Wednesday, August 31, 2005

miracles of various sizes

  • The only person I know in New Orleans still has a place to live.
  • Fiona Apple’s third album will finally be released on October 4.
  • When I got home there was a red jacket hanging on the gate with a cup of soda sitting comfortably in the pocket.
  • Another person I know, who was doing some freelance work for a New Orleans organization, has suddenly found herself with, um, an extended deadline. She used the extra time to work on her excellent novel about Afghanistan, and when it gets published I know it will do good things in in a world very much in need of good things.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


When Bari was in grad school she could never hang out with my friends (or hers, even) or make it to parties. She was just one of those hardcore studiers, and I admired her for it. But sometimes I wondered if people believed I really had a girlfriend. Somewhat self-consciously, I began referring to her as my Snuffleupagus girlfriend, after Big Bird’s friend who mysteriously disappeared every time anyone else was around.

Bari is slightly more accessible these days, although this particular fall she will be doing a lot of traveling for work. Perhaps as a concession—and to give me something to do while she’s gone besides watch reality shows—she finally gave me her blessing to blog about her. Until now you may or may not have noticed that I’ve mentioned her only in very abstract terms. She was a little wary about being on the web, and since my blog is totally world famous, that seems understandable. This is a girl who carefully tears the address labels off her magazines before she recycles them—and we’re talking Newsweek, not Hustler here. It’s just one of my love’s charms. But the result of her blog-related caution was a little…well…Snuffy-esque.

A few (okay, probably 15) years back, Big Bird’s other friends—Maria, Luis, Cookie Monster, Oscar and the gang—finally met Snuffy. It was a triumph for children, sending the message that they should be listened to, that they might know something grown-ups don’t. I also like the idea that something imaginary can become real.

So, friends, meet Bari, my Snuffleupagus girlfriend. Tomorrow I’ll post her social security number.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

so we thought we could dance

The class of ’95 was never much for tradition. When we were in eighth grade, we were the first class to let seventh graders hang out on the Eighth Grade Patio. In high school we walked on the Senior Walkway long before we were seniors, and by the time we were, we graciously let underclassmen use the allegedly coveted strip of cement. I’m proud of our collective progressiveness, but I suspect it was and is fueled by apathy.

Case in point: It seems no one has gotten around to planning our 10-year high school reunion. Although there are rumors that Paige Nelson is, or a guy named Steve, or both. Go class of ’95! Way to prove you’re grown-ups!

My friends and I decided to take matters into our own hands and hold a mini reunion. For one thing, the big reunion will inevitably be about showing off and gossiping. I enjoy both activities in moderate doses—and trust me, a just-in-case-there’s-a-reunion diet will be undertaken, and probably broken—but it’s also nice to spend some quality time with the people I actually liked. The people who actually remember me. Namely, Amy, Bonnie, Heather, Jenessa and Kristy (Angie couldn’t make it).

We met for lunch today at El Sombrero #2 in Manhattan Beach, the storefront Mexican restaurant where we always used to go on half days. It was just like old times, except now we shared our table with Jordan, Bonnie’s adorable 16-month-old son. In the old days we could never get cute boys to hang out with us.

After catching up on important things like our careers and love lives and favorite reality shows, we went back to my dad’s house to peruse old photo albums and watch the Friends Forever video Bonnie edited for us when we graduated (Bonnie is definitely the documentarian of the group). The video consisted of footage from fourth grade through twelfth, and, we discovered, 90 percent of it consists of talent show antics. Some of it was from actual school plays and talent shows, but apparently all we needed was an empty driveway and a boombox, and we’d perform.

There’s Bonnie’s and my gymnastics routines, Bonnie and Angie lip-synching the dialogue of National Lampoon’s Vacation, Heather glamming it up in a church production of Cinderella. Amy, Jenessa and Bonnie host talk shows with topics like “Girls Who’ve Never Had Boyfriends” and the satirical “How To Get A Man.” Kristy does a pretty convincing Debbie Gibson, and Bonnie and Amy carry her around on a throne made out of their arms. For some reason, there are a lot of fake boxing matches and reenactments of commercials—for items like Big Red and Ivory Soap (though the bar Bonnie’s using is clearly Irish Spring). There are rhythm games with cups, white girl gangsta posturing, My Little Pony puppet shows and so many drill/cheer routines. Then there are the more mysterious performances, like the one in which Bonnie and Amy sit on my back porch and recite a story in unison, in a slightly stupefied voice, beginning, “It was a full moon on Amy’s balcony….” I think she must have seen her neighbor naked or something.

After watching the sixtieth dance routine, Jenessa pointed out, “Have you noticed that we get older in the video, but our activities stay exactly the same?”

“No wonder we didn’t have boyfriends,” someone concluded, I think Amy.

I kind of like that we were all such hams. It’s good clean fun, and I like to think it prophesied creative futures for us; Angie is the only actress among us now, but we’re all artistic in our own ways. (That's us now in the pic, still hamming.) However, I couldn’t help but notice that, while we all could claim some unfortunate hairstyles, my awkward stage seemed much more prolonged than anyone else’s.

I’ve had this realization before. From my adult POV, I’ll periodically think, “Oh, I was probably a cute kid, I just had low self-esteem, that’s why I remember thinking everyone else was so much cooler than me.” Then I’ll see some photos or watch a video and realize, no, I really did have a giant nose and crazy hair; I really couldn’t remember dance routines; I really was pretty chunky by senior year; I really was inhibited, as much as I longed for the spotlight.

No big deal—it’s all about creating low expectations among my peers for the big reunion. The sheer fact that I no longer have bleached blonde hair with six inches of brown roots should be proof that I’ve come a long way.

Friday, August 26, 2005

dreams can come true

Last night I dreamed I was checking my email. A while back, I dreamed I was filing my nails. The only thing sadder than having really boring dreams is blogging about them.

When I was a kid, I had a dream that I was being chased through a forest by some type of wolf-like creature. It was scary, but my dream-self thought, "This is just a dream. I can escape." So I climbed a tree and slid down the trunk. It turned into a firehouse-style pole and, presto, I was in a new and better dream where I was surrounded by other kids and fun toys.

Usually I dream my teeth are falling out. Let me know if you know what that symbolizes. I also dream about pets who've died--in my dreams, they're alive and I've just forgotten about them. But I'm already in therapy to deal with my guilt issues (among other things), so I don't think I need any feedback about that particular dream.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

not-so-international relations

One of my favorite blogs, Andrea Siegel’s This Afternoon in Drama, recently (somewhat apologetically) made self-proclaimed Seinfeldian comments about doctor’s office scales. I feel compelled to add to the “what’s the deal with…” dialogue by saying: What’s the deal with place-of-origin nametags for waitstaff?

If you’ve been to Vegas recently, you’ve probably noticed that many of the waiters and dealers have nametags that say things like “Svetlana: Ukraine” or “Santiago: Philippines.” It’s a conversation piece, I guess, and it sort of makes sense in a city like Vegas, where almost everyone comes from somewhere else. But Manhattan Beach, where I had dinner with my dad and sister at The Kettle last night, is not such a city. It’s a pleasant little suburb that many people avoid leaving (although I’m proud to say I migrated a full 17 miles northeast), and The Kettle is staffed almost entirely by longtime locals.

Our waitress’ nametag said, “Nicole: Gardena,” and it just didn’t seem like there was much of a conversation to be had about that. “So, uh, do you live near El Camino College? I took half a trig class there once.” So I didn’t say that. I just said, “Can I get some ketchup, please?”

I ask you: What’s the deal?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

what she did for love

When I was little, my mom used to bake her own bread. It’s one thing to bake cookies or muffins, a special treat that will be oohed and ahhed over, but a thankless, everyday item like wheat bread—that’s hardcore. At the time, I was mainly embarrassed that my sandwiches were twice as thick as those of my classmates. My friend Cara brought neat little squares of egg salad on store-bought white bread with the crusts cut off. For the longest time I thought they were cake.

My mom didn’t make the bread from scratch. She wasn’t Martha Stuart, and she wasn’t all that into cooking. But that makes the love and dedication of baking and slicing even frozen loaves once a week all the more impressive.

Recently I decided to do the same. Not every week, but, well, once. I bought a three-pack of frozen bread dough and, after leaving it in my freezer for a few weeks, I took it out and read the baking instructions. They involved buttering a pan, and there was something about covering the dough and letting it rise, but I couldn’t figure out if this was part of the thawing process or not, and if it was supposed to happen in the fridge or on the counter.

I sighed and put the dough back in the freezer. As frequently happens, I was amazed by my own laziness.

But it got me thinking about the other above-and-beyond acts of labor my mom committed, such as ironing my homework when my little OCD self wrinkled it too much by erasing and then threw a fit. Making me a last-minute turtle outfit when I decided Goldilocks was a lame Halloween costume (hello, the girl was a fussy, high-maintenance criminal). Driving me all the way to Torrance so I could work for free at a dance studio to counteract my freshman teen angst (my dad gets big points in the shuttling arena as well).

I wonder if I will be even half as generous when I’m a mom. I know love makes you do things you never thought possible, and I have been known to make late night ice cream runs for a girlfriend with a sore throat, but I can’t help thinking, Hell no, I’m not ironing anyone’s homework. I don’t even iron my clothes. (The OCD has died down, trumped again by laziness, much in the same way that my fear of elevators subsided after I moved into a sixth floor dorm). Maybe my kids will just have to be resourceful, or maybe it’s just evidence that I’m not going to be signing any adoption papers for a few years. When I finally do, I’ll tell the little ones stories of Grandma Valerie as they eat their frozen dinners.

Monday, August 22, 2005

the verizon man is keeping us down

Speaking of cultural exchanges, I think it’s very, very bad for global relations that the only interactions that most Americans and Indians have with each other is via tech support call centers.

I say this after having spent far too much of my time (though Jamie and our downstairs computer guru Calvin spent even more of theirs) on the phone with Verizon’s minions trying to set up our new DSL at work. I’ll spare you the details, partly because I don’t even understand them—basically there is an evil spirit trapped in our modem. Said details required us to call Verizon many times. Each time we had to jump through five or six of the same please-provide-a-phone-number-in-case-we-get-disconnected hoops, a tactic that could ultimately lead to insanity. After stepping politely through the hoops each time, we would be given roundabout instructions that inevitably didn’t help, and we would be forced to call again.

And after a while, one wants to grab one of the hoops and strangle someone with it.

But I don’t want the nice Indian men I spoke with to think that Americans are all about strangling people, and I don’t want Americans to think that Indians are morons. Because the truth is, Verizon sucks. Verizon has a monopoly on the DSL biz in our area, meaning there’s no pressure to provide superior service, and Verizon refuses to pay for tech savvy employees or to pay for training of the non-savvy.

My new goal (besides avoiding Verizon altogether) will be to get one of the call center dudes to admit—during those long, awkward silences as he wades through my account info—that he hates Verizon. They monitor the calls, but maybe we could speak in some sort of code.

I’ll say, “Hey, you know that ‘other’ tech/communications company, ‘Horizon’? They sure don’t treat their employees or customers very well, do they?”

And he’ll say, “Yes, ‘Horizon’ blows. It certainly would be unfortunate if a disgruntled employee played a variety of predictable yet highly annoying pranks on them, wouldn’t it?”

I’ll agree that that would be unfortunate indeed, and we’ll have a moment of international bonding.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Do you believe in love at first sight? I have never tasted Krispy Kreme bread pudding, but now that I’ve seen the recipe (brown sugar! corn syrup! three dozen Krispy Kreme donuts!) I know that it’s my favorite food in the world. Falling for a recipe is not even like love at first sight, actually. It's more like falling in love after seeing someone's Friendster profile.

Still. This is why it’s important to read midwest-based blogs like Run Jen Run. It's all about cultural exchange. I have nothing against the desserts available on the west coast—mochi ice cream, Diddy Riese cookies—but come on: It’s bread pudding made from donuts. Comfort food meets comfort food. Cheryl meets type II diabetes.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

ducky and soup

The wallpaper on Stephanie’s camera phone was the Yo! MTV Raps logo. Her connection to Y!MR is a long story, but how the logo got on her phone is the more interesting story.

“A six-foot-tall albino named Ducky took the picture,” she informed us as she, Heather and I left Fabiolus.

Heather and I both did a double take (would that make it a quadruple take, collectively?). “Wait. We know a six-foot albino named Ducky.”

Our Ducky, we explained, was the crazy-sweet, sometime movie extra and frequent freeloader friend of our friend Jenessa’s ex-boyfriend Bill. The crazy thing is that it’s not like we all travel in the same circles. Heather and Steph had met once before. I see both of them way less than I would like, maybe once every few months. Heather and I go back to high school, Steph and I are college buds, and Jenessa is in Massachusetts these days.

But there can’t be that many six-foot albinos named Ducky.

Stephanie met him in a bar in Burbank. I don’t remember where they found the Y!MR logo, but Ducky appointed himself photographer. The three of us tripped out on this coincidence for a little while. Then Steph got philosophical. “That’s sort of how he introduces himself. Like, ‘Hey, I’m Ducky. You’ll remember me because I’m a six-foot albino.’ But I think he’s really only like 5’10”.”

“Maybe he’s trying to brand himself,” I said. “But he’s definitely an albino.”

Not long ago I had a party where Steph ran into Ray, a guy she knew from high school in Northern California. My girlfriend has known Ray for years, but we never made the hometown connection.

Back in college, Stephanie said, “The world revolves around me.” She was explaining the concept of subjectivity, basically, but I’m starting to think it really does.

Today’s other blast from the past was purely sensory. I was running early for dinner at Fabiolus, so I decided to stop at Book Soup, where I worked in college and just after. The minute I inhaled the scent that can only be described as Book Soup Flava, two images popped into my head:

1) The most perverse of sideshows. This is not because Book Soup, being located on Sunset, attracted a lot of freaks (although it did), but because I read Geek Love--a touching story of incest on the carnival circuit--in its entirety while standing behind the information counter. That was before they introduced the somewhat fascist and certainly ridiculous No Reading On The Job rule. But on the whole it was a really awesome place to work.

2) The bathroom. The overall smell at Book Soup is pleasant—papery and a little dusty, the way a bookstore should smell. But maybe five percent of that smell comes from the bathroom, which is open to the (bar-hopping/homeless/just-ate-a-big-dinner-at-Spago) public. I was always proud of this fact. But I didn’t always enjoy the result.

Nevertheless, it was incredibly nostalgic. I think I’m having a nostalgic week. I pulled a few books off the fiction shelf to see if they still stash extras in the back. They do. I tiptoed around the store looking for the first girl I ever admitted having a crush on, who I’ve heard still works there. She wasn’t there today. I was disappointed and relieved.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

i'm so street

Line from a hip-hop song I heard on my drive home last night: "You ain't just wack. You're what wack wants to be when it grows up." I'm not sure if this is a compliment or an insult--if I hadn't come in in the middle of the song, maybe I would know. Or maybe not. But I plan to use it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


So I wonder if I jinxed myself with that last entry about the fictional fiction writer who would get her book published before me. But, like, jinxed myself in a really good way.

Because a few hours after I wrote that, I learned that my MFA thesis project—a collection of connected short stories titled The Commuters—is going to be published by a small nonprofit press called City Works.

This is huge, multiple exclamation point, dance-around-the-room territory.

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of small nonprofit presses, that means I won’t make any money, and you may not see the book in Barnes & Noble, but I’ll actually have a say in what goes on the cover, and I'll actually get to talk to my editors, Jim and Kelly, and they will be really nice and smart and laidback, if today's phone conversation with them was any indication.

More exclamation points to follow.

And a big blog-to-heaven shout-out to my mom, who is entirely to blame for this whole loving-reading-and-writing thing.

P.S. And in case my jinx worked, Wow, it sure would be stressful to see a show about a writer whose first book was fabulously successful and led to a great life full of love and intellectual fulfillment and purple sunflowers!

mad hot

When I was in junior high, I hated watching The Wonder Years. Kevin Arnold’s awkward first kiss was not charming or cathartic, just a painful reminder that I was a good five years away from even a peck on the cheek. And I suspect that now, if there were a movie or TV show about a 28-year-old “emerging” writer with a girlfriend, two cats and a handful of neuroses-she-hoped-were-charming, I would find it equally stressful. The girl on the show would probably get her novel published long before me.

But movies about awkward 11-year-olds? Bring ‘em on!

I watched Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a competitive ballroom dance program in New York’s public schools, with my friend Heather, whom I’ve known since our respective band geek and drill team dork days. From our vantage point of 20-something confidence, it was delightful to watch these sixth graders transform their urban ragamuffin awkwardness into sophisticated grace. They swing and tango joyfully, but still look like the half-grown kittens that they are, lanky-limed, chipmunk-cheeked, buck-toothed and beautiful.

I saw a little of myself in Emma, a precocious and frequently obnoxious girl with shaggy bangs and a tendency to spout facts like, “Did you know that statistically 11-year-old girls are the number one target of kidnappers?” Emma dances fairly well, mainly, I think, because she’s a competitive little thing.

But the ultimate stars of the movie are the mostly Dominican kids from Washington Heights. They’re socioeconomic underdogs, but their dancing is both mad and hot. Their teacher, Yomaira, is a bit of a stage mom, but her love for the kids trumps (and sometimes begets) her pushiness. She and the ballroom instructors repeat the party line, which is that It’s Not About The Competition. The kids learn to parrot this statement, but, well, it sort of is. The documentary reaffirms this by focusing a lot on the winning team. If it weren’t about the five-foot-tall grand prize trophy, wouldn’t we see more of the silver team?

Still, I think legislators should watch this movie next time they get in a “standards-based,” reading-and-math-only mood. If watching Wilson, a shy new kid who barely speaks English, blossom into a miniature Fred Astaire whose classmates shower him with hugs doesn’t convince them of the benefits of arts funding…well, maybe just tapping their feet to the film’s contagious swing and meringue music will.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

little house near the chicken factory

After spending almost three months reading The Time of Our Singing, it was weird to plow through my next book—Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata—in a weekend. Like following up a relationship with a one-night stand. Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that compared to Richard Powers’ intricate, choreographed style, Kadohata’s writing is raw, plainspoken and sometimes random. Just what I needed.

Kira-Kira (which means shining or glittery in Japanese) is technically a kids’ book. My mom was a children’s librarian, and I learned long ago that you can read Huckleberry Finn in the fifth grade and write your college thesis on Weetzie Bat (which I did, along with one of Kadohata’s other books, In the Heart of the Valley of Love).

Kira-Kira is narrated by Katie, a Japanese American girl living in 1950s Georgia, where her parents work long, grueling hours in various stages of chicken production. Kadohata, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, is able to write about desperate conditions while still conveying the essential selfishness of childhood. Katie, like Laura, idolizes her smart and sickly older sister and wants to help her parents, but can’t manage to do the dishes without complaining about it for a while first.

The book deals with some heavy subject matter—I cried till I got a headache—but never at the expense of Katie’s humorous, matter-of-fact voice. While Katie doesn’t always understand adults’ actions and motives, she never comes across as precious or even all that innocent. Kadohata herself seems to agree with her narrator: Adults are weird, but they love you, and they work hard for you, and growing up means doing things you never thought you’d do—from stealing to studying—to ensure your family’s survival.

(I would say that’s a theme of Kira-Kira, but Katie’s not big on themes. Asked to write a book report on The Call of the Wild, she writes, “Dogs are good pets to own because of their loyalty. Loyalty is the theme. That is a fine theme.”)

The only bad thing about Kira-Kira being meant for middle school students is that it didn’t take longer to read. It’s the one-night stand I’m hoping will call. Like thirteen years elapsed between Valley of Love and this book, so it's a legitimate worry. I went to a panel Kadohata was on, and she said she had an identity crisis and went and worked as secretary for a while, which I found comforting. Still, I’m glad she’s back.

joel stein on the end of atkins

"Even prisoners get bread. Bread is so basic that, unlike water, restaurants don't have the guts to charge for it. Certain foods cannot even be made without bread--such as French toast and bread."

--From "Eat This, Low Carbers" in Time

Thursday, August 11, 2005

how to tour the red states without leaving your chair

If you are a sheltered lefty like myself, you occasionally wonder, “Who are these ‘Republicans’ everyone keeps talking about? I mean, besides my dad, who I am determined to believe is really a social liberal crippled by the fact that he hates taxes as much as he hates paying extra for guacamole.”

Next time you ask yourself this, I suggest clicking “next blog” in the upper right-hand corner of this or any other blogspot blog. (This is my new favorite way to waste time. My old favorite way to waste time was to Google people I went to high school with, which gets old and ultimately makes me creepy. Clicking “next blog” offers all the voyeurism and a million times the variety.)

In addition to blogs featuring wedding photos and needlepoint projects, there are a lot of conservative rant blogs. I’m not talking about high profile wonks, just regular folks who post pictures of butterflies that their child drew one day and warn about the evils of Planned Parenthood the next. People (multiple people!) who highly doubt their own ability to enjoy sports without making fun of Indians.

In my informal survey of the blogiverse, I’ve discovered that Republicans do exist, and in disturbingly large numbers. I have also discovered that people, red and blue, do not use correct or even consistent punctuation.

After cyber-touring the red states, I was happy to land on the blog of a nice (if overly-reliant on emoticons) young man who had taken the time to jot down his favorite Rent lyrics in 20-point type, while complaining that his mom wanted him to clean his room. Now that’s what the Internet is all about.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

middle class ant raid

The first thing I did when I got to my sister’s house for a night of cat-sitting was watch Filthy Rich Cattle Drive, E!’s new Simple Life rip-off. It was a good thing, too, because the second thing I did was feed Madeline (Cathy’s cat, who reminds me of a pair of black silk pajamas). I reached my hand into the bag of cat food on top the washing machine, and when I pulled it out, it was covered in ants.

Now, my first instinct was to drop the handful of infested cat food, run screaming to the sink, plunge my arm into a stream of water and go buy Madeline a new bag of food, leaving the mess for Cathy. But I had just watched a bunch of spoiled children of CEOs stick gloved hands into cows’ rectums to determine whether they were pregnant. (I think Paris and Nicole did this too—I suspect that real ranches use ultrasounds when the cameras are off and have a good laugh convincing city folk that fisting is the bovine EPT.) A few of them were good sports about it, but most squealed and whimpered, and one girl chartered a helicopter to Aspen.

I had to prove that I wasn’t like them, and just in case my lack of a $4,000 a month allowance wasn’t proof enough, I tackled the creepy-crawly zone like a good lower-upper-middle-class kid. I wiped, I Raided (not near the actual food), I sealed the paper food bag inside a plastic trash bag. I even went around the outside of the house, Raiding the window ledges and doorways. Poisonous, but empowering.

Then Madeline and I settled in to watch The Girls Next Door, E!’s fascinating new series about life inside the Playboy mansion—fascinating because it turns the basic premise of reality TV (stoking confrontation among otherwise ordinary people) on its head. Hef’s girlfriends maintain their girlfriend status not just by being slim, blonde and busty (qualities reality TV has proved are in wide supply) but by being exceptionally well behaved.

Forget cat fights—it’s a really big deal when Kendra, the youngest girlfriend, is just late to dinner. You can see how much Holly, the head girlfriend, wants to complain about it, since Hef blames her for any girlfriend’s misbehavior, but she just good-naturedly suggests that “Kendra needs a secretary.” These women are so unspoiled that they’ve completely suppressed any need that doesn’t revolve around Hef: their boyfriend, father figure, boss and—especially—gatekeeper to the brand they’ve been taught to worship. They are sweet, reasonably smart women who wear Playboy bunny logo T-shirts and Playboy bunny logo necklaces and ride around in a Playboy bunny logo stretch Hummer, and weep because they’ve never been centerfolds themselves.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

whether time is linear or not, this is the best book ever

The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers is, like all my favorite books, a book about everything. Every thought I’ve ever had (and a lot of ones I didn’t) about life, death or culture is in there, stated much more eloquently than I could ever state it. As a writer, this is daunting and depressing. As a reader, it’s wonderful, and I shall make it my mission to proselytize this book in every form available to me. So here goes:

I know I just said that The Time of Our Singing is about everything, but more specifically, it’s about music, race and time. The novel is narrated by Joseph Strom, born in the early 1940s to a German Jewish physicist father and an African American musician mother. The family’s early years are spent around the piano playing “Crazed Quotations,” a soaring crazy quilt of phrases pulled from songs classical and gospel, European and American. Together they produce the harmony that their country fights to call impossible.

All three Strom children are musical prodigies, but Jonah, the oldest and lightest-skinned, is the only one to run with the role, devoting his life to proving that he’s not just a “talented Negro singer” but that he is the most talented singer, period. He searches for a music that can carry the weight of this challenge, no easy task when even the most transcendent art is the result (or at least the byproduct) of oppression and theft.

Born just late enough to grow up in a completely different world from her siblings, Ruth, the youngest, gives herself to the Civil Rights movement and turns her back on their father who, after their mother’s untimely death, is trapped in a loop of loss and physics that renders him irrelevant in her eyes.

But this is Joseph’s story, as much as a middle child undergoing a permanent identity crisis can have a story. He spends his youth as Jonah’s literal and figurative accompanist, but his true talent is empathy, and he is forever suspended between his siblings, between black and white, classical and pop, then and now and the future. At Julliard he befriends a composer named Wilson Hart, one of the few other African American students, who makes him swear that one day he will write down his own music. What that music is, is the question that drives the novel.

Plenty of other questions sing back-up. Little things like: Is time linear or does it bend back on itself, dooming us to infinitely reprise our best and worst moments? Can a fiercely committed family shut out all of history’s ugliness, or is that a cruel joke that dooms the children the moment they step outside the door? Does art redeem? Does it merely distract? Or is it too immense and biological a force to be accused of any neat moral function?

Powers has the prose, the architecture and the research skills to provide compelling meditations on all these topics. He also manages to directly address racism without depicting a single bad guy, a feat that proves racism’s awful power—no matter how hard we try to believe in a colorblind future, we are all at the mercy of what came before us. The ending—a medley of music and physics with a dash of magic realism—evokes that mix of pain and joy found in all the best art: Yes the impossible future exists, and no, nothing has changed.

If the book has any flaws, it’s that Powers, who is incredibly adept at capturing the auditory on paper, gets too rapturous too frequently about the musical experiences he depicts. He has no shortage of fresh, superlative metaphors, but essentially he says, “This was the best music ever.” Then, ten pages later, “No, wait, this was the best music ever.” And at 631 pages, that’s a lot of best-music-ever. Nevertheless, I have to say: This is the best book ever.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

clamor do

I just learned about a new activist magazine called Clamor. I don't know if they have a section (maybe featuring people wearing fur and sweatshop-made clothing, with black rectangles over their eyes) called "Clamor Don'ts"--I can only hope--but I did read an interesting essay about day laborers, drug dealers, coffee shops and cops:

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

rent rent rent rent rent

This is the part where I out myself as a huge fan of the musical Rent. As in, for a long time I dressed like Broadway’s idea of a homeless person to emulate the ensemble. As in, my friend Stephanie and I were so sad when the tour left LA our junior year of college that we followed it to Arizona, sleeping in her car and changing into our theater dresses in the restroom of a Jack in the Box.

It’s a little embarrassing in retrospect, but I have no regrets. There have only been a few bandwagons I’ve jumped on in my life (collecting My Little Ponies, working for a dot-com, blogging), and sometimes it’s nice to be a part of your time. Sometimes it’s nice to do something really intensely. And how else is a nice queer girl from the suburbs supposed to discover la vie Boheme?

Like most fans who learn that the source of their fandom is going (even more) mainstream, I had mixed feelings about the upcoming movie, directed by Chris Columbus. Would they cast a bunch of American Idol stars? Would it be the new Cop Rock? Would the gay characters get to kiss onscreen?

After seeing the trailer, the answers seem to be No, Probably Not, and Yes. While I’m withholding any kind of official judgment, I can tell you that two notes into “Seasons of Love” (the song is the entirety of the trailer, a la “The Circle of Life” for The Lion King) I started to cry. Yep. Music is like smell, whether it’s religious chanting or the REM song that you and Jill McCormick sang all summer in sixth grade as you splashed around her swimming pool. It’s a big ol’ memory floodgate.

Rent is a musical about AIDS in the East Village written by a straight white guy, but it also led me to read People in Trouble, the novel that author Sarah Schulman accused Jonathan Larson of plagiarizing for his play, and then three other novels of hers, and to learn more about that whole ‘80s East Village scene, and to think that maybe I could live some kind of artistic life myself. (But, like, with a functioning heater.) So sometimes taking it to the masses brings the masses to interesting places.

Steph and I will be there when the movie opens, camped out with all the wide-eyed 16-year-olds and nostalgic 28-year-olds.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

is unhip the new hip?

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has a complicated relationship with hipsterdom. If I'm onto something by sidelining irony, does that make me...really hip? (But if I secretly want the answer to be "yes, you're so hip," does that make me really lame?) The answers may or may not lie in this LA Times article:,0,2499896.story?coll=cl-calendar.

carnival times

Maureen lived in LA for several years before moving to upstate New York, so when she comes to town—as she did this weekend—she has a list of old haunts she likes to visit. Many of these places were restaurants: Electric Lotus, Fred 62 and Capital Seafood, which serves a garish and irresistible hot and sour whole fish.

I ate a good three fourths of that fish. In other words, Maureen’s nostalgia coincides nicely with my gluttony.

We traipsed through the hot and sour garment district downtown, stockpiling purses and sunglasses and those frozen treats that look like Otter Pops on steroids. We saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Afterward I mused on the Oompa Loompa globalization allegory while shoving Mrs. Fields cookies into my face.

This was also the weekend that our landlord finally got around to hiring Bugs Ugh! to zap all the apartments in our building. Which meant that, after Friday night’s Creole feast at Harold & Belle’s, I got to come home and put every plate, box of cereal and bottle of vitamins we owned into plastic garbage bags and stow them in the bedroom. With all the kitchen cupboards open at the wee hours of the morning, our cat Temecula had the best night of her life. I was too tired and busy to keep her out of them, so she jumped from shelf to shelf, stopping to lounge in a spot previously occupied by our wok, as if the cabinets were a new dorm she was moving into.

When I left the bedroom door open a crack, she darted in there too, diving into the closet and rummaging through nice work shirts. Normally the bedroom is off limits, but I could see her confusion. If she was allowed to play in the cupboards, why not the bedroom? All the rules (which, for a cat, she is usually pretty good about following) were banished. This was carnival time.

In medieval Europe, carnival days were the one time of year when the peasants didn’t have to do the sucky things that peasants usually had to do: labor in the fields and not make fun of the king. All social hierarchies were suspended. According to some of my CalArts profs, the carnival ultimately reinforced the hierarchy—the peasants got to blow off some steam and act like kingly assholes once a year, making them less likely to go charge the castle on the hill with pitchforks during the rest of the year.

Similarly, stuffing myself with fried fish, mashed potatoes and egg-hash-brown-avocado-goat-cheese sandwiches now and then makes eating whole grains tolerable the rest of the time. At least in theory. But last night, as I was putting dishes and food back into our zapped and wiped-down cupboards, Temecula clearly did not understand that the carnival was over. She was a cat, and she was not about to go hoe the fields. And there’s a very good chance that I will have leftover cake for dinner tonight.