The Place Where You Started

As we move toward a production here in Los Angeles I wanted to write up an analysis into the deeper themes of this piece. I don’t think I was fully in touch with what story we were telling when we wrote it a year ago. Now, with some distance, I’ve gotten my head around it a bit better. For those curious, here is the trailer and the full production staged in Portland last fall.

 

Set in present day Los Angeles, the story follows Meredith, a frustrated screenwriter who meets Macario, an undocumented landscaper and gardener. They discover an unlikely kinship as they cultivate a garden together. But this friendship is misunderstood, leading to a rash decision with devastating consequences.

Overtly the narrative is about regret, however, beneath this theme runs a sense of disenfranchisement and isolation. Macario exists on the margins as an undocumented person and Meredith is lost in a life of shallow modernity. She never developed the tools she needed to know herself and now, as she approaches midlife, she’s desperate to find meaning.

She believes it’s a matter of just returning to her original goals. She makes the mistake most Americans make, that we are defined by the form and even substance of our work. She dreams of being a novelist and poet thinking it will make her happy.

Macario, who is from a fictional South American country, teaches her to find meaning in living itself. The garden they work together then becomes a larger metaphor for simply being, as the plants are, in the moment. For his part, initially the garden becomes a place where he can forget the terrible secrets of his past that have kept him running. He lives half a life in America. He feels like a sub-person here even as he is treated as one.

Then, as the story evolves, it is the garden where he rediscovers his whole self again.

In these ways the garden mentors them both.

The two never form a romantic attachment. This is one of the things that makes this story unique. Meredith is a whole person struggling not to find meaning in love, but to find it in herself. Free from the Latin lover stereotype, Macario is not defined by seduction – instead he finds his identity as he remembers his wife and children back home.

The Place Where You Started was given a workshop production last fall by Portland State University Opera. Opening on November 12th, 2016, the opera ran for six performances. Portland was home to the most violent protests in America that week, the week of the 2016 Presidential election. In the midst of the chaos the singers felt the work had a kind of renewed meaning. One cast member described it this way, “I just didn’t know what to do, but when I stepped out onto the stage I knew that this was it. This is what I was supposed to do. Tell this story, right now because it means something more than it did before the election.”

Any new work should offer a gathering place for people who perhaps don’t have access to, or reason for attending new works.  We envision dual supertitles in English and Spanish in order to attract and serve the vast Spanish speaking population in L.A. who may not feel a new work, particularly opera, is relevant to their lives.

In addition to the Portland State University Opera Department production of The Place Where You Started, the opera was subsequently performed in multiple venues around Shanghai, China. PLACE has a cast of six singers and is being revised and scored for a small ensemble of six instrumentalists (Pierrot plus percussion).

The San Diego Zoo and Other Thoughts

imageAmerica swirls the drain. The world is run by criminals. I don’t know where I’m going creatively. Chipped nail polish. Age. Weight gain. Time pulls me to the grave. OK, that’s a drag of a thing to write. But I don’t know where I’m going creatively. I saw a monkey at the San Diego Zoo studying the feces on his hands. I It fascinated him. Or he was pretending it fascinated him. He sat himself in front of the viewing glass, looked at all the people looking at him, and I swear to you, started playing with the feces on his hands to gross everyone out. He shared a habitat with the orangoutangs. The oldest one, the alpha. 42 years old. He looked like a sad version of Maurice from the Planet of the Apes movies. All of the animals in the zoo looked sad. Zoos are inhumane. The Reptile House was the saddest of them all. The reptiles lay tangled in small cages, pressed against the furthest corners or hiding altogether. Nobody likes to be watched for a living.

Except the penguins. They were having a ball. But they’ve only been there since June. Everything is new. They swam happily and played joyfully bumping up against the reinforced glass as children banged their little fists and adults dangled bracelets the penguins tried to catch. I wondered if they would tire and grow as jaded as the other animals.

In the Panda Exhibit the youngest panda went out of his way to defecate at the crowd. He came out from where he ate and sat on the closest branch with his back to the crowd, urinated and defecated, then returned to his place near his enclosure.

In spite of these things, there were a few magical moments. A male gazelle approached me where I stood and stared at me while he ate from a tree. It was strange and wonderful. Not many people watch the gazelles. But they seemed as smart as they were graceful, muscles on top of muscles moved over sinewy limbs. A baby was born only two hours prior. I couldn’t see it, but just knowing it was there was cool.

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It made me appreciate and respect my animals more. My cats aren’t human babies and I think I do them a great disservice when I treat them that way. Nevertheless, we’ve been together nearly 15 years. When I returned home they greeted me at the door and followed me from room to room. Chloe, my calico, waited at my feet until I picked her up. She’s always done that. When her head was bigger than her body I remember looking down at her little face when she was eight weeks old as she waited to be held. My husband read somewhere that domestic cats remain in a perpetual state of kitten-hood. As I sit Charlie, my orange male cat sleeps, paw stretched out pressed against my leg. He often sleeps that way. So, it’s hard not to think they’re not human. Or human-like. Or that they have achieved some kind of sentience through our relationship to them.

I don’t know. This is where it ends today. I don’t know where I’m going creatively. I’ve written a web series I will produce this fall. Stay tuned for that. I’m working on a feature, or a play. I’m not sure what it is yet. It seems to be a hybrid. I guess those are things. I just haven’t written in them in a week. And I have no way of knowing if they’ll ever see the light of day. But, build it and they will come, yeah? Yeah. Otherwise, there’s nothing.

I’m a depressive by nature. I can’t help but feel as if we’re all doomed. Aren’t we? Doesn’t it all prove out? I have to shake this off. Today I drive to the City of Industry for a gig where I have to look ten years younger and act even younger than that. Beauty and youth are commerce in my line of work. You never go looking how you feel. I’ve seen the girls who do that. There are a lot of them actually. I don’t know if they know that when they don’t wash their hair, or finish their makeup, or where clean black, they look like they feel. They look like I feel.

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Kitty in jail

Do you know where the City of Industry is? I’d never even heard of it. It sounds terrible. City of Industry, like a place for car dealerships and massive pharmaceutical complexes. Aren’t those the only industries that make legit money anymore? I used to work for a company that shot talking head videos for pharmaceutical companies. They were inner-office video memos and training videos. That was 15 years ago. That industry is dead. The professional video servicing industry. It got replaced by college students with a camera and Final Cut Pro. Cheaper, faster, less is more.

I don’t know where I’m going creatively, see. I have this web series. I need to finish it, but it’s a comedy and I’m not feeling funny anymore. Or right now. And it’s probably not funny anyway. And what am I doing writing screenplays anyway? Well, everything else is harder. I just know how to do it well. I teach it. Did you know that? Yeah. I’m good at teaching it. I just figured I should finally do what I say. I know what I’m talking about. I don’t know. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, or even to read this, but I’m good at writing stuff. Maybe not today. But in order to write anything you often have to lower your standards just to get past the first sentence.

 

At 30,000 Feet

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At 30,000 feet, after the pilot announces cruising altitude and turns off the seat belt sign, people change. It’s a small shift, a quiet adjustment, intangible even to them.

In the 90’s and early 2000’s, before the proliferation of personal media devices, airlines showed outdated movies and cancelled television shows. You purchased your headphones for two dollars and plugged into the armrest to watch on a screen overhead, or one embedded in the seat in front of you. Movies like Hope Floats, Forces of Nature, He Said, She Said, television shows like Who’s the Boss, Charles In Charge, Full House, and when you were lucky, early episodes of Seinfeld, or Will and Grace. Anything cheap. There were a lot of commercials.

Those programs had a strange effect on many passengers.  People, otherwise hardened by life, cynical by nature, non-criers, sobbed during movies that once made them scoff. They laughed hard at out of date humor. And no one was more shocked than they. I heard a woman tell her story, a New Yorker who flew from L.A. and back again frequently. She sobbed during Pretty Woman and even harder at Notting Hill. She could not explain the mutation. A friend of hers, a man, confessed the same happened to him. Was it altitude? Was it something in the water? Was it that she was alone and allowed to just feel her feelings. Sort of, something like that last one. A psychologists explained it this way: Untethered from her life, her career and her relationships, her subconscious crept to the surface and found a crack through which to escape. I never experienced this. I’m a crier. And I definitely feel my feelings.

When I step on a plane and I’m headed somewhere I want to go, I experience relief. Unbound from my anxiety and frustrating jobs, I relax and sleep for hours, dreaming nothing. Typically my dreams are more fraught than my thoughts even on my best days. Winding through a maze of emotional IED’s, my psyche drags up the most desperate sludge. When I wake, yesterday’s anxieties are replaced by new ones, or old ones, they’re all on a loop. The last one I remember today fused my former church life with my current writing ambitions. The theist to the atheist as represented by two specific men in love with one another and not with me. Obvious, right? Unable to penetrate a career in any carnation (I once wanted a career in the church) I nibble on its crumbs, volunteering for nothing, while I languish in humiliating jobs.

On Saturday I worked a retail makeup event. I received a complaint. The big boss woman, alpha woman, confronted me about it in front of her client, the current client in my chair, and my co-workers. The complaint: The client approached me, wanted her makeup done because her artist cancelled on her at the last minute and she was going to her sister’s wedding. I was affable, we chatted genially. At the end of the application she seemed fine. She could have asked me to fix the problems.

However, the nature of the complaint isn’t important. Complaints happen and when they occur the bosses act like it’s the apocalypse. No one ever asks the employee what happened. I see it all the time. However, in 13 years, I haven’t seen a boss confront the employee in front of everyone. As I stood in shock, she said of the new client, “I need to see her when she’s done. You need to clean up all this fall out here and blend this out. There shouldn’t be any harsh lines.” Her voice boomed.  I nearly burst into tears. I wasn’t even half-way through the application. My client was embarrassed for me.  I went to the back, pulled myself together and made it through the rest of the day. I’ve been simmering since.

The way this alpha woman treated me felt like rubbing alcohol on an open wound.  Insult to injury because the day prior I had worked on an article about Wonder Woman for 17 hours then submitted it to a handful of publications. I felt it was strong and timely, something I never have time to write. I thought it had a good, no a great chance of getting published. Hours later the terrorist attacks in London occurred. Perhaps my article got lost? But I think it’s more likely that it wasn’t good enough, clear enough…something. These pubs are still posting essays on Wonder Woman. It earned 103.1 million at the box office this weekend.

When I worked in restaurants I cried all the time. I received bad tips and complaints. I was a pretty bad server. But I’m a good makeup artist. I haven’t received a complaint in years. I’m new with this company, they don’t know that and they don’t care. Anyway, it’s a bad omen. And here’s the thing. I don’t think I can recover from it. I hold onto things and they get bigger. I sort of revel in not forgiving, letting the anger grow into rage and the rage into hate. It makes me move. Otherwise I get too comfortable in uncomfortable places. And I want to move.

 

 

 

She could sell swampland to a frog

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She sold $1000 worth of makeup and brushes on the regular. This meant she got more hours than other freelancers. Her bosses loved her. Charming, pretty, forceful, but with a smile, she could sell swampland to a frog.

Except her sales carried hefty returns. Buyer’s remorse hit her clients hard. No matter. As a freelancer she’d be gone by the time the products came back and smack the associate, who rang her up, in the paycheck  The freelancer’s hourly did not depend on her returns, but on her perceived overall sales. In that arena no one circled her stratosphere.

You can’t be too honest in the retail cosmetics game. We’re all at war. War with one another, war with the client, war with our companies. The pressure to sell and sell hard creates a burden that stretches ethical boundaries. “Watch her and just do what she does,” my boss told me. I stood by the freelancer as she closed the sale. “Oh, no, no, no, you can’t just take one of these. You need them all if you want to look like this. Your husband will be amazed. You look 10 years younger.The brushes, the skin care, the makeup. It will last you a year. Two years. Here, I’ll give you gifts. It’ll be a great deal. If you come back and get them separately, you don’t get any gifts.” She spoke quickly without a breath and as the customer stood there in a daze, she threw as many free items into the bag as she could find and grabbed the client’s credit card.

Often, when the counter sold out of an item, she’d send the client out with a substitute just to make the sale. Tawny shadow gone? Sunny Blonde is close enough. Foundation number 32 sold out? 33 will do. Sub the Cola for Cocoa, New York Red for Moulin Rouge Red. She’ll never know the difference. The freelancer knew what we all know. If you’ve sold her hard on an item that’s perfect for her, it’s nearly impossible to swing her in another direction at the last minute.

It’s not the end of the world. It’s just makeup. So she doesn’t like it. So she decides it’s not right for her. So what it’s not exactly the right one. Maybe it will work out for her anyway.

Or maybe you’ve just lost her trust and her return business.

Don’t be naive, dear reader, corporations don’t care. All numbers and annual projections are based on perceived possibility. If this freelancer can sell $1000 in one sale, why can’t all of them do that? Who cares how. And so the pressure is on and the ones who figure out her secrets close in on her lead. Others who insist on honesty fall behind and eventually lose the race.

With online deals and internet beauty influencers cannibalizing sales, makeup corporations struggle to find their base. The ground shifts constantly. Anxiety flows downhill and picks up speed. By the time it reaches the makeup artists and sales associates it’s at a fever pitch. Sell, lie, lie, sell. Make the customer love you and it just doesn’t matter. I’ve been in this game a long time. There are times that you can do everything right and it just doesn’t play. Your bosses however will never believe it. A former boss stepped down and became a freelancer. She and I worked together one day. In confidence she said, “I’ve been sitting everybody down and people aren’t buying. I’m doing everything right!”

I shrugged. “Sometimes customers just don’t buy.” I wish all bosses would come down and work the floor.

More James Ellroy than La La Land

teacup-2325722_1280Everybody who lives in Los Angeles seems to love it. I have yet to meet an exception. Even my cynical friends confess their undying attachment to it. It’s their everlasting commitment to the Entertainment industry, that abusive boyfriend of careers. Good looking, arrogant, James Dean bad boy, aloof, yet occasionally interested, the Entertainment industry holds people in its spell. No matter how much it rejects them, they run back whenever it calls.

A town too small, yet too big. In love with itself yet too insecure to appreciate anything new borne from its womb. Unless an artist receives approval from New York or other competitors, she does not exist. Sounds like sour grapes, but it’s just an observation. Ask Mark Ruffalo. Nobody worked harder than he to get representation in this town, one man shows, dozens of mailings, tireless networking. Then he goes to New York, has one good show and L.A. clambers over itself to get to him. One agent asked him, “Where have you been? Why haven’t we heard of you?”

As any true narcissist, L.A. gazes upon itself in full loving adoration and calls anything the establishment does as good. The L.A. Times regularly bathes the L.A. Opera, the Mark Taper Forum, and The L.A. Philharmonic with glowing reviews. I often wonder if that dude even goes to see the shows. La La Land swept up awards not because it deserved to, but because it was a love letter to the industry.

Once, as I exited the freeway and stopped at the light I saw a young guy with long brown hair and a stoney expression. He held a sign that read, “Musician. Hate L.A. Trying to get out. Please help.” I don’t know how effective that was, but it was the only time I saw anyone openly admit to hating L.A..

I attended dozens of industry parties when I first arrived here nearly ten years ago. I found I had two things to offer, well one really, fucking. Gross, I know. But this is a gross city and I didn’t have a career or a body of work to offer anyone. Just a body. Once somebody assessed that I wasn’t important enough, sexy enough, or young enough to help them, they’d be on their way, eyes darting around the room, hunting.

I almost dated a gorgeous guy with a million dollar smile until I found out he lived in a bedroom in someone’s house so he could lease a brand new BMW and pay for acting and writing classes. He wasn’t even good.

That’s L.A..

Miranda Frum wrote a piece about how a hypnotist to the stars helped her quit smoking in The Daily Beast this week. She’s a model with a famous journalist father. Frum gets her opportunities the way most people in L.A. get them, nepotism and looks. Just read her pieces in The Beast and you’ll agree. It’s like Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson. I read a piece of her’s in Vogue once and nearly fell asleep four sentences in. Writing isn’t easy folks. Take a course. Oh, but she did. I worked at a screenwriting training facility to the stars 12 years ago where she received private tutoring. Have you seen anything she’s written?

Frum loves L.A.. In the article she writes about cerulean skies and perfect cloudless days. The hypnotist charges $800 for an in person session. There’s the option to stream him online for $9.99. She chose the $9.99 option for obvious reasons, right? Because she doesn’t have $800 to spend on a single session, right? No, she chose it because she didn’t want to drive the 45 minutes from Hollywood to Santa Monica. In the end, however, she makes the drive and visits the dude and is now living a charmed smoke free life writing on her glorious balcony and drinking her Ayurvedic tea.

That’s L.A.

My L.A. is more James Ellroy than La La Land. “You hate it so much, why don’t you leave?” You ask. What’s the alternative, New York? I don’t know the answer. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. No, that’s not true. I want to be a writer. I just don’t know how to be it.

Satan, God, and a club called Medusa’s

Former site of Medusa's after it burnt down.
Following the fire, Medusa’s was no longer. In its place, an office building.

Unfinished business gets in your DNA. Like that guy from high school I almost loved, but feared. He symbolizes much of what I didn’t do and now regret. He’s in my dreams from time to time. Because I don’t do what it is I want to do. His ghost lingers over all I’ve let drift.

If I could go back I’d change…but what would I change? When would I change it? How far back do you go? Because you could go all the way back to childhood but you’d just end up accumulating different regrets. I’m obsessed with high school. I wasn’t popular, but I wore that like a badge. I knew it meant I was better, more artistic, smarter than the cheerleading uniforms bouncing through the hallways on a Friday afternoon before the pep rally. Pep rallies. A time my outcast friends and I used to troll for older boys and pass private notes like they were Pentagon secrets.

Until Satan and God and a club called Medusa’s. Before midnight on Saturdays it was a juice bar. After midnight, bouncers kicked underagers like me out. They kind of did. It really depended on whether they thought you were cute. Anyway, I didn’t like to drink. I just wanted to dance, and do things my parents feared. But my overactive guilt complex required absolution. I told my mother about the upside down crucifixes, gargoyles, and twisted angels hanging from the walls while The Sound of Music played ironically on a 20 foot screen overlooking the main dance floor. My mother grounded me for life. No, I’m serious. She grounded me until the age of 18 or until college, whichever came first. No phone. No television. No activities of any kind. Her one stipulation. Go to church. And as long as I did stuff with church kids, she’d allow me day passes.  She picked me up. She dropped me off. Until it became too inconvenient, then she let me drive myself. And by that time, I’d stepped fully into Stockholm Syndrome. Church became my life. Church kids. Church writing. Church membership. It lay the groundwork for my life. Every decision I made until the age of 29 shot out from the center of a rigid, literal interpretation of the Bible.

I killed myself. Not to be overdramatic, but I think there’s a certain truth to it. I killed my potential. The person I almost became. The one Mr. Banacheck identified in our Cinema Studies class when I was a Sophomore. He wanted to mentor me. He saw that I had promise as a writer.  He was Jewish and secular. Two things my mother could not abide.

And now, more than 10 years after I shed the shackles of my faith I still feel too guilty to write freely. I went in the wrong direction, forged the wrong neural pathways. The ones I need do not exist. Writing in my voice feels much like learning a new language. In youth your brain moves freely to find its truth, like an amoeba shifting between poles. I sense my truth, but I can’t access it. What if it’s too weird? Too gross? Too overtly sexual? What if that makes me too broken? What if people see it and know my worst secrets? And judge me. What if it costs me work? When you’re young you don’t fear because you don’t know what to fear.

I dreamt about that boy last night. He lives in my basement and he loves me, desperately. I’m dating someone else. A safe boy. A church boy named Jim. He actually existed. Jim was Tracy’s boyfriend for four years. We thought they’d marry. They were the most popular couple in the group. Athletic. Good looking. Fun. In my dream I am Tracy. I mean I’m me, but I play Tracy. I long for this other boy living in my parent’s basement. My mother refuses to let me see him. Until I tell her she cannot stop me because I am a grown woman. She realizes I am 18 and her spell breaks. I descend the stairs and say to the boy, “I love you. I will always love you. I’m breaking up with Jim, just give me time.”

“You’re so confusing,” he says. “You East Coast girls are so confusing to us on the West Coast.” This is a dream statement. He and I both lived in the Midwest. We spend the rest of the dream in a push-me pull-you state. Much like the actual dynamic in our high school days. I did love him. As much as a kid can love another when she barely knows herself. But knowing myself now I know that I never loved any other until I met my husband. This particular boy haunts my dreams because he was the last significant contact I had with my authentic self before I got lost in the forest of faith.

Our identities are shaped by the people we love. Entire selves emerge from the fires of our deepest connections. The people I loved, the men I knew all had to do with a false self, a supposed self, a self created for safety’s sake.

Most of the time I don’t think about this boy. Actually, I don’t think of him at all in my waking hours. But in sleep he visits to find resolution and I wake aware that resolution never comes.

Julio

Jose. Juan. No, Julio. Perhaps. I remember images, but not names. Never names. I worked at The Bailiwick Repertory, a Chicago theater in Boys town that featured plays and baudy shows celebrating the LGBTQ experience long before it was an acronym. It was a holdover from the 80’s, when the transgendered weren’t acknowledged, much less talked about, and being gay was a death sentence.

The Bailiwick also programmed works of new playwrights and gave new directors, like me, opportunities. But Aids had decimated the artistic community and by the early 90’s The Bailiwick grew desperate for more main stream audiences. No one came to see gay theater on the main stage and the only people interested in new works were other theater people. An artistic director and acting coach of mine once said, “You can get comped to death in this town.” His theater went under.

But before that, Julio. Yes, Julio. He came through town touring with a Mexican theater group one icy February. It was an Irish play translated into Spanish. Something haunting. Maybe a Yeats poem or a Wilde play. All male. The performers were gay, except one. Perhaps the straight guy was Jose? Nope. Can’t remember.  Simply a vacuum behind the face and the hot sinewy arms late at night as we slept out a storm on a wooden floor, the snow too blinding to leave. Julio slept in the bed above. He was sick. He warned me. Or simply told me. “He sleeps with someone in every town.” I think he said. Or maybe I asked.

The following day in rehearsal No Name no longer looked at me. He’d wanted one night and I wanted forever. I alway wanted forever. Once rejected, I no longer existed. A hole opened up within me, a familiar sinkhole. It stole my breath. It followed me everywhere anyway. I experienced momentary relief in the eyes of beautiful men who considered me beautiful, until they didn’t.

I found Julio elsewhere in the dim theater and sat next to him. I half expected him to leave. Instead, he turned and gently touched my arm. “Hi, Amy.” My name never sounded like that. I felt seen. Have you ever needed that so much in your life you thought you could die and just at that moment someone offers it? Without needing anything in return?

I don’t know if I said anything. Words often felt like sharp rocks in my mouth. I’d just as soon spare myself the agony of saying them. But I must’ve. He must’ve. Because at some point, as we sat together, he said, “You slouch. You’re so pretty. Do you try to sit up?” I thrust my chest out and sat up straight. “No,” he smiled. “Not like that.” He touched the back of my neck with one hand and my abdomen with another. “Take a deep breath.” I did. He tipped my chin forward and pulled the back of my head up. “Release your breath and tighten your tummy like this.” He demonstrated. “Pretend you have a cord from the ceiling holding you up here.” He tugged a little on my neck. “There. That feels good? Now breathe.” I sat up straight, my body felt right. “Everything feels loose, but like it’s supposed to,” I said. “Yes, you’re open now,” he said.

He was dying. Aids. In my memory he’s wearing white linen. But that can’t be right. It was a brutal February. Nevertheless, every time I see him, he’s in white linen and his feet are bare. He could’ve been 40. It’s hard to know now because, while his eyes shone like jet, his face was gray. He died that year I think. But one brief conversation left its mark.  I can recall the warmth his touch generated in my body even now. Not erotic. Something else, like the warmth sunlight offers after a storm. That’s not right. Too sentimental. I don’t have the words.

But the moment got lodged deep. Each day, at least once, I stand up straight the way he taught me. It’s involuntary. That’s what’s odd. I do it and think of him in his white linen on that freezing February day, wind howling through the walls. And I don’t know. It’s like, just the memory of him, and I can breathe. I don’t know what any of it means.