Art Work #7: Isabelle Collazo, Dance Artist and Educator

You dance more than you think you do, says Isabelle Collazo. Whether you’re listening to the radio in your car, moving through the street, or just processing information about the world through your body, your life is filled with more movement than you may realize on first blush. “For a long time dance has been sequestered to the realm of physical education in schools, but I think this is changing,” she says. “It’s being recognized as a physical way of thinking and a way to challenge the Western mind-body split.”

Isabelle has studied dance all around the globe, but these days she’s pursuing her MFA in Dance with K-12 licensure at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she focuses on culturally-responsive dance pedagogy, dance film, and healing trauma through movement and performance. Here, she talks about bringing dance into public schools, moving away from a split between “artist” and “teacher,” and why dance isn’t just about “hot bods.” Enjoy!

So! You’re a dance artist and educator. How do those two careers blend into each other, help each other, or hinder each other? And why “dance artist” and not “dancer”—is there a subtle difference you’re trying to tease out?

I would say for the most part these identities feed and inform one another. There is a saying in mind-body practice where you have to work to balance inner and outer awareness. The dance artist side is my introverted self—I think critically, challenge myself, my peers, authority (my rebellious body!), and ground my findings in intuition, collaboration, and felt experience. The educator side is my extroverted self—I works to translate these ideas into tangible experiences that can be facilitated for folks in the form of performances/demonstrations, words, and participatory activities. In the past these identities were entirely separate and based in tropes and archetypes: the artist, misunderstood, isolated, trying to make her way in the world, and the happy-go-lucky dance instructor, taking whatever gigs were offered and spending hours on YouTube studying how to teach jazz dance to elementary school students in China (as one example…). This stark distinction completely drained my time and energy. But within the past couple of years I’ve been able to draw authentic connections between my artist and educator selves, which has empowered me to do my best work and ensure my daily activities are more closely aligned with my values—a work in progress.

I choose the term “dance artist” over “dancer” because it is more all-encompassing (and lessens the possibility for questions like “Do you dance on your toes? Have you auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance?“). To be honest, I’ve never felt like a pure “dancer”—I have studied dance and mind-body practices for the majority of my life but have also pursued my interest in others arts and academic disciplines. When I was young, I loved visual art and my mom thought for sure I would be a painter. I went on to formally study instrumental and vocal music as well as musical theater. I was enamored with history and language arts, and developed a passion for social justice issues and world cultures. I was fortunate enough to study dance in my public school program and learned quickly that dance was much more than perfectly executing a series of steps; it was a way of being in the world and an open platform where I could synthesize my interests.

Now most of my work is in public schools, where I provide dance education to low-income students through my (small but mighty!) organization Whole People Movement. I work with schools to create conceptually-driven dance projects unique to the interests and needs of their communities. A few examples: In our project “Dance Against Bullying,” elementary school students and I worked to create a live performance and dance film that challenged bullying culture at their school through movement and poetry. During our residency “Dance with Pride,” I worked with middle schoolers to create original dances and a dance film that explored social emotional concepts like perseverance, integrity, and empathy, and as part of the program I was able to hire four professional dancers to perform original choreography. In “The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” (inspired by the amazing book by Patricia Hruby Powell) I worked with a group of teenage female students of color to create a dance theater piece that told the story of jazz dance visionary and activist Josephine Baker and a finale that highlighted her signature movement language. Next year, I will lead a school project that has to do with navigating physical and ideological borders. Although I am teaching dance, I not teaching a “general curriculum” but rather am approaching these projects from the perspective of an artist. I want to continue this work and take part in projects I am passionate about that bring value to the communities I serve.

In my experience, people can be pretty weird and skeptical when one says that they’re going to make a career out of art. When did you decide to really go for the dance thing, and how did people react? Are there any places in your life/work where you’ve encountered surprising resistance? 

This, surprisingly, was not much of an issue for me. I grew up studying the arts and my parents were very supportive. Actually, when I told my parents I wanted to major in history they were disappointed. They were like, “But don’t you love dance?!”

That being said, I have met folks with a narrow view about what it means to pursue dance as a career. I once had someone tell me I was too soft to be a dancer. And by their standards, I would agree. But like I said, there is more than one way to make a living and be an active contributor to this field. To be successful takes far more than a perfect bod; you have to be open to the possibilities about what role dance can play in your life, be proactive about finding in-roads, define what success looks like to you, and be able to articulate your point of view to naysayers with confidence and (a little) sass.

What made you decide to go to grad school, and what have you gotten from it so far? 

I decided to go to grad school because I wanted to immerse myself in dancing/dancemaking/pedagogical practice and had some very clear goals in relation to each of those disciplines. I also wanted to get my MFA and K-12 teaching license so I would have more job opportunities when I graduated. So far, outside of learning content related to my field, grad school has taught me about how to make peace with imperfect decisions, how to place more value on my time and expertise, and how to better communicate who I am as an artist and educator to people who either don’t know me or may not initially value what I do.

Do you consider yourself a freelancer? What pays the bills in your line of work? If you roughly divided your income up into percentiles, what would that look like?

When I am not in school, I would definitely consider myself a freelancer. I have made money working as a teaching artist in public schools, teaching dance in China at a private arts school, choreographing for various projects (musicals, show choirs, high school dance performances, etc), I worked as an education coordinator and administrator for an arts organization, I served at Honky Tonk BBQ, I taught yoga, I danced for several independent artists and also worked as a dancer at a bar mitzvah….

I’m not sure about percentages because it has always been in flux depending on what kind of work has been available, but I will say teaching has accounted for the bulk of my income.

What are some goals you haven’t achieved yet? Big future dreams? 

I want to run my own dance program—either in the form of expanding Whole People Movement or overseeing a high school dance program. I also want to keep taking dance classes and educating myself on my art form (it’s endless!) and do choreographic residencies to continue to develop my craft (and would love to do a residency at a national park!). I want to learn how to speak Spanish, get good at gardening and cooking vegan food, read all the books I own, have a family, travel and explore new places/cultures, and be happy and peaceful. And graduate from grad school!

Are there any huge pieces of misinformation floating around about your career path in general?

YES—there are many, but I will say one of the biggest pieces of misinformation is that ballet is “the basis” for all dance. Is ballet the basis for tap dance? Balinese dance? West African dance? I think you catch my drift…

I also think dance is such a multifaceted art form that often gets relegated to (as my former teacher Tere O’Conor so eloquently summarized) “hot bods doing cool moves.” Technique is essential but I don’t think there is a “default technique”—technique should be in service to the type of work the artist wants to make. As in, the style and the technique develop concurrently.

How do you “get it done,” whatever that means to you? I’m curious if you have a daily routine and if so, what that looks like. 

I don’t have a routine per se, outside of making my bed, trying to remember to meditate, and drinking my coffee. I usually take showers at night and (try to) have all of my things prepared for the following day. I think getting it done has to do with having clear goals and objectives and setting boundaries for yourself, not being a perfectionist (or staying up all night! Either works!). Practically, I use Google calendar and schedule everything on my to-do list. I think it’s also about being aware of your energy and using your energetic upticks to your advantage. Also, coffee.

I know you also do a lot of choreography—was that an intentional shift for you? How does that play into your life/work/goals? 

Choreography has always been part of my identity as an artist and dancer. I started choreographing on my little sister and her friends for their elementary school talent shows when I was young. I have always been interested in being part of the creation because it’s impossible for me to perform something I don’t believe in. This is another reason why I am unable to call myself a straight up “dancer”—if I don’t believe in a project ideologically I can’t go on stage and perform with conviction. So it feels more natural for me to serve as a movement/performance collaborator on a project.

Your work obviously has a huge physical component. I feel like other freelancers are trying to stay fit so that they don’t crumple into a pile of dust at their computer before they turn 30, but for you, physicality is surely an integral component of the work, not something you do so you can continue to work. I don’t know if I have a really interesting question here, but I guess it’s something like…what are your thoughts on the body? 

My thoughts on the body are—there are many ways to be in “shape,” many ways to exist in the world. I think our society tries to portray health like this monolithic thing when in reality if you as a person are fit to do what you want to do I think that’s being healthy. I don’t advocate for eating a bunch of hamburgers and pizza and fries on the regular (although I do eat those things sometimes!) but I it’s silly to think that health looks like having rock hard abs. I think it’s as simple as always be prepared to do whatever it is you are trying to do—mind, body, spirit. For me personally, this means to live within my means, eat sustainably, no pork, lessen the meat, lessen the dairy, drink water, eat organic, lessen the sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, get outside, ride my bike, do yoga, take technique class, improvise, choreograph, meditate, spend time with loved ones, dance, and ultimately do what brings me an authentic sense of joy. Because above all else joy and passion are what fuel us to live our best lives and be our most embodied selves.

Thank you, Izzy! Read previous installments of Art Work here

Art Work #6: Tanya Marquardt, Writer and Performance Artist

“Once upon a time I tried to explain everything that I do to people at parties,” says Tanya Marquardt. “After years of watching most people’s eyes glaze over, I now say that I am a writer and a performer. But if they inquire further they find out that I dance, choreograph, direct, make theatre, work collaboratively, write memoir and plays and, and, and….”

Tanya’s work and career has indeed been a series of beautiful ampersands. She’s studied theater, dance, and writing; she’s done a show in IKEA and has a memoir, Stray, coming out from Little A—and that’s just scratching the surface. In nearly twenty years of working as an artist, Tanya has acquired a lot of wisdom about navigating the thrilling and torturous roads of the art world (after reading her interview, I’m inspired to apply to about 500x more grants than I currently do). We also share the same incredible agent, Erin Hosier. Here, she talks about liminality in art, the financial shock of moving from Canada to NYC, and the freedom of self-producing. Enjoy!

Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, Mabou Mines Artist Residency, 2017. Photo courtesy of David B Smith.

What led you to study theater, then dance, then creative writing? How do your various skill sets intersect?

Theatre was really my first love, and I wanted to be an actress. For my undergraduate degree I went to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, which is a program that emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration, ensemble, and self-producing. From day one of my professional training I was collaborating with filmmakers and dancers, musicians and visual artists, and we were encouraged by the faculty to make work that mixed forms together. And I found that I loved that space between art forms and wanted my art to exist where things were risky, at times problematic, and difficult to define. And this training and interest led to me wanting to train in other art practices, eventually getting a dance certification and then an MFA in Creative Writing at Hunter College.

I feel like there is this tendency, and I think it’s present in all fields, towards definition, a snappy quip, a soundbite, a tagline that we want from artists and makers to orient ourselves to their work. I want to defy that. I welcome failure, and confusion and being undefinable. It means that sometimes my work feels very strong, and other times it roams around in a mess, but it feels real to me, closer to my life and the way I want to express myself. And also, I think liminality opens up potential meanings for the viewer or the reader, even if it comes from experiencing an uncomfortable performance or piece of writing. I also take that liminality into the process, and am continually defining the space where my skills intersect, overlap, smash against each other and meld. Sometimes the relationship is very clear, like the relationship between playwriting and memoir writing, and sometimes the relationship takes time to work itself out, like the relationship between dancing and writing. It’s exciting to live in that space, I recommend it.

What draws you to doing so many different things?

To be honest, I am not completely sure what draws me to so many different artistic expressions. Even when I was a little kid I was making up shows and writing and dancing around for my parents. So I think part of it is a natural interest, an inclination towards being an art maker. But also, I find that the deeper I work on a theme or the more I uncover about a story, the original form needs to shift so that I can discover more about the work. So a piece that starts as fiction may end up as a dance, and then a year later be a play that I then turn into a short work of nonfiction, and round and round and round. This way I can dig and find depth, which is one of the things I am interested in as an artist. So in that way my process is prismatic, it wants to shed light on all the angles. Continue reading →

On Self Promotion

A couple of weeks ago, I did two things that were extremely minor to the rest of the world but major to me: 1) I started promoting my work as much as I wanted, and 2) I stopped apologizing for promoting my work. Wait, no! I actually did three things, and the third is the most important: 3) I stopped apologizing for my work, period. Cue a huge side of relief and a little bit of a middle finger thrown up to the world in general. I’m done feeling guilty that some people think it’s “weird” I write about murder. I’m done feeling like I have to hide certain aspects of my success so that insecure people can feel better about themselves. I’m just done! Done with the weird freelancer apology dance: “Sorry for spamming you but here’s another article, it’s kinda long, no need to actually read it, LOL! Oh and while you’re at it, curious when my paycheck will arrive, not to bug you but it’s been four months, sorry for being a nag!” D-O-N-E.

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Art Work #5: Sonya English, Actor

I have always been fascinated by how Sonya English gets it done. She’s a real-life working actor in LA, the city where everybody says it’s impossible to be an actor. Perhaps you’ve seen her in a Wendy’s commercial? On “Workaholics,” or “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”? She’s equal parts hustle and thoughtful intuition, and I’m thrilled that she’s spilling some of her secrets here (seriously, actors, her tips are worth their weight in gold…or in cigarettes, when the apocalypse hits).

Here, she talks about auditioning for absolutely everything, investing in new skills instead of fancy cars, how to take the Church of Scientology’s free seminar for actors without going clear, and why it’s so valuable to have someone in your life who can talk your brain off the “fear track.”

At parties, what do you say when people ask you what you do? Is there any point, in the telling of what you do, that you stumble?  

The first stumbling block is right out of the gate, deciding between “actor” or “actress.” I don’t have a strong opinion either way and I don’t find it particularly interesting to talk about, so I’m mostly reading the crowd and anticipating which they’ll take less issue with.

The big one for me is, do you do comedy or drama? Or, do you do TV or movies? I’d have asked the same questions before I was an actor, so I recognize the kindness and interest behind it, but it always leaves me feeling tongue-tied. The truth is that I audition for TV, movies, commercials, animation, videogames, web series—from one-liners to leads. Unless you’re talking to a magazine-cover celebrity, they’re probably not being super choosy.

One thing I find impressive about you is that you seem to be working a very difficult system. You’re making a living as an actress in LA in a way that’s quite clever. So many people seem to think there’s two poles: the starving barista desperate for parts, and then the celebrity. You’ve carved out a place for yourself that’s neither one of those things. How did you do it?

Here’s the secret!! I think everyone should know it! It involves a cheesy blue-and-yellow 24×36 inch cardboard piece of marketing that changed my life.

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Art Work #4: Rhonda Telfer, Writer

Rhonda Telfer grew up just outside the tiny town of Sheffield, IL, in a beautiful white farmhouse amid her father’s green cornfields, and the landscape of her childhood still figures prominently in her writing today. She has written two children’s books, a young adult novel, and numerous short stories for children; she also posts weekly essays at Suffice it to say that if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be a writer. And if I ever wander into a bar in Sheffield, IL, someone always asks me if I am my mother.

Here, she talks about the creativity of stay-at-home motherhood, the number one inspiration for her art, and how her first novel took twenty years to write. (PS: BUY IT!!!! It is amazing, and the perfect poignant/painful/nostalgic read for hazy August days by the water.)

You write, you act, you play piano—is there anything the woman CAN’T do? Talk to me a little bit about the role of art in your life and how you see your various skills manifesting, both in the day to day and long-term.

I supposed more than “skills manifesting,” being an artist has to do with the way you interact with the world. I like words skillfully used—i.e. witty and beautiful. Conversation and writing like that grabs me. I also like to re-arrange my furniture—that’s art, right? I’m done with acting (too old for my dream roles of Eliza Doolittle and Lady Macbeth) and as my grandpa used to say, I only “tickle the ivories” for private audience (me). Long-term manifestations? Three more books: an adult novel, a picture book, and a collection of essays. But I think you have to be really famous to do the last one, right?

When you were a mother of four young children, did you have any time for art? I can’t imagine you had much time to create in the stereotypical sit-down-at-the-easel sense (maybe I’m wrong!), but were there any ways that art popped up unexpectedly in those intense mothering years?

Being  a mother grew me as a writer. In some ways, bringing a new person into the world, watching them grow into their own person…and all the “witty and beautiful” that comes from them, enriched me as a thinker. And it also got me collecting books. I did a lot of jotting on paper—things the kids said, or images that occurred to me for a later story, various dashings-off of descriptions of my world. And I read aloud to them lots. The actress in me liked changing my voice for each character. I can still do a pretty epic “Jabberwocky” performance.

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Art Work #3: Jill Bumby, Anonymous Performance Artist

Welcome to installment three of the series colloquially known as “ART! WORK! WORK! ART! ART! YEAH! BUT MOSTLY WORK!” I’m thrilled to bring you this latest interview, as it is simultaneously aspirational, brutally honest, and full of fantastic advice. Jill Bumby is a performance artist who, along with her counterpart Gill, has appeared everywhere from Art Basel Miami to the Whitney Museum of American Art (and about a zillion places in between). I can’t tell you how I know her, but suffice it to say that she’s amazing. I’ll let her take it from here:

So here’s my act: Since 2008, I’ve been part of a performance duo known as The Bumbys. You will find us at fancy parties and big events all over the world. (We also have an app.) Gill & Jill Bumby are anonymous and costumed, we do not speak, and we can’t hear you because we are listening to loud music on our custom headphones. What we do is sit at a table for hours at a time and type up a fair and honest appraisal of your appearance using electric Brother typewriters that half of our clientele haven’t seen since college, and rate each person on the decimal scale between one and ten. It’s a little narrative about you typed on an index card that you can keep forever in a frame (or ball it up and throw it away like some teens tend to do). The reason we wear masks is because it’s not about us, it’s about you, and also to keep the mystery alive.

The first time I saw Gill Bumby do his thing solo at a party, I knew that I had to be involved. He needed a counterpart to take it to the next level, and I needed a creative project to balance out my day job. It all came together really quickly, first by working with an art gallery who sponsored us at Art Basel that same year, then we started getting hired by a lot of brands. We got a manager and some team members who deal with the public and do our talking for us. It’s shocking that it’s still going strong almost 10 years later, but it makes sense, too. People really want to know how they come across to strangers, and they always will. 

So! You’re a performance artist. And a writer. And you work in Big Book Publishing. What came first? How’d you decide to do more than one?

I’ve always been really bossy and opinionated, and I’m an extrovert who enjoys working behind the scenes in support of creative projects I believe in. In high school I was a cheerleader and I organized a punk rock show to benefit a charity for my senior project. I was always inserting myself into the conversation. In college I considered studying art history, but a friend thought that was lame—”Why not just be an artist?” I remember being really shocked by that—I didn’t have any talent that I knew of; I couldn’t draw or play the guitar, I’d long since given up ballet. My creative strength was being in the moody pictures my photographer boyfriend took of me, and appreciating the fact that the Pixies were a perfect band. (So naturally I studied to become a social worker.) I never wanted to admit that what came naturally to me was writing, that I could in fact make a living as a writer. And yet many years later I do. I live in New York City and I’ve been living the dream in book publishing since 2000. Working with authors is stimulating to say the least—it’s like being a therapist—so I think that’s why I keep at it, because it certainly isn’t the money. Ten years into my career, I had more confidence about my own skills. I started to publish some pieces here and there. Then I got the Bumby gig, where I could apply my skills as a reader of human behavior. Ghosting other people’s books makes sense because as Jill, I’m literally a ghost, writing.

I’m the equivalent of a working actor, not famous, but known in certain circles and consistently employed. Every once in awhile I get treated like royalty and get to be in rooms with Tina Fey, or I’m on location in Paris or something. (Though often the location is New Haven at Zane’s bar mitzvah, and I’m sharing a dressing room with a living avatar.)

I’m busy and creatively challenged, but I have to have all the balls in the air if I’m going to make the kind of money that allows one to live in Brooklyn and afford healthcare. My work in publishing is “at large,” so I only need to take on book projects that I think I can contribute to in a significant way. I have employers, but no one is really the boss of me. It’s a 1099 existence.

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Art Work #2: Shayla Lawson, Author and Generally Creative Person

Shayla Lawson is one of the top five most fashionable people I know. And so when I was moving out of Bloomington, Indiana in a flurry of minimalist purging and giving away mounds of clothes, I was deeply flattered that she picked out a sparkly blue dress I found in a thrift store in New Orleans. PS: It looks great on her. But enough about the sisterhood of the sparkly dress! Shayla is both highly creative and highly productive, a fellow freelancer in the trenches, with degrees in the kindred topics of poetry and architecture. She writes, designs, sings, composes, draws, and dances.

Her work has appeared in print and online at Tin House, GRAMMA, ESPNSalonThe OffingGuernica, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, and MiPOesias.  She is the author of: A Speed Education in Human BeingPANTONE, and the forthcoming I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean. She is a 2017 Oregon Literary and MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a member of The Affrilachian Poets. Here, she talks about transitioning between artistic states, creating a persona when applying for jobs, and being “employment fluid.”

photo by Erica J Mitchell


At parties, what do you say when people ask you what you do?

I say “I’m a copywriter…” and then will often change it to “Well, I’m a writer.”

Is there anywhere, in the telling of what you do, that you stumble?

Absolutely. When people push me past the explanation of what I write on a daily basis—”I write emails for [insert name of major retailer here]”—into a more expansive inquiry into what my day looks like, then I tell them that I freelance as an essayist. If they get really interested (or I’ve had a few cocktails) I explain to them I’m a poet and that part of my freelance work involves writing, publishing, and performing in support of my passion project.

Are there any points where people push or pry? (e.g., “How do you make money doing that?” or “Is there even any market for that anymore?”)

People don’t seem to much anymore. I think the ‘I write emails for X’ answer lets them know how I feed myself and the fact that I am still working as a published poet, a published poet who has published books, they definitely treat it with more respect than just a hobby. At a barbecue this weekend, I had a very successful industrial designer (what I originally thought I wanted to be) tell me that she always felt envious of writers because they always seemed so interesting, and in my mind I thought, “Yeah, but you can afford a house and a kid AND the expensive shoes we both love”… so ultimately, I think it’s often me that does most of the pushy prying and judging.

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Art Work #1: Dame Darcy, Cartoonist and Mermaid

Hello hello! Welcome to a new interview series I’m working on. (I’ll publish it here and on Medium and Goodreads, so follow it wherever feels right.) In it, I’ll be talking to people (mostly wimz [a cool new abbreviation for “women” that I just invented]) about how they get their artwork done and what the work of art looks like and how they feel about it all. Topics will range from the practical (income) to the spiritual (muses, religion). I find myself with a nearly insatiable appetite for learning what artists honestly think about their own processes, but I’m also sick of interviews that focus heavily on daily routines (I DON’T CARE THAT YOU MEDITATE FOR TEN MINUTES EVERY MORNING), so this is my small and honest contribution to our rabid human obsession with knowing what other humans are doing.

still from a film by Joel Schlemowitz, featuring Dame Darcy as a fairy

Dame Darcy, subject of this first installment, is impossible to describe in just a few sentences, but I’ll try.

She’s an illustrator, a graphic novelist, a musician, a filmmaker, a sea captain, and a doll-maker who once made a doll for Francis Bean Cobain using an actual lock of Kurt’s hair. She has met and worked with people like Edward Gorey, Tiny Tim, Courtney Love, Margaret Cho, John Waters, Neil Gaiman, Anna Sui, Tori Amos, and Tim Burton. She has completed over 50 published works along with countless short films, fine art exhibits, albums, and three optioned screenplays—and has had her work knocked off by Forever 21—yet is still unfairly delegated to the “underground.” Her art is full of beautiful undead ladies, pirate kings, and a fascinating girl named “Richard Dirt.” Her neo-Victorian aesthetic has been hugely influential for the past 2+ decades. Her collected works, published in Meat Cake Bible, were recently nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award. And I’m incredibly lucky that she also happens to be the illustrator of my book, for which she drew 14 of the coolest, goth-iest, witchiest female serial killers you’ll ever see. 

PS: I’m gonna buy this Alice in Wonderland print from her Etsy shop and you should, too.


TT: Your work has a distinct gothic/Victorian undertone. Have you always been drawn to this aesthetic, even as a kid?

DD: Asking me interview questions about why I’m goth is like trying to take a sip of water from a blasting fire hydrant. When I’m on the subway, old Russian guys speak to me in Russian, they think I’m from there. That’s because where I am from is like Siberia. Dark, cold, and isolated behind the largest mountain range in the US, and run by a cult. Continue reading →


In Los Angeles, outside of my window, I saw a man grab a woman’s arm and shake, hard. I was already at the window because I’d heard them fighting from about a block away. She was pushing an old shopping cart. He was yelling about something. And then the shake. I immediately thought about calling 911, and then I froze. I had this blazing shameful feeling of, like, I don’t know what the protocol is. What’s worth a call? What’s just wasting their time? A man shakes a woman at night on a side street in Cypress Park, Los Angeles. No one has ever figured out how to stop him.

In the 1960s, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City. The case is famous; I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Papers falsely reported that almost forty people heard her screams and did nothing. The truth was a bit murkier. One person did one thing. A man flung open his window and yelled, “Hey, get out of there! What are you doing?” and the killer ran away, leaving Kitty bleeding but alive.

But then, for the next thirty minutes, she was alone. Someone flung open a window but no one came down onto the street. It would have been so easy to run downstairs and carry her inside while her attacker was gone. But no one opened their doors, and as Kitty slowly dragged her bleeding body into the lobby of the apartment building, the killer came back for her. “I had a feeling this man would close his window and go back to sleep,” said the killer, in court, “and sure enough, he did.”

It’s not uncommon, living in a city, to hear a scream outside your window. Just like it’s not uncommon to hear something that sounds like guns but is actually firecrackers, or vice versa. Mostly it’s just happy drunken screeching by people stumbling to and from bars, but sometimes you hear the sort of scream that makes you leap out of bed and throw open the window. I always look from each window of my apartment when I hear a scream. Screams are weird aural things and it’s hard to know which direction they’re coming from. Once I got lost in an elaborate and terrible daydream in which I tried to drop a concrete block out of my window onto an imaginary perpetrator but smashed the victim instead. People like me are dangerous, with the will but not necessarily the means to save another human—or with a weak will, or no will at all, and a demon on our shoulders who whispers, Maybe someone else will take care of it and maybe it’s not all that bad.

In Los Angeles, I tried to make up for my fearfulness by going outside and following the couple in the darkness. I’m putting myself in danger, I thought, half-pleased with myself. I followed them away from the main street. I started feeling like the creepy one. I had my phone. If I see one more thing…I thought to myself. I didn’t see him touch her again and eventually they vanished and I, scared of the dogs that roamed the streets of my neighborhood at night, turned back home.

Once, years ago, someone saw me stumble in a dark alleyway. It was a dangerous Chicago neighborhood, sometime after midnight. The thing was that I was fine. I was with Charlie. We were having an amazing night. I forget what we were joking about, but we were cackling and pushing each other around, as you do when you don’t want the night to end. Just then a car pulled up and someone rolled down a window.

“Are you okay?” they yelled to me.

I said something like, “Oh yeah, yeah, this is my boyfriend, we’re just joking around.” But they didn’t leave. In fact, I remember being irritated by their skepticism, irritated by the way they lingered. They just stared at me through the open window for a long, quiet moment, waiting for some shadow to flit across my face. “I’m fine, I’m fine!” I chirped. It took them another minute to drive away. I still think of them, from time to time, and how beautiful it was that they took so long to believe me.

The Predator-Prey Spectrum

A girl wakes up and a stranger is sitting on her chest, incubus-style. She’s an ordinary human, a regular girl with a regular life, but something inside her wakes up. A crazy, beautiful, almost superhuman force. She fights and fights, her throat is slashed ear to ear, and she keeps fighting. She makes it to the bathroom and barricades the door and holds her own throat shut until the ambulance gets there.

Miles and years away, another stranger is drinking human blood. He is a true believer. He is simply doing what he has to do to survive. And to survive he has wandered into a house and systematically murdered everyone who lives there. He needs blood! He himself broke long ago. And easily. The world tapped on his brain like a fingernail on an egg. It cracked and spilled and no one paid attention and now here he is, covered in the blood of babies.

There’s a mystery to humans, to any human. The psyche, a human’s “animating spirit,” is often represented as a moth: a dusty creature draw toward what kills it. Did you know Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized in jail, and when he emerged from the whirlpool, he smiled? What neurons fired then? What wings brushed across his cortex?