Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Temps Perdu.

On a recent night drive along Highway 101 in San Francisco, the scent of skunk entered the car. I found myself actually breathing it in with some enjoyment, suddenly taken back in my mind to car rides with a childhood friend to the ski resort Wintergreen in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. That was probably the first time I learned about that phantom animal smell, weaving through unfamiliar woods in another family's car.

I had almost forgotten about Elizabeth Sharp. The brief tenure of our friendship, which began at Seven Locks Elementary School, ended when we went to different junior highs. But even though we never spoke after Seven Locks, she was one of my best friends when I was there.

We were 9 and then 10 years old. I don't remember a lot from this period, but here's what I do remember.

I remember using jars to catch fireflies in her yard. I remember stealing pennies from the wishing fountain at Wintergreen and thinking we were getting away with something big. I remember that she was a tomboy who wore a big watch and that her mom once said to me when Elizabeth wasn't around, "You're so graceful. I always wanted Elizabeth to be more graceful."

It turns out that am not graceful (even though I believed I was for many years because of that one comment), and Elizabeth wasn't either. She was gentle and loyal and had a broad, kind face. When my school friends decided that we each had to have a nickname that ended in the "ee" sound (Chrissie, Steffie, Bethie -- give me a break, it was fifth grade), we ended up calling her Lizard, because she just wasn't a Lizzie. She was Lizard, who always wore pants and never any makeup or girly things.

To address the obvious question: I have no idea whether she was inchoately gay. She could have been, but she could have just as easily been an inchoate nerd. Nobody's sexuality was in play here.

Here's the main thing: At one harrowing point around fifth grade, most of my friends turned on me. I forget why, and it doesn't matter, because you could find yourself the target of a "fight" as a girl in elementary school whether you were looking for one or not. In that milieu, any detail one collected about a classmate had a dual bonus: It could be counted toward intimacy, or toward a reserve of ammunition to be fired later.

For my friends at the time, Bloomingdale's was the only place to shop. Gloria Vanderbilt, Sassoon or Jordache jeans were all desirable, as were collared Polo tees and Izod. When I let slip that my mom bought my clothes at Marshalls, it was a critical error.

This error came back to haunt me one day at recess during The Walk. At some point my friends and I inaugurated the marginally rebellious practice of walking the perimeter of the sports field. This was a departure from the usual activities of playing on the jungle gym, kickball, jacks, clapsies, hopscotch, soccer, races, or any other sanctioned playground activity. We simply walked around the field, in groups of three to five, talking. In retrospect, it was haughty and exclusive. At the time, we thought it rather progressive.

When I ran afoul of my cool elementary friends, they decided the best way to torture me would be to shadow me on the playground walk with a chant: "LET'S go to MARSHALLS where THEY have gay CLOOOTHES," they sang in unison, skipping behind me. A good walk spoiled.

I tolerated this for a time (it felt like a week, but it was probably two days) before finally confronting my tormentors and telling them that if they only cared about what I wore, I didn't want them as my friends. That's what my mom had counselled me to say, and to my astonishment, it actually worked: the chanting stopped and my "friends" were restored, at least until we got into junior high.

Usually when I think of this story, the focus is on the chant and the unlikely triumph of my mom's wisdom. What gets short shrift is that there was someone walking with me on the playground while I was being tormented: Elizabeth. We pretended to walk as if it were a normal recess, as if there was not a group of girls skipping behind us singing derisively. "Just ignore them," Elizabeth said. She walked alongside me until it was over, and that mattered a lot. I wasn't alone.

I don't think the real force of that gesture hit me until some 27 years later in a San Francisco taxicab, when the random skunk scent brought back that memory of childhood loyalty. I don't see her on Google, so all I can do is send this shout-out. Thanks, Lizard.

Monday, October 15, 2007


"I'm going to get a massage tonight with that guy at [redacted] Spa," someone in the office said last week.

I'm new there and didn't have any background on this comment, but I had been to this spa, and something about the way she said "that guy" triggered a memory.

"Which guy?" I said. "What's his name?"

After saying his name, her eyelids fluttered. "He gives the most sensual massage ever," she said.

I remembered coming home from my own experience with this same person a few months ago and feeling mostly relieved that we had been in a professional establishment and not, say, a dorm room. "It was fine... a little weird," I said afterward. "I got, I don't know, a vibe."

If I had to appear in court and testify against this man for giving an inappropriately sexual massage, I would undoubtedly lose, and therein lay his genius. "Most cues are nonverbal," someone said as I was describing it, and this guy was indeed a master at body language, from the sly way he smiled and made eye contact when he greeted me (he was extremely easy on the eyes) to the unconventional music he played in the massage room (Iron and Wine or Feist, instead of the usual canned, new-agey stuff) to the way he paused a little too long in front of me when we said goodbye at the end (the way I remember it, he said in a low voice, "Is there anything else I can do for you?" but that's just too porno-perfect to be accurate). In terms of the massage itself, he somehow managed to cling to the edge of actionable without going over it.

I think for many women (my office mate, for example), Mr. Lube represents a real find: a cute guy who spends an hour lavishing sensual attention on you, no strings attached. But for me, of course, it was too confusing to be purely pleasurable. I'm someone who gets significantly stressed out about whether to hug or kiss someone hello and/or goodbye, so this massage brought up a whole decision tree that I really have no business contemplating as a married person.

To be frank, it's not an interaction I'd have been any more at ease with as a single person. In terms of body language in a rubdown with a complete stranger, how could I ever manage to communicate over the din of whatever my outspoken veins, fat cells and clogged pores might have to share? That's why a straight, good-looking male is about the last person I want to see when I arrive for a massage. It's like trying to curl up for a nap with a can of Red Bull.

I had gotten the impression that Mr. Lube was willing to provide a lot more than Swedish massage, but for all I knew at the time, it was just item no. 5,236 in my log of drastically misread situations. Now here was my coworker, validating my impression! Everybody knows that if you have a vaguely formed notion and at least one person agrees with you, it is absolutely true!

I won't be going back to Mr. Lube anytime soon, but I'm not above extreme curiosity about my coworker's next encounter. Secretly, I want her to live the story of At First Sight, where Mira Sorvino goes to a resort and she's all overworked and stressed and then she gets Val Kilmer for a massage therapist, and he delivers this whole transcendent-yet-entirely-professional physical experience for her, which of course means that they have to have a relationship, and then she gets to have a massage therapist for a boyfriend, which means that not only do you get kick-ass massages like, all the time, but the sex is amazing, because what massage therapist is bad in bed? (There's also a whole plot about him being blind and regaining his sight and stuff, but that's sort of ancillary.)

Ah, sweet dreams, ladies everywhere, and good night.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


A few weeks ago, I sat behind a drum kit on the stage at the Blue Bear School of Music, which is housed in a stuffy enclave of San Francisco's Fort Mason. My audience was the school's director, who was evaluating my candidacy for the drummer slot in their Wednesday night Basic Rock and Blues band workshop.

He called me a few days later. "It looks like our Wednesday band is shaping up to be more.... intermediate," he told me on the phone a few days later. "We do have a band on Saturday afternoons at your skill level, if that would work for you." I was too beginner for a beginner class, it turns out.

"Do you need any singers for the Wednesday class?" I said.

That's how I came to be a lead singer in a temporary band that will have only one concert on Dec. 12, at a place called the Red Devil Lounge. Our drummer, who is 11 years old, exceeds my playing experience by four years. His dad, a talented musician named Aric who also happens to vaguely resemble Eric Clapton, is our lead guitarist.

Our bassist is a quiet high-school sophomore whose face is curtained by straight blond hair and typically teenaged skin, while our rhythm guitarist is a pale-denimed man in his early 40s, I'm guessing. Then there's me -- and our other singer, a buff, twentysomething showboat named Reuben.

Reuben actually swivels his hips when he sings "Use Me" by Bill Withers, one of his appointed song choices. He doesn't seem to get nervous about impromptu performing, really. "It's all stage time," he said in our first rehearsal. "I love that." He clearly loves to be up in front of people.

Reuben provides a nice counterpoint to my performance style, which is to hunch my shoulders as much as possible while looking at the floor and trying to steady the tremors -- hand, voice, whatever -- that plague me while I try to project my voice beyond the microphone stand.

It's a natural and logical assumption that most people who go out for a band or a singing group or any other kind of stage act actually enjoy putting themselves on display. I'm a serious approval addict, so I can't pretend that getting applause from people doesn't gratify me, but I really do not relish being on stage.

Whatever the opposite of "stage presence" is, I have it. In one college video, which my friends once replayed and mocked with gusto, I swiftly and ungracefully retreat from the microphone before the last syllable of my solo number is even out of my mouth. I always preferred the idea of being the backup singer, the ensemble player, the drummer -- someone who is part of the show, but not in the spotlight.

It all started with auditioning. In high school, I loved memorizing a monologue, learning a dance routine or practicing a song for the purpose of performing it exactly one time, as a test. I liked the camaraderie and nervousness and competition: Are you ready, how do you feel, how did you do, who made it? I liked seeing if my name was on the list or not, and usually managed not to stake much emotion on the results. After all, it was just a play or a show chorus or a pom squad -- and what would I have done with myself if I'd actually been talented enough to win a key role?

I went into the audition for my college a capella group with the same attitude, until I got in the room and the people there actually dared to suppose that I could be better than I believed I was. They challenged me, encouraged me, put me through the wringer and then, instead of putting me on a list, arrived at my dorm room en masse with booze and singing and hugs and raucousness.

Yes, it is dorky. It was still awesome and one of the best things that ever happened in my life. I don't think that anyone has had the luck and/or talent to be in University of Pennsylvania's Off the Beat (laugh it up) and managed to graduate without, for a moment, wishing that they could just be in that group for the rest of their lives. Some of us (Gabriel Mann, Goldspot, Vaeda, Larry Kraut) are honest-to-God serious, bitchin' musical commodities now. The rest of us live in professional shells while still craving that experience of making music, rehearsing, performing and touring with a family just as loving, maddening and dysfunctional as our blood relations.

I won't ever have my college experience again, and I know that. It's OK. You can be an 11-year-old son, a fortysomething dad, a sad-sack, a freak, a diamond-industry scion, a working-class butch lesbian, a grandmother from New Jersey, a bo-hunk, a nerd or milquetoast, and I will know you in a very specific way, which is that we once stood anxiously together in the wing of a dingy stage somewhere, we tested ourselves and briefly delighted peoople and ended the evening triumphant and best friends.