Monday, October 29, 2007

the desert of the real

My airport shuttle arrives in 10 minutes, so this will be a very quick review of Jim Miller’s novel, Drift:

(Full disclosure: Jim is my editor at City Works. But if I didn’t genuinely like his book, I would just pull a Thumper and not say nuthin at all.)

I was immediately engaged by the intellectual exercise of the novel—riffing on the concept of the derive (in which Situationist Guy Debord and friends lost themselves in Paris and documented their observations in order to find themselves on a deeper level; insert Frenchy accent over that word), protagonist Joe Blake wanders around a dystopian San Diego logging its visual details, from booster remnants to down-and-out dives to gentrified hot spots that make him long for down-and-out dives. Juxtaposed with Joe’s semi-narrative are vignettes of other San Diegans’ lives and italicized accounts of SD’s more sordid history.

Revealing the dark underbelly of a sun-drenched utopia is nothing new, but man that belly is dark. Quotes like this one from an early Union-Tribune account of a “Historical Pageant” depicting the conquering of the Aztecs and, later, of the Mexicans are hard to dismiss:

“The weaker was absorbed by the stronger; but with the passing of the weaker they left a legacy of their art and culture, which the survivor has gladly possessed to beautify and decorate his own.”

That’ll make a white girl look at her Dia de los Muertos pumpkin a little differently.

While the novel is interesting from the start, I was about halfway through when I began to engage on a more deeply emotional level with Joe and his new girlfriend Theresa, his former student, a single mother who quotes Neruda poems a bit romantically and worries about the hear-and-now very pragmatically.

At one point they visit the Anza Borrego desert and the Salton Sea, where the white-hot heat and the apocalyptic beauty work a sort of deadly magic on them. Ultimately, Drift and much of Southern California are like this desert—you have to look hard, sometimes through fear and bones, before the beauty translates itself to you. To see it is to accept a strange, romantic dare.

halloweenery

Halloween '07 started Wednesday at Akbar's weekly Craft Night. Nothing says "scary" like the combination of knives and alcohol.


Meehan and I are always lamenting our lack of craftiness ("I feel like I should be able to knit, or some type of hipster dyke handicraft"), but I think her metal mouth pumpkin turned out pretty well (though he did require some dental implants in the form of bar toothpicks).


Some folks were just there for the dancing.


But, much like when my UniCamp co-counselor and I ignored a child with the flu because we were so caught up in making paper plate masks during arts and crafts, I skipped the drinking and chatting and focused on my Dia-de-los-Muertos-meets-a-bunch-of-cotton-balls pumpkin. Too bad it rotted in less than three days. Goddamn global warming.


By Saturday, it was time to celebrate. I dressed (vaguely) as Weetzie Bat. You know, the titular character from the late '80s young adult novel about magical punk rockers living in the hills of L.A.? Yeah...no one else did either. AK went as a waitress from Fred 62. The party we went to (thrown by JP of Craft Night fame) drew a Los Feliz-y crowd, and I can't begin to tell you how many people walked up to her and said, "I'll have the Mac and Cheese Balls."


Too bad I listened to all of Dr. Drew's warnings about how ecstasy kills brain cells. Otherwise I would have been such a little raver in my day.


But JP's party delivered a natural high. Anyone who was anyone (or at least anyone who felt like dressing like anyone) was there. Like Frida and Andy.


And Harriet Nelson and her chick magnet friend (the chicks kept falling off Jody the magnet. We decided that while they were drawn to his undeniable charisma, they were not so monogamous).


A nice girl from Cincinnati showed up on the arm of Audrey Hepbee.


But the party really got started when Frankenstein arrived, standing an easy three feet above his adoring masses.


AK gave him a high five. Frank gave her a low five.


Thanks for coming! Mr. T pitties the fool who doesn't sample the weenies in a blanket.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

apocalandia

Without a house in Malibu, a TV or NPR (since it’s been replaced by Kinsey Millhone for the past few days; incidentally, it wasn’t the babysitter’s boyfriend), my only proof that my corner of the world is on fire is the hot thick air and the layer of ash on my car. But that’s plenty, don’t you think?

Thanks to Jessi for reminding me that animals like to not be on fire too.

Monday, October 22, 2007

feed the terrorists

1. don’t read this if you’re a rat

Recently AK told me about a study in which rats were put in cages with an electrified floor. (Yes, it seems like a lot of studies involve rats and electric shock. This is depressing for rat lovers like me. Also, KPFK devoted some of its pledge drive tonight to a DVD about factory farming, which you can receive if you pledge. I thought long and hard about inching my way towards veganism. I also thought about how only KPFK would give a DVD of animals being tortured as a premium. I’ll stick with my Sounds Eclectico CD from KCRW, thank you.)

Anyway, the rats: A lone rat on an electrified floor will initially try to escape, then give up and just sit there. When it’s dissected (and I think we all know these things always end with dissection), you’ll find tons of ulcers. It tears itself up inside.

Two rats on an electrified floor will tear each other up instead, fighting constantly. But when you dissect them, they’ll be ulcer-free.

To me the moral of this story is: We can only prevent terrorism by feeding people.

I.e., bad living conditions will destroy people or make them destroy others. The only real solution is better living conditions. While this applies to foreign policy, I think it also applies to morning commutes.

2. r is for reading-esque experience

Don’t laugh. If I sit in too much traffic, I will feel like there’s a rubber band around my heart or I will swear at customer service representatives. So until Operation Move My Life To Different Parts Of The City takes effect, I’m trying out Operation Books On Tape.

Well, CD, technically. Starting with S is for Silence by Sue Grafton. I read a handful of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries in junior high and high school and I remembered them as being pretty good, certainly better than Mary Higgins Clark’s stories, which inevitably involved beautiful young women of Irish decent being stalked by psychopaths who sometimes drove gypsy cabs.

It turns out I had pretty good taste at age 14, because Grafton rocks, especially when compared to the perpetually clogged corner of Washington and National. And though Grafton’s writing doesn’t exactly stretch the boundaries of the genre (S is for Silence surrounds a town tramp and the drunkard husband who everyone thinks killed her, but who inevitably didn’t; right now I suspect the babysitter’s boyfriend), it’s among the better examples of its genre.

My inner literary snob is also quieted by the fact that it’s War and Peace (not that I’ve read War and Peace) compared to my other commute option, Kevin and Bean talking about boobs.

I told Alanna about my new hobby and she said, “Can you see yourself writing a mystery?”

“I always write things that have an element of mystery at their core. The problem is that while I like setting up mysteries, I’m no good at solving them. But maybe that will change after I listen to more and more of them on CD. I kind of feel like my next project will be some kind of adaptation or update. Something that builds on something that already exists. And to do a good update, you have to know your source material really well.”

At the very least, I think some kind of riff on the mystery genre has more potential than a riff on Kevin and Bean’s “Who’s hotter, Kristen Bell or Hayden Panettiere?” debate.

But for the record, it’s totally Kristen.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

radio killed the literary star

Remember how I said that talking about The Commuters was starting to feel like resting on my laurels? Well, I’m not above resting on my laurels. In fact, I will do so this Saturday at noon and Sunday at 8 p.m. on KPCC’s Off-Ramp, an awesome little show that is sort of like an L.A.-centric This American Life. Tune in (89.3 on your FM dial, ladies and gentlemen) and listen to me gripe about traffic in the most eloquent way I know how.

P.S. Speaking of self-promotion, Tracy tagged me to link to three of my favorite Bread and Bread posts (at least I think that’s what the meme was—the instructions were kind of tech-speak-y). It has something to do with search engines, I think. So if you’d like to take a walk down memory lane—going back no earlier than 2005—read these posts on Target, cheerleaders and how I spent my summer vacation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

golden girl

AK: What is it about Jenny Lewis that makes her so hot?

Me: Besides being a cute girl with an amazing voice?

AK: Yeah.

Me: She has that messy thing. Her hair’s kind of messy, like she just rolled out of bed.

AK: And she might just roll back in.

Pics from Sunday’s Rilo Kiley show at the Grove:




all you need is love, plus a couple other things

I was thinking this weekend about the various ways in which I would like to be a different kind of person. Not big ways, because hey, I’m 30 and along with the fine lines comes a healthy sense of self. But some significant little ways.

1. adios, perez hilton

First, I would like to waste time in more intelligent ways. B’s idea of a lazy Sunday was reading The Economist on the stationary bike or trolling the internet for coupons. That’s so productive it borders on crazy, but I wish I could at least watch movie trailers and look for upcoming concerts like AK rather than boning up on celebrity gossip and seeing which friends have posted new pictures to their MySpace pages. For example, I can tell you that a girl I was only actually friends with for about six weeks recently went to Buenos Aires and took pictures of Evita’s dress. Why must that take up space in my brain?

I believe all this is a negative side effect of having semi-successfully transformed my hobbies into a job—I like to go to arty events, and now attending readings is part of my day job. I like to write, and now I moonlight as a novelist. Despite being unpaid and marginally published, I take the latter gig seriously enough that it doesn’t feel like relaxation.

So all that’s left when I want to kill time is the stuff no one would ever pay me to do, stuff involving magazines, blogs and large bowls of cereal. Actually, I realize people have paying gigs related to all of these things, and there was even a time when I was paid to watch TV (during which I hated watching TV). So maybe the real issue is that I have a very large stupidity lobe in my brain that needs to be nurtured regularly.

2. hola, whomever

Second, I would like to be more outgoing. I had this thought after buying a bowl of laksa (bright yellow coconut soup swimming with tofu and fish balls) from Singapore’s Banana Leaf at the Farmer’s Market yesterday.

“I didn’t want to be that person who was like, ‘Hey! I went to Singapore!’ because that’s not a real conversation,” I told AK as I sat down at the table where she was eating jambalaya from the Cajun-Creole-Chinese-Italian joint. “But the girl who worked there looked Malay and was really nice and asked me about my tattoo, and if I were a person like Ryan or Alberto, I know I could have eventually segued the conversation into, ‘I’m writing a book about Malaysia—can I ask you a couple of questions about that general part of the world?’”

3. i don’t count this as time-wasting because it cost $8.75

There was nothing to be done about it, though, so we finished our lunch and saw Across the Universe across the street at the Grove. Plot-wise, it wasn’t so different from that 1999 TV miniseries The Sixties, and I had hardly been craving a montage of archetypal characters that captured the spirit of a decade whose spirit has been captured many, many times. But if such a movie must be made, Julie Taymor is the one to do it. The movie is as visually lush as the arrangements of the Beatles’ music are spare, with a nice blend of conceptual, puppet-laden numbers and sweet solo croonings.

I also now have a medium-sized crush on T.V. Carpio, who plays a queer cheerleader turned circus performer (I mean, how could I not?) and sings the loveliest version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” I’ve ever heard.

It was interesting seeing such a big, broad, gorgeous movie after reading American Woman, which covered much of the same territory in a completely opposite way: intimate, quiet, painted with tiny pointillist brush strokes, nearly 400 pages. Both Taymor and Susan Choi know how to make the best of their forms.

Friday, October 12, 2007

we need both

There are two types of people in the world, the stressers and the chillers.

Me: My cat is sneezing a lot.

Nicole: You should take him to the vet. It might not just be a cold. There are these types of bacteria that animals get that can be really harmful.

***

Me: O.C. is sneezing a lot.

AK: Cats are so cute when they sneeze.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

pity par-tay

I’ve been meaning to blog for a while now about how sending out my novel Calla Boulevard is slowly chipping away at my self-esteem. Except I don’t really have anything profound to say on the subject: I want someone to publish my novel. So far no one does. Not getting what I want makes me sad.

What a fascinating insight into the mind of a writer.

“It’s hard for me to get excited about stuff related to The Commuters lately because I’m starting to feel like a one-hit wonder,” I told AK recently. “Except the ‘hit’ was a song that was played on college radio a couple of times at 2 a.m.”

Back when I was sending out The Commuters, I got a few “encouraging rejections,” which only sounds like an oxymoron. It’s the publishing world equivalent of someone you went on a first date with calling you up and politely saying they think you’re awesome, but they just want to be friends—as opposed to just never calling you again.

Well, back in the day, a handful of agents and publishers at least wanted to be my friend, and now it’s like they’re blocking my number.

Hmm, this is starting to get really self-pitying.

Let’s leave it at: I would like to get excited about something. This something could be a variety of things, but I would especially like it to be the publication of Calla Boulevard by a small but respected press run by people as nice as the City Works crew. Just putting it out there. Universe and small-but-respected presses take note.

And, yeah, it’s pure artist ego. I want to see my name on a cover. I have had a thought or two about high school reunions. But I also think Calla happens to be a good book (and my cats happen to be the cutest cats in the world), and I would like people to read it.

So why no takers? It’s really gay, which weirdly seems to be more popular on network television than in literary fiction these days, and I suspect the first chapter might be a little off-putting. Really, I think it’s the latter that is kicking my ass the most in the query-letter-plus-two-chapters world. But I haven’t figured a way around that yet and I haven’t really tried to because I think it’s necessary to the integrity of my protagonist and because I’m a stubborn Aries bitch in certain respects. You’ve got to be in this totally unprofitable business.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

reading and readings

Currently on my bedside table: Susan Choi’s finely etched page-turner American Woman, loosely based on the true story of one of Patty Hearst’s accomplices. The beginning was unnecessarily confusing, but now I can’t put it down. Although I feel highly uncreative quoting a critic who is quoted on the book’s cover, the Chicago Tribune did put it nicely: “Weaving past and present, hunters and hunted, Choi’s taut, surprising structure keeps us off-balance…. This is a rare thing, a book both big and fine-grained.”

What I’m doing Saturday, Oct. 13 at 5 p.m.: Catching my City Works Press editor Jim Miller’s reading of his new novel, Drift, at Skylight Books. I just bought my copy this weekend, so I haven’t read it yet (also, see above), but the cover by Perry Vasquez is pretty kick-ass, and I like to think of myself as someone who judges books by, well, you know.

What I’m doing Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m.: Reading from some new-ish work at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre as part of Writers at Work’s 10th Anniversary Reading. Hopefully this will be what you’re doing on Oct. 21 too—you’ll also get to hear from my fellow LA writers and WAW alumni Eloise Klein Healy, Sage Bennett, Stephanie Hemphill, Joan Kelly, Max Pierce and Julia Salazar. And because Terry Wolverton is putting this together, I can assure you that all the readings will be short and sweet, and that it will be a fun afternoon.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

pet peeve #752

Look, Kajon Cermak, we all know that traffic in LA is chronically bad. And I’m sure that as an NPR traffic reporter, you want to liven up a dull part of drive-time programming. But do you have to be so gleeful in your expressions?

“This one’s a pack-a-snack, folks! You’ll be on the 10 for hours!”

“If you’re northbound on the 405 right now, forget it!”

“There’s a chair in the number two lane of the Foothill Freeway, and it’s tying up traffic so badly that—ugh, I don’t even want to think about it.”

“The 60 East going through downtown is an utter nightmare. We’re talking single-digit speeds.”

This probably says something unpleasant about my personality, but I kind of want Kajon Cermak to lie to me. Or to at least sugarcoat things: “The 405 is a little tight going over the Sepulveda Pass, but things will pick up soon.” Because if I’m stuck in my car, blind optimism is the best I can hope for. Although today I did actually pack a snack, and that helped.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

we’re not in texas anymore

Setting: a West Hollywood yoga class. The room is darkened, soft music plays.

Trevor: Okay, come slowly to the seated position. I just want to thank all of you for sharing your energy with me tonight. Om shanti. Namaste.

[Long pause as people take final deep, cleansing breaths.]

Trevor: Also, my show opens Saturday, so come see me if you want flyers! G’night!

Monday, October 01, 2007

10/1: this community is brought to you by….

Sunday was a slower day at the festival, which freed me to do things like admire the pet rattlesnake being paraded around by his proud caretaker, who’d noticed that the snake had an image of Jesus on his head, and to develop an unnatural dislike of Dimetapp, which had a purple-bannered booth triple the size of any literary organization there.

“It’s just so corporate and evil,” I said, glaring across the aisle.

“What is, children’s health?” Jamie laughed.

Besides its loud purpleness and cheesy giveaways, it bugged me because it’s the equivalent of Absolut dominating the gay pride parade: a community event given over to niche marketing based on stereotypes. Latinos have lots of kids! Queers love to drink!

Though, honestly, now that I’m flying back after a lovely and exhausting trip, I could really use a vodka cranberry or even a shot of cough syrup.

9/29: go northeast, young ladies

After a long day at the book festival, Jamie and I tried to reenergize ourselves for a fundraiser gala for Spacetaker.org, for which the very kind Christa Forster had put us on the list. We were determined to go to the right party this time. We got lost, as had become our habit over the course of three days with a rental car, this time ending up on an expressway to the airport.

But we were getting better at getting lost—we were more confident embarking on our adventures and now we could say things like, “I think we’re heading west, when we want to go northeast.” It was a more informed kind of lost, and eventually it landed us on Winter Street.

Winter Street was where we were supposed to be, but on the map it appeared to be railroad tracks. In person, it appeared to be railroad tracks.

“But look, there’s a car up there.” Jamie pointed to a white sedan meandering down the corridor of gravel and grass that paralleled the tracks. It wasn’t totally clear whether the car driving, parking or preparing to dispose of a body.

We drove down Winter “Street” for a block, then—our heads full of grisly train wreck images—freaked out and turned onto Summer Street one block north.

The party was in a big converted warehouse next to an immense factory bearing the 15-foot-high words “Success Rice” on the side. If Montrose, the area we were staying in, was the Silver Lake of Houston, this was the Just East of Downtown, a mishmash of industry and shotgun houses that was beginning to gentrify.

The folks at the party were exactly whom you’d expect to find in such a neighborhood: guys in bands, models in cream-colored semi-Victorian costumes, painters, DJs, girls with hipster-butch haircuts. It all clicked in a way that was both comforting and disappointing.

Jamie and I couldn’t find Christa, the only person we knew, so we climbed a steep spiral staircase to the roof, an activity that required us to sign a waiver saying we wouldn’t sue if we fell. We gazed at the flat and sparkling skyline and took photos of Success Rice using our camera’s fireworks setting.

We made it back downstairs without falling, said hi to Christa and her husband David and slipped back onto Winter.

A few minutes later we found ourselves idling next to a little porch-lit shotgun shack as the train rumbled by in front of us, endless and heavy. It seemed to fill the entire night. A minute ago, we’d been in Brooklyn or Downtown LA; now we were in the rural deep South. So maybe Houston was its own unpredictable place after all.

9/28: the accidental avant garde

Jamie and I just tried to go to the VIP reception for the Houston Latino Book & Family Festival, where we’ll be working all weekend. It was to be held at the Museum of Fine Arts, and after we parked, the security guard waved us toward the staircase.

At the bottom, we encountered a throng of nicely dressed people, an open bar and a mesmerizing animated canvas that reminded me of Snorks. We helped ourselves to drinks and prepared to not mingle, since the only person we expected to know was Tony Diaz, the festival coordinator, who would probably be really busy.

We admired the current exhibit—a collection of art jewelry, from the wearable to the straight-out-of-a-surrealist-dream to the “I could do that with some old computer parts and pipe cleaners”—and people-watched.

“I’m surprised how few Latino people there are,” I said.

“Are these the funders and stuff?” asked Jamie.

“I guess so. Maybe funder types are always white. That’s sort of depressing.”

“Everyone has really cool jewelry on. Look, that lady looks like she’s wearing a bunch of light bulbs around her neck. And I’ve never seen so many brooches,” Jamie observed.

“That woman looks like she’s wearing a pin cushion around her wrist,” I said. “Maybe this is what rich people dress like. I don’t go to enough of these things to know. Ooh, I like that girl’s skirt.”

After an hour of speculation, Jamie finally leaned over to a woman standing near a display case of futuristic pendants. “Excuse me, can you tell me what this event is?”

The woman laughed warmly. “You guys just wandered in?”

“Well, we didn’t mean to,” I said.

“It’s the opening of the avant-garde jewelry exhibit,” the woman said. “So all the avant-garde jewelry people are here.”

We went back upstairs because the party was thinning anyway. When we reached the lobby, a man pointed to my seashell necklace, a gift from my sister, purchased at Cost Plus World Market, I’m pretty sure.

“Ooh,” he said, “That’s one of the best ones we’ve seen all evening.”

9/28: doors and mountains

This morning, before a glut of meetings and minglings, we went to the Rothko Chapel, which Jamie had learned about in a PBS documentary. As she described it, Mark Rothko always wanted to display a group of his paintings in a space specially designed for them, a space that would interact with them. When the first such place, a fancy hotel, proved too stuffy, he decided on the more humble, populist backdrop of a Houston chapel commissioned local patrons the Menils.

“That’s so cool,” I said. “I can see how an artist would want to expand beyond just the canvas, to have a whole environment speaking to and with his work.”

“Well, they’re still individual paintings,” Jamie cautioned. “And I think it was during his black period. So we might, um, be visiting a room full of black squares.”

And we did. An octagonal room with 14 huge black canvases and a handful of wooden benches, the chapel can make you feel tricked: Hey, someone convinced me this was not only art, but profoundly spiritual art! Someone got me to stare at a rectangle of black paint for a half hour—I could have stared at my pant leg or the asphalt!

At the same time, the chapel can make you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a wonderful secret: Blackness is not just blackness—it’s blue-black, brown-black, purple-black, wine-black! It’s misty Chinese mountains and small square doors. And yes, if this is art, anything is art. But hey, what a wonderful concept! Anything is art. And the person who stained this bench, who took time to get to know the grain of the wood, that person is an artist too.

Looking at something big and black—in a chapel—it’s hard not to think about death, even if you feel sort of obvious doing so. And you think, In the alleged void of death, there are mountains and doors. You just have to go into it to see them.

And while the chapel did not make me cry so much as bubble with ideas as I enjoyed the earthy-clean smell and museum-quiet, I loved this quote from Rothko:

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.”

Spirit is not about presence or absence. It is not the paint anymore than God is the Bible. It’s in the looking—the looking isn’t what leads to the finding; the looking is the finding, desire its own creative force.

9/27: nesting

Note to self: Appoint Jamie Official Hotel Picker.

I pride myself on being a low maintenance traveler, which usually means clicking on whatever Expedia’s cheapest deal is. This strategy has landed me in places

  • where the hotel’s name is written in Sharpie on rag-thin towels that flatter themselves by implying their theft-worthiness
  • where plumbing maintenance (and building-wide water shut-off) is scheduled during prime showering time
  • where an inexplicable and wall-jolting THUMP—like an elevator crashing to the ground somewhere—jars you awake every hour.

Jamie, perhaps unnerved by my post-travel tales, put in a full 10 minutes of internet research and landed us at the comparably priced Robin’s Nest Inn, an infinitely more charming bed and breakfast. We were greeted by a wooden folk-art angel who hovered protectively over the porch of the rose-pink Victorian, by about a thousand mosquitoes (Houston is a tad humid) and by two envelopes that said, “Welcome, Cheryl” and “Welcome, Jamie.”

Three hours later, we still haven’t seen another human. Eerie? A little—but in the most awesome way. A Days Inn with a mysterious thumping noise is just creepy. But a deserted Victorian with a living room full of jungle plants, leopard print curtains and a lit-from-below painting or two is a mystery novel waiting to happen.

houston chronicle

Whoops, I was gone for a while there, wasn’t I? I forgot to mention I’d be in Houston for five days. Just before I left, I managed to pretty much finish (minus a little tightening) draft 2.5 of the novel-in-progress, so I suddenly found myself with the time and energy to write a little travelblog, which I shall now proceed to type and paste.