Friday, September 30, 2011

coming late to the bake sale debate, and other lazy activism

1. ward, my old frenemy

Ward Connerly was on the radio this morning, speaking against Senate Bill 185, which would allow public universities in California to consider race as a factor in admissions once again. Recently, Connerly has made headlines via cupcake-based performance art (who knew he and Karen Finely had so much in common?), a story I only caught the tail end of. Mostly, I remember that name from my own UC days.

He was the villain in UCLA’s hottest controversy, which was affirmative action. I started college as a moderate conservative who thought affirmative action was unfair because the only (apparent) beneficiaries I knew had the same upper middleclass upbringing I did. A few years and many consciousness-raising classes disguised as “American lit” courses later, I was attending my first protest ever: a tent city set up in the courtyard between Royce Hall and Powell Library to protest Connerly’s pet proposition, 209.

The night was sparkly. The tents looked like a fairyland in the lamplight of the courtyard. I said a shy hello to some Daily Bruin folks I knew. Then, as far as I can remember, I just stood around for a while.

It was the start of a sporadic and unimpressive track record as an activist. I can count three protests I’ve been to since then, and two of those were against Prop. 8. For some reason I feel like it doesn’t quite count if the issue affects me directly, though of course political movements are most effective when led by people full of righteous anger.

I was curious what I’d think of Connerly now. A cynical part of me wonders if my collegiate activism—which mostly took the form of seeing Rent a lot and having long arguments with my dad, in which I tried to explain to him why he was The Man and not in a good way—was just an attempt to be cool. My peers in Manhattan Beach had opposed affirmative action, so I did too; when I got new peers, I went along with them.

2. remind me to tell you about the essay i wrote comparing “a dream deferred” to drill team tryouts

To my relief, Ward Connerly still pissed me off, especially when he told his own story of going to community college and a Cal State because he couldn’t afford a UC, even though he had the grades. The implication was, If I can pull myself up by my bootstraps, so can you.

There are some kids who would excel under almost any circumstances, and maybe Connerly was one of them, and there are some who would fail no matter what. But I know deep in my soul that I’m in the 95 percent in the middle, who could go either way. There but for the grace of circumstance go us. Or there but for the lack of the grace of circumstance go us in some crappier direction.

Connerly was also quick to say that poor Vietnamese kids do great in school, so poor black and Latino parents must be to blame for the fact that their kids often don’t. I do think that all struggles have to be fought on many fronts and, sure, parenting is one of them. But to reduce centuries of oppression and some very important differences between cultures to basically not trying hard enough is an asshole move.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Connerly is a complete idiot. In general I think economic status is a better measure of adversity than race, and that when we address economic disadvantage in America, we help the people of color who need the most help. But just as wealthy kids of color have an advantage over poor kids of color, so do poor white kids have an advantage over poor kids of color. For lack of a better term, poor white kids can pass.

Also, let’s not forget that this isn’t just about choosing the lucky few who will be granted entrance to the Land of Success. This is about creating a better society. Hordes of uneducated, disenfranchised young people don’t benefit anyone. How do you think suicide bombers are made?

Of course, as Connerly was quick to point out, there are a zillion factors that can cause a young person to struggle. Maybe you lost a parent, or moved around a lot, or have a learning disability, or are the only Jewish kid at your school, or are really, horribly unattractive. That, as any AP English teacher will be quick to remind you, is what the personal essay is for.

It’s the one piece of the college application that does not reduce you to a number, though it certainly has its own weird demands—for example, the notion that you should be telling a story of triumph over adversity in the first place. But the closer life gets to an essay test—even if that means just adding more check boxes—the better. And if life could maybe not be a test at all, that would be even more amazing. Actually, that would be called CalArts.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

cities beautiful

I’ve taken up a lot of server space in the blogosphere lately, so I’ll keep this short. (Also, I should go to bed.) But I just saw a great movie and you should see it too. Urbanized is a documentary that explores just what the hell we’re supposed to do with the fact that something like 75 percent of the world’s population will live in a city within the next few years. Mumbai has 36 million people, the majority of whom live in slums where there is one toilet per 900 people.*

I like most documentaries because if they’re even halfway decently made, I learn something. But a lot of them either illuminate a terrible problem (and are therefore depressing) or are uplifting but only because they focus on one tiny triumph of the human spirit. It was really refreshing to see a movie about a problem no less serious than the exhaustion of our planet, that actually highlighted solutions.

In Bogotá, a former mayor put bike lanes in the center of the streets and implemented a “subway on wheels” bus system that was more flexible and much easier to build than an underground rail system. In a South African township, a nonprofit has installed lighting and staffed “lookout points” that have reduced crime by forty percent. In Detroit, urban farmers have reclaimed vacant lots.

What the solutions have in common is that they’re so different—they’re tailor-made to their communities and based on actual human behavior, not on the bird’s-eye perspective of some “visionary.”

I saw the movie with AK, Christine, Jody, Pedro and Stephen. Christine has a master’s in urban planning and was critical of a lot of aspects of the film, especially the fact that it sort of overlooked the need for economic development. I’m sure she’s right, and the filmmaker, who was there for a Q&A, was the first to admit that the movie is the tip of a very large iceberg, as are the partial solutions it highlights. Still, it was nice to see a movie about the future of the world that made me feel good about the future of the world.


*I'm probably remembering all these numbers wrong. But the point is, they're big.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

9/24/11: drive and driving

We poked around downtown Whitefish, which is very Cute-with-a-capital-C, for a while, but everything was closing for the day and I didn’t need a $300 purple fringed jacket anyway (do I need a $20 purple fringed jacket? Possibly).

So we went to the movie theater on the Not Cute southern end of town, in a mostly vacant mall that hadn’t seen a facelift since the ‘80s. We saw Drive and it was strange to see L.A. all lit up and infinite on screen as we sat there with one other couple in a tiny town in Montana.

Drive was almost a good movie. I’m usually one to favor mood over plot, but we got the feeling that some scenes explaining huge coincidences in the story may have gotten cut to make room for long close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s slowly clenching fist.

Also, Carey Mulligan’s character—a Denny’s waitress with a young son and a thing for bad boys—didn’t quite make sense. I think Carey Mulligan is hugely talented, and I loved An Education and Never Let Me Go, but she seemed more innocent and regal than the role required. A better casting choice would have been Christina Hendricks, who played a petty criminal and did a lot with the couple of lines she had. But of course it’s not really a movie about the women anyway. Although it does a pretty good job with its who’s a villain?/who’s a hero? theme. And Carey Mulligan has a really cute apartment.

Where were we?

Right, Montana.

This morning we drove back, down the west side of Flathead Lake this time. At the airport AK had to get escorted back through security to put a bottle of lotion and a jar of huckleberry jam in her checked bag. When she returned, she said, “God, everyone’s so nice. Can you imagine how that would have gone in L.A.?”

We decided Montana’s official motto should be: Montana: We’re so nice we make Canadians seem douchey.

9/23/11: red rock and whitefish

This morning we hiked to Red Rock Falls, where we saw a moose (tall!) and some grizzlies (through a telescope!).

This afternoon we checked into the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, which has turned out to be posher than we realized. I spent some time in the Swiftcurrent giftshop yesterday reading this coffee table book about the great old lodges of the National Parks—they have their own architectural style, which his sort of rustic-lux. The Grouse Mountain Lodge is in that tradition.

Everything in Whitefish seems to be, actually. There are lots of real estate offices. And the group of Canadian guys who checked in ahead of us, with their golf bags and spiky hair and Jersey Shore pecs on the verge of giving way to beer bellies, made me speculate that there was a douche bag convention in town.

At AK’s urging, I’m reading A River Runs Through It. The narrator’s brother is this smart but super country bar-brawler guy. I hope the convention runs into him out on the town tonight.

9/22/11: take a hike

The great thing about wearing yourself out is that relaxing feels so incredible afterward. Right now AK is sitting next to me in the lobby of the inn (we’re staying in a cabin nearby), drinking a Coke and reading Vanity Fair and looking like the happiest girl in the world.

Before that, we hiked 11 miles roundtrip to Grinell Glacier. When I was younger—even when I visited Malaysia—I remember thinking that Africa and continents with rainforests had really scored in the nature department. The flora and fauna of North America were just sort of…beige.

But I would like to humbly rescind that assessment. Some things we saw on our hike:

  • Another bear, which triggered my flight-or-photo mechanism. I was dubious about continuing on the trail, but we staked out a space between two other couples and decided there was safety in numbers. The couple in front, whom we nicknamed Northface, had cameras with telephoto lenses and seemed like they were trying to lose us. The other couple, recent University of Washington grads, was friendlier. We developed a sort of call-and-response thing with them to ward off bears. I defaulted to cheerleader mode and yelled “Woo!” every minute or so.

  • A herd of big-horned sheep, as vivid and majestic as the ones I’ve seen in Natural History Museum dioramas. Maybe more so, since they weren’t stuffed and dead-eyed. They were placidly nibbling grass, and when they leaped across the trail or scampered up the mountain, you could see the power in their haunches. They have buns of steel.

  • Three lakes, one as brilliantly turquoise as any Hawaiian beach. But probably a little colder.

  • A glacier. I know they’re very important environmentally, but to be honest, it pretty much looked like snow.

9/21/11: city mouse, country mouse

1. rush hour with bears

Last night we ate dinner at a place called the Silk Road—and in case you’re wondering where Missoula keeps its fusion restaurants and funk stores, it’s on The Hip Strip. It’s actually called that.

The Silk Road’s schtick is international tapas. It’s a pretty new restaurant and when we walked in, the host/possible manager or owner asked where we were from and proceeded to explain how tapas worked, then sort of half apologized, like, Oh, you’re from L.A., you must be cosmopolitan. (Other people just said, “Is there any time of day that isn’t rush hour?”)

But the trying-so-hard vibe was friendly and the food would hold up to or surpass any place in L.A. For $26 plus tip, we had fried goat cheese ravioli, seared shrimp with grilled peaches, an amazing pile of savory French-ish mushrooms and a dessert appropriately named “The Bombe”—chocolate-covered sea salt-flavored ice cream cake.

Then we walked along the river and watched the multigenerational skaters at the skate park, which looked like a lunar landscape at night. I might have had second thoughts about that walk if I’d known that bears lingered nearby: On the way back to our motel, I shouted at AK to stop the car.

“It’s a baby bear!”

A black bear with a loping gait crossed in front of our headlights before disappearing into a patch of landscaping outside the neighboring hotel, the C’mon Inn. (It’s actually called that.)

I’ve been camping in bear country dozens of times and received all kinds of conflicting advice about what to do if I encounter one, but this was the first time I actually saw one. What we did: kept driving until we got to our hotel, where we proceeded to talk a lot about how cute he was.

2. we’ll be comin’ round the mountain about two hours late

This morning after a run by the river, we hit the road and headed up to Glacier National Park. And except for a lunch at a cute café run by nuns, all we did was drive. It should have taken us about four and a half hours, but instead it took almost six and a half. The main road through the very big park was closed, so we basically had to sail around Cape Horn instead of cutting through Panama.

It was a pretty drive—hills of evergreen forests broken up by wide yellow plains. We got to see a little bit of the Blackfeet reservation and listen to most of Nora Epron’s I Remember Nothing on CD. But when these amazing vistas opened in front of us—huge craggy mountains that cast shadows across blue-gray lakes—we were too exhausted to appreciate it.

What I did appreciate—what made me want to fall down and kiss the ground—was the sight of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, with cars and humans clustered around it, a garlicky smell coming from the Italian restaurant and dumb tchotchkes for sale. I am a city girl at heart.

9/20/11: keep missoula beered

1. zootown is my kinda town

We landed in Missoula yesterday afternoon, and even though it took us an hour to locate our bags in the tiny airport, we could quickly tell this was a great town. The lone, harried employee at the Delta counter was as patient as a kindergarten teacher. Then again, not one of the dozens of people whose flights had been messed up due to some sort of snafu was making a stink. And when we asked the rental car place whether I could be added free as a driver, because AK and I are Canadian-married, he didn’t miss a beat before saying yes.

Yesterday was our bumming-around-Missoula day. We hit a thrift store, explored downtown with its charming old cottages and winding river, and finished the day at the Iron Horse Brew Pub, a place with a menu after my own too-many-flavors heart: salsa-flavored sour cream! Honey pesto scallops! A cocktail called the chai-tini! Everyone gathered around the TV to watch the Charlie Sheen roast, where we were all blinded by Seth MacFarlane’s creepy white teeth.

Today has been more of an adventure day. We started off with a “river float.” AK wanted to try whitewater rafting, and if this were an essay in a women’s magazine, the story would be, “I was feeling shaken and fragile after a difficult year. Taking up whitewater rafting made me feel strong again.” But instead I just said no, and she booked us a non-whitewater raft ride.

We shoved off in four inflatable teal rafts—we being AK and I, our five guides and thirty mostly European tour guides testing things out to see if they wanted to bring their countrymen to Western Montana. In our boat were an Englishman, a guy from Arizona who liked to tell stories about eating road kill and scorpions, and two German women who said of the raft full of singing French guides, “It’s been like a French musical all week.”

The trip was staffed by what I’m realizing is a common type here: the REI hipster who may have left a hometown like mine (where he may have been president of the Ecology Club) for a place like Humboldt State or U of Montana. He talks with a bit of a brah and can geek out in a conversation about ski jackets. I mostly like this type.

The river itself: smooth, shallow, surrounded by hills, some of them drenched in gold-pink light that rivals L.A.’s, some casting shadows and nearly freezing our toes off.

2. young men and fire

In the afternoon, we went to the Smokejumpers Center, which is a base and training site for guys who parachute into forest fires. That’s right. They are firefighters who jump out of planes.

I don’t usually go for beefcake-y guys, or men in uniform, or men for that matter, but sensitive, green-eyed guys with super elite training who kind of look like Daniel Craig and give you a free bottle opener from the gift shop? Sign me up.

He showed us the hundred-pound pound suits they wear, with gear in one pocket and miscellaneous personal items in the other. One guy’s had a big bottle of Sriracha sauce in it. When we learned that their food rations consisted largely of Spam, it made sense.

Daniel Craig also told us all kinds of amazing facts about the history of smokejumping, which started in 1939:

  • During World War II, the Japanese had a plan to divert U.S. war resources by parachuting into the U.S. and starting forest fires. They were actually successful a few times, even killing a farming couple in Oregon, but they started too late in the year for the fires to get very big. (If only they’d had global warming, with its year-round fire season, on their side.)

  • A lot of smokejumpers did go to Europe or Asia during WWII. Their spots on the home front were filled by an all African-American division and by conscientious objectors who nevertheless wanted to help their country through a tough time.

  • They still use a WWII plane, the DC-3, for many of their jumps.

  • They can also suggest great post-tour activities, like visiting the Big Sky Brewery, which offers free samples of Moose Drool Brown Ale and Slow Elk Oatmeal Stout.

glaciers and smokejumpers and bears, oh my

We just got back from Montana. The short version? We loved it. The long version? Read my travel journal in the next few posts.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

sadly howling wolves

It was a regular, busy weekend in a lot of ways. AK and I babysat Kohana, which consisted mostly of keeping one ear on the baby monitor while we watched old episodes of Roseanne on TV. I went to a sort of Tupperware-party-for-clothes thing at my sister’s house. And we packed for our trip to Montana next week.

But in the middle of all of that was Rachel’s memorial. The main one was in Denver, where she and Jeff and their kids moved about a year and a half ago, but they had roughly a thousand friends in L.A., so Jeff said goodbye twice. Or, more likely, he said goodbye quietly on his own and then endured as the rest of us attempted to wade through this absurd event. I imagine it’s like being drafted as the male lead in a really nightmarish play, this huge audience analyzing your performance.

I don’t know, maybe it’s not like that at all.

At first it just felt like a big barbecue, with really amazing tacos at the home of some people from Jeff and Rachel’s church. They lived in this fantastic, rambling old house in the foothills that used to be the carriage house of a Greene and Greene mansion. It would have been a great place for a wedding.

One of the many uncomfortable things about death is that people mourn the particular version of the deceased that they knew, and they all mourn in their own way. So if some people wanted to “give glory to God” a lot at a time when I wanted to give glory to Rachel, I had to find a way to be okay with that. Rachel knew and loved most people there much better than she knew me.

People shared funny and heartfelt memories about Rachel’s leadership skills and determination to cook eggplant for a house full of eggplant haters. It would have been kind of random for me to share anything, but if I had, this is what I would have said:

During the months when Rachel was feeling like shit and pretty much looking death in the face everyday, she took the time to email me when she heard about my miscarriage. She wrote: “I remember my miscarriage was so painful and the recovery not as quick as I hoped, and that is just the physical side. I hope you know that you are so likely to be just fine and have a great little baby (babies!). It is tough to keep going. I hope you are able to take your time on this one. Much love to you both in this process.” She was a person who cared deeply about other people in a pragmatic, funny, nonchalant way, and it seemed entirely wrong that we were all plodding through the motions of mourning as if her being gone was okay.

Because of her email, and because she was diagnosed the same week we lost the Squeakies, the two events will always be entwined for me, I think. Call it The Summer Of Awfulness. And so, even though I’ve been feeling much better overall (and I couldn’t stop thinking about how Jeff’s awfulness still has many chapters to come), I sobbed through and after the service last night in ways that transcended all reason. At one point every pore of my face was swollen with snot and saltwater. I felt like a bit of a drama queen.

Tonight Rachel and AK’s friend Suzie made pizza for a small group of us, including Jeff and the two small daughters he’s unfairly charged with raising on his own now. Mostly they drew pictures and played on Suzie’s husband’s iPad and pretended to be wounded animals at the animal hospital. I know they’ll be fine, but I also know they’ll be scarred forever, like the bears with injured paws or the sadly owoowoowooing wolves they played.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

a whole bill o’ wrongs

1. pettin’ in the park

The other day, Peter of Plastic Bubble World shared this blog post from a self-proclaimed “scientist turned homemaker and joyful convert to Catholicism.” Here’s the executive summary: She’s seen a little same-sex PDA at her community pool and local park, and she’s terrified, because how will she protect her children’s innocence now? What is she supposed to tell her daughter when she befriends a child with two “mommies.” (Her quotation marks probably irk me more than anything. If you care for a child, you are a parent. Period.)

Oh, and she’s also not down with the fact that her tax dollars fund “contraception, abortion, and IVF” and that an undocumented immigrant killed a child while driving drunk. I know a South Park fan who got a DUI, so I’m thinking South Park fans might be a danger to society too.

Also, I would like the number of whatever government department or free clinic funds IVF, because maybe I can file some paperwork and get reimbursed.*

Sorry. I did have a point here, and it’s not that this woman is crazy. She and her supportive commenters** actually seem disturbingly well educated, except for the obvious ways in which they’re not. My point is about the “right to protect my children’s innocence” part.

The religious right has a history of playing—and twisting—the persecuted minority card. The pro-Prop. 8ers talk a lot about the “people’s right” to amend the state constitution, i.e. some people’s right to oppress other people.

Catholic Mom closes her post by saying, “But that just adds to everything else I'm being asked to tolerate. Seriously, is this freedom?”

“Freedom” does not mean getting to do everything you want to do. The notion that it does is very privileged and very American. I get it, though, because hey, I’m privileged and American and I also want to do the things I want to do. I want to be a mommy, or a “mommy,” as much as I’ve ever wanted anything. I sort of think it’s my right. Except it isn’t. It’s just a wonderful thing that might or might not happen.

So, Catholic Mom, you don’t have a right to protect your children’s innocence at the expense of other people’s actual, listed-in-the-Constitution rights.

2. all cats go to heaven, and some go too soon

Temecula is the most outgoing of our three cats. She quickly won the hearts of our next-door neighbor Jennifer and her three-year-old daughter Claudia. I love puttering around the yard and hearing Claudia exclaim, delightedly, “Mecula!”

The other day, Jennifer emailed AK and I: “Yesterday when we were getting out of the car I noticed that a very loving, very sweet Temecula had one very large paw that seemed to cause her to limp. We were really concerned, especially my littlest daughter. Is it anything serious? Hope she's okay.”

We explained that T-Mec has cancer, and I thought, Wow, now Jennifer has to explain illness and death to her daughters. They’re not even in kindergarten.

Of course, she could just say that T-Mec is trying to popularize a new dance craze, just as Catholic Mom can tell her kids that their new friend’s mommies are holding hands because they’re playing a two-person game of Red Rover.

But eventually, all children lose their innocence. Yes, if it happens too soon it can be traumatizing. But merely learning about the existence of certain worldly truths doesn’t fall into that category. Gay people are real. Death is real. (I’m sure Catholic Mom would be glad I’m putting them in the same category.) Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll have to teach my children that people like Catholic Mom are real. I’m not looking forward to it, but I know my job isn’t to preserve my children’s innocence—it’s to give them the strength to face the world as it is, not as I wish it was.


*For the record, I don’t think the government should fund IVF. I was unsure about funding my own IVF. I think the government should offer lots of resources and incentives to help people adopt with minimal hoop-jumping.

**Since the post went viral, a number of people have left pro-gay-rights comments as well. So when I read this comment—

“Homosexuals spent centuries hiding in the closet. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the American Psychiatric Associating and the American Medical Associating decided homosexuality wasn’t a mental disorder. Now that the vast majority of our doctors, educators, and scientists all agree that homosexuality is ‘normal’ and ‘natural,’ they’re asking for equal marriage RIGHTS on top of it?! Give a homo an inch and he wants a mile! Isn’t it good enough that they’re not considered mentally disturbed deviants anymore??”

--I assumed it was from a queer employing irony, the folk art of our people. But nope, as I scrolled down it became clear that this commenter was absolutely sincere.

Monday, September 12, 2011

you’d think bloggers would just wear pajamas

When I started guest-blogging for Ironing Board Collective, I warned AK that I essentially had a new crush, and everything would remind me of a post I read on the site or one I was thinking about writing. Lord knows it’s given me an excuse to buy a bunch of new and new-old clothes, when in reality I just need the one shirt I’m wearing in my profile pic.

All of which is to say: Bear with me. And, if you’re interested in fashion or such fashion-adjacent topics as Little House on the Prairie, the photography of Jacob Riis, kindergarten fashion faux pas, and naughty French maid outfits (<--that was not my kindergarten fashion faux pas, for the record), then head on over. My most recent post is sort of an elaboration on my reaction to MOCA’s street art exhibit, but with the 1890s standing in for the 1980s. Check it out and, if you’re moved to do so, leave a comment.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

this night is a bust

“I heard the cops are trying to give lots of cell phone tickets before the 19th,” Nicole warned me at lunch.

It could have been something she read on a news site or the seed of an urban legend; either way, I stayed off my phone on the long drive to Burbank, where the plan was to meet Sara at the mall (like middle school!) for a little shopping followed by a mojito (not like middle school, unless your middle school was much more advanced than mine).

Sara had forgotten her cell phone that morning, so we came up with a very specific meet-up plan over email: Macy’s entrance to the mall, first floor, 7:30. If traffic slowed me down, she’d just shop in the general vicinity. I was just a few minutes late, but Sara was nowhere to be seen. I hung around house wares, craning my neck at all blondish heads.

Various sales people asked if I needed help, and it occurred to me that I looked like a terrorist nervously casing the place. I’d just heard an NPR report about all the people stopped at the Mall of America for “suspicious behavior,” which included things like taking notes (while black) and accidentally leaving a cell phone in the food court (while Pakistani).

My white self went un-harassed, but I never did find Sara. After texting later, we realized that we’d probably just missed each other by a few feet. Also, since different floors open to the street, there may have been some confusion about what the “first floor” was.

At least Old Navy was selling things for dirt cheap. I bought a sacky sweatshirt dress which I just learned is technically exercise gear, but I think it will look good belted, with heels. And hey, it was less than the price of a mojito. Then I headed home, and was promptly pulled over.

Last weekend someone rammed my back bumper and taillight while my car was parked on the street, so I was expecting a fix-it ticket. But the bald, blue-eyed young officer who pulled me over informed me that the month part of my registration tags was faded.

“I’m not even really sure what you’d do about that,” he said as he looked over my license. “When you renew your registration, they just send you the year sticker, so…. But, anyway, you might want to try to take care of that.”

I did not ask the obvious question, which was, If you’re a cop and you don’t know what I should do about it, how am I supposed to know? I mean, I guess I could go wait in line at the DMV, but…no.

He asked me where I was coming from and where I was going and let me go. A few months ago, AK was pulled over in the northwest part of South L.A. while she was parked and asked why she’d pulled the hood of her sweater down as soon as the cops came by.

“I didn’t, actually” she said.

“And you’re wearing sunglasses,” he said.

“Because the sun is bright.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I go to school at Antioch, and I pulled over so I could eat a snack.” She held up her baggie of almonds.

Later she told me, “I always get really defensive, like, Could I be more innocent?! I’m a grad student eating a healthy snack!

He asked to see her student ID and then let her go. She went home, confused and outraged. What if she’d been a bum eating a cheeseburger? What the police want is a story that makes sense to them. Stories that don’t add up are a good way to tease out crimes, but it’s also legal to be weird. What if I’d driven to Burbank just so I could sit in traffic on the 405? What is my narrative debt to society?

Let me say here that I don’t hate cops. My favorite uncle was a cop for years and now works as a psychologist with the police department. I think cops have a ridiculously hard job, and they’re prone to making mistakes that any human would make while doing a ridiculously hard job. When I’ve seen hit-and-runs, I haven’t hesitated to call them.

I wrote an angry letter to the LAPD when my mentee told me that they were overturning the food carts of street vendors like her mom. (Yeah, didn’t hear back.) But I also did not exactly take her side when she got a ticket for drinking on the street. (“I’m gonna fight it,” she said, “’cause I was just holding that beer.”) Still, sometimes I feel a strong sense of why don’t you go investigate some real crimes?!

I’m sure most police officers are thinking about their fallen comrades of September 11, 2001 this weekend. Listening to a firefighter who barely made it out of the second tower speak on the radio, I was as full of love as any straight woman gazing at a fireman beefcake calendar.

These are dirty jobs, and I’m glad I don’t have to do them. I don’t blame people for being a little jumpy this weekend. Sure, if you see something, say something, but I don’t think my faded registration tag counts as “something.” Although you could say the deal I got on that sweatshirt dress was criminal.

Monday, September 05, 2011

art, work

Happy Labor Day, y’all. I’ve had a four-day weekend, thanks to a wonderful East Coast invention called “summer Fridays,” and while it’s been refreshingly slow-paced, it has not been without labor. That’s the world we live in—there’s the job you do (if you’re lucky) for cash and benefits, and the various jobs you do for fun and Facebook “likes.” Or Wuffie, the currency of the reputation economy in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. (For more on that and other August reads, see below.)

AK has two papers due next week, so I popped open my laptop and worked next to her at my various pseudo jobs and personal projects. I felt a little bit like Maggie Simpson steering her toy wheel next to Marge in the opening credits of The Simpsons.

How I labored:

  • Finished a revision of Chapter 14 of the circus novel. The next one is mostly new material, so it should be more fun and a lot harder.
  • Tinkered with the website I designed to convince birthmothers that AK and I are responsible yet fun-loving, on top of things yet relaxed, financially stable yet down to earth, busy with work and fabulous hobbies yet able to make lots of time for a kid, and dying to be parents yet totally not impatient. Hopefully the font upgrade I shelled out $30 for communicates all of those things.
  • Posted my first guest-blog for my favorite fashion blog, Ironing Board Collective (which I have been calling the Ironing Board Collective up until now, like your grandma talking about “the Facebook”). If you love fashion and are often as baffled by it as I am, head on over and read about my outlet-shopping adventure in Palm Springs. And leave a comment, because it’s my secret hope that they’ll ask me back for occasional guest-blogging stints even after my two allotted months (every Monday!) are up. I want my editors to think of me as “that girl people read and love” as opposed to “that girl who’s a little unclear about what constitutes and A-line skirt.”
***

And now, in a relative non-sequitur, here’s my monthly reading recap:

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant: I'm already getting this book mixed up with the last historical fiction novel I read (Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright, which took place forty-ish years earlier and in London), which doesn't bode well. I love the idea of this book: A hardscrabble township that's mostly home to widows, whores and the occasional runaway slave becomes a ghost town before our eyes. But Diamant doesn’t seem to have much to say about that concept. Characters just go about their daily lives, working, moving, falling in love, dying. I liked the book more once I began reading it as a series of connected short stories, but it's still hard to rally a lot of enthusiasm.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow: It's hard to believe that when Doctorow wrote this novel way back in 2003, the iPhone didn't even exist. Yet he envisioned a future in which there's an app for everything. The internet is so small and user-friendly that it actually lives inside people, and if you inconveniently die, your backup will just be inserted into a clone. This raises some interesting questions about self-hood, but it's a good thing, mostly. I'm not a big sci fi reader, but it seems like many contemporary futuristic novels are dystopian. It was incredibly refreshing to read one that was optimistic (though still far from utopian and more believable for it), not to mention clever, funny and sprinkled with lingo and syntax that sound like English 3.0. Down and Out suffers from many first-novel flaws, such as a lack of character development, needlessly confusing plot points and bits of repetition that an editor should have caught. But I'll always take interesting-and-flawed over predictable-and-perfect. (Which is more or less what the protagonist concludes when he claims a technological middle ground at the end.)

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: This is a quieter book than Specimen Days or The Hours, but no less deep. It's about a middle-aged art dealer who's strangely drawn to his young, beautiful, drug-addict brother-in-law, territory that could annoying in the hands of a less skillful writer. But leave it to Cunningham to turn an idea--in this case, the relationship between beauty and destruction--over and over to reveal each glimmering facet, each worn curve, in new light.

At first it appears that Peter Harris will meet his downfall in his noble pursuit of great art and great human art. Everything and everyone else, including his angry, plain teenage daughter and his aging wife, who has her own career struggles, is just a sad imitation or a commercial gimmick. Pity the little people, and if Peter is one of them for not being an artist himself, at least he's smart enough to position himself adjacent to greatness.

But ultimately By Nightfall is a quiet celebration of the greatness of little people and the littleness of great people. Cunningham's eye is on every cab driver (and he dedicated the book to his agent and editor, those unsung cogs that make art happen). I've heard Cunningham speak about how every piece of art is an imperfect act of translation from the ball of passion and fire in the artist's mind into mere words, and also how everyone is the main character in his or her own novel. This novel honors both those statements by revealing both Peter's aesthetic/spiritual hunger and the fact that this hunger is neither unique nor entirely necessary--there is greatness in the mundane, which is never as mundane as it seems.

By Nightfall is written in what I'd call the Very Very Close Third, sometimes tumbling into second or first person as we fall deeper into Peter's thoughts. This reflects his tragic self-absorption (though he's always nice, always reasonable, always self-aware, making his tragic flaws even more cathartic). It also reflects the evolution of Cunningham's prose style. He's always had X-ray vision into the layers of human consciousness, but now that clairvoyance feels more intimate and clipped--not quite spare (I love him for what I consider his maximalism), but definitely without frills. The result is critical essay that reads like a galloping, page-turning ride through one man's mind.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

the help: in which i attempt to quote karl marx and alison bechdel

I was feeling skeptical about The Help for reasons articulated nicely by Raardvarks. It appeared to fall in a genre I call Slavery Is Bad—historical movies that let us feel good about taking the right side of an issue that was highly controversial in its time, which is kind of like betting on a race that’s already been run.

Not to mention the whole Black People Becoming Liberated Only With The Aid Of White People/White People Finding Themselves With The Aid Of Magical Negroes issue.

But while I was content to spend most of my undergraduate years being outraged by things I didn’t know anything about, I decided it might be interesting to actually see The Help before hating on it.

We went this afternoon with AK’s parents. AK’s mom spent many years working in a middle school cafeteria, and although working at a school in your own community is really different from working as a domestic in the Deep South, AK thought she might relate to this story of working class women of color standing up for themselves. But when we asked her what she thought of the movie, she said she liked it and “If I ever have a maid, I’ll be really nice to her.”

Which might say a thing or two about the point of view of the movie, which is ultimately budding white journalist Skeeter’s (though it’s somewhat disguised as maid Aibileen’s). The Help is a Slavery Is Bad Movie in which a white girl uses the stories of black women to further her career; in which black women don’t consider speaking out until she comes along. The villain, a snotty little racist played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is so absurdly villainous that any viewer who doesn’t kick puppies can congratulate herself on having a heart of gold.

But The Help is also a really well made, superbly acted movie about the risks people took behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. The black women take the biggest risks by far, but Skeeter faces genuine consequences too. Refreshingly, the movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, underscoring the power of gossip and other trivialized feminine behavior. And while it’s profoundly messed up to think that oppressed people need to be saved by those in power, the truth is that all social movements have benefitted from activists in all kinds of roles: the righteous oppressed, the sympathetic powerful, those who work within the system, the radicals who fight it. Didn’t Marx say something about the workers of the world needing wealthy allies?

Of course, the problem is that we hear a lot more stories about wealthy allies than the angry oppressed. AK said she read an interview with Kathryn Stockett, the author of the novel The Help, in which she seemed a little baffled by the success of the book and unconvinced that it was any kind of model treatise on racial justice. Usually I think it’s a cop-out not to own the politics of your own work. But I also get it—you tell the only story you can tell, and while you want it to mean something, it can’t mean everything.

So the real question isn’t so much why are we hearing Skeeter’s story, but why aren’t we hearing stories from real Aibileens? At the end of the movie, Aibileen tells us via voice over that her son always said there would be a writer in the family, and now she supposes it’s her. Except, at this point, writing has garnered Skeeter a publishing job in New York, and Aibileen is still living in poverty in Mississippi. So I guess that answers the question.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

pet peeve #521

First a disclaimer: I believe language is an evolving beast. “Queer” doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did in 1955, and it didn’t mean the same thing then as it did in 1855. I don’t think that Kids Today are going to destroy the planet with their texting or their sexting or their rap talk.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few grammatical pet peeves.

Life seems to have imitated art in the years since Mad TV’s Clyde and Judith spewed elaborate similes and then defeated the whole point of metaphor by punctuating it with “Literally!” There are two ways that the rampant abuse of “literally” pisses me off.

1. The classic Clyde-and-Judith-style misuse, when what you really mean is “figuratively” (which is literally the opposite of “literally”!). Plum Sykes, the Vogue writer I look to anytime I’m not sure what to wear to Gwyneth Paltrow’s birthday party, opened her recent article about Tom Ford’s new cosmetics line by saying that he’s the one guy most women would “literally die to receive a makeup lesson from.”

If that’s true, Tom should launch a line of mortuary makeup, because shortly after their lessons, those women will be buried. I suppose we should all be so lucky as to die doing something we love, but personally all I would give for a makeup lesson with Tom Ford is, literally, like twenty bucks. And that depends whether there’s a free gift with purchase.

2. The not-technically-incorrect but equally unnecessary use of “literally” to mean “very.” As in, “I literally ate six Arina and Cracked Pepper Crackers with Fennel and Pomegranate Salad at Gwyneth’s b-day party. Then she was literally like, ‘Thanks so much for coming to my party. Excuse me, now I’m going to go speak Spanish and sing.’”

I think it’s my inner poet who, unlike my inner fashionista, believes less is more. Why say “I literally ate six crackers” when it means the exact same thing to say “I ate six crackers”? It’s so much tidier.

Okay, my rant is done. I am also highly disturbed by Kotex’s U line of feminine hygiene products, which claims that the best way to express your personal boho style* is by printing something you’re going to bleed all over with swirly paisley stuff. But I’ll save that one for another day.


*All the real bohemians are wearing the Keeper anyway.**

**I am not a real bohemian.