Prompt 4: A high-heeled shoe, a rubber dog bone, a burned out pot, a piece of jewelry, an old pair of pants

Last night, my daughter left a dripping-wet trail from the shower to my room, calling my name. “Come here, mama,” she said mysteriously. “Come look in the bathroom.”

“…Did something break?” I asked.

“No, just come here!”

My daughter is a master of piquing my curiosity, so I went, fearing that I’d find a swamp or maybe a shower curtain tugged down around the ceramic of the tub.

Instead, I found a neat row of nail polish on the bathroom counter, sorted carefully into a rainbow, next to a green index card reading “HINT HINT.”

My child grinned at me. “I want one color on each nail, please! Tonight!”

“How about this weekend, when the light is good?” I replied, sighing.

“Okay, I guess. But you can’t forget,” Monkey said. “And you have to wear some too.”

That’s my kid, dragging me reluctant and kicking into the ancient rituals of self-adornment. She also really loves to accessorize and wear fancy footwear, and has been trying to break me of the habit of thinking comfort-first when putting on clothes. (In retrospect, maybe I should’ve read her fewer Fancy Nancy books when she was little.)

I spent a lot of formative years with my dad, and during the years when most teenagers begin to play with clothing and makeup, I owned two different pairs of jeans: one for wearing to school, and the other (the older pair) ripped enough for hiking and caving. My t-shirts were of the geek variety, and very often had pictures of insects, or things like “National Speleological Society” written on them. Makeup was unnecessary for beauty, in my dad’s books, and I believed him.

This is probably why it’s taken me a long time to value traditionally feminine approaches to self-adornment. At some point in my twenties I realized that I looked nice in dresses, and it’s taken me until my 40s to realize that a bit of makeup isn’t always a bad thing, and apparently helps people look more professional, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. I’ve admired women who understand how to put themselves together, hair and makeup and clothing. I’ve suspected that women who have to learn to present themselves continue to look nicely put together as they age, perhaps because they’re always used to spending some time on their appearance.

It’s been a shock to my system to have a daughter that is both tomboyish and extremely girly all at once. There’s a vast spectrum of feminist responses to “girliness,” but maybe the most important one is the easy affinity that my daughter has to the idea of it. She doesn’t consider it anti-anything to put on a dress and beg for some lipstick, she just thinks she looks nice, and why not look exactly the way she wants?

I’m glad I have someone teaching me how to inhabit my body with as much joy and unselfconsciousness (well, that part takes work) as my kid inhabits hers.

Prompt 3: What brings you the most inner peace?

It took me a long time to realize that I grew up an athlete.

For some reason, it never struck me that practicing ballet from age six to seventeen (and studying modern dance in graduate school) constituted athleticism. I only realized it recently after I’d read about hockey players and the physical routine they go through to play their sport. Reading about hockey, I realized that I comprehended the players totally — their daily discipline, their commitment to pushing past pain and physical limits, the difficulty of learning certain moves, the joy of attaining them.

“Why do I understand this so well?” I asked myself in great puzzlement. I guess I proved that the athletic stereotype is true — sometimes I’m not the brightest. But then I smacked my head and realized that I grew up pushing my body just as hard.

I have to thank myself for working so hard for so long. I am not now that strength which in the old days let me move below heaven and above earth, but my body retains the possibility of regaining some of it. I exercise reasonably often. Mostly I’m amused when I look down and see a body that no longer can dance ballet, but that’s what happens when you form your opinion of your body when you were a fourteen-year-old chronic dancer.

So, hockey. For a while I’ve found the most inner peace watching, listening to, and reading about, hockey. I’m not sure where I found it before, which troubles me. Maybe I had no space at all in which I lost myself in something else. Or maybe this sense of losing myself isn’t peace so much as escapism.

I don’t know?

Over Thanksgiving, my father-in-law asked me why I liked hockey. I stared at him for a moment with an empty mind, because honestly, there’s no rhyme or reason for passion about something.

“Because it’s awesome,” I said finally, making stuff up as I went. “It’s the gracefulness of figure skating, the difficulty of soccer, and the danger of football, all on this slippery surface. There’s nothing like it.”

He didn’t buy my answer, but mostly because (he said) I was the last person he’d ever suspect would enjoy the game. He’s somewhat right, the real answer wasn’t any of that.

Watching Hockey is watching deadly choreography, a modern dance set to metal, a desperate scramble on a tricky surface over the fate of something that ultimately doesn’t matter at all. It’s such an intense metaphor for life that I can’t look away. Somewhere outside of that rink, whole universes exist that don’t care about whether the puck hits the net, and yet these young men are staking their lives and health on it anyway.

Bless this painful game for bringing me closer to the truth of Kharma Yoga — to watching it embodied by men who strive as hard as Arjuna to fulfill each physical action as perfectly as they can, fighting against their brothers to whatever end the universe decrees.

I find peace in hard, honed, desperate movement. Nowadays, it’s what makes the most sense to me.

Prompt 2: What was the best part of 2014?

Once when I was a kid, my dad explained to me that children and adults remembered the world differently because of the way our brains work.

“Kids perceive everything with no prior set of memories, so time works differently. Every moment is full of new discoveries that the brain has to process in a new way each time. The older you grow, the more the mind tends to batch up memories into groups that are all alike. So when a child remembers something, it’s clear and detailed and distinct, but when an adult remembers it, it’s part of a memory batch, all the other times that this event has happened.”

My dad, for what it’s worth, has always wanted to remember life like a child does.

When I ponder 2014, I remember it in three parts. Two of these parts are long, indistinct blurs of grey cube walls, driving in traffic, and routine suburban chores. These two parts were broken up by a summer of strange unemployed freedom. It was the first time I’d ever been laid off, and for four months, life became distinct again. Parts of this past summer were memorable in a terrible way. Unemployment is a tedious round of paperwork and shabby strip-mall offices and filling out forms online about how many people rejected my resume this week. But in between, that time was also a happy glut of art and writing and learning to move my body again after two years of chemotherapy.

I have memories of swimming outside every day, of feeling the sear of sun on my skin as I slid into the municipal pool’s water. I remember the coconut scent of sun screen and the sharp chlorine. I remember the burn of the soles of my bare feet as I walked toward the water. I swam backstroke and watched birds and clouds and planes. As I swam, my mind shifted, and each thought became different.

Maybe my father’s life is an example of how to make each memory distinct. He is outside as often as he can be, and when I was a kid, he took me with him. My memories of each cave, each hike, each trip to the coastal cliffs to catch insects, are still pretty distinct.

I have a memory from these days that I unearth from my mental hoard whenever I need to think about something beautiful: I was seventeen, and the clouds had given up their hold on Hilo for a day. We were snorkeling at Richardson’s beach in Hilo bay. Surfacing from a long exploration of a reef, I reclined on the water and noticed that the full moon was hovering above Mauna Loa. For a time there was nothing in my mind except for that — the gentleness of the water holding my limbs up, and the moon above the mountain.

Maybe these moments are the only ones that survive the wash of batching, the moments when I’m caught off-guard by beauty, and there’s no barrier of thought at all between myself and the world.

The best part of 2014 was getting shoved into a waking series of moments that I couldn’t batch up and box away.

Welcome to 2015: The year of somewhat irrelevant writing prompts

This poor writing website has been languishing for a long time with nothing on it, partly because all of the things I desperately want to talk about are things that I ultimately can’t. I believe in my little website, however, and decided to make a concerted effort to revive it. At Barnes and Noble the other day I bought a discounted book of writing prompts, and I vow to fill this site with writing, as often as I can, for at least a year. I realized that I’ve been wanting to write with no outlet for it, and this is as good an excuse as any. I can’t promise to stay remotely on topic, but who wants that, anyway?

Rite of Spring

Prompt 1: What are ten sounds that you associate with winter?

At Rutgers, one of the first General Honors Program classes that I took was about musical synesthesia, taught by Dr. Gary Chenoweth. The textbook for it was the first dense book of academic philosophy that I’d ever read, entitled Sound and Sense. It was so dense and philosophical that it actually broke me, and I honestly haven’t been able to read a book of philosophy all the way through ever since. I remember the gist of it, that western music created a lexicon over time that enabled people to associate certain sounds with other senses — smell, touch, taste, movement, words, nature, etc. Conversely, commonly accepted onomatopoeia made its way into music and became the standard “phrase” for referring to things. For example, thunder = drums. (See, book? Not to be anti-intellectual, but that wasn’t so hard to state in two sentences!) Despite the density of the textbook, I really enjoyed the class.

On second thought, maybe this textbook (with examples written in musical notation) was my first realization that there was a level of learning I’d have to achieve before being able to comprehend certain things, and in this case, the bar was constituted by an entire musical language. Perhaps that was the point at which I threw up my hands and admitted academic defeat. “I guess I’ll have to just pretend that I get it,” I probably thought to myself, staring at musical notation interspersed with philosophical writing.

Defeated or not, the best part of class was when we listened to things. Chenoweth introduced me to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and handed me the realization that the classical music I’d learned in ballet class was just the flat plain from which mountains of crazy, joyous sound could emerge.

I remembered that as a child I’d watched Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Rite of Spring on PBS, and recalled falling into the intense story of crazy sacrifice, watching the crash and fall of dancers as they invoked ancient myths. The music fell like a hammer, drove the naiads to a frenzy, described the rise and fall of their limbs. Researching further, I discovered that the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky. I found his published Diary and read it, and stared at the black and white pictures of what must have been the most exciting and vibrant modern dance performance to ever flop completely.

Nijinsky wrote in searingly direct prose. His choreography was the fascinating iceberg that described the fruition of thought about myths and rituals and their meaning. (I tried, just now, to find a connection to Carl Jung, and am surprised that I haven’t found anything written yet — they were all contemporaneous, Jung, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and their philosophies were of a kind.) Through the synesthesia of ritual turned into a musical lexicon, movement took shape, meaning arose.

Although I’ve never felt the need to revisit Sound and Sense, I’ve always wanted to dance this choreography. This is something that I learned about myself. My first impulse when synthesizing a new idea is to create art out of it, and not something academic.

So here are ten sounds of spring instead, all hidden in this terrible, beautiful music.

The joy and pain of plot differences in Desolation of Smaug

(This is a preview of my review article for Theonering.net. It contains spoilers below the “spoiler space.”)

By WeeTanya (Tanya Rezak) of TORn

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made my eyes well up with tears the second Ian Holm began to speak. I have a deep and abiding love for Lord of the Rings (obviously!) in book form and movie form, so seeing all of the familiar faces from the movies I loved gave this new series a necessary blessing. When Peter Jackson had us retrace our steps with Bilbo (even revealing the shards of Narsil in the Extended Edition of the DVD), it felt like a sweet and sad paeon to the previous work. I adored and ate up every bit of it, because it was meant for those of us who still have fond memories of that first crazy filmmaking adventure years ago.

Even the set pieces from that movie were so stuck in my head that I found them almost hallowed, smiling at the three Trolls frozen into the very position they were in when Sam leaned over sick Frodo to say, “Look! Bilbo’s trolls!” And of course meeting Gollum in Riddles in the Dark, and … and … Okay, the reason why I’m talking about the first movie before talking about the second is because The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is NO LONGER a step back in time to Lord of the Rings.

Desolation of Smaug is its own movie, completely surprising because it makes many departures — both from the paths of the adventurers, and from the book itself. I cannot say that I don’t miss the beauty and melancholy of seeing the places we’d grown to love in Lord of the Rings, or seeing the movie unfold along the same path as the book in the first movie. However, I will say that putting all of my “But this is different~” thoughts aside, it showed me new things, new relationships, new parts of Middle-Earth, and new and relevant problems in a way that made me forget about the differences and enjoy it for what it is.

And what is it? It’s a story with a heart, with perhaps many hearts. First, it’s a rip-roaring action movie from start to finish, pausing only to tease out hints of plot between moments of torrential (I pun) motion. It has driving and urgent narrative arcs; where the first movie failed to provide much urgency with its elegiac tone, the second makes up for it in spades. I forgot to bring water to the 2 hour 40 minute viewing, and then I forgot that I forgot. In fact, I’m not even sure I breathed.

Was the movie different from the book in important ways? Yes, very much so, but in ways that breathed life into some characters that were previously nothing but stock (Bard, for instance), and breathed life into the heart of Erebor itself. For those who want my short summary of what a “Tolkien purist” has to say about the movie before I hit the spoilers, I say: It’s a wonderful second act to The Hobbit that does a perfect job of adding a bit of 21st century to something that would have been jarringly anachronistic if we left it alone. (And yes, by that I mean adding women and people of color and a little courtly romance and deeper character arcs.)

Did I miss the book? Yes, a little. I missed the feeling of comfort that I got from the first movie. If that one was like sliding into my most comfortable patchwork bathrobe, this one was like putting on a mithril shirt: no less fine, but definitely less comfortable, and absolutely unexpected.

Anything else that I will say includes spoilers, so I am going to say them below a lot of “This has spoilers” space.

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Let’s talk about a few important differences between the book and the movies. I will not belabor this review by talking about all the stuff that other reviewers already wrote, because my intent is to discuss some of the most jarringly different elements of the film.

While pondering Desolation of Smaug, I remembered wise words that Philippa said to me at a interview before Return of the King. “This isn’t just a movie made for fans — it’s a movie made for the fans, by the fans. This is a fan movie.” These words always impressed me because they were true; Philippa, Fran, and Peter know Tolkien’s works inside and out (almost as well as you and I do), and people who might doubt their decision-making process during the act of creating movies should probably remember Philippa’s words. Fans also made The Hobbit. This is clear from watching the Production Diaries, the DVD extras, and listening to every word that the actors speak. I went into Desolation of Smaug trusting in the writers, and I came out thinking that yes, it was a very fine fan adaptation of a book that is NOT a 21st century book.

In Lord of the Rings, I reminded myself, Tolkien’s Aragorn has no ambivalence at all about whether he will become a king or remain Strider. He was always noble, born of noble blood, and his character was always set in stone. Returning to Viggo’s performance in the movie, however, is rewarding because of that invented movie character arc. Movies need that kind of thing because they are not books, and watching Viggo’s small mournful sigh right before donning the crown of king is entirely worth the difference. These two Aragorns exist simultaneously in my mind now, one because he’s Tolkien’s, and the other because he’s ours — he speaks to our time, and our interpretation, and our world.

Desolation of Smaug speaks to our time too. There really is no “Did you like the book or movie better?” Because it’s an irrelevant question. I’ll always love Tolkien’s words best, but it was absolutely necessary to add at least one woman to the story to make it true to our own time and interpretation. My husband asked me if Tauriel’s presence was cheesy, and I’ll say it was not. Her presence shows a suitable elvenness, and reminds me of something:

Remember when Stephen Colbert asked Peter Jackson whether he was going to distinguish the Nandor from the Sindarin and Noldor, and Peter said “Yes. Now let’s talk about your crappy coffee cups.” — Remember that? Well, the writers did, although it makes me giggle every time the word “silvan” is used instead of “Nandor” or “Moriquendi.” (I add this here because I know those who read this are as die-hard as I am about this stuff, and you’ll appreciate it.) Evangeline Lilly and the writers characterized her moriquendi very carefully. She shows a little less nobility than two Sindarin, Legolas and Thranduil, and a lot more emotion. She’s one of the ferocious heartbeats of the movie, providing a fan glimpse of what an emotional elf might be like. Her interaction with Kili is a beautiful precursor to another lovely elf-dwarf relationship, the very noble one between Galadriel and Gimli. I like that the movie writers felt they could go there, trusting in us to make the imaginative leap with them. If there’s a female elf, why not make her beloved to a dwarf?

The one moment of pure Tolkien emotion that I had during this second, action-filled movie was when Tauriel spoke to Kili of the beauty of starlight. Then I smiled and longed for someone to burst out into the Hymn to Elbereth — ah well, it happened in my head instead.

Putting Tauriel aside for a moment, did anyone notice the people of color in Laketown? I’m of Asian blood, and my husband (who is Palestinian) and I joke that in Lord of the Rings, we are both best represented by the Southrons and Easterlings. I was incredibly happy to see non-white casting in that scene, because Laketown is a port, so OF COURSE people from all over Middle-Earth would’ve come to trade. Thank you for that update to an entirely white world, Peter, Fran, and Philippa! This person of color is grateful to you.

And now we come to the deviations in plot which lead to several dwarves remaining in Laketown. In the context of the book it’s inexplicable, but in the context of the movie, I have to remember more of Peter Jackson’s words: “If one of your main cast isn’t on screen, you lose interest.” I think he was discussing a big epic battle scene, but it works just as well for Laketown too. Would we be as fearful of the dragon swooping in to set fire to Laketown if our two precious young dwarves of Durin’s line weren’t there, about to be roasted? This is the same logic that sent Aragorn over an inexplicable cliff in the middle of Rohan, only to ride into Helm’s Deep and become the center of the story again. These are slightly jarring changes to my imagination that yet work in a movie.

The new places were wonderful. I loved seeing the work of Alan Lee and John Howe given life — in fact, their artwork and the sets based upon it remains some of my favorite bits of the Lord of the Rings movies too. These two live and breathe Tolkien, and if there is no other reason to praise Peter Jackson with great praise, it’s for giving these two guys lots and lots of work. Thranduil’s halls were like seeing a perverted, festering Lothlorien, as if Galadriel had become corrupted instead of remaining pure. Thranduil’s halls add to the outstanding characterization of Thranduil himself, as an elf who has become so conservative and fearful from time that he’s withdrawn from all reality. I have to quit praising actors individually, or I simply won’t stop; all of these actors knew their stuff, every one of them.

Laketown itself is a pure Peter Jackson mess, humanity living in its own corpulence, sitting over a stinking fetid pool where the fish and feces float together. I hope none of the actors fell into that, it looked beyond foul, and by that I mean it was perfect.

What can I say about Erebor? The most beautiful of those unexpected, inexplicable moments of deviation from the book came when Thorin and his company decided to restart the forges of Erebor in a desperate attempt to both escape and fight the dragon by themselves. It was wonderful to see Thorin become majestic and take charge, wonderful to see the hints of gold-lust and the danger that comes from it, and wonderful to see the despair on his face when the dragon simply shook off the fruits of their toil and flew right on out the door. The book is different, but this was epic. The two universes will once again stand side-by-side for me, because the forges of Durin were rekindled, and we got to see the dwarf kingdom alive and breathing and almost living in the way that we never have before. We’ve seen dead dwarf cities and yearned to see them alight with life, and we’ve been teased with one at the beginning of Unexpected Journey, but now we see one almost — nearly — reborn. That moment, of seeing Thorin stand tall and fire up the inner workings of his ancient home, was worth more than a few plot twists for me!

I think this review has gone on long enough, and I’ve said plenty. I hope that everyone carefully weighs their own inner feelings about the movie and takes from it what they can, whether to love it more or less. I only know that I’m looking forward to the next movie, in which our hearts will break because EVERYBODY WE LOVE (spoiler).

Oh, one last thing that I noticed, that I have to mention for the sheer joy of continuity. One of the first people that we see on the screen in Desolation of Smaug is a certain drunkard in Bree who bears a more than passing resemblance to another drunkard in Bree years later. Amazing that the same man has lived unchanged for all those years between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings! Hm, maybe it’s his son…

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