Tania Katan is an author, playwright, and performer. Her memoir My One-Night Stand With Cancer is the winner of the 2006 Judy Grahn Award in Nonfiction, an honoree of the 2006 American Library Association's Stonewall Book Award in Non-Fiction, and a finalist for the 2006 Lambda Literary Award. Rock-n-Roller Melissa Etheridge said of Tania's memoir, This book rocks! It's passionate, playful, and downright beautiful, and the Library Journal gave the book a Star Review. Since the success of her first book, Tania has been performing her one-woman show, Saving Tania's Privates (adapted from My One Night Stand With Cancer), which made its European premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2008 where it was a critical success! In the U.S. Saving Tania's Privates has been seen at such prestigious venues as ACT in Seattle and The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia.
Rubbin' Sticks and Stones Together
I remember the first time I lost my voice. It got away from me when I was 9 years old. It happened after I lost my flute and our family became Indians.
My Indian name is Morning Delight. My sister's Indian name is Evening Delight. My mother's Indian name is Afternoon Delight. When Mom is finished naming us she carefully places a thin plastic headband, made to look like a tanned hide, on my Indian sister's head, and then one on my Indian head. I can see the ancient symbols on my sister's headband: squiggly red lines made to look like the tracks of snakes slithering across the Sonora desert, dark brown lines leaning on each other, crossing at the top to create a crude teepee, and a corkscrew of blue waves rippling over the brown plastic ocean. Mom looks out into the sea of new Indian Maidens and their mother's as she gives our family's tribe a name, “We will be called,” she says, her hands confidently resting on the waistband of her brand new black slacks that cling to her even newer slim figure, “Sky Rockets in Flight! Sky Rockets for short.” The room erupts in applause. Mom is on a roll, “I love skyrockets because when they explode they make a loud noise that can be heard miles away. As an immigrant to the United States of America, and a woman, I want my own voice to be heard miles away!”
And with that proclamation my mother wraps her arms around my sister and I, each one of us folding into her like two sides of a menu. With my ears sandwiched between one of my Mom's large breasts and my sister's head, I can hear the muffled sounds of clapping and a few amen's. We are born again. The three Jewish Indians, named after midday sex.
Being an Indian was much cheaper than being a Scout, free, in fact, that's why in 1980 my mother signed us up for Indian Maidens, the YMCA's answer to Girl Scouts. She also wanted us to become Indian Maidens because the program promoted mother/daughter bonding opportunities, self-esteem enhancement rituals and exploring our unique female voices. I guess Mom thought that our most recent bonding ritual, the three of us eating a 9 x 13 Pyrex of lasagna in the middle of the night, wasn't enhancing our individual, or collective, self-esteem. And if we were eating so fast that we started to choke, well, there goes our unique voices too.
You'd think that becoming an Indian in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1980 wouldn't be a self-esteem enhancer, but I liked the name Squaw way better than Kike, which many of my 4 th grade peers and their parents would say under their breath when I walked passed them. I thought they were calling be a bad word for lesbian, until I realized they were calling me a bad word for Jewish, and either way it felt like a lose/lose proposition. That's why I jumped at the chance of becoming a totally new despised culture. Not to mention the fact that most of the Indian Maiden meetings took place at Christina Hernandez's house.
For a 9 year-old girl-or 60 year-old man for that matter-Christina had abundantly hairy arms, like the equivalent to the St. Louis Arch in black hair on her skinny child arms. Like a half-bundle of black straw heaped high on two toothpicks. My sister and were equally obsessed with her hair-mounds, each of us hitting the other during Maiden meetings and mouthing, “Stop staring!” I was so fascinated by this site-specific hair installation, this field of premature maturation, that I couldn't take my eyes off of it. I wanted to run my fingers through her arm-hair, or at the very least, lick it. Maybe it was because Christina was Mexican, the closest our ragtag white-trash group of Indian Maidens had to a real-life Indian, or maybe it was because Christina was oddly confident-given her disability. There was something about Christina and her black Dorothy Hamill hair-both on her head and her arms-that felt strong to me, like Samson before his haircut, Christina had some mythical power hidden in that hair, and maybe a blender too.
After receiving our Indian names, my mother , a.k.a. Afternoon Delight hands out Popsicle sticks, Elmer's Glue and yarn, “Today we are Indian Maidens, strong women capable of anything. Today we will make our dreams come true. Today we will be making Dream Catchers!”
My mom was by far the coolest mom on the fake reservation. Not only had she just lost 90 pounds by going to Overeaters Anonymous meetings for seven months and repeating the Lord's Serenity Prayer whenever she found herself in front of a cheesecake, but she was the only Mom who was born and raised in another country, France. There was one other Indian Maiden, Julie, whose mom was from Canada, but that's just like being from America except that her mom always said, “Eh,” and eats potato chips with ketchup on them, which was much less spellbinding than my mother who said, “Merde!” and ate cheese that smelled like dirty feet . My mom was sexy too, especially when she puts on that tight fitting plastic vest adorned with badges that said things like, “Friends Always!” and “Squaw(k) if you like Indian Maidens!” She looked like Barbra Streisand on the album cover of A Star is Born. Where Kris Kristofferson is naked and digging his hands into Barbra's wild sepia curls, like he's looking for a vile of cocaine in her hair. My mom had wild sepia curls too, and wished that she could date Kris Kristofferson, but it hadn't panned out so far. Although she did have a one-night stand with Herb Alpert in the 60's because, “He was good looking. I was thin at the time. It is the 60's. That's all, Tania. No, he's not your real father.”
When Mom announces that we are going to make Dream Catchers, the faces of the Maidens and their mother's light up Christina's dark, carpeted living room like skyrockets lighting up the night. It's as if none of us had given much thought to dreaming, let alone catching one. At 9 years old I pretty much have one dream: To hang out with Christina Hernandez as much as possible. I'm not sure if I can catch Christina in my homespun web, but I am certainly going to give it a try.
Christina and I are blowing into our respective red and white fluteaphones, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way… when Mr. Hamilton, our 4 th grade music teacher who smells like rubbing alcohol, or maybe just alcohol, starts slashing his throat with his index finger and screaming, “CUT! STOP. ENOUGH!” We stop blowing and drop our fluteaphones on the black metal music stands in front of us, making a collective CLANK. “Class,” Mr. Hamilton begins, “On Monday you will be given your own instruments. A real instrument, not a plastic one. I want you to think about what kind of you want. This will be your instrument for the entire school year, so choose wisely. We have saxophones, drums, violins, flutes, and a few acoustic guitars.”
Christina Hernandez and I are walking out of the music trailer together, talking about Indian stuff, like the Mazola commercial and whether we prefer corn or maze- I prefer maze, she likes corn-when we overhear Melanie Cook and Michelle Nelson, the human equivalents to My Little Ponies, but with blond hair instead of pink, talking about the imminent instrument selection. “I'm going to pick the flute, because it's so beautiful. It sounds like angels singing,” Melanie says, sticking her hands deep into the back pockets of her tight, dark blue Jordache jeans that I could never fit one of my legs into, let alone two. She looks into the distance as if she sees Jesus Christ surrounded by angels, all of them floating towards her, maybe to help her with her homework or take her out for ice cream. “I love the flute too!” Michelle, Melanie's best friend, says, copying Melanie's hand movements to find her own Jordache back pockets, “It sounds like God talking. Like if God could talk, he would talk in flute.” Apparently Jesus is making lots of appearances today because Michelle is also looking into the distance, seeing the same religious tableau.
I don't want a decision this big to be dictated by two girls who, although really pretty and well-liked, are clearly experiencing a non-consensus reality, so I ask Christina for her views on the flute, “I love the sound of the flute,” she says, “Because it makes me think of Kokopelli, the Indian god of music and rain.”
I'm pretty sure I just heard the haunting echoes of Kokopelli's flute, accompanied by an enormous rain-stick, shifting up… and down… as if by the hands of God! And what's that sound? A thousand coyotes are crying in unison, AHOOO! AHOO! The fresh smell of creosote and new rain fill my nose. I look into Christina's big brown eyes, hoping for an answer to this unforeseen monsoon thunderstorm, but here eyes are blank. A hot gust of wind rushes between the P.E. trailer and the music trailer heading right for Christina! The wind scoops up her arm-hair in two distinct chunks, one swirling around to create a flue and the other morphing into an arm-hair Kokopelli. I am in love with the flute!
Mr. Hamilton goes around the entire classroom asking each one of us which instrument we want. “Melanie?” “Flute!” “Brian?” “Saxophone!” “Christina?” “Flute!” Mr. Hamilton finally gets to me. I sit up straight, something I apparently hadn't done until this moment, because I feel the cool metal back of the chair pressing into my shoulders, nudging me to speak up. “Tania?” Mr. Hamilton asks. “FLUTE!” I scream. He turns away, reaching into the metal cabinet, where the instruments are stored. He turns back around to face me. “I'm sorry, Tania, we're all out of flutes. We have a violin.”
Getting the violin is like getting a dead baby for an instrument. It's like your mother handing you two sharp, broken TV antennas and saying, “Pretend their drumsticks!” Getting a violin is like ordering an ice cream sundae with whipped cream, hot caramel sauce and two maraschino cherries, and then having the waitress bring you a big bowl of dog shit with only one maraschino cherry on top.
The only thing I like about the violin is the rosin. When Mr. Hamilton asks us, “Are you practicing your instruments at home?” I'm sure he's addressing me directly, like he can see through my bedroom wall, into my room, me, slowly opening the curved coffin, extracting that glassy chunk of petrified honey, and without paying any attention to the instrument itself, I grab the smooth wooden handle of the bow, lifting it out of its case and into my sweaty expectant hand. The handle of the bow feels like the handle of the bread knife that mom used before she started OA to cut thick slices of French bread that would be toasted and garnished with Brie. I rub the rosin up and down that silky bow for hours, releasing intoxicating Pine-Sol-like fumes, until the hard honey starts to sweat in my hand and the bow changes colors, like an apple rotting, from crisp ecru to brown. You'd think I had been molested the way I work-over this bow, but I just like the unique sound it makes; unlike the violin itself, rubbing the bow with rosin sounds like hair being blown in the wind, like the word Mazola, not hard or angular, like corn, but smooth, like air itself, like I might sound someday when I lose my Brooklyn accent and stop saying, fuck.
At some point during “practice” I always feel sorry for the violin, and rescue it from its coffin. Once cradled in my neck, I smash my chubby chin into the black plastic chin rest, holding the well-rosined bow high above my head and, 1, 2, 1 2 3 go! Bow hits strings as I begin my electrifying violin solo of The Devil Went Down to Georgia. I don't know the notes, I don't need to know the notes, I just know that the devil is out to get me and I need to out-fiddle him before Mom busts in and shuts down my bedroom honky-tonk. But it's always around Chicken in the bread pin, pickin' out dough, that I pop a few strings, forcing me to stop practicing, right when I was really starting to make progress.
At school, Michelle and Melanie have invited Christina to hangout with them during recess and on lunch breaks. The three of them practice their flutes together, pretending to be Kokopellies; all of them hunched over, trying to curve their spines like Kokopelli, which is easiest for Melanie who had a touch of the scoliosis, and blow into their flutes as if they are the Gods of music and rain. Michelle and Melanie are always asking Christina to adjust their bodies so they look more like real Kokopellies. I can tell that Michelle and Melanie see Christina in the same way I do, like she really is an Indian God with mystical powers.
In music class, Christina now sits in between Michelle and Melanie. I try to get Christina's attention in class by holding up my rosin and whispering, loudly, “Do you want to smell my rosin? It's pretty great!” And when that doesn't work, I wait for her after school, so we can walk together and talk about Indian Maidens, but I'm always intercepted by Michelle and Melanie who swoop in on Christina with their curved spines and spontaneous flute playing, distracting her from me.
After weeks of being thwarted by Michelle and Melanie, I've decided to try, one more time, to win Christina's friendship back. I wait until lunchtime, until I can clearly see the three flautists on the blacktop, blowing air into their magical instruments. I walk over to the black top with my bow in one hand and rosin in the other. I stand near the three of them, curving my spine into a perfect crescent moon, as I had practiced all week, and I start rubbing. Vigorously sliding the rosin up and down my bow, trying to make that sweet flute sound that was so clear in my bedroom. The faster I rub, the more of a sound the bow makes, like air, like a real flute. Melanie hears the sound first. I'm almost blushing in anticipation of her complement. She stops playing her flute and says, “That's not a flute!” Michelle jumps in, “You're not a Kokopelli, like we are.” I stop rubbing and look to Christina, the God of Music and Rain for some salvation. She looks at me; her eyes say that she loves my unexpected instrument. Her mouth opens and says, “Yeah, you're not even a real Indian!”
I turn to run away, but my feet can't move. I'm stuck staring in the opposite direction of the Kokopelli Three unable to move. Although I feel like crying, I don't. Although I feel like throwing my rosin in the nearby garbage can, I can't. Although I feel like running away, there is something inside of me that won't let me do it. Instead my body slowly turns to face the three of them. My mouth opens by itself and yells, “Christina is not a real Indian! She's Mexican!” And just like a skyrocket in flight, I shout out of the playground, running all the way home.
When I get home, I plop down on my bed, out of breath and sweaty, wondering what the next Indian Maidens meeting will be like after my verbal assault on Christina. On the floor, in between my legs, I notice my dream catcher; the pink yarn has pulled away from the splintering Popsicle sticks. My dream catcher is broken. Which totally makes sense, but what happened to my voice? Who broke my freaking voice? Ever since I arrived in Arizona at five years old from Brooklyn, people are always letting me know that something is wrong with my voice. All I have to do is open my mouth and the minute I say, “Your dawg is so fuckin' cute!” Arizonians say, “Oh, you're from New York, no wonder you're rough around the edges.” But I want to have smooth edges. I want to rub a chunk of rosin up and down my vocal cords so I'll sound more like air than the exhaust from a taxicab. I want Christina Hernandez to think that I am worthy of making rain and music with her.