Thursday, March 27, 2008

we don’t care about the young folks

The Eagle had landed, and possibly crashed. According to the bar’s website, Wednesday night was still Shotgun, a hipster girl-night island in the middle of a leather-daddy week, but the population was pretty dudes-in-chaps-heavy and the patio had been boarded up. The only constant was the hardcore (gay male) porn playing silently on five or six video screens.

“Have you noticed how we’re starting to be the old ones in the bar?” said Nicole. I thought that was a little unfair, since she was the youngest among us, and I was about to have a birthday. Also, I’m determined not to become one of those old people who’s constantly talking about how old she is.

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “We just happen to be standing next to that group of really young girls. But the people playing pool over there—well, I can’t really tell how old they are. They’re kind of just a blur from here.”

It’s hard to prove your youth and vibrancy when you can’t see across the room. Julie, meanwhile, was lamenting her good eyesight.

“It’s hard to carry on a conversation with all this porn around,” she said, not prudish but definitely distracted. “It’s like, ‘Blah, blah, blah—ass-fuck.’”

“The lighting is amazingly good in these videos,” I observed.

“It’s like they’re filming on the set of Mister Rogers,” said Nicole, “which is so disturbing to think about.”

When AK and I were in the early, MySpace-messaging stage of our relationship, I made some joke about the porn at the Eagle, then called the Gauntlet, over email, and she replied, “The boy porn sort of charms me. It doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is” and that in turn charmed me. So seeing naked guys in work boots matter-of-factly fucking against a backdrop of fake bricks was downright nostalgic.

We failed in our mission to find Nicole a lady last night, but then again, we didn’t try very hard, and we weren’t even sure if any of the people by the pool table were cute. As we left, Nicole said, “Well, at least I felt less judged than I do when I go out in West Hollywood…”

“…but more judgmental?” offered AK. “I wonder if the kids are going somewhere new these days?”

Nevertheless, it had been a really pleasant night, which I partially chalked up to not overextending myself the rest of the week, thereby making myself exhausted by the time I went out. Good time management—I’m sure that’s what the kids are into these days.

AK and I had driven separately, and she dropped me off at my car on Sunset. There was an orange cone half wedged under my left front tire.

“That’s weird,” I said. “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there when I parked.” There were no visible construction sites or workers in the area.

“Take it,” AK said. “It’s always good to have an orange cone. When the new tenants move in upstairs, we’ll use it to block off our parking spot in the driveway and show them who’s boss.”

I hopped out of her car and into mine, grabbing up the cone in one swoop. It was surprisingly tall, at least as big as a four-year-old. I put it on the seat next to me. My new pointy-headed passenger. Using it to intimidate our neighbors seemed very un-Mister Rogers and very like the actual Mr. Rogers, a crotchety man who used to yell at the kids on my block for playing on our cul-de-sac’s turnaround island, a communal patch of dirt that held nothing to ruin except a few eucalyptus pods.

But the act of stealing an orange cone after a visit to a bar—that was definitely something a young person would do.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

because it's march 25...

…and I sometimes like constraint-based writing assignments, here are 25 words each about the three books I’ve read most recently:

1. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley:
Pros: funny, thoughtful in unexpected places—like a This American Life piece. Cons: too familiar, with occasionally forced conclusions—like a This American Life piece.

2. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta:
Liberal health teacher Ruth and ex-druggie Christian Tim are complex grownups with believable pasts. Perotta aces middles but falls flat with endings (a minor crime).

3. Bloodvine by Aris Janigian:
This tale of farming and feuding in the Valley is a poetic portrait of Armenian America. But it’s a first novel, so prepare for unevenness.

Monday, March 24, 2008

the best easter bonnet ever

This Easter, I learned that AK's brother-in-law has a phobia of lizards. So I wouldn't encourage him to see The Goat's Dance: Photographs by Graciela Iturbide at the Getty. But everyone else should definitely go.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

rafael pérez-torres for president

I do not believe that Barack Obama is my new bicycle. I believe he's a politician who will sell out as much and as little as Hillary has, given time. But I do think he's bringing something new to the national dialogue. In this case, it's a highly refreshing take on race: (Since I've been traveling lately, I'm out of the media loop, so my apologies if this is sooo a week and a half ago. For some reason, the remote in my hotel seems to bypass CNN and land on The Real Housewives of New York City every night.)

Anyway, the speech is worth a read or a listen. Obama's refusal to disown anyone reminds me of my college Chicano lit professor's mantra that "We are all the oppressor, we are all the oppressed." (And yes, that's more literal when you're talking about mestizo lineage, but I think almost everyone has had a taste of both roles over the course of their lives.*) Most importantly, I appreciate that Obama refuses to let race be the swiftboat scandal of 2008--which would both exaggerate and belittle the role of race in America--and instead uses the occasion of other people's stupid comments as an opportunity to explain the true and complex components of race: history, class, fear, opportunism.

I think many politicians would back away from the issue as quickly as possible with a simplistic, angry let's-kill-all-the-racists speech or a simplistic, feel-good let's-all-get-along speech. Obama took on a challenge, and asks us to do the same. I just hope we're up for it.

*With the possible exception of the real housewives of New York City. There's a good chance they are 100 percent oppressor.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

stopping terrorism

This week I'm working from my organization's New York office, which recently moved from Soho to the Financial District. The good news is that I now feel slightly less shabby--no matter how hard I tried to look cute in Soho, I always felt like I was wearing stonewashed jeans with pleats and a shirt with a big soup stain down the front.

The bad news is that the Financial District, while diverse and bustling if corporate during the day, is a tad dystopic at night. The streets are deserted except for cops with machine guns guarding the New York Stock Exchange. Big metal ramps--the kind that would stop a speeding suicide bomber's car, I guess--blossom like mushrooms in the middle of the street, and there are squad cars and ominous black SUVs everywhere.

This morning, the giant American flag that covers a third of the Stock Exchange's facade had been replaced by a giant Visa ad that said, "NYSE takes Visa."

Friday, March 14, 2008

ski for yourself

When I uploaded the videos below to YouTube, I chose “sports” as the category. I think you’ll agree with me that that’s a little optimistic.

1. Here’s me, trying to make a mountain out of a molehill:

2. I think I’m posing for a still photo:

3. AK gets her cross-country on:

4. AK carefully, carefully prepares herself to go downhill:

5. Check out AK’s Olympically intense concentration. This is what it takes to be an athlete, folks:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

mammoth mountain high

saturday: the wiki said it would be like this

The thing that made our trip perfect right from the start was Christine’s mind-boggling organization. As a control freak with OCD tendencies, I am never more grateful than when another OCD sufferer releases me from my duties. All AK and I had to do to prepare for four days in Mammoth was hop on the wiki site Christine built and print out the relevant pages: directions, packing list, map of who’s sleeping where, photos of ski clothes available for borrowing, menu.

“We’re having shrimp and corn chowder tonight,” I informed AK on the drive up.

It was nice taking a road trip that didn’t involve the 5. As we drove past jagged red rocks, tiny ghost towns, spiky Joshua trees and sprawling strip malls, AK said, “I had a college friend who was from Palmdale, and one time another friend and I drove her home. She thought she lived in the most beautiful place in the world and was so excited about the Joshua trees in her back yard. As soon as my other friend and I were alone, we cracked up. We just couldn’t believe someone thought Palmdale was beautiful. But now I get it.”

After the five stops it took for me to pee out the giant Diet Coke I picked up at our first stop in Mojave, we arrived at Krystal Sierra East, the condo complex where Christine, her boyfriend Jody and their friend Alex were staying. The air was fresh and cold and steam was rising off the neon-aqua hot tub. Already the tired, mopey, bicker-y Friday night AK and I had was melting away.

We shelled shrimp and marveled at all the things Christine (who brought one tiny backpack on her trip to Japan with AK) and Jody brought: spare ski clothes, cooking oil and spices, electric toothbrushes, DVDs and books and games, two laptops and four sets of skis.

Later, Jody spilled chowder all over his lap and the couch, and the upstairs toilet overflowed the first time I flushed it. But it was okay. You can’t prepare for everything.

sunday: live like a norwegian

When I told people I was going to Mammoth, I described myself drinking lots of hot chocolate and being very warm. Sure, people kept mentioning this skiing thing, but that was their problem.

Sunday morning, AK and I slept in long after Christine, Jody and Alex hit the slopes. But eventually we decided to mosey over to the cross-country skiing headquarters—cross-country was cheaper than downhill and posed less of a chance of pummeling down a mountain on one’s ass.

Still, we quickly learned that it does actually require some skills. I’m not sure what skills because that day’s beginner lesson was cancelled to make room for a middle school P.E. field trip. The woman at the rental shop gave us a 15-second crash course: “Just step and glide.” As we struggled to do so, 20 junior-high speed demons zoomed past us.

But my roller skating trips with Sara must have instilled something, because soon enough I was stepping and gliding. AK, who despises skating of the roller and ice varieties, spent some quality time seated in the snow as I played de facto ski coach: “Um, try pushing yourself up with your right hand. Then kind of, like, lean into your ankles.”

This did not work. I flagged down the P.E. teacher and asked for tips. She deferred to an 11-year-old who flung herself on the ground and hopped up as if she was made of Slinkies.

AK and I videotaped our trials and triumphs (coming soon if I can figure out how to upload them) and by the end of the day, she was tackling the hill that quite literally kicked her butt earlier, and I was searching out hills where I could fake-downhill ski.

I wouldn’t know it for another four hours or so, but I’d gotten the bug.

After a big dinner of veggie chili and huge slabs of cornbread, AK and I tried to round people up for the Ungame, which new arrival JP had brought. It’s a ‘70s invention with no winners or goals, just cards that ask you to talk about your opinions and feelings, everything from “Tell us about your favorite color” to “Describe your thoughts on suicide.” AK and I love anything chatty and psychology-driven. It was like a Myers-Briggs test with pawns.

It was hard to lure people away from their laptops, though. I realized that this would be a permanent feature of traveling with grownup professionals. People had cases to file and cities to plan and molecules to research and graphics to design. Or something like that. AK and I were determined slackers, although AK did find time to email her office that she was out with the flu.

We managed to generate a little Ungaming: Christine pulled a card that said, “Finish this sentence: I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”

“…a nice roast beef,” she said, looking pointedly at pescatarian Jody, whom she’d already moved back to “Start” during a previous turn.

“I don’t like this game,” said Jody.

AK pouted when she pulled a card that said, “Talk about your favorite day of the week.” “Um, Thursday?” she shrugged.

We spent some time in the hot tub talking to a 20-year-old Norwegian snowboarder with a nose burnt purple-red. Because AK and I aren’t 20-year-old straight girls, this wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. Mostly we talked about work and how Norwegians work no more than 37 ½ hours a week and pay $160 a year for college tuition. And probably don’t have to bring their laptops on vacation, I’m guessing.

monday: the downhill bug

Jody and Christine didn’t have to work very hard to talk me into downhill skiing. AK had had her fill of landing on her ass in the snow, but she said, “Do it—I can tell you want to, and you never indulge yourself.”

So I indulged. And it was amazing. But before the amazing part, there was an adult beginner class on the bunny slope, where JP and I learned how to pretend our skis were a slice of pizza and our boots were full of beer that we wanted to spill onto the pizza by leaning forward. As far as I can tell, the only difference between the adult and kid classes is the beer analogy and the fact that kids learn way, way faster.

But JP and I were pretty good for adults, if I do say so myself, which I can because none of the other people in our class read Bread and Bread. We were better than Tina from Texas, who had to say something self-deprecating every time she tried anything new, and better than her husband Minh, who got into trouble for skiing ahead before he’d successfully learned how to turn and slow down.

“I’m worried he’ll get hurt if he tries to go on the chairlift and go down one of the bigger hills after this,” our instructor told Tina as they studied the tiny dot in the distance that was Minh.

“Oh, he must’ve just misunderstood,” said Tina. “He’s not willful like that. He’s so superfriendly!” she squealed, and I decided they must be newlyweds.

Our instructor gave JP and I the go-ahead to hit the green-diamond hills at the end of the day. JP’s boots were biting into her cyclist calves, so she took a break after one run on Schoolyard Express (which I wished had a slightly more badass-sounding name). So it was just me, the mountain and my skinny couch-potato calves.

Reader, I kicked ass.

I swooped down that schoolyard, leaning into the curves, my muscles recalling something ancient and wonderful: the feeling of flying, learning, being good at something, aching to be even better. I did gymnastics for 10 years as a kid, but I long ago resigned myself to being a cerebral adult who occasionally makes it to the gym. Suddenly I remembered that using your muscles doesn’t have to be a chore. Suddenly I wasn’t watching the clock to see when I’d be able to get off the elliptical, but to see how many more runs I could get in before they closed the chairlift.

tuesday: maybe more like a guitar hero than a war hero

I was excited when AK decided to join us for a final morning of skiing, and Jody, Christine, and Kyle decided to skip the double black diamonds and spend the day on the beginner slopes with us. I was excited to hang out with my girlfriend and friends, yes, but I was also excited because another long-dormant feeling had risen within me: the deep, intense desire to show off.

While Jody gave AK a private lesson, I followed Christine down the green-diamond hills, marveling at how her skis made a completely different noise than mine did: a slick swip-swip instead of a low prssh-prssh. She made it look so effortless that she appeared to be modeling her way down the hill more than skiing down it.

I, of course, wanted to know how to do all these things immediately, but I contented myself with tips (“You want to sort of bounce in your skis, like posting on a horse,” said Christine) and complements (“You’re the fastest second-day skier I’ve seen,” said Kyle). I was the fastest second-day skier someone had seen! In my mind, I was one lesson away from doing jumps. If I met the right ramp-like bump, I might even do it, who knows, I thought. I might just sprout wings and fly.

Then I found myself accidentally (but not totally accidentally) on a blue-diamond hill after Christine and I made a wrong turn at a chairlift called Rollercoaster.

“Rollercoaster” has different implications than “Schoolyard Express,” and suddenly the image of a short yellow bus chugging down a flat road sounded extremely comforting.

But my adrenaline was pumping faster than my worries, so I skied carefully in Christine’s tracks as skiers and boarders whizzed by us at speeds faster than I’ve attempted by car.

Then I began to ski less carefully and I quickly slammed into the ground as my ski popped into the air.

Christine spent the next 45 minutes (well, eight minutes of regular time; 45 minutes of side-of-a-mountain time) gently coaching me back into my ski. A minute ago, I had been an Olympian, but now I was more or less someone who could not put her shoe on. My legs shook as I slipped and slid. All that kept me calm was a desire to not freak out and embarrass myself.

Never underestimate the power of not wanting to embarrass yourself: Determined not to be driven out on some angry employee’s snowmobile, I made it down the mountain, falling three more times but also doing a lot of actual in-control skiing, thank you very much.

Back on flat ground, I thunked up to our group’s lunch table feeling like a war hero. I’d learned a skill and broken rules—not exactly things I do every day. Reluctantly, AK and I said goodbye to our friends and drove back down the mountain, the hills still in us like waves after a day at the beach.

When we stopped in Mojave again, we played the same video game at the same pizza parlor we’d stopped at on the way out. It involved driving a speedboat through the Greek Isles, and I swear, we were better now.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

fake blood

I’m waiting for someone to add this entry to the (mostly stupid, but that’s another post) blog Stuff White People Like: #82: Writing Memoirs In The Voice Of Underprivileged Youth. First there was teen truck-stop prostitute JT Leroy, a.k.a. a middle-aged woman from San Francisco. I had some strong thoughts about that little scandal. Now there’s half-Native American former Bloods gang member Margaret B. Jones, a.k.a. Margaret Seltzer, a white woman from Sherman Oaks who went to private school.

Supposedly, Seltzer wrote the memoir to give voice to friends who’d actually had experiences like those she described: “I just felt there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

Here are some tips for the would-be Seltzers of the world:

  • If you want to help gang members in the foster care system, volunteer with gang members in the foster care system. Don’t get famous pretending to be one.
  • If you want to pretend to be a gang member in the foster care system, write a novel about a gang member in the foster care system. If it’s good, it will get published. If it can only get published as a memoir, it’s probably on the prurient side.
  • Or, write a journalistic book that profiles gang members in the foster care system in the tradition of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, a story about life in the hood that reads like a novel but was written by someone who never pretended to be from the hood herself.

Here’s a tip for the would-be publishers of the would-be Seltzers:

  • Fact check, fuckers. We know you have the resources and the lawyers, so if you don’t, we know you want to capitalize on the author’s sob story, then capitalize on the scandal, then leave the author to clean up the mess on her own.

Here are some tips for readers:

  • Read real memoirs by real former gang members, like Always Running by Luis Rodriguez and Monster by Sanyika Shakur. Know that they don’t always have happy endings. Rodriguez is a successful writer who speaks regularly and inspiringly to kids in juvie and runs Tia Chucha’s bookstore and cultural center. But at the end of Shakur’s memoir, he was still locked up, and in 2007 he was arrested again.
  • Read real memoirs by people who are out about their whiteness and middle class-ness, like Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Know that they can have difficult and interesting lives too.
  • Read fiction. Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Here’s a tip for gang members in the foster care system:

  • Tell your story. Otherwise the Seltzers of the world—or your social worker or your probation officer—will try to do it for you, and no matter how good their intentions are, they won’t do it as well.

Monday, March 03, 2008

upon driving by a billboard for horton hears a who!

CHERYL: So the premise of Horton Hears a Who! is that the Whos are really small, right? They live on like a grain of sand or something, and Horton the elephant is the only one who can hear them cry for help?

CATHY: I think so.

CHERYL: Then that means that the Grinch who threatened Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas was also really small, which makes him less scary, don’t you think?

AK: Do we know that they were the same Whos? Maybe there are different sizes of Whos.

CHERYL: If they’re the same species, they can’t come in different sizes. There aren’t different sizes of humans--I mean, within a couple of feet.

AK: What about the Lilliputians?

CHERYL: They weren’t humans, they were Lilliputians. It’s like, there’s only one size of giraffe. There aren’t big giraffes and miniature giraffes.

CATHY: But there should be.

[Reverent pause as all consider the wonderful implications of miniature giraffes.]

CATHY: Okay, what about Tiny Elvis? There’s regular Elvis, and then there’s Tiny Elvis.

CHERYL: You make a good point.