Thursday, March 29, 2012

taxes and other signs of possible maturity

Jamie and I spent the morning at a nonprofit training seminar, the highlight of which was running into my old Daily Bruin editor, Edina. When I think back to my Bruin years, I picture myself and my fellow A&E section staffers running around like vulgar little monkeys, doing interpretive dance in our cubicle, immortalizing our own hilarity on our Quote Wall and not returning calls from hardworking arts publicists, because we believed publicists were the devil incarnate, and because we were lazy. Edina was a grownup amidst the chaos, laughing good naturedly at our absurdity, then going about the business of getting the fucking paper out.

So when I say she seemed exactly the same 14 (oh my god) years later, it’s a compliment. She was a very mature 20-year-old. Me, not so much. I felt like I needed to be on really good behavior today. I’m proud to say I didn’t pick all my black nail polish off and leave the chips in a little pile on the table or leave the meeting to go buy myself a Panda Bowl even once.

The other highlight was dim sum with Jamie across the street afterward. A while ago, I remember a friend saying to me, “Dim sum is one of those perpetually overrated things. People rave about it, but it’s just food.” It’s probably good that I don’t remember who said it because we’d need to have a talk about how they are wrong. Shrimp dumplings are tiny rice-wrapped packages of genius.

Then I came home and did some work and paid my taxes. As all you freelancers out there know, 1099’s, well, they perform the financial equivalent of an act commonly featured in prison movies.

Not really, I guess—I know it all amounts to the same thing, but when taxes are taken out on the front end, it’s just so much more pleasant than taking it in the back end. (Okay, enough with the weird anal sex metaphors. I’m sounding like some homophobic dude with an “exit only” tattoo on his lower back. Anal sex can be a very loving act! [And now, thanks to this little diversion, I may get some new visitors to my blog courtesy of certain Google searches.])

Anyway, I just hope the government builds some really good roads with my money. That is all.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

american idiot is rent lite and i kind of love it anyway

For Valentine’s Day, AK got me tickets to American Idiot (the musical), which combines two things I like very much: Green Day’s American Idiot (the album) and musicals. When we went to Saturday’s matinee, I discovered that it also includes a lot of another thing I love: Rent. A lot. From the general punk aesthetic (understandably) to the choreography to the spare sets adorned with scaffolding and a shopping cart to opening each scene with a date stamp to the curly-haired Puerto Rican-ish love interest who wears short skirts, fingerless gloves and gets addicted to heroin and in one scene angrily throws it across the room. A bit derivative, right? (See photos below for further evidence. American Idiot followed by Rent.)

So watching it was a little weird. As various disaffected youth writhed about on stage, I felt sort of like, What’re you so mad about, honey? I wondered if this was what it would be like to see Rent for the first time at age almost-35. I even had one of those awful old-people thoughts: In my day [or Rent’s day, which actually took place about ten years before my day], they had AIDS to be angry about. You guys are bored and hanging out in a 7-Eleven parking lot.

Then one of the main characters got shipped off to Iraq and I was like, Oh. Right.

The characters are archetypal and the story is impressionistic. Or underdeveloped, depending how you look at it. Three suburban high school friends who spend their days smoking weed and forgetting to shower go their separate ways—to war, teen parenthood and drugs-and-rock-and-roll in the big city. All these options kind of suck because life kind of sucks, but it’s life nonetheless, so they’ll keep going and keep being friends. That’s it. But that’s really all there is to life when you think about it. And so I was moved and cried and writhed right along with those loveable youngsters.

AK and I decided to make a vacation out of our weekend, because we really needed one and we didn’t have the time or energy to drive anywhere. So we checked into a hotel downtown and spent the rest of the weekend eating great food (shrimp and grits! Big Man Bakes cupcakes!) and lounging like you can only do in a hotel where there’s no internet and lots of cable.

Friday, March 23, 2012

retreat to lancaster

It was one of those weeks. Yeah, AGAIN. But I had the day off today, and I had a gently used laptop with my former mentee Daniela’s name on it. She mentioned that she was in the market for one, and my amazing friend Craig donated his. So I drove out to Lancaster to deliver it. Not a drive I was looking forward to, but the trip plus Daniela worked their magic.

There have been times when I’ve wondered if I find hanging out with Daniela healing because her problems have often been bigger than mine. I’m not at all comfortable with this possibility, but that might be a piece of it. Mostly, though, it’s about who Daniela is: this hilarious kid who’s faced down her demons at times, chased after them at others, but never given up—and who, now, is not really a kid at all.

In the past six months, she’s become a mother, gotten her papers, gotten a grownup job with benefits and everything, and become the primary breadwinner in her household of six. That’s a hell of a lot for a 19-year-old to take on, and whereas I used to be like, Daniela, don’t drop out of school! (she didn’t), now my concerns are more like, Daniela, make sure you find time to have a little fun (she does).

She got paid today, so our Starbucks visit was her treat. I was like, My baby is all grown up! She would have paid for my gas too if I let her. I think this must be what it feels like—or, well, a lite version of it—to see your kid through the tumultuous teenage years only to marvel at how she emerges on the other side of it, mature and brilliant and as funny as ever.

I’m not saying Daniela’s problems are over. Maybe she’ll hit 35 and wonder if everything she believed was completely wrong (not that I’m projecting or anything). But she’s a fully formed person.

I told her today, “You know, when I found out you were pregnant, I wasn’t sure it was the best idea. I mean, I knew it was your choice and I respected that, but I was really worried for you. But you were right—you knew what was best for you all along.”

I drove her back to her house, which was so far from Starbucks that there was an actual tumbleweed in the yard. There were chickens across the street and small craggy mountains on the horizon. The sun was setting and the Joshua trees were black against the orange sky. Daniela says it’s lonely out there, but it keeps her out of trouble. I knew what she meant. Things melted away, the way that they do.

Monday, March 19, 2012

highland park: a great place to get your guerrilla reading on, or lip synch to a medley of songs from grease

Here’s what happened after my plane touched down Friday night: I came home bleary and self-pitying and woke AK up to get some sympathy. She had a class early the next day and wasn’t feeling very sympathetic. We grouched at each other, and no one but the cats got a good night’s sleep. Then we proceeded to have a very lovely weekend.

Saturday night we celebrated her mom’s birthday with a leprechaun cake (you will never meet a Mexican who loves St. Patty’s Day more than Bea Ybarra). Then we went to a drag show* at Mr. T’s Bowl. For you non-Highland Parkers out there, Mr. T’s is a former bowling alley that, according to the sign, has been around since 1966. It’s still a certifiable dive in a time and place where they’re harder and harder to come by. There are notes to the staff written in Sharpie on the plastic switchplates. There’s a fish tank behind the bar that doesn’t look clean or up to code. There are frayed wires sticking out of the wall that are all fun and games until someone has to call the fire department.

Saturday night there were communal plastic bowls of Tostitos on the bar. AK and I found them inexplicably hilarious and totally sketchy, although our friends tossed them back like they would at a house party. Mr. T’s is pretty much is a house party, in a house no one ever cleans. It has carpet. A bar should never have carpet.

Someone in the parking lot had puked on his car and was running around without pants. Our new friend Jessin relayed this information to us: “The backseat was full of medical marijuana packages too. I told him he needed to get it together before the cops showed up.”

When we left, the cops were there. “Jessin was a prophet!” AK said. “I don’t think that one was too hard to call,” Meehan said.

It was nice to be in a queer space. Sometimes you forget there’s a difference between “Everyone here is cool. I probably won’t get assaulted for holding my gf’s hand” and “Everyone here is queer. That makes me want to hold my gf’s hand and maybe make out a little bit, just not near those sketchy-looking Tostitos.”

If you’re reading this and thinking, Wow, Highland Park sounds like the neighborhood for me! you should really consider coming to GuerrillaReads’ first-ever (but maybe annual? quarterly?) Video Walk this coming Saturday. It’s sort of like an art walk, but instead of pretending we know more about paintings at schmancy/edgy galleries than we actually do, we’ll roam the streets shooting video of ourselves reading our own work.

If you’ve got something to read, this is your chance at (semi-, YouTube) stardom. If you’re camera-shy, come for the sandwiches and schmancy/edgy soda at Galco’s, where the walk kicks off.

*I would say that the main difference between my high school lip synch contest production of “Greased Lighting” and the Mr. T amateur drag show version was gender reversal, but that’s not true: Our all-girl drill team had to butch it up to play the T-Birds. All of which supports my theory that you never really get to leave high school.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

i heart ny

I’m working in New York right now. It’s a meeting-packed trip. But the nice thing about New York is that, even if you don’t have time to see a Broadway show, you still get a show. Some things I’ve seen/heard/eaten in my first 24 hours in the city:

  • A woman dressed from head to toe in orange-rust. Her hair was orange-rust. So was her luggage.

  • A panhandler with a strong Nuyorican accent claiming, “It’s my first trip to America! I have no family here!” He lit up a cigarette on the subway. When someone told him he had to put it out he said, “It’s my first trip to America!” He snuffed out his cigarette, then immediately lit another.

  • Food from a place called The Best In New York Food. I think that “The Best” is intended to describe “New York Food,” but I prefer to think of it as “The Best In New York” “Food.” I just like the idea that an eating establishment would label itself so boastfully (the best!) and so humbly (not even a diner or a deli, just straight-up food).

  • Two girls debating whether “conversate” is a word (“It’s in the dictionary!”).

  • Several episodes of Storage Wars. That shit’s addictive.

Monday, March 12, 2012

having jessica stein’s baby

I’ve always had problems watching movies and TV shows about people at the same life stage I am. I think this would be interesting news to marketers, who seem to think people don’t read/view outside their own demographics, unless vampires are involved. But when I was in middle school, I hated watching The Wonder Years because Kevin had gotten his first kiss and I hadn’t. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t watch My So-Called Life because Angela had gotten her first kiss and I hadn’t. And so on.

Therefore, I went into Friends With Kids with trepidation—but it looked sort of funny, and AK doesn’t want to see The Descendants for some reason. In a way, I needn’t have worried. As AK pointed out, it’s not so much a movie about wanting to have kids when all your friends do, or even trying to have kids, as it is a movie about having a kid with your friend and then trying to make room for romance.

And it’s a good thing it’s not about people trying to have kids, because of course the two 37-year-old friends in question (Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott, weirdly miscast as an over-sharing playa) seem to get pregnant on the first try without so much as an ovulation testing kit in sight. In other pet peeve news, this is also one of those movies about rich people in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but which pretends they are middle-class people in Anywhere, USA.

Despite all that, and some trying-too-hard banter, it was pretty funny. And sometimes brutally honest. What does it say about me that my favorite scene was the one in which an angry, drunk Jon Hamm chews out Scott and Westfeldt for not thinking through their whimsical decision to have a baby? I was like, Damn right! Just because I need to believe there’s some inherent value in two years of prep work, even though I know better. At the same time, I totally bought Scott’s defense, which was that he couldn’t have picked a better baby-mama than the girl he’d known for 19 years. It’s a mark of a good movie when you side with both characters in an argument.

Now I’m going to give away the ending, which is a total surprise unless you’ve seen the trailer or even the poster for the movie: After many tearful monologues and dalliances with Mr. and Ms. Not-Quite-Right, Westfeldt and Scott get together. This family may have begun in a brave new world in which kids have two moms (as Maya Rudolph’s character cites as proof that times they are a-changin’), but it ends in nuclear suburban bliss (Brooklyn being the cinematic equivalent of suburbia).

I didn’t really expect anything different from writer/director Westfeldt, who also brought us Kissing Jessica Stein, another movie I almost liked, in which the title character tries dating women and ends up with a dude. Because Westfeldt and her characters are sort of endearing, you buy their individual narratives: No, no, queer relationships and nontraditional parenting arrangements are totally cool and valid, but, like, for this particular pretty blonde lady, they just happen to be bullet points on her coolness resume that make her mainstream landing place that much more “earned.” Enjoy that bone you were just thrown, queer people and people with nontraditional parenting arrangements. Your own movie—in which your story is the happy ending, not the stepping stone—is coming soon to a tiny film festival nowhere near you.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

what i read in february

March has come in like a lion, which is not easy on a sheep-snake like me. Hence the lack of blogging (that, and my continued addiction to Polyvore; why do I not spend all my free time applying to writing residencies and reading things by smart people?!). Anyway, here’s what I read in February before I discovered Polyvore. A lot of it was short.

Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: This is a strange, great, funny little nugget of a book. Gurba writes about having Tourette's Syndrome (though in no way is this a memoir about a clinical condition), and sometimes the chapbook feels like a performance of Tourette's. In the best way--like, thank you for SAYING that! If you get deep satisfaction from popping zits and think Michelle Rodriguez is only made hotter by an eye patch, this is a book for you.

Me, Frida by Amy Novesky; illustrated by David Diaz: Just as the best biopics are strategic snapshots of famous people's lives, Novesky wisely chooses a key moment as her way into Frida's life: the artist's trip to San Francisco in the early 1930s, in which she stepped out of the shadow of her husband, Diego Rivera, to become her true, bold, colorful, singing self. There's a nice (but not overly didactic) lesson for kids here, and the illustrations are as beautiful as a book about Frida Kahlo warrants. Diaz paints with his signature strong lines, and I especially loved how his large washes often dripped with two or three colors--like a painting in progress, like something that demands a closer look.

Sonics in Warholia by Megan Volpert: A hybrid of pop culture essay, lit crit and prose poetry, Warholia is likely to appeal to Warhol enthusiasts. Addressed as a long letter to Andy, it's packed with facts about the artist's life. In riffing, stream-of-consciousness-style, on these facts, it emulates Warhol's voyeurism and obsession with celebrity. Warholia is a sort of bookend for Warhol's little autograph book, updated for an age of quick internet searches and cynicism toward idols--the age Andy helped usher in.

That said, I'm *not* a big Andy Warhol fan, and the cerebral nature of some of Volpert's essays didn't make me want to ponder him--or voyeurism or celebrity or pop culture--more deeply. The book can feel like a long game of Six Degrees of Andy. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer Jennifer Clement's Widow Basquiat, another collection of short pieces about the same era. The comparison probably isn't entirely fair, but I'm a sucker for narrative, warmth and lyricism, which aren't exactly *absent* from this collection, just harder to find.

I was most drawn to pieces in which the author/narrator uses Andy's life as an opportunity to consider more personal, less strictly postmodern aspects of the human condition, such as "Dear Diary of a Dead Man's Telephone Number," about the possibilities of cell phone as grief tool. The grief-to-cell phone ratio is somehow just right.

"Ballad of the Maladies," which uses Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of grief as an architecture on which to hang subject matter from Typhoid Mary to patron saints to Andy's own death, is one of the book's most effective uses of a conceit. Here, at last, is the feeling I think other parts of the book might be trying to evoke: that of a big, mysterious and inextricably connected world.

Dracula by Bram Stoker: Some notes about Dracula:

1. They’re quite the little Scooby Gang (both Buffy- and Mystery Van-style, I suppose). I love how all four men go traipsing through Dracula’s house together—-I picture them lifting their feet high and stepping down on tiptoes in this really cartoonish way. They’re all very sweet to each other, constantly professing love and friendship. Which reminds me…
2. …there are some of what my writing teacher called “missed opportunities” in this book. If a villain is really villainous, wouldn’t he make people turn against each other? But Mina’s personality never really changes as she’s drawn deeper into the underworld. Shouldn’t some of her diary entries be more like, “Dear Diary, I secretly want to suck everyone’s blood”?
3. Everyone is really obsessed with the means of documentation—-phonograph! Travel typewriter! Shorthand!—-but they all talk in the same style (except wacky Van Helsing) and present a linear, un-contradictory narrative, so I never felt like Stoker was taking full advantage of the epistolary form.
4. Someone should write a dissertation about Dracula’s female victims and the virgin/whore anxiety they provoke among men. I’m sure someone has.

All in all, a quaint and sometimes unfulfilled book, but also an endearing and spooky one.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: This YA novel, about a Spokane Indian kid who dares to go to high school in a farm town outside his reservation, is funny, gutsy and insightful. It covers such complicated sociological issues as assimilation, the cycle of poverty and violence, and white trophy girlfriend syndrome without pulling punches (literally: Alexie's characters often smash fists in each other's faces). There are no easy solutions, but at the same time, Alexie isn't afraid to voice an opinion about rez life via his young narrator. And yet, I feel like my love for this book comes from a more visceral place: Arnold Spirit, Jr. just has a great voice. He's a kid who can describe farting while climbing a tree and make it poetic. (My only quibble is his friend Gordy, a local genius who is on hand anytime Alexie wants to reference Euripides or Tolstoy, which seems like a cheap writer trick. But this is a tiny, tiny quibble.)

Ghosts of Wyoming by Alison Hagy: There is much to love about this very cohesive story collection: Hagy's use of ghosts as metaphor and actual spooky plot device, her deep appreciation of Wyoming's history, and her transformation of Western motifs from the stuff of genre movies to true literary grit. Not to mention her ability to describe a landscape ("ribs of wind-polished granite began to emerge from the tresses of prairie"). But for some reason I liked the idea of this book more than I liked the actual book--it never crossed over into can't-put-it-down territory for me.