Thursday, December 28, 2006

christmas with family…

…means Christmas with Republicans.

Friday, December 22, 2006

solamente en los angeles

Last night AK and I took the Gold Line to Pershing Square (we’re so urban!) to see a free concert by Los Abandoned, a sort of punk-Spanglish- dancehall band that I’ve been somewhat into lately, and would be more so if the CD player in my car were working properly.

It wasn’t the easiest venue—an outdoor stage beneath an arbor of bejeweled palm trees and styrofoam snowflakes, across from an ice skating rink—but Los Abandoned rocked it. Lead singer Lady P even wore a red and silver-sequined skating dress (which looked remarkably like my 10th grade drill team uniform) over her black leggings to complement the scene. And leave it to your local LA punk-Spanglish-dancehall band to perform the best medley of “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Hava Nagilah” I’ve ever heard.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

the healing power of pirouettes

Whoever invented that low-slung stationary bike I’m so fond of (you know, the one that’s more like sitting on a kitchen chair than an actual bike) is a little bit evil. For years it’s been a staple of my workout, or maybe I should say “workout,” making me forget the vast superiority of exercises that actually get your adrenaline going.

Last night I went to Bally’s in hopes of taking the new hip-hop class. I brought a book with me—since about 50 percent of Bally’s classes are canceled (and the staff always acts surprised: “Really? The yoga teacher isn’t down there? That’s weird”), I figured there was a good chance I’d end up on the bike, slightly bored and barely sweating.

But lo and behold, the hip-hop class was on! And the teacher was good! And he (unlike most Bally’s hip-hop teachers) did an actual warm-up and cool-down. And taught a good-looking routine that was not too hard and not too easy. And the class was full of kids like me—folks who’d picked up a little dance or cheer here or there and couldn’t resist pirouetting in front of the mirrored walls, but who ultimately were sort of out of shape.

It was perfect. I’d been in an alternately anxious and grumpy mood regarding my cat’s unpredictable bladder (long, not very interesting story), and it was nice to think with my body instead of my useless brain for a while. Unlike on the bike, where I spend most of my time thinking, Okay, when I get to the end of page 39, I’ll check the clock, in hip-hop the hour flew. And so did I.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

getting to know velocity

Some observations upon beginning Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity!, in which two 20-something guys try to give away 30-something-thousand dollars in a one-week trip around a large chunk of the world:

  • This is a ridiculous idea that only two privileged Americans could come up with. Traveling to countries you know nothing about and giving wads of cash to people who seem needy—but not too needy, or annoying, or ungrateful—is na├»ve at best, reckless and exploitative at worst. Sure, it makes a better story than, “We donated our money to a respected nonprofit organization, and the experts distributed it accordingly,” but it’s hard to get past the insane premise.
  • Boys travel differently from girls. They are spontaneous, they don’t worry about getting raped (though they occasionally worry about getting killed) and they like to climb trees and jump from moving cars.

Some observations upon getting to the middle section, in which the up-till-now secondary character, Hand, begins to narrate, and the book makes something of a 180:

  • Postmodernism. Yawn. Let’s get back to Will’s part. His story was just fine.
  • Oh, okay, I think I get it—Dave Eggers is obsessed with the manipulation of grief. He wants to express it in all its aching humanness, but he’s wary—he knows it’s marketable. He knows fiction cannot do it justice. He knows that fiction is the only way to do it justice.
  • One of the mantras in my writing class is that the first chapter of any novel makes certain promises to the reader, and the job of the rest of the book is to fill those promises. I’m pretty sure Dave broke that rule with this section, or at least way, way bent it. I love him for that, and am irked.
  • That recklessness thing? Maybe they’re reckless, but, as Hand explains, their actions are an outward expression of an inner grace, which is really the only way to live an honest and full life. You can never truly fault someone for acting on their good intentions. What’s the alternative? Act against your intentions? Don’t act at all?

Some observations upon finishing:

  • The book is a bit of a manifesto in favor of action, which seems appropriate given that A) Dave Eggers is a busy guy. He runs a press and a nonprofit. He was popular in high school. He has lots of friends and he does projects with them. He is not the stereotypical reclusive, solitary writer who writes reclusive, solitary characters who quietly observe the chaos of the world. I can’t help but relate to such writers and characters, and yet, I appreciate that Dave is a person who believes in creating the world. He’s doing exactly what people should do when they’re well adjusted and given ample resources. He goes out on a limb, and he jumps from it, spectacularly.
  • And B) Dave Eggers is globally engaged. His current project is What is the What, another fiction-nonfiction hybrid, this time about the Lost Boys of Sudan. AK and I saw him and his co-author, Valentino Achak Deng, speak a couple of weeks ago at the Hammer Museum. The guy who introduced them gushed and gushed, but when Dave came onstage, he just got down to business. There’s a terrible world out there, but it’s also funny and human, and worthy of our best strategies.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

blood, bling and two trips to the bathroom

Last night, AK and I decided to see a movie on a whim, and I found myself at the 11:20 p.m. showing of Blood Diamond, Diet Coke in hand to keep me awake. Even though I’ve fallen asleep during late showings of some pretty riveting movies, I think that even sans Diet Coke, I couldn’t have nodded off to this one.

The movie tells the story of Sierra Leone’s warlord-ruled illegal diamond trade through the eyes of a cynical white smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio), a muckraking journalist with a thing for bad boys (Jennifer Connelly) and a local fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who hopes to use his discovery of an immense pink diamond to save his family, which has been split apart by the rebel army.

It’s the sort of movie that follows all the rules of storytelling, some to very good effect, some not so much. It’s hard not to roll your eyes when the white couple’s sexual tension is given more screen time than the scenes in which Hounsou’s son is drugged and brainwashed by the rebels.

Yet the movie keeps the pandering to a minimum, and, more than that, I found myself willing to forgive a few unfortunate filmmaking choices because the incredibly powerful true story of the diamond trade is so compelling and so much in need of exposure. If just one couple listens to Blood Diamond instead of those annoying Robbins Brothers commercials this holiday season….

But my Diet Coke also proved very powerful, so I had to tear myself away from several gripping and horrific scenes to go to the bathroom. My head was full of men with machine guns storming through villages in the backs of trucks, hip hop blaring as the locals tried to run—so it was weird stepping into the cheerful, tastefully decorated lobby of the ArcLight.

On my first trip to the bathroom, another movie had just let out, and the lobby was full of a diverse but universally bored-looking bunch of men standing around with their arms crossed. Clearly, they were waiting for the their wives and girlfriends, who were in the bathroom. But my first thought was, Militia! They’re here—it’s all over!

On my second trip, I was busy thinking about how the awfulness of war-torn Africa is worse than just about all the other things I usually think of as awful. What can I do? I thought, sitting down on the toilet. I need to be more international in my thinking. How can I fix this? What can I join? Who can I tell?

I flushed. And the toilet just kept flushing. I jiggled the handle, and jiggled again, but the toilet was committed to its mission. Fuck, I thought. How am I supposed to save Africa if I can’t even stop this toilet from flushing?

On the way out of the theater, I approached the girl at the concession stand and said, “There’s a toilet that won’t stop flushing in the ladies’ room. It seems like it’s wasting a lot of water, so, I don’t know, maybe you can call maintenance or something?”

She said she would, and I congratulated myself on being the sort of person who didn’t let problems go unchecked. Or, at least, the sort of person who asked someone else to do something about them after watching the rest of my movie.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

scrooge drives a chrysler 300

My first moments in Houston were very Texan:

Rental guy: Let’s see, you reserved an economy car. Would you like a free upgrade to a Jeep Grand Cherokee?

Me: I don’t think I’d even know how to drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Rental guy: What do you normally drive?

Me: A Honda Civic.

Rental guy: Okay, I’ll see what we have.

[Twenty minutes later]

Rental guy: I’m going to give you the smallest car we have, the Chrysler 300. It’s, uh, more like a Honda Accord.

Friends, the Chrysler 300 is more like a boat. Your grandpa’s big-ass gold boat. But despite this introduction, Houston was a lot greener and more beautiful than the dusty land of strip malls I had pictured after talking to my friend Kristi, who lived there for several years. (Granted, I probably talked to her during the hellishly hot summer, not warmly misty December. Now that Kristi is back in NorCal, she speaks quite highly of Houston.)

Anyway, all of this is to say I’ve been out of town and just now discovered that my guest post (along with many other holiday thoughts from fine guest bloggers) is up on Kaply, Inc. To enjoy my Scrooge-y side, click here.

Friday, December 08, 2006

blog post to a young writer

I just finished sending acceptance and decline emails to all the good folks who submitted work for the spring issue of Blithe House Quarterly. Afterward I checked to see how many stories were in my “No” folder in my Yahoo account—93. Plus the six I accepted. That’s almost 100 stories. And now I am having one of those “so that’s where my time went” moments. Sometimes such epiphanies follow ten back-to-back episodes of My Super Sweet Sixteen, so it could be worse.

Lately I’ve done a fair amount of reading for contests and lit mags. If you’re an “emerging writer” (as we call ourselves until we hit Oprah’s couch), I highly recommend finding such a gig. Besides being fun—the thrill of discovering good work, the amusement of discovering really, really bad work—it tells you a lot about what happens to your little manuscript after you send it off into the big wide world:

  • You know how, when winners of just about anything are announced, the announcer says, “There were so many great entries. It was really hard to choose”? This is, in fact, true, as cheesy as it sounds. What the announcer doesn’t say is that there were also a ton of crappy entries.
  • Sometimes, just one person has to like your stuff. But sometimes a whole chain of people do—the screener, the reader, the judge. So even though the judge might love your stuff, if the initial screener has an irrational prejudice against stories about girls who run animal rescue organizations and go to Malaysia, you’re screwed.
  • It really does help to have a strong beginning. Avoid opening with a weather report.
  • It also helps to have actual subject matter. Even if the heart of your story is in the tender moments between everyman characters, it will be more memorable if they’re digging for dinosaur bones or assembling mannequins or faux jousting at a Ren Faire while having those moments.
  • But quirk for quirk’s sake is annoying. It’s all about balance.
  • There are so many words in this world. Just so, so many. Your best bet is to write a lot of them and send them to a lot of places. Be careful about what you write and where you send it, but not to the point of preciousness. It should be a process of abundance, a big meaty thing--a flow, not a trickle.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

shoppers rush home with their treasures

As AK’s roommate Alberto recently pointed out, “Even when I was a little kid, I was like, ‘What’s up with “Silver Bells”? That’s a song about shopping.’”

One of my goals for the holiday season (well, pretty much my only goal, since “send cards early” is pretty much out of the question) is to not buy people a bunch of shit that they don’t need, that I can dubiously afford and that was probably made by a 15-year-old in Bangladesh.

I’m happy to see that holiday fairs selling fair trade goods, local handmade products and donations to good-causes are popping up all over the place. On Sunday I went crazy getting tubes of caulk for Habitat for Humanity on behalf of my manly relatives at All Saints’ Alternative Christmas Market. I’m totally caught up in the whirlwind—it’s a slightly less glamorous whirlwind than the evil-but-sooo-shiny one that blows through the glittery corridors of the Grove, but it doesn’t leave me with that I-just-ate-a-whole-bag-of-greasy-potato-chips feeling afterward.

Apparently, there’s a craft fair happening tonight at the Eagle in Silver Lake. It will be very wholesome, although I imagine the usual guy-on-guy leather porn will be playing in the background.

For those who prefer a little less ho in their ho ho ho (‘tis the season for ho jokes), there’s also the Bazaar Bizarre on Dec. 16: I went last year, and I highly recommend it. Unless you’re on my gift list, in which case, please stay away, it’s totally lame.

Friday, December 01, 2006

gentrification junction, what’s your function?

This morning I jogged up West Boulevard instead of up Vineyard and—this is the miracle of Los Angeles, and of jogging—a whole world opened up to me. From the small bridge over Venice Boulevard, I could see into the rundown-but-elegant gated community on my right and the gravel pit that was once a closed-down hardware store on my left. It was a clear, sunny morning, warm but with a bite, the light golden and almost dangerous-feeling, the way I’ve heard it is not in other parts of the country.

When I turned onto Pico, I passed the Pico/Rimpau Transit Center, also known as the bus station. I admit I hadn’t been there on foot since my keys got locked in B’s car at the carwash two years ago and I unexpectedly found myself taking the bus home. But I’ve noticed public transportation is enjoying a renaissance (or maybe just a naissance) in LA, and Pico/Rimpau testified to this.

Last I checked, the bus junction was dingy and haunted-looking, the way you want bus stations to be in movies, but not when you’re taking the bus after dark. Now it was all pale stone and bright signs and, most distinctively, adjacent to a Starbucks. Since the liquid pumping through my heart is two parts decaf nonfat latte, my first thought was, “Hooray! A Starbucks within walking distance!”

But as I took in the other stores in the brand new strip mall—Panda Express, Foot Locker (coming soon) and Wells Fargo (also coming soon)—my feelings grew distinctly mixed. My neighborhood is starting to look like the area where my sister lives. Westchester/Ladera Heights is a pleasant, middle class, largely African American but ultimately diverse neighborhood with an overwhelming abundance of convenient chain stores: Vons and Marshalls and Magic Johnson Starbucks and T.G.I. Friday’s and Bath and Body Works all on one block. It has all of the things that poor neighborhoods are lacking.

And so the part of me that knows, statistically, that bad things happen when there’s nowhere to hang out but 25 liquor stores is glad to see Panda Express and Foot Locker. These are stores that the people who already live here—myself included—could use. They suggest that Mid-City will not be Downtown, where overpriced boutiques sprouted next to the tents of Skid Row almost overnight, with little time for the working class or even the middle class to put down roots.

Still, the part of me that unjustly prides herself on living in Liquor Store Land like it is some kind of accomplishment, and the part of me that likes bleak and haunted spaces, and the part of me that likes arty little boutiques, and the more justifiable part of me that roots for small family-owned businesses like Aceptamos Estampillas—all those parts see Panda Express and sigh a little.