Friday, May 28, 2004

seeing red

On a completely different note, may I take this opportunity to remind you to wear red today if you oppose the war on Iraq? Apparently everyone's mother sent them this email about the Norwegians during the Second World War, but AX has posted it in the cleanest and most easily retrievable form.
up at the ass crack of dawn

That's one of Naiad's favorite phrases; somehow it has snuck into my repertoire. I rarely say it out loud--it feels odd in my mouth, like I'm too small and (relatively) delicate to really give it the delivery it deserves--but it comes to mind every time I think about being up too early.

Too early for me being, of course, any time before 10 am. But since I'm staying with AX until I have my own place, and he works a real job, I find that I'm up a lot earlier--and going to bed a lot sooner--than I'm used to. Not that this is a problem, as it means I get to interact with the day world and get things done. Which is harder when you're not functional until noon. So many places have the irritating habit of closing at 5.

Anyway. Just trying to give context for my current discombobulation. I looked at the clock and it was an ungodly 6:50. I'd been having a strange dream that involved the long, snaky carcass of a very large sea monster; climbing back to my home by inching along the sheer face of a rocky-looking cliff that actually felt spongy and fabric-like under my desperate fingers; and watching my mother cut her own hair without using a mirror. Weird stuff, Melvin. Do you hate it when people talk about their incredibly obvious and symbolic dreams, and then say, gee, I wonder what it means? Well, guess what. I'm not awake enough to start unpacking this one, and I'm not even sure it means anything in particular. This might be one of those sort of housecleaning dreams where the brain just throws out a bunch of stuff it has laying around, laughing and dusting off his brainly hands. There, let her assign meaning to THAT, ho-ho!

Some of it is doubtless related to my main task yesterday: looking at apartments. It was a very odd process, considering that I haven't done it in so long. These days it's a buyer's market, and you can just walk up and down the streets of the Tenderloin and Nob Hill, squinting up at all the buildings with For Rent signs (sometimes as many as three or four on a block), trying to guess if the available unit faces onto street, backyard, or airshaft. The savvier owners and managers have taped up neatly typed fliers next to the intercom consoles: studio and one BR for rent, $850, $1250, hdwd, AEK, first month and sec dpst, no smokers cats. The less savvy, or less prepared, put up a phone number that leads you to an answering machine or (god help you) the company that owns the building--completely useless if you're looking around after 5. Some places list open house hours, but then there's nobody there to let you in at the assigned time.

I remember, before the dotcom bubble burst, when there would be a line of prospective renters standing outside every dingy hovel, waiting patiently for the doors to open, copies of their credit report, 1040, letters of recommendation, and a discreet bribe all carefully packaged up and ready to go. I wasn't looking at that time, thankfully. I was living in a group house in Oakland, and then I was living in the dojo. But that's also sort of the problem: I look kind of dodgy right now. I haven't had a relationship with a real landlord in seven or eight years--on top of which, I haven't been working very much over the past five months, because I've been out of town for two of them.

Which created a real conceptual problem for the owner of the first place I dropped an application yesterday. I'd looked at the apartment the day before--she'd buzzed me in remotely, and I'd gone up and looked at the place by myself--but we hadn't gotten a chance to meet and talk. I liked the place. The main room wasn't huge, but the light was excellent, the floor was wood, and there were two big closets. So I went into yesterday's meeting (copy of my credit report but no bribe in sweaty hand, wearing my I'm-a-responsible-adult wool pants) optimistic and cheerful.

And she raked me over the coals. The night before, Pavlova had reassured me that landlords wouldn't care so much about my spotty credit. I once had a bit of a problem--let me hasten to add, a small bit--with paying my cards on time, so I eventually just paid them all off and cut them up. They just want to know that you pay the rent on time, and that you're clean and quiet, said Pavlova. Well. Dragon Lady building owner wasn't satisfied with me at all. She had me on the brink of tears. I had to explain several times that I was moving out of my old place because it had been broken into and I didn't feel safe there, that I was in fact gainfully employed although I hadn't drawn a paycheck in a month, that I had not technically been evicted from the place in the Mission but that the master tenant had wanted to move in her pothead boyfriend, that I was being on the level with her. You must be honest with me, it's for the best, even if it's negative she kept saying. I AM being honest with you, I kept replying. That's why I'm telling you about this woman in the Mission, that's why I printed out my credit report. Oh, it was nightmarish. She told me that while she wanted to believe me, if she chose to rent to me, I should write out my first check for two months' rent plus the security deposit (1 1/2 times a month's rent). And I had better get my supervisors to write letters on my behalf, to be faxed to this woman's office today (she has no email and apparently can't call them at the phone numbers I have so carefully inked onto the application). Beat, beat, beat. I couldn't explain why I hadn't been working without talking about my dad; while that seemed to help a little (she lost her husband to cancer four years ago) she still couldn't get her head around the freelance reality of my life; I left the meeting shaken and offended.

Thankfully, she was the first person I talked to, and the worst by far. I then looked at a place that was nothing special, but had a calm, soothing manager with the most lovely voice; I barely remember the apartment itself right now, except that it had carpet (ick) and was too expensive. Just this man's voice, and how nice it would be to have a guy I could talk to about opera as my building manager. Then I tramped around for a while, using my cell to leave messages on half a dozen rental company voicemail systems and calculating walking distance to the library and the dance studio. I came back to AX's and played Haiku Smackdown, and that me feel a little better. AX got home from work and I felt better yet.

And then we went to see The Spaceship.

Oh my.

The Spaceship is a new building around the corner and down a bit from AX's; it's aggressively modern, which makes it stand out all the more from the 1920's buildings on the rest of the block. It's metallic and boxy and has protrusions where its neighbors have bay windows; you could perform open-heart surgery in the entry hall. Concrete floor, cinderblock wall, merciless lighting. The units have their numbers stenciled on their doors in red. I realized that I should have worn my Starfleet dress uniform. The units have track lighting, industrial charcoal grey carpet, and perfectly squared-off corners. Some have a second level where you could, conceivably, put your cryosleep pod. Electrical outlets and wire-reinforced windows abound.

I made the guy show me every single unit. If you had a warp core breach you would die, AX stage-whispered. The top unit's bedroom loft is only accessible by a skinny ship's ladder, but once you're up there you have roof access through a fire door. I was trying to imagine how many catering jobs a month I'd have to take to afford one of the larger units, and then the guy mentioned that there was a ground-floor studio that was a little... different.

Different because it has a smooth, shiny concrete floor.

Different because it has a door that opens into the back yard, which currently just looks straggly, but is going be landscaped with trees and plants and flowers.

Different because I can afford it.

I did the application there and then; I handed over one of my Xeroxed packets with the credit report, the 1099s, the copy of my driver's license and social security card. I talked to the guy for twenty minutes or more about Minneapolis (we were there at about the same time), his pierogi-making parties, snowshoeing to work, any damn thing I could charmingly discuss. I used the words "painter" and "freelance" and "regular gig" and not the ones "master tenant" or "pothead boyfriend." I talked about how much I liked the idea of a floor I could hose clean. He mentioned that this was a unit that people either loved or hated, and he hadn't been sure he could move it; concrete's a hard sell (pun not intended, but I'll take it anyway) when it comes to floors. I leaned possessively against the brand-new operating-room-white laminate cabinets and tried to decide which wall would best display the 4'x6' painting of a dog mermaid I bought off a coffeeshop wall years ago and then couldn't hang in too many of my places. I thought about buying myself some roller skates.

He's going to call me today and let me know. One of the reasons I'm grouchy about being up so early is that it means more hours of waiting. I may have to go back to sleep for a couple of hours just to calm myself down. This place--I can't explain why I'm so charmed by it--it is SO blank and square and antiseptic. There are no nooks. There are no crannies. There's no molding. No glowing hardwood. No lofty view of the bridge or the bay (although in this neighborhood, at this price, nothing's going to have that). No built-ins. The bathroom's most striking feature is the big red light-up EXIT sign. I'm amazed that the pipes aren't exposed and that the studio doesn't open into the boiler room.

But I really like it. It seemed quite friendly to me.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

peter, please see me

You must go see this. It comes to me courtesy of Spirit, and it is the funniest damn thing I've seen in a while, and that includes watching Brice Taylor explain that she was turned into a mind-controlled sex slave for a top-secret government breeding project on the tv version of Disinformation (which I also recommend.)

My favorite of the four essays is the one on the bottom right, but they all have their particular charms.
soylent green is people!

God, I love it that I get to say that again here. I'm sorry that this article about fake food from the fascinating and well-designed Retrofuture doesn't mention the freeze-dried ice cream that was all the rage when I was in third grade. Remember? It came in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. I think John "Hot Rod" Rodwan, who really, really wanted to be a truck driver when he grew up, was the one who brought some to school, but I'm not sure. It came in a snazzy futuristic foil packet with an astronaut printed on the front. Or was it Phillip R., who commuted from Canada and regularly climbed up on a table to sing, dance, and wet himself? God, we were awful to him. But we would have eaten his freeze-dried ice cream, had he offered it.

Here, Eric Lefcowitz talks about how bad astronaut food used to be, and how the affected fought back:
To avoid the atrocious offerings, astronaut John W. Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard the five-hour Gemini 3 flight on March 23, 1965. Consumed by mission mate Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, the contraband sandwich resulted in a Congressional investigation and the first official reprimand of an astronaut.

Also via Bob.
feed da bunny

Via Bob's Whirl-a-Go-Go, an interesting nugget about the trashcans of India on PrettyWitty, a fun place in its own right.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

everyone evolved except me!

Months ago, I promised you this fish story, if you would be patient while I complained about my sex life. Finally I deliver.

Just outside the Toliara (“tule-yar”) airport there is a hand-painted sign. You see it as the rattly Citroen or Renault taxi putters out of the lot, and you have plenty of time to look at it because the taxi craps out right there and the driver and his friend have to get out and push, or pull some wires out from under the hood and reknot them, or at the very least indicate to you that the original estimate for the fare has gone up because they need money for petrol. Welcome to Madagascar.

The sign is peeling under Toliara's ferocious sun but still legible. At the top, we see depicted the classic evolutionary progression--a formless sea creature makes it onto land, develops legs, becomes a monkey, becomes a man. Underneath this familiar image, we see a small fish become a large fish. A large, incredibly ugly fish. The legend (in French) reads, "everyone evolved except me!"--a sentiment which in my Lariam-weakened state I found incredibly plaintive and heartbreaking.

That fish is a coelacanth--yes, Shriekback recorded an instrumental song by that name--older, I think, than even the ancient sharks. The coelacanth is a live breeder possessed of a fin on every flat surface, heavy, and apparently bright blue while alive and at the depths where it prefers to live.

Up until fairly recently it was assumed that the coelacanth was 66 million years extinct. Then in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of a tiny museum in South Africa, made a trip out to the docks to see if any of her fisherman friends had found anything interesting to put in the museum. She had a good relationship with them, and they would often save any creatures they didn't recognize for her to take a look at.

Which is how she found the first modern coelacanth known to science. I would say the first coelacanth known to modern people, but that would be untrue; it turned out that fishermen had caught a few others, but discarded them because they were too oily to taste good. As it happens the coelacanth is a very oily, fatty fish and it has all sorts of goo in unusual places. The rostrol organ, for example, is a jelly-filled space in the fish's snout that detects electrical fields. No other animal is known to have such a thing, but would you want to eat it? It’s not tasty jelly, apparently.

That first untasted modern coelacanth, unfortunately, did not survive to serve science as well as it might have. Courtenay-Latimer had to get a taxi to haul her find back to the museum (a full-size coelacanth can weigh ninety pounds.) Once there, she and her assistant wrapped the fish in formalin-soaked cloth, as they didn't have enough formalin to immerse the thing. Then she tried to reach an eminent fish scientist in another part of the country for help identifying the fish, sending along drawings and descriptions of what she saw. Unfortunately because it was so close to Christmas, he didn't get back to her until after she had had the fish taxidermied (it's hot in South Africa in December, and this was one big stinky fish) and its guts discarded, a scientific disaster.

Anyway. The stuffed fish was paraded about, Courtenay-Latimer became something of a hero and the fish was named after her (Latimeria chalumnae), and soon enough everyone was trying to catch their own coelacanth to sell for lots of money to museums and scientific organizations. It got so bad that there was an outcry from those concerned that the coelacanth would be overfished. It's a deep swimmer, and nobody knows how many there are; people were rightly concerned that the fish would be made truly extinct in the name of science.

Now they've found coelacanths in more places--the waters around southern Africa, the Indian Ocean, and most recently Indonesia--and there are people who have devoted all of their energies to building submersibles specifically to go to coelacanth depth and see these odd lobed fish alive and on the move, although it's not much of a move. The fish just sort of hang in the water. If you make it to the end of this post, there's a link to a great site with Virtual Coelacanth Webcam where you can see for yourself.

Toliara has a coelacanth, one of the first ones found. In order to see it, you have to go out to a tiny museum near the ocean. You can't really see the ocean from much of Toliara--it's mostly mudflats and mangroves, baking under the sun and used as a communal toilet. Up until the day Slice and I went to see the coelacanth, nothing much exciting had happened in Toliara except that I was going steadily insane from the Lariam, which I suppose was exciting in its own way. The room I expected to rent after he left was fitted out with a shower cold enough to stun an ox in one corner and a gecko pale as skim milk that would watch me from the ceiling, its tail hanging down slightly. “You’ll have a friend here,” Slice kept telling me. Across the hall a French tourist and his rented non-gecko friend were doing their damnedest to break the bed. Alone after Slice left, I would sit on my bed, surrounded by a mosquito tent that I still need to retrieve from him, surviving on French bread spread thickly with Nutella and talking to the gecko.

But while he was still there, and we were still trying to figure out what two tourists could do in Toliara after riding in a pousse-pousse that had collapsed under their combined weight and visiting the Alliance Francaise to stare longingly at their tiny stash of English-language magazines, we were approached by a woman on the street. She turned out to be the curator of Toliara’s marine museum, and she knew she had the only bona fide tourist attraction in town; we were an easy sell. So we walked the dusty streets back to the museum, our savior pushing her bicycle, children yelling Bonjour vazaha! Donnez-moi! as we passed. “Vazaha” is Malagasy for “white person”. It’s the structural equivalent of “gwilo” or “gaijin”.

The museum turned out to be tiny, and further dwarfed by the bleached skeleton of a small whale mounted on concrete supports outside. The museum is primarily intended for the use of scientists, so the inside was crowded with shelves and shelves of jars and jars, all neatly labeled and full of mysterious things that had bleached to the same tinge of ivory in their formaldehyde bath. Some of the things were completely obscured by their labels, and I strained to see what sorts of creatures they might have been as the curator, anxious to close up shop, hustled us past. She did stop briefly to show off a collection of colorful boxes that had contained Madagascarene food products from the sea--who knew the Malagasy provided so much dried fish to the world? As she gestured proudly, I noticed a stuffed bird on another shelf. The eye that faced into the room had been replaced with a yellow-striped marble.

But little fish, dried or floating, were not the object of our quest. After steering us through the labyrinth of narrow aisles and spooky specimens, out guide led us into the inner sanctum, a small windowless room in the center of the building.

And there it was, hanging in a flattish glass tank; grey in death, a veritable Panzer tank of a fish. Some of the fins looked a little nibbled-at, and the eyes were flat, but you got the sense of it, a little tingle of the amazement that Courtenay-Latimer must have felt. Look at that. Too many fins, and so large!

Chacun a évolué excepté moi!

Now go see one yourself.

Monday, May 24, 2004

jiggity jig

Home again home again, or in my case, back in San Francisco, back at AX's, back to figuring out what I'm going to be when I grow up. Although I feel like I've done a bit of that last, in the past month; I'm having some clarity that didn't exist before.

To that end, I sat up last night and made a list. Not that list-making is anything new or special for me, but usually I make lists so that I can stop thinking about the items therein. Sort of making a list of things I can then promptly forget. Which is not going to be the case with last night's list--I have today broken down by hour. Which I guess is what people with "real" jobs have to do all the time, but I'm not used to it.

First item on the list: do not squander most of the day online.

Okay, whew, got that out of the way.

I did some number-crunching yesterday and realized that buying an unlimited 3-month class card to the dance studio would be more cost-effective than buying the 16- or 20-class cards I've been buying up until now. Or rather, an unlimited card would make sense if I planned to attend four or more classes a week. And I do; one of the things that has become really clear in the past month is that I really need to dance. I wish it hadn't taken me so long to realize how important this is. I have always enjoyed dancing--my aunt told me a story recently about how as a child, I loved to dance, but only if I was wearing a special yellow hat. I have no memory of this hat whatsoever, but she was convinced.

I danced in the living room at night as a teenager, after my parents had gone to bed, mostly to Adam Ant. Sometimes my father would wake up and we would eat Wheaties in the dining room at midnight, in the dark, and then he would go back to sleep and I would go back to dancing. I auditioned for the dance troupe my first year of high school and was chosen as an alternate, which I didn't follow through on; I felt bad about not making the troupe proper when I should have be proud to have made alternate--with no training. Although I did ballet as a little kid, after a bicycle accident that kept me off my feet for months I chose not to go back.

Point being, for most of my life there's been this tension between loving to dance and not feeling like I had the natural gift that would make pursuing it seriously worthwhile. I'm unstoppable in nightclubs, but freeze up when someone tries to show me steps. I've dropped out of more dance classes than I care to admit because I felt like I was too clumsy, too slow.

And then there was aikido. And it was hard, and I cried my way off the mat virtually every class for the first six months, and I spent years convincing myself that I wasn't clumsy, that I wasn't slow, that I had what it would take to learn how to do a highly physical thing properly. It took ten years of aikido to lead me back to dancing. That, and a few people in nightclubs telling me that they enjoyed watching me, that I had something. Which happened again, incidentally, in Chicago last month. He didn't even try to dance with me. I never saw him on the floor. But he stopped by our table on the way out and said I will never forget you, which was damn weird. Do you know him? asked my aunt. Nope.

If three people call you an ass, better get yourself a saddle. I don't know who said this, but I'm trying to listen. Which is why I might not be here so much, or at least not swimming around vaguely... I have a three-month unlimited class card to go buy, and a few more pairs of sweatpants.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

surrogate warriors

The recent condemnation of Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett for referring to his team's rivalry with the Denver Nuggets as a "war" provides the perfect opportunity to revisit the true role of sports teams, especially professional ones, in our supposedly post-tribal society.

Garnett's in trouble because he talked big about having all sorts of guns that he was planning to bring to bear the next time the Wolves played the Nuggets. He was speaking figuratively, not literally; of course he had no intention of bringing firearms on the court, or starting what we think of as a real war. In other words, he talked all the usual trash professional athletes--and many of their supporters--talk. But he did it at a bad time, a time when the country is getting pretty sensitive about the word "war", a time when the word is starting once again to mean kids coming home in body bags without a good explanation given by the people who sent them out. Garnett tried to make it right immediately. He invoked friends who are serving, he's been hit with a fine, he called himself a young loudmouth who is still man enough to admit that he was wrong, that he'd done "something inappropriate."

It's worth noting that he didn't rise to the bait when another player called him "gay" for dishing out a strike to the general crotch vicinity. Worth noting because I get the impression that this young MVP really is trying to play honorably.

So really the problem is not that Garnett talked about going to war with the Nuggets. The problem lays completely in his timing, and the fact that he is now seen as not taking the real war seriously enough.Would that our elected and anointed officials would take the real war seriously and not waste so much time and blood on image control, but I digress.

What puzzles me is what I see as the hypocrisy behind chastising Garnett for articulating the underlying idea of pro sports. Anthropologists have squeezed a lot of ink cows dry pointing out that sporting events are ritualized battles; I would go a step further and suggest that teams like the Timberwolves and the Nuggets and the 49ers and the Tigers and so on illustrate the fact that we still develop, maintain, and defend geographically delineated tribes. Hence my use of the phrase "supposedly post-tribal." We say that we're beyond tribes (well, other than Burners, Jews, and gay folk, three groups off the top of my head that embrace the word), but we're not, not at all.

We still form and participate within tribes based on where we live, and we still support warriors that go forth and represent our tribes in battle. Sure, they're battles where nobody dies, and there's big talk of sportsmanship, but just look at the language. Just open the paper and read how games are described. Battles for dominance, supported by people with a connection, conscious or not, to their home.

Have you ever moved from one town to another, and found yourself conflicted about supporting your new home team? I still root in an abstracted way for the Pistons and the Timberwolves and the Tigers and the Twins, having lived in Detroit and then the Twin Cities long enough to form some tribal identity. Certainly not because any of those teams have been consistent winners or have some other admirable quality other than representing wherever was home for me at one time. The point is that they are the warriors stepping forward to defend my tribe's standing. They are the ones going down to the river to reaffirm that my tribe has the right to graze this hillside or till that field. That my tribe is real and worth defending.

There is of course a big difference between a "battle" and a "war", a distinction that I'm not going to get too far into right now, and one that many of friends could speak to more clearly than I can. But I will point out that battles have not always historically meant anybody died at all: think of the Native American warriors riding out and counting coup and riding home. Sometimes you won a battle just by touching more of them than they did of you, and everyone went home unbloodied. Everyone understood who had won, at least until the next skirmish, and the battles served as a release valve for the pressures that build up when people live together in groups near other people in groups.

In much the same way sports serve us now, yes?

In an interesting and completely unrelated side note, Garnett was once on the receiving end of a strange twist of justice in South Carolina, where according to Earl Ofari Hutchinson the anti-lynching law has quietly been co-opted to mean something entirely different than it used to. Now it seems that "lynching" means any situation where two or more people assault another, regardless of the race of any of the participants, the relative severity of the attacks, or the resulting physical damage.

Bizarrely, it's a law that is now used to convict quite a few African-American folks, including kids scuffling at school. As a teenager Garnett was in a contretemps where a white kid ended up with a broken ankle. Not the image that comes to my mind of a lynching.

place holder

Chicago was great, and soon enough I will detail some of the embarrassment of riches that was the weekend (there are more than 200 live theaters in Chicago, did you know that? I didn't.)

That will be after I've caught up on my sleep, and had a chance to clean all the gunk out from under my nails from a foray into the darkest wilds of Mom's 'deep storage' unit this afternoon. But suffice it to say that I shot something like 150 photos (don't tell, but a lot of them are closeups of flowers and butterflies--I am such a damn girly photographer, and a lunatic with a macro lens), ate Chicago pizza and Chicago hot dogs, and did not lose my life to my aunt's terrible driving.

And the new photo here, replacing the drawing of Himeji Castle, is my father and my aunt as children. He was hogging that puppy, my aunt told me as we pored over the album.

In case you're wondering, it becomes clear from the photos (not this one, it's too small here) that I look a lot more like my father than my aunt, to whom I bear very little resemblance. Bit of a shock; I never really thought I looked like him. But in the photos from the fifties, when his face was still soft and hairless, you can see it.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

my kind of town

I'm hitching up the 'hound tonight; taking a midnight bus to Chicago for a few days with my aunt. Should be interesting. Although I was born there, we moved when I was three, and only went back at Christmas every year. So I have this skewed perception of a city perpetually covered in snow, fairy lights, and the best damn seasonal window displays anywhere. Should also be fun, although any trip there should be better than the last one, where we buried my father and listened to a little-known, heavily-medicated cousin refer to her mother as a, a, oh geez. I can't write the word. Here. It's a compound. The first word is a perfectly good anglo-saxon word for female genitalia that has, unfortunately, become very ugly in usage and rhymes with "runt". The second word is "rag." Got it?

This trip is going to be better, It has to be. Catch you Sunday night.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

the ourobouros scooter club

At the risk of creating a weird little feedback loop, I'm linking back to a post of 3Jake's where she links to my post linking to hers about people and television... but this is not a self-aggrandizing move. Self-indulgent, maybe. But mostly I'm doing it because she talks about Clifford Stohl, and weird guys walking pugs, and mentions books, and being disappointed when other people haven't read the ones she wants to talk about.

Does anyone else, upon entering someone else's home for the first time, make a beeline for the bookshelf? I've always done it, and I'm not entirely sure why. But I really noticed it last week when I went to a friend's housewarming. Everyone was thoroughly margarita-soaked by the time I got there, the host (who I hadn't seen in probably seventeen years) was doing tequila shots straight from the bottle, and the vibe was most definitely not about reading. But there I was, scanning the travel guides and the language texts and the fiction and the books on linguistics, trying to figure out who my friend has become.

It's not the most sociable habit. People were trying to talk to me, and there I was with my back to the tequila, the devastation that had once been taco makings, the plate of soft crumbly brownies, squinting in the half light at Experiment's books.

I always get excited when there's a match; when they have something I do. As if that means we think or feel the same things. As if it means we will effortlessly become friends, if we aren't already. And I find a house without books a huge warning sign. Which isn't fair to the residents--they might be lovely people--but then, I've rarely had that much to talk to bookless people about.

It can mislead you, of course. Slice had plenty of books, and no attention span. I got sucked in by what he owned, not realizing that he'd read barely any of it. Whereas when I first visited Gingko's parents' home in rural Vermont, I became convinced I had to marry him, because his parents had shelves and shelves of books on every wall in every room. Seriously. They had more books in their bathroom than some branch libraries have in the whole building. Which didn't really mean that Gingko and I were meant for each other, of course, but I was so intoxicated by the smell of paper I couldn't think clearly. And then of course there's LabRat, who I dated for a full year although he had very few books; I had no reason to believe, from his shelves, that we would have anything to share for so long.

I suppose what I am looking for is confirmation that other people value reading as much as I do. I always feel a little funny when someone says, so what do you do for fun? and I say, read. I recognize that (especially on a date, especially on a first date) the question is actually what do you like doing that we could do together?, and that answering that my first passion is an essentially solitary pursuit is not the, ah, most thrilling response. Unless the asker is someone like AX, of course,who had to describe his library to me via e-mail before I would go out with him, or Snufkina, who is as fixated on the Moomintroll books as I am.

Oh, and Jake? I had to read Troilus and Cressida; then I saw it performed. Which was better than reading it, but still a nasty slog. Thankfully the Pandarus was a good actor, and the Patroclus suitably sweet and tender. Which leads, inevitably, to my frustration with the concept of a heterosexual Achilles in the upcoming Troy. But I'm saving that rant until I've seen the film itself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

the wild wild west side

From the Channel 4 news, playing behind me as I write.

A man just got hit by a car. The driver's husband said that he thought maybe she didn't see the victim, that her brakes were bad. Anyway. She hit the guy, and he flew ninety feet through the air, landing near a school.

It took twenty minutes for the ambulance to come. During which time, someone else jumped out of their car and robbed the guy.


Monday, May 10, 2004

well, i suppose it's nice to have a mission

This must be why I am such a hit with the ladies.

Grammar God!
You are a GRAMMAR GOD!

If your mission in life is not already to
preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!

How grammatically sound are you?
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Courtesy of On English
whales and cows are related?

Everything you ever wanted to know about ungulates, via Odious and Peculiar. The latter link, incidentally, takes you to a very witty man with very interesting links.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

who she was before i met her

If her diary is to believed, at 13, she juggled boys like beanbags, declaring a different one her favorite every week. She said they were "marv", and noted details like her outfit for the day: I wore my new pink shorts and my candy-striped blouse. Her Girl Scout troop threw parties where couples would sneak off to neck behind stacks of chairs. A boy she liked crossed her and she stuck him with a pencil. It seems she took no shit from boys.

She never got her Butterfly Badge because the assistant troop leader didn't believe in killing things for badges, and she was just fine with that. Instead, she learned how to make and cook on a coffee-can buddy burner, and how to inject herself with a syringe full of nerve gas antidote in thirty seconds or less, in case there was another war.

The librarian she assisted busted her for smoking across the street with the bad boys. Bad in this case meaning they had motorcycles. When her boyfriend went off to serve, he left her in charge of his Indian, which she raced with the other boys.

She spent countless hours in hospitals with one parent or the other, learning the trick of wearing glasses and dressing older to bypass the 'no visiting children' rule. She translated for her mother Lillian, after Lil's stroke; they went everywhere together. She heard a terrible story at her father's bedside, when he thought he was going to die, about his peeing in a pig's eye. He denied it later, when he realized he was going to live.

As the only Jew in a Catholic girls' school, she was convinced that the nun who taught swimming (in full habit) was determined to drown her to avenge the death of Christ. She still doesn't like the water.

She blew away my virginal straight-arrow father by being the first woman he'd ever met who would walk across campus in the fishnets and leotard that were her costume in the play they were in together. She dated a couple of his friends before she got to him. Guys would watch her working at the candy-and-cigarettes kiosk and try to come up with an excuse, any excuse, to talk to her.

When she was a college student, the government gave her acid when they were trying to figure out how to use it for mind control. She discovered the meaning of life on one of these trips, and wrote it down. Years later she found it, Xeroxed it, and mailed it to me: my elbow was the only part I could read. I have yet to take acid. I got the message.

In 1968, she was a trainee stockbroker when the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago. The morning after she'd faced off with the cops, she took off her shoes, climbed up on her desk, and called her coworkers capitalist running dogs. Security escorted her out, and that was it for stockbrokering.

Her mom taught her how to crochet. Mrs. Hule taught her how to cross her legs in a skirt. Nobody, apparently, taught her how to cook.

Her father tried to talk her through cooking a turkey, the first Thanksgiving of her married life, but he hadn't told her that it was going to need to thaw out first. He also suggested she tie up the legs with rope, keeping all those things in that paper bag neatly locked up inside the turkey.

She loved her folks a lot, and lost them too soon.

Her prom date was recovering from mono, and too weak to stay for more than an hour. On the way home, her car got a flat. In the rain. She went out and dealt with it in her prom dress. The car was heavy because her date didn't even get out.

She knew how to do things, and the things she didn't know, she learned.

A doctor suggested that she could improve her eyesight by learning how to shoot, and she became a very good shot. I still believe she was actually a spy, and won't admit it. She learned to throw knives.

She didn't get a high-level security clearance job because she had a cousin who had defected to Russia. He'd defected back, but that apparently wasn't good enough. He was the cousin she liked the most. He's our smartest relative, she told me at the family reunion where I met him.

Warriors don't raise warriors, they raise diplomats, a woman told me once at Harbin Hot Springs. I don't know what my mother raised, but I know that she was as interesting before I knew her as she has been ever since. Sometimes I think the problem with her being my mom is that I didn't get to meet her earlier, if that makes sense; when she had the mod short haircut, when she wore black turtlenecks and hung out in basements snapping her appreciation of the poets she'd gone to hear, when she tried to convince her talent agent boss to represent a particular folksinger she'd discovered.

There are other things I missed. I never met Terrible Tiny the dog, or the grandmother who said a polite but firm fuck you to the doctors who said she'd never use her hands again by teaching herself to make things, quilts and clothing and lace, with those hands. There are pictures--a little girl with a bird who could be me, a teenager with careful eyebrows, a young woman with her parents--and there's the diary I made her read aloud to me in February, and a rayon skirt of Lillian's design that I remade into shorts. Charm bracelets and threadbare stuffed animals and a little beaded clutch purse with a ticket stub, a comb, and a small bottle of perfume. But as much as I handle those objects, I still wish I could have known my mom sooner.

Because she's so damn cool now. Sure she makes me nuts sometimes; I always return the favor. The worst fights I've had with anybody have usually been with her. The way she cries when robots (even evil killer robots) get hurt in movies embarrasses me senseless. But I've never envied other people their mothers, most of whom seemed like Stepford wives compared to my political, opinionated, take-no-prisoners mom. I've never thought I should run away to someone else's house (the someone elses usually ran away to ours, where Mom would talk them down in the kitchen.) When I called her from Seattle and told her I'd been tear-gassed, she was proud of me, and had motherly advice: shower in cold water first, so the capaiscin doesn't get into your pores the way it will with hot water.

I've never wanted to be someone else's daughter, because I've been so proud to be hers.

Happy mother's day. You know who you are.
mellor, mellor, squishy feller!

Nobody ever believes me when I talk about Fringeworthy, the one RPG I was any good at as a disaffected punk kid, and I've never seen it in the game stores. I was starting to think maybe I'd hallucinated eighth grade altogether.

But it's back! Hurray!

Now if I just knew where my dice were.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

what happens next

Feeling ever so slightly late to the party on blogging Abu Ghraib; I have a post in my drafts folder that I started when the news first broke, but I just can't seem to write intelligently about it. Not if my speaking is any indication--there's a lot of voice-raising and hand-waving. The whole situation defies my attempts to understand it. Everything boils down to something my mother said today as we walked to the elevator: we didn't accept "I was just following orders" at Nuremberg.

Of everyone I've read on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Respectful of Otters has most closely hit the points I was considering, and done it from a psychologist's perspective. Check out her list of explanations that certain commentators have given, trying to rationalize and justify what happened. But only if you didn't just eat a big meal. Being on drugs won't help things either; some of these pieces are trippy enough as it is. Well, actually, maybe being drugged will make them untwist and become clear, the way I understood Cronenberg's "Naked Lunch" much better when I was stoned than I did sober.

There is something I haven't seen anyone else discuss yet. Rumsfeld told the Armed Services Committee that we should brace ourselves, because there are more photos, worse ones--and there's video. My question is, how much more of this do we really need to see?

I'm not suggesting that we need to be protected. Far from it. It was important for us to see the first ones; hopefully many eyes have been opened, and our military and government are being forced into a position of accountability. Think of the photos as the receipt for the money we're pumping into this pointless war.

We paid for what happened at Abu Ghraib. We're paying Lynndie England's salary. We paid for the chemical lightsticks, the black sacks. This is being done in our name. We need to see that, and the photos make it possible.

Now, though, I wonder if we need to see any more of them. Primarily I'm concerned about the Iraqis in the photos, and trying to protect their dignity as best we can. Blurring their genitals when the photos are printed or shown on television isn't enough; their faces are still visible, their identities knowable by their families and friends and co-workers. I don't care what England's mother says about this being a harmless prank, and it doesn't matter that Muslims are more circumspect about beking naked in front of other people than we appear to be; forcing people to be naked when they don't want to be is just wrong. Would it be less awful if it were our people, photographed naked in captivity? No. It wouldn't, not for them, not for their families.

The other thing I'm concerned about is the creeping bad pornography of the thing. I mean, I felt it in myself, when I heard there were more photos: a not entirely wholesome desire to see them, to see what fresh horrors were in store. Like slowing down to gawk at the accident on the freeway. Can you see any blood? Maybe it's just me. But I started thinking this awful thought tonight, that there were people out there who would be eager to have a collection of these images, who would enjoy looking at them, who would get off on seeing unconsenting people being humiliated. And that made me sick.

Remember that I am an artist's nude model who hangs out with pornographers. Conceivably that could make me think that most of this is no big deal, but it's completely the opposite. If anything, I think I'm more sensitive to where the lines are. And I seriously doubt those prisoners all signed waivers saying it was okay for their nakedness and distress to be spread all over hither and yon.

So my suggestion is this: at the very least, the next batch of photos and videos, if they're broadcast or published, need a lot more blurring. Or maybe they could stay in the hands of the Armed Forces Committee. I'm not sure. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Friday, May 07, 2004

jerry mander has his four arguments, i have mine

Looks like someone poked Jake with a stick. Today she's got a rant up about people who define themselves by saying "I don't have a television," thereby apparently defining themselves as better than people who do own televisions.

I have to admit that my first response was pretty kneejerk. When I owned a car (and my current non-ownership of such a thing, incidentally, is not meant to suggest that I am a virtuous person so much as a poor one), the one bumper sticker I would sport read 'Kill Your Television.' I've very deliberately lived without a TV for fifteen years. Mom's tried to buy me one, my one live-in boyfriend tried to install one in the living room over my protests (we broke up, over other things, before it could happen), and I tend to gravitate to group living situations where if there's a television, it's in a roommate's room, and not in a common area.

So as you can imagine, I have very strong feelings about television. And it's safe to say that I do define myself as a person who does not own one, just like these people who are giving Jake such conniptions. I mean, it's not the first thing I'd say about myself to a stranger, but it does feature prominently on my on-line profile, and it's likely to come up in conversation pretty early in the getting-to-know-you phase.

But the reason I think it's important to know that I'm not a television person is that there is a lot of stuff I just don't know. There are things you can say to me that I just won't get: references, jokes, the names of celebrities. These things will blow right through me like the wind across the steppes. I am not conversant in much of modern culture; I haven't got the vocabulary. Which I imagine, in some circles, would make me look like an idiot.

I feel like one sometimes. Like maybe I'm missing something important because I choose to spend that time in more "banal" pursuits like reading biographies, going to dance classes, and trying to work my way through Shakespeare's canon (that last I have to do for work; again, not necessarily a mark of my virtuousness.) Sometimes I feel impossibly, hopelessly old because I don't know who Jessica Simpson is. For the longest time I assumed she was related to Bart, Homer, and Marge (I know who they are).

And then I spend time around a television--oh, say, because I'm in Michigan for a month, or there was the period where I was dating a guy who always had the TV on because he missed his big family and needed the noise, and I learned everything I know about Star Trek as a result--and I realize, no, I'm not really missing all that much. I mean, yes, I'm enjoying Third Watch, and I'm curious to see if Jan actually manages to trap Sean in that cage she welded around her bed on Days of Our Lives, but when I head home to San Francisco at the end of the month and stop watching these shows, there's not going to be a great big hole in my life. So there's one reason.

Another reason I avoid television is not because I think it's so terrible--there are things to recommend it, some interesting stuff going on--but because I know my weakness. If there's a television, and it's on, I'll get drawn in, and spit out hours later feeling weaker and as though I have lost part of my life that I will never get back. Perhaps I'm weaker because I've been yelling at the television, something to which I'm too prone. I'm certainly more hoarse, and to what end? THEY can't hear, and neither do they care. That's two.

I also feel like I got saturated early. When I was growing up, if my parents were home, the television was always on. We'd spend our evenings in their room, watching Hill Street Blues or M*A*S*H or the Gangster Chronicles (my mother complaining about inaccuracies; the story of why she would know will hold until another time) or St. Elsewhere. Dad would pick at his guitar, and Mom would do taxes or something else from her seemingly endless supply of necessary paperwork. Afternoons when I got home from school, there was Green Acres and Mr. Ed and so on. Friday nights when my folks were out, I'd watch Friday Night Videos, and Saturdays were the province of Love Boat and Fantasy Island.

I have watched, I think, enough television. Strap on the radiation counter and you'll see I'm close to redline, with only enough room left to watch all the Buffy episodes on DVD with AX, which is much as a social thing as entertainment. Three.

Four. I don't have a television because I don't really feel like I have enough time in my life for it. There is too much else to do. That too much else may not be any "better" than television by other people's standards. Obsessive statcounter visits, reading comic books, or sifting through the musty bins at the Goodwill As-Is warehouse looking for interesting things to cut into little pieces and make into scary dolls certainly aren't the cure for cancer (which believe me, I'd be looking for if I had that skill set, for obvious reasons) and may not float anyone else's boat--but they're better for me. Better because I don't come away from any of those things feeling like I've had my life force sucked out, which is the effect television usually has on me. And some of that time I actually do spend in productive pursuit--making things, mastering Arabic quarter-turns, dragging my friends out to see goats. Four.

So. Television may be fine for other people, but it isn't for me, and that's why my avoidance is so deliberate. Maybe I'm sanctimonious about it, that's entirely possible. And I bet that if I had a "real" job and worked hard during the day, all day, television could be a real godsend at the end of that day. But I don't, and it isn't, and that is why I proudly identify as a PWT.

Mander's arguments, incidentally, still warrant attention. Mander worked in advertising for many years before he wrote his book, and he has some salient points about television's role in creating need where none existed. I don't think, twenty-six years later, the elimination of television is remotely feasible--but it's still worth our being more proactive in our examination of what television has become and how it influences us. I don't agree with all of it, but I applaud the man for asking hard questions.
living too large

Yesterday, In between utterly failing at completing various errands and getting an absurd parking ticket, my mother and I spent an hour at the new Motor City Michigan casino downtown. It's glitzy enough, but it's not Vegas, for which I'm deeply grateful. It didn't overwhelm me and make me feel as hollow as Vegas places. But that's not the story. More interesting than the slot machines, or the cover band gamely sawing away on a stage set behind the bar in the Overdrive Lounge (and can I just say, it's pretty weird to hear 'Surfin' USA' in a car-themed Detroit casino?), or even the incredibly confused gift shop (candy, books by exclusively black authors, $3,000 laptop computers, and some bland mass-produced pottery), was the presence, in the women's room, of a sharps disposal container. You know, the red and white thing into which you chuck used syringes.

My father told my mother a story about being in the men's room at the casino, and listening to two white suburbanites react to the sharps container. This is why we don't come into the city, one said to the other. They even let their junkies shoot up right in the bathroom.

Not so fast, cowboys. MCM isn't encouraging people to shoot up, unless we're talking about insulin. Something I hadn't known is that (per Men's Health and the Associated Press) Detroit is now the country's fattest city, a title wrested from Houston after a few years of floating around third and fourth place.

And with the obesity comes Type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset, until obese kids started getting it.

ABC News raises many of the usual points: kids don't go outside to play as much as they used to, school cafeterias don't do as much to promote healthy eating as they should, and so forth. There's also some discussion of schools that measure the BMI of students and send home "report cards" urging the parents of kids who score high to make changes in their kids' diets. Which seems questionable, for a host of reasons, but I'm not going to touch that right now.

What strikes me is that childhood obesity seems to rise from a very different source than the adult kind. Obviously if you're a chunky kid, you might grow into the equivalent sort of adult. But I've never heard a woman in the gym locker room complain that she's too heavy because she's playing Nintendo all the time instead of playing outside. By the same token, how many kids say they're overeating to soothe a broken heart?

Or maybe there are more similarities to what children and adults do. An adult may be sequestered not with Nintendo, but a PowerPoint presentation that needs to be ready yesterday. And maybe a kid who overeats, or heads straight for the sugar, is trying to heal some emotional wound. Maybe they learn that doing so is an appropriate response. Maybe children take the cue from adults, yes?

Also, the stuff marketed heavily to kids is crap. Eating lunch in the park with my students last summer, I was amazed by how much non-food was in their lunch sacks: a powder that, sprinkled on wet food, makes it turn color. Obsessively compartmented 'Lunchables' and 'Snackables'. Heavily sugared juices. The parents who pack these lunches mean well, I know, but this stuff is unadulterated trash utterly devoid of nutritional value, most of it. So we feed them high-fat, high-sugar crap now, in the form of super-sized happy meals and all the rest; they get too heavy and unhappy, and then we have a captive market for our low-carb products. Does this make anyone else suspicious?

Appropos of nothing, I've got 'Soylent Green is people' stuck in my head. Or maybe it's the aliens fattening us up for the harvest.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

dante is a scrub

There are actually some fine, fine things about being stranded in the wilds of southeastern Michigan. Namely food things, like the divine Steve's Deli in West Bloomfield, or La Shish, the equally-if-not-more divine Middle Eastern restaurant where we picked up dinner a couple of weeks ago, after meeting with the rabbi.

And then there's the Java Hutt in Birmingham, which is open... wait for it... all night long! Unlike the equivalent places in SF, Java Hutt is clean and friendly. The lights are not soul-sucking fluorescents that make you feel like an insect stuck in the zapper. You can get a sandwich at 4 am. There are plenty of power outlets, if you should happen to be there with a laptop, although they turn off the wifi after 6 pm.

And then there's Dante.

I was in this little heaven last night, and this morning, grappling with an article. It must have been about 2 am when Dante came in. He'd introduced himself the last time I was there; he'd noticed me writing, and figured I was a poet like him.

He's very interesting. African-American, with long skinny dreads tied neatly back. Impressive biceps. When we met he pulled up a sleeve to show me that he had a tone arm tattooed on his left forearm, and asked me if I knew what it was. I'm old enough, I responded, to recognize that.

Anway. I'm gnashing my teeth over in the corner, and he comes sailing in and takes a table in the other corner. The first thing I notice is that he's carrying a gallon jug of what appears to be water. Then he pulls half a watermelon out of a grocery bag and starts working methodically through it with a fork. Okay, I think to myself, that's a little odd. But then the last time I'd seen him there, he'd brought in a styro container from another restaurant and asked for utensils to eat this food he'd purchased elsewhere, so I guess the counter people don't enforce the no outside food rule that I thought applied most everywhere.

Of course, in Michigan, the label on the washroom mirror in restaurants just asks you nicely to wash your hands. It doesn't trumpet that handwashing is the LAW for restaurant employees. I don't know what to make of that either.

So here's Dante, with all his pieces of paper, and his jug, and his watermelon. And then the smell of the place changes. I look up and realize that he's burning a few sticks of incense.

Have to admire his chutzpah, that's all I can say.

The title on this post, incidentally, is a nod to De La Soul.