Tuesday, September 30, 2008

obsessive coffee disorder

1. saint paul kept his pants on (or did he? I don’t really know the bible)

I was listening to NPR the other day and Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) was telling the interviewer about how he got throat cancer and had to give up drinking and smoking, which, he said, “were so intimately linked to writing for me. I’d sip coffee laced with bourbon while I wrote.”

So he was miserable and desperate and then he found Jesus and now he can write again, and is working on a screenplay about Saint Paul instead of about girls who show their boobs, I guess.

There but for the grace of overprotective parents and D.A.R.E. (seriously, that shit freaked me out) go I. Because I have a fairly addictive personality, and my writing routine seems to be intimately linked with my caffeine intake. In trying to avoid consuming overworked teacher/nightshift worker/first-year medical resident amounts of coffee, I’ve found myself sitting down with decaf a few times recently, and the result has been extremely lackluster. Like, to the point where I go home and coax AK into telling me she thinks I’m talented, which is not one of my more attractive behaviors.

Then I heard Joe Eszterhas and I confessed my new worry—that I might not just be untalented, but also an addict.

“And you already go to church, so I guess you’re out of luck. There’s no other way for your writing to be saved,” said AK. She didn’t seem quite as concerned as I was.

The next day I skipped caffeine in the morning and had a big Diet Coke while I wrote in the evening. Two buzzed hours later, I had a revised first chapter I was convinced finally hit the right tone.

Rehab, schmeehab.

Or at least, a new rule for myself: caffeine only while writing unless it’s a matter of falling asleep at the wheel somewhere on the 10. I like this idea because I’m also kind of addicted to making rules for myself. Hopefully I’ll be a high-functioning addict.

2. L.C. and OCD

Speaking of the writing process and how not-easy it is, I loved Andrea Seigel’s post about Lauren Conrad’s foray into both dress designing and YA book writing: http://andreaseigel.typepad.com/afternoon/2008/09/the-kids-are-alright.html. It sums up celebrity culture without being all bitter, which Andrea doesn’t have to be because she just scored a very lovely and well-deserved book deal.

And speaking of sort of fucked-up mental states, I’m also enjoying Myriam Gurba’s Dahlia Season, which is, in part, the story of a goth baby dyke with undiagnosed OCD. Some of my favorite passages are when she’s constantly smearing astringent on her face to avoid “catching” acne from her zitty friend, but of course it totally dries out her skin and makes it look way worse than a few pimples would.

That’s the weirdness of OCD that people who think it’s just about hating germs or checking locks don’t get: It’s an act of constant self-sabotage. For me it was an obsession with neatness that resulted in a meticulously organized closet and giant piles of junk in the middle of my room; and making so many attempts to get my handwriting perfect that every paper I turned in was heavy with mountains of Wite-Out.

Now I’m all about placing my mouth on the same part of the cup each time I take a sip of…coffee…so I don’t make multiple lip prints. You’d think this might distract from my writing, but nope, it’s all part of the magical, inelegant process.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

love in unexpected places (such as story collections and potato pots)

My reading tastes are both expansive and narrow—expansive in that I like more books than I dislike, and I need a blend of high and low culture to keep me feeling connected to the world at large. A little Remembrance of Things Past (which I started a few days ago out of some masochistic desire to read a 1,018-page book—and that’s just volume I), a little Us Weekly. Maybe a lot of Us Weekly.

But I’m narrow-minded in that if you drop me in a bookstore, I’ll end up in the fiction section like water sliding toward a drain. And within that section, you’ll find me reading novels, probably American, probably realistic and literary in tone, probably written after 1980.

So while Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures isn’t an earth-shaking, drain-moving departure (she’s a contemporary American fiction writer—she even lives in L.A.), I was still surprised how much I liked it: It’s short stories, and so frequently I find short stories to be mean little teases, like the first date that either fails to get your attention or refuses to call you back. Also, it’s whimsical. Her characters have keys for fingers and pumpkins for heads. And while I love the idea of such charming absurdity, I often find it irrelevant and overly cutesy in practice (see Everything is Illuminated).

Except somehow Willful Creatures overcame my prejudices and became, possibly, one of my new favorite books. The stories are about love and family and war in the most surprising ways. “End of the Line,” about a man who keeps a tiny man in a cage as a pet and then as a torture victim—and then feels bad for torturing him but has no idea how to atone without causing more trouble—sums up U.S. foreign policy better than any New Yorker article I’ve read (not that I’ve read a lot. The David Sedaris essays and long articles about the history of, like, lettuce keep me pretty busy).

“Dearth,” about a woman with a magically regenerating pot of potatoes that eventually turn into babies, is a subtle and beautiful story of someone moving ever so slowly from a state of bitter mourning to a state of living, and it made me cry.

The moral of this story is that it’s good to open up one’s reading list just a crack. Hopefully I’ll do more of it this weekend at these readings:

Saturday:
From Daylight to Midnight: Benefit Poetry Marathon
Featuring Eloise Klein Healy, Pam Ward, Terry Wolverton and many, many others
10 a.m. to midnight
Ave. 50 Studio
131 N. Ave. 50, Los Angeles, 90042
http://www.avenue50studio.com/pages/pressure.shtml

Sunday:
The Literati Cocktail Hour/Rhapsodomancy Sampler
Featuring Jamie FitzGerald (yay!) and more
11:30 a.m.
The Robertson Coffee House Stage at the West Hollywood Book Fair
647 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood, 90069
http://www.rhapsodomancy.org/

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

i like to think i take better care of my cats than your average meth head

[Setting: front porch of a Highland Park duplex. An iron gate hangs open. A woman in her 50s with a long tangled ponytail and less than the average amount of teeth approaches, hustling two cats along in front of her. She is NEIGHBOR.]

NEIGHBOR [pushing cats through gate, closing gate]: Are these your cats?

ME: Yes. Um, thanks for bringing them home, but actually they’re allowed outside.

NEIGHBOR: Oh, well, you gotta watch out. There’s coyotes around here, you know.

ME: I know—that’s why we only let them out during the day, when we’re home.

NEIGHBOR: Okay. Watch out for the coyotes, alright?

ME: Alright. Thanks for looking out for my cats.


This would not be such a crazy conversation if I hadn’t had it with the aforementioned neighbor at least three or four times. Or if she was an overprotective cat mom herself—but she has cats who freely roam the streets all day. Which makes me wonder: Is she concerned with our cats’ safety, or does she want her cats to have the run of the block like some kind of weird kitty gang mom?

I also—perhaps unfairly, but her teeth could put a cosmetic dentist’s children through college and grad school—wonder if her brain may be just the tiniest bit fried from one of those drugs that makes your teeth fall out. (Heroin? Meth?)

Anyway, you can see why she was a prime suspect when, yesterday morning, there was a small mountain of dry cat food outside our front door. When I opened the door, Ferdinand (left, in black) immediately walked over and started eating. (“Have some class, Ferd,” AK later admonished him. But I have to admit, if it had been a chocolate cake of unknown origins on my doorstep, I would have been tempted too.)

I remembered the movie Year of the Dog, where Molly Shannon’s cute little dog Pencil eats poison and dies. I ducked back in the house for a dustpan and swept up the rest of the food. Ferd gave me a look that said, What is wrong with you?

The day before, Temecula (top, in dryer) had accidentally gotten left out while AK and I were at work. She was still inside before coyote time, but my guess is not that someone is trying to poison our cats, but the opposite: Neighbor saw T-Mec outside, assumed she wasn’t getting fed and dumped a small truckload of Purina on our porch.

The thing is, nothing about T-Mec says “I’m not getting fed.” Other neighbors are constantly remarking on how fat she is, which makes me hate them. And let me add that they’re not exactly supermodels themselves.

So I can only conclude one thing, which is that T-Mec—who is as enterprising as she is pleasantly plump—got trapped outside, got hungry and marched over to Neighbor’s house with Ferd in tow. She pointed to Ferdinand, who could rock skinny jeans quite nicely, and said, “Look, my brother is starving and I don’t have a key. Little help?”

She knows a pushover when she sees one.

Monday, September 22, 2008

sad in a happy way

1. not the john hughes movie

It’s a good day for it to be the first day of fall. Because fall makes me sad in a happy way, or maybe the other way around. This weekend was that.

Saturday I had breakfast with the group of ladies my mom called Breakfast Club. They met—what, biweekly? monthly? time is so weird when you’re a kid—for more than 20 years. The first time my sister and I stayed home by ourselves was when our mom went to Breakfast Club. We locked the doors and watched as much TV as we wanted (which was a lot), and when she came home, she came home with a blueberry muffin for us. After that we didn’t mind staying home by ourselves.

Also, she always came home with good gossip about the other ladies’ kids, who were all within a couple of years of our ages. We weren’t that close to most of them when we were in school, but even years later we knew when one of them decided to go to law school or study abroad—which were the kinds of things that they would do because they were all nice kids who made their moms proud.

The moms were so sweet to Cathy and I, buying us breakfast and asking how our dad was, asking about our cat by name, telling us not to worry because they didn’t start having kids till they were 34. They reminded me of my mom in a way that getting together with extended family does not. These women and the schools they worked at and sent their kids to were her every day, not just her Christmas and Easter.

Cathy and I spent most of our time at the kids’ end of the table with the daughters we knew lots about but had hardly spoken to in years (with the exception of Jenny, Susan’s daughter, whom Cathy has been good friends with since junior high). It was pleasant to discover that the breakfast had none of the overtones of most reunion-type experiences—discomfort, competition or, at the very least, the sense that if not for this one random connection, you wouldn’t be talking to each other. Even though some of us had babies and some of us were working for NGOs in Tanzania, I felt like any two of us could easily be friends. I felt like our funny, book-ish, down-to-earth moms raised us right.

***

2. the woody allen movie

On Sunday AK and I were supposed to have brunch with Meehan, but that turned into a different kind of day when she found out, while we were on our way to meet her, that one of her best friends from college had died in an accident. Her phone battery was dead and she hadn’t brought her charger to L.A., so she came over and used our place as a sort of base camp for all the terrible calls she needed to make.

So it became a day of calls and emails and internet searches, happy stories lined with sadness (or maybe the other way around), food offered, distraction provided, a day of not knowing what to say and finding things anyway.

Late in the evening when Meehan had returned north, AK and I watched Annie Hall, which she’d seen but I hadn’t. It was so sad, I told her after laughing all the way through and really seeing what fashion magazines mean about menswear. Or not sad exactly, I clarified. But bittersweet, definitely.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

books of the month

Since joining Facebook, I've gotten a little lazy about posting book reviews on Bread and Bread. I know, I know, you've been crying yourself to sleep every night. Obama better get elected, and Cheryl better post a book review tomorrow or things will just not be okay, you hiccup into your pillow.

Even though I suspect you guys prefer posts with pictures or ones containing stories about the many embarrassments of my youth, hear me out: I do it because books--at least the ones that are not about diets or do not feature Oprah's seal of approval or face on the cover--need every shout-out they can get, and my ego needs to feel powerful in the role of critic.

Facebook has all sorts of booky applications, so lately I've been posting short little reviews of stuff there--there in the social networking wasteland, where you give everything one to five stars and no one knows or cares if you gave something three and a half stars because it was brilliant and new but deeply flawed, or just sort of generally decent.

So I'm part of the five-second-attention-span problem as much as the read-a-book-already solution.

Anyway, because I believe in recycling, I am now posting said reviews here, for all you old-fashioned types who prefer to get your book reviews from blogs just like Grandma used to and not via the Facebook Goodreads application.

Here's what's kept me busy over the past month-ish:
  • Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza Espinoza has a great eye for detail and a generous literary spirit. Some of the vignettes in this collection of connected short stories touch down lightly, but others are intense--it's impressive that a voice so gentle can also be unblinking.
  • Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld For a book without an obvious plot (and this is not always a detriment in my opinion), Prep was a page turner. No one has captured adolescent insecurity so perfectly as Curtis Sittenfeld. But being inside the teenage mind occasionally felt as suffocating for me as it did for the protagonist. Sometimes when I read authors like Sittenfeld, I wonder what great things would happen if they turned their sharp gazes on matters outside The Self. Hopefully a couple of books down the line....
  • Cruddy by Lynda Barry It was surreal to read this tale of a down-and-out girl on a road trip with her murderous father right after reading Prep, which was all about not making faux pas in the dining hall. I loved Lynda Barry's raw prose and circus-freak stories, but at times this book felt muddy, like one of those dreams where you can't open your eyes all the way.
And--sneak preview!--here's what I'm reading now and liking enough to tell you why before I'm finished:
  • Waylaid by Ed Lin (from cool indie Asian Am publisher Kaya Press) This is a slim and hilarious seemingly autobiographical story of a 12-year-old Chinese American kid whose parents own a cheap motel on the Jersey Shore. He works long hours cleaning up after scuzzy tenants, and he would be predictable or pitiable if not for the fact that he spends all his precious free time beating up 12-year-old assholes at school and reading the porn magazines he finds under hotel mattresses. It's hard to think about child labor laws when said child is busy thinking, "I reread the letters [in Cheri]. Women driving, walking, or sitting alone were dying to get naked and suck and fuck."

Monday, September 15, 2008

middle-aged suicide (don’t do it…or maybe do if you have to)

Sometimes I hear about suicides and a part of me thinks, So in the end, you really just couldn’t get over yourself? I can imagine feeling despondent or dulled-out. I’ve felt like that, although I know I have to be careful not to confuse chronic and acute. I can imagine feeling quite convinced that life had nothing very good to offer me. But that doesn’t mean that I have nothing to offer life.

When I picture that rock-bottom feeling, I remind myself of my plan: Assuming I’m still in decent physical health, I will get myself a minimum wage job consisting of motions one can go through even when profoundly depressed. Then, on evenings and weekends, I will go to a homeless shelter and ladle soup, another simple action one can perform while depressed. That way I won’t sentence my family and friends to a lifetime of wondering if they failed me, and I’ll also be confident that I’m still pushing back on the world in a positive if small way.

I don’t think that earthly life is infinitely precious—I think there are other worlds and we have other chances—which is why I’m okay with abortion and committing suicide if your body and/or mind is decaying in some unfathomably terrible way. But I do think earthly life is sort of precious, which is why I think we should spend our time here helping people instead of, say, killing them or doing PR for Old Navy. Hence my plan.

But when I read the New York Times obit on David Foster Wallace today (is it just me or is it a little tacky to try to mimic an author’s style in his obituary?), I didn’t feel that mix of anger and sadness so much as just sadness.

His father said, “He’d been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”

In that way, depressed people are dealing with a kind of unfathomably terrible mental decay. My rock-bottom plan assumes a lot of things, not the least of which is that I’ll be able to get out of bed in the morning to go to the aforementioned easy job and soup kitchen. I’ve been picturing the kind of depression I know, the kind where you might feel like you’re moving through water, but you can still move. And in my scenario, my little puritan work ethic and my belief that the world is worth saving—that morality and even reality are real—are still in tact.

I’m basically asking people whose every cell tells them life isn’t worth living to believe that life is worth living, which, by definition, they don’t. And while that kind of depression may seem self-indulgent, it’s also undeniably true. I think the most we can do is to try to make sure the world is a kind enough place that people don’t kill themselves for circumstantial reasons (being gay, the stock market, lack of access to health care, etc.), and that those that do, for whatever variety of star-crossed reasons, are mourned instead of condemned.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

fascists for mountain lions

The other day, AK and I had one of our favorite kinds of conversations, where we answer the sort of theoretical questions you might find in the Ungame and make lists of our favorite things. The topic this particular day was: What issue are you most conservative about, and where are you a big lefty? (We’re both solid Obama supporters and everything, but bristle at any kind of knee-jerkiness, so I think we pride ourselves on having one or two unpredictable views.)

AK decided she leaned conservative on budget stuff and uber-liberal on transportation issues. I concluded that my basic distrust of the average voter’s ability to make good decisions was kind of conservative (“Well,” said AK, “that either makes you a fascist or a communist”).

I have leftist ideas that will never in a million years get implemented when it comes to:
  • marriage (all of it should be abolished in favor of domestic partnerships that can be entered into by any number of people whether or not they’re romantically involved...but until then, no on Prop. 8!)
  • salary caps (I’m for ‘em, and anything you earn past that amount goes into your private foundation, so you still have an incentive to work hard, but it’s for your favorite causes, not for your fifth Ferrari)
  • animal rights.
“The thing is, I don’t actually think people are superior to animals or should have more rights,” I explained. “If a building were on fire and a person and a cat were trapped inside, yeah, I’d rescue the person, but that’s just because I’m a person myself. That decision would be completely subjective. Intellectually, I feel equally about them.”

(Actually, it depends who the person was and who the cat was. George W. vs. any member of Team Gato? You know who I’m gonna choose.)

But as always, The Onion has put it more eloquently: http://www.theonion.com/content/news/brave_mountain_lion_fends_off.

What about all of you? Where do your inner red and blue states lie?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

dolly says hello

When AK and I saw Rilo Kiley play at the Grove in Orange County a few months ago, their opening act was, somewhat randomly, Dolly Parton. It seemed she’d followed them home from a gig in Vegas.

“Wait, okay, I feel a little stupid for asking, but that’s not really Dolly Parton, right?” I whispered to AK.

No, it wasn’t. But the real live Dolly did show up at the Ahmanson last night to introduce the new musical version of 9 to 5, for which she wrote the music and lyrics.

“They’re still working some of the kinks out, so if they’ve gotta stop the show for a minute, be nice,” she said. I wanted to curl up in her voice and nap like a kitten. “I’ll just put on a show or something,” she laughed.

“So that is the real Dolly, right?” I whispered.

Yes! And the show—which was lots of fun if not exactly groundbreaking—did hit a technical glitch shortly before intermission, and even though Dolly appeared to have been kidding when she said she’d put on a show, she led sing-along versions of “9 to 5” and “I Will Always Love You.” I’ve never seen a theater crowd so close to throwing its panties at the stage.

AK and I had gone to celebrate our two-year anniversary, which was actually six months ago, but we’re slackers like that. AK saw the movie 9 to 5 dozens of times when she was younger and was totally giddy when Dolly showed up. Earlier in the evening I’d enjoyed bumming around in the twinkle lights of the Music Center, watching happy dressed-up people buzz with energy and eat overpriced salads, remembering my college days when I saw plays and musicals all the time. What I love about the theater, I remembered, is the same thing everyone loves about Dolly: Even when it’s fake, it’s real.

Monday, September 08, 2008

el espiritu de vacación

I’ve never hated coming home from vacation, partly because I like being able to choose what to wear from my whole closet instead of from just the contents of my suitcase. (Shallow, but it works.) Still, Oaxaca was so lovely—my senses were turned on high because my brain wasn’t busy planning what to eat for dinner or finding time to do my art-class homework or wondering why last month’s MasterCard bill was so high.

Although I think a certain amount of minutia and struggle can be healthy, I’m trying to find ways of keeping the Spirit of Vacation alive, beyond wearing my new necklaces made of bright-colored beans. Because the Spirit of Vacation is also the Spirit of Inspiration, one I’m always trying to tap. Here are my tips for you, or not for you, because these things are highly individual by nature.

Nevertheless, I possibly highly encourage you to:
  • See Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It takes place in a world in which people bicycle through cobblestone streets on their way to pick blackberries. Then they go home and paint on giant canvases and have threesomes. Yet somehow it all feels grounded and even profound. It is the rare move that is joyous and funny but full of good life advice: Its title characters are proof that in order to be happy, you can’t rely entirely on planning (Vicky) or reacting (Cristina).
  • Realize that you won’t, in fact, die if a pair of jeans gets left on the floor longer than five minutes. AK asked me to stop picking up after her with the vigor of that little robot in Wall-E who follows the other robots around with a scrub brush, wiping up footprints as fast as they’re produced. I realized that I’ve been cleaning like a madwoman since we moved in together and that on some level I felt like I was getting away with something (She doesn’t mind that I’m always rearranging her stuff? I guess I’ll keep rearranging her stuff!), and that, like a little kid who secretly craves boundaries, I was relieved when I was finally called on it. I’d been following all the rules that my OCD brain had laid out for me (the DVD player must be aligned with the edge of the TV), and I just needed a new, less neurosis-enabling rule to follow (no putting away AK’s books while she’s still reading them). It was scary to realize how much tension my particular brand of crazy had been causing me, but this newfound lack of tightness behind my shoulders is heavenly.
  • Start a new novel. Technically, I have three books in progress if you count the picture book and the novel that is awaiting some final edits. Starting something new seems greedy and unwise. But this morning I did it—just some early, freewheeling prewriting, which might be the most fun part because the stakes at this point are deliciously low—and it felt great.
  • Smoke your first cigarette ever. Do it in the back yard of the Hollywood Hills home where your friend—a new smoker herself and one of the most consistently inspiring, whimsically angling people you know—is house-sitting. The place where you saw your first urban coyotes a long time ago. Marvel that you are not going to get in trouble because you are 31 years old and it’s even okay to drive after smoking. Feel sophisticated and ridiculous at the same time. Then smoke your second cigarette ever—this one minty—and wonder why they don’t come in all sorts of flavors, especially cinnamon. Note how much you enjoy this, how much it appeals to your aforementioned OCD and promise yourself not to do it again for at least six months. Watch a green-and-yellow, free-range parakeet land on the lawn, and then a swallowtail butterfly.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

fall awakening

Being sick has given me a chance to catch up on my TV-watching, and it turns out that this is a good week to do so, because there are premieres. Once upon a Zap2it time, my personal schedule was frustratingly dependent on when things premiered, when things were replaced and when sweeps week occurred, and my vocabulary included words like “Upfronts” and “Press Tour.”

Now my TV is more like a box of costume jewelry in the back of my closet. I open it only when I stumble upon it, and sometimes I’m delighted by how surprisingly lovely certain faux turquoise pendants are, and sometimes I’m just weirded out.

Tuesday night I watched the premiere of the new 90210. I was excited to see that the West Beverlians—edgy teens that they are—were performing Spring Awakening and that, in the tradition of backstage musicals everywhere, the director seemed to cast it by staying on the lookout for shy-but-pretty girls on set crew humming the words during rehearsal, then demanding that they take center stage and replace the bitchy star.

Also, I liked this piece of dialogue:

Naomi: Are you breaking up with me?

Ethan: No, I’m breaking up with us.


***

Last night I watched Sarah Palin give a speech that seemed more naggy than inspirational, and I fanaticized about Tina Fey’s forthcoming impression, which I probably won’t see if I’m feeling better by the weekend.

When AK and I had had enough of that, we switched over to the premiere of America’s Next Top Model. Why do I always forget how much I like this show?

I like it when Tyra very seriously says things like, “Ladies, you have five minutes to put on your metallic cat suits.” And I like how even though it’s a “reality show,” in this episode they magically beamed themselves different places. In the next episode, I hope Tyra will lift a couch with one hand, a la Vicki the robot on Small Wonder.

I decided that I’m rooting for Isis, the MTF model. Not just because she’s a good queer poster child, but because she knows her shit and she has personality that seems to be more about life experience than about doing a raise-the-roof gesture with her hands and shouting “heeeeyyy” the way one girl (Nikeysha?) kept doing. (By the end of the episode, it was clear that even she regretted having chosen this as her signature move.)

Isis’ photo made her look sexy and vulnerable—it doesn’t hurt that she has big wounded Jennifer Beals eyes—and would I be off-base to guess that she has more of what they call, in the trapeze class biz, “body awareness” than most of the girls?

Whether she’s studied how women move in order to pass as one, or studied how men move in order to pass as one in a previous part of her life, my hunch is that, when she puts her hand on the side of her face or pops her knee to the left, she knows exactly what she’s doing and why. Compare that to gorgeous, dorky Marjorie who seems to have woken up in her body approximately two weeks ago. Isis’ body might be less natural, but that’s (part of) why she’s so good at making it look like she was born to live in it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

8/30: very american

Yesterday we went to the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca at the Santo Domingo cathedral. It was huge and divided into dozens of tiny former monks’ quarters, or something. I wasn’t super into the ancient artifacts, but I liked reading about the history of the region (and trying to read it in Spanish, as if history isn’t lost in translation already), and I was even more into the post-conquest parts, which made me feel like I was sort of twisted.

It rained hard in the afternoon and we took shelter in La Soledad chocolate store, where it was dry and there were tall shelves made of carved wood, bits of hard hot chocolate to taste and lots of chocolate and mole to buy.

All of us were too full for dinner, but we ate anyway, in a restaurant in the Santo Domingo area, which Pedro calls the Silver Lake of Oaxaca, although I think Santa Monica might be slightly more accurate. It was fun to see the area on a Friday night, full of 17-year-old hipsters and a quinceañera being followed by her hired paparazzi, the night all cool and rainy-fresh. (Are people in their late 20s and 30s all at home with their kids? I wondered. I didn’t see many. I wondered if adulthood was more disappointing in other countries, and if that made youth seem more special. But then I thought how it would be hard to place more value on youth than we do in the U.S., and that my question was probably very American.)

We were quiet for a while. Stephen and I drank giant mugs of Oaxacan hot chocolate and we watched The Simpsons in Spanish on TV, followed by some really awful British version of Jackass. We talked about our lists—celebrities we get a free pass from our significant others to sleep with, should the opportunity arise. AK and I talked about how it’s different for girls—that no matter how hot someone is, we have to have a conversation with her before we can fantasize. Nevertheless, soon we had lively lists going. At that moment AK’s was, I think, Jennifer Connelly, Mary Louise Parker and Rosario Dawson. Mine was Michelle Rodriguez, Chloe Sevigny and Justin Kirk, although I feel like AK would be more likely to go for a boy than I would in most instances.

How’s that for a back-to-L.A. note to end things on?

8/29: introvert’s day out

Yesterday was our big tour day with Eduardo. We piled into a big van with a bunch of Europeans—all a little younger than us, all with more vacation time and more stamps in their passports, I’m sure—as well as a few Mexicans.

Our first stop was the world’s widest tree in Santa María de Tule. You can’t get much more touristy than showing up in a van at the World’s Something-est Something. But part of what I enjoyed about the tour was getting out of the city and seeing the suburbs and little villages. The brick and adobe dwellings that bleed into each other; the corrugated tin roofs; the DIY plumbing; tiny stores; burros and goats and bat-eared mutts wandering the streets; corn and agave growing out of the sides of the mountain.

It confirmed that while downtown Oaxaca may be East/Northeast L.A., the outskirts and villages are not…what, Valencia? Palmdale? Escondido? Lodi? Julian? They are genuinely Somewhere Else.

Our second stop was a Zapotec town called Teotitlan, where they weave beautiful rugs using traditional methods—hand-spinning the wool, dying it with indigo and crushed bugs, weaving it on a hand-operated loom. It was cool to see such amazing craftsmanship and disappointing that I couldn’t afford it. It made me think that I should buy a few nice things with my money instead of 75 mediocre things at Target.

It was also cool to see how different artists make a life for themselves. And maybe it’s silly to put myself in the same category as Zapotec weavers because our lives are so different, but I couldn’t help but think how we’re both fighting to keep a tradition alive in a world of $10 everything, of video games and movies. And if I respect their efforts—and I do—then I can’t dismiss myself as being irrelevant either, just because novels aren’t as popular as they once were.

***

Our third stop was Mitla, which in my opinion was a more fun ruin than Monte Albán—there were more nooks and crannies and rooms you could climb into, and more mosaics in tact.

There we (meaning Pedro, our outgoing and bilingual leader) befriended Stefan and Anina, a Swiss-German couple in their mid-20s. We had lunch and, later, dinner and drinks with them. They were nice, even though I could practically feel B drooling over Anina with her Sinead O’Connor haircut all the way from Bloomington, but by that point I was feeling tired and introverted.

One of the most beautiful parts of the day was the “petrified waterfalls,” which took us up a winding mountain road—in the rain—that had me petrified, and through a tiny village to a natural spring and the giant yellow stalactites it had created. Even though a big hotel and resort had just been built there, for now it’s still secluded and quiet and rainforesty (meaning simply, nature cranked up a notch). People swam and waded in the pools and I tried the spring water. It was lightly bubbly and salty, but also tasted a bit like pennies had been soaking in it.

8/26: global poverty and yoga

Yesterday was a lazy day, but days are like fishbowls and we grew our lazy selves to fit it. We cabbed down to the zócalo for lunch and ate at a row of stalls each seeming to sell the exact same four items, each staffed by a woman in a checkered apron and maybe a kid or two, each covered with bright oilcloth tablecloths.

We’ve seen more than a few kids working here, and while there seems to be a healthy middle class and working class, there were also the shanty towns we drove by on the way to Monte Albán. There’s also the fact that the poorest people are almost without exception Indians (our yoga teacher: pretty white-looking; the woman living on the steps of a storefront a few blocks from here: dark skin and a long tangled braid). It makes it seem all the more bizarre that in the U.S. we just talk about “Latinos” like they’re one massive entity, which is its own kind of racism.

On some level, I feel like I don’t have any more observations about global poverty—maybe because I spend so much time thinking about it (not to be confused with doing something about it) that when I actually witness it, I just think, Right, yes, there’s that.

After lunch AK, Pedro and I took a yoga class (nothing says limousine liberal like a segue from global poverty to yoga) at the spa that’s attached to the hotel, and it was unlike any yoga class I’ve taken before. The cool thing was that we were the only non-locals in it (I also like that most of the guests at our hotel seem to be Mexican).

The not cool thing about the class was that it sort of sucked. It wasn’t “yoga” so much as “1950s calisthenics on a mat.” Not that American yoga looks much like Hindu yoga, I’m sure. My body was already angry because I’m on my period and getting a cold, and this did not make it any happier. AK and I left at the break, at which point everyone else took a bath (huh?), then reconvened. Pedro stayed and he said someone shared an article about the importance of drinking a lot of water, and everyone asked for copies. Then they finally did some yoga.

***

We went to a bar called Fandango, which I thought would have lots of neon and bad dance music based on the name, but it was more like a coffee shop that served alcohol, which is how I would like all bars to be. We played a Mexican card game called Ladders that Pedro taught us, and drank Donajís, which are sort of mescal sunrises.

We met two guys from New York (one was from Fullerton originally; it was a tourist bar, but not in a terrible way). They were gay law grads who talked in this voice that was one part SoCal drawl, one part East-Coast upper-class ridiculous. They’d traveled everywhere and spoke great Spanish and didn’t think they’d ever roll out of bed in time to make it to a museum. I was profoundly unimpressed with them and of course a little bit envious.

8/25: i’ll show you my monte albán if you show me yours

AK left her ATM card in the machine at Banamex bank, which led to me say, “Can you please try to be more vigilant while we’re traveling in another country?” And she said, “Could you not tell me to be more vigilant because I’m trying hard and I’ve been pretty good and these things happen sometimes when you travel.” So, not bad as arguments go, but the thing is I come from a family that travels with a spare alternator. But a little—little—chaos is probably good for me.

***

She reunited with her ATM card. Because she’s as charmed as she is forgetful. Because she’s resourceful. I was impressed by how she waited in line and spoke entirely in Spanish and got her card back.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed about speaking Spanish: The less nervous I am, the more I understand and can say. Yesterday on the way back from Monte Albán, this guide named Eduardo—whom Pedro hooked us up with for a cheaper, off-the-books tour on Thursday—was cracking jokes about how we’d visit the mescal factory and be immunized against la turista, and how there were fruity mescals for the ladies and ones that were like “Mexican Viagra” for the guys, and how hundreds of couples around the world had asked him to be the godfather of their children.

And when he was just talking generally, I understood 90 percent of what he said. But when he looked directly at me, my mind went blank (like when AK was at the bank and forgot the word for “yesterday” and said, “el día antes de hoy”).

When I pictured visiting indigenous ruins in Mexico, I pictured a clearing in a rainforest and something very tall to climb. But except for the hour of warm and pleasant rain that seems to happen around 5 p.m. every day, it’s dry here and almost exactly like L.A. When the air isn’t different, the place doesn’t feel that different.

Also, Monte Albán—built by Zapotecs and abandoned years before Europeans arrived—is on top of a squat, curvy mountain. They sheared the top off and built stone pyramids that had houses or temples on top. They stuccoed them white. They built wells and worshipped jaguar-bat gods.

Our guide was a funny-serious Zapotec guy named Eloy, who said he’d been leading tours for 25 years, but didn’t look much older than 35. After the tour, AK was chatting with him and he asked, “What are you doing for the fiesta tonight?”

In my head I was like, There’s some sort of festival going on?

But AK’s a little quicker than me and turned on what Pedro later described as the “AK-itude.” Also, Eloy’s hand was on her knee. At two different points.

Later Pedro and Stephen said, almost in unison, “Fiesta? Yeah, fiesta in his pants.”

la turista returns

I’m back! And while I managed to avoid getting la turista (a.k.a. Montezuma’s Revenge) while in Mexico (unless you count that one ambiguous morning when I may just have had too much coffee), I now seem to be coming down with the flu. But it was worth it! I’ll spare you the details of my swollen throat and instead post some excerpts from my travel journal, along with more pictures of colorful jars of salsa than you ever wanted to see.

8/24: breakfast of champions

Getting our connecting flight to Oaxaca from Mexico City was an adventure. Thank god for Pedro, who asked questions in fluent Spanish every three or four feet—but we got all kinds of different information about where we needed to go and what we needed to do. Finally we got to the big long immigration line where some of the English instructions were translated creatively: “Rember not to loose your FME slip.” (Pedro promptly lost his FME slip—maybe things would have been different if they’d spelled “lose” correctly.)

We had to run to catch our plane. AK’s flip-flops made her slip and slide on the tile floor and she’d forgotten a belt, so she had to hold her pants up while she ran. But miraculously we made it, panting and shiny-faced. Of course they lost Stephen’s luggage, though.

Los Olivos Hotel is nice, I think, but it was dark when we got in, after the shuttle wound through all these dark streets with little lit-up restaurant stalls; a woman selling flowers with her kids; graffiti; cobblestone. It’s strange because a lot of what’s here is not unlike L.A.—but unlike L.A., people here will speak Spanish to me. I like it. We had a late dinner at the little taco stand next to the hotel. I had a buttery quesadilla and an atole. It was bright and comforting.

***

Today started with a feast of a breakfast—not free, but still an all-you-can-eat buffet. Really, it’s one of my favorite parts of traveling—you get to try new things without the stress of ordering and paying for them in another language, and you get to do it in the cool, lovely part of the morning when you’re not dirty and tired yet.

So today: pineapples and papaya; bananas in something that may have theoretically been yogurt but was basically flan; some kind of bean-cheese-toast combo; black beans with sour cream and salsa; and nutty, seed-y cereal.

We walked the two miles to the zócalo, passing bright-pastel store fronts (computer stores, pharmacies, taquerias, vets), a crumbling train station and enough cathedrals that they’re already blurring together for me, like Buddhist temples in Asia. They’re all limestone (I think) and beautiful and have a handful of homeless indigenous people hanging around outside.

Later we meandered back to the hotel where we threw our tired bodies in the pool with members of the orchestra we’d seen playing Star Wars and Beatles music in the zócalo earlier.