Wednesday, March 30, 2011

mean girls all grown up

A long time ago, my sister gave me a card that said “God made us sisters, but we made us friends.” We quoted it often, always with a sappy smile and a tilt of the head. Among the things we share is a gleeful disdain for schmaltz.

But now when we quote it, there’s all this...sincerity lurking behind the irony. Cathy and I fought ruthlessly when we were kids. My My Little Ponies would get all Mean Girls on hers. I smacked her around (lightly!). She knew it wasn’t cool to tattle, so she’d wait until our mom was in the room and say to me, “I can’t believe you hit me that one time earlier today!”

Sometime during my senior year of high school, though, we started really liking each other. Christian Bale and Newsies played an important part in our bonding, but it continued when I went away to UCLA the next year. When I came home for the weekend, she and I would stay up late talking about our post-Christian crushes, hers on her co-bandleader, mine on my gay (male) R.A. Both were unrequited.

When our mom got sick, we agreed to shelter our parents from our own petty problems and unload them only on each other. I’d forgotten about this pact, but she just reminded me that it was during this era that I came out to her before coming out to our parents. We had an unspoken no-judgment policy—we could unload and unload; we could listen and then blatantly say, “Okay, now back to me.”

As the big sister, of course I was the one who broke that policy, at one point telling her that she didn’t visit our parents enough. But lately we’ve been doing a lot of “now back to me”—though usually we alternate tearful phone calls—with, I’m pleased to say, very little judgment. Just tonight I told her how much I need her, how grateful I am that I can fall apart in front of her so fully, even more than I can with AK, who lives with me and needs a certain amount of strength from me. Cathy said, “It’s nice to feel needed, since lately I’ve been feeling like I suck.”

It could be a greeting card: God made us sisters, but we made each other feel like we don’t totally suck.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

books! they're full of useful information! who knew?

So, I think I've discovered a new use for books. In the many and sometimes tedious conversations I've been involved in surrounding the Future of Books, I've always been a strident advocate for long-form storytelling while maintaining a careful anti-Luddite stance. Of course the technology will change. The point is what you consume, not how.

But in forming this view, I've mostly considered fiction. When it comes to fiction, I want a whole, literary experience. I'm much less fussy about nonfiction: Give me half a New Yorker article, a top-of-the-hour NPR headline or a fact gleaned from any website that's not teeming with bad grammar and pop-up ads, and I'm happy.

Lately, though, the latter has been giving me problems. I mean, I know the internet is full of alarming half-truths that will make you crazy. This is not news to anyone. But the internet is also strangely finite in its infinity. You can find 752 telling you about the mating habits of koalas, and they will all tell you that koalas breed between December and March, and that their babies are called joeys, but they inevitably won't tell you the one thing you want to know. They will be consistently inconsistent about some other point of mild controversy, and finally they will tell you something you didn't want to know ("the mother produces a special faeces from her anus called 'Pap' which the joey licks from her fur").

This--the imperfection of infinite information, not the pap thing--is probably not news to anyone but me. But this is where books come in! After an unfortunate and uninformative Google binge, I picked up a book that I'd been ignoring a long time because it seemed long and overwhelming, and what's the point (if you are OCD like me) of reading less than a whole book? So instead of consulting a 460-page book, I'd been consulting the gazillion-page internet, which was like reading the first page of a thousand books.

But finally I was like, I'm just going to read a few chapters. Lo and behold, the information was well reasoned, relatively unbiased, backed up with footnotes referencing scientific, peer-reviewed studies and presented in a manner that didn't have that all-too-common internet undercurrent of "Aaaah! We're all going to die!" And there were no user comments that said, in less subtle terms, "Aaaah! We're all going to die!" Books: I think I'm onto something here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

we meet again

This morning I sat down and wrote for the first time in a full month. My novel was like, Do you even know who I am anymore? And I was like, Do you know who I am? But we were mostly able to pick up where we left off, even though I think we both maintained a wary fear of abandonment.

I try not to be too hard on myself for not writing. The nice thing about being a writer (or erstwhile writer) is that everything you do when you’re not writing is arguably fodder for when you are. I’ve been doing some living lately. Also some sleeping and watching of Gossip Girl. (I am not at all comfortable with my no-longer-deniable crush on Blake Lively. I know she’s not in high school in real life, but I’m easily old enough to have been her babysitter.)

Anyway, for now I’m back. It feels fragile and good.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

sophie t., fried soup and noah the sorbet guy

I’m on the last day of a quick work trip to San Francisco, during which time I’ve squeezed in a few visits with friends, meaning I’ve eaten a lot of good food. After navigating the 5 in taillights-in-the-mist weather, AK and I drove into SF just as it was shaking off the storm it had sent south and bunked with Nerissa and Edric at their new place in Millbrae.

Millbrae is sort of the San Gabriel Valley of the Bay—an urban-ish burb with lots of good Chinese food. We ate Shanghai-style dumplings (dim sum for dinner—who knew?) and then wandered into a place called 100% Healthy Dessert. The walls were covered with posters of bright mango- and gelatin-laden concoctions with names I can only describe as pseudo-Franco-Chinglish—stuff like “gui ling gao coco durian de tadpole.” That’s not the name of an actual dish. I probably just described a bastardized nonexistent Frankenfood, although all the offerings sort of seemed like bastardized nonexistent Frankenfoods in the best, chewiest, most red bean-stuffed sort of way.

I wanted one of the baked puddings, but after learning it would take a half hour to prepare, I randomly pointed to a frothy mango smoothie with chunks of mango and little floating, gel-covered black seeds that did indeed look like tadpole eggs (but weren’t). It tasted fresh and sweet and Nerissa said, “I’m going to call healthy on that. At least 75 percent.”

While we were waiting for our food, we met a woman named Sophie T. who was stopping to pick up her favorite spam musubi with extra hot sauce after a birthday dinner with family.

“They were taking me out, so I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t full,” she said with a conspiratorial laugh. “This place makes food like my country, Malaysia and Singapore.”

Later she said her country was Burma and directed us to a couple of good Burmese restaurants, but maybe if Burma is your native country, you find some backup countries pretty quickly.

“Do you go to church? I go the one down the street, and we’re always looking for new people.” There was the rub.

Nerissa name-checked her Catholic church and told Sophie T. we were from out of town. Sophie didn’t miss a beat. “Catholic? Oh. Well, I just started a new job if you need insurance.” She handed us each an Allstate card. “But friendship first. That’s what I always tell my boss. Friendship first.”


I’m not sure if Burma Superstar was among the Burmese restaurants Sophie T. suggested, but AK and I found ourselves eating tea leaf salad and samusa soup (which, yes, is soup floating with Burmese samosas—i.e. fried soup) there with her college friend Gerilyn the next day.

“There’s a new gelato place down the street if you guys have room,” Gerilyn said. We had just enough.

The sign told us that Scream Sorbet was closed on Mondays, but a tall guy with frazzly hair was coming out of the dark shop.

“You guys probably want me to open up, huh?” he said.

We said we would come back, but Noah would have none of it. Soon we were standing over a case of tiny tubs of sorbet, and he was telling us about the amazing machines that slice and dice deep-frozen gourmet foods into tiny pieces, turning ingredients like apple and fennel and hazelnuts into a substance as creamy as dairy.

“I’m gonna say…” he said in a tone somewhere between agonized and impassioned, “…that for the price point, this is the most gourmet food you can buy.”

If he weren’t so visibly, deeply in love with his sorbet (don’t call it gelato, by the way), statements like, “This should be a destination for tourists from Asia” might have sounded braggy, not to mention a tad unrealistic. (“Oakland? Are you sure?” said Gerilyn, who works for Lonely Planet.)

He gave us a free Madagascar vanilla and macadamia nut sorbet sandwich nestled between two of the softest, spiciest molasses cookies you could imagine. It was definitely not what I think of as sorbet—i.e. an icy, mildly disappointing low-fat alternative to ice cream. It was what sorbet wanted to be when it grew up. We took turns nibbling and gushing. We promised to spread the word, and to return.

If I lived in Hong Kong and had regular access to gui ling gao coco durian de tadpole, I’m not sure I’d fly to Oakland just for the sorbet. But next time a road trip takes me to the East Bay? Definitely.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

l.a. stories

Five years ago Saturday, AK and I had our first date at Akbar. I’d messaged her on MySpace—remember MySpace?—because she’d listed “the dirty parts of L.A.” as one of her interests. After gritting my teeth for years as my ex pondered moving to Michigan or Singapore, it was a huge relief to discover how much AK and I both loved our adopted hometown, which was forty and twenty miles away, respectively, from our actual hometowns.

So it made sense to celebrate our fifth anniversary by seeing Los Angeles Plays Itself, a documentary about L.A.’s many movie roles that is equally famous for the fact that it will never be released on DVD because buying the rights to all those movie clips is unfathomably expensive. We caught one of the film’s semiannual screenings at the Aero Theatre, and I proceeded to geek out for the next three hours.

It’s worth the time commitment to see clips from little known movies like The Exiles, famous ones like Blade Runner and classics I’ve missed, like Kiss Me Deadly. A voice I’d describe as laidback noir speaks of the words of filmmaker Thom Andersen, who does some pomo philosophizing on the meaning of representation and shares theories that can only come from years of meticulous movie watching (did you know that conventional movie wisdom hates modern architecture? Gorgeous Wright and Neutra homes are almost always cast as villains’ lairs). But above all he’s an L.A. nerd who can’t wait to tell you that Johnnie’s diner on Wilshire is open all night in the movies but closed at five in real life—that is, until it closed entirely. Now it opens only for camera crews. He likes to point out palm trees in films that allegedly take place in Chicago or made-up locales like “Center City.”

AK noted that Anderson favors realism. The final third of the film forgoes the giddiness of the first two thirds to focus on gritty depictions of life in L.A.’s working class African American neighborhoods or on tumbledown Bunker Hill before, during and after its depressing “revitalization.”

Seeing L.A. as it was and as it never was is breathtaking. Nevertheless, I probably slept through at least forty minutes of the film. It was long, and the theater, like all theaters, was freezing. But it’s nice to know that, even sans DVD release, we’ll be able to see it again. We’ll be here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

battle cry of the relapsing tiger child

Because chocolate is one of the only things getting me through the day right now and I gave up disposable cups a couple of Lents back, for this Lent I decided to give up saying negative things about myself.

I’m a member of the so-called Self-Esteem Generation, which should mean that I expect constant praise and think I poop gold bricks. But on my bad days you’d think I was raised by a Tiger Mother. You’d think someone told me I was unworthy of affection unless I practiced the violin 12 hours a day. In actuality, my mom told me I was talented and held her tongue when my couch potato summers indicated otherwise. My dad, who’s broken with the Republican party in approximately two elections in his entire life, was an unwitting feminist who made an active goal of raising confident daughters.

But my mom was also a second-guesser extraordinaire with a habit of ruminating on her (nonexistent) fatness, and my dad…well, recently when we saw a framed quote in a restaurant about the follies of perfectionism, he shook his head and said, “That’s silly. Everyone should strive for perfection.” So that’s the mixed bag of confidence and condemnation I’m starting with.

I thought I got my guilt out of my system in college, when I really believed that lying in bed crying about the fact that I might make it to Europe before my parents did would somehow make the world a better place. But recently I’ve referred to myself as a privileged bitch who has no right to feel sad about anything. And multiple people (hello, AK, Keely and therapist) have pointed out how quick I am to make any little par-for-the-course-of-life setback into an indictment of my entire character. (This is something only a true control freak can accomplish. If setback A is caused by me being a bad person, all I have to do to reverse my fortune is become a good person. See? Fate is in my grubby little control freak hands.)

So I’m declaring a moratorium on my morbid-ness. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and goshdarnit, people like me. At least that’s the story I’m sticking with until April 23. After that, I’m sure I’ll backslide a bit just like I did in the disposable cups department. But I still start almost every day with my trusty Starbucks mug, and good habits are hard to break entirely.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

flatiron: it's not just a building in new york

There's something kind of only-in-L.A. about getting in your car and driving to a truck. But there was no way we were going to pass up an opportunity to eat food made by Timothy, also known as the generous and enterprising chef who cooked food on a grill made from a laundry tub at a park with no running water for our non-wedding. Give him a truck outfitted with a stove and a sink and imagine what he can do.

It's a little amazing to me that I know people who have started their own businesses (the closest I ever came to anything so entrepreneurial was starting my own Babysitters Club in fifth grade), and the Flatiron Truck seems like a surefire hit judging by the number of people who showed up for its grand opening last night on Melrose. Even before the windows popped open, people were waiting in line with varying degrees of patience.

The Flatiron Truck serves burgers from, um, one of these parts. I'm certainly no expert, although descriptions of dishes like "chorizo and ground pork, bacon tomato jam, pickled red onions, arugula & manchego cheese" make me wonder whether this vegetarianism thing is all it's cracked up to be. The truck's website says they "serve farm to table fine dining in an inexpensive casual environment," and I can certainly attest to that. Just listening to Timothy talk about cuts of meat and things you can do with vegetables, you know you're witnessing an artist at work, and I love to soak up inspiration from non-writer artists. Even more, I love to eat their work (the non-pork parts).

We got there near sunset, when the sky was all glowy pink and it felt like the right time to get started on the evening's eating adventures with, say, a Farmer's Market Salad. AK pointed out that the carrots were just a little bit grilled. Tasty and in keeping with the truck's theme!

Heather, Timothy's wife and one of my good friends since high school, is also Flatiron's co-founder, communications director (i.e., she talked to the chick from LAist who showed up to cover the event), truck light-hanger and de facto waitress. I don't know if she drives the truck too, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Asparagus with egg and bacon. I gave the bacon to AK, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy some of the salty deliciousness that rubbed off on the veggie parts of the dish. It was all so much more than the sum of its parts.

Three words that say it all: grilled donut holes.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

what i read in february

Half the reason I’m posting this is to push that photo a little further down on the page.

Take One Candle Light a Room by Susan Straight: I always liked the IDEA of Star Wars--the creation of a world and a mythology that unfolded over many generations. But I wasn't that into the intergalactic stuff, so I love that Susan Straight has created the literary fiction equivalent with her many stories from Rio Seco. Specifically, Take One Candle is a two-hundred-years-later sequel to her excellent A Million Nightingales.

Narrator Fantine Antoine is a slight departure from Straight's usual protagonists in that she has transcended her working class background and become a successful travel writer; Straight problematizes the experience of passing (literally and figuratively) and of abandoning one's roots without romanticizing the world of poverty and violence. This is not one of those books where the assimilated protagonist solves all her problems by learning stuff about her grandmother, despite being adjacent to that genre. The novel follows Fantine's sometimes confusing journey (the book could have benefited from a family tree a la One Hundred Years of Solitude) to save her wayward godson, a pursuit which takes her through her extended family's migration from Louisiana to Southern California. It lands back in Louisiana on the eve of Hurricane Katrina and glitters with Straight's vivid, meaty prose the whole way.

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx: Proulx's Wyoming is a hardscrabble territory for everyone who touches the dirt there: the old-time ranchers, the young guys scrounging for work in the natural resources industries, the environmentalists and even the retirees who buy imported olives. I listened to this book on CD, which in retrospect is not the best form for reading short stories, so I spent a lot of time just trying to orient myself to a new batch of characters every few tracks. But I enjoyed the many intersections of the Old and New West, and Proulx's weird (though not awkward) jaunts into magical realism, such as her story about a magic teapot that conjures up meatloaf for the unambitious wishful.

More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss: Darin Strauss' prose has the same clairvoyant quality I love in Michael Cunningham and Richard Yates (though I don't remember it as much from Chang and Eng, which I read years ago). Here he turns his powers on various characters pulled into the investigation of a possible case of Munchausen by proxy (you know, that syndrome where mothers hurt their babies for medical attention? In the early nineties it was one of those diseases that 20/20-type shows sensationalized). Seeing the baby's dad, Josh, finally outgrow his unconsciously cultivated innocence was especially moving, maybe because I'm in my thirties and newly aware of how innocence is a nonrenewable fuel for positivity. But I also appreciated Darlene, the nerdy, dogged African-American doctor on the case, who harbors plenty of wariness etched by years in white-dominated worlds but still isn't quite prepared for the clumsy, messy, absurd scandal that unfolds.

In this novel subjectivity is a dangerous weapon that causes social institutions to fail, but it's also our only hope for a sort of post-institutional human truth. The book is a page-turner and a thought-provoker. Strauss arguably gets a little too giddy with his descriptions at times, but I took it as a literary jam session I was happy to attend and sad to leave.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

rocking the sweatshirt-around-the-waist look

Suzanne pointed out that anyone tagged in a photo can click a "download" option. Now I have no excuse not to post my unflattering Vasquez Rocks pics. I'm throwing in the butt shot for good measure. At least Jose, JoAnna and the desert look lovely.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

insert picture of vasquez rocks here

I was going to include a photo with this post of me circa 2001 when I was in grad school at CalArts. JoAnna, Jose, Suzanne, Raj, Alex and I took a field trip to Vasquez Rocks, a stunning piece of desert landscape where dozens of films and commercials have been shot. We were no exception: We were there to shoot an experimental film for our collage class (yes, I took a class called “collage” in grad school. Yes, crayons were employed. Yes, I think of this every time I get my student loan statement). Our film’s plot was vague, but I think it involved Jose searching L.A. for Splash the mermaid. Not surprisingly, she was nowhere to be found in the Antelope Valley.

The picture I was going to post is one of my worst. I am wearing a raggedy tank top, squinting into the sun, and my body is a testimony to my 2001 diet of donuts, Coke and veggie chicken nuggets. It doesn’t help that I’m standing next to JoAnna, who looks like a gorgeous two-eyebrowed Frida Kahlo.

I figured it was only fair to post an unflattering photo of myself as punishment for breaking my own “no marketing” Facebook rule, which I’m about to do right now:

Hey everyone, I wrote a story called “The Friendliness Manifesto” that’s in the current issue of the neat web mag Corridors. It takes place at Vasquez Rocks, one of my old grad school haunts.

But alas, my only access to the picture is the one Suzanne posted on Facebook, and the site now makes it impossible to just right click and “save image as.” So pics that happen on FB stay on FB. Oh well.

status updates, how do I hate thee? let me count the ways

“Message boards,” I emailed a friend recently, “are like the worst kind of crack, the kind that skips right over the fun, feeling-like-superman high and goes straight to back-alley addiction.”

Facebook isn’t quite that bad. There are times when the high is good, or at least it serves as the 21st century equivalent of a cigarette break at work. Then there are days like today, when two thirds of all status updates fill me with hate, annoyance or just a general lack of faith in the human race.

Here are some categories that I would advise people to avoid, except I won’t, because then where would I direct my hate?

1. The bragging while pretending not to post: “This Oscar totally tore a hole in my Marc Jacobs purse! Boo!” “So sick of people recruiting my baby to be in commercials.” “Anyone know of a good vegan restaurant in St. Tropez? Post soon, ‘cause I’m only here for three weeks.”

2. The uber-wholesome post: “Organic free-range zucchini from our garden—gonna taste great grilled with a smidge of cheese from our goat Prudy!” “Nothing caps a good long run like a nice long yoga class.”

3. The post that reminds us you have endless leisure time: “Slept till noon, lattes with Marjorie at the Alcove—where does the day go?” “Finally made it through all the Real Housewives on my DVR. Whew!” “Wondering whether it’s too soon to paint the kitchen again….”

4. The post that reminds us your job is VERY important and time-consuming: “So sorry to miss Jen’s wedding, but politics waits for no one.” “I envy all you peeps on unemployment!”

5. The globally shaming post: “150,000 people died in Swaziland JUST NOW.” “Every time you forget your reusable coffee mug, a penguin dies.” “Afghanistan. Nuff said.”

6. The post that mistakes fucking around online for activism: “Repost this picture of a Care Bear if you want to prevent child molestation!” “In 1994, a woman named Clarissa O’Malley died of a rare genetic disorder called Seybourne-Valdez Syndrome. 93% of people won’t repost this.”

7. The post that assumes some sort of FB rule about having to post every hour whether you have anything to say or not. “Subway meatball sandwich…mmm….” “Just did five push-ups.” “TGIF, y’all!”

8. The picture which prompts all your friends to remind you how good-looking you are (this is okay if you are not actually all that good-looking).

9. The post that’s not so much a post but a love note that should be shared in the privacy of one’s email inbox: “Jeremy is the sweetest! Breakfast in bed again?!” “OMG, check out this ROCK! I do, Brandon, I DO!”

10. The cryptic post that prompts confused, concerned comments: “Wondering why.” “Watching the sun hit my scars….” “Just got some great news I totally can’t share!”

11. The marketing post in a long thread of marketing posts: “Reading tonight at Book Soup at 7 p.m.!” “Just got a new shipment of goji berry tea. Visit my website to order.” “Vote for my video to win TNT’s Short Films About Bodily Functions contest!”

Now that I’ve pretty much alienated all 424 of my Facebook friends (that is, the ones who haven’t already hidden me because they got sick of me inviting them to my readings), I’m seeing a pattern here. I get angsty about any post that makes me feel mildly inadequate, which is every post, because lately I’m in the self-centered place that only a deep sense of inadequacy can bring about. So basically I’m accusing you of being all about you because it’s all about me.

So carry on. I’m dying to know what you had for lunch. And I kind of actually mean that.