Do I Dare? (redux edition)

Last summer, I wrote about not being able to resist a challenge. I was writing specifically about the 24 Hour Project and about seeing that I respond to challenges the way I responded to dares as a child … the way I still quite often respond to dares as an adult. And that got me thinking about other challenges I’ve taken on. And I realized that the challenges definitely take the form of wanting to make a point, wanting to prove something to someone, wanting to be clear about not accepting anyone’s underestimation of me.

I learned to throw darts primarily because men seemed to think women couldn’t be good at it, and I enjoyed beating them. I didn’t throw “the right way,” and that made my victories all the sweeter. Men would see me playing darts in my old roommate’s bar and feel the need to help me understand how to throw correctly — I didn’t stand where or how a “real” darts player should, didn’t aim properly, blah, blah, blah. I’d let them blather on a bit and then tell them I was perfectly happy with my stance and my aim. This always seemed infuriating to them, enough to make them challenge me to a game so they could demonstrate how superior their methods were to mine. I didn’t always win, but even when I lost, I put in a strong enough showing to shut them up. And when I won, I shut them down entirely. Or, nearly entirely … there were always guys who insisted I was experiencing beginner’s luck. It was that much more satisfying to beat them two times, three times, five.

I became a strong enough darts player to be invited to join a couple of teams. I didn’t join. I wasn’t so interested in the commitment of league play or spending that much time in bars, so thus ended my career. I’d had a similar experience with pool as a college student. I wasn’t ever good enough to be a true hustler, but I had fun seeing the looks on men’s faces when I made particularly impressive shots, when I cleared a table without them having the chance at more than a turn or two. Occasionally now I’ll make a shot that would have made 20-year-old Stacie proud, but I play so infrequently, all my real skill has faded.

I do the National Chorale’s Messiah Sign-in because it’s so very much fun and also because it offers a number of challenges:

  • Am I still a soprano, can I still hit those highest notes?
  • How many choruses can I get through without having to look at the score?
  • Have a gotten over my shyness about leading a group of sopranos around me who are just as shy as I am about coming in first on certain passages?
  • Am I able to fake my way through when choruses I haven’t practiced are added to the line up?

These are small, relatively harmless challenges. I enjoyed and enjoy them immensely, but none of them put me in any danger, offer no risk of physical harm. I haven’t avoided scary challenges because they were scary. I just haven’t come face to face with too many. I can really only think of two. Two! That’s surprising and a little disheartening … but maybe it’s also true that I have a wonky measuring stick for what constitutes danger or risk, and I’ve actually done many more potentially-unsafe things than I realize.

Forever-ago I was hitchhiking with my friend Rachel in the south of France. We were on our way to Italy (or, really, anywhere … we didn’t have too many hard and fast plans on that hitch). We’d made the mistake of staying out too late. We should have gotten ourselves to a town before nightfall and found a hostel or cheap hotel. Instead, we’d stayed on the highway and were stuck somewhere on the road to Monaco. A van stopped and someone inside pushed open the side doors. A cloud of smoke blew out at us as the men in the front seat told us to climb in.

Although Rachel and I are no longer friends, I have to say here that I continue to be grateful to her for insisting that we not get in the van. Because yes, I was totally about to step willingly into my certain doom. It was late and I was tired, and that van was the only vehicle to even pause on the way past us. I pushed aside the rules I’d made for myself about staying safe while hitching. I knew we shouldn’t get in that van … but I was going to get in the van. Until Rachel grabbed my arm. Dangerous challenge avoided. Score one for me (well, for Rachel).

Fast forward to my late 40s when I scaled a barrier wall meant to keep commoners like me away from the beach in front of a swanky resort on the north coast of Jamaica. Resorts like to claim their beaches are private, but Jamaican law says beaches — all beaches — are for everyone, that beaches belong to the people and are, therefore, public. There’s something in there about where private property ends and public beach begins, but I don’t remember the specifics. Resorts, determined to create a private beach where there isn’t one, sometimes go to great lengths to keep the riff-raff away from the rich folks. One of the ways they do that is to build walls off the end of their property line stretching out into the sea.

I’d set out on my walk that day with absolutely no plan to do any rock climbing. I was wearing a ground-sweeping sundress and flip-flops. I had my crazy-expensive, brand new DSLR in my little cross-body bag. I was just going for a stroll.

When I ran into my first barrier — a chain-link fence that was annoyingly high, I didn’t consider climbing it because a short walk out toward the road offered the option of just walking around it, so that’s what I did.

But then I ran up against the wall. It was maybe 20 feet high and made of some unkind-looking, very large rocks. I thought I should turn back, but the wall pissed me off. The nerve of people blocking access to a beach. And there were a couple of people climbing the wall, so I figured I could do that, too.

I’ve never been a rock climber. Neither am I particularly muscular. No matter. I put my flip-flops in my purse, tied the skirt of my dress up above my knees, slung my bag to the back, and started climbing.

I realized almost immediately that I’d made a terrible mistake, but I was determined. I’d taken the challenge. There was no chance I was going to back down.

The climb was ugly. I had to go up several feet and then out over the water so I could continue up and top the wall at its lowest point and wind up on the open-to-everyone part of the beach. Pretty quickly, my dress was up around my waist because I needed the legroom to make wider and still wider steps.

I made it, my butt flashing all and sundry in my wake. I didn’t fall into the ocean and destroy my new camera or my precious body. I came down on the fancy side of the wall, sorted my dress situation and began strolling the beach. The resort guards gave me the fisheye, but they left me alone. I made the most of that beach stroll … because I was terrified thinking about how I’d get back over the wall without dying in the process. When I finally worked up the courage to take on the return trip, I was lucky enough to be guided by a man who was on the other side of the wall. He told me where I could find each of the hand- and footholds I needed to move over, across, and down the wall. Yes, it meant I was flashing him the whole time, but we both survived it. (That random man was one of many guardian angels who’ve appeared just when I needed them. He saved my life that day as surely as Rachel did on that highway in France 29 years earlier.)

Don’t tell me you think I can’t play that game. Don’t tell me I’m not allowed to take a walk in a place I am absolutely allowed to walk. Danger? Ha! I flash my quite sizeable butt at danger. And I will use whatever strength or cleverness or stubbornness I have to put your arrogant presumptions right back in your face. Do not have the audacity to count me out.

I like this piece of my personality mostly. I would, actually, like to expand it. I don’t want other people to count me out … but I count myself out all the time. La Impostora elbows her way past my bravado and shuts all my shit down. Perhaps one of the secrets to besting her is hearing her criticisms and put-downs the same way I saw that beach-blocking stone wall: just hike up my skirt and get the hell over it.

Hmm … That bears some more thinking. I like it. I need to marinate in it a bit and see if I can actually practice it.


It’s Tuesday, so that means it’s Slice of Life day over at Two Writing Teachers! Click over and see how the other slicers are starting the new year!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The Quantum of Worst

Last night I was part of an IRL reading for the first time since before Covid. I read with Big Words, Etc., a series that has definitely become my reading home over the last several years. It was wonderful to see Stacey and Jess, the hosts, and to see some of the Big Words regulars.

I gave a few readings on zoom during the height of the pandemic, and all of them were great. It was nice to be able to be in the space with other writers and share my work. Being in person is something else entirely, of course. Getting to interact with the audience is one of my favorite things about reading. I’m always super nervous (“terrified” is a more accurate descriptor) , and getting to laugh with the audience helps so much. And there was plenty of that last night, which made me super happy.

Add to that, a full moon, the discovery of a nice bar, hanging out with Red Emma, the sipping of a jalapeno-spiced mezcal drink, and getting to listen to stunning writing by and give farewell hugs to the wonderful Aimee Herman, and it was a pretty perfect night!

Big Words always has a theme, and last night’s theme was “The Worst Job Ever.” There was such a range of pieces to fit that subject! Here’s the piece I wrote to share:

The Quantum of Worst

I worked for small-time criminals the summer after my first year of college. Technically, they ran an import-export company, but their business was theft. They took merchandise from wholesalers, claimed never to have received it, then sold it. They took payments for merchandise and never shipped the goods. One of my jobs was to organize their file rooms … the one for lawsuits against them and the one for their counter suits.

What makes a job the worst job? I’ve been working more than 40 years. And some of those jobs have sucked dramatically. Some, in spite of their awfulness, also had aspects that were good or funny or nurturing in some way. What is the right equation of crap to equal “the worst”?

Those long-ago bosses — Jack and Charlie — weren’t just crooks. When we met, Charlie asked what college I went to … and then told me how many women from my college he’d had acrobatic, porn-star sex with, wondering if Sarah Lawrence girls had changed since his day. 

(I suspect they hadn’t changed, that no one at Sarah Lawrence or anywhere else would ever have been having any kind of sex with Charlie.)

My first morning, I got an office tour, a can of Lysol, and instructions to spray my desk, chair and phone every time I returned to my space. My coworker explained that Jack and Charlie used any unattended desk, saying: “You don’t want to touch things after Jack.” When I met Jack, I understood. He was visibly filthy, his odor preceding him into the room. I doubt Lysol fully eliminated the problem of him. And Lysol couldn’t do anything about the trail of dandruff Charlie left wherever he went. Both men were loud, sloppy eaters, coughing, laughing, and spitting into our phones as they ate. For a Virgo misophone whose primary trigger is eating noises, this was maybe enough to make this job the worst.

But it was a summer job. And I left after only a month. A few short weeks, and I walked out with a trove of crazy stories I’ve told for years. So was that really the worst? Shouldn’t the worst job be the worst for a better reason? Shouldn’t it be in my chosen field, make me question my career choice or become wary and bitter?

I’ve never worked in a more physically repugnant place, but morally repugnant? Yes. I have. That seems far worse. 

Jack and Charlie eventually went to prison. They stored volatile chemicals in a Bronx basement, creating a health hazard for the residents, and couldn’t counter-sue their way out of it. It was a fitting result for two entirely-terrible people.

Thinking about my crappy jobs and my good jobs that turned crappy … I realize I’ve been lucky. There’s been real crap — I was sexually harassed at one job, regularly discriminated against at another, ugly-fired from another — but I was able to grow and move forward. And, if not, I was able to pay my bills and sustain myself until I found something better.

 “Worst” is about pieces, moments, rather than whole situations. Yes, Jack and Charlie were a whole situation, but otherwise, I have been lucky, have found myself in safe environments, working with people who felt like family, doing work that pleased me … or all of that at once.

So I’m realizing that the critical element in the equation of “worst” … is me, that I can be the force multiplier that sends everything tumbling into the depths.

In my last job I worked with an unashamedly horrible woman. She wasn’t my boss but was central to my work. 

In a discussion about the use of new funding, she listened to the pitch for a job program for young people leaving the criminal justice system, rolled her eyes, and launched into a scathing take-down of the proposal, ending with: “We’re making jobs for little criminals now? We can’t make programs for good kids?” Even at my big age, I was naive enough to be stunned. But this is my worst-of-the-worst because of me. Force-multiplier me.

This happened after the ugly-firing. For the first time, I knew how disposable I was, how easily I could find myself in jeopardy. I had just repaid the borrowed money that floated me across the gap between severance and my new job. I knew how much I couldn’t afford to be out on my ass. That woman had that power, and that knowledge cowed me, showed me I could be made to silence myself when my voice was needed. 

Any version of me before and after that moment would have called that shit out. Wounded, vulnerable me felt fear and chose self-preservation. And while I could understand that choice, it made me sick. I’d spent years teaching the exact young people she was disparaging, championing them at every opportunity, but I didn’t stand up for them.

And there it is: not a question about my career choice, but about whether I had a right to the space I occupied. How did I merit a seat at that table if I couldn’t be who my students would have needed me to be, who I needed me to be? 

Jack and Charlie stole everything, stole at every opportunity. They were despicable and disgusting. But working for them couldn’t be my worst job. They didn’t mean anything. I laughed at them for the caricatures they were and walked away when I’d had enough. Nothing they did could have made me change or swallow who I was. But that “little criminals” moment. My silence in that moment stole me from myself, made me a person I didn’t like. 

There are plenty of jobs where the determination of best and worst wouldn’t come down to my actions alone. But I haven’t worked those jobs. My cushy employment life puts the onus on me. Today, two years into what I think of as my dream job, all this worst-job thinking clarifies for me how much the truth or not of how dreamy this job will be for me is mine to create. I like having that power. I hope I use it well.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Making a Run for It

I am a great fan of stories in which a woman decides to run away from her life. Think Shirley Valentine. It’s one of the first versions of this genre that I recognized as a Runaway Lady movie. My all time favorite, however, is an Italian movie called Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips). In the case of this film’s heroine, she doesn’t make the decision to run away from her life until her life walks away from her, but she embraces the change in circumstances in the most beautiful and pleasing way.

So yes, it was a while before I recognized the pattern of my fascination with these stories, how drawn to them I was. I don’t have a life that is even a little bit like the lives of the women in those stories. I’m not married, have no children, don’t feel trapped and invisible in my world. And yet …

I said Pane e Tulipani was my all-time favorite of this genre. And that’s true … or, it has been true for years. Last year, in my Covid-inspired just-watch-every-streaming-thing life, I found a new movie to add to the list, and it quietly slipped right into the number one slot.

The movies that fill this category for me all have one clear thing in common: the star player is a white woman. Always and always, the sad, lonely, beleaguered, undervalued, tired, frustrated woman who chooses to walk away from her world is white. She goes somewhere, often someplace “exotic” and finds new happiness. I’m not casting aspersions on my much-loved plot line. I’m just saying that these particular plot details stand out in their sameness and in how much they aren’t like me.

Yes, there is gorgeous Angela Bassett as Stella getting back her groove, but Stella didn’t run away from her life. She went on vacation, that’s not the same at all. No.

Pane e Tulipani is still bathed in golden light and still holds a warm place in my heart, but the movie that smiled and laughed its way to the top of my list is Juanita, starring the incomparable Alfre Woodard. Juanita has so much going on, quietly and charmingly, and juggles all of its pieces skillfully and beautifully.

For me, the chance to watch this completely regular woman – not someone who can afford to buy an Italian villa (Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) – decide to just pack her bag and go is an invitation to breathe deeply, to settle in and enjoy. And yes, the fact that Juanita is a regular Black woman makes all the difference. She’s no Stella with a high-powered job as a lawyer and a big, gorgeous home. She’s a caregiver, working in a skilled nursing facility. I can look at Juanita and see myself, which I could never do with Bassett’s Stella or Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love, one movie in this genre that I really, truly don’t care for).

*

I am not dreaming of running away from my life. Not in any significant way, at least. I would happily run away from the mountain of fertility treatment debt I continue to pay off, but I rather like my life otherwise.

So, not running away, but definitely wanting more opportunities to get out of Dodge, to escape, even briefly, from the miles-long lists in my bullet journal and actually sit still and quiet and have time to breathe, to think, to write.

A few weeks ago I gave myself such a getaway. A friend and I decided to make a DIY writing retreat. We went to the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania and were surrounded by woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, and goldfinches, surrounded by trees and trees and trees … and with nothing to do by get the worlds out of our heads and onto the page.

This was my fourth DIY retreat, the third that I’ve done with friends. I had let myself forget how important this kind of time is to me. After all, I’ve been sitting alone in my apartment for 18 months, shouldn’t I have been able to use some of that time as a mandatory retreat or some such? But, of course, no. That’s not the same as taking myself away for dedicated writing time. Sitting in my home means being surrounded not by chatty birds but by all my undone chores. They mock my attempts to stay focused, reminding me of everything I have to do around the house.

I do write at home. Of course I do, right? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much to show for myself, since I spend the bulk of my time in my day-to-day life and not on vacation.

Still, respites are gold and so very necessary. They give me a kind of reset with my writing, and I need that whenever I can get it. A chance to recommit, to remember my writer self.

*

This most recent getaway was the first time I’d drawn even the faintest line of connection between my retreats and my obsession with runaway-middle-aged-lady stories. It’s not the location that’s inspiring me. If I were to flee my life, it wouldn’t very likely be an escape to the Pennsylvania woods.

My guess is that, rather than a “running away from,” what’s connecting for me is the “running toward” that is at the heart of each of these stories, that’s at the heart of my insistence on turning every vacation into a writing retreat. The women in those stories need to turn away from something in order to get closer to themselves, to their most authentic selves. I don’t need to turn away from my life, but I do need to remember to always move in the direction of my writing, always make and find space to do what I do when I go on retreat: sit still and quite. Breathe. Think. Write.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

24-Hour Flight of Fancy

Saturday July 24th was the 24 Hour Project, an international street photography event. It’s been happening since 2012 – with a gap last year for COVID – and I’ve been participating since 2015. The “rules” are that participants document the life of their cities for 24 hours. From midnight Saturday morning to 11:59 Saturday night, people are out on the street taking pictures and posting at least one picture an hour on Instagram, noting the time, the city, the country, and themselves. This year there were 4,395 official participants from 924 cities across 95 countries.

Leaving my house at 11:30 at night, knowing I’ll just be out on the street all night long is always strange. It was more strange at the end of July, after 18 months of really just being in my house, and always being locked up tight long before 11:30. And I suppose it was actually more surprising to see just how much I wasn’t alone on the street that whole time. There were folks out and about all night long, making me feel as if I really am the last person to come out of quarantine.

I love street photography. I’m no artist in this area, but I like getting to play along. The friend who introduced me to the 24HrPrj is a true magician. His pictures are extraordinary. I like taking pictures on the street, but for me the real fun of the project is the piece I added: for every photo I post, I write a tiny story.

I like making up the stories because it connects me to my fiction brain, a piece of myself that mostly lies fallow these days. And creating histories for strangers feels familiar. It’s what an old friend and I used to do whenever we were out – in cafes, in bars, on the street. Imagining strangers lives was a game we returned to again and again. (It got us into trouble a few times when we were a little too loud in our imaginings, but we kept at it all the same.)

As much as I like taking these candid photos of people, I also struggle with it. I’m taking their pictures without their permission. I’m posting them online. I have had the experience of having someone photograph and film me without my permission and do it with the express purpose of mocking me. It was demoralizing and shaming and enraging and painful. Seeing people looking at candid photos of me and calling me a beast and a monkey is one of the most hateful things that’s ever happened to me.

I think about that when I post my pictures. I know that I am not the same as the people who took and shared images of me. I don’t post pictures maliciously, don’t post with the intention of mocking the subject. I have posted a few stories that are less than flattering … but those have usually been verbatim conversation I’ve overheard from the subjects because I’ve been amazed (and sometimes scandalized) by what they’ve actually said. But those are extremely rare.

Sometimes, the stories I create are inspired by what’s happening in the photo. One picture I shared from the three o’clock hour is a young white woman standing outside a building. She’s talking on the phone and has one arm crossed over her chest. She looks peeved. And she’s looking right at me. I titled this picture “Karen,” because it was just too easy to imagine her calling the police to come see about me being on her block minding my own business. To be clear, that’s 100 percent NOT what she was doing. I blurred out her face because it seemed unfair to label her a racist when she had done not a single thing wrong. But the story had formed the moment I saw her.

Sometimes the stories are a catalyst to tell something from my own life, just draped over the strangers I’ve photographed. A picture I took in the noon hour is of a Black man sitting and eating a slice of pizza. He’s looking at the pizza very thoughtfully, and it made me think about the pizze place down the block from my house that closed during the height of the early pandemic. It wasn’t a great pizza place – there is far superior pizza all over the place – but I really liked the Italian couple whose place it was. The husband with his funny little hat like the one Art Carney work on The Honeymooners. He always asked after me, noticed when he hadn’t seen me in a while. Just really nice. And then, suddenly, while I was holed up in my apartment hoping Covid wouldn’t kill me, the shop closed. And no one could tell me what had happened, whether business was bad or Covid had come for either or both of the owners. There’s a new pizza place there now. And it’s got slightly better pizza, but I miss the old shop, the old owners.

Sometimes people make a particular gesture or I hear a snippet of their conversation, and I try to make a story about who they seem to be in that moment. In another picture from the three o’clock hour, I was on the 6 train headed north. The man across from me had his hand over his face. He caught my attention because I gave ther most exhausted sigh I’ve ever heard. And immediately I imagined his work schedule was to blame. It was three-thirty in the morning. How many jobs did he have? What was the goal he had in front of him that kept him dragging himself to work at that hour? And there was the story.

Years ago, I got into writing 420-character stories because I’d heard an interview with Lou Beach, and (as I’ve established) I love a challenge. I wrote a bunch of those stories, a few of which I really loved. I was surprised by how much of a narrative could be squeezed into so little space. I was also surprised that most of the stories I wrote were sad or dark. Was it easier to get to those feelings quickly? Did pleasure and joy need more expansive language to sound real?

Where I decided to create and IG account a couple of years later, it was with the express purposed of using the pictures as story-starters. A thousand years ago, when I was 20, I fell in love with Duane Michals and the tiny stories he wrote to accompany his photos. I was in the Modern Art Museum in Paris, and seeing his pictures felt dramatic, like a shifting of the ground beneath me. Those words and images were exactly what I wanted, all the right pieces pulled together. So obvious, and yet I hadn’t see anyone do it quite that way before. I tried my hand at a few, but I was still much too timid then, not yet comfortable with my storytelling voice.

On IG, I was ready. I could stretch out and see what worked for me and how it worked. I had a lot of fun with it … And then I got busy, got lazy. It just became easier to take and post a picture with some silly or snarky hashtags and move on.

When I learned about the 24 Hour Project, I knew I wanted to come back to stories, wanted to stretch again, remember who I was as a fiction writer with the most micro of microfiction.

In theory, I could take a picture of anything, of anyone, and there would be a story there. That’s probably true. But it’s also true that I look for the stories before I snap the photos. Something has to click in that part of my brain for the picture to look interesting for me. I mostly take pictures of people, which makes that easy for me. I find people fascinating (even as I find them horrifying, infuriating, irksome …).

I look for stories: a gesture, a pose, a surprise clothing choice, beautiful hands, a longing glance, a torn sleeve, an operatic laugh. I want to be drawn in, and I want to try to capture a tiny piece of a world that might draw viewers and readers in.

I reveal a lot more of myself in my 24-Hour stories than I could ever reveal of the people I photograph. Of course. And that’s okay. I’m pretty much the Queen of Oversharing, so giving myself away in these bits of telling feels entirely on-brand. But I hope I’m also shining a light on other people, on the simple face that each of us has beauty, has something that makes us interesting, something that showcases our worthiness.

Those women who shot video of me on that bus in Mexico and then held it up next to a caricature of a monkey, they didn’t have the ability to see something beautiful in me, something interesting, something that could have made me worthy of kindness, respect, human decency. I want to give that to the people I photograph. Humanizing strangers makes us see one another more clearly.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to writing short stories outside of IG, if I’ll ever go back to any of the novels that are moldering in my file boxes. I don’t know if I have the same pull toward longer fiction that I had for years and years. But these wisps of story, these tiny moments coupled with an image grabbed on the fly and (mostly) on the sly … this is a telling that feels like home for me, like I’ve found a place where fiction and I can be comfortable together.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Drifting: The Slow and the Curious

So ask me why yesterday turned out to be the day I would start watching the Fast franchise? What in the actual crazypants hell? How many years have these movies been in the world? How much have I never had any interest in watching them? And then yesterday …

I was thinking about Paul Walker and the farewell video with him and Vin Diesel taking different forks at the end of the road. Why have I seen that video when I’ve never seen the movies? And why was it in my head yesterday? #TheEternalQuestions

While I certainly wasn’t a Paul Walker hater, I was never a fan, either. I often confused him with other generic-white-guy actors (Ryan Reynolds primarily … yes, I know, they look and are nothing alike). And I was pretty much unaware of most movies he was in. I knew about the “Fast Family” (as, apparently, some people call it), but not much. I love a good action movie, love car chases and crime capers and all that. Still, the Fast movies have never called my name.

Until they did yesterday.

There’s a moment pretty early in the first movie where Walker gives a smirky smile and delivers his line, and a lightbulb came on over my head. “Oh,” I thought. “So these are just really not good.”

(Because, well … yeah. I mean, isn’t that why I knew not to watch them in the first place?)

But I kept watching that first one. And then rolled right along into 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is a clever naming thing, but that’s not enough cleverness when there’s a whole movie to watch. Not by half. But Devon Aoki with her can’t-be-a-real-girl face is in it, and Ludacris’ afro is in it, and Eva Mendes’ mole … I watched it. Of course I did. I had bought in, wanted to understand how the whole Family was going to be corralled into one crew, wanted the backstory that would lead to Tyrese’s social media meltdown over Hobbs and Shaw. Sure.

It’s good that yesterday was Tuesday. That meant I needed to draw the line, close the curtain on this nonsense before it got too late in the night. I did, however, start watching Tokyo Drift. Because yes, now I’m totally bought in. I watched this overseas Part the Third through the opening plot device that gets Sean, the lead character this time around, sent to Japan. Watched a long chunk of it as I ate dinner tonight. Pretty sure I’ll watch the rest before I sleep.

Aside from being all-in with this nonsense, I’ll also watch because of Lucas Black, the actor who plays Sean, because of the mind-blowing realization of who Lucas Black is. All through that opening sequence, I tried to work out where I recognized him from. When his plane landed in Tokyo, I paused the film and turned to Google for the answer. And immediately saw that yes, of course I recognize him because he’s on NCIS: New Orleans. Okay … but then I got dope-slapped by the not-actually-believable-but-clearly-true reality of him being the boy from American Gothic. I still can’t process the fact of that. I spent at least 30 minutes scrolling through stills from the show and having to admit that yes, that boy’s face is obviously the same face as the man playing a boy in Tokyo Drift. I have to admit it, but it’s just entirely impossible.

So yes, as long as I can find them for free, I’ll keep watching these movies.

But … WHY?!

I keep watching, but I can’t lie and say that I’m enjoying them. Paul Walker had a great smile, and his face in these movies was definitely the face of a guy you’d have fun hanging out with. He looks and moves like a nice guy. Maybe he was a jackass. I have no idea. But he doesn’t look like one. It’s sad that he’s dead and that he died young. It’s still not enough of a reason for me to be watching these movies instead of the many other things I could and should be doing, could and should be spending my mental energy on.

Oh.

That last bit is the missing piece. Yes, of course it makes sense that I would choose this moment to submerge myself in something that will wash over me with little impact (aside from the Lucas Black shock).

Because so many things are whirling together in a vortex of awful, and so many of them are imploding and exploding very particularly in this moment, and it’s more than I can manage. The destruction of our system of government, the earthquake in Haiti, the building wave of delta-Covid, the instant and catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan.

It’s too much. My heart and head just … can’t.

And, frustratingly, I can’t seem to do any of the things that usually distract me from the world. I just sit and stare at my Spanish homework. My writing projects collect dust. My apartment has still not been organized into a home. …

But I can watch these movies. I can stare at these things in which I have no investment, stare at the screen and not have to think. And it didn’t have to be this franchise, of course. It could be any series, any set of movies in which I have no stake. Somehow, this just happened to be the one this time.

And it has perks. Paul Walker was cute. And this third installment has introduced me to Sung Kang, who is also cute. Eventually the Rock will make an appearance, and he’s always a pleasure to look at. Perks.

*

I’ll have to start reading the news again. And before too long, too. I’ll have to find the strength to step back into the maelstrom that is this moment in our history. But I’ve got six and a half more of these distractions to go. And I welcome the oblivion of that. I’m not completely submerged, but there’s a buffer space around me that I hope is deep and high and wide enough to give my head and heart the time they need.

I’m on the drift … and it’s exactly the ride I need.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.