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Running in Parking Lots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

The Irrationality of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

Info for Sleeping Around:

postcard front

 

postcard back

 

 

Claiming Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m not apologizing.

Wins

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

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

In short, I had a blast.

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

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

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

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

Rei

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

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

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

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

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

Winning feels amazing.

Pushing Paper

I work for a nonprofit, InsideOUT Writers (IOW). IOW’s mission is to reduce the juvenile recidivism rate. If you don’t really know what that means (and a surprising number of people don’t) they are trying to keep incarcerated kids from going back to juvenile hall once they get out. IOW teaches creative writing classes to youth on the inside, and runs a reentry program for their students when they get out. It all sounds really interesting, doesn’t it? Read more

Landscape of Happenstance

The garden has been looking a little sad lately. With 100 degree heat for nearly a month, the Heuchera is fried, the roses wilted with exhaustion and even some of the Blue fescue has just plain given up in despair. The weeds, however, are thriving, as is the invasive Horsetail (poor choice). The Lavender and Wallflowers have grown so tall they are blocking other parts of the garden, choking out the Patty’s Purple, Pink Sugars and Gold Gazanias, not to mention covering the footpath.
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Lying to Children

We are all liars. Every single one of us. Fibbers. Fakers. Phonies. Frauds. Pretenders. Deceivers.

We tell lies to children.

Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy — that’s just the beginning. Later we get creative. My aunt Sylvia told my eight-year-old self that the reason her fingers were so bent was because she slammed them in the car door. She figured a child couldn’t handle the concept of arthritis. (But I was super careful about car doors for the next twenty years – that’s how long it took me to figure out that she was fibbing.)
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Fight like a Girl

I took my first martial arts class in 1999. Since then I have earned black belts in two different styles, and am currently studying Kenpo Karate.  In my previous style, I was fortunate to have taught kids for almost seven years, and I am sure I gained more wisdom from my students than I ever imparted to them.  While teaching I noticed (to my delight) that a good half my students were girls.  As children, the girls were absolutely physically equal to the boys, and, to be frank, their ability to focus often made them better students.  I have great hope for future generations.
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Quotes from Goodsreads’ 2012 Fiction Challenge

I love quotes. It’s like getting to eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwich without having to eat the crust.

These are just a few I collected while on my Goodreads 2012 Choice Awards challenge.

Enjoy.
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Tell Me a Story…

I have a confession to make. Although I love to read and my reading tastes are fairly eclectic, I really, really like trashy vampire novels. OK, technically that’s not a recognized literary genre, but I’m talking about that class of urban fantasy novels with its female protagonist pictured on the cover clad in leather and wielding a sword. And I’ll admit I have dabbled in werewolves, witches, demons and even valkyries – though I draw the line at zombies. I don’t do zombies.
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