Monday, December 30, 2013

a number of things that have my number: tops of 2013

Earlier this year, AK and I saw Frances Ha. I thought it was a charming, funny, wise movie, but AK really loved it—to the point that she was almost embarrassed. It had her number! It knew her soul!

I feel a little bit that way about Enlightened, which we’re now semi-binge watching the first season of. At first I thought that Amy’s (Laura Dern) story would be about discovering that New Age mumbo jumbo couldn’t bring her inner peace. We, the audience, would get to laugh at self-help books and yuppie meditation retreats as Amy slowly learned that enlightenment was a useless dangling carrot, and that her real work lay elsewhere.

Like Amy, I usually have ONE MORE THING to say.
Luckily creator Mike White and Laura Dern don’t take the easy route, turning the show into a big joke about Whole Foods. Amy’s brand of enlightenment is real and internally generated. But linking ideals and nirvana moments with the ugly challenges of life is the hard part, and the center of the show. I relate SO MUCH to the hopeless perfectionist/ignorant do-gooder voices in her head (though at least I don’t get all squeeeee when exclaiming fakely over friends’ pregnancies; I like to think I honorably wear my ambivalence about other people’s good fortune my sleeve, though I’m sure many would prefer I didn’t).

Even though the dominant American narrative is one of self-improvement, somehow we made it decades and decades without a major movie or TV show devoted to intentional personal growth. We prefer to see change thrust upon people, who have poetic epiphanies accordingly. To find the poetry in the equivalent of Jewel’s poetry collection is a radical act that seems uniquely Mike White.

Enlightenment would definitely make my Best Of 2013, if there were a category for Stuff I Binge-Watched And/Or Read Online In My Own Little Cultural Bubble. So would Orange is the New Black. There should be such a category, since 1) that’s how we consume both text and visual narratives and non-narratives these days, and 2) it’s my blog and I make the rules.

But to make such a category would mean I’d feel the need to expand to, like, exceptional Twitter feeds, and suddenly I need a nap. So I’m sticking to movies (released in 2013) and books (read in 2013). Here it is, internet, the Top Seven and Top Ten you didn’t know you were waiting for.

Only Ann Patchett could make me want to read a book about fertility.
Ten favorite books:
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
The Next Scott Nadelson by Scott Nadelson
Madhouse Fog by Sean Carswell

Honorable Mi/yriams: Myriam Gurba’s weird, delicious little chapbooks and Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg.

This scene doesn't quite pass the Bechdel Test, but it's still fantastic.
Seven favorite movies:
Captain Phillips
American Hustle
Warm Bodies
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

ghosts of chrismas past

The other day at the gym, A Very Kardashian Kristmas was playing. Or, if that wasn’t the title and spelling, it should have been. All the Kardashians and Jenners and their significant others wore fluffy bathrobes and shiny, ironed-and-curled hair, including Bruce. (I think the rumors that he wants to become a woman are probably untrue and definitely gender-variant-phobic in a variety of ways. But he really is looking more ladylike lately.) 

The camera zoomed in on giant nutcrackers and flickering candles whenever one of them got particularly boring, which was a lot. They exchanged gifts. Kim would open something like Apple TV, and one of the others would exclaim, “But Kim, you could buy every show on Apple TV!”

But at least there's divorce and rehab in this scene. So they're just like us after all.
And just in case that doesn’t convey the true meaning of Christmas, they also watched old home videos—the girls in matching velvet dresses, Kim with no collagen in her lips, Kris looking exactly the same as she does now. There was even dark, grainy footage of Robert Kardashian, the dad they lost.

My dad videoed every Klein family Christmas morning from roughly 1982 through 2003. It’s strange to watch the DVDs he painstakingly converted from VHS and be steeped in the utter past-ness of it. To try to reconcile my memories of uncontainable excitement and the delicious plastic smell of a new My Little Pony castle/nursery/ice cream shop with what’s on the screen: dated clothes and hairstyles, blurry footage and our little pathologies, like when my mom says, before anyone opens a gift they didn’t specifically ask for, “Now, I just happened to find this, and if you don’t like it, you can throw it away.”

Susan, my dad and Cathy in 2006. It was Christmas Future in 2005; it's Christmas Past now.
There’s footage of me opening birthday gifts in our motor home one year, when I must have been in seventh or eighth grade, all Sun-In bleached bangs and sarcasm. But I was usually a nice kid on holidays, and I exclaim with genuine joy when I open a book of cartoons titled All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat. We all laugh at advice like “Nap everyday.” It’s like an archeological dig for the origins of internet humor.

The cat's not wrong.
At CalArts we were always reading and writing things that “problematized” memory. I thought it was postmodernism, but now I think it’s just getting old.

Even when I was little, the holidays made me wistful. Maybe it was the music, maybe it was something I smelled on the adults around me. Maybe it was knowing that I was lucky and another year had gone by and my parents would die someday. Maybe I knew, somehow, that I lived inside a video I would one day watch.

I’ve been in a strangely good mood these past few days. Almost giddy. It’s more like my seven-year-old version of the holidays than anything I’ve experienced in the past few years. I imagine snow and new things born in the dead of winter. It’s been a year since I had surgery, and this year I can move my arms freely, and that’s part of it. And I have a bunch of days off, and I can use them however I want. (Who finally put her giant jars of coins in the Coinstar machine at Vons yesterday? This girl!)

It’s also gratitude. I’ve broken down at several random moments, thinking how lucky and undeserving I am (and it’s true—because if I don’t deserve the bad shit that’s happened recently, I probably don’t deserve the good stuff either, or at least not more than anyone else, because we all deserve food and shelter and love and creativity). I only know how to swing between outrage and mild guilt. And right now I’m rocking the mild guilt. Right now I’m doing something that looks a lot like loving life, although I’m almost afraid to type it. I don’t have everything I want, and I am underlining that for the universe/Santa to know: Just because I’m having a good time, doesn’t mean I don’t need a baby. And I know this won’t last forever, because getting old is knowing that nothing does. It’s what makes existence feel muted and grainy as an old home video.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

o holy night of sunflower seeds on a paper plate

Last weekend we went to a holiday party for the clinic where AK is interning, which means almost everything about the party was top secret for reasons relating to the intricate traditions of psychoanalysis. Can I say that I got a nice scarf in the white-elephant gift exchange? I don’t even know.

Can I say that the host’s house was super posh, in a way that was one part early California mission, one part Buddhist monastery? The host herself was wearing a non-sheer version of the dress below, and we had a good time.

Hands on.
Last night we went to a party for Razorcake, the punk rock magazine editor Todd Taylor invited me to contribute to after I met him at my reading with Sean Carswell in June. It had never occurred to me that I could write for such a publication, because one time in seventh grade I wrapped embroidery thread in Rastafarian colors around tiny braids in my hair, was asked what reggae bands I liked and had no answer. I’ve been very careful about being a poseur ever since.

Rastafarian or dirty hippie or seventh grader who raided her mom's sewing supplies? The late eighties in the 'burbs were a confusing time.
My upcoming Razorcake articles are about poetry and prosthetic limbs (stay tuned!), so I’m interpreting “punk” in the broadest sense of the word.

Anyway, I think it’s okay to blog about punk rockers. Even if they have their own intricate traditions.

They were dressed in their finest button-studded jackets and many-zippered pants. They gathered on the back porch of Todd’s house, which he bought with twenty years of savings from people who’d let a massive ant colony live and bury its minions under the carpet.

I didn’t know many people, but thankfully a writer named Brodie—whom I also met at Skylight but had since developed one of those internet-disconnect relationships with, where I was like, “Oh, you’re @Fair_Dig!” and it took me a minute—proved to be the friendliest person ever, and immediately introduced us to his friends, who included an awesome and funny ESL teacher/real estate blogger named Bianca and a girl named Simon who kind of acted like she was in a mosh pit the whole night.

There was only one baby at the party, and she wasn’t wearing anything with a skull on it, I’m pleased to report, just a little bonnet and polka-dot socks. Her dad carried her around so she could stare at things.

“She’s at this stage where she really fixates on things, and I’m glad,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yes! You’re not blind!’”

Not that there's anything wrong with blind kids! Or guide dogs with...bunny ears? See forthcoming article about prosthetics, etc.
At one point, standing on the patio and watching our breath form icy puffs, AK pointed out a pile of sunflower seeds on a paper plate.

“I love that,” she said. “Someone’s like, ‘Let’s put some sunflower seeds out, but not even in a bowl.’”

We agreed it was a welcome contrast to last weekend’s party, at which all the food was a little…Pinteresty. Gluten-free chocolate cookies and what appeared to be mini macarons, dusted with flecks of peppermint or pistachio powder. I should add that the big vat of guacamole at the Razorcake party was heavenly, because great food doesn’t have to be ready for its Instagram close-up. 

Macarons are the Jenna Jameson of food porn.
I’ve theorized to AK before that aging punk rockers (no offense! I’m an aging non-punk!) are some of my favorite people. They prove that DIY can be a noble but unpretentious philosophy, not just an affectation because you’re young and poor, or an affectation because you’re a yuppie who likes to drink artisanal coffee from a mason jar. (The cups at one Razorcake meeting were Laura Scudder’s peanut butter jars with the labels only half scrubbed off.) They prove that you’re never too old to be truly committed to what you love.

“I guess there are lots of ways to be a grown-up,” I said, looking at the plate of sunflower seeds. There were also some of those addictive salt-and-pepper potato chips, which I ate straight from the bag.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

there isn’t any other tale to tell

This is a blog about art and how it threads through my life—how it echoes and provokes, baffles and annoys, lifts me up and saves me over and over.

I know you probably thought it was a blog about cancer and my bad attitude toward, well, many things.

I’m teaching an undergrad writing workshop right now, in which my students and I read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. It’s kind of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, as told by someone with sympathy for both of them. The ant—the older of two brothers—narrates. He teaches high school in a rough Harlem neighborhood, where he’s survived by keeping his head down and working hard. His brother Sonny is a jazz musician with a drug problem that lands him in jail for a time.

Jacob Lawrence's Cafe Comedian.
The older brother doesn’t get why Sonny needs to escape into the oblivion of heroin or the cryptic notes of non-Louis-Armstrong-style jazz until his own daughter dies of polio. Then his brother’s music becomes a kind of primal scream for him—the thing that expresses human suffering and also lifts him out of it. The inherently fleeting nature of the lift—that ability to see God only in one’s peripheral vision—is the beauty and the tragedy of music, of life.

I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer—is there, Sonny?”

“I believe not,” he said, and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?... But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it…. Maybe it’s better to do something and give it a reason, any reason.”

The older brother tries to avoid suffering in the way that I do, by believing it’s his job to suffer and taking the blows. Sonny is trying to say, I think, that just trying to make sense of the universe is a form of magical thinking, a desperate attempt at salvation. I’m not sure if I’ve totally got it, but, well, sometimes I tell myself that it’s my job to fold my hands and wait humbly as everyone I know has babies. Like I’ll show the universe how good I am. Except that won’t get me a baby any faster than throwing a screaming fit would (lord knows I’ve tried this too). The nature of suffering—even my small, first-world, gratitude-infused suffering—is that it is impartial to how you handle it.

Jacob Lawrence's Ironers.
So what does that leave us? What can we all have? Music. Art. Baldwin says it better than I ever could, and so “Sonny’s Blues” feels to me like the most beautiful and spiritual story I’ve ever read.

One of my students said it was a cautionary tale about heroin. I think it actually makes a really good case for heroin, or at least explains better than anything why someone would do it.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

[These boys] were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

Did anyone ever describe the internet age better?

The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.

Did anyone ever describe age better?

And then, this prayer in the form of an artist’s statement:

Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

acting up

AK and I saw Dallas Buyers Club Sunday night, meaning I marked World AIDS Day by passively absorbing information about AIDS in an entertaining format. Because I’m an activist like that. I think it’s the first AIDS movie I’ve seen since Bio 40: AIDS and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases, a life sciences GE I took as a pass/fail my senior year at UCLA. Every Friday was an optional class devoted to watching movies about AIDS: Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On, Philadelphia.

Longtime Companion: The movie that made me realize I really like Blondie's "The Tide Is High."
We were required to volunteer with AIDS organizations, so I worked with PAWS (which helped HIV+ people keep their pets) and Project Angel Food. Movies and community work—that’s my kind of science class. (A big part of the class was devoted to epidemiology too, which I actually found fascinating—a combo of history and science—and I would totally be an epidemiologist today if I weren’t a hypochondriac and if I understood things like nucleopeptides.) Those experiences really stayed with me, if only because they nudged me that much further toward coming out of the fucking closet.

Now I wonder sometimes how much it would suck to be really sick, facing an early and unfair death, and have to rely on some chirpy college student who finds your tragedy romantic and exotic to deliver your lunch? It would suck a lot, I think.

Don't you want these two in charge of your medical care?
Anyway, Dallas Buyers Club. By one measurement, it’s sort of a Schindler’s List of AIDS movies. A rodeo cowboy/electrician (Matthew McConaughey) who’s as opportunistic as any infection gets AIDS in 1985 and doesn’t have the luxury of waiting around for AZT trials, so he forms a business importing better, less toxic drugs from other countries and selling them to a “club” of fellow patients. He bucks the FDA, which has been paid off by Big Pharma. In the process, he discovers that he cares about people, including queers. He has his “I could have saved more” moment when he sells his car to provide medicine for an impoverished patient he once dismissed.

The movie is well written, well acted, economically edited, with cleverly symbolic opening and closing rodeo scenes. It tells an important and empowering story. But it’s still a movie about a straight white man saving gay men (and the occasional woman). His queer business partner (Jared Leto in very cute drag) gets to die tragically.

I think I finally get the Jordan Catalano thing.
On the other hand, McConaughey’s character is a minority saving himself: a working-class man with AIDS who takes matters into his own hands because no one else has anything to offer him. Not for the first or second or third time, I felt grateful for my own advantages, not the least of which is getting diagnosed with a disease that’s been around long enough to have relatively uncontroversial treatments (I’m not counting alkaline-foods whackjobs).

There’s a scene in which McConaughey, rail-thin and tethered to an IV, staggers into some sort of hearing where doctors and FDA officials are speaking about the benefits of AZT. He shouts what we now know to be true: It killed the virus for a while, but it was toxic and didn’t save lives.

(My Bio 40 teacher chalked AZT up to panic—nearly everyone was desperate to come up with a drug to fight AIDS. But it typically takes about fifteen years to develop something that works against any disease—that’s just the nature of scientific research. No surprise that protease inhibitors came on the market along about 1995.)

If I’d been in that meeting, I would no doubt have dismissed the delirious cowboy as an alkaline-foods whackjob. I’m a rule follower, if a skeptical one. I don’t think science is untainted by capitalism, but I think it’s the best we’ve got. But in that case, I would have been wrong. I would have been better off (though perhaps only slightly) waiting outside McConaughey’s dingy motel room for drugs smuggled from Mexico.

We need scientists. We need cowboys. We need what a woman I recently interviewed called “citizen patients.” I’m trying to be one—though I’m also trying to not be a patient at all—but it’s really confusing.