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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My Thing in High School

When I posted last, I said I didn't find my Thing until I was in my twenties. I think I was wrong. I actually did have a very active obsession when I was in high school: attending and photographing rock concerts. But it was one of those extra-extra curricular activities, and not anything I ever mentioned on my college applications.

When we were packing up my old house for sale, I ran across a wall calendar from my junior year in high school. I used a magic marker to frame any dates where I went to a concert. Don't tell my kids this, but I was averaging about two a week, including on school nights! All the way over on Long Island! On a regular basis, I left my little hamlet in New Jersey to go to Madison Square Garden, the Nassau Coliseum, Roosevelt Stadium, and the thoroughly grungy Capitol Theater in Passaic. I went with my friend Cathy, and between us we had it down to a science. I carried all the photography equipment, and she carried the contraband cassette recorder for making bootleg tapes. We were obsessed with the Eagles, with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, with Dan Fogelberg and Loggins and Messina. We also branched out to more mainstream performers like Elton John, Bad Company, Deep Purple, Billy Joel and Yes. But none of them matched the devotion we saved for "the family," the country-folky-rock players who followed then-California governor Jerry Brown around like groupies.

I went to my first concert, the Edgar Winter Group, when I was thirteen. They were playing at the Wollman Rink in Central Park, which every summer hosted the Schaefer Music Festival. Tickets were three dollars each. I really didn't know much about the Edgar Winter Group other than their heavy-metal hit, "Frankenstein." But some older guys from my church youth group invited me to go one Sunday afternoon after church and I pleaded with my parents to let me. Since it was the nice Japanese boys from CHURCH, well, why not?

That started it. I loved the long, interminable general-admission line, that started forming five hours before the concert. How everyone just relaxed into an easy, happy, afternoon hang-out. I loved buying my first concert Tshirt. I loved the lights flaring on just as it started getting dark out, the screaming of the crowd, the adrenaline as the band came onstage. I stood on a chair and yelled along with everyone else. And then at the end, all the Bic lighters and matches being held up, and the audience was transformed into a field of flickering stars. I was thoroughly hooked.

Luckily for me, I had an afterschool job that paid pretty well. All of my paychecks went straight into concert tickets, record albums, and later, darkroom chemicals and photo paper. At some point I started wanting to get to concerts ten or twelve hours ahead of time, so I could get that coveted front row seat, the better to take photographs with. I developed them in a darkroom set up in my mother's basement laundry room.

I had a perfect partner in my friend Cathy. We traded records and spent hours trolling the record aisles at Sam Goody's and Korvette's. We got up before dawn to stand in hour for concert tickets at Ticketron in Paramus Park Mall, and eventually hired our own seedy ticket scalper, Dominic. Dominic, who most definitely had mob ties, worked out of a tiny concrete bunker off of Route 17 in Rochelle Park. He was our supplier for the best tickets in the biggest venues, and he could guarantee us third row or better at the Garden or Nassau Coliseum.

I'm impressed now at how organized we were. We worked hard for our money - she worked at a department store, and I worked as a shipping clerk for a mail-order company for short wave radios. We studied up on our favorite bands, kept thorough scrapbooks, cataloguing every concert review and article from Rolling Stone. We designed and hand-embroidered a denim shirt for Dan Fogelberg - a landscape of mountains and sunrise as an ode to our favorite song of his, "To the Morning." We passed a plastic bag with the shirt, embroidery thread, needles and wooden embroidery hoop between us as we changed classes. It took months, but we finished it in time to toss it up on stage from our front row seats. Later, we'd replay the bootleg tape over and over just to hear Dan's voice, "Wow, that's beautiful." Every time, we screamed.

I had no idea what this avocation of ours would mean, decades later. How I would jolt back to sophomore year every time I heard "Peaceful Easy Feeling" or "Take it to the Limit" on the radio. How I would savor every moment of memory.

I know that my girls are building their own sweet memories now; that when they're nearing fifty they will think about how it felt to be out rowing on the Oakland Estuary at dawn, or what it was like to take that final bow in front of a cheering audience.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Finding Something to Love

This has been a good weekend for our girls. Both of them, it seems, have found things that they love, and I mean REALLY love to do. This after many years of poking around, experimenting, casting about, trying this and that.

The older girl, starting at around age three, has participated in gymnastics, art, violin, Japanese taiko drumming, ice skating, acting, hip-hop dance, swimming, water polo. If you asked her how she liked one or the other thing, she'd say, "Okay," or "Pretty good." But after a semester or a year or a ten-week class, she wouldn't be anxious to continue, to move to the next level. She saw her friends getting intensely involved in their sports or their art, and it made her feel sad that she hadn't really found her thing, her thing to be obsessed with, the thing that made her feel super alive.

Well, she's found it. By pure chance she stumbled upon a crew team that has engaged her and involved her like nothing else ever has. She is obsessed with crew. She's found a place on the coveted "A" boat, she works out brutally hard six days a week, she's made new friends and come to love the beauty and power of eight girls doing exactly the same thing at the same time, over and over again. She doesn't mind getting up at the crack of dawn, or rowing in the sleety rain. She loves absolutely everything about it, and it is a joy to see. I don't know how long it will last. But in the months since she's been rowing, she's never once said it was "Okay" or "pretty good." She LOVES crew, and I am so happy for her.

The little one, now 11, has been similarly "eh" about the things we've tried for her: a very brief stint of kiddie gymnastics, then ballet, then ice skating, art, soccer and guitar. She did them all willingly, SORT of, but they weren't things she particularly looked forward to. Then came this Young Actors' Workshop, and to our total astonishment (she can be extremely shy about doing anything in front of other people) she said she wanted to sign up. Maybe because some of her friends were doing it. But she has gone to 15+ hours of rehearsal every week, and loved every minute. Her role in "Pride & Prejudice" is a small one, but she threw herself into it. We got to watch her perform last night and it was truly something to behold. Our shy girl! And not only that, but she declared Opening Night the "best night of my life."

I didn't find my Thing until I was twenty nine years old and took my first writing class. I knew I liked to write, and I loved to read, but I never felt brave enough to say "I want to do this," until I was pregnant for the first time. I took a writing class for pregnant mothers and those first exploratory writing exercises totally hooked me. Then I started taking more classes, and more, until I realized I wanted to get my MFA and really take that leap, to say I am a writer.

Our girls may not end up being an Olympic rower or a Broadway actor, but I am glad that they have found a taste of what it feels like to really, really love something, something to sacrifice for and dream about and truly engage with. I'm glad for them both.

Friday, March 24, 2006

For Those Moments When You Just Can't Choose

Too wiped out to write anything, but thanks to NancyKay Shapiro for this.

Still Sick

I can't believe how long this thing is hanging on, and how it morphs and worsens in fascinating ways. I have a fever now. And every time I take a breath, my lungs crackle like a campfire. Going up a flight of stairs makes me pant and sweat. Will I ever feel normal again?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


I'm sick. I've seen people getting sick all around me for months, and felt somehow that maybe it would pass me by this year. I haven't been sick since December of 2004, so I guess I'm due. But still. It's no fun.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Very Rice Weekend

Sometimes my Rice Papers writing group goes six months without gathering. But this weekend was a double header: on Friday night a bunch of us went to Tanjia for belly dancing and Moroccan food, and this afternoon another little group went to visit Kar, one of our Ricettes Emeritus. I met Kar when we were both reading (with Maxine Hong Kingston) from Growing Up Asian American. We were sitting at a table in front of a standing-room only crowd at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco. I was a nervous wreck. But Kar was lovely and gracious and dignified, and very interested when I told her I belonged to a wonderful group of Asian American women writers, named Rice Papers. "I'd love to meet you all," she said, and for more than ten years Kar participated with us in writing together, cooking together, doing readings and providing mutual support. She has had an inspiring and amazing life as a writer, mother, and activist for Indian independence. I remember a weekend retreat we all took together in Tahoe. Kar made homemade chapatis and some amazingly delicious sauteed string beans. She is ninety years old now, and doesn't get out much. But she welcomed us into her home with a typical Rice Papers tableful of food, collapsing with hospitality and warmth. We all talked and laughed and had a wonderful afternoon together.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Running on Empty

I've been running on fumes for the past couple of weeks - constantly running behind, running late, forgetting things, not sleeping enough. There is just too much going on. I haven't been able to attend to the most basic tasks of life. The blogging has, obviously, gone out the window.

Today, I put my head down for a "brief nap" and ended up sleeping for over three hours. I guess I really needed it. It meant that I missed my first-ever audition for a television commercial (which would have paid more than my last book contract!), but I just couldn't rally myself to do it. Every day, I have to make decisions to jettison stuff.

I'm really glad that I got a little refueling last night. I went to this fabulous Moroccan restaurant with my beloved Rice Papers writing group (Asian American women writers, now starting our 15th year together!). It was so much fun (belly dancing in a line together); the food was delicious, beautiful and nourishing, but the company was even better. I need more of this.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Does the West Bean Pay the Fish a Soup?

Life has been a little too overwhelming for blogging this week. I am very grateful to Gayle for giving me a much-needed Engrish laugh yesterday when I went to this link from her blog. This guy has been living in China with his family and this unbelievable menu was from a restaurant they visited. I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. I'm not sure which is funnier, the menu items, or his commentary on them.

Have fun, and I hope to return soon. Right now (Sunday, 6am) I'm heading off to Sacramento for my girl's first crew race. Go Strokes!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Rachel Tzvia Back: Wonderful Poet

One of the best things about writing colonies is the opportunity to meet other artists and writers. It never fails to blow me away, meeting others who are so talented and inspiring. This past October was no exception; when I was at Blue Mountain I met an astonishing array of incredible people. One of my favorites was Rachel Tzvia Back. I felt an immediate kinship with her because we were both writers and mothers, and of course we bonded over the neverending balancing act between writing and parenting. We had both left our children thousands of miles away: mine in California, and hers in Israel. We spoke a lot about the many things we had in common, and the things that made our lives unique.

Her poetry is powerful, moving, haunting, and beautiful. The night that she did her presentation for us was unforgettable. She read these poems, with photos of her gorgeous, troubled, beloved land as a backdrop.

I interviewed Rachel on her last morning at Blue Mountain, and it was just published on LiteraryMama. Here's a little excerpt of what she said:
For mothers in particular it is hard for the poetry to be seen as real work. It is so abstract. My husband is a doctor and his work is very physical, very real. People in the neighborhood are always dropping by to get some advice or help from him. Everyone is always coming to him for emergency stitching. He is seen as very important, and the children like that, that he can do these things for other people. My work is not so visible.
Um, I can relate to that.
Rachel's poetry is so powerful and intense and heartrending because she writes so graphically about what it is like to raise children in a war zone. While on one hand it seems so terrifying and violent, I was also struck by the sense of community and also the ironic independence that her children enjoy, that ours in America do not.
In practical terms, there’s every expectation that everyone is home at 6:30 and they will have a meal together. You’re supposed to be in your family and in your community, both together. There are no sports practices or anything that anyone needs to attend at that family dinner hour. There is also less of this kind of obsessive structuring of time, like "playdates." Children in Israel are much more independent. I don’t need to take them anywhere. There’s a bus that takes them back and forth from school, and they’re completely independent. My six-year-old takes herself to and from the bus and to her afterschool activities. I don’t ever pick them up. These things do not seem to happen here in America.
Read the whole interview here. Literary Mama has also published more of her poetry here.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Where I've Been

create your own visited countries map

Thanks to Libby, who has pointed out a site where you can map out all the places in the world you've seen. So it turns out I've been to twelve countries, or 5% of the countries in the world. Interesting map, isn't it? My travels have pretty much been limited to North and Central America, and little bits of Asia. I've never been to Europe, Africa or other huge swaths of earth. I've got some traveling to do!

It turns out I've seen a lot more of the United States than the world. My father was a traveling salesman, and even though we lived in New Jersey, his territory ranged from Virginia through Georgia. We spent many summers driving with him to trade shows to and from our vacations in Florida. So we covered most of the Southeast states that way. In the summers, I went to camp in New Hampshire, and sometimes to Cape Cod with my cousins, so that was New England. After graduating from college, my best friend and I took a mad cross country trip, trying to hit as many national parks, friends and relatives as possible. So it was a pretty zigzaggy route, and we crossed a lot of states.

create your own visited states map

Thursday Thirteen

Here's a list of thirteen books I would take with me to a deserted island. As I perused my shelves, I realized that only some of these were "reading" books. Some of them are books that I just love to read, but others are books I love to look at, and others are "comfort books," like comfort food.

1. Little, Big by John Crowley One of my most beloved books, ever. Being swept up by characters who are part of a Tale that is much larger than they are. Renewed my belief in magic.
2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Enough said!
3. Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life
4. Runaway by Alice Munro It was really hard to choose which of her books I would take, but I think she just keeps getting better and better, so I'd probably choose her latest.
5. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
6. Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger. This is a tossup with Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.
7. Ithaca: A Book of Photographs by Andrea Fleck Cardy I've carried this book around from move to move, across the country, since 1981. A wonderful reminder of a place I love a lot.
8. Time, by Andy Goldsworthy All of his books are stunning, but I love this one the most because it contains photographs from Ithaca.
9. The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter A wonderful, feel good about love book.
10. Shelter by Jayne Anne Phillips This is a very dark, intense and kind of violent book, but the language just blows me away and I keep returning to it, over and over.
11. A Little Princess illustrated by Tasha Tudor, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I must have read this book a hundred times between the ages of 8 and 12.
12. The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli
13. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Another deeply moving "comfort book."

Hmm, what is with these prince and princess books?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Be Saved Now!

Didn't you always want to have your own message on one of those church sign bulletins? Now you can!