Friday, August 22, 2008

hasta luego

In about 12 hours, I'll be on a plane to Oaxaca. Never have I felt so, so ready for a vacation. No particular reason, just the burnout of daily life when it gets too daily-ish. So you probably won't hear much from me this week. But you'll be glad you fasted when I bombard you all with pictures and florid descriptions of, well, Oaxacan flora (something about tropic-esque environments brings out the maximalist writer in me).

Have a great week, y'all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

learning to live in the second world

Once in a long while, I read a meaty, educational nonfiction book. A few years back, No Logo by Naomi Klein rocked my world with its connections between labor issues, advertising, identity politics and postmodernism. For a very brief time, I tried to do a little small-scale ad-jamming by going to the mall and putting notes in the pockets of pants at Banana Republic and Pacific Sunwear:

Hello Mr. Or Ms. Pants-Purchaser!

Did you know that these pants were made in a SWEATSHOP? If you think sweatshops are BAD, here are some options:

  • Put these back on the rack (I know they’re cute, but you can do it!)
  • Don’t get any pants today—the ones you’re wearing are very nice. Or, your skirt is nice.
  • Get some pants at a THRIFT STORE. They’ll be FUNKY, ORIGINAL, & the money won’t go to BAD CORPORATIONS that use sweatshop labor.
  • Visit www.sweatshopwatch.org to learn more.

Thank you!

So maybe it’s ironic that my most recent meaty, educational read was The Second World by Parag Khanna, which is sort of all about how China has already achieved world domination, sweatshop boycotts be damned.

More specifically, the book is about how the three major world powers (the U.S., EU and China) exert their influence on “second world” or partially developed countries. Not to give too much away, but the U.S. is basically a global bully who’d better figure out fast that that shit doesn’t work after junior high; the EU is the wholesomely popular ASB president whom everyone will bend over backwards to please; and China is the school whore who will open her legs for anyone willing to engage in a little “free trade” behind the bleachers.

There’s a lot of not-so-vaguely-racist, anti-China talk these days, so let me clarify that I don’t mean whore in a bad way. She’s getting more action than anyone else on the playground, and she’s going to use that money to put herself through med school.

Although some of the Facebook reviews I read (because I’m literary like that) knocked The Second World for trying to cover so much territory, its breadth is one of my favorite qualities. Where else am I going to read about Kiribati and Azerbaijan?

Also, Khanna’s thesis is not just that the Big Three have to make good decisions, but that the Medium Many hold the future in their hands: They can decide which models to follow, who to trade with and how to spend the money they make from selling their goods and labor to first world countries.

It’s fascinating to read who’s headed for the first world (shout-out to Kazakhstan and Chile!) and who is squandering the possibilities (I’m talking to you, Uzbekistan). And although this is a very asshole-American thing to say, it gives me some ideas about where I might want to travel next by actually differentiating between countries where the dollar buys you more than a fourth of a Coke (or whatever a buck gets you in Europe these days).

And why is the dollar suffering? See the whole “playground bully” thing. The book ends on a hopeful but nevertheless mournful note, positing that the U.S. is already well on its way to being a second-world country if you look at defining characteristics such as income disparity.

I hope Barack Obama has read this book. I hope it’s not too late. But it’s also inspiring to read about all the second-world countries and realize that, contrary to American popular belief, not living in the U.S. (or in the U.S. as we used to know it) does not mean destitution or despair. In other words, people survive all kinds of crazy shit.

I think this will be an interesting book to have knocking around in my head as I knock around in Oaxaca, the second-world home of lots of old-fashioned Indian-slaughtering (back in the day, and maybe in an economic kind of way more recently?) and lots of Indians who managed not to get slaughtered, not to mention a booming art scene (so I read) and fabulous mole sauce.

Friday, August 15, 2008

antsy

If you'd asked me what my exotic pet of choice would be any day prior to today, my answer would have been "platypus." Whose wouldn't be? But that was before the ants tried to take over my life.

At any given point, there are 10 or 20 wandering around the bathroom...or the hallway...or the kitchen counter "like drunks," as AK described it. I watched one walk in small tight circles on the TV-with-a-tablecloth-over-it that is our living room "end table" (side note: If you need a small, functional TV that just happens to turn everyone's lips orange, email me). So yes, they're drunk. Drunk on power.

The 10-to-20 groups are the ones we've started ignoring in order to conserve our energy for the armies that march in whenever one of the drunken scouts stumbles on a morsel of cat food, which is often, because we haven't successfully taught the cats to eat with bibs. In fact, between paragraphs one and two of this post, I stopped to wipe up a cluster of ants that had just found such a crumb.

As AK has pointed out during my scary anti-ant tirades, I take it all very personally. It's as if they're saying, "Hey, Cheryl, we believe you have nothing better to do with your time than stand next to the cat food bowls with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels. All day. Because you're a loser, and your valiant attempts to keep your house OCD-clean mean nothing to us. We are here to make you realize that it is, in fact, your destiny to live in squalor."

But AK will be happy to know that I've finally found a solution. And no, it's not chalk, talcum powder, hermetically sealing every food item in our house, Combat Ant Killing Gel or any of the other things our friends have recommended to us. (All I can say is they must live next to more docile colonies. Our ants are guerrilla warriors used to years of jungle combat, and killing their brethren only makes them scrappier and more determined. They are the suicide bombers of the insect kingdom, without the suicide part.)

The solution, which I'm having trouble linking to (on www.cuteoverload.com) or posting a picture of because I'm on AK's Mac and I'm a Mac moron, is a PYGMY ANTEATER. Words won't do him justice, but let's just say he's about the length of your forearm, covered in fuzzy white down, has a gentle, benevolent smile and, most importantly EATS ANTS.

We've been trying to get Team Gato to earn their keep for years, but, as I mentioned above, they're part of the ant problem, not the ant solution. But our new pygmy anteater will quickly shame them.

Okay, it's pretty impossible to shame cats (Me: "Ferdinand, you've been sleeping in this exact spot on the bed for six hours." Ferdinand: "Fuck you"). But Antsy, as I've named him, will weave in between Team Gato while they eat, slurping up ants, being adorable, and reminding them that it wouldn't kill them to get out and audition for a cat food commercial once in a while. Just audition, that's all I'm asking.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

shower spanish

Because AK and I are going to Oaxaca in less than two weeks (Oaxaca—yay!; less than two weeks—better figure out the cat sitter situation!), I am trying to give myself a crash course in Spanish.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the motivating factor of knowing that I won’t know where the bathroom is or how much things cost unless I complete my Ultimate Spanish CDs because our friend Pedro, who’s going with us, is fluent.

(Conversation with my dad:

DAD: Can’t AK help you with your Spanish?

ME: Well, I guess we could help each other. Her Spanish is a little better than mine. But we like to talk about things that are more complex than how the weather is, or what color our clothes are.

DAD: But wait, isn’t she, um, Spanish?

ME: If by “Spanish” you mean Mexican, yes. But her parents were born here and always spoke English to her. So she took Spanish in school just like me.

DAD: [As if AK’s ethnic background, Orange County childhood, and the fact that not all Mexican Americans speak Spanish are all totally new information] Huh.)

I took Spanish in school for six and a half years, but it didn’t accomplish what three weeks abroad would have. And despite the fact that 12.4 million people in L.A. speak Spanish (according to one random internet source), only three of them could be found in any of my various Spanish classes at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. These included:

  • The teacher, who was always either a college Spanish major who’d studied abroad or Mr. Hernandez, who’d taught for 35 years and was so burnt out that he mostly just had us draw pictures, an activity that is not only not Spanish, but not even lingual.
  • Giovanni Untiveros, who was a native speaker.
  • Megan Lengel-Zigich, who practiced with her housekeeper and was kind of a show-off.

So I didn’t exactly emerge fluent, you know? In the same way that some people are good singers in the shower, I think I’m a good Spanish speaker in my car. My pronunciation doesn’t totally suck, and I can get the gist of your average article in La Opinión. But put me in a Spanish-language situation in the real world, and I’m like one of those people in the first round of American Idol auditions who’s shocked to discover what she sounds like without the benefit of tile acoustics. Or, no, I guess I’m more like a contestant who opens her mouth and is shocked to discover that nothing at all comes out, and then runs off stage in embarrassment.

Ultimate Spanish, despite its exciting-sounding title, is a little boring because the sample conversations are bland and benign.

JUAN CARLOS: Hello, Marta. Would you like to see a movie with me at 9 p.m. tonight?

MARTA: No, I am sorry, Juan Carlos, but I am feeling sick.

JUAN CARLOS: Does your stomach hurt?

MARTA: No.

JUAN CARLOS: Does your head hurt?

MARTA: No.

JUAN CARLOS: Does your elbow hurt?

MARTA: No, it is not serious. I am tired from exercising. I need to rest.

JUAN CARLOS: That is good. It is important to exercise and rest.

I know what you’re thinking—that there’s some interesting subtext here involving Marta’s refusal of Juan Carlos. Is she giving him the brush-off? But something about the tone of their voices leads me to believe that their relationship is strictly platonic. Also, if Marta was trying to get Juan Carlos to leave her alone, it seems like she would just say, “Um, yeah, it’s my stomach. I have a terrible flu. Have fun, though.”

In the world of Ultimate Spanish, no one gets sick in a serious way. When people talk about their jobs, they might have to work hard, but their bosses are always nice and they’re compensated fairly. When they go into clothing stores, they always readily find a blue tie for their uncle and a red skirt for their niece at a reasonable price.

Although it would be interesting to hear all hell break loose—which could introduce all kinds of new vocabulary—I guess I’ll need to look to telenovelas for that.

We watched a little bit of one with our upstairs neighbor, Alyssa, last week. Alyssa tried to catch us up on what was going on (“They both dated the same guy, but now he’s in a coma and they just discovered he’s really married to this other woman and now they’re teaming up to get revenge”), but AK and I kept whispering comments to each other along the lines of, “I just caught the word ‘man’” and, “That lady said something about being in pain, or she said how much something costs.”

Mi vacación será muy interesante, pero espero que no es muy interesante.*

*I’m pretty sure I needed to use the subjunctive in there somewhere.

Friday, August 08, 2008

this is why they call her the captain

This is an exhibit you should see: http://www.juliannaparr.com/timestamp/

Partly because Julianna (JP) Parr is an amazing artist who has been keeping a diary in drawn, painted and collaged postcards for ten years. Some are rendered in perfect watercolors (I especially liked a painting she did of some peppermints in 1998). Some are doodles. Some are scribbles. Some are poems. Some are portraits. One is a sketch of her skiing, semi out of control, in Mammoth. Some are melancholy and some are funny and many are both.

You should also go, though, because unlike so many art exhibits—which are about Art Appreciation, and you have to be quiet and pretend to know things—this one is kind of a party. JP’s Craft Captain nature can’t help but rear its mohawked head: Hence there’s a cozy, zany Rumpus Room where you can make your own postcards, and a vending machine (at least as of opening night last night) where you can buy stamps and get your fortune told.

I am in the process of composing a postcard to JP to tell her how awesome she is.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

new ways to dream*

Nina Revoyr’s third novel is as different in subject matter as her previous two were from each other. So far she’s chronicled girl basketball players, civil unrest in Watts and now the silent film era: The Age of Dreaming is the story of Jun Nakayama, a Japanese American star of the silents who—when a new part comes his way for the first time in decades—is forced to reflect on the abrupt end of his career. The reasons are as scandalous as an unsolved murder and as subtle as the growing anti-Japanese sentiments he tried to brush off.

The through-line that draws me to Revoyr’s work again and again—besides her insider’s renderings of Los Angeles’ many dark and beautiful sides—is her depiction of characters who are reluctantly shaken out of their passivity. It’s easy enough to write about characters who are brave or even tragic, but it takes serious skill to write about polite, reserved people whose very nature defies the nature of plot.

Jun, despite being a ham, hates to ruffle feathers, and would like to believe that if he lost a job or two, it was because of negative publicity surrounding the murder of one of his directors, not because of a larger injustice in the world. Over the course of the novel, which flashes between the ‘20s and the ‘60s, he realizes that society doesn’t reward patience and compliance the way he’d hoped, but that he has more control of his own fate than he once thought. Imagine Norma Desmond narrating her own story—she might seem a little less crazy and a little more empowered.

Revoyr’s prose in this novel are like Jun himself: simple but elegant, contemplative and—at first glance—almost dry. But this is all part of a carefully layered character portrait, and the thoroughly juicy mystery at the novel’s center, coupled with descriptions of Hollywood in its giddy adolescence, keep the pages turning.

*Yes, that was a Sunset-Boulevard-the-musical reference. Peter will appreciate it even if no one else does.

Monday, August 04, 2008

pretend to be a cheerleader, save the world

The next best thing to running away and joining the circus is taking the Gold Line downtown to see Cirque Berzerk, which AK, Christine, Jody and I did Saturday night. I wore my Peninsula Gymnastics Camp T-shirt (another find from my dad’s attic) in hopes that the performers would acknowledge me as someone who could, at one point in her life, do a back flip.

Miraculously, I made it through the show without imploding from envy. Despite Chantal Durelli’s ass-kicking-pin-up-girl trapeze poses (some of which I did in my trapeze class—!—but one at a time and with a lot of grunting and resting in between).

Despite an amazing five-person trapeze act which combined extreme physical fitness and artistry with the one thing that seems more difficult in my opinion: group work.

Despite the mesmerizing splits, handstands and pretzel-bends-on-steroids performed by contortionist Hayley Kent. She was a voluptuous girl, not a skinny Ukrainian rhythmic gymnast, which is the body type I usually associate with such stunts. She moved as slowly as a sloth, and watching her was a little like watching a sloth swim: You’re amazed by the pure grace, and also by the fact that said grace is being demonstrated by a lovely but unlikely creature.

At intermission, we congregated in the beer garden—a random chain-linked section of dirt in L.A. State Historic Park, where you feel like you’ve just fallen off a Chinatown cliff and into a dreamy post-apocalypse. Even though we hadn’t had more than one beer between the four of us, we found ourselves doing stunts a la the opening act, which, despite the Tim Burton-y costumes, was 95 percent cheerleading.

Well, sort of a la the opening act.

“Okay, on three, jump up and I’ll toss you,” Christine instructed.

“Why don’t you jump, and I’ll throw you?” said Jody.

“I’ll let you throw me if I can throw you first.”

A lot of jumping and throwing ensued, preceded by a lot of instructions along the lines of, “Wait, do you mean jump on three, or wait till three and then jump?” and “There doesn’t need to be a three! It’s just one—prep—two—jump.”

AK and I tried it too, and Christine cracked up when I automatically got into cheerleader ready-position (hands on hips, smile on lips). “I guess I’m just used to her cheerleading poses by now,” mused AK.

If I do say so myself, I think the combination of Jody’s skating background and my cheer background got us some good air. And probably a few odd looks, but not that many. It was a very Burning-Man crowd.

Then the bench AK was sitting on the edge of tipped over, and a guy wearing a lot of makeup came and did some miming, and then it was time to go back inside the tent.

***

I feel about the circus the way that novelist and blogger Andrea Seigel feels about Ralph Lauren: Both represent the exotic for middle-class suburban Jewish-ish girls. If you read her entry on Lauren, you’ll see how a fetish can also save the world. For example, I paid an extra three bucks for my Cirque Berzerk ticket to buy a couple of carbon offsets or whatever they call them. (There was a giant fire-spewing contraption set up next to the tent, so our carbon emissions were pretty blatant, if spectacular.)

Okay, so Andrea’s taking things a little further: Her Ralph Lauren chair is curing cancer, and you can help, and you will be rewarded. Check it out here. A little passion goes a long way, my friends.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

platypus, as promised

This is Patty, the homemade platypus who served as a visual aid for my third grade animal report. Yeah, I was one of those obnoxious kids who always had great school projects and Halloween costumes because my parents were crafters. They were careful not to cross the line between helping and doing--I made the patterns for Patty's feet and bill and probably stuffed her--but I wasn't exactly an ace with the sewing machine at age eight, you know?

My children will not be so lucky: It'll be store-bought plastic super hero costumes all the way unless they can convince one of their crafty aunts to take pity on them. But as I wisely noted myself in the short story "Why Wasn't I Invited?" life isn't fair.

I'm also posting pics of some other items I found while going through the attic at my dad's house. Please note: I will have irrationally violent thoughts toward any commenter who makes fun of my ponies or stuffed animals. I know for a fact that they all have feelings and can talk after I leave the room, and if you're mean to them they will cry and I will hurt you.

The clothes (and me) are fair game though.

This is Barnacle, one of the aforementioned boy ponies.

This is Clover, the second pony I ever got. Even though she's wearing a dress here, she was kind of a tomboy. In retrospect, I think she was gay. Possibly Applejack too, although she could have been one of those sporty straight girls people are always wrong about.

This is Tumbleweed and Milkweed, from Hasbro's "newborn twins" line. Because they came in pairs, it took me forever to save up the $10 needed to purchase them. On the way to Kaybee Toys, I remember telling my mom, "I'm so excited that my eyebrows won't go down."

(Also note: All these photos were taken in my dad's garage, which is why it appears that the ponies, turtles and platypi are being held for ransom in some sort of dank interrogation bunker.)

When I was no more than a couple of years old, my dad started telling me stories about the tortoise he'd had as a kid. When my mom made me a beanbag turtle, I named him Butchy after my dad's childhood pet. My mom later sewed him a wife, Berry, and daughter, whom I named Bud. Yep, Butchy, Berry and Bud. Just your average gender-bending nuclear turtle family.

In seventh grade, I should not have been allowed to leave the house.

Actually, make that fourth through seventh grade--the puffy paint abuse started early on, when Bonnie and I visited the T-shirt-painting booth at the Old Hometown Fair. If I remember correctly, her shirt said, "I like Pee-Wee Herman!"