Sunday, August 24, 2003

I rode through the grassy fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania last Tuesday. There were seven of us, edging forward where the North and South had clashed, killing tens of thousands. Cannon booms, cries of battle, and musket shots had once filled the air, but today the only sounds were the soft hoof beats of my horse and fellow riders taking part in a guided horseback tour through the battlefields.

I'd found myself on the back of that horse in a rather odd way. A friend of my mom's from work is undergoing a mastectomy. This woman usually drives her husband Ed to Gettysburg where he is a guide. Ed is legally blind and can't drive himself, and when my mom asked her friend if there was anything she could do during her time in the hospital, she said, "Actually, there is."

And that led to my mom and I riding through Gettysburg on horseback, tromping through the fields, listening to Ed as he pointed out where rival generals had led their soldiers into one of the biggest battles in the Civil War.

Before the ride, we picked Ed up at his house in Hampden. Neither my mom nor me had ever met the man, and weren't quite sure what to expect. When she approached his door, he popped out in a "here I am," stance with his hands on his hips and chin raised to the air. He wore his official guide hat and shirt, light khaki pants, sported a red and grey beard, and was as spry as a fox. He was in his early sixties, and when my mom introduced me he proclaimed, "We're having historical weather today for our ride!" Meaning, that the battle took place in weather just like we were experiencing. Mid-eighties, humid, and partly cloudy.

At that, I knew we were in for a great time.

The drive to Gettysburg was about an hour, during which my mom and Ed talked about the history of the surrounding countryside and the war. My mom asked Ed what his background was, and he told us that he is a former mathematician, having quit when his eyesight started to fail to the point where he could no longer read the yearly mathematical journals. Twelve, intricate, very large journals that were essential if one wanted to be on the forefront of mathematics. Instead of letting his eyesight limit him, he became interested in the Civil War and found out by accident about horseback guided tours through Gettysburg. In order to pass the rigid guide test, he visited the battlefield several times to memorize by foot placement where the events took place, as well as where landmarks, both natural and manmade were located in order to give an accurate historical tour. When his test came, the day was foggy and visibility was low, but Ed pointed out the places of note with ease, down to where the last foot soldier may have fallen or where a cannonball rolled across the field to take the lower leg off an unsuspecting general. After he passed his test, one of the Gettysburg board members told him, "We really thought your eyesight was going to be a problem, but you could see things that we had a hard time seeing today!"

Truth be told, Ed had memorized the battlefield so well, that he didn't need his eyes to guide him anymore. He had no idea the day had been foggy.

As he spoke to us in the car, I marveled at his knowledge of the land through which we were driving and the history of the Civil War. It's one thing to know names and places, but to be able to point somewhere and say this general was standing here, and this one was there, and to tell the story as if he just experienced it yesterday was just amazing. I had a wonderful time just sitting in the back of the car and listening to Ed, imagining the people he was talking about and the events that had taken place. The people he described became three dimensional beings and I soaked it in. I could see the sweat dripping down their foreheads, hot and weary in their wool uniforms and brass buttons, their muskets slung over their shoulders and their hair blowing in the wind. I felt the fear and anticipation, and between the trees I expected to see soldiers lurking or sense an unnatural silence as we approached the enemy. By the time we arrived at Gettysburg, I was ready to get on a horse and ride, not drive through history.

Right: Me on the white horse on the left, and my mom on the brown horse on the right. This photo was taken by the horses' owner just after our ride.

I had taken English style horseback riding when I was in grade school that included some jumping, and had also ridden Western style through the Colorado Rockies at Estes Park a few times when I was nine through eleven years old. When I got on the horse, everything came back except one thing. I had always harbored some fear of horses when I was that age, being so small on top of such a big animal, but that didn't surface this time. I felt in unison with my horse, and her sudden movements beneath me didn't frighten me, but instead seemed natural. I felt in control and at ease, thinking, "If I fall, well, then I fall. If the horse becomes frightened, well, then the horse bucks and I hang on. It's all cool." I think my horse could sense that from me, and the two of us worked together seamlessly.

My horse was a spackled grey Arabian, just like the one that Legolas and Gimli ride in the movie The Two Towers, and as Ed told me from his encyclopedic mind, the kind that Napoleon preferred. Her name is Tania, pronounced Tah-ny-ah. She was such a beautiful horse, and I spoke to her and pet her before I got onto her. My mom's horse was a beautiful brown horse named JD, short for Jack Daniels.

Though we were on a battlefield, the ride was incredibly peaceful. The sounds of the horses' steps changed with the terrain, whether we were on gravel, dirt, grass, or a wood bridge. I felt Tania expand underneath me when she took a deep breath, and the twitches of her muscles when she warded off flies. I saw butterflies land on blades of grass and swarms of grasshoppers hop out of our way as we passed, causing a ripple effect in the tall grass. I heard the creaking of my leather saddle and the songbirds' varied tunes, the wind whispering through the grass and the rustle of the leaves in the trees.

I wondered sometimes if the ghosts of those who fought and died there were among us, looking at us with curiosity and listening to Ed as he pointed out from where regiments had attacked or the more intimate stories of lookout soldiers from opposing sides forming friendships on the fields they surveyed. Maybe they silently walked beside our horses, enjoying the same tranquility that we were and proud that we remembered their sacrifice. Perhaps they reached out and tried to touch us, feeling only air as we passed through them. And some of Tania's twitches were not the result of flies, but of ghostly fingers brushing against her skin.

As I looked across the landscape, right in the middle of where our country fought itself to gain freedom and opportunity for all, I resisted the urge to gallop across the fields, hanging on for dear life, wind through my hair and stinging my eyes, filling my lungs and caressing my forehead. The beating of hooves as fast as the beating of my heart, feeling the land underneath me instead of being separated from it by pavement and tires. Going off-road, in the way it was originally intended. Experiencing freedom in one of the very places that helped birth it and shredding boundaries. Being so alive that fear and doubt seem impossible, almost laughable. And having possibility within my grasp, riding alongside me and sharing my triumph, both of us gut laughing at the sheer wonder of life as we part through the vast fields of opportunity that seem to stretch forever.

Ironic that it took someone who is legally blind to enable me to see that so much more clearly. To see that even though you may have limitations, you can find a way around them. But you are the one that has to find the way and carve out that path that is custom made just for you. And then, it's just a matter of remembering your foot placement.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

It's been a long time since I've wanted to walk into a Hollywood producer's office, thrust my fists in the air and say, "YES!"

If I had such a chance to walk into a producers meeting for Sex and the City, that's exactly what I would do. "YES. Thank you! Thank you for being brilliant. And DIFFERENT."

I'm talking about casting Mikhail Baryshnikov as a soon to be love interest for Carrie. (Sarah Jessica Parker). Though I haven't been a religious watcher of the show, I'm excited about this for a lot of reasons.

One, it's taking a ballsy risk, and two it's bringing someone back into the public eye that I think has been missing for too long. Yes, he's been performing, but coccooned in his world of modern dance appearances which in the big picture is a very small pond.

Three, because the world needs Baryshnikov. Especially the younger crowd who are used to celebrities being made overnight and think that Brittany Spears qualifies as a good dancer. It's important to introduce to them this extraordinary talent who not only worked years to perfect his craft, but defected from his country so he could have freedom of artistic expression. Though he won't be showing off his dancing talent in the show, it will pique curiosity from those who have not heard of him before, or who have but because he is a performing artist, thought him a story that isn't of interest to them. Now, people will ask who he is, and possibly be moved to explore watching videos of when he was at his peak or delve into his story, which is a fascinating one. It will remind them that it wasn't so long ago that times were different, and the extents that someone will go to fully achieve their artistic, or any potential. Not to mention, to defeat the obstacles that attempt to thwart them no matter how impossible that seems.

Lastly, I worked for three years at American Ballet Theatre while Baryshnikov was artistic director. It is a time that I will treasure for the rest of my life, seeing the world of dance so up close and intimately and being allowed to roam freely within that world. I was also one of the first at the company to learn that Baryshnikov would resign from the position, but that is another story.

I was introduced to Baryshnikov early in life by the yearly showings of "The Nutcracker" or when my mom and I would fight over the television over my wanting to watch CHiPs and her wanting to watch a PBS special called Baryshnikov on Broadway. "Isn't he cute?" she say, and I'd recoil, "NO!" And I meant it. I'd sulk and wait for the commercials so we could switch to Ponch and Jon in their tight cop pants fighting crime via motorcycle on the California Highways. Now that was cute.

Several years later, as a teenager with maturing hormones and tastes, I saw a preview at a theater for the movie White Nights. Misha jumped across the screen and something stirred in my belly. I crossed my legs and leaned back as I concentrated on the screen. This was no boy, it was a man. But an expressive boyish man who had incredible control over his body. "Oh yeah," I thought. "Forgot about this guy."

Right: Misha in the movie White Nights. Photo courtesy of "Portrait of a Film." Photo by Terry O'Neill.

When I saw the movie, I was hooked. He had force, sexuality, and maturity behind his image, and that just curled my little teenage toes. I spent years pining over Misha, had posters on my walls and wore out the Public Library's VHS copies of his performances. The need to get out of Kansas to New York became even more urgent. I wanted to experience that world, those people, and that man. Luckily, my own artistic skills got me into Parsons School of Design in New York. Before I left, people in Kansas balked when I told them I wanted to be Baryshnikov's assistant at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. "Oh like you'd ever get to do that," they'd say.

But I did.

By the time I was nineteen, I was Misha's assistant at American Ballet Theatre.

I found my "in" during a summer job as a telemarketer for ABT's fundraising campaign. The office we used was uptown and being leased to us as a donation from a major company. It was fancy and plush, but it was nowhere near the action in the downtown studios. It was at that job that I learned about the volunteer program at ABT and applied. Through volunteering, I would get to be on site at the company studios which put me at Misha ground zero. From there, I was hired to work part-time in the development office.

Left: Misha during the time I was at American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Annie Leibowitz.

The first time I saw Misha at ABT was him walking toward me in the hall with shorts on and very white muscular legs. I was shy and averted his glance, but tried to be seen by him as much as possible when I was there. Not obnoxiously lingering, but just present. I had such a crush on him, and had a fantasy that Misha would see me and say, "come work for ME." It was silly, but that's exactly what happened.

It all started with a squeeze on the arm.

One day at work, I was pinched on my arm from behind, and thinking it was another coworker with whom I had a flirtatious relationship, almost punched the person behind me playfully. I balled my fist, then held it when I saw my boss's expression stiffen. I turned around, and there was Misha. Brilliant blue eyes, talking fast to me, pausing between every couple of words, "Can you... come get me... if the phone rings... for me?"
"Sure," I said, relaxing my fist, and he smiled widely. So did I.
"Thank you!" he said, and darted off down the hall to rehearsal.
My boss stood there stunned, then said, "you better stay here then," and indicated the desk by the artistic office.
"Yeah," I said, my stomach doing flip flops inside, "I guess so."

And there it was. I had made it. That little exchange led to me being the liason between Misha's life at ABT and the world. And Misha's world was big. I phoned him at his hotel in Rome to tell him that he'd been nominated for an Emmy. He called me from Valentino's yacht in the Mediterranian to catch up on messages. "How are you, Anne?" He would say over static sounding very happy to be on vacation. "Thank you Anne!" He'd say when we were finished talking.

Though I was harboring a severe crush on the man, I was always respectful of his privacy. I stayed within my boundaries to what the job was, and didn't cross the line. There was no groupie behavior on my part, no snooping or souvenir collecting. I was just thrilled to be a part of everything.

And then the time came when he made a pass at me. He had been trying to get closer to me all week, coming up from behind, rubbing me on the arm and greeting me. On that day, I was on the phone inquiring to a store about some bookshelves I'd ordered and he came out of his office. He stood there looking at me and I at him. We were in a different world; the woman on the other line from me couldn't have guessed what was happening to her customer at that moment and why I was taking a few seconds to answer her questions. He moved closer, brushed against my leg and touched my shoulder. I was sitting, he was standing, and both of us were quiet. I had finished my conversation and hung up the phone. My heart was a pounding drum in my head. I was sure he could hear it. I felt myself blush. I was sure he could see it. I wanted to appear mature and seasoned, and I was blowing it.

I had fantasized endlessly about this moment. I was trembling; he was calm as he stared into my eyes, inches away and getting closer. The sound around me silenced, my breathing tightened in my throat. He was now standing over me, and touched my arm, neck. "Go for it!" A voice screamed in my head, "put your hand...there!"

But I turned away.

At nineteen, he was too much man for me. And though he looked young and had the body of a teenager, he was more than twice my age. I was inexperienced; he was a legend for his conquests. And, he scared the shit out of me.

For years I chastised myself for "failing" in that moment, and that my Kansas upbringing surrounded by uncultured dopey boys had failed to prepare me for it. But eventually, I came to an understanding that I was simply protecting myself from what would have been an emotionally devastating experience for a very impressionable, sensitive, and naive young woman. I had become familiar with his womanizing ways, and though in fantasy it was ok, the reality felt so much different, and scary. Some nineteen-year-olds could have handled it. I wasn't one of them. In that regard, I triumphed in that moment and showed strength way beyond my years.

So why am I thrilled about his appearance on the show? I don't know fully, but I am. It brings back those memories of being impressionable and excited about something. Being introduced to a world that is so much bigger than you are, yet not getting lost in it. And having the strength to stand out in your unique way and realize how far you want to go. There is no way that you emerge from an experience like that the same person that you were when you entered.

I certainly didn't.

Perhaps, because having him back in the limelight, especially in this capacity, brings some of me back as well. It puts me back in touch with that adventurous, go for it personality who set an impossible, no ridiculous goal and achieved it. The romantic. The girl that believed in dreams coming true, even if they don't turn out to be what you thought. Because it is the belief in those dreams, not the achievement of them that is the most important. Success is merely the end result of never ceasing to believe.

When I lived in Los Angeles, Shannon, his sister and I went to see Baryshnikov dance at the Wiltern Theatre. It was the first time that I'd seen him in person since he walked off the stage at the Met after announcing his intentions to resign as artistic director. No one knew of my history, and I liked it that way. I liked seeing Misha not through the eyes of a star struck teenager who wanted to be swept off her feet and rescued, but as an adult who had her own life and successes. And presence. And someone who was content to appreciate his artistry from afar.

And I decided, that I like both him and me much better on those terms.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Today is my birthday. Happy birthday to me. :)

Friday, August 01, 2003

I opened up a can of worms yesterday. Or to put it more accurately, peeled the lid back.

I was cleaning my bedroom, and once again started picking at the cracked paint on one of the walls. This wasn't an ordinary peel, but a good foot by two foot crack that had buckled under years and layers of paint. I've been picking at it, trying to see the original wallpaper from the turn of the century, that is, the one before the turn of this last century. Finally, I gave in, and removed the plank of paint to expose a pretty sage colored wallpaper with white flowers.

Okay, now I'd done it. The urge to see this wall naked as it once was overcame me and I peeled piece after piece off the wall. The task was amazingly easy, and tore off like paper with little to no residue left. It was as if the room wanted to breathe, and was ready to shed its cumbersome layers.

The paint, which felt more like thin cardboard, could be removed by hand. This "paintboard" consisted of several layers of paint, and a couple different sheets of wallpaper, one that I could tell was an awful fifties design. Whomever decided to paper the walls in the past didn't bother removing the original. Same goes for the paint jobs.

After three hours, I was looking at over half the wall uncovered. I'd even walked downstairs to retrieve a ladder to get the high parts. I'm going to need an even taller one, with my ceilings being 14 feet high. But I was able to get high enough to see what this room could have looked like 100 years ago.

There was something about doing this task that felt right. I was giving this old grand room the respect and attention that it deserves. It was as if it wanted to be stripped, and with a cracked plank it beckoned a tenant that it knew was curious and liked to work with her hands.

The wallpaper warms the room up considerably, but unfortunately is in no condition to save. I am enjoying it now while I can, but the walls will need to have cracks repaired, sanded down, and painted. I'll probably have a professional eye the walls and paint the room. Then again, perhaps I'll do it. Paint, that is.

Again, I'm just a renter. The work I'm doing will in no way benefit me except for the cathartic exercise that it is providing. And cathartic it has been. I equate this task with the same one that I'm taking on with myself, peeling back the layers to reveal well, Anne. Whomever she is, the artist, writer, thinker, and even the girl who gets melancholy from time to time. The unique chemistry that makes up me.

I spent too many years putting on those layers, hoping that some astute and willing person would see behind them and do the work for me. To yank me out of my calcifying shell and say, "Hey, I know you really are so much more! Let me show you the way!" And like the careless workers who had papered and painted the room, I didn't bother to peel the old layers off either, I just slapped up a new one, as it was quicker and easier. For a while, it looked good and held up. But eventually, those layers got heavy and started to crack. So I'm peeling them off. And it takes work.

But I'm willing to walk naked.

To not be so serious, to roll with the blues, knowing they will pass. To write, to draw. To show off. To regain laughter. To move with the body that God gave to me. To stop focusing so much on time as if I'm racing against it. To be natural and at peace with who I am. When I can't sleep at night to know that eventually sleep will come. When I can't write to sit down and do it anyway. To use my hands more. To feel, touch, smell, and hear as much as I can. To express. To live. To allow others to be closer to me.

Most important, to stay visible. Even when I realize that I am naked.