Artist Date 90: Full

Outside Mercato Sant'Ambrogio.
Outside Mercato Sant’Ambrogio.

There’s an empty space in front of me where a wine glass used to be. It was there just a few minutes before I got up.  But now it’s gone.

It’s a God thing. I’m sure of it.

It is 10 a.m. and I am at a wine shop – the first stop on a walking food and wine tour of Florence – Artist Date 90.

I was the first to arrive on the piazza, to meet our guide Ishmael.  I refrain from any The Old Man and The Sea references.

He is from Latin America, but has made Florence – or more accurately, its environs – his home for more than 30 years. He is bearded and handsome and gentle.  As is the case with so many men here, I cannot tell for certain whether he is straight or gay.  I decide not to worry about it.

We wait for 10 others to join us. They come in groups of twos, like animals on Noah’s Ark.  I feel wildly liberated, untethered and free.

We walk a few blocks to a wine shop, where a long table is set up with stools, glasses and a variety of bruschetta.

I have not had a drink in nearly seven years. It is strange to be here.

And yet, this used to be my life. Conversations about the dwindling availability of cork, comparing plastic versus screw top.  Stainless steel versus oak.  I was living just an hour from the Napa Valley and spent a considerable amount of time there – tasting, learning, drinking.

I fancied myself fancy because I knew just a little bit.  Until the day when a stranger said to me, “Wine aficionado is just a fancy name for a drunk.”  I was incensed.  But in regards to me, he was right.

About half-way through the tasting Ishmael notices I do not have a glass. He asks if I would like one.  I shake my head, smile and say no.

“Are you sure,” he asks. I am very sure.

At the wine shop...I focused on the bruschetta.
At the wine shop…I focused on the bruschetta.

We stop at a food cart – like the ones in Portland, San Francisco and New York, like the one made famous by a pre-teen’s Tweeting in the movie Chef.  Except there are no hipsters here.  Only work men.  And instead of hawking clever cupcakes or Asian-Latin fusion, this one sells tripe.  Just tripe.

Ishmael asks if any of us would like to try it. I raise my hand, along with the Greek painter from Lawrence, Kansas, and a few minutes later receive a white plastic container, along with a plastic fork and a hunk of bread.

I am a bit nervous, but tell myself “when in Rome”…or Florence. But, like Mikey in the 1970s Chex cereal commercial, I like it!  It is well-spiced, like a fiery, paper-thin calamari.

I ask the woman from New York traveling with her mother to take a photograph of me eating it, my MAC “Kiss Me Quick” lipstick staining the plastic fork – lest anyone question my story.

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Not many ladies eating tripe off a food cart…

I was a picky eater growing up.  My mother would serve me a silver-dollar size piece of steak that I would cut up, cover in ketchup and move around the plate for a quarter of an hour until my father, exasperated, would say, “Make her a grilled cheese sandwich.”  I lived on grilled cheese, hot dogs and Spaghetti-Os until I was about 14.

We wander over to Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. Outside vendors are selling grapes, carrots, herbs, mushrooms – truffles.  I recall the chef I briefly dated kissing me in his kitchen, and asking when I would be in Italy.

October.

“Mmm…truffle season…except you cannot afford them.”

I should have told him to fuck off.  Or how he was so certain what I could and could not afford.  But I said nothing.

I think he would enjoy this culinary tour of Florence.  And then decide not to think about him at all, but instead the cured meats, cheeses and olives that a butcher is serving us with toothpicks off of a polystyrene tray.  From the North, the South, Tuscany.  Aged six weeks, six months, 16 months.

We sit down on long benches and sample orecchiette with finely chopped broccoli, spaghetti with pancetta, olive oil and parmesan, pomodoro.  Once this was simply a place for market vendors to have a meal.  Today it is a restaurant.

I am generally not one to get too excited about pasta. Until now.  It is silky and warm on my tongue, along my cheek.  I taste every ingredient.  Minutes old.  I am silent.  I am, as my friend Stan says, “having a relationship with my food.”

Yes...I left a little bit.
Yes…I left a little bit.

We end with gelato from one of Ishmael’s favorite shops – Il Procopio. I pair carmelized figs with cream, almonds and pine nuts with the shop’s namesake of pistachios and orange peel.

I have eaten gelato every day since arriving in Italy more than a week ago, congratulating myself on always ordering a piccolo.  But today, grinning and completely conscious, I order a medio — and congratulate myself that it is not a grande.  It’s a God thing.  I’m sure of it.

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Il Procopio. Firenze, Tuscany. Enough said.

 

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 46: Why I Am Here

Future Hits Halloween Show at Schubas.
Future Hits Halloween Show at Schubas.

Some Artist Dates are easy alone.  Museums.  Lectures.  Dance performances.  Opera.  Theatre.  Some, like movies, I even prefer that way.

Live music, however, is far more difficult.  Even when the audience is children.  Perhaps even more so.

And yet, this is the set up for Artist Date 46.

I am parked outside of Schubas.  My friend Matt’s band – Future Hits, self-proclaimed Fun (Yet Secretly Educational) Music for Kids, Families and Teachers – is playing this afternoon.  It is a Halloween performance and party for children, hosted in collaboration with Whole Foods, The Kite Collective and Adventure Sandwich.

I stand in awe of how Matt puts himself out there.  Performing.  Recording. Last year, Future Hits cut its first CD, Songs for Learning, funded by KickStarter.  This past summer he spent a month in South America, improving his Spanish.  An ESL teacher for Chicago Public Schools, he requested, and received, a grant that paid for everything.

But right now I am standing in fear.  Rather sitting, in my 13-year-old Honda Civic.  I feel anxious about going inside.  I don’t have children.

I sometimes feel this way walking into synagogue by myself – which I began doing several years ago.

As fresh meat, I was quickly swarmed and warmly greeted.  Peppered with questions.  Top on the list: Do you have children?

“No.”

“Oh…”

Pause.  Uncomfortable silence.  I often feel I have to fill that space.  Say something clever or pithy to put us both at ease.  I am getting better at just letting that dead air “hang.”  Like summer in Charleston.  Heavy.  Still.

I wonder what they are wondering.  If I cannot have children.  If I am childless by choice.  If I am waiting for the perfect sperm to swim into my life.  I am told that this is none of my business.

Mostly, I imagine they wonder what brought me there.  It’s a reasonable enough question.  And the assumption that I have children is equally reasonable.

Many, perhaps most, join a congregation when their children are of school age.  They recognize it as time to do what their parents had done – provide their children with a Jewish education.  Sometimes for no other reason than, “this is what we do.”

Perhaps the second most popular reason for joining is the gift of a complimentary one-year membership, given when the Rabbi or Cantor of that congregation marries a couple.  (I will have to query my Rabbi to see if I am correct in my speculation.)

Gene and Oscar
Gene and Oscar

I walked into synagogue for my own reasons.  Neither recently married nor considering a Jewish education, I am the Jew who converted to Judaism.  It’s a long story.  One that doesn’t fit neatly into conversation over coffee and pastry after services.  But it is mine.  And I am assured that I have a place in the congregation.

Nonetheless, it is often still daunting walking through those sacred doors alone.

It is too at Schubas.  Even after seeing my friend Joe, smoking outside.  He doesn’t have kids either.

I walk in, pay $10, get my hand stamped and say to the bouncer, “Am I the only one here without kids?”  “Nah,” he replies.  Looking in, I’m not so sure.

The lights are dim and a bunch of little people in costumes are making kites and eating granola.  Matt and his band mates are dressed in caveman attire.  Think Flintstones.

Our friend Lily is selling CDs.  Gene is on the floor with his son, Oscar, making a kite. Jenny is helping her son Seth into his costume.

Matt’s mom, Rhonda, is here.  His dad too.  I love Rhonda.  Our conversations meander from fashion to Transcendental Meditation (which we both practice) – seamlessly.  I feel like the universe has conspired for us to meet.  We pick up where we left off last time.

Matt is delighted to see me.  Grateful for the support.  He always is.

I remember the first time I heard him play, at the Beat Kitchen.  I arrived early and was standing on the corner outside.   When he saw me, he dropped to his knees – on the sidewalk – his hands in prayer.  Total gratitude.

This is why I am here – to support my friend.  But I forget, falling into a swirling pit of “me.”  Self-conscious about my childless-ness.  Even though I (mostly) chose not to have any.

And then the music starts and I forget all of that.  I forget myself.   I have seen Matt perform many times, but this my first time hearing Future Hits.  Even though I was a KickStarter supporter, which earned me a button and a CD.

The Kite Parade.
The Kite Parade.

I’m surprised.  The music doesn’t feel like kids music. It is pleasing to my ear.  It’s not sing-song-y like Barney.  Something to be endured.  I am delighted watching Emma go from bass to flute to tambourine.

The kids are invited to dance.  They do, with joyous abandon.  Oblivious to the concept of rhythm.  I would like to shake a tail feather myself…but I’m suddenly self-conscious again.  So I watch instead.  Although I do raise my hand when the band asks if anyone’s birthday is in October.

There is a kite parade for the kids to show off their creations.  More music and a dance contest.  The winner – dressed as a werewolf – leaves with a Halloween-decorated bag of schwag.

And soon after, I leave too.  Holding tightly to the light I see in Oscar’s face.  In Seth’s.  And the lesson they teach me.  Beaming over the simplest things.  Costumes.  Music.  Paper kites.  They do not concern themselves with why they are here.  Just that they are.