Artist Date 104: When Too Much is Just Enough

From the show that brought me back to a darker time in my body's journey. Photography: Jack Wallace. Graphic Design: Rebecca Willett
From the show that brought me back to a darker time in my body’s journey. Photography: Jack Wallace. Graphic Design: Rebecca Willett

I can’t remember the last time I vomited. I don’t try to. Such a violent act — my insides coming out. My body’s intuitive wisdom, ridding itself of what it identifies as clearly foreign. An organic process.

It is hard to imagine I would ever try to bring this on. But I did.

A long time ago. And thankfully, not for very long — I wasn’t very good at it.

I haven’t thought about this in more years than I can remember. Probably because I haven’t binged in at least that long.

But I am brought back to it here, in the darkened Greenhouse Theater for Danielle Pinnock’s showcase performance of Body Courage — Artist Date 104.

In these 75 or so minutes, Pinnock is the embodiment of her more than 400 interviews, her words verbatim.

She is man and woman. Black and white. Straight and gay. Young and old.

She is a former Miss California USA pageant contestant sporting a red bathing suit, gold high heels, a long blonde wig and Valley Girl twang.

She is an Irish priest with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. A Muslim woman touching her thighs over and again — the site of her burn scars, scalded by her ex with the contents of a crock pot.

She is Tan Mom, whose 15-minutes of fame I missed somehow, and a Temple University professor who also missed her arrival on to the American pop-culture scene.

She is a gay man with gynecomastia — overdeveloped male breasts —  the one who keeps his shirt on during sex.

She is a 20-something waitress who vomits.

My ears perk up when the waitress mentions “the trick” — puke immediately after eating, before any food has begun its journey towards digestion.

How could I not have known this? It is so obvious. And yet, my flirtation with this brand of disordered eating was pre-Internet, before Google was a verb and I could type “How to vomit” into the search bar.

Unfortunately, I never needed any special instructions regarding bingeing. It was easy. Intuitive.

The black-out tornado roaring through my kitchen — stuffing bite after bite into my mouth, not fully finishing the last before starting the next.  No mere episode of overeating, emotional eating, or eating when I am not hungry — although all of these factors may be at play.

The binge is a high. A distraction. Numbing.

And it is shameful. A secret. Dissociating.

It is me at my friend Carlos’ house, dog sitting — on the kitchen floor eating Girl Scout Thin Mints by the sleeve and peanut M&Ms from a cut-crystal jar.

He returns, unexpected. My mouth is full, my hand loaded for the next bite. We look at one another and say nothing about it — now or ever again.

It is me lying on the bed in my underwear and nothing else, trying to bargain away the hurt — both physical and emotional. Trying to pray away the remorse.

It is me walking down the hill to one market for yogurt-covered raisins, up it to another for Pepperidge Farm cookies, and next door to a third for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s — too ashamed to buy all of this at once.

It is me successfully unloading my body of macaroni and cheese from the cafeteria before my afternoon lecture. I look in the mirror. The blood vessels around my eyes are purple and broken. I fear people will notice, will know what I have done.

It’s been nearly 20 years since my last binge. I don’t remember it. What I ate. If I vomited. Or how I stopped.

I only know that it stopped “working” — no longer providing the desired effect of distraction, and if I was lucky, oblivion.  That the pain of my behavior — both physical and emotional — became too great to continue. And that I no longer do it.

A miracle is defined as “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” This is surely one.

However, I still overeat — sometimes. I still emotionally eat and eat when I am not hungry — sometimes. And I likely always will — sometimes.

Sliced pork on focaccia, oil seeps through the waxy paper, while I sit on the edge of a fountain in Campo de’ Fiore. My body says “enough” at two-thirds, but I continue — uncertain when I will be here again.

The last few bites of a burrito from my favorite taqueria — not enough to bring home.

Fresh dates in my refrigerator — nature’s crack. I have two, then two more, and then another two.

The dinner plate I push away — done — and then pull back and return to as my friend broaches the topic we have neatly avoided all night.

The difference? My intent. My response. My awareness.

I remember these moments. Some, like the porchetta in Rome, are joyous.  Others, like the reminder of my “still single” status over dinner, more than uncomfortable. But mostly they are neutral, evoking neither shame nor pain, just information — a physical sensation of “too much.”

And the comfort in knowing it, and in knowing that sometimes “too much” is “just enough.”

Artist Dates 91 and 92: Schooled

How do we know this is David?

I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.

David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin.  And what is he holding anyway?  And why do we have to walk around him to find out?

Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.

I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it.  Even looking like a tourist.  Which I was.

Which I am.

Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo.  To Piazza San Marco.  Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio.  Stringing us along with juicy bits of history.  Linking them together, telling a linear story.  Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question.  Or at the very least, begins that way.

And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter.  Days later.  Weeks later, when I write this.

I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.

That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.

That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.

Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush.  Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty.  They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.

And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle.  Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.

duomo1700
The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence

I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging.  And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.

That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary.  He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there.  Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.

A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.

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Getting schooled at the Colosseum.

 

Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school.  In college.  Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.

About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.

I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.

On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone.  Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria.  That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.

I hear her.  I believe her – that I am brave. I own it.  And share the greatest lesson I have learned.  That I am terrified too.  Of getting lost.  Of looking stupid.   Of…insert fear du jour here.

That I am terrified…but do it anyway.

Artist Date 70: I Am Not Thinking

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I have just finished a blog about my friend Clover and the birth of her daughter, Juniper Maya.  She was born nearly 10 days ago, but only now am I at a point where I am able to give words to the experience and my role in it.

I’d been noodling on it for a couple of days and now it is done. I print it out. Set a timer. And read out loud.

Doors open for Story Club in a little more than an hour.  I’ve already penciled it in my book – Artist Date 70.

Story Club meets the first Thursday of the month at the Holiday Club – a bar on the north side of Chicago. Three featured writers read essays on a theme. And three audience members, called at random from a sign-up sheet, read their musings for up to eight minutes.

I’ve been called up just once before, a couple of months ago. My gut tells me I will make it onstage tonight…if I can get there.

My piece is too long. I cross out some sections and set the timer again. Still too long. Then I try again, just reading a portion of it. Up to the words, “The miracle emerges.” This could work.

And I hear it. “Slow the fuck down.” I don’t want to. But I do anyway.

I call Clover to tell her the blog is finished and to ask if she would like to read it before I hit “publish.” She says she would.

I do not usually do this. However, this is not just my story. It is her story too.

I have not given her a clever moniker like the Southern Svengali or Mr. 700 Miles. She is not anonymous. And so I offer my words to her first.

I mention I am on my way to Story Club and ask if she would prefer that I use her initials, as opposed to her real name, as she has not yet read the piece. She says “yes” again.

And it hits me – how much gyrating I am doing to “make this happen.”

To get out the door.   To get on stage. It feels like a push. An awful lot like “my will.” “If this, then that.”

grand budapest hotelI recognize that the words are still fresh to me. That, in some ways, I have just re-lived the birth. That I feel tired and vulnerable, and the idea of sitting in a bar, by myself, in hopes of reading onstage feels neither joyous nor fun. It feels like me trying to make good on my word – as if to make up for all the times when my word meant nothing.

I realize I have nothing to prove, and I give myself a pass.

I put down my papers. I pull on my coat, walk a handful of blocks to the Davis Theatre and purchase a ticket for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I know nothing about this movie other than my friend Matt invited me to see it with him a few weeks ago. I declined, taking myself to the Art Institute for Artist Date 68 instead.

The theater is about a quarter full. I take comfort in seeing the number of people here alone – even though alone is my preferred way to watch movies.

The previews are dreadful. Even the one with Johnny Depp – who I love.

And especially the one for Transformers. Although it makes me giggle a little as I have a date this weekend with a man 12 years my junior, and he recently posted something about the movie on his Facebook page.

But the featured film is a story for storytellers, told by a storyteller. I am enchanted.

By the glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its heyday. And by the quirky outpost for eccentrics that it has become.

By the concierge, at once both straight and gay, tending to the elder, insecure, wealthy – and always blonde – female patrons.

trailer-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-4
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

By the refugee hotel boy with a penciled-on moustache. By the love affair between him and the girl who decorates pastry and wears braids – whose birthmark covers half of her face.

It is eye candy. Swaths of bright orange and purple. Handsome stars in less-than-handsome roles. Ralph Fiennes. Adrien Brody. Jeff Goldblum.

I am grinning. I am not thinking about what I will write. Even though I am always thinking about what I will write. The world around me a blog waiting to happen.

I am not thinking that this is a story about family. About status. About love.

About corruption. Courage. Change.

I am not thinking about my own experiences – of family, status, and love. Courage and change.

I am caught up in someone else’s story. I am not thinking. It is a joy.

Artist Date 66: Risk It. Sell It. Consider It.

I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.

I had two.  One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss.  The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.

Before Class.  "I am here!"
Before Class. “I am here!”

I didn’t win.  But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.

I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.

I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows.  The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.

Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment.  I am in.

I am over the moon.

And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am.  But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck.  Please sit down.’ ”

I can live with that.

Inside I meet Kristen.  She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”

“To Dance.  No matter how badly.”  I scrawl.

Today I will get my opportunity.

There are about a dozen of us here.  I am the oldest by at least 15 years.   Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.

We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd.  He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties.  I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.

He moves quickly through the warm up.  Much more quickly than I am used to.  I breathe and do what I can.  So far so good.

He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture.  “Widen your legs.  Go lower now.  Keep your balance.  See.”  “Jut your hip first.  Muuuch more movement.  Excellent.”

He comes to me.  I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong.  I smile at him.

“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings.  I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes.  Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching.   My legs are shaking.  I struggle to balance.  “Good,” he says.

Before class begins.
Before class. One of the “significantly more trained” dancers.

The other dancers have had significantly more training than I.  It is clear.  Ballet.  Jazz.  Modern.  They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out.  And more importantly, they can execute them.  I am in over my head.  Kind of.  But I just keep moving.  Smiling.  Trying to mimic the other dancers.

I notice that I am not frustrated.  I am not angry.  I do not stop.

I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level.  I do not burst into tears.

I have done all of these things previously.

I am not jealous or envious.  I notice the beauty of the dancers.  Their bodies.  What they can do.

I am amazed by my response.

I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”

Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step.  Hips wagging.  I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!”  “Sell it!”

I am “selling it.”  And I know it.  Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes!  That’s it.”

But the final movement has me stymied.  Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump.  Or something like that.

I am not even close.

No one cares.  No one is watching me.   They are watching themselves.  I am free.

And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion.  Give me my momentum.  Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.

After class.  All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
After class. All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

“Yes, better.”

It is.  But I still don’t have it.

A couple more times across the floor and I might.  But it doesn’t matter.  I risked being “the worst.”  And by all accounts, I was.  But I don’t feel like it.  Not even close.  Just less trained.

Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different.  My pelvis is open.  Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open.  I like it.

It is the ballet, I am certain of it.  The one type of dance I never consider.

I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself.  I don’t even know what that is.  It is an excuse.

And I am out of excuses.

I consider it.

Artist Date 65: A Revelation

I just “shhh…d” the women next to me.

I feel like somebody’s cranky grandmother, but I can’t help myself.

From Revelations.  Photo: Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. From Revelations. Photo: Paul Kolnik

This is my religion.  The dancers and choreographers, my gods.  And it requires my complete attention.

It feels like blasphemy as I type the words, but it is true.  The stirring between my legs.  It rises up my spine like Kundalini energy uncoiling, to my heart – which leaps, and spreads as a flush across my chest and face.  What is usually reserved for sexual liaison – either alone or with a partner – comes to me in dance.  Really good dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is really good dance.

This is my seventh time seeing the company, which may sound like a lot –until compared to Sheila, who I met during the pre-performance cocktail reception.  She and her husband have seen Ailey every year since the company’s inception in 1958.  It is, perhaps, their religion too.

The first time I saw Ailey I was 24.  I watched, rapt.  My former lover — the sexiest man I had ever known – at my side.  We spent a month together.  Twenty-nine days more than I expected.  This was our only “real date.”

The second time I saw Ailey I was in the middle of an alcoholic relapse, although I didn’t know it at the time.  Following yet another month-long stint without drinking, an effort to prove myself “not alcoholic,” I conveniently forgot all the reasons I had put down the drink and picked it up again that night.

I saw the company three more times.  Each of them sober.  In Chicago.  Once, with my then-husband, the other two with girlfriends.

This is my first time seeing Ailey alone – Artist Date 65.

It feels significant.

Significant because I have treated myself to good seats.  Dress Circle.  Row AA.

I have learned I cannot watch dance from the cheap seats – looking down on it from up above.  I have to see it straight on.  As I do most things.

I’ve admittedly been spoiled.  Much like the first time I flew overseas, when the German Consulate paid for my Business Class ticket on Lufthansa.  It is hard to go back.

It is the same with men.

With my dance instructor, Idy.
With my dance instructor, Idy.

Significant because there is a cocktail reception before the show and I don’t drink, have a wing man, or a purpose for mingling other than “just because.”

Ever fiber in my body says arrive late, skip the schmooze and head straight for my seat.  But I resist.  I have been taught courage is not a lack of fear.  It is feeling it and moving forward anyway.  I am strangely curious to see what will happen.

I meet a gaggle of girls in their 30s.  They have never seen Ailey.

We talk about their work.  City politics.  Chicago neighborhoods.

We talk about my Artist Date.  My blog.   Boys.

I meet the “since-1958 Ailey fans,” and their daughter – a dancer.

I navigate the plush stairs and the too-small type on my ticket on my way to my seat.  My dance instructor calls out my name.  We embrace and all at once, Chicago feels like a town.  My sense of connectedness expands.

The theatre darkens.  The dancers emerge.

“Night Creature.”  From 1974.  I have seen it before.  Like “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature piece that closes every show.   I remember the polka-dot light patterns on the floor.

It is both familiar and fresh.  I feel the leap in my heart.  And a knot in my stomach.

The women to my left are whispering – non-stop.

I pray for patience.  For tolerance.  I pray they will stop.  Useless.  I turn and put my finger to my lips.  “Shhh.”  It is quiet.

At intermission, I feel a hand on my shoulder.  It is one of the women I “shhh-d.”  She offers apologies, which I quickly and easily accept.

Two Dancers -- Khara and I.
Two Dancers — Khara and I.

“Do you dance?” she asks.

I tell her I do.  She says that she used to, and everything melts between us.  We are connected.  We are the same.

Until she tells me about her dance history.

Although not a dance major, she danced seven days a week as an undergraduate student at Washington University, filling her free hours with courses in ballet, modern, and jazz.  I reflect on my four years at Michigan State University – smoking pot and drinking with the big boys.

I do not feel like a dancer.

My five-plus years in West African dance classes – beginning at the age of 39 – feel small in comparison.  Amateurish.  Perhaps they are.

I ask her to take a picture with me for my blog.  “Two dancers,” she announces, as if reading my mind.

I choose to believe her.  To allow my status to be independent of her experience.  Of Sheila’s.

It is a “Revelation.”