Monday, September 24, 2007

living in a shoebox is good for your carbon footprint

Hey kids! Here’s a fun and disturbing game! Type your habits (living, driving, eating) into NPR’s Consumer Consequences calculator and find out how many Earths we’d need to sustain the human population if everyone lived like you.

If everyone lived Cheryl-style, we’d need between 3.8 and 4.1 Earths (I was unsure about my food estimates, so I entered a couple of different numbers). Living in L.A. and driving a lot, I knew my transportation footprint would be like a size 12-Wide, but I was shocked that I have the eating habits of a seven-planet person. And I buy a lot of organic stuff! And don’t eat out that much! Well, at least not for an urban girl on the go!

Okay, I doth protest too much. Time to hit the farmer’s market and lay off the coffee. But who would have guessed that my purely economic lifestyle “choice”—living in a tiny apartment that doesn’t use a lot of gas or electricity—would be my greatest contribution to a sustainable world?

the apex and the tangents

Saturday was arguably our best book group meeting yet because an amazing seven out of nine people had finished the book. Our stats up till now have been more like six out of 12. So first of all, a shout-out to Colson Whitehead for writing a book that was only 211 pages.

Unfortunately, only three and half of the seven really enjoyed the book, Apex Hides the Hurt. I count myself as the half. I chose the book because I loved Whitehead’s previous novels, The Intuitionist and especially John Henry Days. My lesser love for Apex makes me wonder if my tastes have changed or if the book is a departure—I can’t say it’s a lesser work because it seems to accomplish exactly what it sets out to.

As tightly written as advertising copy, Apex is, well, an allegorical send-up of advertising copy. The novel’s nameless protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant,” the guy who dubs new sleep aids “Drowsatin,” coffee chains “Admiral Java” and—his greatest triumph—multicultural band-aids “Apex.” But after a period of disillusionment and uncharacteristic down-and-out-ness, he takes on an unusual assignment: solving a small town’s debate over what to rename itself. Should the name celebrate the town’s striving settlers, its early elite or its currently striving future elite?

I always go straight to the ideological, and, proudly wearing a pirate band-aid on my right arm, I delivered my sermon from AK’s couch: “This is how I see the allegory of the book: Our culture of advertising literally puts a band-aid on problems, and by not acknowledging them, they get bigger. At the same time, I think Colson Whitehead is saying that it’s human nature to aspire. To want to make things shiny and pretty so that we can believe we are shiny and pretty.”

But the nice thing about book groups, besides the shrimp wraps and hummus and wine, is that you get knocked off your couch a bit. Everyone brings something different to their respective readings. AK and Jody brought indifferent shrugs: Was the big reveal really worth waiting for? they asked. Were any of the characters likeable and fully wrought? And while I liked the book a little more than they did, I had to agree that it was more clever than soulful, though there were glimmers of the latter.

Craig, an urban planner by day, pointed out that the two narrative threads of the novel are actually structured to form a mountain with, natch, an apex at the top. Garrett called attention to the novel’s humor, while his wife Andrea, looking bored, said, “You guys keep choosing all these really literary books and talking about stuff like allegory, and I’m just thinking, ‘Uh…okay….’”

Veronica riffed on the concept of naming as it applies to race—“Alberto and I are always having this discussion about ‘Hispanic’ vs. ‘Latino.’ He thinks ‘Latino’ is so much better, but I grew up feeling like I couldn’t relate to either because they’re both big catch-alls that refer to entire raped nations. And I think both Alberto and I came to our decisions intellectually—it’s not like we grew up with parents telling us, ‘We’re Chicanos. This our history.’”

Then she paused and said sheepishly, “Wow, that was a huge tangent.”

But tangents are one of the best parts of book groups—I love it when books (or movies or plays or songs) slip into real life. When they irk us and bolster us. We shouldn’t just read them and then put them back on the shelves, congratulating ourselves for having done something smart. That’s kind of the whole reason I have this blog (I know, sometimes it’s hard to tell)—to explore all the great and inspiring and ridiculous ways that culture informs my life. That, and to bitch about traffic, of course.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

someone cooler than me vs. the audience

Is this what goes through writers’ heads at readings? It’s what goes through Tao Lin’s head, and while I usually feel a little more, uh, organic about the whole process, I have (as both a writer and an audience member) noticed a tension between questions and answers. The desire to ask the perfect question. The desire to give the least predictable answer. Both sides wanting alternately and sometimes simultaneously to endear and challenge.

Just reading the article, I felt envious of how creative and observant and postmodern and Miranda July-ish Lin is. Which made me hate him a smidge too—both invalidly (because he appears to be cooler than me) and validly (because his honesty has an unfriendliness about it, and sometimes cleverness looks a lot like gimmickry).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

zoo story

The only place more fun than the Old Zoo Picnic Area in Griffith Park is the new (if you consider post-1930s new) L.A. Zoo, where AK, her sister Lori, and Lori’s husband Canny and I went on Sunday.

Like any good L.A. tourist destination, it has celebrity appeal. Reggie the escape-artist alligator greeted us at the front entrance, all green-black scales and unassuming expression. It was clear, though, that he was just biding his time until he could rally his crew and take the whole place down. We theorized that he’d make the goats do all the work, then eat them.

This is just a reenactment.

This is not Reggie, but an older, tougher gator they keep at the back of the park. This old warrior doesn’t even need prove himself anymore. He’s all, Reggie, shmeggie. Did I ever tell you about the zookeeper I ate in ’65?


Even the zebras were violent. (It’s hard to tell from the picture, but I swear that’s a fight, not hot zebra lovin’.)

But I’m a girl. I can’t help liking the pretty animals. Also the ugly-but-not-in-a-badass-way animals. I wish my pictures of the endangered pigs from the Philippines had come out better. Such funny, muddy little noses.

I like nicely designed signs too. For example, this sign informs me that the Contact Yard is not the place where inmates have their conjugal visits.

Despite the signs, we were a directionally challenged group.

Sometimes it’s better to just give in and chill.

Or do your Gorillas in the Mist impression.

Or pose a question to a wise guru: Oh great goat, where are the giraffes?

Answer: They’re not the only attractive hoofed animal in this place, you know. And tell Reggie he better watch his back.

Monday, September 17, 2007

organic plastic

Although there was a time in my life where I found myself watching The Bird Cage whenever it came on TV—not so much because it was so funny but because its bright colors and cheerful gayness were as comforting as hot chocolate—I sort of thought I was over drag queens. Okay, camp, got it…fierceness, got it…making us look at ourselves to realize all gender is performance, got it….

But Friday night at Highways, Plastilina made me rethink my dismissal of drag. Neither beauty queen kitschy-pretty nor Divine grotesque, her costume was one part Frida Kahlo, one part sea witch, one part antique lamp. Its ingredients included a red, ripped fishnet leotard, turquoise bustier, sparkly cape and lots of roses. I would have swooned with envy during my college days, when my dream was to dress like a Rent chorus girl, but even then I would never have been able to pull it off.

Plastilina sang sad Spanish ballads in an unabashedly deep, convincingly lovelorn voice that carried across the street to Crossroads and then some. Like all the performances that night, it made me wonder, Wait, why is Britney famous again? Of course, without untalented pop stars, who would drag queens parody? Yet part of what I liked about Plastilina was that she didn’t need to directly mock anyone. She was just her own glittery, fabulosa-yet-sincere self.

Friday, September 14, 2007

not loving my neighbors so much

For all my talk of lovely fall weather, not-so-lovely fall traffic is kicking my ass. Well, technically it’s expanding my ass, because my ass spends way too much time planted in the bucket seat of a Honda Civic. Good thing I just joined a gym.

(After quitting the disastrously managed Bally’s in a huff, I talked to my poor 24 Hour Fitness rep like a been-burned-before lover still obsessed with her ex: “How often to you guys update your class schedules online? Because certain other gyms never update them, and when you go to take a class, it’s not happening and the staff acts like the mistake is a weird fluke that has never occurred before.”)

Anyway, two hours of traffic hell on Wednesday morning unleashed an evil spirit I’d been carrying around inside of me. I left AK a frantic phone message and then, when I got to the office and still couldn’t cool down, emailed her twice just to describe my misery, including the strangling-alien scream I let out around Washington and National. I vaguely blamed her, as if she’d single-handedly planted my office in Westwood and then told everyone she knew to hit the freeways at 8:32 a.m. and then made me accidentally take the Arlington exit instead of Crenshaw and get stuck in a “no left turn between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.” maze.

Everything that day seemed like a crisis or proof that I didn’t treat myself well (since I—what?—chose to live my life in a variety of parts of town? So in a weird way I was blaming myself too). A couple of years of therapy taught me that self-sacrifice (voluntary or traffic-induced) leads to bitchiness rather than generosity. Or, as a guest speaker at All Saints pointed out one time, “Women especially tend to ignore the ‘self’ part of ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

Determined to regain the self time that traffic had stolen from me, I slung my backpack with laptop on my back and went to Starbucks at lunch. After getting my latte, I realized that every plug in every outlet was occupied by someone else’s laptop.

Cruel fate! I said in my head. Why am I the unluckiest person in the entire universe?

Latte in hand, I stomped past several homeless people until I reached the emptier Starbucks down the street.

***

Yesterday morning I left about 12 minutes earlier and traffic was a breeze. I was in the parking lot by 8:30, greeting sparrows with a little wave and a crinkled nose. Despite my previous abuse, AK called me to wish me luck on the mean streets and I exclaimed, “I’m already at work! Can you believe it?!”

Nevertheless, I’m glad it’s Friday. Tonight we’re going to see the always funny, insightful and sexy-butch Butchlalis de Panochtitlan as part of Highways’ Latino New Works Festival. Among the many things I like about Highways is that they have the good sense to start their shows at 8:30 p.m. after traffic has died down.

P.S. For some entertainment that doesn’t require any driving at all, check out Tracy’s Carnival of the Mundane roundup.

Monday, September 10, 2007

layin’ down some tracks

Although the recording studio was a converted garage in Steph’s backyard, it was actually very professional inside, with fancy-looking equipment and original sketches by animators from some of the shows she’d recorded there.

The first thing I thought when I put on my headphones and sat down in front of the mic to record one of my stories was, I feel like Ashlee Simpson.

“I feel like I’m on This American Life,” I told Stephanie, because TAL is a spoken word show and I wasn’t doing any singing. Also, it sounded like a smarter reference. Also, I have a sort of sinus-y voice (“I can hear your nose whistling like the wind,” Steph observed upon playback) that could only ever hope to find a home on NPR.

Stephanie had me read various lines over and over in different ways—she’s a good acting coach as well as a person who understands what the Richter-like lines on her sound-engineer software mean. Then she showed me how she could splice everything together to make it sound like I read the story perfectly all the way through.

“Now I can see why Paris Hilton has a music career,” I said. “She only had to hit the right note once during the entire session.”

“Not even that,” Stephanie said. “They have pitch-adjusting equipment too. Like if you listen to Sarah Michelle Gellar sing in the musical episode of Buffy, you can tell her voice has been altered a lot.”

Steph also introduced me the concept of a guide track, a recorded track that musicians sometimes sing along with when performing live, since the venue’s acoustics are often all wonky.

“Remember when Ashlee Simpson messed up on SNL and said they played the wrong track in her ear?” Steph said. “That was a bad lie because everyone heard the full song with all the instrumentation and saw that her lips weren’t moving along with it.”

I think I associate Ashlee with recording studios because she, to a slightly lesser degree than Paris, wouldn’t have a career without their magic. She also got famous via a show that had lots of scenes depicting her in the booth. The point then, of course, was to go behind the scenes into the life of an up-and-coming recording artist. To be extra authentic. But it backfired as she revealed herself to be just striking various musican-y poses.

(On a side note, while I know Fall Out Boy is probably not considered the coolest band by people who designate cool bands, I, like millions of 15-year-old emo boys and girls, think Pete Wentz is a hottie and certainly a cut above Ashlee Simpson. Come on, Pete—do you really want a girl who dyed her hair and got plastic surgery to make herself look less like one of your fans and more like Jessica Simpson?)

Hmm. I didn’t intend this post to be a rant against Ashlee Simpson. That’s how pop culture can hijack you, my friends. What was my point again? Just that for my next live reading, I’m considering lip synching to Sarah Vowell.

Friday, September 07, 2007

hail tomato

It’s happened. I’ve joined the Cult of the Heirloom Tomato. This cult has strong cells in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Silver Lake, and last night I discovered that it’s infiltrated South Pasadena.

It began innocently enough. A few days after my mom died in 2003, when flowers and cards were pouring in, my friend Heather brought me a Miss Piggy candy cane and vegetables from her dad’s garden. Clearly, Heather was a friend who Got It. The vegetables included a few zucchini and the most delicious homegrown tomato I’d ever tasted. I sliced it up, salted it and ate it for lunch that day.

Looking back on it, cults always prey on the desperate, don’t they?

For the most part, I’ve been content to buy flavorless grocery store Romas. I don’t live near a farmer’s market, and I’m not in the Whole Foods income bracket, so temptation alluded me.

But then Ralphs on La Brea started carrying heirloom tomatoes. Once upon a time, a perfectly round, red, machine-ripened tomato that could survive a 1,000-mile truck ride must have seemed like small miracle to farmers and eaters. But we’re so post that. Now the mottled skin of these asymmetrical ancient varieties gleamed from the faux-country straw basket in which they were lovingly nested next to a small sign that said “Heirloom tomatoes, $7.99/lb.”

Hell no, I’m not paying $7.99 a pound for tomatoes, I thought. I walked away, proud of being a smart consumer.

Then I saw a nearly identical basket that said, “Heirloom tomatoes, Ralphs Club price $3.99/lb.” Hell yeah, I thought, as if bananas weren’t 19 cents a pound.

By the time I visited the South Pasadena Library last night for a reading by organic farmer and creative nonfiction writer David Mas Masumoto—a man whose description of ripe peaches is second only to Roald Dahl’s in terms of crave factor—I was helpless. Did I mention that the reading took place outside in the lovely, cool early-fall evening? Next to a farmer’s market?

You may not be surprised to learn that I bought peaches and tomatoes (and a bean and cheese pupusa, because a girl needs protein…and because the worst melted-cheese-on-cornmeal still rivals the best tomato). At $3.50 per pound, these tomatoes seemed like a virtual bargain. And although I was vague on the specifics, I was pretty sure I was saving the earth by buying them. I know cult members think they’re following God’s orders by taking eight wives too. All I can say is that I hope one of my wives knows how to make heirloom tomato soup.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

taking the mock out of documentary

I’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately, partly for the air conditioning (if only OC and T-Mec could come with me instead of being stuck in my hot apartment—but OC would meow through the whole movie and T-Mec would get disgusted because she’d know she could have directed it better if only she had opposable thumbs). Also because I’ve just been craving that good, satisfying, I-just-saw-a-great-movie experience.

Said experience has something to do with the quality of the movie, but just as much to do with my mood and the way the theater smells. I love creaky old movie theaters that smell like stale popcorn and wood polish.

The new Landmark West Los Angeles was the opposite, what with its stadium seating and bamboo ketchup packet holders, but King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was the right kind of movie for my right kind of mood.

The story this documentary tells is at once classic (wide-eyed newcomer Steve Wiebe takes on cocky game-master Billy Mitchell) and quirky (did I mention Steve’s challenging Billy at…Donkey Kong?). Initially, it’s the latter that lures us in. Even without the mullets and the geek factor, the world of classic video gaming is funny just because it’s a subculture. Listening to people get really, really intense about stuff you’ve never heard of is inherently funny. Hence the success of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries.

But even though Waiting for Guffman may be my favorite movie of all time, King of Kong is possibly better because it encourages its viewers to do more than snicker at people with bad hair. Watching Steve try to break the world’s Donkey Kong record while starting a new career (after an ego-blow layoff from Boeing) and raising a family prompts all kinds of questions about the meaning of greatness.

Of course, the most obvious question is Did you really use “greatness” and “Donkey Kong” in the same sentence? But as the movie demonstrates, there is something intrinsically human about the desire for excellence, even if it’s excellence at something silly (which nevertheless requires mind-boggling real-world skills, ranging from pattern recognition to hand-eye coordination and is arguably no sillier than baseball or boxing, which have inspired no shortage of deadly serious movies).

As AK pointed out, the movie has no qualms about casting strutting, scheming insider Billy as the villain (AK, remind me what that song was that played while he was combing his hair for the final Funspot arcade showdown), and honest, sweet-faced outsider Steve as the hero. At times it almost felt too easy. And while Steve is positioned as an underdog, he’s really more of a lifelong achiever who’s struggled to find direction and perform under pressure.

But while it’s easy for us to choose sides, it’s not so easy for Billy’s longtime fans at the Twin Galaxies gaming association, a sort of Olympic Committee for video games. It’s especially engaging to watch gaming referee and part-time songwriter and transcendental meditator Walt wrestle with what to make of this newcomer. Although the Billy vs. Steve question drives the movie, there’s a more interesting if subtle story of a community learning to question its leaders and embrace outsiders. Which is worth way more than its weight in quarters.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

of erins and air conditioning

I’ve had a string of good writing hours lately (and by “good,” I don’t necessarily mean that the writing I’ve been doing is good—I won’t know that until much later—just that I’ve felt awake and inspired while doing it). I attribute this to the following:

1. Coffee. Always.

2. Reading Like Son, which, despite its flaws—or perhaps because of them—makes me want to boot up my laptop and write as soon as I get five pages into it. It’s an uneven and sometimes unsatisfying book, but it’s also full of spark and poetry and lovely layers of history.

3. It’s so hot that I haven’t worked out for more than a week. While writing and working out meet different needs, they’re both the Things I Do When I Have Free Time And Am Not Feeling So Lazy That I Must Lose Myself In The Current Issue Of Elle (which, by the way, has the best interview with Lindsay Lohan I’ve read [the link only links to half the article]; the journalist is steeped in enabler-guilt, and I always relate to the guilt-ridden). Anyway, instead of jogging, I’ve been writing in various air-conditioned locales.

The heat has also been good for my contacts, which I recently started wearing because as a reader of fashion magazines, I know that looking good hurts, and since I’m too much of a dyke to wear stilettos, I guess I decided I would start poking myself in the eye daily instead. So far it’s been an itchy, frustrating experience, but since it’s been 99-plus degrees, I think my eyeballs have been sweating and lubricating my otherwise dry lenses. I bet you really wanted to know that.

AK and I have also been seeing a lot of movies (the overrated Superbad, the nicely made Stardust and the moving, well-acted if predictably-biopic-ish La Vie en Rose), largely for the air conditioning. But it’s probably good for my narrative brain too. Jamie and I hung out with the ever-inspiring Juan Felipe Herrera last week, who pulled references from the air like fireflies—not someone bent on impressing you by how well read they are, but just someone perpetually interested in the world—and it was a nice reminder that one should be relaxed and open enough to reap illumination from all corners of life.

And hopefully drinking beer with friends counts, because last night AK, Erin, Erin and I met up (after an all-too-common comedy of freeway-related errors) at Akbar, where we did our best to catch up over the loud music as Erin R. was nearly toppled by two girls making out (despite this scene, the night was weirdly straight. I think this may be the direction Akbar is headed in). AK and I hit the dance floor for a little Cyndi Lauper, and it was awesome as always to see the Erins. Thanks for making the drive, ladies.