Wednesday, December 29, 2010

tops of 2010, and some unwarranted natalie portman hating

The nice thing about top-ten/-five lists is that they give you a chance to reassess your initial raves and pans. Sometimes what dazzles is not what sticks. There are still a lot of said-to-be-good 2010 movies I haven’t seen yet, which may be why my movie list is low on Oscar-bait releases. But I like to think I just have original tastes. Shutter Island was awesome, okay? Also, I may be avoiding Black Swan because, even though it was crazy in just the right way and expertly, physically depicted the implosive nature of perfectionism, I’m kind of pissed at Natalie Portman for getting pregnant despite having zero body fat and a fly-by-night boyfriend.*

The first seven books on my book list are ones I indisputably loved—they said something big about the world, or they struck a nerve personally, or they were lushly textured, or they were more clever than I realized until the very end. The last three and my two honorable mentions are more or less interchangeable in terms of rank—all really good but not quite seared into my brain. Maybe I’m old or distracted, but I found myself to be a pickier and more forgetful reader in 2010. Here’s hoping for a better attention span, and better just about everything, in 2011.

My ten favorite books of 2010**:
1. Silver Lake by Peter Gadol
2. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
3. How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique
4. When She Was Good by Philip Roth
5. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
6. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
7. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
8. Truth and Consequences by Alison Lurie
9. His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
10. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Honorable mention: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link and Breathing, In Dust by Tim Z. Hernandez

My five favorite movies of 2010:
1. The Kids Are All Right
2. Never Let Me Go
3. Please Give
4. The Town
5. Shutter Island
[6. Black Swan?]

*For all I know, they’re very much in love and have been for a solid three years. But I’m a hater these days. And unlike the legions of queer girls out there who are bummed because this apparently means she’s off-the-market (in case being straight and a movie star weren’t enough), I have no Natalie Portman crush to recover from. My hating, ironically, is of the envious Black Swan-esque variety (which according to the movie is not entirely non-sexual, but seriously, that girl is way too porcelain for me).

**Meaning, as always, that I read them in 2010, not that they were necessarily published in 2010. This is not a blog for early adopters.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

fire and fragility

It’s 1 a.m. and I’m awake right now, jacked up on adrenaline, because nine fire fighters just left our building. A fire started upstairs (note to all: candles and heaters shouldn’t mix), and I don’t want to think what would have happened if Alyssa and her friend hadn’t acted fast, if we hadn’t been home to lend our fire extinguisher and/or if there hadn’t been a fire station two minutes away. Thank you, tax dollars.

All human and feline residents involved are safe, and there wasn’t much damage to the building. Ferdinand, who believes even the siren-free garbage truck is a dinosaur, hasn’t come out from under the bed. Our improvised evacuation plan was to shoo all the cats outside and let them take shelter where they could find it. It turns out that, when someone pounds on the front door after midnight, their instincts don’t tell them to head for the hills but instead for the least reachable place in the house. When the fire trucks arrived, I was unsuccessfully prodding an embedded OC as my laptop shifted in the backpack I’d thrown on. As disaster preparedness goes, I think we got somewhere in the B- range, which doesn’t quite cut it.

Standing outside in my bathrobe while AK chatted with the neighbors, I flagged down one of the firefighters and asked him whether I should get the cats out.

“Nah, fire’s out,” he said. “How many cats do you have?”

“Three,” I said, hoping he would post this information on the fire station bulletin board: In case of fire at ___________, rescue three cats: black, orange and miscellaneous.

He whistled. (In our Christmas stocking at AK’s parents’ house, we got a magnet that said: Cats are like potato chips. It’s hard to have just one.) “Did they have a nice Christmas?” he asked.

“Yeah, they got a lot of toys. How was yours?”

He shrugged. “I worked.”

“Lots of tree fires?”

“No, that’s next week when people put them by the curb and kids come by and light them on fire.”

Some things restore your faith in humanity. Some things make you question it.

Last night AK and I saw Next to Normal at the Ahmanson, her Christmas present to me. All I knew was that it was a musical about a bipolar woman. During the opening number, featuring a family of four going about their morning in a stylized three-level set approximating a suburban house, I think both AK and I wondered if we were in for a musical version of some sitcom’s Very Special Episode.

But zaniness was the tip of a devastating and beautifully executed iceberg. I could go on about how the musical is kind to all its characters: the grieving bipolar mother, the exhausted caretaker father, the overachieving but invisible daughter, the diligent therapist. Or how it doesn’t resort to tempting gimmicks, like using the musical medium to stage dreamlike enactments of crazy. Ironically, the show is very un-theatrical about mental illness, depicting how it wears people down rather than blows them up.

It hit me on a level that goes far beyond my ability to critique, though. Maybe a third of the way through the first act, I started sobbing and pretty much only stopped for intermission. I related to being helpless to wild emotion in a way I don’t think I would have three months ago. I haven’t cried like that at any piece of art since the first time I saw Rent and Angel appeared thin and IV-tethered in Act Two. In a way, Next to Normal is an appropriate bookend to Rent (same director, perhaps not coincidentally). Although Rent takes grief and struggle seriously, it also romanticizes them. It dresses them up in rock music and blue vinyl pants. Next to Normal strips them down: This is a musical of white button-down shirts and nondescript hoodies.

But in erasing any gothy delusions about the beauty of death and disease, it shows life at its barest and deepest. We can’t always have peace or stability or togetherness or normalcy, but, as the main character sings, “You don’t have to be happy to be happy to be alive.” The idea that this is the best we might hope for is depressing—and yet, isn’t what we’re left with life itself? Love itself?

As I told AK on the way out, still sniffling into a paper towel pilfered from the Ahmanson bathroom, the message of Rent was that life is fragile. The message of Next to Normal is that life is really, really fragile.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

words just like us

Sometimes the metaphorical becomes literal: It rained for days. Then there was a ray of sun. Then it rained harder than ever, but everyone agreed it would stop again soon. A lot of nice people lent their umbrellas.

Okay, that last part is still just metaphorical. I don’t need to borrow an umbrella because I have a couple I probably stole. I don’t want to know what the metaphorical implications of umbrella theft are.

I like that Jesus was born in the dead of winter, and if it’s a story that evolved from pagan solstice traditions, that makes me like it even more. Every culture needs a birth-as-rebirth story. We got a card from our friends Una and Henry that said, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” I tend to be a little wary of religious cards—as I mentioned, I find even Santa slightly suspicious—but it hit me what a lovely sentence that is. The “lived among us” part is my favorite. I like the idea that an idea could be so powerful it could come hang out with us. It seems very democratic. Like, “Hey guys, what’s on TV?” And we’re all, “OMG, you’re the Word!” And the Word is all, “Yeah, but so are you.” We turn to each other and agree: “Celebrities—they’re just like us.”

I’ve got some gift-wrapping and weather-surviving and family-navigating and chocolate-avoiding ahead of me (well, probably not very much chocolate-avoiding), so if I don’t manage to blog in the next few days, happy holidays, blog peeps.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


“As Christmas icons go, I was never into Santa,” I told Work Cathy, explaining why I never bought Santa cards. “I’ll take a nice reindeer or snowman any day. But maybe that’s because my parents never told me that Santa was real, so I never had those magical associations with him. He was just some old fat man.”

My parents’ rationale was that 1) they didn’t want to lie; they always expected honesty from me, so it was only fair, and 2) if there was a present they couldn’t afford to buy, they didn’t want me to think Santa had put me on his naughty list. My parents were/are very sincere people.

When I was a teenager and wanted to be like my friends in every way, I resented them for depriving me of glowy childhood memories. Later I thought they made kind of a cool, nonconformist choice. But today I realized that I move through my adult life exactly as if not getting something I want means I’ve been bad. My parents never told me Santa was real because they wanted to create a fair world, one in which my behavior wasn’t falsely linked to whether or not I got a My Little Pony Waterfall featuring Sprinkles the Pegasus and her sidekick Duck Soup. (I did. I also got a Cabbage Patch Kid that year, which, in a Santa-dominated world, would have led me to believe I’d been very good. But instead I knew that the real estate market was taking off and my dad had made a couple of good investments. The nineties would not be so kind to us.)

Sorry—I got off track googling “My Little Pony Waterfall” there for a minute. Man, I could watch those commercials all day. The bubble bath! The pump that made water dribble from the plastic cloud!

Oh, but I started wondering what kind of merit math my brain would be doing if I’d had a different childhood. If I’d believed that Santa existed, denied me a My Little Pony Lullaby Nursery because I’d been bad, then turned out to be a product of my parents’ cruel lies—then maybe I would have learned early on that the world is nonsensical and I wouldn’t be so surprised by its small injustices now. Maybe. Thirty-three is a little old to turn on your parents—you’re supposed to get that shit out of your system when you’re 22, then appreciate them and shower them with grandbabies in your thirties. But maybe the more important question is, is 33 too old to play with a My Little Pony Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe?

Monday, December 13, 2010

britney wishes and potato skin dreams

I subscribe to the school of thought that says dream sequences can and should almost always be cut from novels and movies. Save that shit for your therapist, you know? Dreams work a little better in sitcoms, usually because they’re an excuse to act out a New Gidget version of A Christmas Carol or some such wackiness. I’m pretty sure dreams are not meant to be recounted in blogs either, but man, I’ve had some weird ones lately, so here’s a quick executive summary:

1. I was attacked by a puppy that looked like a cartoon sheep. Its mother was waiting in the wings, ready to get all mama-bear on me. AK rescued me from its scary-looking puppy talons.

2. I was babysitting Jamie and Lee-Roy’s baby, Kohana. We had a great day on the town; she laughed at all my jokes. But on the drive home I realized we had no car seat—Kohana was just sitting in my lap—and I was like, “Aaah! I’m Britney Spears!”

3. I was ordering some potato skins at some sort of food court and the checker suspected me of credit card fraud. The girl behind me started dancing around saying how horny she was, how she needed a man.

Maybe the message here is that I should email my senators and ask them to pass the Dream Act? Or have potato skins for lunch?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

i’ll give you something to smile about

When Work Cathy walked into a meeting yesterday, a guy she didn’t know said, “Smile! Let’s see your dimples.”

“I don’t have dimples,” she said.

“Sure you do—right here.” He screwed his fingers into the corners of his mouth. Later, when a plate of cookies was making its way around the room, he passed it to her and said, “Here ya go, Dimples.”

Today at lunch I was walking back from Hallmark, where I’d found myself looking at a card featuring a nativity scene and thinking, God, there’s another person who got pregnant without even trying. On the sidewalk, a greasy-looking guy in his thirties called out, “Smile! It’s a sunny day!”

“Fuck you,” I said.

Translation: 1) No one would ever tell a guy to smile. When guys brood, it’s considered sexy. 2) You don’t know me, asshole. Maybe my grandmother just died. Or maybe I was bummed that the bread in my sandwich was a little dried out. Either way, not your business. I feel sorry that I can’t deliver Cheery Holiday Greetings Cheryl to AK on a regular basis, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t incurred any emotional debts with you, greasy dude.

I’m mildly worried that Cheery Holiday Greetings Cheryl has been abducted by pod people, and Eff You Cheryl has been left in her place. It’s troubling to not feel like yourself. But actually, half a block later, I found myself smiling really big.

Friday, December 03, 2010

in praise of oddity, crap and unpredictability

AK and I were on the walking part of a run when she said she would love for our book club to read a Jennifer Egan book. “Nominate it!” I said.

“But her writing is so odd,” AK said. “I think she’s great, but I don’t know if other people would like her.”

The first book I forced on our group was The Last of Her Kind, which I thought was beautiful: sprawling and social but also deep and personal. But I think at least half the book club saw it as a bunch of girly hand-wringing. I didn’t really care. Book club is one of my favorite activities, comprised of some of my favorite people, so you’d think I would want them to be happy. But sometimes I forget that most people don’t have the same philosophy about reading as I do, which is that the goodness of a book is just one of many possible benefits of reading it.

Every book has the potential to tell me something I don’t know about language and the world, even if only by negative example. Same goes for plays and movies. A long time ago I saw this terrible romantic comedy called Down to You with my friend Mel. Afterward I made so much gleeful fun of it that Mel (who had sweetly girly taste in movies—he might have liked The Last of Her Kind) started to feel sheepish about choosing it. I realized I’d been implying that I regretted seeing it, which is almost never true.

All this makes me sound very open minded, and I like to think of my artistic appetites as limber, voracious and eclectic. But the other side of it is that I just like to finish stuff so I can have an abstract feeling of accomplishment. (I learned from Andrea Seigel’s blog that this is called unit bias. What cognitive biases are keeping you down [although if you’re like me, you’re secretly proud of them]?)

I did manage to pick up and put down Remembrance of Things Past a few months ago, but dammit, I will stick out a bad Julia Stiles movie and I will gladly delve into an odd novel. Then, at parties, I’ll be the person who can talk about obscure-ish literary fiction while proving how down to earth she is with her knowledge of pop culture.

When I was in Hong Kong a few years ago, I saw a sign on one of the trains advertising, “A different ride every time!” Unpredictability is the exact opposite of what I, and I think most people, want in a mode of transportation. But other places, it’s great. Americans are a busy, demanding people, but trains aside, we don’t want everything to be vetted by Oprah or whatever god is in charge of packaging culture, do we? Steve Martin and NPR (via a couple of friends on Facebook) recently reminded me of that:

Thursday, December 02, 2010

what i read in november

I really put the “no” in November this year—in many ways, but particularly because I read no actual, physical books. Call it the wave of the future. I call it “I have to read student work whenever I’m not driving, eating, sleeping or doing my regular job.”

Here’s what I listened to:

Mr. Paradise by Elmore Leonard: Probably not the best book to listen to on CD—I'm pretty sure I missed some major plot points, although I did love Robert Forster's narration (finally, an actor who can capture the mood of Leonard's neo-noir prose but doesn't go overboard trying to "do" the voice of each character). This is the first Elmore Leonard book I've read. I would point any freshman writer to his exemplary use of detail, even if the story itself—one of call girls and hit men and mistaken identities—isn't hugely riveting or thought-provoking.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck: The main character in this book—John Steinbeck—is a successful author in his late 50s. He has a lot of disposable income, a family (and a dog, the titular poodle) he loves and no real reason to drive around the country in a camper other than to get back in touch with "America." These facts do not a sense of urgency make, but I appreciated his lack of pretension. Although he is adamant that his travel notes do not add up to an assessment of America, he does make prophetic observations about the information age, American mobility and the fallout of a culture of waste. I also liked his musings on everything from redwoods to racism and his dignified adoration of Charley.

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons: I'm not sure if this is Kaye Gibbons' first novel, but it reads like a first novel: engaging youthful voice (which is just liiiittle too precious at times), with an ending that's not quite earned. The title character is an orphan who's been through more than an 11-year-old should. Sometimes her experiences inspire murderous fantasies (which counteract the preciousness), and sometimes she depends on the kindness of teachers and a local "colored" family. The Huck Finn-style ending would have us believe that the latter is the heart of the book, but Ellen seems to overcome her racism, which she never voiced aloud anyway, suddenly and with no real provocation. I was confused as to when the book took place—I know the Jim Crow South overstayed its welcome, but did it survive well into the '80s? Am I just that naive? Ellen Foster isn't telling me the answers.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

maybe my heart will grow three sizes—but I’d settle for two

I recently discovered that Etsy has “member-curated galleries” of nifty crafty goods. Ordinarily this would strike me as a suspicious marketing gimmick—I mean, do we know for sure that these “members” aren’t Etsy employees or at least Etsy vendors?—but for some reason I’m into it. Maybe because if you do a search for “wallet,” you get 43,671 results, and it’s hard to sift through wallets made out of duct tape and wallets that are actually clutch purses (not the same!) to find one you like.

I’ll probably do a little holiday shopping on Etsy this year, and also at All Saints’ annual Alternative Christmas Market, though sometimes I wonder if the people on my list get genuinely excited when someone in Ethiopia gets a chicken in their name. I mean, I would. So if you’re shopping for me, take note. I haven’t forgotten about my old friends, books, either. Bronwyn over at GuerrillaReads has some suggestions for where/how to buy sustainable, recyclable, indie-made reading material.

I pouted my way through Halloween and Thanksgiving*, but I’m going to try not to do the same with Christmas and New Year’s. First, because I’m sick of my own bad attitude. I’m boring myself. Second, because I think AK is sick of my bad attitude. She hasn’t said so in so many words, but it’s inevitable. She’s always a little bummed that we stay in town for the holidays while so many of our friends leave, and no matter how much they assure her that these trips involve getting fondled in the long security lines at LAX and seeing relatives they hate, I think AK sort of imagines them all hanging out with each other on a tropical island. In other words, the last thing she needs is me grinching things up.

So that’s my December resolution: a little holiday cheer, dammit. And if that starts with shopping, so be it. I’m against retail therapy in theory, but lately I’ve discovered that I’m open to lots of things I’m against in theory. And if it’s sustainable, recyclable and/or indie-made, it’s barely even shopping at all. Right? Even if you’re buying a sustainable, recyclable, indie-made sweater for yourself?

Oh, and my friend JP is putting on a holiday puppet show.

And as if that weren’t enough, it’s eggnog latte season.

*Actually, my Thanksgiving was really nice. I ate minimally and crafted with the Ybarras. Then I finished up all my grading on Sunday and celebrated with AK and Leslie by consuming a Thanksgiving dinner’s worth of fries and pumpkin milkshake at a restaurant that is literally called the Oinkster.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

things i suspect are in cher’s contract, based on the movie burlesque

  1. Cher will receive top billing.
  2. Cher will sing no less than two solos.
  3. But also, Cher does not want to work too hard, so she will sing no more than two solos. She will get to sit in a chair for one of them.
  4. Cher does not do duets.
  5. At no point will Cher stand in direct light. Even if the actor playing the role of lighting tech says, “Do you want a spot?” and Cher, as burlesque diva Tess, says, “Yeah,” the lighting which ensues will be of a silvery twilight nature.
  6. Cher’s eye make-up will get its own trailer and a producer credit.
  7. Stanley Tucci, as gay wardrobe director Sean, will periodically comment on the hotness of Cher’s body.
  8. All art and acting direction will serve the film’s, and Cher’s, overarching brand, which is “fabulosity.” If minimum fabulosity requirements are not met, the following measures must be taken: a) Scenes will revolve around Christian Louboutin shoes. b) References to drag queens will be made as “inside” jokes to Cher’s gay cult following. c) The burlesque club which is threatened with foreclosure may only be saved by an extra fabulous song and dance number, as opposed to some sort of troublingly believable real estate loophole.*
  9. Audiences will leave the theater thinking, with no animosity toward Christina Aguilera, Christina Aguilera is no Cher.

*This clause was unfortunately ignored. You will be hearing from Cher’s lawyers.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I haven’t been in a very thankful mood lately. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of blessings and the implication that they’re the result of things people do to win favor with God/fate/whatev, which is rampant in our culture. Usually when I ponder this topic, it’s from the over-blessed end of the spectrum. What did I do to deserve all this? The answer is, categorically, not much.

But lately I’ve been feeling under-blessed—I’m not getting what I want—and it’s periodically turned me into a sad, desperate mess or a petty, competitive bitch, depending on the day. And worst of all, the same little voice that hopes maybe I did do something to deserve all the good stuff now wonders what I did to fuck up my chances of more good stuff. Knowing this is bullshit only helps a little.

I’ve been really mean to myself, feeling too exhausted to indulge in the stuff that makes me happy on a deep level (writing, exercise) and denying myself the shallower indulgences that can be cheap fixes (a haircut, frozen yogurt with circus animal cookies as topping—two desserts, but you can call it one!). I’ve been hard at work punishing myself for things I have no control over because of some deeply ingrained belief that life operates on the merit system.

Maybe I should pause a moment to add that, most embarrassingly of all, I have not been dealt some terrible hand by fate. My not getting what I want is the blandest, most common bump in a well-maintained road. But I see people around me getting what they want, getting what I want, and I feel hugely, helplessly, unabashedly covetous. Or rather, I’m quite abashed, but the helplessness overrides my shame.

I actually logged on thinking I’d write one moody little paragraph and follow it up with a lighthearted list of things I’m thankful for, such as frozen yogurt with circus animal cookies as topping. But mood trumps gratitude, apparently.

Is it possible to be thankful for blessings you know you don’t deserve (even if you know you don’t not deserve them either)? Can you be thankful even if you believe that life is a big fat lotto and whatever you get or don’t is pretty much random? If you believe that there is a God, but she/he doesn’t see us as separate enough to carefully make sure we all get the same number of presents under the tree?

I guess what thankfulness does is empower you. When I’m feeling grateful and confident, I write, I exercise, I visit my mentee, I ask my friends how their days were, I remember to bring my reusable coffee cup, I (occasionally) write my congressperson. The false notion that I’m blessed—that there is such a thing—makes me a person who creates more blessings in the world. (Which is not to say that I think doing 20 minutes on the elliptical machine is a blessing to anyone. I mean, I guess it keeps the collective rates for my health insurance company low?)

I’m not sure where this leaves me. I want to say I’m going to try to be thankful for all that I have—and there is so, so much—and that this attitude will help me get what I want eventually. Except I don’t believe in that kind of cosmic math, and every time I think I’m on my way to a good attitude, I plummet back into the self-pity pit. Chances are, I’ll continue to agonize melodramatically for a while, then get what I want eventually, then feel sheepish about all my bad behavior (if also a little older and wiser), then go back to questioning why I have all this great stuff in my life. At least, I’m hoping that’s what will happen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

a story from the heart of los angeles

Driving into work this morning, I was dismayed to see that Pitfire Pizza had been replaced by Al-Abba’s Chicken. Restaurants come and go in Westwood all the time, but Pitfire was one of the good ones—hello, artisanal butternut squash pizza. The weird thing was that Pitfire’s neighbor, a preschool, had also closed overnight, a Goldblatt’s Delicatessen sprouting in its place.

Well, I thought, it would be nice to have a deli nearby, and maybe it won’t have that disturbing smell that Junior’s always does.

The weirder thing was that, by lunchtime, two crowds of protestors had gathered in the parking lot between Al-Abba’s and Goldblatt’s. One side waved an Israeli flag, the other held up a poster of the Palestinian flag. But all their signs were chicken puns: No piece, no justice! Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a thigh!

This was, I concluded, a very strange and not that funny promotional stunt by the two new restaurants. But then one of the many onlookers who’d clustered across the street pointed to Larry David. Turned out they were shooting an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a very strange and not that funny show, in my opinion. Nothing against Palestine, but I’m glad I’ll still be able to get my bougie pizza fix.

As for TV, I recommend tuning into Independent Lens, a KCET program (I think it’s PBS-wide? KCET and PBS just had some kind of schism that I’m a little vague on) that showcases indie documentaries. Tuesday at 10 p.m. (check your local listings) they’ll be showing Deep Down: a story from the heart of coal country, which just happens to be co-directed by my friend and Meehan’s gf Sally Rubin.

We caught a screening of it last night: The hour-long documentary follows a Kentucky activist named Beverly May who’s leading a campaign against mountaintop removal in her community. Rather than burrowing into mountains to get their goods (the stuff of which makes for good country songs and big fat lesbian ghost town novels), coal mining companies have taken to simply decapitating the part of the mountain that stands in the way. The result is not only a heartbreakingly stark landscape but lots of land erosion problems once the rains come.

But the movie isn’t an environmental soapbox. In the Q&A after the screening, Sally and co-director Jennifer Gilomen expressed that their first desire was to paint a picture of Appalachia that runs counter to stereotypes about missing teeth and dueling families (though one of their subjects did claim to be descended from the Hatfields of Hatfields and McCoys fame). Indeed, Beverly May is an unpretentious native who is also a highly educated environmentalist and healthcare worker. Her neighbor Terry, on whom the outcome of the film hinges, is a soft-spoken woodworker who’s having trouble making ends meet—and wouldn’t mind the $75,000 check that Miller Bros. Coal has promised him in exchange for the right to hack away at the mountain on his land (and to dump the rubble on it as well).

As various environmental problems reach crisis levels, it’s increasingly important to remember that environmentalism isn’t just for people with REI memberships. On the contrary, bad environmental policy—like almost everything—hurts poor people most. No justice, no peace, man.

Monday, November 15, 2010

for white boys who have considered amputation/when the raven is enuf

Last weekend AK and I went to see For Colored Girls. It was a gamble. I’d seen a production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in college and remembered liking it. But I’d also seen Diary of a Mad Black Woman, whose lessons included “You should forgive the guy who beats you” and “Men in dresses are funny.”

It was clear by the opening credits—a pastel cornucopia of fonts you might find on a PTA meeting flyer—that this movie was going to be too much Tyler Perry, not enough Ntozake Shange. It was even more clear by the rape scene intercut with shots of an upbeat opera. I can’t look away from the tonal and moral car wreck that is seemingly* Tyler Perry’s aesthetic, but AK can. And that night I could too because I was falling asleep. I wanted to have a strong opinion about the fact that the movie’s resident slut was clearly going to get a comeuppance or that Janet Jackson’s husband was heading in some kind of trite down-low direction, but I was too tired. We finished our sodas and left.

The great thing about the ArcLight is that they’ll refund your money if you walk out of a movie, no questions asked. I guess that’s what we pay the extra, like, $5 a ticket for. It’s refund insurance.

In the name of using our vouchers (except not really, because we ended up getting tickets online), we met Pedro and Stephen back at the ArcLight on Sunday to see 127 Hours. My interests are actually more up Tyler Perry’s alley: I like meaty moral questions and human drama. True story or not, there was nothing particularly appealing to me about watching a guy spend five days alone in the desert, trapped beneath a rock, and (barely a spoiler alert-->) chop off his own arm. As I told Jamie this morning, I thought the arc of the movie would go: boring, boring, boring, gory.

But I also knew that Danny Boyle knew what he was up against, and probably wouldn’t have made the movie if he didn’t have some good ideas. Just as Tyler Perry substitutes eight million storylines for actual storytelling ability, Boyle knows his story only has like two plot points, so he better have some kickass internal drama and crazy shots of the interior of an arm. It turns out he does, and the movie is, yes, gory, but good (and a teensy bit schmaltzy at the end, but it’s well earned schmaltz). Never boring. A lovely testament to people who need people.

Early on, James Franco’s daredevil character scampers up some mildly steep rocks. Next to me, I heard AK audibly gasp. She doesn’t even like the stairs at Dodger Stadium, and would never see the point of doing anything other than grocery shopping alone. “I’m the anti-Aron Ralston,” she said. And we all agreed that if any of us had been in his situation, we just would have died, movie over.


Speaking of storytelling, Wednesday night I’ll be moderating a panel for the New Short Fiction Series, the long-running series that casts local actors to read shorts by L.A. writers. I’ve been reading the work of the four writers featured, and it’s good stuff. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by!

What: The New Short Fiction Series and KPCC's Crawford Family Forum present An Evening of Emerging Voices
When: Nov. 17, 7:30-9 p.m.
Where: The Crawford Family Forum, 474 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91105
Featuring fiction by: Jenna Blough, Luis Garcia Romero, Dana Johnson and Tommy Kim
Starring: Matt Ferrucci, Judy T. Marcelline, Donny Yoon and Sally Shore
Admission: FREE, but please RSVP here.

*Okay, so I’ve only seen one and a half Tyler Perry movies. If there’s a really good one in there somewhere (I Can Do Bad All by Myself?), let me know.

Friday, November 12, 2010

maybe katie already had a bottle

Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin made Sarah Palin look dumb. Katie Couric’s interview with Fergie for Glamour Magazine makes Katie Couric look…hip hop? Fifteen?

KATIE COURIC: All right, in the completely shallow department, you have a sick body, woman.

Thank you, mama!

[Laughs.] No, seriously, damn. How do you do that?

I work out all the time.

Fergie goes on to discuss her cardio routine, where she keeps her Grammys, how Hoarders inspired her to clean out her shit and how she kicked meth but still likes to booze it up. “Send me a bottle,” says Katie.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

stereotype come true

“Crazy artist” is one of my least favorite cinematic stereotypes. “Crazy genius homeless person” is right up there too. I think most artists aren’t crazy, just creative and hardworking, and the ones that are make art in spite of the crazy, not because of it. I know a manic episode can inspire a creative binge, but I don’t think it’s as simple as go off meds, paint Mona Lisa. Similarly, I don’t think most homeless people are fallen violin virtuosos just one shower away from Disney Hall. I imagine mental illness is a long, lonely slog that most often takes you away from yourself, not to some higher plain.

So imagine my surprise when I noticed one of Westwood’s resident homeless guys sketching and painting in Starbucks today: small fashion portraits of women in old-fashioned bloomers and a slightly Toulouse Lautrec-ish three-quarters profile. I don’t know if they were the visual-art equivalent of that soloist guy. But they were good. And he was filling them in with watercolors from a kids’ paintbox—you know, the ones with the eight little just-add-water circles. Imagine what he could have done with some serious tools.

He was talking to himself the whole time. At one point I caught, “Everyone trying to get by on $75,000.” Although he didn’t seem to notice anyone outside his head, the guys at the next table were lamenting the thousands they’d lost trying to flip houses, so maybe it was some sort of crazy-genius commentary.

I’ve seen this guy around. Pushing a shopping cart, washing windows at the other Starbucks down the street. He has a crown of dreadlocks and eyebrows arched in perpetual happy surprise. Unlike most schizophrenics you see on the street, he does not seem to be pissed off at the voices in his head. A lot of times they seem to be saying something hilarious. I’ve often thought that if I were going to lose it, I’d want to lose it like this guy. And of course any life that involves sitting all day in a coffee shop working on your art seems pretty appealing to me. Maybe I should worry that I’m halfway there. But maybe I shouldn’t.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

what i read in october

In October I read a lot of student work, my reviews of which are a matter of teacher-student confidentiality (and involve a lot of boring advice like, “Ask yourself what your protagonist wants, then give her some choices to make…”). So most of the books below were “read” via CD in my car. I miss you, recreational reading of actual paper books!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The stories in this collection are more fantastical than the novels of Fitzgerald's I've read, and I missed his subtle, glimmering descriptions of the upper classes. The title story is ripe with all kinds of opportunity for comparing nature to experience in determining a person's true age, but it doesn't do much with the idea. The last story, "O Russet Witch!" is probably the most Fitzgeraldian and my favorite. In between, there's some crazy stuff about mountain-sized diamonds, kidnapped pilots and a murky chase through some place in England.

Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle: This collection of parables from Father Greg Boyle's work with gang members is an effective manifesto for unconditional love. Sometimes I wanted more about how he's gotten so many kids off the streets and into jobs--love will only go so far without good management. But as he points out in his chapter on "success," if you demand results, you'll only spend time with those who deliver them, thereby abandoning the most needy. So is love the only answer? No, but if you don't start there, you won't get anywhere. The book is fully of funny and fascinating stories, if high on the schmaltz factor. I was in the right frame of mind to receive its message; Father G would probably see me crying into my cereal bowl as the Lord at work. And why not?

Cod by Mark Kurlansky: A good history of the hundreds of years of fishing that added up to overfishing, plus some tasty-sounding cod recipes. Maybe because the book was written in 1997 and overfishing has been so widely reported on since, it didn't feel that revelatory. I also think there's a good chance I just wasn't in the right head space for this book. It was short on personalities, long on fish. So the result just felt long, period.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: I sort of want to describe this as a solid young adult book, meaning that it's an engaging and sometimes moving portrayal of a teenager overcoming trauma and empowering herself to (literally) speak up; also that there's not a lot in it to surprise veteran readers. The bullet point-style narration does keep the prose fresh, but a really good young adult book should offer a more unique take on high school. Melinda, the narrator, makes ironic observations about her teachers' foibles and cafeteria politics, but the lack of originality--coupled with the strange timelessness of the setting--make the author seem removed from actual teenage life. Writers like Andrea Seigel and Cynthia Kadohata get into their young narrators' heads more convincingly.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

confessions of a halloweenie

I wasn’t feeling very Halloweeny this year. I told AK that if she wanted to go out, the costume burden was on her. She did good: She went as Snoopy as WWI flying ace and I went as Charlie Brown as a ghost with eyeholes gone wrong. Easiest costume ever—just cut a bunch of holes in a sheet.

But at JP’s party I quickly discovered that I really dislike having stuff over my face. I felt a little too much like a ghost. I related to the I Don’t Care Bear we met, who had a big yellow head and angry tattoos. But I felt bad because AK was so creative, when costuming is usually not her thing. As in previous years, JP’s people brought it: Meg Whitman, Lady Gaga in her meat dress, some sort of bondage trio in really expensive-looking gear.

I sat next to the TV, which was playing, conveniently if I’d still had my sheet on, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I had my legs folded next to me and all of a sudden the flickering light hit my mermaid tattoo, which had gotten a couple of bug bites recently. Or so I thought. But in that peculiar light, I could see for the first time that the bumps were exactly where the lines of the mermaid’s hair and face were.

Creepy, right? Spooky, even.

“Is it possible to be allergic to your own tattoo?” I asked AK and Christine and Jody.

I worry about turning into one of those people who’s always updating people about their weird ailments, but Jody and Christine were the right people to ask. They had all this information about hives and skin sensitivity and how you should always have some Benadryl on hand in case a friend with a peanut allergy comes over and you accidentally feed her PB&J.

I’ve been too lazy to call my tattoo artist or a dermatologist, so I’ll poll you, dear blog readers, about my weird ailment: Is it possible to be allergic to your own tattoo? One you’ve had for a year without major incident?

So there’s that, and then there is also a marathon reading to benefit Beyond Baroque (great literary center in a deliciously musty old firehouse in Venice) on Saturday. If you’re not weirded out by the sight of a slightly puffy tattoo, come on by. I’ll be reading for five minutes around 3:30. A hundred awesome writers will come before and after.

What: marathon reading to benefit Beyond Baroque
When: Saturday, Nov. 6, 10 a.m.-midnight (I’ll go on around 3:30)
Where: Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., L.A., CA 90291
How much: donation requested, no one turned away for lack of funds (how many benefits can you say that about?)

Friday, October 29, 2010

cures for a crappy week

This week fried me. It wasn’t so bad, in the grand scheme of things, but I’m a sensitive soul. Lose one grading day to PMS-fueled internal drama and I’m done for. This morning I finally scooped myself out of the little hole I’d dug via a writing date with Kathy and Bronwyn. I worked on a scene from my cats-and-Malaysia novel (remember that? me neither) that felt like it had some meaning behind it. Recently it’s just been mechanical tweaking and even more recently it’s been not writing at all.

There are so many movies and grant applications out there full of teenagers testifying to how writing saved their lives that one can get a tad hardened to the notion. Does writing feed people? Does it even fill potholes? No, but it makes the world a little sparkier, and then I’m capable of doing other things.

I have not fed anyone or filled any potholes today. But I’m blogging and I feel like talking to people again. Tomorrow the world!

I’ve also been meaning to recommend a play: Take Me Out at the Celebration Theatre. Is it even still running at this point? Hang on, let me google. Yes, it is (through Dec. 19)! Good. Here’s why you should see it: It’s a tightly written and very well acted play about a major league baseball player who comes out as gay; as the handsome, celebrated player butts heads with a hickish rookie, the play examines what it means for a golden boy to become a victim and a victim to become a perpetrator. The play is also a lovely homage to sports fandom, which says a lot, since I am so not a sports fan. But Take Me Out depicts the player/fan relationship as much like the artist/fan relationship—it’s interdependent, and it’s an exchange. And when you’ve had a shitty week, hitting a ball with a stick or making up some crap and typing it can go a long way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

t-mec in a box

It’s been quite a week. Sometimes you just want to crawl in a box and hide.

(Photos by AK. Styling by T-Mec.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

what not to google

One superhero talent I would like is the Ability To Google Things I Should Google And Nothing Else. It’s not that flight and invisibility aren’t appealing, but they both come with certain inherent dangers (try crossing the street when invisible) and they’re not as suited to the information age. With the internet, you already are invisible, and you don’t really need to go anywhere.

But I would like to be like AK or Jamie or Kathy—they’re always doing the kind of internet searches that make one smarter. They seek out new literary journals and information about breastfeeding practices in Afghanistan. In theory, I’m totally interested in these things, but I have a strong lazy, uncurious streak. Mention an amazing new writer in front of me and, even if I’m right next to my computer, I’ll just smile and nod and pretend like I’m already familiar with her. Speculate about what the weather might be like tomorrow and I’ll just speculate right back: “Oh, I’m thinking partly cloudy.” If the information is useful, I don’t want to know it. No matter how fascinating it is, it turns into lima beans before my eyes.

On the other hand, celebrity gossip? Long lost high school frenemies? Diseases I might have? Bring ‘em on! Because this information is brain candy at best, brain poison at worst, I can’t stop my fingers from typing words I shouldn’t. Leprosy + symptoms. Bedbugs + signs. Seychelles + shoes + sale. The worst part is that now my computer knows how obsessive I am. It knows I worry about certain medical conditions and that I really like shoes. Facebook ads are always encouraging me to self-publish my novel. Facebook doesn’t have very big dreams for me.

Maybe I have this problem because my mom was a librarian—a googler before there was Google. She loved helping me do the research for class projects, and I quickly became a barefoot shoemaker’s child. Or, like, a shoemaker’s child with really awesome shoes she didn’t even know how to untie. Now I leave a lot of research to AK. She plans our trips and learns about things like brain development. “Just give me the highlights,” I say. I’m not a superhero, just a willing damsel in distress, happily tied to the train tracks of unhealthy information.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

long commute, short story

Have I really not blogged for an entire week? Wait, I know what I was doing instead: sitting in traffic. Wednesday morning it took me 45 minutes just to get from Highland Park to Lincoln Heights. I could have walked it in that. (I know, I should have walked it, except that my destination was the Westside, not Lincoln Heights.) Friday night I got distracted on the way to the Hollywood Bowl, missed my left turn and lost 25 minutes backtracking.

When I wasn’t sitting in traffic, I was sitting at Starbucks, grading student work. They have to submit weekly writing exercises based on Brian Kiteley’s book of prompts, The 3 a.m. Epiphany. And because I believe in making the writing process transparent at all levels (but really because I’m self-centered and think the prompts are fun), occasionally I’ll submit my own. Here’s what I came up with this week. And yes, it takes place in Starbucks.

Exercise 79: Mistaken Identity: Write a fragment of a story in which the first person narrator is mistaken for someone else by a stranger. The narrator, for whatever reasons you choose, decides to become this person she has been mistaken for.

Who Am I (What’s My Name?)


Was he talking to me? He was certainly looking at me, but my name was not T or anything T might be short for. It was disconcerting, too, because I’d just been looking at him, wondering if he was Snoop Dogg. He wasn’t—that became clear pretty quickly—but he was a super skinny black guy with an angular face and cornrows. Did Snoop Dogg even have cornrows these days? I might have been working with a portrait of Snoop circa 1997. I wasn’t exactly a diehard fan.

But like I said, it was weird: Here I was at Starbucks, and Snoop Dogg was calling my name. Well, not my name, but T’s name. Nickname. And maybe because I was a captive audience waiting for my Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte, I said, “Hey.”

“Man, I thought you lived all the way on the other side of town,” he said. “You staying around here now?”

“No, I’m still on the Westside.” Actually, this was true. “I’m out here for a meeting. Just trying to wake up a little before trying to make small talk, you know?” Also true.

“I hear you, I hear you. Hey, I saw your big news on Facebook!”

My last status update had been, Joanie French hearts Pumpkin Spice Lattes. I think the one before that was, Joanie French is counting the minutes till Friday. It occurred to me that maybe T was a lot more interesting than Joanie French.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Snoop continued. “My little T, all grown up. Remember at Pitney-Bowes, how Alicia used to bring her little brats to work sometimes and we were both like, Shoot me if I ever have kids, man.

He laughed and sort of shook his head. Pitney-Bowes—that sounded so familiar. For a second, I slipped into another reality, or maybe the real reality bled over into this one, where I was in a pre-caffeine fog, getting ready to meet with another set of strangers, pretending I knew more about project-based learning than I did. If I could be that person, I could also be T. Maybe I had worked at Pitney-Bowes—I’d had so many temp jobs in my early twenties. I had at least a hundred Facebook friends whom I hadn’t seen in years, or had only met at conferences, or were, like, my cousin’s second husband. Maybe I was Facebook friends with Snoop Dogg.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m eating my words too. I got one of my own, little boy named Jeremiah. He’ll be three next month. My wife’s already got the jumper reserved, all that crazy shit. Can you believe it? I got a wife and a kid and we live in Eagle Rock.”

Snoop sounded as awed by his identity as I was by mine. I mean, T’s. Who had he been that having a family and living in Eagle Rock seemed like an improbable outcome? Someone more Snoop-like, maybe. But then I remembered: Pitney-Bowes was the name stamped on the postage machine at my office. I had never worked there, and anyone who had probably wasn’t some ghetto superstar.

“So, you know if you’re having a boy or a girl yet?” he asked.

“Girl,” I heard myself say. “We’re going to name her Miriam, after my grandmother.”

I had never said, Shoot me if I ever have kids, but I hadn’t yet started to want them. Or so I thought. But T did, and as T, I thought it might be nice to have a little girl and name her after my grandma. I thought it might be nice to be part of a “we,” to throw that term around like I wasn’t a single girl in a big city with 432 Facebook friends.

“You’re barely even showing yet,” Snoop said. “My wife, she got fat right away, even though supposedly you don’t with boys. Don’t tell her I said that. But you’re still skinny, girl. You just got a tiny little bump.”

“Pumpkin Spice Latte,” the barrista called out. I thought maybe I should stop ordering Ventis.

I reached for my drink. “I guess I should run to my meeting,” I said. “But it was good seeing you.”

“You too. You and your man should come to Jeremiah’s party. A couple of the old Pitney-Bowes crew will be there—Todd and maybe Roberto. I’ll Facebook you the details, ‘kay?”

“Thanks,” I said. “That would be nice.”

Friday, October 08, 2010

i believe the video game-playing children are our future

Nick Bilton lives in the future. Or at least he wrote a book called I live in the future & here’s how it works. AK and I went to a Q&A he did with the surprisingly funny Tess Vigeland at the KPCC studios yesterday morning. The new Mohn Broadcasting Center lives in the future too, painted colors that don’t contribute to the heat island effect (so said a plaque on the wall). Scones were served on bamboo plates.

Not too many people showed. This may have been because it was 8:30 in the morning, but I was a little bit comforted to know that even “business forums”—not just literary events—have trouble drawing a crowd.

Or maybe everyone will just download the podcast later. That’s what Nick Bilton would say.

He’s a youngish guy, by which I mean about my age, which is increasingly less youngish. He wore a blazer and jeans and thick-rimmed glasses. “I know he lives in the future,” I whispered to AK as we walked in, “but he looks like he lives in Brooklyn.”

When he said, later, that he lived in Brooklyn, I felt further comforted. At least I know a thing or two about the present.

According to Nick Bilton and the book I will read in the near future, in the only-slightly-less-near future all content will be available all ways. You won’t need to do anything so archaic as go to different websites for different information. But while new things and ideas will burst into the world in multiple formats (book, podcast, video, video game, Twitter feed), you’ll really only need one device in order to consume them, and it will probably be your phone. Not my phone, which takes blurry pictures and has no keyboard, but your phone. In the future.

He said that because of this, Marshall McLuhan’s big idea of the medium being the message is no longer true. The message is now the message. Hurray! We’re free! Except later Nick Bilton said that we buy books because we wouldn’t want all that info on Post-It notes—i.e. we pay for a certain type of media experience—in which case the medium is still at least part of the message.

But I don’t fault Nick Bilton for a little inconsistency. He secretly lives in the present just like the rest of us. All we can do is guess: Is it true that our visual skills will sharpen from playing video games and soon most of our storytelling—whether fictional or nonfictional—will be interactive and awesome? Or, as Malcolm Gladwell counters, is clicking “like” on a Facebook cause a sorry excuse for activism which will never bring about real change because it’s so damn shallow? The answers are probably yes and yes.

Nick Bilton emphasized that he’s not an internet utopian. He worries about privacy. He did not declare all old things dead. He thinks we’ll probably still read books (or at least e-books) as literature, even as our history-class texts morph into history-class video games.

I will always have a special place in my heart for my AP U.S. history book, The American Pageant, so I appreciated his historical examples of people who freaked out about new innovations—like the doctors who thought riding on trains would make people’s bones explode. He did not bring up examples of inventions that have harmed people, like the X-ray machines in shoe stores that my mom remembered from her childhood, where you could watch your toe bones wiggle.

Despite all the unanswered questions, I appreciated Nick Bilton’s positive spin. I’m tired of worrying that writing a novel is as pointless and self-indulgent as taking up a medieval instrument. It’s nice to think that people may just listen to novels and medieval music on their ear buds, and that this is fine. I’m tired of worrying that my future kids will be violence-crazed cyborgs with five-second attention spans. I’m awfully tired for someone with so much future in front of her, probably because I’ve been told by my parents and the media (in different ways) that the future is inherently scary.

Nick Bilton’s future is a glimmering net, where people still get together for dinner parties but can call up an image of anything they want. Glinda the Good Witch arrives in her shiny bubble. Everything is democratized and personalized, if maybe a little too personalized. Your frying pan knows you like your eggs sunny side up, but will you ever learn to try them over easy? Here I go again.

All I want on any given day is for someone to tell me it will all be okay—which is a problematic thing to want, but it was nice that Nick Bilton was that person today. Who knows who it will be in the future?

P.S. The past is always a tad more fascinating than the future to me, which is part of why I love Susan Straight’s writing (how’s that for a transition?). She makes history as vivid as the present, and modern times timeless. I’m so excited for her new book, Take One Candle Light a Room. Come see her read Tuesday, 10/12 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

i don’t know whether the chicken or the egg came first, but somewhere in there, there was a rooster

Below is a conversation I had, twice, with a former roommate.

Matt: You’re a vegetarian, right?

Me [making eggs in the kitchen]:
Technically I’m a pescatarian. I eat fish, but not beef or poultry or anything.

Matt: Then I guess whether or not you eat eggs depends where you stand on abortion. Like, when does life begin? You’re eating a fetal chicken.

Both times, I explained the miracle of life: An egg has to be fertilized before it can turn into a chicken. I wasn’t eating fetal chicken. I was eating the equivalent of a chicken’s period. (Sorry, I hope you’re not eating right now.)

Work Cathy and I were discussing how much or little science education we received in elementary school. I remembered building a rock collection in kindergarten and weighing guinea pigs with little metric scales in Mrs. Graham’s sixth grade class. I also remembered how, in tenth grade biology, Mr. K wanted to start the year off with sex ed, even though our textbook wouldn’t get to “family life” until Chapter 15. Mr. K was a little bit of a pervert.

But I guess I learned where babies come from. Now that more people I know are having them and my ears have perked up to such things, I’m amazed by how much I still have to learn. The fact that one’s period serves as more than just biblical punishment only truly sunk in recently. It makes the cramps marginally less sucky.

I try to buy free-range eggs these days, and I’ve noticed that a lot of them have a tiny spot of blood in the yolk. In other words: fertilized. Those free-range chickens really like to free range, if you know what I mean. I always fry those eggs up anyway.