Monday, June 30, 2008

wall-e world

If you are like me and use up 38 percent of your brain space thinking about How To Be Good (not to be confused with using 38 percent or more of your time actually being good), then perhaps you will understand the dilemma I faced Sunday.

AK and I wanted to go to church at 11:15 a.m. We also wanted to volunteer for Equality for All at 4:30 p.m., at an event that would conveniently be taking place at our church in Pasadena. Rather than drive home in between and spew extra carbons into the atmosphere, we decided to see WALL-E and grab a late lunch at the mall a block from All Saints.

WALL-E is quite possibly one of the most perfect movies I’ve ever seen. It’s funny, emotional, cute-but-not-cutesy, political—and every detail of the other-worldly world it creates is drawn with care and ingenuity. It also happens to be about a time in the “future” when Earthlings have trashed the planet so badly that they must perpetually orbit it in a cruise spaceship while robots make tiny dents in the monumental task of cleaning the place up.

So while WALL-E diligently compresses garbage cubes and collects show tunes cassettes (how could I not love him?), humans zip around the ship in hover chairs, drinking all their meals from giant plastic cups, blabbing on their video phones and never wondering why they do what they do, or don’t do what they don’t do (including: question authority and walk). Importantly, these blobby characters aren’t unlikeable, just complacent and plagued by ennui, a word the robots that run the place have undoubtedly never taught them. A good day means visiting the lido deck for a free “cupcake in a cup!”

After the movie, AK and I got sandwiches at California Crisp, boxed up our leftovers in styrofoam and stopped by Starbucks for Frappuccinos, which I don’t need to tell you are pretty much cupcakes in cups. Then we threw our cups in the trash.

So what’s a Good Girl to do?

  • We could have gone home in between and eaten slow food off our own plates, but that would have meant more spewage, more oil usage.
  • We could have taken public transportation both ways, but that would have taken so much time we wouldn’t have been able to see the good movie about saving the Earth.
  • We could have not volunteered, but that would have meant letting the Bad People (or, well, the People With Whom I Have A Strong Difference Of Opinion) do Bad Things to our civil rights.
  • We could have packed picnic lunches in reusable containers and eaten them on the church lawn, but I said I use 38 percent of my brain trying to be Good, not 90 percent.

AK said she read recently that, according to some sort of expert on these things, the three most important things you can do to help the environment are:

  • Write to your elected officials to persuade them to make environmentally-friendly policy decisions.
  • Eat vegetarian.
  • Insulate your house.

So while I’m happy that our culture is finally (belatedly, confusedly, sporadically) realizing that the planet itself is not disposable, I think that too much emphasis is put on parading around with your reusable Whole Foods shopping bag, and not enough is put on the tedious and unglamorous task of writing to your local representative.

I am going to try to allocate at least six percent of my 38 percent to getting my letter on, and I quite possibly will drink a Frappuccino while doing so.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

not applicable to all situations

AK was nervous about giving a presentation for a committee of “smart, quick, design-y types” at work today, so I paraphrased the quote in my last post.

“Your inner critic thinks it’s the coolest guy in the room, but it’s a cynic and a savage,” I pep talked.

She paused. “Yeah...that’s not really what I’m afraid of. This guy named Jose is actually the coolest guy in the room.”

So until someone writes a magazine article about dealing with your outer Jose….

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

first fiction, eternal envy

Every year I read Poets & Writers Magazine’s “First Fiction” article (a profile of a half dozen debut writers) and writhe with envy and inspiration the whole way through. This advice from debut novelist Salvatore Scibona, one of this year’s featured writers, helped to put things in perspective:

School the internal critic in all the dark arts of editorial sadism, but ignore it when it attacks you personally. It likes to pretend that it’s the coolest, most professional guy in the room. In fact, it is a cynic and a savage.

I was also glad to see that fellow writer and blogger Jesi has been thinking similarly.

Monday, June 23, 2008

the night of (possibly) magical thinking

1. i’d just love a tuna sandwich

For Father’s Day I gave my dad a modified birthday card with a photo of a cat lounging in a very human-like position on a couch. On the outside it said, “You think, ‘I’d just love a tuna sandwich’ and someone brings you a tuna sandwich.” Inside it said, “Have that kind of birthday Father’s Day.”

The card was a hit because it was sort of dryly funny (thank you, Fresh Ink, for somewhat redeeming the greeting card industry) and because we used to have a cat who really liked tuna sandwiches. Specifically, on toast.

The card was also not a hit because it’s an unspoken rule that we give handmade cards in my family.

But my point is the cat’s sentiment: Is that what they call magical thinking? I keep hearing about magical thinking, sometimes as a good thing, sometimes as a bad thing, but I don’t really know what it is. Is it like The Secret or is it like Gabriel García Márquez?

2. love in the time of apocalypse

Friday night brought examples of both: After learning that volunteering for marriage equality would have meant driving to Long Beach (how much does the right to marry mean to me? Apparently not enough to sit in traffic on a Friday afternoon. I am no Belle Cantrell), AK and I opted instead for a mellow night with Jody at the Griffith Observatory.

We’d been once since it was remodeled, but somehow we’d missed the big new section—at the time I think I remarked, “It looks like they just put in a couple of new railings.” This time we learned about galaxies and asteroids in the spacious new basement, but—because I’m more of a history geek than a science geek—my favorite part was the “making of” documentary in which Leonard Nimoy described Griffith J. Griffith’s desire to make L.A. a world-class city by giving it a world-class park. Show me a scale model of the solar system and my eyes glaze over, but show me some grainy footage of Model Ts driving up and down Figueroa Avenue and I practically drool.

The historical reminders blended with the wind—eerie and wildfire-hot—to remind me of everything I like about L.A. Not just that there’s nature nearby, but how easy it can feel like the apocalypse, and how—even though I know the apocalypse is bad—being close to it makes me feel alive and special.

I’ve been having a lot of apocalyptic thoughts lately. They involve the same ingredients as everyone else’s apocalyptic thoughts: war, climate change, gas that costs as much per gallon as a My Little Pony but brings me far less joy. I have a vague but distinct sense that America’s decadent days are over. It was fun to drive and dine out while it lasted, but now—and not just until the economy edges upward, but maybe forever—we’re in for lean times. Best case scenario, we become France: a humbled empire that manages to turn out good healthcare and cheese. Worst case scenario, we become…well, any of the dozens of countries we’ve been busy exploiting for the past few hundred years.

When these thoughts are only made of headlines, they make me sad. But standing on top of a mountain, staring into a valley of dark trees and, further away, at the city’s Lite-Brite-on-acid semi-grid, I just felt like I was part of history. Like we would all endure whatever came next, just because it was what came next.

The smog hung dense and low and pink at sunset. Later, after the observatory closed, a lone TV reporter talked to a camera in front of a news van, the wind carrying his words away so quickly that all of us gawkers quickly lost interest. We walked in our flip-flops down the hill, feeling magical.

3. speak of the coyote

That was the Gabriel García Márquez magic. The Secret brand came a few minutes later, when we were talking about coyotes and where we’d seen them: freeway off ramps, moseying around mansions in the Hollywood Hills. Jody had been having eye problems and was wearing only one contact lens, and we joked about how, if he saw a coyote right now, it would seem extra close due to his lack of depth perception.

And then, right on cue, there was a coyote, silhouetted against the insufficient street light. He was smaller than an Akita, bigger than a poodle, and very much not a dog. He had huge ears, a bushy tail and that long trickster mouth.

“That’s weird that he’s all alone,” said Jody. “Usually that means they’ve been exiled from their pack for some reason.”

We scanned the trees on either side of us, thinking, What if he’s not alone? We listened for howls but didn’t hear any.

“Maybe it’s wolves who only travel alone if they’re exiled,” said Jody.

Everyone else had cleared out of the park, and the street was distressingly dark. We walked as fast as we could, Jody being extra careful of the curb that could have been two feet away from him or ten.

Then AK’s car beeped its hello, flashed its lights, and within a handful of minutes we were in Los Feliz eating French fries on a sidewalk packed with people. It was disconcerting and miraculous.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

pet peeve #403

Books/movies/TV shows that are written in the present day but take place in Olden Times and feature heroines who magically have 21st century brains.

I call it the Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman Phenomenon: Despite being born in, oh, the 1830s, Dr. Quinn is somehow an anti-slavery, pro-Native-American-rights, free-speech-advocating, anti-drug feminist.

I just started listening to a new book on CD, which AK had laying around, called The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell. The cover implied it would be fluffy chick lit, which is a genre that I am technically against but can enjoy quite gleefully. (On a side note, I loved the Sex and the City movie—not as a guilty pleasure but unabashedly, as one of the most realistic, mature and touching movies about relationships I’ve ever seen.)

But Belle Cantrell takes place in the Prohibition-era South, where old rules of propriety are dying slow deaths, and it takes a spunky, anti-racist feminist with an ahead-of-her-time haircut to shake things up! I’m only one disc in, so maybe it takes unpredictable turns, but I’m guessing Belle shakes things up.

The Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman Phenomenon is annoying because it allows the writer and reader/viewer to feel progressive and political without actually being controversial. I can listen to Belle Cantrell and think, Hey! I’m against lynching too! I am taking a stand!

But taking a stand against lynching in a culture where lynching is widely reviled (which is not to say that it doesn’t happen, just that the perpetrator would easily be declared a bad guy) is actually not even as challenging as being asked to sympathize with a character who’s a product of her time.

What if Belle wanted to protect her farm employee Luther from the would-be lynch mob not because she had a circa-2008 sense of justice but because she didn’t want to lose a good worker? Or because she had some paternalistic sense of ownership of him? (And I’m not sure that she doesn’t in the book, but it’s deeply subtextual and probably subconscious even for the author, I suspect.) Something that would make us squirm and wonder what we would have been like in the 1920s.

I like to think I would have been a suffragette, but I know that, like 90 percent of the population, I’m lazy and vulnerable. I could have easily waved a fan in front of my face and said, “Of course I believe women should get the vote, but we’re just not ready yet.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

fame, fortune and freshmen

1. that’s tight

Yesterday I visited three freshman creative writing classes at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, where my sister Cathy teaches math (“Don’t tell fifth period you’re my sister,” she warned me. “Most of those kids have me for fourth period math and they hate me”). I decided I would read a little bit of The Commuters, lead them in a writing exercise, then answer questions about being a writer.

The excerpt I chose was from a story about a 16-year-old gay kid who lives in South L.A., works as a dishwasher in West Hollywood and gets called a fag at school.

“Is it okay if I read a story where a kid gets called a fag?” I asked Jen, their incredibly nice teacher, in our 30-second pre-class conference.

“Definitely—but I’ll warn you, you will get a reaction. Nothing overt, but a lot of snickers and stuff. I hate to say it, but they’re pretty homophobic,” said Jen.

I wanted to read the piece to challenge them, and to challenge myself—I’m way too used to reading for fellow travelers. What’s the point of writing a story about a queer high school kid if you can’t handle reading it to high school kids?

Jen knew her class well—there was some uncomfortable laughter, but overall they listened quietly. Although some of them might have been sleeping, now that I think about it. But there were two adorable gay-looking boys in the front row of one of the classes. They wore skinny jeans and shiny T-shirts. One had a faux-hawk and one had spirals shaved into the side of his head. Both looked like they tweezed their eyebrows.

At the end of my reading, in which the 16-year-old gay kid tweezes his eyebrows, one of the boys looked up at me and said, “That’s tight.”

I know it’s a cliché, but that made the whole day worth it. That, and the boy in fifth period who came up to me after class and told me how much he liked writing and how he’d been working on fan fiction stories and wanted to know if teenagers could get published. I told him about S.E. Hinton and encouraged him to post his fan fiction online and ask for reader feedback.

2. yes, i’m extremely famous

These moments made up for the loud boys in every class who asked questions not because they cared about the answers, but because they liked the sound of their own voices, and the barrage of questions about exactly how rich and famous writing had made me.

I sort of wanted to say, “Yes, I’m extremely famous. That’s why you’ve never heard of me.” After three periods of breaking the news that I’d made a total of about $300 from my writing, I started to feel like a little bit of a failure.

“Now you know how I feel,” Cathy commiserated later. “Even when they ask me stuff like, ‘Are you married?’ and ‘Do you have kids?’ I feel like a loser. Then they ask, ‘Do you even have friends?’”

I know the lesson here is to not judge oneself by a 14-year-old’s value system (although sometimes I feel like America as a whole has a 14-year-old’s value system). As Cathy pointed out, their world is divided into people they know and people they see on TV. The latter group is rich and famous. If they don’t know me (and especially if I’m grown up, white and given a fanfare-laden introduction by their teacher), I must be rich and famous.

I wanted to say, “Do you know how hard it is to be an adult? To just manage to not live with your parents?” (I also found myself wanting to say things like, “When you talk out of turn, you’re not just disrespecting me, you’re disrespecting your fellow classmates”—my creative-writing brain was not very creative that day.)

But they’re 14, and all 14-year-olds more or less believe they’re going to be famous someday. So while I tried to share a cheerfully packaged dose of reality, I also tried not to burst their collective bubble, and I tried to let a little of their hopefulness rub off on me. Maybe some of them will be famous writers. It could happen to any of us.

Monday, June 16, 2008

noel's finger project

My friend Noel wants to give you the finger, and he's asked me to help. His new blog, My Finger Project, welcomes "images and thoughts dedicated to that in/famous digit." I had fun writing about my goody-two-shoes past and working out a little ex-girlfriend angst for today's installment: http://myfingerproject.blogspot.com/2008/06/finger-exercises-by-cheryl-klein.html. Check it out and, if you're so inclined, give Noel your own finger.

Friday, June 13, 2008

fashionable watches are a bright side of my life

My name is cklein and I am a spammer, apparently.

According to my organization’s IT guy, it’s not uncommon for spammers to select an arbitrary email address to use in the “reply-to” line of their emails. That way, when some of the spam they send bounces, it gets returned to, say, cklein@cherylsworkplace.org, instead of to the spammer. When I started receiving change-of-address auto-replies from France (“Mon adresse mail a change”) I knew I was a spammer proxy.

Judging by the subject headlines of my returned emails, I’m in the designer jewelry/handbag replica business:

  • “A diamond should be affordable”
  • “My watch arrived today”
  • “Elegance, reliability, prestige”
  • “Replica watches, bags, pens”
  • “Jacob & Co. good replicas”
  • “Precious jewellery from TIFFANI”
  • “Fashionable watches are a bright side of your life…”
  • “Your love ones deserve the best”

But sometimes I branch out to personal editorializing:

  • “You look really stupid mpickell”

I felt bad for insulting mpickell, so it’s good that he’s out of the office until June 26 anyway.

Monday, June 09, 2008

i love the flobots and i don’t care who knows it

The only problem with the Flobots is that I first heard them on KROQ. For those of you who don’t live in L.A., KROQ is basically the official radio station of every kegger party you wished you didn’t go to. They have sexist, racist, homophobic, mostly unfunny morning DJs (whom I listen to regularly for nostalgic reasons and for Ralph, the guy who does the showbiz reports). They only play rap by white guys.

The latest white-guy rap song in heavy rotation is “Handlebars,” a clever, toxically catchy song from the point of view of a Bush-like character: “I can take apart the remote control/ And I can almost put it back together…. I can hand out a million vaccinations/ Or let ‘em all die in exasperation.” (It’s no coincidence that the Flobots like to rap that they spell their name “F-L-O-No W!”) KROQ DJs have already labeled them a one-hit wonder, but AK was curious enough to go to their MySpace page, where we quickly discovered that they have more to say in one song than Kevin and Bean have had to say in two decades.

And then we found ourselves buying tickets to see them at the Troubadour and feeling a little weird about the evening: The only time we’d be venturing into West Hollywood during Pride weekend would be to see a KROQ show? Where we’d be a good eight years older than almost everyone in the room, Flobots included?

But we put our indie pride (which seems to be stronger than our gay pride) aside and enjoyed a great show by a group of kids who are still discovering their voices (and, incidentally, are not all white) and still blatantly wanting to change the world in way that’s raw and angry and inspiring, not Sheryl-Crow-fights-global-warming-ish. I was wistful for my own rawer, angrier years and also like, Fuck it, I can be raw and angry and 31. I can change the world with art and a nonprofit. Which is what the Flobots are doing. They also have a viola, which helps.

Some of the kids in the audience were true believers, some were true music fans and some were KROQ kegger boys who like things that are loud and new. It probably wasn’t so different from a Barack Obama rally, and I left feeling about the same: like I’d been whisked up in a revival tent, caught up in the rhythm and magic, and happily converted.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

questions for the master of dance

“I’m going to ask you something, and I don’t want you to think I’m making fun of you.” Tiffaney was addressing the entire Beverly Hills 24 Hour Fitness hip-hop class. “If you walked up to a bunch of guys in South Central, what do you think they’d think when you started doing this?”

She proceeded to perform the first four counts of our routine like a cheerleader. Instead of thrusting her arms and legs forward in the slouchy, angry postures of hip-hop, she jabbed at perfect angles, kept her back straight and marched like the Rose Parade was following closely behind.

I could see her point, but I also had some questions I did not pose to Tiffaney-with-an-E-Y, competitor on TLC’s new reality show Master of Dance:

1) Okay, Tiffaney, we know you can do it right. You have enough formal dance training that you know that different types of dance live in different parts of your body, the way that different languages center themselves in different parts of your mouth. You have a perfectly flat stomach and you can krump like you don’t live in Venice…but what would a bunch of guys in “South Central” think if you walked up to them and did tonight’s routine, correctly or incorrectly?

2) Because would you go up to a bunch of guys in South Central?

3) Which people are calling South L.A. these days?

4) Or “114th Street” or “115th Street” if you’re into certain kinds of distinctions that you’re probably not into?

5) How many dance studios do you think there are on 114th Street?

6) Because even though I believe authenticity became an archaic concept around the time some people crossed a land bridge from Asia to the Americas, if you’re going to invite a new dance into your body, you should invite a new language into your mouth and your mind. (Sorry, I know that’s not a question so much as a short rant.)

7) Is the Master of Dance just the person who grabbed the most moves from the most cultures and looked the blondest and skinniest doing them?

8) And finally, what was that move after we go down on eight? The one with the shoulders? Because I’m pretty sure I’m doing it wrong.

Monday, June 02, 2008

it’s the culture, stupid

Usually panels about publishing make me cringe a little. They’re either depressing because they’re all about marketing (“You have to have a platform! It’s not enough to be a good writer—you have to be Oprah’s niece and a good writer!”), or they’re depressing because they’re depressing (“Books are dying. The publishing industry is bleeding money. People only read text messages and photo captions on Facebook”).

So imagine my relief when one of my favorite novelists, Sarah Schulman, set the tone at Sunday’s lively and inspiring PEN salon on queer literature:

“Look, let’s not pretend publishers’ reluctance to put out books by queer writers is about money. That’s an excuse. The truth is that they publish all kinds of books by straight writers that don’t sell well at all. It’s about culture. People in power don’t like reading stories from the points of view of the disenfranchised because it threatens their power.”

It’s so easy to be a willing victim—to take the tone of, I know my little book is a giant burden to you, Maker of Money. So I’ll take any little scrap you want to hand me. But as Sarah and the other panelists pointed out, queer writers make best-seller lists in England all the time because the culture is less homophobic.

Of course, the U.S.’s culture problem is exactly why it’s all the more important to write, publish and disseminate quality queer books. As moderator Michael Silverblatt (who talks just like he talks on Bookworm, apparently reading from an eloquent essay being written in real time on the inside of his eyeballs) said, “Every time Scheherazade tells a story, she defeats the sultan.”

I left feeling invigorated instead of depressed, as if there were no bigger fuck-you to The Man than spending a warm evening next to a Melrose-adjacent pool house, drinking wine and talking books with my favorite writers (Noel Alumit and Nina Revoyr among them). But haven’t the gays always waged revolution with style?

***

In the interest of defeating the sultan…or, like, spending a nice Sunday afternoon in another pretty venue, I hope you’ll come see me and writer Katharine Coles read as part of Red Hen Press’ reading series at the Ruskin Art Club:

Katharine Coles and Cheryl Klein
Sunday, June 8 at 2 p.m.

The Ruskin Art Club

800 S. Plymouth Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90005

310-669-2369 or 818-831-0649
General admission: $10
Students and seniors: $5*

*If you want to bring your old college ID with “Winter Quarter ‘99” blacked out, I certainly won’t bust you.