp: it wobbles, ripples, then shivers into a plop. The flipper of something huge, vanishing into the water.

“I like the way you dance,” my partner said. “You have a good pulse.”


Rhythm: that felt thing. A ragged oscillation in my body. Rhythm as vibration, rotation, translation. Rhythm as microcosmic motion coursing through you; as mode of calling out to the universe and awaiting its response.

“Listen to your feet,” my tap teacher tells me. My feet like to ramble – triplets, random heel-digs, slides, aerials. Despite her assurances to the contrary, I feel pressured to find interesting steps instead of repeating rhythms that groove well. Rhythmic structures help ground me: I burrow into the repetition until I hear something new, digging and meeting water.

What I learned in undergrad physics is: it swings all the way down. Simple harmonic oscillators, pulsing back and forth. Pendulums, circuit boards, orbiting planets, atomic particles: any repeating, periodic event can be described with the mathematical recipe for a spring, seasoned with the relevant damps and forces. The resulting solutions consist of sines and cosines, and from that vantage point, the observable universe looks a lot like an ocean full of waves.

Sometime before 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote,

“All is rippling, all is dancing. All is quickness and triumph.”


Rhythm’s building blocks are repetition and divergence. An improvisation departing from the count can become a rogue wave chucking the song elsewhere. And even if it returns where it started, the foray has changed the beat, made it volatile, mischievous. “In this sense,” writes dance scholar Thomas DeFrantz, “rhythm can be an organizing principle that presupposes and spurs permanent transformations.”

Circled up with the tap floor between us, my friend steps into the song. Eighth notes sing from her heels. I hear her straight beat and I jump in swinging, with the shuffles and pick-ups I grew up with; afterwards, she tells me, “Your improv has an old-fashioned, classic feel to it.” With jazz dances, I learned the concept of a musician’s “bag” – the tricks and techniques at their disposal when performing. My bag, a work-in-progress, has worn keepsakes from Broadway tap and dance competitions. Old-fashioned, a little hokey. But jazz is about working with what you have.

I began learning Lindy Hop, tap’s social dance sibling, when my physics major started diving into higher mechanics and atomic physics. Triple steps, swing-outs, and tandem Charlestons overlaid my thoughts on torque and electrons. Sliding with a dance partner on the floor one class, I remembered momentum. p = mv, mass with velocity. In swing, I reformulated the term as the off-kilter rush of my body in motion, how planets must feel as they slingshot around their stars.

Improvising in Berlin, Ella Fitzgerald sang,

“How high the moon – does it touch the stars? How high the moon – does it reach up to Mars?”


Roland Barthes wrote, “To listen is not only to perceive a language, it is also to construct it.” 

“We shape, and then break, the beat to allow a communal entry into its potential,” says DeFrantz. “To fall into an expressive time not encompassed by the everyday.”

What’s constructed when we listen so deeply, we fall in?

A slight force – and then we’re forward. The music is hair too quick and there’s sweat beading on my brow. My eyes settle on a spot of air nestled between me and the person I’m dancing with. Awareness seeps into our feet as they slide across the floor. I feel my forearm on their back, our warm hands clasped, and their name is the slightly tilted whirl of a tuck turn and mine is that soft, bent pulse in the knees. Syncopation speaks up as our voices when our feet kick and our hands clap and joy happens. My breath gets stolen by my partner’s hand tugging mine. Eight counted beats become song and rhythm, and listening, I chance it. I close the distance with my feet and energy ripples from my hand into their back, energy they catch. We surge forward, the both of us spinning towards then out from each other as the tension in our held hands stretches.

Red flicker of stillness… then it reverses.

The symmetry breaks as we repeat it again. Then again, different from before. And then our momentum transforms, slipstreaming into some sea.

1/21/21: 2020 – a recap in stories, sights, and sounds

In 2020, time revealed its flimsiness. “What day is today?” “What’ll happen tomorrow?” “How many days has it been since x shut down again?”

Like everyone, I treasured the activities that carved out pockets of pleasurable time. I savored the way TV episodes went from clean-cut beginnings to satisfying ends. The way songs could be looped and re-experienced, wards against 2020’s wretched timeframes. The way art kindled new perspectives for an entirely new world.

I’ve recapped my year’s worth of books, songs, performances, films, and series for this blog since 2016. This time around, it feels especially fulfilling to retrieve these gems from the muck of 2020. I gravitated towards works of intense emotion in search of, I’m guessing, stories and sensations that could match the extremities of the 2020 news cycle.

Before the pandemic, I read a novel chronicling the scattered flood of thoughts and information that overwhelm any American alive today. I saw a film about a couple creating an isolated domain where they can truly be alive. Before the pandemic, I saw a play about nations, the strings tying us to them, and the myriad ways those strings can cut and stitch a person together.

And as 2020 proceeded, those all took on fresh meanings for me as we reckoned (once again) with race and American identity, redefined what isolation meant, and realized the difficulty of living with our own thoughts when we have more time with ourselves.

I find it fitting that my song of the year – a six-minute composition that condensed multiple genres, motifs into a musical microcosmos – sounds cataclysmic. Absolute change approximates apocalypse.

Performances

I’ll start with the live performances, which, of course, mainly took place in January and February. Theatre and performance have long been theorized as “ghostly” – with live shows, there’s nothing left afterwards. But it became especially true when there was literally nothing left, theatrically, after March.

Live Theatre and Dance

  • Soundz at the Back of My Head, Tommy DeFrantz at Gibney
    • A remixed mixture of text, movement, and sound by the inimitable dance scholar Tommy DeFrantz. Questions of racial borders, childhood recall, and survival amidst technology swirled around DeFrantz’s meandering choreography and spoken word. Strong shivers when I heard a twinkling video game motif melt into chord changes I’ve heard in church once upon a time.
  • The Moving Orchestra in the LES
    • Such a New York experience: seeing friends dance and jam with experimental musicians in a sunken Chinatown basement, followed up with a gourmet late night breakfast.
  • Heilung, at Webster Hall
    • A friend I met on my semester in London was touring with Heilung, a team of musicians imagining how ancestral Scandinavian songs would sound based on archeological research. So I went and saw them. There were deer antlers and wild costumes and crowd surfing. It was fantastic.
  • The Thin Place, written by Lucas Hnath, Playwrights Horizons
    • A taut, ghostly new drama tugging at the beliefs and behaviors we depend on in daily life.
  • The Golden Spike, workshop at BRIC
  • Cambodian Rock Band
    • My favorite piece of theatre from 2020. A dive into nationality and personal history that’s braided ingeniously with rock music and electric performances.
  • Bridesmaids, a dance narrative

A special shout out to Netta Yerushalmy’s Distant Dance Demonstration, live at East River Park, which was the last performance I saw in 2020– in September! The brief dance concert featured her talented company alluding to countless styles, as if they were offering up all the dance we’ve missed while sheltering at home. It was a satisfying buffet of movement that made me love and miss dance even more.

Distant Dance Demonstration

Live Music

  • Live From Here, Town Hall, hosted by Chris Thile and featuring Nathaniel Ratecliff, Haley Heynderickx, and Rachel Syme
    • The last time I attended an event with over a hundred people, and what a show it was! Music, comedy, and spoken word all delivered with the virtuosity Live From Here is known for.
  • Sean Watkins and the Bee Eaters, house concert
    • An intimate musical evening that hammered home how truly magical live music can be.

Livestreams & Screen Media

Theatre and Dance Livestreams

I watched the Joyce Theatre’s revival of State of Darkness, choreographed by Molissa Fenley, on the night the 2020 election results concluded. State of Darkness is a thirty-four minute solo set to the entirety of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It demands exceptional pacing and stamina from its performer. After seeing Sara Mearns dance through it, I wrote the following:

“It’s about entering into these different states so that at the end of it, there’s been a real gathering of knowledge and intuition and insight,” Fenley says of State of Darkness. It’s about gathering a fractured set of mobilities and scouring them clean, dredging up pieces of yourself to fucking slice into the future like the knives our bodies are.

The best livestreams I watched in 2020 were the ones that didn’t merely remind me of what I was missing – they became events in and of themselves, whether blades or gems or simply balms. Here’s a couple more of my favorites.

watching Women Without Men, featuring background Steph
  • Women without Men, written by Hazel Ellis, Mint Theatre
    • Women Without Men was part of the Mint Theatre’s series of free livestreams. The dry, sobering play is a tense drama of female relations between teachers at an all girls school, and this recording captured an engrossing performance. The Mint specializes in reviving underrated works, and Women without Men highlighted the strengths of this approach, pairing solid actors with material as fresh now as it was then.
  • Paramodernities, choreographed by Netta Yerushalmy
    • As mentioned above, Netta Yerushalmy has a roving, genre-blind appetite. Her fascinating Paramodernities paired academia with choreography, each of its six chapters featuring a scholar speaking on a particular canonical dance figure while Netta’s company performs with and around them.
  • What Do We Need To Talk About?, Richard Nelson, the Public Theater
    • I relished my surprise, walking out my bedroom door, at seeing a play written for Zoom, made with Zoom in mind, and feeling something like the theatrical chills I get after walking out of a playhouse.
  • Richard II, The Public
    • Pleasure and gratification at hearing centuries-old lines containing the peaks of nature and the force of politics inside of themselves.

Music Livestreams

The musicians I love prompt a stirring in me, a kind of quickening. In its wild onset, the feeling these artists give me reminds me of my capacities – the capacities in any human being – for using what’s on hand to make something beautiful. I’m noting these performance streams for giving me that feeling.

  • Julien Baker, Instagram livestream
  • Hamilton Leithauser, Instagram livestream
  • Sondre Lerche, Instagram livestream
  • Bluegrass Pride, FB streaming festival
  • Phoebe Bridgers, Live from Red Rocks
  • Twisted Pine, album release party

Films and TV Series

I did get to catch a couple films in theatres, including my top movie of the year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’ve written about most of the following on this blog already.

  • Portrait of A Lady on Fire – once in theatres then once again, streaming
  • Onward
    • Once in theaters and streaming. Nowhere close to toppling my favorite Pixar film (*coughs* Ratatouille) but this was a fun and quirky entry in their canon, with some interesting themes of fulfillment and nostalgia.
  • Toy Story 4
    • I watched a lot of Pixar! What a beautiful movie; if anything, the visual splendor of Pixar’s environments in this movie are astonishing. There’s hard-thinking to be done about its themes of disposability, abjection, and awareness, too, if you wanna go there.
  • Jojo Rabbit
    • “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” – Michel Foucault

I watched a handful of television series this year. Small shout outs to the final season of The Good Place and the first season and a half of Schitt’s Creek, and bigger shout outs to the following two series:

  • Babylon Berlin
    • A jigsaw-puzzle detective thriller set in Weimar Germany that normally would be completely off my radar. I watched after reading Emily VanDerWerff’s coverage of it. Y’all it is SO good – the perfect blend of complex plotting, enticing acting, and stylish filmmaking.
  • Over the Garden Wall
    • This is the perfect autumn watch. Ten episodes, running only ten minutes each, following brothers Wirt and Greg as they wander lost in the forest. A lot of whimsy that threatens to – and often does – tip over into the creepy and the surreal. Apparently for children, but I audibly shrieked at Episode 7. Do yourself a favor and queue it up for next Halloween.

Books & Writing

My Top Novels

  • Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
    • A total behemoth of a novel. An experimental portrait of one Ohio housewife’s stream of thought– and I mean every thought. Every impression, name, tune, and memory of this mother of three is listed out in the eight-hundred page sentence that comprises most of the book. The way it foreshadowed many of the defining qualities of 2020 – the isolation, the doomscrolling, the political and existential reckonings – is uncanny.
  • The City We Became – N.K. Jemisin
    • The first book in the long, long 2020 spring that succeeded in transporting me entirely. And the place it transported me to was already fond in my heart: The New York of The City We Became is pulsing and alive, and Jemisin’s novel was a firm reminder of why I love it so much.
  • Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
    • Like the above, Ninth House exemplified the meaty capacity of what good fantasy can do: act as a mirror, or rather, a prism, for the “real” world. Leigh Bardugo’s dark star of a novel picks apart seedy Ivy League elitism with exhilarating, creepy glee.
  • Trust Exercise – Susan Choi
    • Trust Exercise choreographs itself and brings you along for the whirling dance. By the time you finish spinning and regain your balance, you’re somewhere else entirely.
  • This Is How You Lose The Time War – Amal Al-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
    • A book about love and time that summons an effervescent bubble around the reader.
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
    • Such a well-crafted debut by an exceptional poet. It’s like a chandelier assembled from jagged pieces of glass: Edges repurposed towards fracturing light into new visions, shards still sharp and capable of cutting.
a Washington Square Park treat.

Nonfiction

Compared to last year, I read very little nonfiction – at least, on paper. I was reading so many, so many newsletters, articles, and thinkpieces this year. A special shout out to the following two books:

  • Pulphead – John Jeremiah Sullivan
    • Part of my ongoing investigation into the “canon” of essayists. Sullivan is a literate mage pulling phrases and paragraphs together like they’re diamonds floating up from the earth. I felt a kinship with his omnivorous range of interests, and awe for the unparalleled way he polishes his subjects just so.
  • Intimations – Zadie Smith
    • Grounding, insightful, and eloquent. As per usual.

And my fullest respect and admiration for the following writers:

  • Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large at Vox
    • I’ve been a big fan of VanDerWerff’s journalism ever since following her TV coverage on the AV Club, and her pieces on Vox as well as on her weekly blog Episodes continue to bowl me over.
    • Favorites include “Six of Swords,” a swirling, tarot-inflected perspective on my favorite Phoebe Bridgers song, her spotlight on Over the Garden Wall, and her January response to the Mr. Robot finale.
  • John Paul Brammer, freelance writer

Music

Top Albums

  • Historian, Lucy Dacus
    • My last great album of New York City before shelter-in-place shut down must of my outings. “Night Shift,” its most popular song, is indisputably exceptional, but I also have strong affinities with the retro-tinged rock of “Next of Kin,” the supernatural bedroom vibes of “The Shell,” and the muscular “Timefighter.”
  • Right Now, Twisted Pine
    • Twisted Pine, my musical love of 2019, put out their adventurous third record, the first to feature flautist Anh Phung. Reader, I squealed in delight when I heard that Right Now was coming out. From the bonkers fun of “Papaya,” the grooviest song about a fruit (and maybe something else) ever, to the tonal switch-ups of “Dreamaway,” Twisted Pine continue their awe-inspiring flight through genre, a long way from their departure point in bluegrass.
  • Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple
    • I’m not a longtime Fiona Apple fan, and I’ll admit that on my first listen, I was impressed but not hooked. It was in the fall, listening to Fetch The Bolt Cutters again, when I grasped the depth of these songs. The barely-contained energy of “Shameika” is rapturous. “Rack of His” ricochets between genre planets with sarcastic glee, and, as I’ve written on this blog before, “On I Go” simply struts. Across its runtime, Fetch the Bolt Cutters sounds like Fiona Apple somehow poured dozen of brilliant musical ideas into each track.
  • Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
    • I’ve already written about my favorite track from this album here, so I’ll take a moment to walk through some of my other favorites. Punisher is impressive in its wide-ranging lyrical subjects, from dream descriptions to Southern anecdotes, yet still sounds cohesive and engrossing from beginning to end. Its opener, “Garden Song,” has one of the most beautiful second verses I’ve heard. The lead single “Kyoto”? A banger, musically and emotionally. “Chinese Satellite” explodes with its existential crises and expert production. (I love alliteration, okay ?) “Savior Complex,” my first favorite, sounds dreamy but hits me in the guts, then “ICU” comes on and I’m revived. Near-perfect album.
my partially correct Spotify Wrapped! doesn’t reflect my non-Spotify listening, though, hence the incongruity with my list.

Runners Up

  • Spider Tales, Jake Blount
    • An impressive collection of bluegrass, old-time, and country songs that reclaim Americana as a music that is Black and queer at its core. Needed this this year – listen to “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone” and “Mad Mama’s Blues”
  • YHLQMDLG, Bad Bunny
    • Such bops. “Si Veo a Tu Mama” and “Yo Perreo Sola” are my faves.
  • Adaptations, Vols 1. & 2., Rachel Sumner
    • I need the world to know more about Rachel Sumner!! She wrote one of my favorite Twisted Pine songs (“Hold On Me”). Her knack for catchy choruses and her attention to lyrical detail is exceptional.
  • Dedicated Side B, Carly Rae Jepsen
    • Bedroom dance jams!!!
  • Migration Stories, M. Ward.
    • For the late nights at home

The Songs for Each Season

Winter:

  • Icicle Tusk, Fleet Foxes
    • icy walks down Eighth Avenue
  • Drunk II, Mannequin Pussy
    • midnight internal screams riding the A train. A rocker.
  • You Look Good In Neon, Mike and The Moonpies
    • dinner break slow country dance
  • Night Shift, Lucy Dacus
    • mind-blowing showers
  • Papaya, Twisted Pine
    • the perfect soundtrack for $2 hot-dogs
some words on “Papaya” from its songwriter

Spring:

  • Just Over the Stars, The Maddox Brothers and Rose
    • heard through Bluegrass Pride. the yearning!
  • Mad Mama’s Blues, Jake Blount
    • the breakdown that closes the song is a perfect explosion of riotous joy / righteous anger.
  • black pill skyline (ada rook rework), default genders
    • crunchy, crackling chords. icy.
  • Rack of His, Fiona Apple
    • i absolutely love the vaudeville-adjacent vibe of this kiss off tune
  • my future, Billie Eilish
    • “I’m in love with my future.”

Summer:

  • Don’t Wanna, Haim
    • Haim saved us on a rather stressful drive where my sister, her boyfriend, and I got lost
  • Remember Summer Days (Night Tempo Showa Remix)
    • neon pink pastels for outdoor California sun!!
  • yellow is the color of her eyes, Soccer Mommy
    • almost cried riding up the Hudson Bikeway listening to this
  • august, Taylor Swift
    • dreampop via T.S. kept me going through a sweltering NYC summer
  • Savior Complex, Phoebe Bridgers
    • sung so many times on late sleepless nights.

Fall.

  • presumably dead arm, Sidney Gish
    • Pennsylvania driving music
  • I Know The End, Phoebe Bridgers
    • AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
  • Si Veo a Tu Mama, Bad Bunny
    • SUCH a bop!!
  • Ohio, King Princess
    • the moment it goes electric? incredible.
  • Turn Out The Lights, Julien Baker

I’m entering 2021 with a resolution to live “in song.”

In my experience, singing is hard. Deliberate. But at the same time, it requires a relaxing, a release of tension that allows the sound come out of me, riding on my breath.

I want to practice “singing” in the literal sense, yes, but I also want to embody singing in the general sense of making acts of self-expression and self-love as regular and natural to me as breathing. In and out.

I’ll need songs to sing, so I’m looking forward to the sights and sounds I’ll experience in 2021. Thank you for reading my intermittent blogs throughout 2020 🙂

12/23/20: A Christmas Scream

Doesn’t Christmas make you want to scream?

It’s the feeling you get when you take that evening walk, in an evening that’s starting to look a lot like midnight even though the clock is telling you time that’s half that. Walking through the dark chill, you turn the corner and confront luminescence.

Lights! Lights lining the rooftops. Lights on picket fences. Lights draped over hedges. Red and green pinpricks of light wandering, projected, in orbit on the walls of homes. The edges of everything in the neighborhood, glowing.

Our house’s lights this year.

It’s the feeling, this screaming feeling, that comes upon me when I get in the car, I flick on my chosen radio station, and I’ve forgotten it’s December so now all that’s playing is Christmas music.

It’s the internal yelp of spotting a well-chosen Douglas Fir in the red pick-up truck ahead of you. It’s the feeling of being annoyed by a Salvation Army bell. It’s pumpkin spice reluctantly ceding territory to peppermint mocha. It’s scent of pine. Knit cardigans.

It’s willing the ideal of Winter into existence, like wearing an ugly Christmas sweater in California, even if it’ll never dip below the 50ºF. It’s the collective trudge through the Christmas season. Where Thanksgiving is a blip at the end of a month largely defined by falling leaves, Christmas is the whole month. Aaahh!!!


One of my favorite recordings is Sufjan Steven’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” from his monster five-disk Christmas album, Silver & Gold. It’s absolutely bonkers. Here, give it a listen.

In the booklet for Silver & Gold, there’s an essay by a Pastor Thomas Vitp Aituo about the liturgical season of Advent. Originally, the four masses between adult Christ’s ascension and baby Jesus’s birth focused on the waiting period for Judgement Day. It was the literal end of the church year so it was all about the biblical end times.

Aituo argues that Advent’s dark leanings haven’t gone away – in fact, they slot right in with America’s persistent craving for apocalypse narratives. “For Americans, the end is near, and we love it that way.”

Sufjan Stevens sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with this destruction in mind. After its dreamy introduction, the entire middle section is wordless wailing accompanied by crashing drums and lavish flourishes. The whole thing feels like a Christmas stocking about to burst, stuffed to the brim with sound. It’s a little deranged, honestly. My sister called it a “serial killer version.” 

The top comment on its surreal music video goes: “The more I listen to him, the more I believe that Sufjan pretty much invented Christmas…” “I’ll be Home For Christmas,” reminds me of that phrase, “The Queen is dead, long live the Queen.” In order to re-invent Christmas, Sufjan has to kill it, kind of like how the invention of the automobile made the horse carriage industry obsolete. He’s taking the song beyond its usual paces to see if it’ll survive.  

It’s a Christmas standard so of course it does.


Christmas music isn’t inherently Christmas-y. In a video devoted to Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, musician and vlogger Charles Cornell spoke to how the record, widely regarded as classic Christmas music, is just a well-built jazz score. Stripped of context, tunes like “Skating” or “Christmas Time is Here” are catchy jazz songs that happen to be set to Peanuts scenes. There aren’t even any sleigh bells!

The soundtrack was made “Christmas-y” – Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials have been acculturated to A Charlie Brown Christmas for years and years. (We’ll see how Gen Z reinterprets Christmas song; the most entertaining development to me has been the popularity of Louis Prima’s “Pennies From Heaven”, on Christmas TikTok, after its feature in Elf.) The focus of Christmas on child-like innocence, gift-giving, and family traditions molds and thereafter targets your basest nostalgic impulses on a material level. Certain songs, objects, and sensations set off childhood memories aglitter.

In 2017, two sociologists published an analysis of Christmas-based nostalgia in Scandinavia. Bjørn Schiermer and Hjalmar Bang Carlsen combed through Instagram for reactions to the yearly airing of The Disney Christmas Show in Sweden and Denmark, searching for three “types” of nostalgia:

  • Restorative nostalgia, or earnest attempts at recreating past times and experiences: “It isn’t Christmas without x, y, and z!”;
  • Ironic nostalgia, or exaggerated, at-a-distance recreation of past experiences that often comments on it: “Even if isn’t that good, we gotta do x, y, and z”; and
  • Reflective nostalgia, or recognizing the futility of recreating experiences but sharing in the sentiment anyways: “Oh, x, y, and z are so full of Christmas nostalgia.”

That screaming feeling I start getting this time of year is a mix of all of these. Nostalgia – from Greek nostos, home, and algia, pain – is a longing gaze behind you. You can put on your favorite Christmas movie, play your Christmas song again, and relish them wholeheartedly. You can laugh along, play a drinking game, critique it. (You can, and you will, scream-sing to “All I Want for Christmas is You!”) And you can also grieve the loss inside them, recognizing that while Christmases past are gone, they’re never entirely past. 

how lovely are your branches

According to Schiermer and Carlsen, “nostalgic ritual” can swirl around any object central to collective childhood experience. They elaborate that the object in question “must remain stable and unchanging (and thus its quasi-sacred status).”

When I put on my red vinyl of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’ll be the same notes and rhythms, the ones we all know and love, but they’ll hit different every time. Their “contours – sensuous, conceptual, and emotional – are further animated, idealised, made even ‘better,’ bigger or more beautiful.”


In 2012, writer and queer theory legend Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick wrote about Christmas. “The depressing thing about the Christmas season,” she writes, “is that it’s the time when all of the institutions are speaking with one voice.

They all – religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy–line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing?

Upper West Side Christmas Tree

Winter is, from our human perspective, a dead season, so the compulsion to start it with a big Christmas bang makes sense to me. It’s a loud holiday for a quiet time. (Though the “monolith” shouts over the concurrent holidays of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa…) Amidst the shouting, I like to cradle the whispers, those “richest junctures” where meanings slip.

It’s the feeling of seeing Christmas lights not as “Christmas lights” but as gorgeous, site-specific light installations that my neighbors have put extra effort in this year as a result of being home more. It’s hearing the chords of “Christmas Time Is Here” not as a Christmas classic but as a warm, spacious jazz tune. It’s smelling the Christmas tree and thinking of June camping trips. It’s savoring the winking 1950s doo-wops that Stevens sneaks into “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

As I feel the expected – required? – Christmas sentiments, I also notice when my nostalgia is misplaced. When I yearn for the wrong things, things the Christmas monolith isn’t shouting about, I sometimes feel the need to shout back.


In their paper, Schiermer and Carlsen develop a framework for studying shared nostalgias, experiences that are “mediated and decentralised, yet unmistakably ‘effervescent’ and ritualistic.”

But “since we are part of creation,” Pastor Aituo reminds, “we must also defer to its ultimate end – that of destruction.” We can view the Christmas season as “a regular rehearsal for death itself,” one in which we can we contemplate our holiday memories as another year approaches.

All these rituals of nostalgia, recreation, and irony hold a lot of potential. They hold within them the option of prying open those queer junctures, wreaking some havoc, and re-inventing the whole thing. Christmas is dead, long live…

Christmas is so ambitious, so contradictory. It reanimates objects of nostalgia and longing like festive zombies. Those “discourses of power and legitimacy” have made it so, flaring up each year to impose Christmas whether you like it or not – and you likely have a lot of deep-seated attachment to it anyway if you’ve grown up in America, the U.K., or any other Western-influenced/colonized nation.

December 25th is a light – in your face, screaming bright – in the annual sequence of our lives, where everything is asking us to sing loud and spread Christmas cheer. We’re smothered anew, every year.

Doesn’t feel bad… doesn’t always feel good… but it sure feels like Christmas!

12/14/20: Hearing Joy in Julien Baker’s “Turn Out The Lights”

Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying ‘I’. We cannot imagine such joys when they are absent.

Simone Weil

I wrote this as part of my attempt to write an essay every day for the month of November. On the mess of Election Day, November 3rd, 2020, I piled my focus onto this song.

Content Warning for a brief mention of depression, mental illness.

It starts with a guitar, before her voice emerges. Two solitary sounds in a room together.

A small hum picks up above and beneath them as a slight echo hints at space that’s bigger than expected. Another guitar pings in; the voice folds over itself: doubles, in harmony.

The sounds are sparse but massive: a cliff-face. The guitar’s steady opening notes become earth for Julien Baker’s clarion voice to float over– though, in its ascending and descending figures, perhaps ocean is a better metaphor. And over this ocean, I see a neon haze hanging low, the second guitar chiming through like a searchlight in fog.

And I’d never do it but it’s not a joke. I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone.

Is it real or a dream? Which is worse? Can you help me?

I just wanted to go to sleep.

The second verse, spoken to a friend, sketches out the worst without naming it, and Baker pushes through its jagged meter like a boat on choppy seas. Revealing dangerous thoughts is always a fraught journey. The rhyme between “joke” and “alone” feels almost pleading, like she’s begging the listener, “Stay, help me fend off the darkness, one more cheap line.”

I get the sense that the sleep she needs isn’t the one filled with dreams – neither dreams and reality offer any solace. The sleep she needs obliterates the sleeper.

And then, Julien cuts into the chorus.

But when I turn out the lightsWhen I turn out the lights

There’s no one left, between myself and me

It’s initially a quiet undertow. Distorted. Guitars do their engine chug forward as Julien almost whispers the lines.

Jayson Greene of Pitchfork wrote that it feels like “a wail of despair,” and I hear it in the way she stretches out “myself and me”: it sounds threadbare, the chill of the song infiltrating the gaps between her words. The ensuing instrumental break, wrote Tom Breihan on Stereogum, is a church organ drawing “itself up and out,” something huge waking up.


I was introduced to Julien Baker through boygenius, a trio comprised of her, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers. I tried placing these three singer-songwriter stars on a stellar spectrum: Dacus is closest to our yellow Sun, her witticism and uptempo rock stylings emitting a warm, flaming glow. Phoebe Bridgers is dimmer, a haunted red giant with tired eyes. Julien Baker feels like a white dwarf – a hole punch surrounded by impenetrable darkness. 

My first impression of this album (also named Turn Out The Lights) were that its Max Richter-esque piano motifs would be a great fit for dance competition lyrical solos. Which, like – yes. But I kept coming back, finding more beneath this surface takeaway.

With new music, I first notice the texture. I really only listen to the words on the second or third listen, because the things that hook me are melody, chords, instrumentation, rhythm, tone – and voice. Baker has one that is pure electricity, and “Turn Out The Lights” showcases its majesty. (“Funeral Pyre,” another favorite of mine, does the same.) By its second chorus, the sound, the voice, and the lyric of “Turn Out The Lights” all braid together into one. Like Lucy Dacus’s “Night Shift,” or Phoebe Bridgers’s “I Know the End,” “Turn Out The Lights” lifts off.

the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), the deepest view of the universe.

But when I turn out the lights, when I turn out the lights,

When I turn out the lights, ohThere’s no one left between myself

And me.

In the hands of Julien’s hurricane voice, the simple, repeated lyrics seem to arrive from elsewhere entirely. Greene hears her “letting every coiled and tensed emotion that normally lurks in her songs explode free into the sky.” Breihan writes that it sounds like flying. Julien Baker, like Conor Oberst and Mary J. Blige, summons “vast forces of pure feeling.”

Listening to the meteor of her voice feels like overhearing a more vivid, more real universe– a universe whose cosmology had no need for stars or light. A universe which doesn’t so much shine as flood.

I heard echoes of my own musical epiphanies, other songs I love that evince this same sensation. I thought of “No Cars Go,” Arcade Fire’s ode to a place away from the noise of the world, where Win Butler and Regine Chassagne sing of the space “between the click of the light and the start of the dream.” More recently, in Big Thief’s “Not,” I heard Adrianne Lenker pulling apart negation into wonder, describing a thing both otherworldly and carnal: “It’s not the earth, not spinning.”

I think that, like these songs, “Turn Out The Lights” channels an experience we don’t quite have words for. Its verses are about the friction between your internal conflicts and the world around you; the chorus finds a release beyond that borderland. In an interview, Baker explained:

It’s about the idea of being occupied all day long and having people to talk to, but when you get to the end of the day and close your eyes, all of those distractions are removed. Solitude is important, and now I’m a lot more at peace with the things that I find in solitude.

Pitchfork

What is this place, this space “between myself and me”? The poet Yeats gestured to a neighboring place: the isle he heard in his “deep heart’s core” was a site of midnight and flutter of wings.

“Turn Out The Lights” ventures somewhere more extreme. Its deep heart’s core is height. Motion. Miraculous: a towering wave, peaks diffusing into the air. Something like Simone Weil’s all-consuming joy: no longer a source of fear, but a source to be.

In her seminal essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde wrote: “As we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation […] Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.”

“Turn Out The Lights” is that point of recognition. It is the moment, amidst demons and uncertainty, when Baker lets the dark, starless ocean of herself wash through, filling every void, flooding every corner.

10/28/20: My October Obsessions

There’s a line in Trust Exercise, Susan Choi’s latest novel, spoken by a woman obsessed with another. She talks about how “obsess” is used in conversation; how when someone has “obsessed us,”

they’ve transitive-verbed us, but no one could be more surprised than they are… Obsession is an accidental haunting, by a person not aware she’s a ghost.

I’ve felt obsessed by a handful of things this October, all very much in this same way. These four books and songs have saturated my time, haunting my thoughts. As we near Halloween, it’s fitting to summon them onto the page. Who knows – maybe one will follow you home!

Trust Exercise – Susan Choi

Trust Exercise is about people in theatre. As teens, its characters attended a high school for the arts. In adulthood, they grapple with having grown up in a high performance environment.

I spent my adolescence in theatre. I attended a high school for the arts. In adulthood, I’m grappling with having grown up in a high performance environment.

So! There is a lot to work with here!

In Trust Exercise, David and Sarah fall in and out of a passionate romance that spills over into their scene reads, movement classes, and yes, trust exercises at the prestigious Central Academy for the Performing Arts – CAPA, for short. Their teacher, Mr. Kingsley, has them and their classmates air their emotions in the studio, where “their feelings were so sternly policed that you got in trouble if you didn’t feel one way on command.”

This is a far cry from the supportive environment I performed in for two years with Billy Elliot. The similarly acronym-able San Francisco School of the Arts I attended afterwards was only as intolerable as high school generally is. Yet, reading Trust Exercise, I felt like my heart was bared open. I related to its characters’ emotional states in ways so deep it felt unfair.

Being embedded in performing arts from a young age made me intensely aware of what things like “passion” and “trust” and “feelings” are and do – the functions they are asked to perform and their ultimately unruly nature. I feel lucky and privileged to have emerged with a benign relationship to this sensitivity, but Trust Exercise exposes the danger and toxicity that easily seeps into it.

Choi takes this theatrical heaviness and overlays it onto the charged nature of high school culture. Adolescence is a quickening point in Shakespeare’s world-as-stage, and American high school makes it a particularly grating act.

ah, high school theatre.

America fixates so much on high school! The jock-nerd dichotomies, varsity aesthetics, Friday night football, cheer meets, hyper-important proms. It’s all canonized in films like The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls, or restaged in Heathers: The Musical and Mean Girls: The Musical. (There’s a lot of overlap.)

“‘The purpose of repetition,’ Mr. Kingsley once said, ‘is control of context.'” America insists on repeating these stories, and high school becomes the context in which social norms are reinforced and reproduced. It’s in high school where the distinctions between who’s in versus out, what’s normal versus not, become fitted to hierarchies of gender, class, and race. (These same hierarchies determine what stories are told and who gets to see them, especially in theatre.)

And everything is visible. In Trust Exercise, the word-obsessed character mentions how, at CAPA, “a moment of intimacy had no meaning unless it was part of a show.” One impression I sometimes take away from all these movies and shows set in high school is that they encourage you to BE YOURSELF! BE AUTHENTIC! But make sure people can see you, and can you tell me the story of how it happened?

At SOTA, I was so uptight about my social interactions, squaring who I should hang out with with who I wanted to hang out with. I was trying to understand my multiple crushes, my unspoken bisexuality. My artistic identity and my college prospects felt dire, and junior year JP just wanted to “to stay home, read Jane Eyre, and watch ‘Sherlock.'”

Choi writes about how “writing fiction is like dreaming; the recognizable and the unthinkable, the mundane and the monstrous, coalesce in the least predictable ways.” High school, after the fact, is dream-like – in the Lynchian sense, in the way dreams can be nonsensical, intense, and linger with you long after their ends. And like Lynch’s movies, dreams can harbor deep trauma. For David and Sarah’s cohort, the dream of high school was warped by sexual violence and emotional damage.

In auditions, classes, and theaters, our task is to repeat narratives and tell a story. Trust Exercise offers a necessary reminder of the danger in our profession.

Theatre is a place for lucid dreams, for rehearsing lives real and imagined. In auditions, classes, and theaters, our task is to repeat narratives and tell a story. Trust Exercise offers a necessary reminder of the danger in our profession. In storytelling, there is potential “to reveal a hidden truth – or to hide the truth under a plausible falsehood, scrambling history unrecognizable with the logic of dream.”

Onstage, and in life, I want to fight for truth, heart bared, eyes wide open. It hurts, but so does high school, and therapy. So does theatre.

This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

“In order to recall them you must seek my presence in your thoughts, tangled among them like sunlight in water. In order to report my words to your superiors you must admit yourself already infiltrated, another casualty of this most unfortunate day. This is how we’ll win.”

So begins the intoxicating correspondence that is This is How You Lose the Time War, a novella in letters between two agents in a time bending war. Red and Blue are women at the top of their game, fighting from separate shores on the river of time. Every time they outfox each other, they leave a message.

It’s a beautiful book. Elegant. So witty, it seems to wink at you in every sentence. (“Trees fall in the forest and make sounds,” starts one vignette set in a 13th century woodland.) So damn good, that what I read after Time War was made worse because it came after Time War.

a satisfied book worm

The collaborative writing weaves in motifs establishing the book’s contrasting factions – the Agency is all blades and circuitry; the Garden is vines, leaves, and thorns. As Red and Blue’s relationship progresses, the writing follows them into the depths. “I see a red sky bleed over blue water and think of us,” writes Blue, as binaries collapse and supposed opposites attract.

When I start to be obsessed with something, I get a dizzying feeling. My emotions board a helicopter that is slowly and inexorably spiraling down to earth, and there’s a particular model of this doomed heart-vehicle specific to the world-building of sci-fi and fantasy. Constructed worlds are easy to fall into, in the escapist sense and as reflections of the “real world.” Like a certain British sci-fi series or an enormous webcomic, I gave in to this book. I let it consume me.

I lost to This is How You Lose the Time War.

What’d I lose? Any semblance of tasteful admiration, I guess, but what does that matter?! My friend Noa and I found a special warmth in how Time War welcomes the unabashed, untamed joy peculiar to fandom. In a story of queer, uncompromising desire between two women, it fits.

Blue asks Red, “Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?” The gleeful hacking of sci-fi and romance that is This is How You Lose the Time War speaks to such a hunger. For me, it’s a hunger for recognition and acknowledgement, for living openly and with earnest love. As a quote from another newly minted sci-fi classic goes, “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” It’s that kind of hunger.


“I Know The End” – Phoebe Bridgers

At the five minute mark of “I Know the End,” Phoebe Bridgers launches into an unrestrained, full-throated scream. No holds barred; going so hard it feels like her voice is about to fall apart on itself. I sometimes wish I could scream like that, not worrying about pain or damage. It’s a scream of catharsis, of self-annihilation, of blissfully giving no fucks, because the apocalypse is here. 

I’ve listened “I Know The End” too many times this year. It’s the six-minute closer to Phoebe Bridgers’s masterful album Punisher, summing up each song before it in a microcosm of lyric and sonic texture. Punisher came out mid-summer, but its references to skeletons and ghosts better fit spooky season. (There is a song named Halloween on it!)

“I Know The End” breaks apart into two phrases reflecting its composition. The first two minutes are an evocative portrait of a traveller, a calm before the song turns towards stranger places in its second half.

Somewhere in Germany, but I can’t place it / Man, I hate this part of Texas / Close my eyes, fantasize / Three clicks and I’m home.

I grew up used to living between places. My existence as first generation Asian American provides reasonable cultural cause for this, but I had the literal experience of living in hotels for a little over a year. I relished being on the road, even when a lot of it seemed to roll the world into a continuous blur. 

It was easy to lose my place. My memory tried to absorb each tour stop fully, even though I would be gone from there within two weeks at most. Despite the futility of attaching sentiment to these places, I couldn’t help it. I would treasure my visits home, but it increasingly felt like one city of many. Home became equal parts my point of origin and my sensations approximating “home”: rest, stability, familiarity. Three clicks.

a photo with an already apocalyptic aura

A violin flickers, the guitars electrify, and a drum kit leads in like an engine sputtering to life. Phoebe starts “driving out into the sun,” speeding past images of America: “A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall, slot machines, fear of God.” Eventually she arrives at my favorite line, the one with a plot twist in it:

Either way, we’re not alone /  I’ll find a new place to be from.

My favorite critic, Emily VanDerWerff of Vox, wrote about this specific couplet:

“Bridgers doesn’t land on “[call] home.” The entire song has been about leaving home to find something new, leaving something on fire for something shrouded in darkness. Home isn’t something you find; it’s something you leave. Instead, she lands on “from,” a word that is so close to rhyming with “alone” without actually doing anything close to rhyming that it jars a little bit.”

I grew up in Half Moon Bay, but am based in New York City. In my maps app, I have an address marked “Home” and one marked “Home Home.” But where I’m from changes: I’m from the Bay, or California, or America. If for some reason the origins of my brown, Asiatic features is something you feel entitled to, where I’m really from is that my parents are from the Philippines.

I digress, but the point is that “from” is always up in the air. As VanDerWerff writes, “Life is lived in between, and until you get to the other side […] you have to find somewhere to be from.” Essentialist notions of where people are really from end up breaking down because origins change based on context. (You can make an explicit tie here to social constructs of race, gender, and other embodied identities; VanDerWerff herself ties her interpretation of this song to her experience as a trans woman.) 

What better theme for 2020 than reckoning with where we came from and how we got here?

“Windows down, scream along.”

What is so powerful to me about Phoebe’s line is her nonchalant acknowledgement of this. Things break down. Worlds end. There’s lightning bolts. The song has built into a polyphony of horns, guitars, massive drums, and legions of voices surrounding her like a hurricane. Frames of reference fail all around her like some broken physics problem, and she just rolls with it. Her last line is casual: “Yeah, I guess the end is here.”

She then ascends to her throne as a genuine scream queen, crowning “I Know the End” as a spooky banger for the ages. It will stick in my mind as a bookmark of this year’s apocalyptic nature. What better theme for 2020 than reckoning with where we came from and how we got here? When nothing is solid, and everything roiling, it’s okay to scream. To paraphrase Charlotte Brontë, screaming is a sure sign that yes, we will survive.

It all ends in a breathy hiss. The quiet scream of someone still here and still traveling, through the apocalypse and beyond.


“On I Go” – Fiona Apple

On I go not towards or away

Up until now it was day next day

Up until now in a rush to prove

But now

I only move to move.

A walking mantra. A redefinition of the terms of existence. A refusal to people-please, so much so you bend time itself towards your voice. Self-ownership, of your rhythm, of your words, of your screw-ups. To be in motion and stay in motion.


Happy haunting. 😉 

8/29/20: Adjusting to New York

Last summer, I started writing this ode to my work-in-progress experience of New York City. Finishing it now, back in this resilient, awesome city, I’m very much inspired by N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, which I read last month, and I’m reflecting on the incomplete ways I’ve lived, seen, and listened to New York, New York.

Adjusting to New York means learning the right place to stand on the subway platform, so you get off closer to where you’re going.

Adjusting to New York means memories accumulate around subway stations. Circles of experience spread out from each green-painted stop, like pebbles dropped into a New York City-shaped lake:

Adjusting to New York, Manhattan has become my well-worn jacket. Brooklyn, the outfit for memorable Nights Out. Queens and the Bronx, the clothes I love but need to wear out more.

Adjusting to New York means not acknowledging Staten Island. (I will step out of St. George Ferry Station, I promise, next time I take the ferry, yes, whenever that is)

Adjusting to New York is remembering the Marriott Marquis bathrooms, a pristine oasis. My ongoing relationship to that hotel, from the novelty of my time as a guest there fourteen years ago to my reluctant, nostalgia-tinged visits now, is recalibration to New York. Sometimes when I walk by Broadway and 42nd Street, I get a whiff of that Big Apple high that tourists chase.

Adjusting to New York means passing by buildings charged with significance, getting struck by that world-historical feeling of smallness while walking through Williamsburg, or West Village, or Strivers Row. Layers upon layers make up this city, where there is always construction within hearing distance and scaffolding on at least one building on every block.

Adjusting to New York is trying to match movie-Manhattan to your Manhattan and grasping an inkling of the thread between the two. The grasping happens most often when I cross Manhattan Bridge on the train, nighttime glinting off the skyscrapers. The inkling: a glamorous city, a collective thought-form living in the imagination of every person who’s listened to Frank Sinatra sing “New York, New York” or Alicia Keys belt over “Empire State of Mind.”

Adjusting to New York means shifting your gaze. I started out looking up, then looking ahead. And now I look out, ahead, and up again when I can.

Adjusting to the city means its blocks become textured and vibrant. They solidify, into brick, steel, and glass. They become squares, parks, and lunch spots; coffeeshops, bodegas, and markets; baristas, shop-owners, neighborhood characters, spontaneous sightings of friends, and fascinating conversations with strangers.

Adjusting to New York prompts an appreciation for bagels with schmear and lox, chimis, empanadas, folded pizza slices, pastrami sandwiches, and Gray’s Papaya. (Or Papaya Dog. I don’t discriminate.) Finding the right Halal truck for each neighborhood I frequent.

Adjusting to New York means favorite restaurants close. Adjusting is walking past their reanimation into fast-casual chain outposts.

Adjusting to New York becomes a deepening appreciation for the branches of the New York Public Library; it means having a favorite. And it means having favorite bookstores: Book Culture, The Strand, Mercer Street Books, Bluestockings, Housing Works in SoHo, Book Club in the East Village.

Adjusting to New York means developing a working knowledge and appreciation of New York’s Jewish-American culture, overhearing crunchy words like “shvitzing” and “mishpoche.” Adjusting to New York means a working knowledge and appreciation of New York’s Latino communities: Boricuan, Dominican, Colombian; hearable in the bass lines and rhythms permeating my apartment walls. Adjusting to New York means knowing New York as the rich epicenter for Black culture and history that it is, and realizing with disbelief that I am in the same place where Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Robinson, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, James Baldwin, Marsha P. Johnson, and countless legends broke ground.

Adjusting to New York means adjusting to numerous-ness, to barely contained multitudes. Out of one, many. 

Adjusting to New York means relishing moments. Bubble tea in Riverside Park, season-blind iced coffee in a snow-covered Washington Heights. The spring bloom on Wave Hill, on the plots by the Museum of Natural History. SummerStage, Shakespeare in the Park, Fall For Dance, every treasured Playbill. Steps, BDC, Gibney, ATDF. Sweaty Thursdays swing dancing on 31st, followed by 2am diner fare. Ducking into MoMA or Chelsea Cinepolis to escape the humidity. Autumn afternoons at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, “Autumn In New York” in my headphones. The Christmas lights on Columbia’s trees, the icicles hanging from Bryant Park’s fountain.

Adjusting to New York is accepting there’s always more of New York I haven’t walked. It’s accepting the messiness of its reality and recognizing my inclination to romanticize and simplify. It’s “I Heart N.Y.” but piecemeal, block by block.

New York City as its true self will never fit neatly into the contours of my mind: it will always push it to bigger bounds, excelsior. This city alters me; it locates me in its excess, spread out on its street grids. I will never finish adjusting to New York. Adjusting is the act of living here.

7/4/20: The Stars and Stripes For…

I don’t remember the first time I heard John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was probably at a Main Street parade, or maybe a football game. I might have even played it in middle school band (s/o to Ms. P.S.). The march saturates America and all of its pageantry: the Fourth of July, of course, but also parades, Friday night games, salutes, festivals.

But the first time I listened to “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was when I heard the electronic band Matmos’s rendition.

What the hell is happening here. It’s devilish. My ears were confused. “Strangely done,” says the lone bewildered commenter on this video.

The music critic Mark Richardson wrote that it skewers John Philip Sousa “with dinky sounds and unsteady rhythms,” and to me the song does sound like some steampunk contraption shambling down the street, ready to break down at any moment – while remaining completely mesmerizing. The addition of a ripcord drum solo over a far-off piano recording at the track’s very end clinches it for me.

But Sousa’s hundred-year old march can handle destruction. In fact, I think it makes it better, as if Matmos is puncturing holes in it to see what emerges from the outlines. What do you hear?


Sousa began composing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” en route to America, returning from a trip abroad after learning of his manager’s death. After landing in New York, Christmas Day 1896, he put it down on paper. On creating the march, he said:

I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever been changed.”

from Sousa’s autobiography, “Marching Along,” quoted in the New York Times

Sousa’s words echo some aspects of his march: its rhythmic interplays, the tensions and releases of harmony. And it really does keep “playing, playing, playing.” This march is an ear-worm masterpiece like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” is or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me.” Its strident meter demands a bodily response to move, clap, march, all together now. And by its end, the melodic strains all braid together into a rush of counterpoint and texture.


NINETY FOUR PICCOLOS

The name “Stars and Stripes Forever,” of course, refers to the American flag. By 1896, there were 45 stars, with the recent addition of Utah as a state, and we have the red and white stripes for the thirteen original colonies.

The title is also fabulously unspecific. When hearing this march, I think of other stars and stripes. The six rainbow stripes of the Pride flag, originally designed by Gilbert Baker, or the tripartite bi flag, or the pink and blue of the trans and gender non-conforming flag. The Star of David of Judaism, or the star and crescent of Islam. But also: the crossed stripes and stars on the Confederacy flag, that persistent symbol of Southern white supremacy, or the “thin blue line” flag variation for police.

When we sing and play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which ones are we singing for? Which stars? Which stripes? And for ever?

From left to right: the rainbow flag for the gay community; the pink, magenta, and blue for bi people; and the pink, white and blue for trans/gender non-conforming folks.

Performances of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” produce an immense amount of cultural energy, lending distinct American ~vibes~ to any event. I think this makes it ripe for agency: the chance to make its music into something more representative of us, not just the U.S.

John Daversa’s version of Sousa’s march won the 2019 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement. In this track, as with the entire album, Daversa and his band play with immigrant musicians who came to America under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. And if you’re listening to it right now, I bet you’d agree that it is not the same notes Sousa heard from his “brain-band” (which was probably pretty white).

The tempo of the march quickens – then expands like a billowing ribbon. Horns and winds sing out, their staccato notes righteous fists in the air. The first appearance of the final trio melody is languid and cool, and when it’s time for it to come around again, it instead cedes space to a fluid solo saxophone improvisation. The drums skitter, the trumpets flourish in and out: it’s the excess of Sousa, married to the swung magic of jazz (a Black American music), played by immigrant Americans. The precarity of DACA under the Trump administration underscores the weight a recording like this carries.

“Families belong together.” A photo from my hometown’s July 4th parade last year.

The late scholar Jose Esteban Muñoz, a queer Latino man, wrote about disidentification, a particular way marginalized people relate to art and culture that isn’t created with them in mind. Disidentification involves “recycling” and “scrambling” the meanings of things, to both expose their “universalizing and exclusionary machinations,” and also to “recruit its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities.”

I hear Daversa’s arrangement as a disidentificatory performance, and I see my own passion for this march as a disidentification. I hear Matmos, two gay men, play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and I hear the march’s American excess harnessed towards queer ends. I hear virtuosic solo renditions, like that by Chet Atkins linked above, and I am reminded of Whitman’s truism, “I contain multitudes.”

Every time I listen to “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” I hear a volume inside of it large enough for every person in America, under any star, and of every stripe. Its claim to “forever” should be voided – there are countless works by marginalized composers that must be supported and celebrated. Though as I can hear in the above performances, this march, with its century-long history and its blazing polyphonic energy, still holds disidentificatory, transformative potential. Let it be one of the many rhythms that accompany the antiracist, queer, ever-expanding work of singing, shouting, and playing, playing, playing America.

5/6/20: My Quarantine Snacks – British Books and Harry Potter Movies

glad I brought my Moka pot with me.

Am I hungry, or am I just bored?

This is my constant question nowadays. The first couple weeks in New York, it was a steady stream of PB&Js, bananas, and potato chips. Home in California, my cravings persist! Oranges, protein bars, copious leftovers. I’m actually eating TJ ghost pepper chips putting the finishing touches on this.

In these blogs, I see delicious theatre. I savor spicy musical moments. Books are four-course meals, or slight bites. When I consume arts and media, apparently I take that verb literally.

There’s no live shows to see, but I’ve kept reading, listening, and streaming, snacking as much with my heart and mind as with my stomach. Over the past weeks I’ve been picking at this blog as a sort of digest for everything I’m seeing. I’ve always been a slow eater.

Like many others, I’m snacking on familiar dishes, things I’ve seen and read before. While finishing Emma (read my review here!) I began re-reading two books: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass which is part of a larger trilogy called His Dark Materials. It’s a field day for British books, I guess.

The Golden Compass

1am reading spree

The Golden Compass’s lead, Lyra Belacqua, lives in a universe where everyone’s soul exists externally as a daemon, an animal form. Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, grow up parentless in Oxford, kept there by her distant uncle Lord Asriel. When children begin vanishing, hushed by the theocratic Magisterium, Lyra tries to get to the bottom of it. But the truths she finds are messy, and the foundations of her life are called into question. The book, and His Dark Materials generally, unspools into a wild theological epic.

I have a distinct memory of finishing the last book at my friend Max’s house. My brother Rex was tutoring him, and while I waited for them, I read and read. By the end, I had pretty much melted onto the hardwood floor of Max’s living room. Reading the first novel again, I’m snowballing into the same mountain of affection that overwhelmed me all those years ago, and which will for sure repeat itself.

It’s a remarkable tale. Lyra’s journey is fleshed out with gestures towards the shape of her arc and the texture of her world, and her encounters with increasingly alien strangers illustrate the jarring miracle of seeing yourself through another’s eyes. There’s a rush reading this book, like feeling the ground quake with energetic current. To paraphrase a line, there are all kinds of things going on beneath it.

an example: Lyra, a virtuoso of deception, lying her way out of danger.

To the Lighthouse

To The Lighthouse follows the Ramsays, a family vacationing on a Scottish isle with young artists like Lily Briscoe, a reserved painter, and Mr. Carmichael, an aloof poet. They eat dinner, they take walks. Later, some do sail to a nearby lighthouse. World War I happens. Some live, some die, and some return to the island, changed.

There’s little narrative or world-building flourishes to be found here, and where The Golden Compass feels cinematic, To The Lighthouse is symphonic. My pleasure in reading it came from the rich timbre of Woolf’s writing and the counterpoint melodies of her characters’ relationships.

beach read feels

I took my time reading it, following a Goodreads book club, and I was grateful for the tempered pace. Woolf’s extended metaphors, sudden perspectival shifts, and fragmented writing are… a lot. But it’s as if she’s set each word in a specific position to summon the ineffable. Change the formation, and the feeling won’t show.

The core of To The Lighthouse are its two female leads. Mrs. Ramsay is this novel’s matriarch, assembling life into a glowing domestic tableau. “Men, and women too, letting go of the multiplicity of things, had allowed themselves with her the relief of simplicity.” The pages brim with her satisfaction and her exhaustion. But her fountain of effort comes at a cost. In one chilling moment, Mrs. Ramsay, alone, contracts into a “wedge-shaped core of darkness.”

Lily Briscoe is unmarried in Mrs.Ramsay’s matrimony-infused world; she’s a painter despite criticisms that “women can’t paint.” Her artistic struggle strikes fierce and true:

Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all blasts of doubt.

To The Lighthouse

Through art, Lily attempts to fasten the changing world to her canvas without reducing it. Reacting to Mrs. Ramsay’s firm, totalizing control, Lily aims for something more like coherence.

Lily tries to join opposites throughout the whole book, something I found a strong resonance with. Writing this blog about books and movies while a pandemic rages around us takes willpower that I don’t always have. But art inspires and moves me, and I’d like to respond in turn: to react to the call of good art and say, “Hey, that’s me!”

“Isn’t it lovely,” one Sondheim lyric goes, “how artists can capture us?”

“you” and “i” and “she” pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint … not of that actual picture, perhaps, but what it attempted…

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

insta review

Lexi’s rereading Harry Potter and watching the movies after each one, so I joined her for a couple. For me, Prisoner of Azkaban is the most iconic film of the franchise, if only for Hermione’s world-shaking sucker punch. But it’s where we get “He was their FRIEND!” in the snow, and the ginormous “EXPECTO PATRONUM! We get the Time Turner sequence! We get Gary Oldman as Sirius (“TWELVE YEARS!”), David Thewlis as queer-coded badass professor Remus Lupin, Michael Gambon stepping in as Dumbledore. Cuaron has a wonderful vision for Harry’s third year.

Watching it, I kept thinking of the phrase “tempus fugit.Time dominates the story, from Sirius’s torturous sentence in Azkaban to Hermione’s double-stuffed classes. The movie’s threaded with poetic images of time. Seasons are marked with Whomping Willow timestamps; Harry’s figure is obscured by suspended pendulums and clockwork machines. In Prisoner of Azkaban, people record and rewrite time, reaching forward into a dark future only partially illuminated. The movie reflects that, however distorted it is from the book proper.

I could go on, but I love one final sequence. Harry and Sirius face a swarm of Dementors by a forest lake, but they’re saved at the last moment by a blindingly strong Patronus charm. When Harry reflects back on it with Hermione, he swears it was his father who conjured it.

On his second go around of that lake scene, a temporal re-write courtesy of the Time Turner, Harry insists his father will appear. “Any minute now.” But the Dementors are relentless. “You’re dying,” Hermione says, “both of you.” Harry, realizing, finally runs forward and casts the Patronus.

Harry supersedes his father, and this deathly scene flips into a vital milestone in Harry’s arc. Cuaron films it with a literal perspectival shift: before, Harry was helpless, tiny on screen watching the Dementors inflict their deadly kiss on Sirius, but now, he runs forward, filling our field of view and acting to save the both of them. That one quote by Herb Blau, calling live performance the act of dying in real time, came to mind. I got shivers seeing Harry go from seeing himself dying to taking action: not by buying more time, but fighting for it, remaking it.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

A couple weeks later, it was time for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or, Harry Potter and the Terrible Haircuts. Whereas Azkaban was dark and airy, this one’s moody and wet. All the rainstorms, all the tears; The Second Task in the Black Lake, the Pensieve with its liquified memories. There’s potions and seaweeds and baths–do all these fluids reflect the students’ raging hormones? Discuss.

Daniel Radcliffe does a wonderful job drawing Harry’s outbursts from a reasonable place, and Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory shows off some nuance that foreshadows his artsy post-Twilight films. (Anyone see the Lighthouse? That was wild.)

In this series, Harry is always singled out as the Chosen One (“Kill the spare,” Voldemort’s chilling command in the graveyard, cements that), but there’s also many trios, like the Deathly Hallows. Goblet‘s full of them: three magical schools, the Triwizard Tournament, three Tasks, in all of which Harry Potter is a weird outlier. 

Thinking outside of the narrative, I imagine the difficulty of plotting out a fourth episode in Harry Potter. Nature abhors a vacuum. Fantasy abhors fourths? After all, it’s trilogies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings that seem to stand out in pop culture.

Goblet pushes a lot of weight as the hinge between two ostensible trilogies. It’s a threshold, with the Wizarding World expanding, spreading before Harry’s eyes. It’s no longer just Hogwarts, it’s two other schools. It’s also the Ministry, and the Death Eaters, and the press. Goblet of Fire sets up the political systems that dominates Order of the Phoenix and on.

The director, Mike Newell, adapts this book with equal amounts of angst, comedy, and thrill. He’s not as virtuosic as Cuaron in my eyes, but it’s a difficult step in Harry’s journey to manage. Harry’s increasingly aware of his reputation, whether towards his bland crush Cho Chang or as the surprise Triwizard champion, and perhaps in conversation with this theme, Newell devotes screen-time to the various physical arenas of Harry’s world, from the World Cup to the Wizengamot. To continue my own metaphor, if Harry graduated to an actor in Azkaban, here he’s seeing the audience watching him as he wades into deadlier waters.

Other Cinematic Snacks

Lexi and I also watched Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s satire of Nazi Germany. Firstly, excellent work from the child actors. Roman Griffin Davis, as the titular Jojo, and Archie Yates as his friend Yorki, are perfect. Thomasin Mackenzie as Elsa, a Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s attic, is steely yet warm. And Taika Waititi, a brown, Jewish, Indigenous actor, plays Jojo’s imaginary best friend Adolf Hitler, a pure middle finger choice to IRL Adolf Hitler.

This film balances between comedy and wartime atrocity, and Waititi for the most part doesn’t shy away from either end. Watching it in quarantine, I took a lot away from it:

To “let everything happen,” as Rilke, a poet quoted at length in the film, writes. To destroy “the fascism in our heads and in our everyday behavior,” as philosopher Michel Foucault wrote decades ago. To dance: “Dancing is freedom,” says Jojo’s mother, and, as Emily Burack points out, dancing has been historically important to Jewish resilience and strength.

My family loves putting movies on to have them on. My mom, in an astonishing feat, watched three movies in a row one night. I tuned in for the first two, which were Marriage Story and The Willoughbys, two Netflix offerings that couldn’t have been further from each other in tone, content, and style, but I guess technically they were both about familial relations (?)

I can see why Marriage Story had so many accolades. There’s glints of tremendous acting, especially from Laura Dern as the #girlboss lawyer representing one half of the couple and I was impressed by Scarlett Johanson and especially Adam Driver as the main duo.

Noah Baumbach’s direction is rough-hewn realism, and the moments when his hand does show lance at the heart. A sliding driveway door dividing the divorcing couple; Charlie shouting “Fuck the space!” off-kilter in a claustrophobic office; close ups on strained faces during courtroom proceedings. Marriage Story is a show that must go on, through blood and tears.

The Willoughbys, an animated not-really-stop-motion movie based on a Lois Lowry novel, is about four children who are virtually orphans. They live with selfish, neglectful parents, and at one point the kids try to become real orphans, if that gives you a sense of the humor this film sits in. During the climax, the children face a deadly situation and I seriously felt that The Willoughbys hadn’t closed off the option of killing off the Willoughbys.

At its best, The Willoughbys simultaneously channels the likes of Willy Wonka and Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s a lovely hour and a half of fun adventure and inventive art design, with an ebullient Maya Rudolph as their wholesome nanny and Ricky Gervais as the movie’s deadpan cat narrator.

And to close off, some of the music I’ve been listening to:

  • Fiona Apple’s raucous, urgent Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Burn everything down; this is it.
  • M. Ward’s Migration Stories, a record of rivers and constellations and wide open spaces.
  • Random Access Mash by the old-time quartet Hard Drive. Stylish fiddle-driven music that quicken the pulse and kickstart your rhythmic muscles.
  • Hamilton Leithauser’s two albums, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, with Rostam, and his newest, The Loves of Your Life. Great retro rock vibes for my mornings.

Anyways, all these snacks give me a lot to chew on. The chewing gives me something to do, and reminds me of the books I will eventually discuss in person with y’all, and the plush movie theatre seats I’ll eventually be able to sink into, and the crowded, electrifying music concerts I’ll eventually attend.

The arts are as necessary to me as air to breathe, water to drink, and, of course, food to eat. So until eventually arrives, I’ll keep snacking.

and support local businesses, y’all. Sandwich from San Benito House.

3/27/20: Yearning for Live Performance

It’s been over a week since I last rode the subway.

There’s a special feeling to transit. As much as I love walking, riding in a subway train is a unique pleasure. There’s the speed– the world moving past you, fast. There’s the relinquishment of being a passenger.

I miss the way subway platforms could look quaint sometimes.

Adjusting to self-isolated life comes with countless tiny challenges: worry, boredom, lethargy, claustrophobia. I think of the people moving outside– grocery store employees, public utility workers, and of course, medical workers caring for the sick– who face the opposite problem, dodging illness and misfortune as they carry on. Inside, I’m anxious and static. Safe, but stuck uncomfortably indoors.

Time dilates. Without a set work schedule, my sister and I have naturally started waking up in the late morning, dozing off after midnight. Last month, I read an essay on the relationship between labor and time. I didn’t expect to experience its unravelling so soon.

My subway rides were elastic slots of time, phases of my day when the cone of my attention narrowed onto whatever I had on me. The A train, I realize now, was my prime location for listening to new albums (the loud ones), reading books and articles, catching up on podcasts, planning my schedule, taking cat-naps. I didn’t feel the pressure to multitask since I was already “doing” something: commuting.

At home, my attention wants to splatter haphazard. Nerve-wracking headlines easily suck me in. I’ve tried to ride with the changing tides of my attention, reading and watching and listening to many things to pass the hours at home (and I will write about those here soon, with all that distended time I mentioned).

But I miss dance classes. And I really miss live performances. I miss taking the train in the anticipation of being with other people, in a studio or at a theatre.

As a dancer, I’m grateful for the virtual classes popping up on Instagram. So far, I’ve done:

  • a ballet barre sequence,
  • a handful of Cunningham warm-ups,
  • four or five hours of yoga,
  • a Pilates mat class,
  • and I got to Shim Sham and line dance with some fellow self-isolated dancers!
Lexi has the immense blessing of roof access.

Scrolling my feed, I tune into live-streams or watch videos by performers I follow, many of whom are musicians. Last week, the Norwegian guitarist Sondre Lerche played a set while Lexi and I ate lunch. I listened to Chris Thile and Sara Watkins duet over Instagram.

Through the ingenious Stay At Home Festival, I watched a handful of acoustic musicians: Tatiana Hargreaves with Reed Stutz, Nic Gareiss, Jenna Moynihan. I wanted to catch a half-hour set by banjoist Jake Blount, but I missed it! (Lexi and I had School of Rock on and I didn’t check the time.) Moping the next day, I checked if maybe he posted any footage – he didn’t. 😦

my gushing insta story

A part of me relished in my disappointment. It’s been so long since I felt the sadness of missing out– to my surprise, I missed FOMO! This sore feeling underscored the fact that, even if these Instagram live-feeds weren’t live in the sense I was used to, in the sense I craved, the sense of other bodies in the room sharing a rarity together, they felt more alive than video clips…

The theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte roughly defines a performance as a transient event involving the “bodily co-presence of actors and spectators.” Feedback loops spring up between audience and actors, and in this “autopoietic process,” complete control disappears. Any meaning made and perceived is in flux. Anyone present is “neither fully autonomous nor fully determined.”

During these Instagram sets, people were still present… just alive somewhere else, throwing their voices and their images over the distance like photons from the sun. With my own bodily presence, I gave what I could– snaps, a whoop, foot taps, comments and likes.

The channel between my phone and their phones blew up with extra sensory significance for me. The clank of lunch plates, the give of my sister’s couch, a mantelpiece behind the fiddler, skidding feet on hardwood floors, the dusting of tree pollen in Durham, all flowed together.

On the surface, comments floated over the feed, as blooms of heart-eyed emojis and thumbs up came and went. Hiccups in the WiFi would change the rhythm. Pixelation waxed and waned, the image and sound quality never “fully determined.”

A robust, unpredictable feedback loop of the kind Fischer-Lichte writes of didn’t happen. They couldn’t see me like I did them, and Instagram can’t approximate the spark of physically being together. But I think a sensory charge of some kind arose. I thought of this quote by the writer Mark Grief:

We all have a power to find the meaningful aspect of a thing by going onto or into it; by spreading the surface of the world with experience, and pressing your imagination and emotions into any crack.

from Against Everything

If anything, I gave as much attention as I can to these livestreams, attempting a makeshift autopoiesis with these live ghosts on my phone.

one thing I miss: seeing A24 movies in theatres

Today being World Theatre Day, I grieve the many productions cancelled due to COVID-19 across the globe, and I stand with my fellow performers as we face an uncertain future. An art whose very substance involves bringing people together can’t function during this period of self-isolation.

But in the meantime, I’m trying to glean performance when I can, savoring the bits of dance and theatre and song I find at home and online. Until I can experience a moment at the theatre, until I can sweat at Steps again, I will gladly tune into Instagram live-streams, play on my ukulele, and dance with Lexi in my living room.

Fischer-Lichte wrote that in performance, spectators can “feel like wanderers between two worlds,” caught between the action and the meanings it creates. In self-isolation, I’m finding myself stuck within four walls while reading, streaming, listening, and yes, writing my way out.

But I know eventually I’ll see you on the other side of this. We’ll feel the FOMO for New York’s nightly bounty of musicals, concerts, ballets, plays. We’ll sit on the A train as we ride downtown to see a show together.

Broadway’s a sure thing.

3/15/20: Late February – Two Concerts, Two Films

I originally meant to publish this after Leap Day. On February 29th, which was a blustery, average day, I kept thinking of the little quarter days we “missed” over the past four years, sequestered by the calendar until 2020. I finish it two weeks later, deep in the COVID-19 crisis which has sequestered most of us at home for longer durations than usual.

To my friends in the performing arts, and the workers-from-home, and those self-quarantining– hang in there! Between a few necessary outings into Manhattan, I’ve been reading, and sort-of writing. (Unlike Hamilton, the action on the streets is not exciting.)

Before all the theaters and music venues shut down, I had several fun evenings in late February. I write about four below. To start though: a review of my February book.

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, finished February 16th

“Everything in it was turning into everything else.” This magnificent essay collection works a series of miracles. Any subject that John Jeremiah Sullivan covers, he makes lustrous, indispensable: whether it’s Axl Rose, American healthcare, The Real World, or Indigenous cave art– and these are only a handful from Pulphead’s broad offerings. It’s actually frustrating how good it is. Sullivan’s writing enthralls, folding anecdote, fact, image, and citation over and over each other like delicate literary pastry layers. Thick description, but make the description itself an artful portrait. I craved these essays while reading them, like croissants, or a favorite song, or a place.

Portrait of a Lady On Fire, February 18th

There’s a couple films that have infected how I see the world afterwards: Parasite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ austere The Favourite, Madeline’s Madeline by Josephine Decker, Wes Anderson’s supersymmetric tableaus.

Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of A Girl On Fire is the most recent entry in this list. I walked out of it reoriented. It gets under your skin to vein and bone, to muscled senses disused in modernity. You’re wrought to “the directness of sense, like the solidity of object.”

The film follows an artist, Marianne, visiting an island in order to paint Heloise, the eponymous lady, for a faceless Milanese suitor. Heloise wants nothing of the marriage and refuses to sit for portraits, so Marianne acts as a “walking companion,” painting in secret. A third woman lives with them, the young maid Sophie, and for most of the movie, we see only these three. Marianne falls for her enthralling subject, and what ensues is a tale of forbidden love: Marianne and Heloise.

This picture functions on several levels, including and beyond the narrative one. Portrait reiterates the power of images, of gleaning meaning through what you see. You can watch it as a meditation on how we present ourselves, inwardly and to each other: our secret faces, our changing faces. “What image do you want of me?,” asks Marianne at one point, knowing that the picture will eventually precede her own presence in Heloise’s memory.

Sciamma leaves space for these concepts but also snips them up, folding them into something more complex than I can express. (She touches on some of these ideas in this brilliant interview.) To paraphrase Jamila Woods, Portrait of a Lady on Fire asks you to throw away that picture in your head. Just see it.

At the beach.

There are so many shots that allow you to revel in the moving image. Heads popping out from beachfront grasses. Heloise, through a bonfire, a warped aura of flames. Sophie, Marianne, and Heloise at the kitchen table, at work. Marianne’s hand, hesitantly held before a blank canvas. Portrait is a masterclass in seeing with the whole of yourself, training your eye towards new, wondrous ends.

Shoutout to the exquisite costumes by Dorothee Guiraud. Bristling Heloïse wears a cloak on her walks, a dark thing beset by a pattern of knifelike blue roses, mirroring the slow bloom of cool romance. Marianne is practically dressed (with historically accurate pockets!) clothed in warm wool, the color of glowing embers. Winsome Sophie wears a bodice she likely embroidered herself, with flora creeping up her torso.

A still. Heloise cooking, Marianne drinking, and Sophie embroidering.

The film begins with Marianne teaching young painters, directing the girls to “start with the outline,” and in my attempt to respond to this movie, I’ve done only that. The full Portrait is moving. It captures something of artistry, of femininity, of queerness that is so assured, and so right. An aside: I expected a “queer awakening” arc, but I got the sense that both women knew they loved women beforehand and were certain of their lesbian orientations, which is refreshing.

“Your presence is made of fleeting moments which may lack truth.” Marianne says this midway through. Whether the statement is true or not, the movie encourages you to explore this notion in earnest, asking you to consider its presence and its uncertain truth. Heloise replies that the moment may be fleeting, but it can be laced with “deep feeling” nonetheless.

Go see this movie! And fall into its depths as it flies fast across your eyes.

Live From Here, February 22nd

I started following Live From Here in its previous incarnation as A Prairie Home Companion: a radio show featuring music, comedy, and the quirky, affecting storytelling of the “News From Lake Wobegon.” Mandolinist Chris Thile revamped the show in 2016, tuning it towards more musical ends, and has hosted weekly sessions ever since, airing live on the radio.

This performance had a general theme of “mirrors.” It was Thile’s birthday earlier in the week, and he shared the sobering experience of watching his reflection age. He and his screaming good house band performed a Bach mirror fugue, in two parts– first straight, then reflected.

New Yorker writer Rachel Syme spoke about a memorable broken SoHo mirror and a New York fashionista in whom she sees a future reflection of herself. In the first excerpt she asked, “What’s your favorite mirror in the city?” For me: a certain bathroom in Columbia’s music building. My showmate Madison likes the windows outside her dental school.

Comedian Josh Gondelman mused on quirks he’s acquired from his wife of five years. He vicariously has opinions on things he has know experience with (“Fiona Apple? Even if I haven’t listened to anything by her? Genius.”), and he unwittingly made some new archenemies. Once, he met some friendly folks at a party, only to discover they’re on her blacklist– they once applauded her for her “brave” haircut.

The musician features were the clear standouts of the evening for me, with Nathaniel Rateliff and Haley Heynderickx both performing. Rateliff sang three songs from his new album, backed by an unassuming string ensemble. “All Or Nothing” especially struck, its swung, stepwise chord changes lapping at my ears like cool waves on a mountain lake.

Haley Heynderickx sang from her record, I Need to Start a Garden. Her smooth guitar picking and vivid lyrics painted bug-filled rooms and femme divinities. “Oom Sha La,” slow-mo existential crisis at the sock-hop, jammed. Shoutout to her brass ensemble, the Westerlies, for their surprising accompaniments. Also, Heynderickx’s small exclamation of “woot! rock and roll!” whenever she took the stage after the house band’s jams was everything.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Aoife O’Donovan also shared main mic duties with Thile, accompanying the band on guitar and singing harmonies. She premiered a song from her upcoming EP and sang a touching rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Foolin’ Myself.”

Watching Live From Here, you get little reminders that it’s primarily made for the ears. “Intermission” was a band jam where audience members were free to leave their seats. Gondelman tailored some of his jokes to the radio audience (“For those of you listening, physique doesn’t quite describe my appearance, which is more like a phyzoosh.”) My showmate Madison felt the slight sense of discomfort of hearing certain words spoken that you’d rather read on paper; the misfortune of hearing “bauble” said aloud, for example.

In all, Live From Here digs deep into the promise held in its title– life alive, here and now. And after the radio session finished, we were treated to an exclusive encore performance of Sufjan Stevens’s epic “Impossible Soul.” (I died.) It was a magical joy to be present in the room with these mega-talents. Life sounds great, especially when it’s Live From Here.

Madison and I in front of New York’s Town Hall!

Birds of Prey, February 23rd

I am not a diehard fan of superhero films, but man are they funnn. Birds of Prey stood out to me and Madison as a comic book movie directed by, written by, and starring a mostly female team. (Chinese-American director Cathy Yan helmed the film and Christina Hodson wrote.) Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are the other two standouts of the superhero film canon in this regard, with Black Widow coming up later this year too. Huzzah for women in the creative chair!

Birds of Prey is wildly fun; a joyride with creative fight choreography, firework production design, and jammy (if obvious) soundtrack picks. The film can drag a bit with its semi-convoluted storytelling: the plot’s knotty, with Harley getting involved with a stolen diamond and various mercenaries after her head. But once it gets rolling, it absolutely rocks.

Margot Robbie plays the titular anti-heroine with unabashed fun, digging into the character— a PhD in psychology who falls for her criminal, abusive patient— and swirling out of it a star. Manic, not-quite pixie, surreal dreamer into girls and boys. Plus she orders her Chinese extra spicy. 

It’s refreshing seeing these details fleshed out, however trivial, because while I didn’t see Suicide Squad, I heard that that Harley was basically made for the basest male consumption. She was effectively a dead-end. With Birds of Prey, which Robbie executive produced, Harley, as a character, has a cinematic future ahead of her– she’s emancipated.

Ewan McGregor has an amusing turn as Romy Sionis, the film’s kingpin villain. He plays Romy as extravagant and prissy, and there’s a maybe-gay-thing with his underling, Szasz. The character is incessantly cruel and sexist, and his scenes nod to the casual misogyny that can pervade masculinity, straight or otherwise, in its worst tendencies. In these moments, Yan centers Birds of Prey’s women, focusing on their resilience and power, both collectively and individually.

The Birds of the movie’s title queer the typical superhero super-group, and I WISH we had more from them! Rosie Perez plays a middle-aged detective who inevitably gets more sh*t done without her self-congratulating coworkers at the police office. Jurnee Smollett-Bell portrays the sonically dangerous Black Canary as a rough, competent vigilante. My fave was Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, awkward and badass, grappling with childhood trauma and looking out for Cassandra, the street kid who gets caught up in the whole mess when she’s just trying to get by. The film takes its time getting all these women on the same side, but the climactic fight scene that results is an absolute banger.

Image result for birds of prey
Birds of Prey‘s take on Birth of Venus

Birds of Prey hasn’t had the best commercial success, but I wholeheartedly recommend it. Savor its delicious fight scenes, its capital-S Style. I lost it laughing hard at Harley shoving some guy’s face repeatedly into a steering wheel. Despite the brief moral crisis, it was good to indulge my evil laugh watching this movie, cheering these women on.

Sean Watkins & The Bee Eaters, February 28th

I first went to a Jenkins House Concert last year, to see the DuoDuo quartet. On the last Friday of February, I finally returned! This time, I saw Sean Watkins & The Bee Eaters. Watkins is a ridiculously talented guitarist, widely known through his time with the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and he recorded last year with the equally talented Bee Eaters.

Jenkins House Concerts are a whole new level of intimate. True to name, they’re concerts held in a literal house. You sit and listen to the performers in the living room of the friendly and musical Jenkins family. You get the heartwarming, slightly intimidating sense of walking into a neighborhood potluck (which is also what precedes the show).

To my musician peers, my description here probably sounds like me making a mountain of a molehill. But growing up, live music tended to come through loudspeakers, in public spaces. The first music performance my memory deems a “concert” was at Outside Lands. So, to enter an Upper West Side brownstone filled with gregarious music lovers– all whiter and much older than me, to be completely transparent– for the sole purpose of listening to acoustic music with minimal amplification, was, and continues to be, a novel experience.

The music itself was magnificent. Sean Watkins is a quiet dude whose songs speak magnitudes. His accomplished flatpicking transports your ears to new places. The Bee Eaters, a trio hailing from NorCal, feature a cellist (Tristan Clarridge), a fiddler (Tashina Clarridge), and a player of the hammer dulcimer (Simon Chrisman).

From left to right: Tristan on cello, Sean on guitar, Tashina on fiddle, and Simon at the hammer dulcimer.

Their set encompassed a lot in two hours: there were originals, some covers, an Irish reel (Lord Gordon’s), bluegrass and old-time standards. One song sounded like a whirlwind of flowers; another one felt like “the sound of turning/taming all night” (my notes smudged here). A sustained run of sprightly triplets became a line of eyes and hooks through one piece, fastening it tight. They ended their set– not really, since they instantly and inevitably did an encore– with a song buoyed by a “lofty trampoline swing.”

Big Five,” named for its 5/4 signature, really hit. After setting the downbeat in catacomb-echo tones, they shunted into offbeats, playing in the syncopated shadows. The composition changed shape as I listened; it felt like listening to the bones of the earth shifting below me.

They also performed a couple songs from Sean Watkins’s wheelhouse. My heart leapt recognizing the opening runs of “21st of May,” a Nickel Creek song that Watkins wrote from the perspective of a Rapture preacher. He also sang a slow ballad backed by his wife, and a couple tunes from his previous solo album.

Madison– my frequent performance companion, the legend– remarked that it’s refreshing to be able to talk with the musicians after a concert like “they’re just regular people.” And conversation is a nice frame for the whole evening. Listening to their set, especially the improvisatory breaks, felt like overhearing especially intriguing conversations. 

At times, all four improvised simultaneously, a clear soloist featuring while the other three held the pattern or responded, navigating the myriad musical choices of the tune and finding the ones that make sense. During one song, Tristan and Tashina both played the same musical riff simultaneously, prompting an amused chuckle from Tashina. (Was not at all surprised to learn they were siblings; I’ve noticed a similar mental sync between Lexi and me when we choreograph.)

Shout out to the openers for Sean and the Bee Eaters as well! Elise Leavy, an accordionist who played guitar that night, opened the latter part of their set. Leavy has a captivating voice, and shared a connection with the Bee Eaters, who hosted music camps in California she attended as a kid. Stephanie Jenkins opened the night with a lovely rendition of “Silver Dagger,” the old-time standard that’s been covered by Joan Baez and Fleet Foxes.

These musicians have lived and breathed music their entire lives, and work on a level where they can reach for the song in their heads, nab it, and share a semblance of it with us. (Same goes for the Live From Here folks.) It’s fortunate to have my ears in the same room.

The night ended with dessert, some birthday wishes for the Jenkins’ newly-turned septuagenarian neighbor, David, and many a conversation.

Stay well everyone.

Current Reads: Emma by Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Current Listen: Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson. Also, the slow country burn of Mike and the Moonpies’ “You Look Good in Neon