Saturday, May 27, 2006

not quite as fun as sex in trees, but still, a good day

Whenever Sara’s friend Becky is in town, they go to Disneyland and the Huntington. They always invite me. I always turn down Disneyland, because while it would be kind of cool to go again (it’s been a good ten years), “kind of” isn’t worth $50. But today I finally made it to the Huntington with them. You know how it’s always better to visit a city if you know someone who lives there? Well, Sara and Becky pretty much live at the Huntington.

They were like, “It’s 11:35. We will walk around the rose garden, which will put us just outside the café in time for our tea reservation at 12:05. Then we’ll go to the Japanese Garden and meditate and write, then to the Jungle Garden and write some more. Here, we got you a notebook.”

So while Becky worked on a novel-in-progress featuring two Sara-and-Becky-esque sisters who live at a Huntington-esque estate and get it on with hot gardeners in the treetops, I wrote the following, very rough, sadly less salacious little snippets of story/poem things:

Japanese Garden writing assignment:

I’ve only seen mini Zen gardens. This one doesn’t feel like the real thing. More like a swollen miniature that gorged on green pond water. Raked ripples in the pebbles the size of ocean waves.

I like picturing the groundskeeper with the rake, careful not to step on the stripes and ovals he’s sewn. Immersed in it, three pagodas and two parking lots between him and anything resembling a freeway. Pasadena sun planting damp moons beneath his armpits, a crick in his left shoulder. This is not easy work. He does not arrive home relaxed, with a head full of koi kisses and a belly full of creamy tea. He risks skin cancer, makes minimum wage.

But the executive with his mini-garden—a late-night mall purchase intended for the girl who left before he could give it to her—it came wrapped in cardboard. He is wrapped in glass. Rake the size of a fork paces lines in the tiny sandbox as he quotes numbers to people in other countries.

Jungle Garden writing assignment:

The duckling is barely a duckling.
Downy and big-eyed, yes
but already learning
paddling swift as a freeway commuter
through water thick with fish
the size of SUVs. They bump
beneath her, marble countertop heads
skimming small webbed feet.
She jumps and skids and continues.
Steps onto muddy land
where towering tourists point
cameras with digitized clicks
whirring
cute, cute, cute.
She shakes her proverbial tail feathers
oblivious, then glides back in
feet lifting beneath her
as the waterline hits her chest.
This duckling is a duck boat
without the ridiculous factor.
No mama duck in sight
no row of siblings.
She’s a girl on the town
she is Mary Tyler Moore
she is making it
with her first paycheck
and smart purse
and ring-less wings.

free-tailed tales

I just finished reading Every Night is Ladies’ Night by Michael Jaime-Becerra. Besides the irresistibility of the title, I was drawn to the book because it’s a collection of connected short stories set in LA. But whereas I wanted to write about the overwhelming vastness of Greater Los Angeles, Jaime-Becerra writes about the overwhelming smallness of El Monte.

His characters are mostly working class Latinos who dream of things like getting a new starter for their car or convincing their long-lost grandpa to attend their wedding or winning the lottery, because who doesn’t want to win the lottery? But to focus on the limits of his characters’ lives feels kind of condescending and, more than that, kind of beside the point, because the quirky and pungent details of the book seem to say, Life just is what it is. Sometimes you just need to beat up the kid who threw a lemon at you during band practice. Sometimes you just want to start your own airline or mobile electrical repair business.

I had a college professor who wouldn’t allow students to raise their hands and make statements that included the word “just” because he felt like it shut down critical thinking. Things aren’t just the way they are—there are numerous, complex, deeply troubling reasons behind everything. Which is true. People are “stuck” in El Monte or land in El Monte for reasons ranging from poverty to love affairs. But then what? Where do you go once you have your reasons?

You go to night school. You repaint your godmother’s dresser. You practice your best mariachi serenades in hopes of winning your first wife back.

The latter ambition belongs to Jose Luis, the protagonist of “Media Vuelta,” a decades-spanning tale that reads like one of the sad songs the aging musician plays in the beer gardens of 1940’s Chihuahua. The story, which is almost a novella, erupts in all its epic-ness out of a series of more contemporary stories that feel momentarily poignant but sometimes slight in retrospect.

Nevertheless, it’s one of those slight/poignant moments that is my favorite beyond any of the silver-threaded tragedy in “Media Vuelta”: In “Gina and Max,” Gina, a Social Distortion-loving, runaway punk chick, wonders why her boyfriend adopted a bat for her as a Christmas present. She wants to appreciate it, really she does, but…a bat?

Max explains, “‘It’s supposed to be a girl. A female. The lady I talked to said they’d make sure to give you a female…. Anyway, it’s a Mexican free-tailed bat…. She’s supposed to be like you,’ he said, ‘She’s Mexican and she’s Goth.’”

At which point I’m thinking, Marry this boy, Gina. Give him the two pairs of Dickies you bought him for Christmas and keep him forever. Every night is practical. Every night is tiring. Every night is magical. That’s just how it is.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

my therapist would be proud

Normally, if someone asks me for a favor, I feel like the burden of proof is on me—if I’m not going to do it, I need to have a good, solid reason. This mentality has inspired some passive aggressive behavior in its time (“Fine, I’ll take you to the airport. I guess I’ll just set my alarm an hour early…”), along with some genuine acts of kindness.

Today I wasn’t feeling the burden of proof so much.

The Sparkletts guy had just swung open the door to our office and plunked down a new bottle of water when Mark, the acupuncturist who works across the hall, suddenly appeared in the room.
“Hey, can I give you some money to buy an extra bottle and then use it in my office?” he asked.

A fairly reasonable request, right? But let me introduce you to Mark. He is balding and middle-aged, but robust-looking, not like he lifts weights, but more like he gets acupuncture regularly and goes for long walks. Ostensibly, we have a nice, neighborly relationship. He’s borrowed my stapler and asked me to proofread his acupuncture brochure, and I once asked him for a pair of tweezers so I could yank a jammed paper out of the printer.

The problem is, he makes all his neighborly gestures in the creepiest way possible. Once he came over and said, “I just picked up breakfast next door, and they accidentally gave me two orange juices. Do you want one?” It looked fresh-squeezed, so I said, “Sure, thanks.” He said, “I love it when women are beholden to me.”

Whenever I see him in the hallway, he points at me and says, “I see you.”

It’s all in good humor, except as humor goes, it’s not very good. If our office building is a friendly little neighborhood, he is the registered sex offender. (I’m not saying he is, I’m just extending a metaphor here.) He has that unfortunate male habit—which fortunately most males I know don’t have—of assuming that the world will always answer him with a resounding and flirtatious “yes.”

As he stood there, thrusting a $10 bill at me, there was no doubt in his mind that I would be his Sparkletts pimp. But if he knew me at all, he would know that I hate being predictable so much that I try to switch up my Starbucks order just to keep the barista guessing. I explained to him that I have to send the Sparkletts bill to our controller in our New York office; it’s not like I can just send $10 in cash along with the bill.

“I’m not trying to be a jerk, but the accounting is just too complicated,” I said.

Except I was trying to be a jerk, and the accounting wouldn’t have been too complicated if any other building resident—the screenwriter or the perfume importer or the nice psychologist who specializes in people with gender issues—had asked.

“Look, I’m giving you $10. You’ll make $3 off of it,” he said.


“Sorry,” I said. Except I wasn’t.

the aesthetics of that guy your sister is dating

Jane Smiley in the New York Times on what makes important books important:

My first premise about what we like or don’t like (or respond to or don’t respond to) is that our affinities aren’t necessarily reasonable or based in any sort of objective standard of aesthetic quality. They are more on the order of crushes or friendships—there is something about a novel that is perceived emotionally and that draws us into willingly suspending disbelief or not.

Arguing about which novel is best, or even about the virtues and faults of a particular novel is like arguing about whether your sister should be dating that guy—basically, the arguments don’t matter while the sister still feels drawn to him. There are lots of supposed great novels that I just can’t enjoy—The Great Gatsby is one. I have a “reason”—it is that none of the characters or themes or incidents seem to me to be developed—rather, Fitzgerald seems to me to be talking about them at length, but more as a way of exercising his eloquence than as a way of exploring or revealing the situation—but really, my reason is a made-up justification of an already formed lack of affinity.

(For more, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/books/fiction-discussion.html.)

Friday, May 19, 2006

sans angel wings

Okay, you know how I’m always putting up announcements about readings I’m doing in Sacramento, but, like, none of you live in Sacramento?

Well, I know for a fact that some of you live in LA. Hear that? I know where you live.

No, wait, I was going to do something much cuter than make empty threats to promote my readings. If I were like Alanna or Michelle Tea, I’d bake for you. If I were Francesca Lia Block, I’d wear angel wings as I read. If I were anyone at CalArts, I’d incorporate some kind of multi-media, audience-participation element that would make you feel vaguely uncomfortable.

So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I am just going to be a simple girl reading a simple (yet totally complex!) book. I did buy a new pair of earrings for the occasion. Here are two places you can catch me, The Commuters and the earrings:

Skylight Books
1818 N. Vermont Ave., LA, CA 90027
Thursday, May 25, 7:30 p.m.
http://www.skylightbooks.com/

Rhapsodomancy at Good Luck Bar
1514 Hillhurst Ave., LA, CA 90027
Sunday, June 4, 7 p.m.
http://rhapsodomancy.typepad.com/
(Reading with Eileen Myles, Christopher Russell, and Ariel Robello.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

national healthcare now! or: the $100 toothbrush

This morning I went to the dentist. Joel Gould and his office are very Manhattan Beach: preppy, tanned, housed in a Spanish-style building with a courtyard. (This picture is from his website. What the?) There were no copies of US Weekly in the waiting room, just stupid Time and of course Highlights, that old waiting-room standby.

Manhattan Beach is an annoying place to hang out, unless you’re looking to meet preppy, tanned, Spanish-villa-living types, but it’s a mostly good place to go to public school (lots of AP classes but also lots of anorexia) and a completely good place to go to the dentist.

The tight-shirt-wearing, volleyball-playing Joel Gould and his hygienist, who was of course named Heidi, confirmed what I always hear when I go to the dentist, which is that I have great teeth and crappy gums. My teeth are totally cavity-free—too bad they’re practically falling out of my head because my thin, frail gums don’t want to hold them in.

“Did we already recommend the Sonicare toothbrush to you?” Heidi asked.

“Um, yeah,” I said, vaguely recalling a flyer that got stuffed in the bottom of my purse after my last visit. “To be honest, I thought about it and then…I just didn’t get it.”

“It will help a lot toward keeping your gums in good shape.”

So I am now the proud/reluctant owner of a $100 toothbrush, my rationale being that gum surgery (which I already had to have once) is about $1,000. I can’t really afford a $100 toothbrush any more than I can afford to see the dentist three times a year, as Heidi also recommended. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t even currently making it twice a year. More like every 10 months.)

I have a theory that it is much more expensive to be poor than to be rich. I espouse this theory (which, okay, is probably really some economist or activist’s theory, and not really that original) every time my dad encourages me to go to Costco: “I live in a tiny apartment. While I might be able to afford to buy 80 rolls of toilet paper at a time, I can’t afford to live in the sort of place where I can store 80 rolls of toilet paper. There is room under my sink for exactly four rolls.” I leave out the part about how my tiny apartment manages to store 27 tank tops, a healthy collection of books and at least one My Little Pony.

But I still think my theory explains why the store across the street from me does good business selling single beers and lone tomatoes. And I heard that in the Philippines, you can buy cooking oil by the tablespoonful. Buying in bulk saves money, but buying in bulk takes money.

Heidi informed me that the best place to get replacement brush heads for my Sonicare was Costco.

Dr. Gould informed me that he eats a lot of chocolate and flosses four times a day. Actually, he mentioned the four-times-a-day thing twice, so he’s pretty passionate about it. I’m sure he buys floss by the mile at Costco.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

little baby book

I show up at my editors’ house at 7 p.m. When you’re with a small press on a two-city book tour, you don’t stay in a hotel. You stay at Jim and Kelly’s place on the second floor of a house directly under a flight path. But they grill ahi tuna on their balcony at sunset, point out the place down the street that used to be a crack house, the downtown buildings that eclipse the harbor. Their two-year-old son licks the slab of fish on Jim’s plate when he’s not looking.

“I think he wants a bite,” Kelly says.

They’re raising him one part Alternative Childrearing Philosophy, one part Laidback Bohemian. Which means, as Kelly explains during lunch the next day, “We bring him everywhere with us, and we usually forget to bring along any toys. So he has to be really engaged with the world around him.”

Jim and Kelly’s house is not quite a mess, but when I look for a place to set down my book, I cannot find a free patch of table or countertop. This is good—Kelly and Jim are professors, writers, publishers, parents and activists. If they were excellent housekeepers on top of that, I might have to hate them.

My book, the one I literally couldn’t put down—well, it exists. It can be annoying when writers compare their books to children, but they do have this in common: When I see it, with the cover Lee-Roy designed and a cute little ISBN on its spine, it is at once miraculous and unbelievable, and also something that always was and was always meant to be. Of course. Of course you are mine, little baby book. Look, you have my eyes.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

into the woods

If I didn’t already work for a pretty cool arts nonprofit, and if my theater background consisted of more than seeing Rent 14 and a half times and playing Ferdinand/Ginger in an ill-fated production of The Tempest/Gilligan’s Island, I would totally want to work for Cornerstone Theater Company.

Here is what they do: They go to different communities in LA—communities defined by geography, faith, age or initials (and once they did a play comprised entirely of people born on June 30)—and do theater productions that combine said communities’ voices, concerns and amateur actors with classic plays.

Friday night, this took the form of 3/7/11: A Lincoln Heights Tale, a fairytale remix acted by eight-, twelve- and sixteen-year-old Lincoln Heightseans. AK used to live and teach in Lincoln Heights, so I was like, “Let’s go see if they’re accurately representing it!” We showed up at Lincoln High School, and she was like, “Wow, they really shouldn’t have painted the building yellow.”

It was basically a school play, so it was a little weird being there as a non-parent. We had to strain our ears to hear over lots of babies in the audience, who apparently wanted to compete with their onstage siblings.

The play was broken into four segments. The first was an eerie and brilliant shadow play about a troll who placed a giant, enchanted mirror in Lincoln Heights—any child who looked into it would conclude, “Soy fea!” and then turn into a depressed shadow child as a result of the self-fulfilling prophesy. The shadow children were later represented by third graders in dark gray hoodies with the hoods pulled up. You’d be surprised how creepy that image can be.

The segments that followed tied in Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and an evil ice queen, all with a sprinkling of Spanish and local in-jokes, as when a character’s car broke down, and he said, “There must be an auto repair shop somewhere around here. This is Lincoln Heights.”

All of the segments involved a battle of good and evil, light and dark, with good and light winning out. The enemies were vague: It wasn’t like the witches and wolves, trolls and shadow children clearly stood in for gangs, drugs, crime, poverty or bad public policy. The part of me that appreciates clear and specific allegory sort of wanted them to. I found myself watching a character named Xochi defeat the ice queen with the equivalent of a Care Bear Stare and thinking, Yeah, it would be nice if it were that simple.

But the thing is, while the problems that plague communities may very well be the result of poverty and bad public policy, their manifestations usually feel as abstract as blank-eyed children or tiny shards of glass that catch your eye and show you an ugly reflection. Real-life darkness is as vague and murky as a fairytale forest.

And could we conquer it by just speaking out, in a general kind of way, for light and young-heartedness? To say yes might be wishful thinking, a fairytale ending. Then again, something very real and magical happened in that high school auditorium. Kids called out their identities to the cheers of their parents and siblings. Twenty or so third graders sat still on stage for an hour and a half. Hell, just getting kids on a bus to take them from one school to another for rehearsal is a small miracle. And I think small miracles are a nice place to start.

Friday, May 05, 2006

87 little miles

That’s how far it is from San Francisco, where two of my eight loyal readers live, to Sacramento, where I’m reading on Thursday, May 11. It’s only 77.6 miles from Berkeley, where another three of the aforementioned eight live.

If quality time on the 80 (oops, sorry, I know you NorCal folks just call it “80”) isn’t enough of an enticement, how about the fact that I’m reading with Michelle Tea, Tara Jepsen, Mark Ewert and Frank Andrick?

Michelle is totally the cool, rebellious girl I always hoped would invite me to, like, spray paint something with her, even though I never would have had the guts to spray paint anything besides my green-and-gold cheerleading ladder. The extra great thing about her is that she writes from the point of view of the small, shy, longing, frustrated girl trapped inside the cool, rebellious girl, so she manages to come across as completely approachable and completely badass at the same time.

Of course all this is based on her literary voice. I’ve never met her, and I grant her the right to be completely unlike her on-page persona. Nevertheless, I am excited and nervous.

Frank Andrick may be the nicest, zaniest man in the North Central Valley. I don’t know Tara and Mark, but they hang out with Frank and Michelle, so I’m sure they’re great too.

So if you’re in the area, or willing to drive to the area, I hope you’ll join us:

Thursday, May 11, 8 p.m.
Michelle Tea, Tara Jepsen, Mark Ewert, Frank Andrick and Cheryl Klein
Luna’s Café

1414 16th St
.
Sacramento
, CA

916-441-3931

I also have a couple of LA dates coming up, and a real live book to plug (it’s at the printer; the ink is drying as we speak), so stay tuned. I warned you from the beginning that this blog would be at least partially self-promotional—it’s not all nice cat posts all the time, folks. Although I am thinking of instituting a “Come to my reading, get a free kitten” policy. Hmm.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

who’s the most cutest kitty-witty in the world? #8

This one’s a true story, with only a few embellished details (don’t tell Oprah):

Abby was untamable, as far as anyone knew. She’d been part of a feral litter, but her siblings were adopted and convinced that they liked wearing little pink collars and having their heads scratched. Even though Abby lived in a Good Stable Loving Home for four years, she didn’t trust those human types. And her distrust was only validated when her Good Stable Loving Human said, “To hell with this wild child” and deposited her back at the cattery.

Abby paced her cage, looking fluffy and cuddly in all her gray-and-white glory, brandishing her claws at whoever dared to stereotype about fluffy, cuddly-looking, gray-and-white cats.

One day, though, she heard a sound that made her retract her claws for the smallest moment. A chatty little “meow” from the next cage over.

Even though she knew what might happen if she undermined her hard-earned loner reputation, the voice was so simple and thoughtful that she’d answered back before she got a chance to think about it.

“Meow.”

And so began a correspondence, like MySpace, but lower tech, and for cats. The humans cracked the doors to both cages so that Abby and her neighbor—a compact Siamese named Maya—could talk.

When Abby’s green eyes met Maya’s blue ones, it was love. It wasn’t long before Maya had moved into Abby’s two-story apartment. There may have been a U-Haul involved. They slept curled in each other’s arms. The humans awwwed and said, “Abby was never like this.”

Sometimes it was a strain for Maya—she had to do all the negotiating with the outside world. She felt like she was always explaining to their friends that Abby was really a nice cat, deep down, and she just couldn’t go out tonight because she wasn’t feeling well. Again. Then Maya’s sister Sasha moved in, and living in close quarters with in-laws is always hard.

But eventually all three of them slept in a big, furry, brown and white and gray and black pile. Because what other choice is there? Life is crowded and surprising. Sometimes a human would come by and scoop Maya up in her arms. Maya was okay with this. She even purred. But if the human took her too far from Abby, Maya would start to growl. She knew how to get what she wanted. She’d learned that trick from Abby.

backwards and in heels

“You dance like me,” she said on the way out of the bar.

It was the first time we’d danced. The first time I’d danced, period, in a long time. I always forget how much I like it. That feeling that I’m someone much badder or wilder or sexier, just because it’s dark and I’m waving my arms in the air (but not like I don’t care, because I do. I always care. It is my downfall).

“How do you dance?” I asked. Although I’d just watched her: a shoulder-y, knees-bent, mellow-but-still-enthusiastic style. I considered my own style. “I think I put a lot of arms in there.”

“Yeah, usually I do too, so I had to tone it down a little.” Maybe this was like her thing about not wanting to order the same dish at restaurants. Two people eating the same omelet and dancing the same dance is just too unoriginal. I think anyone with a sibling can relate to that position.

But she can swing and salsa and two-step. No chance of me copying that.

“Only if someone leads me, though,” she said.

All my attempts at partner-dancing came flooding back to me—the spidery hands of Chris, my seventh grade square dancing partner; the time Jenessa’s friend Todd tried to teach me to swing dance while waiting in line at Knott’s Scary Farm; the awkward salsa lessons I endured at Bally’s because they were one-fourth of a hip-hop/salsa class, the hip-hop component of which rocked.

It’s weird, we both agreed, dating a full-on girl. But what if my past partner-dancing experiences only sucked because I was following? Maybe I was meant to lead this whole time. I mean, I just knew that guy in my salsa class was turning me the wrong way. Of course, there’s also a good chance I was meant to sit down and quietly drink my drink. But I think it at least warrants more research, the kind of research that involves a good DJ and a girl who’s got some moves, even when censoring her arms.