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.