Monday, August 29, 2011

day = made

From: Pedro
To: Cheryl


9:36 a.m.

...TO HAVE YOUR DAY MADE! Pop Culture Icons as My Little Pony Dolls

From: Cheryl
To: Pedro


1:49 p.m.

OMG. This is getting blogged about. I recognize Apple Jack beneath that Frida monobrow, which is appropriate, because I always suspected Apple Jack was a lesbian.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

poetry and palm springs

On Friday Jamie and I saw this amazing documentary called Poetry of Resilience, which profiles a handful of writers who’ve escaped horrific political situations (the Hiroshima bombing, the crackdown after the Iranian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China, and holocausts European and Rwandan). All are scarred in ways that cannot be healed—a part of each of them has died, says poet Li-Young Lee. But all write heart-stopping poetry that gets at the essence of things in a way that’s undeniably alive.

Watching it (and the other films that were shown as part of Laemmle’s DocuWeeks shorts package; there are only a couple of days left to catch it!), I felt ready to stop being so all-about-me and start engaging with the world again. Maybe even in a helpful way. I recently heard about PEN’s prison mentoring program, and I’m thinking that might be a good place to start. When you’re corresponding via snail mail, you don’t have to worry that you’ll be hanging out in your car on Normandie for an hour because your mentee got arrested and couldn’t call to cancel. Your mentee will already have been arrested.

But before signing up to save the world, I enjoyed a big all-about-me binge. Cathy and I took a short but long-discussed sister trip to Palm Springs, where we laid by the pool, laid around the spa, ate some Thai food and watched Hoarding in our hotel room while practicing yoga moves (hers were fancy, mine less so). We also hit the Cabazon outlets, which I loved a little too much. I may be writing more about that soon, since I’ll be guest-blogging for the Ironing Board Collective in September and October. I am so excited. I am now off to give myself a crash course in fashionista-ism.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

commuting has never been cuter

Don't ask me which Google black hole led to this discovery (my therapist and I are just glad I'm not Googling diseases today), but did you know that Sanrio's posse of characters includes a bullet train named Shinkansen? Yep, right there alongside the bunnies and bats and frogs and, um, marshmallow-lemur-puppies. This is why Japan will solve the whole climate change thing decades before we do. I for one will happily submit to my adorable new overlords.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

our great countrys

Found, taped inside an empty L.A. Weekly newspaper box in Westwood:

Monday, August 15, 2011

in the future, cats will talk

I have seen the future. Or so says the tiny button that Miranda July’s people handed out at Saturday’s showing of The Future. I’m one of the many people who sort of want to hate Miranda July—because does anyone really need to be a filmmaker and a fiction writer and a performance artist and a visual artist? Also, there’s the quirk factor, which one can only take in small doses.

But the truth is, some people do need to be all those things. There are specialists and there are generalists, and Miranda July is lucky enough to be the latter without sucking at any of her métiers (well, actually I’ve never seen her performance and visual art. Let’s pretend they suck). As for the quirk—which takes the form of a magical T-shirt and a talking cat in The Future—it’s not something I’m in the mood for every minute, but she never cheats by trying to make it stand in for depth.

The Future is about a couple in their mid-thirties who’ve rescued a cat named Paw-Paw. But Paw-Paw (who subsequently broke my heart) has an injured…paw, and has to stay at the shelter for an extra month. Overwhelmed by the impending responsibility, Sophie and Jason decide they have thirty days to get their shit together: find their true passions, make a difference, live as if life is not just a rehearsal. So Jason quits his IT job and starts going door to door selling trees, except he ends up buying random stuff from the Pennysaver instead. Sophie quits her job teaching dance and sets out to choreograph and upload “30 Dances in 30 Days” to YouTube. Except she’s totally paralyzed and ends up making her own random and even destructive connections.

Meanwhile, Paw-Paw waits for his people to take him home.

The particulars of Sophie and Jason make them not quite real, but if you substitute “write a novel” for “selling trees,” and “have a kid” for “adopt a cat,” and “two or, sigh, maybe more years” for “thirty days,” suddenly it’s not so absurd. Or maybe it is, but it’s an absurdity that, ahem, I relate to.

It’s a movie about the paradox of waiting. We as humans and felines can’t wait for the future, and so we miss out on the present, which is yesterday’s future. We snuff it out with worry and paralysis. And because anxiety about the future clouds the present, it makes us dislike the present and pine for (and worry about) the future even more.

Other movies and books have more or less said this, but what I like about The Future is that it also acknowledges that hope is an integral part of waiting and therefore not so bad. As Paw-Paw says (I’m paraphrasing), “I’d be happy to wait forever if I always knew they were coming tomorrow.” A certainty that the future has not yet begun is an unconscious way of knowing that time is endless—which is what enables us to enjoy the present. Or so went my thinking when, as a teenager and young adult, I consumed massive quantities of junk food every night. I would have hated the idea that my life was junk food and TV, but I was confident that my real life—the one in which I did my homework right after school and ate carrots and had a busy social calendar—would start tomorrow. It was a lie I had to tell myself so it could eventually (sort of) come true.

I’m kind of perennially burnt out on Q&A’s, but Miranda July won me over. She didn’t play one of those “Oh it just came to me in a dream/I’m so kooky and charmed” artists. She owned up to her own intentionality. The way she talked about her process made me realize that her approach is, I think, to follow the whimsical thoughts we all have to their illogical conclusions. We all read the Pennysaver to procrastinate and wonder, Who places these ads? But then we tell ourselves to go do the dishes. Miranda July interviews the ad-placers and puts them in her movie.

So ultimately, like a lot of artists I love, she is unapologetically herself. Which makes me want to be more like her, which makes me inherently unlike her.

Friday, August 12, 2011

a post about death, or: happy friday, everyone

I feel like I’m slowly emerging from my psycho funk (I’m pretty sure that’s the official DSM term for it) only to discover the world outside my fire-damaged brain is also on fire. Republicans are trying their hardest to make Obama cry. They’re taking things away from people who barely had anything to start with and convincing some of those people (I’m talking to you, Joe and Jane Tea Party) that taxes—on their nonexistent incomes—have been keeping them down. That, and the queers, feminists and immigrants, of course. America is a few years away from being a second world country. England, despite its free education and socialized health care, is still full of Angry Young Men.

T-Mec is dying. It took longer than anyone predicted, another notch in the mystery that is medical science. She still has good days. She still likes to eat and purr and insinuate herself into the nearest lap. But her leg is swollen, her lumps are big and oozy and she often looks tired and glassy-eyed. It’s not time yet, but it will be soon.

Rachel, AK’s good friend and my more recent but very much admired friend, is dying. She was diagnosed with stomach cancer just days after we lost the Squeakies, and it’s been a long-short four months. It’s not time yet, but it will be in days. Her husband Jeff’s updates (which have only recently supplanted Rachel’s own) are heartbreaking. The kind of stuff that makes you cry at your desk, feel the bright terrible clarity of love and loss, feel more awake and connected than you did when you sat down, then realize the price of that little zap of connectedness.

My aunt is sick; probably something she’ll bounce back from very soon, but it’s taken frustrating twists and turns, and the unknown-ness hovers like a raincloud.

It’s hard to come back to the world of carrying about others when there are so many reminders that they could be whisked away from you. Or you could be whisked away from them. One image that has comforted me a little bit in the past few months is that of my mom, in Heaven—total fluffy cloud land, with unlimited Oreos and lots of good books—holding one Squeaky in each hand. Two little balls of light, the grandkids she never knew but knows now, the kids I’ll never know.

Rachel had a miscarriage before her oldest daughter was born, and it occurred to me today that she’ll know that baby now. That’s something, right? And of course I don’t know what the afterlife is. It’s probably something much more amorphous than my fluffy cloud land with its anthropomorphic spirits. But like I’ve said before, the picturing it and the wanting it is the thing itself. Love. God. Whatev.

And T-Mec, whose name was Angel when B and I first adopted her (but who’s a little too fond of swatting OC and ripping armchairs to shreds to earn that title on Earth), will make some introductions up there. I have a lot of people (including cat-people) on the other side now. Someday I hope it makes me less afraid of going there.

Monday, August 08, 2011

climate change

My cousin Maria, keeper of Taylor family memorabilia, posted this letter on Facebook; I hope she doesn’t mind my stealing it. Our grandmother—Mommer, as we called her—wrote it to our grandfather about a year before they got married. As a 23-year-old career gal (animating Oswald the Rabbit and, later, Woody Woodpecker for Universal Pictures), she was bucking the norm for her generation.

My sister is carrying on Mommer’s (and our mom’s) artistic legacy. She just painted a mural of children’s book characters on the wall of her friend Jenny’s son’s bedroom. See photo. Jenny’s kids insisted that she wear the pirate hat. Can you blame them?

I apparently inherited Mommer’s love of L.A., slightly florid prose and stealing office stationery.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

no more running away from the circus

Since returning from the cruise, I’ve been meaning to start working on my circus novel again. I no longer have the “but first I need to do some research” excuse, or the “but I have debilitating anxiety*” excuse, or the “but I’m working on this art project” excuse, or the “but I’m working on this short story” excuse. I don’t even have the “but at least I went to the gym” excuse.

Last night I planned to go to the gym, but AK—who’d also been planning to work out—had a really long day, so I convinced myself that she needed me to crash out in solidarity with her. And to pick up pan dulce on the way home. And to watch TV while eating roughly half a bag of the sweet potato tortilla chips that Trader Joe’s was pushing earlier this week. AK is grossed out by Weird Cheryl Food like sweet potato tortilla chips and chile mango popsicles and mochi everything, so I’m not sure how this particular gesture showed solidarity, but it’s all about creating a mood of relaxation, right?

Today I’m back on various wagons. The not-eating-chips-like-tomorrow-is-the-apocalypse wagon and the writing wagon, muse willing. This morning I went to Starbucks and it felt like a homecoming. I got a latte and a multigrain bagel and opened Michael Cunningham’s new novel. So far it doesn’t seem as daring and wonderfully weird as Specimen Days—it’s about a middle-aged art couple with ennui, a plot that would send me running if it were handled by almost anyone other than Michael Cunningham. He could write the phonebook and make it inspiring and clairvoyant.

(Actually, this isn’t totally true. Despite his linguistic genius, he has a tendency to give his characters boring names.)

But reading Michael Cunningham is like drinking a double espresso. A great fast track to creativity. Who knows how long it will last—like the angsty characters in By Nightfall, I know how fragile any sense of wellbeing is—but I’ll take it while I can.

*Still there, just not so noisy. Thank you, Zoloft.

what i read in july

Last month felt like a big reading comeback. Books are great! (Even though I have resumed neither the sound nor the fury.)

Stealing Angel by Terry Wolverton: Even most indie bookstores don't have a shelf for "spiritual thrillers," but if they did, Wolverton's newest novel would no doubt be facing forward with one of those "staff recommends" cards beneath it (at least if I was on staff). I devoured this book--about a woman who kidnaps the daughter she's raised with her ex, the girl's bio mom, to protect her from abuse--in two and a half days. As Maggie and Angel travel through Mexico, Maggie struggles to square her actions with her spiritual practice, something Eastern and yoga-like that the locals find cultish. The question seems to be: How do you maintain agency in your life without being a control freak? It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and even though I'm still not sure about some of the novel's apparent conclusions (for example, that it's better to be calm than emotive), I was moved and riveted by Maggie's journey.

The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan: This is a novel about a 29-year-old, single, middle-class woman trying to navigate romance, career and creativity in the big city. But while that might be a formula for chick lit, with all its derogatory associations, Sheehan's novel has a subtle Aimee Bender-esque undercurrent of surreality. There's the protagonist's mysterious blind coworker, snippets of newspaper articles about magical bees and other oddities, and just a general sense that this world is adjacent to our own but *not* our own. Sheehan also has a flair for small, poetically human moments which make a good case for 29-year-old, single, middle-class women having more than visions of wedding dresses dancing in their heads.

City of Thieves by David Benioff: Ten out of ten people in my book club liked this novel: Structurally it's an action movie, right down to improbable scenes of our scrappy hero wrestling a gun from Nazi hands. But the scrappy hero himself, a young Russian Jew named Lev, acknowledges this, and Benioff's thoughtful, literary writing never glorifies war. Torture, cannibalism and acts of cowardice are all presented matter-of-factly, and Lev and his friends get through it because they have no other choice. Although Vika, Lev's girl-soldier love interest, says that winning for Mother Russia is the only thing that matters, Lev points out that they are Russia and therefore worth saving. An individualistic and American worldview, but also a tender and life-affirming one. I kept thinking about the serious post-traumatic stress all of these characters must have experienced later in life. Sometimes I think anyone who lives through a war and doesn't spend the rest of his life screaming on a street corner is a hero. And maybe those who do are too.

Limitations by Scott Turow: Scott Turow always gets billed as one of those "literary" genre writers, which somehow seems insulting to everyone involved, as if plotting and pretty writing are mutually exclusive skills, as if readers shouldn't hunger for both. Anyway, yes, this is a legal procedural about a judge trying a rape case and avoiding a threatening stalker. It's also a character study of a middle-aged man reflecting on his privileges and past misdeeds. It's fairly effective as both, painting the legal system and humans themselves as the limited entities the title implies. But (perhaps a mark against hybridity?) the book was neither a total page turner nor an intricate examination of humanity. Eventually the stalker spills his (or her) guts in traditional TV-villain style, and I found myself simultaneously thinking that I wanted to know more about this character and also that (s)he was unveiled too quickly.

Monday, August 01, 2011

8/1/11: grand finale

Highlights from last night’s dance show, Shout!:

  • Some of the dancers are Broadway/Laker Girl/So You Think You Can Dance-finalist good. Some are more on the level of the high school kids I took jazz classes from in eighth grade. But I idolized those kids, so saying you dance like Stella Choe is not an insult.

  • They opened with an oldies medley: “Born to be Wild,” “Yakety Yak,” “Rock ‘N Roll is Here to Stay.” But again the show took a Red State turn, with cowboy hats and a Jesus-praising gospel number with purple choir robes covering the swimsuits from the Beach Blanket Bingo number.

  • There were a couple of songs from Hair—I liked seeing a nod to actual musical theater. Were they taking us through the decades? From poodle skirts to Mad Men-style beachwear to psychedelic? With detours through early ‘90s country, calypso and yet another America tribute?

  • Final note: The Macarena is alive and well and living on the Carnival Paradise.

7/31/11 (continued): flinging myself various places

After lunch I took a “’70s dance class” because I had a crème caramel* to burn off and because I thought it might be the kind of thing Ginger would do during the day. Teach the class, that is. It consisted, as I suspected, of some grapevining and John Travolta finger-in-the-air action.

When I was younger, I would have been so absurdly envious of the cruise ship dancers, the wise and talented townies. I’m still envious of their talent and the summer camp vibe that must permeate the halls of the crew quarters, but I can see why this is a young person’s gig: You have to be completely nomadic and able to endure orange formica for months at a time.

I also spent some time by the pool (with my blue Carnival towel covering me like a blanket because it was still pretty damn cold) reading Terry Wolverton’s new book, Stealing Angel. I think it’s hard to write about religion in a way that’s sincere rather than cynical, and I respect her for taking on the challenge. I’m still puzzling through the…teachings? of the novel on both a literary and personal level. But I will say that I tore through the book in roughly two days and it got met thinking a lot about control vs. agency.

Trying to have the former gets you in trouble—turns you into this bossy, blindered person who misses out on a lot of opportunities. Then something in your life—say, a miscarriage—happens that rips away your delusion that you were steering this ship (to use a nautical metaphor). And you feel helpless and awful and like you should have gripped that wheel harder. Or like you shouldn’t have even tried: You should have just flung yourself in the ocean right from the start.

Then you realize you are steering the ship, but that the ocean is bigger and stronger than you by a zillion. But you have to keep steering even with this knowledge. Not against the current, but through it. Even though a storm might totally swallow you up anyway. And that is something I am not yet remotely good at.

*While ship food is better than most all-you-can-eat fare, Carnival has Americanized the menu descriptions almost beyond recognition. “Crème caramel” is flan. “Cottage cheese” is paneer. “Indian bread” is naan.

7/31/11: america (and mexico), i love you

I’m writing this from the ship library because 1) I’m a nerd and 2) it’s effing raining! I packed a bunch of shorts and sundresses. Wishful thinking, I guess.

Yesterday was our big Ensenada day. It did not feel so big—maybe because I’ve been before, maybe because I’m so distant from my writing these days. I kept waiting for that tickle of inspiration—for the words to start arranging themselves like dominoes in my head as I saw things I wanted to describe. And eventually it started—just a tiny bit at the end of the day when I thought, Pelicans: graceful and awkward at the same time. The rust is just beginning to fall off the gears.

There was a lot more security getting on and off the boat than I remember from last time. They checked our room keys against our photos as we went out. There were armed guards, two metal detectors and a bag search on the way back. Terrorism or drug stuff? Both?

The city smelled like ocean. It felt nice to have some elbow room. The air was balmy, which is my favorite kind of air. My ears adjusted themselves to Spanish.

A guy on one of the little boats in the harbor called out to the tourists.

“He said something about ‘five.’ That’s all I know,” said Stephen, who didn’t take Spanish in high school.

“He said, ‘Only five pesos per person,’” I said, feeling proud of myself. “That seems like a good deal.”

“For what?”

I did not know.

Mostly we walked. My friends were happy to be enlisted as my research team. “How do you say, ‘If there were a circus in town, where would it be?’” I asked Pedro. It seemed to involve an awful lot of subjunctive clauses.

“Well, first, I wouldn’t open with that.” Pedro is fluent in both Spanish and social interactions. An hour later, he was chatting with a shopkeeper: “Cuando el circo viene, donde está?”

About a quarter mile from the naval base, we learned, but I found an empty lot I liked better, just east of the main drag, surrounded by a low brick wall with an anti-graffiti message that had been tagged over.

The main drag: a fish market with bloody marlin steaks and wheelbarrows full of arm-length silver-gray fish; stands selling churros rellenos, hot and cinnamony; stands selling Dora the Explorer wrestling masks, made-in-Ensenada souvenirs with a distinctly made-in-China look, silver jewelry, “silver” jewelry, luggage, shoes and Mexican jumping beans in little plastic boxes.

We had mid-morning drinks at a bar with an outdoor patio and a waiter who wanted to add tequila to everything. We ate chips shiny from the deep fryer with guacamole and pico de gallo. The woman at the table next to us ate with a well-behaved Chihuahua in her lap. Every five minutes, people tried to sell us bracelets embroidered with our names or “I’m on a boat, bitch.” A trio of skinny buff boys in flannel shirts did some amazing double-jointed breakdancing that topped the not-shabby duo from the previous night’s Welcome Aboard! show.

Back on the ship, we attempted to lounge by one of the lesser populated pools, not the big fratty one on the Lido deck, which a guy in the elevator dubbed the Guido deck. Later, I dragged everyone to the generically named Showtime for more research. But this time it was awesome.

There was a western theme. There were glittery chaps and whorehouse dresses and Dolly-esque hair extensions and many costume changes. At the end, a couple dressed all in white glitter sang a romantic rendition of “Stand by Me.” Then the cloud-like curtain behind them lifted to reveal dancers in red, white and blue against a stylized American flag backdrop that looked a bit like the Confederate flag, thanks to some unfortunately placed diagonal stripes.

“Stand by Me” segued into “God Bless the USA.” There was saluting, and a song I didn’t recognize, but whose lyrics quickly got stuck in my head: “America! America! I love you!” I can’t wait for tonight’s show.

7/29/11: take me down to paradise city, where the walls are orange and the drinks are pretty

I’m writing this from our orange formica stateroom on the Riviera deck of the Carnival Paradise. There’s a little cubby hole with two round windows, so I guess we got upgraded to an “ocean view” room. Maybe the ship isn’t full. Rumors of violence in Northern Mexico have an upside, I guess.

When Stephanie and I took this same cruise, more or less, in like 2004, we thought our room steward folded our towel into an animal shape each morning because she’d decided we were extra special. We were so naïve. Today Pedro and Stephen noticed that from the front, our towel seal looks like a vagina. AK named it VagiSeal.

When we boarded she looked around and said, “This looks like the Titanic, but much, much tackier.”

“And with more lifeboats,” I added hopefully.

I made everyone sit through the Welcome Aboard! show because did I mention this is research? (Ginger and Amalia work on a cruise ship when the circus goes belly-up.) There were some amazing break dancers, but mostly there was the screechy cruise director who cackled at his own jokes, and a group of vaguely theatrical dudes in red jackets, known as the Fun Patrol.

At dinner we ate with a crew of recent high school graduates, all blond, beautiful and polite. Did your high school have a handful of popular kids who made being Mormon seem awesome? This was them. Also at our table: a mother-daughter pair who waxed nostalgic for the days of the onboard VIP steakhouse, and Kurt and Hector, an outgoing middle-aged couple from San Diego.

When we went to the “LGBT Meet Friends of Dorothy” “event” in the America Bar, Kurt and Hector were the only ones there, leaning against the red, white and blue walls (with bas-relief murals of the Grand Canyon and other landmarks). We hung out with them until we were outnumbered by straight people, including a lady pirate whose schtick was to put a plastic sword against people’s throats during dinner, take a picture and charge them for it. I mean, I guess I don’t know for sure that she was straight.

my next novel will be about a professional chocolate taster

In April, just days after finding out I was pregnant with twins, I got a letter notifying me I’d received a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to work on my circus novel and do some research in Ensenada. Despite putting a lot of effort into the application, I’d long ago deemed myself The Kind of Writer Who Just Doesn’t Get Grants, so this seemed to be too good to be true. Good news on top of good news. We all know how the first piece of good news ended, with a D&C and an anxiety disorder. But I’m happy to say that at least things are going well with the grant so far. Two words: research cruise.* The posts above are from my travel journal.

*Because I’m a hipster snob, this is the part where I assert that normally I’d never go on a cruise: They’re tacky and pre-planned and don’t let you think for yourself. But more than one friend had cautioned us about driving through Northern Mexico. One of those friends was a woman who was disappointed that, when she’d visited Egypt, she’d missed the revolution by a couple of weeks. So we decided to boat it. And, secretly, pre-planned/no-thinking was exactly what I was in the mood for.