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.