Monday, December 28, 2009

secret agent

There's a whole backstory about how one of Sequoia's littermates was adopted by a family who lived a few blocks from me and that's how I met Rachel and Alice, the teenage girls who keep me au courant on teen idols, media trends, and high school (mis)interpretations of literary classics. I met Rachel when she was 12, but fast foward: now she's applying to colleges.

And today her mom told me that she wrote about me in her application essays. And I know what you're thinking, but no! It was not part of some cautionary tale.

Her essay began, "Since I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a secret agent. Everyone laughed at me, except for [insert my full name here, which I don't want to include even though it appears in the sidebar -- I have my reasons]." Then she went on to say how I sent her links to CIA and Secret Service websites that had information about internships and degree requirements. And that's how she decided to learn three foreign languages during high school (yes, she's amazing) and then apply to major in International Studies.

I don't know which makes me happiest: the fact that I encouraged someone to pursue her dream and now she really is pursuing it, or the fact that the dream I encouraged is so zany. I mean, I totally love that it felt completely normal to me to figure out how a 12-year old girl could become a secret agent. I was curious. It never occurred to me (until I heard her mom say the words "secret agent" aloud) that anyone would laugh at that choice of profession. But when I hear it told back to me, it's hilarious. It's exactly the kind of nutty thing that I (insert full name here) would encourage.

But whatever, it absolutely makes sense. It's a real job that people do and she is the perfect candidate (smart, athletic, ambitious) for work like that. If you don't count blowing your cover on your college application essays at age 17 (and providing counterspies with the full name of who to kidnap and torture and kill when the torture thing doesn't make her talk), she's going to be an outstanding "clandestine service core collector," a job title that only the CIA could dream up and one that rivals "secret agent" for its sheer entertainment value.

Of course, all this means that eventually I'll be responsible for whatever horrific spy fate that may befall her, but for now I feel pretty much like George Baily in It's a Wonderful Life.

Friday, October 23, 2009

big kid cookie

I'm way younger than my four older siblings, so many of them got stuck babysitting me during their teenage years. The other side of that is that I spent a lot of time seeing what my future as a teenager might be like. Which might sound kinda cool, but in real life it just consisted of being frightened by all the complicated things they had to navigate and master and that I'd never be ready for.

My brother showed me algebra when I was seven. I was just learning whatever it is we learn at that age -- subtraction? But with numbers, people! Because math is done with numbers, not letters. I seriously thought he was playing a prank on me until he brought out his algebra book.

And then he asked my dad (who hadn't gone to high school) to help him with factoring. My dad was really good at "how stuff works" when the stuff was building furniture or fixing machines or just logically figuring something out. But of course he'd never been taught algebra. (This wasn't a traumatic thing, he just reminded my brother that his math ended before algebra began.) So the idea that my brother was doing math that didn't make sense to begin with was compounded -- first by the idea that he couldn't understand it on his own, and then further by the idea that there was no one who could help him. That's the kind of thing that I witnessed a lot as a kid.

My sister's high school Home Ec class had a day when they could bring a younger sibling to school. Actually, I'm just guessing that's why I was dragged to school one day -- I have no idea, really, how I got there or why I wasn't in my own school. All I know is that one day I was on an enormous giant-sized campus with 2,000 people walking by. The whole place was terrifying, but my sister promised me a cookie.

Okay, background: although huge cookies are pretty standard today, they didn't yet exist in the marketing world. Or any world. I'd never seen or heard of a cookie larger than two inches in diameter. Imagine, if you will, a hamburger magnified three times. Or a quart-sized glass of milk. Wouldn't that freak you out? Yes, yes it would.

So she gets me this cookie. And it's -- well, it's standard size now. But if you think of a cookie with radius of six inches, you'll have the idea. The cookie was the most apocalyptic thing I'd ever experienced. I think I started crying. I remember her consoling me that I didn't have to eat it all, and that yeah, it was strangely big. I also remember her Home Ec friends gathering around and sympathizing and remarking that they too had wondered about the cookies. Oh, wait, I just realized -- if she was in high school I was probably only about 4 or 5, so I hadn't even started school yet. God, that cookie was scary.

The big cookies were still there when I started high school. No explanation or anything. They still freaked me out. But a couple of years later, a few places started selling big cookies. In that context they were okay -- it was always some specialty cookie store (which actually, was also a new phenomenon), and the cookies were always presented as this really amazing novelty item. They didn't try to act like big cookies were normal. People were expected to point and stare and laugh and be amazed.

But back to childhood for a second. I was 6 when my sister started college. And of course, I got dragged to college as well, probably on some registration or buying books errand. On this trip, we walked past the handball courts. People were hitting tennis balls against those green backboards that are maybe 20 feet high. I misunderstood and thought they had to hit the balls over the wall. To another person. Whom you can't see. There is no way that it is possible to get that good in a sport.

My sister told me she was required to take P.E., or maybe that she wasn't required to take P.E. -- I was too busy breathing into a paper bag to properly grasp what she was saying. She did end up talking me down -- somehow she managed to communicate that the tennis ball going over the backboard was an accident, not a part of the official game. Still, these are the kinds of visions that haunted my childhood.

So when a friend of Lisa's met me for lunch last summer in order to give me tips about applying to grad school, and then told me how many books she'd be required to read her first year there (which is, I've subsequently learned, more than in any other grad school program anyone I know has ever heard of), all I could think was "big kid cookie." I started worrying that even if my dream of grad school came true, there was no way I could factor the x's, hit the tennis balls 20 feet high, or finish the big kid cookies.

Which is why I was relieved to see her here on a visit this past week, looking happy and well and acting like she isn't on ... oh, wait, I forgot to tell that story. In high school, my brother had a druggie friend that my mom didn't approve of. After graduation, my brother ran into his old friend, who had straightened himself up and was then in college and working part-time. Or full-time, or something that my mother found unbelievable. She said to my brother, in front of me, "He must be on speed." So yeah, I'm glad that grad school chick didn't appear to be on speed, despite how necessary my mom thinks it is to surviving any combination of work and college.

Grad school chick even told me that there are grocery stores where she lives and they sell produce. (Hey, if you've ever visited the midwest or NYC, you'll understand my concern in this regard.) And Lisa said that, instead of the 5 classes a semester that I had imagined, there are only 2 -- although I doubt that I heard that right, because I'm pretty sure you need 36 to 54 units to graduate. Whatever. If there's one thing my childhood should've taught me it's that the future is made up of giant baked goods and there's no need to worry.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I was really excited to see a friend of mine today, and almost resorted to my old list-of-things-to-talk-about technique because we had only an hour to spend together, but all conversational topics flew completely out of my head when she admitted that she'd just come from her first improv class.

Clearly, we were now required to devote the entire agenda to making fun of her. And although I know blogging about it publically will only incite sympathizers, in your heart you people know that improv is wrong. In fact, improv is so entirely laughable that my friend (let's call her "Michael" after the Office) was caught in the logical paradox of being forced to make fun of herself. She even confided that the first part of class consisted of throwing "sound balloons."

I seriously know, from experience, that me laughing at someone always, always means that -- just like the minor character on Star Trek -- I'll be killed before the episode is over. I know this and yet I do it anyway; I can't help myself. So even though I'm aware that she will:

a. Go on an as-yet-to-be-invented Improv with the Stars reality show and win a million dollars and have sex with George Clooney.
b. Catch a criminal by pantomiming vital information to the police chief behind the bad guy's back.
c. Subsequently be awarded a medal of honor by Barack Obama, who will then leave Michelle for her.
d. Be single-handedly responsible for the next Improv revival and star in major motion pictures with stars I have a crush on.
e. Which will revive our economy, just like Shirley Temple movies did in the 30s.
f. And will inspire her to create a foundation with the profits, for the betterment of humankind.

Even though I know this like I know how many unused condoms are slowly expiring in my nightstand drawer, I still can't keep from laughing mercilessly at her. In fact, I need to devote even more time to the project. I gotta find out if the students go for drinks afterward and if so, where. I need to know if there's a discount if you take a series of improv courses. Plus is there a holiday improv recital so her friends can come watch her do improv? If so, you know I'm declining any invitations to the Bahamas in order to attend. My calendar is cleared for her.

I kept trying to get her to make the "I have a gun" jokes ala Michael and the Office, but for some reason she just wasn't as into it as I am. No doubt she's purchasing an actual gun at this moment in preparation for our next luncheon together, but let's put that image aside for now.

Probably the most hilarious part of this whole misadventure is that her stated reason for signing up for improv is, "I'm shy."

Okay, let's examine. It would take serious futuristic medication to make me exhibit symptoms of shyness, but I've countless times witnessed shy people and their bizarre behavior sets (like not making out with a cute guy simply because they haven't known him a full 90 minutes) so I can infer what kind of torment goes on in those timid little souls.

Still, I envy them their dignity. And perhaps that's where improv acts as a cure: by robbing them of their last shred. Thereby giving them nothing left to lose. My point is: I'm not shy. I would find improv excruiating. Therefore, how did my friend fail to implode into a gooey pile of whirring, once-human parts? I suspect a whole Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeps? scenario here. In fact, improv could probably replace the Turing test.

This all means, of course, that my friend doesn't need to bother with a gun purchase. She can kill me with her bare legs, Darryl Hannah style. And I'd have to go along with it because as we all know, "Thou shalt not block."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

advanced placement

Yesterday I hiked with Rachel and Alice, the girls who adopted Sequoia's sister. This is Alice's fall schedule (she turns 15 at the end of October):

1: world lit/tebbe. 2: ap chem/glimme. 3: honors algebra 2/henri. 4: spanish 5-6/castillo. 5: adv photo/daly. 6: world history/chodrow-reich.

I swiped her schedule from Facebook and she's a teenager, which is why nothing is capitalized. Don't ask me to explain further; all I know is that teenagers capitalize only upon threat of terrorist attack. Alice's sister Rachel is a senior and is taking ap calculus and ap physics and a bunch of other stuff I can't remember, as well as writing her college applications. After school they play soccer 3-4 times a week.

All this made me realize that I don't just lack a college education; I lack a high school education as well. They're such smart, capable, organized girls. And I'm super super happy that at least some of our future voters will understand basic concepts from science.

But it's still like pulling teeth to get Alice to execute a feminist analysis of a teen chick flick. (17 Again? You're really gonna tell girls not to use condoms?) In that sense, the schools are still failing their students.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

tech stuff

There's a line in Terminator (and yeah, it's my second favorite movie, what of it?) where Kyle Reese tries to describe the future to Sarah Connor. When she questions him about the details, he says, "I don't know tech stuff."

I know exactly how he feels.

I absolutely cannot stand people who can't remember their own phone number, can't give directions to their house, are unable to do simple math in order to make a quantitative decision, or who don't bother to follow clear instructions. And yet...

I have these blind spots. Like pretty much anything to do with television. I know that if I put any effort at all into learning this stuff, I'd start to pass for normal and my life would get that much easier. But I can't urge myself to care, and that's the problem.

Last week, Wendy came over to Melanie's house, where I was dogsitting in the lap of luxury, in order to watch the Project Runway premiere with me. So of course we turn on the TV at the last minute, although Wendy immediately began berating herself because, as she put it, "I told myself, it's Janet so let's give ourselves a half hour to figure out the TV." So anyway, we turn it on. And I don't know what the channel number is for Bravo. Wendy tells me (I think it was "44") but then there is no "44" on Melanie's TV.

So I tell Wendy, "I'm sorry. They don't get Bravo." Problem solved, right? Wendy took one look at the huge flat screen TV with all kinds of menus and gadgets and said, "Yes, they do. Go do a search for Project Runway. It just has a different channel number." I do this, and it works! It works like crazy!

Then Wendy makes me suffer through a whole conversation where she figures out, aloud, that AT&T has different channel numbers from ComCast, even though both Wendy's house and Melanie's are in Oakland, and then she laughs at me for telling her "DVR", in response to her question, "Do they have satellite?"

At the commercial, she makes me go back and tape the show and memorize the channel number (14? I think?). "But we're already watching the show." We can skip the commercials, oh, I hadn't thought of that. "But when will we ever need to know the channel number again?" At this point, Wendy sighs. "You always say that. And do you see how it always comes up again?"

Actually, no. That had seriously never occurred to me before. And yet...hey. Yeah. It always comes up again. Just like me not knowing the name of a single actor or director. Just like I still can't work a VCR even though the technology is now almost obsolete. In fact, similar to the confusing world of radio stations. This stuff always, always, always comes up again.

In fact, I was reminded of a conversation Wendy and I had a few weeks after we met.

Wendy: "My Dinner With Andre is on channel 9 tonight; you should watch it."
Me: (Pretending to go along like I always do, hoping the conversation will end quicker.) "Okay."
Next morning...
Wendy: "Hey, what did you think of My Dinner with Andre?"
Me: "Oh. Um, I didn't watch it. We don't get cable."

That's when she explained that channel 9 is not, in fact, cable. Just plain old public TV. Then, because she's Wendy, she questioned me exhaustively about why I had said I'd watch something I had no intention of watching. The TV was my roommate's, I didn't really know how to work it, and, well, conversations about TV channels make my brain implode.

Fast forward 20 years, and Wendy is still trying to fathom why I can't learn simple technological tasks. She made mincemeat out of the several plausible excuses I offered (among them that I didn't own a TV until, well, okay, my boyfriend owned a TV when were 27, but my very own TV...whatever, she crushed my argument). So although I can kinda figure out how I developed these particular incompetencies, I really can't justify continuing them.

Except. I just don't care. For example: when I was 37 I bought a car. I can't even remember why I bothered to tell anyone, but I think it came up in conversation at work because I had to go pick it up or something. And everyone started asking me what kind of car it was. The thing is, I didn't know. I didn't care. Someone helped me pick it out, it was used and cheap and practical, and I couldn't possibly begin to understand how anyone could make a conversation out of this.

It's the same with which cable company, which channel, which actor...I just want someone else to deal. Certain things I can analyze until the people I'm having a conversation with stab themselves in the eardrums with whatever nearby object they can fashion into a crude implement. But other topics just make my brain cringe -- it just shuts tight behind my eyes, waiting until these people can be distracted by some other less painful topic. I'm like the illiterate successful business owner, deflecting all situations that require literacy.

Except I'm not a successful business owner. And I badly need to watch Project Runway.

plan vs. scheme

I noticed something recently, and it's the difference between people who "plan" and people who "scheme." Plans usually take longer, accomplish less, and are worked on quietly and steadily, without fanfare. Schemes are far more intriguing and usually fail far more spectacularly.

I don't remember the (no doubt riveting) story of when I first noticed this -- I think I was wondering why something sounded preposterous and then comparing it to some long boring years of hard work that I had read about some successful person doing -- but realizing that there is a difference, that a difference exists, is key. Probably everyone in the world has secretly already known about this all along, but for me it's shiny and new.

I thought about it again last night while watching Julie & Julia. Julia Child spent years studying French cooking at the world's most famous cooking school. Then almost a decade more writing and testing recipes. Julie, on the other hand, spent a year following recipes. Both are awesome, but I would say that "I'll make 10 recipes a week for a year and blog about it" comes under the heading of "crazy and wonderful scheme" whereas, "I'll go to cooking school" would be more a "tediously dull plan."

The fact that a movie depicts the plan only incidentally to the scheme says pretty much everything about how much more we love schemes. I would very much like to say I'm into cultivating this "planning" thing. But I don't know; schemes are so deliciously tempting.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Yesterday, my sister sent me a photo of the house in Los Angeles where, in 1914, my father was born. It's so remodeled now that it doesn't even look like a house that could be that old. It's in a less-than-beautiful part of downtown L.A., of course. I think there wasn't much else to L.A. back then, other than downtown, so of course that's where it is.

This crazy boring now-stucco house really got to me. Because, first, I started wondering how many houses I've lived in that have had babies born in them. Then I started thinking about how comparatively sterile new houses are. No one (I'm not counting hippie kids) is born in a house built after, say 1950. But on the east coast there are houses that are 300 years old! Lots of time for babies to be born. It's weird that now almost all the births are concentrated in hospitals, whereas just a hundred years ago birth and life and death happened everywhere.

The houses I grew up in were built in the 50s and 60s, which means (in my newly formed opinion) that they were cold, inhuman places unblessed by the miracle of birth.

Anyway, I'm also thinking about my dad a lot because in six months I'll be how old he was when I was born. So when he was exactly my age now (and it's my birthday in two days) he already knew I potentially existed.

Okay, which brings up a whole host of other weirdnesses for me to think about, concerning the bizarre circumstances of my birth. Which I probably can't blog about, but suffice to say that I need to ask my mom a lot of questions about how stressed (or not, he was a singularly relaxed guy; I'm nothing like him) he was about her pregnancy.

There was a lot going on, and then on top of everything they were poor and he had just lost his job and they already had four children, one of whom was disabled. I was an utter, complete surprise. And then the birth was really difficult and my mom and I were, apparently (but I'm not sure how much to trust this information) very close to death. My dad came home at 6 am, woke up my 12 year old sister, and started crying. He told her all about how we almost died, but then, when she asked what my name was, he couldn't remember it.

Hey, I just thought of something -- that would've been a complete disaster if I'd been born at home. Maybe I should rethink the sterile 60s houses thing.

Okay, and now I should probably end here, but I keep thinking about what a strange and awful night that must've been for my parents. While my dad was home traumatizing his eldest daughter before the rest of his children awoke, my mom was at the hospital forcing herself to stay awake until sunrise, under some weird belief that if she allowed herself to fall asleep before daybreak, she would never wake up. (See, this is why it's hard to trust the "almost died" thing, although I guess she was in the midst of PTSD.)

Jesus Christ, I just looked up the condition online and yes, um, we both almost died. Plus she was still in big danger for a few hours after I was born, so note to self, don't diss my mom's intuition. But what we had (which I won't name here, because some people I know are hoping to become pregnant at some point) only affects .5% of births, and is much more easily monitored and treated now. Plus it all worked out fine for my mom and me.

It feels both neat and strange to be almost my dad's age when I knew him. I know the next eight years are going to be "wow, I'm now my dad's age when (insert childhood memory here) happened." Makes me feel a completely imaginary kinship toward him -- I mean, obviously I feel a real kinship toward him, but what does our age concordance have to do with anything? His era and life were so different from mine, I doubt finally being his age helps me imagine him accurately.

I hate blogging about something so serious, but perhaps it's obvious anyway, and it's so long ago and abstract -- but it strikes me, still, that the night I was born he grieved for me, and that after that I've lived almost my whole life grieving for him.

I guess we both had hard jobs.

Friday, August 14, 2009

you don't make lists anymore

Last night Lisa stopped by on her way home from San Francisco in order to listen to me complain about how an old boyfriend of mine "doesn't react enough" to my stories. Leading me to suspect (as I do on a regular basis) that I'm a horrible, terrible, really awful conversationalist.

That suspicion led to a whole host of others, most along the lines of the overwhelming evidence that exists to show that I'm bad person, but this train of reasoning was interrupted when Lisa asked, "In the past, have you asked him to hold his responses until the end?"

Long story here. Lisa's from NYC. And I don't think her brain ever moved west. She's maddeningly reactive, jumping in at any intake of breath to conjecture on the six ways you might end that next sentence. I've yelled at her and yelled at her to stop interrupting me, until last week when I finally yelled at her to react more. "Don't just nod! This is huge!" "Oh, sorry, I didn't think you were finished with the story." "I'm not!" It was just, um, lonely without her commentary. I want her interruptions back. Once again, the laugh's on me. Even more so because a few days ago someone criticized me for doing that exact same interrupting thing.

Anyway, no, I didn't ever train my old boyfriend not to interrupt, then forget and wish he'd interrupt more. That's the kind of thing I reserve for Lisa. With that settled, she thoughtfully remarked, "I notice you don't make those lists anymore."

It took me a minute to understand what she was talking about. Then I remembered: quite often I appear at, say, a coffee get-together with a friend, holding a small list of the conversational topics I plan to address. And before Lisa mentioned that I no longer do that, it never, ever hit me how superfreaky weird that is.

Jesus Christ, somebody butterfly net me now. Lists! Of stuff to talk about! And not because I'm worried that we won't think of anything to say. No, it's because I think we'll forget. I create little meeting agendas in order to make the conversation more fucking efficient. Seriously, how is this woman still hanging out with me?

What's even more hilarious is that she's just seen the tip of the iceberg. Those lists are drafted for phone conversations, emails, relatives, neighbors -- wherever there's more than two topics of conversation -- or even one if I have to keep track of it for a week -- a list finds its way into being. How did I become this person? More intriguingly, how did I stop?

I remember rushing to the entry table to retrieve my conversation list whenever Lisa stopped by. I even remember adding to the written agenda during the conversation itself. I just don't remember when it was I abandoned the ridiculously goofy practice.

Lisa told me that she kinda misses the lists. As for me, I miss the spontaneous, unconstrained reactions that lovingly say, "You're fascinating. Now tell me more about your recent discovery of Harry Potter fan porn. "

school's out

Summer school ended four hours ago, which means I'm officially a third of the way through school. The results of the past few months are:

1. I'm currently in a dysfunctional relationship with yet another twenty-something and will spend the rest of summer vacation plotting ways to extricate myself.

2. I think far more about Calvinism than I would wish on anyone, even a Calvinist.

3. My stomach hurts after I eat.

4. Still no progress on my unpainted dining room, let alone the giant hoarder stacks of unfiled papers. I can, however, recite minor Emily Dickinson poems from memory and provide you with obscure OED definitions for much of her vocabulary. (Did you know "disparage" can mean unequal marriage? And "cochineal" is made from crushed dead insects.)

5. If I hear one more teacher complain about the "smiley face" grading system in the California schools, I will definitely go into rampage mode despite my lack of any better weapon than a squirt gun.

To be fair, I only heard one teacher make the "smiley face" comment, but I've had to listen to her make it four times over the past six weeks.

O, to be a non-student who could rejoinder, "So. What have you published recently?" Instead I give her an actual, real-life smiley face in order to escape becoming any more of a target for the bitter emptiness that constitutes her soul.

Oh, yeah, and there are increasing amounts of caffeine and sleep aids in my life. Ah, bliss, summer vacation. School doesn't start again for...

...13 days. Or six, if I decide to take that programming class.

Friday, July 31, 2009

dating William Blake

I found the best ever comment board on a William Blake poetry site. I'm afraid they'll take it down, so I must, must, must, if it's the only contribution I ever make to this world, reproduce it here.

Rebecca Smith (7/29/2009 7:47:00 PM)
Hello William Blake. My name is Rebecca Smith i started writing poetry last summer and my first poem was called Summer, i've written over abt 22 poems in the last past months and i have a friend who's working on the book and i plan on getting them published. When did you start writing? ? My favorite poem by you is A Dream. it's lovely! ! ! ! how was writing poetry for you? ? was it hard, or easy? ? for me it's both! ! ! ! your an Awesome writer! ! ! keep up the good work. I hope you reply to my comment i would love to talk to you. Love Rebecca! ! !

Rebecca Smith inspires my utmost awe and admiration. She thinks she's hot enough to pick up on William Blake! If he has in-grave wireless access, he could totally be getting laid right now. And note how casual she is -- no punctuation or spelling check needed. She's a poet! And she's hot! He'll definitely want her bad.

Miss favor (below) is slightly more realistic in that she only thinks she can attract a currently-living person of the opposite sex, but she's still not put off by age, distance, or ethnicity. I thought "health" was suspiciously important to her, until I realized that, unlike Rebecca, she's not turned on by the post-memorial-service crowd. Whatever, favorfrank35 is her man -- hmm, I wonder which came first, Miss favor or favorfrank? Complete coincidence, I'm sure. I love how she chooses her prospective mate entirely on the basis of his appreciation for Romantic poetry (well, that and the results of his last physical), despite the fact that it appears she can barely read or write English.

Babyjoram Benson (5/18/2009 6:13:00 AM)
Hello (
My name is Miss favor am 24yr old. I saw your profile today at
and it really acttract me alot i believe that you are the man i have been looking for to share my love; How is your health? i hope all is well with you. I believe that we can move from here; but remember that distance; age and colour dose not matter what matters is the true love and understanding; in my next e-mail i shall include my pictuer; i been waithing for your reply mail me with this mail address for further introduction.
Bye hopeing to hear from you soonest (

Here's a more subdued post:

p.a. noushad (6/14/2008 1:37:00 AM)
romantic touch in the poems gives me bliss, good poems.

Although, is it just me or is posting a compliment addressed directly to Blake himself a bit unnecessary?

The next two comments work in concert:

Poppi Westbury (2/24/2008 6:58:00 AM)
His poems speak to the romantic soul in me. I think his work is beautiful, mystical and enthralling.

The Riddler (2/13/2008 9:24:00 AM)
boring made me fall asleep

Next, Barbara Bizarro, back in school! Check out her last line for a sort of heart-wrenching awkward adorable sentiment that sounds like it came straight out of an early Star Trek episode.

Barbara Bizarro (1/30/2008 1:09:00 AM)
I am currently studying this man's poetry back in school, and personally I believe that his work is breathtaking altogether. The simplicity of his writing underlines the little society at the time knew about the consequences of their actions. Not only has this man helped us create our own picture, but he has also pushed his messages across to his readers. His use of simple and understandable vocabulary enables people of different ages to understand what he is implying. Although I don't exactly enjoy my English classes, I have truly been able to love the art of poetry through my own life's events and through his work.
Thank you, Blake, you have inspired me put my own sentiments into words. For that I'll never be able to thank you enough.
May your work rest upon the world's surface for as long as Earth is still inhabited with the memories of its people.

I also defy you not to love "Underlines the little society knew at the time about the consequences of their own actions." Like that guy who invented the tiger! Socially irresponsible creep.

Last, I present Hannah Oak, literary critic for the new millennium:

Hannah Oak (3/11/2006 5:27:00 AM)
Wiliam Blake has an interesting outlook when it comes to writing poems.Its the way he uses theoratical terms in his poetry that fasinates me the most and he also gives a sometimes happy sometimes sad outlook on certain areas on life in which you would quickley over see and not give much thought about.

Yes, Blake makes me often reflect on how much we quickley over see. Like poetry comment boards.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Today Sequoia and I walked to a cafe and hung out with a neighborhood kid who deflected a whole "reading" interrogation I was conducting (I can't help myself, I'm constantly making the literature equivalent of illegal search and seizure stops with kids) by suddenly mentioning that he can draw "anything." Challenge on.

I happened to have four, count 'em four, different colored pens in my purse. Totally felt like a college student-slash-overprepared mom-type at that moment. (Does anyone else remember that Sesame Street episode where Maria's mom visits and, in a conversation with Oscar the Grouch, pulls out a bar of soap from her purse? Maria reacted with, "Ma, do you always keep a bar of soap in your purse?" which doesn't sound funny when you read it in a blog, but at the time I nearly died laughing because Mrs. Figueroa reminded me so much of my own mom. ) So anyway this kid set to work drawing dogs and flowers and extremely cool cars with "spinners," and I suppose you know what "spinners" means although I didn't know the name of them before.

Then he ceremoniously announced that he was going to draw my house. He was (heroically, in my mind) unperturbed by the fact that he's never seen my house. The drawing he presented had rainclouds, a star, and a dollar sign drawn onto the roof. I asked if those were for good luck. I could totally tell by his hesitation that I had read way more into them than he intended, but he was game to humor me. "Yeah," he nodded, and then said, "and now I'll draw a circle around your house. This will keep the monsters away."

How fucking lucky am I? A lifetime monster repellent, absolutely free of charge, and which, as I interpret it, can be applied to any house even loosely defined as "mine." I immediately experienced a peace of mind previously unknown to me.

And I can confidently report that no monster has yet crossed the fearsome barrier.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

photo finish

I have to repeat a joke my brother made up. He was telling me about how his grandkids catch snails and then hold snail races. I was trying to picture this (How do you keep them going in the same direction? For that matter, how do you keep them going?) and began asking him questions related to "How do they know who wins?"

He shook his head and said, "There's no photo finish for these guys. You've gotta use an oil painting."

My brother is always making up arcane little logic jokes like these, and they always make me laugh for years afterwards. Although I repeated this joke to one person and she totally didn't even smile.

On a related note, my great niece can catch butterflies in her hand, hold them by one wing while they flutter, show them to me, and then let them fly away. She's spooky calm around animals and had my dog (twice her size) adoring her in no time. "How do you know him so well?" she asked me, and I kinda wanted to ask her the same question. But the fact that she, at age four, asked such a thing is indicative of her deep curiosity about animals. How many people care what a dog is thinking? But she already wants to learn how to decode that body language.

I love it when kids have something that is so uniquely theirs. When you see kids do stuff like that, stuff they aren't taught, stuff they're just passionate about, how can you not believe in self-determination?

There's something inside us we can't help. For her it's invertebrate sporting events.

lost weekend

I visited my family two weeks ago as a sort of end of semester, balmy desert evening, margaritas, and feet in the kiddie pool break. And although I drink so rarely and so little that you may as well say I don't at all, I was really hankering for those margaritas.

Everyone in my family drinks a lot, and I think I just wanted to be left in rather than out. Also, my mom used to have this romantic tradition of sundowners in her garden -- started when she lived in Ojai (buddhist mountain paradise) with her last husband, a man addicted to martinis complete with crunchy alcohol-soaked olives. They had a wonderful vegetable garden they worked on for six months a year, so the backyard was lush and smelled of cucumbers. I loved everything about the sundowners except the bitter taste of alcohol. I brought my own iced tea.

But damn it, this time I was going to partake of my sister-in-law's perfect crumbly salt-rimmed frosty margaritas. Which she made every evening I was there. One night she added homemade guacamole and tortilla chips warm from the pan. And that's how I discovered the joys of alcoholism.

Alcohol! Before an hour had gone by, my brother was singing the Margaritaville song to me and before two hours had gone by we had taught it to my mother. I slept like a baby even in 85 degree heat and despite whatever anxiety always accompanies any visit home. It's almost like it's some kind of magic drug that suffuses happiness and beauty into all that you experience. Where's the down side, people?

I am now seriously considering becoming an alcoholic. Thursday night I drank what is probably my fifth beer of my entire life. Or at least drank 6 ounces of an 8 ounce glass. (I also found out that you can brush and floss until 3 am, but that beer scent is still going to take its sweet time to go away.) I'm not giving up! I've been advised to switch to cider if I want to go the long haul, and that is definitely my plan.

Because going for a beer sounds wonderful. People in bars are fantastic. They sing and talk about how my dog is a Diego Velázquez dog and then the boy you're with tries to kiss you...okay, maybe it was just that one bar visit, but still. That's the kind of magical thing that can happen when you're out for a beer.

I realize that becoming an alcoholic is a huge financial drain -- and to be honest, I've never understood how people afford drugs -- but I totally think it's worth the commitment. It's like when I first got my glasses -- the world is different, the colors are brighter, there is nothing more to want than this.

Last night I half stumbled half floated through the Mission on my way home from my friend's birthday party. I usually dread parties (weirdly because I always have fun) and this one was no exception. But there were mojitos and a view of the city and today I found myself counting the days until the next friend of mine has a birthday. Which is in 3 weeks and I already know what I want to order.

I've spent pretty much my whole life fearing alcoholism; now it's time to embrace it. Just the few drinks I've had so far have given me a glimpse of the world in which work problems are left at the office, indiscriminate sex might be had, and family conversations don't leave your head hurting for days. So this is what life is like for other people! They never have to actually get over anything; the alcohol takes care of that for them.

No wonder so many people are way less anal retentive than me.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

vowel sounds

I was doing research for a paper I wrote about an Emily Dickinson poem, and I found out that each vowel sound has a relative pitch associated with it. Is this like the craziest thing you've ever heard or what? I'm racking my brain, but even news of the platypus was not as startling. Okay, wait -- piranhas. Piranhas, which I first learned about in my school library in the second grade, were just as startling. Vowel pitch is the emotional equivalent of flesh-eating fish with teeth.

Having gotten that out of the way, I can already say that I've researched the web and contacted two, count 'em, two, music experts -- one of whom apparently took an entire course on vowel pitch while doing his masters. And neither of them can tell me which vowel sounds are lower/higher than which.

In fact, my friend Andy not-so-helpfully pointed out that "Higher pitches are put on the upper lines of the staff, lower pitches on the lower." Which says more about what he thinks of my musical education than it does anything else. I wanted to email back, "Btw, nouns are a person, place or thing." Instead I called him to formally lodge a complaint. He's taking the matter to his brother (who teaches music at NYU) and his dad (who is just an all around geek who sings and speaks French, although how the latter is connected was not made clear to me.) So I have a team of crack experts now working on this question; stay tuned.

This is exactly the kind of thing that I find both thrilling and unsettling: there's so much to learn about the world, and you can never know enough.

sex drive

After spending a week complaining to my friends about this guy I just met...and then another week complaining about how strangely attracted I am to him in the midst of a giant sea of unattraction...I am now completely in the throes of a biological urge that is bigger than the both of us.

And this is what I hate about sex drives. They're biologically designed to be stronger than any kind of logic humankind can devise, and right now one is kicking my ass. I just know I'm about to become the victim of another doomed romance; I could sew together a Christo/Jeanne-Claude art piece with all the red flags.

But I still can't think properly about anything else.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

women of low caliber

I just read a letter some guy wrote in to a sex advice columnist saying that he'd been dating women "of low caliber." What a fantastic phrase! I'm not sure how to get classified as such (and I'm probably dangerously close to meeting the qualifications) but I am absolutely dying to have an ex-boyfriend say that about me. In theory, that is.

Which reminds me -- Wendy had a friend, Tim, who lived in New York. At one point he was pressured into attending some neighborhood meeting, which he dealt with by getting stoned beforehand. Backstory, on the block where he lived there was a Catholic charity halfway house for women that he jokingly referred to as The Home for Wayward Women. At the meeting, he got caught up in the community spirit, so he went up to the podium and spoke in support of the nuns who wanted to start more neighborhood projects. "The Home for Wayward Women does great work..." A nun interrupted him, "Thank you, dear. It's The Brandon Residence." He nearly died of embarrassment before stumbling home to call Wendy in California because it was too late to call anyone in New York.

Postscript: A few years ago I made a Home for Wayward Women joke to Wendy, who, it turned out, had no memory of the event. I love it when stuff like this happens; friends of mine are always reminding me of some crazy story I've told them and then completely forgotten about. It's like finding a $20 in your coat pocket.

Oh, wait, another story! I had a boyfriend whose mom was visiting California from the Midwest. They had lunch at an outdoor cafe and a homeless guy spare changed them. When I saw them at dinner he made me try to guess her response. Before I could even think through the question, she said (with dreamy eyes), "He was a wayfaring stranger." Apparently she'd been swept away by her own imagined romance of the homeless guy's life. A couple of years later he'd forgotten all about the incident and swore that "wayfaring stranger" was a phrase I'd come up with by myself. As if I were anywhere near that clever, but hey, that's why I liked him.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

summer roommate

I swore to myself that I wouldn't write about how much I seriously hate my summer roommate, but it's either that or her body washes up near Point Richmond. (Which is an oddly popular body dumping site, btw. I feel like it should have its own twitter channel.)

So. I'm about to start listing all the ways S.R. annoys me when I realized that I've sort of forgotten how to blog. Right now I'm avoiding a paper on Emily Dickinson, which is really just a paper on a single poem by Emily Dickinson, which actually boils down to one word and two punctuation mark revisions in a poem by Emily Dickinson. And that I can write about, which makes me infinitely sad. Because whether or not God is the "further" of ourselves or the "maker" of ourselves, and what that says about Emily's subversive atheism, is so, so, less important than how much olive oil my roommate steals from me.

But wait! I have to talk about this guy's paper! He lives in Berkeley and so we carpool. He's very groovy in class and so I had this idea that he was this "my life is organized" brainiac. Only with a sensitive side. But no, he's a total fuckup and he spent last weekend basically begging me to write his damn paper for him. He didn't phrase it that way. He phrased it, "Let me buy you a glass of wine and we can meet and discuss my paper," and several variations on that theme. Until I started deleting his voicemails without listening. He wrote seven drafts of a five-page paper, then made me listen to him read it on our commute to class. All this and yet...he refused to follow three different important instructions. This is what makes me crazy about people. How hard is it to use a standard margin size and not quote outside sources? Ugh, whatever, back to my roommate.

She steals olive oil. And she leaves stuff lying around, in exactly the same place, untouched, for weeks. She has this ugly hipster friend who is smelly and spends the night a lot. At one point I loaned her some Neosporin, then told her I'd leave it out on the bathroom cabinet for her in case she needed it again the next day. A week later I saw it in the cabinet on her shelf. And the next day I heard her offer it to her friend. In other words, she appropriates. (Why so much Neosporin? They formed a girl band named Pissy, they rehearse in our backyard, and they get blisters from their guitar strings. Heavy sigh.) Try to forget about the awesome band name for a second and focus on my pain.

And if she does something that normal people would apologize for, like burn the bottom of my nonstick pan, she simply disappears for several days hoping the whole incident will be forgotten. In fact, she never communicates about anything. Paying the rent five days late? No problem! There's really no need to mention something as silly as that.

Okay, but here's the real issue: her passive-agressive non-communication style forces me to look into the abyss of my own communication shortcomings. In my lifetime, even in recent memory, even this summer, I've been her so many times.

Which brings me to Christina. Christina is my real roommate. The roommate of serenity and joy and long conversations about zombies over morning coffee in the kitchen. Christina is someone I can pee in front of, someone who explains how she talked her boyfriend into a tricky new sex move, someone who eats spaghetti-o's and knows what it's like to grow up in a small town, and who discusses Edward Said and who gets me, really really gets me. Christina is the most amazing woman I've ever met. Because she knows how to do what none of us mere mortals have really mastered: communicate.

When she first moved in, she asked me every stupid question a roommate could concoct, including, "Do you think it would be okay if I used some of your pet stain removal to clean up my dog's vomit from your rug?" She asked permission for everything. "Can I put my coffee maker on the counter?" "Can I give your dog some peanut butter?" She wore me down with her insane politeness, until Christina could do absolutely anything, including use five gallons of my olive oil, and I wouldn't object.

Lisa thinks I love Christina because of Christina's intrinsic awesomeness. And there's a lot to be said for that theory -- Wendy developed an instant girl crush on her, she's that charming. But I think there's more to it than that. Because Christina could do all of the same things S.R. has done (including let her best friend accidentally lock me out of my house) and I wouldn't care. I mean, I love Christina, foibles and all. And part of that is just how much fun she is and how kind and how nice she is to me. But most of it is how fucking up front she is. She sort of wears you down with communication until you can't resist. You know how it's supposed to be easier to get forgiveness than permission? Christina taught me how obviously wrong that is. Much, much easier to get permission.

And when she comes back, I'm going to -- well, not do anything weird with olive oil, because that would pretty much ruin our friendship -- but I'm going to do something nice like buy her and her friends a package of Neosporin.

Friday, July 3, 2009

it's possible to have sex in my bedroom

Conditions in my bedroom have improved to the degree that limited sex is now theoretically possible. And not just the masturbate then cry yourself to sleep kind (that kind was always available). I'm talking about actual sex involving at least two human partners.

And probably at most two, since we're still light years away from advanced highly-technological sex. There will be no homemade chocolate chip pancakes in the morning, although I did purchase an extra toothbrush as proof of concept.

One day, it may even be possible to have sex in my bedroom with me. Science is working steadily toward that goal (which has been called "Not impossible. Just improbable.") and is hoping to make great strides within the coming year.

I'm not ready to invite alpha testers yet, but today I put all the furniture back where it was supposed to be, organized the contents of my closet, and cleaned the floor, including under the bed.

Now all I need are some vanilla scented candles.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

the new phone book is here!

Tonight Lisa stopped by to say hi and show me her just-published cook book, Cook Food.

We made tea and she sat in the kitchen with me while I did, um, food-related things. Like make pasta from a prepared sauce. And throw out some stuff I neglected to eat last week. (Not without guilt, understand.) And, triumph, roasted some sweet potatoes just the way Lisa had laboriously taught me to do. She hung out for an hour or so, then Sequoia and I walked her home. Totally casual evening. Nothing to remark upon.

When I got home I sat down at the kitchen table to snack on sweet potatoes and procrastinate on homework by idly flipping through her incredibly beautiful cook book. Which is how I found out that I'm in the acknowledgments! I'm famous!

I now know exactly how Steve Martin felt when the new phone book came out. (Which logically implies that there's a sniper out there reading those selfsame acknowledgments, but let's set that aside for the moment.)

I'm so excited! My name is in a book on Amazon! My whole, entire name! True, I'm praised for my cooking "curiosity," a hilariously polite term for "Lisa, what's cumin?" But I also got a shout out for my sharp editorial eye ("Lisa, remember to explain to people what cumin is") and there's no way I'm looking that gift horse in the mouth.

Mostly, I can't believe I had the privilege of being any small part of the coolness that is this cook book. Hard to explain, but it's strangely sentimental for me (the book, not the acknowledgment -- although, yeah, that too).

Because -- for example -- when I was a kid I was the only kid in school who brought sandwiches on whole wheat bread. In fact, I realize I will not be believed here but: I had to explain to the other kids what it was. They'd never seen non-white bread before. My mom graduated from whole grains to granola to avocados (which were oddly rare back then) to yogurt (new to west coast Protestants).

"Health food" was important in our family, and we were always on the 70s cutting edge of food fashion. We shopped at a tiny "health food store" located in a strip mall. In fact, I think Laurel's Cook Book (my bible when I was 17) mentions something about how great it would be if junk food stores became marginalized, and health food became the real food sold in grocery stores. That dream has pretty much come true, at least in Berkeley. People are about as likely to open a new health food store as they are a video rental place.

My grown up life has definitely been an increasingly refined approach to eating in a way that I believe in, excuse the religious phraseology. But the "belief" has more to do with the idealism that my mom's 70s cooking represented than it did with any specific religious food tenets.

The audacity of food, if you will. That there would be a future that included whole foods that are whole in every sense of the word, including sensory experience. Foods that possess a certain serenity. Food that comes with no ad campaigns, no pesticides, no factory farms, no intercontinental shipping, no substandard labor conditions. And also no asceticism. Lisa's cook book pretty much encompasses that ideal.

And did I mention I'm listed in the acknowledgments?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

sno white drive in

Sno White deserves its own entry. There are a few prerequisites to understanding its significance and I'll attempt to outline them here.

Fast food barely existed in the 60s. I think there was one McDonald's in our town, which I maybe got taken to twice as a child. I think burgers were had maybe 6-8 times a year. I know that's standard for people with hippie parents, but hippie parents hadn't even had a chance to conceive yet. They were still teenagers themselves. So I'm talking about just normal life in mainstream America. It wasn't that we were thinking about and craving fast food during the weeks and months we weren't getting it. It's that fast food was a blip on the radar; something that didn't occur to you very frequently.

I guess today its really the food of the poor, but back then poor people ate stuff (like corned beef and mashed potatoes, my favorite childhood meal) at home. The first time I tasted Spaghetti-Os, which was invented when I was about nine, I nearly spit it out. I had begged for weeks for my mom to buy it (she was definitely not a canned food/brand name kind of consumer, and Spaghetti-Os -- currently priced at 43 cents a can -- was considered expensive) and I was really embarrassed that I couldn't swallow more than a few bites. She was sympathetic. I mean, basically it's watery tomato-flavored sugar over O-shaped dough. But that just gives you an idea of how foreign "convenience" foods were.

All that changed in the 70s, when a frightening dystopic "restaurant row" went up in our town. Fast food was a fixture of my teen years. But not at all during childhood.

Okay, so keep that in mind. Fast food was rare. Next point: my aunt's steel blue station wagon. It was enormous and it was our caravan. My cousins (Betsy and Leslie, whose names never sounded hilarious to me until just now) and I hung out in the backseat on whatever chauffeured adventure. So picture yourself there on a hot summer day, coming home from the park or something. (You have to be me in this scenario, but it's only imaginary and it won't last, I promise.)

Your aunt says, "I think we'll drop in at Snow White's." Betsy and Leslie cheer. You reflect. Obviously, there is no "real" Snow White. But it's possible that there is some Snow White attraction that exists that you've never heard of but that your cousins evidently adore. Or that your aunt maybe knows somebody who is so much like Snow White that a whole nickname situation was engendered. You check. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?" Your aunt, thinking you are joking, plays along. Your cousins chime in on the joke, which continues in various forms for the next several minutes. The entire time your brain is continually recalculating the probability stats that you will soon be in the presence of the actual Snow White, and that probability is now approaching 95%.

Then you pull into the Sno White drive in parking lot. And -- drum roll please -- this turn of events is so dramatic that you are NOT disappointed. The opposite. The idea that you could casually, at the last moment, decide to "drop in" to a burger joint is about as extraordinary as you calling up a friend right now to go drink a milkshake in Paris.

The opulence. The decadence. It just wasn't done.

Sno White's menu was: Burger. Cheeseburger. Fries. Coke. Seven Up. Ice cream cone in the three standard flavors. It was dizzying. What to choose?

Their burgers were flat and crispy and that's what made them different. Buns were toasted and smeared with mayonnaise and secret sauce (which, as the movies have revealed to us, is forever thousand island dressing). I can't stand mayonnaise, but Sno White was a magical enchanted place where mayonnaise reigned supreme. The fries were thick krinkle fries that came pre-salted in a waxed paper envelope. Pre-salted, people. Can I get some appreciation here?

You lived one block away from Sno White until you were 10. At some point after you moved, it was converted into a taqueria. And although you grew up and became a vegetarian, a couple of times a year you fall asleep thinking about that particular taste that exists nowhere else in the world. You know the dull red of the laminated tabletops, you know the sound and feel of the cooler that ran in place of air conditioning, you know your cousin's standard order (burger, hold the mayo -- and she was the first person I ever heard say that in real life, 7-Up). You know everything about that place.

Except the fact that there are still eleven of them! And one of them is conveniently located right in the middle of your route to Yosemite!

I had to call my friend Richard, who keeps statues of the A&W family next to his swimming pool, and ask him if he knew that Sno White still existed. Even he didn't realize it! And have I mentioned that the entire A&W family stands next to his pool?

In closing, I'd like to take a moment to share this awe-inspiring photo with you. I defy even Yosemite to come up with something more beautiful.

i can't even write this

I'm currently in the throes of completing my first short story ever. And by throes I mean taking Sequoia on gratuitous walks and watching old news interviews of my friend's dad online.

Which reminds me -- I also bought this 1938 book online. A (different) friend's dad used to talk about this book and how it included charts and maps and instructions for pretty much throwing over your existing life for a life of adventure on the high seas. He had the book for a time but then lost it. I've always wanted to read it. Over the years, I've searched for it in used bookstores to no avail. Yesterday I suddenly remembered the internet. Five minutes and twelve dollars later, I became the proud owner. So yeah, that's what I'm doing instead of finishing my story, which is due a week from tomorrow.

So then I thought I'd write about my recent trip to Yosemite in order to ease in to um, the thing I supposedly want to do more than anything else in the world. But I found myself retyping my blog entry title six times, then stopping to marvel at how laughably fucked up I am. I suppose that's what separates actual writers from, uh, me.

But I digress. Yosemite was incredible, but there's almost too many stories to tell. In chronological order, there's:

1. Sno White drive in! I bet you didn't know that Sno White is indeed a chain and that there are 11 stores still extant in California. Because I sure didn't. I thought there was only one Sno White ever and that it had closed its doors on Chester Avenue way way back sometime after its heyday in the 60s. One screeching U-turn was all it took to semi re-experience the taste of a Sno White burger (which I couldn't bring myself to eat, although Michael assured me it was quite enjoyable).

2. The way Michael talks. It freaks me out that a British accent just never gets old for me. And although I've been listening to (or, er, tuning out) Michael for years, it's like there was this whole new "Yosemite Edition" Michael. Complete with phrases like, "Did you bring your torch?" and "I think I left my jumper in the bonnet." We did amazing things like "endeavor" to park closer and start on our hikes by "half past." Bob was our uncle for almost the entire trip.

Interestingly, when people ask me where I'm from when I'm in Berkeley, I know the answer is "Bakersfield." When they ask that in Yosemite, the response is obviously "Berkeley." But for Michael it's different, and I never thought about that before. Perhaps when he's in England he can be from Berkeley, but any other place in the world requires him to be from Cambridge. Whenever I told people that "we're" from Berkeley, they shot him a questioning, suspicious look that confused me but not him. He just smiled and nodded, "Originally from Cambridge." Oh.

3. People still don't know how to talk about tribes. All over Yosemite, there are official plaques that say things like, "The native peoples believed that this was inhabited by evil spirits that caused illness." No shit. Substitute "bacteria" for "spirits" and I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say they were right.

4. I'm always impressed by Yosemite's refusal to provide Disneyland-level safety for visitors, despite the Disney-like atmosphere. It's the fucking wilderness, candy coating notwithstanding. The schism makes my brain ache. Tiny children scrambling up slick wet rocks next to a sheer cliff overlooking the rapids. No one is afraid, and yet people actually do fall to their deaths here. In fact, a woman died the day before we arrived. I know her death affected everyone. But the next day, I watched people run down those same slippery rocks, jostling people as they passed. I can never figure out if I'm too afraid or if they aren't afraid enough.

5. Wilderness areas always trigger my inner Western civilization vs. Native American way of life debate. I totally love Western civilization. But wow, how fast do we screw up paradise? Tens of thousands of years of balance nearly gone within a hundred years.

Still, at one point I realized that only a very few people ever saw Yosemite valley before this past century. How weird is it that people lived and died there never knowing what a rare place it was? And that others may have lived and died just a few hundred miles away, never knowing it existed? I wish I could think about other things during camping trips. But I'd say that 80% of my brain space is taken up with "what was it like" and "what will it be like" and "what could have been."

The other 20% is taken up with my plan to (but not today) climb Half Dome.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

usually used

My latest brain craze is adverbs. A few weeks ago, a grad student criticized the number of adverbs in my hastily-written story (get it? get it? a little humor there). He then proceeded to give the best explanation in the history of written language about why to avoid adverbs.

He said, "Because everybody walks clumsily in a different way." I've been turning that over in my mind and have come to the conclusion that everyone is also cheerful in a different way, but the principle still holds. I revisited the subject a couple of days ago when I read a similar adverb cautionary tale on a writing website. Apparently it's Rule 14:

14. Avoid excessive use of adjectives and adverbs; trust the precision of your nouns and verbs. Verb form: the shorter the better. Avoid helping verbs and progressives. Avoid passive voice. Avoid cliche and stock phrases.

Has telling people to avoid stock phrases become cliche yet? If not, what day should I calendar that for? Anyway, the truth is that I remembered Rule 14 in much greater detail than it appears above. I thought it said to replace adverbs with strong verbs. I guess I embellished it during the course of my 48-hour obsession. In my mind, Rule 14 came complete with examples like:

"She eyed the chocolate greedily" vs "Her eyes consumed the chocolate."

You know, the kinds of examples that invite counter arguments. Like the fact that "eyed" is a strong verb and "greedy" is a strong adjective. It's true that "greedily" is no fun to trip over. But also true that "consumed" is a really impersonal verb -- the only reason it gets away with being cool in the sentence above is that it gets to hang out with the "eyes" noun. So which sentence is better? Seriously, I'm not sure.

Whatever, I started doing a whole adverb scan on Amazon books. Amazon writing technique scans deserve their whole separate blog entry! Maybe even an entire blog! I know I can't be the first person to realize that every novel in the history of every language is on Amazon, and that we get to read the first five pages instantly and for free. But no one has ever shared with me the marvel that is the Amazon WTS, so I'm taking credit for it as my own independent invention.

Beyond the whole adverb thing, I learned that good novels have this great "brain feel" from the very first word. Like the first moments listening to an orchestra in a concert hall. The music resonates in your body. For example, the first page of The Great Gatsby has phrases like, "privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men." Jesus Christ, how can you argue with that?

The first page also contains an adverb. And this is what fascinates me: Good writers do avoid adverbs. But they also use them, and in very specific ways. Which I'm attempting to scientifically (ha! another joke) outline here:

1. Idiom. Phrases like "Our team won handily" or "she wept openly" or "hardly ever" or "isn't necessarily so" really can't be communicated any other way. Those are the phrases. And we love them, adverbs and all. Same with temporal adverbs. You "usually" use them or "occasionally" use them, but you better at least sometimes use them because it's very hard to describe frequency without an adverb.

2. Character. People use adverbs, so characters use adverbs. Someone who says "we've always been unusually communicative" is telling you something about his education and background. Someone who says "...he mentioned someplace in Dorset, and his face beneath the blotches went into a completely new kind of grimace" is talking almost the way a person might actually talk, or at least think, or at the very least picture something. Replace "went into a completely" with "transformed into a" and you have a stiff, writerly construction in the middle of a sentence about illness and bad memories.

3. Third person. Adverbs start appearing more when people start talking about other people. I myself have never done anything "jerkily," but five constables might have come "jerkily into attention" before they "subsided into their usual sprawl."

4. Expedience. Not every moment in a story is some hushed perfect long drawn-out moment. Sometimes you just want to mention a thing in passing and go on to the next more important thing. Adverbs speed things up, or at least I suspect they do in some cases. For example, notice the two adverbs in the second sentence of Toni Morrison's A Mercy:

"Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark -- weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more -- but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bear teeth." Are we really going to want to slow down that incredibly long and interesting sentence in order to "lie in the dark without making a sound" or "see blood in certain moments"? "Quietly" and "occasionally" give us the images in real time.

5. Past events. We don't really need to be in the moment for stuff that happened before the action of the story takes place. If this is just background info, it's enough to say, "And then, miraculously, Adam's new job came through..."

And you've probably already started noticing that the examples that illustrate one use also illustrate a bunch of others. One adverb for a past event described by a character in third person using standard idiom... It seems like good writers often have more than one reason to plunk in an adverb.

I think the thing I liked best was noticing the purposes the adverbs served: the reason to avoid them is the same reason to use them. They keep you at a distance, out of the moment, they summarize. And sometimes that works perfectly for a particular moment in the story.

I think where adverbs go awry is when they make you "repaint" the story in your head. Like "walked across the room lightly" makes you first picture walking, then go back and picture it again, only this time "lightly." Tiptoed across the room places the picture in your head before you are even conscious of it being there. That's the kind of thing that creates great "brain feel." (Not that the above sentence is a terrific example. I'm just saying.)

Okay, last thing and then I'll put a stop to this whole anal retentive tiresomeness (at least I'll stop this one instance of it). I once took a physics class from a teacher who wrote her own textbook. The first chapter discussed the principle of Occam's razor, which is “The simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation." (Actually, Wikipedia just explained to me that that's not exactly what he said -- he just wanted us to introduce the fewest assumptions and postulate the fewest entities. Let's pretend we didn't hear that.)

Anyway, I had learned about this principle at a snobby private college I'd attended in the past. Only there they acted like it was the kind of thing you defend to your death. In contrast, my physics teacher described it as a prejudice (I'm paraphrasing badly here; whatever it was she actually said carried no negative connotations). It was somehow soothing to read, "Look, we just all think simple explanations are cool so we're going to believe those whenever we get the chance. No offense to the funky complicated ones."

Applying this to adverbs -- ha! you thought I'd forgotten what I was talking about, didn't you? -- one of the standard reasons given for avoiding them is to "streamline" your writing. Which is a prejudice. And one that really didn't exist before the 1900s, if I understand the whole Hemingway phenomenon correctly. I mean, I'm all for adopting the styles particular to my era, but let's do what my old physics prof did: let's call a spade a spade.

Even better is finding out that this whole eschewing adverbs thing isn't just a passing fad. Which is why I'm so excited to learn that there are deeper reasons to avoid adverbs. Or use adverbs. Whichever makes things go most swimmingly.

Note: Adverb examples are from The Great Gatsby; Never Let Me Go; A Mercy; Sacred Games; and Unaccustomed Earth. And here you thought I was making all this up.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


On LiveMocha you can communicate with others to both learn and teach languages. I'm learning French, but I get trading points for correcting people's English assignments. Which gives me a long-sought after audience for my tirades about how "a" tree can be green, but "a" flower can never be purple. (If you want to say a flower is purple, you have to call it "the" flower.)

Today I received this message in response to one of my "teaching" entries:

Muchas gracias Janet por corregir mi trabajo, es de mucha ayuda para mi, saludos desde Valparaiso, Chile.

After several decades in California, I get the "muchas gracias Janet" part. Beyond that...well, let's just say I'm flattered that she gives me credit for knowing what the hell she's talking about.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

anonymously famous

Daan found the cartoon-illustrated version of my teabagging letter to Savage Love. I'm even more anonymously famous than I thought: AV Club.

My favorite comment was "I'm off to capture a Somalian pirate."

As for me, I'm busy procrastinating on the last three assignments I have to do before the semester ends. And sort of wondering if I plan to blow my perfect grades over an all-consuming need to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on my laptop in bed every night. (A terrible TV show that I already knew was terrible, yet still I persist.)

To make matters worse, through some roundabout chain of events involving a friend of a friend and my obsession with Breaking Bad, I ended up signing up for a month of unlimited video at the Megavideo site, which lists its TV shows by language. I'm currently hooked on what I believe may be the Parisians' answer to the OC, complete with phrases like, "What are you going to do now?" and "The star search is tomorrow night."

Megavideo doesn't say what the show is called, unless it's the hardly likely Diana's Dream. That seems more like an episode title, and Diana keeps acting like her dream is to create the perfect pomme frite so that she can get a job at the Route 66 diner . I actually have no idea what's going on, but it's a great way to avoid homework.

Friday, March 6, 2009

alter ego

A random sampling of recent feedback I've received for my fiction. Note that none of these people have discussed my work with each other, and quite a few of them are reading completely different pieces.


--"David Lynch-like." (Bad enough to get that comment once. I got it twice, from two unrelated people for two totally different pieces of writing.)

--"The tenderness the characters had for each other relieved the grimness of the story."


--"Monotone, in an intentional way." (Uh, yeah, right, I meant to do that.)


The thing is, all this is a total surprise to me. I mean, every once in a while I sense that deep down, I'm not quite as chipper as the people around me. But then I get called an optimist, or cheerful, or funny...and all that stuff sounds true as well. Before recent weeks, no one's been going around using a hilariously antiquated word like "grim" to describe me.

I'm thinking of taking up smoking in order to support my new image.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

procrastination effect

Last night was another surreal night at school. I met with my writing teacher (a grad student) to go over my assignments. I'm not talking about discussing my schoolwork, here. Or doing anything related to actual learning. I'm talking about going over the list of assignments and making sure it's correct.

Yep. That's where we're at. She assigns 4-6 papers per class, each of them insanely small and piecemeal, and then has us read a few dozen disconnected pages and watch spoken word on youtube. Keeping track of all that is like counting confetti -- even she gets confused about what's due when.

For example, last night I received extra credit for turning in two assignments on time. I was the only person in class (including the teacher) who remembered they were due. That's how hard it is to follow our syllabus.

So I spend at least a half hour each week, usually much more, on administrative tasks related to my creative writing class. This would be frustrating even if we were doing actual writing and receiving actual instruction. But we aren't assigned a single short story this semester, nor we read any papers on short story writing.

What do we do instead? Some highlights from last night's class:

A student teaching assistant (yeah, our teacher is a grad student, which means the TAs are regular undergrad students who are somehow receiving class credit -- albeit, no pay -- for their "work") presented a lecture on literary movements. But she got the assignment mixed up (see above) and thought she was supposed to present on poetic movements. So we learned about both Confessional and Beat poetry. I'll come back to that.

Another TA lectured on the Romantic and the Victorian literary movements. She used, as an example of Romanticism, the works of Jane Austen. Jane. Austen. The most staunchly realist, anti-romantic novelist ever to have lived and breathed. Our lecturer brought in 2-page excerpt from Pride and Prejudice, just in case we hadn't flipped through a PBS while channel surfing in the past 5 years. I have to admit I didn't say anything. At times like this, I get this huge self-doubt thing going. Like, "Is she a Romantic because she reacted to Romanticism? Because she wrote during that period? Because, as our TA says, she used pastoral settings and wrote about relationships?"

But, um, no. She's just not, and no critic out on a limb can tell me otherwise. But I didn't want to embarrass the TA. And the sad truth, which I find it strangely hard to face, is that not a single person in my class cares.

Next we were given the in-class assignment of breaking into groups of three and writing a "poet's manifesto." Then we were to write a poem that followed the rules of this manifesto. My wild guess as to the purpose of this assignment is that she wanted us to think about what we believe is important in writing, and to start writing accordingly. Let's put aside, for the moment, the fact that we've never learned to write any poetry at all. And that poetry isn't written in committee. Let's just ride the wave of starting an entirely new poetic movement in our beginning required writing class.

I was grouped with two boisterous guys who treated the whole thing as a joke. How could they not? We were done within 7 minutes, which gave us time to talk. I tried finding out who the best teachers are, what kinds of writing the frat guys wanted to do, and what the hell a girl has to do to find a short story writing class around here. But it was no go. They wanted to text message and talk about bands. By the way, I haven't yet met a single male student who doesn't want to text message and talk about bands.

Our teacher came and joined us. She was, if anything, worse than they were. They joked about how they love to write poetry because they can finish quickly and say, "I'm so fresh." She confessed that she's in her second round of her third year in grad school, and her thesis is nowhere near finished. I try not to suggest ways for her to save time on thinking up useless assignments.

After that, we all stood up and read our manifestos aloud. Then I gave a presentation of my writing, plus a reading from David Sedaris (all this is required). Note that although we are forced to read our writing aloud, there is no feedback or critique. It's just to teach us how to read aloud. You think I'm kidding.

But back to poetry movement girl! Her example of a confessional poem was Daddy by Sylvia Plath. And she had found a youtube recording of Plath reading her work. The poem is 3 minutes, 56 seconds long. Poetry girl shut off the recording at 2 minutes, 54 seconds. With the words, "It's too long."

This is the kind of thing that continually occurs in my classes, and that nobody comments on. For example, a couple of students behind me engaged in a long conversation dissing Shakespeare. I mean, whatever, I'm not committed to Shakespeare. But just have some respect.

Anyway. Quite often we read in class stuff that I've read before. So reading it now catapults me back to the first time I read it, the first time I heard of it, my first teachers. Plath's poem did that in a big way, because when I was 18 I had a teacher who was an expert on Ted Hughes (who Plath was married to) and had a large collection of books, manuscripts, and recordings of their work.

Listening to Plath read Daddy, in her Eve Arden part-British impossible voice, sent me back to a summer afternoon in that teacher's office, listening to a then-rare recording of Plath being interviewed a few months before she died.

It never occurred to me to look for that interview again. Sometimes you forget that what used to be rare is now everywhere. That recording, that hushed office, that moment in time -- an incredible gift to me. We listened to it on a record player, I think. Crackly sound quality. Now I can just look it up on youtube and re-hear her say things I still remember from that one afternoon. In response to the interviewer saying, "You straddle the Atlantic between America and England," she said, "You've put me in a rather awkward position!"

Anyway, it's lovely and nostalgic to hear all that again. Almost too nostalgic, bringing back that teacher and a hundred thousand moments that I had with him over the years. (He had a residency at Chapel Hill, which I didn't understand then was a good school. I visited him there and slept in his den next to stacks of rare books -- also not realizing their importance. During that visit, I watched him reach across the kitchen table, take his wife's hand, and say, "I love you." That was what struck me.)

So whatever, back to my current teacher. Listening to her tell me about all the grad schools she didn't apply to -- and another grad student teacher I have, who told me last week he had only one writing sample -- all I can think about is how I don't want to be like them. And how much I already am like them. I can laugh at all the 5-minute lectures on random literary movements I want, but I still need to go home every day and work on my first short story ever.

But it's much easier to blog.

how pretty

Last week I overheard a little girl at a restaurant say to her family, "We should celebrate how pretty I am."

Not in a bratty conceited way at all. I almost raised my glass in a toast.

Monday, March 2, 2009

school stories

In January, I started taking classes to finally finish my undergrad studies. ( I need 14 English classes for a degree in: English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. I'm not making up that title, that's actually what they call the degree.)

The two classes I'm taking now --Creative Writing, and the hilariously titled Creative Reading, are open only to writing majors. So there's a lot of insecurity and aspiration floating around. My first day at school I sat behind a couple who were vaguely flirting with each other by talking about what kind of writing they want to do. After a few minutes of this, the guy said, "Yeah, I'll probably end up writing technical manuals." Then they laughed. Hey, wait a minute!

I have more school stories, but they're mostly stuff it isn't cool to write about on a blog. Okay, I'll just tell one: a guy in my workshop group asked if, instead of writing original work, he could just write Batman fanfic. This would be less funny if he weren't majoring in writing.

Anyway, these days I'm reading a lot of depressing poetry, going to see even worse plays -- (why must actors always shout at the audience? can't there be adequate microphones?) -- and suffering from severe culture shock (guys who skateboard to class telling me I would love The Bad Plus and office ladies treating me with the condescension usually reserved for nineteen year olds). I'll be lucky if I finish a short story this semester, what with all the "essays on technique" and "urgent social poems" I'm required to write.

Since the last class I took here a million years ago was honors physics, I'm pretty freaked out by the "no instruction, let's just solicit your uninformed opinion" style of teaching. A teacher last week actually said, and I quote, "I could teach you from a textbook. But that would be boring." Then he assigned us to write (not research, not learn) a definition for the term "prose poem." I cheated. I figured I'd just let Robert Hass do that assignment for me as part of his poet laureate duties.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

french oc

Whenever I waste time watching TV (which is frequently) I turn on French subtitles in order to make believe that what I'm doing is constructive.

Late the other night, while watching Project Runway through a bleary sleep-deprived haze, I thought I read "I don't give a sick dog" as translation for "I don't give a damn."

I later asked my Canadian friend -- I've learned that Francais 5.1 is Canadian French, which sometimes has weird slang, so I thought he might know. For example, in Canada the term for boyfriend or girlfriend is simply "blonde," which has a simplicity I adore -- "blonde" being shorthand for all things sexy. But my friend admitted that he was too geeky to actually know any slang. (Let alone slang for what's sexy.)

I returned Project Runway to the video store before I had a chance to double check the sick dog thing, but that experience had me alert to bizarre French translations. And can I just say that The OC on French is more entertaining than Sabado Gigante?

The first freakiness was when the Museum of Tolerance was translated as the Museum of Oceanic Arts. I mean, I get that French people won't know about the Tolerence Museum (although, c'mon, Holocaust studies, seriously). But to translate that as "oceanic arts"? Not sciences, mind you. Arts.

Other stuff just sounds funnier in French -- "let's go" becomes "it is imperative that we move." And "see you soon" doesn't transform as expected into "a bientot" but instead turns into "little goodbye." I know if my French were better I wouldn't be so amused by those phrases. Still, even limiting myself to the truly outrageous, there's a lot of stoned translator moments.

Like when the nerdy guy acts all okay that he's not invited someplace cool. In English, he just says, "Yeah, that's okay, yeah, I was busy anyway..." In French, he invents a whole storyline about how he has to go to the library. There's an entire parallel plot in French, far more rich in detail than Hollywood ever dreamed of.

Which is nice, because so far The OC consists of Ryan bumping into that girl (what's her name), stammering something platonic-erotic to her, and then -- just like in dream sequences -- realizes that Luke has been hovering in the background the whole time. I'm pretty sure that by the end of the series half the characters will be arrested for stalking.

I'm not saying I'm going to quit watching it, though. Il faut que ne me bouge pas.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

death tv

My awesome new roommate loaned me her first season of The OC as part of her evil plan to get me as hooked as she is. This led to a discussion of all things television, during which she encouraged me to watch Six Feet Under.

I don't know her well enough yet to explain exactly why I can't watch funeral-type shows, so I just told her that, um, er, I can't. That wasn't enough to stave off the "father dies in the first show" background explanation, so I spent this evening thinking about my dad.

Which I totally wouldn't have done! Except that, before I settled down to focus on The OC (the pinnacle of nighttime soap), I put House on TV while I rearranged the living room. I thought, "Here's a show where nobody dies and everybody gets cured." Except in this episode, one of the doctors reveals she is dying. I'm not sure from what, because I had to unplug the TV a couple of times. But it sounded fairly incurable, even by House standards.

So then I watched Scrubs (hey, I had to take down the Christmas tree, too). Scrubs. A slapstick comedy show. Only this time, centered around this one guy dying alone and wondering if anyone will remember him, and how we are all terrified of death no matter what. Complete with that soul-wrenching song about how, if Heaven and Hell are both satisfied and they illuminate the No on their Vacancy signs, he'll follow her into the dark. You know which song I mean.

Then! After all my cords were plugged back in, I checked email and discovered that my eldest sister, who I haven't spoken to in 4 years because she's a Republican and I can't deal, just donated enough money to a hospital for them to name a room after our dad. Which also means that I need to find a way to start speaking to my sister again, because she always tries to do the right thing and 4 years is ridiculous.

But that's the least of my problems. I have more: embarrassing as it is that I watch TV like other people listen to music, I believe it's even more embarrassing that it could plunge me into a grief spiral.

Disclaimer: every December my therapist spends a month with her family in the Dominican Republic, conveniently out of reach of any television-based emotional crisis I might chance to experience. So the responsibility for me turning my blog into true confessions rests squarely on her shoulders. See? See how much therapy is helping me?

Anyway. I do sometimes think about the whole It's a Wonderful Life thing, about how I might be affecting other people's lives (hopefully at least a few of them have recovered somewhat) and how other people affect mine in unexpected ways. There's always this thing that happens when someone dies, when everyone tells stories about their memories of that person. It's the coolest thing; you have this whole discovery of who the person was, things you didn't know but that make perfect sense -- or you remember things you had forgotten before, because someone mentions something related.

If I start giving examples I'll never stop. But once -- this isn't an example, but it starts out all personal so don't get freaked out -- I was lying in bed with my boyfriend, and his legs were all stretched out, brown and strong. He reminded me of a guy I used to live with, who died when he was 28. It suddenly hit me that there were a million memories of that guy that wouldn't exist if I weren't here to have them. So many things we did together -- like we lived in London for six weeks -- that no one else was a part of. When I died, all those memories would be gone. It was like he would die again, bit by bit, as everyone who ever knew him died.

I used to work for a lawyer who had a forensic specialist on call. I was talking to the specialist one day after having looked through a friend's family scrapbook that had photos of family gravestones in Germany. The scrapbook said something about stacking the graves onto each other. I couldn't imagine how that worked, so I asked the specialist how long it takes a body to decompose -- how could they stack the graves?

He said (and I felt stupid when I heard the answer, because of course I should've guessed this) that a lot depends on the conditions -- some bodies are preserved for centuries. I've completely forgotten what he said about the German graves, but I gather the first corpses were buried very deep or something. Anyway, in that conversation he mentioned that people think of graves as permanent, but really they are only purchased for 100 years. Which is why (at least in San Francisco) real estate companies can dump Gold Rush-era headstones into the bay, raze the land, and develop over the cemetery.

After 100 years, no one will be alive who knew you. It's so short an amount of time. I used to work with this guy who, anytime he heard about something horrible on the news, said "We should all stop procreating for 100 years. After that we can start again." He was hilarious, but before I met him I never thought about how we're always less than 100 years away from total extinction. That just seems unreal, what a fragile hold we have on life.

So I depend on that web of memories -- I even have memories of people I've never met, like Andy's grandfather and his thousand jars of almonds, and Jennifer's grandmother who gave great fingertip backrubs -- and hope that people don't perpetuate any of the icky stuff I bring into the world, but that the good stuff keeps rippling through time, affecting one person after another.

Which I guess is what my sister is hoping with her Edwin James Miller hospital room. I should probably call her.