Monday, January 27, 2014

wishing on salt

This weekend marked my last P&W event—after a week of “lasts” that included my last trip to the Westwood Petco for kitty litter—and I felt acutely how much I’ll miss being in a room full of friendly writers who instantly get me. I know I’ll be in other rooms full of writers, but not in quite the same way.

Then one of them told me she could never take a job as a grant writer, because it would be too tedious for her creative mind. She also complained to our intern about the smallness of P&W’s grants. Apparently, she would like more money but is above asking for it. So at the end of the day, I was thinking about how I’d miss eleven out of twelve people in that room.

We spent half the day on writing prompts, one of which was “If you were granted three wishes, what would they be?” The writer who brought it led us in a guided visualization exercise, in which we encountered a genie at a garage sale. Here’s what I came up with.

You can't wish for more wishes, but you can wish for more throw pillows.
The genie hovers above the shoebox, a pink puff of smoke and gauze.

“Is there a catch?” I ask. I remember the book my mom once read to me, about the girl who wanted her divorced parents to get back together. The witch in the story made the girl’s sister terribly sick in order to bring both parents bedside. This story, I think, has colored my whole life. I always think my wishes are killing children just offstage.

“No catch,” says the genie.

I don’t know why I think I can trust anyone who lives in the same box as a pair of Steve Madden kitten heels, but I do trust her, or at least I give in to the strength of my wishes.

I look over my shoulder to make sure no one I know is around.

“Well,” she prompts, “come on. It can’t be that hard. And no wishing for more wishes.”

“Oh, I know.” Does she think I haven’t read the books? Seen the movies? The problem isn’t coming up with a wish. The problems is wishing. The implications, the responsibility, what it says about the universe and all that has and has not been granted.

But I’m a simple creature and I wish for the same thing I’ve wished for every time I’ve lost an eyelash for the past three years. I’ve wished on birthday candles and shooting stars that turned out to be airplanes, and salt thrown over my shoulder. I don’t think you’re even supposed to wish on salt.

Often my wish has spliced in two—for the bad thing not to happen, and the good thing to happen. But they’re the same wish, really, which is life. Which is love. And when you put it like that, it hardly seems greedy at all.

I’m not afraid of wishing. I’m not afraid of my wishes coming true. I’m afraid of becoming my wish, a sad pulsing thing made of longing, like a lone organ grown in a lab. They can do that now, I think. They grew a hamburger in a lab, and everyone said it tasted terrible, like they could taste that it had never eaten meadow grass or licked the head of its calf. Like what they really wanted was to devour the end of something.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

a big thing (that is not baby-, book- or cancer-related)

I’ve worked at Poets & Writers (usually referred to on this blog as “my org”) for eleven years. Setting aside the continuously mind-boggling fact of how old I actually am, this also means that I’ve only had one job since grad school. It’s only my second professional job (if you can call writing about TV for a startup that has a video game station in the office “professional”). Sometimes I think about the story my mom told me once, about how my Aunt Vanessa once raised ducklings in a cardboard box, and by the time they were grown, their tail feathers veered to one side because the box was so small.

Duck in a box.
Having one job for nearly a third of your life feels a little bit like that, except imagine that the cardboard box was cozy and home to other kind, understanding ducks and often visited by famous and fascinating ducks, and that there were only three other cardboard boxes in your whole field, and you’d heard that two of them were totally dysfunctional.

All of which is to say: I love P&W, but I’ve been feeling like it’s time for something new. The past three years of my life have been personally tumultuous, and it’s been a godsend to work at a place that respects the needs of its employees, and is calm and quiet and predictable. At the same time, I want/need to believe that this is the start of the Next Phase of my life. And so I kept my eye out for other jobs.

I couldn’t ignore a posting I saw for a grants manager position at Homeboy Industries, an organization I’d admired from the first time I’d heard about it. The same is true for many Angelenos, but if you’re not familiar with Homeboy, they provide job training, employment and a bunch of feed-the-soul-type services for former gang members. It was started twenty-five years ago by Father Greg Boyle, a priest with a master’s degree in English (I feel like this is relevant; he delivers a good parable).

I applied for the job and got it and accepted it, and for the month of January, I am working half time there and half time at P&W, and it is as insane as it sounds. I’m still getting to know Homeboy. I have learned that there is a lot of work for me to do, and that the environment is the antithesis of P&W’s mellow, methodical vibe in ways that are both overwhelming and fun.

Homeboy Bakery.
I told the program director that it felt a little bit like a combination of Disneyland and church, and I’ve told other people that it feels like the Google of the nonprofit world (staff members get a discount at the bakery and café, and FREE THERAPY [“That’s perfect for you!” laughed Jamie, who is always seeing me duck out of work to see one of my three therapists], and yoga classes I can take alongside Jesuit priests and former gang members in the middle of the day).

But what it is, first and foremost, is a place that understands the whole person, and tries to break down the barriers between those who provide “charity” and those who receive it. Some employees have master’s degrees and some have murder raps, and maybe a few have both. I don’t know who’s who, and I’m not trying too hard to find out. Even though no one there knows me very well yet, and I feel a little bit like the new kid at school, I feel intrinsically understood, because my recent story is chalk-full of trauma and this place knows trauma.

What Homeboy isn’t is the place where Jamie and Cathy and D work. It’s not the place that asks about my writing morning or can snicker knowingly about McSweeney’s list of “Small Poetry Journal Names That Reflect the True Nature of Writing Poetry.”  (Examples: The Bi-Weekly Journal of Not Great Ideas and Expensive Marble Pen Set.) It probably won’t be the place that lets me leave to go to MacDowell for three weeks.

I did some car-crying last night, about the stress of the new and how much I’ll miss the old, and how I didn’t want to sell the little Honda that got me through so much. Then I had the thought that maybe I could sell it to one of Homeboy’s trainees who need cheap, semi-reliable transportation. It’s the circle of life, man, and it moves us all.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

the establishment and the institutions

1. down-to-earth takedown

I’m about halfway through the New Yorker profile of Jennifer Weiner, and it’s kind of grossing me out. Summary: Jennifer Weiner is a writer of smart-skewing chick lit (which I have not read) who publicly gives the literary establishment a hard time for ignoring popular literature, especially popular literature by women. I think she and Jonathan Franzen have gotten into some kind of Twitter war without Franzen even being on Twitter. Rebecca Mead’s article raises some legitimate points—namely that the literary establishment honors many women writers, but it rightly favors those who create more complex characters than Weiner does.

OMG, she is clearly wearing a coral top because she's a bitter shrew who wants you to like her.
But the article takes Weiner down using the kind of petty, snobby, sexist digs that drive home Weiner’s point about how non-edgy female writers are treated. Mead compares Weiner’s outfit at a speaking engagement to something a co-host of The View would wear. Weiner often jokes about the equation of Brooklyn with “literary,” so Mead lets us know that Weiner lives in a house in Philadelphia that looks a lot like a Brooklyn row house.

I’m used to reading profiles in fashion magazines that fawn over a famous woman’s clothes and home décor. Usually there’s a lot of scaffolding around said woman’s banal quotes, trying to make her seem miraculously “down to earth” instead of boring, or like she has a “unique relationship to time” (Cate Blanchett, Vogue) instead of running late. I think homes and clothing are fair game—they do say something about the people who inhabit them. But we all know that women’s homes and clothing are under extra scrutiny, except maybe Rebecca Mead doesn’t? Also, all Jennifer Weiner’s quotes are smart and funny and interesting, and the scaffolding around them tries to make them sound personal and pathological (which of course they are, because everything everyone does is). 

If I were a real critic and not just a girl with a blog and too many jobs, I would read the whole profile before writing this, but whatev.

2. exploring purgatory at cielo

In other lady-artist news, I recommend checking out Kristy Lovich’s show, Meet Me In The Day Room, at CIELO galleries/studio next time you’re on the north end of South L.A. It’s a mixed media/installation piece that essentially turns the entire cavernous former lighting manufacturing facility into a day room like those found in mental institutions, hospitals and prisons.

Portrait of whoopee cushion with chair.
At first glance, it looks like a bunch of junk placed in a room. Out-of-date furniture, old books like the ones on the fifty-cent shelf at the Goodwill. Then you realize that this is what actual day rooms in actual institutions are. Found junk for found junkies, so to speak. You feel what it’s like to feel worthless, like someone who will be easily amused by an old TV and a bunch of crayons. (But then, I also thought, Recycling is good. There’s something weird and serendipitous and historical and eco-friendly in all these “donated” things.)

One wall is plastered with narratives by people in or adjacent to various institutions. One man writes about how his brother, who had Down syndrome, was placed in an institution at age eleven, and he seemed really happy there. But the place was closed down due to charges of abuse, and then all facilities for people with mental issues were closed down. As I told Kristy, an Art Center buddy of AK’s, I like that the exhibit problematizes institutions but doesn’t demonize them. A quick look at Skid Row will tell you that no institutions is not a fabulous solution to the problem of institutions.

The other wall is Kristy’s own narrative—a combination collage, screenplay and personal essay—about her experience in a mental institution as a teenager. As she said, “Some kind of intervention was needed—I was doing all kinds of drugs, and I was going to die. But then I went to this place, and it traumatized me in a different way.”

When AK and I visited on Sunday, people dressed in clownish drag or white faceless bodysuits were walking among the day room furniture and the wine and cheese. There were dead fish on the floor in the back. It was hard to tell where the exhibit ended and the studio’s storage/general weirdness began. But I think that’s the point.

Monday, January 06, 2014

curiouser and curiouser

I recently saw a headline that said Why A New Year’s Theme Works Better Than a Resolution. My first thought was Fuck. I failed at my resolutions just by making them? My second thought was I needed a theme for 2014.

The Kleins like a theme. My mom always let my sister and I pick out our friends’ birthday gifts, but she strongly discouraged two-parters composed of discordant parts. Pound Puppy + Barbie outfit? Nope. Pound Puppy +  paw print stationery? Thumbs up from Mom.

Pound Puppy + Pound Purry: another acceptable combination.
Speaking of my mom, I’ve decided that my theme for 2014 is going to be CURIOSITY. She was a librarian, relentlessly curious to the point that she may have over-helped me with research papers, creating a shoemaker’s-child situation. Instead of learning how to do my own research, I married a girl who thrives off meticulously planning trips, and who reads six articles about any movie she sees before she sees it (and another five after). So I continue to outsource my research.

I have a powerful lazy streak. I compensate by surrounding myself with curious and ambitious people. As previously discussed, the ambitious ones sometimes make me feel like a barnacle, so let’s focus on the curious. The people who say things like, “I’ve been doing some reading about the 1893 World’s Fair.” The people who look up their bands’ favorite bands. The people who strike up a conversation with the barista. The people who try new restaurants and new religions. Who ask “what if?” and “what do you think about…?” before spewing their opinions.

I think Brodie Foster Hubbard is one such person. He’s a writer I talked to at last month’s Razorcake party, and on Friday he invited me to hang out in his studio* as he and fellow zine artist Daisy Noemi got “matching friend tattoos” and recorded for his Shakeytown Radio Hour podcast. Daisy’s tattoo artist friend Lesley Perdomo was transferring a drawing of a two-inch book with ZINE LIFE on the cover onto carbon paper when I arrived.

Matching friend tattoos!
Brodie set up his laptop and mic. Daisy told a story about getting stoned with her boss, which ended with the boss’s child getting six stitches and Daisy impersonating the boss on the phone. (Note: Neither Daisy nor her boss were responsible for the kid getting hurt.) Lesley set up her table and her light and her little pots of ink, and covered everything with baggies and saran wrap.

The tattooing began.

A girl named Amber joined us. She distributed Tootsie Rolls, which we ate goopily on air. We talked about Paris is Burning, and somehow that turned into an idea for Harry Potter slash fiction called Hogwarts is Burning. Throughout, Brodie mentioned a lot of zines and writers and bands and artists. Not in a name-dropping way. In the way of a curious person. Without any caffeine or alcohol, I felt all buzzed about what the world might have to offer.

It’s hard to be curious when you feel tired or not quite safe. You don’t think What’s behind that door? You think Oh my god, shut that door before something terrible comes through it. I spent a lot of 2013 feeling tired and not quite safe. I wouldn’t say that I’m currently full of energy and certainty, but I’m closer. This week, I’ll be starting a new full-time job for the first time in eleven years (although I’ll only be doing it part-time for a little while). It’s a little scary, a little bittersweet. But I think it will be a great environment in which to practice curiosity. I’ll let you know how it goes.


*In Highland Park, naturally. Because HP is the podcasting capital of the world. Well, there are at least three podcasts recorded here.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

the resolutions of a recovering resolver

I’m against resolutions, mostly because I find them so appealing. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I spent Monday making up titles for a series of anti-self-help books that decrease stress by telling you you’re fine how you are (sample title: How to Be an Unlikeable Female Protagonist). But I did this while I was scrubbing the vegetable drawers in my fridge, striving for internal and external cleanliness. So therein lie my contradictions.

I'm pretty sure this mermaid has fake boobs too. (Illustration by Cindy McClure.)
What I really want is to be a mermaid in a sea of barnacles. I want to convince everyone else that self-improvement is bullshit so that I can secretly go off and improve. What usually happens is that I feel like a barnacle in a sea of mermaids. That’s what I get for trying to be the best. I struggle with my mermaid friends, who seem to use their free time to make mermaid babies and write mermaid books; whose confidence looks all too much like smugness, even though they go on meditation retreats to learn to be humble.

I care, okay?
Contrary to popular cancer narratives, 2013 was a pretty good year for me. I lost my boobs but got newer, better ones. I lost a couple of friends, but got newer, better ones. I wrestled with my (and America’s) obsession with newer/better. I start 2014 as a humble barnacle—made so by life’s bitch-slaps, not any retreat—but I’ve still got mermaid dreams.

So here are my totally banal, predictable resolutions. Hold me to ‘em, internet.

1. Keep my car clean. Recently I bought my dad’s girlfriend’s old Mercedes. It’s a great car. I can’t give it the garage it deserves, but I can give it a wash and wax every few weeks.

2. Send out Saint Julian, Make Us Reborn. That’s my circus novel. It needs a home. I have some ideas, but I’ve been very slow about pursuing them. I don’t want this project to fall through the cracks.

3. Stay literary. More on this soon, but I want to go to readings regularly and read literary blogs, articles, etc. I’m always trying to read books and write, and will continue to, but I need to do the ephemera around it too.

4. Maintain good eating/exercise habits even when I’m tired. With the exception of a bunch of mofongo in Puerto Rico and a slippery slope made of cookies on Christmas Day, I’ve had extra good health habits for over a year now. I can’t afford not to. But I am most likely to trip up when I’m tired, so I need to learn how to just put myself to bed with a book when my willpower is waning. Or, if I can’t do that, find some kind of harm-reduction substitute—caffeine; handfuls of cereal instead of handfuls of candy; a walk when I can’t drag myself to the gym.