Wednesday, November 13, 2019


By Julie Lunde

It was not a place I left behind but a movement, and the movement ended long before the song did. It is impossible for me to say when I stopped dancing, or stopped being a dancer, simply because it is still impossible to admit to myself that such things are true, that I have stopped dancing, that I am no longer a dancer. Of course these are undeniable facts, and, to me, monumental ones, yet they seem to have happened without my noticing. I have not really danced in eight years but am always telling people I do, or did, or will again, one day soon. I am not trying to explain to you, or to myself, why it is that I stopped dancing, but rather to convince myself of this basic truth. 
Ballet is a sport, an art, that is more about goodbyes than it is about greetings. Beyond a certain age you do not hear about people taking up ballet anymore. I started dancing when I was just four years old and my ballet slippers were no longer than the palm of my hand is now. It was at a school called Miss Caroline’s, and my sisters and I spent the majority of class time skipping in circles with hands on our hips. Imagination was a central facet of the technique we learned; we were always skipping towards made-up butterfly bushes or flower beds or, come Halloween, pretend bowls of candy. At skip breaks we would pretend to apply make-up in front of the long mirror, whisking invisible brushes in the hot air around our cheeks. And perhaps that was what I first loved about it, anyways; the magic games of the imagination, permission to picture any sophisticated dream we could think up.
When we are very young, ballet is all about this kind of romance; ballet itself is an infinitely romantic notion when we picture it in conversation with young bodies. In high school I worked for a summer at the local dance store, where I helped many new mothers pick out all sorts of pink, sparkly tulles for their daughters. Some of the mothers had even been dancers themselves. They always immediately gravitated towards the glittered leotards with sewn-on skirts, even when I cautioned them that these things were usually against dress code. But these outfits did not care about the rules; they were designed for the photos and memories of the first class, and sometimes I let myself get swept up in the excitement of them, too.
            For most people, both in and out of the dance world, the story goes that romance fades when reality sets in. As dancers age, I noticed, the focus always shifted towards the dark side of the dance world. People who hear about teen or adult ballerinas are always eager to ask after the horror stories, the eating disorders, the girls who ruined their feet or performed on pointe despite stress fractures and devastating injuries. I went to enough summer dance intensives to know that these stories were all true, not exaggerated, and perhaps even understatements. I didn’t just hear these stories, I saw them. But perhaps I was lucky; for me ballet held no trauma, only joy. It really was that beautiful, and I really was that happy while I did it. The worst thing ballet ever did to me was abandon my body; it left me before I was ready to tell it goodbye.

These days, I can get a whiff of any strong, antiseptic pine tree smell and immediately feel that I am thirteen again. This was the scent of the extra-strength aerosol hairspray I used to shellac my hair immobile, and sprayed on every fifteen minutes during performance days. I soaked my blonde hair almost brunette this way, and it was a nervous tic more than anything. The ritual of getting ready for a show was long and precise, and this was a nervous tic too. I could easily spend an hour or two on hair and makeup. Everything I had learned about applying makeup by then was in service of these shows. The first time I ever wore lipstick was for a dance recital. As the dances grew more complex, I eventually learned how to layer concealer, foundation, blush, and bronzer, apply fake eyelashes, curl hair, and even glue on eye jewels using the semi-permanent eyelash adhesive. In my regular life, I did not wear makeup at all.
By high school I had been dancing quite intensely at a different studio for many years. It was far from the end of youth, and farther still from the beginning of adulthood, but it was true that, when I did begin to transition away from girlhood, it all took place within those studios. One morning my partner had me lifted over his head, promenading me around the room in arabesque, when I spotted, in the mirror, a small red dot peeking out from the leg of my leotard. I was sixteen. I excused myself and ran to the front office, where one of the teachers made a big fuss over me. “I only have a tampon, have you used one before?” She asked. I said yes even though the answer was no, then hustled to the bathroom and pretended this was not a big deal. I borrowed a pair of warm-up shorts from a younger girl hanging out in the dressing room and raced back to the studio five minutes later, where we rehearsed without another issue. 
When I was even younger, just starting middle school, my favorite dance teacher instructed us once to treat the barre as if it were a boy we had a crush on, and we all giggled. In keeping with this directive, we were not supposed to turn our backs on the barre, instead turning in to face it when we switched sides, and we were meant to touch it delicately, even during difficult balances, as though we were only holding hands with it. Outside of the dance studio I did not hold hands with boys, or even talk to them. This made it especially exciting when the barre was switched out for real, live men, when I first started partnering. 
At home, during Nutcracker season, I was usually paired with Jamal, a dancer from Julliard who commuted to Connecticut for our rehearsals. In our first roles together we danced as Clara and The Prince, and my mom, when she met him, shook his hand and said, “My daughter’s first prince!” 
At dance camp partnering went a little different. Because we were all young enough, on the cusp of puberty, I was larger than almost all the male dancers my age, though still smaller than many of the women, which meant that I was paired with one of the smallest men in the room when we learned a contemporary pas de deux one day. My partner was supposed to stand bent over, torso parallel to the ground, while I balanced atop his back like a starfish, legs and arms outstretched in opposite directions. We were supposed to hold the pose for sixteen counts, but only four counts in, I began to feel a vibration. His legs were shaking, and it became clear that his body could not support my weight. I was about to remove myself when the instructor noticed us, and anticipated my deliberation. “Hold the pose,” he ordered. I tried to think myself lighter, and, with a rash desperation, did not breathe. There were four counts left when his legs gave way. I pancaked him, two ballet bodies splayed out on the marley, mine atop his. And then rose, and stood, heavy, counting every pound of my weight. 
It was only a moment, and when it was done I went down to lunch with everyone and bought a small cup of vanilla soft-serve, which, yes, they allowed us to purchase at the café. I ate a cup nearly every day, which perhaps suggests I was not serious enough or committed enough to be a dancer anyways, but still, I look at photos of my body then and think a few more cups of ice cream probably wouldn’t have hurt.

In the years after college, when I lived in New York City, I took up classes at the Joffrey Ballet School downtown. By then I hadn’t been dancing seriously for at least four years. I usually took Beginner Ballet II or Intermediate, though often I preferred the first. In this class, first of all, I could be almost assured that I would be the best dancer in the room. But the main reason that I liked it was that I could know nothing would be beyond my reach; I had found I could no longer command my body to move as it used to. Some nights I woke up elated from dreams where I did eight, nine, ten pirouettes, totally effortless, but found in class that my body could not get the balance right anymore. On my first day at Joffrey, I had forced myself into splits when I felt the instructor’s eyes on me, and now my hip flexors seemed permanently injured from the effort.
The intermediate class, because it was more advanced, was a more mixed bag. There were dancers there who took these classes recreationally, who had started from scratch with Beginner I, and then there were dancers who had grown up with ballet, as I had. It was easy to tell the difference, both by technique and by attitude. The recreational dancers were more motivated, more eager to improve, but also seemed to have more fun. The ex-dancers, on the other hand, were all very serious, not looking to make friends, and sour, as though we’d all been forced to come here. We got to class early to stake out our favorite spots at the barre and then scowled if another dancer tried to stand too close.
            For a few good months I successfully made it to the intermediate class at least once a week, but it didn’t last. One day a recreational dancer came up to me in the dressing room and told me she looked forward to coming every week because she loved to watch me dance. She asked, “How long have you been taking the classes here?” It was a very generous compliment, but of course I took it the wrong way, and so I skipped class the next week. Even this was a gradual stop; I went back to Joffrey a few more times, but much less frequently, and then I eventually moved away and it didn’t matter anyways.
For a long time, after I stopped dancing, my interactions with ballet were pervaded with this kind of rank bitterness. My parents brought me to see Misty Copeland in Don Quixote and as we walked out of the theater I remarked that she seemed to be “having an off day.” I was bitter that ballet had not chosen me, that it had picked seemingly everyone else. I was always seeing Facebook photos of home friends and camp friends who were dancing in companies, who were corps members or soloists, who had made a career out of the thing that I loved the most. Meanwhile I was working at a publishing company, which I did like, but I was crushed when my boss told me that she had actually deferred college for a year so she could go dance in a company. My boss worked at the same company as me now, even, coincidentally, had the same name as me, and it was easy to see her as a doppelganger, the owner of a life I had failed at. She had managed to do both, company and college; I had not known this was an option. 
Of course, the truth is that I made several small decisions over time that, step-by-step, led me away from the studio and stage, and I had done this for a few reasons, and many good ones. These decisions were sometimes things I did, but more often, things I didn’t do. For instance, I did not commute into the city every day for preprofessional lessons at one of the serious schools, as the head of my studio had suggested when I was twelve years old. I did not choose to be homeschooled so I would have more time to dance, nor did I even insist on dancing every day. I did audition for a chance to attend the summer dance school year-round, but declined when they offered me a partial scholarship. After high school I did not go to a conservatory or audition for companies; I picked my undergraduate school on the basis of academics alone. I didn’t even take dance classes at college, though I puttered around on a Bollywood dance troupe for a semester before I quit that too. And, somewhere along that path, the doors began to close to me, and I found myself unambiguously locked outside, not only from the elite ballet world, but also from the dance world in general. There was a time, during the winters, when I would put on Nutcracker music and perform my old routines in the kitchen, but I stopped doing this, fearing that I would not remember the steps anymore. 

As I saw it, there were two possible narratives for any ballerina. One, less favorable, was an early retirement. As my dance class aged, we got smaller, a general whittling away that occurred as the pressure ramped up and people got injured or lost interest. This narrative belonged to those who danced, but were not defined by it. The other narrative followed the young heroine (or hero) who, despite the odds, made a real go of it, persevered, succeeded and was a dancer. For a long time, I saw only these two options, and no in-between. Either you were serious or you were not.
I did not think that I would be whittled away, did not imagine that there would be a last time I wore my pointe shoes, or at least did not think it would come before my thirties. I did not notice as the time between dance classes stretched from one week to two, then to months, and then to years. When I finally did notice, when it was impossible for me to continue hiding in my denial, I saw that I was in fact a part of the first narrative, and I felt like I had given up. 
When you are at the ballet, certain decisions are irrevocable, but that does not mean everything is forever out of reach. If there is a moral to this story it is something about what really happens after the curtain falls, the final curtsy, the hairspray bottle finally emptied. After I quit ballet, and then, after I quit my job at the publishing house, I landed at a graduate program in creative writing, where the games of imagination are equally inviting, and I am just as happy. Thus the same cracked hubris that had me criticizing Copeland has now led me to repurpose the iconic Didion essay as a vessel for my own goodbye. 
It is a little different to say goodbye to an activity than it is to say goodbye to a city, though I do not see this difference as fundamentally altering the storyline. Eula Biss, who wrote her own masterful response essay to Didion’s, a Goodbye cataloging her own experience leaving New York, wrote in a craft essay that Goodbye To All That is “a narrative about narrative.” She wrote: “I tell you this just in case you are still tempted to believe that Goodbye to All That is about New York.” It was not a place I left behind, but it was the same story regardless; not a place, exactly, but the first of many possible narratives I had to bid goodbye to.
When my parents came out recently to visit me at the grad program in Tucson, I asked them to bring the dead pointe shoes I’d left behind in my closet, the ones I’d saved—six or seven pairs. Then I sat on the bed and pulled out a shoe, turning it over in my hands as if it were a foreign object. I did not put it on at first because I was worried that I would not remember how to tie the ribbons, worried because, if I did not remember, I would not be able to look it up; it would be too painful to have to read instructions on the thing I loved best. Then I did it anyways. I put a shoe on my left foot and my hands automatically began wrapping the laces, tying the knots. I could not tell you how I did this, but my body remembered for me, effortless. The shoes are on now and I have overcome the first hurdle. Perhaps I will take another ballet class soon; yet I have to imagine that, one day, this knowledge will leave me too.

Thursday, November 7, 2019



My mother mainlines Catholicism. She recounts stories of kneeling pilgrimages to the cathedral in the city center of Guadalajara. She crawled alongside her grandmother, in the dirt streets, for penance. My mother was twelve. A child. 

(What could you have done, mama. That needed that sort of repentance. What could you have needed forgiven?)

Even now, when my mother serves as a Eucharistic minister at a small Catholic church in Florida, she weeps every time she distributes the Eucharist. This is because each time, she feels so close to God, she is overwhelmed by tears. This sounds sweet, if not a little sad in theory, but in practice, it is hilarious. 

A scenario: You are walking up to receive communion. You are missing Sunday football, or thinking about whether the priest is hot or not, or focusing on holding your hands out nicely for the host and… there she is. A little Mexican woman. Tears streaming down her face. Grinning with both lines of teeth. Body of Christ, she sobs at you. Uh, thanks. I mean, Amen. You rush back to your pew. She blows her nose. 

I have two great loves in my life. My mother and Reality TV. I watch all the trash I can download:  I watch The Bachelor. The Bachelorette. Bachelor in Paradise. Love Island. Summer House. 90 Day Fiance. Love and Hip Hop. The Real World. Real Housewives. Teen Mom. But my favorite is Vanderpump Rules.

The premise: The show follows waitstaff and bartenders and the most incestuous restaurant in West Hollywood, Lisa Vanderpump’s S.U.R., an acronym that stands for--and I cannot stress this enough-- sexy, unique restaurant. This ragtag group of wannabe actors, singers, musicians, models, and ??? (Celebrities? Influencer? Rich-people-in training?) spends most of the show drinking, sleeping with each other, and slinging zingy one-liners and tequila in equal measure. This, by all accounts, sounds absolutely insipid. The show is cringeworthy and cruel and very, very, very white. And I cannot get enough of it.
[A blessed metal and hardwood depiction of the Virgin Mary depicted with my name]
My first Confession was when I was in second grade. I remember having to sit behind a little not-so-anonymizing screen, with a priest who sported a shock of white hair and skin like parchment paper.  He asked me to recount my sins. We had practiced this, in Religious Ed, but I remember panicking at the big reveal. (A child, what could I have needed forgiven?)
My sins, I squeaked, and then, looking him dead in the eyes, I lied. I made up some age-appropriate atrocities. He gave me a list of Hail Mary’s to do as penance. I pretended to pray in the pew, all the while wondering if his skin would disitigrate, ash, if I were to prod at it. 

Your first Confession, my mother said afterwards, wiping at her face. She was beaming.

People fucking HATE Reality TV. Men especially. It often makes me feel small and idiotic-- childish even, with some paper-skinned old man lecturing me: this is toxic, garbage, brain-rotting fluff. 

Reality TV hits everything too hard. Everything is too much. Connections are too obvious. Insults are too cruel. Everything is turned up-- full volume, speakers crackling. Everything feels high stakes, and yet, so little feels like it matters.

It’s not just me, who loves the excess. I take some comfort in this. Vanderpump Rules has been called the “best show in recent memory.” Roxane Gay has described scenes as the most amazing moments of television. Rihanna watches it religiously. Martin Scorsece has been marked as one of its biggest fans. 

Yes, Vanderpump Rules is craven and toxic and at often times about nothing at all. Yes, Vanderpump Rules is a series of exercises in humility, in loss, in forgiveness. In asking to be forgiven. Yes, it is too much. 

This essay is too obvious. Confessional X Confessional. This essay is also not obvious at all, as in, nonsensical, as in pulling too hard, as in-- where am I going with this? Too much and not enough. 


If we’re going to hit this metaphor hard: the holy trinity of S.U.R. is Stassi, Katie, and Kristen.

Stassi, Katie, and Kristen are the glue of the show, which is to say, they are three best friends who act erratically, drink constantly, and treat each other with horrifying vitriol and tear-rendering tenderness depending on the episode. They met waiting tables at S.U.R approximately ten years ago, promptly started dating each other’s friends, and the rest is history. Stassi is the ringleader, bottle-blonde with a fierce sense of loyalty— so fierce that anything seen as disloyal is met by violent threats (my personal favorite: I am going to crucify her). Katie’s the lieutenant; she looks at Stassi like she hung the moon. 
And then, there’s Kristen. Kristen has a t-shirt line. Kristen stalks her ex-boyfriends like a P.I. Kristen has been fired, banned, and removed from the shows premises on multiple occasions but like an eager bout of mold, keeps coming back.

Kristen also slept with Stassi’s boyfriend, Jax. Twice. On her couch. While watching the movie Crash. 

When Stassi—a bloodhound for infidelity— finds out, she smacks Kristen across the face. She uses some choice derogatory words. Kristen is weeping, she finally admits it: I did it, we did it, we broke your trust. Stassi will never speak with her again.

Approximately one year later, Kristen and Stassi hold each other up, both bridesmaids, both joyfully weeping, at Katie’s wedding.

There is something really beautiful about watching my mother during Mass. Watching how washes the chalice and pours the wine, screws up her nose at the smell of the skunky church liquor. The way she picks a family from the pews, asks their children if they would like to help her bring up the gifts. How she folds with white clothes, so careful. And yes, how she cries. Big, gulping sobs. How she smiles so big, like a wedge of grapefruit. How she is the loudest AND WITH YOUR SPIRIT. My mother’s relationship with religion is the most stunning excess I know. It leaves me starving. The world doesn't deserve my mother.
[A photo of a photo of me, on my first Communion. Also, Jax Taylor asserting that he is "the number one guy in this group."]
The fourth wall: there is a moment, on reality TV shows, when the participants look straight at the camera. Interspersed between scenes of clubbing and drink throwing and veiled arguing over each other’s drug use, there is direct eye-contact with the viewers, recorded in retrospect by spoken in the present tense so as not to take us out of the scene. These are called confessionals.

An example:
Stassi looks directly at the camera. Her sex-tape has been released without her consent. We’ve just seen a scene of her crying in Kristen’s apartment about it. But now we are in a staged room. She is sitting on a velvet chair. It’s just us and her. 

I’ve been going through a lot of shit right now, she says. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have. Her big blue eyes are tinged with red. Viewer, you feel for her. 

In those moments, we get emotional retrospect and tears and admittance of lies and love. They are framed as if these reveals are happening in time, are personal conversations between viewer and cast member, all while flitting back and forth between perspectives, from scene to intimacy and back again. 

We flash back to Stassi and Kristen in the apartment. This is a year later-- both are dating someone new, Jax long forgotten. They are both crying for Stassi. What has happened to her is horrific. 

What has happened to her is horrific.

What has happened to her.

What has happened.

The illusion of the confessional: we can have retrospect during. We can turn to the lazy, unblinking lens of the camera and time can stop. We can look back and forward and directly at the viewer. 


I guess what I’m trying to say is-- how did Stassi forgive Kristen? 


["I really, really hate heteronormative fucking bullshit"-Ariana Madix. Candles of La Virgen de Guadalupe y Angelito de la Guardia.]

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Red River, Big Love

I remember coming along with my father, as a kid, to his office in Rockville, Maryland near White Flint Mall. The mall featured a Krispy Kreme store, or maybe only a Mrs. Fields’, and we occasionally brought home a warm chocolate chunk cookie. His office was in a complex on Executive Boulevard, and we’d drive there along the D.C. Beltway in his Dodge Intrepid, gold and wedged-shaped with a sunroof and a purple-black coolant stain across the left rear seat. Red River Shipping was the name of his business, and the business of Red River was to transport U.S. military cargo, or sometimes foodstuffs in true bulk: their first contract called for the carrying, on a leased container vessel, of 18,000 metric tons of soybean oil to Karachi, Pakistan. His father founded Red River in 1983, ten years before his death on a tennis court at the age of sixty-five and, just before that, my birth: his first grandkid, beginning to breathe. In 1987, my father took over. Like mine, his relationship with his father was among the tenderest in his life; as a teen, he’d call his skinny dad “old stick,” obnoxiously, and his father would call him “young prick.” His dad was the first African American law professor at Arizona State, and Red River became, eight years after its inception, the first African American business to own a vessel traversing oceans under the U.S. flag. The ship was called the MV (Motor Vessel) Advantage and then the MV Monet and, finally, the MV Buffalo Soldier, after the U.S. Army’s first all-black peace-time regiment, formed in Kansas following the Civil War.  
But I did not appreciate that history as a kid. I mostly remember playing games from the Backyard Sports franchise at a desktop computer while my father did his work nearby—and the time we got stuck in an elevator for maybe an hour, so that I got scared of elevators and did not take them for years.  

My father’s business went bankrupt in 2012, as I applied to colleges, some in Virginia and some out of state. I want to make clear that money was not a big problem for us, even then: my mother earned enough as an attorney to keep us more than comfortable. I couldn’t afford the fancy private schools that offered admission, and my parents cut back some, and when my sister went away to school, my mother left the federal government for private practice. That was the extent of our financial burden.
That’s all to say that this isn’t about money.
But my father was retired at the age of forty-seven. And he was not ready to think about working again (and it was our good fortune that he did not need to, right away). He spent a lot of time walking the dogs in the woods—hours and hours at Great Falls, a state park along the Potomac River. He took care of everything at home, became deft in the kitchen, and listened a lot to NPR, for the sound of others’ voices. Every morning, he drove my sister to high school, and every afternoon, he picked her up. He and I would have long text exchanges full of our language—lots of dude’s and nonsensical variations (dudemander, dudemandino, so on). I was lonely a lot my freshman year of college, like lots of people, and he was always there.  
But, of course, there was the other side of that availability, and that was isolation. A parent of a friend asked him at a party if, now jobless, he felt he was wasting his life. When they’d speak on the phone, one of his best friends would encourage him to get back out there, which he did not then want to hear. And every time he and my mother met others their age and began to get acquainted, he’d have to say, when talk got to work (and it did get there, most always): I’m retired. On a family trip he met another man who’d been out of work for a long time and they spoke for hours, connecting on a deep level. The man had been driving motorcycles in the mountains, enjoying the stiff wind against his body, the view along the Atlantic coast.
My father did not want another job; that’s the thing. If anything, I’d say that he wanted his job back. At Red River, he’d put in sixteen-hour days, trying to save the business his father, his hero, had entrusted to him, the business his sisters and mother sat on as board members. He felt cheated by the U.S. government, pushed out, blackballed. He felt he’d let his family down.
To lose your job is emasculating. To watch your business capsize—no, your family’s business—and to then pack up your office all by yourself is something worse.

I sometimes wondered if I would be one of those kids who assumed the family business once a parent stepped away. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because even then I felt like I wasn’t a businessperson: I didn’t care about buying things and didn’t like raising my voice, so who would I be to do the work of leading, persuading, making all the hard decisions? (The italicized phrase comes from an interview my father did with Black Enterprise Magazine in 1995, the first year Red River got out of the red). I wasn’t a negotiator, just liked to do my own thing, in my own way, often by myself.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t highly value the specific work he did, the hard-scrapping against much larger companies for government contracts (his had five full-time employees), the hiring of able-bodied crew for journeys into the Gulf of Aden, the everyday considerations as to what would let his business do more than simply tread.    
No, no: in this space I want to say, mostly, that I am so very grateful to my father for what he did, for our family, as the president of Red River. For providing for my sister and me alongside my mother; for giving us an example, alongside hers, of what it means to give your mind and heart to any endeavor, to push, push, push. For carrying on his father’s legacy of black excellence, for taking his business far in an industry dominated by white folks—and for then staying there, holding on. For fighting for his business, which I know he did, which I watched him do.

I said before that Red River’s demise injured my father, altered the trajectory of his life, and I do not mean to delve further, there, because that isn’t what this display is about. No. What I want, for this single week in which I get to put whatever I want in this small space, is to express appreciation. To honor both my father and his dad: the men I most want to emulate, as a guy now in his mid-twenties, still pretty young but trying to do things right.  
I am grateful to my father for what he did in his career, but I am equally grateful—no, more—for the person he’s been to me always. For his encouraging me to pursue my passions, these words set down against this screen; for his careful listening, always, when I tell him about something that bothers; for his eagerness, sometimes, to get a rise out of me, my irritation never not followed by a laugh. (Dad! I’ll say. Quit it! And then we’ll chuckle, both of us.). For never making me feel lesser—not when I help him in the kitchen and he knows way more than me, not when he gets into economics (he has an MBA) and I ask very simple questions. For driving me to sports and watching me play; for driving me across the country when I moved out here; for driving with me to North Carolina last summer, when we tried to learn about our family’s (somewhat erased) history.
For telling me what his father told him: You’ll always be my horse.

Hey, Dad: I’ve written this before but don’t think I’ve ever told you: in that stuck elevator on Executive Boulevard I was pretty freaked out—not enough light, not enough space—but it was okay, you know, because you were beside me.  
Father, right beside the son.


My grandfather’s watch, which doesn’t run right anymore. I wore it my first day of teaching at the University of Arizona, to channel him.

One of my father’s ties, which he gave to me. He doesn’t wear these for business anymore, only for social occasions. Like, maybe one day my sister or I will get married, or I’ll finish this degree—something like that.

A map of the Red River Basin, which stretches from New Mexico to Mississippi. I used to think my grandfather maybe named the company Red River because something important happened on that waterway. For instance, a lot of the basin is in Texas, and my grandmother gave birth to my father’s older sister in San Antonio in 1954, after days of driving from Chicago: my grandparents slept in the car, again and again, during that trip through Jim Crow America.

The pen my father gave me last year, which came in a crisp black box. He told me: These pens are from the Red River days.

A copy of an email my father sent in 2001, asking for a replacement remote for his Panasonic sound system, now in my possession. In the message he asks where he can purchase a new one. He sends the email from his Red River email account: I have the message because, along with the Panasonic, my father gave me a manila folder, containing several papers; it was in there.

A news story in the Washington Post from June of 1995: “Rockville’s Red River Shipping: Minnow in an Ocean of Sharks.” In the piece, my father is quoted: “We like the break-bulk markets. There’s so much competition in the container business. These companies are monoliths. They would step on you. They’d crush you.” That’s what his voice is like, you know: erudite but also playful.

The piece from Black Enterprise Magazine. My father talks about leaving his job at Pacific Northwest Bell—he’d been living in Seattle with my mother, though they’d for a time broken up—and moving to D.C. to take over his dad’s business. (My mother came a year later, a decision she’s described as a real “leap of faith,” a vote of confidence in their relationship).

I sleep in these shirts a lot. They say, Red River Shipping, and they, Buffalo Soldier. I’ve slept in them so many times that the fabric is soft, and there are sweat stains under the arms, and in one of the shirts there are large holes—all the better for ventilation.

My grandfather’s life in the space of a page, with a photograph of him in his office at ASU, his face a whole lot like my father’s and also, aside from skin tone and hair, a good bit like mine.

The MV William H. Pitsenbarger, the final ship operated by Red River. Once, as a family, we visited the Port of Oakland because the ship was docked there. I was in the eighth grade, my sister in sixth. We walked up the gangplank, went down the hallways, ate lunch in the captain’s quarters. It was the first, and only, time my sister and I went onboard one of my father’s vessels.
My parents wanted us to go because they knew the business was in trouble, but they did not tell us that, then. That day was California sun and Pacific Ocean and proud family. That’s all.

Bookman Old Style: I remember, even now, that this is my father’s favorite font.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My Body Is a Wunderkammer


The Chambre des merveilles. The Cabinet of curiousities. Wunderkammer. In the mid-sixteenth century, the bizarre, strange, and fantastic were placed in rooms and cabinets, an open presentation for others to peruse. A “unicorn horn” (narwhal tusk) was placed next to a rare stamp was placed next to soft lichen was placed next to blue china teacups. All manner of captivating things were collected and catalogued, a prototype of the first museum.
Skull c/o Craft Store
In considering cabinets of curiosity, I want to focus on what, exactly, curious signifies.
1.     Eager to know or learn something.
2.     Strange; unusual.
Lungs by Sarah Bates
And strange?
1.     Unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand.
2.     Not previously visited, seen, or encountered.

Foot by Samantha Coxall
So wunderkammers are displays of unusual objects. And living in this world, in this body, I'm forced to see my body as a display for others, as a space for people to visit, see, or encounter me. Walking home from a reading the other night, I was catcalled twice.
1.     An old man, wolf-whistling in a dark alley.
2.     A young boy, yelling “you look nice” from an electric scooter.

Eyes by Maddie Norris
There is something unsettling about the way my body is an object for others to look at, to touch, to assess. I'm just a sexy teacup for men to graze, a rare stamp to awe over. I want to fracture their gaze. I want to unsettle. I want to say, “You want my body on display? Here it is.”