Saturday, December 31, 2005

i'd have sworn you were shelter

Terry Wolverton has a great poem, featuring Italy, betrayal and an 84-year-old alcoholic, at It’s just below Marie Cartier's poem about gettin’ it on with Poetry, “the big dic packed with no pretense.”

Friday, December 30, 2005

on illiteracy

One day in sixth grade, I forgot how to read. I first noticed the problem during a school assembly in the cafeteria—maybe I was trying to read someone’s T-shirt or something, because the assembly itself wasn’t text-based. I saw letters and words, but they suddenly didn’t add up to anything. When we got back to class, I looked at the clock (as I often did in sixth grade, despite the sign Mrs. Graham had posted next to it saying, “Time passes. Will you?”) and it didn't make any sense either. By the end of the day, I had a full-blown flu, so I guess it just hit my brain first. Once I reached barf mode, camped out in front of the TV, I could read again, well enough to know that I should call 1-800-THE-LAW-2 if I needed legal advice.

My reading skills left me again, although not quite as profoundly, one evening last summer when I sort of got spontaneously drunk. My speech slowed and everything was a little fuzzy. Cathy told me it sounded like a migraine sans headache; apparently a friend of hers had experienced something similar.

For the past few weeks, I might as well have had the flu or a weird migraine-that-I-really-hope-isn’t-a-brain-tumor. There’s a Post-It note in the front of my planner that says: “To Read: Annette’s thing, Jane Smiley book, Steve Erickson book, Ms. Goldsmith’s book, Sunshine/Noir, Bronwyn’s book (due Jan. 17).” Some I’ve started, some I haven’t, but even though I’ve managed a little bit of writing, reading anything more complex than “Celebrities—They’re Just Like Us!” has eluded me.

Stressing, as usual, for all the wrong reasons, I thought, “Shit, my blog is supposed to kind of be about interesting artistic and cultural things. I haven’t read anything I can comment on. And now I don’t even have a TV.”

But little by little, I’m recovering from my emotional flu. I’m happy to say I’m 40 pages into Bronwyn’s manuscript. The girl can write. When her book finds its way into the world, I predict it will be not just blogged about but reviewed by really smart people in really smart newspapers. Or at least it should be—I should never try to predict the publishing world. Anyway, Bronwyn, here’s your first bit of critique: Your novel is way more interesting than Hilary Duff putting coins in parking meter. More to follow on January 17.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

the cutest little tornadoes ever

When B and I broke up, I had a sense that I was leaving my big, messy life (or rather, it was leaving me) for a small, neat one. I’d often felt pulled in too many directions—trying to spend time with B while she was in town, trying to maintain friendships and trying to keep the carpet reasonably free of cat litter. When the carpet remained stubbornly crunchy, I consoled myself with the fact that this was what a life full of love was like.

So, when some of that love said see-ya-later, I consoled myself with the fact that I would now have ample time to vacuum and return emails. But last night a little piece of my big, messy life came to join me in my new home: OC (right) and Temecula moved in.

Yeah, I got cat custody as my consolation prize. But it’s a really, really good consolation prize. Even though I felt evil taking them away from Bari in their little carriers. Even though it took about ten minutes for them to knock over a picture frame and dust my new apartment with a patina of orange-and-calico-ish hair. But sometimes that’s what it takes to make a
Shabby Funk apartment a home.

Monday, December 26, 2005

the saltiest pickle i know

There is something so savory about Alanna and Alanna’s blog. Um, I mean, Mindy and Mindy’s blog. She simultaneously inspires me to be better, and makes me feel good about being who I already am, and she uses phrases like, “He was the Son of God, and the Balls of Man” and, “Someone who is a pickle, should be a pickle.” She makes me think twice about stereotyping Christians, yet not feel guilty about weaseling out of church this Christmas Eve. Curious yet?

girl's best friend

I spent a good chunk of my holiday hours with Rocket, an Australian shepherd/chow mix belonging to Ryan and Lori. I like almost all animals (I am completely, unfairly prejudiced against cockroaches, and I have to admit I was a slow sell on monkeys), but I come from a cat family, and I don’t quite get dogs. They don’t bend right. My dad has been known to look at dogs and say, “Purr. Come on, purr. How am I supposed to know if you’re happy?” While I’m hip to the tail-wagging thing, my own knowledge doesn’t go much farther.

Rocket doesn’t purr, and he’s not really a licker (fine with me) or a cuddler. When I unlocked Ryan and Lori’s front door on my first night of house- and dog-sitting, I entered very carefully, with the story of how Rocket tried to bite the exterminator fresh in my mind. He barked a couple of times, and issued a half-hearted growl, then just stood in the living room and stared at me.

This was our M.O. for the first evening. I patted him on the head periodically and talked cheerfully about Ryan and Lori in an attempt to prove I really did know his people and had not just broken in to steal the stereo, but I think Rocket knew I was faking this Dog Person thing.

But by the next morning, when Rocket and I set out for a stroll around Mar Vista, we were beginning to form a gentle, respectful friendship. Ryan had described the act of sniffing shrubs and telephone poles as the canine equivalent of reading the community newspaper: who’s been where, who’s in heat, who’s switched to Purina Healthy Weight Formula. I quickly discovered that Rocket was not just an avid reader of the Mar Vista Who-Peed-On-This Times, he was a regular columnist.

I enjoyed watching him click along ahead of me, brown ears bouncing. Sometimes a dog behind a fence would start barking and yowling, but Rocket was fairly oblivious, even to other dogs out for their morning walks. He was much more interested in the historical, spending minutes at a time with his nose buried in a tangle of ivy or a discarded cardboard box.

I wondered if we were alike in that way—sometimes we’d rather observe from afar than deal face to face with our peers.

Christmas Eve and Day, I braced myself for my relatives’ breakup consolations. There were a few whose mere presence made me want to lay down on the couch and pour my heart out, but with others, I wished we could just forgo the mutual awkwardness. Couldn’t we somehow silently acknowledge the fact that they barely know me, let alone B, and that I’d be just as well off without the words of wisdom they found so difficult to compose?

That was what I braced myself for, but of course I spent most of Christmas coasting semi-happily under the radar: one of those two interchangeable sisters who eat a lot of dessert.

This morning I took Rocket on my second-to-last walk before heading off to work. The morning was rainy-misty, and he left fat wet paw prints on the sidewalk. A few neighbors called, “Hi, Rocket!” from across the street. Rocket didn’t say hi back. He just walked and sniffed, and I moved through the fog like a ghost.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

the world of things

To look around my new apartment, you would never know that I just moved in Saturday. Books are on shelves, pictures are on walls and food is in the fridge. I was able to accomplish this thanks to help with heavy lifting from my dad, my dad’s girlfriend Susan, my sister, my sister’s boyfriend Marvin and my sister’s roommate Kelli, who just volunteered out of the blue, I think because she had a breakup a few years ago that followed very similar patterns to mine and B’s. Pity is way underestimated.

I went on a 48-hour move-in frenzy, unpacking boxes, stocking up at Ikea and assembling furniture until the wee hours of the morning.

“My fingers are sore from all the screwing,” I told Cathy the next morning. “I’m really tempted to make a bad joke about how that’s the only kind of screwing I’ll be doing for a long time, but I won’t because that’s just the sort of ‘I’m a pathetic old maid’ humor I’ve vowed to avoid in an attempt to convince myself I’m both a feminist and dateable.”

“Good thing you didn’t make that joke,” Cathy said.

“Also, the pun is just lame.”

I’m really quite happy with my new place. I’ve achieved a certain look that can’t be found in decorating magazines, which are always full of sleek open spaces and butcher block tables. I’m trying to come up with a name for a look that is neat, colorful and very crowded. That is urban but not in a loft kind of way. Maybe Shabby Funk? Like Shabby Chic but with less white-washed wood.

All this is to say that my World of Things is in order. My brain is a messy place right now—we’re talking clothes strewn on the floor, old pizza boxes piling up, phone bill unpaid. But when I look around at my World of Things—my necklaces hung neatly on brushed steel hooks—I feel better.

I realize this sounds a lot like that Retail Therapy you read about Jessica Simpson practicing to get over Nick. Leave it to capitalism to co-opt even the grieving process. I’m trying to tell myself that my new relationship with my World of Things is different. I find myself roaming very simple stores like Trader Joe’s or Sav-On. I’ll pick up a jar of face wash or scented candle and think, I could buy this because my World of Things is in order and I know exactly where I’d put it, and it would look cute (if crowded) because my new apartment is not stacked high with newspapers and crammed with wads of tangled computer cables.

Then, more often than not, I’ll think, Or, I could just not buy this. It’s a great revelation, an option they don’t tell you about on shiny happy Target commercials. Both options bring me joy and relief.

I think I’ve finally learned how to live an essay written by Erik Snyder, this guy in a couple of my classes at CalArts, who used to write gentle, contemplative pieces about wandering the halls of his old elementary school at night and walking through Target, enjoying the shiny buzz of it all without buying anything. That, he said, was the ultimate way to reap the benefits of capitalism without falling into its trap.

Of course, I did end up buying a bunch of stuff at Target (and I really do need face wash). And I heard a couple of years ago that Erik died “at his home,” which sounds like suicide or an overdose, although of course it’s possible that there were natural causes his family just didn’t feel like telling people about. So I still spend too much money and I am still sad and maybe Erik was too. But it’s nice to pretend for a few hours a day that we’re not, and it’s nice that an artfully displayed stack of bath linens can help.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

ballyhoo for the boring

I’ve always wanted to run away and join the circus. When I was in junior high, I read a Teen Magazine profile of three girls who were contortionists with Cirque du Soleil. They were skinny and talented and had beautiful pink and purple costumes, all of which were appealing to my 12-year-old self: I was fat (or so my skinny 12-year-old self thought), could only do the splits on the left side, and wore biker shorts and Body Glove T-shirts to gymnastics class.

But I’m not picky about my circuses. I wrote a term paper on P.T. Barnum (big, flashy, swindle-the-suckers circus), I loved Geek Love (dark, fetishy, freak show circus) and I took a class from a real live bearded lady at CalArts (pomo political circus). And yet my life—past three weeks excluded—is undeniably un-circus-like. Oh, let’s face it, even the past three weeks of post-break-up hell are hellish in a really ordinary way. Like, I can’t even say, “At least it will make great material for a future novel,” because I don’t believe I have anything to say about heartbreak that hasn’t been said more eloquently by hundreds of great writers or Alanis Morissette.

At least one of my problems has been solved, though. Enter Carnival of the Mundane!

The brainchild of Dean (of Inspired by a True Story), Carnival of the Mundane will be an online roundup of posts by bloggers who write about everyday life, hopefully in a not-so-everyday way. A bunch of us will take turns hosting, providing enticing peeps into virtual tents. And the people shall come together, stale popcorn in hand, to revel in the freakishness of their posts about dorm roommates, gym memberships and the search for the perfect bed frame.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how it works yet. Luckily, I’m not hosting till March. One does not become a world class tightrope walker overnight.

Monday, December 12, 2005


I know I’m not the first, or even the 119th, person to say this, but holiday shopping generally sucks. You spend money you don’t have to buy gifts your relatives don’t need or want, which were most likely made by small Indonesian children who would be having Tiny Tim-style Christmases if they were Christian.

This Sunday,
Jamie, Lee-Roy and I discovered one fabulous antidote: Bazaar Bizarre. Subtitled “not your granny’s craft fair,” it was an expo center full of purses made from recycled sweaters, Shrinky Dink jewelry, hand-stitched iPod cases, bondage gear and papier mache piggy banks made by decidedly non-oppressed art school grads. (And I’m happy to say that most of the silk screeners screened their designs—smiling robots, graceful jellyfish, rock and roll kitty cats—on American Apparel T-shirts.)

My friend
Erin, a knitter of many non-granny-like items, would have loved this fair. Incidentally, I think both my biological grandmother and my adopted grandmother would have too. The latter even has a tattoo. Wandering around the Shrine Expo Center, enjoying the absence of Christmas carols and the presence of at least a dozen booths selling ugly-cute stuffed monsters, my only regret was that the fair was a one-day deal. But if Starbucks billboards have taught us anything about the holidays, it’s that we have to appreciate the ephemeral, because It Only Happens Once a Year.

Friday, December 09, 2005

caught in the middle in mid-city

At first I worried that that damn New Urbanism would exile me to a suburban ghetto—Reseda, Pacoima, Norwalk. But it turns out I’m just upwardly mobile enough to afford the urban semi-ghetto—those areas where poor people of color rent and young white gentrifiers buy. As a white girl looking to rent, apartment hunting is an interesting sociological experience.

Here are some of the many ways people have asked me, “Why would you want to live here/there?” over the course of the past week:

  • Current tenant of a one-bedroom in Baldwin Hills: “Well, it’s the ‘hood, you know? Helicopters fly over.”
  • Teenage boys outside aforementioned one-bedroom in Baldwin Hills: “Hey, schoolgirl. We don’t get your kind around here much, so we gotta look while we can.”
  • My dad: “Have you thought about Long Beach?”
  • Friends who live in Burbank and WeHo: “Move to Hollywood! Move to Hollywood!”
  • Manager of a Koreatown building: “Hola”…something in Spanish about los apartamentos...hears me speak English…phone clatters in surprise…a 12-year-old boy comes on and tells me about the place.
  • My dad: “Well, just make sure you’re not the only person of whatever color you are in the neighborhood.” Me: “Whatever color I am? I’m green, Dad.”

There are all these subtle suggestions that I have the option of living somewhere really posh—I think my dad thinks my liberal guilt is keeping me in the ‘hood. And while I have plenty of liberal guilt, I would be just as comfortable having it Santa Monica.

And yet…I guess I do have a choice in some ways. If I wanted to live with a roommate, I could manage WeHo or Venice or Palms. If I wanted to live with my dad, I could live rent free on a cul de sac in Manhattan Beach. If I wanted to pay off my student loan more slowly, I might be able to afford my own place several blocks northwest of where I’ve been looking. All of those factors do distinguish me from apartment hunters who don’t have parents to rely on or budgets that can be stretched.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the competition: I’ve got to get this place! That other guy just screams “previous evictions”—I’m a shoe-in! I know I have a small advantage, even though the landlords I’ve encountered look at me as if I have a big advantage. My current landlord took the standard $25 from B and I for a credit check that we later learned she never ran. I somehow doubt she would have been so trusting if we weren’t white (and she’s Latina, so there’s all kinds of crazy race stuff going on here).

In the end, I signed a lease on a tiny but charming place in that vast and eclectic stretch of land known as “Mid-City.” As with most places in most cities, I can go a couple of blocks in either direction and feel alternately afraid for my purse or like I should have worn a cooler brand of jeans. Or I can stay in and relax in my brand new shoebox and pretend I live in New York or Tokyo. But for all its issues, I kinda like LA.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

if trees could speak, they wouldn't

My therapist is always reminding me that nature is inefficient—you never hear a plant say, “I didn’t go jogging this morning. I am such an unworthy plant.” Not just because plants don’t have legs, but because they’re cool with who they are: beings that bask in the sun for as long as there is sun.

Or as
Dorianne Laux puts it in “The Life of Trees” (from Facts About the Moon and brought to my attention by Jamie):

The pines rub their great noise
into the spangled dark.
They scratch their itchy boughs
against the house and the mystery
of that moan translates
into drudgery of ownership: time
to drag the ladder from the shed,
climb onto the roof with a saw
between my teeth, cut those suckers down.
What’s reality if not a long exhaustive
cringe from the blade,
the teeth? I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care nothing
for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right, who want little from the night
but a few dead stars going dim, a white owl
lifting from their limbs, who want only
to sink their roots into the wet ground
and terrify the worms or shake
their bleary heads like fashion models
or old hippies. If trees could speak,
they wouldn’t, only hum some low
green note, roll their pinecones
down the empty streets and blame it,
with a shrug, on the cold wind.
During the day they sleep inside
their furry bark, clouds shredding
like ancient lace above their crowns.
Sun. Rain. Snow. Wind. They fear
nothing but the Hurricane, and Fire,
that whipped bully who rises up
and becomes his own dead father.
In the gale winds the young ones
bend and bend and the old know
they may not make it, go down
with the power lines sparking,
broken at the trunk. They fling
their branches, forked sacrifice
to the beaten earth. They do not pray.
If they make a sound it’s eaten
by the wind. And though the stars
return they do not offer thanks, only
ooze a sticky sap from their roundish
concentric wounds, clap the water
from their needles, straighten their spines
and breathe, and breathe again.

Monday, December 05, 2005

light reading, heavy heart

I always knew that InStyle was a little bit evil, but as such, it’s packed with temptation in the form of “satin eye masks with beaded trim…$25 each” and “18kt-gold-plated candlestick with sapphires and labradorites, $420.” You know, shiny stuff.

But there’s nothing worse to read after your girlfriend of four and a half years breaks up with you (yeah, that’s what’s up, in case my abstractly angsty posts haven’t given me away). Especially the celebrity profiles, because InStyle has this amazing ability to make even the most miserable, strung-out, tabloid-whore celebrities sound exuberant and wise.

I really should have known better than to open to this month’s Gwyneth Paltrow profile in my current state. But there I was this morning, groggy and vulnerable, reading: “Why is this woman smiling? Is it because Gwyneth Paltrow a) married a rock star; b) has an adorable daughter; or c) loves her job? Answer: all of the above.”

The good news is, my InStyle subscription will run out soon and no longer be able to rub my nose in my non-Gwyneth-ness. Actually, both my subs will run out soon. I get two issues a month because B added on a gift subscription for me for Christmas last year, and the circulation folks screwed things up. I was supposed to call and have them make the two subs back to back, but I never got around to it, and each month, B would get annoyed at me. To her credit, it was nice that she indulged such a guilty pleasure of mine, since light reading for her is The Economist. But now I can just let my duplicate issues stack up until InStyle runs its evil course.

Ha! How’s that for a vengeful ex-girlfriend act? (Hey, I’m new at this, okay?)

In the meantime, here’s a short, full-of-crap InStyle-style profile I made up to make myself feel better:

Looking artsy-casual in jeans, a butterfly-print thermal and a yellow top, Cheryl walks into Quiznos, disarming the interviewer with her 100-watt smile and notorious punctuality. Quiznos, you say? Sure, she could have picked the Ivy or Chateau Marmont, but Cheryl loves people-watching and toasted veggie sandwiches.

It’s been a year of ups and downs for the 28-year-old budding novelist, what with the publication of her first book and her much-publicized breakup with elusive public sector superstar B.

“One minute you’re planning to be bridezillas and raise fucked-up kids together, the next you’re on your own, shopping for the nicest crack house money can rent,” she says philosophically. There is an adorable smear of avocado on her chin.

So what exciting products does Cheryl rely on to fuel her dynamic and enviable life? Besides the obvious—spa treatments, things coated in Swarovski crystals—she is also a firm believer in the powers of 7-Eleven coffee, black Wet and Wild nail polish and spending hours clicking “next blog” rather than reading actual books. Sure, that last one isn’t a product so much as an activity, but if anyone could make it into a product, it would be Cheryl. With a little help from InStyle.

Friday, December 02, 2005

my rejection collection

B’s computer is having problems—whenever you ask it to do anything, it makes this anguished whirring noise. It does the thing, but very, very slowly.

That’s pretty much me right now. I did some writing last night, but it was like I was typing with gloves on. Everything felt fuzzy and clumsy. I want to do some reading, and lord knows I need to do some reading, but so far the most complicated thing I’ve been able to handle is Quick Shots of False Hope: A Rejection Collection by Laura Kightlinger, which I found on B’s bookshelf. It’s funny and honest and articulates some pains of adolescent girlhood that I haven’t seen elsewhere (and that’s saying a lot, since adolescent girlhood is hardly uncharted territory), although there are a few unnecessary sentences that her editor should have crossed out.

But mostly I’ve been watching episode after episode of My Super Sweet 16, thanks to Cathy’s sisterly nurturing and her roommate’s TiVo. My life may suck right now, but at least I’m not a 16-year-old driving up to my $180,000 birthday party in my new BMW, I congratulate myself. Because my little Puritan work ethic has convinced me that that’s something to be happy about.

Heather and I saw Shopgirl last night. It was funny and weird and sweet. I loved it for showing what love does and does not accomplish, for being a movie without a villain, just three lonely and good people. But while it dared to make main character Mirabelle (Claire Danes) a whole woman who had struggles that did not center solely around the men in her life, it didn’t go far enough toward convincing me the movie was really from her point of view and not some dude’s. (And maybe I’m just saying this because I know Steve Martin wrote the book and screenplay.)

I got mad at how buttery and angsty-cute and cellulite-free the camera kept making Claire Danes. I know Laura Mulvey said all these things way back in the day, and I know other people have come along and done feminist rebuttals, but yesterday I was feelin’ Laura Mulvey’s point. Damn the Steve Martins for making people think that girls like Claire Danes are out there, when in real life the girls who are like Claire Danes are poorly lit and wear clothes that don’t quite match and read People Magazine when their brains are whirring. And because people have seen too many movies, they don’t recognize a real-life Claire Danes when they see one.

So, for today or for this month, screw the Puritan work ethic. Where has it gotten me? Well, a lot of places, actually, but not everywhere. Not where I want to be. I’ll let other people drown their sorrows in red wine and curl up on perfectly made beds in silk pajamas. My sorrows demand People and reality TV, changing my mind, making phone calls I shouldn’t make, getting through the day with nervous laughter and annoying cheerfulness.

Or, as Sara emailed me yesterday when encouraging me to come to her holiday cocktail party despite my mood: Cheese is Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

i hate a parade

When you have a terrible, terrible Saturday, what you want to do on Sunday is watch Rent in a dark theater with one of your oldest and best friends and a big wad of tissues. What you do not want to do is watch the Hollywood Christmas Parade. The benefit of parades in general is dubious: the pseudo-celebrities, the bad music, the slowness. But the detritus of parades—especially a parade held in one of the most congested parts of the city—is what makes them truly hateable: the blocked streets, the Star Waggons, the pressure to celebrate.

You inch along Lexington, where you’ve been diverted, where there’s no hope of making a left turn for several miles, and alternate between checking in with Steph via cell phone (“There goes Vine. Can’t turn there.”) and rocking out to the pissed-off beats of Green Day’s American Idiot album. When you finally wind your way more or less into the area where the ArcLight is, and actually find a pretty good parking spot, you see three fire trucks turn the corner, sirens whining. Oh, you think, There’s an emergency. That’s why that huge crowd of people is standing on Sunset and Vine. But no, it’s just more parade. A megaphoned voice praises firefighters’ good work “fighting fires and terrorism,” and a woman in the crowd claps her hands high over her head as she repeats, “Yes, yes,” slowly and reverently. The sirens hurt your ears.

Rent is worth the trouble, as it always has been, even when you and Steph drove eight hours straight to see the stage version in Arizona because you were so sad it was leaving LA. The glow of burning eviction notices cascading to the street from East Village windows in the opening number is haunting and gorgeous. When Roger screams, “Time diiiieees” in “One Song Glory,” you know it’s a little melodramatic, but you think, Yeah, time dies, and chills climb your spine. The sad parts are only medium sad, and you’re surprised that you’re only crying rather than bawling. You think maybe you’re all cried out already. Your eyelids hurt.

You step out of the theater and into the cold, windy night. You say bye to Stephanie and head for your pretty good parking place and go home alone.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

makes me want to pack up my tofurkey and head for canada

A uniquely American tradition for a uniquely American holiday (from

After being pardoned, the [two] turkeys will jet to Disneyland to lead the Main Street Parade, then live the rest of their days inside the California park.

“They are the luckiest and happiest birds on the face of the earth,”
Rothfork said. “They’re lucky because they're getting pardoned and they’re happy because they're going to Disneyland.”

To get the turkeys ready for the Disney parade crowds, their handlers have been tossing handfuls of confetti at them and repeatedly playing the Disney theme song at full volume.

the king of cyberspace

Last night I had a dream about my blog. I have a history of boring dreams, but this wasn’t one of them. In my dream, I had learned how to steal the coding from other people’s blogs so that I could customize mine—add interesting background graphics, link to supplemental pages. The blog I decided to mimic had a sort of chick-lit vibe, and I was worried about its curly fonts, but I managed to make mine more stately.

What a bummer to visit my blog this morning and realize that it’s still the green-and-orange “Tic-Tac” template. Not that it’s a bad template, it’s just not the template of my dreams. My tech skills are no match for my imagination. I still don’t know how to upload a photo to my profile (help anyone?).

I think the dream was prompted by the episode of The King of Queens I watched last night. (That’s the sort of show people cite when they want to give an example of the most generic sitcom possible, but I actually think it’s pretty funny. One of the things I like about it is that Carrie is not just the longsuffering wife of a funny, troublemaking husband. She knows how to stoop plenty low herself.) Anyway, in the episode, Doug was trying to hide his secret email admirer from Carrie, so he slams his laptop shut and heads out the front door when she comes in the room. She says, “Why are you taking your laptop to the movies?” And he says, “Um, so I can write about it on my blog, okay?”

So you know blogs have hit the mainstream (as if my having one weren’t evidence enough). You hear a lot about how the internet has cut into not just reading time—from which people have always been fairly distractible—but even TV time. Maybe this is TV’s way of fighting back: You want internet? We’ll give you internet. Look, the characters spend 65 percent of this episode staring at a computer screen, and now you can stare at them staring.

Whatever, I’ve got to cut back.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

meet your new life coach

It’s official: I’ve written the longest novel I’m ever allowed to write. Because printing one copy (double-sided, 1.5-spaced) takes exactly as much paper as will fit in my printer’s paper tray. It’s printing right now, and my printer—while proving to be a trooper overall—has taken to taking troubling little breaks between pages.

Anyway, I would like to take this opportunity to say what a great show Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy is. (I watch a lot of TV when B is out of town.) I watched an episode Wednesday night in which a down-home, under-appreciated Montana mom swapped places with a rich, swimwear model/life coach mom from Westchester County, New York. Of course the clip shown in all the ads was the part where Montana Mom’s teenage son tells the camera, “My new mom is hot.”

But the more interesting part of the show came when Westchester County Mom tried to life-coach her new kids. The boys, 18 and 20, thought the surveys WC Mom asked them to fill out were bullshit, and ignored them. But Tianna, the 15-year-old girl, really hoped WC Mom could help her family: “We have serious problems communicating,” she told her new mother. “I mean, we communicate, but, like, in the wrong ways.”

By this point WC Mom had analyzed Tianna’s survey and said, “I really think that if you did 40 minutes of cardio three times a week, you’d be much happier.”

Tianna gave her a weak smile. Way to communicate, WC Mom.

It was a more tragic and genuine moment than the shooting of the most innocent Law & Order: SVU victim. And it was rivaled by what was going on in the Westchester County mansion, where Montana Mom was trying to win over her new preteen daughter. Coltish and teenyboppery, the new daughter freaked out when Montana Mom paraded around in her real mother’s stilettos and said her favorite store catered to “anorexics.” She came across as someone who would probably grow up to be as superficial (yet sorta well-meaning) as her mother, but for now, like Tianna, she was fiercely real, a little girl who loved to play dress-up and loved her mom unconditionally.

Meanwhile in Montana, even the horny boys were missing their mother. One of them had decided to build her an aquatic garden as a gesture of appreciation. And so the show proves a sometimes disturbing truth about family life: You will always be nostalgic for what you are used to, whether it prioritizes sit-ups over mental health or necessitates that you give up wake-up calls from a swimsuit model.

It’s kind of comforting to know that my kids will seek my approval no matter how much I fuck them up. And, conversely, no matter how good I am to them, they’ll think I’m a little boring, a little embarrassing.

But the show’s biggest accomplishment is showing how every family in the world has its own culture. Sure, they play it up by swapping trailer park moms with Malibu moms, Christian with pagan (though I missed that infamous episode), white with black. But issues as seemingly small as whether the family eats in front of the TV or at the dining room table can cause huge blow-ups. Because if you’re used to one, the other seems strange and blasphemous and invasive. Even as I write this, I’m thinking, “Well, of course the family that eats in the dining room is right” because that’s what I grew up doing.

I tried to imagine whom Fox would swap me with, if B and I had kids. At first I thought, maybe somebody who was really unethical, because B and I spend a lot of time trying to do the right thing. But then, duh, I realized that we’d be The Lesbians, so they’d pair us with some Bible-thumping family, and I’d get really pissed off because that mom would try to teach our kids that their mommies were sinners, and she’d get really pissed off because I’d try to teach her kids that the Bible is overrated.

I don’t know if they’ve done such an episode yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. They’ll probably choose some really cool lesbians, though, so GLAAD doesn’t freak out. We’re still in what someone referred to as the Sidney Poitier stage. So maybe Fox is not ready to have me—with the guilt trips and passive-aggressive perfectionism I will inevitably inflict on my kids—to represent lesbian motherhood.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

my new mistress

I ran into Matt from my writing class at the Coffee Table yesterday.

“Hey, what’s going on?” he said.

“Oh, not much,” I said. Then after a long pause, it all came rushing out: “Actually, I started a new novel last week. I hadn’t planned to, but it had sort of been building up, I guess. I didn’t want to start anything until I knew for sure the other novel was finished. I had this plan to take a nice long break and maybe do a little research, but I don’t know, it just happened. And it’s fun.”

“And now you feel like you’re cheating on your other book?” Matt sympathized. He just started a new novel too, and we learned in class later that night that even our teacher had stumbled into a new project while in the midst of another. It was like Cheaters Anonymous, and it was very cathartic to learn I was not the only fallen one.

I can be a little anal about my writing routine sometimes. It’s not always good for me, but it’s a more productive addiction than booze. But I was determined, with Big Project Number Three (and I still reserve the right for it to become Discarded Project Number 79), to be all organic and shit. I would let the novel speak to me, slowly, over the course of a few months. I would do some method-writing by going out and living the subject matter. I would begin writing when I was tanned, rested and thoroughly outlined. Well, maybe not tanned.

But I think I was too anal about my non-anal-ness. A) The novel had already been forming during those months of slow, painful, boring editing on Big Project Number Two, and B) letting loose and going with the flow and all that new age stuff, for me, is just writing the damn thing. I love the blank page. It’s the already-crappily-written page I fear.

I also have to remember that, while my love of making it up as I go along seems to be a constant, the process of writing Big Project Number Three won’t be any more like Big Project Number Two than Two was like One. I’m a different writer now—one who understands outlining and rewriting, even if she hasn’t completely mastered them.

If someone had told me, when I started Big Project Number Two, that no more than three scenes from draft one would make it into draft three, I probably would have said, “Fuck that” and abandoned it for haiku. I’m a big believer in not knowing what the future holds. People always say, “Live like this might be your last day on earth,” but can you imagine what a disaster that would be? No one would ever go to work or meet new people, and we’d all be 300-pound alcoholics.

So maybe this thing will be a novel that closely resembles what I’ve outlined (and right now I have to tell myself it will be), or maybe it will a completely different kind of novel. Maybe it will be a screenplay (although I doubt it), or maybe it will be the thing that takes up space on my hard drive. I’m going to try really hard to be cool with any of those outcomes. ‘Cause I’m all Zen like that. Right?

Monday, November 14, 2005

but she didn't catch my triple axle

Since I can't figure out how to put two pictures in one post, this photo of the environmental-lawyer-on-wheels gets its own post. One of Sara's other talents is skating while snapping pictures.

an appetizer

A little sliver of my upcoming book, The Commuters, is online at You can also read great poems by Jamie, Ryan and a couple of other cool folks. And if you ever wondered, “What kind of grant opportunities does the non-profit literary service organization Poets & Writers offer?” that question is answered too.


Saturday night I accompanied Sara to a friend-of-a-friend’s roller-rink birthday party at World on Wheels. The theme—generous in its breadth—was ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, so I put together a ‘70s outfit that consisted almost entirely of items I wear on a regular basis: polyester shirt depicting giraffes on a red-and-brown jungle background, knit cap, bellbottoms. My only out-of-the-ordinary accessory was a long metal chain adorned with a five-inch owl charm, whose red glass eyes matched my shirt. Sara and Becky and I decided that the look was Idealistic Environmental Lawyer.

So yeah, my outfit sort of missed the rollerskating boat, as I discovered when I walked into WOW and saw acres of girls in early ‘80s roller gear: short slit shorts, striped knee socks, pigtails. One girl’s “shorts” were definitely boy-shorts-style underwear, but to her credit, she had the
back pocket to pull it off. Since I don’t hang out on the beach or in Beverly Hills very often, sometimes I forget how many girls with almost fictionally perfect bodies there are in LA. But I got lots of complements on my owl-and-giraffe motif, so ultimately I was glad I left my knee socks at home.

I’d never been to a roller rink before. This one was the sort of place where the bathroom stalls featured signs reminding you not to drink while pregnant or your baby might be born with a deformed face. Where the DJ periodically interrupted the music to say, “Let’s give a shout-out to Benny, who found the missing locker key!”

I’m definitely going back.

Not being much of a party person, I really appreciated that, at any given time, I had the option of ditching the crowd and taking a spin around the smooth wooden floor on my own. Although skating with Sara was also fun, as she tried to teach me how to “shoot the duck” (it sounds scandalous, but really it’s just squatting down and skating on one foot) and other tricks.

As always, I learned
something random about Sara’s past: She’s versed in Egyptology and would have moved to Cairo if there had been more opportunities for women Egyptologists there. This came up when she began a sentence with, “My favorite pharaoh…” and I was like, “Wait, who has a favorite pharaoh? At least, one who’s not Tut?” Sara, that’s who.


Cultural intake notes for the weekend:
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: funny and postmodern and good. Poets Sholeh Wolpé and Dorianne Laux: smart, intense-and-subtle and good. The Rules of Attraction (on DVD): well made, I guess, but I’m just not into movies about sassy, brilliant, privileged assholes and how desperate their lives are. If I’m going to watch a privileged asshole, I’d prefer to watch Paris Hilton, because at least I can comfort myself that I’m smarter than her.

(I don’t buy that the ditziness is all an act, on her part or Jessica Simpson’s. If it is an act, that makes them all the more pathetic, because it means that all they’ve used their brains for is getting rich by bombarding the world with images of spoiled, stupid women.)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

the jenny craig of west adams

When embarking on a weight loss plan, it’s helpful to be surrounded by a community of supporters—people who help you set realistic goals and encourage good health, not anorexia. Even if, say, you didn’t know you were trying to lose weight and thought you were just jogging down Vermont Avenue because it’s good for your heart and helps you think about the new novel taking shape in your head. Even then, it can be oh so helpful when a middle-aged man in a fedora shouts the following words of encouragement:

“Keep going, baby! You can lose it! Lose those ten pounds! But don’t lose the back, baby. You gotta keep the back pocket.”

Since I was wearing sweats (no pockets), I interpreted that to mean he thought I could stand to lose a few pounds, but liked my ass. Gosh, thanks!

(On a related note:

Friday, November 11, 2005

the cheryl comedy hour

When I started traveling more for work (and B started traveling way more), I realized why comedians always have lots to say about airplane food—they spend 80% of their lives in transit. This point was driven home last night when I was waiting for my delayed flight at the Oakland airport, and I was on the phone with B, making plans to take her to the airport the next morning.

“I can’t believe I’m at the airport, talking about a trip to the airport. Which will take place in less than 12 hours,” I complained. “It just seems wrong.”

“So do you want to talk about when you’re going to fly out and meet me in New York over Thanksgiving instead?”

“You’re not helping.”

I’ve also noticed myself making schticky mental observations about airport life. For example, last week when I went to pick up B, I headed to LAX early so that I could exchange some leftover Hong Kong dollars at the international terminal. The only time I’d spent in the international terminal previously (like any normal person) was when I was coming or going, or picking someone up. But sans the stress of catching a flight or locating a weary traveler, I realized…the Tom Bradley International Terminal is happening.

It’s one big party. There are people with balloons and flowers. Music is playing. Coffee is flowing freely and there are stacks of Us Weekly ripe for reading-without-purchasing. I had an overwhelming sense of, “This is where the cool kids hang out.” Not at the dreary Alaska terminal (B’s airline of semi-choice lately), tiled insane-asylum-yellow and void of even a single chair.

If the international terminal is, um, whatever a really hot nightclub is, then Terminal 6 is, like, a club I’d actually go to. Kind of mellow. A little under-populated. But home to Java Java, where you can buy something called a Mocha Almond Roca. I got myself a decaf latte and strolled on down to Terminal 7, where a handsome young man with an envious expression approached me and asked, “Where did you get that?”

“Terminal 6,” I said. Yeeeahh. I know where it’s at.

I’ll be here all week, folks. Until I have to fly out again.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

the starbucks chronicles #2

I like to consider my artistic tastes eclectic and sometimes off-the-beaten-path, if not quite avant garde or highbrow. But I may have to reconsider after hearing two songs in a row at Starbucks this morning that I recognized from my personal music collection.

Starbucks also likes to consider its tastes eclectic and smart, and the songs they play (and sell) are both of those things, but in a safe, yuppified, short-playlist kind of way.

I’ve never bought a CD at Starbucks, but I’m clearly not as far from doing so as I’d like to be. Part of me thinks this is a sign from the universe that it’s time to punk things up a little. Another part of me—which is a really loud part these days—thinks that uniqueness is fairly futile, so it’s better to focus on goodness. Yeah, you’ve got to wonder what you’re not hearing, but you can still enjoy Bessie Smith and Joni Mitchell while they’re spinning, and think about the days when they were what wasn’t being played.

Monday, November 07, 2005

there but for the grace of a '97 honda civic

At this moment I am still reeling from the intensity of Crash, which B and I watched on DVD last night. At this moment France is noticing that not all of France is French. And at this moment I am reading my third novel in six months about black people written by a white author.

I feel like all of these things are related and that there is something important to be said or learned, but I’m not sure what.

Crash says a lot of what needs to be said about race—especially race in LA—in a more complex, honest and brutal manner than any I’ve seen on film. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is a series of vignettes in which the lives of Angelnos collide (quite literally, car town that we are) and often turn violent as a result ethnic tensions and prejudices. A white cop saves the life of a black woman when her car flips over, but she wouldn’t have been driving in an agitated state if that same cop hadn’t pulled her over and molested her and humiliated her husband the night before. But that cop might not have had it in for black people if his dad hadn’t gotten laid off as a result of affirmative action. But there wouldn’t have been a need for affirmative action if it weren’t for slavery. And back and back and back.

One of the most refreshing things about the movie—and I know “refreshing” is a word to describe lemon-lime soda, not a movie that makes your heart explode—was that it wasn’t just black and white. There were Persian, Korean and Salvadoran-Puerto Rican people in the mix, all treating each other just as suspiciously.

It’s a forceful film, and I found myself—when not sobbing or actually saying “no, no” at the TV, the latter of which, at least, is not my normal movie-watching habit—searching the screen for one through-and-through good person. But even beyond race, a central idea of the movie is that we are all capable of acting horrifically, especially when others confirm our worst fears. In which case we turn around and confirm others’ worst fears.

I’m sometimes overly empathetic, but I came away from the movie fully convinced that there is a parallel universe in which I would rob and beat people—or at least have a housekeeper whom I would treat like shit—and that the only reasons I haven’t are: luck, privilege, naïveté, Chris Cunningham’s classes at UCLA and the fact that I’m too rich to be a carjacker and too poor to be carjacked. (Well, knock on wood—I’m sure someone out there would jack a ’97 Honda Civic that makes a funny humming noise when it starts up given the opportunity.)

At this moment I’m kind of at a loss. The other day my friend Annette described listening to a professor at an experimental writing conference “explain how her equations would take down the patriarchy.” So, um, we’ll see if the prof has any luck with that. In the meantime….

Friday, November 04, 2005

he is jordan, hear him roar

So you know how everyone thinks their own kid (or grandkid or niece or nephew) is the cutest baby in the world? Well, if Bonnie were ever to make that claim about Jordan—and she hasn’t, because she’s very modest—there’s a good chance she would be right. I think Jordan is at least in the top five, out of the billions of children in the world. Of course the children of everyone else I know round out that top five.

Here’s Jordan in his Halloween costume.

i had 506 miles to think about this

I just returned from a work trip to Fresno, the point of which was to seek out creative writers in California’s Central Valley. There are many, but let me tell you, they’re not naming the streets of their cities.

In addition to the usual letters and numbers (which is practical if not exciting), Fresno has streets named Tulare, Mariposa, Merced and Stanislaus. If you spend a large portion of your work life staring at a map of California, you know that these are names of California counties. I’m cool with that. Themes are nice. There was also an Olive, and I think local flora is nice too.

But in taking a less direct route home (so I could meet my fourth grade teacher in Porterville, a reunion that fell somewhere between nerve-wracking and heartwarming), I discovered that the towns of Tulare and Visalia and Porterville also have streets named Tulare, Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus and Olive.

Well, I’m pretty sure that they do. Because of the repetition I started to feel a little insane, and now I can’t remember whether I drove down Merced Street in Tulare or Tulare Avenue in Merced. I know for sure that I took Tulare in Fresno to a highway that turned into Tulare in Tulare.

As I was mentally chastising the Valley for its laziness, I realized that LA has an Olive and a Mariposa. Are these names just that good? Is this a case of Larry, Darryl and Darryl? (That’s a Newhart reference for you youngsters.) I’m curious whether other regions have similar name-repetition issues. Or, if these street/county names are really so fabulous, whether, say, Atlanta is full Merceds and Mariposas too.

One other road trip note: Buy Fiona Apple’s new album, Extraordinary Machine. It’s, well, extraordinary.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

ben franklin, at least, would approve

Interpretive dancers, like librarians and rocket scientists and, I don’t know, maybe strippers, have one of those professions known mostly by its stereotypes. People use interpretive dance as a stand-in any time they want to reference something dull and pretentious or something improvised and opaque. I was guilty of interpretive dance humor at my last reading, when I said, “I have a cold, so if I lose my voice, I guess I’ll just start doing interpretive dance.”

But even though I’ve been to plenty of dance performances, even though I went to CalArts, I can’t say that I’ve ever actually seen interpretive dance in action. Or at least I couldn’t until Saturday night.

B and I, plus Jamie and Lee-Roy and Ryan (not Singapore Ryan; he’s still in Singapore), turned out for Beyond Baroque’s Constitution-themed evening to see Jen Benka read her truly beautiful-smart-sad-hopeful book, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers, which features one poem for each word of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Even the “the’s” and the “a’s.” That’s dedication.

Jen had mined tiny words for their most intricate and infinite meanings, had thought long and hard about this whole America thing. Which seemed to be sort of the opposite of everyone else found their way onto BB’s bright black stage: one cynical, wingin’-it-on-the-witness-stand Constitutional lawyer and two real live interpretive dancers.

When the first dancer took the stage, I braced myself. I had no idea what to expect. Would there be music? Talking? A lot of grabbing motions in the air? The answers turned out to be no, yes and yes. At first it was hard not to laugh, which had little to do with the performance and much to do with the silence in the room and the fact that, oh my god, I’m actually witnessing interpretive dance about the Constitution.

And yet it became kind of interesting, especially in the grand interpretive finale, when another dancer joined the first on stage. The new, strong young woman carried the slighter, older woman around on her hip, pressed her hands to the other woman’s hands, said, “Simone, you’re strong!” One myth that shattered for me is that interpretive dance is deadly serious. The younger woman would say things like, “I wonder if I can hold my leg up in the air for the rest of the performance?” There was some silly self-awareness, and they seemed to grant the audience permission to laugh.

And they talked about the Constitution, a little bit. The younger woman named some framers. The older woman said something about the Magna Carta. But ultimately I’m a worker bee artist, and while I’m blown away by the guts and talent that improvisation requires, I’m most impressed by art that takes years of research or thousands of little painted dots.

I concluded my literary weekend Sunday at the new Workspace in Silver Lake, where Tony Abatemarco read some crowd-pleasing Buckowski, and Terry Wolverton, dressed all in lime green, read poems praising shadows and spoons and lipstick. Proof that hard work can provide a lot of fun.

Monday, October 31, 2005

some pictures

To go with my thousands and thousands of words. A disclaimer: These were taken with the 35mm point-and-shoot camera my parents bought me in fifth grade. Even then it was a hand-me-down from my friend Bonnie. It’s definitely feeling its age, but it’s a sturdy little thing, and it will have to do until B uploads the photos from her digital camera. For all you visual learners out there, my previous posts are now illustrated.

Here’s one of me trying the infamous durian in Singapore. Actually, I look like I’m getting high off it. It is a potent fruit.

Monday, October 24, 2005

10/22: valley girls and boys (and buddhas)

We began our last day in HK at Hong Kong Park, where we frolicked with black-necked swans and fake rocks covered with real turtles and ponds full of coy that were bigger than the turtles.

We took the steep, slightly scary tram to Victoria Peak, where we watched the crowd of tourists and guys selling postcards, one pushy fortune teller and one self-proclaimed “Thai superstar” who was there with a camera crew. And beyond that, HK’s big, curved skyline, pastel in the smog.

There was also a mall at the top, of course.

We took a boat and one or two types of trains—so much public transportation here—to Tsim Sha Tsui East, one of the New Territories, meaning it was founded around 1897-ish. We decided that the New Territories are the Valley of HK, where things are a little cheaper and a little less cool.

Lunched at a dim sum restaurant on the top floor of a mall. There was a complicated system where one of the staff handed you a slip of colored paper printed with a number and you had to watch a TV screen for your color and number to come up. The place was a huge, low-ceilinged banquet hall with stackable chairs and women pushing carts of round bamboo containers. Jon says all the best Chinese restaurants are big—which definitely doesn’t hold true in the U.S. Think Soup Plantation, Claim Jumper.

Jon claims his Mandarin is crap and that he doesn’t speak Cantonese at all, but he managed to order us one of the most delicious lunches I’ve ever had: fish balls, tofu with potato, big flappy fried rice puffs drenched in honey, turnip cakes with plum sauce, steamed mung bean buns, mango pudding for desert. We ate these oblong fish ball-esque things wrapped in seaweed and fried.

“Think how many of our friends would love this, but turn their noses up at fish sticks?” Ryan said.

I finally got my chance to eat fish head, too, and I’ve gotta say that fish eyes are overrated. The one I had, at least, tasted hard and chalky, like the dehydrated peas in Cup-O-Noodles.

Bellies full, we took an escalator up the hill to what we thought was the Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas. It was a contemporary temple and cemetery, lovely and colorful, but there seemed to be no more than 500 Buddhas at most. More fun than the Buddhas, though, were the monkeys who kept stealing apples and oranges from the shrines. The groundskeepers shoed them away, but Jon posited that maybe they were the ancestors, reincarnated and claiming their rightful fruit.

Next door we found the actual Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas. I love being in a country where such an error is even possible. This place had cement steps winding up a steep hill, bordered by life-sized Buddha disciples painted bright yellow-gold, all wearing red, red lipstick. Some had beaded necklaces, some looked serene or angry or worried, some were surfing on the backs of sea creatures.

But once again, my favorite part was the monkeys, who crashed through the branches overhead and pushed each other down a sandy embankment. They reminded me that we were really, really not in America.

We ate our last HK meal at a Thai restaurant not far from the hotel. We debated whether to order mango sticky rice for dessert. Ryan saw the picture and said, “Oh, it’s on black rice. I don’t like black rice.”

“Are you saying that you’re judging rice by its color?” I demanded.

“I guess I’m a rice-ist,” Ryan smiled. We agreed that that was definitely one for the blog.

Back at the hotel, Jon perused the many escort options in the phone book (from the zombie-like Kelly to the friendly-clerk-like BoBo) while Ryan quizzed me on which 19 world cities boasted a Conrad hotel. I got stumped on Istanbul, Turkey.

Now I’m on the plane, happy with my trip and happy to be heading home. I’m reading a copy of Singapore’s Female magazine, which is even worse than Cosmo. There’s a whole article devoted to horror stories about how Filipina maids have screwed over their employers. Almost every single anecdote ends with, “I wasn’t about to put up with that, so I sent her home.” “That” being things like “trying to raise my children” (hello, that’s what you hired her to do!) and “sleeping with a knife under her pillow” (the chick is scared of you, lady, and I would be too).


10/20: the knock-off dynasty

Ryan was MIA this morning, so B and Jon and I hit Hollywood Road, where all the antiques are. Jon is the guy to go with, as he knows the difference between the Han and Tang and Qing and Ming dynasties, between real and fake. We saw fat ceramic pots dripping with emerald green glaze, little armless soldiers, asymmetrical shelves, slotted benches. A lot of it was gorgeous, but some of it—even some of the gorgeous pieces—looked a little bit like something you’d find in a model home. The big, pale stone horse was supposed to guard a tomb, but he looked like he’d be equally comfortable guarding a sectional sofa. That’s the trouble with being a pomo kid, you don’t appreciate the real thing.

We rode the string of escalators that run up the steep mountainside toward Victoria Peak. They pushed us up past noisy apartment buildings with peeling paint and clothes hanging out the windows on poles. Then all of a sudden we stepped off for a minute and we were at the mossy gates of a white mosque surrounded by villa-style apartments and a brick courtyard, and everything felt quiet and ancient. Even though a plaque said the mosque was rebuilt in 1915, it still felt ancient.

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how old China really is. Around what it would be like to be a farmer who stumbles across a tomb while plowing his fields. Jon says that happens all the time.

Jon is very chill with a low, lazy laugh. If you ask him a question, he’s fond of saying, “I have no idea.” He’s always up for “whatever.” He’s a good addition to our group, since there is not one square inch of Asia that Ryan and B do not have opinions about. Also, because he’s Chinese-American, people frequently think he’s our guide and offer to give him free stuff.

We met up with Ryan and took a cruise on an authentic junk (well, authentic if you ignored the hum of the motor) to Kowloon, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. The part of Hong Kong we’re staying in, called Center, I think, is all silver skyscrapers and air conditioned malls that sprawl across streets and underground. Kowloon is a little more Times Square, with tall and gritty buildings and neon signs trying to out-blink each other.

In a mall-like civic center, we stumbled onto a dance performance that was part of Hong Kong’s month-long Latin Passion Festival. The tap-salsa-ballroom-ish performance was immediately comforting to me. Something in my body just clicked, like my cells said, We get this. I don’t know if the Latin-ness reminded me of California or what. But I think it was more the Passion that spoke to me. It sounds cheesy, but I really feel like art is a universal language. Like the performer-audience relationship is a culture in itself.

After an overpriced happy hour and an underpriced noodle dinner, we hit the night market on Temple Street, where vendors set up booths in front of the closed storefronts and sell the same imported-from-China stuff you find in downtown LA, but for even less. I am a fan of cheap imported knock-offs and random goods—“silk” pajamas, “jade” jewelry, pig-shaped key chains with light-up noses, Che shirts, Mau shirts, and these gummy balls that flatten when you throw them against a wall—but I was feeling a little over-shopped at that point.

10/19: suzanne, jon, ben and conrad

B and I were feeling a bit bedraggled after getting off the bus at the wrong stop and trekking the long distance to Ryan’s flat. But when we got there, he’d turned the place festive with candles and music. His new coworker, an Atlantan/New Yorker named Suzanne who used to work for Rough Guides, was also there. She was friendly-goofy, and we all went to a vegetarian restaurant called Original Sin in Holland Village (basically White People Town of Singapore). Then we moved on to a lesbian bar called Club 95 in Chinatown. Small and mellow, with nothing so fussy as fruit punch or vanilla Stoli on hand to appease B’s and my not-so-butch drinking habits.

Now we’re in Hong Kong for the last leg of our trip. We’re staying at the Conrad Hilton, which is like a mammoth version of Tea Chapter in that I’m way too lowbrow for the uber-fluffy towels and too-attentive staff and delicate pears they leave on the desk with an orchid as garnish.

B’s friend Jon has joined us from Beijing, where he’s been living for the past couple of years. He’s a sweet, mellow guy who has been to Hong Kong a couple of times, mostly to help find items for his mom’s antique business in Texas. We had dinner with Jon’s ex-pat friend Ben, whom Jon described as a sort of international playboy. Ben was very nice, as charming as an international playboy should be, but I just couldn’t quite relate to his dilemma over whether to buy a Porsche or a speedboat.

10/18: i love the '80s and the 1890s

Right now B and I are sitting at Tea Chapter in Singapore’s Chinatown. We’ve had several pots of earthy red tea and one pot of slightly bitter green tea. Until about 20 minutes ago, 140 Chinese schoolgirls were taking tea lessons upstairs, so it wasn’t exactly tranquil. I don’t think I’d do very well in tea school. I feel big and oafish among the dainty porcelain cups (one for sniffing, one for drinking) and teapots (one for brewing, one for pouring). At Starbucks you get a venti whatever and you are kind of dwarfed by it. You don’t have to have refined tastes to enjoy a bunch of chocolate sprinkles and a triple shot of caffeine. This is stuff for people who like wine tasting and classical music. I like the idea of wine tasting and classical music.

Also, I just managed to acquire a tea injury when I seared my wrist on our boiling kettle.

Still, it’s all lovely and elaborate, and I think this might be one of my favorite days so far. Earlier this afternoon we visited the Chinatown Heritage Centre, a pretty impressive museum devoted to the Chinese immigrants who’ve come to Singapore since the 1800s. (It’s crazy that a city with a majority Chinese population even has a Chinatown, but that’s the colonial legacy for you.) I’ve always loved Jacob Riis’ photos of 19th century American immigrants. In high school I poured over floor plans of dumbbell-style tenements in my U.S. history textbook. B said, “I know how you love filth.” Maybe. There is something about the texture of that experience and the extremes people will go to for survival that I’m drawn to. So it was interesting to see a parallel immigrant experience that happened at the same time on the other side of the world.

Chinese shophouses—which had crowded workstations on the first two floors and crowded multi-family living quarters above—also had airshafts running down the middle, just like American dumbbell tenements. The museum had an almost full-size replica of a bunch of shophouse rooms, stocked with rickety furniture and retro posters and pots and pans and irons and sewing machines.

When I think of Klein family vacations, I think of wooden rooms with squeaky, old-fashioned beds and a rope across the doorway to keep you from going inside. So this museum made me nostalgic for both the 1980s and 1890s.

Yesterday was our last in Malaysia, a big surge of shopping. Visiting a poor country makes me want to live a simpler life on one hand, and buy while the buying’s cheap on the other.

Highlight from the scruffy, under-construction Kuching airport: a sign saying, “Emergency Procedure: In case of smoke or fire the person who spots it should shout, ‘Fire! Fire!’ in a loud voice.”

Almost as priceless as the instructional signs I’ve seen in a few of the bathrooms, explaining via detailed diagrams how to use a Western (as opposed to squat) toilet. We’ve all agreed that squat toilets are in fact much more sanitary than sit toilets. Still, there’s something inherently funny about reading instructions on how to do something you’ve been doing since you were two years old. Literal toilet humor. According to the pictures, if you squat on the rim of a Western toilet, you might fall in and get your leg stuck. Good to know.

10/16: cats and fish

If any city were to have a serious and comprehensive museum devoted to the cultural and biological history of cats, you’d think it would be Kuching (which, as I mentioned, means “cat” in Malay). The Cat Museum sat at the top of the hill in a big domed building, looking stately and promising. But after a quick look around, we decided it must be the pet project (no pun intended) of some government official’s wife. Someone the city couldn’t say no to.

Ever wondered what a giant plaster cat looks like wearing a hijab? Look no further! You can also find cartons of Whiskas behind glass, framed Garfield puzzles and water-stained prints of “cats in western art.” The inclusions were random, half-hearted and totally disorganized. The English portion of the info cards on the walls often started or stopped in the middle of sentences. Ryan was immediately bored and began scouring for little bits of actual Malaysian history, but I was fascinated.

There were not one but two collections of Hello Kitty zodiac key chains—displayed not with the other case of Hello Kitty stuff, but with posters of work by a Japanese photographer who liked to dress kittens as chefs and “street toughs.” One of the classier rooms was devoted to folk-style paintings of cats with captions like, “TODAY: Is always good to no look back, but some time you should look back.”

If a movie had a cat in it, even for a minute, the poster was on the wall of the Cat Museum. There was a bizarre diorama homage to a 1950s movie called Cat Burglar. The large glass case featured a masked mannequin dressed in black, suspended on ropes above a litter of, what else, big-eyed plaster kitties.

The orang-utan sanctuary, where we went later in the afternoon, was much more discreet. Not a single plaster orang-utan. Just the real thing, looping through the branches for their afternoon pineapples and oranges. B and I missed the alpha male, but we watched a beautiful red-brown mama orang-utan and her little orange gymnast baby. They’re much more graceful than their monkey cousins. They basically have four arms, and they just sort of peel from one branch to another.

We had dinner at the See Good Food Centre, a big outdoor seafood restaurant with no menus, just a middle-aged woman who recites the specials and a handful of bobtailed cats who meow loudly while you eat. We ate black pepper crab and sweet and sour fish and finger oysters and ferns and spinach.

B and Ryan are always good for State Of The World Conversations—what government should be and do. I love how smart they both are, how inspiring and honest. Even though sometimes I just want to burst out and start talking about the mall (which, actually, Ryan is pretty adept at as well, having been a passionate Banana Republic employee).

Ryan is pro-caning these days, ready to give up freedom of speech and religion for a clean, safe, egalitarian country. I’m not really sure how those sacrifices create that gain, but I agree that different systems work for different cultures (though maybe no one needs the caning system). I’m fascinated by Ryan’s ability to move about in the world, to hitch a ride on a mail truck in Uganda one day and buy mass quantities of his favorite Body Shop shampoo the next. To swing from the rough life to the high life like a smooth orang-utan.

At the Holiday Inn, there was a gazebo where you could get massages, and I was totally horrified to see white women sipping cocktails as Malay women rubbed their feet. I don’t like the idea of a poor person taking care of my personal grooming, and yet, a poor person undoubtedly sewed my clothes, and a poor person cooked my dinner. Which makes me think that maybe I’m one of those people who just doesn’t like to see “the help.” Like I want the perks without the guilt. Whereas I think Ryan understands the harsh realities and accepts the consequences.

When I started eating fish, I knew I had to fully own the consequences of my actions. I couldn’t stick with fish sticks and fillets, I had to look the fish head square in the eye.

10/15: lost in translation

The homesickness hit today. Right now drinking a pumpkin spice latte and reading a BHQ submission sounds really nice. I miss feeling competent and grown up. I miss knowing I could drive for hours in any direction and not get lost. I feel sort of silly feeling homesick after being gone only a week (with my girlfriend, no less), but that’s me.

We’re in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia now. Sarawak is a state on the island of Borneo. Borneo sounds so exotic. I recall hearing something about “The Wild Man of Borneo,” but B and Ryan have no idea what I’m talking about. I think maybe he was one of PT Barnum’s side show attractions, probably just a local guy with a tan and a lot of facial hair. (Not that Malays actually have a lot of facial hair, I’m just saying that side show attractions frequently did.)

We’ve cashed in B’s Hilton points—here’s to putting your grad school tuition on your credit card!—and gotten a ridiculously nice room overlooking the Sarawak River and all the brightly colored waterfront shops. “Kuching” means “cat” in Malay, and there are a couple of giant cat statues in the city. But they’re not classy bronze statues or modern art-style statues. They’re more like giant Precious Moments figurines, something you would give away if your grandma gave it to you.

Some other Malay words I’ve learned (my spelling is dubious):
  • Bukit = hill
  • Bahru = new
  • Ayam = chicken
  • Ais kirm = ice cream
  • Air = water (just to be confusing)
  • Surau = the place Muslims go to pray. This one was tricky. Ryan and I kept seeing signs saying “surau” at various places—the airport, the campground—and we thought it meant “staff” or “office,” but finally Ryan asked someone, another cab driver, I think.
  • Terima kasih = thank you. But if you say it to a Chinese Malaysian, she will laugh at your dorky attempt to speak the language she only speaks because she has to. Learned that the hard way.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

10/14: nature for the impatient

Tonight we’re staying at Bako National Park, a 30-minute ride from Kuching in a little boat with an outboard motor. It had a sign that said, “Wear life jacket at all times,” but at no point did anyone offer us a life jacket. The river (delta? little sliver of ocean?) ranged from narrow to wide—I know because I kept thinking about whether or not I could swim it, and the answer varied. I also thought a lot about crocodiles as I watched the mangrove forests and tiny houses on stilts roll by.

B was not so happy to learn that our hostel had no mosquito netting or air conditioning. Her doctor didn’t prescribe malaria pills, but to her credit, she’s sticking it out. There is a yellow-cliffed beach nearby and lots of wild (or wild-ish) animals. We were barely off the boat when we saw our first bearded pig, a huge boar with a scouring brush for a face (B’s description). There are dozens of what the campground brochure refers to as “naughty macaques,” pale, cat-sized monkeys. I think the brochure describes them that way because they like to steal visitors’ food, but we witnessed a short monkey orgy today that would suggest the naughtier connotation of “naughty” also applies.

B wasn’t feeling well, but Ryan and I decided to brave the Lintang Trail, a three hour loop that took us through all kinds of terrain, from root-covered hills that reminded Ryan of Lord of the Rings to lava-bed-looking flats to places where the rainwater flowed over pale sands like white chocolate. We saw blue and orange mushrooms, spiky rattan (“I think this is what they use to beat people with in Singapore,” Ryan worried. “I didn’t know it had spikes.”) and two kinds of pitcher plants.

I love the rainforest because you don’t have to appreciate subtlety to enjoy it. It has all the variety and spectacle of Disneyland.

We hiked in the rain, sweat and bug spray flowing in rivulets down our arms, and talked about camping and Wal-Mart and Mormons and screenplays. On the way back, we finally saw the elusive proboscis monkeys, big orange dudes with Gonzo noses and long white tails.

The three of us ate at the canteen, which is attached to a little store that sells Fumakilla brand mosquito coils. We laughed and made up stories about other park visitors and swatted mosquitoes as we ate noodles with greens cooked in some kind of fish paste. It seems to be a popular condiment here, and I have to admit that, while not unpleasant, whenever I eat it I always find myself thinking about Maria’s Pet Store in Hermosa Beach.

10/13: it takes a village

Spent most of yesterday by the pool. Everything I normally devote my time to seems so far away. Just being is such a good lesson. Of course it also makes me feel extremely untalented because I don’t have any skills that might be useful here. I can’t swim (well, just enough to not drown in a current-less, shark-less swimming pool), I can’t plan itineraries, I can’t make conversation with strangers. All I can do is eat whatever’s in front of me, which makes me more of a circus freak than a savvy traveler.

Last night at dinner (fish, spring rolls, two kinds of eggplant and the best desserts I’ve ever had—an array of bright green, chewy, ricey things), I confessed my travel-related insecurities to Ryan, who said that not complaining and not being afraid to try new things are genuine accomplishments. As always, I am accomplished in the negative. I’m good at not taking up too much space, not being too annoying or demanding. My therapist would not be surprised. Nevertheless, I took it as a compliment, and the three of us had one of those long, good, getting-to-know-you-even-better conversations.

Today we visited the Sarawak Cultural Village, a “living museum” not far from our hotel. It’s definitely geared toward tourists, with all the longhouses and tallhouses of different indigenous tribes clustered unnaturally together. At the same time, I was annoyed by the American guy at our hotel who said, “Yeah the dances they do there are cool, but if you’ve already seen a real longhouse, it’s like, whatever.”

There’s this anti-tourist snobbery among some “real” travelers that bugs me. Of course people who want their picture taken with the natives and always need to stay at five-star hotels are irritating. But the search for authenticity can be futile, and can manifest as one-upmanship. And for people who are less educated or have less money, touristy things can be a way in. I hate it when people romanticize the underprivileged of other countries while condemning our own—like if you work in a rice paddy you’re cool, but if you’re an American who doesn’t know the difference between an Iban longhouse and a Bidayuh longhouse, you’re not.

Anyway, the dancing was cool (see previous post). And we got to wander through the traditional houses, climb notched logs, taste palm-flour crackers, dance a little to some violin music, befriend a couple of bobtailed cats. B and Ryan played the Malay version of Mancala, a game played with rocks and what looks like a long wooden muffin tin. We listened to the Iban woman stationed at the Chinese farmhouse talk about how much she disliked Chinese people because they are always sour-faced even when they’re on holiday. She had something to say about everything and everyone. Later Ryan read us a passage from his guidebook: “Be sure to see the Sarawak Cultural Village. The comments of the effusive Cecilia at the Chinese farmhouse are worth the price of admission alone.”

10/12: the land of bikinis and hijabs

Yesterday we arrived at the Damai Beach Holiday Inn 45 minutes outside Kuching. Malaysia is technically a developing country, but it seems to be a mixture of living conditions, more along the lines of Mexico than, say, Sub-Saharan Africa. We drove past shacks in the middle of lush green fields, tile-roofed duplexes and a few really opulent mansions. The signs featured lots of cognates: motosikil, insurans, teksi. We passed a school full of very small girls in hijabs. Our cab driver said when they start wearing it depends. A lot seems to be optional for Muslims in this part of the world. Some of the girls wear short sleeves. Ryan said that his Muslim friends told him that if you break your Ramadan fast you can do a make-up day afterward.

There’s a sort of modern-Muslim style I’ve observed on some of the trains in Singapore. One young woman had on this brightly printed turquoise dress over jeans (a style I always dig, no matter what B says), with a brown plaid hijab. They wear them pinned at the chin with a big lump of ponytail in the back. A kind of sexy mix of contemporary and traditional styles. I know some of the point of Muslim girl style is to not be sexy, but unexpected blends—like femmey dresses with combat boots—are always sexy to me. And I think that young people of any culture search for a way to make what’s been passed down to them new and cool.

We watched a little of the Malaysian news on TV last night, then fell asleep at 7:30 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 7:30 this morning. It was nice sleeping somewhere other than Ryan’s couch, which is at least six inches shorter than I am.

At the resort, I don’t even feel like I’m in a foreign country. It’s all very neat, self-contained and packaged. Which is both a nice break and somewhat unsettling. We’re staying in multi-unit, bungalow-style buildings with low-slung, green tile roofs. There’s a pool shaped like a goldfish cracker, a lightning rod on the roof, waves lapping the sand a few feet away, misty green mountains on the other side. And lots of Germans in very small swimsuits. I feel weird wearing my two-piece swimsuit in front of the Malays, even though I’m still doing it. I feel like, of course we are rich, decadent Westerners, of course we are hate-able. But maybe people here understand about those delicate cultural balances. Those tensions that are not quite harmonic, not quite hostile. Maybe they like having a steady job more than they dislike Westerners. Who knows.

10/11: purses, from production to consumption

Two buses, one walk and one cab ride, and we’re on a plane to Malaysia, where we’ll spend the next week. By crossing the Singapore/ Malaysia border on foot, we can take a domestic flight from Johor Bahru to Kuching and save like $US 100. Ryan knows all the tricks. He chatted with our cab driver about different Malaysian cities, the Johor Bahru flag, his family, Ramadan, etc. He’s open talking about his own travels, where I would be nervous that I was just making myself sound really rich. But I’m always nervous talking about things, and so I never talk to anyone and never learn anything. B and I sat in the back of the cab, quietly, soaking it in. Ryan often leads the way and he’ll make jokes like, “I love how my two wives walk five paces behind me.” There’s this whole choreography of the uber-well-traveled (Ryan), the well-traveled (B) and the girl who says, “So in LA….”

Our last day (for a while) in Singapore, Ryan worked and B and I explored on our own. Meaning she figured out the bus and MRT schedule and I carried our stuff and tried to act like I knew which direction we were headed. Our first stop was the Singapore Crocodile Farm on Upper Serangoon Road. The guidebook warned it was not a zoo but a working farm where the crocs would end up as handbags and belts. I wanted to go because I have this notion that my next novel will involve animal activism in some form.

I prepared myself to be disturbed, but it wasn’t that bad, maybe because I’m a mammal-ist and don’t find crocodiles all that loveable. I also don’t know enough about them to know if they’re being treated badly—to tell if they have enough water and space to roam. They were in brick enclosures in groups of two to five. They didn’t move much, but when they did it was lightening-fast. Mostly they looked bored. B learned in Australia that they have a 100% catch rate—if they want to eat you, they will. But she saw one go after a leaf floating in his pool of water and miss, so she revised the statistic to 99.9%.

To kill the crocodiles, the farmers snare them by the neck and strangle them against a wooden pole, then skin them, and salt and polish the skin. A three-year-old croc makes about one purse.

We shopped in Little India and on Arab Street. The latter was definitely populated by a lot of Muslims, but there seemed to be more Malays than Arabs. Shopping gets exhausting, and I hate bargaining, though luckily B enjoys it. More and more I’m enjoying the freedom that not-consuming brings. So much of what we saw—the batik wall hangings and carved wood and elephant-adorned purses—look nicer in the stores in their color and abundance than they would in our crowded apartment. But of course this enlightened realization didn’t stop me from buying a pair of sandals and a bunch of gifts for my relatives.

10/10: opening the cupboard

Our first stop yesterday was the Tiong Bahru bird area, where older Chinese men bring their birds to sing to each other on Sunday mornings. The morning was rainy-misty, sort of like Seattle in July. The birds were these little green and yellow guys in wooden cages decked out with carvings and ivory ornaments. I thought they all looked like the “after” pictures from Pimp My Cage. Ryan said he would remember that when he taught parody to his class.

We stopped at a hawker center for breakfast, sort of like Grand Central Market but cleaner and Chinese. Lots of food booths and little tables beneath a tall tin roof. I ate fish congee (porridge) and drank a venti-esque cup of grass jelly juice.

In the afternoon we visited the Changi Prison Museum. At first I thought we were going to get to visit a real Singapore prison. I’d just read an article in other magazine by a person who’d toured a Bolivian prison, apparently a regular occurrence. But while the current real prison is called Changi Prison, this was a replica of a chapel built at the old Changi, which Japan turned into a POW camp for soldiers, British colonials and locals during World War II. Turns out the Japanese treated everyone there pretty shittily, as runners of prison camps are known to do.

The letters and photos and artifacts made me realize how much my education focused on the Western front of WWII and the West in general. That’s happening over and over this trip. It’s not as if I really thought I knew much about Asia beforehand, but, well, say you had a cupboard in your house that you’d never opened. You would admit that you had no idea what was inside and that you were sort of curious. But say you were able to open it just a crack one day, and out fell, for example, a football, a peach and a glass eye. All of a sudden you’d be really curious. You’d want to know how these things fit together and fit with the rest of the known objects in your house.

Ryan says Singapore is unusual because it’s proud of its colonial past, not like Africa, where he also lived. I said maybe the difference is how the particular colonists treated the particular locals. “You mean like because they didn’t export them as slaves?” he said. “Yeah,” I said. Still, according to the Changi Prison Museum, the Japanese invasion was a wake-up call that the paternalistic British were pretty pathetic parents, surrendering almost immediately. The Japanese claimed that “Asia should be run by Asians.” Of course, you have to question this seemingly noble statement when you look at the torture of thousands of Chinese people, but still, it would have been nice in school if someone had mentioned that Japanese aggression was on some level a reaction to years of colonial rule in Asia. That it wasn’t just a Pinky and The Brain plot, where one day they woke up and said, “Let’s take over the world.”

We tagged along to Ryan’s Kundalini yoga class, taught by a French woman named Christine. Stretched and breathed the tropical breeze in her living room, un-crunched my muscles after a day of walking.

After dinner we visited a gay bar called, I think, Tantric. I thought it would be more underground, but it was pretty much like West Hollywood, maybe mellower and more ethnically diverse. Even the gay bar we went to in Prague a few years ago felt kind of dangerous, the bouncer locking the door after we slipped inside. We met up with a handful of Ryan’s friends and acquaintances, two Singaporeans, a white American guy and a Chinese British girl. This whole ex-pat life is new and glamorous and intimidating. I am such a local girl. I can’t go five minutes without talking about LA.