Tag Archives: college

“I Change Shapes Just to Hide in This Place. But I’m Still, I’m Still — an Animal.”

I would have much rather gone out for a walk.  But stubbornly, yesterday, I began to run.

I ran mostly out of habit, and because I was running out of time.  But even as I changed my stride, from one block to the next, I still thought:

“I think I’d much rather be walking, right now.”

It had always been my thing:  to run.  In junior high, I’d run long distances.  I never thought of myself as being good at it.  It was just something that came easy.  And it happened way before I knew about meditation or understood transcendence of the mind.  To me, it simply granted the easiest excuse to be alone and not talking.  Just breathing and placing down my feet.  My breath would change throughout the course, and so would the stride.

Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground:  The soggy fields of Russia, and the uneven asphalt of Eastern Germany.  I’d study the way the surface would respond to the impact of my feet.  We had no knowledge of American footwear back then, so the cloth running shoes with thin rubber soles were the only type we knew.  And even as the surfaces would change — as I would change my continents — the thin-soled shoes remained my favorite choice:  In the gravelly passages of Central Park, and the dusty hills of Southern California.  

Other times, I would look ahead.  It was best to do so on an open track.  I wouldn’t strain my eyes for a strip of color marking the end of the course.  Instead, I would let my vision get blurry, and I would study the blending of objects in the endlessness of what’s ahead.  Things didn’t matter.  People would be accidental.  So, I would find the empty spaces of air ahead, and look at those.  That’s why running in the fall of Russia’s coastal cities had always been the easiest.  The fog already blurred my vision, and all I would feel was — the change in breath and stride.

I don’t remember being tired, as a kid; and not until the first menstrual cycles of my classmates, did I begin to overhear excuses for not running.  My thin, balletic body was one of the last to be introduced to its new function that made my female contemporaries embarrassed and secretive among each other.  But even when it happened to me, I kept up with my running.  On bleeding days, I would wear longer sweaters and tighter underwear; but the slow, moaning ache in my lower stomach would not matter.  It would change my stride a little:  I would prefer to run lighter then, as if doing a chasse step across a dance floor.  I’d land on my toes, as I would when leaping over strewn blankets on a lake’s bank in my grandma’s village in the Far East, while I myself dashed for the water:  to join other sunbathing kids and to avoid my motha’s strict instructions to put on sunblock.  (But secretly, I hoped that my silly chasse step would make her laugh and shake her head, with bangs getting into her glistening eyes.)

The days of tiredness that would seduce me out of running would happen much, much later.  They would happen in the late mornings of waking after a graveyard shift at a Westchester diner.  A pair of ugly nursing shoes with sole support and splatters of dried foods would be the only visual reminder of the night before.  And the heavy lead-like weight of my calves would talk me out of running.

“Who’s up for a walk?” I’d holler down the hallway with three other doors.

And if the bathroom at the end of it was free, I’d forget about the lead-filled feeling in my calves and make a run for it, while pounding my heels into the carpeted floor.

Much later in my running history, I would begin to study people.  It had to happen in California where exercise is fashion; and depending on one’s routine, we all belong to little clans.  When running with others, it would propel me, out of competition, anger or inspiration.  Sometimes, I’d follow their footsteps like a shadow of compassion:  The sweaty faces of lonesome hikers in the Hollywood Hills, or the bright eyes of those rad people of San Francisco who’d made a life out of NOT giving up.

When running stubbornly, yesterday, I thought of the history of my strides; and then, began trying them on.  At first, I ran tiredly, as if I was back to working my way through college, in Westchester, New York.  Then, I began to push, hitting the ground with my heel (so unhealthy!) — out of anger and never wanting to give up.  The chasse step would eventually take over, and the lightness of it spread up my body, up to my lungs and face.

That’s when I saw him:  A headless man walking slowly ahead.  At first, I thought he may have dropped something to the ground and was now retracing his steps.  But as he continued slowly placing his feet onto the smooth pavement of the quiet neighborhood, I realized he was a victim of arthritis, age, and most likely incredible loss.  He was hunched over so low, I could not see his head, as I ran up on him, from behind.  I slowed down and began following his footsteps.

A pair of khaki shorts revealed his thin, brown legs, covered with sores and age spots.  His shoes were worn out and the thick white socks were pulled halfway up his calves.  I studied his stride:  He dragged each foot ahead, then struggled to gain balance.  Then, repeat.  Stubbornly.

He would much rather have been walking, yesterday, alone and not talking.  I shook off the idea of offering help (this was the time when charity would have been offensive); passed him quietly, and began to run.

Stubbornly.

“We All Live in A Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine.”

Yes, it’s a hard way of being:  Living as an artist.  But then, again, I wouldn’t want to be living — in any other way.

And I’ve tried.  In all honesty, I’ve tried to be many things:  Anything else but an artist.  An administrator, a teaching assistant, and a secretary.  A proofreader, an academic, a critic.  A manager.  An accountant.  A librarian.

“Oh, you!” my college comrades used to say.  “You and your jobs!  You’re always changing jobs.”

They had known me for years, and for years — they had seen me working.  They had watched me giving a very fair try to living for the sake of a different profession.  A “normal” profession.   A job.  And they had witnessed me change my mind.

Back then, I wasn’t really sure which profession it would turn out to be, so I would try everything.  And instead of entertaining things, I would satisfy my curiosity by leaping into every opportunity.  Because I always felt I could be so many things; but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be anything else — but an artist.

Being an artist resembled an exotic disease — a dis-ease of the soul — and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of its victim.

“So, what’s your major this morning?” my folks teased me during our phone calls.  I was prone to changing my mind, and the flexibility of my American education confused the hell out of them.

“Still English, I think,” I’d say.  “But with a slight concentration — in journalism.”

“Well, at least, you’re getting an education,” my best friend comforted me.  She always comforted me.  And it seemed to bother her the least — my proneness to change my mind, because I felt I could be so many things.

Come to think of it:  It should have been easier, in my youth.  During our college years, that’s exactly what we were meant to do:  To seek.  To learn.  To experiment.  To be — so many things!

But somehow, my contemporaries seemed to be more certain about their paths.  They would be teachers or administrators.  The more city-savvy types were going into investment banking in New York.  And I’ve even known one biologist and a chick who went to work for Fox News.  But mostly, they would be teachers.

“How can they be so sure?”  I wondered.

Because I wasn’t sure.  I could foresee the pleasure in having a day job with which I could identify myself for a couple of years; but the romance of its routine would expire as soon as some bureaucrat’s ego would begin dictating procedures to me, on a daily basis.  Some of them didn’t like my language, or my dress code.  They handed me time sheets and forms, along with the lists of appropriate jewelry.  Some wanted me to tame my hair.  Others preferred I didn’t call my colleagues “Loves”.

So, I would leave.  I would always leave, but with enough notice and plenty of disappointment noticeable on my employers’ faces:

“It’s just that you had so much potential!” they would say.

“Then, why did you break my balls about my headscarves?” I would think in response.  Still, I would leave with grace (even if I was leaving over burning bridges).

After college, I would be the only one in my class to leave for an art school.

“But you should teach!” my academic mentors insisted.  “Most of your contemporaries teach!”

Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone but me.  I still felt I could be so many things, but I really wanted to be — just one!

Some seemed to be quite disappointed in my decision to stick to the arts.

“What are you gonna do — with an art degree?  You could be so many things, instead!”

And I wasn’t sure.  I still wasn’t sure.

“And how can everybody else — be so sure?!” I wondered.

After the first semester in my MFA program, the uncertainty about my profession would remain.  However, the overall vision of my life was becoming clearer:  I would be an artist.  I WAS an artist.  And it was starting to be enough — to be that one thing.

And so, there I was:  Willing to risk my life’s stability — the stability about which my contemporaries seemed to be so sure — for the sake of seeking daily inspiration.  I would take on projects that would fuel my gratitude and curiosity.  I would begin spending my nights in companies of others who shared my exotic disease — the dis-ease of the soul; and I would attend their shows and poetry readings, and loom in front of their paintings in tiny New York galleries.  And none of us were still certain about our destinations; and yes, we were still filled with angst.  But we did share the same vision:  Our moments of happiness were simultaneous to the moments of creation — the moments of dis-ease.

Throughout the years, some of my contemporaries have disappeared into their professions:  They turned out to be successful administrators and great teachers.  Wonderful teachers, as a matter of fact!  I would watch them moving with seeming certainty through their honorable daily routines.

“Still:  How can you be so sure?” I would interview a few of them, years later.

I had succumbed to my disease fully by then, and I would learn to maneuver the demands of my survival jobs.  I had surrendered.

“Are you kidding?!  We aren’t sure at all!” some would answer, honestly.

And for the first time, in their tired and good, decent and honorable faces, I would notice a slight glimmer of doubt.

“Oh!” I would wonder.  “So, no one really knows, for sure!”

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

But I would find great ease in knowing that I myself had fully surrendered to my disease:  The dis-ease of my soul — of an artist.

“But You’re Innocent When You Dream… When You Dream…”

It’s a frantic start.  I leap out of bed:

“Bloody hell!  I’m late!”

I’ve gotten into this terrible habit, in the middle of my sleep:  When the alarm clock goes off, I yank its cord out of the wall.  As a matter of fact, I don’t even know if that thing has a snooze button:  I’ve never had to use it.  And I wish I could give up the habit, but I do it when barely awake.  So, it’s kinda like sleep walking.  Sleep yanking.

The thing is:  I LOVE to sleep.  I can hibernate for hours.  I sleep to cope with stress, loss, life.  I sleep on the road.  I’ve got no problem sleeping in cars, planes, tents; in new beds, in new towns.  The bigger the change — the longer I take to wake up.  Sometimes, I think I sleep to return to my innocence; or to somewhat restore it, at least.

And once I’m out, there is no noise that can wake me.

Motha always jokes:

“Ze Russian tanks rrollin’g thrrough town von’t vake you.”

(This — is Russian humor.  Welcome!)

But on the other hand, I never seem to have enough time in the day to get shit done; so I rarely want to get to bed, at night.

First, there are my survival gigs:  The hustle.

Then, there are auditions and my projects of choice:  The very reason I’ve landed in LA-LA.

The rest of my time is gobbled up by writing.  Every week, the art claims about forty hours.  I’ve counted them the other day because I began to wonder why I was always so tired:  constantly wanting to sleep, but never wanting to get to bed; sleeping past the alarm, then running late for the rest of the day.

I clock-in for it every day, first thing in the morning.  And it must be the only reason I get to bed at all:  to recharge the brain and to start from scratch, all over again.  To return to my innocence — or to somewhat restore it.  To remember it, at least.

The rest of my comrades — are sleepless as well.  First of all, most of the time they’re hungover on jet lag, not remembering in which timezone they’ve landed a few days ago.  They are artists, bohemians, gypsies:  They sleep in my car on the way to or from LAX.  My comrades play by their own rules, live by their own clocks, in timezones of their invention.  They wear their watches like eccentric wristbands.  They use their phones and the bedtime of their beloveds to tell time.  And there have been many nights we’ve used to reconvene, while the rest of the world has long gone to sleep.

Because our love must be how we return to our innocence — or how we restore it, somewhat, at least.

“Bloody hell!  I went to bed at five this morning!” my brother from New York is always likely to tell me.  His voice is raspy when he wakes, but child-like.  Give him a cup of coffee and eggs with chocolate (a recipe of his own invention) — and he is ready to play again.

Innocent.

He should be here, in a few days; and for a week, my sleeping schedule will get jolted into a strange line-up of sleepless nights, midnight talks, crashing on couches, mid-day showers, and running late.  But there will also be tearful laughter, endless talks of art and love; and a closeness so intimate, it will rejuvenate my hopes for the human kind.  And even if it won’t return me to my innocence — it will somewhat restore it, at least.

Back in my college days, a decade ago, I used to be able to pull off weeks of not sleeping.  The weight of the world used to be on my shoulders — or at least, the world’s most poignant questions.  But then, none of us slept those days, especially before finals or the deadline to send our college newspaper to the printing house.  We were young artists, bohemians, writers, dreamers — lovers of the world.  We already suspected we couldn’t return the world to its innocence; but, perhaps, we could restore it, somewhat:  with our art, our hopes, the poetry of our youth.

With New York City as our playground in the backyard of our college, there never seemed enough reasons to get to bed.  But once we did — often at five, six in the morning — there was no noise that could wake us.  We slept calmly, as the innocent do; but only for a couple of hours, before class (and before starting the work from scratch).  Because there was nothing to restore yet.  Our hearts were full.  And we still knew — how to love.

But today, it’s a frantic start.  I leap out of bed:

“Bloody hell!  I’m late!”

These days, I’m always seemingly late.  There is never enough time — to return the world to its innocence, to solve its most poignant questions — and there is less and less of it, as I get older.

The somberness of the day set-in as soon as I checked-in with the world before sitting down to work:  A decade ago, we have all lost our innocence — in New York City; and for the rest of the world, restoring it got a lot harder.

But we continue to clock-in, every day:  my comrades, artists; bohemians, poets; lovers, beloveds.  

Because even if we cannot restore the world’s innocence, we can at least preserve our own.  That is the meaning of an artist’s life; his or her most poignant responsibility.  

“She Never Stumbles — She’s Got No Place To Fall. She’s Nobody’s Child. The Law Can’t Touch Her At All.”

It is truly fucking amazing, but for the very first time in my life, being single does not seem like a social ineptness — a disease of which I am a carrier.

So, as I stand in front of an overwhelmed ticket cashier at my fancy local movie theater, I no longer feel awkwardly apologetic when I say:

“One — for Crazy, Stupid, Love, please.”

The chubby, stressed-out girl in an ill-fitted penguin-like uniform looks up at me.  It’s the weekend, but I had just come from a day of hard work.  My hair is pulled back.  I’m exhausted, not in a self-pitying way of someone burdened by survival; but in a relaxed, proud manner of someone making her own way in the world.

“Was that:  One?” she repeats.

I thought I spoke clearly.  I usually do, with strangers, subjecting only my beloveds to my habit of speaking in code.

“Yes,” I say, and I smile as kindly as my tired, non-pretty face allows.

The girl purses her lips and flips her computer screen toward me:

“Where would you like to sit?” she says.

I don’t really know how it happens in the lives of other young girls, but in my own adolescence, I’ve never been taught how to get myself successfully paired up.  There is nothing my father wanted more, of course, than for me to get married and settle down, always in close proximity to his house.  He somehow hoped I would figure it out on my own and — magically! — end up with a decent guy (which by Russian definition meant someone who could hold his liquor and was good at fishing).  I would end up with someone my father could trust enough to pass me into his care.

At the same time though, he never talked to me about dating.  It made him uncomfortable — this idea of my inching my way toward the problems of adulthood, day after day.  And the sequence of my father’s glottal sounds while he sat on the edge of my bed one night and tried to talk to me about sex would make Bill Murray want to take notes:  It was so uncomfortably funny.

“Um, P?” I had to interrupt him, because I wanted to remember my father as a hero, NOT as a man incapable of uttering the word “sex” while blushing like a teenager.  “It’s past midnight and I’ve got an English final in the morning.”

I was in tenth grade.

Not kidding.  Dad — or “P”, as I called him, lovingly, in my habit of speaking in code — had always been delusional about my sexual development.  I wasn’t even sure he knew I had gotten my period four years prior.  Most of the time, we just talked about my studies.  Because all my life, I had been an exemplary student, earning my way into the best private school in our city; and my education — was the biggest of my own concerns anyway.

“You just gotta be careful…” he mumbled that night, and once he got up, he would fumble with the seam of his thermal shirt and blink rapidly to avoid my stare.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

“I am, P.  Good night,” and I smiled at him as kindly as my tired face would allow.

And that was it.  That was the only time P chose to suffer through that topic.  Not even after my parents’ divorce would either of them invest any time in explaining the complexity of human relationships to me:  the work that it took to be successfully paired up, and the amount of self-awareness; the amount of commitment.

Whatever I learned about dating I would learn from my contemporaries.  Boys would be the main topic in the cafeteria of my college, to which I had arrived on a full scholarship.  Again, in my 20s, education would remain the biggest of my concerns.  By the end of our studies, many of my classmates would be engaged, or married; or moving back home where they were awaited by their families and boyfriends.  I, however, was en route to graduate school, hustling my way to earn more scholarships.

In our rendezvous to the City, we would occasionally meet up — my college contemporaries and I — and they would purse their lips at my awkwardly apologetic answer:

“Yes.  I’m still (insert a shrug) — single.”

In my dating life, I would feel clumsy and uncertain.  By the example of my contemporaries, before each date, I would dress myself up into what seemed to be a better, prettier version of me:  And during the date itself, I would often gain a headache.  Because by the end of it, I couldn’t keep track of all the omissions and alterations I would manufacture.  And when I wouldn’t hear from my dates for weeks, I would throw myself back into my studies.

Something would change of course, with time.  Somewhere during the pursuit of my dreams, I would begin to sit in my skin a bit more comfortably.  There would be a slew of reckless relationships and even a failed marriage; but I would begin to learn about dating, by trial and error.  And the one thing that eventually became obvious was this:

I was NOT like most of my contemporaries.  I was someone paving her own way in the world since a very young age, via her education.  I was also an immigrant who had to work twice as hard as her contemporaries in order to be their equal.  So, there was no way I could use someone else’s skills and opinions in order to pair myself up, successfully.

Because I am no longer willing to mold myself into a better, prettier version of me, I am beginning to find that the version of me already in existence — is pretty fucking amazing.  And that very version, however tired or un-pretty, I now carry into my dates; and I surprise myself that the men I choose seem to be more comfortable with me as well.  They are more confident, more fun.

And then I move on, to more adventures and dreams, in the pursuit of which I don’t really need to be paired up — UNLESS successfully.

“Um, miss?” the penguin-girl appears even more stressed out since meeting me.  “Where would you like to sit?  We’re almost sold out, but since you’re single…”

I smile.  I choose the best seat in the house, buy myself a single latte and wandering through the lobby’s bookshop, in a relaxed, proud manner of someone who can afford herself these tiny privileges, in life.

I am someone — making her own way in the world.  And I’m pretty fucking amazing!

“And Do You Have Any Clue: What I Had to Do — to Get Here?”

“Hey, baby!  When I write — I am the hero of my own shit.”

I watched Hank last night.  I watched his beat-up, used-up, lived-in, wasted, wrinkled, exhausted face with traces of pockmarks digging into his skin like tear trails; and I let his effortless voice lullaby me to sleep:  a meowing of an aged cat on my doorstep, so demented he had forgotten all other pleasures in life but eating and fucking.  But mostly eating though, at this point:  Fucking — had become too strenuous for his joints.

It was a documentary, and a short one at that:  How do you make an epic about someone without an epic life?  Hank had insisted on living among us — that fuckin’ Bukowski! — that dirty, old man, ridden with vices and women, dwelling in his destiny but never groveling; and surviving his own compassion, day after day.  Elevating himself above the rest of us wasn’t his type of behavior.  No, he left that to his colleagues — the pretentious poets who always wished to write about their suffering but who haven’t lived enough, among us, to know what that’s like:  To suffer.  Because suffering — is bad for one’s skin.  (Just look at Hank’s face:  That fuckin’ Bukowski was a wreck!)  And it’s scary.  Suffering is scary.  So, they left it all — to Hank.

Instead, the pretentious poets got themselves jobs as critics and professors.  They became people of higher esteem:  “The professionals”.  People would pay them for their opinions and carefully manipulated big words.  (The bigger the words — the more esteemed the professor.)  And the professionals would wonder how could they suddenly run out of things to write about.  They would try to write about their tired marriages and affairs with their students.  But boredom always makes for terrible plots.  So, they’d return to their criticism and conference papers, with carefully manipulated big words about anything but suffering.

“What are your plans after graduation?” I remember my own teachers prying during the last year of college; and before they could wait for my answer, they’d spew out:  “You should teach!”

“Really?!” I’d think to myself.  “You mean you don’t want me to go backpacking through Europe and learn a dozen of languages from the pillow talks with my future fifty foreign lovers?”

But I wouldn’t say that.  In those days, my intuition wasn’t perfected yet; so I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the source of that nausea invoked by those well-wishing mentor chats.  Instead, I would just listen, tormented with doubts and restlessness, and with my own temptations for a more esteemed life.  And then, I would look at my watch, demonstratively, and I would say:

“Ow!  I better get to the diner:  I’m working a double to-night.”

Esteem.  It’s kind of like beauty, right?  It’s in the eye of the beholder.  Except that with esteem, you are the beholder — AND you are the subject.  So, it’s entirely up to you, this esteem thing, despite all the other suffering.

There would be many more waitressing gigs, after graduation, and office gigs, and freelance gigs, and gigs of self-employment — all of which I insisted on committing with esteem.  There would be esteem in serving a table full of cops at 4 a.m. who would flirt and get rowdy, like college boys in love with their substitute teacher; and one of them would always offer to give me a ride home, in his black-and-white Ford.  (Later, sometimes, they would drive down my street and wave:  Heya, pretty!  It made me feel like others feel when they come home.)

There would be esteem in finding the patience to handle a hysterical student with no knowledge of English at my daytime campus gig, when the rest of my employers just wouldn’t have the time for her fearful nonsense.  (Later, she would pass me in the cafeteria — still a child in her age, made even more helpless by her venture in a foreign country — and she would smile at me, with something that combined gratitude and a very fragile secret.)

And there would be more esteem in taking the last train out New York City after my internship at yet another editorial department where I would become adopted by a group of esteemed professionals — or the poets to whom they vowed to cater.

And then, of course, there would be my fifty future foreign lovers, teaching me their languages during our pillow talks.  But mostly, they would teach me the language of my own humanity.  And there would be plenty of esteem in learning that my compassion would never fail, no matter the messy ending to each loverly story; and no matter the suffering that came with it.

To the effortless voice of Hank, I had fallen asleep last night:  He was reading his shit at some poetry hall in San Francisco, filled to the brim with hollering humanity.  And the audience would cheer him on every time he tipped his beer bottle into his crooked, wet mouth.  He would chug it down, like a man dying of thirst, smile fleetingly and bashfully at the dividends of his compassion — and the dividends of all that suffering; and he would resume meowing out his poetry.  Sometimes, he would raise a ruckus while taunting somebody in the audience:  To him, it would be just another bar fight.  But he would always seem so much calmer, when in the midst of doing his shit.

“the price of creation

is never

too high.

the price of living

with other people

always 

is.”

And yet, he would insist on living among us — that fuckin’ Bukowski! — that dirty, old man, ridden with vices and women, dwelling in his destiny but never groveling; surviving his own compassion, day after day.  Being too good for others — was not his type of behavior.  No, he left that to his esteemed colleagues:  “The professionals”.

And if he could, he would kiss every one of us on the mouth, the same way he kissed his women:  pornographically and with an open, wet mouth, smelling of rye.  Because no matter the price, we were his beholders AND his subjects; and with that, we granted him — his esteem.

We made his life — his tortured, used-up life worth his suffering.  And he would be one of us, becoming “the hero of [his] shit” — even when he wrote about others; when he wrote — about us.