Friday, September 29, 2006

it's beginning to look a lot like halloween

Specifically, the dancewear and costume shop next door to my office has put out its life-size clown mannequin, which it does toward the end of every September. But each year the clown—which stands on a busy street from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for a month—gets a little shabbier.

Its yellow wig has had sooty black tips for awhile now, but today I noticed that one of its cartoony, white-gloved hands has been replaced by what appears to be the hand of a small female mannequin. So what used to be a sentinel of Happy Fun Kiddy Halloween is now an unintentional harbinger of Scary Ghoulish Horror Movie Halloween. If one of the little tap dancer mannequins in the window display turns out to be missing a hand, all the better.

Monday, September 25, 2006

my name is cheryl and i’m an episcopalian. maybe.

1. i am a crack whore

After every Olympics the Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation gymnastics classes would fill up with wannabe Mary Lou Rettons. I, who had been doing gymnastics since age five, looked upon these fair-weather gymnasts—most of whom would be gone by mid-session—with scorn. I was egged on by my parents, who were big fans of Sticking It Out in all its forms, from classes to bowls of cereal one had poured orange juice on as part of an unfortunate breakfast experiment.

I was painfully aware of my Mary Lou-ishness yesterday when I enrolled in the eight-week Covenant I class at All Saints Episcopalian Church, which has been in the news a lot lately, and which was practically bursting at the buttresses during Sunday’s service. But I didn’t sign up because I wanted to be part of the church that was famous for telling Bush to shove it (but less directly and with more love-and-Jesus).

I signed up because AK signed up, and I was driving her back from dinner with my aunt and uncle and we didn’t have time to stop by her place first. So, a good reason.

Also, she said, “Ed’s a great speaker, and he’s going to talk about his personal spiritual journey. It’s pretty fascinating.”

As a writer, reader of Us Weekly and victim of human nature, hearing people divulge any sort of personal journey is like crack for me.

So I took a teal new-student folder and, feeling slightly imposter-ish, settled in for some Jesus-crack. AK was right—Ed was a great speaker. His story was not about how Jesus saved him from a life of sin but rather a nice earthly story about dropping out of law school and pissing off his dad. With bits of light and love sprinkled like cinnamon on hot chocolate, turning the mundane divine and making me feel all cozy.

2. i am not a gymnast

A big part of what I like about All Saints (you know, in the five times I’ve gone) is that they’re so not shame-based. Ed’s sermon that morning had sort of flipped the Jesus-died-for-your-sins thing on its head, which I appreciated. I’ve got enough guilt just based on the fact that my parents paid for my undergraduate tuition. I’m not sure if I can handle someone hanging from a cross with nails through his hands for me.

Hearing how unconditionally God loved me felt a lot like therapy, as did the small group sessions we broke into after Ed’s speech. Rusty, our temporary group leader, emphasized that we should all feel comfortable asking questions, praying in our own way and being at whatever point we were at in our spiritual journeys (the latter is basically All Saints’ tagline).

This sounded great, but inside I was thinking, But what if I’ve never read the bible? What if I wouldn’t even call myself a Christian? What if I’m feeling reluctant about buying any of the books on the suggested reading list even though some of them cost less than the drink I bought Thursday night at East-West?

That’s Gymnast Cheryl thinking. Gymnast Cheryl is all about commitment and suffering and deserving things or not deserving them, concepts that are surprising products of a secular—yet somehow so Catholic and Jewish—childhood.

Post-Therapy Cheryl thinks (and I’m going to switch back to first person now, because this is getting creepy)—I think, Am I doing this sincerely? Well, let’s see, I’m interested. Curious. Moved. I teared up at least twice during Ed’s speech. Seems legit.

I was also worried that maybe I was putting up with the God stuff because the experience offered all these other ingredients I liked, such as spending two extra hours each week with a hot chick who might find it extra endearing that I was invested in having a spiritual journey. Was I a prisoner getting saved to impress the parole board? A homeless guy just here for the soup?

I confessed my excitement and my trepidations to AK on the drive back to her place. “I don’t know if I’m ready to, like, become an Episcopalian,” I said.

“Don’t worry, you’re fine,” she said. “Episcopalians are very process-oriented.”

So maybe some journeys begin with soup or parole or a hot chick. Or maybe those things aren’t even just the bait. Maybe they are the thing itself. Maybe God is soup.

hiking through the grownup world

Saturday was the first day of fall, and Sara and I decided to spend it outdoors. This being Los Angeles, there were no trees dropping piles of fire-colored leaves or couples strolling in cable-knit sweaters. But our hike—the Temescal Canyon Loop in the hills above the Pacific Palisades—did take us past one heavily graffitied cactus, a couple of hardcore joggers and the spacious backyards of French- and Spanish-style mansions.

Sara sighed wistfully at the latter, much the way she’d sighed wistfully an hour before when we ate at Gladstone’s, a restaurant I thought was crazy-fancy when I was in college (I think because the Daily Bruin ran an article on good Valentine’s Day date restaurants), but which, upon actually going there, turned out to be a sort of Buca di Beppo By The Sea. Not necessarily a bad thing—what’s not to love about a giant martini glass full of deep-fried shrimp?—but not the epitome of elegance I’d imagined.

As I studied my Seafood Watch fish guide from Heal the Bay to see what was not too damaging to eat, Sara gazed at the sparkly blue water she would love to live by. We have really different tastes, I realized. Sara would be right at home in the Palisades. Me, I like a little graffiti, I like a little littleness in my dwellings. (Of course, I would like my current dwelling to be a smidge bigger, which makes me wonder if I’m not the non-materialistic urbanite I think I am, but rather someone who is perpetually dissatisfied but lacks the imagination to dream bigger than the next step up. If I lived in a five-bedroom house right now, then I’d want to live in a mansion.)

Part of me is always surprised by how different Sara and I are, because there are a lot of ways we’re alike. But then I remember that this isn’t high school, where all of my friends bought the same Mexican blanket bags and tiny silver earrings from Aaardvark’s (but they couldn’t be exactly the same bags and earrings, because then there would be a fight about copying). This is the grownup world where people learn from each other. Like, today I learned that a ‘50s ranch house on Sunset in the Palisades goes for $990,000, which is actually a lot less than I thought. I will totally go visit Sara there when she moves in, and we will meld our brains and create peace throughout the land.

Friday, September 22, 2006

conversation in line for pizza, west hollywood, 12:49 a.m.

GUY IN FRONT OF ME, TO GUY BEHIND THE COUNTER:

I’ll have a slice of the spinach pizza. The E. coli pizza.

ME:

I’ll have the same. [TO GUY IN FRONT OF ME] Did you just say E. coli pizza?

GUY:

Yeah.

ME:

I guess I feel like taking risks tonight.

GUY:

E. coli is the best diet.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

500 beginnings, one fresh start

I just finished a project for work that involved reading the first three pages of about 500 stories. Even though a lot of those stories were really good, it made me a little crazy in the head. My brain was like, “This is not what reading is supposed to be. When I finally surpassed the not-so-adventurous adventures of Janet and Mark and moved onto real books and decided that, fine, fine, I liked reading, this is not what I signed on for!”

Here is what I learned:

1) Good writing is not hard to find. Great writing is. Right now I’m finding it in Middlesex. My brain was like, “Oh, right, this is how good it can be.” Like going from an at-least-he-doesn’t-hit-me relationship to true love. It’s so layered and delicious and funny and complex. Not just a story but a world.

2) I love finishing projects because it gives me an excuse to begin my life fresh immediately afterward. I’m not sure what that fresh start entails—everything I did today was just like everything I did yesterday except that today I didn’t read any manuscripts—but it feels new and special. That’s the real reason I’m pretty good with deadlines—it’s not responsibility so much as OCD and a deep longing for purity.

3) I need new glasses. My eyes are tired and bad.

Monday, September 18, 2006

we don't need no education

Today at work our 19-year-old intern mentioned that one of her professors advised her never to write about anything outside her own experience. I emphasized, and emphasized again, that that’s a bunch of bullshit. Or, as my co-panelist Tod Goldberg said Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, “The old ‘write what you know’ thing makes for a lot of stories about 21-year-old Cal State Northridge students.”

One bit of slightly more valid conventional creative writing wisdom is that the more specific your story is, the more universal its appeal. Paradoxical but true. Here, try it out—which sentence makes you sadder?

1) There was a war and thousands of people died.
2) During World War I, a boy named Franz who really liked movies and had tried smoking once but was bad at it, died when the army took over his home and he and his mother were forced to live on the streets, where they both got, um, cholera.

Okay, bad example. Neither sentence is sad because the first is generic and the second, while specific, is sappy and probably inaccurate. I’m realizing that I know very little about World War I. Still, you get my point, right?

Except sometimes that point is as wrong as “write what you know.” Take my other co-panelist
Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero, which I just finished reading. It’s a collection of very universal—self-consciously, intentionally universal—short stories that contain sentences like: “Pretty Girl and I moved in together, spent a couple of years in Mental Environment, Urban Utopia Variety.”

His stories have titles like “Man of Quite Desperation Goes on Short Vacation.” They convey stuff about consciousness and identity and branding that would make my CalArts profs proud. The problem with a lot of what I read at CalArts—not all, but a lot—was that it ultimately sort of lacked heart. Charles Yu’s writing does not. His stories are clever, yes (sometimes too clever to read back-to-back), but they are also poignant and sweet and funny and sad. It’s sort of like he knows all of us too well and isn’t going to give us the luxury of pretending it’s some specific character named Lucy who’s wistful and selfish and bad at dating. We have to own up. We’re all Lucy, and he’s onto us.

He broke a big rule, and while I’m not sure that such rule-breaking would sustain a novel (and who says he wants to do that anyway?), it makes for some of the most distinctive writing I’d read in a long time.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

how things are in straightlandia and other parts of the world

Both AK and I have lived most of our lives within the same 25-mile radius, so when we get out of town, we’re easily amazed. Last night on the way to my reading at DG Wills in San Diego, we drove down a block of old bungalows.

“I sort of feel like we’re in Northern California right now,” I said.

“I can see that. Berkeley, maybe,” she said.

We turned the corner. “Now I feel like we’re back east somewhere. Maybe it’s the low curbs.”

“I think we’re just not very well traveled, baby. We look around and everything’s exotic,” she said. “By the next block we’ll be in Thailand.”

That’s part of it, but I’m also realizing that one of our collective hobbies is Assessing The Situation. Psychoanalyzing people and relationships, making cultural comparisons, that sort of thing. I’ve always prided myself on my skills in this area of observation—I’m a writer, and I’d like to think I have something more to show for it than fast typing skills (76 WPM, 94% accuracy, according to the online test I just took). But AK has a precision for naming how things are that constantly has me saying, “Yes! That is so true, it’s exactly like that.”

After the reading we met up with AK’s college friend Angela, who took us to her stomping ground, PB, which turns out to stand for Pacific Beach. We stood in line at a bar called Thrusters, which was right across from the Bareback Tavern. AK was like, “Are you sure we’re not in Hillcrest?”

But no, we definitely weren’t. The long skinny bar was oddly well lit, not as crowded as the line implied, pumping with ‘80s hits that were not quite obscure but still rarely heard on “Flashback Lunch” radio segments, and teeming with straight boys. They easily outnumbered the girls, but they were undeniably hetero, and they didn’t look like military guys either.

AK’s outgoing nature made her a great wingman for Angela. She started up a conversation with a gorgeous dreadlocked guy who introduced himself as Jason but later admitted his name was Jihad, explaining that it just creates too much drama to introduce himself as such. She also snagged a preppy-cute but drunk guy named Ryan, who almost immediately tried to start dirty dancing with Angela. Rumble Fish was playing on two big TV screens, and black-and-white images of a young Nick Cage and Matt Dillon alternately flirting with and terrifying Catholic school girls flickered as we danced.

Later we Assessed The Situation.

“That was a really interesting bar,” AK said as we made our way back to Hotel Jim and Kelly. “It’s so different from any queer bar or straight hipster bar, you know?”

“The crowd was really eclectic,” I agreed. “Really straight, but not quite fratty.”

“Just kind of low-key,” said AK.

“But not in like a Midwest kind of way. They were still very Southern California. A bunch of good-looking people who take good care of themselves.”


Angela had said that since moving to San Diego, she’d met a lot of people from the middle of the country, and my theory was that San Diego offered a lot of the appealing qualities of California (namely the weather and the beach) without the weirdness of LA or San Francisco. I think it’s a decent theory, and I am of course partial to LA. Still, it’s nice to travel sometimes.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

i am now a respectable member of society again

Every time I see my Uncle Bob, he starts—with almost no provocation or introduction— to recount episodes of various British sitcoms.

“Did you see that episode of The Bucket Woman where Hyacinth’s doorbell was broken and—”

The show is not really called The Bucket Woman. That’s just Uncle Bob’s nickname for it, and I’m not entirely sure why, because I haven’t ever seen the show. My answer (and the answer of almost everyone present) is, “No, sorry, didn’t catch that one.”

For the past ten months, my answer has been, “No, sorry, I don’t have a TV.”

And it’s weird how much it feels like an actual apology. Every time I admit that I don’t have a TV, I feel the need to explain that it’s not that I don’t like TV or think I’m better than TV—I’m just so lazy that I haven’t bothered buying a table or shelf to support the various TVs that have been offered to me like wheels of government cheese.

It’s gotten to the point that a few friends and family members will ask, in exasperated voices, “Do you still not have a TV?” The implication is that I’ve failed to meet some sort of social obligation, or that I have cooties, probably patchouli-scented ones.

My sister leads the pack of TV harassers. It usually comes up when I mention MySpace or my blog, which she sees as big time-wasters that get in the way of watching Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of “Three’s Company.”

At which point I’ll say, “Did you get that email I sent you?”

And she’ll say, “Um, no….”

And I’ll say, “Do you still only have really slow NetZero dial-up and also never check your email at work?”

A few people mentioned that I could probably at least watch DVDs on my laptop, but for some reason this option didn’t sink in until the other night when AK and I watched the first two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy at Meg’s place on her laptop.

It really could work! One could even invite people over to watch something! It was technologically feasible and socially acceptable to watch DVDs on one’s computer!

And so last night, after a long day of reading reading reading that demanded the sweet relief of non-text-based narrative, I went to my Local Independent Video Store and signed up for a membership.

I almost immediately regretted my decision to go with the Local Independent because A) it’s not all that local and took a while to get to, and B) I would be embarrassed to indulge my not-all-that-occasional desire to see movies that involve makeover scenes and/or dance numbers in front of clerks who were clearly in the midst of film MFAs. Suddenly I missed my old Local Semi-Independent, where the staff played really violent and foul-mouthed movies at top volume as small children ran around the store with copies of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in their hands.

Fuck, I thought, I’m so tired and lazy, but now I’m going to have to rent something respectable.

Luckily I landed upon Transamerica, which I actually wanted to see (arguably a sex change is the ultimate makeover, although to its credit this movie wasn’t really into the visual gags). To make it a fully indulgent night, I stopped at the McDonald’s drive-thru window and got a filet-o-fish and a chocolate shake (and I know that’s a disgusting combination; I know filet-o-fish on its own is disgusting, but that’s the whole point of an evening in by yourself).

Transamerica turned out to be a funny and lovely movie that hit all the right notes, just like all the respectable people promised.

Monday, September 11, 2006

how do you write a short story?

I don’t entirely know, even though I wrote a book of them, and I’m not just saying that to be modest. Even though I’m happy with the way a lot of my stories turned out, I felt like they were all little leaps off cliffs of varying heights that just ended whenever the ground appeared.

But I’m going to do my best to fake expertise this Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, where I’ll join Tod Goldberg, Holiday Reinhorn and Charles Yu to discuss “The Short and the Short of It: Writing the Short Story.”

You’ll also find folks like Aimee Bender, Bernard Cooper, Luis Rodriguez and Terry Wolverton hanging out at this book fair, along with great local presses and community organizations, so it’s a good event all around. As if a Sunday in the park with churros and frozen lemonade weren’t enough.

***

West Hollywood Book Fair
Sunday, Sept. 17, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

West Hollywood
Park

647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
“The Short and the Short of It”:
11 a.m.-noon in the Fiction Pavilion

http://www.westhollywoodbookfair.org

***

Speaking of writing, I’ve had two Very Good Writing Days this past week. Usually Very Good Writing Days correspond directly to the amount of caffeine I’ve consumed immediately prior. I’m like a Starbucks Hemingway. But the weird thing is, I stopped drinking coffee five whole days ago (not forever, I just want the high to be sufficiently high when I need it, so I’m taking a little hiatus to decrease my tolerance).

So now I’m inclined to attribute my Very Good Writing Days (which, I should note, are not necessarily the same as Days of Very Good Writing) to the lack of caffeine. This new natural high thing. Or maybe it’s just that chapter 9 came to a nice climactic close, and I always like starting new chapters, which is what I did today. Huh.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

more highlights from the grassroots book tour

  • When I got up to read Friday night at the pleasantly packed ICE Gallery in San Diego, it became clear that people in the back would have a hard time hearing me over the fan. Someone turned it off, but then it became clear that it would get really hot really fast. So City Works Press visual artist/impromptu handyman Perry Vasquez got out his power drill and, as I was giving my introduction, unscrewed a board that had been covering the window behind me. Presto—indie air conditioning.
  • When I got back to Hotel Jim and Kelly, the power was out due to construction down the street. As we sat in the candlelit living room, Kelly said, “Oh, and don’t worry about the bees in the walls. They haven’t really stung anyone. It’s just that the honey attracts the rats, so you might here some scurrying during the night. But all the drama pretty much stays inside the walls.”

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

what happens in vegas...

…ends up on the blog, of course.

saturday: when in vegas

The last time I was in Las Vegas
, B and I hung out with an old friend of hers who lived there. “Ooh, show us what the locals do!” I said, envisioning Bohemian coffee shops and funky dive bars. But that wasn’t really B’s friend’s scene—he worked for a company that distributed monogramable tchotchkes (duffle bags, ashtrays, etc.) to casinos. And so we found ourselves in a local casino. It was just like the rest of Vegas, but with less neon, cheaper games and more Gamblers Anonymous dropouts.

It was an interesting night in its own way, but I was glad that AK’s and my Local of Choice for this trip was
Mike—who, besides probably being the sincerest and the raunchiest person I know, also happens to edit Vegas’ alt weekly, CityLife, and proceeded to get us into various $20 clubs for free. Right and left. He owned this town. He was a young, brown-eyed Sinatra with a shaved head.

sunday: when in paris hilton’s life


One night in colle
ge, a bunch of us were studying at Jerry’s Deli in Westwood and, because it was late and we were all hopped up on knishes, we started predicting how we’d all be famous one day, like one of those famous groups of friends. Because we were all essentially majoring in pop culture, the famous group of friends that came to mind immediately was the one that included Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Bill Maher. At the time, Bill Maher was the least famous among them, and I sorrowfully predicted that I would be the Bill Maher among us.

Flash forward eight years and, while none of us are Seinfeld- famous, Mike and Stephanie are at the very least Paul Reiser-famous, but in an up-and-coming way, not a canceled-sitcom way. While Mike is Mr. Perk, Steph is Ms. Voiceover. We met up with her Sunday afternoon at an anime convention. She ushered us to the green room where we shot each other with suction-cup dart guns while Steph waited for her next panel. Meaning the next panel she was on—one attended by her fans.

It was an “after-hours” panel (although I’m pretty sure that, even outside of Vegas, 7 p.m. does not constitute “after-hours”), meaning people over the age of 18 got to ask their favorite voice actors about sex, booze and industry gossip. It’s a little weird hearing strangers in cat ears ask your best friend whether she prefers penis or vagina. I will add, at this point, that maybe Stephanie is the raunchiest person I know.

Not to stereotype or anything, but at the anime convention, despite clearly being the Bill Maher, I felt kinda cool. Kinda together. Like a girl who knew about hair products an
d movies with live actors in them. But pride goeth before the trip to Jet, another outrageously priced club, this one at the Mirage and populated by straight people. Suddenly, I felt like I’d fallen asleep and woken up in Paris Hilton’s life. I was still wearing my pajamas (also known as what dykes go out in: wifebeater, cargo pants and sneakers), and all the other girls (except AK, thank god) were wearing push-up bras, tiny tweed shorts and high, high heels. I hadn’t even known that shorts-and-heels was a look anyone actually wore.

“They all look really uncomfortable,” AK observed. But while I probably looked way comfortable in my semi-jammies, I was worried that I was about to be on the
unfortunate end of one of those movie scenes where the bouncer picks girls out of the line at a club, and doesn’t pick other girls. But we were With Mike, so we got in, in the same way that if Paris Hilton had a cousin with a harelip, that cousin would get into clubs too.

We looked around at the go-go poles and the squares of multi-colored lights on the ceiling like a reverse disco floor. “This is how I imagined clubs when I was a kid,” AK said. “It’s sort of the standard, you know?”

Mike said that this particular house-spinning DJ was probably the best in town, and this was probably the best party of the night. And despite the very Sunset Strip-esque crowd and my cramps that Advil would not quite shake, I started to get into it. Not because it was the best, and certainly not because I felt like the best being there, but because good music makes for good dancing. AK was shiny and happy after drinking a Red Bull and vodka (after not having caffeine for a month, no less), and her glee was contagious. Mike went crazy when the DJ introduced some Depeche Mode into the mix, and his glee was contagious too.

But not so
contagious that I could stay awake for the after-hours party. It was truly after-hours now—after 3 a.m.—and I was ready for bed.

monday: when on root beer

AK plays it cool—one of those relaxed-and-spontaneous types—but it turns out she’s secretly a planner, or at least a reader of stuff online, who plots out awesome mini trips to places like
Red Rock Canyon, to do things like ride horses at sunset.

My horse was named Root Beer, and his main claim to fame was h
is fondness for snacking and his flatulence. It wasn’t so bad being on him, but I felt for Beauty and her rider behind us. AK rode Coal, a big-bellied black horse who did not like to be hurried.

Even though AK had to kick her heels into Coal’s sides almost constantly to get him to move, and I half-panicked when Root Beer followed a horse named Chocolate off the trail, we both agreed later that there were moments when we wondered if we were secretly gifted riders.

“I sort of f
elt like, if we didn’t have to stay in line, I could really test my skills. Like Root Beer could gallop and I could totally hang on,” I admitted.

“Yeah,” said AK, “Coal and I didn’t really hit it off, but still, during the 30 seconds when I wasn’t kicking him, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I really have a way with horses.’”

tuesday: when lounging

Neither AK nor I have a functioning DVD player right now, and I don’t even have a TV, so we were pretty excited when Mike provided an all-access pass to his DVD collection while he was at work. Forget Jet—he’s got an advance copy of QuinceaƱera!

(Which is a really good movie about gentrification in LA, made by real live gay gentrifiers and told mostly from the POV of the Latino immigrant gentrified. If you’ve ever used the phrase “the most rockin’ tamales in Echo Park,” you should see this movie.)

We finished the day by the pool, where AK perfected her handstand and I captured it all on film. It was one of those vacations I really don’t take enough of, where I actually rest my chronically tired American soul.