How embarrassed should I feel about what I did on New Year’s Eve? I am not going to say what I did, not yet anyways. The thing I did was so tiny, barely even noticeable, that it might not even be possible to write it in words. Did anyone even see? But I woke up with kind of a squirmy feeling, and I remember the exact moment in the night that caused it, so instead of burying the event in a dead file marked 2010, I think I am going to hold it in my warm little hand and see if it can make itself useful.

My best friend said to me on the phone this morning, “shame can be useful, right?” I said, “I don’t know if it’s useful, I just know that it’s real.” It is real in my mind. I was trying to recall the oldest memory that I have of feeling ashamed, and it’s difficult to excavate. I felt so much piercing shame as a child, I was wracked with the belief that everything I did was somehow embarrassingly incorrect. It is as if there were a little fortress of self criticism surrounding around almost every action I took. I was a heavy little dude. The earliest embarrassing episode I can think of occurred during a performance at school. We did some sort of presentation on the alter of the church, and the whole school was watching. All recollections attached to the details of the memory are fuzzy. Was I in first grade? I had to wear a paper costume of an artichoke. I remember thinking that an artichoke was a particularly unacceptable vegetable to have to be, and that any other vegetable would be less humiliating, except maybe eggplant. I remember my babysitter telling me afterwards, laughingly, that all anyone could see of me was the backside, because I was turned away from the crowd in embarrassment. My memory is that I had a lot of regret about not having faced forward, and a burning sense of the irony that in my shame about the costume, by facing the wrong direction, I had made myself more noticeable and caused myself even more shame.

I spent New Year’s Eve 1993 in a little cabin in the suburbs of Copenhagen. About 40 of the kids from Borupgård Highschool, where I was an exchange student, had rented the cabin, and they prepared an elaborate New Year’s dinner and dance party. I did my year as an exchange student after I had graduated highschool, so by this time I was eighteen years old, feeling significantly more capable and free than I did back in highschool in the States. And the atmosphere in Denmark really fostered the feeling of safe freedom– the cabin we rented was nestled in among the other houses in my neighborhood, and everyone’s parents knew that we had purchased unlimited quantities of beer and hard liquor for our sleepover. That night was the first night I ever got drunk, and I remember running around the neighborhood in a flared-sleeved shirt borrowed from my host mother, going from house party to house party. It felt like flying.

Not too long before New Year’s I had started dating a boy from the school. It was one of the first times I had ever received romantic attention from anyone, and so it was fairly exciting. My nine year old host-brother asked me at the dinner table, “Brænder du varmt på ham?,” which meant, “Are you burning up for him?” I don’t know if I was burning up, but we did ride our bikes and sing Beatles songs together, and that was pretty much what I was looking for at that moment. The boy eventually dumped me because I refused to speak to him in English, and because I didn’t want to lose my virginity with him. He spoke fluent English, and felt like I cared more about learning Danish than I did about him. Which was probably true. I can’t remember if he was with me during all of the flying around the neighborhood on New Year’s Eve, but I recall clearly that we ended up sharing a bunk in the cabin. Our bed was in a room filled with many other bunks, which were filled with many other couples. I guess that all the other couples must have been engaging in various forms of intimacy, though it still freaks me out a bit to imagine those forms. But anyways, the embarrassing part here is born of my own behavior. We were snuggling, and maybe making out a little bit, and I said very quietly, in Danish, “That feels good.” And then I realized that I didn’t know if I was saying the sentence correctly, and I asked him, in Danish, “How do you say, ‘it feels good’?” He didn’t answer me, so I repeated the question. Then I repeated it again; I was really proactive about learning the language. Then I realized that the reason he wasn’t answering me wasn’t because he couldn’t hear me. He could hear me fine and, in all probability, the others around us could hear me just as well.

Shockingly, I was never teased to my face about my intimate language study by any of the cabin mates, which leads me to wonder whether anyone was actually listening, because Danes are known for having a wicked sense of humor, and I really doubt they could have passed up such an opportunity to mercilessly humiliate me. The event nonetheless still makes me blush.

So how did I embarrass myself this past New Year’s Eve? I doubt that it’s really going to make much of a story, but maybe trying to describe it will be interesting. We were dancing. I was drinking. More dancing than drinking. More dancing than dancers– only seven of us at the party at our house, but everyone dancing. While dancing, I was feeling lithe and open, kind of flailing around the living room, and bouncing up and down. I guess that “movement” could be considered part of my occupation, so maybe I was doing some research during the party, but I wasn’t thinking of it that way as I danced. I just felt happy, and surrounded by good friends, and ready for something new. The moment that the feeling of embarrassment hit me was directly after I performed a certain little sequence of movements: I had turned my back to the rest of the dancers, and was facing the bookshelf, and I did something with my hips and my ass that, upon turning back around and seeing that maybe some people had been watching me, I suddenly felt maybe I should feel strange about. It was so subtle, such a tiny little gesture, but there was definitely a funny feeling lurking inside of me in relation to whatever had just happened.

Had anyone actually been watching me? My memory is blurry, and I don’t know even which friends were nearby at that moment. Should I call each friend up and ask them if they saw me do anything questionable on the evening of December 31st? I just remember the feeling of possibly being watched, and an accompanying sensation that maybe I had weirdly been performing without even realizing that I was. And this particular embarrassment is the feeling of indulging in pretending to be something that you aren’t, like if you started faking a British accent during a dinner party, and went on with it for more than one sentence. I think that what I did was try something with my body that ended up being a little bit lascivious. There is a character on the show True Blood, who moves lasciviously. The character’s name is Lafayette, and he gyrates around in the coolest ways, and it’s pretty dirty, but he has total control of it, so there’s no shame to be attached to it. But I didn’t feel the control. I felt like I was accidentally impersonating the kind of girl who would like to take pole-dancing lessons. It was as though my body was trying out the moves without asking me first. If my ass had asked me first would I have said yes? Maybe it knew that the only way to get me to try something new was to lead the charge itself. But I would like a little bit of control in this realm, and I guess I’ll have to speak directly with my body about this. The thing that my ass did, didn’t feel like me, to me. It felt like someone else. If I am going to impersonate a pole-dance-interested girl, I would like to be able to prepare for the endeavor– I’d like my intellect to come along for the ride and be equally involved, as I go through the motions. I believe it’s the job of the intellect to make something useful of the weirdness.

January 3, 2011

  1. paul kokalis

    Paul not josh. We think of you often and have wondered until recently.
    What was what . I’m bringing my 15 year old daughter memphis to sf show and we are glad to see ya

    You may not remember holdin our hands on the hill after you scooped us off the sidewalk at the space needle 16 yrs ago .we could never forget you timeless angel we still are so thankful for those brief moments have left us

    Deeply touched

    Check in if like. Paul

  2. Mariam Higgins

    Looking forward to seeing you in Stumptown again, no less at Doug Fir with an old friend of ours, Sonny Smith. -The unfortunately too-young looking housewife that didn’t get to walk down the grocery aisle with a cart of cheese for a video

  3. Kevin Erickson

    my favorite 2 shame aphorisms:

    “shame is never all good or all bad” –therapist of a dude i used to mildly crush on but realized later was too interested in being transgressive for boring reasons

    “shame is the basis of all community” — steve kado.

  4. Shaw

    Hi Khaela,
    I had wondered where you have gone and now I see. Sadly, I will be in Portland the night you perform at the Henry. I would love to see your work. Maybe I will see you sometime in NY.

  5. Richard

    The show was great last night. I’m still questioning whether the 50 minute delay/mic fiasco was real or like the hilarious stories it was all a part of the performance. 🙂

  6. Christine

    I can feel the passion in your voice and that covers any sort of embarrassing gesture. Keep writing, write more often. Shamelessness is in my opinion, a necessity for great art and artists. Fear of being picked out and mocked is the thing which always are fighting, and when we fight we win!

    I saw you perform this past November in Columbus, OH and I was mesmerized. Come and visit if you could please, I’ll be there to dance and tease.

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