Sunday, February 26, 2012

my new time suck, or: participating in the post-textual culture

My new time suck is not actually new, just new to me. There was a long New Yorker article about it a couple of years ago, and for all its thoroughness, the New Yorker doesn’t really catch things at the very beginning of their ascent. I think they accurately described Polyvore as “paper dolls for grownups.” At the time I thought, Wow, I should make sure to never try that out because it could be a huge time suck.

The site lets you create “sets”—fashion or design collages a la magazine spreads but without words as more than an accent or placeholder. (See where our world is headed! Aaaaah!) You can choose from the site’s vast catalog of dresses, outerwear, tops, pants, skirts, accessories, jewelry and visual embellishments, or you can upload your own stuff, but I haven’t bothered with that. Yet.

Since Friday I’ve made like a dozen of these things. I wanted to limit myself to two a day, but so far that hasn’t happened. I’ll set some boundaries…tomorrow. In the meantime, it is a really fun sort of mood board/poem-collage/visual diary, that by its nature makes whatever one might say in one’s actual diary (Dear diary, Why am I still all PTSD-y a year out, and why am I such a bitch to AK sometimes?) look much cooler. On Friday I decided to imagine what one of the characters in my circus novel might wear in particular scene. Yesterday I was feeling blue, so I made a set titled “the great depression was totally emo,” riffing on vintage dress patterns from the 1930s.

I also entered some contest to design a set featuring Converse sneakers and some semi-unattractive hoodies from Lady Foot Locker. I called it “love keeps going.” I’m not sure why.

Every time I’m playing around with it AK is like, “Are you getting Pintrested again?”

But I’m not on Pintrest (yet). I sort of like Polyvore because even though thousands of teenagers from, like, Belgium and Japan are all over it, no one I know is (p)intrested in it all. It’s just me and nine hundred pairs of shoes and none of the things I should be doing instead.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

lent: new year’s for procrastinators

Since AK has been in school, our church-going has gotten way less frequent. This became extra clear yesterday when I saw a guy walk into Starbucks and found myself thinking, What is on his forehead? An extra eyeball? Some kind of medical implant? He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d be rocking a face tattoo. Don’t stare! Don’t stare!

Then I realized it was Ash Wednesday. Today being, what, Freshly Scrubbed Thursday?, I’m a little late to the Lent game, but I’m going to play anyway. Here’s what I’m giving up.

1. Changing the subject to myself. This is an extension of my “listen and lurk” New Year’s resolution, which I’ve been plugging away at with mixed results. Did I ever tell you about the time my favorite college roommate Amber told me I had a habit of interrupting people to tell stories about myself? (I realize I just told you a story about myself, but you clicked something to get here—I’m not interrupting anything except whatever you should be doing instead of fucking around online.)

Like most insults, it stung because it was sort of true. In my mind, stories are beautiful vehicles of empathy. I’ve had amazing conversations that consisted entirely of trading stories back and forth. “X happened to me” + “Really? Let me tell you about Y!” = “We understand the shared, fragile human experience.”

But it turns out that not everyone feels that way all the time. A few weeks ago, our couples therapist more or less told me the same thing that Amber did, but in a much nicer, more therapist-y way. Apparently I need to give AK space to figure out how she feels before I jump in with an articulate and self-aware, yet utterly smothering, one-person show about How This All Makes Me Feel.

So far it’s been working pretty well. So I’m going to take it one step further for Lent: I’m going to find ways to relate to all the people in my life that don’t begin with, “That sounds like the time I…” or “What I think about that is….” I might end up being very quiet. And if I’m at a party and desperate to make small talk, you can be sure I’ll grasp the nearest Cheryl anecdote as a life preserver. But if it weren’t a tough goal, it wouldn’t be Lent-worthy, right?

2. Cereal. Sort of. In her blog about this hardcore health challenge she’s doing at her gym, Keely wrote about trying to eat eggs for breakfast instead of cereal. I am such a lifelong cereal addict that I have long refused to believe it’s not the healthiest way to start the day. Part of a complete breakfast? Add a banana and it is my complete breakfast. I’m like a smoker who says, Well, more studies are necessary before we can really conclude anything about that whole lung cancer thing.

Okay, cereal is not cigarettes. It’s not even donuts. But it’s also really carby and usually includes “a touch of honey.” At least the kind I like does.

The problem is that, in the morning, I’m sleepy and vulnerable. Cereal gets me out of bed in a way I’m not sure eggs and fruit can. I want to eat an egg-white-and-spinach omelet and read the interview with Sherman Alexie in The Believer. But what I’m able to do is eat Honey Nut Chex and read about Soleil Moon Frye’s workout secrets (spoiler alert: it’s some sit-ups and leg-lifts) in Self.

So I’m going to be realistic and say that I’ll try to cut my cereal intake down to four days a week. Let’s see, since the beginning of Lent yesterday, I’ve eaten, um, two bowls of cereal. Not small bowls either. Tomorrow: eggs, dammit! But maybe I’ll let myself read about the Best Jeans For My Body Type as a consolation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

the time between haircuts

Right now I’m reading (well, listening to) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, about a Spokane Indian kid who makes the radical decision to attend high school in a farm town outside the reservation. I’ll try not to give too much away, but there’s a scene where Arnold, the protagonist, finds out about a death in the family—the third in a string of senseless losses. His dad is due to pick him up from school, and when he doesn’t show up on time, Arnold becomes convinced he crashed his truck on the icy roads. He descends into a desperate dialogue with God, pretty much just chanting, Don’t let my daddy die.

Arnold comes from the kind of community where it is not rare to have attended 42 funerals by the time one is 14 years old. I’m 34 and I’ve been to six. That includes the funeral of AK’s coworker’s 80-year-old husband, whom I never met. Still, I get it. How loss makes you crazy. Or maybe in my case it’s more accurate to say, brings out the crazy that manages to lie dormant in the good years.

A year ago this week, I got pregnant. It still feels like a lie to say that, like who do I think I am to put a toe into the world of cute fluffy things printed with ducks? But yesterday I decided that, for the Squeakies, I’ll try to own it.

Anniversaries only have symbolic meaning, but hey, I’m a writer; I dwell in the symbolic. I wallow in it. So part of me is like, Yay, I’m a year out! Surely now I will move on! And another part of me is like, Shit, I’m a year out. Any weirdness I perform now is just my personality.

Meanwhile, my hypochondria is flaring, and I freak out if AK comes home late, and our adoption email inbox is empty, and there are like four or five more anniversaries before I’m really a year out: anniversary of the positive pregnancy test, anniversary of the test that confirmed the first test, anniversary of the bad news, anniversary of the day I thought I was hemorrhaging because apparently the D&C didn’t scrape out all the parts of my babies like it was supposed to.

I got my hair cut on Sunday. The last time I went to Rudy’s (because I am the laziest hair maintainer in the world) was on my 34th birthday, four days before we lost the Squeakies. In the time between haircuts, gobs of my hair fell out in the shower. Every day for months. The same thing happened to Jamie after she had Kohana, so it was one of the few symptoms I didn’t freak out about (too much).

Now I have little two-inch tufts of new hair. I sort of like them—green shoots after the rain and all that. Michael, a new stylist at Rudy’s, told me what healthy hair I had. It turns out that complete neglect is pretty much the best thing you can do for your hair. I wondered if he would comment on the weird two-inch shoots. He didn’t. And now that my hair is short, the old hair is the same length as the new hair, like nothing ever happened.

Friday, February 17, 2012

sometimes stopped clocks are right, and paranoid people are performance artists

Wednesday night I read in the Writers’ Row series at The Last Bookstore, an old bank converted to a big used bookstore, with shelves salvaged from a dead Borders and a wall clock that leaps forward every hour but is always wrong (well, except for twice a day, I guess? Its marginal functionality confuses me). You cannot get much more Downtown L.A. In 2012 than that.

I was a little nervous because Jean and Linda, coworker and former coworker from New York, were there. They’d been to Really Important Readings at Really Famous Places. Would L.A. represent?

Open mics are a little crazy. I probably don’t need to tell you that. But my nervousness reached a whole different level when an unbathed-but-not-exactly-homeless-looking guy took the stage with a hard black plastic case. He spoke into the microphone—something about breathing, about making the choice to breathe every day—but he kept wandering away from the mic and fiddling with the case. His eyes darted around, and he ran his hands through his dirty hair, and he sighed a lot, like he was having trouble making a big decision.

Oh my god, I thought. There’s a gun in that case and he’s debating whether to shoot us all.

Later, Jamie, Linda, and Jean all confirmed they’d been thinking the same thing. So while I am paranoid by nature, dude was also acting crazy. Bronwyn said she’d been worried he was going to take off his pants. But I wasn’t worried about that because he was wearing a tightly knotted rag in lieu of a belt, and it wasn’t the kind of thing you could undo easily. I would have had more than enough time to find the nearest exit.

He kept his pants on and he didn’t shoot us. He never opened the case. All he did was play the harmonica, quite well. Maybe it was a very convincing performance piece about the anxiety of living. Or maybe someone who felt strange and anxious about living turned out to be a decent performer.

If you don’t go to live literary events, this is what you’re missing, my friends. Also: girls in striped knee socks shouting about troll dolls, drunk guys playing air zither (that happened at a library reading event a long time ago, but I won’t forget it soon). Oh, and some really good writers.

Bronwyn will be reading with fellow activist writers Lucy Wang and Mathew Timmons Tuesday the 21st at an event called 99% Guerrilla Lit. I am 100 percent there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

confession: i read magazines because i’m an aspirational masochist

If you read my everyone’s a critic post, you can probably guess how much I loved this post on Bluebird Blvd., in which Courtenay Bluebird assumes the persona of all those magazines that profess to make us (us = especially women) feel better and usually have the opposite effect. It’s enough to make a girl want to retreat to a cabin in the woods and light a giant fireplace fire with magazines as kindling.* Except then I’d get bored and wish for something to read.

Can I make a humble addition to Bluebird’s list from my own monthly mail pile?

Hi, I’m REDBOOK. I’m a gift from your really nice sister, whose generosity you totally appreciate.

I make you feel weirdly middlebrow—and therefore snobby about feeling not good about feeling middlebrow—whenever you read me. Also, old. And then ageist about feeling not good about feeling old.

Sometimes I have refreshing, if mildly simplistic, articles about transgender issues and infertility.

But this month is my “Confessions Issue”! Juicy, no?

Well…no. Chelsea Handler dresses up as an angel on the cover, but when you flip to the inside…what’s that? A second cover, featuring Chelsea in a cheap-looking teal shift dress with devil horns! The interview is all about how, even though she’s made millions marketing herself as a boozy slut, she’s actually a hardworking businesswoman and homebody who loves her dogs. Who doesn’t love a hardworking liar? No doubt you’re feeling better about yourself already.

My health and personal finance articles are also branded as confessions. Headlines like “Confession: I haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years” are followed by shaming smackdowns about how you’ll die if you don’t exercise. Then I find a little loophole: It’s okay if you just run ten miles in a park instead of inside a gym! As if your real worry was that your rigorous exercise routine didn’t actually take place at a gym, not that it didn’t. actually. take place.

The moral of this issue, and even the confession-I’m-a-stripper-to-earn-extra-cash-for-my-family article, is that it’s okay to be quirky or even to have approximately two minor flaws, so long as you’re a good girl who never veers far from your continual forward march of self-improvement.

Did you hear me? March!!

*At first I wrote “kindle.” That tells you how far removed I am from an actual cabin in the woods, and how I feel about the Kindle. Nah, not really, but I think I’m still a year or two away from actually buying one.

Monday, February 06, 2012

the burden of depth: on factory girl and some guys i sort of dated in college

Factory Girl is one of those movies I added to our Netflix queue a million years ago and felt kind of meh about when it showed up (this is why we recently downgraded our subscription—our moods change too fast for the USPS to keep up). But I also wasn’t ready to totally give up on it, so last night we watched it as AK continued to recover from food poisoning from (probably) Friday night’s veggie pho.

The movie is a biopic of Edie Sedgwick and the time she spent in the gaze of Andy Warhol and his camera. Sienna Miller is a great Edie (I say this having almost zero familiarity with the actual Edie, so take my praise with a grain of salt)—all big eyes and deep dimples, somehow both kind and carefree. Guy Pearce’s Andy is a childlike genius whose natural curiosity makes him a star and whose jealousy brings him down. When Andy and Edie slide in and out of each other’s spotlights—showering genuine love but playing stupid games—the movie is a long, glorious, tragic music video.

But then there’s Hayden Christensen as Billy Quinn, an insufferable prettyboy Bob Dylan stand-in. It was hard to figure out what was Christensen’s fault and what was the script’s and/or director’s fault. But I got the feeling the movie wanted us to see Quinn as the deep, socially-conscious, true-love boyfriend Edie might have had, if not for her glamor-girl downfalls (of which Andy is one). But Christensen’s Quinn comes across like every guy I dated or almost dated in college: obsessed with his own angst and depth, unwilling to admit he just wants to fuck a pretty (or, in my case, average-with-nice-teeth) girl for the same reasons everyone else does, and quick to put the burden of depth on the girl.

I remember how Andy—a sophomore history major, not that Andy—would admonish me when he felt like our late-night dorm conversations got too pedestrian. And how Brian didn’t commit to liking me until I wrote him an enraged letter calling him on his philosophical bullshit. Then he decided I was worthy of his intellect. As a youngster, I did a lot of smiling and laughing nervously, and I always seemed to meet the kind of guys who were drawn to that but also disdainful of it. Apparently it was up to me to prove I wasn’t a ditz. When I inevitably lost interest in the task, they usually accused me of being a lesbian. So I guess they weren’t completely clueless (although I’m still annoyed when girls think the only thing standing between them and mothering Neil Patrick Harris’ twin gaybies is his sexual orientation).

Anyway, I’m glad those days are over. I wish Edie Sedgwick had lived long enough to laugh at them in her rear view mirror too.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

book/clubbing, bitchiness and what i read in january

Here’s a Note To Self that I have to write to myself over and over: Don’t try to do a zillion things in one day. It will make you bitchy. Yesterday I cleaned the house, including the billows of cat hair under the bed (made me miss T-Mec, in all her furry glory); went to My Life is Poetry, a reading of work by LGBT seniors (inspiring!); went to book club (debate-y!); and went dancing in WeHo (Britney-y!). Each thing was fun on its own, but I was pretty much exhausted from 4 p.m. on. When I was trying to wrap up book club so we could meet Nicole and Kimberly and friends in WeHo, I kept hushing side discussions so we could choose the book for next time. Two people kept talking, so I just stared at them until they were quiet.

“Sorry, I went all teacher on you,” I laughed.

“Yeah, I can totally tell you’re a teacher!” said Sunshine, a new member.

“I’m not a teacher,” I snapped.

Anyway, here’s what I read in January:

Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement: An odd and great little book that makes me want to write in short, simple sentences. It's part memoir--with apparent transcriptions from Suzanne, Basquiat's longtime girlfriend, that grow in length and frequency as she grows as a character--and part prose poetry. The story of Suzanne and Jean-Michel's love affair is one we've seen before: troubled genius meets troubled, ambivalent muse. It's nice to hear from the latter in her own voice (and that of her friend, author Jennifer Clement, who appears as a character only late in the book), in such lovely, nonjudgmental prose. Suzanne, like Jean-Michel, knows all the intricacies and vulnerabilities of her own skeleton. In this way, the book is an X-ray: just a glimpse, but one that looks deep.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: The stories of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer at age thirty, and the cells from her tumor—-which were kept alive and continue to be used in countless medical studies—-intertwine like DNA. Rebecca Skloot is a hell of a storyteller and, if you’re a hypochondriac like me, this book is as compelling as a horror novel. The medical establishment treated patients, especially poor people of color, abominably—-and my use of the past tense is probably unwarranted, despite some significant changes in policy since Henrietta’s death in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, Skloot acknowledges that much of the research was done in good faith, and it’s hard to argue with the results (AIDS medication, the HPV vaccine, etc.). So I get tangled in a mental time machine: X shouldn’t have happened, but if it hadn’t, Y would never have been born, so does that mean X was a good thing? Sort of?

But I think Henrietta’s daughter Deborah left the strongest impression on me, and clearly on Skloot too. Like her mother, Deborah is poor and uneducated, and she bears the psychological scars of a difficult life. Her paranoia that someone might kill her to use her body in medical tests is both crazy, completely understandable and, for me, relatable—-there but for some therapy and a few undergrad science classes go I. But she takes it upon herself to learn about her mother and her sister, who died in a “Hospital for the Negro Insane” (every bit as horrible as it sounds), and to find a sliver of peace. I’ll consider both Deborah and Skloot heroes for a long time.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: This is one of those epics that's about everything (art, love, food, the Red Scare, cultural relations between the U.S. and Mexico, etc.), so it's hard to know where to start. Most of all, I think, it's about the way stories can both betray us and save us, and how personal stories become history. Harrison, the main character, is a mild-mannered sometime cook and typist for Frida Kahlo and Lev Trotsky. Against the odds, he becomes a celebrated author in the U.S. in the 1940s, only to have his life and his love for America shattered by the Communist witch hunts of the late '40s and '50s.

Despite being 1) a book about a writer, 2) a semi-epistolary novel and 3) one of those books in which an ordinary person is always colliding with famous people--all pet peeves of mine--I loved it. Mostly of the beautiful language and because Barbara Kingsolver puts in the legwork. She lays out the details of Harrison's early life so meticulously that when the authorities twist them around, we're as baffled and outraged as he is. I particularly liked Kingsolver's characterization of Frida as a funny, blunt, outraged woman--it reminded me that her work goes much deeper than something that looks cool and colorful on a tote bag. I also liked Violet Brown in the Nick Carraway position (that is, if the Great Gatsby was so humble he rarely used the word "I"). She's a sort of radical librarian ahead of her time.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: I feel like I was supposed to have read this when I was 19 and angry, but I think I relate more to Esther's craziness now--the feeling that what seems so simple for others is utterly confusing and overwhelming (especially frustrating for any erstwhile overachiever). The storytelling is a little heavy-handed at times, but I loved the language. I came away inspired to write, and grateful to live in the days of SSRIs and non-suicide options for lesbians.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

unfitness, aerial and otherwise

It turns out that Wednesday night is a much more popular time to take Aerial Fitness than Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Saturday class = a half-dozen students and lots of individual attention from Rick and Rob. Rick is built like a gymnast and likes to say things like, “Open your legs, honey. If I had a nickel for every time I said that to a girl, I’d have a nickel.” Rob has a striped mohawk and likes to fall on the ground and pantomime swordfights.

Wednesday night = three classes going on simultaneously, a dozen Aerial Fitness students who all just happen to be at least six years younger and 15 pounds hotter than me, and instructions from the distracted teacher such as, “Foot lock—go!” Huh?

If the Saturday classes reminded me of my gymnastics years in a good way, Wednesday’s reminded me of them in a…less good way. There was always one rotation I kind of sucked at (then vault, now silks). There was always one teacher who was a little mean (I think I’ve blocked out my mean gymnastics teachers; but the mean-ish circus teacher was just grouchy, I think, because she had a knee injury from stilts).

Lately I’ve felt like a teenager in so many ways. I’m learning new things, which is good, but I also feel like I’m constantly getting it wrong, and every little thing sends me flying off the handle, which is…less good. When I was in my twenties, people always seemed to be talking about how, in your thirties, you’d have it all figured out. You’d just be so comfortable in your skin. There was a subtle implication that you would also own a home, have a fulfilling career, be in love with someone who always understood you and possibly have a really cute baby or two. It’s the myth of upward mobility in all senses of the phrase; it’s what they sell to middle-class twenty-somethings.

When I was in high school, people talked about how, in college, there was no such thing as the popular crowd. In college, you’d find your niche and be so comfortable in your own skin. Surely it was just a matter of writing for the school newspaper, right? That’s the myth they sell to nerdy teenagers.

(I know I should question the myths, and the class implications, and my own conflation of accomplishment and self-worth. I’ll add it to my Should List and get to it right after I wash the outside of the house [that I do not own].)

Eventually, I loved college. But first there was a year of secretly gorging myself on my roommate’s potato chips, dating my other roommate’s ex and incurring her wrath, and writing long sad letters to my parents (who lived five miles away). I did join the newspaper staff, but when I went to the Bruin’s end-of-the-year party, the only girl I really knew there vomited all over the table and passed out immediately. The only words spoken to me by the hilarious editor I really admired were: “So, like, what do you do for fun?” There was genuine bafflement in his voice, and I wondered too. Fun? I hadn’t really had any the whole year.

All I wanted to do at the end of the day yesterday was be good at something. I wanted to sneak into a beginning writing class and pretend to be a prodigy, not someone who’s been working her ass off for at least a dozen years. I wanted to call my sister in hopes that she’d had a bad day, so I could comfort her and she could tell me what a good sister I was. In the car on the way home from Aerial Fitness, I actually started singing the theme song from Cheers to myself, and I might have cried a little bit. It doesn’t get much classier than that.

What teenagers have to get them through the transition times is good skin (even the ones with terrible acne have beautiful skin; this is something you only notice when you turn thirty). What I have, I guess, is…maturity? And faith in the process of growth…? I guess? But I swear to god, if AK had a secret stash of potato chips, I would have eaten them all last night.