Thursday, April 29, 2010

sometimes i envy the amish*

Things I’m worrying about today:
  • The fact that my cell phone is going to give me a brain tumor. No, really.
  • The fact that I’m too lazy and/or addicted to modern life to return to the way of the landline.
  • Planning my vacations. ‘Cause, you know, not getting the best possible deal on airfare is right up there with racial profiling and torture and brain tumors.
  • The fact that OC has taken to barfing up his special food, substituting one health issue for another.
  • The fact that I forgot to call the vet today, not because I was so busy writing my congressperson or even working but because I was thinking about my vacations.
  • The fact that life sometimes seems to spin faster and faster, even though I’m almost positive I could make choices that would make it less spinny.
  • The maze that is health insurance. Even good health insurance. Even the kind with doctors who are in almost no danger of being abducted by the military.
  • The fact that maybe my circus novel is structured in a boring, too-easy way. I’m in the middle of T.C. Boyle’s The Women and even though I’m not totally in love with it, he does really smart things with narration and chronology. Should I fuck with the timeline in my novel somehow? Then again, there’s something to be said for keeping things simple.


*This was especially true in my bonnet-wearing, Little House-loving youth. Back then I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than sitting on the porch churning butter, gazing at your pony as he nibbled sugar cubes. Now it doesn’t seem quite as cool, but it does seem really restful. And, let’s be honest, boring, which is why I’ve complicated my life with the above. But still. Homemade butter and ponies!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

lines and tigers and bread, oh my

I just made a bunch of sandwiches to take to the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Unlike some outdoor events, which are all about the food (funnel cake! that corn dripping with mayo that always looks so tasty but way too messy for an OCD girl like myself to even attempt!), LATFOB has apparently contracted with only the most corporate and boring food vendors. So instead of waiting in line forty minutes for a Panda Bowl, AK and I will be eating PB&J on the slightly odd bread I made a few days ago.

I substituted almonds for walnuts, currants for raisins and, for oatmeal…Cheerios. Trader Joe’s O’s, technically. Even though the bread machine recipe book is plastered with warnings about substitutions—it’s like they knew I was coming—it all turned out surprisingly well.

So, yeah, I’m starting to feel summery and outdoorsy. I’m wanting to pack lunches and wear sundresses paint my toenails (which I also just did, an Orange Crush orange). But I actually logged in to recommend an indoor event.

Thursday night AK and I saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the newly refurbished Mark Taper Forum, which now sort of looks like the Landmark Theatre in Westwood, all dark retro wood and green velvet. And very high quality paper towels in the bathrooms. AK grabbed a big stack for her car.

The play takes place in Iraq in 2003 and (spoiler alert, sort of) almost everyone dies, but nevertheless it’s still something of a comedy, with rapid-fire dialogue that is fresh and youthful (think soldier trying to explain the many meanings of “bitch” to his Iraqi interpreter).

The titular tiger is a thoughtful, existential beast with a tendency, he admits, to get stupid when he gets hungry. Which is how he comes to bite off the hand of a soldier offering him a Slim Jim, and how the soldier’s scared, even stupider buddy comes to freak out and shoot the tiger. The tiger is played by an older man in a schlumpy T-shirt and khakis. No ears, no tail.

This is how much logic there is to the violence in Baghdad, a place where a gardener can turn interpreter, reluctantly serving the Americans who are here to kill the Iraqi elite he used to reluctantly serve. It’s hard to find meaning in life or death, as both the living and the city’s many ghosts discover.

Although it’s a play about war, it is just as much a play about God, or God’s absence, or—as the play unfolds within the gardener’s ripped-apart fallen Eden of a palace yard—the ways we make our own heaven and hell. I can enjoy a hammered-home theme if it’s hammered home stylishly and smartly, but this play has none to offer. When it ended, I was taken off guard. That was it? But it worked, and we walked out of the theater feeling contemplative and a little hopeful.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

a sheep in mod's clothing

Next time I blow $50 at Forever 21, remind me that there are sites like this out there. In my head, this is how I dress. So if you’ve never met me in person, picture me wearing something like this. Even though in reality I’m wearing a plain gray T-shirt and jeans that I suspect may be too hip hop for my age and personality. I mean, I like the cut and color, but the back pockets have this dark blue embroidery on them—basically the same color as the jeans, but if you look closely, you can see that they’re fakey Chinese symbols which for some reason translates to, like, Baby Phat in my mind.

ModCloth is pricier than Forever 21 (I got like six items for my $50), but it’s not outrageous (well, not on the sale page) and they apparently buy from indie designers, which seems less oppressive than your average Banana Republic shopping spree, although technically indie designers are still capable of outsourcing to 12-year-olds in Indonesia.

I found the site by clicking on an ad on Go Fug Yourself, so I feel a little bit like a sheep, but a soon-to-be well-dressed sheep. Does everyone but me already know about ModCloth?

Speaking of shopping and related ethical issues, you know who is totally not following the herd? My friends Heather and Timothy, who registered at The Trevor Project for their wedding. I love that. Preventing queer teen suicide trumps a new gravy boat any day. Does it trump teal booties lined with orange silk? The verdict is still out. I’m kidding, okay?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

ignorance is bliss

I read Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days a bunch of years ago, but I still remember how he described the main character, a hacky junket journalist, as accustomed to being a passenger on the road of life. (I think VW used this phrase in their “Drivers Wanted” campaign too, but Whitehead did it with more poetic flair.) The notion struck me as uncomfortably familiar.

But lately I think I’ve passed my driver’s test—even if I took out a few orange cones along the way—so I feel like I’ve earned some passenger time. This weekend I didn’t teach anyone or moderate anything or coordinate a trip to the airport or even drag anyone along to a social event where I felt responsible for them having a good time.

Friday night I showed up during the third hour of a three-hour work event of AK’s. When I arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—already a disconcerting place with its 1970s Bob Mackie-esque interior—kids were parading down the staircase in lace gowns and painted calavera faces. A DJ spun Justin Timberlake and Rihanna with awkward transitions. The teenagers struck poses on a makeshift stage beneath a giant triptych of fire, scissors and a bird. All I knew was that the whole project had something to do with the Ring cycle.

Saturday at Lenise’s birthday party, I listened to her friends tell funny stories from their high school days as we all drank fishbowl margaritas. When the cops and paramedics came for a drunk couple and the handcuffed wife shouted, “I’ll dance the fuck to jail!” I thought, Seems like a good plan to me.

Today AK, Nicole, Leslie, Craig, Kenny and I went to a Dodger game. I know now that the Dodgers beat the Giants in a pitcher’s duel in which Manny Ramirez hit a two-run homer. But as I typed that, I had to ask AK, “What did you call it? A pitcher something? Would you put an apostrophe in that? And then Manny Ramirez scored, like, a double home run?”

During the actual game, I ate the PB&J on bread-maker bread we’d brought and washed it down with a soft pretzel left over from our movie-themed book club night. I talked with Kenny about Teen Steam and with Leslie about Glee and with Nicole about OkCupid. Every now and then, Nicole, a lifelong Giants fan, would say, “See, so now your pitcher is doing such and such.”

And I was like, “Oh? He’s my pitcher?”

He wasn’t my pitcher and it wasn’t my game, and that’s what has made this weekend great. When you’re completely clueless, you’re also at your most open. Maybe that’s what Buddhists mean by “child’s mind.” I just like putting adulthood on the back burner for a couple of days because most adult pursuits aren’t as important as you think they are anyway. No one really cares about the stupid bullshit I martyr myself for, so sometimes it’s incredibly nice to sit back and enjoy the fruits of someone else’s awesome laborious bullshit.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

there is a reason there’s no movie called how to train your cat

A long time ago, B and I rented Ice Age and thought it was cute that the DVD cover said, “Rated PG for mild peril.” Then we proceeded to grip the arms of our futon frame for 81 minutes as adorable Pleistocene creature after adorable Pleistocene creature faced peril that DID NOT SEEM MILD AT ALL.

So while my usual M.O. is to fall asleep when I watch movies on weeknights, when AK and I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the $3 Highland Park theater (“Not in 3-D!” announced the sign at the box office), I practically had a heart attack instead.

Not only were dozens of adorable mythic creatures in significant peril, but the main one, a Night Fury dragon named Toothless, bore a striking resemblance to our cat Ferdinand. Ferd even has a broken tail just like Toothless, so maybe that’s what’s kept him from flying all these years (though it hasn’t kept him from leaping on the kitchen counter or getting stuck on a roof or two). It was like seeing Ferd in peril.

The movie centers on a gawky Viking tween named Hiccup, who dreams of following in his father’s dragon-slaying footsteps until he befriends the injured Toothless. Then he learns (spoiler alert?) that dragons are not the terrors they seem, and that they’re in fact doing the bidding of a giant tyrannical super-dragon. The good dragons look like cats and birds and creatures you might find in a tide pool. The tyrannical super-dragon looks like a T-Rex with a few extra eyeballs.

It’s also my M.O. to search animated movies for political allegory, and at first I was disappointed that the story couldn’t just have the Vikings and dragons become friends and be done with it. (Israel and Palestine, anyone? Although, since the Vikings basically make pets out of the dragons, maybe any human-to-human allegory would be inherently problematic.) Instead the movie had to end with a big fight. Dragon blood—if tyrannical super-dragon blood—had to be spilled.

But then I thought, Well, maybe the super-dragon symbolizes a larger system that all of us have to free ourselves from. Because the movie was so effing cute, I’m going to stick with that read, even if deep down I suspect Dreamworks is not as radical as I want it to be. Also, I would gladly stab out all the eyeballs of anyone who tried to mess with my cat.

Monday, April 12, 2010

you are a single lady

To quote my friend Amy, "'Single Ladies' is the song that just keeps giving."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

so many writers

I just got back from the AWP conference in Denver—my second trip this week, which makes me worry that I’ll turn into a road-weary comedian who can only make jokes about airline food. And they don’t even have airline food anymore. (See, there’s one.)

AWP is creative writing’s big annual conference. I’d only been once before, when it was in Vancouver, but I think my coworker Sara summed it up well: “The first time I went, I was just starting my MFA and I was all bright-eyed, like, Oh my god! So many books! So many writers! And the second time I went, I was kind of in a dark place. I was like, Oh god…so many books…so many writers.

Everyone you know is there, meaning you don’t have time to see any of them, plus a lot of people you don’t know but should, but are too shy/tired/drunk to talk to.

At one point I met a tipsy friend of Colin’s at the Hyatt bar. He told me his first name and extended his hand, and I was like, “Oh, hi. You’re my boss.” This can happen if you teach in an all-online writing program. He was planning to fly from Denver straight to Berlin to spend six months writing poetry, so I’m actually not even sure whether he’s my boss anymore.

Another time Colin and I had this conversation:

Me: Anytime you get a bunch of the same type of person together, you realize that individuality is a complete delusion. In Vancouver, I kept thinking about how all the women had the same haircut I’d been wanting to get.

Colin [not referring to any particular, actual girl]: I sort of have a thing for the girl with the dark hair and glasses.

Me: Oh, she’s here. And this year she’s wearing very cute tights.

That was AWP. As for Denver, I didn’t see too much of it, but I did get to meet one of my students, who lived in the area and met AK and I for lunch. She was not tipsy. She was busy taking care of her cute-as-tights little boys, one squirmy, one mesmerized by ceiling fans. She mentioned nursing while bent over the computer, finishing her assignments for class—really good stories, I must add—and it gave me hope that there is literary life after children. That’s what I love about teaching: getting inspired by your students and, ideally, reciprocating. It’s almost as good as going to academic conferences and drinking a lot.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

i only use the word dildo twice in lilac mines

Last night I read in the RADAR series at the SF Public Library, which was a huge honor because I’ve admired curator Michelle Tea since I first read Valencia almost ten years ago. But the lineup was a little odd: Matilda Bickers (creative nonfiction writer and sometime stripper), Cyd Nova (creative nonfiction writer and sometime prostitute), Melissa Febos (former dominatrix whose memoir, Whip Smart, is all over the place right now)…and me (author of a novel about shy girls living in a ghost town).

One of these things was not like the others. I mean, I kissed Stephanie in a play once, but I didn’t get paid, so it probably still doesn’t count as sex work.

Nevertheless, the reading went pretty well and I didn’t feel like the sore thumb I might have. Mattilda read a story about shoplifting strippers that was funny and surprisingly innocent, and Cyd sort of generally kicked ass in both his reading and the Q&A by saying stuff about AIDS, gender, tricks and dirty apartments that few people would have had the guts to.

Then I took the mic and said I wanted to read something edgy but had written a book about a character who tries to be edgy and fails, so I was going to read about that instead. And it mostly worked, I think.

Melissa said that she, too, didn’t feel edgy enough because she was going to read a passage about her mom. But she also said she felt weird reading in a library, which was sort of like a church, because her book was full of the word “dildo.”

I thought that was mildly unfair: You can’t be an outcast nerd and an outcast bad girl. When Michelle called us all up for the Q&A, I think she’d had enough of our self-deprecation.

“Okay, come on up, all you squares,” she said, with an implied (but friendly) eye roll.

Afterward, Jenessa and I went to the Mission apartment of co-RADAR organizer chicks Ali Liebegott and her girlfriend Beth, where they fed us guacamole and bread and spaghetti sauce. They all told funny stories about touring with Sister Spit—reading in bars for angry sports fans, trying to keep their equipment from getting thrashed at punk rock dives. You know how there are anonymous blogs where waiters dish cathartically about their worst customers? I think there should be one for touring writers too. It would help me remember that not everyone reads to packed, book-buying houses every time.

Jenessa was getting over a bad cold, so we had to duck out, sadly, before Ali could really get rolling on a game she invented that involved diagnosing people with random disorders from the DSM. After a long BART ride back to Jenessa’s place in Oakland, we ate burritos in our pajamas and talked about high school. We’re edgy like that.

what i read in march

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: This is the first book about writing I've ever read--and then only because it was the required text for a class I was teaching. Luckily it's not really about the mechanics of writing, since I believe that those, like the mechanics of car repair, are best learned by trial, error and apprenticeship. Instead Bird by Bird is a warm, comforting and funny book about creating a writing life: about not getting bogged down by the myth that publication will solve all your problems, etc.

Even though I sometimes had a skeptical dialogue going with Lamott ("You published your first book in your mid-twenties and you pretty much never didn't have an agent"), her point is that writing is a great equalizer: Even privileged geniuses have to wring words from their computers one at a time. And I especially appreciated her discussions of envy and pettiness. If someone as spiritual and smart as Anne Lamott starts thinking mean things about her critics and successful friends, it must be human and okay. This book made me feel human and okay.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster: This is a book for book lovers: the story of a grieving academic who pours himself into studying the life and work of Hector Mann, a silent film star who disappeared at the height of his career. But that’s just one of several stories-within-stories, and the novel requires one leap of faith after another that each story will be interesting and relate to the others. Mostly my faith was rewarded. Many of the stories in this book are about (or serve as examples of) toiling in obscurity, whether self- or externally imposed, and it’s hard for any writer not to be moved by the idea that if a book is published in a forest and no one reads it, it still has meaning. Process counts. So even as I found this book slow and sometimes cold and frustratingly meta, I also found it a beautiful shrine to the unknown artist.

Broken Ground by Kai Maristed: When I think about the things I liked and didn't like about this book (the story of a German woman who spends her life crossing familial, national and political borders, with deep personal consequences), I almost feel like I'm sitting in a workshop hearing a critique of my own writing: The language is artful but a little too flourishy; the story is layered and social but the plot meanders until the point where it's wedged into a meh ending; the main character is hard to love. But I should add something no one's ever told me in a critique, unfortunately: Kai Maristed can write a hot sex scene.

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey: This is the third novel I've read in recent years that casts a wary but sympathetic eye on late-sixties radicalism (the others were American Woman by Susan Choi and The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez), and I've loved each of them. This one is less overtly political, possibly because it's partially told from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, with gritty, impressionistic descriptions that often required me to reread. It's a kidnapping story that turns into an adoption story, with lots of meandering adventures in the Australian outback in between and a heart-swelling surprise on the very last page.

Monday, April 05, 2010

birthday break…and now back to your regularly scheduled burnout

1. in which i anthropomorphize both my birthday and my brain

I almost forgot my own birthday this year. Which I think is rude. My birthday was like, “Hey, remember me?” And I was like, “Sorry, gotta grade student portfolios. Maybe I’ll catch you next year when you turn 34?”

Then, lo and behold, I finished grading a day early. Workaholism has its perks. AK colluded with my birthday, and together they made a tasty pasta dinner (with bread crumbs, onions, sardines and parsley, which sounds a little odd but is in fact amazing) and took me to see Greenberg. I was so happy that day that I put Cold War Kids’ “Santa Ana Winds” on repeat and alternately rocked out and cried. It just felt so good to have my brain back—to be able to devote my thoughts to something other than my to-do list. Driving down Avenue 50, I could gaze at people on the sidewalk and make up little stories about them. I could contemplate the characters in my circus novel. I could theorize about whether skinny jeans were here to stay.

But by Saturday morning—my actual birthday—my brain retreated again. I guess it remembered that I needed to clean the house before the book club came over and before another week of traveling. Also, my flu made a brief but attention-getting comeback and the vet called to tell me he doesn’t like OC’s kidney levels or the crystals in his urine. I did not like those things either. And because I was too fried by life to fully register the bad, if vague, news (that my wonderful orange chatterbox is basically a man in his sixties with all the accompanying health concerns), I was just like, Fuck, now I have to go pick up special expensive food?

2. i am like a doctor with many borders

On Easter Sunday, after the earthquake, my sister and I discussed Haiti vs. Chile.

Me: Chile had it rough, but they kind of had their shit together before the fact, so now it’s like everyone’s sort of forgotten about it.

Cathy: I know! But that was a huge quake.

Me: But Haiti had so many things stacked against it before.

Cathy: Yeah, so the earthquake just sort of did them in.

Me: Kind of like how when I was trying to clean my house and deal with the news about OC, I realized my sink was leaking too.

Cathy: Um, yeah, exactly like that.


3. the belvedere tennis club follows me wherever i go

Anyway, I did rally long enough to have a pretty great birthday. When people first started arriving for our discussion of The Book of Illusions/eating of tres leches cake, I found myself annoyed that they’d brought food. Which they wanted to put in my nice clean bowls, on my nice clean table. But then I just surrendered to all of it, including the part where my awesome friends bring me food. Surrendering should sometimes be the first thing you do instead of the last.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s funny and comforting and deeply spiritual memoir about being the single mother of an infant. Having a busy schedule and a leaky sink is probably not remotely comparable to her challenges (and possibly not Haiti’s either), but it’s still great to be reminded that, “When I’m coming apart like a two-dollar watch, it helps me beyond words to look at myself through the eyes of Mary, totally adoring and gentle, instead of through the critical eyes of the men at the Belvedere Tennis Club, which is how I’ve looked at myself nearly all my life.”

So what if I started my year of being 33 with a mild tantrum? Mary’s cool with it, and AK was too. She drove to the vet and picked up the special cat food. Then we book clubbers ate movie-themed food (hot dogs both veggie and real, Hawaiian-style popcorn with Nori Maki rice crackers, microwave burritos, soft pretzels) and tried to flip a coin when our vote for next month’s book yielded a tie (The Mansion of Happiness vs. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind). There was a lot of “Wait, heads it’s the poetry book? Or heads it’s whichever one I voted for?” and “Dammit, this is a Mexican coin! Okay, so ‘1’ equals heads…does anyone have a quarter?”

We arrived at The Mansion of Happiness, and after a beer and a long nap the next day, I think it’s safe to say I arrived at the duplex of contentedness. But I am still fantasizing about a non-working vacation with AK to any place where someone will bring me a drink with an umbrella in it and not want to talk about publishing.