Sunday, June 23, 2013

lots of daylight and no homework

The last time I had a reading planned, I canceled it to stare nervously at the wall while waiting for biopsy results. We all know how that turned out. But the first hint that I might be slowly turning the dial away from the all-cancer-all-the-time-cancer-channel phase of my life (knockonwood) came the other day the frozen yogurt shop.

“Excuse me, can I just say—” began a woman at the next table.

Here it comes, I thought, bracing myself for a comment on how brave I was to have not found a way to magically keep my follicles from releasing my hairs while on chemo.

“I really like your purse,” she said.

Friday night I gave my first reading in seven months, opening for Sean Carswell at Skylight Books. It was a friendly, mellow, well attended reading, with a bucket of PBR fresh from the liquor store and no ice. I read a little bit of my near-future story about genetic testing. Jim Ruland read about karaoke in Alaska. Sean read from his new book, Madhouse Fog, which promises to be funny and unexpected. It was nice to feel like a writer again.

Now featuring hair! (Photo stolen from Kathy Talley-Jones' Facebook page.)
Saturday AK and I went to a barbecue, which added to the laidback summer lifestyle we’re trying to cultivate now that school is out. I’ve heard people say that Californians say “barbecue” when we really mean grilling. But the food at Julie’s party was pizza and pasta, so apparently we really mean “afternoon party.”

We had a small but mighty book club meeting, where we discussed Jon Ronson’s Lost at Sea (I liked the half I read—quirky essays that could be classified as stunt journalism but run a little deeper than that genre usually does). It was nice to feel like a reader again.

This morning we woke up at an ungodly hour to meet friends of AK’s for a beach run in Santa Monica. It’s fun to do city things in the off hours; it’s like the whole place was made just for you. Also, no traffic. I hung with the pack for a while, then started walking and enjoyed watching the boardwalk wake up so much that I didn’t even devote much time to feeling like a self-conscious sicky.

Artists unpacked their canvases. Panhandlers unpacked their cardboard signs. People outside halfway houses smoked their first cigarettes of the day, or maybe their third.

We meandered (in a car) over to the farmer’s market, where we bought peaches and beets and coffee. AK’s friend told me how to roast them. I just took them out of the oven a few minutes ago, all deep purple and delicious-looking. I feel so righteous for having PURCHASED BEETS AT A FARMER’S MARKET AND ACTUALLY COOKED THEM that you’d think I just wrote to my congress person.

Just looking at this picture will add two years to your life.
We also saw Andrew read at the Concord, an art space/somebody’s house in Cypress Park. At book club, people were talking about how Highland Park is apparently the hottest real estate market in, like, the world? I’m a happily oblivious renter, but I looked around at the stretch of San Fernando Road that is now tire warehouses, thrift store distribution centers, cement riverfront and sighed, “In five years this will all be breweries.” There are already some up the road.

Andrew read some poems about Turkey and death and some interesting new stuff and I felt excited to get back to one of my seventeen works in progress. A writer named Ashley Farmer read some great constraint-based flash fiction from her forthcoming book Pink Water.

(I basically typed the above as a reminder to myself to buy her book when it comes out in August, because it’s not listed on Goodreads yet.)

Tonight AK and I are celebrating our third anniversary of getting Canadian-married with dinner at Pizzeria Mozza—at which I will not be a vegan—and a late-night show that’s part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

And I’m currently synching my iPod and charging my Kindle for the first time in months. You can do a lot when you wake up at 6:15, don’t devote any of your day to sitting in traffic and plan to go to bed at 1 a.m.

In related news, I am super tired and my radiated right boob looks like the beets I just roasted.

Monday, June 17, 2013

my review of the east, or: hot sexy dumpster divers

The East opens with Jane (Brit Marling, my semi-new crush) fingering a crucifix charm that hangs from her neck, asking God for strength, courage and humility. She’ll need all three when Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, my longtime semi-crush) recruits her to spy on the titular group of eco-activists. Toward the end of the movie, after she’s seen the evil done by the East’s corporate targets and sipped their Kool-Aid, she says a similar prayer. But this time the charm hanging from her necklace is a paper clip, the same one she used to pick a lock when she was handcuffed for riding the rails with fellow activist Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, my new crush because I love a boy in eyeliner).

I'll bring the blindfold, you bring the eyeliner.
I guess you could read that as a transition from mainstream morality (or lack thereof) to radical lefty morality, but I think the movie’s real message is one of self-determination and critical thinking. I.e., you have to pick the lock of whoever and whatever is confining you. All ideologies are not created equal; the East at its worst is better than their target corporations at their best. But Jane is too smart just to become another loyal follower of East leader Benji (Alexander Skargard, whom I find cuter without facial hair). So her solution is my favorite kind: the third thing.

The movie, like the other two Brit Marling co-wrote with director Zal Batmanglij and starred in, is interested in the intersection of loyalty and ethics. I love it for that; for the way it believes in morality even as it lays out all its complications. It reads like a movie made by very smart, hopeful-but-cynical-but-hopeful young people, which it is.

AK said, “I liked it, but even though it was well made, it still felt like a student film sometimes. Like, in certain scenes you can see the strings, you know what I mean?”

I do. Maybe that’s why I was riveted but not quite moved. It made me want to want to be an activist more than it made me want to be an activist. Members of the East dumpster dive as a means of sustenance and as a political statement about waste, and it did make me want to be less wasteful (always with the easy personal behavior route!). More so in the scene where they ate donuts out of the trash than the scene where they ate a browning apple.

Drink the Kool-Aid, spin the bottle.
I have a crush on Ellen Page too, but only on screen, because in real life I think she’s the size of a hummingbird. Oh, and I also have a crush on this punky, dark-eyed girl from the train scene who’s on screen for like one minute.

Of course I ended up going to the bathroom during the scene where everyone started making out with everyone.

Friday, June 14, 2013

flatness, fun and fucking miracles

In high school and college, I would study so hard for my finals that, by the time exam day rolled around, I was a sweatpants-wearing mess with caffeine coursing through my veins and nothing in my stomach that hadn’t come from a vending machine. Before my AP U.S. history test, I was so delirious I started talking to my Winnie the Pooh shampoo bottle, wondering if he was an isolationist (when I told this story to Andrew recently, he said Pooh was most definitely an isolationist).

How do you feel about the Stimson Doctrine, Sham-Pooh?
But oh! Finishing finals felt so good. The freedom made the stress worth it. When I had a school-free, work-free day, I would jump in my Toyota Tercel and drive to the edge of the known world, which for me was Silver Lake. It was mural-festooned, only half gentrified, with little houses clinging to the hillside. I’d write bits of fiction while eating guanabana pastries at CafĂ© Tropical and try on dresses at Pull My Daisy, which was still a thrift store back then. The dresses never fit, because I’d been living off vending machine food and pastries.

Life flattens out when you’re an adult. For the past nine weeks, I’ve been teaching an online writing workshop while working full time and undergoing cancer treatment. I think it’s fair to say that’s a stressful combo. During that time, a few things fell by the wayside: recreational reading, progress on my YA novel. And when our vacuum cleaner broke, I just gave up vacuuming, letting our one carpeted room get so crunchy with cat litter that my heart sank a little deeper each time I went in there barefoot. (Eventually AK rounded up all our Target gift cards and bought a new vacuum and gave the room a thorough cleaning and made me fall in love with her all over again.)

But during these stressful nine weeks, I kept writing something most days. I kept working out. I ate a lot of kale and saw a few friends. I wore skinny jeans and mod dresses and white zippered boots. Because I’m not nineteen and I know how to manage time and stress, and I know—on perhaps a less positive note—that you can’t decide life begins after finals because who knows when you’ll be dead?

I finished the last of my grading last night—and yes, by that point I was wearing wiener-dog boxers and eating a (cheese-less) burrito from the taco stand on Figueroa—so I took today off as an official Cheryl Fun Day.

So far I’ve gone running and spent some quality time with the radiation beam at City of Hope. I.e., my stress is less stressful, but my freedom is less free. Right now I’m at the coffee shop adjacent to Vroman’s, eating some leftover kale.

But I just started reading my first physical book in weeks, Jon Ronson’s Lost at Sea, and it promises to be pretty fun. The first chapter is about Insane Clown Posse coming out as Christians. They say things like, “If people can’t see a fucking miracle in a fucking elephant, then life must suck for them, because an elephant is a fucking miracle.”

I mean, I mostly agree with that statement.

"Fuck yeah, I'm a miracle. Now gimme some peanuts."
Then I worked on whittling down a very short story into an even shorter story, killing off some darlings in the process. I thought about what a good exercise that was—learning you can live just fine without things you thought were really important a few minutes ago.

I’m supposed to be diving back into my YA novel now, but here I am blogging. I may not dive so much as wade.

Now, driving to Silver Lake means heading west, because I live on the other side of the alleged edge of the world. But I’m going to head over to Los Feliz to Skylight—because it’s a bookstore-hopping kind of day—and maybe do some thrift store trolling and some sketching. I want to prove I’ve still got it.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

the good news about spit tobacco

The thing about running and walking (and I have an incrementally higher run-to-walk ratio each time) is that you move both literally and figuratively. I started out feeling grateful for a sunny morning; the words Life is wonderful may have actually formed in my head. A mile or so later I was teary, and the words It’s not fair, I didn’t do anything formed. You know, just as a general rebuttal to The Man I’m constantly haggling with in my mind.

By the time I looped around the York/Figueroa elbow and back to Franklin High School, I saw three beefy looking guys, one of whom was wearing what appeared to be a bullet-proof vest. Another was swinging a sledgehammer. Is this one of those see something/say something moments? I wondered. But I didn’t, and they made their way onto campus.

Probably to fix something…right?

Two blocks later, I was thinking about an article posted by Craig Santos Perez, about how processed salt contributes to various diseases. When I read it, I simultaneously vowed to get more Michael Pollan-y in my eating habits and felt irked that people’s reaction to most horrific revelations is to look for some little personal habit we can take away to feel better about ourselves. Eat less salt. Do weight-bearing exercise. Recycle.

Those things are worth doing, but if you truly believe that grinding Himalayan salt into your pasta water instead of Morton’s is going to save you, then you also sort of believe the reverse will give you an autoimmune disease, right?
Yeah, I'll say it pours.
I left this comment on Craig’s Facebook page: “I think these types of studies should absolutely inform cultural shifts and public policy decisions, but (as someone genetically predisposed to self-blame) it’s important not to equate disease with personal behavior. The folks I know with MS aren’t fast food junkies. As one prof in the article says, ‘These are not diseases of bad genes alone or diseases caused by the environment, but diseases of a bad interaction between genes and the environment.’”

Then I proceeded to do nothing toward changing public policy and very, very little toward changing culture.

So, I was thinking about personal behavior vs. systemic change, and wondering who these mythical abdicators of personal responsibility that Republicans are always complaining about actually are, because I’ve never met them, when I saw this:
The Garbage Pail version would be Harry Tongue.
The cards were scattered like autumn leaves for blocks. When I first saw “Hairy Tongue,” I thought it was some kind of new take on Garbage Pail Kids. But soon it became clear this was a public service announcement.

This is different from the Good News about Jesus.

I had so many questions: Did they come in packs of chewing tobacco, some kind of novel Surgeon General’s Warning? Or were they sold next to the tobacco, like a sad six-pack of Near Beer?

I assume chewing tobacco is a real problem—hence the cards—but I’ve never known anyone who’s chewed it. I live in the wrong part of the country, I guess. So it’s hard to know whether these scared-straight tactics would work, since they’re aimed at a totally foreign species—people who would find stuffing their face like chipmunks and spitting black saliva into a cup appealing in the first place.

The "advance billing" refers to pre-cancerous leukoplakia.
The language of scared-straight campaigns bugs me because it taps into all my early-childhood-based fears of being eternally punished for the slightest slip-up. “Irreversible cancer,” promises the Leukoplakia card. “Only surgery can stop it now.”

Okay, so cancer is not reversible in the way that, say, diabetes is. But even the card admits it’s stoppable. If you have a nasty tumor on your tongue, maybe you’ll have to “learn sign language” because “your tongue is history,” but guess what, my cousin and her husband speak sign language (because they’re deaf, not because they’re tobacco chewers) and they have a really nice life. At least if the pictures from her son’s elementary school graduation are any indication.
Also, the mute folks in westerns always seem to be really cool.
Scare tactics involve holding up someone’s life as a cautionary tale, ignoring the secret that person knows: There’s life after you fall off the cliff. It’s better and worse than you can imagine. No matter how much tobacco you don’t chew, you will reach the edge of some cliff, and then you’ll be let in on the secret.   

Because tobacco chewers with rotting teeth are known for their wisdom, right?

Monday, June 03, 2013

what i read in may

Fish wrangling doesn't pay a living wage.
I’ve hated making phone calls since long before texting and email became semi-preferred modes of communication. So I don’t have to wring my hands about losing touch with humanity; I never wanted to be in touch.

Getting my first job required me to call Lisa, the nice singing teacher who’d offered me free dance classes in exchange for filing sheet music and sweeping the wood floor at her studio. I must have practiced that phone call twenty times with my mom playing the part of Lisa before I actually dialed.

I just used my lunch break to make three phone calls that weren’t exactly traumatic (i.e. no medical test results involved), but which were heavy with the weight of a future I have no energy to plan. Guess what? Two voicemails and one message-with-a-secretary. I love being able to check shit off my to-do list on a technicality.

I actually really like people in person. And I like them in text form. It’s just phone limbo I hate. I also like fake people in text form. On that note, here’s what I read in May:

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting: The stories in this collection are sharp, both in the sense of wit and harshness. The first, "Dinner," features people being boiled alive. A later story, "She-Man," follows an MTF former prostitute as she tries to live the straight life. Her pimp catches up with her and she tells him, "You'll kill me just as dead as a real woman. As dead as your wife or your mother or your sister." Then he does. And she confides, "Their mothers and sisters, of course, are alive."

And that's how injustice plays out in Nutting's stories: a little absurd, a little soul-tearing. I was particularly drawn to "Ant Colony," a nice metaphor about cancer, the body and identity, set in a future in which people are required to house other organisms in their bodies due to planetary overcrowding. Nutting works in the tradition of Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, two other writers I was surprised to like as much as I did. Her writing lacks some of the warmth I find in Bender's, but she's funny and smart and good with a simile, and I will be reading more of her work.

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: This was one of those right-up-my-alley books: turn-of-the-century urban squalor, a carnival (well, a World's Fair, which is like a giant, expensive carnival) and a murder mystery. Larson's loose thesis is that Chicago in 1893 showcased the best and worst of what cities of the future could offer: On one hand, there was Daniel Burnham's World's Fair, with its lush gardens, Ferris wheel and (usually offensive and exploitative) international demonstrations. On the other, the city was a vast and lawless place where independent young women could get taken in by the likes of serial killer H.H. Holmes and not be missed until it was too late. But somehow I didn't get fully taken in by the book, maybe because it's told like a true-crime novel and seems irony-deficient. I could have used a little more social commentary, or weird facts about the fair, and a few less leaps inside Holmes' head. Then again, I listened to the abridged version on CD--my librarian mom would be horrified--so maybe that's all there in the full-length version.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

return to the sea(food)

A few weeks ago on Good Food—which I listen to with the non-participatory fascination that many people watch Inside the Actors Studio—a guy who might have been Michael Pollan was talking about how until relatively recently, meat was a special-occasions-only food in most cultures. This had to do with scarcity and the sneaking feeling that it was a slippery slope from munching on a roast pig to cooking up a fellow human. They developed elaborate rituals around meat eating to ensure it couldn’t be done to excess.

With the exception of a petite slice of mozzarella in a Caprese salad made by our friend Hataya, I haven’t had fish or more than bite-sized bits of dairy since Earth Day.

Portobello, grilled onions, cucumbers and hummus on marbeled rye.
Well, I did nibble at a rind of brie last weekend. The rind is my favorite part. B and I used to argue about it—she thought the rind wasn’t meant to be consumed, and that it would poison me. (Her preferences were never preferences; they were moral stances.) She also thought I was going to get some kind of weird fungus if I put on my clothes without having dried off one hundred percent after my shower.

What was my point?

Ritual—right! I’m feeling ready to eat fish again, but not the way I used to, which was to order it whenever the veggie option on the menu seemed boring. Fish is mostly good for you, so I’m open to putting the necessary ritualistic bells and whistles on it, say, once a week? There’s a piece of wild salmon waiting in my freezer for the right occasion. And maybe a box of fish sticks, but I’ll find a way to make them fancy, I promise.

Dairy may not be as good for me, so I’m going to make non-bite-sized bits of cheese and non-sip-sized milk more of a Very Special Occasion thing. Like, if someone wants to make me homemade ice cream (anyone?) or if there’s a cannoli anywhere in a two-mile radius.

I know these rules are a little silly, but as food-related control games go, they beat anorexia.  

I only have two more assignments to grade before I’m done with my class, and AK is about to graduate, and I want summer to start today and to be the start of all kinds of great things. I want to read something that is not a typo-laden Word document. I want to revise my YA novel and send out my near-future short story. I want to see movies and stop buying cheap shoes. I want to eat dinner on our uneven patio. I want to put up the Cheryl’s Mood equivalent of those signs you see in factories (at least in movies): It has been __ days since our last injury! (This applies to me injuring others as well as injuries to myself.)

I made a list of four big summer resolutions, not all of which are entirely in my control. And I am familiar with my tendency to play control games in my head, so I make these resolutions with caution. The paragraph above sounds strikingly similar to any random entry from my high school journal. I will never be everything I want to be. Today is just a day. Yesterday was real too.