Don't forget it, Ian. It's Little Tokyo.
But all I have are my stupid words, so I'm going to do it anyway.
My plane touched down in DC three days ago after 11 days spent in Los Angeles as part of an NEA writing fellowship for theatre journalists. The journey to that fellowship started over a year ago, after I'd expressed some envy to my friend Chris after he had just returned from the same fellowship. "It's too bad they don't have something like that for film critics," I lamented.
"Listen to me very carefully," he replied. "Write, like, three or five theatre pieces in the next nine months. Then apply for this thing next year. We know that you know how to do this."
I wrote a dozen or so over the course of the year that followed. So, as Frank Black said, I applied.
And after acceptance, and weeks of emails with travel coordination and asking me to sign up for this workshop or that master class, I found myself checked into a twelfth floor hotel room overlooking downtown, hearing some of the other early arrivals talking about dinner plans just outside my door. But a sudden bout of social anxiety kept the door closed for the time being. I did eventually meet up with the group downstairs in the hotel restaurant, where I have no doubt I came off as the shifty, anxious type most likely to mumble incoherently about a lost red stapler for the next two weeks.
The next morning, at the official kickoff breakfast, the program director, Sasha, greeted me after I'd checked in with the hug of someone who'd known me for years, and then whisked me around the room to meet the Fellows already assembled, many of whom seemed just as shell-shocked by the sudden influx of new faces into their worlds as I felt.
But something in that opening hug made the first chisel cracks in whatever walls I automatically put up, and for the next 48 hours, we Fellows felt each other out, sat with new partners on every bus ride, and asked questions of one another as only a group of 25 journalists can. By the time we arrived in a dance studio on the USC campus on our third day, the ice was broken. Kay Cole showed up to shove us all into the water head first.
Kay is a choreographer, and one of the original cast members of A Chorus Line, and she lined us up in regiments, had her piano player play something peppy, and then told us to, one at a time, just dance for a few bars in whatever way it occurred to us to dance. Some were shy, some were flamboyant, I think everyone was nervous. But something about that woman allowed us to free whatever inhibitions we still had inside. When the most shy among us made a particularly triumphant breakthrough, every person there cheered like their home team had just scored the winning goal/run/touchdown/basket.
Sure, this was a dance class, and I learned the difference between Fosse, Robbins, and Balanchine, but it was more than that. This was a welcome to the trenches. We're in this foxhole together for the rest of our time here, and we damn well better trust one another to come to the rescue in the most harrowing moments of emotional and creative risk.
After that, there was no looking back. A performance art class with Tim Miller, one of the NEA Four, who had us do crazy exercises like pretending to walk on glass while having an orgasm and frying an egg and getting shot at for 18 seconds? Easy. Closing our eyes and picturing a moment when we said an emphatic "yes" or "no" in our lives, and then creating a performance art piece out of it? You think that's hard? These people have seen me try to dance like Robbins, I don't think I have any more secrets from these people.
And so it went for the rest of our time there. Every night there was a play. Once, there were two, as we went to a three-hour midnight variety show at the Steve Allen Theater that featured comics, musical acts, and a sword swallower who also downed a four-foot long balloon-animal style balloon, which never came back out after he'd swallowed it. There were shows at large theaters and small theaters, one-person shows, and casts of over a dozen.
Sometimes we'd write about what we'd seen until the small hours, and, more often, we'd go out drinking until the smallest hours that LA's prurient last call rules would allow. Those evenings almost invariably took us to the Far Bar, the closest bar to our hotel, which existed down a narrow brick alley that one would likely walk right by if not looking specifically for it. The drinking crew rotated, with some consistent members, and if I could, I'd pack them all up and ship back home with me to make them Pharmacy Bar regulars. There was the editor of an alt-weekly in Jackson Hole, who I talked with about movies, and snowboarding, and my love for the place he calls home, where Angel and I have visited three years running; the easygoing North Carolina arts writer who I want to go to rock shows with; my Duluthian smoking buddy, a sardonic character who never passed up an opportunity to mock me for my girly taste in coffee or my predilection for long-smoking cigarettes, and who made me feel like I was traveling with old friends; the San Franciscan with the distinctive laugh you enjoyed so much that you just wanted to say something funny to elicit it; the overworked, energetic, and inquisitive writer from Madison whose enthusiasm for everything was infectious; the two LA locals who gave us the inside information on wherever we were going. The joy of meeting all of these people, as well as those who I only saw during more sober daylight and early nighttime hours and loved just as much, was only checked by the unfairness of having to leave these two dozen new friends after such a brief time.
I have a new wall of VHS tapes in my brain that play back moments with each and all of these people, and that I'm deathly afraid of losing to the magnetic degradation of time.
The big, naked, exposed moments, emotion and mind laid bare, like the dance and performance art workshops.
The movie scene my group shot and edited, where I suddenly found myself setting up camera angles and yelling out "ACTION!" calling forth a movie director I never knew I had in me.
Stumbling back from the bar late at night, gales of laughter issuing from us all as we made silly jokes in our sleep deprivation and camaraderie.
Having a smoke with Duluth, and the cigar-smoking Bronxite, after a class or a show or in the second-story Japanese garden.
The opening night dinner, where I suddenly found myself exchanging first concert stories with a former editor of Rolling Stone. His was, amazingly, Monterey Pop.
Ditching a Lebanese dinner in favor of finally getting to go to an In-n-Out burger, where I discovered that the burgers are so good that a vegetarian will go there just to get everything but the meat on a bun.
Karaoke night, singing my usual "Folsom Prison Blues" and leading the traditional singalong of "Sweet Caroline", and discovering that the Korean karaoke place in Annandale isn't the only one that uses that fucked up video to accompany "Bohemian Rhapsody".
A sushi lunch with Madison where I learned more about the rigors and instability and anxieties and rewards of daily newspaper writing than I'd ever known.
Having the short play I'd written performed in front of all my peers. My words had never been performed before. Afterwards, I sat down and picked up the cup in front of me, and realized I was shaking. Hard. Later, it would be pointed out to me that I smiled blissfully through nearly the entire reading.
In one workshop, we were instructed to write the beginning of a parody review of Crimes of the Heart, a southern play that lent itself to writing in a particular southern voice. After apologizing for what I was sure to be a hugely offensive piece, I threw inhibition aside and acted out my piece like a character out of Faulkner by way of Carol Burnett, surprised to find that as I read it, everyone was laughing at my jokes and not my chicken-fried accent.
My master class with Evelyn McDonnell. I was the first of the afternoon, and she was still marveling at the lovely suite they'd given her, which even had its own Japanese tea room. So we slipped our shoes off and sat on the floor at the low table to talk about writing.
Dinner at Sasha's beautiful house in Pasadena, a whole lamb and so many Middle Eastern treats to go with it, along with front row seats to a recital and brief history of Broadway showtunes, performed by actual Broadway pros.
Workshops and lectures with too many amazing writers to list, which filled my ever-present notebook with black scrawls day after day. I haven't been quite able to go back over my notes yet; I'm still recovering from the information overload.
The afternoon spent on Balboa Island, eating fish and chips and ice cream, walking along the bay. An afternoon slotted perfectly into the schedule at a time when many of us needed to open the release valves just the tiniest bit.
A session with music critic and poptimist Ann Powers, during which she provided the pithiest summation of my own insecurities as a critic that I've ever heard: "An arm's length from creativity, we wonder if our own creativity counts."
The farewell breakfast, back in the same room as the welcome breakfast a week and a half before. Sasha and Jeff made their way around the room, offering remembrances of each Fellow as they handed out our completion certificates. Some memories were funny, some poignant, and Sasha, if you meant to make me cry with your parting words to me, then mission accomplished. This was followed by a hugfest of goodbyes that made me want to spearhead a movement to collectively cancel our plane tickets and do it all over again.
All of that just scratches the surface, really, and this is horribly incomplete, and I've talked insufficiently about every amazing person there. Every day was a new adventure, an unexpected pleasure, an indelible memory. This is what we all want life to be, a blank slate of unlimited potential as every day begins. Chris had described the fellowship as a cult, and one that you never want to leave. Indeed, I drank the Kool-Ade, yet still had to leave these fast friends as we dispersed to points north, east, and south.
I had a late departure, and a late checkout, so after I'd said my goodbyes, I went back up to my room. Emotionally and physically spent as I was, I no longer wanted to hide out in here by myself. After I'd packed, I looked out the window at Los Angeles spread out like a map below me and got all misty-eyed, missing every person and every moment already, as the final minutes ticked away.
So, to all of my friends back here at home, please excuse me if my effusive remembrances are tinged with a hint of sadness. I missed you all terribly, and am happy to be back in the warm embrace of home. I'm just suffering a little sudden withdrawal, and it'll take some time to subside. More than that, the lessons learned out there were not just about writing and creating. There were secrets revealed on the left coast about life and how to live it, and I'm anxious about heading back to the office on Tuesday and having it all slip through my fingers.
There's a way to live the life I already have in a way that more closely resembles the glimpse I had out there. And I'm going to find it.