Wednesday, July 27, 2005

why it's good to date someone your same age

Because then, during dinner, when one of you asks, “Did you ever watch The Red Balloon in school?” the other will almost spit out her corn laughing at the memory of this randomest of movies. Then you will muse on its bizarre popularity: a French movie (you both think it was French, though you can’t recall anyone actually speaking in the film) about a little boy chasing a balloon through cobblestone streets. Who said, “Yes, that is the movie that should be shown in lieu of P.E. on all rainy days. That is the movie that should run during free summer programs at the library. That is the movie that, even though it appears to be French, should be shown in ninth grade Spanish classes everywhere.”?

The two of you will conclude that it must have been distributed to public institutions for free, much like the prepackaged jicama sticks that were served with every meal at the camp where you were a counselor. Its only other possible draw is the actual balloon itself, which you remember as impossibly big, shiny and sturdy-looking. Nothing like the real, translucent balloons that began wilting on the ride home from the party.

stinkbird

A ghettolovely moment (kind of like ghettofabulous, but quieter): Last night around 10 p.m. a little sparrow perched on the top bar outside the window near our back door. It sat there, well past bird bedtime, feathers fluffed up. “Little nightbird,” we cooed. The window was open, and scents from the cats’ litter box wafted upward. “Maybe it likes gross smells,” we theorized. “Maybe it’s a stinkbird.”

Throughout the hot weekend, we’d been lamenting that the bars on our windows prevent us from installing an air conditioner. But our little stinkbird reminded me why, ultimately, I’m a fan of bars. They let you leave your windows open on summer nights, and sometimes sparrows mistake them for tree branches.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

a long story about target shorts

I hadn’t seen Bonnie, my best friend during grades four through twelve (with some difficult spots in grades six, seven and eleven—such is the nature of schoolgirl friendships), in almost a year. So naturally, when we met for lunch on Sunday, one of the first things we discussed was Target.

Bonnie pointed to her new, antique-looking TV cabinet and matching shelf thing. “Guess where?”

The furniture was classy, but still, Target was going to be my first guess. Bonnie and her other best friend, Angie (yes, this other-best-friend situation was the source of some of the aforementioned difficult spots), used to approach Target the way some people approach Disneyland: the attitude is ironic, but the pilgrimages and purchases are frequent.

“Target,” Bonnie confirmed.

“I just went there before coming here!” I said. “I got some vacuum cleaner bags and some shorts. I’m going to Singapore soon, and I think it’s near the equator. I thought it might be good to have shorts.”

“Isn’t that where they—”

“Cane people for chewing gum?” I finished for her. I’m sure there’s much more to Singapore, but until October (or at least until I crack open my Rough Guide), Western stereotypes are all I have to work with. My compulsive world traveler friend Ryan is teaching there because he “thought it would be interesting to live in a dictatorship for a while.” “Yep, that’s Singapore,” I told Bonnie.

Back to Target: “The store has just gotten so much better,” Bonnie said. “I used to be ashamed to buy clothes there because I thought someone might suspect they were from Target, but now everything is so nice.”

“It’s a dangerous place,” I agreed, “because everything is so affordable, too. You can do a lot of damage without even realizing it.”

In my head I shop almost exclusively at thrift stores and
American Apparel, maybe splurging now and then for something handmade at a boutique or craft fair. In reality it’s all about Target, Robinson’s May and the sale bin at Express, ‘cuz if it’s in a bin, it feels like a find.

Today I’m giving the Target shorts a trial run. It’s not exactly equatorial here, but it’s quite warm. And let me tell you about the new, post-shame, Isaac Mizrahi-era Target: My shorts jingle. They have little metal loops at the bottom—like so many pants, they are a distant descendent of something intended for hard labor. The loops don’t do anything, as far as I can tell, except clink against adjacent metal loops.

Jingle, jingle. Jingle.

There were some jingly pants featured on an episode of Six Feet Under, which I recently watched on DVD. Claire made them for her mom while she was on ‘shrooms. Isaac, do you have a drug problem we need to talk about?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

for the record, such as it is

It occurred to me that, in my last post, I made it sound like the homeless guy gave me $20 for permission to cut my hair, when in fact I gave him $20 for the 'do. I don't know why I feel the need to clarify. Maybe so I sound more like the possibly-gullible person that I am and less like some kind of hair whore.

Friday, July 22, 2005

north american ghost music

Last night I went to the Hotel Café to hear Jamie’s friend Shannon McNally play. She’s this young, smooth-skinned girl with a huge, gravely voice and a band full of hippie dudes. Her 47-year-old piano player was wearing a baseball cap with a red-white-and-blue marijuana leaf on it. They rocked the bathroom-sized stage, reminding all the Angeleno hipsters in the audience that country (and country-ish) music doesn’t necessarily mean Billy Ray Cyrus. Or that “Butterfly Kisses” song that’s always played during the dad-and-bride dance at weddings.

But before I call Shannon’s music “country” (or country-ish), I want to paraphrase what she said, between lonely howling-at-the-moon songs and bad-ass guitar jams, about genre: Her music has been called folk/country/blues/roots/singer-songwriter/southern. She doesn’t like regionalism, and she doesn’t like being categorized. But instead of saying, “I don’t like labels” (which by now is just as trite as any actual label), she just made up her own genre: North American Ghost Music. And it fits.

I love that. It goes along with how I feel about deconstructionism: If you can deconstruct, why not construct? If it’s all just made-up bullshit, why not make up some better bullshit? (I really wanted the second Matrix movie to address this in more detail; I still haven’t seen number three, so maybe it’s the thesis-I-always-wanted-to-write.)

The last time I went to the Hotel Café was last summer. I was by myself, there to hear Alanna’s band, Fascinoma. It’s always weird to see someone you know up on stage; you’re connected and not connected at the same time. Alanna is an expert at sad, beautiful songs—though when called upon to rock, she has no problems—and I felt weird and weepy in the back of the skinny club. I kept thinking about my mom, who died, and missing my girlfriend, who was in Australia. Closer than dead, but still too far.

When I left the club that night last summer, I let a homeless man cut my hair for $20. It was cool until his drug dealer started hitting on me. And drug dealers never hit on you in a classy way, you know?

So yeah, ghost music felt about right last night.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

i am an ungrateful brat

My new, free iPod shuffle arrived in the mail the other day. It came in a bright green box, which I just opened a few minutes ago. Inside there’s a disc, some jelly bean-sized earphones and a white plastic rectangle that sort of looks like a hotel key card. It was free because I signed up for a Citibank credit card (a deal I really shouldn’t promote, since, according to Fahrenheit 9/11, Citibank is evil. I rationalize it by saying that since I don’t carry a balance on my Citibank card, they’re not actually making any money off me. In fact, I’m just causing them a lot of trouble. It’s practically activism).

I wish I felt excited about my shuffle, but when I look at the apple-green box, I see A Thing I Need To Take Care Of. Right up there with finding out where those ants in my kitchen are coming from—a thing that is not that hard, but which takes just a little bit more knowledge and energy than I have.

Which is not a very grateful attitude. But I’m not an early adopter. The fact that I have a blog, even a few years into the blog thing, is a miracle, really. I alternately chastise myself for being a Luddite, and congratulate myself for not giving into gadget consumerism. At least the shuffle takes up, like, 20 percent less landfill space than the regular iPod.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

the sims are ungrateful brats

I’m sure entire dissertations have been written about The Sims, so I won’t go into what the game says about our cultural values—say, the fact that your Sims’ career success is directly related to how many friends they know.

Instead I’ll just write about how hard it is. First, I took a tour of the household Yoshiko has been lovingly cultivating for two years: Breier and Sylvia, a sexy interracial lesbian couple, are a surgeon and a venture capitalist, respectively. They live in a large house with a robot servant and a flat-screen TV. While we played, Yoshiko bought them an “aqua funhouse,” basically a giant fish tank that you can swim around in. Breier took a few lackadaisical laps while Sylvia stood outside, crossing and uncrossing her arms. Neither of their mood ratings went up. These bougie ladies were hard to please.

It was a good thing Yoshiko had recently purchased the Makin’ Magic expansion pack, which allowed Sylvia to learn a snake-charming dance and acquire items like toad sweat, magic coins and, inexplicably, butter.

Post-necklace-making, Daisye and I decided to create our own Sims family. Rana Mergoat—a cute, bespectacled Sim with a dark brown pageboy—and her dapper transman boyfriend Candle would soon be having the same sort of disposable-income fun as Breier and Sylvia, we were sure.

All we needed to do was build them a house.

The Sims should have a big banner over the top of the home-building page that says something like, “Don’t forget about scale.” We dragged and clicked obliviously, until we had a spacious house that took up most of our lot. By the time we painted and carpeted and tiled, we had like $700 left.

We put in a toilet, which took up maybe one twentieth of the inadvertently immense bathroom. We added a sink and two of the cheapest beds available, and by then we were out of money.

When Rana and Candle Mergoat moved into their empty mansion and looked at their cheap-ass beds, the little mood indicators over their heads spun blackly. They refused to look for jobs that would allow them to buy better furniture. Sims are ungrateful brats.

That was when Daisye discovered the fine print: “Our house is 3,900 square feet,” she said.

We spent the rest of the evening downsizing the McMansion, selling back our extra space window by window, tile by tile. Then we went to our real beds, which were not fancy, but very functional.

what's up in tacoma

Despite Penny’s assessment of Tacoma, Friday night I headed south to see my friends Daisye and Yoshiko. They are the sort of friends that I would visit even if they moved to Antarctica, but it turns out that Tacoma is a pleasant city with beautiful old houses and a perfect, east coast-style university, where Yoshiko works. Before leaving Seattle, we visited the house in West Seattle where Daisye grew up. We ate veggie taco salad and raspberry-peach pie made from scratch by Daisye’s mom, Minnie, who actually won a state-wide bakeoff back in the day. Yet Minnie is also a lesbian who contemplates hanging signs with random, Situationist-esque slogans from a local bridge. The best of all worlds, really.

Onto Tacoma: The only slight drawback to the location of Yoshiko and Daisye’s charming brick apartment building is El Guadalajara, the karaoke bar across the street. None of us will ever hear 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” in quite the same way again. But there’s a good independent bookstore down the street where you can pet the resident cat and buy a copy of the new Harry Potter book at midnight, so it’s all good.

Saturday I accompanied Daisye to a bead show at the local Sheraton, an activity which she initially suggested with a hint of protective sarcasm, as if I were really hankering to ride the Space Needle, or whatever one does in the Space Needle. Yoshiko’s stance on the matter is “I’m not into beads.” She went to get a haircut instead.

I was genuinely excited. “I’m always up for new subcultural experiences,” I told Daisye. “Oh, it’s a subculture alright,” she assured me. She proceeded to describe creations that I can picture my seventh grade Spanish teacher wearing: Think lots of yarn and large ceramic beads. I figured I would do some astute people-watching and maybe find one or two large beads that I could throw on a string and call a necklace.

Two hours and $110 later, I was the proud owner of five pendants (on sale, for the record), two vials of seed beads, some gray stripy beads, some round lime-green beads, some opaque leaf-shaped beads, and one pewter bead shaped like what can only be described as a mer-cat.

Conveniently, Daisye is a craft wiz. Not in the tradition of my seventh grade Spanish teacher, who never met a bottle of puffy paint she didn’t like (although, to her credit, it was the late ‘80s). Daisye goes to thrift stores and finds old necklaces, which she unstrings and turns into new, better necklaces. She decorated a bulletin board with root beer bottle caps. She made Yoshiko a stool featuring a small comic book-style demonstration of how she (Yoshiko) likes her coffee prepared. That kind of craft wiz.

Over the next two hours, Daisye turned my haul of beads into four amazing necklaces. She wielded jewelry pliers like a violinist wields a bow; she knew just when to add a silver spacer bead or a lime-green accent.

I felt a bit like a snobby, talentless arts patron, checking in periodically as I played Sims with Yoshiko, but Daisye was cool about it. And as for the Sims—talk about a subcultural experience….

seattle, barnum-style

Here is my favorite story from my first-ever visit to Seattle: When The Pioneers (a band of semi-corrupt white guys) arrived at the part of The Sound (my friend Yoshiko tells me only tourists call the big body of water to the west “the ocean”) that is now Seattle, they settled on the only unoccupied flat of land, not thinking that perhaps there was a reason it was unoccupied, and not being familiar with the concept of tides.

Some time and many potholes later, they realized their new city/tide flat was basically a giant marsh. I don’t know enough about plumbing to properly explain the problems that resulted when they tried to flush their newly invented toilets, but suffice it to say that they had to put them on six-foot-tall platforms if they didn’t want a sewage geyser every time the tide came in.

Semi-conveniently, the city then proceeded to burn to the ground. Great opportunity to re-grade and rebuild, right? City officials thought so, but local business owners (who would have had to pay for the ten-year project) did not. So the business owners rebuilt at sea level, and the city rebuilt the public portions of the town anywhere from eight to 35 feet up. Seriously. City streets were eight to 35 feet above the sidewalk. Citizens had to climb ladders to get to where they parked their horse. That is, if their horse hadn’t slipped and plummeted while they went into the general store to buy chewing tobacco or whatever people bought at the turn of the century.

Some more time and many cliff deaths later, the business owners agreed to put in new, street level sidewalks above the old ones, turning all the town’s first stories into basements.

Now you can tour the underground city—Jamie warned me that it was essentially a walk through a giant, damp basement, but I happen to love giant, damp basements. I loved the mossy bricks and antique smell. I loved standing beneath the dirty purple glass skylight and watching passersby cast shadows on the present-day sidewalk. I loved hearing how civic incompetence and stubbornness were carried to such a ridiculous extreme as to make a little prolonged construction on Santa Monica Blvd. seem positively civilized.

I even loved the tour itself: A girl who claimed to be named Penny (she was far too young for that to be her real name) kicked off the tour in a bar decorated with red velvet curtains and framed portraits of the city’s founders. She made bad puns and lots of derogatory jokes about Tacoma. Then she broke us into thirds and sent my group with a gray-haired, Birkenstocked woman who didn’t seem nearly as comfortable with puns and insults as Penny did, but she gave it a valiant try anyway.

The museum portion of the tour featured sepia photos with irreverent, opinionated captions. A shot of a bunch of men in suits and hats gathered around a saloon piano helpfully said, “This is not a gay bar. Women did not frequent taverns at the time.” The tour featured several prostitution-related anecdotes, and the gift shop at the end of the trail sold pasties and panties. It all had a vaguely vaudevillian feel, to the point where I wasn’t even sure that the above story was true. And I didn’t really care. I loved feeling like a 19th century museumgoer, lured into a dark, shabby freak show by the promise of some “scientific” wonder, the Fiji mermaid or the missing link.

Monday, July 11, 2005

more on chick lit

A well reasoned voice to add to the mix: http://www.newsday.com/features/booksmags/ny-bktop4315643jun26,0,5274075.story. My spinning head is now ready to move on to other topics.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

martini glasses and bellybuttons

Yesterday I went to a panel at Skylight Books called “Beyond Chick-Lit” featuring several writers who, as David Kipen put it on KCRW, “have never written a book with a pink cover”: Meghan Daum, Janet Fitch, Kate Gale, Leslie Schwartz, Susan Straight and one of my favorites, Nina Revoyr. Actually, the paperback version of Susan’s novel Highwire Moon does depict a girl’s semi-bare, toned abs, a weird choice (not Susan’s, I’m sure) considering that the 15-year-old protagonist is pregnant throughout most of the book.

Usually I skip any panel related to publishing and marketing. The news is inevitably depressing. As long as you know better than to decorate your manuscript with stickers, a certain amount of ignorance is bliss. I also cringe when people stand up and plug their own writing projects in the guise of questions. I too have delusions of discovery, but I am so clever and subtle that hardly anyone even knows I write.

But yesterday’s topic seemed important, and since I’m a few months away (knock on wood) from finishing a novel about such marketable subject matter as lesbians and mining towns, I thought I might pick up a few tips.

The fucked-up phenomenon in question was two-fold: 1) Fiction by women gets slapped with covers featuring martini glasses, high-heeled shoes and long skinny legs, and marketed as “chick lit,” while fiction by men is “literature.” 2) Some women are not mis-marketed because they’re writing books about skinny-legged women in heels who drink martinis and win the golden hearts of rakish men.

So who’s the villain? Publishers who still think of female writers as “lady authoresses” (or something), or women who are Not Helping The Cause? Should we be pissed off because men don’t read books by women, or happy that women book-buyers can support a whole industry by themselves? Even if a good chunk of that industry sucks.

It all makes my head spin, honestly. The big turnout was encouraging, and the writers were cool, even if the lesson was what it always is for artists: Corporations will not help you, you have to hustle your own work, don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence (even when corporations do), and make sure to send publicity postcards to everyone on your sister’s wedding invitation list.


It’s enough to make a girl want a martini.

Monday, July 04, 2005

modernists get away with some crazy shit

I’m embarking on draft three of a novel I’ve been working on for quite a while. Conventional wisdom says that I should tighten things up, cut some pages and solidify the main character’s arc.

But now I’m contemplating Gertrude Stein’s strategy in The Making of Americans, a 925-page book that I haven’t read (but I’m almost a third of the way through a 16-page New Yorker article about it!). Apparently some of those pages are devoted to a fairly traditional novel. Others are not. Here’s a passage:

Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such a creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be me always my receiver…. This that I write down for you a little each day here on my scraps of paper for you is not just an ordinary kind of novel with a plot and conversatiosn to amuse you, but a record of a decent family’s progress respectably lived by us and our fathers and our mothers, and our grand-fathers, and grand-mothers, and this is by me carefully a little each day to be written down here…. And so listen while I tell you all about us, and wait while I hasten slowly forwards, and love, please, this history of this decent family’s progress.

I want to stop, mid-novel, and explain to my readers that, even though my characters might seem boring or unrealistic, they’re in fact really good folks and I'm a hardworking writer, so my readers should be nice to me and just hang in there. I’m thinking that about 500 pages of this would be about right.

Friday, July 01, 2005

used stuff of california

The week had been jagged, full of lost kittens and big questions. I have concluded that, after weeks like this, if you live where we live, it’s good to take the scenic route home. After dinner at Café Metropol, we wove in and out of what I’ll call the Bridge District, white brick arching over lonely and surprisingly clean lots. It was still light out, but hazy in that inland-summer-Friday way. We were the only ones around, so it felt weird to follow orders, to Not Turn On Red.

We headed down Alameda, past Washington. A huge tangle of green erupted to our right: plot after little plot of prickly pear cactus, of corn as tall as a stop sign. It was a community garden, technically, but more than that it was farmland. We turned down 41st Street, and it was like a village. In the fading pink light, people cooked meat on corners, and barefoot kids chased each other down the street. We chugged along behind a pickup truck full of flattened cardboard boxes, past two Victorian houses. One was bright sea foam green, the color of vinyl booths in ‘50s diners. The other—at least the bottom half—was striped pink, purple and yellow. Matching paper lanterns were strung across the porch.

The world fails and fails, but tonight I looked around and thought: People are resourceful. You can take away their health insurance and summer school and they still paint things and cook things. Which is not to say that it’s okay to take away their health insurance, or that there are any simple answers at all. Just that people are resourceful. Villages can bloom anywhere.


We turned down Central. I pointed out the Dunbar Hotel, where another group of people made another world a few decades back. Then down Vernon, past a store called USC: Used Stuff of California, and soon we were home.

michael cunningham and lindsay lohan

At last, my two favorite literary worlds merge: http://www.theonion.com/news/index.php?issue=4126&n=1.