Wednesday, June 29, 2011

a safe space for nitwits and lloronas

Since a one-night work trip to Fresno didn’t cure my blues, oddly enough, it was time to enact Operation: Get Outta Town Part Dos. I.e. a two-night, non-work trip to San Luis Obispo. I’m working up to Italy, okay?

Over the years San Luis has become AK’s and my place—although she went to college there, so I guess it was her place and I just glommed on. It has small town charm—but not so much that you start to wonder if people actually live there (like Cambria, which we visited Sunday)—windswept bluffs and good food, but mostly it is not L.A., and even though AK’s radiator blew last time we were there, it feels like a place where nothing can go wrong.

We spent the first night at the home of the Millers, who rescued us after last year’s radiator incident and this time fed us olala berries and baked French toast, which is like the love child of French toast and a cinnamon roll. In exchange, we read picture books to four-year-old Hattie and watched two-year-old Tilly dance around the living room. It was a pretty good deal.

The next day we drove out to Cambria, best known as the home of the Hearst Castle (which we didn’t visit) and not so well known for being the home of Nit Wit Ridge (which we did). In 1928 a local eccentric and garbage man named Arthur Beal started building a home out of found materials and didn’t stop until he was forced into a nursing home. It’s only slightly more sane than the Winchester Mystery House: There are toilet seat picture frames imbedded into walls and fences made of beer cans. It’s sort of a scrubby Watts Towers, a mosaic tucked into the side of a cliff with all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore.

Our guide, a long-haired hippie dude in overalls, showed us remnants of a regular house on the property and told us that Arthur had once lived there with a woman named Gloria, who left him and allegedly took all his money with her. That’s when he started building, with a compulsive his-and-hers motif: a bedroom stuccoed in pink, two toilets in the outhouse, pink and blue porcelain booties cemented into a wall.

There was a time when stories of people going crazy after some traumatic life event struck me as salacious urban legends. Now I believe them. There have been days when I thought I would become La Llorona herself. Arthur had building and beer. I have San Luis Obispo and Zoloft.*

Back in San Luis, I ate the best vegetarian pozole ever at Big Sky and lamented the world’s vegetarian pozole deficiency. Then we saw Bad Teacher, which is much funnier than the trailers would make it seem and refreshingly non-redemptive.

We did our traditional run at Morro Bay Monday morning and drove home playing our favorite car game: “Which of our friends can you picture [working as a prostitute, getting convicted of a white collar crime, turning out to be gay, turning out to be straight, etc.].”**

As I type this, I can hear my cat puking in the other room, so it goes without saying that I could have used another week there.

*Yeah, giving that a try. I think my prideful days of never taking anything but Tylenol came to a screeching halt when I shot myself up with egg-making hormones.

**Yes, it’s you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The org I work for co-sponsors writing workshops at places like community centers and senior homes, and we spend a lot of time talking about how literature enables self-expression, healing, etc. When you say something enough, it becomes an abstraction. But lately, while crashing a couple of workshops in the name of evaluation purposes, I’ve been floored by the power of writing-as-therapy, to the point of getting choked up by my own tragic profundity (an embarrassing, little-discussed side effect of being a writer). Yesterday at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony—where I totally want to while away my golden years sculpting and writing plays—the teaching writer passed out fortune cookies and asked us to write poems based on our fortunes. Mine was “YOU DESIRE TO DISCOVER NEW FRONTIERS”:

You begin like all pioneers,
your ears full of stories:
streets of gold
milky rivers
open-armed natives in need
of restaurants and apothecaries.

You think it’s only a matter of packing
the right iron skillet
handfuls of healing herbs
as light as your young heart.

What they do not tell you
--because there is no they,
because this is not a journey
from which people return—
is that you will abandon
that good pan
at the first river crossing,
that the river is not milk but disease,
that the disease would only be visible
under the lens
of a machine not yet invented.

At the second river crossing
you will leave your small dog,
but her whimpers will follow you
across mountains,
for there are mountains
too, and snow, and all the things
you thought you left behind,
and new things:
war whoops in the night
new kinds of lizards
different shades of sky.
All of it fascinating,
worth recording,
if you hadn’t burned
your paper for warmth.

There is no third river crossing,
just strange spiky plants
and a longing at the back of your throat
and a feeling that you have no right
to complain: You chose this
passage. You left
your dog, and if you hadn’t,
you would have eaten her by now.

There is another side,
you suppose, a world
with the ocean on the wrong side,
but ocean nonetheless.
Another unexplored land
that is not land,
that will drown you. Some nights
when you lay beneath
the wagon watching trees
turn to monsters,
you dream
of that land,
that ocean, transformed
but still salty on your tongue
or maybe that’s just the first sign
of dehydration.

Friday, June 17, 2011

defense of marriage (and other things that mess with your sanity)

Speaking of NPH, last night I saw the big screen version of the New York Philharmonic version of Company. NPH is Bobby, a guy living the swingin’ single life in the 1970s and contemplating the pros and cons of marriage as played out in the relationships of his many coupled friends. I thought I’d seen it before because I’d listened to the soundtrack a zillion times and had memories of seeing songs from it performed live.* But suddenly there was all this dialogue that was completely unfamiliar to me. It turns out that what I’d actually seen were various Sondheim revues. And Company is a great little musical that is both a snapshot of a time when divorce, pot and sexual freedom were just entering the mainstream and a totally timeless meditation on what it means to be a human who interacts with other humans.

It was a weird day. I left my purse at home and had to borrow cash at work to cover the movie, which I saw by myself because AK is in Chicago and Stephanie had acting class. So there I was wandering the city in a sort of solo, rudderless, unprepared way reminiscent of my early 20s, seeing a movie that took me back to my early 20s. I remembered how much I related, as a single girl, to Bobby’s feelings in “Marry Me a Little”—that deep and utter fear of intimacy** coupled with certainty that coupled bliss would be the answer to all my problems:

Marry me a little,
love me just enough.
Cry, but not too often,
play, but not too rough.
Keep a tender distance
so we'll both be free.
That's the way it ought to be.

Sondheim (and in this case playwright George Furth too) is a master of the anti-happily ever after. The first time I saw Into the Woods, I thought it was over after the first act because the princes had gotten their damsels and Little Red had slain the wolf. But after intermission, the damsels grew restless and a giant started stomping around squashing people. As the couples in Company sing of marriage:

Everything's different.
Nothing's changed.
Only maybe slightly rearranged….

You always are
what you always were,
which has nothing to do with,
all to do with her

Next Thursday, AK and I will have been married a year. I can safely say that I am what I always was, and, too, that I’ve been utterly transformed in the five years we’ve been together. Being in love doesn’t save you from yourself, but it does save you from not being in love.

I’ve known that for a little while. But I’m realizing that this Sondheim-ian reality check can apply to other relationships like, say, parent-and-child.

I look at moms, especially new moms, the way I looked at couples when I was single.*** I believe they have all this secret knowledge. I believe they are happier, always. I believe they are the parental equivalent of a little bit married: Their lives are full of love and playfulness but without any of the ugly stuff.

This whole miscarriage-and-subsequent-doldrums/mild psychosis business has taught me that there is no parental equivalent of a little bit married, though. The bummer is that I’ve acquired just one piece of that secret knowledge, which is that kids—even if they never quite manage to be born—will fucking rip your heart out. But for some reason, which is a blend of spirituality and masochism, it’s what we all pray for, and what Bobby wishes for in “Being Alive”:

Somebody, need me too much.
Somebody, know me too well.
Somebody, pull me up short
and put me through hell
and give me support
for being alive.
Make me alive.

Thanks, AK, for making me alive, and for sticking with me when my sketchy ovaries and anxious soul put the “worse” in “for better or worse.” Here’s to some better in year two.

*I am slowly turning into my dad, who is sort of a goldfish when it comes to culture, in that every time he circles back to a movie or a book he’s seen before, he’s like, “Look! A castle!...Look! A castle!”

**Probably not unrelated to the fact that, at the time, I was trying to date guys and didn’t really want to be intimate with anyone quite so hairy.

***This seems as good a place as any to mention that the main single girl in Company was played wonderfully by Christina Hendricks. I haven’t seen much Mad Men, so my knowledge of her was limited to fashion magazine articles about her curves. And it’s true that, in a scene where she’s wearing a slip, I marveled at how the wardrobe department managed to make it look like she wasn’t wearing a bra, because I think she’d be able to go braless about as well as I would. And I wished for my very own wardrobe department. But it is also true that she’s an amazing comedic actress who brought all the right is-he-into-me subtlety to “Barcelona” and made the character of April the flight attendant more quirky than ditzy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

but not *not* for gays either

Apparently, Broadway is not just for gays anymore. Maybe that’s why I’m out of the loop. I recognize The Book of Mormon, but I have no idea where all those nuns and sailors came from. All I know is that I love me some NPH, even (especially?) when he’s wearing a sparkly purple suit and a little neckerchief.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

the sweet myth of simplicity

I’ve always been a fan of fresh starts (or as my friend Devoya said, “Oprah is the angel on one of my shoulders. But I don’t know what is on the other”). Over the past two months, I’ve named dozens of Points At Which I’ll Feel Better: adoption info session, last doctor visit for a while, Easter, Memorial Day, whatever. Oddly enough, I have not been resurrected. The feeling of wanting to run screaming from my own body has hovered like my own personal raincloud.

Deep down knew it wouldn’t go away until I got out of town. If this were Eat, Pray, Love, I’d be rejuvenating over focaccia and cappuccinos in Italy. Instead, I had lunch at El Torito in Fresno. But the effect is wonderfully similar. As soon as I hit the 5 this morning, I could feel a weight lift from my shoulders. I’m pretty sure it will settle back in as soon as I get over the Grapevine on my way home, but if I’ve learned anything in the past months, it’s to take the good moments where I can get ‘em.

Watching the flowers on the 99’s meridian roll by in a pink blur, listening to the comedy station on my rental car’s XM radio, walking the wide empty streets, checking my email poolside at La Quinta Inn—it was all so simple and wonderful and easy to lose myself in.

As per usual, I gobbled up my hotel’s cable offerings and sneaked in a quick 19 Kids and Counting before my meeting. Today the Duggar girls were volunteering at the fire house, so they sewed their paramedic uniform pants into skirts. The oldest son’s wife talked about being ready to be blessed with a second baby. Everyone made gentle little jokes at no one’s expense. I thought about how genuinely nice it must be to have all the rules laid out for you: This is what Jesus wants you to wear. This is who Jesus wants you to marry. This is what your job will be.

I read somewhere that Michelle Duggar became a baby-making machine after having a miscarriage early in her marriage. She believed God was punishing her for using birth control.

All the things that would be expected of me if I were a fundamentalist Christian would make me miserable. In Michelle’s world, God would make me loveless and childless. Even the alleged simplicities of Fresno would reveal themselves to be stifling and/or plenty complex if I stood on Tulare Avenue long enough. No one is spared in real life. Nevertheless, I sort of get Michelle’s radical move. When life sends you a lightning bolt of a reminder that you’re not in control, a part of you wants to say, “Okay, fine, you drive.”

Friday, June 03, 2011

feminism for a lazy friday

I was going to post something about how V.S. Naipaul is the latest practitioner of the where-are-you-in-relation-to-where-I-am school of criticism, but I think Jezebel said it just fine. And Amy Poehler said it (as quoted by Tina Fey in Bossypants)—“I don’t care if you like it”—although I think she said it to Jimmy Fallon, technically. The point is 1. women write as well as men, which all non-idiots know. And 2. women aren’t always writing for men, which a surprising number of people don’t know.

It’s also probably true that when men write really good domestic novels they win prizes (like Michael Cunningham before he started writing about aliens; I love that guy), and when women do so, they get a pat on the head and a seat on the midlist.*

It’s Friday, and I’m just as interested in the pizza I plan to make tonight as in literary gender equality. But I am just sort of generally angsty this week, so I will mention some other things that bug me:
1. Christy Turlington, whose face is everywhere. Why must we party like it’s 1994, America?
2. My own head, which I can also not get away from.
3. The book I’m reading, which has a great title but unfortunately isn’t doing much to prove V.S. Naipaul wrong. But I can’t just put it down because that’s how I am. See #2.
4. The parking ticket I got for staying eight minutes after the meter ran out, but which was listed as a street sweeping violation ($10 more—which is a pair of shoes or two movies at the Highland Park 3 in my world).

Here are some things I like:
1. The balsa wood plane AK made me at Craft Night.
2. Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Swiss Dark Chocolate. I am not a chocolate snob. I’ll lick the thin coating off a Cocoa Puff if I have to. But this is the best chocolate out there.
3. Writing dates.
4. Photos of wiener dogs.
5. Poems in video form.

Since my likes outnumber my dislikes, maybe it will be a good weekend.

*I say this as someone who dreams of being a midlist writer. But I keep hearing about how publishing houses are only promoting their J.K. Rowlings, and the midlisters are going to small presses. So I guess this is like dreaming being a brontosaurus, which I also do.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

the world is never quite safe, or what i read in may

Pinko by Jen Benka: The poems in this collection are sometimes tough to figure out (not that that's the goal, of course, but it's an unavoidable impulse for a narrative addict like me). But they're not coy in the way of so many poems. They're more like bits of text that almost spread out into epic novels, then thought better of it. Only intriguing, intimate, unflinching traces remain. In the opening essay-ish piece, the narrator recounts coming across a snippet of window-frost graffiti. She expects it to indict the cops in some uncouth way, but instead it's a declaration of queer teen love. That pretty much sums up the world view of this book: Where you're expecting terror, you'll find tenderness. And the reverse can also be true, which is why the world, however beautiful, is never quite safe.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: Sarah Vowell is a geeky amateur historian who loves to plumb the depths of centuries past and pull out quirky facts. She holds them up and says, “Can you believe how hilarious this is? How outrageous?” And because she’s on NPR, we say, “Wow, yeah.” That’s probably a little too harsh—-I’m a history geek with no credentials myself, and I love it when someone does the grunt work of reading original sources and writes it up in a fun, comprehendible way. I appreciated Vowell’s unapologetically contemporary worldview—-of course we’re going to giggle and think it’s kind of awesome that traditional Hawaiians had a special hula praising their rulers’ genitals. I also appreciated her guarded fondness for the stuffy but sincere missionaries who sailed to Hawaii in the 1820s. Her sympathies are ultimately with the oppressed, but she knows oppressors are people too (especially when they endure mastectomies without anesthesia in one painfully memorable scene).

But for all its potential, this book lacks a real thesis and reads as a cobbled together history with a few anecdotes about her nephew thrown in. Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty, which examines Europe’s transition from saint-hunting religiosity to science and pseudo-science through the strange history of skull stealing, is a better example of what the historical creative nonfiction genre can do. If you’re a fellow almost-fan of Unfamiliar Fishes, I encourage you to check it out.

Children of Open Adoption and Their Families by Kathleen Silber and Patricia Martinez Dorner: Back in the day, most adoptions were shrouded in secrecy. Like other social realities, it has benefited from a coming-out process. This text is a helpful primer on why: Adopted kids who've known their birthparents from the start are less likely to feel rejected and lost. Birthparents have tangible evidence of their children's well-being. And as a potential adoptive parent, I have to take the authors' (mostly convincing) word that having an extra parent or two in my kid's life will actually make me feel more empowered. That's why I read the book, but the parts I enjoyed most were the historical background on adoption (it used to take five to ten freakin' years to adopt in the U.S.!) and a beautiful, heartbreaking exchange between an American mother and her daughter's Korean birthmother tacked on to a brief section about foreign adoption at the end.

Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother by Jana Wolff: In a culture that idealizes pregnancy, it's hard to be an adoptive mom. In a culture that increasingly idealizes adoption (see: Angelina--whom we love doubly because she's altruistic AND fertile), Jana Wolff's candor is refreshing. Although I didn't relate to her feeling that adoption was inherently a second choice for any parent (even as a kid, I wanted to adopt a kid), I imagine that someday I'll relate to her envy and resentment of her baby's birthmom; her slow-to-bloom love for this stranger's baby; her feelings of isolation from "real" moms; and her grappling with racial issues she thought she'd already grappled with. As this book illustrates, the miracle of love and family is that they can take root in even the toughest, most random of circumstances.

The Position by Meg Wolitzer: As well-written, multiple-POV family sagas go, I place this one well ahead of Julia Glass' Three Junes and a little short of Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood. The novel is bookended by the issue and decades-later reissue of a sex manual by the parents, but mostly it's a collection of snapshots--though it's more carefully crafted than it seems at times. As we see how an early knowledge about sex affects each of the four Mellow children, we see in a more universal sense the effect of any sort of knowing. It destroys innocence, sets expectations that will also be destroyed, and then you move on. The book closes with the grown children choosing to protect their parents from a particular piece of information, which I found touching and sad. This family knows better than most that innocence is never sustainable, but knowledge is only partial power.