DISCOUNT -- I decided that Midsummer Metaphors discount didn't go far -- or long -- enough. I'm lowering the special price for now on my book GODS OF WATER AND AIR through the end of July to just $10. And offering a sample of the memoir and poems in it here -- below. Just email me at email@example.com if you want to grab one!
I love writing in the summer, so the title Midsummer Metaphors is literally what I'm doing in these mild months -- often outdoors, in a nearby field or on my decks overlooking trees full of birds and squirrels and breezes. The flow of nature encourages my creative work in a way that being cooped up inside in the winter does not. Childhood in southern California is to blame, where we opened up all the doors and windows and ate outside on the patio every night. I didn't know a house was meant to contain everything a family does. And the beach. Lots of beach time changes you.
So her's the taste -- "Eight en Croix," a story of growing up as the bipolar rocket scientist's kid.
Croix, Four on a Side, Every Day Until You Die
At age thirteen, you need something glorious in your life
just to breathe. My mother was at Long Beach State afternoons earning her
teaching credential, and Dad was at his new apartment. Everything was changing,
so I needed a daily dose of tradition. I found it at Rosalie and Alva’s Ballet
Theatre on Weymouth Corners, next to Perry's Five-and-Dime, where after four
o'clock class I could load up on bubble gum and chocolate bars.
"Raychelle, point your
toe!" shouted Rosalie. Six years of study, and she never pronounced my
name right, but she was like radar on an unpointed toe.
Rosalie pounded her stick on the
floor and bull-horned another order – something about a bent knee. With her
hair tucked under a white turban and her coral-painted lips and hair, she
looked like Rhonda Fleming playing a female yogi. Rosalie raced around the
room, bending an arm here, poking a leg there, shouting. Everything about her
was theatrical and excessive, from her fabulous arches to her rusty garage door
"You have great
potential," she had told me. "You may even have talent, if you can
find the drive. If you want to dance, you can't think about anything
This was a problem for a shy
dreamer with too many hobbies, but I was a faithful student, taking four
classes a week. Rosalie was a model of her own philosophy. Though her dancing
had been in movie musicals and night clubs, not in ballet companies, she was
devoted to high art, and hoped her students would exceed her career of
high-lift ballroom dancing with Alva.
Talent was a potent word, one my
mother shied away from when I showed her my stories and poems. "Very few
people have talent," she said. "It's inborn." Dad said even
straight A's did not mean you could rest on your talent. I was desperate for
someone to discover it had been born in me, talent for something. I knew I had
a destiny that had something great about it. Rosalie seemed to think I might
have talent, which in her view had nothing to do with being born.
In a studio filled with music,
passion and pink satin, springing to my toes on a pliant wood floor, despite
intense pressure on my knees and toe joints, I could feel talent steaming off
my skin. It propelled me into the air. I imagined I might pause in mid-air, as
they said Nijinsky did. So I did my eight en croix, four on a side, figuring I
would do these exercises every day until I died, because satin toe shoes were
levitation devices. With them, I could float onto imagination's gauzy stage, a
soloist at last. The cavernous, raftered studio had once been a warehouse and
still smelled faintly of walnuts, but it was so capacious that I could leap and
spin across it far and fast, feeling myself an object of pure momentum. Ballet
was one thing girls could do better than boys, better than anything in my
father's supersonic world of satellites, apogees and payloads. Music was energy
flowing through me, and I needed no quadratic equation to catch its waves and
Rosalie said I had some physical
defects, but determination could overcome almost any defect. I had just seen
Margot Fonteyn dance at the Hollywood Bowl with that handsome Russian defector
Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet. They
were so perfectly paired and he danced behind her with such reverence that I
felt I could do pliés forever to dance like that.
"Talent will out," my
mother said mysteriously.
I did not know what this meant, but
would rather hear Rosalie say, "Raychelle, you must work, work,
With my tendons stretched so taut
in an arabesque I thought they might snap, I thought, if this isn't talent, I
give up. Rosalie came over and whacked my leg with her stick.
"That's where your arabesque
must be. Have you gained some weight?"
I had no reply, but she had moved
on to her next demolition.
I was three inches shorter than
everyone my age and getting worried, but Rosalie said that at twelve, no one
knows how your body will come out. She kept yelling at me to tuck my bottom
under, and there was that thing about my knees, but I could do three pirouettes
in a row and jump so high the class once broke into applause. Surely this was
Thanksgiving dinner, I looked at my father's squat Russian family, their
muscular legs and unwaisted torsos. Aunt Fritzi and Uncle Ed both had paunches
and necks so short they looked like those Russian wooden dolls that nest inside
each other. They had munchkin-stumpy legs. Thanks to Rosalie, I possessed a
power of concentration that was going to shape my growing body. I studied
photos of Pavlova, Karsavina, and Nijinsky. They were Russian, weren't they?
next week, I lifted my leg so high I could feel it pull at the back of my
tongue. I would never be able to do this again. I waited for Rosalie as she
walked slowly down the line of girls, frowning. She stopped.
Raychelle." She whacked my quivering foot. "Now don't sickle your
was the week Dad moved out for good. It was just like another of his trips to
Cape Canaveral for a missile launch, only Mom said he was never coming back.
You would think after all the fighting, I would have been prepared, but never was so huge a word it made me
kept telling me that I was starting the best part of my life. My English
teacher said that in high school I could be on the school newspaper. Joyce's
mother said high school was the best time for a girl, with cheerleading and
proms. Lana's mom said I would be adorable in poodle skirts and as a dancer be
a hit at sock hops. Rosalie said I could not afford to be distracted by these
things. In a year or two, I should be auditioning for a major ballet school.
what about college?" I asked.
looked surprised. "Dancers don't have time for college."
was time to decide, and it was no contest. Ballet – one hundred, other stuff –
zero. Ballet was my talent, the single thing right with my life.
was a shock, since my family had always assumed I would go to college, but it
was not hard to decide. Ballet was the single thing right with my life.
1962, America was just inventing divorce as a social institution, but in San
Pedro, it lowered your standing. Once, we had been the well-off newcomers on
the hill, but now our Italian, Portuguese and Croatian neighbors, with their
relatives crammed into tiny bungalows, pitied us. My brother and I showed up at
PTA meetings and Fourth of July barbecues with only a mom. My girl friends
subtly flaunted their intact families. My parents said none of this was our
fault, but I knew it was my fault, with my smart mouth (Dad said), my fusses
(said Mom). Clearly, I was the family wrecking ball and it was up to me to fix
just a garden party to you girls,” Rosalie said.
just done a series of leaps across the huge floor – not once, but three times.
Rosalie shook her head so hard her dangling
earrings hit her cheeks. She made a mock tragic face and put her forehead on
her arm, pretending to sob, always getting more out of us with laughs.
more! Just so I don't have to jump off the roof!"
summer show was coming and soon Rosalie would be casting. We summoned what
little breath we had and did the fourth series of jumps.
stopped me after class. "Raychelle, for this show, I have something
special in mind for you."
explained that the part she had in mind would be a short Russian dance, a duet
with Alva. I became so excited that it was difficult to concentrate as she
explained that it would be a showy folk dance, as authentic as possible, with
shoulder shimmying and foot-stamping, perfect for me, since I was part Russian.
you interested? Do you think you can come to a lot of rehearsals and work very
worked so hard at anything in my life. When I had been a butterfly or a
snowflake, all I had to worry about was not stepping on the feet of the girl in
front of me. This year, there would only be two of us onstage for two and a
half minutes. That was one hundred and fifty seconds. A second is a long time
in ballet. A pirouette only takes five. A leap, including preparation and
landing, only ten. Basically, I had to be perfect and then leap onto Alva's
shoulder with split-second timing, because that was when the music stopped.
nearly quit the first few times we ran through it, but Rosalie was very
patient, talking me through my first lift by demonstrating with Alva. After
only four tries, I found myself atop Alva's shoulder, staring down at the world
from a height of eight feet. Talk about levitating!
shrewdly made use of my rhythm and jumping ability, as well as Alva’s strength
and presence. She had a sense of pizzazz that wowed them in San Pedro. It was
going to be a magnificent work, the centerpiece of our show.
responsible for our own costumes in the shows, either purchasing or making
them. Since this was a solo, Rosalie left its design to me. My mother and I got
a library book on Russian costumes. She took me to the May Company and we found
a white cotton blouse with loose sleeves. Mom sewed a peasant skirt out of an
embroidered tablecloth and made me a little black vest. Rosalie banished the thought
of toe shoes – this was a folk dance! I had to wear something that looked like
boots, but softer. We made cloth leggings to pull over my black ballet
slippers. Rosalie found a garland of fake flowers for my hair. She arranged for
the local newspaper to photograph me and Alva in our finale pose.
will make a great picture for the papers," she said.
There I was, looking like a real Russian dancer, my waist-length hair pulled
over one shoulder the way the Moiseyev dancers wore it. The San Pedro News
Pilot actually mentioned my name. They also wrote about the bleachers Alva had
installed to accommodate a larger audience, along with their new, machine drawn
from friends and neighbors that they were all coming, though not all approved
of my plan to become a dancer. Lana's mother gave me advice from a movie. This
was to be expected from a one-time actress.
must see 'The Red Shoes' darling," Mrs. Malloy said. She was always
telling me to pattern my life after some movie. "You don't want to end up
like that poor girl, throwing herself off the roof of the theater because she
couldn't choose between love and the stage."
thought anyone who had a ballet career and killed herself was a moron.
don't you think about joining the Peace Corps," said Joyce's mom. She
thought everything President Kennedy did was wonderful, especially this new
program to send rich kids around the world to help poor kids. "After
you've been to Ghana or Chile, you can decide about the stage." She said
'the stage' as if it were akin to leaping off a roof.
mother responded with, "Well, if that's what you really want" and
changed the subject.
before the performance, my mother decided we should go all-out for my
appearance. She took me to the corner hair stylist for a chic new haircut. The
stylist’s hand swashed through the air, as he lopped off my waist-length mop. A
cut here, a cut there; he said he was making the most of my "Oriental
eyes." I waited to look until he swooped off the cloth and there in the
mirror was a Chinese doll with a chin-length bob.
chic!" he said.
to sleep that night secure of stardom. I looked like those girls on American
Bandstand with velvet headbands and dimples. I knew my part so well I could
dance it in my sleep.
walked into the studio the next day, took one look at me, and shrieked. Her
face twisted like a dishrag. I thought she was having a seizure. Alva came
running out of the shop.
have you done?" she screamed.
For a few
moments, we were in a standoff of mutual disbelief.
What are we going to do? Just look at her!"
voice was, as always, deep and slow. "Now, Rosalie, calm down. What's all
hair! Look at her hair – it isn't there! Raychelle has ruined her appearance!
She doesn't look Russian now, she looks like all the girls."
never seen her so angry. She would not even look at me. "Alva, what about
a wig? We can put a wig on her."
Rosalie, I don't think so. She doesn't need it. She looks plenty Russian."
turned to me, now composed in fury: "NEVER alter your appearance before a
performance. NEVER make a change without asking your director. I only gave you
that part because of your long hair!"
turned and stomped out. Alva smiled sadly and mumbled that I should not worry,
Rosalie was always getting worked up. I walked to the dressing room to change
back into my clothes feeling dizzy under the sudden, palpable absence of hair.
All these years of hard work gone in a few snips.
thinking I would call in a few days and tell them I was sick. Let Rosalie dance
the duet. She would be better, with her glazed smile, her showy gestures and
came around the corner and said, "Don't let her get you down, honey."
She had probably heard the whole thing and by tomorrow everyone would know that
I had only been given a solo because I could grow hair.
put her hand on my shoulder, but it did no good. "She does this every
year. Last year she picked on me because I streaked my hair! Cheer up, honey.
She'll get over it."
father called to say he was coming to all three performances. "I want to
see my little star get lots of applause." His gravel voice did its best
cooing, trying to make up for leaving us, but I was not going to give him
Dad," I said and hung up.
another miserable day, I decided that the best revenge on Rosalie would be for
me to give three knockout performances.
wings before the first performance, my legs were shaking so badly I thought my
teeth would fall out. They continued to shake as I went on, forcing the top
half of me to shimmy and my lips to smile. The critical moment came. I jumped
so hard I almost hit Alva in the head, but there I was, on his shoulder,
looking out and the audience was applauding. I smiled into a blur of light. I
don't even remember taking bows, but I walked off triumphant.
nerves were better by Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, I was actually
looking forward to it. I shimmied with verve, twinkled at Alva, and then
twirled out to the end of our extended
arms to prepare for my leap. The penultimate chord sounded, I jumped – and
missed Alva's shoulder, sliding down the side of his body.
was it. There was no more music. I could hear the audience draw a collective
breath as I looked frantically into the wings for Rosalie. What was she
signaling? Try again, try again!
silence I spun out again arm’s length from Alva, thinking that if I did not
make it up there, I was going to just walk offstage. Then I jumped. Alva yanked
my arm so hard I thought I might fly right past him.
there I was again, eight feet high. They were cheering and whistling! Someone
came out of the audience toward me. It was my father, holding a bouquet.
exhilaration did not fade when the bouquet did. I pressed it into a scrapbook,
along with the article, pasting down a rare spotlight.
Dad came a couple weekends later to take me out on a jaunt, he exclaimed, “My
beautiful daughter! You're growing more beautiful every day.”
never said a word about the performances as we went on his usual round of
errands. Coasting down Seventh Street hill, he talked about his new painting, a
study of the bait tank on a fishing boat. He said Connor did not like his
impressionistic style, but what did Connor know, he couldn't tell crap from a
good grade of clay, and what were those crazy numbers he painted all over his
talked about the stupid woman in the car ahead of us, who failed to signal at
every right turn. He asked me how my school work was coming.
I guess. I got an A in English, but Dad, I really want to talk about dancing. I
want to be a ballerina like Margot Fonteyn."
it! You shouldn't talk to me while I'm making a turn. Now I have to go all the
way around three blocks. So you got an A, huh?"
cruised by the docks and the bobbing tuna boats. My life goal seemed to hiss
away with the gulls. If my own father found it unimportant, who would? Of
course my life was never going to get started, not here. What San Pedran
worried about arabesques and turnout? Art?
I could almost hear the longshoremen mutter. Ballerinas? whistled the pelicans. I’ll give you Art, frowned the man behind the counter at the
Army-Navy Surplus Store – for a nickel.
I had a feeling only the cold, shifting sea could describe.
rare silence, I again broached the subject of dancing professionally. This time Dad seemed to hear me, but his
reply was puzzling.
father was an architect during the Depression," Dad said. "Now there
was a useless profession." He hummed a jazz riff in a tuneless bass and
tapped rhythm on the wheel.
really want to be a dancer," I said, leaving out the last part:
"instead of go to college."
my beautiful daughter decides, she will do it well.”
it as if a beautiful girl was something to roll up and fire off into the
stratosphere. At that moment, something was born in me, but it had to find a
way to thrive in a world of women making scratch pies and handmade Christmas
ornaments so their husbands could invent better living through chemistry and
up my mind. I was going for a different stratosphere, even if I had to invent
it. And Rosalie was going to launch me. Just as soon as I grew some more hair.
Labels: ballet, book discount, memoir essay, San Pedro