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.