Thursday, August 31, 2006

david and lisa

When I grow up I want to be Lisa Glatt and David Hernandez. Both of them, simultaneously. They had a husband-and-wife reading gig last night at Casa Romantica—a ridiculously romantica villa-type venue in ridiculously beachy-beautiful San Clemente.

David read his poetry, which I would call deceptively simple and precise and humorous and not really be doing it justice. I like his poetry because when it is about a garden, it doesn’t get to marigolds until a few stanzas in. It starts with trash bags slumped against a wall “like black pumpkins” and features maggots that look like rice until they start to move, at which point the narrator observes, “Not rice.”

Lisa read a short story from her collection, The Apple’s Bruise. I like her writing because she has hard-to-love female protagonists, and it seems like hard-to-love male protagonists are more abundant in this world, and hence I don’t love them so much, just not for the obvious reasons. But I love Lisa’s, or at least I like them very, very much. Her stories are tightly crafted in a way that sometimes makes me crave messiness, but layered in that non-linear, Alice Munro way that makes me feel quite satiated.

Also, they are both friendly and funny and genuinely happy for each other’s successes. Lisa talked about how they used to live in a really small apartment where it was almost impossible to write, so they took a writing vacation together. I was picturing somewhere pastoral, where homemade muffins arrive at your door each morning—somewhere like Casa Romantica, actually—but it turned out to be a $14.99-a-night hotel in Laughlin. The trip inspired Lisa’s story “Ludlow,” she said.

I realize that this sounds like one of those articles about movie stars who are So Down To Earth—which is probably my least favorite angle for movie star profiles; I much prefer the Q&A that showcases Lindsay Lohan’s full, proud manic-ness in this month’s Elle—and really, most of the authors I’ve met are down to earth. They need to observe the world closely (so it pays to be down with the earth) and they don’t usually make enough money to be divas anyway.

So I’m not sure what my point about Lisa and David is, just that they’re writers who are a little bit older than me and a little (okay, maybe a lot) further along in their careers, but not such rock stars that their lives feel completely separate from mine. So maybe they’re, like, role models or something.

AK and I are going to Vegas this weekend. I’m not planning on writing, but maybe I’ll take a few notes.

***
Speaking of lovely cities to the south, I will be doing three readings in San Diego over the next month and a half. If you live near SD or like to plan your road trips around literary events, here’s the info:

Friday, Sept. 8, 7 p.m.
ICE Gallery
, 3417 30th St. (at Upas), San Diego, CA 92104
Reading with poet and very nice man Steve Kowit.

Friday, Sept. 15, 7 p.m.
DG Wills Bookstore
, 7461 Girard Ave., La Jolla, CA 92037
Also with Steve Kowit. We’re going to be best buds by October.

Friday, Oct. 13 and Saturday, Oct. 14
San Diego
International Book Fair
San Diego City College, 1313 Park Boulevard, San Diego, CA 92101
Hanging out with Jimmy Santiago Baca, Mike Davis, Luis Rodriguez and…Steve Kowit!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

good stuff

Monday night, after eating tilapia and watching Weeds at Nicole’s, I wasn’t feeling well. But the tilapia with mango salsa was great, and no actual weed was consumed, so I’m left to attribute my sudden illness to Andrea “that author who dances” Seigel’s To Feel Stuff, which I finished reading later that night.

This is a compliment. To Feel Stuff is about a Brown University sophomore named Elodie Harrington who’s afflicted with ailment after mysterious ailment, to the point where she takes up residence in the school infirmary. There she meets Chess Hunter, a student who’s had his kneecaps bashed in as part of an apparent spree of gang attacks. Until now, Chess has been something of a golden boy, an overachiever from an affluent and attentive family. At the second the crowbar hits his legs, he realizes for the first time that the good life is not inherently his for the having.

Plunged into a new world fraught with doubt, he turns to Elodie as a guide. She is—by nature and by circumstance—used to dealing with what life hands her. She doesn’t exactly make lemonade—she’s not the Pollyanna type—but she diligently carries the lemon around with her and studies its intricate, bumpy peel, if we’re going to extend that metaphor.

Meanwhile, an inquisitive doctor named Mark Kirschling devotes himself to Elodie’s case. I won’t give away his findings, but what begins as an article for the New England Journal of Medicine ends up in the Journal of Parapsychology. And she’s not just a hypochondriac.

The book alternates between Dr. Kirschling’s article and letters between Elodie and Chess, but each section, while faithful to its narrator, bears the signature voice that Seigel debuted in Like the Red Panda: plainspoken, offbeat, contemporary, and simultaneously jaded and wide-eyed.

Although To Feel Stuff is very different from Panda in structure and subject matter—Seigel makes the leap from Promising to Great in my book—it has at least one similar theme: Elodie looks to Chess as someone who might reside with her in her strange and often depressing world, only to discover that his fluidity between worlds is a barrier to their relationship. The same thing happens with Panda’s Stella and Ainsley. But whereas Stella never finds a way out of this dilemma, Elodie realizes—in a clever if hurried climax—that her sickness is inherently linked with her talent and, quite literally, her future. (Is this just me saying, “Andrea, are you happier these days?” If so, sorry about that.)

My only criticism of the book is that, while Dr. Kirschling’s documentation reminds us of Elodie’s illnesses, it’s hard, as a reader, to…well…feel them. Someone (I knew who during my CalArts days) wrote about how language always fails physical pain, and that failure is part of the pain of pain. I don’t expect Seigel to conquer this linguistic conundrum, but it would have helped if Elodie was a little moodier.

Still, with this book Seigel became one of a small handful of authors (Michael Cunningham, Susan Orlean and J.D. Salinger are others) who sort of take over my brain while I’m reading their work and make me feel like the world is suddenly transparent and describable. With a book about empathy and its too-real limits, she’s created the ultimate empathetic experience.

Oh, and its a ghost story. I love ghost stories.

Monday, August 28, 2006

brr, it’s cold in here! there must be some mustangs in the atmosphere!

Bonnie was cleaning out her files and found this picture I drew our senior year of high school. I’ve compiled some notes to accompany your appreciation and understanding of this work of art:

1) If you’ve studied my later work (i.e. meeting-doodles), you will note that my style has remained remarkably consistent, but now includes more scribbly ballpoint shading and clothing styles ripped from Rent.

2) The placing of the subjects in this portrait is deceptive. There is no way to tell that the 1994-’95 varsity cheer squad was bitterly divided, with the somewhat nerdier, dance-oriented Cheryl, Bonnie, Kristy and Janell on one side, and the more popular, football-player-oriented Gina, Sara, Hillary and Michelle on the other. I was particularly resentful of Hillary (though I’m sure she’s grown into a kind and lovely adult, damn her), so it’s odd that I drew myself next to her. There are several possible explanations for this.

a. The picture was drawn at the beginning of the school year, when I was still full of youthful optimism that this squad would win competitions instead of engage in petty infighting, even though previous experience on drill team and JV cheer suggested otherwise.

b. Suspecting that others suspected my dislike of Hillary, I overcompensated, going so far as to draw myself with my arms raised excitedly, as if there were nowhere I’d rather be than next to the girl who barely spoke two words to me the entire year.

c. I was secretly in love with Hillary, and the picture represents my subconscious desires. But I don’t think so.

3) This piece was created during my Pentel Marker Period. The pinky-peach marker got a lot of use because Mira Costa High School was reaaally white. Interestingly enough, my illustrations for the official Key Club scrapbook, which featured fictional Key Clubbers performing such crucial acts of community service as selling hot dogs at the Old Hometown Fair, were much more diverse.

Key Club, which had 100-plus members, was certainly more diverse than the cheer squad, but not that much more. Again, I think wishful thinking may have influenced my art. Or perhaps, at age 17, I had spent a lot of time studying college brochures, which, no matter how white the school, featured a virtual U.N. of smiling students in their marketing materials.

4) Other influences savvy art historians will note include:

  • Garfield cartoons
  • varsity jacket lettering
  • Bonnie Graham’s troll drawings of the mid-‘80s
  • a guide to doing fancy lettering that was available through Scholastic books, again in the mid-‘80s
  • the clean lines and exaggerated uniformity of actual cheer moves, including The High V, The Raised Fist, The Toe-Touch Prep and The Ready-Hit-It Hands-On-Hips

Thursday, August 24, 2006

this is a feminist act

Jenessa was in town last night, which meant theory of the queer, psychoanalytic and postmodern varieties, and gossip about what all our other high school friends are up to.

Happy that Heather had a fun birthday and sad that Amy and her boyfriend broke up, we moved onto feminism—or maybe we were talking about reality TV, I can’t remember—and I complained, “I hate it when women try to call breast implants a feminist act. Like, ‘I did it for me,’ as if that makes everything okay.”

Jenessa stuck out her belly and gave it a Buddha-like rub. “This is a feminist act.”

We agreed that T-shirts bearing this proclamation needed to be printed. They could sell in the back of Bitch, right next to ads for The Keeper. Did I mention we were in line at a bakery when we were having this discussion? I ate a feminist chocolate-dipped apricot shortly thereafter.

***

Speaking of queer theory—or rather queer fiction, which is actually really different from and sometimes even antithetical to queer theory—Blithe House Quarterly, the online magazine I co-edit, is seeking submissions for its Spring 2007 issue. If you’re a queer fiction writer, I hope you’ll read the guidelines and submit.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

a donkey ride down memory lane

In one of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse…you get the idea), of which I was very fond in high school, girl detective Kinsey Millhone confides that, while she’s no bloodthirsty killer, she’s glad she knows how to shoot a gun—that it’s just one of those skills that’s good to have, like drinking coffee black or driving stick.

I don’t like loud noises, and I prefer my caffeinated beverages to end in “-uccino” (frapp-, capp-…you get the idea), but I have always been proud of myself for being able to drive a car with a manual transition. It makes me just a teensy bit butcher.

But it’s a skill that had been fading fast, ever since I traded my ’87 Toyota Tercel for an automatic ’97 Honda Civic. I’ve been driving the latter for almost four years now, and have come to think of it as a fairly modest car in LA’s landscape of Hummers and Beamers and Honda Civics With $10,000 of Accessories Grafted Onto Them.

Yesterday I was reminded of the comparative luxury of the non-pimped Civic, however, when it failed its smog test. Because my dad is a Car Guy—and because I live just ten miles away and have never escaped his car care radius—he insisted that I take it to his mechanic in Manhattan Beach.

Instead of taking public transportation back home, or renting a car, I got to borrow my dad’s back-up car like the Car Guy Princess that I am. His non-back-up car is a 2005 BMW Z4. It’s the first new car he’s ever owned, and it’s, well, the ultimate driving machine. He grumbles about the quirks of its GPS navigation system the way someone might talk about the quirks of a new lover—completely unconvincingly. It’s clear that he’s just immersing himself in every detail of his new love, and wants an excuse to mention these little discoveries in a way that’s not braggy.

While I was theoretically grateful for the existence of the back-up car, I found myself grumbling in a non-loverly manner as I lurched home in the car I learned to drive on, a 1987 faded teal Suzuki Samurai.

It was the first time I’d driven a stick in years, plus it has acquired a number of not-so-endearing quirks since I was in high school. My dad mentioned them casually, one by one, as we drove back from the mechanic.

“So, to start it, you have to hold down this red button I installed.”

“Oh, of course you can drive it on the freeway. It’s just that sometimes it gets windy and the top almost flies off. So you have to keep the windows up. Which is unfortunate, since there’s no air conditioning.”

There is also no power steering, no airbag, no alarm and—I think this goes without saying—no GPS navigation system. And I quickly developed a bruise on my right ring finger from the wrestling match it takes to shift the car from third to fourth gear.

Nevertheless, as I vroomed up Sepulveda and Jefferson, I found myself readjusting to its rhythms, reminiscing about the early days of my driving life. About how Stephanie used to affectionately refer to the Samurai as “The Donkey.” About how brave I felt driving all the way from Manhattan Beach to Westwood for summer Daily Bruin training. About singing along loudly and badly to mix tapes of musical theater songs.

I also realized that the next time AK drives us somewhere in her sporty, slightly dinged but still badass Subaru and gets a little tipsy, I won’t have to hem and haw about my out-of-practice stick-shift abilities and suggest we just hang out and get a cup of coffee. I can confidently take the wheel and drive off into the sunrise, because I trained on The Donkey.

Friday, August 18, 2006

two truths and a lie

The last time I’d played the game was at cheerleading camp the summer before junior year. This time, when I walked into the party, a chick named Blue was saying she’d been a pimp for a while. And that was one of her truths. No one at cheer camp had even lied about anything that outrageous.

We were at AK’s ex’s house for a Gay Girls’ Game Night (and what is more gay-girlish than hanging out with your current’s ex?). The first few people who went had truths like “I used to identify as transgendered” and lies like “I have 14 tattoos” (she only had six). I wracked my brain for what to say, and realized that most of the quirky truths I could summon were the same quirky truths I could summon in high school. Was I really that boring? Was I really the only girl at the party who’d never worked in the sex industry?

I was relieved when someone’s lie was “I race BMX bikes,” and someone else’s truth was “I won a year’s supply of Maybelline cosmetics.”

In my head, I rehearsed the following:

1. I used to carry a rat around on my shoulder.
2. I once got the boot on my car for unpaid parking tickets.
3. My name is on the Mira Costa High School record wall for bench-pressing.

I invite you to guess the lie. But I never got to stump the GGGN crowd, because the conversation dissolved into a more general party with more general topics. Or at least as general as GG’s go—there were topics like “So seriously, you were a pimp?” and “My cat likes to eat sourdough bread” and “I hate bisexuals” (and don’t you think that hating bisexuals is a bit overdone? Doesn’t that make you more of a cliché than straight girls who make out with their best female friends at parties?).

Blue the Pimp told me that I look like her friend Nicole. I assume Nicole isn’t one of her hoes—partly because hoes, if they want to work, would probably need better haircuts than the one I got yesterday. I like it from the back, but I don’t see much of the back of my head, so—for the same self-centered reason I wanted a tattoo in a place I could see—I wish I didn’t look so much like a mushroom from the front. Sad but true.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

step up

Last night I went to my alma mater, Book Soup—where the bathroom is still smelly, but the children’s section is neater than it was under my domain—to hear a reading by Andrea Seigel, an author I like so much I’ve chosen not to hate her for being 26.

(Also, envying someone for being young just feels like a cliché, like something that would make Andrea roll her eyes. Also, I really hope someone hates me for being 29. But when I look at it from that standpoint, I know there’s not all that much that’s enviable about being a young writer because it means that you either A) probably don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from, or B) have a really fucked-up childhood to draw from.)

Anyway, I’m pretty sure Andrea’s not drawing on her fucked-up childhood, though she’s open about mining her youthful depression. The form this has taken most recently is To Feel Stuff, a novel about a chronically ill girl who lives in the Brown University infirmary. Apparently waffles and a ghosts are involved. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m excited to based on the excerpt she read last night.

But before she got to that part, she danced.

She’d threatened to on her blog a long time ago because, she said, she thought readings were boring. My day job is basically to make book readings happen, so in theory I’m highly offended, but while a great reading is a priceless opportunity to build a community around the written word and all that…a lot of readings just drag.

So I was thrilled when Andrea turned on her Strawberry Shortcake boom box and busted out a fully choreographed, 57-second routine to music from Flashdance and a mix of current hip-hop favorites. While it’s too early to weigh in on the book, I can safely give an A- to the dance portion of the program.

Opening with hyper-sincere jazz steps (lots of longingly extended arms and at least one pirouette that hinted at an authentic dance background), she segued into a cornucopia of club-worthy moves, including a few hip and shoulder thingies that might have made her parents blush and some impressive arm work reminiscent of a Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson.

As she signed my book, I asked if she’d taken dance classes, and she said no, but she’d been a cheerleader—a black-eyeliner-wearing goth cheerleader. I owned up to my own angsty-cheerleader past (it’s a whole high school type, I think, but one rarely portrayed in pop culture. Thora Birch’s character in American Beauty was a good start, though), and she wrote, “Cheerleaders unite!” in my book.

The “minus” part of my A- is really just room to grow—although I wouldn’t encourage Andrea to go too glitzy with it, because I’d hate for the routine to lose its no-frills, talent-show intimacy. Still, I’d love to see what she could do with a backup dancer or two. But hey, she’s only 26. There’s plenty of time for all that.

Monday, August 14, 2006

preparing for dermatological disaster and dinner at the tennis club

I was interested in reading There Will Never be Another You by Carolyn See for two reasons: 1) I got a free copy, and 2) it sounded from the jacket description like it might accomplish what I’ve been trying to do with my current project, which is take the family saga into the global world.

The premise is this: Edith is a recent widow, the kind of narrator people might call “feisty,” which would make her want to smack them. She wants to maintain some dignity. She wants something to do after 7 p.m. Phil is her son, a UCLA Med Center dermatologist with a crappy family life he’s too lazy to do much about. One day Phil is recruited to be part of a semi-secret emergency response team—one that will respond to anthrax poisonings, urban Ebola outbreaks and the like. The directions he receives and the drills he practices are mysterious and seemingly ineffectual. If I came down with Ebola, I wouldn’t want Phil or his equally confused teammates taking care of me.

In a side plot, two UCLA students—Andrea, a pretty, blonde, Westside English major, and Danny, a built, tattooed, Chinatown English major—have sex in the bushes outside the hospital where their respective loved ones languish, and, when they’re not having sex in the bushes, navigate their cultural differences.

The book is something of a page-turner. Much of this owes to See’s quick-witted prose, but the offstage world events—which touch down briefly but frighteningly in the characters’ lives—made me search for the thriller that seemed to be lurking just around the corner.

When that thriller didn’t quite come, I found myself alternating between two possible conclusions: 1) That the characters were just privileged enough that messy things like terrorism never quite mattered as much as having a nice birthday dinner at the tennis club, or 2) that as small, weak, loving-and-loved humans we can’t help but think about terrorism and our birthday parties on the same scale. We bob around on the immense tide of war/politics/time—we see a wave looming above us once in a while—but there’s not much we can do.

So when the thriller didn’t materialize, I wasn’t disappointed.


It’s sort of a radical notion—to present a thriller at eye-level, where we’re stuck in the maze rather than viewing its intricate beauty from above. The book has the slightly off-kilter, near-future weirdness of some of See’s other writing (I haven’t read much, but now I plan to read more), but in this way it’s hardcore realism.

Friday, August 11, 2006

did you ever know…? hopefully you did not

Last night I tagged along with AK to a fundraiser for foster youth. The entertainment at the benefit included a jazz singer who modified her inspirational standards to fit the event. As in, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero, and everything I would like to be? I can fly higher than an eagle…and so can these kids with a little help from you kind folks tonight. Who wants to enter a raffle to win a free Kia from Glendale Kia?”

When that particular song started, AK’s coworker Jess said, “That’s my favorite song. We need to leave immediately.” Because the P.A. system was so loud that it drowned out all sarcasm and nuance, AK’s other coworker thought she was serious about being a Bette Midler fan and said, “I’ll stay five more minutes, and then we should go.”

But I have to admit…I kind of do like “Wind Beneath My Wings.” It’s not subtle, but it’s pretty, and it doesn’t seem fair that it has been voted Official Representative of Cultural Cheese, when there are so many more worthy candidates.

Which leads me to my informal poll: What are your pop culture guilty pleasures? What music/movies/TV shows/books/musicals/etc. would you never, ever list on your MySpace page for fear that no one would date you?

And they have to be genuinely loathed by a majority of respectable people, and genuinely loved by you. If you love it ironically, or if any hipster PhD student has written a dissertation on it, it’s out of the running, because you know you would and probably do list it on your MySpace page. Basically, you may not list America’s Next Top Model.

But Hair? Kelly Clarkson’s “Break Away”? Those Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers with the airbrushed pictures of rainbows and puppies? (Ahem, just providing a few hypothetical examples here.) All legit.

Monday, August 07, 2006

best dyke reply of the year

And the winner is...Erin R. with back-up from Erin G.: http://craftygoose.blogspot.com/2006/08/tgi-saturday.html.

a pineapple for you

1. come to the going-away cabaret

B is moving to Indiana.

I paused after I wrote that sentence because there was a time when I would have asked her permission to blog about her (she’s always been a little on the private side, by which I mean she’s convinced that the black helicopters are after her). If that time was still this time, I’d be wrapping picture frames in bubble wrap and heading for Bloomington right now.

Time is weird. That’s the big profound thought that formed in my brain and smudged my mascara as I stood on what used to be my street corner Saturday night with my new, jaw-droppingly understanding girl, trying to psych myself up to venture into a going-away party for my former girl.

I told AK about the palm tree and pineapple my mom had painted on our cabinets when B and I decided, for no particular reason, that our kitchen needed a tropical theme. I said it partly as insurance, because what if AK had looked around and whispered, “And why is there a fucking pineapple on the cupboard?” Not that that’s really her style. She’s pretty laissez-fruit.

But just try to talk about fruit painted by your mom-who-died on the night of your ex’s going-away party when you’re PMS-ing without losing it. I had to sit on the curb for a while. AK said, “It’s cool, people will just think your sorority sister is consoling you.” (Did I mention B lives near USC?)

I nodded. “About a boy,” I giggled tearfully.

2. can’t tell mama

I’m glad I’m not moving to Indiana. I’m glad B is moving there—it’ll be great for her. I’m glad AK is the kind of girl who busts out a digital camera and takes portraits of party guests with pineapples. But still, it all feels weird.

B and I are almost friends these days. We’re both Trying Very Hard To Be Friends. She’s a little better at it than I am. I lose my cool too easily, which is sort of healthy for me, I think, but it makes the going slow. I was hoping we could hit the Full-Fledged Friends mark before she skipped town, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

After my mom died, I remember thinking that, even if there was reincarnation or an afterlife, there was still something that had been lost forever: that moment in time when She-As-Her and I-As-Me were in each other’s lives. She-As-Gypsy-Princess might cross the path of Me-As-French-Trapeze-Artist, or we both might meet as angels or whatever, but it wouldn’t be exactly the same. That thought made me sad but also happy. I liked that my right to mourn—the mournability of the situation—was so inarguable, and that I had been part of something specific and irreplaceable.

And I guess I have a similar (but, you know, completely different) feeling towards my time with B too. There were good times. There were sucky times. Time marches on, and something about that fact itself seems mournable.

3. imperfectly marvelous

B and I used to joke that we were going to take the cabinet doors with us when we moved. We were fond of them, and we weren’t so fond of our landlord. She looked into it recently, which I thought was really nice, but apparently the cabinets are so thick with so many layers of paint that unhinging the doors without ruining them is pretty much impossible.

And so the pineapple and palm tree are my mom’s donation to public art, to putting-it-out-there-in-the-world. I hope someday some college kids who stay friends after college will look back and say, “Remember when we lived in that crazy pink building with the pineapple in the kitchen?”

This morning I had coffee with Patty, a former professor of mine, whose complaints about some of the Newport Beach moms she’s encountered since moving there include that they don’t like Sondheim.

“Since 1960, it’s only been Sondheim,” she said, and I nodded heartily in agreement. “Well, no, Kander and Ebb, I like them,” she amended, and I had to agree there too. They wrote Cabaret, a musical for bittersweet times if ever there was one.

I never much liked the song “It Couldn’t Please Me More” since it was sung by old, boring characters with croaky voices. No girls in shredded fishnets, no boys in lipstick in that number. But it does involve the gift of a pineapple, so it seems apt today, and I think I’m starting to understand old croaky love more and more.

[HERR SCHULTZ]
If in your emotion

You begin to sway
Went to get some air
Or grabbed a chair
To keep from fainting dead away,
It couldn’t please me more
Than to see you cling
To the pineapple I bring.

[BOTH]
Ah...

[FRAULEIN SCHNEIDER]
I can hear Hawaiian breezes blow

[BOTH]
Ah...

[SCHULTZ]
It’s from California

[FRAULEIN SCHNEIDER]
Even so.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

mr. crackhead's opus

You know those Leslie Nielsen spoofs that stitch together allusions to a bunch of movies in a particular genre? And how that torch has been passed to the Wayans brothers in recent years? I’m really surprised that neither party has made a Renegade White Teacher Inspires Inner City Students movie (that I know of). There are so many movies to draw from that every time a new one comes out, I’m like, “Really? Still?” Of course there are slight variations, like Renegade Latino Teacher Inspires Inner City Students and Renegade Ex-Marine Teacher Inspires Inner City Students, but after a while it all feels kind of uninspiring.

My sister Cathy teaches algebra and geometry at a school th
at people would probably describe as “inner city,” meaning that it’s poor, black and Latino, even though it’s technically in the suburbs. Cathy is one of those people who always wanted to be a teacher (well, at least since she decided being a professional clown chef wasn’t realistic), and when she was nine she started keeping a journal of things that her teachers did that she either wanted to copy or do differently. In college she studied all sorts of progressive education theories, and in the summers she volunteered at a camp for kids living below the poverty line. She is kind, smart, dedicated, creative and good at putting up with crap from teenagers. But more than half the kids in her classes are still failing math.

The moral of this story is: Teaching is hard. Teaching kids who life has already fucked with in one form or another is really hard, and maybe it’s egotistical to think you’re exactly what they need.

So how do you cope if you’re not an Inspiring Renegade Movie-Teacher but a regular mortal? If you’re Cathy, you watch a lot of cable on weeknights and eat a lot of low-fat ice cream. If you’re Ryan Gosling’s character in Half Nelson, which I saw last night with Nicole (thanks for the pass, Nicole!), you smoke a lot of crack.


When Dan (Gosling), a vinyl-collecting, aviator-sunglasses-wearing New Yorker, isn’t busy teaching the civil rights movement via a method called dialectics (which I have to ask Cathy about), or smoking crack, he coaches girls’ basketball. One of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), an eighth grader whose sheepish smile creeps out frequently despite her best efforts at stoicism, catches him all cracked out in the empty girls’ locker room after a game.

An unlikely friendship is born as she tries to protect him from himself, and he tries to protect her from the neighborhood drug dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie of the great but little-seen Brother to Brother), a friend of her imprisoned older brother.

What Dan—and most movie viewers—don’t expect is that Frank is really watching out for Drey in his own fucked up way. And when Drey develops a schoolgirl crush on Dan—whose judgment is shaky at best—we start to wonder if she wouldn’t be better off under Frank’s guardianship. As much as I think teaching is hard, I also found myself thinking, Wow, those students deserve way better than that schmuck.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the movie is that Drey—a poster-child for underprivilege, a literal latchkey kid—is in fact deeply loved: by Dan, by Frank, by her overworked mother and her jailbird brother. One of the saddest moments is when we see Drey realize how much she is still on her own.

All of this is conveyed in slow, moody scenes with minimal dialogue, some funny throwaway lines and a soundtrack I think Dan would approve of. Half Nelson does follow one genre tradition in that the classroom lessons parallel the life lessons, but in this case that means inter-cutting scenes of Dan and Frank going head to head with footage of the civil rights movements. The result is a depressing/hopeful mix of “What the fuck happened?”/“What could happen?”

Plus I’m the type of viewer who can handle a little thematic heavy-handedness if the context is complex and the ideology is interesting and no one gives the teacher a standing ovation. Which no one does, thank god. Dan is lucky he doesn’t get fired. But director/co-writer Ryan Fleck? Yeah, I’d stand up and clap for him.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

awake/less awake

Siesta is a black dot of yin
in the middle of day’s white yang.

I hear this on the radio,
tires lazing across Silver Lake pavement
post-meeting. The heat wave has lifted
just enough to make us remember night.

The industrial revolution made words
like industrious into compliments,
poured them molten into moulds,
threw sleep and bare branch into the river.

I am dragging the polluted water
in search of what died. It’s muddy
down here and meaty. Something’s always
brewing in the land of baby fat and long

pauses. Of course I don’t find it.
Look at me with my oxygen tank,
thinking, I’ll live here for 12 months
like it’s a junior year in Spain.

In Spain sleep disorders are on the rise.
In the name of an orderly workplace
naps have been nixed, but people are defiant,
still dining at ten, dancing themselves ragged.

A castanet’s click is a white wink of yang.

I aborted a nap to type this.