Friday, October 29, 2010
There are so many movies and grant applications out there full of teenagers testifying to how writing saved their lives that one can get a tad hardened to the notion. Does writing feed people? Does it even fill potholes? No, but it makes the world a little sparkier, and then I’m capable of doing other things.
I have not fed anyone or filled any potholes today. But I’m blogging and I feel like talking to people again. Tomorrow the world!
I’ve also been meaning to recommend a play: Take Me Out at the Celebration Theatre. Is it even still running at this point? Hang on, let me google. Yes, it is (through Dec. 19)! Good. Here’s why you should see it: It’s a tightly written and very well acted play about a major league baseball player who comes out as gay; as the handsome, celebrated player butts heads with a hickish rookie, the play examines what it means for a golden boy to become a victim and a victim to become a perpetrator. The play is also a lovely homage to sports fandom, which says a lot, since I am so not a sports fan. But Take Me Out depicts the player/fan relationship as much like the artist/fan relationship—it’s interdependent, and it’s an exchange. And when you’ve had a shitty week, hitting a ball with a stick or making up some crap and typing it can go a long way.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
But I would like to be like AK or Jamie or Kathy—they’re always doing the kind of internet searches that make one smarter. They seek out new literary journals and information about breastfeeding practices in Afghanistan. In theory, I’m totally interested in these things, but I have a strong lazy, uncurious streak. Mention an amazing new writer in front of me and, even if I’m right next to my computer, I’ll just smile and nod and pretend like I’m already familiar with her. Speculate about what the weather might be like tomorrow and I’ll just speculate right back: “Oh, I’m thinking partly cloudy.” If the information is useful, I don’t want to know it. No matter how fascinating it is, it turns into lima beans before my eyes.
On the other hand, celebrity gossip? Long lost high school frenemies? Diseases I might have? Bring ‘em on! Because this information is brain candy at best, brain poison at worst, I can’t stop my fingers from typing words I shouldn’t. Leprosy + symptoms. Bedbugs + signs. Seychelles + shoes + sale. The worst part is that now my computer knows how obsessive I am. It knows I worry about certain medical conditions and that I really like shoes. Facebook ads are always encouraging me to self-publish my novel. Facebook doesn’t have very big dreams for me.
Maybe I have this problem because my mom was a librarian—a googler before there was Google. She loved helping me do the research for class projects, and I quickly became a barefoot shoemaker’s child. Or, like, a shoemaker’s child with really awesome shoes she didn’t even know how to untie. Now I leave a lot of research to AK. She plans our trips and learns about things like brain development. “Just give me the highlights,” I say. I’m not a superhero, just a willing damsel in distress, happily tied to the train tracks of unhealthy information.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
When I wasn’t sitting in traffic, I was sitting at Starbucks, grading student work. They have to submit weekly writing exercises based on Brian Kiteley’s book of prompts, The 3 a.m. Epiphany. And because I believe in making the writing process transparent at all levels (but really because I’m self-centered and think the prompts are fun), occasionally I’ll submit my own. Here’s what I came up with this week. And yes, it takes place in Starbucks.
Exercise 79: Mistaken Identity: Write a fragment of a story in which the first person narrator is mistaken for someone else by a stranger. The narrator, for whatever reasons you choose, decides to become this person she has been mistaken for.
Who Am I (What’s My Name?)
Was he talking to me? He was certainly looking at me, but my name was not T or anything T might be short for. It was disconcerting, too, because I’d just been looking at him, wondering if he was Snoop Dogg. He wasn’t—that became clear pretty quickly—but he was a super skinny black guy with an angular face and cornrows. Did Snoop Dogg even have cornrows these days? I might have been working with a portrait of Snoop circa 1997. I wasn’t exactly a diehard fan.
But like I said, it was weird: Here I was at Starbucks, and Snoop Dogg was calling my name. Well, not my name, but T’s name. Nickname. And maybe because I was a captive audience waiting for my Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte, I said, “Hey.”
“Man, I thought you lived all the way on the other side of town,” he said. “You staying around here now?”
“No, I’m still on the Westside.” Actually, this was true. “I’m out here for a meeting. Just trying to wake up a little before trying to make small talk, you know?” Also true.
“I hear you, I hear you. Hey, I saw your big news on Facebook!”
My last status update had been, Joanie French hearts Pumpkin Spice Lattes. I think the one before that was, Joanie French is counting the minutes till Friday. It occurred to me that maybe T was a lot more interesting than Joanie French.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Snoop continued. “My little T, all grown up. Remember at Pitney-Bowes, how Alicia used to bring her little brats to work sometimes and we were both like, Shoot me if I ever have kids, man.”
He laughed and sort of shook his head. Pitney-Bowes—that sounded so familiar. For a second, I slipped into another reality, or maybe the real reality bled over into this one, where I was in a pre-caffeine fog, getting ready to meet with another set of strangers, pretending I knew more about project-based learning than I did. If I could be that person, I could also be T. Maybe I had worked at Pitney-Bowes—I’d had so many temp jobs in my early twenties. I had at least a hundred Facebook friends whom I hadn’t seen in years, or had only met at conferences, or were, like, my cousin’s second husband. Maybe I was Facebook friends with Snoop Dogg.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m eating my words too. I got one of my own, little boy named Jeremiah. He’ll be three next month. My wife’s already got the jumper reserved, all that crazy shit. Can you believe it? I got a wife and a kid and we live in Eagle Rock.”
Snoop sounded as awed by his identity as I was by mine. I mean, T’s. Who had he been that having a family and living in Eagle Rock seemed like an improbable outcome? Someone more Snoop-like, maybe. But then I remembered: Pitney-Bowes was the name stamped on the postage machine at my office. I had never worked there, and anyone who had probably wasn’t some ghetto superstar.
“So, you know if you’re having a boy or a girl yet?” he asked.
“Girl,” I heard myself say. “We’re going to name her Miriam, after my grandmother.”
I had never said, Shoot me if I ever have kids, but I hadn’t yet started to want them. Or so I thought. But T did, and as T, I thought it might be nice to have a little girl and name her after my grandma. I thought it might be nice to be part of a “we,” to throw that term around like I wasn’t a single girl in a big city with 432 Facebook friends.
“You’re barely even showing yet,” Snoop said. “My wife, she got fat right away, even though supposedly you don’t with boys. Don’t tell her I said that. But you’re still skinny, girl. You just got a tiny little bump.”
“Pumpkin Spice Latte,” the barrista called out. I thought maybe I should stop ordering Ventis.
I reached for my drink. “I guess I should run to my meeting,” I said. “But it was good seeing you.”
“You too. You and your man should come to Jeremiah’s party. A couple of the old Pitney-Bowes crew will be there—Todd and maybe Roberto. I’ll Facebook you the details, ‘kay?”
“Thanks,” I said. “That would be nice.”
Friday, October 08, 2010
Not too many people showed. This may have been because it was 8:30 in the morning, but I was a little bit comforted to know that even “business forums”—not just literary events—have trouble drawing a crowd.
Or maybe everyone will just download the podcast later. That’s what Nick Bilton would say.
He’s a youngish guy, by which I mean about my age, which is increasingly less youngish. He wore a blazer and jeans and thick-rimmed glasses. “I know he lives in the future,” I whispered to AK as we walked in, “but he looks like he lives in Brooklyn.”
When he said, later, that he lived in Brooklyn, I felt further comforted. At least I know a thing or two about the present.
According to Nick Bilton and the book I will read in the near future, in the only-slightly-less-near future all content will be available all ways. You won’t need to do anything so archaic as go to different websites for different information. But while new things and ideas will burst into the world in multiple formats (book, podcast, video, video game, Twitter feed), you’ll really only need one device in order to consume them, and it will probably be your phone. Not my phone, which takes blurry pictures and has no keyboard, but your phone. In the future.
He said that because of this, Marshall McLuhan’s big idea of the medium being the message is no longer true. The message is now the message. Hurray! We’re free! Except later Nick Bilton said that we buy books because we wouldn’t want all that info on Post-It notes—i.e. we pay for a certain type of media experience—in which case the medium is still at least part of the message.
But I don’t fault Nick Bilton for a little inconsistency. He secretly lives in the present just like the rest of us. All we can do is guess: Is it true that our visual skills will sharpen from playing video games and soon most of our storytelling—whether fictional or nonfictional—will be interactive and awesome? Or, as Malcolm Gladwell counters, is clicking “like” on a Facebook cause a sorry excuse for activism which will never bring about real change because it’s so damn shallow? The answers are probably yes and yes.
Nick Bilton emphasized that he’s not an internet utopian. He worries about privacy. He did not declare all old things dead. He thinks we’ll probably still read books (or at least e-books) as literature, even as our history-class texts morph into history-class video games.
I will always have a special place in my heart for my AP U.S. history book, The American Pageant, so I appreciated his historical examples of people who freaked out about new innovations—like the doctors who thought riding on trains would make people’s bones explode. He did not bring up examples of inventions that have harmed people, like the X-ray machines in shoe stores that my mom remembered from her childhood, where you could watch your toe bones wiggle.
Despite all the unanswered questions, I appreciated Nick Bilton’s positive spin. I’m tired of worrying that writing a novel is as pointless and self-indulgent as taking up a medieval instrument. It’s nice to think that people may just listen to novels and medieval music on their ear buds, and that this is fine. I’m tired of worrying that my future kids will be violence-crazed cyborgs with five-second attention spans. I’m awfully tired for someone with so much future in front of her, probably because I’ve been told by my parents and the media (in different ways) that the future is inherently scary.
Nick Bilton’s future is a glimmering net, where people still get together for dinner parties but can call up an image of anything they want. Glinda the Good Witch arrives in her shiny bubble. Everything is democratized and personalized, if maybe a little too personalized. Your frying pan knows you like your eggs sunny side up, but will you ever learn to try them over easy? Here I go again.
All I want on any given day is for someone to tell me it will all be okay—which is a problematic thing to want, but it was nice that Nick Bilton was that person today. Who knows who it will be in the future?
P.S. The past is always a tad more fascinating than the future to me, which is part of why I love Susan Straight’s writing (how’s that for a transition?). She makes history as vivid as the present, and modern times timeless. I’m so excited for her new book, Take One Candle Light a Room. Come see her read Tuesday, 10/12 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight!
Thursday, October 07, 2010
Matt: You’re a vegetarian, right?
Me [making eggs in the kitchen]: Technically I’m a pescatarian. I eat fish, but not beef or poultry or anything.
Matt: Then I guess whether or not you eat eggs depends where you stand on abortion. Like, when does life begin? You’re eating a fetal chicken.
Both times, I explained the miracle of life: An egg has to be fertilized before it can turn into a chicken. I wasn’t eating fetal chicken. I was eating the equivalent of a chicken’s period. (Sorry, I hope you’re not eating right now.)
Work Cathy and I were discussing how much or little science education we received in elementary school. I remembered building a rock collection in kindergarten and weighing guinea pigs with little metric scales in Mrs. Graham’s sixth grade class. I also remembered how, in tenth grade biology, Mr. K wanted to start the year off with sex ed, even though our textbook wouldn’t get to “family life” until Chapter 15. Mr. K was a little bit of a pervert.
But I guess I learned where babies come from. Now that more people I know are having them and my ears have perked up to such things, I’m amazed by how much I still have to learn. The fact that one’s period serves as more than just biblical punishment only truly sunk in recently. It makes the cramps marginally less sucky.
I try to buy free-range eggs these days, and I’ve noticed that a lot of them have a tiny spot of blood in the yolk. In other words: fertilized. Those free-range chickens really like to free range, if you know what I mean. I always fry those eggs up anyway.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: There is a tightly written story of two sisters and their competing histories contained within the many pages of this sweeping historical epic. I took the former for somewhat superficial (Pearl is the smart sister, May is the pretty one, been there, read that) until the final chapters, when it becomes clear that we've been reading Pearl's very subjective take on her family's journey, and that See's characterizations are entirely strategic.
See's impressive strengths as a plotter and researcher are hindered a bit by her overly expository language. Even as I geeked out on the many, many factoids she provided about roaring 1930s Shanghai and paranoid post-war L.A. Chinatown, I kind of wanted her to dial it back. When a character pauses to tell you about the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act, rather than just chafing at its effects, you just want to shoo the author out of the room. But while my inner history nerd and inner unsatisfied poet battled it out, I tore through this addictive novel.
The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg: My freshman-year roommate once accused me of always interrupting people to tell stories about myself. My defense then and now is that this is how people relate--through stories. But after reading The Art of Mending, which constantly interrupts its own narrative to tell representative anecdotes about friends of friends, I can see how this could be an annoying habit. The Art of Mending is a novel about memory--specifically, how one child can grow up in an abusive household while her siblings have a totally different experience. So the constant mining of stories and memories is thematically appropriate, but after a while it felt like the author was throwing in stories-within-stories to flesh out a weak plot. The family psychology here is fascinating, so she shouldn't have needed to.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: My long commute is helping me fill in the significant gaps in my canonical knowledge, thanks to books on CD. This one has earned its place on syllabi everywhere (that is, everywhere except the American Lit and Culture classes I took, in which we discussed the racism portrayed in Beverly Hills 90210). I envied Edith Wharton's ability to describe the most intricate, ridiculous yet life-shattering social conventions. Wharton performs the radical and still relevant work of demonstrating how class divisions and gender roles leave even their apparent beneficiaries impotent, but I also loved the moderate epilogue. She seems to say that history marches on even when its individual players get weary and fall out of step. There's comfort in that, and maybe because I'm past my own age of innocence, I like a little comfort with my radicalism.
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett: After rereading The Big Sleep last year and now reading this, I've decided I'm definitely on Team Dashiell rather than Team Chandler. The narration is tight and funny, the girls are a little less hysterical and Nick Charles doesn't think they all want to sleep with him the way Philip Marlowe does. Nora is the coolest chick ever--I love when Nick throws her down to protect her from a bullet and she laments that he blocked her view of the action. But somehow I still found the story itself a slog, ironically because it was so quick-moving. Am I saying I'd prefer a cozy? How about a cozy starring Nora Charles?
Friday, October 01, 2010
I wanted to ride that feeling straight to bed, pausing only for the leftover half of AK’s burrito from Señor Fish and leftover espresso brownies from Christine, but Team Gato was having none of it.
Ferdinand was mysteriously MIA, which is not uncommon after dinner, but very rare when he hasn’t eaten.
“It is Thursday night,” AK mused. “Do you think he has a gig? Thursday’s a big party night.”
We talk a lot about how Ferdinand is a DJ. He’s cool like that, although in real life, loud noises frighten him, so he’d be a very mellow DJ. Think Garth Trinidad. Or anything that doesn’t sound too much like a garbage truck or someone coughing. He hates those things.
My tendency is to worry whenever possible, but I was really tired, so if AK had said, “Let’s just see him in the morning,” I probably would have gone for it. AK’s tendency is not to worry, but she loves Ferdinand so much that she makes up careers for him.
So we rallied and got flashlights and wandered around the neighborhood calling him. We’d made it halfway down the street that’s perpendicular to ours and had turned around to try another direction when we heard his signature meow (which is a little higher than he’d probably like to admit).
I swung my flashlight beam up the driveway where the sound was coming from and saw two bright eyes. Normally Ferd would come running at this point, but he didn’t. So we walked closer and saw that the two eyes were behind a metal grate in the crawl space of someone’s house.
Apparently this was typical Ferd back in the day. AK claims her ex had a sixth sense: She’d sit up in the middle of the night and say, “Ferdinand is trapped somewhere!” Neighbors had to be roused to set him free from garages and other inescapable places.
Luckily this particular grate popped off with the push of a lever. Ferdinand trotted out, purred a little bit more than usual and then was like, “What’s for dinner?”