Thursday, June 28, 2007

group work

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Part of the reason I’m a fiction writer is because I’m lazy and impatient. Think about it. If you want to make a film, you have to find financing, assemble a cast and crew, shoot, most likely re-shoot and edit. There’s a reason so many actors knit. It’s because days on the set are slooow.

As a solo writer with just a laptop and my imagination, I am light on my feet. I think it and it is. No equipment, no committees.

But then I found myself planning a performance with Jamie and Alanna. We wanted it to be multidisciplinary and slightly more cohesive than your average “here’s a bunch of artists all doing their thing” evening. Alanna, who has a way of thinking that I can only describe as diagonal, said, regarding potential themes, “I’ve been fascinated with the idea of live blogging.”

Then she laughed her signature laugh, sort of a can-you-believe-this guffaw. Jamie and I liked this live blogging thing. We didn’t 100 percent get it, maybe, but we liked it.

And suddenly there was equipment, and a committee.

I wasn’t great at this collaborative thing, and I had occasional flashbacks to “group work” in elementary and high school, which usually involved drawing a circle with lots of idea-spokes coming out of it on a big piece of butcher paper.

Our live-blogging-show conversations went something like this:

Alanna: What if we added audience participation and a slide show? What does blogging mean to you guys? Like, philosophically?

Me: That sounds complicated. How about we make a list of the order we want to perform in, and then we’ll perform in that order.

Jamie: I hate all my poems.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. But in general our roles seemed to be Conceptual Artist (Alanna), Worriedly Introspective Artist (Jamie) and Wet Blanket (me). But while I kept pressing for the aforementioned list, I quickly realized how different and wonderful it felt to be outside my comfort zone. Yes, people were zinging ideas at me that sometimes felt overwhelming, but how priceless to have a little chaos cross my path.

Unlike music and poetry, fiction writing can occasionally feel too much like a series of problems to be solved: What convinces Eliza her brother is in Kuching? Why doesn’t Felix go to grad school when she’s accepted? Sometimes a big, dark, messy direction for a story will creep into my head, and I’ll quickly shove it away, thinking, I’m not going to tear down the whole house because I want to put one new brick in the foundation. But, I discovered, thanks to my free-spirited friends, how great it can be to live in the moment of “what if?”

I hope that, simultaneously, Jamie was realizing that her poems are precise and vivid, classic but with delightful jagged edges in unexpected places.

All of which is to say, come see us tomorrow night. Who knows what will happen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

event reminder, now with more sky

into the customer service woods

I wish I could channel Tracy Lynn Kaply at will. Or at least, I wish I’d had a good sharp spoon on me Friday at Bally’s. It’s really the only way to deal with corporate bureaucracy.

Here’s the story: My healthcare company will reimburse me for my gym membership if I go 50 times in six months (it’s true—there is a healthcare organization that actually promotes preventative care. Oxford. I recommend ‘em). Through the miracle of cheap-ass-ness, I managed to do this. Now all I needed were three things from Bally’s.

1) A signature from any club employee confirming that this was a facility that “promoted cardiovascular health.”

2) A printout stating my monthly rate.

3) A brochure listing the gym’s amenities.

So, like the baker in Into the Woods who must find five treasures in order to reverse the curse that has left him and his wife childless, I took a deep breath and went into Bally employee Tom’s office.

Tom [lifting cell phone away from his ear ever so slightly]: What do you need?

Me: So, um, my healthcare company reimburses me for my gym membership, and I need three things: a signature—

Tom [sighing into cell]: Hang on. [Puts cell down—open—on table.]

Me: A signature confirming that this is a facility that promotes cardiovascular health—

Tom: We can’t sign anything. Only corporate can sign things.

Me: Can I talk to a manager?

Tom: I am the manager.

Me: You’re the manager, but you can’t sign anything? You can’t sign something saying, basically, “Yeah, we have StairMasters here”?

Tom: Only corporate can sign things. [Writes an 800 number on a piece of paper.]

Me: Okay, well I also need a printout stating my monthly rate.

Tom: Can’t do that.

Me: You can’t tell me my monthly rate?

Tom: I can tell you, but I can’t give you a printout. We don’t print things.

Me: You know, this is just one of many really frustrating things about Bally’s. Your class schedules are always wrong—

Tom: That’s a separate issue.

Me [realizing I’ve become the Crazy Customer]: Yeah, I know.

Tom: You can take that up with corporate too.

Other customer who has wandered in: You should mention it at the same time when you call. Because let me tell you, you’ll be on hold forever.

Me [to Tom]: This is really lame. I know it’s not your fault, but this is very lame. Can I at least get a Bally’s brochure?

Tom handed me a brochure. I spent the next 20 minutes on the treadmill, glaring into his glass-walled office. When I got home, I realized the brochure was in Spanish.

I called my sister, who has been waging a personal war with Bally’s ever since they decided to start charging $7 for yoga classes, to complain about my ordeal.

“I’m glad they have brochures in Spanish,” I said, “but I gave Tom no reason to believe I spoke Spanish.”

Cathy said, “They were probably out of English brochures because they gave them all out to their Spanish-speaking customers.”

I complained some more to AK, admitting, “This is an embarrassing thought, but I couldn’t help but think, ‘Starbucks would never treat me this way.’ It’s like I’m looking for another corporate shoulder to cry on.”

“They probably wouldn’t ever be that bad,” said AK.

If you need me, I’ll be drowning my sorrows in an orange mocha frappuccino.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

more of this, less to catch a predator

My friend Tommy produced this Dateline NBC segment about the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East, which, led by a priest at Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church, has returned and rebuilt their neighborhood at astoundingly high rates (90 percent vs. 45 percent for the city as a whole). I watched it and thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve been too lazy to repot my philodendron for almost a year now.”

Check it out:

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

a virtual visit to cyberjaya*

It’s 11:32 in Malaysia right now. I know that because I recently discovered sentraal station, which, as far as I can tell, is a compendium of blogs (plus a little online clock) by Malaysians in Malaysia and the diaspora (I love saying, “and in the diaspora”—it’s such a great word). Now that I’ve finally finished A History of Malaysia, I’m all about living in the now.

Reading this book has made me realize that, as much as I love history, I could never be a historian, because they’re all about original sources, and I’m all about well-written narratives. I don’t want to be a detective; I want to read a good mystery. But because blogs are original sources that often contain well-written narratives, I can get into them.

One day while clicking “next blog,” I stumbled across a Malaysian blog with a historical bent called Kecek-Kecek. It appears to be written by a guy living in the UK who’s a bit homesick for his native Trengannu, about which he relays lots of interesting facts and anecdotes. Just yesterday I clicked on his “Gare du Blog” link and found sentraal station, which I’m slowly clicking my way through. I have yet to find a Kuching or Sarawak blog, but I’m hoping someone from sentraal will come across this post and give me a heads-up.

Isn’t technology amazing?

Of course, there are downsides to this universal culture. One is that I’m researching rural life in Sarawak, and most English-language Malaysian bloggers are going to be middle-class urbanites. Another is that it’s too damn universal: I can tell you all about what one blogger thinks about Johnny Depp. (Which, of course, does tell me something about Malaysian culture, just not the thing I need to know.)

*-jaya can be found at the end of ancient kingdom names like Srivijaya, so perhaps it’s appropriate that Malaysia named the new tech corridor near Kuala Lumpur Cyberjaya.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

the real victim here is tinkerbell, of course

Dear L.A. Times and Paris Hilton,

It was interesting to learn that Paris will be doing more time than 80 percent of inmates in a similar situation. (And by “interesting,” I mean that I feel thoroughly disgusted with myself that I’m not blogging about Gaza right now.)

Yes, apparently being rich and famous occasionally works against you, in the same way that being white occasionally works against you. I think it’s fine to call out these moments of injustice, even to “analyze 2 million jail releases,” as the Times did, or to cry really hard and hug your parents, as Paris did.

I just hope that both of you have spent equal time questioning the privilege that led to this smidge of anti-privilege. Paris, I hope you spent just as many nights lying awake in your pimped-out Simple Life trailer wondering, “How did I get my own TV show? How come the richer I get, the less I have to pay for?”

Similarly, Times, I hope that somewhere in those 2 million cases, you notice that there’s a hell of a lot of other things going on with California’s jails and judicial system. I hope you write a story about some of those other things, and I hope I make the time to read it.



Tuesday, June 12, 2007

talking about the moon

I just finished reading Noel Alumit’s second novel, Talking to the Moon, and while the cover does not feature a martini glass, a pair of high-heeled shoes or a bodice in the process of being ripped, I hope you will put it on your beach reading lists, because it’s good.

Talking to the Moon tells the story of a “Filipino American” family (to borrow the phrase that the son’s Taiwanese boyfriend is always baffled by—why, he wonders, are America’s Asians so quick to identify with a country that wreaks havoc on their self esteem?): father Jory, an altar boy turned pagan healer and mailman; mother Belen, a nurse who will talk to any deity who will listen, most frequently Mary; and their angry son Emerson, who talks to his dead brother on the phone, but can’t say much of anything—especially not “I love you”—to his boyfriend.

The book begins when Jory is shot while delivering mail by a racist man fresh from shooting up a Jewish daycare center. This really happened in L.A. a few years ago, and it seems clear that Noel was inspired to think about what the aftermath of such an event might be—about what the victims are like outside of their victimhood.

But what he, and the reader, seems to discover is that all premature losses play out similarly. They are unfair, devastating, and they are opportunities for love and reminiscing. In this way, the evilness of the hate crime may be lessened, but so is its power. In the same way that featuring a non-sexualized female character can be a much more radical act that featuring a female character who “owns” her sexuality or some other postmodern gimmick, simply relegating the racist to the background and letting the Filipino characters live their lives is pretty ballsy.

Belen’s eventual decision not to pursue the most severe punishment for the gunman is treated almost as an aside, but it’s important: This comes after a lifetime of love and anger—not the least of which comes from her own mother, who literally cursed her for marrying the wrong man—and choosing love (or at least denying hate) ends the bargaining and strategizing that occur when people treat faith like a game.

Much of the novel is told in flashback, and yet it maintains a strong, subtle forward momentum. Another testament to Noel’s craft (which has come a long way since his nevertheless impressive debut, Letters to Montgomery Clift) is the fact that, unlike most books employing multiple points of view, I didn’t get bored during any character’s narrative.

My only beef with Talking to the Moon is its marketing. The cover features a discreetly nude young man for no apparent reason, and the blurb on the back announces it as a “gay-themed novel.” As much as I get annoyed when writers are too quick to say, “I’m not a gay [black, Latino, Asian, woman] writer, I’m just a writer” (because, come on, support your community a little bit), I think Noel would be right to be irked by a book description that is simply inaccurate.

One of the three main characters is gay, but if that makes the book a gay novel, it’s also a Pacific Islander novel, an L.A. novel, a religious novel, a straight novel, a flight attendant novel, a nursing novel, a nonprofit novel and maybe even a skateboarding novel. It is all of those things, of course, and it’s this richness of character and information that makes it worth reading.

Monday, June 11, 2007

all things woodsey, and some other things too

1. biffy is like brad pitt to me

Screenings of film students’ work in L.A. are not a little talent show for friends and family. People like Gil Cates (known to me and Steph as The Guy Who Would Never Grant The Daily Bruin An Interview, but known to most as The Guy Who Produces The Academy Awards) serve as hosts, and people like Anne Ramsay (known for Mad About You and The L Word) star. And the quality is really good, or at least it was at Friday’s student showcase at UCLA.

But the jewel of the evening as far as I was concerned was Michelle Banta Tessier’s Camp Bean: All Things Woodsey, an animated film about a shy little boy slowly learning to love his summer camp, which is remarkably like UniCamp, the place I spent three summers singing nonsensical songs, protecting eight-year-olds from menacing field mice and trying to explain to myself and my kids why going days without a shower was actually a good thing.

In fact, Michelle looked a lot like Feather, the head counselor I worked under my senior year at UCLA. (As Camp Bean explains, you have to leave your city name behind and choose a camp name. Mine was Meadowlark.) At intermission, I confirmed they were one and the same.

“When the biffy [that’s Bathroom-In-The-Forest-For-You, a.k.a. an outhouse, to the non-initiated] came on screen, it was like seeing my favorite movie star!” I gushed. It takes animation to capture the magic that is camp: “And I loved how, when the boy started seeing things through ‘camp eyes,’ he saw that little spider sitting on her web knitting a scarf.”

2. bringing up baby turtles

Maybe I’m still under the spider’s spell, but it’s starting to feel like summer. Saturday my sister and I threw a retirement party for my dad, whose idea of retiring so far consists of working late four days a week, and whose idea of letting his daughters throw a party for him consists of cleaning the house before and after, and insisting on paying for the food (we didn’t let him, but it was quite a battle).

Although in many ways my dad lives in the moment far more than he did when he first began looking for the perfect town to retire to when I was five years old, he clearly needs a few lessons in relaxation. It’s a family trait, so I’m not the one to teach him, but it felt good to make up big vats of vegetarian chili and guacamole (yes, I express love via work, and yes, I’m aware of the irony) and give a little attention to a man who usually shuns it.

This weekend I also caught up with my writing buddies Kathy and Bronwyn, and realized how much I miss not just them and my class, but their characters—Emily and Dove and Jimi—too. Not much writing took place at this particular writing date, but we got to play with Kathy’s dozens of baby turtles, so it was all good.

Sunday night AK and I drove to Amy and Kimberly’s place in West Hollywood to see if we could catch the tail end of Pride. We saw a mostly empty boulevard lined with rainbow balloons, ate leftover donuts from someone’s barbeque, and watched Bringing Up Baby, which our sleepy, post-drunk hostesses had TiVoed. There’s a scene in the movie where Cary Grant’s character—due to a series of wacky events—dons Katharine Hepburn’s frilly robe, then opens the door to her conservative aunt, who demands to know why he’s dressed that way.

He jumps in the air, throws his arms back and shouts, “I’ve suddenly gone gay!”

In celebration of Pride, we watched it three times.

Monday, June 04, 2007

a little community there

A few years ago, when I was in search of geeky gay folks to hang out with, I attended a book group at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center. I announced to the dozen 45- to 60-year-old men in the room that I was just trying out the group and hadn’t read that month’s book, a gay historical fiction novel by a female author. Nevertheless, the group leader kept turning to me and asking for “a woman’s perspective.” I never went back.

This Saturday marked Book Group Attempt #2, organized by AK’s college friend Joel, who’s now a seminary student. AK told me to expect a bunch of fresh-faced, young, Christian married couples. I figured that if the queer folks had let me down, maybe common demographics weren’t all they were cracked up to be, and agreed to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and bring a tropical snack.

AK and I stopped by Trader Joe’s, where we asked a curly-haired clerk in tight jeans and Ugg boots where the tropical drink mixes were. TJ’s apparently has no such thing, but that didn’t stop her from playing bartender.

She led us to the juice aisle: “Now, just mix some of this cranberry juice with vodka and either pineapple juice or this mango nectar and you’ll have a great sea breeze. Garnish it with a little lime, and don’t forget the ice.”

She turned to a middle-aged woman trying to maneuver her shopping cart around us. “And I bet you have a favorite drink too,” the clerk said.

“No,” said the woman. “I don’t.”

“I like how you tried to form a little community there,” AK said to the clerk.

Two bottles of juice, one bottle of vodka and one bag of limes later (we didn’t forget the ice, we were just too lazy to buy it), we were mixing drinks at Joel’s. AK tried to hand one off to a fresh-faced, young, married seminary student who turned out to be pregnant.

We filled plates with Joel’s amazing fried shrimp and gathered for what turned out to be a very smart and un-theological discussion of Cat’s Cradle, which is all about the founding of a religion that proudly proclaims its own bullshit. I actually could have used a little more theology, a little more Christianity vs. Bokononism. I was in a room full of overly modest experts. But at least no one turned to me and asked me for a semi-heathen’s perspective.

Friday, June 01, 2007

i said no, no, no

It’s happened again: I’ve gotten addicted to caffeine. Which is making me really tired, except for that hour a day when coffee is pulsing through my veins.

This morning I switched to decaf. So far I’ve taken three naps today.