Thursday, October 29, 2009

fun with squash

Pumpkin carving at CraftNight:

Artists at work.

Artist getting frisky with my pumpkin.

Meehan with the piranha pumpkin she and Christy carved. AK will deny it, but she just loves being in pictures.

O.C., meet the newest orange cat in the Ykleinrra household.

It's okay, he's not here to replace you. T-Mec, however, may try.

Still life with sunflowers, pill bottle and REI catalog.

Fun with the lights off.

For more Halloweeny good times, visit, an Octoberly collage of films, animations, games and stories assembled by the CraftNight craft captain herself, JP.

Monday, October 26, 2009

secret gardens, sea gardens

1. exorcising the everyday

Friday night AK and I met Suzie for veggie burgers and jalapeno poppers and beer at Barbara’s, the cafĂ©/bar inside the Brewery. There was a time in my life when I would barely have been able to set foot in the Brewery—its turn-of-the-century industrial buildings-turned-live/work space for artists would have left me crippled with envy.

Now I’ve come to terms with the fact that my art only requires a laptop, and rooms with medium-height ceilings are easier to heat.

Now I can enjoy the Brewery properly. After dinner, AK led me through a maze of alleys and parking lots to a studio she’d seen open earlier. We were greeted by a dragon the size of a camper. He had two heads and he was made of light.

His friend the octopus was also made of light, as well as tie-dyed maroon gauze, tiny mirrors, and the door of a 1965 Oldsmobile, which he held in two of his eight immense legs.

The music playing in the studio was the noise that water would make if water became music. Also here, beneath the sea: a slightly cross-eyed, aqua-colored sea monster; several sea horses; a bicycle with the head of a horse crafted from neon piping; a smiling piece of toast wearing a beret; and a wire mermaid, surprisingly matte compared to her companions.

Something in me melted. I had been having the most ordinary day, my thoughts being along the lines of, There was a lot of soy in that veggie burger. Or are Gardenburgers mostly rice? But this studio—which we learned belonged to Sean Sobczak—was a light-and-gauze-and-wire-and-beret embodiment of the sublime. It was what heaven should look like, but slightly eerie. It was everything I ever wanted to write, but it was already here, and not made of words. It was childhood and future. It made me want to call my sister.

2. memory is controlled by the hippocampus, seahorse of the brain

Talking to Sean, who had two long tangled pigtails and said he’d ridden the horse bike around Burning Man that year, I wanted to tell him how amazing his work was, but I felt all blushy. I think I did tell him it was amazing, but that’s a word people use to describe everything from tasty desserts to mildly fun parties. So I guess I’ll just have to hope he subscribes to Google Alerts and this blog finds him.

I also wondered, in that self-defeating way I have, whether the fact that I—a person who is Not A Visual Artist—liked it meant it wasn’t that good. Like, maybe it was too pretty. Maybe it should have been more disturbing.

AK and I went back to the Brewery on Sunday for Art Walk, where I saw enough dentist’s-office abstracts and yuppie pottery to conclude that I do, in fact, have discerning tastes (and I would not be at all surprised if someone else saw the abstracts as mind-blowing and rich with meaning, because that’s how art should and does work).

It was hot that afternoon, and AK wasn’t feeling well. Forty-five minutes in, we decided to leave. She felt bad: “We didn’t even visit the octopus again.”

But I wouldn’t have wanted to. Friday night had a lonely and serendipitous quality to it. It was not An Art Event I’d Been Meaning To Get To. It was just there. After we left Sean’s studio, we stood in the dark courtyard nearby. I’m not entirely sure what was in the courtyard because, like I said, it was dark. But I think there were canopies and an overgrown fountain. I remember having the feeling I got from reading The Secret Garden as a kid. All this on a small patch of plant life in the middle of reclaimed industrial wasteland.

Friday, October 23, 2009


To Whom It May Concern:

I'm writing to express my concern with the LAPD's harassment of people who are selling food on the street. I mentor a 16-year-old girl who lives in Koreatown; her mother, like many immigrants in the area, earns her living by selling donuts from a small cart. A couple of weeks ago (around Oct. 12), my mentee witnessed the police confront a congregation of street vendors on Normandie and 8th St. The police told the vendors they couldn't sell there, disbanded the group, and threw some of the vendors' food away. When my mentee verbally protested, one of the officers asked how old she was and sent her home.

I realize that because I did not witness this incident firsthand, I cannot file a formal complaint. But I agree heartily with what my mentee told me: "It's not fair because those are the only jobs a lot of people can find. They're not hurting anyone, and when their food gets thrown away, it's like losing money. The cops should be solving real crimes."

According to the LAPD's gang injunction map, that part of the city has an especially high level of gang activity--i.e. real crime. If the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD devoted more of their resources to programs linked to gang prevention (after school programs, job training programs, arts programs, parks staying open late), they would serve the community much better than by harassing street vendors. And if street vendors didn't have to work long hours for little money in risky conditions (risks which include having their livelihood disrupted by the police), they might be able to spend more time with their children, which would make those children less likely to join gangs.

I realize that police officers have incredibly difficult jobs, and I have great respect for those who put their lives in danger to serve their communities. But preventing hardworking people from selling food doesn't serve anyone.

Thank you for this opportunity to voice my concern.


Cheryl Klein

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

i’m a lemur: heeeey!

I was going to post about how I found RZA’s theory (outlined in his Onion AV Club interview) about the lack of a gay gene really lame—how even though I don’t think the point is whether homosexuality is genetically caused or not, his theories are one part Freudian bullshit and one part biblical bullshit—but then I realized that, to be fair, I should read the whole interview.

Which I didn’t feel like doing.

So instead I direct you to this far finer piece from The Onion’s news desk: Report: 65% Of All Wildlife Now Used As Homosexual Subculture Signifier

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

i refuse to plaster this post with pink ribbons or make jokes about saving the tatas

1. in which the dmv seems appealing

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Usually the only awareness month on my radar is Poetry, in April, because it means I have to work a lot. Oh, and National Pretzel Month (February).

But I’ve been thinking about breast cancer this month because for a second I thought maybe I had it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t. I had some benign fibrous thingies and a case of hypochondria. Although, if there is something there—even if it’s just a poseur of a tumor—you’re not making shit up, right? So is it technically hypochondria?

Anyway, I got it checked out because I could, because I have health insurance, which everyone should have, including a public option (please write to your representative). Apparently I have very nice health insurance, because I landed at the Huntington Hospital Breast Center, which looks like a fucking spa inside. We’re talking white bathrobes, fountains, Cirque du Soleil (!) on a loop in the waiting room, good magazines like InStyle, not crappy ones like Parenting and Forbes.

When I told the receptionist that the niceness of the place creeped me out, she gave me a weird look. I tried to explain that if it were more like the DMV, I’d be more convinced I had nothing to worry about. Because you’d only treat a healthy person like crap, right?

I didn’t need to worry, as it turned out, but I might someday. I’ve got the whole family history thing. I periodically have conversations with Nicole, whose mom died of breast cancer earlier this year, about how we’d deal:

Nicole: If I had to get reconstructed boobs, I’d go up a size.

Me: I’d go down a size. Maybe two.

Nicole: The bummer is that they tattoo nipples on you. I like my nipples.

Me: Yeah, I think I’d rather go the postmodern route and just get a big old mural across my chest.

Nicole: Me too!

Me: If you’re going to be a cyborg, just embrace it and go full cyborg, right?

2. everything i need to know about health care i learned from the west wing, but not in the way you think

This is the lighter side of the sporadic preoccupation with death I seem to have developed in my early thirties. As I’ve listened to news reports about health care and how we spend too much on stupid tests, I’ve felt guilty and grateful that I had the option of this particular ultrasound.

But I guess it’s like that episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet’s daughter was kidnapped. He knew that it was natural, as a father, to want to devote all the country’s resources to finding his kid. He also knew, as a president, that that was not a good use of said resources. So he took the decision-making power away from himself and temporarily turned things over to the VP.

It was a really riveting episode. Anyway. I’m saying that I shouldn’t be the person who decides what tests I get, and I will abdicate to any non-corrupt entity (the Breast Panel?) that can make decisions based on something other than profit.

In the meantime, I will keep trying to take care of myself, which means cutting back on caffeine and soy, which apparently cause lumpiness and which are my favorite foods.

And I will mourn for all the people who’ve taken plenty good care of themselves and have died of cancer in all its many and ugly forms anyway. For the woman at the spa center who had clearly not gotten good news and was just trying to get out of there without falling apart.

Sometimes I think cancer research is not the world’s biggest priority—if the world is full of kids dying at five of malnutrition, should we really put all our money and brains behind helping sixty-year-olds live to seventy?

Other times, I think hell yes. Even if it feels a little indulgent. Even if it’s not so different from wanting a really good soft pretzel.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

grey is the new black

According to AK's coworker, everyone and their mother is going to be this for Halloween, so I guess I'm not spoiling some big reveal by saying that AK and I are going as Little Edie Beale...and her mother.

Yesterday I hit the Out of the Closet in Westwood in my first attempt to find Grey Gardens-themed clothing. I quickly realized how easy it would be to find good Little Edie attire. Usually, thrift store shopping is burdened by the need to find the exact right size among items that only come in one size each. But everything Little Edie wears is ill-fitting, so all I had to do was find the wrong size. Always plentiful.

Soon I was the proud owner of a black boat-neck sweater and a straight, way-too-short plaid skirt, which I plan to pair with shorts and tights, Little Edie-style. Something about the experience felt entirely comfortable to me, at which point I--a person who regularly applied lip gloss to my eyelids in college--realized that I will dress just like Little Edie in another decade or three.

Admit it, I emailed AK, can't you see me saying, "Baby, don't you think this sweater works as a skirt?"

Oh my God, yes, I see it! she replied. You're totally going to wear T-Mec's wife-beater in 2041!

This cheered me, because I like the idea of dressing like a kindred spirit, not as someone I'm making fun of (that fine line between mockery and admiration being why the Beales have been such magnetic cultural fodder). I'd also been thinking that AK is probably more like Little Edie (carefree, loves to dance), and I'm probably more like Big Edie (sour and judgmental on a bad day).

But, as Craig pointed out when AK was still contemplating going as the raccoon who breaks into Grey Gardens, "Big Edie lives a life of comfort and ease" in her straw hat and muumuus. And she loves cats and singing. So she has lots going for her too.

Who needs a super original costume when you're going as people who wear super original costumes every day?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

what's hot, what's lukewarm

1. a tale of two universes

I found a January 2009 issue of In Touch Magazine in front of our house on Saturday and spent the weekend thinking about the parallel future we would be living in had all In Touch’s reported rumors panned out. A world in which Suri Cruise would be a big sister and Ashlee Simpson would be single.

It also inspired me to make a what’s hot/what’s not-style list comparing Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants to Robert Hough’s The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. In the Hough/what’s hot column, you’d see statements like “Heroine who can kick a full-grown tiger’s ass (but chooses to talk nicely to him instead)” and in the Gruen/what’s not column, it would say “Female lead in need of constant rescuing and consolation.”

Except I can’t figure out how to make two columns in Blogspot’s little “New Post” window, and it seems a little mean to Gruen besides. AK claims I never post a negative review on GoodReads, but most books that hold my attention to the end have something going for them, Water for Elephants being no exception. It’s full of circusy goodness; it’s pretty action-packed; there’s a nice twist at the end; and I loved Rosie the elephant, though she arguably has more personality than the book’s human characters.

I want to rag on it only to ponder why two books so similar in content (animal training in the circus’ golden age) and structure (older person looking back on said golden age) can receive such different levels of attention. Mabel Stark was published in 2001, and it has a few nice blurbs and a bunch of GoodReads reviews, so it’s not like it got no attention. But pretty much everyone and their book club has read Water for Elephants.

2. love stories

It’s not like Mabel Stark is this eggheady experimental work, in which case I would still champion it but understand its lack of popular appeal. In fact, it’s one of the funniest, most readable books I’ve read in a while.

Elephants has a love story at its center, but it feels almost like a love story that a male writer thought up because he’d heard book club ladies like romance: The main character, an overly wholesome young veterinarian, spots the overly wholesome Marlena across a room and goes about risking his life to get her away from her abusive husband, though it’s never clear what’s so swoon-worthy about her in the first place.

Yet Elephants was written by a woman, and Mabel Stark, a novel far more feminist in spirit, was written by a man, so go figure. Mabel loves several men and marries more, but my favorite and hers is her fifth husband, a cross-dressing half-Indian named Art Rooney. I found their scenes far steamier and more romantic than Jacob and Marlena’s lovelorn glances. But hey, maybe I just have a type.

Or maybe it’s because Robert Hough is Canadian, or because Mabel’s relationship with her tiger Rajah is also less vanilla than Jacob and Marlena’s.

But what I’m saying is, if you read just one circus novel this year, you know which one I recommend.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

growth avenue

It's not uncommon for me to go to a friend's reading/opening/screening/play to show support for said friend and for the community in general. It's also not uncommon to come away thinking, Wow, my friend is even more talented than I realized. Rediscovering people you already know--or getting an intimate glimpse into the life and mind of an acquaintance--is one of the strange perks of knowing a lot of arty people.*

But it is uncommon for me to be as floored as I was last night, when AK and I saw her friend and colleague Evah Hart's exhibit, Growth Avenue, at the Deborah Martin Gallery downtown. Over the course of several years, Evah documented her family in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a time period that included the illness and eventual death of her youngest brother.

So yes, there's an intense personal story at the heart of her show, and it was jarring to walk into a room full of, well, intense and personal images that also had a party going on in the middle of it, a party that included Evah and her parents. But what makes the exhibit so memorable is Evah's skill as a photographer and the way she uses it to convey love without shying away from things that are bleak or hard.

The word that kept coming to mind was real, and maybe that sounds condescending when you're looking at pictures of a Midwestern family in a hip downtown art gallery. But by real, I mean strength-of-emotion, which she transmits through juxtaposition (photo of night-lit merry-go-round next to photo of plain-looking church against a flat landscape); color (stark blue winters, sepia summers, saturated domestic florals); and portraiture.

On one wall, there are rows of family portraits, taken in different seasons in different years, with a gap like a missing tooth where the youngest brother's photo would have been. But then, below the column of the younger sister's photos, a new growth: a tiny nephew dressed in a snowsuit, looking a little like a penguin while carrying the weight of the family's future on his small shoulders.

I had to remind myself that while of course the whole experience was devastating and life-changing for Evah because she'd lived it, she was probably not, in this moment, feeling as emotional as the rest of us were. She'd already spent hours, days, years with these photos. And no matter how personal the roots of an artistic work are, the process is also intellectual and mechanical. But the mark of a good artist--the fruit of that intellectual and mechanical labor--is that the work takes its viewer right to the emotional root, making everything else invisible.

And Growth Avenue does this, in a rich and beautiful and real way. So if you can make it downtown before Nov. 7, do.

*Actually, I'm sure this is true of anyone's work. I've gotten insights into my family members by watching my sister teach and helping my dad write up reports for his job as an engineer. The only thing that makes artists different is that they're always inviting people to witness their work. Civilians are more modest.

Friday, October 09, 2009

coney island superstar

The new Phantom of the Opera sequel will be set in Coney Island, which tempts me to write a mini- dissertation on the journey from high art (opera) to low (carnival) via middle (big-budget musical theater). About how all three forms are suffering compared to new-media art (which can be high or low, from experimental films to someone farting on YouTube). But while musical theater plus circus sounds like a pairing made in Cheryl heaven, in this case it’s not.

Maybe I saw the original Phantom too late into the hype, but I thought Christine and Raoul were boring, and since I was at the height of my identity-politics-driven college years, I was pissed that the ugly guy had to meet a tragic end. I pretend to hate Andrew Lloyd Webber in favor of the more respectable Stephen Sondheim, but it truth there are plenty of ALW shows I like: Sunset Boulevard, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar…and yes, even Cats.

(What? I like dancing and I like actual cats [because it’s not all a metaphor—it kind of is about cats, which is why everyone hates it, I guess].)

But Phantom is not on my good list. And I wonder whether Webber will make Coney Island all broke-down and sleazy, or just a backdrop for lavish set pieces. Because my memories of Phantom are vague, I can’t make a terribly educated guess.

I sort of want it to be great, so that I can see it and love it when the national tour makes its tenth or eleventh trip to L.A. And I sort of want it to suck, because I want all the rickety, hardscrabble coolness of the carnival to be reserved for artists whose lives are just a tad more hardscrabble than ALW’s.

I’ve been doing some reading and writing about circuses lately, and since my budget is less than one of the diamond-y doodads on the Phantom chandelier, I think it’s fair to cast myself as a hardscrabble writer in this instance. I’m interested in the intersection of things that are dark and things that are wholesome, and what is lost if you veer too far toward one or the other. I’m trying to write stuff that’s more intense and magical than stuff I’ve written before.

It’s hard work and I don’t want Andrew Lloyd Webber to beat me to it, dammit. But maybe I shouldn’t knock his freak credentials. Have you noticed how much he looks like David Guest these days?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

mermaid and mustangs

It seemed like maybe things weren’t off to a good start when my tattoo artist:
  1. Told me I should have let him know earlier that I wanted my mermaid’s tail to curl down onto my foot;
  2. Mentioned that he’d been tried for murder after a guy was killed in a bar fight he’d been involved in;
  3. Mentioned that that bar fight took place at Barney’s Beanery.
Just last week, I was telling AK that Barney’s Beanery is probably my least favorite bar. But after chatting with Justin for a while (and accidentally kicking him several times—apparently getting one’s ankle tattooed is a little bit like having a doctor hammer your knee with that rubber mallet thingy), he seemed to forgive me for not explaining my tattoo better, and I decided that the guy whom Justin’s friend stabbed was totally asking for it.

And I love my new mermaid (thank you, Mom and Justin Lewis of Artifact Tattoo in Canyon Country!). Even though my foot looks kind of weird and misshapen in these pictures. I am going to pretend it’s just the angle.

Saturday night, my mermaid and AK and I went to a sort of unofficial high school reunion organized by some class-of-’94 folks. I mildly regretted not going to the official class-of-’95 reunion a few years ago and figured that I wouldn’t have many more chances to pay $25 instead of $80 to see my fellow mustangs.

What I did not count on was that a high school reunion would be a lot like…high school. Afterward, AK asked, not unkindly, “What exactly were you expecting?” I guess I was expecting a Romy and Michele scenario—either their fantasy reunion, where the once-popular girls groveled at their fabulous feet, or their real reunion, in which some of the popular kids turned out pathetic, and the one who turned out nice wanted to be their friend.

But at the Manhattan Beach Neptunian Club, where nineties songs pounded too loudly for casual conversation, beer flowed in red plastic cups and the lighting was as bright as a middle school dance, all the people who never talked to me in high school continued to not talk to me, and I continued not to talk to them.

It was really nice to see Bonnie, Kristy, Jynette and Laura, but I see most of them occasionally anyway, usually for less than $25. As with CalArtsy functions, where I feel all shy and not sufficiently avant garde, I reverted to the person I was when I was at the school in question. In this case, all shy and too avant garde.

Oh well. It was something I had to get out of my system. Now I’ll happily return to lurking on Facebook, which is much more my style of finding out what people are up to.

Friday, October 02, 2009

what i read in september...

…was a lot of magazines belonging to the girl whose East Village apartment we borrowed, including the prom issue of Cosmo Girl, which had a post-it on it that said, Jen, I know this isn’t the kind of magazine you usually buy, but I thought of you when I saw all the pretty dresses, which you’d look fabulous in. SO MANY PRETTY DRESSES. Love, Mom

But I also read:

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman: I loved so many elements of this book--the lightning-scarred characters, the intersection of science and fairy tales. And Hoffman works her motifs beautifully: ice, butterflies, the color red. But the characters, a pair of adult orphans and a recluse with a mysterious past, were painted in somewhat broad (if lovely) strokes. I felt like Hoffman kept having to remind me how they were conflicted and why--so it never quite added up emotionally. Maybe in that way it's too much like a fairy tale.

Three Junes by Julia Glass: I loved spending time with the sweet, surprisingly (sort of refreshingly) functional family at the core of this novel. Julia Glass' intricate weaving of past and present is a brilliant lesson in structure. But while the book--like all the best ones--is about everything (family, loss, love, etc.), it is never enough about ONE thing for me. It's like flipping through a photo album--really interesting, narrative by default, but not exactly plotted or themed.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes: A strange, smart little story in which children are haplessly evil and pirates are haplessly kind. It's darkly hilarious, if you don't mind reading about innocents meeting all sorts of bloody ends only to be forgotten about on the next page (and, less hilariously, some blatant 1920s-style racism). This book is merciless and fascinating, much like the childhood adventure it depicts.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

this is not to say i don’t welcome dogs at my readings

1. even oprah writers get the blues

“Bookstore readings are not what they used to be,” said Susan as we schlepped copies of The Commuters from the parking lot to her classroom. “I had a friend who was one of Oprah’s picks. But once even he showed up at a Barnes & Noble for a reading and there was only one person there. She asked him to hold her dog while she went to the bathroom, and when she came out, she bought a book on pets instead of his novel.”

Even though the bookstore readings I’ve done have been quite lovely, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has trouble filling a house sometimes. This is why it’s cathartic to talk to other writers. It’s equally good for the soul, I’ve decided, to visit colleges, which is how I spent the past day and a half.

My first stop was San Diego City College, home of City Works Press, which has basically been my fairy godpublisher. Usually the most writers ask for is an audience of more than three and not too much espresso-machine noise. SDCC delivered two healthy audiences (Hector Martinez’s class, which, okay, was a captive one—but not a single student was sleeping—followed by a community audience), a check (!) and a schwag bag containing two new City Works books and a beautiful calavera* keychain.

“You don’t think the skeleton face is creepy, do you?” worried Virginia Escalante, the hardworking programmer of the week-long San Diego City College International Book Fair.

I wanted to hug her and tell how priceless it is to have such welcoming hosts. But instead I just assured her that the shoes I’d brought to wear the next day were printed with muertos too.

2. susan straight can get more done in a van than most writers could in a month at yaddo

My second SDCC audience included a large section of students who appeared (according to my stereotyping skills) to be fairly recent immigrants from a Muslim country in Africa. I wasn’t sure how my super gay book, packed with pop culture references and geeky California history facts, would go over. Also, there was a student who’d previously introduced himself as John, and I realized that the chapter I was reading from involves a character thinking, “John is a horribly dull name.” I mean, he probably knew that he didn’t have the most exotic name in the world, but I don’t like to insult people’s religious beliefs or their names if I can help it.

But since editing as you read usually doesn’t work (I’ve tried it), I’m trying to make my motto “Own it.”

So I more or less owned it, and John and the African Muslims listened and laughed at the right parts. Then I had a fun dinner with Jesi and Lenise at Crazee Burger, where you can order a kangaroo patty if so inclined, but where I had the portabella burger. We talked about how some grocery stores are full of crazy people and others employ cute boys.

Then I went to sleep and woke up early and drove to UC Riverside, where Susan Straight rivaled the City Works crowd in the awesome niceness department. She’s a living reminder that you don’t have to be part of the (male, East Coast, Ivy League) literary establishment to be a writer, and she’s tireless in reminding her students of this. Part of her strategy is to talk about how she writes in her van while raising three daughters on her own; another part is to invite small-press (female, West Coast, public school) writers like me to talk to her students. Who were so sweet, despite being pounded with fee increases lately. Who asked great questions and were 97 percent awake.

I know this would be a better blog entry if I’d shown up to an empty bookstore and ended up poodle-sitting. But as my month of literary insanity slows down, it’s nice to land at a place of gratitude.

*It is not entirely a coincidence that my novel, which has a bit of a bones/ruins motif, is set in Calaveras County. But I don’t think Virginia knew that. It was just a really cool key chain.