Thursday, December 31, 2009

tops of 2009

I’ve never been big on predicting the Oscars, an exercise which seems more like political analysis than art criticism. And while I read lots of contemporary literature, I rarely read books in the year they’re published—that means paying for hardbacks, since the library queue for new books is always long. So my “best of” lists are the lists of a semi-hermit, culturally speaking. At least, they’re more a reflection of where I am (thinking about babies and circuses, loving realism despite my hunger for whimsical slippage) than where the culture is. But hey, whose aren’t? So without further ado, here’s where I was in 2009. Where were you?

My ten favorite books of 2009:
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough
Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun by Wafaa Bilal
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis
Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis

My five favorite movies of 2009:
The Hurt Locker
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Away We Go
Inglourious Basterds

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

the next best thing to being rescued by village children

So, my 2010 New Year’s resolution is to be less anxious. I know you’re supposed to make concrete resolutions (AK resolved to track all the books she reads on Goodreads), but this feels like a resolution whose time has come. To get a tiny bit more specific: I resolve not to conflate worry (oh-my-god-I-might-have-cancer) with preparation (hey-why-don’t-I-make-a-doctor’s-appointment).

It’s still 2009, but I got to practice not freaking out when AK’s car overheated on the way home from San Luis Obispo, where we spent an otherwise fun post-Christmas weekend. Of course we were on one of the few really desolate stretches of the 101. When it became clear we weren’t going to make it to a gas station, we turned onto a dirt road that led to something called the El Camino Winery. I put on my best not-freaking-out voice, which never fools AK. We contemplated our options, and AK called AAA.

My friend Jody once found himself in Guatemala without a place to stay. He curled up by the side of the road, and when he woke up, a handful of children were carrying him to their village, talking to him in a language that wasn’t Spanish. They fed him and set him up in a hammock. He had a great trip.

I am not Jody. Even though we were in California with credit cards and fully charged cell phones, it wasn’t long before I felt my insides spinning into a tight little tornado and possibly making a high pitched whining sound perceptible only to dogs. Especially when:
  • We discovered we had no water with which to cool down the engine.
  • The sun went down.
  • The winery gate suddenly swung shut.
  • My bladder decided it could not wait to find this elusive gas station.
The tow truck driver saved the day when he discovered a still-open back entrance (pulling up just as I was pulling my pants up), and again when he agreed to tow us to Santa Maria at no extra charge. AK’s college friend Ryan drove down from San Luis—a 33-mile drive he’d already done once that day for work—and let us spend the night at his house. AK’s friend Chris loaned us his truck the next morning. We drove to Santa Maria, watched It’s Complicated (really good relationship movie, with a few too many warmly-lit shots of people laughing and baking croissants in beautiful houses) while Howard the mechanic installed a new radiator. Thanks to the kindness of strangers and friends, freaking out never totally won out.

“You’re good for me,” I told AK. “If left to my own devices, I would have hovered all day next to the repair shop, biting my nails.”

“And I would have driven twenty miles to hang out at Pismo Beach,” said AK, “so we balance each other out.”

A good photojournalist would have taken pictures of the winery gate and the tow truck and the closed café we ate leftover burritos in front of—or at least taken pictures of our sainthood-worthy friends—but I just took pics of all the fun stuff we did before things got crazy:

Lunching with Lori in Santa Barbara on the way up.

Jogging and doing nerdy yoga poses at Montana de Oro.

Eating at all our favorite spots.

Enjoying local art.

Enjoying local eccentricity at the Madonna Inn--we didn't stay there, but luckily they let non-guests hang out in the lobby and enjoy the giant faux rock fireplace.


Visiting the Apple Farm--an aggressively quaint hotel that carries every product Paula Deen ever stamped her face on--and befriending a large, worried-looking reindeer.
Hiking (halfway) to Bishop's Peak.

Checking out the pelicans and beachcombers at Pismo.

Preemptively partaking in a little comfort food. I think we would go on to earn it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

a first helping of family

Since my sister bought a house, I think she has been slowly turning into Martha Stewart. It started years ago with themed gift wrapping, but now she’s hosting family dinners at her place, whereas I’m still mostly of the mindset that the grownups should take care of that shit. It’s my job to show up and eat.

So last night I showed up and ate at my sister’s house, along with my dad, his girlfriend Susan, my pseudo-grandma and pseudo-uncle (we’re very Rent when it comes to valuing chosen family as greater than or equal to biological, but with less performance art and more complaining about The Kids Today). My uncle’s favorite topics are television and food, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when a conversation that was ever so briefly about feminism and the forms that countercultural movements have taken throughout history quickly turned into a conversation about how 1) Mae West was so ahead of her time and 2) my uncle ate some amaaaazing brie with toasted pine nuts and butter sometime in the late 1970s.

Later, there was discussion of how people eat large portions of crappy food, just one of many things that are Wrong With The World Today (nothing like the good old days of buttered cheese). Everyone raved over the meal my sister made, so I guess she was excluded from that category. It’s astonishing, really, that Cathy and I turned out okay despite the drugs, bad grammar and sense of entitlement that plague our generation.

They asked her for her soup recipe. “Go to Trader Joe’s,” said Cathy, who has maybe not yet gone full Iron Chef. “Take one box of Organic Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup off the shelves. Buy it. Put it in a pot. Turn the burner on.”

“And where did you get these rolls?” everyone wanted to know.

“Trader Joe’s.”

My family likes food, but we are not foodies. Although, to my sister’s credit, she did make her own pesto, which in my book is a food that cannot be broken down into more basic elements. Like marinara sauce and ice cream, it is something that must be purchased directly from marinara and ice cream farmers.

My next few days will be full of more family, more food and—hopefully—much laziness. So if I don’t find time to write before Christmas, I hope yours is merry if you’re having one, and if not, I hope you see some great movies and enjoy the lack of crowds. I hear the Trader Joe’s parking lot is a beautiful fallow field on Christmas Eve.

Friday, December 18, 2009

the giant imaginative pit

Yesterday morning, around 10 a.m. at Café de Leche, I typed the last word of the first draft of the aforementioned circus novel (it was “air”).

Do you like how dramatic I tried to make that sound, what with the time stamp and all? AK was reminding me that it’s important to celebrate, so even though my first thought was more like Fuck, I better get to work than Yay, me!, I’m trying to be more yay-me after the fact.

Because even four hundred pages of nonsense is still four hundred pages, right? So what if the circusy part of the novel fizzles out midway and it becomes more of a cruise ship/runaway/mermaid novel? So what if I forgot that one of my main characters is a musician, and he never plays music after chapter four? So what if the draft is full of forced life lessons and out-of-the-blue epiphanies that don’t even mean that much to me, because my 12th grade English teacher was a stickler for books having themes?

The last novel (the one that I’m juuust starting to send to agents and publishers) was the first I’d ever really outlined right from the start. I don’t think my then-writing-group would have put up with unchecked meandering. For better or worse, I have no writing group right now. So I gave myself permission—in fact, I made it a mandate—to be as weird and imaginative and embarrassing as I could. It’s first-draft advice that I’d give to any writer…but now I’m the one who has to dig myself out of the giant imaginative pit I created.

I’m going to take the holidays off, although I might work on a short story if I’m feeling energetic and brave. Then I’ll read draft one to see if it makes any sense and/or sounds too much like a goth teenager’s idea of magic realism. Then: some circus research and draft two. I may be busy enough in 2010 without any new year’s resolutions. But my holiday resolution is to chill out.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

rockin' one room away from the christmas tree

AK and I decided to host a holiday party this past weekend because 1) all our friends go out of town for the holidays, and we get kind of stir-crazy, so we decided to front-load the season with extra socializing; 2) we wanted an excuse to decorate and bake, even though we're more Sandra Lee than Martha Stewart; and 3) we bought a new chair and we thought it needed a big debut.

Or maybe we bought the chair because we were having a party. Hard to say, but here's how it all went down.

AK decked our halls with boughs of a tiny Italian Stone Pine.

I baked my much-blogged-about sweet potato pie (with store-bought crust). AK baked cookies while we watched an amazing movie called The Exiles, a fictional but documentary-esque movie about Native Americans living on Bunker Hill in the late 1950s. Really, it deserves a post of its own, but this is a party post, so I'll just direct you here.

After (or, actually, before) AK and I had a brief debate about whether the cats would get to partake of the new chair, OC did.

Lights put the bright in merry-and-bright.

Ferdinand (lower left) put the gato in Team Gato. Stockings were hung by the pineapple coat hook thingy with care.

As party time approached, AK practiced her new specialty cocktails: the Grinch Martini, the Apple Snowflake Martini and the Candy Cane Martini. Bartending duty would prove to be extremely labor-intensive, but the results were tasty.

Our decked-out living room was quickly to become a sort of holiday party museum, as everyone congregated in the kitchen. That's a famous rule of human party nature, but our kitchen is really small. It was sort of like when all three cats cuddle up on the bed with us: cute, but at some point you have to break free and run to the bathroom to stifle your claustrophobia.

John and Lee-Roy toasted with Grinches.

Richard and Cathy debated how hot chili should be. Richard, the Texan, thought: very. Cathy, who grew up in a house of boiled broccoli, thought: not so much.

More fun in the kitchen.

When the party died down a bit, we let the cats out of the office/cat jail, and T-Mec immediately made herself the center of attention. She was all, "Gather 'round as I regale you with tales of life on the inside. Also, are you going to finish that spring roll?"

moments in the woods

1. i’ll be where it’s lonely

Other than the occasional texting dialogue, I don’t blog much about my 16-year-old mentee, whom I’ll call Liana. Partly because, even though our official mentor/mentee relationship ended when she left her group home and reunited with her mom, it seems like bad protocol. Partly because her life is hers. Partly because the world is full of do-gooder writers working with “troubled teens” and then writing about them.

But our unofficial mentor/mentee relationship is now becoming even more unofficial, because in a couple of weeks, she’ll be moving to the mountains in the northern reaches of L.A. County. “If you Google ‘Indian Museum,’ you can see the town we’re near and how lonely it looks,” she said. “And then if you follow the map like twenty or thirty more minutes up into the mountains, it gets really lonely. That’s where I’ll be.”

Suddenly it felt wrong to let a year and a half of weekly-ish drinks as Coffee Bean and McDonalds—and the occasional movie, library visit and immigration rally—come to a close without any record of it. I’ve mentored three other girls through various programs, and even though each kid has been awesome in her own way, Liana is hands-down my favorite, for the fact that she never left me sitting on the Subway Sandwiches patio because her aunt planned a last-minute shopping trip (for the third week in a row), among other reasons.

I have no doubt that Liana is a lot of people’s favorite kid. It’s not like I’ve spotted a diamond in the rough—Liana is fully polished bling, as sparkly as her MySpace page. She’s relentlessly charming, funny and loyal, and such an empath that she’s frequently cast as a liaison between kids and teachers. These are the qualities that make me hopeful about her future, even though there’s a Precious-esque litany of shitty circumstances stacked against her.

2. beans: don’t leave home without ‘em

Last night at Coffee Bean, I got misty-eyed every time she said something funny, which was a lot, like when she recounted her plan for not getting lost in the woods: “I’ma carry some beans with me when I go jogging and make a trail so I can find my way back.”

On the car ride home, I played sad songs because I had more tears to get out of my system. Then I wondered if I was trying to prove to myself that I was sadder than I was, because didn’t I frequently arrive to pick her up feeling exhausted from a long day of work, half wishing I could be at home eating dinner? If I’d been a full-throttle mentor, wouldn’t I have somehow helped her get a green card or at least taken her to more museums? Wasn’t it true that one of the characters in my circus novel had taken on suspiciously Liana-like qualities, and even though it was a circus novel, was I so different from one of those I-taught-at-an-inner-city-high-school-for-five-mintues-and-now-I-have-a-book-deal writers? (But, like, without the book deal?)

I’m not wracked with guilt or anything—in mentor training, the first thing they tell you is that it’s not your job to save anybody, and if you think it is, you’re probably not going to be a good mentor. So in some ways my laziness worked for me: I just wanted to hang out and get to know someone interesting, and I did. And I’m going to miss her so much.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

peace in all its unglamorous realness

I felt terribly grown up this afternoon because I got something notarized. After Googling “notary find,” I notary found. I went to a tall office building with a panoramic view of the city and waited while a woman wearing business-y pants stamped my photocopied ID.

Look at me, I thought, doing things that, just one Google search ago, I didn’t know how to do!

Seriously, I can put off shit like this—meaning stuff I’m ever so vaguely confused about—for ages as a result of said confusion.

In general, I have not been feeling terribly grown up this week. First, I saw The Hurt Locker, which reminded me why I’m not capable of being in the military. I mean, besides being gay and flat-footed and, increasingly, old (which is not to be confused with grown up).

Remember how when Saving Private Ryan came out, everyone was all, This movie really depicts war in all its unglamorous realness. At the time I just thought, This movie has a really lame framing device. But despite knowing nothing about the actual realities of war, I came away convinced that The Hurt Locker captured them perfectly: the uncertainty, the relentlessness, the silliness. (“I’m so glad we have all these tanks lined up,” says one of the characters, part of a crew that specializes in disarming IEDs in Iraq. “If the Russians come along, we can have a big tank war.”)

“It really drove home how war is a matter of constantly being interrupted,” I said to AK over a peacetime tuna melt at Waffle. “And you know how I hate being interrupted even by, like, a phone call. In a war, the stuff that interrupts you can usually kill you.”

My general stubbornness is the cause of the rest of this week’s immaturity. Despite my tuna melt-filled life in a part of the world that regularly delivers peace and joy, I’ve been really cranky. Last night, after (ironically) laughing so hard I cried at the juvenile journals which were read aloud at Mortified, I stomped around the house in a huff at the sheer audacity of the holidays to fall during the same month as two writing-submission-ish deadlines and T-Mec’s vet appointment.

How could the world possibly want me to make a pie (with store-bought crust) and print out a many-paged document?! How dare such a demanding world threaten to collapse if I didn’t do those things?!

After picking a fight with AK, I went to sleep, woke up, stomped around some more and then went to Starbucks and wrote for an hour. It contributed to my sleep deprivation, but also to my sanity. Writing rights the world.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

what i read in november (and watched last night)

Last night AK, Pedro, Stephen, Maria, Calvin and I gathered for Movie Night, an intentionally less formal undertaking than Book Club, which is probably why we've only managed to do it twice this year. The first time we watched The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and some of us fell asleep despite the undeniable greatness of Wallace and Gromit.

So we decided to start the Favorites Series, beginning with Maria's all-time favorite, Dirty Dancing. I hadn't seen it since I was 11 or 12, and it was a blur of images in my mind, one of which was Bonnie pausing the VCR when Patrick Swayze wrinkles his nose in the final dance number. "My friends always hit pause then too!" AK said. "I never got it."

"I know," I said. "Jennifer Grey is much cuter."

It was really the perfect Movie Night movie, in that it was equal parts campy and good. Some film school class should study how two dance movies (say, Dirty Dancing and Center Stage) can have all the same ingredients (namely class warfare worked out on the dance floor) and yet one can be so good and one can be so mock-able.

Anyway, I actually logged in to do my little round-up of last month's reading:

Shoot and Iraqi
by Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen: This book is the story of Wafaa Bilal, an artist who grew up in Iraq and, for a month following the U.S. invasion of his former home, chose to live in a Chicago art gallery where visitors to his website were invited to aim at him and "shoot an Iraqi" with a paintball gun (not unlike how the U.S. military operates unmanned drones). Expertly interspersed with this narrative is the story of his life in Iraq, which includes encounters with Saddam's oppressive minions and his own oppressive father.

For me, the book put a personal face not only on Iraq and the war there, but on conceptual art, which can seem as distant and confusing as a foreign war. For Bilal, art and survival are almost synonymous. When he builds a mud-brick hut to protect his paintings from sandstorms in a brutal Saudi refugee camp--and when other refugees follow his example by creating art, building huts and eventually creating a working village--I got shamelessly misty-eyed. Sadly, the case for art and against war is one we have to make over and over again, but not many do it better than Bilal.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett: This book is crazy. It MIGHT be about the arbitrariness of race and fortune and other identities, but there's such a firm commitment to nonsense in these pages (a Morehouse prof named Percival Everett teaches an indecipherable class called The Philosophy of Nonsense) that I'm not sure Percival Everett (the author, that is) even wants me to come to a conclusion. One part Don Quixote, one part Huckleberry Finn, this novel is a patchwork of allusions and genres. I can easily get turned off by such experimental work, but the humor of the plot and prose, coupled with the protagonist's good-natured worldview, were infectious.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: I read this book in college and remembered liking it, so I was surprised not to be more into it this time around. I loved the language and geeked on all the L.A. locales I recognized--but the plot was hard to follow and too reliant on Philip Marlowe just happening to witness various crimes. I almost started to suspect HIM. And if you're looking for female characters who do more than tell the detective he's hot and a bastard in the same breath, you may not be shocked to hear that your search is not over.

Friday, December 04, 2009

and jesus said: girls have cooties

Some questions:
  • So, when you say you’re a “rough rider,” you mean you’re into wearing your socks gangsta-style and sampling police sirens, but not hugging girls in a way that might cause you to brush up against fully-clothed boobies? Just checking.
  • ~2:10: Ooh, burn, Angelina Jolie! You know it’s not cool to buy babies from developing countries. Here’s a better idea: Just send some good old-fashioned missionaries!
  • ~2:15: Wait, what about the democratic shift in congress? And how does it relate to hugging? Are you shouting “Repub” in the background? I’m confused, because you just said that Obama was a fist-bumping, non-hugging role model.
  • Although…Republicans are more likely to promote abstinence-only education. Those slutty Dems are always encouraging kids to put on body condoms (known as “clothing”) and front hug anyone who buys them a drink.
  • ~2:56: Oh, man, I wish gay marriage was legal so I could front hug all day long. Is that how babies are made?
  • ~3:25: Check out those red-hoodied jezebels trying to front hug our front man. “Jesus never hugged nobody like that!” Really? There’s a biblical passage describing what kind of hugs Jesus didn’t give? That book has more answers than Savage Love!
Give it up for Christ’s love, yo.

Monday, November 30, 2009

arts and crafts and cars

My last few posts have been awfully wordy, so I'm telling the story of Thanksgiving weekend in pictures (mostly).

After stuffing ourselves with turkey, potatoes, salsa and three kinds of pie at the Ybarras, we busted out the arts and crafts. AK and I recently learned how to make our own rubber stamps, which are like the impatient man's linoleum block. AK's sister Lori was a natural (hence the grin), and her mom was a natural at convincing AK to do most of the rubber-carving for her.

This is a stamp of a long-legged bird walking in a winter wonderland, of course.

AK had a Christmas-in-the-desert theme, complete with coyote and rare desert pine.

Tree by Lori, landscape-architect-in-training.

If you get one of these in the mail, forget you saw this. If you don't...well, you'll know I ran out not too far into the alphabet.

Friday night my high school friends and I had our annual-ish reunion. Angie, Jenessa, Amy, Bonnie, Heather and I met at a Cleveland Browns bar (go figure) in Redondo Beach. This year seemed less about poignant reminiscences and more about opening our circle up to Bonnie's guy and his friends and various guys who saw six ladies with drinks and thought, Single! When I informed one wide-eyed 26-year-old from St. Louis that I had a girlfriend at home, he blinked and said, "Oh. Wow. My brother's gay. So, like, did you always know?" It was that kind of bar.

Sunday we took my dad to the Petersen Automotive Museum, which is as much fun for L.A. history geeks as it is for car geeks like my dad. His personal heaven will have a vintage gas station on every corner.

He's not sure about tamal- and ice cream-serving, pipe-smoking bulldogs, however.

AK did her best zebra impression next to the zebra car.

Cathy and I did our impression of pistons in the kids' discovery center.

After a museum full of Don't Touch signs, AK said, "Finally! A car I'm allowed to sit in!"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

complicating thankfulness (as if the whole pilgirms-and-indians thing hadn't already)

1. blessed are the pie eaters, for they have endured my experimental baking

The sweet potato pie is in the oven, and if the licking of the mixing bowl is any indication, it's awesome.

But I know a lot can happen between mixing bowl and oven. That's the sneaky thing about baking.

AK has just settled down for a long winter's nap, having been temporarily felled by the cold that I probably gave her, which someone on a plane to Sacramento probably gave me. It's a season of giving.

At dinner, when AK was only mildly glassy-eyed, I mused on the bible passage my group was given in Sunday's how-to-hang-with-evangelicals class. The assignment was SAT/reading comprehension-ish: to decide what the mission of a church that used such a passage as its core philosophy might be. But I got hung up on the passage itself:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled....
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Etc. You know the one.

Arguably (as people in my group argued), this is the perfect passage to inspire a church of activists, which ours at least tries to be. But I kept getting hung up on the idea of blessedness, which, according to one scholarly guy in our group, means "God looks favorably upon." It turned into a little logic puzzle for me:

If God likes people who are persecuted, does (s)he not like people who aren't persecuted? Matthew doesn't say that, and God, of all non-people, should be able to refrain from breaking the world into binaries. But, okay, say we're all called to action by this passage. Say we help the persecuted and create equality. Heaven on earth! Utopia! Then nobody is persecuted. So nobody is blessed?

This is really about my aforementioned complicated relationship with my own privilege. I'm pretty sure I haven't been persecuted for righteousness' sake, though in sixth grade I was mildly persecuted for poor fashion choices. So does God not like me?

2. commas and other holy copy edits

I haven't figured out the answer, and I'm not overly stressed about it because A) I like a literary mystery, and B) I'm not invested in bending over backward to make the bible make sense. While I'm fond of God, the bible is not especially holy to me. I would be happy to declare large portions of it utter bullshit if I read them and found them bullshitty.

But I'm still thinking about this idea of blessedness, and I have at least concluded that people use the word all wrong. Like when they say, "I have so much love [or such healthy children or such a kick-ass job so many shiny objects] in my life. I'm so blessed!"

According to the scholar in my group, they're saying, "I have so much great stuff because God likes me so much!" And according to Matthew, God would actually like them better if they were poorer in spirit and perhaps in shiny objects as well.

I kind of think neither is true. I think a lot of so-called blessings are luck, not a divine stamp of approval. But I also think--because I have to for my own sanity--that God loves the privileged as well as the under-privileged. To love someone only because of his or her oppression is to give that oppression weight it doesn't deserve.

But you know how you're more likely to pray when a plane is taking off? I think God's presence is sometimes the most palpable when there's the least interference between you and her/him. When someone you love is in trouble, or someone's fucking up your country with a war or you're trying to climb out of a depression. God is just as present in the lives of happy people, but they're too busy with their functional families and peaceful countries and healthy mental states to notice. Hopefully they're channeling a little bit of that surplus happiness and luck toward the folks who are struggling, which is one form God's attention can take.

In that way, I can reconcile the idea of blessedness, even if it feels a little bit like writing an English paper where I force the evidence to support my thesis. Or like the ending of a first draft of a novel (the writing stage I'm at right now), where I wrap up a bunch of loose ends in the cheapest, most nonsensical way. But I guess that's what the United Church of Christ people mean with their whole "God is still speaking" campaign. This is still an early draft for all of us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

tis the season

I was halfway through a second helping of pumpkin ice cream at my sister’s pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving party this weekend when it occurred to me: The holidays have begun. Eating season has begun. (For me, eating, like sunshine in Southern California, is perennial, but sometimes the sun is extra bright, you know?)

This week I will attempt to bake sweet potato pie, which might sound like a respectably heady undertaking if I were going to make the crust. But Vons already took care of that for me, so I just have the filling to worry about. And I’m still worried.

But not worried enough to actually make a practice pie before inflicting it on AK’s family. This way I’ll know for sure that they like me for me, not just for my baking skills. Also, there’s a reason that grocery stores are open and stocked with pre-made pies on Thursday morning, right?

While we’re on the subject of American holiday pastimes: It’s not just eating season but shopping season. Apparently I am into practice shopping, because Sara, Dave, AK and I hit up a few stores in Burbank on Saturday, but I only bought one tiny present. At this rate, I should have my shopping done by March.

Or I could make a single stop at one of Greater L.A.’s awesome independent bookstores, and buy the peeps on my list some books by one of Greater L.A.’s awesome indie presses.

I hope you’ll do the same. My theory is that karma is extra intense around the holidays, and if your sweet potatoes were grown without pesticides and your reading material doesn’t come from a store that is actively trying to drive others out of business—well, Karma Santa is going to put you on his good list, don’t you think?

For SoCal locales, see below.* For other ideas, check out the Bookstore People blog.

Southern California-based Presses:
Ammo Books: one-of-a-kind titles featuring amazing design, thoughtful writing, and exquisite printing
Angel City Press: nostalgic yet cool illustrated books
Arktoi Books: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction that give lesbian writers access to “the conversation”
Cahuenga Press: poetry that honors creative freedom and cooperation
Cloverfield Press: books as visually beautiful as they are intellectually and emotionally stimulating
Dzanc Books: literary fiction that falls outside the mainstream
Gorsky Press: risk-taking books that encourage readers to re-examine society
Green Integer: essays, manifestos, speeches, epistles, narratives, and more
Les Figues Press: aesthetic conversations between readers, writers, and artists, with an avant-garde emphasis
Make Now Press: contemporary works of constraint and conceptual literature
Otis Books/Seismicity: contemporary fiction, poetry, essays, creative non-fiction and translation
Perceval Press: art, critical writing, and poetry
P S Books: micro-press that publishes conceptually motivated series on a project by project basis
Red Hen Press: works of literary excellence that have been overlooked by mainstream presses
San Diego City Works Press: local, ethnic, political, and border writing
Santa Monica Press: offbeat looks at pop culture, lively how-to books, film history, travel, and humor
Tsehai Publishers: literary fiction and serious nonfiction, with an emphasis on first-time authors and writers from under-served communities
What Books Press: books by L.A.-based writers whose work spans the full scope of the past quarter century

Independent Bookstores:
Book Soup, West Hollywood
Chevalier’s Books, Larchmont Village
Diesel, Brentwood and Malibu
Equator Books, Venice
Eso Won Books, Leimert Park
Family, Fairfax District
Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, La Cañada
IMIX Bookstore, Eagle Rock
Metropolis Books, Downtown
Portrait of a Bookstore, Studio City
Sierra Madre Books, Sierra Madre
Skylight Books, Los Feliz
Small World Books, Venice
Stories, Echo Park
Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore
Village Books, Pacific Palisades
Village Bookshop, Glendora
Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena

*List brought to you by FOPTT. Funny-tasting pie brought to you by Cheryl and Cheryl only.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

mallrat poetics

I’ll let you in on a secret (which is maybe not so secret). No matter how much you like poetry (some people do, you know), if you go to a reading with four featured readers, chances are there will be a weak link. During one of the readings, you will be thinking about what you will eat when you get home or what you will wear tomorrow or how to make your own work the non-weak link, if such things are in your control.

Not so with last night’s Light the Sky reading at Eagle Rock Plaza. I went to see Jamie, but William Archila, Lory Bedikian and Rachelle Cruz were icing on the cake, or foam on the cappuccino, since the new series takes place in a coffee shop.

Which is in a mall. Which blasts muzak from all orifices. Isn’t the whole point of muzak to be unobtrusive? But while the poets had their work cut out for them, I didn’t have to fight to concentrate at any point.

Jamie read a bunch of new stuff—including a poem called “My Lover’s Ex-Lovers” that she sweetly blushed her way through—celebrating the end of the dry spell she’s been talking about for quite a while (that would be a writing dry spell, not a dearth of lovers, you dirty-minded people). I was so happy for her—I could almost feel the energy radiating off her, and it made me want to sit down and write too, which was a nice reminder that inspiration, like love, tends to multiply when divided.

Rachelle Cruz is writing a series of poems based on a mythical figure from the Philippines, a woman whose upper body detaches and floats around at night sucking the fetuses out of pregnant women. In Rachelle’s story-in-poems, the woman goes to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. You know, just to check things out. It was such a brilliant idea, I really wished I’d had it. But taking it would be kind of like sucking the fetus out of another writer.

The mall was anchored on one end by a Target, which is where AK and I held our after party. So in addition to inspiration, I also went home with a new Anna Sui for Target vest, an Anna Sui for Target tank top and several plain old Target for Target basics. Say what you will about malls, but it’s nice when you can get your art fix and a large plastic storage bin in one place. And if I’d wanted, I could have capped the night playing skeeball at Chuck E. Cheese, which was right between the poetry zone and Target.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

fantastic is right!

Sometimes I think I'm the only indie movie fan in the world who did not love Rushmore. And I was annoyed with at least 46 percent of The Darjeeling Limited, a movie whose bright colors I remember better than its name, which I always have to look up on IMDb. But apparently The Royal Tenenbaums wasn't a fluke and Wes Anderson and I do get along well after all, because Fantastic Mr. Fox may very well end up being my favorite movie this year (to speak in movie critic terms for a minute there).

Like Coraline, another stop-motion animated movie I loved, Mr. Fox creates a complete world of whimsical details, from genetically engineered apples speckled with gold stars to the tighty-whitey underpants worn by Mr. Fox's 12-fox-years-old son. It appears to take place in the late seventies, a palette of earth tones, corduroy and chunky technology. The latter fits perfectly with the movie's celebration of the idiosyncratic. This is a world where foxes wear corduroy jackets and hire lawyers, but also break chickens' necks with their teeth.

Mr. Fox (appropriately voiced by George Clooney) is a charmer and a daredevil, much to the frustration of his wife. His son Ash seems to have inherited his fearlessness, but not his smooth talent. His nephew Kristofferson has the skills (which win Mr. Fox's admiration and Ash's envy) but would rather meditate than let loose one of his killer karate chops.

These family dynamics come to a head when the Foxes move to a tree house (there is discussion of woodland mortgages) across from three big farms known for their mean owners. Mr. Fox can't resist the temptation to steal from them--the ultimate challenge--which incurs the wrath of both the farmers and his fellow forest creatures.

Since Mr. Fox, over the course of several inspirational toasts, waxes philosophical about the combined prowess of wild animals and the crappy world of fake food they're forced to live in (but can survive nonetheless), I tried reading it as an allegory about nature vs. the food industry. But AK was dubious, and I think she's probably right. These thoughts may have crossed Wes Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Bambauch's minds, but I think they were most interested in building clouds of smoke out of wispy gray cotton and crafting the perfect hypnotized possum eyeballs. The movie is better for it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

warning: this will get stuck in your head

Thoughts upon seeing this old school Sesame Street video (thanks, Max, for posting it on Facebook!):

  • God, those faces are so familiar. I had Fisher Price Little People action figures of them. If you can call a small plastic person with no arms and no legs an “action figure.”
  • Damn, they’re young. I thought they were my parents’ age. Oh, wait, I guess my parents were young then too.
  • Sesame Street practically invented diversity on TV. Thanks to Sesame Street, I understood multicultural harmony on some gut level long before I actually experienced it (which, since I grew up in Manhattan Beach, was when I went away to college).
  • I guess Mr. Hooper was Jewish?
  • Do you think Bob was gay?
  • I was talking to a girl at a party a few nights ago who said that her parents never let her watch any TV besides Sesame Street when she was a kid. When she was old enough to stay home alone, she would binge on TV and then ice down the set, which her parents would touch when they got home to see if it was hot from use. She said, “My sole mission in life was to defy my mother.” When my parents told me to do something, I always listened. I think this is why said girl is much more successful professionally than I am now. Whenever I see one of those bumper stickers that says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” I sigh sadly.
Then again, do you really need much more than Sesame Street? Happy 40th, Sesame!

Monday, November 09, 2009

what would jesus boil alive?

1. out of the box, into the soup pot

Saturday we saw The Box, a strange, fascinating and confusing movie that I wish Hollywood would make more of. Since trying to decipher the mythology, ideology and/or plot of the movie kind of makes my head hurt (do aliens equal God? Is free will a lie? A curse? Would it help if I brushed up on my Sartre?), I will leave it at that.

Sunday I reprised two thirds of the meal we learned to make in our Hipcooks class. Since I couldn’t be bothered to hunt down saffron for the Portuguese seafood stew, it’s probably best that I didn’t even attempt the soufflé. Soufflées are not for the lazy.

But even sans saffron—and sans turmeric, which is what came up when I Googled “saffron substitutes,” but all that was in the T section of my spice shelf was thyme—the stew came out pretty good. It marked my first experience buying live seafood: clams and black mussels. Carrying them home from Fish King, feeling cool for having gone to a real fish market, I explained to them that I appreciated their contribution to my dinner.

Not that I can claim to have researched Native American practices or anything, but there’s something appealing about acknowledging that your food comes from sacrifice. A mussel’s life, a human’s labor. There’s something about being able to look your meal in the eye (although I was very grateful shellfish don’t have eyes), know the means of production and be okay with it.

I’m not okay with the means of production behind most of what I touch on any given day. There’s so much sweatshop labor, so much plastic packaging, so many over-fished waters. But I don’t see it, so I keep at it. If that plastic-barge-the-size-of-Texas was bumping up against my living room window, I might use a little less squeeze-bottled hair product.

2. confessions of a (non)recovering intellectual

AK and I have been going to a series of workshops at church titled “Engaging Evangelicalism” (partly group therapy for its now-Episcopalian refugees, partly an attempt by All Saints to be open-minded instead of just hating on the religious right). On Sunday, a discussion about biblical authority led to the question, “Have you ever questioned your own moral judgment?”

I thought, Have I ever NOT? Though I’m not an evangelical refugee, I have some Catholic and Jewish guilt in my DNA, and an MFA from a school that loves deconstruction. So instead of thinking, I don’t know what’s best, so I’ll look to the Bible, I usually think, I don’t know what’s best, and neither does anyone else, especially not this Western middle-class society that’s telling me it’s okay to love new shoes. Maybe not even my Western middle-class therapist who is telling me it’s okay to love new shoes.

The shoes I just ordered online arrived today and were too big, so I returned them to the nearest DSW, where I was dismayed to learn shipping and handling weren’t refundable. I left without a replacement pair, only because I didn’t find any I liked, not because I’m morally responsible.

Then I ate canned salmon salad for lunch. Free will is a bitch.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

what else i read in october...

…besides those circus books (not that I’m done with the circus—I saw Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza last night and am wondering if it’s possible to become a contortionist when you’re 32 with a bad back. If not, I’d settle for becoming a stilt tumbler, because apparently such things exist. That’s right: tumbling on stilts. Like the Olympics but more bad-ass and with cooler costumes).

Oh, right. Back to books:

Normal People Don’t Live Like This
by Dylan Landis: I tore through this book in the same manner I devoured Prep--something about my apparent hunger to see an angsty female adolescence given literary weight. Landis shines her considerable literary light on moments and images: for example, the care her bisexual protagonist devotes to touching a pregnant friend's wrist rather than her stomach. It's a book of rooms (the mother character is a designer, so this is both literal and figurative); there's sturdy architecture here, but it's often masked by a beautiful set of curtains. Very occasionally I wanted some of those offstage plot points to get bigger play (what? Leah's dad died? when did that happen?), but mostly I was happy to revel in the details.

Spook Country by William Gibson: I think my appetite for near-future fiction is waning. The three main characters in this novel--two of whom I liked quite a bit--are all accidental spooks, sent on covert missions they know nothing about. Maybe we live in a world of high-tech disorientation, but I didn't love reading about it. I liked Gibson's mini essays and flights of fancy about the potential of art and technology (example: a site-specific hologram-ish reenactment of River Phoenix's death), and this is the rare book in which the beginning and middle drag, but the ending pays off (without giving away too much, I dug Gibson's notion that not all shadowy conspiracies are evil). But oh how I didn't enjoy the ride.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: At first I thought the stories in this collection might be a little too perfect and New Yorker-y, with more craft than heart. But I quickly fell in love with Adichie's characters, many of whom are women navigating between worlds or defying male domination in creative ways. Though they sometimes suffer under the customs and corruption of their native Nigeria, none behave like victims, and the West is not without its own sexist assholes, like the English writing workshop leader who constantly tells his African students that they are not accurately representing Africa. It's a brilliant, painful (especially if you're a writer) story-within-a-story, possibly within another story. I also loved the shy gay Jehovah's Witness neighbor in "The Shivering." He was a little like this book--quiet, but it gets to you.

Monday, November 02, 2009

come as you aren't

The pics I promised:

Real commitment to Halloween means a) wearing creepy zombie eyeball contacts over your regular contacts, b) biting little old ladies in the neck or c) letting a bunch of people spew candy wrappers and bits of peanut brittle all over your house. If you are JP, the answer is d) all of the above.

The Beales of Highland Park. Unfortunately this picture doesn't show off my too-short skirt over shorts and stockings. Classy stuff.

Roller derby pros Christine (a.k.a. Ida Mann) and Jody (Mr. Ref).

Meehan and Christy as Samantha Ronson and Lindsay Lohan. Earlier in the evening, a West Hollywood club owner almost let Meehan cut to the front of the line. Christy tried to hide because she thought her wig would give them away. But what's more LiLo than hiding from the paparazzi?

Case in point.

On the dance floor/roller rink.

Jennifer as cloud princess.

The hills of Echo Park do afford a nice view, even if they suck to park on.

And no, we were not the only Beales of the evening.


1. haunting the hill house

It was a weekend that involved goat cheese-stuffed figs, plentiful Halloween candy and an Oprah sighting, so I don’t really need to tell you it was good, do I?

Friday night, AK and I took our long-delayed cooking class at Hipcooks East, where a whole world opened up to me in a small Brewery loft—a world of sea salt, live clams, candying one’s own cashews and not cutting one’s finger off with a dull knife. All new notions. Then I opened my mouth and ate the global proportions of figs, Portuguese seafood stew and chocolate soufflé that we made with the help of a friendly, ebullient chef named Kiersten.

On Halloween night we passed out peanut butter cups to exactly three trick-or-treaters, meaning we officially ate more candy than we gave away. Then it was on to JP’s legendary annual Gothtober party in Echo Park. Dressed as Little Edie, I practiced for my future as an eccentric old lady by making AK park illegally rather than find a spot on the crazy-steep hills surrounding JP’s place. (Seriously, that shit freaks me out—Baxter and its neighboring avenues make San Francisco look like the prairie.)

Pics forthcoming.

2. waiting for oprah

Sunday we lined up for free rush tickets to the premiere of Precious, which I thought was a screening of Precious. But plenty of paparazzi and Mariah Carey fans knew otherwise, so the streets of Hollywood Boulevard were clogged with more insanity than usual. Afterward, AK and I agreed that, as with getting an MFA in creative writing, we wouldn’t have done it if we’d known what we were getting into, but we had no regrets.

Because, okay, I’ll admit that it was kind of cool to walk out of the bathroom and see Oprah (an exec producer on the film) standing there, joking to someone about how someone was taking a long time and maybe having some sort of problem in the bathroom she’d originally planned to use. The weird part was seeing a dozen people start buzzing and getting on phones as they tried to prepare a Bathroom Plan B.

It has to be so bizarre to wake up every day and be Oprah.

But my favorite cast-and-crew moment was when director Lee Daniels introduced the movie and thanked his boyfriend by name. It’s not every day that an African-American Hollywood director publicly acknowledges his boyfriend, you know? Rock on, Lee Daniels.

3. pushing precious

Further evidence that he’s not an everyday kind of person was the movie itself, based on Sapphire’s novel Push, which I read and liked in college (I clapped my loudest when she got on stage—it’s not every day that a poet gets to walk the red carpet either). The movie’s premise is simple and not entirely new: Girl from tough circumstances gets out of those circumstances with help from a devoted teacher. But its execution elevated it above that often cringe-inducing genre.

It takes a village to turn 16-year-old Precious Jones into the troubled kid she is at the beginning of the movie: rapist father, violently angry mother, ridiculing classmates, welfare bureaucracy, crack-plagued Harlem streets. And, rather than just one self-sacrificing teacher, it takes a village to get her out: teacher, guidance counselor, social worker, nurse, new supportive classmates (a sassy group of girls I adored).

This seemed believable to me and, in a movie that portrays plenty of hopelessness, kind of encouraging. In Precious and, in my opinion, in life, no single person can defeat an entire web of injustice. But sometimes the counter-web of social services can actually work. It’s not a glamorous savior: The alternative school where Precious blossoms is just as dingy and fluorescent-lit as her previous school. Even Mariah Carey, as her therapist, has flat bangs and a touch of hair on her upper lip. And Precious does not ace an AP test or defeat some rich-kid school at debate or medal in the Olympics. But the steps she takes, with growing humor and bravery, are everything.

It’s opening Nov. 6, and I’m pretty sure you’ll like it as much as Oprah and I did.